Untangling a web – and the thread didn’t break

Sir Walter Scott

“Oh what a tangled web we weave …” penned Walter Scott in 1808 about Lord Marmion’s love-life. But he could have typed it in 2008 about the worldwide web and its promiscuous off-spring: social media. That’s a ‘tangled web’ too. With everyone free to be fake to the world online, Scott’s complete stanza still works well: ‘… when first we practice to deceive.’

Yet the threads of discussion on social media can spin gold as well. This blog is to celebrate some untangling of another web: the worst post-separation family troubles. In the real world, not just the virtual one. That’s layers more of tangled webs. In that tangle, discord breaks any thread of discussion sharp and short in real and virtual worlds. The words stay online forever. Rarely, a casual Tweet gets dug up and used to damn the writer years later. But usually the floods of social media conversation – good, bad and ugly – are instantly lost to sight. Usually.

A rare bird on Twitter: Diverse civil discussion

Usually but … on 23rd October 2019 a prolific diverse (but UK-based) Twitter conversation (‘thread’) started and then kept going in a civil constructive way for over a week. So hungry are we for civil discussion in the hellish battle field that is modern family life after parents separate, that we decided to celebrate the achievement by featuring it here, selecting bits, and linking access to the rest of the thread. Here we save the thread from oblivion, to open up a rich lively discussion.

A short conversation on Twitter

We are also rare birds who care to Tweet about matters of great complexity. But we did not come up with any stunning solutions. So why are we making a fuss about it?  Effective problem-solving requires open discussion. And then it needs some more. First to thoroughly clarify how to define a problem. Then for creative brain-storming for solutions. We’ve all got our favourite solutions. But they’ll only work if you can persuade the wider system. So more discussion is needed to select the best solution in what can only be a multi-agency system. And then more discussion to review progress, revise plans and keep things on course.

This applies to post-separation family troubles too. We have lots of voices, ideas, partial efforts, tinkering and argument. But we desperately leap to myriad solutions before we’ve had enough wide-ranging stages of discussion and formulation on the way to what’s to be done. No wonder we trip each other up. In fact, there is no substantial forum where all the stake-holders can talk and talk some more on this topic. Except for Twitter.

This blog shows off a diverse Twitter thread starting off from a separated family relationship pattern we know as: Parental Alienation (PA). Typically that’s when the resident parent turns a child against the other parent for no good reason in a lasting way. More fathers are non-resident, so it happens a lot to them. But there are many safe and loving mothers whose children are cut off from them.

I gave up on using minimal quotes: solid sections are better. I believe the length of the blog is rewarded by the sparkle of the original conversation that wouldn’t normally see the light of day again. The discussion was untamed, but the headings help you find bits in what is a compendious blog. Feel free to skip through, but don’t miss the conclusions!

The start: A sorry case

The limits of a judge’s power

Hands were tied

What works? How do we know?

Who knows best? Prevention, specialism, qualification


Lawyers aren’t psychologists

Courts are a stage

The child’s experience


How it happens

Technical tips

How to get hold of the thread?  To get a straight run of most of the full thread on Twitter try SP’s link. Below, click on the links given in each section and scroll to the date given to read around the quoted sections. If you click on the last Tweets you can find and scroll backwards, that works best. Click on all the <more replies> you see to open the whole thread up. Where a Tweet is followed by a reply bubble: 💬 and the number of replies is 2 or more, then clicking on that Tweet often leads you off into another branch of the discussion. There’s many tracks I’ve not gone down.

Here in a summary blog, the content matters most. So I’ll use people’s initials. I’ve tried to keep a neutral position. If you want to see them, my own contributions should all be in here. Our diverse Tweeters included parents of different persuasions, grown up alienated children, a prolific Tweeting barrister, and a range of experienced helping professionals … psychologist, independent social worker, psychiatrist / family therapist, mediator/parent coordinator.

The hope of course is that celebrating this thread will lead on to other diverse civil debates and collegial developments for more useful untangling in the service of the welfare and safety of children and their families who go through the mill just now.

The start: A sorry case

HHJ Stephen Wildblood

It began with VOC’s Tweet, one of many, featuring – in The Sun newspaper! – HHJ Stephen Wildblood’s published ‘sorry’ judgement on ‘Re: A (Children) (Parental Alienation)’. His report itself is remarkably concise, compassionate and clear. There’s a rougher, more robust amplification and critique from a blogger who has been through it.

I think it is no coincidence that our more sober and civil discussion followed on from this judge’s honest and ethical decision to publish his critical judgement. There are plenty of other cases that tell this story and make these lessons. But this is the most openly damning yet. People have given him great credit.

HHJ Stephen Wildblood recognises the years of failure to see and act on what was happening in this case. He criticises anonymous previous judges and legals, along with named experts involved in the belated failed attempt to transfer the children to the permanent care of their rejected father.

The limits of a judge’s power

The VOC link opened up a welcome and a shared sorrow about this public apology of a case.

