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.”


Anonymous said...

HCP, I like it. I find it difficult however, the notion that any abusive parent could be helped in the context of a school session. Such HCP people in my opinion are shame based and very difficult to treat, certainly not within a few sessions of school.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Thanks for your comment. The New Ways for Families method is short-term counseling in which the parents have 6 individual sessions to focus on key skills, then 3 sessions each for meeting with their children with the help of an experienced counselor. It’s not a school group lesson; it’s individual to really help practice a few small changes. It’s not designed to change their whole personalities, which often are shame-based (as you noted) because of abuse histories of their own or entitled because of a lack of limits growing up. Instead, New Ways is designed to get parents to teach their children not to get stuck in all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions or extreme behavior (as a parent may be). This is designed to build just enough resistance to alienating behaviors and just enough resilience for children to be protected from their parents’ battles. Also, by focusing on skills, the courts are less likely to blame one or the other parent, and the reduced level of conflict alone should help reduce children taking an extreme position, such as rejecting one parent. Since the problem is more of a family systems issue, New Ways tries to reduce the conflict from all sides.

bobhopeiii48@yahoo.com said...

You seem really upset, what is bothering you? Why are you so angry? "I feel like you are attacking me." What do you mean? I'm not attacking you. How am I attacking you? "You are attacking me because you don't have a job." But I've been looking for a job and when I was offered a job, you objected to me accepting the offer.

I'm not really into this blame thing ether but my concern is that the "education" process is preventing CPS and the courts from protecting the abused (myself and my children)and holding the abuser accountable or at the very least setting boundries and limits. They can just send my ex-spouse and children to a 10 week education session on how to relate to each other in a more positive way and bam, everyone is fixed. Well, until the next time she loses her temper and hits my son with an object and causes a bruse...and then I call CPS when of course they don't believe ether my son or myself because to do so might mean that they would be judgmental(of course they seem to forget that they can set limits on abusive behavior without being judgmental and blaming). In the mean time my son continues to be at least physically abused. My daughter continues to be neglected. And at a minimum, I continue to be verbally threated with false arrest. Why?
So you can use you HCP techniques, and tell me how you understand my frustration and how abuse needs to be looked at as a societal issue.
But it is not going to change the impact of the abuse on myself and my children. It simply amazes me. If my ex-spouse walks down the street and does any of the things she's done to my son or I to a complete stranger, she would be arrested. Be if she does it to myself or my children, not only is she not held accountable for her actions, but my son and I are "blamed", yes "blamed" for doing something to make her act this way. I think using the tips used in "It's all your fault!" would work if you are in a situation where you do indeed have control over the situation, you can set limits and understand the the HCP people who make threats are not able to really hurt someone. But for most of us, the reality of life around a HCP person is that we suffer. We don't have any real protection. And when we tell people like the police, CPS or the courts, they tend to blame the victim. And all that does is embolden the person with HCP. I hope you will respond (I understand if it is offline)