Posted in Alienation

Clinical Implications

The findings in this study have important implications for clinicians working with recently divorced families. Although the results in this paper should be considered tentative, pending confirmation by more rigorous longitudinal studies, they would suggest that parental warmth is a key component of improving children’s outcomes following divorce. This is a hopeful finding, since each parent is equally able to contribute to the amount of warmth that the child experiences. Whereas decreasing alienating behaviors and co-parenting conflict may require coordination between both parents (and thus allows blaming the other parent when things do not improve), increasing one’s own parental warmth is predicted to have an important impact from this research

The other major implication for clinicians and parents is that coalitions have a significant negative effect on young adult outcomes. Parents may attempt to alienate a child from the other parent for a variety of reasons (Johnston & Campbell, 1988). However, this research suggests that if they are successful and the child joins them in a coalition it will negatively affect the child’s own mental health outcomes. Clinicians should work closely with parents to ensure that they are not working towards forming coalitions with their children. Although a parent may feel justified in alienating a child from the other parent because of the other parents’ behavior, clinicians should ensure that the alienating parent is aware that successfully “protecting” the child from the other parent may come at a cost of the child’s well-being

Posted in Alienation

Child’s Immediate Response to Divorce

A final consideration is the lasting influence of the circumstances immediately following divorce or separation. A child’s contact refusal, as previously mentioned, can be a significant and difficult process in the immediate aftermath of a divorce. Unfortunately, the literature on how contact refusal continues or subsides in young adulthood is scant. Gardner (2001) suggests that cases of severe contact refusal backed by significant alienating behaviors are unlikely to change without strong interventions.

Johnston and Goldman (2010), using a sample that was not as severely alienated as Gardner’s sample but that were also in treatment, suggested that contact refusal is not likely to continue unless it is rooted in authentic parental deficits. This is similar to Wallerstein and Kelly’s (1974) finding that adolescents are not likely to continue refusing a relationship with their parents when there are not significant deficits.

Further exploration, with more diverse samples is needed to better understand the prognosis for children refusing contact. In connection with this, Huff (Paper B) found that the child forming a coalition with a parent was 78 a significant predictor of contact refusal. It is unclear whether such coalitions continue to affect children into young adulthood. Current Study The aim of this study is to explore the complex relationship between parental and child behaviors at the time of parental separation and the child’s mental health and relationship outcomes in adulthood. The present literature connects some parent behaviors – such as alienating behaviors and abuse – to adult child outcomes, but has not always controlled for other behaviors. Moreover, the child’s immediate reaction to parental behaviors has rarely been considered as a direct contribution to adult child outcomes or as a mediator to the parental behaviors.

Specifically, this paper tests the hypotheses that current relationship with parents will be predicted by the warmth, history of abuse, and initial contact refusal of that parent and the alienating behaviors of and coalition formed with the other parent. Additionally, it tests the hypothesis that current mental health will be predicted by parental coalitions and exposure to alienating behaviors, conflict, warmth, and abuse.

Posted in Alienation

Development and Validation of the Contact Refusal Scale

Expanding the Relationship between Parental Alienating Behaviors

See graph on pages 29 – 34 very interesting statistics.

