One of the hurdles we face in raising awareness of Child and Parental Alienation (PA) is that it is counter-intuitive in so many ways. We have to set aside lots of the stereotypes that shape our thinking.
Richard Warshak (2015) listed some of these in Ten parental alienation fallacies that compromise decisions in court and in therapy. Edward Kruk (2015) unpacks those further.
Steven Miller (2013) describes how PA’s counter-intuitives may defeat even an expert. Not only does a newcomer have to resist being put off by their first reaction, but they have to work harder to see what’s happening behind first appearances.
The challenge to be counter-intuitive is similar to the challenge of cognitive dissonance. As Leon Festinger described long ago (1957), those who invest heavily in a belief may, in the face of disconfirming evidence, go to great lengths to justify their old assumptions. We use the word ‘stereotype’ to describe engrained generalisations we impose where we shouldn’t.
Anna Raccoon gives a clear description of how this is so hard to avoid. She has a great name for it too: ‘Determinative Labelism‘. She describes …
our ability to conjure up a mental picture of a person and ascribe qualities to them based purely on words [and] labels. Try it yourself – ‘Mohammed Emwazi and Barnaby Carruthers-Smythe’. Got a picture of them both? I’ll bet you have. I’m prepared to bet that you might at a pinch ascribe characteristics to each of them. Absolutely no logical reason why; but it is almost impossible not to do.
Recent research by social psychologists, Jennifer Jill Harman and Zeynep Biringer, unpacks some of these most deeply engrained stereotypes – that we cannot resist using – about gender and families. A TED talk neatly shows how this explains some of the mistakes anyone can make with PA. Read their important book: Parents Acting Badly. The title implies that the same parents could ‘act well’. The long title tells you of the wider scope: How institutions and societies promote the alienation of children from their loving families. Society does this through powerful stereotypes. It’s published on Amazon.
Once you assemble the counter-intuitives, it becomes a very long list. It helps us see what an uphill struggle awareness-raising is. It’s such a challenge that, for most in the field, it has been personal experience of PA that pushes us without warning into the deep end of awareness. We wouldn’t get in the pool by choice when dozens of intuitions stand guard to warn us off.
Slow and fast thinking
The speed of different kinds of thinking provides another explanation for our habit of dismissing new information. Intuitive immediate reactions come fast. They blurt in and straight out. We just know they’re right. Back-tracking is hard. We can’t lose face.
They’re based on familiar fond habitual personal views, values and assumptions about the words and the world, as well as well-absorbed dominant cultures that influence and control our thinking. Daniel Kahneman compared how we use both fast and slow thinking. He showed how fast thinking can be useful but also leads us to make big mistakes. See the footnote for examples. Malcolm Gladwell (in his book David and Goliath) underlines the absolute importance of developing critical thinking, our:
“… ability to understand when something is more complex than it appears; to move past impulsive answers to deeper analytical judgments …”
Make the test harder – e.g. print it in faint grey – and more people get it right because you force them to slow down. Good critical thinking is essential especially for those who profess the quality of their thinking (academics and professionals) or who have power to make decisions in others’ lives (helping professionals, lawyers, judges and policy-makers).
Of course, our assumptions and intuitions might well be generally true for many or most situations. That is, they may be true for a statistical majority of cases. The key is to remember that ‘being generally true’ does not mean something is ALWAYS true. An open unprejudiced mind means being open to the exceptions to a rule. So opening up awareness of PA is a big challenge when there is such a long list of exceptions to the rules that dominate our thinking.
PA’s list of counter-intuitives
Here is one attempt at a list of commonly un-countered intuitions. Do suggest more through the Comment box below. They are all common powerful rules or assumptions we all tend to follow if we don’t think twice. Listed in this form, many assumptions look transparently wrong. They show, as Festinger and cognitive dissonance predict, that once we’re convinced we know what’s right, facts and reason are no great hindrance.
In PA all of these intuitions may or may not apply. We need to be able to counter our initial intuitions to grasp what’s going on – however true we think our intuitions are generally. In this list the last couple of intuitions are especially British ones.
- Close attachment in any relationship especially between parent and child must be a good thing – the closer the better.
