The dangers of a little learning

How do we know when learning is too little, too much, or just enough? Working with a general clientele, and teaching ordinary helping professions about Child and Parental Alienation (PA), I have been trying to develop attractive, compact learning with key practitioner points to take away. Eric Carle’s Hungry Caterpillar is exactly how I feel – voraciously eating through books to form a chrysalis that will turn Alienation into a butterfly!

TeachingScreen Shot 2015-05-17 at 11.36.18

For introductory teaching I ask people to read my concise but comprehensive overview as preparatory homework. That’s called Off-putting relationships: essentials of Child AlienationAnyone can access it here: I hope to keep improving those 16 pages so they compress a huge field into a readable length. And yet I hope they provide enough learning to be useful – not too little, simplistic or dangerous.

My aims in all of this are limited:

  • to attract a wider interest and awareness,
  • to increase and to broaden the use of the word alienation to desensitise those who are really allergic to using it,
  • to educate all helping professions enough in an introductory way, and
  • to help raise a public general knowledge too.
  • On its own, I don’t expect this to prevent or solve many actual problems.

See footnotes for one version of minimal practitioner points I have used for clinical colleagues to take away. Obviously a lot more learning than the overview is required for those professionals who are going to specialise in PA work. I just aim to network, study and teach it.

A little learning was certainly dangerous in my hands for most of my life in child psychiatry and in family therapy. With minimal awareness and plain prejudiced ignorance I dismissed a developing body of knowledge about Alienation. I don’t know how much direct damage I caused anyone, but I certainly did not help some who needed it. Even more belatedly, I am aware that simple ignorance of PA is just a part of a wider professional, academic and policy culture which does nothing to learn properly about nor to prevent PA. More of that to come in future.

Making up for these failures during my own career, I now say it is mandatory for all helping professionals to learn enough about alienation in general and PA in particular. It is especially important for those who come into contact with separating families, and even more so if there are children involved. PA must be spotted and not worsened – we know there is a risk of serious harm to the children. As for all risk, all professionals need to know how to take steps to respond appropriately.  Too little knowledge or even active ignorance is going to be dangerous for children and clients – expensive in every way. So professionals must know about PA. That is sadly a long and uphill road.

Meanwhile though …

What do we tell clients?

There are some clients who have been and would be hugely helped by being told about PA. They are the ones who are well into a PA situation, have not got much chance of solutions, and are miserably puzzled by what on earth has happened to them and their family. For clients who are stuck in the PA corner with no collaborative options left, then it can be a huge relief and support to be pointed to the explanation, field and resources found under that label, PA.

It is best of course to point those clients to the resources that are more nuanced, balanced and helpful. If PA becomes just another weapon in polarising conflict, it is going to make things worse than they already are. At its best, for them, a little knowledge will lead to at least some comfort and understanding and probably lots more avid learning. A little learning for them may lead to a lot of good learning. Or it may lead to some bad learning too.

But – and this seems rather paternalistic – there are some clients in a general service or more specialised (e.g. mediation) practice, even some clients who are separated and describing some fairly PA-shaped patterns – who may NOT, I think, be helped at that delicate moment to be pointed to learn more about PA. For them, I think it can be bad for them in several ways. To offer them the PA alternative frame of reference

  • could detract from and probably stop what positive collaborative work they had been trying to do with their ex- for their children’s benefit.
  • would give them a time-consuming, morale- and energy-sapping load of reading and thinking to do. And (if they do read it all properly)
  • they will learn that there are few easy other positive answers anyway at the end of it.

For these clients – parents who are still working at a fair chance of a collaborative solution – at that point in their journey (and especially for their children), a little knowledge of PA may well be dangerous. They won’t have time or interest for more than the little learning that distracts them from the most important task.

A less paternalistic approach

I don’t like paternalism. It goes against my lifelong campaign for demystifying the professions. It goes against the idea of healthy open information and respect for individual thinking and choice. If it’s all on the internet anyway, you might say, surely everyone can find out? So why not make them aware of it?

But the paternalistic position I described above is very familiar to me as a doctor. You have to ‘dose’ what you say as well as the prescription of pills. In medicine, I had to learn ‘everything’ in the textbooks. By learning everything, the doctor hopes to be able to see medical things in fuller perspective. But that doesn’t mean you pour it all out in full detail to every patient. It is still a careful decision what you say to the particular patient in front of you about their symptoms and what it might be they are suffering from. You cannot teach the patient in five minutes what it takes a doctor many years to learn maturely. Nor can you, in the internet era, teach the patient how to critically appraise what they find from a Google search.

For example, the doctor may think about the possibility that a patient has cancer and will do some tests for that. But mention of cancer is not something the doctor lightly or routinely tells the patient until and unless it seems right to tell them.

So there is a debatable responsibility on all competent professionals to know lots, but not to tell their clients everything all the time. I think this applies to PA too. This helps me understand why, for example, that Family Mediators both do know quite a bit about PA, but at the same time do not want to bring it actively into their collaborative work with clients. They even avoid putting it into their literature (eg websites). Should collaborative or ordinary family lawyers mention PA? I think the same carefully discriminating approach is needed.

A less paternalistic approach (for clients actively involved in collaborative work) would be saying something like: “I’m not sure how helpful this will be for you just now, but I think I should let you know that there is a pattern called Child and Parental Alienation that you might want to know about. The reasons I think it may be unhelpful are: It demands a lot of time and energy to get your head round it all. I think you can’t really spare that time  just now. Even if you did, you are unlikely to find other solutions there. And it might distract you from doing the one important thing that you are already doing – focusing on working something out more collaboratively with your ex- about your children if at all possible.

