Let’s focus on behaviour more than on labels


Dr Shelagh Wright

Welcome to Dr Shelagh Wright as our guest blogger.  Shelagh is a family therapist and family mediator who is also trained in direct child consultation.

A simple view is that separating parents put their children’s best interests first by collaborating. Where one or both parents don’t collaborate, they fail their children – or even emotionally abuse them.

Things are not so simple. There is a wide range of family separation patterns. Indeed, each family is unique and needs to be assessed and helped according to what each needs.

We do know that unaware professionals of all kinds can make things worse if they don’t know how to spot and handle the worst of what can happen … as it does with any degree of Child Alienation going on. And making the child the paramount focus is always going to be top priority.

Even if you know about Alienation, if you can find a child-focused way to pull back the parents to collaborate constructively, then we need to learn how to do that. So that is what Shelagh explores in her blog. She also sets out for us a spectrum of how families present for help.

Alienating labels

The terms Parental Alienation or Hostile Aggressive Parenting describe a group of behaviours that are said to be damaging to children’s mental and emotional well-being, and can interfere with the relationship between a child and either parent. These behaviours are often associated with high conflict marriages, separation or divorce.

A child who experiences these behaviours whether verbal or non-verbal, can suffer great emotional distress and often will not realise that they are being mentally manipulated or bullied into believing a loving parent is the cause of their distress … that they’re the enemy, to be feared, hated, disrespected, or disregarded.

Parents, other family members or well-meaning friends who engage in these behaviours, deprive the child of their right to be loved by, as well as showing love for both of their parents. These destructive actions can become abusive to the child, as these behaviours can be disturbing, confusing, and often frightening, to the child, and can rob the child of their sense of security and safety and may lead to emotional and psychological distress.

Focusing on behaviour – a spectrum

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 12.50.47I prefer not to focus on labels, but these terms are widely understood.  I prefer to focus on behaviours and the impact of those behaviours. By using labels the professional can be tempted into a particular cognitive state which will affect the way they approach the parent. As a family therapist and family mediator I try to adopt a stance of non-judgemental curiosity.

So, what are these behaviours that are being referred to? I think there is a spectrum between deliberate action and benign indifference where these behaviours occur.

1. Conscious and strategic

At one end there is a conscious and strategic, either covert or overt deliberate attempt to turn the child against the other parent. These actions are demonstrated by a parent who cares more about the battle with the other parent than the well-being of their child. Working with such a parent would only be successful if this parent was able to step aside from their own hurt and anger to be able to focus on what their child felt and needed. This might sound straightforward but would require a huge shift in thinking and emotional awareness of the parent that takes time and effort to achieve.

2. Unconscious and strategic

The next level might be an unconscious and strategic either covert or overt attempt to turn the child against the other parent. These actions are demonstrated by a parent who has little self-awareness and little emotional maturity that they are merely enacting learned behaviours or they have little or no conscious awareness of the needs of their child. Working with such a parent would mean re-educating this parent about children’s needs and development. This work could be successful if this parent was able to reflect on themselves and the effect their behaviour was having on their child. If they were able to prioritise their child then the work could be successful.

3. Using pedestals, martyrdom and truth

We then might have a conscious and strategic covert or overt strategy to put the other parent on a pedestal for the child. That inevitably means the parent on the pedestal will let the child down as (s)he will be unable to live up to the idealised expectations. The outcome is that the remaining parent is the one the child can rely on.

Working with these parents would involve again developing more self-awareness and emotional intelligence so that the parent can prioritise the child over whatever issues they have themselves. This is also linked to the conscious or unconscious martyrdom that one parent may engage in, where the ‘martyred’ parent encourages their child to feel sympathy for them in how they are being treated or how they have to struggle etc at the hands of the other parent.

There is also the conscious decision to always ‘tell the truth’. And I use the word ‘truth’ here very loosely as we all have our own version of the truth and the ‘truthful’ parent is likely to only tell the ‘truth’ when that paints the other parent in a worse light than themselves. They may well acknowledge ‘mistakes’ on their part but would be done so within the context of bad or worse behaviour on the part of the other parent.

Deliberate or not deliberate: Who can change?

