Thursday, April 28, 2011


WHY DO ALIENATED CHILDREN FEEL SO STRONGLY? Alienated children generally show intensely negative emotions and an absence of ambivalence. New research on the brain suggests that this may be the result of the unconscious and nonverbal transfer of negative emotions from parent to child. The parent’s intense angry outbursts (even if they are rare), intense sadness, and intensely negative statements about the other parent may be absorbed unconsciously by the child’s brain, without the child even realizing it. The child then develops intensely negative emotions toward the other parent (or anyone the upset parent
dislikes), but doesn’t consciously know why. This may explain the vague or minor reasons given by alienated children for intensely rejecting a good parent. This spilling over of negative emotions from upset parent to child may have begun years before the divorce, so that the child is very tuned in to the upset parent, and automatically and instantly absorbs their emotions and point of view.

DOES CUSTODY MAKE A DIFFERENCE? If one parent has almost all of the parenting time, then the child will not have his or her own experiences with the other parent to know that he or she is not bad. Most states expect children to have substantial time with both parents – except in cases of abuse. Ironically, the amount of time is generally not the biggest factor. The biggest factor is if one parent is constantly spilling over intensely negative emotions to the child about the other parent, while the other parent is following court orders and not addressing these issues at all. For this reason, children can become alienated against either a non-custodial parent or a custodial parent. This can be either the father or the mother. It’s like a bad political campaign, with one side campaigning hard and the other side not campaigning at all.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

High Conflict People in Healthcare

ABA Dispute Resolution Conference in Denver on April 15, 2011: "Managing High Conflict Personalities in Healthcare," with Bill Eddy, Debra Gerardi and Ellen Waldman (right).
During the past two months, I had the opportunity to speak at two national conferences about managing high-conflict people (HCPs) in healthcare – one in New Orleans and the other in Denver (last week). Interest is strong in this topic, as healthcare organizations face many types of pressures and when HCPs are involved, it can become extremely intense – and sometimes dangerous for patient care. Yet, healthcare professionals are healing professionals and most of them want to do the best they can for their patients and their family members.

For example, it’s easy for people to expect that healthcare professionals can fix any problem, save any life, and ease all pain. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible – regardless of how hard everyone tries. When an HCP is involved as a patient, he or she sometimes becomes so demanding that it makes it difficult for everyone to help them, and they draw attention away from other patients whose needs are just as important and sometimes even more urgent.

A different problem occurs when healthcare professionals (doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, administrators, etc.) are in conflict with each other. Recent rules and standards from the Joint Commission require conflict resolution training for leadership groups in healthcare, as paying more attention to this issue may save lives, boost morale, and improve the quality of care. Much of the conflict has to do with some HCPs in each profession, including doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, administrators, etc.

It’s easy to understand how miscommunication or non-communication and avoidance of conflict could lead to potentially harmful situations. Some HCPs may need to be moved out of the organization, while others may be able to contribute with careful management methods. (For more information, see the article on our website this month about Managing High-Conflict People in Healthcare Organizations.)

Lastly, in the current political environment, healthcare laws are getting a lot of attention. All-or-nothing thinking and unmanaged emotions are typical of HCPs (including some politicians and talking heads) and not a good approach to addressing these (or any) complex problems. The future health of the nation depends on our ability to solve conflicts in a healing, rather than hateful, manner. I was pleased to see so many healthcare and legal professionals at these conferences considering collaborative approaches to problem-solving, including mediation and training in methods for managing HCPs as ways to further these goals.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


IS THIS THE RESULT OF “PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME?” It is important to know that the courts across the country have not adopted the idea that there is such a syndrome. A syndrome requires a generally accepted cause and effect, and there are many possible causes of children’s alienated behavior (abuse by a parent, alienating behavior by a parent, lack of emotional boundaries by a “rejected” parent, lack of emotional boundaries by a “favored” parent, developmental stage, outside influences, etc.). Also, despite alienating behavior by some parents, many children are not resistant to spending time with the other parent. So it is not accepted as a syndrome. However, the courts generally recognize that some children are alienated – they just don’t know the reason automatically and often want more information.

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF AN ALIENATED CHILD? Children who are not abused, but are alienated have emotionally intense feelings but vague or minor reasons for them. A child might say: “I won’t go to see my father!” Yet she might struggle to find a reason: “He doesn’t help me with my homework.” Or: “He dresses sloppy.” Or: “He just makes me angry all the time.” Another child might say: “I hate my mother!” Yet again the reasons are vague or superficial: “She’s too controlling.” “She doesn’t understand me like my dad.” These children complain that they are afraid of the other parent, yet their behavior shows just the opposite – they feel confident in blaming or rejecting that parent without any fear or remorse. Some of them speak negatively of the “rejected” parent to others, then relax when they are with the “rejected” parent. Others run away, rather than spend time with the rejected parent. 

All of these behaviors are generally different from those of truly abused children, who are often extra careful not to offend an abusive parent, are often hesitant to disclose abuse and often recant even though it’s true. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


In divorce or separation, 10% - 15% of children express strong resistance to spending time with one of their parents – and this may be increasing in our society. It may be the father or mother. It may be the parent the child “visits,” or the parent where the child lives. Is this the result of abuse by the “rejected” parent? Or is this the result of alienation by the “favored” parent?

