I’ll provide a case example. “Sarah” contacted me and said she had been divorced for 15 years. She told me she had been happily remarried for five years, held a doctorate degree in mathematics and was employed as a full-time professor. But she indicated she had a damaged relationship with her 15-year-old daughter, “Julie.”
In chronicling her story in my office, Sarah vacillated between sobbing and seething with anger. She said that when Julie spent time with her biological father, “Michael,” that he undermined Sarah’s parenting boundaries, spoiled Julie and used every opportunity to denigrate Sarah. Sarah went on to say that she was worried because Julie was disregarding curfews and skipping classes, had been in trouble with the juvenile court system and had recently been caught smoking marijuana.
When I contacted Michael, he presented with a jovial disposition. He stated he was engaged to be married and was employed as a plumber. He initially appeared supportive of his daughter. Although he said he didn’t see any reason that Julie might need therapy, he indicated that he wasn’t opposed.
When Julie’s therapy sessions began, she insisted that she loathed her mother because Sarah was unreasonable. Julie stated that her mother grounded her for “trivial” reasons such as skipping school and smoking marijuana. When discussing her father’s approach to parenting, Julie described Michael as a superb parent because he did not stoop to “ruining” her life. In addition, Julie mentioned that her father was planning on buying her a car. She stated that her father would talk with her and not carry out “ridiculous, over-the-top consequences for trivial, normal teenage mishaps.”
Step one: The first step is to ask yourself if you possess the skills and advanced training to work with families engaged in transition and ongoing conflict. If not, that is OK. This is a good time to seek referrals from colleagues who are comfortable with court-connected work.
Step two: When working with parents who are separated, divorced or are in the middle of a child-custody evaluation, counselors should request a copy of the court orders prior to starting treatment with their children. Counselors should be aware that some parents “therapist shop” and are actively looking for a counselor who will tell them what they want to hear, not necessarily what is helpful. Some potential clients are searching for a counselor to align with them and join in with them about how awful their ex-spouse is. Counselors should keep in mind that failure to contact the child’s other parent may introduce a host of issues (for example, board complaints), especially if the parent seeking treatment for the child does not have the right to do so per court order. Also make certain to obtain all necessary releases before conversing with any previous counselors who have worked with the family members.
Step three: Counselors working with parents who are irrationally rejected by their children need to be well-versed in the literature. Failing to recognize and treat alienated children and their parents prolongs emotional damage for the child and can harm the entire family system.
Step four: As a counselor, you must know who the client is. Are you working with the child, the child and the parent(s), or one/both of the parents? It is vital to understand how the client ended up in your office. Additionally, your role must be clear. Are you working as a court-appointed counselor or a court-involved counselor? Recognize that in cases of child alienation, other parties — such as other counselors, attorneys or parenting coordinators — are often involved.
Step five: Know your definitions, but do not diminish your clients by labeling them. When conversing with other professionals, it is acceptable to refer to the parent to whom the child aligns as the “favored” parent. The “rejected” parent (or “target” parent) is the parent whom the child rejects or refuses to spend time with. When working with the courts, and depending on their jurisdiction, counselors may want to use behavioral descriptions, not diagnostic labels.
Counselors should remember to focus on behaviors that can be described. Although it is acceptable to discuss the concept of triangulation, gatekeeping, pathological alignment or irrational alienation with your colleagues, it is not helpful to use these terms with clients.
Step six: Do not diagnose if you have not actually met the client or witnessed the parent-child interactions. For instance, if one parent seeks your services and reports that the other parent is alienating the child and is a narcissist and/or borderline, you cannot diagnose that other parent as borderline because you have not met with or witnessed that parent.
Richard Warshak is a world-renowned expert on parental alienation. He has written countless peer-reviewed publications on custody disputes, divorce, alienated children and stepfamilies, and has developed educational materials. Warshak recently provided strategies that can guide counselors in working with this difficult parent-child dynamic. According to a study he published earlier this year (see http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2015-27699-001/), several fallacies can compromise the therapeutic process.
- Children never unreasonably reject the parent with whom they spend the most time. The first fallacy counselors should recognize is that more time does not necessarily equal quality time. Using rapid clinical judgment, it is easy to conclude that a child identifies with the parent whom he or she sees the most. If counselors do not recognize this fallacy, they may determine that the parent must have done something that warranted poor treatment by the child. This line of thinking contributes to additional emotional distress. In turn, under this assumption, counselors can go on the lookout for flaws within the rejected parent to substantiate their beliefs. Counselors should be aware that when a child spends time with the nonresidential parent, that parent could be using that limited time to teach the child to disrespect and disobey the custodial parent. To offset this fallacy, counselors must stop thinking in unidimensional terms.
- Children never unreasonably reject mothers. According to Warshak’s study, “Those who believe mothers cannot be the victims of their children’s irrational rejection are predisposed to believe that children who reject their mothers have good reason for doing so.” He advises that counselors should keep an open mind about both parents and consider that mothers may be rejected without good reason.
- Each parent contributes equally to a child’s alienation. Counselors should not generalize that both parents are always equally at fault for a child’s alienation. Counselors would not place equal blame for intimate partner violence on the victim. Likewise, it is not helpful to equally blame both parents for a child’s unwarranted rejection when one parent may be instigating the child’s actions and attitudes.
One bias that comes into play is repetition bias. Those working in the field are permeated with the term “high conflict” and may deem that parental alienation is synonymous with that term. As described by Warshak, the term high conflict “implies joint responsibility for generating conflict.”
In my practice, I developed a nuanced view. There are times when both parents contribute to and could benefit from parenting education or family therapy. However, in the case of Sarah and Michael, Michael openly defied the court’s orders, ultimately refusing to let Sarah spend time with their daughter. He also denigrated Sarah in front of the child. I would not be practicing the concept of “non-maleficence” when working with Sarah if I were to suggest that she was at fault. Demanding more of Sarah and blaming her only adds insult to injury.
As Warshak points out, “When the rejected parent’s behavior is inaccurately assumed to be a major factor in the children’s alienation, therapy proceeds in unproductive directions.” At this point, counselors may wonder, “What am I to do?” A counselor should remain neutral and avoid making unwarranted assumptions.