A theatre critic’s view of Parental Alienation

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.

Emotional abuse

The unqualified gap through which children fall in Scotland’s family law system

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.

Two well-loved theatre critics: Statler and Waldorf

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. Various other innovations were tested out, but the test of the theatre critic’s viewpoint of PA was delivered on the 14th May 2018 in Edinburgh when I gave the Spring Sutherland Trust Lecture on: Alienation in families. You can read and hear that talk here. From the audience reaction, the theatre critic approach passed the test!

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!

Nick Child, Edinburgh

About Nick Child

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


  1. I’m pleased indeed to pass on this comment I’ve received off-line (with her permission):

    A very good article and a fine tribute to my first husband. Thank you

    Lee R. Gardner, MD
    Asst. Clinical Professor of Adult & Child Psychiatry,
    Columbia College of Physicians & Surgeons

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Love your way of shaping and describing complex interactions into understandable patterns. Pity Edinburgh is soo far away

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you ,it’s help me to understand PA and deal with it !

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mairead Steward

    I have experienced it so I understand it – for a long time I could not make sense of what was happening. Now I do I have joined the team to bring awareness and understanding of this problem. There is a growing interest thankfully among professionals. So we just have to keep on working towards a better future for our children in whatever way works best. Thanks for sharing this less serious view – an interesting take on it. I think this is the first post on parental alienation that has made me smile because of the clever take on the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Heidi McCarthy responded elsewhere (with her permission)

    Dear Nick,
    This is brilliant. Thank you for taking this delicious spin on a topic that has the effect on most bystanders of losing both their attention and their appetite!

    I wrote a paper outlining an intervention within the school setting last term. I was alienated from my father at age three. My research grimly uncovered that the attorneys, mediators, school professionals and social services in the U.S. are also unqualified to deal with this issue. It is not a battle to be fought in the adversarial realm of the court – as it is clearly a multigenerational mental health crisis!

    The systems are broken – I believe it’s time for a paradigm shift and an awakening in all fields of study and branches of epistemology to properly identify, assess, and swiftly intervene in cases of alienation – which seem to be rapidly increasing worldwide.

    I look forward to to reading more of your posts. Thank you for advocating for families suffering the trauma of alienation abuse.

    Warm Regards,
    Heidi McCarthy, USA

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Here’s an exchange triggered by Jill Goldson’s response elsewhere (shared here with permission):

    Hi Nick
    I really enjoyed this writing.
    Humour is a brilliant way to get a message across.
    Thank you so much,I will look up more of your writing

    Jill Goldson (Auckland,NZ)
    M.A (Hons), CQSW, NZAC, ACC
    Working with the family in transition

    Nick replied:

    Thanks Jill.
    Yes, but (now you’ve mentioned the value of humour on its own) I’m thinking there’s more than mere humour that is useful in this theatre critic idea. Here I’m not trying to over-stretch the usefulness, just identify why it might be powerful as a way to engage audiences better.

    I’m seriously suggesting that the natural and best, most straightforward, engaging, way to appreciate what PA is, is for the audience to be like Statler and Waldorf – to be a theatre critic. This is not just a humorous style for this article. I’m seriously suggesting what might be generally useful in contrast to our usual – and entirely valid – presenting PA very seriously indeed in the various ways we do, notably as a scientific syndrome.

    To expand on this:
    Imagine if a theatre were to put a comedy, or a tragedy, on stage and then prevent people in the audience from reacting to the show as audiences normally do to the comedies or tragedies as they are meant and performed to be received. And, what’s more, not just prevent the audience from reacting naturally, but instead put on stage left a serious-toned scientific authority to ensure that the audience shuts up, stops the action on stage even, to listen instead to a commentary to explain the jokes or the sadness in some kind of technical way.

    Maybe the technical commentator would say: “Did you see the subliminal effect of Joe slipping on that skin of a discarded well-known yellow-coloured fruit and landing with a loud impact on his gluteal muscles, the effect that had on Joanie and her timing of how she turned a 1.30 seconds-long look at the audience before delivering her next line, delivered notice, with a left-side tilted wry smirk, and said …” etc.

    It seems to me that a performance that was turned technical like that would quickly lose the audience because they have been thoroughly blocked in their natural and best way to receive the performance they’re there to enjoy dramatically.

    In a future blog I intend to explore what Emotional Abuse is. I have developed a definition based on how blocking natural reactions like that (if the blocking is sustained) is what Emotional Abuse is and does. So the blocked audience at our imaginary show would, I suggest, be experiencing something unpleasant and akin even to Emotional Abuse.

    The audience reading or listening to our PA 8-features presentations would probably not be able to work out for themselves this account of their experience. But, just as the hypothetical theatre audience would, so our PA audience would surely be turned off. Metaphorically if not actually they might not return after the interval!!

    So I’m suggesting that it is positively important to allow people to take PA as the kind of stagey hoax Statler, Waldorf and I say it plainly is. It may be really important not to immediately give them a boring scientific syndrome kind of lecture. I suggest this approach helps to show why audiences feel turned off, rather than engaged by the way we usually deliver our PA topic.

    Having said all that, I’m not at all clear how that would change our conferences, workshops, books and literature!! Any ideas welcome!!

    Nick Child, Edinburgh

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sam Hart

    Great essay! My contribution to the debate (alas, in Portuguese), a comicbook about joint custody that touches on the subject of PA http://guardacompartilhadaemquadrinhos.blogspot.com/

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A very thought provoking blog, thanks Nick


  9. Reblogged this on Parental Alienation and commented:
    Another good post by Nick Child, – “A theatre critic’s view of Parental Alienation”


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