Not sure about alienation? – Nick Child, Rtd Child Psychiatrist and Family Therapist, Edinburgh

A word more about false allegations: If you’ve not been on the receiving end of false allegations you may not know how extremely damaging they are. People say that a hundred false allegations are acceptable if one true perpetrator is caught. But that approach itself perpetrates ninety-nine more lives destroyed without justice.

Reported false allegations to police or social work can be a ‘nuclear’ option to get the court to prevent contact for months of investigation while the Alienation is entrenched. Informal false allegations through hints and gossip are devastating too: “I heard he’s a bit strict with the kids” … “She’s a career woman, not very motherly … on anti-depressants too.”  Rumour spreads like fake news does on social media … all the way to the unqualified kangaroo courts. Even saying nothing leaves imagination to fill the gaps. … By the way, did you spot your own gullibility there? Hardly any children would live with their own family if their parents were disqualified by having a career, or depression, or by setting limits!  … Making false allegations would lose much of its power to damage, if allegations of all kinds were quickly and properly assessed, and if appropriate work and supported contact were quickly started and sustained.

So a standard definition of Parental Alienation is: A family pattern most strikingly (but not only) found in the context of implacably disputed separations, where a child is shaped into totally rejecting the other parent and their tribe, in a lasting way and for no good reason, even though the child previously had, and could still have, a safe and valued relationship with them.   … So the kind of Alienation we’re talking about takes three parties to do it:  One person turns a second person against a third person in a lasting way for no good reason.

As I said: let’s not be too simplistic. It is rarely as obvious as the classic melodramatic picture. Commonly it is more mixed up, two-sided and multi-factorial. But that same complexity is true of children who refuse school: it shouldn’t stop us doing the same job with those who refuse a parent.  Being bamboozled means people often get frustrated and over-react in simplistic ways with Alienation. The following sorts of thing are too simplistic:

  • It’s just a syndrome, a diagnosis, you have it or you don’t;
  • It doesn’t exist, it’s not scientific;
  • It’s weird and nothing like normal separation or relationships;
  • It’s just bad fathers – or bad mothers – with evil personality disorders. They should be evaporated;
  • Intervention is simple – just transfer residence to the other parent.

But some conclusions are clear:

  • Yes, it’s serious and not good for the children and their development
  • No, it’s not just an equally-matched tit-for-tat; it’s not just a contact dispute.
  • Yes, the reasons for resisting contact may not be clear. And:
  • Yes, one or two parents may use Parental Alienation as a cover up.
  • So yes, we need to understand, assess, and intervene at least as thoroughly as we do with school refusal, each case in its own right.
  • No, don’t “give it time” – remember Abduction is urgent; these patterns quickly get entrenched
  • Yes, whatever happens, keep any kind of contact and communication going with the other parent.
  • Teachers, GPs, Social Workers, and CAMHS staff: For all separated families, always contact both parents. If one parent says you shouldn’t, check it out.
  • And yes, lawyers and courts are sometimes needed.
  • And yes, sometimes transferring residence completely transforms a child’s life.

OK, you ask: What do you do next?  That’s quite easy to answer but not to do:

  • You already know what to do: Resisting seeing a parent is much more serious than a child resisting going to school. But both of these require the same approach. You pull together the picture with the child and everyone else and put together a plan. However many factors there are to sort out, the aim is the same: get the relationship with rejected school or rejected parent back on track. We know how to do that with school-refusal, but no one yet does the same with parent-refusal.
  • If you get that idea, you’re well on the right tracks. But so many tricky things bamboozle everyone that you need to learn moreto get through the fog.
  • Alienation may need ordinary or extraordinary help. But for any clients who don’t engage, start thinking of reporting – as questions of child welfare – the following concerns. (Some of us need to begin this reporting or no one will ever learn why):
    • Any child’s rejection of a parent – whether it is un-ambivalent or reasonable.
    • Any parent who seriously threatens that their ex- is never going to see the children again.
  • Another thing you can do is to talk about this everywhere, so that it stops being such a hidden pothole.

Blood-letting: learning from the past

Trusting our professions

The question of trust in professionals and institutions is both ancient and modern. Each generation thinks it’s better than before. Across the world, we have way more democratic influence and access than ever to expanding mountains of information, trading and professional standards, legislation, campaigns, feedback, complaints systems, checks and balances and so on. Yet – or as a result – our present institutions are crumbling as Niall Ferguson showed in his 2012 Reith Lectures. Continue reading “Blood-letting: learning from the past”

Nick Child, B.Sc., MBChB, MRCPsych, M.Phil.

Nick passionately believes that the best way for the world to become aware, to educate children, adults and professionals, and to prevent and stop all kinds of undue influence, in and outside of families, is to team up together against them all.  He has also found plenty of rich learning to transfer across from one kind of undue influence (eg cults) to another form (eg in families, in parental alienation). And so that’s how you find Nick here in the engine-room of the Open Minds Foundation.

Cults, hostages and the Stockholm syndrome

Through her book Adult Children of PA, we know of Amy Baker’s powerful use of the ‘cult’ metaphor for an Alienated child’s loyalty to the aligned parent. She focused on the cult ideas more in an earlier paper, which is a really good summary of how similar the coercive patterns are in cults and in Child Alienation. Continue reading “Nick Child, B.Sc., MBChB, MRCPsych, M.Phil.”

Parental Abduction and Alienation: A Discussion with Psychiatrist Nick Child

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a gathering of a group of parentally alienated mothers and fathers in Waltham, Massachusetts. Parental alienation is a phenomenon where children are turned against one of their parents (either mother or father) by the other parent, usually when there is a divorce, without good reason. In some cases, children are physically and psychologically isolated for years and they are programmed against the non-custodial parent. Of course, negative programming is done all the time in cult groups, when a parent decides they want to exit the cult. What I have learned is that this problem happens in non-cult situations quite frequently. So I decided to set up an interview with a friend and colleague from Scotland Dr. Nick Child, BSc MB ChB MRCPsych, MPhil. He is a retired child psychiatrist and family therapist who has focused a lot of his energy on the problem of parental abduction and alienation. Continue reading “Parental Abduction and Alienation: A Discussion with Psychiatrist Nick Child”

Response to Question – What about AC of PA

What about Adult Children of PA????

Nick Childs – Thank you Nick for responding to my recent question above:

Nicks response
Apart from Amy JL Baker’s famous work – see recent blog for link to her original paper – I have found huge transferable ideas fro the field of how to help an adult loved one in cults. Read Steve Hassan’s website and his two main books (in newer editions) featured there.

New thoughts on high conflict in families – by Nick Childs

The quickest version of that recruitment is Parental Child Abduction. Abduction requires subsequent Alienation of the children to keep them on-side. Serious Parental Child Alienation achieves exactly the same child-recruit outcome as Abduction, but the Alienation may be a longer process – though often it can get going quite quickly.

go to the website to read more here:-

Nick Childs

  • This blog “the alienation experience” is to serve and promote interest in an off-putting pattern of relationships that happens in family and other close groups of people.
  • We want to engage you if you are put off this topic. Read more on Not sure about?.
  • We want to support and broaden your range of thinking if you are already persuaded.
  • We welcome world-wide interest which we hope will particularly benefit us in the UK as we try to get our act together better.
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“We accuse you adults! By Nick Child / 5 March, 2016 /

We accuse you adults! Where were you when our parents tore us children apart, in their mad divorce war, which lasted for 12 years and really was a war? Where were the judges and social workers, and the experts, who interviewed us a dozen times, but never made any changes, although our father always had the right of custody!

And you, grandparents, what did you actually do? We were never allowed to see our father’s parents, they died without ever really knowing us. But my mother’s parents: you knew them, didn’t you? They were kind! You wanted us all to your-selves, you never told your daughter that she was trampling all over our human rights. Did you not teach her any morals? You never stood up for us grandchildren, not once.

please go to this website and read and download the full article and share:-

Off-putting relationships: the essentials of Child Alienation- By Nick Child

The humour of Berger and Wyse’s “custardy” cartoon is to highlight that high conflict family separations are never a laughing matter. Even when families face bereavement, there is usually room for warmth and humour alongside the grief. The lack of a place for humour shows that we are dealing here with some of the hardest “tribal” human predicaments outside of actual war-zones.

This page is an easier general summary of the very full thinking through and resources – written for a Scottish context but still covering the international field – on Scotland’s Children Resisting Contact or SCRC. Please read that if you want more than this summary page has in it. An even more concise summary than this page is in Off-putting relationships: essentials of child alienation.

Separation is the context most widely considered to be where these off-putting relationship patterns happen. But for a wider range of families and individuals and for those professionals helping them, thinking about an alienation pattern – e.g.  where overwhelmingly strong or needy personalities drive unnecessarily broken relationships – can be useful too in families that are not primarily presenting as high conflict separations. Pick up almost any narrative – real ones in families, communities, media or therapy, or fictional ones in mythology, drama or literature – and you will find a three-person pattern of Alienation by any other name, in imposed or chosen plots, of loves, jealousy and secrets, triangular predicaments of divided love and loyalty, that enrich or drive the story. Read more about this broader range of alienation patterns. Here we stick to family separation.

Most separating parents manage to set aside their own conflicts and put their children first in supporting the children’s widely recognised need for a relationship with both their parents – as well as with grandparents and valued others in each parent’s wider family. Children do best when they can have a good relationship with both their separated parents. Even when one parent has not behaved well, children still want to repair and have some kind of safe contact. When it works well, children may volunteer that they get more from their separated parents than if they had stayed together! A few parents find setting aside their conflicts harder to do in order to put their children’s needs first. It only takes one parent not collaborating to result in high conflict that endures. Sometimes a parent may have good cause not to set aside the conflicts. Even where a parent has behaved badly, children mostly still want to repair and continue their relationship with the only parents they have. Sometimes a parent does not have such good cause to keep the conflict going. Remember that – with risk or with the conflict itself – it is the effects on the children that matters most. Parents are so caught up in powerful emotions and conflict that it may be up to others to work out what is best.

The children in the middle have to cope. They can cope better than outsiders think they could, being aware of the repeating patterns of how their separated parents behave. But the evidence is that enduring high conflict is definitely bad for children. They are coping with a conflict between their parents that even uninvolved adults find hard to bridge, and which naturally affects the children more profoundly than anyone else. Children may be most upset when they transition between their tensely conflicted parents. Each parent may then take the child’s upset as a sign that they don’t want to see the other parent, when usually the child is wishing the transition was easier, not that they don’t want it to happen, not that they are rejecting the other parent. Transition processes at handover time is a study in itself. Difficult transitions do not in themselves prove anything about a child’s relationship with either parent. Transitions can be helped in their own right by sensitive detailed planning.

Beyond tense transitions, children faced with enduringly high conflict between their parents are likely to cope in the same way as anyone else does: they side with one parent against the other. Note that it only takes one parent set against collaborating to create high conflict for all the family.  One parent can also, unintentionally and / or purposely, do far more to turn their child against the other parent. Parents are seldom equally responsible for creating the high conflict. One result of children taking sides is an overall presenting pattern of the children resisting post-separation contact with a parent (CRC for short). If they have contact with both parents, they may side alternately with whichever parent they are with at the time. The more alienated child will overwhelmingly side with one against the other. Even if regular contact continues with the rejected parent, strongly alienating patterns of behaviour can still operate. Then the rejected parent has to receive the rejection while finding a way to grow a better relationship again. Extreme unmediated differences can become an utterly miserable and emotionally abusive experience in the longterm for the children.

Over and above this separated family conflict and the child’s side-taking, resisting of contact and alienation, there will then be more layers of conflict over whose views and allegations are justified. Strong feelings and responses naturally stoke the conflict even further, drawing in friends and family in a tribal form of support system on each side. The widened conflict naturally brings the matter to various legal and other professions for help. Family lawyers and family courts struggle to avoid the inherently adversarial culture of the legal system. Unless a Sheriff or Judge can soon see and determine the best way forward, the case can get more and more entrenched in court too.

Rightly, children’s views are now listened to much more including being part of court hearings. Often all the conflict between adults is so impossible to resolve that what the child says is taken as what’s best for them. This potentially powerful role for children leads key adults to pressurise their children openly or covertly into what the adult wants them to say. Naturally dependent and immature and faced by a parent they love and fear they might lose, children can be readily persuaded to feel and say what the parent wants them to. Taking this context for the child’s views into account requires careful thinking through by adults, professionals and courts. In the UK the resources for this task have been whittled down to way below a minimum required. Here is Paul Bishop’s rich account that shows how skilful the worker has to be – and how essential always to consider the child’s whole context and family in making sense of their expressed views, wishes, feelings or behaviour.

Some countries (e.g. Australia) have put much more resource and skill into sophisticated ways than others (e.g. the UK). They do not directly link this process into the courts, but include the child’s voice primarily for the parents to hear and plan around. Otherwise, when children experience such stress and power placed in their hands (in effect to choose which parent they side with) we know it is not good for them. See Amy Baker’s book “I don’t want to choose” extract hereorder it here.  In effect the child is looking after one of their parents when parents and adults should look after them. The responsibility unwittingly given to children, and the decisions made, may well not be in the child’s best interests.

Just because people don’t think about this situation as emotional abuse doesn’t mean it is not emotional abuse. The naturally adversarial family courts – even in their more informal mode – can add yet another layer to the high conflict. Worse than that, courts do not spot these well-known patterns that happen right in front of them. They make decisions that are meant to resolve the conflict and be in the child’s best interests. But in fact these decisions may actively condone the worst and possibly emotionally abusive outcomes for the child.

Finally this repeating pattern of polarising conflict is replicated in passionate debates between opposing organisations and schools of thought. These are mostly organised around which gender is more generally likely to be right and why. In any particular case, gender will of course carry major significance. But the literature makes it very clear that, in general, high conflict separations and children resisting contact or alienation patterns, all happen in all combinations of gender of parents (and children too). Of course, given the culture’s gender expectations, a mother will experience their child’s rejection rather differently than a rejected father might. The pattern happens to all combinations of gender – including same sex parents – but the experience is not gender neutral.

<span “font-size:10.0pt;font-family:helvetica;mso-fareast-font-family:=”” “MS=”” 明朝”;mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast;mso-bidi-font-family:”times=”” roman”;=”” mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;mso-ansi-language:en-us;mso-fareast-language:=”” en-us;mso-bidi-language:ar-sa”=””>With the reservations about the terminology, the literature is still mostly found under the heading Parental Alienation. Gardner’s PA Syndrome is still a useful checklist (see footnotes here). The valid reason for making it a psychiatric syndrome is that, unless it is in the diagnostic Bibles, at least as a relationship label, it will not be taught to mental health and other helping professions. So professionals will remain unaware and it will continue to be dismissed as insignificant or nonexistent, especially in family courts. Those who campaign against PA’s existence or importance are even more vociferous against these attempts to raise its mental health profile. Many now drop the ‘Syndrome’ tag, even in family courts, choosing more nuanced thinking about the behaviour patterns in each case in terms of the child’s welfare.

Generalised taking of sides like this does not help to do justice to the assessment and needs of each particular family situation, remembering that there is a particular child or children in the middle of it who is most affected and least able to resolve by themselves the disturbing conflict going on. The paramountcy of the best interests of the child gets repeatedly lost in the multi-layered conflicts of all the adults, agencies, and in family courts.

30 years ago in the USA a particular pattern of children resisting contact was described and named “Parental Alienation Syndrome” or PAS by Richard Gardner.  Defined in its pure form, this is when, consciously or not but without reasonable cause, one parent actively turns their child against the other parent, when there had been and could be a safe and good enough relationship with them. See footnotes on SCRC for more about PAS. Since that time the field has grown, matured, and become firmly established in other countries but only slowly in the UK. Most accounts begin with Gardner and PAS but (as mentioned above) starting with that can trigger unnecessary resistance and controversy. This account hopes to avoid the extra controversy.

There has been much controversy and discussion in and outside the field. This has resulted in most people dropping the “syndrome” tag, and focusing more on “child alienation” since we should all be most concerned with the child. Most commonly now the simple term “alienation” is used for unjustified turning of children against the other parent. Where there is good reason to resist contact “alienation” would not be used. Of course parents and professionals need to use this term with great care because just throwing the word about merely adds yet another layer of conflict on top of all the rest. It is important to remember the reason for the argument, that is, wanting the best for the children. But if adult argument and conflict has taken priority, then the argument and conflict may be harming the child without any extra help. At all levels of these layers of adult conflict, the task is to think things through carefully and to de-escalate the high conflict.

To recognise the wide variation and complexity of patterns and factors, a more neutral and inclusive description of the alienation pattern may be used, such as “children resisting contact”. Most often assessment does not find pure alienation anyway. The resisting of contact is seen to result from a mixture of multiple factors including factors in the child, and those from other parental reactions and limitations, further complicated by true or false allegations of risk and abuse that then need to be properly and promptly assessed. The result can be huge conflict and distress for all as these matters are played out, dragged out, and worked out by agencies involved.

Where there has been abuse between parents or to the child, it is obviously very serious. It is essential that risks are assessed and secure plans made. Even then, the child’s need for a relationship with both parents should still be attended to if at all possible. For the few families where a child has been genuinely and purely alienated from a parent with whom they did and could have a good relationship and for no good reason, this is not just puzzling and distressing for everyone including the child. Evidence now shows, in the long term too, that this is damaging and tragic for all of them, and most especially for the child. The child may loudly declare their exclusive loyalty to the favoured parent, but actually they need and benefit from something different than that. If their needs are not promptly seen and planned for, they may grow up to lose one good enough parent, and then fall out permanently with the other one when they see them as having duped them.

The high conflict patterns in separation make up for being uncommon by the rapid spread of the fire and heat they can generate. The heated professional debate is mainly about gender. Yet abuse and alienation happen in any gender pattern. In the face of any particular – and therefore gendered – situation, it is extremely hard not to have gendered views take hold. But patterns of abuse and alienation can more generally be readily explained without bringing gender into the account.

Of course social structures and beliefs and patterns about childcare, services and decision-making are influenced by gender. And any individual struggling to find confidence and power or protection may use any resources available, and often those will be gendered. So men use their typical strengths, women use theirs, men and women will look to others and to agencies to support their cause. At its extreme, men and women may use abuse or violence, and men and women may use their children or the courts to gain position. Previous childhood or other experience of attachment hurt informs, sensitises and affects adults separating. And since this will have been gendered, then naturally gender becomes a hook for the repeat of being hurt. Just reversing the gender roles at separation shows the different gendered cultural expectations e.g. of childcare being women’s work not men’s … here’s a BBC radio discussion between women who “left” their children but whose experience could be the same (except for the stigma) for fathers who “leave” their children.

So gender certainly counts in the particular situation, and it affects the wider statistics too. But patterns of abuse and alienation are not done or suffered only by one gender on only the other gender. And of course children of both genders suffer in the middle. Gender vividly colours each situation, shapes the statistics, and ignites the most heated debates. But gender is not a necessary part of a general explanation of high conflict patterns. These patterns also happen in same-sex and other LGBT separations. To read more on the gender debate and a glossary of gender terms, go to “Difficult Thinking” towards the bottom of SCRC.

Mix together universal things we know about and high conflict will result. Here are some common elements – that occur to people of all genders and ages – that explain troubled family patterns and the wider polarisations too. Read more about them on SCRC:

  • Attachment patterns (i.e. love) that goes right and patterns when attachment/love goes wrong
  • Attachment, attachment harm, and its repair, are all seen in this 2 min video, the Still Face Experiment.
  • Remember that attachment happens at all ages and is a universal survival pattern
  • So that when we fear the loss of our safe base, our feelings are a fear of losing our life, a fear of death
  • Our gut responses to survive are overpowering – protest, fight, withdraw, turn or run away, or surrender
  • These neurobiological “high arousal” survival emotions of fight or flight fuel conflict situations
  • And they make it very hard to think clearly and behave constructively – “counting to ten” may not be enough.
  • In separations, three or more are involved in a multi-layered situation of attachment threat and loss
  • Any childhood or past attachment hurts shape the vulnerability, expectations and feelings at separation
  • They also shape some people’s aggressive or nastier ways, even our whole personalities, for good or bad
  • Often couple conflict repeats earlier scenarios aggravating further the hurts of separation
  • And that can aggravate the concerns to protect or make things right for the children you love.
  • So no wonder that thinking and feeling can get polarised, escalated and stuck
  • And no wonder that victims of earlier abuse or traumatic separation are extremely roused by a repeat
  • Roused that is to mixtures of fear, defence, attack and control
  • Again, these will be shaped by cultural and gendered patterns, but men and women can do any of them.
  • Add into the mix and conflict the natural coercion of all childrearing (also based on love and attachment),
  • Note the normal universal milder patterns of family affiliation, alliance, division and loyalty
  • Add in the normal human reversion under stress to tribal thinking, support and loyalty.
  • Along with how people are anyway different and have complex stories, characters and faults.
  • That people have stronger and weaker personalities that come into play under stress especially.
  • Then add in the normal aspects of any separation process that naturally generate vicious circles including:
  • Differences between the parents about what is important for children
  • Differences in parenting styles and old hopes and sore spots being touched
  • Other negative perceptions in a tense if not vengeful and stressful changing separation situation
  • Given there may be few or no constructive attitudes or communication channels to sort these out
  • With the often adversarial social and legal processes that replace more constructive channels
  • And that give a child’s voice a power that invites parents to pressurise and influence what the children say

With this long list of factors laying their part within a wider system, it is not hard to explain why high conflict overwhelms some couples when they fall out and separate. Gender may shape a person’s experience of all these, but all of them may happen to anyone of any gender or age. There are multiple factors here, but perhaps the best framework for families might be attachment theory.  <span “font-size:24.0pt;font-family:helvetica;=”” mso-bidi-font-family:”lucida=”” sans”;color:#1f1f1f”=””>Wider social factors in more developed countries have opened up bigger arenas that play out and amplify such hurt and disturbed attachments. Where couples self-select each other and children are more exclusively raised by their parents not by ‘a village’; where parental separation is common, family law the place for disputes, and the child’s view is the decider there; then attachment loss and hurt will readily get magnified into patterns like Child Alienation.   Given the long list of factors, what is surprising is that so many separating couples manage to do so well in putting their conflict aside in favour of what their children need, that is, to have a relationship with both parents. And children must be very resilient in high conflict situations to hold onto a relationship with both their parents.

Attachment theory, of course, is one important way to get the focus on the child’s needs. But it opens up further arguments in theory and for separating couples. For example, especially when parents separate with young children (under 4), there is a debate about general and specific questions about whether a child can manage living in two places, and whether it’s good for them for a less involved parent before separation to have so much of the time after it. Here is Penelope Leach clarifying on Women’s Hour (June 2014) the reaction to her book on Family Breakdown. Where parents are able to collaborate and where a parent (mother or father) has been involved and attached, she approves of more shared care for under-4s. The evidence she uses can be refuted by other evidence. She holds to the almost impossible ideal for separated parents of young children having a constant (not alternating) home base. Different views on attachment / main-carers are often used in family courts as part of the battle.  In contrast, illogically neutral solutions like boarding school (for older children) appear as well as these hotly fought battles about attachment. In that resolution of conflict, both parents prefer to delegate to others the care of their child, hardly bothered about the question of attachment to them. Some children too prefer residential homes or boarding schools to living with warring parents.

Perhaps again it is the parents’  collaboration or battling that are the more important factors (than the attachments) in whether the children’s welfare is good enough. The battling usually arises from the adults’ own emotions and issues, and that is by definition, not child-focused. The task is to ensure that the inevitable hurt or harsh adult business can be separated from collaborating for the child’s benefit.

It is obvious that where one parent has been or continues to be a risk to the other, or to the child, then that is a priority. Some abusive situations are totally hellish. No one denies that this is top priority and that it has to be properly attended to. The rest of this webpage is about the less obvious, less believed even, and certainly less known about patterns usually known as parental alienation, which may be defined as:  a rare but striking tribal family pattern, found usually in the context of high conflict separations, where a child is shaped into rejecting their other parent and his/her tribe, even though the child previously had, and could still have, a safe and valued relationship with them. Alienation sits at one end of a scale of family patterns of alignment, loyalty and alliances. And all of those including alienation can begin and grow in families who are living together, not just when separation brings it out in public and in courts. It seems fair to assume that any and all sustained high conflict between separated parents is emotional abuse of their children caught in the middle. And there is firm evidence of life long  consequences of emotional abuse resulting from parental alienation. If so, the real or alleged risks of a child from a parent need to be considered along with the knowledge of the risks of emotional abuse from the high conflict. The best recent UK summary description and research is Sue Whitcombe’s (2014): Powerless: the lived experience of alienated parents in the UK and her article in The Psychologist (2014) Parental Alienation: time to notice, time to intervene.