If the behaviour is conscious then the parent would need to be able to work on their own feelings, understand their own motivations and be able to reflect on their own behaviour before they might be able to prioritise their child. When a parent is acting deliberately then they have a plan to strategically turn their child away from the other parent and they have little or no regard for how that might affect their child. These parents tend to be less amenable to change.

If the behaviour is unconscious or not deliberate then enabling the parent to be more aware of their behaviour and its impact may be sufficient for them to be able to prioritise their child. When a parent is acting without deliberate intent then highlighting how these behaviours might affect their child can often enable them to prioritise their child. These parents tend to be more amenable to change.

How to include children


Scene from National Family Mediation website: nfm.org.uk (Click for more)

There is much debate in the mediation world about the inclusion or not of children in the divorce process. The government has recommended that all children over the age of 10 years are given the option to be consulted directly and many mediators are trained in direct child consultation in mediation. There is also much debate about the balance between mediation and a therapeutic intervention. Mediators in the UK are less inclined to intervene than their Antipodean counterparts.

Many parents seem to think that consulting children directly means that the child has a choice to make. Not so. Listening to children does not mean agreeing with them or doing what they ask. Direct Consultation with children means that conversations can take place without the fear of a decision being made.


Whether it comes under an umbrella of therapy or mediation, talking with children and their parents about their feelings and desires, both separately and together, is essential in helping families to move forward in their lives in a way that allows freedom to enjoy all of their relationships without negative repercussions.

Shelagh Wright

Dr Shelagh Wright is a Family and Systemic Psychotherapist (registered with UKCP) and Family Mediator trained in Direct Child Consultation (registered with FMA), working with children and families who wish to improve their relationships.

About Nick Child

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


  1. George O'Neil

    Thanks, Nick. Helpful.


  2. Laurence Norwin-Allen

    Dr Shelagh,
    Please cast your stance of non-judgemental curiosity over this. I found your piece very puzzling until I realised what I have written on the last line.

    Using the taxonomy of Dr Darnall (1997) from http://www.parentalalienation.com/articles/types-alienators.html

    Type 1 – (Mild PA) [Self correcting – No intervention needed] Aware and angry parent slips and then almost immediately puts things right, but did it unconsciously motivated by feelings or what was on his/her mind clouded the judgement.
    Type 2 – (Moderate PA) [ Intervention needed – Mediation and/or SPIP Courses.] Ignorant parent has to be taught it is damaging, as the parent just has no idea. Would you call this unconscious, as the parent is not consciously or deliberately damaging the child? Once they learn the damage they are doing they change as they had no intent (mens rea) of harming their child and regret what they have done.
    Type 3 – (Severe PA) [Intervention needed – IMMEDIATE removal from perpetrating parent as soon as this is suspected, in line with other forms of Serious Sexual or Physical Abuse. (http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/10/psychological-abuse.aspx )] Parent, or other adult with time with the child is completely reckless and has no concern for the collateral damage done to the children as long as the ex suffers. The Parent deliberately uses the child as a weapon against the whole of the other parent’s family (mens rea present). This is Coercive, controlling behaviour. (Serious Crimes Act 2015, Section 76. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/9/section/76/enacted )

    We have been able to put children on the At Risk Register for Emotional Abuse on its own since 1980. Under current practice a CAF1 must be filled out and distributed to other services.

    Nick Child wrote to me, “It’s important to recognise that this (Darnal’s taxonomy) is a constructive and informal categorisation, rather a damning or diagnostic or legal variety … even if mens rea etc come into it!”

    Quantitative Research by Javelle Morille as described by Dr William Bernet on his International Conference Talk on Sunday, April 3rd 2016. Javelle Morille had 40 families to evaluate. She had the opportunity to divide up the parents by Mild, Moderate and Severe Alienating Behaviour. Over time she looked at “how alienated the children became” and found an exact 100% correlation between type of alienator and the severity of the alienation. See my Notes on the talk in the FILES section of the Parental Alienation (UK) Support and Help group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/773045976096634/

    Sue Whitcombe writes in her description
    “PA has been conceptualised as existing on a continuum from mild to severe, with therapeutic and legal interventions in response reflecting the severity and complexity (Burrill, 2006; Fidler, Bala & Saini, 2012; Rand, 1997, 2005). “
    From:- https://www.dropbox.com/s/e8amknxcxbp7txd/What%20is%20parental%20alienation%20Sue%20Whitcombe.pdf?dl=0

    You have written, “I think there is a spectrum between deliberate action and benign indifference where these behaviours occur.”