Capture Capture2

Posted in Alienation

Potential Contributions to Contact Refusal


It is well established that child abuse is associated with a variety of negative outcomes for children (Brown, Cohen, Johnson, & Smailes, 1999; Johnson et al., 2002; McCord, 1983). Child abuse has played a key role in discussions of contact refusal and parental alienation, with debates around the role of false accusations being an alienating tactic and the role of real abuse prompting contact refusal (Drozd & Olesen, 2004; Gardner, 1999). Johnston, Lee, Olesen, and Walters (2005) provide data suggesting that allegations of abuse were more frequent in their sample of highly conflicted custody-disputing families than in typical divorce/custody cases. The relationship between abuse, alienating behaviors, and contact refusal has seen significant discussion in the literature. Gardner (1999) emphasized that allegations of abuse can be used as part of a program of alienation and provided guidelines for differentiating between authentic abuse and alienation fueled allegations. Others, such as Meier (2010), acknowledged that alienation may occur, but warned that over-emphasis of alienation has led to victims of authentic abuse being ignored. Others have attempted to produce a more nuanced model of the relationship between alienation and abuse (Drozd & Olesen, 2004; Fidler & Bala, 2010), often founding their discussion on Kelly and Johnston’s (2001) aforementioned model. Evidence that a more than half of accusations of child abuse made by divorcing parents are not substantiated speaks to the complex relationship between abuse and alienation (Johnston, Lee, Olesen, & Walters, 2005). Unfortunately – as confirmed by Saini, Johnston, Fidler and Bala’s (2012) comprehensive review of the literature on alienation – there has been little empirical exploration 40 of the relationships between abuse, alienating behaviors, and contact refusal. A notable exception to this scarcity of literature confirmed that substantiated accounts of abuse significantly predicted parental rejection in highly conflicted divorce cases when controlling for a variety of other factors, including alienating behaviors by the other parent (Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005).

Alienating Behaviors.

Alienating behaviors are defined as attempts by one parent to influence a child to reject the other parent. Although not unique to divorced couples (Meier, 2009), alienating behaviors following divorce receive special attention due to the possibility that they may result in a parent completely losing contact with their child (Gardner, 1999). A variety of specific behaviors have been identified as alienating in divorced parents. Gardner (2004a), for example, included programming verbalizations, litigiousness, complaints to police and child protective services, and exclusionary maneuvers as primary alienating behaviors by parents. Johnston, Walters, and Oleson’s (2005) scale for parental alienation included behaviors like being angry if child shows positive feelings about the other parent, ridiculing the other parent to the child, telling stories about the other parent’s failures as a parent, and blaming the divorce or separation on the other parent.

Parental Behaviors.

Friedlander and Walter (2010) describe cases of planned, significant alienation to be rare in their work, reporting that alienating behaviors that happen without complete awareness are more frequent. Such behaviors may stem from immaturity and anger and include subtle cues of disapproval, such as eye-rolling and negative voice tones. They note that such cases of subtle alienating behaviors can still have major impacts on children’s development and their relationships with the target parent. Empirical research bears out the contention that alienating behaviors play a significant role in contact refusal (Johnston, 1993; Johnston, 2003). Johnston, Walters, and Olesen (2005) notably found a significant effect, even when controlling 41 for other factors like target parent warmth and abuse, as did Johnston (2003). Alienating behaviors have also been implicated in other negative psychological outcomes (Carey, 2003; Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005b).

Posted in Alienation

Parental Alienating Behaviors and Children ‘s Contact Refusal Following Divorce

Contact refusal by children following parental divorce or separation is a difficult experience for families. Although theorists have written much about contributions and effects of contact refusal, empirical exploration of the topic is under developed. The three papers included in this dissertation seek to expand the empirical literature on contact refusal and the long-term effects of the behaviors that relate to it. The first paper presents two studies designed to develop a measure of contact refusal. Study 1 used responses from 96 participants to narrow an initial pool of 25 question to 12 questions using an exploratory factor analysis. Study 2 used responses from 332 participants to confirm the fit of the Contact Refusal Scale developed in Study 1. The fit was found to be adequate. The Contact Refusal Scale also correlated appropriately with related measures. The second paper presents an expansion of a model proposed by Friedlander and Walters (2010) that suggested that multiple causes predict any given case of contact refusal. Models predicting contact refusal were tested based on retrospective data from 292 young adults. Forming a coalition with one parent was a strong predictor of refusing contact with the other parent. Alienating behaviors were mediated by the coalition that was formed. Parental warmth was also a protective factor against a child refusing contact. Parental violence was also a significant predictor. Adolescents were marginally more likely to refuse contact. The third paper explores the long-term consequences of contact refusal and the behaviors that were related to it in the second paper. Using self-report data from 292 participants, circumstances following divorce were used to predict current relationships with parents and personal mental health. Coalitions with mother and father’s warmth and violence were predictive of relationships with fathers in young adulthood. No significant predictors of relationships with mothers were found. Coalitions with mothers and parental warmth were predictors of current mental health. The research demonstrates the importance of exploring children’s responses to divorce from a complex framework, rather than attributing outcomes to single causes.

