Following on from my last post, in which I discussed the way that women’s rights advocates are trying to shift the debate about alienation of a child towards the idea that this is really domestic violence by proxy, it is useful to clarify what I mean when I say that PA is not DA.

Some seem to think that by saying PA is not DA, I am somehow denying the coercive control elements of the problems seen in families where a child becomes alienated, I am not. Careful reading of my last post will show that the dynamic of coercive control is recognised, alongside enmeshment, triangulation, identification with the aggressor and more.

Alienation of a child is the removal of the child’s right to their own sovereign self. It is the triangulation of the child into adult issues for the purpose of either a) comforting a parent and regulating their anxiety and decompensation or b) regulating a parent’s rage and desire for control towards the other parent or c) terrorising the child into identifying with the controlling parent. The outcome of A, B and C is d) the child rejects a parent.

A, B, C and D above are all about parents. I am talking about the impact on the child. What I am saying in this post is that to attempt to reduce alienation of a child to domestic violence by proxy is to deliberately ignore the impact of alienation on the child, in favour of focusing attention on parents. And I am asking the question, why would anyone want to hide the impact of alienation on a child?

Ignoring the child in this debate means that the reality of the abuse that a child suffers when they become alienated from a parent is hidden. What it is replaced with in the domestic violence by proxy debate, are tales of terror, which are designed to make the outside world believe that all courts around the world are routinely handing children to abusive parents. In this narrative, the child’s real experience is erased, replaced with the child as object rather than subject.

Since I read the Harman and Lorandos study, I have had a much clearer understanding of the way in which the Meier et al study has been used to woozle misleading information into public consciousness. The key information which is being used as a woozle, is that family courts are routinely handing children to abusive parents and that claims of parental alienation are used to ignore allegations of abuse. In understanding this, I have become even more concerned about the silencing of children in this debate.

Harman and her coauthor, forensic psychologist and attorney Demosthenes Lorandos, wanted to investigate some of these claims. To do so, they designed a rigorous, open science study to assess how parental alienation allegations were impacting courts’ decisions around child custody. Their results were published online Dec. 14 in Psychology, Public Policy & Law, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

Prompting the new study was a 2019 assertion from a legal scholar who claimed that she and her team had found empirical evidence that claims of parental alienation were being used to ignore allegations of abuse, frequently putting the children into the care of potential abusers – and that it was also leading to women being more likely to lose custody. The researchers were also concerned that this new work was being cited frequently in arguments in the U.S. and abroad for policies and laws proposing to ignore parental alienation in child custody cases.

“That was alarming,” Harman said. What worried them even more was that the legal team’s report did not appear in a peer-reviewed research journal and lacked transparency as to their methodology and data, even when Harman’s team requested more information. “The more we dug into it, the worse it looked,” she said.

Katie Courage – Colorado State University

Alienation of a child is an act of abuse because it is a non accidental injury to the mind of a child. It does not matter which way we look at this, the outcome of alienation, is that the child loses their capacity to think and feel from an integrated sense of self and is forced to raise a defence against the dynamics around them. A child in these circumstances, is not receiving the parenting that they have the right to receive, instead they are being used to regulate and compensate a parent’s needs.

The idea that children are routinely being handed to abusive parents is not my experience of working in the family courts in the UK and around the world. The Meier report, which has been widely used to instil the belief that parental alienation is only a claim made by abusive fathers, is now thoroughly debunked. Nevertheless, the campaign to mischaracterise alienation of a child as being domestic violence by proxy, rages on. Focused largely around the label Parental Alienation, this debate holds that PA is something made up, it is junk science and it doesn’t really exist. Argued largely by women’s rights activists, the game of political (small p) football being played with the label Parental Alienation, is another family tactic used by those who want to hide the experience of the child. Hiding the child, in favour of focus on women’s rights, means that the reality of what is happening, can be wrapped up in the notion that all that children need after divorce and separation, is their mother and child support payments.

Alienation of a child is not domestic violence by proxy, it is not about contact, it is not about adults at all. It is about the removal of the child’s right to an unconscious experience of childhood and it is, in its starkest reality, an act of child abuse. In writing this however, I am conscious of the many ways that children become alienated and the need for delicate and thorough differentiation of cases where alienation is present, because there are those who claim parental alienation, who ARE using this as a way of furthering control over a parent (and child). There is no reason whatsoever to deny that reality, to do so would be to replicate the Meier approach and enter into a reciprocal game of denial, splitting and projection.

And that, for me, is why I no longer use the label parental alienation and why I have gone back to how I began work in this field, to object relations theory and the underlying foundational knowledge and skills which enable success in working with families. The furore around the label PA is a red herring and the efforts being made to mischaracterise the problem, are just deliberate attempts to obfuscate what is happening to children. The more time we spend arguing about the label, the less time we have to focus on finding ways of differentiating and treating this horrible problem.

Children suffering alienation are being harmed, they are experiencing a non accidental injury to the mind and they are carrying the scars from this into their childhood. Having worked in this field for a long time now, I can see firsthand how the internalised wounds are lived out in later life when alienated children become parents themselves. And why would that not be? We learn to be parents by being parented ourselves, if our early experiences of being parented are of being triangulated into adult distress, then when we are older, we will seek out those trauma based relationships which cause that same anxiety and stress. Alienated children become alienated parents, that is their internalised object relationship, alienation from the self first and then from others. This renders children extraordinarily vulnerable to entering into relationships with controlling people in later life.

The alienation of children, through the triangulation into adult issues in divorce and separation, is an act of child abuse. It wounds the child and renders them vulnerable to controlling relationships as they grow older.

Forget the labels, forget the myths and focus on the reality for children suffering harm in divorce and separation. For anyone who is concerned about abuse at home, that is the aspect of this debate they should be concerned about first.