The Gap Between Theory and Practice: The Child’s Perspective of Parental Alienation

A comment on here this last week made me think about the theory of parental alienation and how unhelpful it is in practice. So much so that in our work with families we rarely, if ever, use the term parental alienation, especially with children.

In my clinical experience, the use of the term parental alienation raises the defence of psychological splitting even higher in a child and introduces an unwanted dynamic into the work we are doing. This dynamic is the idea that the child does not know their own mind.

Is what we call parental alienation the same as brainwashing? I think it shares some of the same outcomes in children as are seen in the victims of cult mentality. It can also be observed that the same behavioural strategies as are used in brainwashing, are seen in some parents who induce the psychologically split state of mind in a child. But in clinical practice, the alienated child faces far more complex problems than a victim of cult brainwashing will face.  Which means that the gap between clinical practice and the theory of parental alienation as it is espoused in some quarters, is so large that we have to abandon the theory in clinical practice, in order to deliver successful outcomes for children and their families.

The gap between the research and the clinical practice has, in my view, grown because of the dearth of interventions which have been shown to be repeatedly effective in treatment of the problem of parental alienation.  It is also present because the very concept of parental alienation, in my clinical experience, heightens the very problem  we are seeking to resolve in families. That does not mean however, that all of the research evidence should be thrown out like the baby with the bath water, it does mean that how we must be extremely selective in how we utilise parental alienation as a concept in direct work with families.

I have undertaken many reunifications with families without ever using the words parental alienation either verbally or in writing.  I have done so because that is how I was trained and mentored to do this work.  Working with child adolescent psychiatrists, in a time when the term parental alienation wasn’t allowed to be used in the family courts, reunification work was undertaken largely via removal of the child from a parent who was suffering from encapsulated delusional disorder. It was that diagnosis from the psychiatrist which triggered the removal, which was ultimately the removal of the power that the unwell parent held over the child. What is known about encapsulated delusional disorder is that when the child is removed from the parent who is suffering it, the delusion in the child will disappear.

I was writing about differentiation of cases of alienation into various categories, including attachment disruption in 2013  because that is how I was trained to think and work with this problem. I was using family systems therapies in adapted forms right from the start of my work. What I know now, a decade or so later, is that alienation is not something which can be considered as a one dimensional problem and it is not something which can be treated using the concept of parental alienation itself.  What must happen in order to be successful in treatment of the problem, is that the research and theory must be adapted in practice in order to create replicable success in outcomes.

Examining this from the child’s perspective it is easy to understand how parental alienation is a problematic concept in treatment.

If we take the idea that parental alienation is about what one parent does to the other for example, the focus is on the behaviour of the parent to whom the child is defensively aligned. To place the focus there, is to simply heighten the alliance and strengthen it, which in effect, strengthens and deepens the splitting in the child’s mind.

Looking at the concept of parental alienation from an Object Relations perspective, the use of this theory is highly problematic when attempting to reduce the pressure upon the child which causes the splitting.  If the defence in the child is raised because of identification with the aggressor (as we suspect it to be), then to tell the child that they do not know their own mind (as in they have been brainwashed), will simply fuse the child more strongly to the parent who is the cause of the problem. It will additionally fuse the parent more strongly to the child, especially if that parent is not capable of understanding that they are the cause of the problem because they suffer from a psychotic delusion.

What we take from parental alienation theory as it has been espoused over the years, is the evidence that this is a problem which has at its core, defensive splitting in the child, which requires a counter intuitive approach to treatment. It requires a counter intuitive approach to treatment because it is a defensive splitting and because the problem in the family is not the child’s rejection of a parent but the child’s pathological alignment with a parent.  The other core concept that we take from this theory is that the rejected parent holds the child’s best hope of a healthy parental relationship in which they can recover from the defensive splitting and thus develop normally over the rest of their childhood and teenage years.

From the child’s view, this is not parental alienation, it is the failure of parents to make the crossing from together to apart.  But what the child sees is not the whole of the picture.  In treatment however, that doesn’t matter because what the child needs to see and feel is that which they would see and feel in a healthy upbringing.  It is that task which we are set as practitioners, to bring about the healthiest possible outcome for the child so that they can return to the unconscious experience of childhood and develop over the following years without the maladaptation of defensive splitting.

Whilst we must look through the eyes of the child to begin this work, as practitioners we must, at the same time, be the eyes of the wiser person in the family system and move the family furniture around until the dynamic release of the child from the defensive splitting is achieved. That is not about treating both parents as being contributory, it is about recognising that alienation is always about the actions of one parent who has power over the child and the responses for better or worse of the other, plus the resilience vs vulnerability in the child and the environmental factors which surround the family.

We must have innocent and wise eyes all at the same time and we must also recognise the deep scarring of the family system, which is caused when a child is in the wrong place in the family hierarchy.  We must seek to avoid further scarring of the rejected parent, whose plight must be recognised from the outset and we must skill that parent as our co-therapist in preparation for the healing work that only that parent can achieve for the child.