SM: This article is so upsetting. The catalogue of failures of services. To have to say to a parent, dad in this case, ‘yes, we know you are a good parent, but you still can’t have access to them because they have been told so many lies they actually HATE you” ⧣ParentalAlienation

Early on SP and NCn had this exchange about the power and limits of what a judge could order. Click on NCn’s link here to read more of it.

SP: So. What would you have done? How much physical force do you think it’s appropriate to exert on children?

NCn: Would you leave a child in the care of someone you knew to be sexually abusing them? The horrific life long outcome for children of PA is as damaging.

SP: No, and that is a fair point. But at the moment the apparatus of the State WILL get behind a child who is sexually abused. Emotional abuse is much more difficult to deal with as in every other respect the parent is a ‘good’ one and the children refuse to leave. I do not doubt that the impact of such emotional abuse has life long consequences every bit as severe as sexual abuse. But its like boiling a frog. By the time everyone has woken up to the fact it is happening, damage is done and is entrenched. What the court system needs is more time and more judges to have quicker finding of fact hearings and then a will to act much more quickly. An end to this desperately naive hope that the abusing parent will ‘shift’. I think they rarely do.

NCn: (1) Agree with your summing up, but more than just time is needed. It’s accuracy and proper investigation into why a child is unjustifiably rejecting another parent. Cafcass are assigned 25 hrs per case. Most of that goes on report writing, travel, court appearances.
(2) Often only 1 hour is given to a telephone interview with traumatised parent of which their trauma is held against them and so indirect contact is recommended during proceedings which can take months. By which time, as you agree, entrenchment is too deep.
(3) My initial reaction was to your wording of your original text. Parents are trying to survive the worst grief and ambiguous loss and it came across as dismissive and sarky. Grieving a living a child is beyond anyone’s comprehension and yes! The Judge should have done more.
(4) Why was this Mother not in contempt of breaking the Order when so many others are often arrested due to false allegations?

Hands were tied

Taking off down A’s link and SMK’s link here’s a selection of (unconnected) quotes as a taster:

PCA: I think they could have tried a few things before giving up. 1. increasing the therapeutic support because what was there appears to have been inadequate. 2. they could have tried interim care order. 3. split the children moving one at a time allowing them 1:1 support.

AB: The children needed to get away from the mother. That’s clear. What didn’t happen is what’s often not used: a transitional placement with intensive work. But why not??

NFIH: Really? You appear to be making very confident assertions about this case. This sort of unshakable belief in one’s own opinion is what caused a therapist to put these children through a ‘deeply traumatic’ experience. Her primary responsibility was to do no harm to the children.

A: … I read it as her hands were tied. The order wasn’t given as it should have been. …

NFIH: … Perhaps you could inform the judge that he didn’t give the order as it should have been. It appears he decided it would be more sensible to rely on the qualified opinion of a psychologist than on the opinion of an unaccredited therapist.

SP: I think we will have to agree to disagree about what ‘ties hands’. Basic professionalism and ethical values remain necessary whatever your field.

What works? How do we know?

In AB’s link are two sections of connected conversation expanding on what works, what went wrong, why and who knows best anyway. Remember the case had become impossibly entrenched at the time when the court ordered its intervention. One obvious conclusion must be that early intervention and prevention are required. Trying to tackle any long entrenched problem after years and years is never going to be easy.

24 Oct 2019 >>

A: Yes, it was the case where K said it should be a permanent move, but judge ordered a temporary move & therefore the kids weren’t released from the grip of their mother, rebelled to still align with her & the transfer failed. Go figure!!

NFIH: Why are you ignoring the facts in the judgement? ‘Ms W had said this: ‘I have absolutely no doubt … should these children be moved to live with father, they would emerge from the alienated state of mind within a matter of minutes.’ ‘ The transfer lasted longer than minutes!

A: Yes, if it was permanent & therefore the power/control given to the kids/alienator was removed. But the court chose a halfway house – disaster!

NFIH: Well I guess you understand the specifics of this case better than the judge and the court instructed psychologist. What are your qualifications in parental alienation?

A: Lived experience. The best qualification.

SP: For some things – possibly. For serious intervention in the physical or mental health of a child – rarely.

A: I think some in that profession would disagree with you. It ties their hands so they can’t do the real work needed with these alienated kids. Their desperately needs to be more Ks, that’s the real problem. The new prof body shld help with that. …

SW: I disagree that practitioners in this field have hands tied. Much successful work is undertaken by accredited & registered professionals – psychologists, social workers, therapists. But – we need to be clear at outset re: potential risks v. benefits.

A: Standards of work within same prof body is so vastly different. PA is something which most profs can’t handle. Look at track record of successful cases instead. Not just a qualification. That’s my view from lived experience of it & being let down by so-called “qualified” profs.

SW: Record of success unless given alongside corresponding list of failures is not mark of excellence. Majority of practitioners, irrespective of area of work, do not engage with social media or publicise their work. Fundamental error to assume those that do are only ones doing work.