- Distant non-attachment must be a sign that that relationship is (or has become) a bad one. So now distance from a parent must be a good thing.
- A resident parent can always be assumed to be a good safe better carer.
- A non-resident parent can always be assumed to be a bad unsafe worse carer.
- Family separation is generally not too distressing or harmful for the children. (Cf Otowa 2014).
- We all know that it is best for parents to collaborate and put the interests of their children first. We all hope that there will be collaborative solutions like mediation or therapy that all parents in conflict will sensibly use. So there is no need to bother at all with high conflict separations where collaborative methods just do not work.
- If one or other parent can’t or won’t use collaborative methods, we who know better don’t need to think any further. It’s the parents’ stupidity for not doing the collaboration that they should know is best.
- It’s always both parents who equally make high conflict, never one parent only who refuses to be collaborative.
- If a child says they’re fine, then we can be sure nothing is wrong for them. Children never cover anything up.
- Even though we know that all kinds of abuse are covered up, we just know from the reassurances given that what people call Parental Alienation is not real, serious, concerning or harmful to the child.
- Even though other abuses were widely disbelieved before they became widely known and accepted, we can be confident that this pattern is not another ignored abusive situation like the earlier ones were.
- Children may be vulnerable and influenced all the time by others, by parents, peers, school, by other adults, advertising and media. But in this, the most intensely stressful situation of their closest family attachments when going through separation, they’re not at all influenced. They’re affected, we know that. But they’re not unduly influenced in their thinking and what they say.
- Children can always judge and tell the truth – they never adjust what they say to fit what they think different listeners need to hear.
- Even though they are extremely caught up in the high complexity and tensions of what’s going on, and even though they are by definition immature, children know what’s best for them in the short- and long-term future of their lives.
- Even when all the mature adults and expert professionals can’t agree on what’s best, we can be sure that a young child in the middle of all that, does know best.
- Children’s stated wishes are a reliable indicator of their overall relationship needs, real feelings and welfare.
- One very well-known principle that specifically applies in this situation, can actually be set aside. The dispensable principle is that it is harmful to children to be given the responsibility of choosing between their separated parents.
Anything that upsets a child at all is bad for them and adults must protect them and stop doing it whatever any other more serious life-long consequences there might be.
- Even though a good parent would not unconditionally support a child’s reluctance to go to school and would take appropriate steps to assert their authority over their child, in other equally important child welfare matters that are equally legislated for (like relationships and contact arrangements with their parents), a child’s feelings are then an obviously highly valid reason to let them have their way. It’s even best to elicit and encourage their children to provide these reasons so that a parent does not need to assert appropriate parental authority.
- Difficulties at transition times are proof that the other parent is a bad parent and has a bad relationship with their child.
- Parental conflict and argument are worse for children than the complete loss of one loving and loved parent to them.
- A parent who accepts rejection doesn’t care for their child, so is not good for the children.
- A parent who fights against their rejection shows their bad or scary qualities and is not good for the children.
- Single parenthood is common and works fine, so children only need one carer / parent. There is no harm in dispensing with one of the parents who is really not necessary for children’s well-being. Not having a relationship, not being loved by both parents – these things don’t bother children. They’re of no consequence.
- There’s no harm either in dispensing with the whole of that parent’s extended family and friends who also had a good relationship with the child and miss them.
- If it comes to a choice, mothers / females are always and unquestionably the best carers, especially for young children.
- But where mothers are the non-resident parent, then they must have done something especially wrong for that to happen. Even those ideologically committed to support women and mothers as a gender know they’ve done something bad since unjustifiably rejected mothers could never be evidence that Parental Alienation happens to women and mothers too.
- Even if men love their children, no men have any capacity to care for children or be frontline parent. Or at least, they’re never as good as women in the child care role.
- So men never suffer the same dynamic that women and mothers do of staying in a bad or abusive relationship because they’re worried for their children’s welfare.
- For the same reason, men don’t worry for their child from a distance – that’s never their motive in contesting custody and contact decisions.
- A parent whose commitment to their family is mainly in earning a living outside the home can continue that role when separated without any contact or relationship at all with that family or the children. Sperm or ova, and money, is all that’s needed given that children flourish just as well without both parents in their lives.