Posted in Alienation

Family dysfunction

Family dysfunction is often chronic and ongoing and is rather widespread in our culture. To name just a few: parental drug abuse, divorces with multiple lovers coming and going and/or with children being passed around to different relatives, child abuse (physical, sexual, psychological), domestic violence, parenting issues (parents leaving children unattended or neglected for long periods, putting childcare entirely on the backs of older siblings, catering to children’s every whim, invalidation, screaming and yelling, undermining the disciplinary efforts of one another), parents having multiple affairs, bad mouthing the other parent in front of the children and enlisting them as allies (triangulation), and general chaos at home. Is the author of the editorial really saying that none of these problems might explain the connection between childhood and adult psychiatric problems? Is that their argument?

If you don’t believe that these patterns are common, I have two words for you: country music.

The closest the author of the editorial comes to this issue is reason #3. But notice the wording: ongoing instability is mentioned, but mostly things like poverty and living in bad neighborhoods. The nearest thing to family dysfunction that is mentioned is “lack of stable social support.” Vague enough for you?

In reason #1, the authors seem to be blaming the child for the problems of the adults, rather than the other way around! They say, “exhibiting the behaviors that define conduct disorder in childhood may alienate peers and family.”

Which do you think is more powerful and important: adults’ behavior negatively impacting children, or children’s behavior negatively impacting adults? This reminds me of a speaker touting Adderall at a grand rounds in our department who said, “If you had kids with ADHD, you might drink too much too!” In other words, he was saying that rambunctious children are a cause of alcoholism.

In reason #2, the authors do refer to environmental factors, but over-emphasize early ones. I guess the authors think either than family dysfunction ceases miraculously by virtue of a child turning 18, or that adults are not affected much any more at all by what their family members are doing to and with them. Sorry, but those assumptions are just plain nuts.
Before I quote what they listed as the three reasons, what is the connection I am implying to the issue of antipsychotic use in kids? It is this: instead of recommending family therapy, the doctors are just drugging the kids who act out in response to these problems.
Anyway, here are the reasons as they described:

  1. Child psychopathology and adult psychopathology could have different causes, but experiencing mental health problems in childhood may directly or indirectly increase the risk for adult psychopathology. For example, exhibiting the behaviors that define conduct disorder in childhood may alienate peers and family, lead to curtailed education and incarceration, and increase the risk of brain and spinal cord injuries. In turn, these adverse consequences of childhood conduct disorder may place the individual at increased risk for later psychopathology and compromised adaptive functioning during adulthood.
  1. It is possible that some or all of the causes of psychopathology across the life span operate early in life. That is, childhood psychopathology could predict psychopathology and compromised functioning in adulthood because they are both influenced by at least some of the same genetic and early environmental factors. Although there may also be later age specific causal influences, such enduring effects of early causal influences would foster the observed predictive association. At the level of mechanism, child and adult psychopathology would at least partly share atypical functioning in the same neurobiological processes in this case.
  1. The predictive association between child psychopathology and adult psychopathology could reflect chronic or intermittent exposures to conditions that give rise to psychopathology when encountered across a life span. For example, psychopathology at all ages may be fostered by chronic economic instability, pollution, living in disorganized and violent neighborhoods, and lack of stable social support. To the extent that these causal environmental factors are stable across a person’s life, childhood psychopathology would reliably predict adult psychopathology even in the absence of a shared causal or mechanistic link between them.

