Finding Alienation on a bigger map

People want me to publish my talk in PASG Nordic, Stockholm: Finding PA on a bigger map.

I’ve been reluctant: “You can read it here with slides here; I’ve said it all before; I’ll be saying it again; Things have already moved on; You can watch it along with other PASG Nordic presentations on YouTube.” … Better than the YouTube version now is this fine audio recording (many thanks to David Curl for that). And you can watch the slide show while you listen.

But anyway, here it is illustrated with some of the key slides.

My main aims were:

  • to set out the benefits of a wider perspective on Parental Alienation
  • by looking inside the working of my Sutherland Lecture and
  • focus on prevention when everyone else is pulling bodies out way downstream; so
  • I question the dominance of family law as the best solution, particularly by
  • expanding the comparison between ‘parent refusal’ and ‘school refusal’.

Finding PA on a bigger map

Nick Child’s presentation at PASG Nordic in Stockholm, August 2018

As a child psychiatrist and family therapist, I was an active denier of Parental Alienation until eight years ago. My shame has led me to campaign. I decided I could do more for more people by creative thinking, writing, and organising than by direct work with a handful of cases.

For decades those who have fallen down the sinkhole of Parental Alienation (PA) have been shouting to get rescued and to change the world so other people don’t fall in. However confident our PA-expertise is now, the world still rather ignores our efforts. We know we’ve got a solid product to sell, but we don’t have a good shop window.

Are there better ways? What should we do with the unjustified bad press.

The need for a bigger map

Naturally, faced with people down the sinkhole, you get on with rescuing victims. Everyone – sufferers and helpers and most of us at this conference too – focuses on pulling bodies out downstream. That means we are locked in with family law. Yet we all know that family law everywhere – apparently so essential – is the worst system for this job that anyone could devise. A typewriter cannot juggle. Family law fabricates a new realm of prolonged kangaroo courts, crimes and penalties that would never apply to parents and children under the actual laws of the land.

Maybe there are no better ideas than what we’ve got. But I say let’s try. Let’s look at new systems, more upstream prevention. Let’s think harder to create a bigger map, to see if we can come up with better ways. I don’t claim my ideas are all new or that they will solve all kinds of PA in all countries or all the causal factors. I aim only to encourage new thinking. The search for better ideas is valid whatever you may think of my ideas.

How will we know when a new map works?

Here’s how:

  • It’ll help integrate thinking and approaches within our PA field of study
  • It’ll liberate the best science, research, training, and intervention
  • It’ll show that PA cannot be our only focus
  • So the field and job will include all kinds of severe patterns
  • We will emphasise prevention as much as rescue and cure.
  • We will engage a wider audience of public and professionals
  • Ideological enemies will team up with a common rational purpose
  • Public, government and professional awareness will fall into place so that we:
  • Shape up better early information, guidance, and services
  • A system where lawyers and courts stop messing about and push parents to do their job along with others who do know what they’re doing.

In the short time I’ve got to change the world, I’ll skim through my recent Sutherland Lecture which was given to a mixed general audience including various professionals new to the topic. That neatly unpacks the key ideas I packed into it. I’ll skate through the slides too.

Engaging the audience

I engage my audience at the start by sharing how grim this is, how we would all rather be somewhere else, hope that ‘someone else’ is doing this difficult thinking and work. But ‘someone else’ is not. So people mostly discover it only when they themselves fall down the Alienation sinkhole. And of course I add the wider map.

Next I go straight into befriending our demon: coercion and coercive people. I describe my own driven, overly-helpful personality as valuable but that it easily leads into being coercive. I use the Karpman Drama Triangle as a step to the ‘striangulation’ triangle, a motif of an ubiquitous pattern, that becomes harmful when there’s no relief from it.

Paradoxically, the greatest power now comes from joining a victim group. So we face a post-modern nightmare of extreme gender-ideology as the only reality because everyone has to applaud it or be damned.

I point out that coercion and coercive control can be done deliberately or unwittingly, with good or bad intentions, and have constructive or destructive outcomes. I note that we are about to look at some relentlessly ‘helpful’ and ‘caring’ people: Parents: parents who are so full of their need to be the carer that they exclude rivals. It ends up being their needs that are looked after by their children. It’s how the parent secures an attachment for themselves.