The idea that one parent can alienate a child against the other has been a big controversy in family courts over the past 20 years, with the conclusion that there are many possible causes for this resistance. Most courts take reports of alienation very seriously and want to know if this is the result of abuse or alienating behavior. Resistance to spending time with a parent is always a serious problem. This needs to be investigated, fully understood, and treated with counseling in many cases. Otherwise, the child’s future relationships may be much more difficult.

IS THIS THE RESULT OF ABUSE? The first concern of the courts is protecting the children. If there are reports of child abuse as the cause of the child’s alienated behavior, the judge may make a protective order restraining contact with the “rejected” parent, such as a temporary order for supervised visitation. If you are the “rejected” parent you may feel that supervised visitation is unnecessary or insulting. Yet this may be your biggest help, as someone neutral can observe the child’s behavior and your relationship.

Often the judge will say that he or she will not make any assumptions and wants more information before understanding the cause.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Reducing Conflict During Divorce when a Spouse has a Personality Disorder

I was recently interviewed by Deborah Moskovitch for Divorce Source Radio. Please give it a listen and offer any feedback/comments you may have.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

HCP is Not a Diagnosis

For over a decade I have been writing and teaching about HCPs (“High Conflict Personalities” or “High Conflict People”) in legal disputes and other settings, including workplace, healthcare, education, neighborhood and family disputes.  Several recent conversations and emails indicate that I need to clarify that I never intended HCP to be used as a diagnosis when I coined this term.

A diagnosis is a term typically applied to assessing a medical problem or mental disorder, so that the proper treatment can be used by the proper professional for the patient with the problem. For example, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) of the American Psychiatric Association lists depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, substance dependence, and narcissistic and borderline personality disorders among its many mental health diagnoses. Based on such a diagnosis, doctors and therapists apply certain treatments, including medications, individual psychotherapy and group therapies.

Some people have wondered if I intended HCP to be a new diagnostic category in the DSM-V, which is expected to be published in 2013. Definitely not. My intention in coining the term “HCP” was to assist ordinary people in managing their professional and/or personal relationships with possible HCPs, not treating the individual as a patient.

I initially wrote about this subject for people in family law disputes, who included lawyers, judges, mediators, counselors and ordinary people dealing with the divorce themselves (and their relatives, friends, etc.) My intention was to make this information accessible to anyone who needed it if they suspected someone might be an HCP. Tips for managing HCPs can be used with anyone, whether or not they are an HCP.

I recommend having a “Private Working Theory” that someone may be an HCP. You don’t tell the person and you don’t assume you are right. You simply focus on key methods to help in managing your relationship, such as paying more attention to: 1) connecting or bonding with the person with empathy, attention and respect; 2) structuring the relationship around tasks rather than reacting to emotions; 3) reality testing so that you don’t necessarily believe everything you are told, but also don’t assume the person is lying because they may honestly believe inaccurate information; and 4) educating about consequences, as HCPs are often caught up in the moment and can’t see the risks ahead.

Of course, the HCP concept is closely related to the issues and methods of dealing with people with personality disorders, which is a DSM diagnosis. But only mental health professionals can diagnosis and treat personality disorders. While the committee currently revising the DSM is planning to change the way diagnoses are made for personality disorders, it won’t have any effect on dealing with possible HCPs – because this is not a diagnosis. It’s a description of high-conflict patterns of behavior.

Lastly, news reports indicate that labeling someone as having a personality disorder is the latest insult. This is very sad and unhelpful, as people with personality disorders have a serious problem and the people around them are often in great distress. As people with personality disorders increase in our society, some will be HCPs – but many HCPs do not have personality disorders (some may have milder traits) and would not qualify for any diagnosis in the DSM.

It’s better to learn about the predictable behavior patterns of HCPs and ways to respond constructively in your professional or personal relationships. If you think someone is an HCP, use this information as a Private Working Theory and focus on changing your own behavior, not theirs. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dealing with High Conflict People Tip #2 Part A

We try to give practical advice whenever we can. From our It's All Your Fault Book, I've included part of Tip #2 here (I'll add the other part--its rather long--next week). We hope you find this helpful.

In terms of giving feedback to an HCP, our advice is to never give them negative feed back. Here's why, the cycle of high conflict thinking maintains and escalates conflict with three steps (two steps are here):

1. The Cycle of High Conflict Thinking maintains and escalates conflict with three
Step 1: The HCP’s Mistaken Assessment of Danger (M.A.D.)
Step 2: The HCP’s Behavior that’s Aggressively Defensive (B.A.D.)
Step 3: Your Negative Feedback (N.F.)

2. HCPs’ Mistaken Assessment of Danger is based on their frequent high-conflict
thinking, which everyone has occasionally. But HCPs believe these thoughts are
true and act on them without checking for accuracy, including:
• All-or-Nothing Thinking
• Jumping to Conclusions
• Personalization
• Emotional Reasoning
• Mind Reading
• Wishful Thinking
• Tunnel Vision
• Exaggerated Fears
• Projecting
• Splitting

We'd love to hear your feedback.

Have you ever had to deal with a High Conflict Person at Work

Or in business? You know the type. The person who always has an excuse and blames everyone else. The very aggressive or super emotional co-worker or boss. May be you were married to a HCP and had a very contentious divorce and child custody battle. If so, I want to hear from you. Tell me your experience and how you handled the HCPs.