Posted in Alienation

Mishandling Alienation Cases

Family law cases involving sincere allegations of parental alienation are difficult, highly emotional and profoundly conflicted. Although a certain number of these cases were likely to be high-conflict anyway, adding allegations of alienation to the mix makes conflict a near certainty. I can, however, imagine an alternative, more child-centred approach to these cases that might encourage negotiation and curb the usual rush to trial.

Allegations of alienation are extraordinarily painful to all involved, and it seems to me that it is the intensity of our emotional responses to such allegations which sparks the fight-or-flight response spurring conflict and inhibiting our capacity for rational judgment. Consider, for a moment, the context in which these allegations are raised for both parents.

Rejected parents are generally struggling with the aching loss of a relationship with their children while they deal with the legal fallout from the end of their relationship with the other parent. The loss of a relationship with a child is not the loss of a relationship with a friend or adult family member, but the loss of an intimate nurturing relationship with thickly interwoven elements of caregiving, mentoring and vulnerability. It is also a relationship so heavily laden with social expectations, usually of the Norman Rockwell and Hallmark Cards varieties, that the personal loss is inevitably accompanied by significant narcissistic injury and feelings of failure, inadequacy and abandonment.

The sting of the loss is felt just as keenly whether the child’s rejection of a parent was a reasonable reaction to the personality and parenting traits of the rejected parent or arose from the malicious, willful efforts of the favoured parent. In my experience, parents whose behaviour had triggered the breakdown of their relationship with a child were generally oblivious of the fact. It is always easier, it seems to me, to blame someone else for one’s own failings, especially on matters so closely tied to ego and self-esteem.

Favoured parents, on the other hand, seem to react to allegations of alienation with the same strident indignation whether they poisoned the child’s relationship with the rejected parent or not. They may characterize such allegations as spurious attacks on personality, desperate attempts to gain advantage, superficial pretexts for the pursuit of sole custody or nothing more than old school mud-slinging. Either way, it is rarely tactically possible for favoured parents to acknowledge the truth, or even partial truth, of allegations of alienation; such allegations must always be contested.

Of course, to round out this discussion of context, it must also be remembered that allegations of alienation do not occur in the same sort of dispassionate, arm’s-length relationship that exists between the parties to personal injury claims or shareholders’ grievances. The parties involved in family law proceedings once, usually, trusted each other and loved each other deeply. They held hands together, broke bread together and, at least once, slept together. Now, however, they are adversaries opposed in interest, engaged in combative court proceedings, who nonetheless will maintain a lifelong relationship with one another.

As a result of this unpleasant emotional stew, unaffected allegations of alienations either trigger conflict, or take existing conflict to new heights, and raise the stakes such that the rejected parent cannot resile from his or her claims without a serious loss of face, or a potential admission of poor parenting skills, nor can the favoured parent concede the accuracy of those claims.

In a previous post, “Therapeutic Interventions and the Alienated Child: Whose Interests Are We Serving, and How Are We Serving Them?,” I suggested that the basic characteristic shared by all children who had become alienated from a parent is the child’s pathologically distorted views and feelings toward the rejected parent. I argued that if the best interests of the child is truly the primary consideration in all decisions affecting children, that the primary goal of all therapeutic interventions should be to transform the child’s distorted thinking into more realistic views and feelings that are based on the child’s actual experience of the rejected parent. I argued that that the restoration of the parent-child relationship should not be the primary goal of such interventions, although the repair of that relationship would obviously be a welcome incident of the repair of the child’s distorted views and feelings.

Of course, the even more fundamental characteristic shared by children whose relationship with a parent has broken down, because of the actions of the favoured parent (alienation) or because of the parenting skills or past behaviour of the rejected parent (estrangement), is the loss of the parent-child relationship. Whether the cause of the breakdown can be agreed upon or not, the fact that the breakdown has happened is usually manifest and beyond dispute. This is what Alyson Jones, the noted Vancouver clinical counsellor, has described as “attachment disruption.”