This unexpected opening is intended to engage the audience, to see harmful coercion as close to caring and to good intentions. Then I step straight into another muddy field: Emotional Abuse (aka Psychological Maltreatment). The drama triangle becomes a triangle of emotionally abusive relationships. I use the APSAC formulation that Amy Baker uses .

The grand plan

My grand plan is to blend together the term Alienation as a good name for a more general ‘striangulation’ pattern that is captured in the catch-phrase “Relationships that take you in and cut you off”. I want a universal image, definition, and concept to unite a wide range of harmful coercive patterns that have separate names and are certainly not yet part of the same club.

To continue: I refer to my TEDx talk that tells of my own shameful PA ignorance. Again this is to get other ignorant professionals to follow my enlightenment.

To show just how broad-ranging my bigger map is, I refer to our Scottish campaign to influence Government about general incompetence in the family law system. This is about ALL kinds of children and families. I say that Scotland’s child and family professions are culpable too – they have drifted away and need to get aware, involved and upgrade their skills for this job.

Down the sinkhole

After this pre-amble around the bigger map, I go down the sinkhole. I want to switch on the right frame of mind – that we’re dealing with serious, urgent, harm to children. So I use an expanded heading: Parental Child Abduction and Alienation. I note that the outcome of severe Alienation is exactly the same as Abduction. I say this label means we know straight away what Parental Alienation is: it is slow Child Abduction … legally-assisted Child Abduction. That we don’t think or act as if it were this serious, I say, is like the blindness we had to past once hidden abuses. As for baby battering, domestic and child sexual abuse, everyone needs to become aware of PA.

I illustrate Abduction and Alienation with excerpts from the video: Victims of Another War … We need to learn more in order to see past the spurious happiness of an Alienated child. So I refer to other (quotes) ‘joyful’ victims of mind-control: cult recruits, jihadi suicide bombers, famous child abuse victims who died with a smile.

Down the sinkhole, I summarise some familar points about PA: It happens with any gender pattern. I ask the audience to ponder how mothers who are Alienated find nothing that helps them at Womens Aid but they do at Families Need Fathers. I say we need other theories than gender and that modern attachment science works best. We know that when attachments stop being a safe base, as when parents separate, things easily become a ‘matter of life and death’. Attachment-based assessment and help are proving their worth. I’m not referring to Craig Childress here. But Craig is on a similar track. Some are helped voluntarily, I say, but severe cases need mandated or ‘prescribed cooperation’ with a skilled child-focused family worker. I note that ordinary folk know of children turned against a parent. So there must be something in the training of professionals that breeds our ignorance. I explain how uninformed help can make it worse, how helpers always need to listen to their clients but remember that the truth may lie elsewhere.

A theatre critic’s view

Then I suggest a new way to take PA seriously: Be a theatre critic. I revise Gardner’s features of Classic PA to show they are all best understood as: histrionic acting, an operatic plot and a very poor script. Such a poor performance should be taken like an hysterical or conversion disorder to be a drama, based on an imaginary version of life, not what would actually happen. We still need to be concerned about why the family have to do this, what they’re trying to communicate. Often past unresolved attachment traumas are being re-enacted. I emphasise that the realistic ambiguous rejection of Justified Estrangement is just as important to take seriously so that we help those children and parents as well, to work out the safest best relationship possible with both parents. I introduce the broader category of ‘parent refusal’ to pave the way for later … Whatever’s going on, I say, ‘parent-refusal’ needs active help and intervention.

The theatre critic model also applies to the soap opera of family law. I emphasise the terrible harm of false allegations – formally reported or just gossip. Using the gossipy tone of voice, I quote rumour- mongering to show the audience how easily gossip works on our gullibility to damn a parent: “He’s a bit strict, likes a drink. She’s a career woman, not very motherly, on medication”. But these are not crimes nor valid reasons for a kangaroo court to take a child off their parent. I recommend continuing contact during investigation to reduce any harm. And that real penalties are needed for those who make plainly fabricated allegations.

I give a typical definition of PA as a three-party pattern, then list typical ideas (that you here all know) that are too simplistic, and some conclusions that are clear. I drop in a link between ‘parent refusal’ and ‘school refusal’. I say we need to assess “at least as thoroughly as we do with school refusal, each case in its own right”.

