MENTAL DISORDERS are not static phenomena. At various times schizophrenia did not exist, bipolardisorder was manic depression and depressive disorder was melancholia treated by blood-letting (Benham, 1915). Homosexuality was a mental disorder subsequently re-classified as sexual orientation disturbance in 1974, before being removed from the DSM in 1987. Whilst major revisions in the classification of mental disorder occur infrequently, consideration of psychopathology –conceptualising, debating and clarifying diagnostic criteria and symptomology and investigating and evaluating effective treat-ments and interventions – is a continuous process. Whilst psychopathology can bedefined as ‘the study of abnormal states of mind’ (Gelder, Cowen & Harrison, 2006,p.2) classification of mental disorder does not fit neatly within tightly defined boundaries; there is no clear cut division between‘normality’ and ‘psychopathology’ (APA,2000; Maxmen, Ward & Kilgus, 2009).Over time, a wide range of factors have been used to define different disorders including dysfunction, distress, statistical deviation, disadvantage and aetiology.Current disorders included in the DSM are descriptively conceptualised as a ‘clinically
What works in parental alienation? Look for the evidence …
Sue knows her subject, she is able to explain the complicated and nuanced subject of parental alienation to a wide range of audiences in accessible language. She encourages reflection on our own practice and is unafraid to be challenging when appropriate. Sue encourages professionals to take a wider view of how to support families, especially those in conflict.
I am committed to this awareness raising work because not to share this knowledge would mean that I am complicit in enabling alienation to fester and damage lives. Nick Child refers to this as pulling bodies out of the water upstream; hopefully for many – we can prevent them entering the water!
I am delighted to now be able to offer BPS Approved workshops around the understanding, assessment and interventions for parental alienation. If you work with children and families and would like to be better equipped in your practice, upcoming workshops are available in Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow.
Find out more about BPS Approved training around parental alienation here: BPS Approved Workshop .
What great words those are in the title of this blog. I wish I could take credit for them but credit must go to Dr Sue Whitcombe Chartered Psychologist http://familypsychologysolutions.org/dr-sue-whitcombe/ . A light bulb moment for me to hear them yesterday.
How they resonated.
Place2Be is a national charity providing emotional support to children in schools.
End mental health stigma
MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK 2017
Karen Woodall -a specialist in working with families affected by Parental Alienation
Nick Childs – “the alienation experience” is to serve and promote interest in an off-putting pattern of relationships that happens in families and other close non-family groups of people.
Dr Sue Whitcombe -My most recent research explored the experiences of British parents who identified themselves as alienated.
Awareness of the alienation process reduces the risk of unwitting collusion by practitioners, improving outcomes for children & families
09:30 Registration/Tea and Coffee
10:00 Workshop starts (there will be a break for lunch)
16:30 Workshop ends
Parental Alienation refers to a child’s rejection of, or resistance to, contact with a parent, and often that parent’s family and friends, which seems unwarranted based on the child’s actual experience of that parent. This is most usually accompanied by an intense alignment with the other parent. Alienation most usually occurs within the dynamics of high conflict family breakdown. Although the symptoms may be apparent in the child, alienation is a systemic issue and requires a tailored systemic response based on a thorough, holistic assessment and formulation of each case.
Repercussions for the child can be chronic, with evidence of impaired social function, poor mental health, enduring relationship issues and damaged sense of self. Alienated children may display anger, withdrawal, aggression, defiance, rigidity and school refusal at a level that is higher than those children who maintain a relationship with both parents. Depression, anxiety, somatic complaints and sleep disturbance have also been identified. Conduct disorder or oppositional defiance may be evident. Alienation is best tackled with early intervention, as when entrenched it is particularly resistant to change, leaving the child at risk of significant psychological, behavioural and social difficulties throughout their life course.
This workshop aims to:
- raise awareness of the key indicators, risk factors , behavioural and psychological symptoms associated with a child’s unwarranted rejection of a parent
- enable practitioners to identify the alienation dynamic in non-specific clinical settings
- outline tools for assessment
- consider appropriate evidence based interventions
This workshop will be of benefit to any practitioner who regularly works with children, adults or families. This will be of particular benefit to practitioners working in primary and secondary mental health services for children and adults, educational settings and independent practice. This workshop will be of benefit to any practitioner who provides psychological therapies or support to adults, children or families, as well as those practitioners working in child and family social care.
Learning outcomes and objectives
- An overview of the global research and evidence base related to parental alienation
- The identification of risk factors and alienating behaviours in children, parents and families
- The differentiation between justifiable estrangement and parental alienation
- A consideration of assessment strategies
- A consideration of appropriate, tailored, evidence based interventions
Facilitator:Dr Sue Whitcombe CPsychol
Dr Sue Whitcombe is Director and Principal Psychologist at Family Psychology Solutions, a not-for-profit Community Interest Company which works with families experiencing difficulties due to conflict and hostility. Sue has provided expert opinion in complex private family law cases in which parental alienation is considered to be a factor. Clinically, she provides assessment and tailored, evidence-based interventions for children, adults, couples and families experiencing a range of issues arising out of relationship difficulties. She is developing collaborative provision in the North East of England for families who ordinarily would be unable to access services. Sue has lectured at Teesside University and her research into parental alienation has been disseminated at a number of conferences. She has published peer-reviewed papers in this area. Sue is a member of the international Parental Alienation Study Group – an interdisciplinary group of mental health, legal and social care practitioners and academics
Parental alienation — a child’s unwarranted rejection of one parent and strong alignment with the other following high conflict family breakdown — leaves the alienated parent feeling powerless. Despite recognition in recent high court judgements, it is poorly understood and rarely acknowledged in the British family justice system.
That is the conclusion of research being presented by Dr Sue Whitcombe to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Counselling Psychology in London.
Dr Whitcombe conducted research with 54 parents (47 fathers and 7 mothers) who identified themselves as alienated parents. The study identifies these parents’ concerns for their children’s welfare and psychological well-being, and the lack of power they feel in being able to protect them from harm. Forty two of the parents reported concerns about their child’s mental health. For 36, a strong concern was evident.
This powerlessness is evident in the findings related to the legal process and its personnel. Fifty one of the parents had made representation to the family courts. Orders for contact were repeatedly broken, and 42 parents reported no current direct contact; 30 have not seen their child in over a year.
Dr Whitcombe found that 48 of the participants disagreed with the statement “I feel as though the authorities or legal system are fair, unbiased or supportive of me,” with 25 rating this as strong disagreement. Thirty-nine participants also found the expert witnesses, Cafcass or the police to be biased by information given by their former partners.
This sense of powerlessness also featured where false allegations are concerned, with 36 participants reporting that they had been subject to false allegations of violence against their former partner and 44 reporting false allegations of neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse against their child.
Dr Whitcombe will explain that the denigration and ultimate rejection of a parent in parental alienation is a psychological defence mechanism. Unable to manage the cognitive dissonance of their positive experience of a loving parent and the explicit or implicit negative messages they receive from the other parent, the child’s immediate psychological distress is minimised by rejecting one parent.
Earlier research has found an increase in clinically significant symptoms and behaviours in children affected by parental alienation, as well as a greater incidence of clinical disorder, relationship difficulties, substance misuse and issues with identity and sense of self over the life-course.
Dr Whitcombe says: “My study suggests a lack of knowledge and understanding about parental alienation in the UK. This resonates with my own experience when raising the topic with professionals in psychology, education and social care.
“At this time of upheaval in the family justice system, it is imperative that parental alienation is given a place on the research and policy agenda to ensure the safety and psychological well-being of children, their right to a relationship with both parents and the eradication of social injustice.”
At this precise moment I’m in some manic, hyperactive mode that is suppressing my exhaustion as I beaver away at my urgent ‘to do’ list ahead of my Friday flight to Spain. Twelve days. Twelve whole days in which I am banned from using my computer, accessing e-mails and reading anything remotely related to my research – express orders from my 15-year old daughter. I had promised her that things would be different once the ‘conference season’ was over. I hadn’t quite anticipated the knock-on effects of disseminating my research.
My interest in psychology developed from the intertwining of two distinct threads. First, as a teacher of young people with additional needs, learning difficulties and social, emotional and behavioural problems, I became interested in their development, how they learn and barriers to their learning. As I came to know my students better, I found myself in awe of many of them. Just how did they actually manage to get into school with such regularity, considering the difficulties and challenges they faced daily, let alone engage with their learning? Second, I succumbed to a long period of debilitating depression: I had a burning need to understand why.
