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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Friday, May 18, 2018

Persuasion, Attitude Change, and Parental Alienation

Persuasion-- attempts to change other people’s attitudes – is a common human activity, for good or ill. We see it at work in evangelism and religious conversion, political campaigns, war propaganda, advertising, and Jane Austen’s wonderful novel. Persuasion is an important part of the work of parents and teachers, whose efforts to get children to share their beliefs and attitudes are usually quite successful. By school age, most children have adopted adult attitudes about toilet use, using words rather than grabbing and hitting, physical modesty, politeness, and so on, although their behaviors do not always reflect those attitudes.

Persuasion uses various means to cause changes in attitude, with the further intention of behavior changes that can result from new attitudes. Persuasion can involve simple repetition of ideas, modeling of attitudes on those of loved or feared persons, and the provision of new information that supports new attitudes. Cognitive dissonance due to new information or experience may be at work in attitude change; when a person has two contradictory beliefs, one may change in a direction that decreases contradiction. Changes due to cognitive dissonance can seem paradoxical, as for example a person who is paid a small amount to make a statement he does not believe is more likely to change to greater belief than is be the case for a person paid a large amount. It is notable that attitude changes in children and adolescents can also occur in the absence of any persuasive attempts, as a result of maturation of cognitive abilities and of unrelated experience. Attitude changes are thus potentially the results of both persuasion and other factors in an individual.

Attitude change may or may not be the deciding factor in behavior change. Under the right circumstances, a person may behave in changed ways determined by new attitudes. However, circumstances may work against changed behavior, as when a newly-convinced vegan will starve unless he or she eats meat. Behavior changes can also occur in the absence of actual attitude change, because of the effects of bribes, threats, punishment, reward, physical or social circumstances, and, for children and adolescents, the occurrence of maturational changes like puberty.

Proponents of the idea of “parental alienation” (PA) argue that when children of divorced couples refuse or resist contact with one of the parents, this occurs because the other parent has used persuasive techniques to change the attitudes of the child toward the avoided parent. PA proponents claim that they have programs that will reverse this attitude change and create positive attitudes and behavior toward the previously-avoided parent. (It is notable, however, that PA discussions do not present objective evidence that the avoiding child had a positive attitude toward the avoided parent before the divorce; this is taken as given.)

In this post, I will discuss three ways in which PA is related to persuasion and attitude change. The first is the view of PA proponents that one parent can persuade a child to alter his or her attitude toward the other parent in a negative direction, and that this single factor is the cause of resistance or refusal of contact, unless physical abuse has been present. The second connection between PA and persuasion has to do with the methods PA advocates use to persuade courts to accept their views, to change custody arrangements, and to order children into PA treatments at the expense of the parent accused of persuading the child to dislike the other parent. Third, the counter-persuasive techniques used in treatment programs like Family Bridges will be examined.

1.     1.  Can a parent persuade a child to dislike and avoid the other parent?  It would be foolish to claim that this could not happen, although equally foolish to claim that such parental behavior can be detected simply on the basis of child attitudes, or that such persuasion is the sole factor determining resistance or refusal of contact.

 Shifting alliances between parents and children are characteristic of intact families as well as divorced families. A parent may express an attitude toward the other parent as a part of communication with a child or as a way of smoothing family functioning (“ Let’s wait until after dinner to talk to your Dad about the bicycle—he’s tired when he comes home from work”). Individual differences may be expressed as communicated attitudes about the other parent (“I really can’t stand to watch that boring show! See if Mom will watch with you, she likes that stuff”). Maturational changes can affect attitudes and alliances, as for example when a 13-year-old girl begs her mother not to tell the father that she has her first period, or when a mother presses her husband to have the “sex talk” with their son. 

Persuasion and efforts at child attitude change are very much a part of the post-divorce family functioning. Though some are happy to escape family conflict, children generally object to the fact and consequences of divorce, with its frequent multiple changes of house, school, neighborhood, income, parental mood, and often in residents of the household (a new partner for a parent; stepsiblings; sometimes a shared household with a grandparent or parent’s sibling). Divorced parents usually make more or less effective efforts to persuade children to more positive attitudes about their new circumstances. Attitude changes and establishment of new family alliances and roles are the work of the first couple of years after divorce.