A: Do you think lawyers do this S? Our (previous) lawyer of 30+ yrs experience told us that his cases of ‘implacable hostility’ NEVER get solved. Yet everyone assumes because he’s a lawyer he knows what to do. He doesn’t. He pushes paper. In a large city law firm too.

SP: Mine don’t [get solved] either. They are left too long and children vote with feet. Have looked for published cases of success and find very few.

A: Because they don’t go back to court if they’re a success. “Please let me see my son” is a success by @parentalienated but you won’t find a published court order about it. This is why we wanted our case followed by a legal blogger.

AB: This is true. I have a list of my ‘reunification /transfers of residence successes‘ which I send to lawyers if they ask for it. That’s just me and my team. There are so few of us doing this work.

SP: Frustrating that there doesn’t seem to be more collaborative discussion about what does and doesn’t work. I worry that money, as ever, corrupts, and it risks becoming about defending income streams.

Who knows best? Prevention, specialism, qualification

How the present system works

Linked to what works best, is then who knows best? And how does a desperate parent, a lawyer or court, the wider world in general know how to spot them?

26 Oct 2019 >>

NC: I entirely agree that being a sufferer doesn’t automatically confer expertise. But I’ve come across a few who do know more than many professionals. …

SP: I hope I have never been naive or stupid enough to opine that experts are infallible and parents know nothing. But I will remain very firmly of the view that offering opinions on psychological distress and how to treat it MUST be supported by relevant qualifications and training.

NC: Again, I agree about experts (in this newish field) being often fallible but that qualifications & training are important & always need updating too. But new scourges first hit sufferers & frontline help who make a noise about it. Only later does better expertise develop. … And often we discover that the original solution turns out to be wrong. Cholera is treated by medical teams at the frontline. But the best prevention is sanitation. Family law may be ‘dirty water’ for separating families and kids. Hence the need for debate. … If that cholera analogy is valid for us, then neither parent (or child) sufferers nor legal or other associated expert professionals have been pointing in the best direction as we search for the best ideas and solutions.

SP: Of course they haven’t. Because they can’t. This is about human dysfunction, roots of which go deep and down the generations. No court system can ever fix this. Better education about relationships might.

NC: I agree about deep roots of human dysfunction. I agree that no court system can fix it. I agree that education might help. The point is to stop any system that is dysfunctional and failing to tackle the key issues (risk to children). Just maybe that’ll help too. … And hence the desire for a proper collaborative debate about what works that this thread began with.

SP: I agree. But collaboration requires serious skills of emotional intelligence, insight and humility. Sadly In this field, such qualities are in short supply across the parent/professional divide.

TBR: I agree working together to safeguard children is crucial. How many in this field have ‘cut their professional teeth’ in multi-disciplinary teams learning from experience to keep the focus on the child at the heart? Anxieties about collaborative working will always be there.

SP: I think there is a real danger that overt ‘specialism’ can lead to a very narrow focus.

SW: You can’t be “PA specialist” without firm foundations in child & adult psychology. If you only “know” PA, you will not identify other patterns of behaviour, or individual psychological conditions. We are NOT appointed to assess for PA, but to consider WHY a child resists a parent

NFIH: Unfortunately the public don’t know this. We are persuaded via the use of powerful marketing materials by individuals claiming to be e.g. ‘a world leading expert in parental alienation’, or a ‘parental alienation specialist.’ Desperate parents are easily parted from their money.

AB: Okay. Devils advocate for a moment. I’m a social worker. Who specialises. In cases that invoke suspected or evidenced PA. Isn’t it semantic to say I’m not a specialist ? I have more knowledge and skills in dealing with PA cases than most ISWs let alone LA social workers. So?

SP: But if that ‘knowledge and skill’ is based on simply repetition of your own ingrained prejudice and assumptions, it isn’t ‘expertise’ – its potentially very dangerous. There MUST be basic standards of qualification and regulation.

AB: But it isn’t.

SP: But what objective proof does anyone in that position have? It cannot be enough just to say ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I am brilliant’. Its quite possible to be doing things wrongly and harmfully for 20 years! … That is why I have a law degree, a post graduation qualification then on going regulation and CPD. No one has to risk just taking my word for it.

AB: And I have done a masters in social work and have CPD too. Loads of other stuff too. Qualifications count for little. Regulation and registration are what’s important as we are talking about accountability here.

SP: I do not agree qualifications count for little. It depends where you got them. Online PhD? No thanks. 5 years at medical school? Rather better. But qualifications and on going regulation MUST go together.

A: I [work in a non-PA-related] sector which is regulated. But I can tell you I would rather trust someone with experience of multiple successes than my (own) qualification, because my qual is too vague & regulation useless when disciplinary processes toothless. Law/Psych/SW just the same! And … I also know that pioneers come from those doing lots of specialist work ‘on the ground’. Academia & prof quals usually WAY behind the leading brains in my sector. And those trying to protect old-school & status quo are lagging behind & will miss the boat if they dont adapt!

