Is Alienation a One-Parent Issue?

I am responding to a comment left by a custody evaluator and parenting coordinator. It goes to the heart of the problem of child alienation or parental alienation, and how to handle it. He/she basically says: Sometimes there is only one parent responsible for generating the conflict, sometimes this parent has a personality disorder, and professionals shouldn’t be afraid to point this out. I agree partially and disagree partially.

My view is that alienation is usually the result of the behaviors of many people (family members, professionals, and today’s larger Culture of Blame), which I described in my first blog about this on July 8, 2010 and which I explain in depth in my new book Don’t Alienate the Kids! I agree about the personality disorder part, as I see this as one of the biggest factors in alienation. A personality disorder is an often-hidden mental health problem that involves some or a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors.

Where I disagree is in turning the alienation problem into a win-lose problem, which identifies one parent as the source of the problem, which escalates that parent in a way that makes things worse for the child and the other parent. I take a family systems’ (family culture) approach to handling the problem of child alienation – and in deciding how to treat it and manage it in family court.

When I worked as a therapist (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) in psychiatric hospitals with intact families, many had one parent with a substance abuse problem or severe mental disorder (schizophrenia, major depression, suicidal behavior, personality disorders, etc.). But we really had to help the whole family. While one parent had a disorder, usually there were things that the other parent could do differently to be more effective and less stressed. This is not to say that the other parent was to blame for the problem, but that what they were doing was often reacting too aggressively or too passively, which reinforced the problem.

Also, the children needed to be educated (at their age level) about the problem and how they could cope better with it. When there was a mental illness, the whole family system naturally adapted to the illness and needed to learn how to re-adapt to get healthier and manage the problem –whether it could be permanently improved through proper treatment or if had to be contained and lived with. In rare cases, there would be restrictions on the disordered parent’s contact with the children (not allowed to be alone), but overall the parents weren’t viewed as a “winner” and a “loser.” Mom or Dad had a problem that needed to be addressed by everyone – with knowledge and compassion.

I believe a similar approach makes much more sense in divorce and separation cases. Unfortunately, handling parenting issues in the adversarial family court process has slowly changed the thinking of many mental health professionals (as therapists, as evaluators, as court mediators, etc.) into one of finding individual blame rather than addressing these problems as a system.

Thus, the custody evaluation process often makes both parties much more defensive, often inadvertently clouds the issues for the court (I know this as a family law attorney for 17 years), and often takes over the child’s life for the duration of the evaluation (because one or both parents don’t have the emotional boundaries to protect the child from it). The child knows one or both parents are preoccupied with losing and being misunderstood. While many therapists, evaluators and mediators – and many lawyers and judges – try to overcome this divisive aspect of the evaluation process, fundamentally it is part of the adversarial win-lose process and we see this fail parents and children every day.

This is why I developed the New Ways for Families program for family courts as a family systems approach involving both parents in brief, structured cognitive-behavioral counseling. It helps those parents who do not have a mental health issue deal with a parent who does, without making the focus one of blame, but rather learning positive skills to help the parent and the children cope. If that does not help the parents enough to make their own reasonable decisions, then a court may order an evaluation. Ideally, a brief, focused evaluation that does not go on for long and is designed to explain a problem rather than pick a winner.

Ultimately, Parenting Coordination is an excellent family systems approach to alienation. My ideal is for families to go into New Ways for Families to learn conflict resolution skills at the start of the case (as soon as one parent says the other needs restricted parenting), then have a Parenting Coordinator for the rest of the case. This is far superior to putting parents into a win-lose process on parenting issues, which reinforces alienation rather than reduces it. We need to accurately identify mental health problems, develop treatment methods that include assistance to both parents and the children (even if only one parent has a disorder), and manage the case in family court with compassion instead of competition.

Please read more on this subject in my new book "Don't Alienate The Kids!.