“Parental alienation” describes a healthy parent-child relationship turned on its head as a result of a divorce. In PA cases, instead of providing stability and unconditional love, an alienating, allied or “pathogenic parent” uses his or her child as a weapon to inflict emotional damage on their former spouse.
The concept first entered the psychological lexicon in 1985 when American child psychiatrist Richard Gardner coined “parental alienation syndrome.” The controversy surrounding that term has been roiling ever since.
A Google search of PA reveals varying schools of thought, from complete denial of its existence, to haggling among psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists about the lack of science to back it up, to passionate advocates of its eradication sharing heartbreaking stories of families destroyed.
That search would also turn up Craig Childress, a clinical psychologist with a practice in Claremont. The 65-year-old has become a lightning rod of sorts in the PA community.
His 2015 book, Foundations, was the first to use proven science and verified psychological research as a basis for identifying the underlying pathology behind PA.
“There’s no such thing as parental alienation,” said Mr. Childress “If you ask your psychologist to explore cross generational coalition, that has a lot of basis to it. That’s in family systems therapy. It has to do with diverting anger through the child because of the spousal conflict and triangulation and emotional cutoff. And the moment you ask them to do that, you are then requiring that they apply knowledge from family systems therapy. And family systems therapy can solve everything.”
That same Google search would also turn up thousands of examples of how this pathology is effective in damaging relationships between parents and children.
Along the way it also profoundly alters the normal development of the weaponized child. Left untreated, many times child victims of pathogenic parenting are in their 20s or 30s before they figure out what’s happened to them.
Early intervention is key, Mr. Childress said.
“We’ve got to stop this within three to six months,” he said. “After a divorce, the moment one of the spouses starts weaponizing the kid into the spousal conflict, mental health needs to come in and stop that.”
That is a thorny undertaking.
On the clinical side, a diagnosis of “parental alienation” is somewhat toothless since, in the 34 years since its introduction, there have been no well-controlled empirical studies that confirm the phenomenon. And, according to the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology, there is no standardized assessment process or established criteria for diagnosis.
On the professional side, many if not most therapists lack training or understanding of its underlying pathologies.
On the consumer side, the concept is so vague and counterintuitive to healthy parenting that oftentimes targeted spouses are left feeling alone, without support, and even as though they are losing their mind.
The manipulated child is robbed of a healthy relationship with a loving parent, which can cause the child to plunge into deep depression.
But if mental health professionals can shift away from treating “parental alienation” and move back to established science, the path is clear, Mr. Childress said.
“The diagnosis I’m making on this is child psychological abuse,” Mr. Childress said. “And that’s not theory driven, it’s symptom driven; I have a serious pathology in the child being produced by this allied parent. That’s child abuse. The mental health professional needs to stand up and make an accurate diagnosis of child psychological abuse. When they do that, we can then take the steps necessary to protect the child.”
Another destructive wrinkle in this tragedy is the emotional damage pathogenic parenting inflicts on the target of the campaign, which is of course the intent.
Parental alienation is a profound form of psychological trauma for the targeted parents, said Canadian sociologist and social worker Edward Kruk in Psychology Today.
“It is both acute and chronic, and externally inflicted,” Mr. Kruk maintains. “It is thus a type of domestic violence directed at the target parent. The fact that children witness such abuse of a parent also makes alienation a form of child abuse. This is perhaps the principal source of anxiety for the alienated parents, who witness the abuse of their children, and are prevented from protecting them.”
Mr. Childress emphasizes how the targeted parent will experience much more than anxiety.
“For a lot of these parents my diagnosis would be post-traumatic stress disorder,” Mr. Childress said. “The type of PTSD is called complex trauma, traumatic grief. Because they’ve lost their child, they grieve the loss of their child, but their child isn’t dead. So they can’t fully grieve. It’s a continual, unresolved grief that they can never resolve.”
Mr. Childress is on a mission to force the APA to establish proven scientific knowledge as the standard in assessment, diagnosis and treatment of the pathology.
“When we apply the knowledge of professional psychology, the pathology becomes crystal clear, and the solution becomes crystal clear,” he said. “The thing is, we haven’t been applying the knowledge.”
Mr. Gardner came up with the term “parental alienation syndrome” after seeing an increasing instance of mothers making false claims of sex abuse against former spouses. The syndrome was then on the map, but the problem, as Mr. Childress sees it, was that Mr. Gardner did an end run around identifying the underlying pathologies that cause PA. And the psychological community has been locked in conflict ever since.
Mr. Childress says he’s had great success treating victims of PA through regular treatment. His therapy involves “evidence-based practice” utilizing existing research studies or, in Mr. Childress’ case, collecting evidence about the ongoing treatment’s effectiveness.
When the offending parent is creating so much anxiety in the child that the situation is dangerous to him or her—i.e. the child is having suicidal ideations—a temporary period of protective separation is in order. This step, taken through family court, is common in physical child abuse cases as a way to give the child the space in which to heal. In psychological child abuse cases, it serves the same purpose.
“Then when I go back to the courts and ask for protective separation, or any aspect of treatment, I am bringing to the court my evidence,” he said. “That’s what the court wants. The court wants to do the right thing, but they need the psychology people doing this.”
“Then we recover the authentic child and then we restore the family, because we’re always looking for the family,” Mr. Childress said. “We always want that child to get 100 percent dad love and 100 percent mom love. It’s just that right now, one parent is leading the family off the cliff, so we need switch over leadership to the other parent.”
One of the fixes Mr. Childress is looking to implement is to help create a new sub-specialty field of court involved clinical psychology. This change would help to both alleviate suffering for targeted parents, and to refocus the role of family court involved psychologists from their current charge of recommending custody arrangements, to facilitating the overall psychological health of the entire family during the divorce process.
“We’d be like the neurosurgery of psychology,” he said. “When you work for the court, that should be the highest standard of professional practice. The moment we realize that, we train to a higher level of expertise and we will have a higher caliber of mental health professionals to offer the court. The courts deserve the highest caliber of professional practice, not the lowest. People’s lives are at risk here.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing this pathology in their lives, there are steps that can be taken.
“First, you must become an educated consumer of mental health services,” Mr. Childress said. “You have to know what you’re looking for and what the pathology is. You have to know more than your mental health professional.”
He recommended checking the various resources available on his website, drcachildress.org, or the Facebook group he administers, “Alliance to Solve Parental Alienation,” as starting points.
There are also various coaches and therapists who offer parenting courses and specialized therapeutic interventions designed to empower targeted parents to counteract the effects of the pathogenic parent, and to help navigate the legal side of things.
He also urged anyone concerned about parental alienation to sign the petition he sent to the APA over a year ago. It listed 22,913 signatories as of this week. To date, the APA has had no response.
“We just keep getting people standing up and saying, ‘Stop it. Stop using kids as weapons, and let’s figure out what we do. Let’s solve this.’”
To read or sign the petition, go to change.org and search “ending parental alienation.”
“I see these parents as those frontline troops on the beaches of Normandy,” Mr. Childress said. “They’re getting hit. When those landing crafts show up they’re taking casualties. But, we’re just going to keep coming until we get the beachhead, and then we’re going to roll across Europe and we’re going to end this thing.”