”That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.”
William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet
The term parental alienation is increasingly coming to public consciousness, which can only be a good thing in my view. Because when the rejection by a child of one of their parents after family separation is more widely and fully understood, the intolerance for this in society will increase the pressure for change.
The label parental alienation is often argued about. It’s validity as a concept is the number one argument heading my way when legal professionals are aiming to discredit my evidence in court for example. In some quarters, there is a great hullaballoo going on about parental alienation being some sort of diversion from the truth of what is really going on families where a child rejects a parent. In others there are conspiracy theories about people who believe in parental alienation being members of child abuse rings.
This is nothing to do with what we call the phenomenon of a child who rejects a parent after separation of course and everything to do with the dynamics in the family where a child enters into this cluster of symptoms which are recognised as parental alienation. It is not the name which is the problem, it is the particular configuration of relational issues which trigger the witch hunt atmosphere seen in parental alienation cases.
We could call parental alienation anything we like and the dynamics causing the problem in the child would remain the same. In my view the argument is not about the label we use to name these dynamics, it is the manner in which the dynamics are treated by those who dare to venture in to do this work.
And therein lies the real issue. There are not enough practitioners who dare to venture in to do this work. And I am not surprised about that because the witch hunt environment scares off most people and those who are not scared off are often coerced into alliance with the alienator.
As someone who has done this work for many years I am absolutely clear that in doing it I am continuously at risk from the projections of the alienating parents I work with AND from the alienation unaware professionals who I find myself engaging with in doing so. Not only that, I am at risk from others who profess to be parental alienation specialists, especially those who want to force the dynamic of parental alienation into their own existing model of therapy rather than undertake the discipline of learning how to manage and treat a case of alienation using internationally recognised standards.
Let’s be clear. There are internationally proven ways of delivering interventions with children affected by parental alienation. And it doesn’t matter what we call it, those proven methods of intervention have been used for several years now (FSC has been using them in the UK for a decade or more and the same methodology has been used in around the world for longer than that). By-passing the arguments about whether Gardner took the world down the wrong path (I don’t think he did, I think he did his best in the times when divorce and separation produced more of these reactions in children), the reality is that anyone who is working in this field successfully, is going to be using the psychological and psychiatric literature to assess, analyse and treat cases of parental alienation and that is true regardless of what we call it.
Linda Gottlieb, who is the world’s most well known psychotherapist in this field, trained with Salvador Minuchin, her work comes directly from his tradition. Her skill in doing this work however, comes from her capacity to understand and adapt existing models of family therapy to meet the presentation seen in alienated children, which is a particular presentation not seen in ordinarily dysfunctional families.
That is because parental alienation is not an ordinary dysfunction, neither is it an issue which can be treated by generic systemic therapy although some in the UK would tell you otherwise. Parental alienation is a multi-stranded and trans-generationally layered problem which arises in the post separation landscape but which has likely laid dormant in the family for several generations past. Its origin lies with one parent, triggering the other to panicked responses which can look like high conflict but which are not.
As Steve Miller MD tells us in this video
severe parental alienation cases are the most most profoundly counter intuitive case in clinical science even surpassing borderline personality disorder cases.
First of all, and think how counter intuitive this is, in an alienation setting, most children will align with the abusive parent. It’s like these kids that you find who have been living with their abductors for years and then they resist capture, or Stockholm Syndrome. Very counter intuitive. Number two, what we would call pathological enmeshment, an I will define that briefly, it means that the alienation parent has an unhealthy enmeshment with the child, to the point where the child has lost his or her individuality. A severe erosion of critical reasoning skills, boundary violations, sleeping with the other parent, or at least doing the bidding of the other parent, inappropriate sharing of information, which all the lawyers have heard of, pathological enmeshment is a very serious psychiatric problem, and to a non expert it looks exactly like a warm close loving healthy relationship. The non-expert comes in with perhaps Phd or an MD in Psychology or Psychiatry, and what they see is – let’s just say the mother and father for simplicity … it is about about a 50/50 spread of who does what these days. The two little girls are tightly bound to the mother “Oh I love you, I love you, I love you” and they look at Dad and say “I don’t want to see him, he’s are a bad man, she’s perfect, he’s rotten”. The non-expert says “wow look at that great relationship”. They don’t really know how to probe to see if we have … there are three types of of pathological enmeshment: infantalizaiton, adultification (making them adults .. “why don’t you decide if you want to see dad”) … right there that’s adultification right there, that’s pathological enmeshment … so I repeat pathological enmeshment, to a non-subspecialist, to an experienced forensic psychiatrist, looks just like a warm health relationship.