Given that parents spend time trying to influence child attitudes about family members, roles, and circumstances in both intact and divorced families, it is almost certainly the case that  some divorced parents successfully create negative attitudes in children toward former spouses. However, a child’s resistance to or refusal of contact is not sufficient evidence to claim that this has happened, and only circular reasoning can suggest that the influence of one parent has created the attitude toward the other. Not only would support for this argument require evidence that the preferred parent had made unusual efforts to persuade the child against the avoided parent; it would also be necessary to show that before the divorce, the child’s attitude toward and relationship with the now-avoided parent had been good, and this demonstration would require more than the claims of the avoided parent.

 PA advocates argue that children and adolescents who avoid contact have no “rational” explanation that is acceptable, unless there is substantiated evidence of physical abuse.  They also privilege the mother and father over any other actors in the scenario, sometimes including new spouses, but often ignoring the roles played by grandparents, stepsiblings, and other involved persons. Like adults, children and adolescents may avoid contact with a person because of other involved individuals—an intimidating or overly manipulative grandparent, a stepsibling who is living in the house and with whom the child is expected to be friendly, a parent’s new partner who has decided to take a strong family role and acts out rivalry with the child’s preferred parent. Adolescents, in particular, may resent the choices forced on them by a visiting schedule, the teams they cannot be on because they frequently miss games, the parties they cannot attend, the weekend get-togethers for homework. These are all reasonable explanations for avoiding visits to a parent, although they may be difficult for the adolescent to explain and certainly do not fit the physical abuse category insisted on by PA advocates.

In considering adolescents’ resistance or refusal of contact, it is important to remember the influence of puberty and burgeoning sexuality. Girls may want to avoid dealing with menstruation at a father’s house; boys may feel that for a mother to see evidence of a nocturnal emission would be deeply humiliating. For both sexes, increased awareness of parents’ sexuality, especially if new partners are present, may be deeply disturbing, and a very different experience than that of teenagers living with “old married” parents. These examples and the ones above do not deny the possibility that a parent has tried to create negative attitudes toward the other parent, but they provide alternative or co-causal explanations that need attention.

2.    2.   How do PA advocates use persuasion to win court approval for custody changes and orders for PA-related treatments?

In the absence of any acceptable empirical evidence basis, PA advocates have used common persuasive devices like repetition and appeals to authority to bring PA concepts into the courtroom. In addition, they have depended on rhetorical devices like the use of analogies to create positive legal and judicial attitudes toward their claims. Some frightening metaphors have played strong roles in cases where courts were persuaded of the PA position. Here are some examples:

 The term alienation originally referred to a transfer of ownership or property rights. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept of “alienation of affection” was used in lawsuits against third parties who were claimed to have caused ruptures in marriages or engagements by their behavior toward one of the partners (usually the wife). Alienation of affection remains the foundation of suits in some states of the United States. Property rights in a wife or child were legal arguments, and provided the framework of early adoption laws. However, parents’ rights are no longer seen as property rights, so the use of the term “parental alienation”  depends on a questionable metaphor in which the two entities in the analogy do not share most characteristics.

The word “estrangement”, or a reference to the child’s resistance or refusal of contact, would avoid this metaphor, but would be undesirable from the point of view of PA advocates, as it would weaken their persuasive rhetoric.


A toxic substance causes physical damage to an affected person, potentially resulting in injury or death. Referring to behavior of divorced persons as “toxic” is a metaphorical practice used to suggest that possible persuasion, claimed to cause changes in a child’s attitude toward one parent, is in fact damaging to the child. Although this has become a common analogy (e.g. “toxic stress”), in fact the effects of toxins and of the posited parent behavior toward children have little in common. To make this analogy a useful one, rather than just a rhetorical device, PA proponents would need to show that children who resist or refuse contact with one parent display damage in the form signs of personality disorders or mental illness in adulthood, and that these problems have not been caused by genetic or other factors. No such evidence has been presented, so the “toxic” analogy remains a persuasive device rather than an appropriate way of reasoning.


A pathogen is properly defined as a microorganism that can cause disease. This term is used metaphorically when PA advocates refer to the posited parenting behavior that causes resistance or refusal of contact as “pathogenic”.  A child’s resistance or refusal is not in itself a disease, and unless it can be demonstrated that such behavior is followed predictably by mental disorders in later life, the metaphor is a mistaken one. Nevertheless, the pathogen metaphor can be a powerfully persuasive one when legal and judicial audiences do not examine rhetorical devices with care.

Disruption of attachment.