SW: … I don’t believe there is the protectionism A suggests – though you would likely say I would say that. I belong to several discussion & peer support groups of practitioners working with PA. … I find discussion collaborative, supportive & a learning experience. The fact remains – there is no one size fits all for these cases. Success is not guaranteed. We are all learning. I share here my redacted post in one group, which I hope helps explain my process a little more.


Who you gonna call?

There’s more on regulation after that exchange on this TBR link  or BJ’s link

30 Oct 2019 >>

A: Many professions are self-regulated at the beginning as they develop. It’s actually a sign of integrity as they’re forcing best-practice before it becomes mandatory. IPCC is civil service, different all together

AB: Which profession are you referring to here though? Who is it that needs to be regulated? S’s point is that you can’t have counsellors and writers who are not professionally regulated making decisions that have such far reaching consequences. It’s about accountability!

TBR: Counsellors & psychotherapists are professionally regulated, have codes of ethics & standards of practice but are not legally regulated. HCPC registrants have to be legally registered and deemed fit to practice under Part V of the Health & Social Work Professions Order 2001.

A: Thank you T for clarifying. From a ‘users’ perspective, whether prof regulated or legally registered, I can tell you that in our experience all those bodies are useless as they don’t understand PA & how their members/profs miss it & cause more harm to children for years.

TBR: We’re all users of HCPC registered professionals. As a serious case review member of a Children’s Safeguarding Board in a LA & a NHS senior manager complaints were always investigated. I have complained as a user and this has changed policies & services. We need regulatory bodies

A: Yes but currently they are useless for PA

BJ: A, what is brilliant about this thread, is that people who work within their own professional bodies and who ‘get’ PA, are talking about the problem. PA is becoming better understood and, as here, reported. Perhaps a register, now, within these bodies is actually the solution.

A: There needs to be something. Because the qualification alone is not enough & cons parents into thinking these qualified profs know what they’re doing. As a newly alienated parent you have to become an investigator/researcher worthy of a PhD & that’s not acceptable.

BJ: I think we all agree on this? The question is whether the need for ‘something’ equates to saying there is no need for what currently exists in the differing professional fields. I think that is why this string of different professional/personal input is so brilliant.

A: How many more years will it take to get these notoriously old-school bodies to do that though? We’ve already lost one child’s childhood to PA when child-protection services all failed her, incl lawyers. It’s too big a job to get them all to change. Naive to think they can/will … And these profs on here who ‘get PA’ are few & far between & they can’t sit in their towers thinking their prof colleagues will catch them up, just to protect their own qualifications. … I’d be so embarrassed if it was my prof body & I’d leave – and I did in my profession

AB: It’s not possible. If I ‘leave’ HCPC it’s literally illegal for me to practice.

A: Quite. That’s the problem at the moment.

Lawyer’s aren’t psychologists

Somewhere in this discussion is a theme agreeing that PA is emotional abuse of the child. So the question lurks about how and who should be dealing with that kind of child protection – the implication being that no one is, nor is the family law system doing it. See  NFIH’s link for more around this:

1 Nov 2019 >>

NC: …. In a family lawyer’s training & CPD & codes, do you learn how to recognise & manage risk at first contact? Do you have this kind of code that all the rest of us have? I couldn’t find anything like this in Scots lawyers’ rules of conduct:

SP: Eh? I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist. If there is something in anyone’s presentation that makes me worried such expertise is needed. Then we ask for such expertise. I can’t possibly ‘diagnose’ anyone or risk manage on that diagnosis I can’t make.

NC: Thanks S. So, as in Scotland, lawyers are the only profession / members of the public who are not trained or expected to refer risk concerns they may have to the agencies intended to do that job, that all other helping professions & members of the public would use .. Instead it seems that the long established custom and practice and presumption is that the much criticised prolonged processes of even the best private family law courts (with your own in-house expertise instead) are the right way to go? … One code of conduct for Scottish family lawyers is B1.10 on competence etc: … The Scottish equivalent of CAFCASS is private solicitors, bar reporters, who have no requirement for ANY training for the job. What’s your view on lawyers asking untrained colleagues to be experts? … B1.10 says “You must only act in those matters where you are competent to do so…” Doesn’t that mean you / we’re all meant to know when we’re not competent to deal with something? Doesn’t that mean we need to know when to refer to those who are (meant to be) competent?

SP: Which is why I don’t claim to diagnose anyone.

A: Have you ever thought that a diagnosis shouldn’t be necessary? Labels can be more damaging. If PA was recognised by CAFCASS [Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service], we wouldn’t have needed to ask psych to diagnose PD. We didn’t want to have to do that.

SP: Er. Yes. All the time. Don’t care about labels. What is the behaviour? What harm is it doing? How do we stop it? Are all much better questions I think.

