A rose by any other name …

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 14.45.20

From van Lawick & Visser’s paper on their ‘No kids in the middle’ project.

… would smell as sweet?! Alienation is more prickly than sweet! … There are lots of reasons why we need a name for the pattern commonly called Parental Alienation. Some people do great work with Alienated children and families but without using that label. So you won’t find their good work by Googling ‘Alienation’.  We want to feature two important papers on Alienation by another name. They go under our radar because they don’t use our word for it.

First though, there is already a very well known different name for Alienation … under which some very well known work with Alienated families has been described. Richard Warshak gives us his striking informal alternative name: Divorce Poison. It’s certainly been good at getting attention in the market place.

Why don’t we use that term more? Well, ‘divorce’ doesn’t include other family separation. Maybe Warshak’s is a more neutral description of general misery for the whole family? But divorce poison – like Parental Alienation too – may picture one person doing the poisoning of someone else. So both terms carry the victim / blame picture. Poisoning sounds very medical, but otherwise ‘divorce poison’ doesn’t sound scientific enough to be taken seriously, does it? No label can convey both the one-sided-ness, as well as the subtler complexity of the pattern.

Incidentally, this victim / blame thing is why many professionals don’t like any of these terms. Maybe we should categorise PA / Divorce Poison along with other Child Abuses which are very widely accepted … despite the term Child Abuse meaning that there is a victim and perpetrating to sort out. It is widely recognised that PA is emotional abuse of the children … if you need any proof, just look up at that 7-year old’s drawing. The implied perpetrator in PA though would need to not be just one culpable individual, not even both parents. The perpetrator in PA is a more collective adult system – a collective culpability that includes legal and other professional and social agencies too. Read the van Lawick & Visser paper for how the wider social system can actually be involved in making things better.

Anyway, here’s the less well-known papers you might miss without our familiar tag on them.

David Pitcher: ‘Do you see what I see?’

David Pitcher’s (2010) paper: ‘Do you see what I see?’ Thinking about contact in high conflict cases. David is an experienced social worker, CAFCASS worker, family court advisor in Plymouth, and honorary social work advisor to the Grandparents’ Association. This paper was published in the unsung but valuable Journal of NAGALRO, Seen and Heard. NAGALRO is the professional association for children’s guardians, family court advisors and independent social workers. David’s paper is worth reading for his wise clear thinking and the richly told case stories. Anyone who works with actual families knows that it is best to leave aside the labels and get on with something more productive. David’s case descriptions show us how and why that may work best.

Good CAFCASS work doesn’t get reported as much as the bad does. So it is important to see that CAFCASS is both a good idea in principle and in practice too, when done well by well trained experienced practitioners. Finally David reminds us of the value there is in some older therapy-thinkers and writers that we tend to dismiss or forget. For example, he refers to Ivan Bozormenyi-Nagy. It’s Hungarian and hard to pronounce! Once I had puzzled the pronunciation out with my Dutch colleague, I discovered that this early family therapist thinker is also valued by family mediators in Holland now.

Justine van Lawick & Margreet Visser: No kids in the middle

And the second paper comes from Holland. It is about the No kids in the middle project. The English version of their paper is in the Australian & NZ Journal of Family Therapy, 36 – the whole issue is on dialogical approaches and it’s freely available on line. Justine and Margreet’s paper is: No kids in the middle. Dialogical and creative work with parents and children in the context of high conflict divorces. This is another rich realistic straight-talking description of hard work with challenging Alienated family situations. They are clearly working with some long-established and highly resistant clients. They put a lot of work into creating a space where something else than polarised conflict happens. Featuring the children’s expressed experience as the best way for parents to see how to do better for them, echoes the similarly dedicated approaches ‘in the shadow of the courts’ in Australia. They do not claim that the help worked with everyone. They ensure a strong boundary with the escalating effects of legal processes. That boundary is also a key feature of family mediation and collaborative divorce.