- Both partners are equally culpable for the conflict before or after separation – it’s just how some couples are, so what can you do? The kids are probably used to it.
- There’s no smoke without fire. That usually means that if any allegation is made against the non-resident parent, then we can assume they must have done something bad, even if we can’t prove it.
- In general and when things go wrong, it is always safe to assume that all men are liars, risky abusers and baddies and that all women are trustworthy, safe carers, and goodies.
- Patriarchal power structures mean that men always have power and women (and children) are always the powerless victims of men.
- Women have no power of any kind at all in a patriarchal society. A common ideology holds that this is true even in the family, the home and childcare. (Cf Jennifer Harman’s book and TEDx talk.)
- This lack of any women’s power therefore authorises and requires, rather paradoxically, that the voice and assertions of women and mothers are deemed automatically valid, to be heard without demur, and to be obeyed by all. That society does not immediately concur, proves that patriarchy is all powerful.
- As countries become much more equalist and liberal in their laws and culture, ever more gender inequality shows up and, strangely, the more remote it becomes that men and women could work together collaboratively in friendship – even though that gender-equalist aim is in the definition of feminism.
- Better be safe than sorry. So excluding the man is always the best plan.
- Government laws on equal rights and responsibilities for both parents and sensible guidelines for the best ways to manage the high stress of family separation are entirely sufficient to ensure collaboration and reason between parents. The common adage ‘possession is 9/10ths of the law’ is no longer true – there is no advantage for the resident parent (of either gender) being able to call all the shots if they want to.
- School teachers can be 100% sure that the first parent they meet is the one to believe and be guided by as to the other parent – their behaviour, riskiness, character, and as to whether the school should make sure they are to be excluded from all information, meetings or events about their child’s welfare and general life in school. Schools can rely on a letter in the child’s school bag to get shared with the other parent.
- The social, child support and benefits systems can ignore the needs of the non-resident parent who will always be the main earner.
- Services and organisations and academics who explicitly and exclusively focus on women and mothers who are victims of male partners, and who make no attempt to consider that men may sometimes suffer too, can still be very confident that they are in the very best unbiassed position to get a balanced and objective view about how it is for all men, and for all other women (and children).
- This explicitly partial selection group of female gendered subjects and clients entitles summary dismissal of anyone who has any other information or viewpoint based on a more inclusive subject grouping. The findings from a wider more inclusive group can be ignored in favour of the partial findings and beliefs.
- What they call Parental Alienation is gendered and only happens with resident mothers and non-resident fathers.
- And it’s always a smoke-screen for the man continuing his abuse of his ex- and kids.
- Professionals know what they’re doing, and they know best – even when they reject Parental Alienation without reading or knowing anything more than hear-say about it.
- An experienced professional can trust his or her judgement of what someone tells them without having to talk to anyone else in the family or other people who know them.
- Anyway, the client in front of them is their main concern. It’s a requirement of their job to believe them completely and to offer them their validation and support unstintingly and with the authoritative power of being a professional and expert.
- If all one’s colleagues and fellow professionals are sure about something, and glare at you if you were to ask questions about it, then they must be right. Anyway, we don’t want to make ourselves miserable at work by speaking up. We certainly can’t afford to risk losing the good name or career that earns us our living. Whistle blowers go through utter hell and wish they never had blown any whistles – so let’s not do that.
- In many other kinds of family trouble with risk and abuse thought to be going on, agencies help and intervene urgently with legal power to do so where needed. But in high conflict families, it is disrespectful , distressing and harmful to overrule the parents with any kind of imposed intervention or help.
- Even though the parents may hardly be able to be in the same room as each other, it is important that they discuss, create and agree their own child contact patterns from scratch, without structured help – like being shown the well-known half dozen general patterns that are pretty well the only patterns that are possible.
- To promote the parental collaboration we all want to happen – even if there is no chance it will happen and even if the child is being harmed – we must strictly avoid any negative-sounding or blaming words (like ‘alienation’; ‘abuse’ is ok because we know that actually IS negative).
- Negative words, labels and diagnoses promote the polarisation and adversarial pattern we are trying to reduce. We do call harm a negative word. We call it ‘abuse’ but we know that high conflict around separated families, and alienation too, aren’t that serious at all.
