Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Time to Calm the Alienation Debate

I just got back after a 7-day speaking trip ranging from New Orleans (state bar family law section), to Indianapolis (federal hearings officers for employment disputes), and Calgary, Canada (police conference for handling community complaints). High conflict people (HCPs) are popping up more and more in the workplace, community and family disputes – around the world!

After ten years of studying and speaking about this subject, it is gratifying to know that more and more people are recognizing high conflict dynamics and starting to realize that it is a personality matter, rather than something unique to the “issues” in their field of work. It is gratifying to meet so many professionals who “get it” and are really trying to calm and contain HCPs, rather than just criticizing them and allowing them to escalate their high-conflict behavior.

But we have a long way to go, as most professionals and ordinary people still react to HCPs in ways that often make things worse. For example, while I was in Canada, “parental alienation” was front-page news. There have been several high-profile Canadian divorce cases in the past two months in which the courts have changed custody from an “alienating” parent to the other parent in order to stop a “campaign of vengefulness” toward the “target” of the alienation. In some cases, when custody was changed the children were ordered to attend family therapy in the United States in what some called a “deprogramming” center.

Professionals and parents were strongly split over these decisions. Those who see parental alienation as a large problem lauded the judges for taking a brave position and upholding the importance of children having two parents. The “Parental Alienation Syndrome” theory goes back 20 years and was put forth by Richard Gardner, who said that it was intentional behavior by a custodial parent to win an advantage in court. In fact, about 200 lawyers, parents and psychologists attended Canada’s first international conference last month on parental alienation. They say the problem is growing and needs strong action.

On the other hand, many professionals and parents blasted these decisions. Some professionals and parents believe the theory that a rejected parent may be abusing the children, so that the courts were turning over a traumatized child to the source of the trauma. They have termed “parental alienation syndrome” as “junk science” or “voodoo science,” and claim that changing custody to the rejected parent is “torture,” “kidnapping,” or “Orwellian interference.” In a sense, they see a child’s resistance to spending time with one parent as realistic estrangement, and the parent must accept it because of their own bad behavior.

I have trouble with both theories. As a family law attorney for 16 years, I have had many cases in which children resisted contact with a parent – sometimes it’s dad, but sometimes it’s mom; sometimes they resist the non-custodial parent, but sometimes they intensely dislike their custodial parent. In other words, I see alienation - but not as a predictable syndrome. Most parents I have seen engage in “alienating” behavior are unaware of it or driven by an irrational sense of desperation – not a family court strategy. On the other hand, as a clinical social worker for 12 years, I have seen many abuse cases. But I don’t see resisting an abusive parent as very common. More common is loving the parent, but not the abuse. Abused children don’t usually feel empowered to “hate” an abusive parent and to display anger toward them – as “alienated” children often do. Battling over which theory is correct is part of the problem, as I see it.

I believe in a family systems and high conflict personality-based theory of alienation: HCPs lack self-awareness. HCPs lack the skills to stop themselves, and lack the skills to change their dysfunctional behavior. They lack emotional boundaries. So when family members and professionals argue heatedly over who is at “fault,” their emotions are highly contagious. They spill over onto the children, who have learned how to cope with a high conflict parent(s). An all-or-nothing solution is often the way their calm down their parent(s). Alienation is an all-or-nothing solution, which fits right into the family dynamics. Even when it is only one parent who engages in high conflict behavior, the other parent has often learned to cope by giving in to the HCP’s all-or-nothing solutions to calm down the HCP. In other words, the blaming and all-or-nothing thinking that typically characterizes these cases – by family members and professionals – are part of the problem, not part of the solution. These parent need to develop the abilities that they can, and research is showing that some HCPs can change their behavior by teaching them small skills in small steps with lots of validation.

For example, in a case in British Columbia, the court stated that the mother had been “resourceful, highly manipulative, and untruthful.” In another case, in Ontario, the judge gave standing to the 18-year-old son to seek custody of his younger brothers, stating he was trying to “shame the parents” into seeing the effects of their own behavior. The trouble with this is: if these parents are HCPs, emotional criticism doesn’t give them insight, it increases their bad behavior, transfers directly to their children, and escalates the bad behavior of other HCP parents hearing these statements.

The best way to deal with potential or existing alienation or abuse is to teach potentially high conflict parents protective skills at the front end of a court case: flexible thinking, managed emotions, and moderate behaviors. At High Conflict Institute we are developing an approach to do exactly this called “New Ways for Families.” It focuses on teaching these skills to both parents in a context of validation for both parents from the start of the case, rather than shame and blame for one or both. (For more on this method, see the article this month in our eNewsletter.)

Interestingly, the day I left Calgary, a front-page article on the newspaper told the end (perhaps) of the case involving the 18-year-old son. Apparently in December, his younger brothers had refused to go to the family counseling center in the U.S. and had been temporarily put into a psychiatric hospital, then into a foster home. Then, in the past two weeks, the 18-year-old helped his parents negotiate a settlement. He blamed the professionals for making the situation worse. So did many of the bloggers.

It’s time to recognize that HCPs need skills and not blame. They also needs lots of structure and consequences. But small consequences designed to keep them focused on their own skills, rather than the other’s bad behavior. Yes, in some cases larger consequences may be necessary for bad behavior – abuse and/or alienation. But let’s be clear first on whether we are doing more harm than good. In most cases we should first exhaust efforts to teach both parents these basic skills, before dramatically excluding either parent from their children’s lives. It’s time that professionals learned how to calm down and contain these disputes – as early as possible – so that we’re part of the solution, not part of the problem.

*News information for this article was gathered from March and April issues of the Canadian “Globe and Mail,” and the “National Post.”