A: But Court won’t accept what therapy is needed without a label which shows Personality Disorder & therefore lack of insight & therefore which therapies are a waste of time. But you’ll tell me now that ‘your courts’ aren’t like this in SE & SW.

SW: I recommend interventions & therapy regularly without a diagnosis. Psychologists are often cautious about diagnosis, preferring to rely on formulation. Those labelled with Personality Disorder diagnosis can & do respond to therapy, though may not be quickly enough for the child

TBR: People with / without a diagnosis access therapy. A diagnosis is useful but it’s a diagnosis. Therapy aims to be helpful. A therapists job is to be there for the child. The child needs two co-parents who can put their child at the heart of the matter over and above the conflict.

HAH: [Image to left] “Join Us: Support Shared Parenting Law for India … Kentucky’s etc”. Link given here.

SP: Not a particularly impressive reduction for something so often touted as the ‘solution’. Still nearly 20k cases battling it out I see!

BBT: … late to discussion but went through it, so quick question. If a parent is taking good care of food, education, clothing etc of child & child appears to be well adjusted with the parent, however, the parent is sexually abusing the child … Should the courts shift the child out of the abusing parents custody irrespective of child’s protests?

SP: of course. And this is the argument re alienation. I agree that both are very serious abuse of a child and children require above all to be kept safe.

BBT: Then I believe we are all on the same page, that the judgement was wrong, actually tantamount to child abuse by judicial system itself.

Courts are a stage

SP: No. The court weighed the harm and decided that the worse harm would be removal. That decision may in 20 years time be revealed to be the wrong one. But that’s the problem. Court has to make best decision on evidence now available. … It’s about balancing harms. Would you say that a child being sexually abused once every six months was MORE or LESS at risk of harm than a child placed in a cage full of hungry crocodiles right now? Both situations sub-optimal, one obviously more risky in terms of immediate harm.

BBT: There is an excellent research by APA (American Psychological Association) called, “Unseen Child Abuse”, request you to kindly go through the same …

HAH: [Image] “A Good Judge; A Good Lawyer; A Good Therapist; A Good Visitation Order; Yet Zero Result”

SP: Yup. That’s right. The adults who came together to make the child have nothing to do with any of this.

TBR: Asking the right questions is already half the solution to the problem. A better understanding of the importance of the needs of a child to have a mother a father working together as effective co-parents rests not upon truth alone but also on errors.

SP: I am afraid I see the insistence on making this ‘all’ the court system’s fault is just another example of how often both parents seek to reject any responsibility for their own decisions.

TBR: Parental alienation is a psychological & relationship problem. Adversarial litigation inevitably causes parental relationship distress & emotional harm to children. The court is not to equipped to take on a role as therapist to help parents establish co-parenting relationships.

SP: Adversarial litigation exacerbates a pre existing problem. To make the court system the only thing that is wrong, continues to allow parents to deflect.

NFIH: I feel it’s the interplay between an adversarial legal system AND parents with high conflict personalities that is one of the factors in this dynamic that leads to poor outcomes for children. Adversarial family court + 1 (or 2) pathological parents = emotional harm to child.

SP: Absolutely. But the adversarial system simply provides a stage, it doesn’t create this dynamic out of no where. Of course, this dynamic should not be encouraged and that is what the adversarial system risks.

NFIH: Adversarial system is one factor. Is it appropriate to signpost parents into an adversarial arena when they are in emotional turmoil over the end of their relationship? But there are other factors. Family Court’s 1950s views about child care arrangements is the key one IMO.

HAH: When one parent who is doing every bit.. while other keeps causing interference, indoctrinates n brainwashes the child on ongoing & continuous basis.. Courts need to intervene.. custody cannot continue to abusive parent. Doctrine of friendly parent needs to be applied @BBT

The child’s experience

Everyone debates about the importance of ‘the child’s voice’ but even when the children have grown up, it’s rare you get to hear that voice! We had some in MLP’s link

26 Oct 2019

SP: To ascribe ‘expertise’ to children in such a situation seems to me a worrying emphasis. They need protection. If their parents can’t or won’t then State needs to step in – and it needs to be more efficient than it currently is.

1 Nov >>
J: Nevertheless, we still need to listen to children. A 10 year old girl is categorically refusing to see her father because he left them for another woman. Mother doesn’t do anything to alienate her from her dad. How any court can force her to see him

AB: He didn’t leave ‘them’. He left his wife.

SP: Oh come on. Really? That’s what you will say to the 10 year old. Of course he left the children.

AB: Usually he didn’t. Usually he left the marriage. This is EXACTLY how kids get contact averse. The other parent says ‘ he left us’.

MLP: My mother spent years telling us ‘Dad left us’ or ‘look at what he’s done to me’ as she sat crying. We’d scowl at Dad at pick up, but he’d just keep calm & give us a fun, stable routine. He made us realise he hadn’t left ‘us’ – he had MORE quality time with us. Different approaches

J: 1. Did your mother oppose your meetings with a father? 2.Did your father fight mother in court? 3. Would you prefer to live with the father?

