A therapist colleague expressed the discomfort of the vast majority of the helping professions everywhere. She said: “I just can’t dance with Alienation.” She meant the word and its meaning.
For decades, I would also have professed this kind-hearted sentiment. As a therapist, I used to think that we should always try to find collaborative ways to work with people, children, families and human systems. It was our job to work hard on this. Negative words are more likely to hinder than to help. So it seemed right to always accentuate the positive. Alienation is a negative word. So let’s dance away from it.
Aversion and ignorance
The aversion to the word is normal for helping professions across the world – especially for warm-hearted therapists. I danced away from Alienation for most of my career. I especially didn’t like the word when it was teamed up as: Parental Alienation Syndrome. I dismissed that out of hand as a concept and I didn’t read anything more about it. So I helped professional ignorance thrive. I contributed to a culture that fails children and families who are suffering some terrible things. I may well have personally failed to provide a proper service to some of them. All the time I was sure I was doing good.
I feature my mistake in my TEDx talk: A maverick’s mission and mistakes. That tells my story of discovering that we do need to dance with Alienation. Since then I have tried hard to work out if there is a nicer word to use when we talk about it.
I did find lots of ways to put Alienation on the map using a number of broader frameworks. My overview includes my best summary of that wider canvas. And this whole weblog and its name too – the alienation experience – arose from the same wide angle lens approach. I want to go over afresh some of the pros and cons that a broad approach gives us in the use of the words: Parental Alienation.
The word Syndrome is another big discussion that I’ve covered elsewhere. See my overview again, or the post here. That discussion leads into more complicated academic arguments about the use of labels and categories.
Remember that, in practice, ALL terms and categories are abstract guidelines. Every individual real family situation should be skilfully assessed in their own unique complexity, not in terms of some simplistic schema or assumptions or a tick box list. In Britain if not elsewhere, in family courts and in clinical work, the detailed assessment matters more than the labels do. But guidelines can help clearer thinking.
A relationship scale
Let’s start with this colourful version of Kelly and Johnston’s (2001) scale that they used when they proposed a more multifactorial approach to what they renamed: The Alienated Child. As both diagrams show, they put Alienation at one end of the scale and Positive Relationship at the other. Both diagrams add on the bits describing other aspects of the relationships … with both parents or with one, and with or without ambivalence.
I very much agree with Kelly and Johnston’s overall thinking. Multifactorial is most certainly always what each case of Alienation is. It is important to include the child as an active contributor to what happens. They have their own developmental or other factors that play a part. And it is important to bring in this range of relationships that parents and their children have. It’s not as if everyone has normal family relationships, and then, whoopsie-doopsie, suddenly there’s this weird totally different pattern called Parental Alienation.
Note by the way that an apparently ‘distant’ parent may still feel and be totally dedicated to their children – through working long hours, for example. When couples separate, to ignore that kind of dedicated love can be as terrible as ignoring the close up kind. And uninfluenced children may just ‘know’ that a distant parent still loves them as deeply as if they were home a lot. Note too that – even though they have no personality disorder or mental disturbances – loving desperate people do desperate things during the breakdown of their deepest family attachments. That includes some things that may confirm a negative view of that parent unless you look harder.
Extending the scale
But Kelly and Johnston’s improved scale still perpetuates misunderstandings. Here’s how I correct these in my overview: I extend the close < > distant relationships scale to go in both directions. That’s because close positive relationships are not the only kind of close relationships. There are also harmful coercively close ones. I put Positive Relationship in the middle because it is a healthy balance between too close and not too close. Like this:
This scale now separates out and includes the Coercive close relationship which is the concerning one in both Abduction and Alienation. So that pairing appears at both ends of the scale; you don’t get the one without the other. The Abducted child and the Alienated parent are incidental by-products of a harmful Coercive relationship. The distant parent gets suddenly or slowly cut off from their child. The distant parent gets denigrated as if they were harmful. But – unless it is justified Estrangement, not Alienation – it is actually the parent with the close relationship that is doing the harm. That’s where we should focus our attention. The word Abduction focuses us correctly. The word Alienation doesn’t.
And the second point about Kelly and Johnston’s scale? It makes Alienation look like the distance is just an extreme of distancing. But Alienation is NOT the result of progressive drifting apart through stages of Detached > Disengaged > Estranged. Uncomplicated Alienation is made to happen by a third party: the coercive Abducting or Alienating Parent.
Pointing at the wrong parent
In fact, we can say that there is a whole general problem with the term Parental Alienation. I’m not saying we can change the name – that is what everyone calls it. But we should note the problems with it.
Of course, the Alienated parent is going to suffer and protest most. We should be alerted by their Alienation. It’s an important symptom of harm going on in the resident family. But, once alerted and due assessment made to confirm the picture (or not), our focus should move more to the other parent and their relationship.
By using the term ‘Parental Alienation’ it is as if we are repeating the family pattern’s false pointing at a symptom – the targeted parent – as if this is pointing to the cause. But the cause lies in the pointing. Because two people – the favoured parent and child – are pointing, somehow that convinces us two against one must be right. Strangely, the name distracts our focus away from the Alienating damaging parent who is driving it. It certainly distracts us from the Alienated child. Why strangely? Because logically the word Alienation can equally refer to the Alienating parent.