My journey into counselling psychology took a while longer. To be frank, like many I had never heard of counselling psychology. My recently acquired psychological understanding, my new-found sense of self and experience of personal therapy had changed my relationships with others. Friends and family found me to be supportive, empathic and non-judgemental, turning to me for advice, to sound off or for a shoulder to cry on. A therapeutic role seemed like an option worthy of serious consideration, but I was also keen to maintain my burgeoning interest in research. Then my daughter and I developed a friendship with a father and his similarly aged daughter, whiling away many an enjoyable Saturday together. I was totally unprepared for the devastating fallout of one ordinary Saturday afternoon where I witnessed a minor disagreement between dad and daughter – over a mobile phone and a bicycle. Immediately following that trivial disagreement, this young girl ceased all contact with father; she has refused to speak to or see him for the past three years. Even as a bystander, this experience has had a profound impact on me.
Discovering parental alienation
I thought I knew children and young people quite well. After all, I had three of my own and I had worked with them for 10 years; I understood child and adolescent behaviour didn’t I? So challenged was I by the behaviours I had observed, that I sought to gain an informed understanding. This was when I came across ‘parental alienation’ (PA). The more I read, the more I understood, the greater my shame, guilt and sadness. Shame that I had usually taken what I saw before me at face value and not sought to look deeper; guilt that my ignorance had probably contributed to the alienation; sadness at the growing realisation that there was very little I could do to rectify the situation for this young girl and her dad. Witnessing the devastating repercussions on the lives of people I loved and cared about, motivated me to ‘do’ something. So began my research, my determination to raise awareness of PA and to develop resources and support where little existed – and my training as a counselling psychologist.
Parental alienation is the unwarranted or illogical rejection of a parent by a child, where there was previously a normal, warm, loving relationship. It most often occurs in highly conflicted relationship break-ups and is the result of intentional or unintentional actions, most usually by the parent with care turning their child against the non-resident parent (NRP). Over a period of time, this poisoning effect leads to the child becoming hostile, vitriolic and abusive, usually culminating with the total rejection of the NRP.
This rejection is often the only ostensible solution for a distressed child who is unable to deal with the hostility and conflict between parents. Faced with the cognitive dissonance arising from the imbalance between their own experience and external messages, a child feels compelled to choose between one parent and the other in order to minimise distress and maintain what is needed – stability. This manifests itself in a splitting defence, whereby a child views one parent as all good, and the other as all bad, unable to manage the reality that there is good and bad in both. Once PA has become entrenched it is particularly resistant to remedy other than through the passage of time (Fidler & Bala, 2010).
A pattern of behaviours common to cases of alienation was first described by Gardner (1985) and further refined in later research (Gardner, 2003). Whilst Gardner’s research has been criticised as over-simplified, theoretical and subject to lack of peer review, he did bring the issue of PA to the attention of the legal, mental health and social care professions (Faller, 1998; Kelly & Johnston, 2001; Spruijt et al., 2005). Gardner’s behaviours and symptoms have been further explored and developed and while this research cannot confirm causality, the strategies and behaviours identified are believed by the participants to be alienating (e.g. Baker, 2005; Baker & Darnall, 2006, 2007).
Whilst in the short term children who reject their parent may appear to function reasonably well in their day-to-day lives, the medium and long-term effects can be significant and distressing (Waldron & Joanis, 1996). Evidence suggests that the lifelong effects of losing contact with a parent due to a child’s rejection for no significant reason are substantial. Depression, substance abuse, damaged self-esteem, and enduring relationship issues with lack of trust, divorce and alienation from their own children have been found in adults who experienced PA as a child (Baker, 2005, 2007). Not only do these children have to deal with their belief that their parent was a ‘bad’ person, but the later recognition that they have been forced to exclude a loving, caring, decent parent from their life may cause irreversible damage to their relationship with the alienating parent (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991).
There are of course perfectly legitimate reasons why a child may reject a parent – as in cases of genuine neglect, physical or sexual abuse, or violence in the home. These cases of genuine estrangement are not covered by PA, which is characterised by a dislike and rejection of a parent for no apparent logical, significant reason.
Whilst the concept of PA is acknowledged and even seen as mainstream in many countries, it remains contentious and continues to be hotly debated as evidenced by the recent deliberations surrounding its inclusion in DSM-5 (Bernet et al., 2010). It is difficult to determine whether the benefits of a diagnosis of such a psychiatric disorder outweigh the risks. Risk of harm may be further exacerbated due to an increase in parental conflict following such a diagnosis, which might suggest that one parent was to blame for the situation. Such a diagnosis may be counterproductive in the reparation process. However, the absence of PA in nosologies such as the DSM, enables its denial by some, and has been blamed for a lack of research and appropriate resources to support conflicted, separating families and young people.
Although there are hundreds of peer-reviewed articles by psychologists, psychiatrists, legal and social work professionals attesting to the concept and presence of PA in highly conflicted divorce cases, it has rarely been openly or formally discussed in the UK. Anecdotal evidence, and the preliminary findings in my research, suggest that the concept is perceived as ‘American twaddle’ and is most usually dismissed out of hand by the judiciary, solicitors and Cafcass officers when raised in family proceedings, despite clear reference to PA throughout the Cafcass Operating Framework (Cafcass, 2012).
I’ve been immersing myself in the literature around PA for three years now – scouring every journal article, magazine posting, book chapter, seminar, support group and blog that deals with the issue from one perspective or another. I have met with so many parents who have lived with PA on a daily basis – who deal with pain, loss, shame, guilt, anger, rejection, disbelief, depression, sadness, ignorance and judgement. I have met many more counsellors, psychologists, academics, teachers, social workers and lawyers who have never heard of PA. And then there are those people that happenstance dictates I bump into. In polite conversation they ask me why I’m going to a conference, or what I’m researching. After checking out – ‘Do you really want to know?’ (lest I should bore them) – I explain to them what PA is, and what my research is about. It never ceases to surprise and dismay me, the number of times I hear ‘that happened to my son’ or my partner, my daughter or my friend, a colleague.
I feel driven to raise awareness of PA in those professionals who work on a daily basis with those whose lives are damaged by this tragedy. I feel driven to raise awareness in the general public, so that PA can no longer be denied or swept under the carpet in the same way as childhood sex abuse used to be. This lack of awareness exacerbates the alienation process and its impact on children and parents alike.
My decision to present at conferences this year, and particularly the Division of Counselling Psychology conference in Cardiff, was very much motivated by this desire to raise awareness in professionals who will come across PA in their daily work, yet may not be aware of it. Early responses from participants in my research align with the anecdotal evidence; many parents who have experienced PA are highly critical of their experience with psychologists. I am also keenly aware that whilst encouraging participation in my research by asking potential participants to ‘add their voice’to my study, many are sceptical whether their voice will actually be heard. After all – few people have listened to them or tried to understand their situation to date.
My experience at the Division of Counselling Psychology conference this year was a very emotional and rewarding one. Prior to my attendance, I had been advised that I had been awarded the BPS Division of Counselling Psychology (DCoP) Trainee of the Year prize for my work entitled ‘Psychopathology and the conceptualisation of mental disorder: The debate around the inclusion of Parental Alienation in DSM-5’ (Whitcombe, 2013). I was to receive the award at the conference. What I could not have envisioned was that my poster presentation ‘The lived experience of alienated parents: Developing a Q sort’ would also be judged as best at the conference. Yes, I feel some pride, but my overwhelming emotion is one of validation: validation by my peers and my chosen profession that PA and the experience of parents in this situation is especially worthy of discussion and research.
Presenting at the DCoP conference and then at the PsyPAG conference in Lancaster the following week, I feel that I achieved my objective: the voices of my research participants were heard. It is a small step in the right direction. But then there are also those knock-on effects, the ones I mentioned at the outset, which have found me (under my daughter’s orders) in need of enforced holiday relaxation before embarking on the final year of my doctorate.
Since returning home I have been inundated with e-mails, suggestions and requests; requests for more information about PA; to write articles; suggestions for collaborative research – even an invitation to make representation to a national government. Perhaps the time is just right to be talking about parental alienation. If we fail to acknowledge it, to understand it and start to address it, we are complicit in condemning so many families to a life with limited hope, little support and the lifelong impact of relationship difficulties, mental health problems and a diminished sense of self.
Sue Whitcombe is a trainee counselling psychologist and lecturer in psychology firstname.lastname@example.org