But mentioning it at all is going to get the client worrying and thinking and reading. So we are back to what the professional judges is best, and best timing, for the client. And of course that means that the professional has to be skilled at assessing their client at whatever point they are at … are they more in the “tell them about PA” group, or more in the “don’t mention it” group?

So who should learn what about PA?

1. I think the world in general should raise and spread awareness of alienation and Child and Parental Alienation (PA).

2. All helping professionals should know some solid basics about PA. Most of us are liable to work with families, couples, or individuals who are in families or separated families. So ‘all’ does mean ALL helping professionals in social, psychological, relationship, counselling, therapy and mental health related work. And ‘all’ means ALL in the family law professions too. And ‘all’ includes all the literature and guidelines and policy documents that do not presently mention PA – or maybe only mention it to dismiss it. We can argue in due course about the details of what goes into a basic learning. By learning more, professionals will then know better themselves what the issues are, what to do or recommend to clients, and who better to refer them to.

2. Some clients too will find the PA knowledge very helpful and essential to know about. They should be told.

3. Other clients should not be pointed to the label or field of PA at a point when they may be delicately poised to find a better collaborative solution. At that point, they shouldn’t be told.

So, in summary, as for many fields of complex knowledge – and even though the internet provides everyone with access to the whole world’s knowledge about everything – it is still true that a little learning can be dangerous. We need to be careful and discriminating in how we assess what each client and family needs at any point in their journey.

Of course, professionals now also need to know how to work with clients who have read huge amounts on the internet, and who may therefore actually know much more than the professional, or they may think they know much more.

Professionals need to learn more about PA. Some clients do need to know. Other clients – at some points in the process – may do better not to learn a little or a lot.

The earliest original quote (1698; see footnote) describes the right amount of learning because it is better than fanaticism. It is a good way to end this blogpost:  A little knowledge is apt to puff up, and make men giddy, but a greater share of it will set them right, and bring them to low and humble thoughts of themselves.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Footnotes: Origin of “a little learning”

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) in An Essay on Criticism (1709) first wrote that a little learning is a dangerous thing. Later that was misquoted as ‘a little knowledge’. But an earlier author did use the word ‘knowledge’ and put the point even better. In 1698 ‘AB’ noted in The mystery of phanaticism“Twas well observed by my Lord Bacon, That a little knowledge is apt to puff up, and make men giddy, but a greater share of it will set them right, and bring them to low and humble thoughts of themselves.”

Alienation: NC’s Main Points for Practitioners

  • Even if you hate the A word, go past labels to learn about it
  • It’s not weird, just extremes of normal relationship spectrums
  • It’s serious: emotional child abuse, expensive
  • Best theoretical framework is Attachment not gender
  • Most services won’t see or be able to change extreme PA families
  • But we can keep aware and spot it – watch for typical features
  • If you see one client / side, avoid promoting Alienation, so:
  • Do not swallow whole your client’s compelling story
  • Remember to bear in mind or meet the other ‘sides’
  • Prioritise the child’s welfare & remember how influenced they are
  • Knowing about Alienation hugely helps some clients, but not others


About Nick Child

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


  1. Very good Nick, Well done. I agree with everything you have written here. what hit me hard is ‘So Professionals need to know about PA. That is sadly a long uphill road’ I know that is true and indeed very sad because there are going to be so many casualties along the road until there is more public awareness about PA. I also know that people do not like the word alienation, they find it distasteful for some reason. It is what it is and has been around for years long before Richard Gardner coined it as a syndrome in the 80’s which is what it is in it’s extreme form often seen in high-conflict divorces. I mustn’t use the word ‘Syndrome’ God forbid!! To believe that one parent is not capable of turning a child and poisoning them against an ex-spouse is naive to say the least. How else do people want to describe it? I understand that they want to use less offensive words like ‘the children’s behaviour’ and it is listed now in the DSMV as something else which I can’t remember the exact wording now but remember thinking that it was not clearly defined but I guess better than nothing. To hate the ‘A’ word is like saying sociopaths don’t exist, evil doesn’t exist, fraud, greed, lies. murderers or anything distasteful does not exist in this world but we all know that it does. That is what prisons are for to protect our society from all of this and keep us safe. Our children need to be kept safe from the dreaded ‘A’ word because the psychological effects are devastating for them and last well into adult hood. So for those professionals who do understand the ‘A’ word they have to keep plodding away and spreading the word until this phenomenon is fully accepted by the courts and psychologists/psychiatrists. There is obviously a lot of work to be done!!


  2. Yes, it is sad that “there is a lot of work to be done” to get all professionals to be, well er … more professional!

    Just to echo a couple of your comments, the way I put it in my Overview (p1) is that “off-putting things often have off-putting names.

    And to add to the DSM comment (in a Footnote in the Overview – V is used both to mean “5” as in DSMV, and here it’s a subcategory of the classificatory system, not one of the main Disorders):

    The syndrome continues to be included in DSM as one option under the V Code: V61.20 Parent-Child Relational Problem – “Unresolved parental conflict (ie the constant devaluing of one parent by the other) in divorced or estranged families resulting in parental alienation syndrome.” V61.21: child neglect and abuse, might also be an option. Although PAS is accepted as legitimate to some, DSM 5 considered that more research was needed before it merited the category of a Psychiatric Disorder.

    Liked by 1 person

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