Parental Alienation has become such a hot topic in the UK that everywhere one looks a petition is being launched, an article on the issue is in the media, even Woman’s Hour covered the topic recently. Meanwhile the head of CAFCASS (GAL service for our stateside readers), has confirmed that parental alienation is child abuse, although not quite as those of us who work with the issue know it.
Watching the way in which the subject, which only five years ago was readily dismissed by family court professionals, is now being rehabilitated, I am aware of the dangers ahead for parents who think that now that the subject is being openly aired, all will be well and the problem eradicated. I wish I could agree but I can’t. The sense of foreboding that comes with the cosy chats around the kitchen table approach to this problem is immense, it heralds an era in which the very reality of the problem we are working with is about to be rebranded. Far from feeling that our work here is done I am reminded that the battle for Britain in terms of the responses to the problem of parental alienation, has really just begun. Here is an indepth, serious take, on what is really going on here.
I was reading an article yesterday by Benjamin Garber (2015), in which he discussed the differences between desensitisation approaches and reversal of custody (transfer of residence) interventions in the highly phobic and contact resistant child. The article describes the differences in approaches and concludes clearly that ‘this work can be excruciating.’ I agree. Not only is it excrutiating, it is exhausting and mentally draining.
Working at the coal face of the lives of people who may have personality disorder, who may be replicating generational parenting patterns and with people who do not know that what they are doing is harmful, is about as difficult as it gets for a practitioner. Doing this work requires knowledge, skill, tenacity and courage. If it is done properly, it requires a pracitioner to be able to work in a boundaryless system without a safety net. Risk averse practitioners need not apply to do this work. This is because within the lack of proper recognition of Parental Alienation in every one of the UK governing bodies of practitioners, lies the positive sanction written about by Judith Pilla for the Parental Alienation Studies Group. This positive sanction creates a double bind for the practitioner who works with parental alienation because by doing the right thing for the child, one is courting complaint and sanction by a governing body.
This leads to a culture in which the interventions are watered down to fit the requirements of the governing body rather than the other way around, which is to educate and push the governing body to recognise the right kind of practice. And therein lies the reality of what is going on here in the UK around the issue of parental alienation. Instead of the recognition of the issue as a serious mental health problem in which the underlying power dynamic plays a significant part in the harming of children, the issue is being watered down to fit the consciousness of the family court professionals and the risk averse population of practitioners who work with the issue. In short, we are being readied for the idea that ‘a little bit of family therapy’ is what will resolve this problem. This horrible, pernicious, deeply damaging form of emotional, mental and psychological child abuse, is being rebranded for the masses as something which can be sorted out by getting everyone to be nice to each other. Even mediation, which, as anyone who has ever worked with an alienated child will know is a particularly pointless endeavour in such cases, is being trotted out (again) as the early intervention of choice. It’s parental alienation, but not as those of us who really work with it know and understand it.
Making the problem of parental alienation fit existing therapeutic and diagnostic models is one of those things which Dr Childress has been so particularly vocal about in recent years. I am with him on this and I am equally as angry and despairing when I see how parents are being duped into believing that because suddenly everyone wants to talk about parental alienation, somehow this means that the new dawn has arrived. Let me tell you this. The new dawn in this work has not and will not arrive until the problem is matched by the interventions known to work, those internationally researched and evidenced strategies which are shown, in practice, to replicate positive outcomes again and again and again. Instead of trying to shoe horn the problem of parental alienation into existing models of work such as family therapy or metalisation techniques or worse still therapeutic mediation, the models proven to deliver to children the freedom from the alienation reaction, the recovery from the emotional and psychgological damage and the perspective which has been taken from them, are only those which should be used.
Even as I write however, I know I write in vain because I know that the watering down of the problem of parental alienation has begun in the UK and it will continue until it becomes a meaningless phrase which is used to describe every case of a child refusing to see a parent. One thing I know about UK politics, which is born of twenty plus years of working in this field is this, when the pendulum swings it well and truly swings, which means that for parental alienation, once the absolute pariah of terms, acceptance of the cosy understanding of it which is being touted around right now, is on its way. Soon parental alienation will be something that everyone and anyone has experienced and a little bit of family therapy will soon put that right. Cue hordes of parents being shunted off to have that little bit of family therapy, cue similar hordes of bewildered families exiting stage left having been ‘treated’ by practitioners who think they have the antidote when in fact what they have is a risk averse approach which resolves nothing in real terms. In the midst of this will remain another generation of children who are over entitled, over empowered and alienated from their own right to a normal healthy childhood. But they will have some kind of relationship with the parent they once rejected because in this world, even a couple of hours on a Saturday which they as children get to choose whether they want or not, will be counted as a success.
I know I sound cynical, I wish I didn’t. I guess I always knew we would end up here and I really wish we didn’t have to. Doing the work is hard enough, fighting the social policy and practice battle only makes it harder. But I have done this work for long enough to know that being a practitioner in this field requires one to do two things, a) treat the problem successfully and b) fight hard to ensure that the right way to treat the problem is recognised and used by as many other practitioners as possible. I have been treating parental alienation for over ten years now and have worked with more alienated children than I care to count. I have also been writing, talking, training and arguing the case for the right way to treat parental alienation for as many years as I have been working with the problem. As the issue enters mainstream consciousness, now more than ever is the time to speak and clearly. Another generation of children’s health and wellbeing depends upon it.
The international evidence is clear on how to deal with the problem, the delivery of support to families which is underpinned by that evidence is equally clear and successful. Though it may make those risk averse practitioners who want the problem to fit their existing model, anxious, the truth of the matter is that the problem of parental alienation will never be properly dealt with and resolved or eradicated until the following issues are addressed.
- The underlying power dynamic which gives the unwell parent the control over the psychological self of the child is the core dynamic which must be dealt with.
- The reality that many alienating parents have personality disorders or problematic psychological profiles, means that they are non responsive to therapy.
- Parental alienation is not a parental rights issue, it is a mental health issue which causes harm to the child and as such it is a child protection issue.
- Not all children’s resistance to a relationship with a parent after separation is an alienation reaction, leading to the necessity for clearly defined models of differentiation which should only be used by properly trained professionals.
- A transfer of residence is a gold standard approach which should be used with care after clear delineation of the problem to avoid transferring the problem with the child.
- A child who remains in a position to choose whether they will see a parent or not is a child who remains alienated and affected by the underlying problem of psychological splitting. Any treatment which leaves a child in this position is abusive to the child and not successful.
- Treatment of parental alienation is not a long drawn out process, does not require desensitisation and does not require the rejected parent to do anything other than continue to be the good enough parent that they already are. Treatment which requires the rejected parent to change is not treatment for parental alienation and should be avoided always.
- Anyone training other practitioners to work with alienated children and their families should have demonstrable success in reuniting children with parents and eivdence of direct work with alienated children.
- Wholesale generic training to family services is not something which will bring about the eradication of the problem of parental alienation, which will exist regardless of how many initiatives or strategies to make it illegal are introduced. Parental alienation is a mental health problem and mental health problems largely do not respond to rules and regulations but to the emotional drives and schema of the unwell parent.
- Parental alienation as an issue, is properly located in the field of children’s mental health.
Fortunately, though I can sound despondent, I am also hopeful. Hopeful because of the group of legal and mental health professionals we are working with who truly understand the problem and who know that the evidence base of successful outcomes using international standards, is growing apace. Already we have demonstrated success in England and Wales, where CAFCASS and CAFCASS Cymru Guardians have worked with us to bring about swift and significant change for children, none of which was about fitting the problem into a safe and approved model of work but about matching our interventions based on international evidence to the problem. We do not offer family therapy as standard, we do not offer lengthy open ended interventions and we do not seek to change the rejected parent in order to appease the alienator. What we do is assess and address the power dynamic, understanding who has power over the child, how it is held and maintained and how it can be diffused. We use a partnership approach with the legal framework, seeking to have the Judge hold the framework firm whilst we do the work of reuniting the child. And then we do a piece of work with all members of the family in order to establish the child within a family framework in which the child is helped to build resilience and the previously alienating parent is monitored, assessed and supported to change, if change is possible. If it is not possible, either because of longer term deeper mental health problems, we protect the child’s right to live their remaining childhood in unconscious enjoyment whilst helping them to maintain a safe relationship with the risky parent. If necessary we will advocate complete protection from a parent to preserve the child’s right to unconscious enjoyment of their childhood. We do this because we know that damage that alienation does and the damage that continued exposure to an alienating parent whose behaviour remains unmoderated, can do.
Children first. And not a single part of what we do relies upon children’s wishes and feelings. This is because we know that in parental alienation cases, the wishes and feelings of the child are not their own but those of the unwell parent who is using the child as a conduit for the furthering of their own agenda. At times this is an unconscious agenda, in that the parent is mentally unwell and unable to understand that what they are doing, at others it is a conscious one, in which mental health problems coexist with a cold and ruthless determination to renact a trauma pattern. Either way, parental alienation is not an issue of high conflict and it is not an issue concerned with a parent’s right to have a relationship with a child. It is a serious mental health and child protection issue, it is extremely difficult to work with and it is never helped by anyone having some kind of therapy.
In the battle for Britain’s alienated children, don’t let the zeitgeist fool you, we are nowhere near the eradication of the problem. In truth, the battle to get the problem of parental alienation properly recognised and responded to ( instead of dumbed down and ultimately dismissed), has only really just begun.
Garber, B D. Cognitive Behavioural Methods in High Conflict Divorce: Family Court Review, Vol.53 No 1, January 2015 96-112