MLP: 1) Yes. 2) No. He was in a good job but he was struggling financially after a costly divorce (her parents funded her side), & she frequently threatened to return to court over us. 3) No. I would have preferred for Mum to just enjoy her time with us rather than attack Dad.


Some intro to the next bit: The gender-based view is that domestic or intimate partner abuse (DA) and coercive control are very much the product of our patriarchal society with men very much doing all the abuse to women victims (and therefore responsible for harming the children too). The courts are seen as supporting this as part of a patriarchal structure. So, from the gender point of view, PA has become a toxic term. It is seen to be very gendered and always a cover for abusive and controlling men to continue their abuse on their ex-partners and children. Of course safe loving fathers whose loving children are cut off from them for no good reason are enraged by this unjustified view. (The many mothers who are similarly cut off hardly get noticed in either camp!)

Understandably and sadly and for decades these influential firmly held views trigger an instant allergic stand-off between the genders and the camps. Yet, as we see, neither DA nor PA is that gendered. And both are coercive patterns, ‘relationships that take you in and cut you off’. That is both sides should be fighting together against the same scourge of coercive emotional abuse, for children’s safety from harm and high control relationships.  Anyway … this miserable mistaken gender war means there’s almost never a chance of any, let alone civil, discussion. Each side keeps their own company and distance from each other – like the two sailors in the picture straining against each other trying to achieve the same outcome (from Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch 1974). So let’s celebrate again that our thread included this bit of civil clarification of how gender can get in the way of what’s best for children:

27 Oct >> 

SA: Time to focus on the needs of children + young people rather than the adult distress. Knowledge re post separation power + control patterns of behaviour clearly articulated c/o Duluth Benefits of #DASH approach risk assessment #CoerciveControl … Link to Youtube on Using Children – Understanding the Power and Control WheelBatterer Intervention Specialist explains how batterers use their own children to get what they want from the children’s mother.

SW: A gendered ideological approach which does not acknowledge that both men and women exert coercive control, abuse and harm children. One third of victims of DV are men – many fathers – abused by women who use children as weapons post separation. Just as some men do to women.

SA: So set the gender aside because as you rightly observe it is the behaviours that are important.  That’s where the harm occurs.  Stay sighted on the needs of the children rather than adults.  For me the concept of #ParentalAlienation falls down when it is all about victimised adults.

SW:  I agree. My focus has always been on children – the harm they experience, preventing that harm, and enabling them to have a healthy relationship with both parents if this is not harmful. I have compassion for the parents affected, but the focus is on harm to the child.

SA: Some times a healthy relationship is not going to be an option though Some children will be better off + safer with one adult who is present + available to meet their needs Not to be bounced between chaos dysfunction + power play

NC: I agree that can be what happens. The present long-drawn out adversarial family court process invites ‘gaming’ by everyone incl gender groups. If we’re all seriously focused on the children, then we should all want a much more prompt competent way to tackle all these patterns. … That diagram comes from this short paper that is not about any particular or gendered pattern: ReFormingFamilyLawShortVersionForAllKids.pdf

SA: Think you are right family court is not the place to address adult post separation dysfunction/distress. As a society we have some way to go to really listen + understand how children are impacted by post separation coercion/control Lots never gets to court The impacts can endure … Yes Much still required to better understand the grief pain + loss revisited when significant relationships end. Insights on adult needs required so that children are not caught up in the fallout of unresolved adult distress

How it happens

As we saw that family and system interact to make problems worse, grim realism coloured our talk about how this pattern happens, how it could be prevented, what did we do in earlier days? The link is here.

2 Nov 2019 >>

SP: … the adversarial system simply provides a stage, it doesn’t create this dynamic out of no where. Of course, this dynamic should not be encouraged and that is what the adversarial system risks.

WW: Take their ‘stage’ away then, if them having a stage harms their child, them and everyone around them that has to be the solution where psychological dysfunction is already present and documented.

SP: So how will you resolve disputes between parents.

WW: Meaningful and mandated therapy to ascertain that the person with psychological dysfunction either does or doesn’t understand their responsibilities in law. If they don’t understand their own responsibility they shouldn’t be permitted air time to question others exercising theirs

SP: Not possible.

WW: Well then nothing is solvable as fundamentally the system is holding people to account about things they in some tragic cases have absolutely no idea about.

SP: Better education about relationships. Better understanding about abuse and control.

WW: But too late once the sperm hits the egg

SP: So keep it in your pants perhaps?

WW: LOL, noted. Question? What did we have before we had private family law?

SP: People who remained in desperately unhappy marriages

WW: It’s bleak, my question was: What don’t we want to go back to; and why was what we had so terrible for children? I’ve watched vikings, I am not calling for long walks with large bows but if nothing is solvable what replaces it once it collapses.

SP: It was a different kind of terrible. People were trapped in relationships due to social pressure. Solution remains same. Don’t have children with someone you do not like and respect.