What if, instead of responding to the breakdown in parent-child relationships as alienation, casting blame on the favoured parent, or estrangement, casting blame on the rejected parent, we instead focused on the fact of the child’s attachment disruption, its impact on the child’s wellbeing and the means by which the child’s wellbeing might be promoted? What if rejected parents could not allege alienation at the hands of the favoured parent but only the fact of attachment disruption?

There are, I suggest, a number of benefits to be gained from such an approach.

Firstly and most importantly, the disruption of a child’s relationship with a parent is a tangible, measurable fact that has nothing to do with blame. The fact of the child’s attachment disruption can be established without the need to pursue its cause; it ether exists or it does not.

Secondly, placing the focus of enquiry on the child’s attachment disruption minimizes conflict by discouraging the need to lay blame, whether on the favoured parent or the rejected parent. It allows the favoured parent to consider the breakdown of the child’s relationship with the other parent as primarily an issue of the child’s health and welfare, and eliminates the need to respond to hurtful allegations of misconduct. It likewise allows the rejected parent to focus on the issue as the child’s problem rather than the parent’s problem, and in lessening the pain of the loss of the relationship, the need to find fault with the favoured parent is also lessened.

Thirdly, placing the focus of enquiry on the child’s attachment disruption encourages favoured parents as well as rejected parents to raise the breakdown in the parent-child relationship as an issue that must be resolved to benefit the child’s wellbeing in the legal proceedings.

Fourthly, in avoiding the need to lay blame we avoid the need to identify a cause of the child’s attachment disruption. What is important is the fact of the disruption, not an investigation into fault. (Besides, my impression of these cases is that there are very few cases that are purely alienation or estrangement; most of the time, the breakdown of the parent-child relationship results from elements of each.) If we can avoid the need to lay blame, we reduce the intensity of emotions and conflict, increase the likelihood of settlement, reduce the cost of experts’ reports and decrease the length of trial.

Finally, this approach is child-centred and emphasizes the therapeutic goal of addressing the child’s attachment disruption. It allows parents’ behaviour to be criticized without incrimination and thereby promotes the constructive engagement of both parents in the therapeutic process.

It is important to recognize that this approach does not prevent counsel or the court from addressing the negative behaviours typically raised in proceedings alleging alienation or estrangement. A parent prone to disparaging the other parent in the presence of the children can be required to attend therapy or be restrained from making negative remarks merely upon proof of the impugned behaviour, without the need to also allege alienation. Similarly, a parent prone to the sort of harsh discipline that can result in estrangement can be sent to anger management or be restrained from hitting the children without the need to allege alienation or counter with allegations of estrangement.

It is also possible to pursue the other remedies typically associated with allegations of alienation without making such allegations. It is not necessary to allege alienation to pursue contempt proceedings for failure to adhere to a parenting schedule, seek costs for a parent’s misbehaviour or apply for case management or the appointment of a parenting coordinator. It is not necessary to allege alienation to pursue a switch in custody or truncate the favoured parent’s contact with the child, if that is what is needed to address the child’s attachment disruption.

Allegations of alienation are toxic and invariably exacerbate conflict between parents, whether the allegations are well-founded or not. The frequency of these allegations, albeit not their substantiation, is continuing to increase, as shown in recent work of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family (PDF), and these cases are sucking up increasing amounts of judicial resources, not to mention litigating parents’ financial resources. They diminish or delay parents’ capacity to successfully cooperate in the raising of their children after trial and increase the likelihood that the parents’ legal dispute will have a lasting negative impact on their children, potentially impeding children’s relationship formation and social functioning as adults.

Approaching the breakdown of parent-child relationships from the lens of attachment disruption strikes me as likely to minimize parental conflict, increase the likelihood of settlement and successful co-parenting, and emphasize the overarching importance of supporting children’s wellbeing after separation. Without a doubt, research and much more thinking is necessary to support and more fully develop this concept, but in the meantime I encourage parents and counsel to refrain from the slings and arrows of alienation and consider a more neutral approach focusing on the fact of the damaged parent-child relationship rather than the cause of the damage.

