For decades those who know the scourge of Parental Alienation have fought but failed to raise serious general awareness in a world that is more intent on ignoring it. Parental Alienation is a very serious reality. So that failure is strange and worrying. Experts have tried a number of earnest ways to spread the word. Could lightening up a bit engage the wide interest that Parental Alienation (PA) deserves?
What about a dramatically different serious viewpoint: that of a theatre critic?
At face value
The original way to take PA seriously is the commonest among lay people and professionals. That is to take the performance deadly seriously: at face value. A child outrightly rejects a parent, energetically supported by the resident parent. Clear enough? Two against one, very convincing, there must be some really good reason for it. Family, friends, professionals, lawyers and judges mostly agree to evaporate the rejected parent from the child’s life, as the loud majority demands.
A scientific disorder
For many decades professionals have taken PA seriously in a different way – most famously but controversially, child psychiatrist, Richard Gardner. They have recorded the typical features of the rarer classical PA as a syndrome or disorder. This is a well-known, objective and scientific way to take any human trouble seriously. Given the folie à deux in the PA pattern, the disconnection from reality (aka madness), and the associated harm and mental disturbance caused, doctors naturally head for a medical-shaped diagnostic model.
Gardner’s eight features of classic PA (see below) are as good a syndrome as you can get. But despite the validity of this approach, years of dedicated effort have not seen the PA Syndrome (PAS) join the veritable orgy of named disorders packed into the American DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) nor the WHO’s ICD (International Classification of Diseases). Contrary to one popular belief, this is not because PAS is not real or scientific; it’s because it is a relationship pattern, a causal factor, not the individual disorder that would qualify it for a full DSM or ICD category of its own. There are billions of scientifically real things in the world that don’t find a place in the DSM or ICD!
Gardner’s eight features are still widely valued as a good description – they are the mainstay of any paper or presentation on the subject. But still that doesn’t sway big audiences.
Other factors, nuanced or strident
Since then, serious alternative labels and readings of the pattern have been proposed. Joan Kelly and Janet Johnson saw ‘the Alienated child’ as the result of multi-factorial patterns that are part of a broad range of normal family relationships. In stridently campaigning contrast, Craig Childress proposes an almost uni-factorially simple alternative to ‘Gardnerian PAS’. It’s based on Attachment-related family pathology causing a child’s Psychological Abuse. Along with these, there are many other variations and alternative names for PA, but the point is made.
Most PA experts (and parents too) agree that PA is serious because it is a relationship pattern that causes harm and Emotional or Psychological Abuse. And Emotional Abuse is also caused by individuals who themselves often have unresolved past trauma linked to their mental health (MH) and personality disorders. So it is entirely appropriate that it is MH professionals who work with PA.
In passing though, I note that in Scotland the system has become a monopoly of lawyers none of whom have any requirement for qualification or training like the years spent by those who do work with children and families. See this report for more on that: ‘the unqualified gap through which children fall in Scotland’s family law system‘.
Taking it less seriously?
All these serious frameworks for PA have their strengths and merits. But maybe it is the seriousness itself that forms a barrier to what we most desire: the engagement of audiences, professional and public, on the way to awareness and to the many developments we need to prevent and intervene with PA. Maybe the seriousness induces a kind of helpless awe, if not an actively off-putting puzzlement or disbelief at the strange hinterland of the complexity of PA.
So, are there other ways to present PA so that we engage audiences better and don’t put them off? Can we be less serious about something so serious?!
First, a detour to reduce any offence to experts and sufferers (for whom this is, as we all agree, very serious). This detour explores how taking something seriously can entail a less serious framework.
A detour about attention-seeking
Inside the DSM and ICD is what is perhaps the strangest category of disease there is. The presentation of a disease which is defined by the absence of disease. It used to be called ‘hysteria’ but now carries the more neutral labels: ‘functional’ or ‘conversion disorder’
Conversion disorder is a psychiatric condition in which a person develops physical symptoms that are not under voluntary control and are not explained by a neurological disease or another medical condition. … A key feature of conversion disorder is the incompatibility between an individual’s symptoms and recognized neurological or medical conditions. (Psychology Today)
The key feature is that the symptoms presented follow a lay idea of what the disease looks like. In other words, the patient unwittingly puts on a poor performance that the medically trained doctor can see through, without fancy tests for disease, just from the presentation. The presented paralysed arm doesn’t fit with the known anatomy of a neurological paralysis. Often psychiatrists and other MH professionals then fail to take this apparent hoax seriously. It is seen as the attention seeking of an undeserving and phoney patient.
