Parental Alienation Theory is the use of eight signs, seventeen alienating strategies and a five factor model which was developed by Amy Baker and William Bernet (2021) to determine that a child is being alienated from a parent. The problem is conceptualised as being about high conflict and a mental condition in the child.
As clinicians who treat the problem of a child’s hyper alignment and rejection pattern of behaviours, particularly in severe cases, the notion that the problem is a mental condition in a child is not conversant with clinical practice. When we work with the problem of a child’s alignment and rejection behaviour, it is not signs and strategies but the dynamics around the child and the underlying attachment maladaptations which the child has had to undergo, which are of concern. Alienated children are not, in our clinical experience, suffering from a mental condition, they are experiencing relational trauma and their behaviours are conversant with primitive defence mechanisms. Additionally, the portrayal of the concept as being caused by or featuring high conflict, is, in my view, a misleading depiction of what is actually conflict caused by an asymmetrical power imbalance in the post separated family system. In such circumstance, where one parent is free to utilise power over the child and the other is rendered powerless to prevent that, conflict arises as the rejected parent struggles with being placed helplessly at distance. To portray the problem as being caused by high conflict is, in my view, harmful to families as it delays getting the necessary help in place to relieve the child of the bind they are in. In summary therefore,there is nothing in Parental Alienation Theory which helps us to understand the aetiology of the problem in the family system, or, how to build a treatment route to resolve that. This is why in 2019 we left PASG to focus upon the research and development of clinical practice which moves far beyond PA Theory.
In the current febrile campaign climate, where frequent unsubstantiated claims are made that children are being deliberately removed from parents, on the basis that an abusive parent has claimed that they are being alienated, it is very important that the underlying dynamics in cases of children’s maladaptive behaviors in divorce and separation, are better understood. PA Theory is a litigation strategy, it seeks to prove in a judicial arena, that one parent is alienating the other, when that is proven, the intervention most commonly used in the USA, is removal of the child and use of a reunification camp intervention. The controversy around such interventions, is fuelled by the number of children who exit such camps and return to the parent who was found in Court to be alienating. I would argue that this is because the underlying dynamic of psychological splitting has not been treated in such children, in circumstances where the focus is upon adults winning a court battle. In my experience, in treatment terms the problem requires a clinical approach of resolution of psychological splitting in the child, which is informed by a theory which explains the problem, combined with a social work (structural) model of treatment. This combination enables a swift intervention which deals properly with the power imbalance and the presence of primitive defences in the family system.
Operationalising A Structural Social Work Model
In my work with children who have been removed from a parent in private and public family court proceedings over the past ten years, the reason for the removal from the care of a parent in the UK, has not been that a parent has proven parental alienation, but that the child must be removed from a parent who has caused emotional and psychological harm. In such cases of removal,the harm which has been caused is that which has met the welfare threshold criteria. This harm can be likened to non accidental injury.
To illustrate how this model works, the following is an excerpt from a module for social workers which is currently being trialled in a pathfinder project in the UK by the Family Separation Clinic. This excerpt shows how a social work model of understanding and treating the problem of children’s hyper alignment and rejection can be operationalised.
Understanding the child who rejects with contempt
Recognising Unusual or Marked Change in the Child’s Behaviour or Emotional State
The changes in the child’s behaviour which denote that emotional and psychological maltreatment is at play, are the ways in which the child begins to align strongly with one parent and reject the other with contempt. It is the accompanying contemptuous behaviour in the child, which denotes that the rejection is part of the defence of psychological splitting, which is induced in the child by the behaviours of the parent to whom they are aligned. Those behaviours in the parent, which include enmeshment, parentification spouseification, (all attachment disruptions) are the result of unresolved trauma, personality profile and in some cases, control behaviours. When rejection of a parent with contempt is observed, close assessment of the child’s relationship with the aligned parent is necessary as there may be underlying co-morbidities which cause psychological and emotional harm akin to non accidental injury.
Non Accidental Injury
Non Accidental Injury (NAI) is a well understood term in paediatrics and social work, it is defined by NICE as child maltreatment which includes emotional harm, which is flagged by changes in the child’s behaviours. Signs of emotional and psychological harm includes –
Unusual or marked change in the child’s behaviour or emotional state, different from what is expected for their age and developmental stage, and not explained by a medical condition, neurodevelopment disorder or stressful situation (outwith the maltreatment).NICE – Guidelines on recognising child maltreatment
Children who show the signs of hyper alignment and rejection with contempt are showing maladaptations in their behaviours and are possibly doing so because they are trying to cope with harm which is being caused to them. In the absence of evidence that harm is being caused by the parent being rejected, where the child is seen to reject with contempt, that harm, in serious cases, is likely, on investigation to meet the welfare threshold.
The threshold criteria are met, if:
- The child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm and the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to either:
- The care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, being of a kind reasonable to expect a parent to give to him.
- The child being beyond parental control.
(Section 31(2), Children Act 1989.)
What this means is that children who are removed from a parent in cases where a child is strongly aligned to one parent and rejecting the other with contempt, is that the co-morbidities, which cause the child to behave in this manner, are recognised as having met the threshold for harm. This is assessed and diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist and the decision to remove is made by the Court after fact finding.
When a case reaches threshold it is often as part of an investigation by the Local Authority after private proceedings cross over into public proceedings. Even in such circumstances however, removal is not inevitable although with increasing awareness in social work, of the harm being caused to a child who is induced to use psychological splitting, co-morbidities are recognised as being difficult to address whilst the child remains in the care of a parent who is causing the problem and lacking in insight.
In such circumstances, where a child is being harmed by a parent, removal protects the child and placement with the parent who has been prevented from providing care, is, (as in many cases of removal from harm), preferred.
Kinship care, which is always preferable to foster care when a child is removed from a harmful parent, can be complicated when the child has been rejecting and has become enmeshed with the harmful parent’s narrative. When assessment of the rejected parent demonsrates capacity for provision of healthy care however, therapeutic parenting training can be offered as a support to enable the parent and child to repair the attachment relationshp. The route to placement with the rejected parent when the child is rejecting can be directly into that parent’s care via structured placement support or via stepping stone transfer in which the child is resident for a short period of time in foster care. In both scenarios, the rejected parent (now called the receiving parent), should be assessed for parenting capacity and monitored for capacity to deliver therapeutic parenting in the first six months of placement.
Goals of treatment
Treatment goals in removal from psychological and emotional harm in cases where a child has been rejecting a parent, are the integration of the child’s split state of mind and the unblocking of the care giving by the previously rejected parent. This parent may need support throughout the early days of re-establishment of their caregiving role due to the child’s attachment maladaptations, care should be taken during this time to protect the child from exposure to the previously aligned parent, if that parent lacks insight. Social workers must take great care that this parent is not experienced by the child as a ‘bad’ or failed parent, to do so is to perpetuate the defence of splitting in the child, which prevents integration.
Therapeutic model for working with children suffering from splitting
When the child is seen to unblock the caregiving by the previously rejected parent, a therapeutic model of work using the language of parts can begin. Therapy is delivered alongside the rebuilding of the relationship between the child and previously aligned parent which is supervised and then supported along a continuum using the concept of announced and unannounced attendance by the allocated social worker. When the child is able to tolerate the relationship with both parents without re-entering alignment and rejection, treatment is complete. Some parents can achieve this, others cannot, some will disconnect from the process, seeking instead to find support elsewhere for the continuation of beliefs and behaviours which are causative of the problem.
William Bernet (2021): Recurrent Misinformation Regarding Parental Alienation
Theory, The American Journal of Family Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/01926187.2021.1972494
The above module is from a social work pathfinder training which is being delivered in the UK by the Family Separation Clinic. Resources to support social workers are currently in development, funded by private investment.
Family Separation Clinic News
The Clinic is currently working at full capacity and cannot accept any enquiries for treatment until 2023. We will accept instruction in the High Court of England and Wales from January 2023 but continue to be unable to accept any instruction in the lower courts.
Therapeutic Parenting Training
The popular course called Holding Up a Healthy Mirror has been delivered to 150 parents from countries around the world in 2022. This course will soon be available to watch on demand and I will post the link here when it is ready to purchase.
Therapeutic Listening Circles have been attended by fifty parents over the past month and will continue to be held through to Christmas. Listening circles cost £40 for two hours (partners/family members can attend without making additional payment) and they begin at 19:00 GMT.
Dates for Listening Circles to Christmas
15th November – Helping the parentified child
29th November – Writing to the alienated child
13th December – Holding the child in mind
20th December – Encircling with love – a special Christmas Circle focused on the needs of parents
There are unlimited places on each circle and you can drop in when you need to by booking online, I will post a link to each circle when the booking link is open.
I am an adult “child” who alienated from my father four years into my parents acrimonious divorce in the 60’s. It was a hugely painful decision of mine and I really felt sad and guilty for my Dad but I desperately wanted to find some sense of relief and normality in my life having been subjected to emotional accusations of “Your Mother” and “Your Father” by BOTH parents determined to be heard against the other. This from the age of 8 until I stopped contact at the age of 12.
The idea that a child has to show “contempt’ for the alienated parent to be classified as needing help, will let children like me, who are desperately trying to protect the feelings of both parents, slip through the net.
I am 65 years old and I have only this last couple of years began to understand the immense pain and mental/emotional conflict I and my late brother had carried since childhood. My brother was contemptuous of both our parents but particularly our father, whereas I wanted to smooth things over the best I could and protect both. My brother and I alienated from our Dad at the same time. I had sporadic contact with my Dad over the subsequent years. My brother and father never had contact again, both are now dead.
It really jars and worries me that “with contempt” is a defining criteria for a child’s plight to be recognised; also the term “parental alienation” as it does not show that it is the child who is actually psychologically splitting and alienating itself. This omission gives the impression that the conflict is solely within the parental arena and not within the child. During divorce, the focus has to be on the children first and foremost, supported by robust education on the prevention of harm to them for parents and all personnel involved.
I value your huge contribution and endeavours in this subject Karen and your posts have been so resonant and helpful on a personal level, thank you.
Caroline, thank you for your message, I am very interested in what you are saying here and would like to hear more, would you be willing to be interviewed so that I can get your perspective included?
From what you are saying briefly here I see your brother was contemptuous but you were more facilitative, also BOTH of your parents competed for your allegiance, these elements are very important to understand and yes, I see how what I have included in this article misses out the experience of the child – that is included in the module but as a distinct chapters in itself.
But the main thing is that I would very much want to hear and analyse your experience so that it is part of this work.
If you are interested in doing this please contact me at email@example.com and we can set up a time to do an interview.
Many thanks for taking the time to raise this, I am constantly learning about how to get the closest possible to the child’s experience and therefore how to help.
Thanks for your contribution, the family courts need to hear this from you. I was a stay at home dad who list all contacts with my children after divorce, Still grieving after 10 years.
Hi Karen, I’m so pleased to hear about this sidestep from PA, the whole context has gotten so blurred these last few years that the child seems to have been lost within it. It’s wonderful that this awful problem is being placed right where it should be, within child protection. I sincerely hope that the social workers you’re working with grab the opportunity to increase their knowledge and skills and that this pilot spreads nationwide. It’s going to require some specialisms to be created I’d imagine? It’s all so complex and the counter intuitive aspect can be mind blowing, from my experience the social worker’s tendency to look for confirmation bias was the death knell for me , damned if I did or didn’t so to speak!
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you’re doing, I wish you all the very best with it.
I think you have really put your finger on it Ouch – confirmation bias is rife in this work and social workers, who have the statutory power to turn these cases around quickly, need help to overcome what is trained into them. When they do get that help the very quickly see what is going on and are then able to make a huge difference rather than going 180 degrees in the wrong direction and making it all worse. So far my experience with the social workers we are involved with has been very positive. K