Posted in Uncategorized


Children who are triangulated into their parents’ conflicts can become polarized, aligning with one parent and rejecting the other. In response, courts often order families to engage mental health professionals to provide reunification interventions.

This article adapts empirically established systematic desensitization and flooding procedures most commonly used to treat phobic children as possible components of a larger family systems invention designed to help the polarized child develop a healthy relationship with both parents. Strengths and weaknesses of these procedures are discussed and illustrated with case material. Key Points for the Family Court Community:

• Family law and psychology agree that children should have the opportunity to enjoy a healthy relationship with both parents

• Adult conflict can polarize a child’s relationships, including rejection of one parent

• Existing clinical and forensic “reunification” strategies often prove inadequate

• Reliable and valid cognitive behavioral methods can be adopted to facilitate this process

• A cognitive-behavioral “exposure-based” reunification protocol is discussed

“The child develops an anxious and phobic-like response . . . a mutually escalating cycle of fear and anxiety develop between the child and the alienating parent; the more upset the child is, the more protective and concerned the parent is, which in turn escalates the child’s reactions and so on. Learning theory demonstrates that the correction (extinction) of the avoidance is extremely difficult and requires exposure and systematic desensitization to the avoided circumstance or feared object.” (B.J. Fidler, Ph.D. as quoted in W.C. v. C.E., 2010 ONSC 3575)

Posted in Alienation

Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Renowned social psychologist and creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment Philip Zimbardo explores the mechanisms that make good people do bad things, how moral people can be seduced into acting immorally, and what this says about the line separating good from evil.

The Lucifer Effect explains how—and the myriad reasons why—we are all susceptible to the lure of “the dark side.” Drawing on examples from history as well as his own trailblazing research, Zimbardo details how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women.

Posted in Alienation

Man’s Search for Meaning, the neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1905–1997)

Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for. —Victor Frankl

In Man’s Search for Meaning, the neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1905–1997) wrote about his experience as a concentration camp inmate during the Second World War. He observed that those who survived longest in concentration camps were not those who were physically strong, but those who retained a sense of control over theirenvironment.

He remarked,

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

Frankl’s message is ultimately one of hope: even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanizing situation, life can be given a meaning, and so too can suffering. His experience as a concentration camp inmate taught him that our main drive or motivation in life is neither pleasure (as Freud had thought) nor power (as Adler had thought), butmeaning. After his release Frankl founded the school of logotherapy, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘Third Viennese School of psychotherapy’ because it came after those of Freud and Adler. The goal of logotherapy (from the Ancient Greek logos, in this context meaning ‘reason’ or ‘principle’) is to carry out an existential analysis of the person and, in so doing, to help him discover meaning for his life. According to Frankl, meaning can be found through:

  • Creativity or giving something to the world through self- expression,
  • Experiencing the world by interacting authentically with our environment and with others, and
  • Changing our attitude when we are faced with a situation or circumstance that we cannot change.
Frankl is credited with coining the term ‘Sunday neurosis’ to refer to the dejection that is felt at the end of the working week when a person realizes just how empty and meaningless his life is. This existential vacuum may lead him to all sorts of excesses and compensatory behaviours such as neurotic anxiety, avoidance, bingeing on food and drink, overworking, and overspending. In the short-term these excesses and compensatory behaviours carpet over the existential vacuum, but in the longer term they prevent action from being taken and meaning from being found. For Frankl,depression can result when the gap between what a person is and what he ought to be becomes so large that it can no longer be carpeted over. The person’s goals seem far out of reach and he can no longer envisage a future. As in Psalm 41, abyssus abyssum invocat—‘hell brings forth hell’ or, in an alternative translation, ‘the deep calls onto the deep’.