Taking Alienation seriously … and getting taken seriously

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

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 12.50.47Therapists 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

Note: The Irish PAAA is not the same as the Canadian PAAO nor PAAO USA.

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”.


Fiona Gartland (2015)  Parental alienation should be criminal offence, says group. Irish Times, 5th September 2015

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.

About Nick Child

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


  1. Thank you Nick. Please look at the PAAA beb page for more information.


  2. Nick D

    Nick, Is there ever a case in your mind, where one of the parents is so toxic, so damaged, so harmful, so unreachable, that helping the child develop their own avoidance strategies is part of a number of ways to protect that child in some countries (especially those where the criminal justice system is poor at providing this protection)?


  3. Welcome here, Nick D!

    A short but very big question that requires at least a blog discussion of its own if not several. I shall perhaps save this response under a future blog that isn’t about the media.

    I can’t work out if your question is an “un-systemic” one or not … to parachute in help to a child, past ongoing abuse, family and ineffective agencies.

    Put like that, it’s like the vexed question of what outsiders should be doing to help the people of Syria … or even more, those living in the so-called Islamic State, where there is a mixture of willingly- and unwillingly-held hostages – families, adults and children.

    So my short answer for the most emotionally toxic families is: There’s almost no chance of help getting through.

    The child has already got their strategies firmly in place – typically unshakeable loyalty to the toxic parent. Their authentic self is put on a shelf for safety until they discover it is safe to remember that self. They cannot remember that self while they live in unsafe situations.

    What chance would any ‘helpful’ outsider have of getting into the Caliphate, or of being allowed to meet any child or individual, or of their trusting that it is safe to tell anyone of their troubles and concerns about what is going on around them?! Same thing for these families and children.

    In any situation like that – emotionally toxic parenting, poor child protection or services – you would have precious little chance to get near your needy child let alone be allowed by the parents – or even the loyal clinging children themselves – to influence their well-made-up minds.

    Only cleverly indirect or chance opportunities might alert the child’s shelved self to their predicament and perhaps help them think afresh. A trigger for this might be perhaps a neighbour or visiting relative, or the school noticing something, or on a visit to the GP or CAMHS, if they were alert to what might be behind the presented disorder. You would certainly have to have sneaky ways to get them to your clinic if you were going to offer the child the kind of help you suggest.

    Other thoughts for here are: Could a newspaper article or suitably age-appropriate media programme “get through” to a child in such need? We advertise and teach children about how to spot and stop and protect themselves. I suspect it is easier to spot concrete (physical or sexual) abuse rather than emotional abuse like this – remembering, I say, that it is the enduring relational, secrecy and emotional abuse that makes those concrete abuses get really harmful. Amy Baker has school programmes of her “I don’t want to choose” which seek to raise a child’s awareness beforehand.

    Again a whole blogpost is needed to go into this controversial topic and controversial voice (i.e. Craig Childress e.g. see No 8 of his video series). But he says no one can help or protect ‘your’ Alienated child until other steps are taken. (Again, I think of Syria and ISIS). First, he says, there needs to be a concerted campaign to get the Mental Health professions to do their job properly levering with their official promise to do that while, at present, they actively dismiss this pattern. Craig puts heir job in terms of protecting children from Emotional Abuse, not needing PAS to be recognised since there are plenty of other well-accepted pathologies going on. Then the legal profession and child protection services would be able to intervene. Only then will the children be rescued back to safety and their authentic parent. (I have mixed support and criticism’s to make of Craig’s approach.)

    So, as usual, I meant to make this a one-liner postponing response, and I’ve had too much to say.

    Nick C


  4. William Bernet

    Regarding the questions posed in the blog, yes, we need vast education regarding PA/PAS. We need articles in newspapers and magazines for the general public. We need both opinion and research in mental health and legal professional journals. We need books and book chapters regarding these topics. We need presentations and symposiums at national and international conferences.

    What is the purpose or goals of all this work? (1) When a mental health professional sees PA/PAS in an early stage, it is identified and addressed. (2) When PA/PAS is brought up in court, it is readily accepted that the phenomenon is real and its basic reality is not debated. (3) Funding from governments and private foundations regarding these topics, especially the treatment.

    What we do not need is infighting among the writers and scholars who study PA/PAS. There will always be disagreements and healthy discourse among scholars. It is possible to have multiple points of view that complement each other and support each other. It is not helpful for one band of experts to badmouth another band of experts just because they have a different perspective on this complex and serious psychological and social problem.

    Liked by 1 person

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