By Douglas L. Romberg
PARENTAL ALIENATION CASES have long baffled and frustrated family law attorneys, judges, and many mental health professionals. Conflicting and polarizing arguments among principal researchers in the field have contributed to this confusion. Although the parental alienation field has received increasing attention in the past 15 years, there has been continuous conflict between the family theorists who study all the reasons why children reject parents and those researchers who look specifically at parental alienation. As an alternative to the existing approaches, I propose a new paradigm for conceptualizing alienated families: Through the lens of trauma, specifically complex trauma. This approach can provide diagnostic clarity and valid treatment direction in a field where poor outcomes are characteristic and where disagreements in the approaches to treating parental alienation have persisted.
To sharpen one’s understanding of what parental alienation is, it is helpful to review what it is not. For example, some argue that these are “he said, she said” cases. Others say that these are cases of adults behaving badly.
It has also been claimed that every custody case involves parental alienation and, therefore, no additional scrutiny of the case or expertise on the part of the professionals involved is necessary. These conceptualizations are overly simplistic and misleading. Importantly, they prevent the child and the family from getting the help they need.
In addition to these untested and unsupported positions, a number of issues have been often underweight or ignored by the clinical and legal communities. Many attorneys and therapists attempt to reduce parental alienation to more benign explanations in order to manage the high levels of tension in themselves and in these cases. In addition, they assert that the natural resilience of children will provide immunity from the alienation process. This is simply not supported by the data obtained by contemporary parental alienation researchers and clinicians (Baker, 2007). Specifically, it is now understood that once an alienating parent has successfully inculcated the children with false, toxic, and damaging beliefs about the targeted parent, the children grow up with distorted beliefs and dysregulated states which are hardened into their personalities. These global deficiencies can then be passed on to the next generation, as is commonly seen in families where alcoholism and/or physical abuse is present.
What needs emphasis is that an alienating parent is very often the key to understanding these chaotic and, at times, bizarre cases. A targeted parent may become angry and retaliate periodically, but this is fundamentally different to the quest of the alienating parent. Whether father or mother, the alienating parent has a singular mission: to destroy the bond between the children and the targeted parent. This is critical as contemporary researchers and clinicians report that destroying a child’s relationship with one parent results in significant lifelong emotional damage to the child (Ben-Ami & Baker, 2012; Baker, 2012).
Incidence and prevalence data (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991; Johnston & Campbell, 1988; Bernet, 2008) suggests that parental alienation is much more common than was previously thought. More current research points to a high level of emotional pathology in alienating parents (Summer & Summer, 2010; Donner, 2006). Baker, Fine and LaCheen-Baker (2016, p. 37) found that “… in moderate and severe cases of alienation, there is usually pathological enmeshment between the children and the favored parent.” These authors point out that without specific expertise in parental alienation, professionals involved in the case are likely to confuse enmeshment with a close, loving and healthy relationship.
Given the above findings it is not surprising that therapists and legal professionals have been at a loss to constructively interact with a child who despises a parent for vague and overdetermined reasons. Similarly, the alienating parent’s robust animus and wish to remove the targeted parent from the family, has foiled the efforts of therapists across the theoretical spectrum.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. To trauma therapists and those familiar with the origins of trauma and the DSM-5, conceptualizing alienated families through the lens of trauma, and specifically complex trauma, provides diagnostic clarity and valid treatment direction (Herman, 2015; Levine, 2008; Curtois & Ford, 2016; Grand, 2013).
There are established diagnostic criteria for trauma that are frequently highly correlated with the symptoms experienced by children in severe parental alienation cases. Consider the following frequently reported experiences: Recurrent and intrusive distressing memories of the targeted parent; physiological reactions to internal or external cues that symbolize and represent the targeted parent; persistent avoidance of the targeted parent and/or thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with the targeted parent; persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about the targeted parent; marked alterations in physiological reactions towards the targeted parent (e.g., irritable behaviour, physical outbursts, shutting down emotionally).
So many therapies have failed families involved in parental alienation because the therapists start with and concentrate on the families’ narrative. As trauma therapists have shown, the neocortices of traumatized family members are typically off-line during stressful periods and while in therapy.
The more traditional approaches, however well-intentioned, tend not to have much success in these cases and can even accelerate symptoms (see Warshak, 2010; Baker-Fine & LaCheen-Baker, 2016). As those who work with complex trauma know, these families have to first be helped to significantly lower the speed of their responding and become less reactive so that they are not just dominated by fight-flight-freeze responses. Importantly, parental alienation cases are not the result of one or two situations wherein one parent behaves badly, and the other parent retaliates. These conflicts have been ground into the children’s psyches over years and are very much intertwined with their basic understanding of human emotions, including their own. These cases demand the specific skills of a therapist who is flexible, not easily intimidated, and who can effectively modulate emotions at the extremes.
Some treatment providers give brief attention to trauma as one possible contributing factor in parental alienation cases. However, most therapy approaches default to the researchers’/clinicians’ favoured treatment modalities, which may overlook or minimize the neurobiology of trauma, which can now be understood, not just as one more factor in the mix, but as a primary component of parental alienation. After reviewing the parental alienation literature since the early 1980s, and analyzing clinical cases over the past 15 years, it is my proposal that complex trauma is the most accurate diagnostic system through which one can view severe parental alienation.
