I carry with me a piece of advice given to me at school by my history teacher. It is one of my most treasured possessions – the exhortation to ‘question everything.’
Whilst I am certain that this encouragement combined with my somewhat oppositional defiant younger self created a nightmare for my parents when I was a teenager, I also know that it has stood me in good stead in terms of everything I have ever done since.
Taking nothing at face value whilst giving everyone the benefit of the doubt has led me to a place where I am able to work forensically with families affected by parental alienation. A world in which absolutely nothing is how it seems on the surface and where questioning everything – including my own inherent biases – is a way of life.
In this work inherent bias is a real danger. Avoiding confirmation bias – (seeking confirmation of my own beliefs) – and proximity bias – (the tendency to give people I identify with preferential treatment) and implicit bias -(the unconscious attitudes and beliefs which affect my decisions) is a daily task.
It is a necessary task however because within the work that I do there are hidden traps which must be avoided in order to avoid damage and disaster. As the group of families we are working with have already had much damage and disaster in their lives by the time they arrive through our door, avoiding compounding that is an essential task.
The hidden traps in this work are important to consider and each step that I take in a differentiation process will bring questions that allow me to understand the evidence, put that evidence through an examination of my own bias and come to a conclusion about what is really going on. This is essential in a situation where parents as well as children are living in a binary world of good/bad, right/wrong, black/white which can present the clinician with a real risk of being led either down the blind alley of confirmation bias (what I am being told fits with my belief system) or the cul de sac of the fundamental attribution error which Steve Miller told us about in London last year (where I assume that the way that the parent presents in the consulting room is who they really are).
Differentiation of cases is really the living embodiment of the drive to ‘question everything.’ When we differentiate a case we strip it bare in terms of our understanding of whether or not this is a case of parental alienation, we take nothing at face value and we give everyone the benefit of the doubt until we have done this. When we have completed the differentiation work we not only recognise whether it is parental alienation or not, we know how it happened and how to intervene to stop it.
Differentiation, which takes around 30 hours of forensic time and which includes examination of all of the evidence through the lens of understanding our own bias, leads us to be able to work with the family in the way which brings about the quickest change for the children involved.
The first differentiation tool we use is to determine whether the child is using the defence of psychological splitting. Using Steve Millers stripped down analysis, we examine whether or not the child is alienated.
Slide above is from Steve Miller’s Presentation at the EAPAP Conference in London 2018
Quite simply, if the above is present the child is alienated, if it is not the child is not alienated and something else is going on.
Alongside using our projective tests for determining the level of the child’s use of psychological splitting – (how strongly is this child dividing feelings into good and bad as a result of splitting) we are then able to determine that the child is alienated and how severe that alienation is.
Sometimes we are told a child is alienated but when we meet them it is clear that they are not. Nevertheless they are resistant or reluctant to see a parent. On meeting these children the difference is that they do no denigrate a parent and they are not fiercely aligned to one parent and rejecting of the other. In my experience, when I am told a child is alienated and I see that they are not, the problem often lies with the parent who believes that they are alienated. On closer examination of that parent, it is often the case that it is they who are projecting unhealthy behavioural strategies and beliefs onto their child and/or the other parent in order to gain or maintain control. Understanding that a child who is alienated will manifest the core symptoms of alienation and if they do not then it is not alienation but something else, is how we avoid being led down the alley of proximity bias.
Proximity bias is when people get preferential treatment because they belong to a preferred group. One of the beliefs that some people have about me is that I am pro-father and therefore likely to be either at risk of proximity bias or that this will mean that I will provide an outcome that a father wants. This can lead to a sort of ‘hired gun’ scenario in which the underlying reason for someone wanting me involved in their case, is their belief that I will give them what I want.
Avoiding proximity bias is a very important part of my ‘question everything’ approach to differentiation of a case. Determining whether or not I am considered a ‘hired gun’ from the outset is one of the major questions in my mind. As we are often working with high functioning but never-the-less unwell people, looking out for this assumption in the behaviours of either parent is a key factor in my work.
The reality is that my understanding of the way in which the gendered assumptions that people make about families as they separate, brings a level of protection to my work. Knowing that some fathers will claim parental alienation and some mothers will deny it and that some mothers will claim parental alienation and some fathers will deny it, provides me with a clear reminder that it is not what the parents say is happening which is the evidence but what the child is manifesting in their behaviours.
These days many of the cases I work with have already been judged to be parental alienation which makes my task easier in some ways and at the same time still as tricky in others. Having a judgment of parental alienation allows me to do the work, having the child surrounded by professionals who do not believe in parental alienation and do not understand their own inherent biases either, can get in the way of that work. What I have come to understand as the landscape in the UK Family Courts changes towards acceptance of parental alienation is that not only do we need to protect the alienated child from the alienating parent, when we do this work, protecting the child from the alienation unaware and denying professionals is necessary too.
As a psychotherapist I spend a good deal of time questioning my own bias in order to reach conclusions about other people’s lives which create profound and life long change. In holding that responsibility I know that when I do this work I have a duty to get it right for the children each and every time – even and perhaps especially when, I have to tell someone that their child is not alienated and that it is their own behaviour which has caused the dynamics which are seen.
I have spent years in training to understand my own bias and many many hours in supervision, development of learning, comparing and contrasting of cases, reviewing and evaluating the work being done. And with me throughout all of this has been that gift given to me at the age of fourteen to ‘question everything’.
It is a piece of advice I find myself passing on.
Developing the Workforce
UK Training and Development Group 2019
Our first UK Training and Development Group begins on May 4/5 2019. This group of ten practitioners will be the first to undergo the Family Separation Clinic intensive training to establish their practice as psychotherapists and coaches working with the FSC model throughout Europe. This group of people will be trained to EAPAP standards and will provide, alongside the Family Separation Clinic and the Child Protection Centre of Zagreb, the first seeds of a new workforce which will change the way that we deal with parental alienation in Europe.
USA Training Group
We will be training a group of ten practitioners in the FSC model of intervention with families in September 2019.
Change Making in Europe
We will be presenting at The interdisciplinary approach of litigation with minor in cases of Parental Alienation Conference – on 16-17 of May 2019 in Bucharest, Romania.
We will also be presenting in Warsaw, Poland at the Empowering Children Foundation Conference on Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect on 12/13 June 2019.
I will be giving the John Cornwell Memorial Lecture at the Family Mediator Association Conference in London on October 3rd 2019.
EAPAP Development – Work continues to develop EAPAP, with partners working together across Europe to bring this project into being – watch here for news shortly.
Workshop in Edinburgh
Our Edinburgh Workshop has a handful of places left next weekend. If you would like to join us for a six hour jam packed strategy and critical thinking session please book here.