Monday, May 2, 2016
Flying Monkeys, "Parental Alienation", and... No Vivid Writing Please
Craig Childress, the proponent of non-evidence-based and intrusive treatments for children who reject contact with one of their divorcing parents, has a rather remarkable newsletter going (https://drcraigchildressblog.com/2016/03/01/the-flying-monkey-newsletter/). He uses the term “flying monkeys” to designate the various people who argue against his approach and who thus stand in the way of parents who want to pre-empt child custody and prevent children from communicating with their preferred parent. This vivid term is no doubt gratifying to Childress’ clients, but the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Analogies, an august body that I just made up, is taking exception and umbrage in response to Childress’ effort to demonize psychologists and lawyers who regard high-conflict custody battles as individualized, complex, and nuanced situations.
Childress’ persuasive and inflammatory language technique is of course hallowed among PR and advertising groups, but is not acceptable in professional circles, where avoiding fallacious reasoning is everyone’s responsibility. Although psychological events are often best communicated through some use of metaphor, it’s necessary that two entities that are compared in this way share many characteristics, and especially characteristics that are relevant to the predicted outcome under consideration. By using the term “flying monkeys” Childress is not appealing to a useful analogy for better understanding of high-conflict divorce, but instead suggesting to his fans that those who oppose them are doing so only from vicious inclination, without foundations in fact or logic—and indeed that they do so at the behest of a Wicked Witch, not even for their own purposes. This is regrettably an excellent way to build a base of admirers and supporters whose emotional needs are met by this kind of thinking, but it is not a way to persuade professional psychologists that Childress’ claims are correct. The only way to do that would be by offering information from research that meets current standards for evidence-based treatment.
Let’s hold our noses and examine some other statements from the newsletter linked above. How about “these allies of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent provide support for maintaining the pathology involving the psychological abuse of the child…”? The “allies”, presumably, are people like me who are aware that Childress has not made his case, and ask for acceptable evidence to be provided. The “narcissistic/(borderline) parent” is the person less excitingly referred to as the child’s preferred parent, who is now classified by fiat as emotionally disturbed or even psychotic. The “pathology” would be more accurately described as the family dynamics. The “psychological abuse of the child” is at the very worst discouragement of a relationship with one parent by the other; not admirable in some cases, but not found in Garbarino’s discussion of emotional abuse-- and in addition, it’s the exact action that Childress proposes to “cure” the child’s rejection! So, in translation to a less inflammatory tongue, what we have is this: “ people who think Childress is wrong are helpful to preferred parents who do not want to change present family arrangements and dynamics and support the child in his or her wish not to have contact with one parent.” So, it would appear that when the statement is stripped of its connotative language, it’s actually quite true-- but the implicit scariness written into Childress’ statement is not true.
Why do we monkey-allies say what we do? Well, it’s very simple, and anyone who has become familiar with pseudoscientific claims will know what I’m about to say, because there are only two reasons anyone ever argues with psychological pseudoscience. Here are the two reasons in Childress’ terms: “They likely do so because of their own ignorance or because of trauma histories in their own background that resonate with the false trauma reenactment narrative being presented in attachment-based “parental alienation” (a process called “countertransference” in professional psychology)” So, passing lightly over the actual use of countertransference, we see that we dissenters are perhaps More to Be Pitied Than Censured. We either just haven’t studied the right stuff, or we are Sick because of our own histories that blind us to reality. This familiar form of faux counterargument is one I’ve been hearing for years from Attachment Therapy and “Nancy Thomas parenting” advocates, who are sure that if I hadn’t had a severe attachment trauma I would certainly see the force of their arguments. Whereas science has ways of responding constructively to criticism, pseudoscience is confined to the arguments Childress uses.
Just one more thing and then I quit. Smack in the middle of the page linked above, Childress places this as a link:
“New APA Position Statement: Some children are manipulated into rejecting a parent.”
This is NOT, however, a new APA position statement, however it may appear to the casual reader. It is a petition that APA make a new statement, and one agreeable to Childress & Co. APA has refused since 1996 to become involved with “parental alienation” and its various treatments. The organization does not reply to letters from persons on either sides of the PA debate. Whether that is wise or not is arguable—but it is clear that Childress’ implication that there has been a new APA statement is not only wrong but profoundly self-serving.