There are mistaken ideologically-based views that explicitly confirm that the Alienated parent is bad, the cause of everything the Alienating parent and Alienated child say he is. He? Yes, this ideological view wrongly assumes that the Alienated parent is always male. Even the slightest reading about it shows that Parental Alienation can happen in any gender pattern.
In fact Alienation is an ancient word for the experience of distance between an individual and their society. Many famous names over many centuries have written about social alienation. It is a very good word for what happens. And of course it is studied because we don’t like it – Alienation is explicitly about people who ‘just can’t dance’ together!
Both the ancient and the modern meanings of Alienation describe people with more power being insensitive to others with less power, in relationships that could be or actually had been more satisfactory. The powerful do something that distances the less powerful from their due sense of social connection. The alienated person is left at a loss – a loss of power, of connection, meaning, and norms (Seeman 1959).
By the way, we live in a world where armies of social justice warriors are madly seeking to find and pull down anyone and everyone who has any power. The ideology is that this will protect and prevent all the victims of the powerful. Please note that the above description of power leading to Alienation does NOT mean that power is wrong in itself. There are always going to be people with power. The question is how that power is used for good or bad ends. Social justice warriors presume they are obviously good people so that their being in power will be enough assurance of the really good use of power come their revolution. No one of course will want or be permitted to pull them down from power! This presumption of God-given righteousness and power-seeking is an essential part of the toolkit for those who run totalitarian countries, cults and all the other cultic and coercive groups.
My own TEDx story is an illustration: As a specialist professional I had power, I was righteous in my dismissing Alienation. I was sure I was providing a good service. But I was not right nor doing good things. To strip me of my power would not have been much use to anyone. Learning much earlier how to be useful would have been best. A problem with power is a reason to sort the problem not pull power down. Pulling power down requires others to step in who have the power to pull it down. And who or what then ensures that their use of power will be wonderful? Just a thought in passing.
Back to Alienation: Other kinds of Alienation take three to dance it. These are the ones we focus more on now. A key third party powerfully drives the coercive taking-in of one party, and the rejection or cutting-off of another. Of all the many group situations where three-party Alienation happens (see ‘undue influence’ below), only Parental Alienation uses that word in its name.
A rotten rose by any sweeter name would smell as rotten
So Alienation is unpleasant by name and nature. Nasty things need to be clearly named and tackled. A rotten rose by any sweeter name would still be rotten. There are many other unpleasant words that we may not like dancing with – like violence, abuse, racism and so on. But we use them because they refer to unpleasant things that we need to tackle.
We’re kidding ourselves to imagine that Alienation is the wrong nasty word for something that is not nasty, to think that a change of words would solve it. Severe Alienation is a form of serious emotional abuse. When we bother to read more, we discover that it is at least as bad as lots of other bad relationship things. If we dance away from unpleasant things, then we are part of a culture that makes them grow worse.
I invite everyone – especially helping professionals – to overcome your aversion please.
Meanwhile, though, what would help the misunderstandings that the term Parental Alienation creates? Well one of my ideas is to follow Kelly and Johnston and use the term Child Alienation. At least that highlights the prime victim, the child.
Then I recommend we bracket Abduction into the label like this: Parental Child Abduction and Alienation. Abduction is a quick way to achieve exactly the same as slow Alienation in its severe form. This longer phrase immediately focuses the right part of our minds. We think:
“Child?! Oh!! Child abduction?!! Yes, that’s definitely wrong, a crime needing prompt police and legal intervention. Oh and … Alienation is the same sort of thing? OK … Ri-ight. So the person taking the child away is the one we have to look at and stop. And maybe Alienation also requires prompt tough intervention like Abduction does.”
Another solution is to go large … to bracket (Parental Child) Alienation as one of the many patterns of harmful coercive and controlling family and non-family relationship patterns, all of which use similar kinds of intentional or unintentional manipulation or undue influence. Undue influence describes what happens in: cults, terrorism, confidence-trickery as well as domestic abuse and child abuse (see Learning about a common enemy, New thoughts on high conflict in families, and the Open Minds Foundation for more on this).
Undue influence of ALL kinds takes people in and cuts them off from their normal family and friends. That is Alienation. Amy Baker in her research found compelling similarity between the coercive control and undue influence of Parental Alienation in separated families and the coercive control and alienation found in mind-control cults. Alexandra Stein shows how Attachment theory best explains what happens whether the harmful undue influence is in family groups or non-family groups. Dr Nadine Harris powerfully tells us the ‘bear’ truth about terror and childhood adversity.
For those who have that old aversion, my overview is especially written for you. Alienation’s the right word for Alienation. We have to use Parental Alienation because it’s the one everyone uses. But we can debate the pros and cons of better alternatives when we talk informally. If you’re still not convinced, then get going on the mountain of books and resources referenced in my overview or on the Resources page here.
We must overcome our aversion so we can stop making it worse for those who are pushed in the deep end of Child Alienation – especially for the children stuck in the middle. And of course, then we can genuinely play our part in preventing it and helping those caught in their hell hole.