Writing a blog is easy but mostly reaches the converted. Getting Parental Alienation into a professional journal is a golden achievement, making wider professionals take notice. But getting well-covered in the public media is perhaps the hardest publicity of all.
An Irish family therapist, Brian O’Sullivan, gets a double gold medal for PA publication! He is completing a thesis on Parental Alienation (PA) in Dublin’s Mater Hospital’s department of child and family psychiatry. But even back in 2013 he got his paper “The alienated child” published in the Irish Family Law Journal. And now he’s got into The Irish Times (5/9/2015) alongside Andries van Tonder, secretary of the Parental Alienation Awareness Association (PAAA). Brian proposed more education. Andries and the PAAA proposed that PA be a criminal offence. The Irish Times, of course, chose the more attention-grabbing headline: Parental alienation should be criminal offence, says group.
A great summary
Therapists and family therapists especially have often been condemned for their determined disinterest and even denial of PA. This means their unwitting but authoritative sympathy for the client in front of them can actively escalate the polarisation and harm caused by PA.
So Brian’s public declarations are particularly worthy and newsworthy! Mostly, you couldn’t expect a better summary of PA in a newspaper article. The Irish Times quotes Brian as saying:
Whatever the label is, the dynamics of PAS have been noted since the 1950s and children are being damaged. … Alienation can cause long-term psychological damage to children, as well as damaging the relationship with the alienated parent. It can also impact both parents, not just fathers. .. In Ireland, it is a relatively new phenomenon, because we have only had divorce since 1995. … In family court cases, where the voice of the child is now being given such emphasis, it would be helpful if social workers, therapists, legal professionals and judges were aware of the dynamic. They should consider alienation as part of their decision-making process. There needs to be more education about it.
Andries goes further. The PAAA wants Ireland to follow Mexico and make PA a criminal offence. In Mexico, the parent encouraging alienation can be imprisoned for 15 years. Andries said there should also be State support and rehabilitation provided for PAS children. But he powerfully underlined Brian’s message about the long term damage caused:
It is a serious form of child abuse to turn a child against a parent. The problem is it is so embedded in Ireland. The after-effects of parental alienation can be worse than physical or sexual abuse and have been linked to suicides and drug overdoses in Ireland. A PAS child may not realise the damage that has occurred and may only pick up on the effects aged 24 or 25. He was aware of a 69-year-old, who was a PAS child, and was still suffering from the effects. The association has quite a few adult PAS children who are members as well as parents who have been alienated.
Ways to get PA into the news
Brian and Andries presumably worked together to get this article into the Irish Times. Their implied debate is not mentioned: education alone or criminalisation? Is educating everyone around the family courts enough? Are there enough legal powers already? Different countries may need different legislation, of course. Should the encouragement of PA be made into a specific criminal offence? In Ireland? In general?
We’ll blog more on that debate soon, so watch this space. That will bring in the importance of getting PA published in professional journals. Professional journals would, by definition, require carefully reasoned and evidenced work, not the melodramatic headlines of the public newspapers.
With the Irish Times article in mind, let’s ask these questions this time: What are the best ways to get PA more widely heard about by the general public? Whatever we think of criminalising PA, what are the pros and cons of playing to the media’s – and the public reader’s – need and desire for extreme or melodramatic news? That is what people buy their papers to read about – and increasingly choose to read online as well. Isn’t the picture of lasting harm of children dramatic enough?!
In what ways does the “make PA an offence” headline in the Irish Times serve the cause of raising awareness and tackling PA? Perhaps it attracts wider attention; gets readers to take it seriously; leads them to want to read more? Maybe few would read the article without the shock headline. We’ve recently considered pairing up “abduction” with Alienation especially to get the reader to automatically take it more seriously. That idea is close to the criminalising idea. Abduction is a crime so adding it in serves the same purpose in a similar way to the “making it an offence” headline. But which drama best attracts the best kind of public readership – abduction or offence or long term harm?
And in what ways might the Irish Times headline set back the cause? Does it put people off by the extreme view upfront; provoke and confirm those who are already anti-PA more loudly into their corner; prevent Brian’s more moderate complex picture from ‘educating’ everyone?
Maybe this is another example of their being no such thing as bad publicity … that any kind of media attention for PA is better than none.
What do you think? Comments welcome below please.
Nick Child, Edinburgh
PS: The Irish Times also published this Case study: a mother’s experience of PA. And an argument in response to the above feature against the proposal to criminalise PA. An upside to disagreement is that you get more publicity – “there’s no such thing as bad news”.
O’Sullivan, B. (2013) The alienated child. Irish Journal of Family Law 16 (1) pp 20-25 By the way, this article includes Andre’s (2004) useful short checklist of questions to ask in determining if PA is happening.