Society acting badly, not just the parents

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 15.14.16A new must-read book is out. It’s a complete lucid delight in every way and on every page. Jennifer Harman and Zeynep Biringen, the book’s authors, are social psychologists in Colorado. There’s a quick way to get the most innovative bits right away – Jennifer’s TED talk (14 mins).

Most remarkably, at every turn, they tame all those monstrous gender traps that usually destroy any who dare to tread where angels fear to.

The book is based on a big survey with interviews. Jennifer has personal experience of being Alienated that inspired her. Zeynep’s special connection is her established work on attachment and Emotional Availability.

A book for everyone

Their book ticks every box . Everyone will ‘get it’:

  • It is a high-class comprehensive textbook for the specialist field. You’ll recognise your clients’  diverse predicaments more specifically. 250 pages crystallises what 1500 might fail to.
  • The legal and financial professions will see how dependent families are on them, but how flawed, unfair and sometimes criminally unfit for purpose they are.
  • It is a great general introduction for all non-specialist helping professionals and other policy-makers and academics who need to know – that’s everybody really!
  • It is an easy one-or-two-sittings read for the general public.
  • It will be especially welcome by those affected by PA – you’ll find your predicament described here. Puzzling personal bits and frustrating wider system bits will fall into place before your eyes.
  • Even those loyal to feminism, patriarchy and ‘junk science’ – as ways to dismiss PA – will find their familiar ideas given their place – but then separated out from the dismissing that usually follows.

So Jennifer and Zeynep have given us a bridge across previously unbridgeable chasms. One is the gender chasm. Another chasm is between those experts through unchosen experience of PA – they get dumped in the deep end – and the rest of the unaffected world who pass by, blind, deaf, clueless, prejudiced or dismissive.

A complex systemic problem like PA does not have simple solutions. But the first step is to have a good description or map in your hands. This one opens lots of ways to talk about PA and lots of ways forward. For example, Jennifer’s TED talk shows how the mistakes we make through gender stereotyping of parents might be reduced by making more equally shared-care in separated families as standard – in the absence of substantiated reasons not to.

The short and long of it

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Jennifer Harman

The book has a short name Parents Acting Badly. This invites the same parents to ‘act well’. The long title tells you of the wider scope:  How institutions and societies promote the alienation of children from their loving families.

We wanted to build on this [description of cases] knowledge and reframe how we think about it – it is a social and cultural problem, not just a private one. We decided to start from scratch. Abandon all we knew. Talk to people [from a wide variety of sources] … Our hope was to … uncover new social and cultural factors that contribute to the problem and have not been explored or clearly articulated yet. …

… The lack of understanding around parental alienation [is like it was with] domestic violence – it used to be seen as a private problem between two people. But once domestic violence was proved to be a systemic issue that impacts society and causes devastation in families that’s when people started to take it seriously.

The book delivers

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Zeynep Biringen

The book delivers a major, freshly researched, wide-angle, deeply-thought-through picture. The authors range easily from the broadest social, legal, financial, professional system functions and challenging debates, down to the practical experience of specific cases with plenty of anecdotes that make it all really clear.

They confirm afresh much of what we already know. There are new statistics that answer questions we have not had information about before. There are new ideas to explain the puzzle of millions of people who suffer PA while billions of other people just cannot believe it happens. Full referencing underpins what they say throughout.

Their great achievement is the way they show Parental Alienation (PA) as something that affects society as a whole, not just individuals, couples and families – that we all have some work to do to make things change.

They show how we all carry deeply engrained gender stereotypes that lead to mistakes when it comes to separated and high conflict families.   Stereotypes are engrained generalisations that we impose and assume where we shouldn’t. This idea overlaps with the ‘categorical error’ described in this overview of Child Alienation (p 16) and here, as well as with the long list of counter-intuitives in PA that have to be set aside to understand and help PA.

Bridging the gender chasm too

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“Dr Livingstone I presume?”

Some will take exception when Jennifer and Zeynep declare themselves feminist and imply they might not go along with the typical mens-and-fathers-rights criticism of general feminist arguments. If it mattered here, though I am also a feminist, I would argue that that argument is not just the realm of disgruntled men fighting back …

For example, Christina Hoff-Sommers, ‘the factual feminist’, has careful reasons to question common assertions e.g. in 5 Feminist Myths That Will Not Die and Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?  Or see this balanced and fun Norwegian documentary on the equality paradox (with subtitles).