There is a gap between parental alienation theory and practice and the more I practice the more I understand how deep and wide that gap is and how urgently it must be filled. I also understand how the theory of parental alienation, has inadvertently but systematically, driven the progress made in practice into the circular arguments about whether or not it exists and whether or not it is valid science.

Treatment of parental alienation, or as I now prefer to call it ‘induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation’, demands to be developed and to have a theory which closes the gap with practice. It is this project which we are currently concerned with in the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners, where we are adapting theoretical frameworks of therapy and matching this with core concepts of existing practice with families to develop and test the outcomes.

The further I go, the more I recognise that there is so much work to do to close the gap between theory and practice. The more I understand about alienation, the more I recognise how to avoid it being too visible as a concept in working with families. That does not mean that it should not form a core plank of our structural delivery, organising how to intervene in families affected by alienation requires that we pay attention to the existing research. But it does mean that we must refine and make more sophisticated, the theoretical underpinnings, the way in which we communicate these to families and to the overarching structures which govern them when their inability to govern themselves dissolves.

From a child’s eye view, alienation need never be mentioned at all. Widening the lens, the whole of our intervention must be thoroughly governed by the correct theoretical underpinning, this is the only way we will achieve the nuanced responses which provides longer term healing at the deepest level for these children.

A child of divorce and separation, should not have to lose one parent in order to regain the other, which requires us to think beyond the idea that this issue is easily boiled down to checklists and removals.

Throughout treatment, the issue of alienation in a child should be considered by practitioners to be suffering from a non accidental injury to the mind, requiring us to evaluate the risks of harm and the capacity of parents to change the dynamics which cause the problem.

All of which means that we  don’t need to throw the parental alienation baby out with the bathwater and reject all research, but as practitioners we must close the gap in that theory with our clinical practice to enable the most delicate aspects of repair in these families to be developed.

It is there, in the gap between theory and practice, where the child’s eye view of this issue is most important to understand.

What we see there leads us to new routes to treatment, which show promise for children of all age groups.

Works in Progess

We are currently preparing a webinar entitled ‘working with induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation‘ which offers therapists, psychologists, social workers and others working in this field, practical understanding of how to work with the splitting defence in children and their families.

This new area of our work, which we have been studying, trialling and evaluating since 2018, forms the basis of a new clinical handbook which we are writing now.

Our intention is to provide for practitioners, the model of understanding and treatment routes that assist children in these families based upon our own extensive clinical practice at the Clinic and in partnership with senior clinicians around the world.

Alongside our therapeutic parenting handbook and online course, these will provide a comprehensive route to working with families affected by this problem for all practitioners.

This combined treatment route, utilises our co-therapy model which enables rejected parents to provide the right conditions to support their child’s recovery from alienation of the self and others.

This work is in progress and is developed from our successful clinical practice combined with the research and theory which underpins this.

  • We will announce the webinar shortly.
  • The online Therapeutic Parenting Course is nearing completion.
  • The handbook of Therapeutic Parenting for Alienated Children is nearing completion.
  • The Clinical Handbook for Working with Induced Psychological Splitting in Children of Divorce and Separation (working title) is being written now.
  • My doctoral thesis, which examines the relational experience of adults who rejected a parent after divorce and separation continues.

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Healing Beyond Splitting: EAPAP Conference 2020

The scientific and organising committee of the EAPAP Conference 2020 meets today to discuss the delivery of this conference in the current pandemic. We will have an announcement about this shortly.


Stalking and Harassment – Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall – April 29 2020

Our lawyers have been addressing the issue of stalking and harassment which we have suffered since 2017.  We now know the name and details of the woman who has created a website which makes grossly defamatory allegations about us.  Our lawyers have dealt directly with those who recently joined this woman in her twitter campaign to spread malicious falsehoods about us.

A further statement relating to action for criminal conduct and details of how anyone named on the site can obtain the information necessary to further this, will be made shortly.




  1. The father who has residency order has managed to alienate older daughter who is 19 now but was 16 at the time has now text to say he did it to her and he will do it to next daughter who is 10. I’m at my wits end.


    1. Thank you Karen for your article. I really enjoyed reading it. I have always thought about the children first and how complex a subject this is. In the eyes of the law, social services and family court it should be the first thing they take into account, the psychological effect this is having on the children…..but it doesn’t. In many respects I think it is due to their lack of education on this subject. It baffles me how after many years of this knowledge being available after extensive world wide research those that need to understand this subject still don’t. It’s like an electrician rewiring a house but not installing a control panel. Let’s hope very soon this awful alienation situation can be removed permanently from children’s lives and their mental well being be the first priority to be assessed and helped in any family breakdown.


      1. Hi Jo, I think the problem with what I see in the world in terms of how PA is conceptualised and discussed (and fought over) is that the element of harm to children is either overlooked or it is simply wrapped up in arguments about parental rights. This is where I think children who suffer this have been failed over and over again because their wellbeing has been allowed to be considered to be indivisible from their mother in one camp, leaving campaigners for fathers having to fight to establish their relevance. In reality the whole issue boils down to the fact that in divorce and separation children get hurt and some get more hurt than others because of existing problems in the family which have lain dormant for years. When we look from the child’s perspective that is very easy to see and so building the evidence base in theory which matches a more sophisticated practice which protects children first and then works to strengthen the healthy parenting they receive. This is an emerging scientific field in practice and we are working hard to further all aspects of it with colleagues from around the world.


  2. Lynda
    Oh Gosh, I am so sorry you are in this position. I honestly don’t know what to say. I recognise the threat and the danger.
    I hope SOMEONE can help. I hear you. I didn’t just want to read and leave.


  3. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for your blog and insights. Always good to read and reflect on.

    It is truly important to keep theory fed by practice and in an ongoing update-process, as we learn more and more.
    Also to stay critical in using terms & (clinical) conditions and people wanting to ‘prove’ them, while in the meantime (not often many months of years) it are the children who suffer due to the situation they are experiencing and have been confronted with, by (the way) their parents (and youth organisations / courts) organised the transition process of divorce of separation and the form and structure of continuing (family) life afterwards.

    I would like to add some of my thoughts about the impact on a child’s daily life as a result of a great imbalance in power and influence- dynamics over a child, from a child’s perspective.

    The dynamics, typical behavior surrounding, and the impact, of (long term) social-isolation of the child from a parent and the social exclusion (rejection) of the other parent (+fam & soc network) from the social-life of the child(ren), is how I describe the essence of what ‘parental alienation behavior’ implies to people who never heard of this before.
    They understand this concept better (i.e. they can relate to elementary school experiences, where ‘friend groups’ of children exclude other children to be part of those groups).

    Learning by experience is a major part of what most children (and adults) do in learning processes. Remaining connected and building further on a former normal/good relationship/bond with a parent, needs substantial time of living together. Otherwise the mutual lives, actively, recent and continuing mutual facts of life, experiences and memories, fade out to a history that once was..

    This makes even more room for growing delusional thoughts about the parent who is kept socially excluded from the daily family-life the child experiences. The danger of getting used to living without the other parent and this becoming the new ‘normal’ in the child’s life, even to the point of the child is not feeling someone (the split-off parent) is an essential part of them or missing in daily life, is substantial.

    In general children are more living ‘in the now’, their daily life, tasks for school, friends, keeping in contact with friends on social media, sports and other activities, taking life and house(hold) mainly for granted, as a ‘fact of life’. Having fun, prefer an easy life, and are (near) future oriented, but for a big part not overseeing some major long term consequences of some choices they make. They should also be kept away from where they are given the responsibility of making certain choices for themselves (i.e. setting the structure of life with their parents).
    Most children are also unaware when being in a continuous manipulative situation, unless the influence of an outsider of the family (who can, with some extensive in depth assessment, oversee the power- and influence- dynamics within the family) (and hopefully with some firm support from the courts – to restore the power-imbalance over the children) helps the family to create a healthier familylife, with both parents &families from both sides normally included in the children’s life in a more balanced and harmonious way.

    The mainstream approach is still to keep children away from any normal (=substantial time) life with the non-aligned parent. The child will not be enabled and put quickly back in circumstances of a experiencing the normal life situation with that parent (at his or her home / environment / family).
    How can a child get re-attached when they don’t get the possibility to experience a normal life setting with that parent?
    Normal learning by experience and example will be blocked this way.

    The impact on restoring a positive image within the child of the excluded parent and making a healthy relationship possible, is minimal and in most cases contra-productive and even extra harmful.

    The life structure of the children with their parents should be organised for them, not put on their shoulders to figure out, choose and decide on. Children need this leadership (and parental correction to show desired behavior in the child) for understanding their position in the family hierarchy.

    KInd regards,
    Erik van der Waal


  4. Karen, Thank you for your article.
    Would you know of an aligned enlightened professional in Brisbane Australia?


    1. I don’t know where she is in Australia but you could look for Alyse Price Tobler who is a Clinical Psychologist who understands the practice approach we are developing. If you google her you should find her easily. K


  5. Quote: how I describe the essence of what ‘parental alienation behavior’ implies to people who never heard of this before.
    They understand this concept better (i.e. they can relate to elementary school experiences, where ‘friend groups’ of children exclude other children to be part of those groups).

    Eric so many things you wrote resonated with me. From the description of being excluded from a group (which, before I knew about PA, were the only words I could ever think of to describe what my husband was doing to me – excluding me from my family) to the description of what the passage of time does to a relationship. You are so right. It’s been 25 years with my daughter. There is no relationship left so I no longer exist. In the same way, she has faded in my memory too but it still hurts.

    Thank you for your post.


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