WW: And social security lifted that pressure and made single parenting possible.

SP: Yes. It offered ‘freedom to’ but not ‘freedom from’. Nothing is without consequence. The question is what consequence are you able to bear?

WW: So you have the ‘freedom to’ great! But if you have psychological dysfunction and don’t understand/care much for what you don’t have ‘freedom from’ how can you be held to the social contract/ be remonstrated for non-compliance with this ‘contract’. Education and re-education

SP: Again. Don’t have children with someone who has serious psychological dysfunction, no insight and no willingness to change.

WW: I don’t disagree but I just think it’s unfollowable advice for the vast majority of people.

SP: Then nothing can change.

WW: This is across the board in male female relations though, it’s depressing. Being alive is supposed to be informative not miserable and solitary and unchangeable.

SP: I don’t find it so bleak. Because I have been willing to learn.

WW: I learnt late and thankfully have finished with having children but I would prefer to be a grandma one day than have to raise my sons to have psychology degrees

NC: I half jokingly propose a prevention approach to PA that’s more extreme than yours, S. If there is nothing can change, then I seriously propose a campaign: “Don’t partner up; (If you do) don’t have kids; (If you do) never separate.” … Your point also links to my application of learning from high control groups (aka cults etc). They focus a lot on how people (mostly adults) are freshly recruited. Kids of course get born into (another challenge). I say family recruitment happens under cover of falling in love.

NFIH: Dysfunctional people have relationships and don’t always warn their partners up front. Let’s assume they will continue to have relationships and let’s think about how we as a society can protect their children from psychological harm when these parents separate.

SP: I do not accept that people so dysfunctional they would alienate a child remain undetected until the moment they start alienating.

NC: There is a wide established field of study that shows a thousand ways of how undue influence happens in relationships families and non-family groups (eg cults). Could start here with Steve Hassan at http://freedomofmind.com  @CultExpert

SP: If this were taught at schools, I think much misery could be ended.

NC: Something like this could be taught in schools to help spot and protect yourself and loved ones. But if a skilled influencer wants to entrap you, they know who to target and how to do it just for you

Discussion and problem-solving

Well, what do you think of these excerpts from the long unbroken thread? Further discussion is welcome of course. You can join in back on Twitter or comment below. As I said: we’ve no grand solutions. The quality of our Tweets is our main Twitter qualification to say anything.

What is rare is that we held our discussion together. We all took on board a wide range of views. To end up sadder and wiser is a considerable advance. This kind of discussion is also a basic missing element in a problem-solving process. Where has open discussion like this ever been done on the way to planning a system to deal with post-separation troubles? We all know what we have is not working. So a wide-ranging open-ended diverse discussion is a first step. And Twitter is as good a place as any to start it. Perhaps it’s the only place to start it (see PS below).

Incidentally, there is a good example of really deep thinking and legal reform relating to children and families. It’s Scotland’s Kilbrandon Report. Over 50 years ago, a relatively diverse committee spent a long time collecting evidence and thinking it thoroughly through to set up the Children’s Hearings system for troubled kids. Note, by the way, that this was based on the rationale that these kids – whatever their crime or need – all needed assessment and then measures of care and protection or ‘social family case work’ provided by social services.

Astonishingly, this famous Scottish problem-solving approach – and the entirely relevant results – have never been considered for Scotland’s private family law where, for separating families, the dominant concern is the same: care and protection. The present draft revised bill has tinkered rather than gone back to the drawing board … or Kilbrandon. Among many other contributions from happy tinkerers for the scrutiny stage, read some radical views submitted here, here and here.

As a child psychiatrist and family therapist, I learned to be multifactorial, multidisciplinary, multi-agency, and systemic – which means that the parts of a system work and team up together to produce a good or a poor outcome. I’d say that, in this Twitter thread, we had a useful opener of a discussion about the interlocking parts of the present poor system. More of that should help lead us to a formulation that focuses down on who needs to change what.

Play the ball not the child

This is an unusual and preliminary starter for ten to build on. How can this go forward, who could make more of this kind of discussion? What do we do with the parties that don’t really want a solution – the adamant parent, the entrenched child, the lawyer or professional whose priority is making money and a name for themselves, people who feed off the problem, not solving it? Are there out-of-the-box solutions to look at?

At the end, we sorted out a bit of Twitter friction. An unexpected judgement of ‘rubbish’ seemed uncivil, but was defended as a factual opinion. A comment about ‘storming off’ was meant jokily but wasn’t taken that way. The lesson?

NC: … the underlying principle is: Play the ball not the player. Thus SP says ‘rubbish’ was her view on a Tweet’s content not on AB; my ‘storming off’ was commenting on the Tweeter.

We did well with this thread because we ‘played the ball’ rather than ‘kicked the players’. We all want to ‘win the game’ of improving the way the system works. We all want to make that ‘game’ work much better than it does – especially for the children. They’re the most important ‘players’. But they easily become the ‘ball’ that all the adults are ‘kicking’.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

Twitter versus Conference?

