Hostage, coercion, enmeshment and other unacceptably good words for it

In 1612 Francis Bacon coined the phrase ‘hostages to fortune‘. He meant how having a family constrains a man from more adventurous things. But you could also say that children are hostages to fortune. It’s just a matter of luck what family they get landed into. There’s a more specific Child and Parental Alienation (PA) use for the word hostage, more emphatic than in my overview.

As ever, in the PR and awareness-raising for PA, we are in a bind. Do we use words that are inoffensive  but also inaccurate? Or do we use words that are off-putting but accurate? Only when someone sees that PA is child abuse, do they see the need for a negative word … like ‘abuse’. So, setting aside the argument about PA ‘Syndrome’, just the word Alienation is off-putting to many detractors.

Accuracy about abuse requires good words for it. If it wasn’t so serious, it wouldn’t need attention drawn to complex situations by solid words, nouns with capital letters. So a warning to those who still think softer words are best: This blogpost contains some more unacceptably accurate words.

In 2002, Stan Hayward was Research Officer for the London Branch of Families Need Fathers. He wrote a useful and updated resource here:   Stan is now 84 and, when fit, still plans to do useful things for PA parents. Our best wishes and thanks to him.

Cults, hostages and the Stockholm syndrome

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Holed up inside a cramped bank vault, the captives quickly forged a strange bond with their abductors.

Through her book Adult Children of PA, we know of Amy Baker’s powerful use of the ‘cult’ metaphor for an Alienated child’s loyalty to the aligned parent. She focused on the cult ideas more in an earlier paper: here in its submitted form, it is a really good summary of how similar the coercive patterns are in cults and in Child Alienation.

But Stan’s suggestion was new to us. He says:

The closest ‘syndrome’ to PAS that is accepted officially is the ‘Stockholm syndrome‘. This is where a hostage is so frightened of their captor that they obey everything they are told to do, and will even be frightened of being rescued in case the captor harms them in the process. To that extent they will identify with the captor and denigrate anyone attempting to rescue them.  Children suffering from PAS might be classed as hostages.

So an Alienated child can be thought of as ‘hostage’ to the aligned parent’s ‘cult of parenthood‘. Of course the child is not a stranger to the aligned parent as hostage-taker. And most hostages do not get allowed out (e.g. to school) and most do want to get away. ‘Hostage’ and ‘cult’ usually differ in this ‘willingness’ factor.  Cult members and PA children look like they’re very willing victims. But hostages in the Stockholm Syndrome also become very willing victims too.

The point is the same in all these patterns – look beyond the apparent willingness and we find a disturbed and harmful coercive relationship at work.

Chip Chimera applies Attachment-based ideas to PA. Crittenden’s model in particular helps us to a more sympathetic neutrally scientific understanding of all three roles in a PA family – aligned parent, rejected parent, and child. She says that the Stockholm Syndrome, applied to the child, fits perfectly into Crittenden’s Dynamic Maturational Model (DMM) – a child’s attachment strategy A7 based on a ‘delusional idealisation of the attachment figure’. 

Alienation is only the half of it

One of the disadvantages of Alienation as the term we use is that it focuses us on the wrong – albeit more obvious – end of the spectrum of the close < > distant relationship spectrum. In PA there are actually two extremes of that spectrum happening, not just the one. We tend to forget this. The child is in two strange, concerning, disturbed relationships. With the rejected parent, there is an odd very distant relationship. With the aligned parent there is an odd very close relationship. To call the pattern Alienation means we point to and think about the distant relationship, implying but not properly pointing to the more concerning very close one.

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From Kelly and Johnston’s paper (2001)

Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston forgot one end of the spectrum when they wrote a seminal paper in 2001. In this important paper they renamed PA to become Child Alienation, and reframed the PA Syndrome into a complex multi-factorial pattern, part of the range of all family relationships. They give a nice diagram of the close-distant relationship spectrum with Alienation at one end. But they put ‘positive relationship’ at the other end. In between are ‘affinity’, ‘alliance’ and ‘estranged’. (See diagram)

But this spectrum conveys the idea that the closer a relationship is, the better and healthier and happier it is. Babies may need a specially close relationship with their carers, but healthy maturation means growing a more mature individuality and mature dependence (click and see Chap 3)  in relationships. Kelly and Johnston’s diagram gets us to look only at the Alienated-distant-extreme as if it is the worst a relationship can get. By implication being really close is really good for the child. But any reading about PA shows it is all more complicated than that. In some ways the distant fully Alienated parent is plainly not harming their child – they have no chance to care for or to harm them. Any ‘smoke’ there is must come from another ‘fire’ than the rejected parent’s insubstantial relationship with their child. The person reporting a fire may have started it.

Enmeshed, disengaged, and coercive

Decades ago, the famous family therapist, Salvador Minuchin gave us a simpler but more complete spectrum. He coined words for two kinds of poorly functioning family relationship: Enmeshed and Disengaged at the ends of his spectrum of relationships in families who were living together. Disengaged doesn’t mean quite the same as Alienated, but it’s somewhere at that end of it. (Karen Woodall and Linda Gottlieb are two well-known for their PA work who highly rate Minuchin and his ideas and methods.)

Shouldn’t we take Minuchin’s lead and extrapolate Kelly and Johnston’s spectrum out (to the left) to a new ‘extremely close relationship’ end point, matching the opposite extremely distant end point of the spectrum? That would put ‘positive relationship’ more in the middle where it should be. Other words for the new ‘extremely close’ end of the spectrum might be: symbiotic, narcissistic, or coercive. Or even ‘Crittenden DMM strategy A7’. With this, we might be able to complete Kelly and Johnston’s work. This would help include the over-close relationship as the more concerning one even if it is much harder to engage with. The extended scale might look like this:Close Distant Spectrum

Parent-child hostage syndrome

Encouraged by the word coercive coming up again, maybe we should create a new term for PA that points more to the child, the abuse, and where it’s happening?  We also recall how close Child Abduction is to Alienation. This PACT (Parents and Abucted Children Together) video “Victims of Another War” describes the Alienation that has to follow once a child has been abducted by one of the parents. ‘Abduction’ is obviously even closer than Alienation to the child as hostage idea – the child is literally taken as a hostage to another town or country by one parent.

So what about something like: Parent-child hostage syndrome. Yes, even the word ‘syndrome’ can be brought back here since we have the Stockholm Syndrome as an accepted model, as Stan said.

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As the police seized the gunmen, two female hostages cried, “Don’t hurt them—they didn’t harm us.”

‘Parent-child hostage syndrome’ is, of course, not generally acceptable because it is too explicit, too negative, too shockingly blaming. It implies more conscious bad intention than any aligned well-intentioned parents think they are doing.

But that’s the point – those who lead cults and take hostages are also well-intentioned to their own way of thinking. Cult leaders are very clear that they know what is good for their followers, even if hostages are more clearly a means to the hostage-taker’s own ends. When we see this pattern of abusive ‘good intentions’, we may not balk at using an off-puttingly good word for it. When a parent abducts their child, we don’t get nervous about using the word ‘abduction’, do we?! We know they’ve done something illegal and wrong.

So, ‘parent-child hostage syndrome’ is an accurate enough description.  It draws our attention to the more concerning end of things, the aligned relationship in the child’s life. It certainly conveys the coerciveness more clearly.

If it was to be used seriously, we might apply it only to severe PA, leaving Alienation useful for when a child still has some contact with the rejected parent. Where severe PA – or ‘PCHS’ under its new name – reaches a point where the rejected parent does not know even where their children live, Child Abduction seems the right description.

If you are not sure that ‘hostage’ is a good word for it, here’s a neat justification for using the term for hostages who are allowed out and about …

Coercive control

‘Coercion’ reminds us of leading feminist writer, Evan Stark, and his book ‘Coercive Control’ on domestic abuse or violence (DV). This is about how some men entrap and terrorise their women partners. He argues convincingly that it is not criminal violent acts that define DV. The crime is a ‘liberty crime’. He describes how the man holds the woman in captivity in every way like a hostage or a slave is controlled and entrapped.

This coercive control can be skilfully perpetrated even when the couple have separated. Again, the man believes he is justified. The women may not profess willingness as loudly as the Alienated child might, but like the child, they have to cooperate because they see no way out and fear the consequences. The coercive control of this liberty crime, Stark argues, is the key to understanding, preventing and intervening with intimate partner violence and domestic abuse. The crime that should be taken to court is the same ‘liberty crime’ as for those who imprison a hostage in their basement, or enslave a domestic servant.

We can leave aside the gender and feminism … we know well that PA happens with any gender patterns. Then we can fully agree with the Stark logic applied to PA. PA  can be seen to contain a coercively controlling relationship, a parent-child hostage situation. It’s a liberty crime camouflaged because children are expected to be under a parent’s control. But one parent abuses their position to exclude the child from the care of the other parent.  And it is the emotional coercive control that is damaging – like DV, it can all be done through emotional channels.

So people or children who are coercively controlled, cult members, Stockholm Syndrome hostages – and parent-child hostages – are so entrapped that they can be allowed out and trusted to remain loyal. Even at a distance, they may be so loyal they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the cause (like the Amos family did for Jonestown) … an image that fits well with the religious extremist cults and their suicidal terrorists that are in our news so often just now. Let’s leave that for another time …

In summary

We should make more of the close-distant-relationship spectrum, extending it to have an enmeshed over-close end as well as the Alienated over-distant end. A severely Alienated child suffers from both these extremes – one disturbing extreme with each parent. Good terminology would get everyone more focused on the closely Aligned parent as the main concern, not just focus on the distant one. Sympathetic terminology is desirable but may not be possible when covered up abuse requires active intervention. Attachment-based or ‘enmeshment’ terms are the best hope for neutral language.

We’ve had a look at a number of other concepts and words that are accurate but not so sympathetic.  ‘Parent-child hostage syndrome’ accurately describes severe cases. ‘Child abduction’ accurately describes both the slower and the faster ways that children are taken completely away – away from a parent who could care better for them, by a parent who evidently means well but does not care properly for them.

Nick Child, Edinburgh (with thanks to SSoPA colleagues too).


Kelly, J. B. & Johnston, J. R. (2001) The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Family Court Review, 39: 249–266.

Crittenden, P. M. (2011) Raising Parents: Attachment, parenting and child safety. Routledge. (Also: Crittenden’s prettier presentation – The Development of Protective Strategies across the Lifespan)

Baker, A.J.L. (2005). The cult of parenthood: A Qualitative study of parental alienation. Cultic Studies Review, volume 4, no.1

Child, N. (2015) Off-putting relationships: essentials of Child Alienation.



About Nick Child

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


  1. Here’s a comment made elsewhere:
    “Good article. Brings up important points on the struggle we have to accurately define PA not only in a clinical context, but also for those who are not as familiar with this dynamic.” CLW


  2. If you’re interested in exploring how cults work in similar ways to Alienation, then this C5 TV programme “Trapped in a Cult?” is interesting. Available until Aug 2016


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