    Both of you professional therapists work as Mediators and this means that you will only see Type 2 Alienators.

    Type 3 Alienators are a completely different kettle of fish. There is plenty of evidence to show that they are suffering with unresolved childhood issues which have manifested into Personality Disorders, usually Narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorders of Cluster B. Such people will not present for treatment as they think they are perfect. They use projection to make out everything is someone else’s fault. They are delusional, thinking the targeted parent is a great danger from whom they must protect and isolate their children. They are playing out the script of unresolved childhood trauma with the wrong people in the roles of their earlier trauma. They are so pathologically enmeshed with their children they cannot tell the difference between themselves as a child and their own children. Hence a good, loving and fit other parent, in real life, becomes a danger from whom to protect their children, in their delusion. The Alienation behaviour and delusion are triggered by the perceived loss at separation from their spouse OR when their ex spouse moves on and has a new partner. Because of this, it may be even years before the Type 3 alienation behaviour kicks in. They will refuse point blank to go to mediation if court ordered, just as my ex did 33 years ago. People with this type of Personality Disorder do not even have children for the same reason as most of us. They have children to have a relationship they can control and no-one notices till their alienating behaviour is triggered.

    If someone is delusional and, according to their delusion, acts deliberately and consciously, but to everybody else the behaviour is so damaging to the child that no one would believe it could happen or be done deliberately, are they acting consciously or subconsciously?

    There are parallels with Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, when Factitious Induced Illness is induced in someone other that the perpetrator.

    “The payoff for the parent is getting attention. “You are such a caring parent. Look at you. I can’t believe you are going through that.” John T Steinbeck (http://www.brainwashingchildren.com/ )

    There is clearly a massive difference between Type 1 and Type 2 Alienation on the one hand and Type 3 on the other. In no way can I see how they can be described as a continuum or spectrum ……….until I realise mediators will only ever meet Type 2 Alienators.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Laurence for your informed and thoughtful comment. I don’t have time just now to say much, but I think what you say applies to Shelagh but not to Sue. Sue may offer child-focused mediation-shaped work, but she is not actually a Family Mediator as such.

    Sue and Shelagh might agree, I think, that a skilled PA-aware worker can and should try skilfully and hard (for a short time at least if it works) to do any kind of voluntary, mandated or prescribed collaborative work. That would be a pretty quick way to find out about Type 3 too!

    However, I am pretty sure that Sue – who does do full expert court assessments (and in her own area at least would offer, I think, family work alongside courts) – would agree that there are Type 3 cases that need robust treatment. And Shelagh too would, I guess, be in accord with the literature that recognises that severe PA cannot be solved by mediation – whatever terminology or explanation you use for it.

    However, I will leave it to Sue and Shelagh to say more if they want to.


  4. Thanks Nick and Laurence. I’m not a mediator, I’m a psychologist and I do not try to mediate between family members. I carry out an assessment and suggest an informed intervention plan based on the formulation. This is highly tailored based on the specifics of the individuals involved (personalities, behaviours, symptoms, strengths, support networks, external and social factors, psychopathology) and the dynamics and history in the relationships. This may include work with individual family members, dyads and groupings depending on the identified needs. I do identify, and diagnose where appropriate, underlying personality traits and disorders, and other psychopathology including delusional disorders, fabricated and induced illnesses and disorders where psychosis features. Where appropriate, I recommend a transfer of residence, a period of no contact with the damaging parent, supervised contact and associated supported therapy. For work within the Court system, I will carry out an assessment or conduct therapy, but not both. I believe this to be unethical and a conflict of interest. Outside of the Court, I will carry out assessment and therapy as needed. I work with individuals and families from across the alienation spectrum. My referrals come through the Court, from mediators, solicitors, mental health practitioners as well as self referrals. I also offer supervision to other practitioners working in this area.


  5. Thank you for all these very well thought out comments: it certainly is a minefield to navigate and i am reassured to hear that there is some agreement that the alienation picture varies in severity and does not always look the same for each person. Mediation certainly has it limitations in that it is voluntary and most of the parents at the severe end would not agree to attend. Even in psychotherapy a person has to want to change to be motivated to attend therapy although therapy can be mandated which at least gets people through the door.


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