Undue influence: New thoughts on high conflict in families

Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 16.05.45

The Open Minds Foundation – click image for the OMF website

The recent focus on undue influence here on the alienation experience blog was inspired by local and global events. There’ve been three new government initiatives in the UK and the global launch of the Open Minds Foundation.

This new framework creates a new way to approach high family conflict – even about how to prevent it. It helps common purpose to bind together the opposing armies of the endless gender-based war.

The three UK initiatives that tackle aspects of undue influence or coercive persuasion or control are :

  • The new law on controlling and coercive behaviour in intimate and family relationships (in England and Wales – Scotland is developing its own version)
  • The new website and programme educating against extremism
  • The new Scottish Guidance on Child Welfare Reports for family courts – among other welcome improvements, it requires those who provide the family courts with basic reports on separated families in conflict to know about ‘cases where a parent has undue influence over a child (sometimes known as parental alienation)‘.

Applying recruitment to families

It’s been good to contribute thinking on undue influence in families for the Open Minds Foundation website while creating presentations on the subject as well. One key issue when you put cults, say, alongside domestic and child abuse is: recruitment. How do controlling people get others to go under their thumb?

Of course, the importance of recruitment is in prevention. That’s when you can best stop ‘bodies’ being pushed in upstream, preventing all the harm, anguish and work of pulling them out downstream.

For recruitment to cults, for example, the coercive person or group needs to go out and find new recruits. In families, at first, it seems like recruiting is not relevant – it happens with the people already in the family.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 19.27.09But if you push that recruitment question with families, you get a really important angle on it. People who later become victims of coercive partners or parents often look back and say: “If only I’d known more about it, I would have realised better at the start when we met what was happening, what my gut feelings were telling me“. There can sometimes be a definite point when recruitment happens. It is possible to spot when it is more than just ‘falling madly in love’.

Even with this ‘madly’ free choice of partner in Westernised cultures, we know how the extended family often plays a very powerful part from the off to the end.

But most of the world does not partner-up through romantic choice and falling in love. There the wider family, the community and other social influences play more of a part in arranging marriages to shape or impose the choice of partners and the rules. Within that traditional pattern of life-long family involvement, each extended family may or may not be a constructive or competent influence in how they raise children and make arranged marriages.

Where it is not left so much to individual choice, then that point of recruitment of a partner depends more on the quality of the influence of the wider systems. Some would say that arranged marriages are more sensible than ‘madly in love’ as the way to start up a new couple and family!

Since extended families can be a major influence whatever the culture’s traditions of partnering-up, a question everywhere is how far those extended families function positively and constructively in this, the most important life cycle stage? Or how far are they more like a coercive cult, an undue influence on the members who have less power?

Children get no choice

Children in non-separated families are ‘recruited’ by being born into them. They have no choice or much chance to see what is happening around them. Even if they could, they have limited power to protest or walk away. Whatever happens in their family, children presume is normal for all families.

WireParentsChildrenCutoffBut when families separate there is a new stage of recruitment. Each separated parent freshly recruits a supportive tribe around their side. One or both parents may want to recruit – or simply keep their healthy relationship with – their children who get caught in the proverbial middle.

The quickest version of that recruitment is Parental Child Abduction. Abduction requires subsequent Alienation of the children to keep them on-side. Serious Parental Child Alienation achieves exactly the same child-recruit outcome as Abduction, but the Alienation may be a longer process – though often it can get going quite quickly.

Children are obviously immature and most vulnerable to how the main attachment figures in their lives are with them. As we repeatedly profess and sometimes manage to do, the predicament and welfare of the children must, therefore, always be our highest priority.

A typology of undue influence

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 16.49.08The diagram shows a typology of undue influence according to how recruitment happens.  Since all undue influence involves relationships that take you in and cut you off, without good reason, from good family and friends, all these types of undue influence are alienating in the broad sense.

You can quickly see how this recruitment-based schema works to embrace the broad range of undue influence as it is found outside families as well as inside families and separating families. Here is a brief version of that range of situations in a PDF of a new PowerPoint presentation on the subject.

It has been great fun collecting all these nastiest things that happen in the world and lining them up together … to be put on a charge and summarily sorted out, we can fondly hope!  There’s a longer version of this too, a PDF with more information and URL links to videos and to lots more online and other material for those more interested to learn more.

Examples of the four sub-categories

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 08.09.01

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 08.09.19








Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 08.09.34























Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 16.34.22











I hope this overview of undue influence outside and in families gets you to look into the presentation and the ideas some more. I hope it is all clear enough to get you thinking. If you’re interested, remember there’s a longer version with links to videos and more material.

Do comment below if you have questions or ideas to add in.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

About Nick Child

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


  1. A brilliant post – it says it all. Thank you Nick.


  2. An excellent read ..great work…when will these changes come into effect in Australia..they can’t come soon enough. Thankyou


  3. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    In contract law, the narrow scope of the common law doctrine of duress led to the development of the doctrine of undue influence in equity. Historically this doctrine applied wherever improper pressure – not capable of amounting to duress at common law – was brought to bear on a party to enter a contract. At present the way some children are manipulated and alienated from their natural parents in some public law cases by the state in the guise of its social workers should be also be remediable arguably using the doctrine of undue influence as prima facie causing a breach of the social contract.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: