Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Attachment and "Parental Alienation"
When thinking about parental alienation (PA) issues in the United States, I usually think it makes sense to consider a child age range of about 9-17 years. It’s rare in the U.S. to have a child less than 9 who is claimed to show PA when he or she avoids one parent. This narrow age range is one in which issues about attachment—if any—are much different from those we see in infants and toddlers. Some PA advocates, like Craig Childress, propose that when a child avoids a parent this means that something has damaged her attachment to that parent, or even “suppressed” her whole attachment system [don’t ask me, I’m just reporting the news here], but this is hardly likely for 9-17-year-olds, whose social focus is less and less on their parents and more and more on their peers.
However, it does seem that in some cases PA concepts are applied to much younger children. My first introduction to PA occurred when I was contacted by the grandmother of two preschoolers who had been taken from the mother on the grounds that she had caused their avoidance of their father. Those children were certainly at ages when attachment to a familiar caregiver is the focus of a child’s life and when abrupt, long-term separation from that person causes deep distress, grief, and lethargy that may last for months.
Some European colleagues are also telling me that they see PA allegations in situations where toddlers and preschoolers are concerned. They express concern over the impacts on young children of being forcibly removed from a familiar parent and placed in the custody of one whom they essentially do not know (their biological relationship being of little import here). Others have argued, to the contrary, that one parent may prevent the child from having contact with the other on the grounds that their attachment will be harmed if that happens.
I want to comment on these highly fraught situations where parents are in enormous conflict over the custody or parenting of a preschool or younger child. First, though, I want to say that I am going to talk only about the role of attachment in parenting decisions when all else is equal. I mean: this is not about situations where there has been domestic violence, or physical or psychological child abuse, or child sexual abuse. Those all create their own unique dangers. I am going to talk only about situations where one parent wants more contact with the child , the child seems reluctant, and the other parent is resisting the change in contact-- but nothing else is wrong.
Point 1: How the child acts, and how parents can handle this, depends largely on how old the child is.
A baby under 6 months of age is usually quite ready to socialize with whoever comes along and has not yet formed an emotional attachment to any individual. The young baby may object if handled clumsily by someone, or if someone fails to pick up on cues about what the baby needs, but this is not about attachment or about fear. However, even at 4 months or so, the baby may be quite distressed if someone stares blankly at her and does not change expression or move in response to the baby’s social signals.
After 6 months, but usually before 12 months, babies begin to form emotional attachments to people whom they see frequently and who behave toward them in sensitive and responsive ways. They often indicate that this developmental change is occurring by showing fear of strange things and even by being startled and frightened by some things that have happened before (noisy garbage trucks, jumping dogs). They try to stay near familiar people and avoid strangers—often, they will not look at a friendly stranger who approaches them, and will even cry if the person keeps looking at them. If left in a strange place without a familiar person, they cry and will not look around with interest or try to explore, even though they will explore the same place if a familiar person is there.
Babies of 10 or 12 months and toddlers also show a behavior called “social referencing”. If they meet a new person or a new kind of object, they look at the face of a nearby familiar person. If that person looks frightened and seems to be looking at the new person or object , the baby backs off and will not approach the unfamiliar thing. If the familiar person smiles and looks relaxed, the baby goes ahead to explore the new person or object.
As toddlers get to be two or three years old, and as they learn to understand and use language, they can cope much better with unfamiliar situations. They may go to child care or preschool, encounter new babysitters, and develop better social skills. If they are tired or hungry or sick, however, they still seek familiar people and reject everyone else. (Of course, when sufficiently cross they may reject a familiar person too!) If they cannot find the familiar person, or if their separation goes on for a long time (weeks), they may show serious distress and take many weeks to recover; even if reunited with the familiar person become clingy and anxious.
Some children are much more intense in their negative reactions than others. They have temperamental differences that are biologically determined. A child who takes a long time to adapt to child care or who is predictably seriously frightened of clowns or masks or large groups of people is also likely to show more intense reactions than others to separation or to strange people and places.
Point 2: Can knowing about attachment behavior help people?
Yes, knowing these things helps parents know how to handle the distress of young children as they visit a parent they do not live with—if the parents give it some thought. The awareness that such distress is natural may (I hope) prevent suspicions or allegations that one parent is causing the child to hate or fear the other. Let’s look at possible things to do for different ages.
For the youngest babies, under 6 months, if the baby is getting distressed about clumsiness or a withdrawn expression, the solution is for the adult to learn to behave differently. More contact and more daily care will help the adult learn to engage the baby in care routines to the satisfaction of both. “Staring” or looking withdrawn is a different problem. Some adults can do better if they know they are looking a certain way, but others may be depressed, anxious, or distracted, and those things are harder to handle. It will be helpful to everyone to know that the baby is responding to the facial expression and not to the individual, however.
For older babies and toddlers, there are a lot of issues that may need work by the adults. If one parent is actually frightened of the other, a toddler doing social referencing may quickly catch on to this and also be frightened, even though the frightened person has no wish for this to happen. An older baby or toddler may also be frightened and resist a parent who is not often present and may become distraught when approached—and even more so if taken away from home. These are normal behaviors of typically developing children and are not taught or caused by one of the parents. There can be improvement if both parents behave calmly and give the child plenty of time to warm up; there can also be worsening if people are hasty, argue, or are demanding or rough. Toddlers are most comfortable in familiar places, so if it is possible for the child to stay at home and the parents to switch places for a time, the child will be more comfortable and will more quickly come to accept both parents as familiar attachment figures.
Times of transition, including bed time, are always the most difficult for toddlers and preschoolers to handle, even if there is no family separation or conflict going on. In perfectly happy families, young children may respond to a transition by pushing away one parent and saying they want the other; the next day they may reverse who they want. It’s the transition that’s the problem. So, when transferring a young child from one parent to the other after divirce, it would be surprising if everything always went smoothly. Crying when going from father to mother probably does not mean that father abused the child. Crying when going from mother to father probably does not mean that the mother has brainwashed the child to make her afraid of father.
The very difficult problem here is that in a few cases these things have happened, and it can be difficult to know what is distress caused by bad events and what is normal transition complaining. But following the “black swan” rule, our first assumption should be that things belong to the more frequent category of events. If parents are prepared to deal calmly with times of transition, knowing that they are likely to include child crying and distress, everyone will be able to do better—to the advantage of the child, who is not helped if adults feel and show their own upset. If this does not help, it's time to explore carefully to see whether there is something one or both parents are doing to distress the child.
It’s true that one of the real difficulties of divorcing parents is the attachment-related reaction of young children. They cry, they cling, they demand attention, they avoid unfamiliar people even more than usual, they need a lot of emotional support as they struggle to feel secure with both parents. This is all occurring at a time when one or both of the parents may be completely stunned by what is happening and want nothing more than to pull the covers over their head and hide for a month. One of the natural problems of being a parent is that the less you want demands placed on you, the more demands your young child will place. You have “gone away” from your usual availability, and the child wants you back.
It's tough on everybody. But let’s be careful about interpreting normal child separation behaviors as “parental alienation” or thinking that somehow the child’s internal working model of attachment has been smashed by a visit or the lack of a visit. Jumping to those conclusions only makes things worse in the long run.