The term parental alienation is used widely to describe a child’s unjustified rejection of a parent after family separation. Unjustified rejection is described as a child rejecting a parent when the parent has not done anything to warrant that. Neither of those ways of describing what is happening to a child in the circumstances in which they align with one parent and reject the other, properly does justice to the mental health and relational problems the child is suffering in such circumstances.
In my experience, parental alienation has got nothing whatsoever to do with parental rights and it is absolutely not about a ‘contact’ relationship either. Parental alienation is not about parental rejection although parental rejection occurs and it is not something which is routinely used to further control of women or a tool used by abusive men to further harm their children. Those things are other than parental alienation and as such can be recognised and addressed using accepted protocols.
Parental alienation however, requires a protocol to resolve it which is highly counter intuitive and which is configured around the child by people who understand how such an intervention works. In any work with alienated children, the first step is to identify and explain how a child became alienated and the next step is to change the family dynamic in ways that return the child to a relationship with the parent they are rejecting. It is only this which constitutes successful intervention.
Just as you wouldn’t expect an oncologist to explain parental alienation to you but then say that they cannot treat your cancer because it is not possible to do so, anyone working in this field must be able to demonstrate capacity to bring about change for alienated children. Doing something else but calling it parental alienation intervention is called experimenting.
Whilst I recognise that practitioners exist who are adapting their own skills set to fit the needs of families affected by alienation, I also know that there are some who are trying to shoe horn parental alienation into existing models which have absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support their efficacy with this group of families. Choosing your provider wisely means looking beyond claims of being the only people to do this or that and asking for evidence of the efficacy of those claims.
Whilst some claim that the right way is the ‘my way or the high way’ approach, the right way to do this work requires a stepped approach which brings about resolution of the split state of mind in the child. Experimenting but failing to achieve change for the child in terms of liberation from the fused alignment which induces psychological splitting is not good enough.
Because parental alienation involves, as others told us long before Childress configured his solution to the problem, an attachment disorder. It is also as Jennifer Harman tells us, a problem of intimate partner violence and it is a problem of trans-generational transmission of trauma as I wrote about in 2013. Parental alienation is a phenomenon which configures itself around certain children in certain circumstances. Understanding how those circumstances arose assists in working out how to bring about change for alienated children to release them from the position they are in.
What all of these things have in common is one thing and that is the child’s pathological alignment to a parent which is the singular feature we should be focused upon in recognising that there is a problem in the post separation family. As Nick has recently spoken about, in presentations in Europe, the reality of parental alienation is not that a child rejects a parent, it is that a child pathologically aligns and fuses their views of reality with a parent to the exclusion of all other possible realities.
When this fusion is supported by the parent to whom the child is aligned and that parent tells us, amongst other things, that this is the child finding their ‘truth’, alarm bells should be ringing to child protection level because these two signals demonstrate that pathological alignment and fusion of parent/child psychology is in play.
Kerig (2005) summarises the impact on the child of boundary dissolution as follows –
In summary, when parent-child boundaries are violated, the implications for developmental psychopathology are significant. Poor boundaries interfere with the child’s capacity to progress through development which (…) is the defining feature of childhood psychopathology.’
Linda Gottlieb described this problem effectively in her 2012 publication The Parental Alienation Syndrome and went further in exploring the work of Murray Bowen and his work with triangulation and the power that children play in diffusing tension between their parents which can lead to pathological fusion in situations where the child becomes captured by one parent’s psychological power in a coalition against the other.
In all of these multi layered understandings of what is actually happening in a case of parental alienation, it is the relationship that the child has with the aligned parent which should be the focus of our attention because the rejection of the other parent is merely a by product of that problem.
Which leads to the conclusion that parental alienation is not actually, the unjustified rejection by a child of a parent who was once loved dearly, as I have written so many times in the past.
Parental alienation is, in fact, a childhood psychopathology in which a child fuses their views with one person to the exclusion of all others, rendering them captive to that person’s intrapsychic conflicts and induced psychological splitting. (Karen Woodall – June 2019)
In other words a childhood mental health problem caused by exposure to situational/relational emotional and psychological coercive control.
In other words, child abuse.
Therefore, keeping the subject out of the political arena to prevent it from being reduced to an argument about parental rights is important, because every time the problem of parental alienation is dragged into that space, the reality of what we are dealing with is fogged.
And of course fogging this issue is essential if the reality of what is happening to alienated children is to remain hidden. And keeping what is happening to children who are alienated, is essential if adult rights are to continue to take precedence over children’s needs in divorce and separation.
Hence, each time a step forward is made in work with children affected by this psychopathology, efforts are made to push thinking back ten steps to keep the reality hidden.
Which is why you will hear the words ‘junk/pseudo/controversial’ science thrown around at random whenever progress is made in raising public consciousness.
And why significant energy is expended in attempting to discredit anyone who works in this field with an eye to resolving the problem.
It is because the issue of parental alienation is one which –
a) people do not understand because it has been mischaracterised
b) other people do not want it to be understood because that would lead to resolution.
And just as those who seek to treat cancer aim to make the illness treatable each and every time, anyone working in the field of parental alienation should be aiming to treat the problem successfully each and every time.
And success should mean the resolution of the split state of mind and as a result of that the restoration of the child’s acceptance of incoming love and care from both of their parents.
We may not achieve 100% success in every case but our aim should be to do so. It is the only way that alienated children will get their stolen childhoods back.
The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners Board meets in Switzerland in July/August to further work on the development of international standards of practice as evaluated and curated by the international research evidence. EAPAP will be producing a set of ratified international standards of practice with alienated children and families in September 2019.
An EAPAP Statement about therapy in cases of parental alienation can be viewed here.