- Even though we cannot get near some family members to talk with them properly, let alone get the conflicted parents into the same room, we’re sure our positive collaborative methods of therapy or mediation will work somehow. We know that in our skilled hands, collaboration is always possible. And we know that collaboration requires there are no nasty words floating around.
- Lawyers, the law of the land, and the courts and judges, are ‘the highest authority’, so they must know what they’re doing – or at least there is no way anyone can challenge or change them, not without decades to do it in.
- Helpless clients who have yet to learn anything about what’s happening or the legal or other professional system they’ve entered, are in a really confident mood to challenge and ask the professional to explain more.
- Clients are technically in charge of what advice and strategy their lawyers and other professionals propose and advise. Even under scrutiny in a high conflict separation, there is no pressure or risk that discourages parent/clients from speaking up robustly and confidently. There’s no need for help or advocacy for them to ensure they feel clear and in charge.
- Clients who (in the UK) are not used to paying for professional services won’t be aware or mind paying for the extra hours that further explanation takes e.g. from a lawyer. Even when the client gets no satisfaction at all, they don’t mind paying £250 an hour for the privilege, plus a whack more for extras the lawyer does, like phone calls or emails.
- Reassurance is always good. That’s how a professional shows their human touch. Numb clients – fresh to the devastating explosion of losing their family, and desperate for competent advice – are best helped by lawyers and other helping professions who give kindness and reassurance like: “Give it time” and “It’ll be alright”.
- Clients should not rage forever afterwards at the extreme incompetence of this friendly trusted advice. There is anyway a really effective complaints procedure and a high chance that such errors will be recognised by that professional body’s complaints process. Plus steps ensue to feedback widely to lawyers who are really keen to learn from their mistakes.
- In court, a lawyer’s client is one of the parents in major polarised dispute with the other in what remains an adversarial context. But this top priority of lawyer to parent/client is not at all problematic to the higher and directly conflicting priority of putting the child’s welfare as paramount.
- In court, a lawyer’s prior commitment to their client (and to paramountcy) is never compromised by their need to retain a good name with the judge and with others in the legal profession, from whom they get high ratings and referrals of work.
- The qualifications, experience and codes of conduct of lawyers are always to be trusted. Where rarely this is not the case, the complaints system will quickly deal with any problems. Anyway it’s dead easy to transfer your case to another lawyer.
- Even though government guidelines have been approved for training (e.g. for child welfare reports by family lawyers) to assess separated children and families, no one needs to actually put the recommendations into practice.
- No special skill is required to assess what’s going on and advise what to do – any sensible person can do it. “Trust me, I’m a parent” is a good enough qualification for doing this most complex of assessments (cf Miller, 2013).
- There’s nothing complex to assess anyway – just have someone listen to the child’s voice with no assessment of the wider situation and who might be intentionally or unintentionally influencing them; no need either to actually see the child with their rejected parent to assess how they actually are with them; why not just make generalised assumptions about which parent is usually the best parent. Who needs any special qualifications for that job?!
- Even though for decades good legal assessment of children who have suffered sexual or physical abuse requires a single joint assessment interview so that the child is not further traumatised by repeated multiple assessment interviews, in the more complex matter of assessing emotional abuse of children caught up in high conflict separated family situations, there is no harm allowing several repeated ordinary or expert assessments, and even have up to four expert assessments recruited, two by each side in the court case.
- In informal child welfare hearings in family courts, both parents are presumed to be caring and capable and ready for the fair and level playing field in informal court to help them agree on their disputed separation arrangements. So it’s completely fair that the resident parent’s use of their position beforehand to make child contact arrangements of their own liking is not questioned at all. It is entirely fair that the non-resident parent has instead to prove his or her innocence and worth as a person and parent – as if they have been alleged or charged with doing something very wrong – as well as to make their case for a change in the established unquestioned order of the resident parent.
- Children doing well at school is proof that they are thriving and are emotionally settled. Child and adult victims of all kinds of other family and other abuse are famously well-known to have to be brilliant at covering up their secret. But we can tell this kind of brilliant covering up isn’t the same. It’s obvious they’re actually fine!