The fundamental attribution error means, you look at behavior … if you see an angry man, you say “see he is an angry man, you think it is his character. In general, he is an angry man. Never mind that the reason he is angry is that someone just stole his car or his wallet”. We are hardwired to say “oh, I am going to stay away from that guy, he is displaying anger”. So, if the anger is situational, then it is an error. Now the relevance to us is that when an interviewer sees a sever case of alienation, the alienator is cool, calm, and collected. He or she has probably a borderline, a sociopath, or a narcissist, or all 3, and is a master manipulator, has learned to convincingly mimic normal behavior, and presents very well. “Oh yes, I encourage the child’s relationship with his father, or his mother”. By contrast, the targeted parent has PTSD, has not seen the child in god knows how long, maybe years, has been told that he is the one who is the problem, or she is the problem, and comes in all intense, all angry, and all stressed out. Now I personally sat through a whole course at an AFCC meeting where the person teaching the course, said to the people in the group “go by what you see. If the parent presents anxious and intense, you can be sure that is how they parent.” No that is an elementary error in clinical reasoning and decision making. Not if it is a fundamental attribution error.
The severe cases are fundamentally different than moderate cases. In a moderate case, it is very reasonable to try to educate the parent to be cooperative. But in a severe case, where you have what one expert calls an obsessed alienator, that person with almost 100% certainty, has a severe personality disorder. Normal people just don’t do that to their children and one clue is that they block access for years on end for trivial, frivolous reasons that you would never block access to your children for. Another indication or indicator would be the repeated breaching of court orders, which a normal person would never do. Just to give you a glimpse of the pattern, when you see excuses like “They don’t like him, and they don’t want to see him, and I am not going to force them”, you should sit bolt upright in your chair.
Normal psychotherapy makes these cases [or severe parental alienation] worse. So if it is a skilled psychotherapist who thinks you can come in and do dyadic therapy of “why don’t you find something to apologize for” or “Johnny how did that make you feel”, that is a disaster. Don’t try that, even with a medium case. They will almost always get catastrophically worse. So you have to match the therapist with the kid. That’s my answer.
What intrigues me in the UK right now is that there is a wealth of evidence in the world which demonstrates how to treat parental alienation effectively and yet increasingly there are people here who set themselves up as specialist in treating the problem who refuse to use the existing evidence. Instead these people believe that the issue is controversial (it is only controversial in so much as one is incapable of working counter intuitively) and that their methodology is somehow superior to proven outcomes for children. Even in CAFCASS, who recently decided that parental alienation IS real and it IS child abuse, the cobbling together of research evidence to underpin this Volte-face simply cherry picked the evidence which underpins the belief systems of the researchers concerned. Which of course led to another pointless laying down of a false evidence trail leading to the belief that parental alienation is controversial. It is not.
Parental alienation, attachment based (thank you Dr Childress) or otherwise is not controversial. Whether we do or do not use Gardner’s eight signs of alienation as the door through which we walk when we are assessing alienation or not, it is simply not controversial. It might seem that way to people who cannot quite bring themselves to believe that personality disordered parents can and do use their children to create levels of significant harm and it will probably seem that way to social workers who are trained in a political standpoint theory to believe that everything a child says is the absolute truth, but when we are working with parental alienation in a family there is nothing controversial about what we see, but there is a whole lot of harm going on.
A child who is rejecting a parent in totality after family separation is a child who is being harmed. Children do not reject a parent in this manner even when there is evidence that the child has been abused. The only point at which children adopt the behaviours seen in parental alienation is when they have been pressured into doing so. Finding out how it has happened is the first task and then intervening in ways that liberate the child from the impossible position they are in is the next. There is nothing controversial about that. The only thing which makes it appear to be controversial is the manner in which the child’s accusations of blame towards the rejected parent trigger the personal reactions in professionals around the family.
What IS controversial is that this is a serious form of child abuse which is regularly overlooked and that it is regularly portrayed as being about high conflict and that high conflict is regularly understood to be about TWO parents in conflict when in fact it is about ONE and the other’s desperate reactions to that. That misinterpretation of what is happening in a case of parental alienation IS controversial because it leads to misapplication of therapy and misapplication of therapy leads to harm to the alienated child.
Whatever we called a rose it would smell just as sweet.
Whatever we call parental alienation it will cause just as much controversy until the day that the problem is understood in its entirety for what it is – a child’s desperate attempt to manage an impossible pressure upon them which is created by an adult dropping poison into the family system. A pressure caused most often by unresolved issues in the family system on one side and the responses from the horrified parent on the other.
Imagine watching someone hang your child over a crocodile infested pit behind a curtain whilst knowing that the more you shout about the danger the child is in, the more people will look at you thinking you are crazy because they cannot see what you can see. And then, when the child is asked about being hung over the pit and they deny it (because they are alienated), everyone turns and looks at you as if you are insane.
There you have it. The alienated parent’s experience in a nutshell and you can call it what you will, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a problem with a solution and whilst the solution is counter intuitive, it stops the harm being done to the child first even in the face of the child’s vehement denial. The longer term problem in the family system is then treated as the secondary issue when the child is safe from harm.
Just because some practitioners cannot see it, and just because because people are personally triggered by it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Whatever we want to call this problem, helping the child to receive the loving care of the healthy parent who doesn’t harm them, is not controversial at all.