The quick and the slow

Quick_SlowThe usual view of how Alienation starts and stops is that it is a long-drawn out process … years to create and years to repair. But read Richard Warshak and others, and the clear picture is that PA can start and stop in a matter of days.

The quick and slow give us quite different ways to go.

The slow

For an account of painstakingly slow starting and unstoppable endurance of Alienation, Myrna Gower’s account of Rob and his family (with famous help added too) is enough to see the slow picture. She further updated it too. There are many sources of advice about how long the road is before a rejected parent may have to wait for their child to return. If at all.

Mostly (see e.g. Karen Woodall’s here) – and with good reasoning for sure – these describe why it is important not to either give up, nor to challenge the children or situation in the way that would be most natural to do to counter the Alienating influences.

There are hundreds of stories of ‘slow’. Adults tell us their Alienation stories – as in 
Amy Baker’s famous book, and as in PACT’s 35 minute video.  Even by a Judge’s own admission, a court case can take the whole of a child’s childhood and still to fail. See Justice Munby’s guilt trip with [2004] EWHC 727 (Fam):

… Those who are critical of our family justice system may well see this case as exemplifying everything that is wrong with the system. I can understand such a view. The melancholy truth is that this case illustrates all too uncomfortably the failings of the system. There is much wrong with our system and the time has come for us to recognise that fact and to face up to it honestly. … Responsible voices are raised in condemnation of our system. We need to take note. We need to act. And we need to act now. [Written over a decade ago].

The quick

Read Pamela Roche’s harrowing family story in Broken Lives Broken Minds and you will see how – in a matter of weeks – her sons not only got Alienated from her by their father in the USA, but (one of them) got so disturbed that he was given severe diagnoses and treatments too. Had the US courts and professionals done any kind of competent job, it would probably have been ended as quickly. But, pending a recent update, this has not turned into one of those quick repair and reunification stories.

Read Moira’s story in Warshak’s ‘Note to the Reader’ in his 2010 edition of Divorce Poison. If you read only one thing about PA, Moira’s story should be it. As a psychotherapist now, she tells the inside story of her Alienation as a child with special insight. Moira was eleven when her parents separated. Her mother’s influence was quick to see, but the Alienation took longer to get going. Warshak highlights her use of the word ‘trance’ to describe the strange “robotic” state of both actively going along with her mother’s “brainwashing” rejection of her father, at the same time as having suspended knowledge of her good relationship with her father. Later in the book he likens the induction of trance to how a hypnotist does it. It may not take long to do that. Years of counselling did nothing for Moira’s depression etc as a girl.

The respectful challenge

Screen Shot 2017-11-27 at 12.36.55Eventually, when she was seventeen, her father approached her and “said that he was hurt by my constant rejection of him and that he felt as though I was being coached to hate him, and was being told things that were not true. He then asked me how I thought he felt in all of this. … my father’s direct but respectful confrontation of our relationship broke that trance instantly.” Moira suggests that her father, who had been careful not to badmouth her mother back, should not have waited so long to challenge things as he did.

In another added Afterword at the end of the book, Warshak features his teaming up with Deirdre and Randy Rand’s successful two-day Family Bridges approach to reunifying a rejected parent and child. For sure this may happen at the end of a very long legal process, but the ordinary fun education about how people are influenced in ordinary ways, is usually remarkably quick given how long and intense the rejection has been. So again, a clear description of ‘quick’. This description of a child’s quick return to healthy attachment with the previously rejected parent – and improved general functioning too – is increasingly found in other reversals of custody.

Another example of ‘quick’ – though in the context of assessment, not lasting reunification – is in Dr Kirk Weir’s review (2011) of his case experience (in Family Court Journal) to show in “Intractable contact disputes – the extreme unreliability of children’s ascertainable wishes and feelings.”  A more internationally known version is in the Family Court Review. He assessed a child for a couple of hours – two hours is quite ‘quick’ isn’t it?! – with the parent the child had verbally so rejected and found their behaviour clearly and genuinely positive on actually meeting.


The questions

Both the quick and the slow explanation of how Alienation gets induced seem reasonable. And the quick and the slow view towards repair and reunification too. This is one of those things that must be different in different cases and people. That’s not a surprise. So here’s the questions:

  • How do you / we know which situation fits which pattern: slow or quick?
  • How do you know if it’s worth the challenge?
  • How do we work out the best way to make that challenge?

Nick Child, Edinburgh


About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.


  1. Pamela Roche ‘Broken Lives Broken Minds’

    Yes, indeed children can be alienated very quickly from a matter of weeks or even days by powerful adults. I have mentioned this in my book. My ex-husband HAD to alienate them quickly because he only saw them sporadically once a year for 3 weeks. He dripped in the poison on every holiday visit and after every return from a holiday visit I notice a dramatic change in their behaviour towards me. After, a few days, back home with me they were back to their normal selves – AS LONG AS THEY WERE AWAY FROM HIM. One of the reasons, I lost the case in court was because the Judge, GAL etc. did not believe it was possible to alienate children so quickly despite what my expert witness was trying to persuade them otherwise.

    As for re-unification too, this can be done quickly as well -also within days. There are now residential care centres for this. However, our expert witness explained that this used to be done in hotel rooms and the victims would snap out of their trance within a matter of days as mentioned above very much like removing people from a cult. The main thing is to get them OUT of there and and whole thing bursts like a bubble. PAS children are exactly the same as adults trapped in a cult and under the influence of powerful mind control. The main thing is to remove them from the household where the PA is being perpetrated and it can all fall apart within days.

    Also, another piece of useful information I learnt through my expert witness is that children are most vulnerable to being influenced by alienation are between the ages of 9 and 12s year old. That’s not, of course, to say that it does not occur at other ages.

    Hope this helps.


    • Thanks Pamela. Great to have your voice here on the alienation experience following up on your own vivid published story of your family’s alienation experiences.

      I would just note – I’m sure you’d agree – that one vivid story does not mean all stories are the same. It is hard for all of us to remember – especially those who have had direct evidence from their own suffering – and it requires great expertise to do … but each unique family’s situation needs to be assessed in its own right. You described how your young boys did need to be taken fully out of their alienating situation to recover.

      But Warshak’s telling of Moira’s story is different. She showed how she didn’t need to be removed from her alienating situation to change her thinking. What worked for her – at the right time and in the right way – was her father’s ‘simple’ but careful challenge that brought her out of her trance. She suggests doing that earlier would have been good. Others might suggest she should have been removed earlier too – but that’s not such a simple matter to assess and achieve!


  2. Pamela Roche

    Yes, Nick, Moira’s story sounds a really happy outcome to an alienation story and I must read it to get the full picture. I totally agree that a challenge is the perfect and less traumatic solution for all parties concerned. I tried a challenge with Michael at 17 but it backfired on me dreadfully as he was still very under the influence of his father and I realised within minutes that this was not going to work and he was so guilt ridden he couldn’t handle it at all. So, there comes is the question of when do you dare make that challenge?
    The other problem is that many alienated parents don’t even get near an opportunity to challenge because they are not allowed to see their children anyway!!

    Yes, definitely, every alienation story is different but as we all know the happy endings are few and far between at the moment. It sounds like Moira’s story had a good ending resulting in reunification with her father – although very sorry to hear about her depression during the years beforehand as a girl. Hardly surprising with what she went through.


  3. The stories that we hear about if we’re interested in Alienation may not have many happy endings, Pamela. I agree. But at risk of being annoyingly pernickety, we cannot know how many more happy endings there might be out there.

    It’s one of those unknowns (so far) how many families and children suffer a degree of Alienation and it gets sorted sooner or not much later. Don’t we all know how often, when we talk about it, people we talk to say “Oh I know someone like that”. And, yes, usually those are also ongoing stories without a happy ending. And yes, my guess is that there are also likely to be way more unhappy endings that we haven’t heard about yet.

    But inevitably those cases where there has been a happy ending will not come to our notice as much as those that don’t.

    Another annoying academic habit when you start using labels and defining them is that cases where the Alienation is more short lived will maybe not count in a definition of hard-end labelled Alienation. By definition hard-end Alienation will probably require the pattern to have lasted for ‘more than X months or years’ and / or to have ‘resisted Z efforts to change it’. Already we have to sort out circumstances that complicate it, e.g. as in justified rejection. But in hybrid cases there is still some added Alienation mixed in that good assessment and family work takes on board.

    Labels are a mixed blessing. I used to be a psychiatrist, so I know! I prefer ways that have us assess each case properly on its own merits bearing in mind a knowledge of Alienation, but not getting caught up in arguments (in court) about whether it is or is not a true case of Alienation. I know that in the USA, which you know best, courts and everyone do focus on proving a defined category as the basis of decision-making.

    It will take a few more years of nit-picky research to know more about these “how many are there?” questions. Until then we will always have a biased collection of the unhappy endings – enough to know that it needs to be taken really seriously.

    And I apologise for this irritating academic response to such human tragedy. Please please do keep the humanity going here. After all we’re called ‘the alienation experience’ not ‘the science of alienation’! 🙂


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