- Even if Parental Alienation is more widely accepted as child emotional abuse, we know how hard that is to prove or do anything about. The professional systems are anyway just not aware or ready to handle that. So let’s not bother.
- Whatever is easiest and agreeable to the children and their residence and contact arrangements just now is always going to be the best thing to do for them. How can anyone think that over-ruling their vociferous and extreme resistance could be of benefit to them in the short or the long term?
- We don’t need to think about the long term consequences for the child’s welfare and later personal and life functioning.
- Taking the resident parent to court is proof that the non-resident parent does not care about the consequences for the children. It’s a sign of that parent’s sustained coercive personality and harmful intentions against their ex-partner and the children.
- A simplistic medical model and diagnostic label (‘PAS’) does not do justice to the complexity of high conflict separated families. Labels in general are bad and, in this case, make things worse without leading to anything constructive or helpful.
- Anyway this is a relationship pattern, not a mental disorder. There is no particular or serious individual harm or mental health disorder caused. Although serious personality disorder is a significant factor in all other life troubles, here we need not worry that a parent has a serious personality disorder. High conflict of all kinds is just normal in family separation – there are no special patterns there. It’s just a normal problem of living.
- There is no worthwhile up-to-date literature or thinking published on this subject. We just know that the original PAS concept has been thoroughly discredited long ago and that’s enough to know now too.
- There is no confirmed peer-reviewed scientific research or papers on PA, so it is just an imaginary nonsense of a problem.
- Since the Parental Alienation ‘Syndrome’ has not been accepted as a full DSM mental health Disorder, it doesn’t exist, nothing like it every happens, and so it isn’t harmful or important anyway.
- Parental Alienation and PA Syndrome are typically wrong-headed American inventions that superior Brits do well to ignore.
- Britain may have lost our empire, but we still lead the world intellectually and in common sense. We don’t need any help from abroad thank you very much.
The optical illusions alongside the list test your ability to think twice – to open your mind to just one alternative to the one you first see. PA has over 80 alternative options to the usual intuitions, intuitions we have to work at countering. If it’s hard to keep an open mind for just two options, no wonder 80 of them all working together are impossible to see past.
Unless you get pushed into the deep end and discover that PA has happened to you along with so much blindness to your predicament, it is logically fair enough for most people to think that 80 unlikely things are not likely to all happen together. What are the chances of that eh?!
But they do. Rather often in fact. That’s because we so easily believe our general assumptions are always truer than they actually are in reality.
No wonder the mixing up of so many easy assumptions leads to confusion over a single pattern – Child and Parental Alienation – so that it challenges us all and is bound to be off-putting to those who prefer to deny and avoid it.
This exercise reminds us to have huge genuine sympathy for those we are asking to overcome these multiple hurdles to be open-minded about Parental Alienation. Hopefully this list will help those new to PA to get over these hurdles … best done slowly, one at a time, instead of all at once!
Nick Child. Edinburgh (with thanks to colleagues too).
PS If the mental challenges in this blogpost are not enough, another way to show how easy it is to miss what is right in front of your eyes is to watch The Monkey Business Illusion (1 min 40 secs).
Or observe your use of quick or slow thinking when asked a very simple Cognitive Reflection Test like this (Answer below): A bat and a ball cost £1.10. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Warshak, Richard A. (2015) Ten parental alienation fallacies that compromise decisions in court and in therapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol 46(4), Aug 2015, 235-249. Published by the American Psychological Association.
Miller, S. G. (2013) Clinical reasoning and decision-making in cases of child alignment: diagnostic and therapeutic issues. In (eds) Baker, A. J. and Sauber, S.R. (2013) Working with Alienated Children and Families: A Clinical Guidebook. New York: Routledge
Otowa, T., York, T.P., Gardner, C.O., Kendler, K.S. & Hetema, J.M. (2014) The impact of childhood parental loss on risk for mood, anxiety and substance use disorders in a population-based sample of male twins. Psychiatry Research, 220: 404-9. (Otowa 2014 shows parental separation is generally worse in the long-term than death of a parent.)
The fast answer to the bat and ball test (10p) is wrong. The slow answer (5p) is right.