Most people cannot see any value in Twitter as a place for serious discussion. We compared Twitter with a typical actual venue (or even a teleconference). The result? Well you may be surprised. …

Twitter is never going to produce a solid forward plan. So that requires a more grounded task group. But when we looked where else we could take this kind of discussion we saw all kinds of limitations and pressures. In a standard event in a real venue with a programme of speakers for a few hours or a couple of days lots of things get in the way of good discussion: logistics, planning, inclusion / exclusion by cost and travel, how an actual diverse large group of people relate in a structured real meeting, all kinds of other practical and interactional frustrations and irritations, plus trying to end by 4.30pm with some satisfactory outcome. It’s definitely not the same thing as Twitter.

Twitter is a wonderful liberation in comparison: open to the whole world, egalitarian, free to join, to stay or leave, to read or ‘speak’ or challenge or ask a new question at will to anyone, always really brief, always open for anyone to respond, open 24/7 for as long or short as you want, choose your visiting times to suit your own day, to come and go, to sleep on it, to catch up. The strength and fragility of Twitter is that it is impersonal and instantaneous: people can easily fall out by mistake or malice. In our long thread, with care and determination, we held it together and ended agreeably. We played the ball not the players. The game wasn’t abandoned. We can come back for more.

About Nick Child

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


  1. Richard Burton

    First, thanks for posting this thread. Twitter clearly offers the parental-alienation community potential for corroborating ideas. I was surprised to find the views of Dr. Sue Whitcombe, Roy Mackay, and yourself Nick being described as “radical”. Personally I would describe having a solicitor engage with an alienated child as incompetence to the point of being radical.
    A few comments in the thread are worth responding to:

    “NFIH: Dysfunctional people have relationships and don’t always warn their partners up front. Let’s assume they will continue to have relationships and let’s think about how we as a society can protect their children from psychological harm when these parents separate.”
    “SP: I do not accept that people so dysfunctional they would alienate a child remain undetected until the moment they start alienating”

    Repeatedly SP is of the opinion that there are dysfunctional people that the rest of us should avoid. However, when these people happen to be getting what they want, they are not dysfunctional, they are often extremely high functioning. When the lay of the land changes (especially after a child is born, AND THEREFORE some of that change is down to their knowledge that henceforward the family court is waiting to be gamed) their behavior changes (B cluster personality disorders especially) and the flaws becoming discernible. But at that point, out of devotion to their child, no devoted parent is going to leave who isn’t forced to by some external pressure (health or working away from home).

    I’ll add again, that Sue Whitombe’s points clearly come from someone who understands how a child imbibes opinions and expectations of allegiance from its resident parent, and how few solicitors would give sufficient credence to this fact – since the notion of “brainwashing” is a term of mockery and is scientifically imprecise. Actually, credible research shows allegiance and obedience manifest when isolation, dependency, fear of the ‘other’ (through false claims of repeated violence and supposed danger from the now forced-to-be absent parent), and sympathy for the supposed victim. (ref: Kathleen Taylor, The Science of Thought Control OUP 2004).

    I look forward to more interesting threads of constructive thoughts.


  2. Very interesting. I suppose there is always a tendency to ‘privilege’ one’s own domain, but I see the answer coming from law, not psychology or social work. The reason is this: experts can be right or wrong, as can CAFCASS. But, ultimately, it’s the judge that has the POWER. And, like it or not, this ‘game’ is all about power. The judge can, and in many cases should, ignore much of the evidence.

    So, there are two problems I guess. The first is as to the cause of PA. Identifying it, explaining it. That’s for psychologists. The second problem is what to DO about it. Most ‘hard’ cases are caused by alienators with cluster B personalities, so there’s no negotiating with them – no reasoning. They MUST be handled robustly and PA cases dealt with aggressively. This is the domain of lawyers, in particular judges. The Act spells out that delay is inimical to justice, yet judges are the primary cause of most delays, giving narcissistic abusers plenty of time to coerce and brainwash the child, to the point where, when the judge eventually does his job properly (normally takes 5 years plus), the child is so badly alienated that he will not cooperate with a change of residence. The very simple, straightforward answer here is for judges simply to be competent and robust. Fewer than 1%, yes 1%, of all family court orders are actually enforced by the judge. So, pretty quickly a recalcitrant, contumacious alienator gets the hang of it – understands the ‘game’. And that is simply to ignore the court and carry on alienating. The only time from the law reports that i have seen alienators show any signs of compliance is when there is a coercive order in place (‘cooperate with contact or I’ll transfer residence’). So that’s how we get them to play nice. But it’s rarely done.

    On a final note one of your contributors made a very good point that successful cases are not reported. That is quite true. I know of one exception – re B 2017 where Her Honour Judge Gordon-Saker comments after the case that the situation was reviewed one month post transfer of residence, and the child was fine.


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