Some PA advocates use the term “attachment” to refer to any positive aspect  of a child’s relationship with a parent. As clearcut attachment behavior is characteristic of toddlers and not of older children or adolescents, and as even preschoolers do not display this behavior much unless distressed, the attachment metaphor is not appropriately applied here. It is particularly the case that adolescent social and emotional development shifts positive feeling toward peers and away from parents, so the analogy of adolescent attitudes toward parents and toddler attachment behavior is a mistaken one. The idea of “disruption of attachment”—that toddlers had both short- and long-term ill effects of separation from familiar people—was a part of John Bowlby’s early conceptualization of attachment, later much diminished in importance, but certainly never applied to children of school age or adolescents. This misleading metaphor has considerable rhetorical power, however, because the idea of attachment is highly fashionable and generally though erroneously accepted outside the field of child development as a complete explanation of emotional development and especially of mental illness.


The “brainwashing” metaphor, suggesting that mental processes, information, and attitudes can be stripped away from an individual just as dirt can be washed from a surface, and can be replaced in the same way, was a popular one in the 1950s  and was used to explain why a small number of American soldiers refused repatriation after a period of captivity in North Korea. Subsequently, this metaphor has been used to explain adherence to Scientology and similar belief systems, as well as commitment to terrorism. PA advocates use the metaphor to suggest that children and adolescents can be made subjects of “mind control” by a parent who intentionally alters their beliefs and attitudes toward the other parent. Again, this is a powerfully rhetorical device in the courtroom, but the analogy is mistaken because there is little evidence that persuasion of any kind resembles “washing”. ( Recently, this metaphor has been partially replaced by the metaphors of “programming” and “deprogramming”, but these do not carry the persuasive punch of “brainwashing”, with its imlicatons of defecting soldiers.)

3.     3.  Can children be persuaded to drop their resistance and refusal and behave affectionately and positively toward avoided parents?

PA proponents describe treatment programs like Family Bridges as “psychoeducational” and argue that the information about persuasion offered to children in treatment can indeed persuade them and change negative to positive attitudes. Assuming that one parent has persuaded the child to take up negative attitudes toward the other parent, practitioners of these programs claim to counter the parental persuasion and reverse the attitude change.

Published reports of outcomes of PA treatments have not met standards required for outcome research, and cannot be used to argue that the treatments are effective. For example, the published reports do not show how outcomes of PA treatment programs compare with outcomes when children are either not treated or treated by some conventional psychotherapeutic approach. Given that school-age children and adolescents change in many ways because of maturation, PA proponents need to show that the outcomes they report would not have happened over time simply because of maturation and ordinary experiences.

Be that as it may, however, it is questionable whether the effects of the treatment are actually attitude changes subsequent to persuasive efforts and new information through videos and discussion. Reports of adolescents who have experienced these programs suggest that behavior change (with or without attitude change) may have resulted from threats to send the child to wilderness camp or a residential treatment center, to send the preferred parent to prison, or to charge the preferred parent additional fees because the child was not cooperative. This seems more probable than the claim that an entrenched attitude, created by months of intentional persuasion by one parent, could be altered in a few days by watching videos. Whether observed behavior changes are or not due to persuasion and attitude change is one of many unanswered questions about PA, all of which should be given careful consideration by courts.


  1. Excellent informative article, thank you Jean. I do want to point out that in the majority of cases that I have worked on, advocating for the healthy parent who is falsely accused of "Parental Alienation", the children involved had all disclosed abuse, in many cases sexual. The PA Proponents on the case would not investigate, flat out refused, instead claimed the healthy parent had lied, or the child had lied even with documented evidence from various professionals. I am aware that these "self proclaimed PA experts" claim that if abuse is proven, it is not PA, however I have yet to see any of them stand by that statement. After all, it wouldn't fit their agenda and their wallets would most definitely be lighter if they did not accept cases where documented abuse was present. In fact almost every case I know of there has been documented physical or sexual abuse, and always emotional abuse, but again, it suits them to shut the child up, to threaten them into silence. Fortunately many are beginning to age out, and they are ready, willing and able to speak out now. I'm not sure the PA proponents prepared for that. I believe reform is coming, and it is going to be from this generation that was forced against their will into these awful reunification camps/workshops etc.

    1. Certainly this is very important in dealing with individual cases. However, I have tried to avoid focusing on abuse issues and concentrated instead on PA in the "pure form"-- otherwise it's so easy to have the discussion become he said, she said, and to forget about deconstructing the basic ideas and showing their implausibility.

      I agree that the statements of PA-ed children will be the key to taking this down, and I look forward to reading them as they come out.