It’s more than just PA

Then I answer the question: What do you do next? I say:
“You already know what to do: Resisting seeing a parent is much more serious than a child resisting going to school to stay at home. Remarkably similar, they both require the same approach. You pull together the picture with the child, their responsible parent, and everyone else and put together a plan. However many factors there are to sort out, the aim is the same: get the relationship with rejected school or rejected parent back on track. We know how to do that with school-refusal, but no one yet does the same with parent-refusal.”

So I say we all need to learn more about ‘parent refusal’ – remember I’m now talking about the broader category, not just PA. I suggest people report to relevant agencies, as questions of child welfare –

  • Any child’s rejection of a parent – un-ambivalent or reasonable.
  • Any parent who seriously threatens that their ex- is never going to see the children again.o
  • Any parent who thinks it’s ok to just walk away from their children.

Some PA prevention

Then I return to the broader map and use this iconic picture to focus on prevention being better than cure. I set out some prevention of PA.

  • Change and minimise the tortuous kangaroo family law system. For now, it takes desperate people in on trust and cuts them off, in many ways like a cultic organisation does. Parents in family courts are not charged with serious misdemeanours; and if they are, family court is not the right place to tackle it.
  • Instead of inviting parents in to pay up, take their chances and game the system, let’s get lawyers and courts to put back to parents their responsibility for sorting their own family decisions. A problem-solving court can point families to help or mandate it as necessary –with firm consequences lined up if parents can’t or won’t do their job.
  • A neat idea is to establish early high priority of placing a child (all else being ok) with the parent assessed as best able to support their child’s relationship with the other parent. That would turn the whole game on its head from the start.
  • Culture can be re-shaped. In many countries the UN Right of the Child is for a family life with both parents.
  • And we now have evidence that changes the old view that single parent families are ok. A life with both parents benefits children in every measurable way before and after separation
  • Otherwise, yes, everyone needs to learn more, to spot these patterns early on and intervene early and well.

A wide range of coercive patterns > New moral high ground

Heading for the final section, I remind those who don’t like negative words that Alienation is a nasty thing, so a nasty name fits. Anyway Alienation is a very respectable widely studied, ancient word with relevant meanings for the loss and harm it causes.

I shake the audience up into the new bigger map. I set out the wide range of harmful coercive patterns in family and other groups. I propose Alienation as the core pattern of all kinds of “relationships that take you in and cut you off”. I enter the lioness’s den as an example of how the ‘coercive control’ of Domestic Abuse, as defined in the new UK laws applies just as well to all the other coercive patterns and situations

Now I can take a new moral high ground. I say we find this coercive abuse in institutions and in cultic groups where it is more deeply hidden and more severe. In most couple and family abuse the entrapped victim knows they are a victim. But the severe cultic pattern – and severe PA is one of those – typically requires a false self, a fabricated loyal identity that displaces the person’s authentic identity and feelings. From the new moral high ground, I say it’s a shame to have excluded from the protection of the new laws all these other victims, victims who have suffered worse harm, victim groups who don’t have such a powerful voice or as equal an opportunity as women’s rights groups do.

Attachment science and emotional abuse

Then I show how in all these family and other group coercive relationships, it is Attachment science that explains it best. Like Alex Stein’s work on cults and how disorganised attachment mashes victims minds up. Our understanding of neuroscience means this is literally ‘brain-washing’. But a child’s primary attachment to a parent means they’re sitting ducks who will willingly do, for love, what the parent they’re attached to needs them to do. They’ve been made to get rid of one parent and they cling to the nearby parent thinking they’re safe. But actually that parent feeds their anxiety (as cults do) rather than sorting it out as a good carer would. Children can’t think clearly so they just obey.

So, I say, Alienation is found across this wide range of harmful coercive relationships. But Parental Alienation is the only pattern that uses the word in its label. I invite people to learn as I have from the wider field of (what’s called) Undue Influence, for example, from the Open Minds Foundation. We can’t get rid of power in relationships, but we know how to tell whether influence is constructive or destructive as Steve Hassan’s Influence Continuum chart shows.

I say all these harmful patterns are Emotional Abuse that causes harm. The relationship patterns cause Mental Health disorders and are caused by people with MH disorders, but the pattern should be defined less tautologically than by its effects: “… someone blocks your natural reactions and actions …” The cleaner definition is not just academic, given how people want to bring in upsetting things that are not harmful. The qualities that make it harmful are when it is : systematic, sustained and entrapping.

