Monday, July 12, 2010

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!.


Anonymous said...

Dear Bill,

I come from a background with a BPD sister, and a BPD mother; so my thinking might be skewed...

While I think it highly desirable to want to bring both parents into a councelling setting, I see one problem: if there is one parent with a personality disorder, and especially with BPD, that parent is usually not open to seeing their own mistakes, and not willing to make improvements.
I have witnessed how a "court mandated" counselling/guidance session turned into a) not attending due to too many excuses to count and then b) into the "poor pity-me, everyone is so evil to me" session.
In my limited experience it has a potential to end up being an educational session on how to do parental alienation better... BPD's can be really smart that way...
Please enlighten me; I have not read your book, yet.

Best Regards, and thank you for tackling this difficult issue.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment and sharing your difficult situation with a BPD sister and mother.

I agree with you that traditional joint counseling often just gives the BPD person an opportunity to get attention and sympathy for venting and not changing. You're right, that alienation can grow with a BPD parent, because their upset emotions increase and spill over to be absorbed by the children.

In my new book, I don't recommend joint counseling with the parents, but instead two steps: 1) separate individual counseling for each paretn, focused on practicing skills of flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behavior; then 2) each parent meeting with the children and teaching them these skills.

Only by requiring BPD parents to learn and practice positive skills, will there be any progress. Venting and pity-me counseling just makes them worse.

Thanks for raising this issue!

Anonymous said...

Hi I have read alot of your writings and even more on the subject of parental alienation. As a mother who is currently experiencing obsessive alienation by a spouse, I am having trouble not blaming my husband as he most certainly is responsible for destroying the close relationship I once shared with my daughter. She now despises me and often threatens me with physical violence. So while I do agree that laying the blame on the alienator doesnt really do much good, I cannot help but be bitter toward this irresponsible, abusive person who has basically "stolen" my daughter from me because of his own selfishness.

Anonymous said...

Dear Bill:

I agree with July 31, 2010 anonymous post. In my opinion and experience, your thoughts are lofty and only applicable when the HCP has a certain level of awareness and capability and desire to change. But with many personality-disordered individuals, they have no self-awareness-they are not open to learning new/different skills etc. I think there's a famous quote something to the extent of: You can't negotiate when there is noone to negotiate with (meaning the person you have to negotiate with isn't open to compromise). Many personality-disordered individuals are fixed in their thinking, have a distorted view of reality and even if presented with new skills from a point of view that everyone can learn new ideas and its not any sort of judgment on your skills, they are totally closed to those ideas. i think courts need to do a better job of identifying HCPs (personality-disordered individuals) and holding them accountable. stop them in their tracks from using the legal process (whehter court or PCs or PTEs or mediators) to further the abuse of their target. you can still try to help them with therapy, but the most immediate need is to get the legal abuse to stop--if the HCP is fearful of court rather than confident court is a place they get validation, they will stop. assess atty fees, even jail time for repeated contempt--they won't come back. this will have the benefit of providng the children and target with a feeling of safety/security so they can heal and move forward. not always be in fear of further abuse by the HCP and court.

SIGUNE said...

Dear Bill,

I just read your very inspiring book on child alienation. I like your systems approach and the very pragmatic ways you propose. I was interested in your book because I think I fit quite well into the profile of a separated co-parent with a high-conflict parent; and all what you say about the dilemmas one encounters when co-parenting with a HCP seem quite familiar to me. It is extremely helpful to have an approach where you do not only see the real and possible damages, but the possibilites of growth, especially for the children. Being in, it is quite hard to see children suffer and difficult not to fall into blaming and anger or depression and helplessness if you do. So for me that idea of helping the children digest emotions, to look for solutions, and to keep your mind open for complex thinking is a real good guideline. My little one needs therapy, too, but your text gave me some excellent ideas about how to help him as a mom.

So thank you very much for your inspiring ideas. I come rather from a psychoanalytic background (and I appretiate a lot your parts about attachment theories), but your text confirms me in the idea that often it may be a good idea to "think psychoanalytically and act on a pragmatic more behavioral-cognitivist ground". Not always, but as a parent and a family member, it works quite well...

all the best from France,