Well, yes, of course it’s attention-seeking! It’s again strangely illogical that this description becomes a reason to turn the patient away, to NOT give them the attention they seek! The serious question is: Why? Why does the attention-seeking take this strange hammed-up form? What is being so desperately communicated? What should we pay attention to given there is no underlying disease?
We have learned, of course, to understand that what is being ‘converted’ in a conversion disorder is other kinds of MH disorder, or other unresolved secret or suppressed trauma and distress that the sufferer may not be aware of or willing to tell straight out.
Parental Alienation as a melodrama
Now PA is, as we’ve seen, not itself a MH disorder. It’s a family pattern. But we can still ask ourselves about the quality of the performance. The best way to do that is to put ourselves with Statler and Waldorf in the theatre critic’s balcony seats and mind-set.
When we look at PA as a theatre critic would, what do we see? We see:
- histrionic acting,
- an operatic plot, and
- a very poor script.
Maybe that reframe engages the audience more actively, increases understanding and engagement while reducing off-putting awe and disbelief. There’s two ways to test this out.
First, with our theatre critic spectacles on, let’s go through the usual Gardner features of classic PA. They hardly need any alteration to see the stagey-ness of the melodrama:
- There is a compelling story delivered in a powerful way – “Everything is wonderful but …”
- There’s a dramatic rejection of a once loved, caring, safe (partner and) parent that is way over the top – “… If only he or she would disappear, everything would be perfect”.
- The melodrama doesn’t match the plot – weak or frivolous reasons are given: “She forgot my teddy! He made me eat my toast!” Or maybe no reasons at all: “I just don’t want to go. Don’t my feelings matter?!”
- Assessment shows no serious risk or criminal abuse, not at all the kind of parent that social work or probation would have as a client.
- An untrained actor, the child takes on a new inauthentic role, with reflex totally split loyalty to one parent and ruthless rejection of the other parent.
- And, as amateurs, they lack the normal ambivalence that, in reality, children show who have been abused or face actual abuse by their parent, No child can so simply dispose of an Attachment figure.
- For a script, the child is taught or borrows adult words:“You’re just a stranger to us, Dave” In case of any doubt, the child may add: “And no one made me say that! It’s what I think.”
- The lack of a realistically developed plot and script means that the child extends the unfounded rejection to the whole of the rejected parent’s extended family, including even pets and once favourite foods or activities.
- If the melodrama isn’t powerful enough, false allegations may be added, fabricated or passionately believed. False allegations that are formally reported and those merely hinted and gossiped about can deliver devastating unjust damning verdicts on the caring relationship a child could have with a caring parent.
So, that’s quite a performance. By being a theatre critic, you’re not likely to miss how hammed-up and stagey it is. The melodrama tells us to see through it, to be very concerned indeed. Does the theatre critic’s viewpoint work for you?
The same question now arises – Why? What is being communicated so passionately if ineptly? What on earth could be driving this desperate show? And broadly the same answer applies: Some other disorder or unresolved past trauma – most likely it will be an ‘Attachment-related pathology’ – is being projected into the child and the rejected parent, and played out in the present family situation … And, for sure, there’s often a large audience sitting on the edge of their seats.
Putting this to the test: Another performance!
And the second way to test it is with an audience of novice front-line helping professionals. There will be various other innovations being tested out, but this test of the theatre critic’s viewpoint of PA will be on the 14th May in Edinburgh when I give the Spring Sutherland Trust Lecture on: Alienation in families. Tickets available here.
The theatre critic viewpoint may help switch on good thinking and engage audiences. But it doesn’t follow that theatre critics have any further use beyond that! That would be way too serious for them to help with!