Parental alienation is the unjustified rejection, by a child, of a parent who was seen to be loved dearly. It occurs in the post separation landscape and it is often exacerbated by the services which are configured around the family. Services which are supposed to help a child maintain relationships with all of the loved people in their lives through this time of crisis, but which do not. Services which should understand the way a child struggles to navigate the space which opens up between two parents after family separation, but do not. Services which should recognise the damage that the child’s refusal to see a parent flags, but do not.
In the post separation landscape, a child is most often left to cross the bridge back and forth between parents alone. Who helps the child who leaves one parent and arrives with the other on a regular basis? The child who navigates the hurt and pain that their parents are suffering, all the while managing their own internalised suffering, is most often left to adjust and adapt to this monumental change alone. These children are vulnerable to the onset of the defence of psychological splitting and their rejection of a parent flags that this is happening. Instead of helping a child to restore their capacity to move between the two parents they love, what most helping services in Europe do is mirror the internalised splitting in the child by starting to look for external explanations for why the refusal is happening. And in doing so, these services start taking sides. And as they start taking sides, they begin to inflate the already anxiety ridden systems on both sides of the family. Alternatively they refuse to take sides even in the face of evidence that the child’s rejection is being caused by a parent. And in doing so they begin to inflate the anxiety that the rejected parent feels and the confidence that the alienating parent feels. And in doing so they entrench the splitting on the outside, which deepens the splitting (and the determination of the child to reject a parent) on the inside.
This week the process to stop this practice in Europe and replace it with internationally recognised standards, begins, as we launch the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners with our first international conference in London on Thursday and Friday. In doing so I am taken back sixteen years to 2002, when the first international conference on parental alienation syndrome was held in Frankfurt. As I go back and read the book which was produced as a result of that congress, I realise that the practice guidelines which we are launching on Thursday, have been in existence for almost two decades. For they are curated in this book and the editors of that book are still involved in this work. Wilfred von Boch-Galhau and Ursula Kodjoe were both at the PASGNordic conference last week and Wilfred will be with us in London this coming week. For almost two decades, the work that these pioneers did has been widely available and finally we are launching a body which will codify, standardise, regulate and monitor, the delivery of these. Why has it taken so long to open this new chapter? If we open the book of that first congress, perhaps we can find out why.
On page 106, Richard A Gardner writes –
PAS has become a gender issue. In fact it is more accurate to say that it has become the focus of a gender war. Women claim that the whole concept discriminates against women, and that any evaluator who concludes that PAS is present must be sexist. As stated, this position derives from the fact that in the 1980’s and 1990’s I did observe women to be much more likely than men to be programming their children into the PAS campaigns of denigration. It was then that I first heard this criticism. Even though I pointed out that my early publications noted that about ten percent of indoctrinators were men, the label was applied to me.
One of the problems which arose in the early days of awareness of parental alienation is that it became captured as a parental rights issue and as such was misconstrued ever after as a he said/she said argument between two disgruntled parents who no longer loved each other. It is certainly my experience that whilst ever we allowed PA to be spoken about as a ‘contact’ issue, it covered up the fact that it is a mental health issue which causes significant emotional and psychological harm to children. Fortunately we are reclaiming the reality of what parental alienation is and we are being heard outside of the parental rights groups and that is demonstrating a powerful shift in the way that the outside world listens to what we say about the problem.
Lets look further into the book to understand more about why it has taken almost two decades to introduce standards of practice in this field.
On page 211, Richard Warshak discusses a comparison of the PAS model versus the concept of the Alienated Child which was introduced by Johnstone and Kelley in which they introduce a new approach to the problem of a child’s rejection of a parent. This is a family systems approach in which the alienated child is the focus of analysis and alignments and rejections are recognised as part of a spectrum of behaviours seen in children of divorce and separation. Warshak concludes that the term ‘child driven alienation’ could be used to refer to what Johnstone and Kelley call alienation which is not caused by a parent but by the child’s inability to cope with difficult feelings (page 213).
The Johnstone and Kelley paper took the debate about parental alienation off on a whole different tangent and one which arrived eventually at a whole raft of research and interventions which rely upon the ‘no blame’ approach of family systems therapy. In the present day, this ‘no blame’ approach to intervention is used in generic family therapy responses to parental alienation, most notably in the UK in the family therapy field where a model which relies upon reformulation of narratives of the past and desensitisation to the rejected parent are being used . It is also the path that appears to be taken by CAFCASS in the UK, who appear to favour research by Bala and Fidler and Polak and Saini, all of whom approach the issue of parental alienation from the position that everyone in the family has contributed something to the onset of the rejection by the child.
The work of the past is important to understand if we are to build the new way forward for alienated children and their families in Europe. And all of the distractions and complications are essential to factor into our work to move forward in curating and standardising interventions which effectively help families and which can be swiftly and properly replicated. Fortunately, not only are the reasons why it has taken so long to adopt standards of practice in this field present in this wonderful book, the very standards we are seeking to introduce are laid out for us to follow. They have been there all along and those who have been working to them can trace a lineage right the way back to the roots of this work.
In a chapter entitled Behavioural Patterns and Personality Structure of Alienating Parents: Psychosocial Diagnostics and Orientation Criteria for Intervention by Walter Andritzky, the personality structure of PAS indoctrinating parents is unpacked thoroughly and we can see that the issue of personality disorder is dominant to a clear understanding of parental alienation. The evidence that the approach to helping alienated children lies in the restriction of parenting time is laid out on page 307 along with the clearest possible instruction –
The most important advice to an alienated parent is to re-establish contact with the child as quickly as possible. There are no reports of successful treatment of mild/medium level PAS that do not include the re-establishment of contact between child and alienated parent…………following a break in contact, it is extremely unlikely for a relationship to be re-established due to a change of perspective.
Andritzky goes on to say (page 308) that
Aside from the power imbalance between the alienated parent and alienating parent (who has control over the child), the alienating parent’s dishonest and unco-operative behaviour lets mediation (which anyway is most often rejected by the alienating parent), appear promising only in the form of a court-ordered or mandatory process………Walsh and Bone (1997) warn: ‘make no mistake about it:individuals with PAS will and do lie. They leave out pertinent details or they manoeuvre the facts in such a manner to create and entirely false impression.’ Clawar and Rivlin (199:153) also regard alienating parents as ‘poor candidates for re-education or counselling.’
No more generic therapy is my motto for the coming years and the evidence within this wonderful book also includes interventions which work with parental alienation. These standards are those which we will introduce (or rather it seems to me, re-introduce) this week as practice guidelines for membership of EAPAP.
I will end today with the core model of what we are doing at the Family Separation Clinic. A model which produces replicable change and which we are further examining in collaboration with our peers. This model contains the key principles, which can be traced all the way back to the first European Congress in 2002, are based upon a child abuse model of work in which recognition of blame and attribution of responsibility is foremost. Because when we recognise that inducing the pathologically split state of mind in a child is the same as breaking their arms and legs, acting to protect the child becomes the first imperative and specialised therapeutic work to support the integrated state of mind comes later.
As part of this work, acting to protect the wellbeing of the rejected parent who has not contributed to the problem but has been forced to stand by and watch helplessly as the child descends into the use of the defence of psychological splitting, is our core goal.
Family Separation Clinic – Model of Practice
- Application of a rolling assessment and treatment model to differentiate the child’s route into the psychologically split state of mind.
- Analysis of the power and control dynamic in the family and identification of who is controlling the child.
- Action to constrain the control over the child by the alienating parent using the legal and mental health interlock.
- Intervention immediately through re-introduction of the child to the rejected parent using short term psychodynamic therapy in which the dynamics causing the splitting in the child are provoked and worked with from the outset.
- Coaching and guidance work alongside the rejected parent in a co-therapy approach (healthy parental relationship is the best therapy for the child and the rejected parent is therefore the child’s best therapist).
- Constraint of the relationship between the alienating parent and child with monitoring, support for behavioural change with scrutiny and reporting across a period of time in which contact is curtailed, monitored and supervised.
- Development of the child’s resilience via a twelve week programme of support and guidance and psychological education with restored parent/child relationship.
In the week that we launch the internationally recognised standards of practice, I give my grateful thanks for the hard work of all of those pioneers in this field who have given the firm foundations for the building of EAPAP and the development of a new phase of work with alienated children and families across Europe.
This is one movement with many hands and I feel the power of that growing as we move forward for families together.
Andritzky, W. (2002). Behavioural patterns and personality structure of alienating parents. In W. v Boch-Galhau, U. Kodjoe, W. Andritzky & P. Koeppel (Eds.), The parental alienation syndrome (PAS): An interdisciplinary challenge for professionals involved in divorce (pp. 283-314). Berlin: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung.