A striking case of alienation by a non-resident parent

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 15.55.38Read the interesting personal case story in the Guardian – an unusual Parental Alienation pattern and a good opportunity for us to raise PA awareness.

The case is unusual in that the non-resident father seems to have done quite a few dastardly things to get back at his ex-wife … including coached the young children to make false allegations against her new partner. So it looks like – and is! – a story that chimes in with the dominant “all men are bastards” culture around us.

But it also gets a wide readership half the way to see why alienation by anyone is really awful and harmful. So it is a chance to get them to complete the other half of that journey! It’s worth reading in full because it provokes a range of emotions and responses that require to be thought through carefully.

There are also loads of interesting comments from lots of people on the Guardian web page. Below is the response I made there.

It seems to me that we need to carefully and actively use this kind of widely public opportunity to publicise our concerns and raise awareness of PA. What do you think? You can comment below on any aspect of this case, or the issue of how we broaden the interest so that we reach the unconverted rather than just preach to the converted.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

~ ~ ~ ~

Nick’s Comment on Jo Barrell’s story in the Guardian.

As a mental health professional, I’ve recently become especially interested in child and parental alienation. See this concise but comprehensive review designed for a UK context: http://tinyURL.com/NickChildPA. And see this active weblog too:http://thealienationexperience.org.uk
Jo Barrell’s story is unusual in that the alienation is done by the non-resident parent (indirectly) against the resident one/s. That and the other traumatic if not criminal intrusions into the children’s main home and family, make it seem worse than the many more usual cases of longstanding alienation.
We know how serious any ongoing alienation can be for children even more than it is for the parents, who are naturally about as abidingly stressed and traumatised as it is possible to get. So this terrible story should raise a more general concern for ALL alienation cases. Don’t take it just to confirm the “all men are evil” assumptions that dominate just now. Please take your interest further by visiting those links above.
I would underline several of the other comments made above.
T is a non-resident parent doing the alienating – and in a nasty indirect way via the new partner in his ex-‘s family. Usually it’s the resident parent who shapes the child to reject the other parent without good reason to do so. The shaping up is not always done as strategically and wilfully as T seems to have done it.
Because the main resident parents are more often mothers, then it is often the father who is being rejected. This leads to the mistaken view that alienation is really just a woman’s way to protect herself and her children from an abusive ex-male partner. But alienation happens with any genders … even with same sex ex-partners.
You cannot come to final conclusions or judgements about complex stories like this one without a full and proper assessment. It sounds like someone did that well enough in this case – though that doesn’t mean it was any less awful to go through.
Often cases of alienation are not handled well by anyone – family, professionals, or courts. That’s because people are not aware enough of the counter-intuitive way that alienation can present – the child strongly rejecting or hatefully accusing, without good reason, because of a mixture of being shaped up to do that. But actually that child is one the one who is liable to suffer most harm, and it is their favoured parent who may be doing most of that damage. No one finds it easy to get the hang of that.
Jo’s story shows how destructively easy it is to put false allegations into play – but that is because we are equally concerned to make sure that true allegations of risk are properly assessed and acted on. So of course no assumptions can be made about whether allegations are true or false – they all need to be dealt with promptly and properly.

Nick Child, Edinburgh Retired child psychiatrist and family therapist

About Nick Child

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


  1. Alienated Parent

    Nick, no one listens to this unless/until it happens to them. The alienated parents going through it now might as well shrivel up and die — less painful all around. You never know where the next blow is going to come from. It is often from the “well-meaning” who look exasperated and roll their eyes when you tell them your story. They have no idea the further damage they do. I consider them the unknowing devil’s henchmen.

    Another little pointer here. Children of any age might still speak to an alienated parent, even in the throes of vicious and contrived hatred, especially if they want something. So do not take “communication” as a sign that it is all over and they are back on track. Not necessarily so. My daughter comes along nicely to collect the gifts on special occasions, and then goes back immediately to shouting foul insults at me. I don’t think you have really described on this site the vast cruelty that parentally-alienated kids are capable of against the innocent targeted parent. It gets so bad at times as to be unbelievable. You might be better off with a biker gang after you.

    And I will reiterate — Attachment-based Parental Alienation is about mental illness. The alienating parent has a Cluster B Personality Disorder. I can’t emphasize that enough — it is the crux of understanding this hugely counter-intuitive issue. You are dealing with an alienating parent who is operating out of psychotic delusion, even though they may go to work every day and drive a car and function normally in several respects. In terms of close relationships, they are delusional. See the Canadian Agnes Whitfield case for an example of Shared Psychosis of another type. She was a functioning university professor, until she faltered.


    • Thanks for your comment, Alienated Parent.

      I’m sure that what you say feels or is true for you and your case. And for sure when anyone is a victim of something this terrible you’re naturally going to feel and believe what is true for you … all the way to wanting to execute a few people at dawn! But I don’t agree that anything in life is so categorically simple as to be universally one thing, one way to see it, one viewpoint and that’s it for everyone.

      I agree PA can be serious and certainly harmful to the kids. And I agree that Attachment-based approaches are powerfully useful in understanding. But there are many Attachment approaches and the ones I value go behind all the demonising MH and personality labels to understand what goes on, and even what makes the perpetrators like they are. Pat Crittenden in her DM Model, for example, says that if your formulation of a family situation requires there to be an evil baddy as part of your explanation, then you’ve not gone far enough with your assessment and formulation of the whole system. That is not to say that intervention is replaced by therapy. It is to set ourselves on higher standards whose outcome, as we learn how to not merely take kids away from parents, but to see how far we can go to helping the more disturbed adults for their own sake, for the sake of any others they have relationships with, and of course so that there is a chance for their own children to have a safe and constructive understanding and relationship with both their own parents.

      Not easy. Not easy to even want to accept when you’re raging about it. But if we can do what we have to but not ‘kill’ a child’s parent off, then I suggest we are working to ensure as far as we can the best interests for that child.

      Nick, Edinburgh.


  2. Alienated Parent

    Nick, we are going to have to agree to disagree here. Most alienated parents are Empaths, who would have gone to the ends of the earth for their children — and very often did. You do not have to teach them about “the best interests of the child.” These parents could teach you. Problem is, no one ever looks out for even the slightest interests of the targeted parents themselves, who are being repeatedly kicked into the mud; they haven’t enough sense of Self left to do it for themselves, after years of marriage to a pathological Narcissist and then the utter horrors of severe parental alienation. Do you really know how bad it can become? I am not convinced that you do. Go to a few of the better internet forums for “Narcissistic Abuse,” and then imagine these violent and hurtful and betraying tactics being used again and again, by both a “beloved” spouse and child/children, against the unprotected Target Parent. Sometimes for years. Their lives are utterly torn apart, in every sense. And then you wag a finger at them for telling it like it is — just slightly — on a site that is supposed to be a safe venue for this “truth”?

    I think you might change your mind after some reflection on this. .


  3. Alienated Parent

    By the way, I read Pat Crittenden’s material, and I have corresponded with her. I have read all the luminaries too; every primary source text and paper related in any way to Parental Alienation, and Alienation in other forms as well. I am no neophyte, Nick. I do not agree that Pat Crittenden’s DM model is correct in explaining or dealing with PA, or even near-correct for this kind of scenario. Quite far from it, in fact.

    Sometimes, Nick, there are indeed “baddies” in life. Pretending that everyone is out for the good of everyone else is Magical Thinking. Would you give this advice to the victim of a murderer, for instance (not that they would be in any position to listen)? There are real victims and real predators in human life. I know you want to do the mediation thing here, because it seems noble, but frankly, then you become part of the problem, trying to force a perspective that you WISH were true, but is not. We must live in reality as opposed to wishful ideals about human beings.

    The lack of facing reality, alone, does a lot of harm to the Target Parent and the children. You must deal in actual Truth, in order to get anywhere. I am enormously cognizant of the needs and the wellbeing of the children involved, and in fact I have only recently begun to try to get a word in for the poor blighted Target Parents, who may not make it through life if someone does not show THEM some compassion too. Are you aware of the suicide rate in this population, to be blunt about it? The alienated children will really and truly have a problem with missing out on a parental relationship if the Target Parent is driven over the edge, won’t they? And too many of them are indeed very close to it. Show some empathy for this group, Nick! They have been framed to look bad by delusional spouses. Surely you must know that persons with BPD/NPD are notorious for making false allegations, though they have convinced themselves they are telling it like it is.

    I believe that one of the few “names” in this field who has a firm grasp on what is happening in Attachment-based Parental Alienation/Pathogenic Parenting is American Psychologist Craig Childress. And no, this is not his own theory. Quite the contrary. He goes back — like I have — to primary source literature in the field, and works through it, step by step. Like working a theorem in Geometry. He calls upon the work of Beck, Bowlby, Ainsworth, Minuchin, Tronick, Millon, Kohut, Kernberg, et al. The luminaries. The real ones. They understood Personality Disorders as Attachment Disorders, which they are. We are dealing with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder in almost every Alienating Parent, Nick. I am not sure why you would refute such a basic issue. Attachment-based Parental Alienation is about a mentally ill parent. It is NOT about two spouses who simply will not put in enough maturity or effort to get along. That is the wrong-headed thinking that causes such a great deal of harm in this field. Even the high-conflict lawyers have come out and stated that such clients are suffering from delusions, and have a mis-guided need to use their children as weapons against supposed enemies. Scapegoats, more like. Nick, you must know this!

    You are aware of the Karpman Drama Triangle — pathological Narcissists are terribly keen on using and abusing that handy little tool. It is THEY who wish to force someone else into the role of the “baddie,” whilst they themselves take the role of the protector, and make the child/children believe they have been the victim(s).

    I am not sure why you replied, above, as you did. If you are on the let-us-stop-Parental-Alienation-bandwagon at all, that is hardly a useful perspective. In fact, it just fans the flames. Pat Crittenden? She would be near my last choice as a sage in this particular situation. I gave her work a good try……she was nowhere near correct or helpful. And if she was, why didn’t she solve Attachment-based Parental Alienation long ago? Pat Crittenden is not at the start of her career, after all. And Attachment-based Parental Alienation is probably as old as mankind — we simply did not have a name for the condition before recent decades.

    My bet is on Craig Childress. He truly understands what is going on here, and as you say yourself, PA is very counter-intuitive. I think that most Alienated Parents devour what Dr. Childress has to say, and count on his guidance. He may be brusque, but obviously, counting only on someone’s idea of civility has not done much to solve Parental Alienation, has it? Appeasement rarely works. Craig Childress is more like the Churchill of this field.


  4. Thanks again Alienated Parent. It is great to have a range of views in our Comments in this blog.

    I think you’re right about our having to agree to disagree. It’s not that big a disagreement really. It’s about how valid and effective the use of heavy labels is .. at least in my arms length role in my part of the professional world based in Scotland and in the UK.

    I’ve raised this point with international colleagues – about how heavy labels are necessary and effective or not eg within the legal system in different countries.

    If I had much more time – or more, since these debates can become interminable – I might try to debate this further. I would need to be persuaded by those professionals who can explain how their thinking and approach works in their corner of the world for a range of cases not just the ones they deal with. You are very learned indeed, but it is still not the same as being a professional who has to deal with a number of different cases and even then only within one corner of the world and in one bit of the range of PA that needs understood and helped.

    And of course that discussion with PA professionals would take even more lifetimes of discussion online that I just don’t have the time for. I’m sorry about that. But again thanks for broadening the discussion here.


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