The greatest joy of Jennifer and Zeynep’s book is that this ideological gender debate / war just doesn’t matter here. In fact, I celebrate and warmly welcome their book precisely because it bridges such typically estranged opposites. It’s a bit like Stanley finding Livingstone, who had been lost for years, in the middle of Africa. It is wonderful that Jennifer and Zeynep show how the swathing dismissal of PA does not follow from a feminist-patriarchy starting point.

The hardest but essential step is for each side to hold their hands up to some truth in the other side’s allegation. So, as they say in their book, yes, sometimes abusive fathers use the cover of ‘Parental Alienation’ to continue their access for abuse. But just because some do it doesn’t mean all of them do it. And some abusive mothers might do that too. From the other side, yes, some men do awful abuse to women and children but that doesn’t mean that all men do it, nor that only men do it.

At some point even the most ideologically driven person may find they’re struck down by something they didn’t previously believe in. With the intelligence to think and research outside their box, they will be in the best position to tell everyone about it. My own professional box – that kept me dismissing PA for years – was to be against diagnoses and labels for ‘problems of living’ and family relationships. Coming out of that box has also been a great motive and help in seeing the light. Maybe that’s what has made this book so enlightening.

Jennifer’s TED talk

Slaloming down the mountain

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 19.23.10Their project is based in Colorado State University whose webpages give a good description of the project and the book. The book is published on Amazon so it’s easiest to just get the Kindle version of it for peanuts. On Amazon, for free, you can look inside it for the introduction plus a chapter or two.

Reading about PA is usually like trudging step by painful step up a big mountain. Climbing the mountain has been my own experience of trying to understand, think through and write clearly about it all. But swooshing down the same mountain – missing none of the trickiest twists and turns that make the climb so arduous for us slow-coaches – two top-notch slalom skiers swish by and show the way to handle the mountain with seemingly effortless skill!

I’m not sure they know quite what they’ve achieved here.  And if others think I’m wrong to praise them this much, please comment below.  The field of Parental Alienation and high conflict families has been given a great boost with this work. I think we will be using it a lot from now on. Referencing Harman & Biringen (2016) will certainly curtail some of my most uphill efforts!

And there’s going to be a lot more to come.  Help crowd-fund their bigger USA survey.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

Harman, J. J. & Biringen, Z. (2016) Parents Acting Badly: How institutions and societies promote the alienation of children from their loving families. Amazon.

About Nick Child

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


  1. In total agreement with you that the book “Parents acting badly” is ground-breaking – and above that it is very easy to read.
    In Sweden there is an almost total denial of parental alienation. Those who claim to protect children say PA is a theory to help pedophile fathers to get free access to theit children. Authority abuse is, as a consequence of this uninformed stupidity, common as the responsible social workers do not have nor knowledge nor reliable methods to investigate high conflict cases. But all the same their reports is the foundation for the courts´ life decisive decisions on custody and residence for the children. This is why children´s fundamental need to have their good enough parents´ love and acceptance is almost always neglected, and their legal and their human rights to family life violated.
    greetings Lena Hellblom Sjögren, PhD, licensed psychologist.


    • Thanks, Lena. Sweden is referred to in the book … both the good and the bad bits! What should be useful for those who dismiss PA ideologically is the way this book comfortably refers to feminism and patriarchy – and indeed the potential for some to use PA as a cover for continuing their abuse – on the way to show the harmful blindness of the gender-based dismissal. Do let us know if the book helps in Sweden.


  2. A couple more comments I’ve received ‘offline’:

    JVG: Welcome to Jennifer Harman and Zeynep Biringer’s new book … my congratulations to them.

    AB: I breathe with new information and new books! Thank you for this information! When things get even more puzzlingly grim, I read. I will get this book!

    Me: Me too! Reading about PA is better than friends or therapy … The book never complains. Friends often don’t have the time or patience. Therapy costs more money and may not help anyway.

    JP: States are profiting from creating non-custodial parents … reference US government figures: a billion dollar industry!

    Me: Wow!! It is certainly a billion dollar industry. It will take an Act of God not the actions of governments or citizens to shift this vast money-spinner of high conflict separation. For some reason I think of those who began to campaign against slavery in the 19th century … the first global economy was built on it so it took some doing to bring it into disrepute and legal control. And still some way to go … because children’s welfare is not a commodity.

    Nick Child

    Liked by 1 person

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