As usual we cannot know how intractable the cases are that Justine and Margreet are working with. They exclude clients who are involved in ongoing legal processes. So that selects the most intractable out. There are families where wild horses would have no more success than their children and project therapists in getting them into the same building to work together. One country’s ‘intractable’ probably means something else in another country. Justine and Margreet explain why they do not go along with the local CAMHS when they use ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’ labels. Those in the PA field have equally debated the pros and cons of the original PAS label.  Here’s a bit of what they do:

In the No kids in the middle project we try to find new roads that create a context for movement out of deadlock for these families. We try to create a dialogical space where rigid, destructive processes can be made more flexible and dialogical for parents, children and the professionals who work with them. We work with six families at a time. Twelve parents work with two therapists and, at the same time, all their children work with two therapists in a different room in the same building. Participants in both groups attend eight two-hour sessions, with a scheduled mid-session break. Key principles for the project include: keeping the child in mind; working in groups; stopping legal processes; making free space for interactions; creative presentation ceremonies; and reaching out to the network. 

Families come to this project just because this is the very last hope for them. Nothing else has worked. In an adaptation of a multi-family group approach – where we know how much more direct and effective families and children are than the therapists can be – workers offer the families something quite different to their usual argument, analysis, attempted agreement stuff that has never worked anyway. They offer sustained positive appeals to the parents to help make it work, and experiences that can only work with more than one family. They involve the wider families too (since the wider family can otherwise block progress). It is moving and beautiful to read of what can happen as the families group realises anew what they and we all know about the harm and pain their children are going through.

It strikes us again and again how well the parents can express what the children feel when they are in the small chairs as children of fighting parents. …

Tom (in a group with his ex- and with other parents too): I cannot tell you about a memory because I have not seen my daughter for four years now, because she [the other parent] has made me a monster in the eyes of Iris.

Therapist: I hear you telling us that you have not seen your daughter for four years, and how painful that experience is for you. But maybe you can share with us a wonderful experience with Iris that occurred before that time?

Tom: [silent for some time]: … I think of the day she was born, the best day of my life. [He bursts into tears. The whole group is touched by his sorrow. Even the mother of Iris seems to be confused.]

Celebrating roses by any name

So do read these two papers. If we want to find actual help for Parental Alienation, then we may find it under a different heading. Let’s celebrate and use these roses by whatever other names they may be called.

The contexts these people work in – David Pitcher in England, and van Lawick and Visser in Holland – are each unique and depend on the country and culture they are in, and the experience, skills and reputation of the workers. This is about how we help families as they suffer now – we cannot turn the clock back and have them make different life decisions, have the laws and culture and benefits systems and the courts all behave differently.  Those big changes are what will prevent much more trouble in the future than therapy can solve. If you have followed Karen Woodall’s long journey, you will see that her anger and grief has been in trying to change these bigger social systems, but finding they have knocked her back to the family work instead. Big system change is the big answer, but big systems know how to keep their power.

Meanwhile though, working with ongoing cases and learning from that work is important too.  It is unlikely that any simple transferable standardised package of help will work with something as complex and challenging as PA. Unlike the labels that get used for illness and disorders, this troubled pattern is never likely to have a single labeled treatment or therapy. We noted last time how Karen Woodall’s approach to family work sets aside name-calling to make way for more useful things. It will always require particular people to do special dedicated work within their own neck of the woods. And a wide range of different strokes for different folks is needed. The label, Parental Alienation, covers a vastly diverse range of particular predicaments.

Just because they don’t want to use familiar terms like Alienation, doesn’t mean the work is somehow faulty, irrelevant and to be dismissed. This kind of extraordinary dedicated actual work with families is where some of the answers are going to come for the problems that get us so vexed and vocal. This work reminds us that real work with families does well to leave aside the labels that are so important in other ways.

Do let us know here of any other approaches you’ve come across that may go under the radar if you forget they won’t all be labelled Alienation.

Nick Child, Edinburgh


David Pitcher (2010) ‘Do you see what I see?’ Thinking about contact in high conflict cases. Seen and Heard, 20 (3), pp 38-51

About Nick Child

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

One comment

  1. Amber

    Domestic violence by proxy.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: