Does Ridicule Stop Alienation?
I just read about a recent high conflict divorce case in Ontario, Canada in the December 17th national paper, the Globe and Mail. It has gone viral around the internet in both the US and Canada, because the judge "turned to ridicule" in handing down his custody decision. He said he used this as a "last resort" in a case where the parents were "immune to reason." He pointed out how the mother had alienated the 13-year-old daughter against her father and how the father had regularly engaged in insulting behavior and giving the mother "the finger."
I can certainly empathize with Judge Joseph Quinn’s frustration, and I quoted him favorably in my book “Don’t Alienate the Kids!” regarding a previous case of his. However, I think ridicule misses the point and often makes things worse. He points out that both husband and wife may have personality disorders requiring treatment. (From my experience as a lawyer and clinical social worker, in 50-65% of high conflict cases, there is one parent with a personality disorder – most often borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder – and the other parent is just trying to cope and protect the children.) But if a parent (one or both) has a personality disorder, then they are truly “immune to reason,” and need properly structured treatment, not ridicule.
This is comparable to the way we used to treat alcoholics and addicts in the legal system, trying to motivate them by criticizing and humiliating them. This approach failed miserably for years, as drunk drivers and others were admonished to stay sober, then went out to drive drunk again. We now know that they need a very structured and supportive recovery treatment program, focused on learning the daily skills of staying clean and sober, and managing stress and daily life in small steps with lots of repetition.
With this in mind, I think it would be better to treat high conflict parents with empathy, attention and respect – and (if both parents have a personality disorder) remove their children to a foster home while they get treatment for their disorders. I know of at least two cases where this was done in Ontario – Judge Quinn’s province.
Since there often is only one personality-disordered parent, it would help to have the court order the parents into a program like our New Ways for Families method (more about this on our website) which gives both parents short-term counseling separately and then with the children, to help the reasonable parent deal with the high conflict parent, and to see which parent is able to be reasonable and which parent isn’t.
It is often better in high conflict cases to expose the child to significant time with both parents in a “parallel parenting” structure, where each parent has significant time with the children, but minimal contact with each other. That way the children aren’t “stuck” with one parent’s behavior and point of view. They learn multiple ways of solving problems and they learn that one parent’s extreme behaviors are not accepted by everyone. Child alienation (parental alienation) grows when a child is heavily exposed to a parent with all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors. If there is just one parent with a personality disorder, then in at least half or more of the cases, the child can learn reasonable skills from the other parent.
Verbal admonishments don’t change the behavior of high-conflict people. Skills training does in some cases – with structure, encouragement, repetitive practice and clear consequences. And if one parent doesn’t show sufficient change in a reasonable period of time, then children are better off with the parent who is “reason-able” – or someone else if neither parent is able to reason. High conflict parents need to be ordered into treatment, rather than admonished, humiliated, and allowed to raise their children as usual.
Even though I believe Judge Quinn’s attempt to motivate these parents with ridicule will fail (humorous as it was), hopefully it will motivate the public to get personality disordered parents into treatment and out of family court. Please refer to my book, "Don't Alienate The Kids!" and don't forget to comment.