The voice and welfare of children: School refusal as a model

Finally I put together a powerful criticism of the voice of the child that brings in my ace idea. I don’t need to explain to this audience how focusing on a child’s wishes and feelings is the problem not the solution. I note that people of all ages are subject to influence of all kinds. I note that mature functioning adults can be recruited into coercive relationships and cults; Undue Influence has no age limits. It must always be skilfully assessed.

I bring in a transformative school refusal model of parent refusal. I expand it for you here but its power is that it needs little explanation. I clarify school refusal from truancy; and that the rejected school is the equivalent of the rejected parent. I note the following features in school refusal:

  • The parent is held to be fully responsible for their child and their school attendance, and for taking the initiative to sort it.
  • Going to school is the norm, the law. That goes up to school-leaving age, not 12 years old.
  • A child’s views and wishes are plainly not the main or deciding factor, however passionately expressed
  • Prompt parent-school communication and cooperation is expected and pursued.
  • Even if there is alleged risk from bullies or teacher, working with the school continues as assessment and plans are made.
  • Multi factors are assessed – especially any alleged real or imagined sources of anxiety and separation anxiety.
  • Relevant attachment history and patterns are understood.
  • Anxiety disorder is tackled, not believed and sanctioned.
  • Strong feelings are not taken as proof of outer reality
  • In an informal but engaged joined-up way, ideas, help and solutions are put together from anyone and everyone who can – family, community, school, and helpers.
  • Everyone reliably takes for granted the professional role, knowledge, skill (of all kinds including risk management), qualification, regulation, standards and codes of conduct (including effective complaints procedures) of those helpers so designated.
  • Natural or systemic thinking is not blocked by the compartmentalisation and partial selective accounts so typical of adversarial family law.
  • As much liaison and case discussion happens as is needed to create a progressive process and collaborative plan with self-managed structure and roles …
  • Usually a key-worker actively coordinates everyone to make things happen.
  • If one plan doesn’t work, or one person in the system lets everyone down, another plan or team is quickly created and tried out
  • Everyone is driven by the same shared child-focused outcome to find a way that works and benefits the child even though the child may not agree.
  • With everyone engaged and getting on with solving it, emotional abuse is not an issue.
  • Hefty fees are not involved (in the UK anyway), so all children who need it, get this help as they should.
  • Open informal feedback can be expected to go with formal audit, research and high standards of evidence-based practice.
  • Those involved who are earning a living from the work, do not stand to benefit financially from keeping the problem going; the motivation to solve the problem is less distracted.
  • Only rarely and at the very end of trying everything else, might school refusal become a matter for higher authorities and even family courts.
  • Home schooling (the equivalent of terminal parent refusal) is a challenging responsible option, not an easy one.

Remembering that ‘parent refusal’ is not just PA, school refusal and parent refusal are identical in form. Yet in every single respect listed here, parent refusal is dealt with in a diametrically opposite way by a typical family law system. Most people are familiar with school refusal and how it is tackled. So they quickly compare, contrast and apply that model to parent refusal. Even lawyers get it!


This suggests a few conclusions:

  • A point by point comparison with the usual family law system confirms why that is the wrong system – why ‘a typewriter cannot juggle’.
  • The school refusal concept and approach encourages us to look to the standard ‘juggling’ skills of an effective multi-disciplinary community approach for parent-refusal too.
  • The ultimate problem turns out to be that society everywhere unquestioningly values schooling but is not that bothered by a child’s loss of a relationship with a parent, even though we know how harmful that is to them.

I wind down with reminders of Attachment. Two useful approaches are Crittenden’s DMM and Dan Hughes’s neuroscience based DDP.

So that’s my best shot at telling the world about our field. I think I meet many of the criteria for a useful bigger map that I set out at the start.

If you have better ideas, please do share them (in the comments below). Thank you.

About Nick Child

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

One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Parental Alienation and commented:
    This suggests a few conclusions:

    A point by point comparison with the usual family law system confirms why that is the wrong system – why ‘a typewriter cannot juggle’.
    The school refusal concept and approach encourages us to look to the standard ‘juggling’ skills of an effective multi-disciplinary community approach for parent-refusal too.
    The ultimate problem turns out to be that society everywhere unquestioningly values schooling but is not that bothered by a child’s loss of a relationship with a parent, even though we know how harmful that is to them.
    I wind down with reminders of Attachment. Two useful approaches are Crittenden’s DMM and DMM


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