Employing the theory and interventions typically used in cases of complex trauma as a precondition to the usual approaches listed above, as well as incorporating these techniques into ongoing treatment with children and their parents in parental alienation cases, should greatly enhance their chances of success.
Complex trauma theory can begin to untie the Gordian Knot of such intense family dysfunction. It clarifies how, in severe cases, the targeted parent serves as a constant trigger for the alienating parent’s own unresolved issues regarding their own history of trauma and, possibly, parental alienation. This provides a persuasive and compassionate explanation for the destructive and, at times, pathological behaviour of the alienating parent.
Through the lens of trauma theory, the high levels of aggression, misrepresentation, and deceit commonly at work in the alienating parent can be seen as attempts, however misguided, at managing their own unresolved emotional distress and dysregulated states. Repetitive acts of retribution for perceived slights, which are often misrepresented or even simply fabricated, can now be placed into a paradigm that provides clear guidance for diagnosis and treatment.
Employing trauma theory, what was previously seen as impulsivity, may be more accurately seen as hyperarousal. Children who say little or nothing and were previously diagnosed as overly passive, vacant and/or noncompliant may more precisely be understood as suffering from symptoms such as dissociation and/or freezing.
Trauma theory may shine light on the previously perplexing finding that children who were abused by a parent frequently seek out a relationship with that parent, whereas alienated children, not abused by the targeted parent, refuse to have any contact for the long term (see Fiddler & Bala, 2010). Robust reliance on avoidance allows the child/adult child to obtain momentary relief from their trauma experience. It is well known that this type of strategy damages the child, reduces their autonomy and negatively effects emotional regulation, attachment and self-esteem (Brand, 2016).
In addition to the significant benefit of deemphasizing narrative, and thus avoiding hours of contentious exchanges between the alienating parent and the targeted parent, as well as between the children and the targeted parent, trauma work offers a variety of approaches, increasing the chances of a good match between therapists and family members. One such technique is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR has been shown to alleviate distress associated with traumatic memories by using certain eye movements, hand tapping and audio stimulation while patients recall traumatic images.
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is another common approach used in trauma work. SE has the benefit of clandestinely communicating to the patient, child or parent, that keeping solely focused on the hated parent/spouse isn’t their best strategy and is likely making them feel worse. The attention of the patient shifts from ruminating about getting spouses or children to immediately change their behavior to the importance of the individual’s own internal experience and then providing strategies to protect themselves from disturbing emotions and images.
There is a growing list of alternative approaches to trauma. Brainspotting is just one more example, which stems from the work of David Grand (2013). An extensive review of all the new trauma treatments is beyond the scope of this paper. The salient point is that instead of enduring therapy/play therapy sessions that are frustrating for the therapist and burdensome for the patients, therapists may now correctly understand the family’s presenting symptoms and utilize techniques that have been well researched and demonstrated to be effective.
Viewing parental alienation cases as intertwined with complex trauma, of course, suggests utilizing a therapist with expertise in trauma work as the first option for treatment. Unfortunately, getting alienating parents to constructively engage in any therapy has proved to be a daunting task. In addition, well-qualified complex trauma experts may not always be available. In such instances, treatment of these traumatized families might be found in the mindfulness movement, which has been used successfully in myriad aspects of current culture (e.g., schools, large and small business environments, leadership forums, sports, and community organizations).
There are pluses and minuses to the mindfulness movement that are not within the scope of this paper to discuss, but some aspects of mindfulness, including mindfulness meditation, may be particularly well suited for the population that involves alienated families and the people who provide services to them.
A new first step in the treatment of family members in parental alienation cases could be to use mindfulness techniques to help participants become calmer, less reactive and more clear-minded. As an added benefit, it might help forestall the inevitable arguments about how much these family members hate and blame each other, and possibly some of the ways the children try to protect themselves by protecting the alienating parent. These issues will be addressed, but from a new, less reactive platform. One where therapy can constructively begin.
Over the past 35 years, approaches to dealing with severe parental alienation have been presented in the lay literature and in scholarly research. It is my observation from reviewing the extensive literature, as well as from clinical practice, that the extent to which these highly charged environments can be productively harnessed seems to be the primary determining factor regarding outcome. Complex trauma treatment protocols, in addition to the techniques of mindfulness, could prove to be highly effective first and second lines of defence. Once these skills have been mastered, the interventions that follow will be more likely to have a positive effect on the highly aggressive and toxic world of parental alienation.
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Artigo publicado na newsletter do Parental Alienation Study Group, maio 2020, Volume 5, nº 3
Douglas L Romberg, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has practised in the Washington, DC, area for 35 years. His clinical foci have been in individual, couple, family and group psychotherapy. He has
specialized in the fields of gender identity and gender orientation; integrative medicine and chronic illness; parental alienation; and Buddhist psychology. A more detailed version of this article was first published here:
Romberg, D.L. (2017). “ Parental Alienation: Origins, Controversies and a New Paradigm.” District of Columbia Psychological Association Quarterly Newsletter, Fall edition.