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Thursday, August 19, 2021

When Parental Alienation Proponents Argue Biological Causes


It’s common nowadays for popular writers to claim biological or even specific genetic reasons for concerning behaviors. Any issues remotely connected to attachment are likely to get this highly speculative biological post hoc explanation. Until recently, though, I had not seen many proponents of the parental alienation (PA) belief system appeal to biological factors.

But I have seen this now, and not just from Craig Childress.

Linda Gottlieb, a rising PA proponent and increasingly frequent expert witness in PA cases, has now adopted biological arguments. She outlines these in her document Gottlieb, L. (n.d.) , Turning Points for Families: A Therapeutic Vacation.

Gottlieb’s position is that it is “instinctive” for children to be attached to their parents. In making this claim, she ignores decades of discussion of the role of instinct in animal and human life. Many years ago, the term instinct was used to describe situations in which an individual’s behavior was completely controlled by inherited biological factors; he or she had not learned how to do something, and also could not learn how to refrain from doing it. In 1955, the renowned student of comparative animal behavior Frank Beach predicted accurately that the term instinct would soon disappear from discussion in the mainstream of psychology (Beach, F. (1955). The descent of instinct. Psychological Review, 62, 401-410.) Beach argued that the evidence pointed to the conclusion that all behaviors developed through a combination of genetically-regulated nervous system functions AND individual experiences. Accumulated evidence showed that behaviors did not develop solely as instincts (inherited behavior patterns shared by all members of a species).

More sophisticated discussions of human behavior patterns led to replacing the idea of instinct with two explanatory concepts. One was that human development in some areas was a matter of experience-dependent plasticity; the nervous system was “plastic” or malleable and changed (learned) as a result of experience. The second idea, the one more relevant to the concept of instinct, was called experience-expectant plasticity. This term applied to situations where experience could have a powerful effect, but was by far the most powerful at a particular period of life and might have little effect earlier or later. Experience-expectant plasticity is exemplified by emotional attachment to familiar people and also by the learning not just of a concept of language but of a specific language—both events that begin in the second half of the first  year for human beings. These two concepts (experience-expectant and experience-dependent plasticity) have taken the place of the old idea of instinct.

Nevertheless, we see Gottlieb in her document claiming that attachment to a parent is not only instinctual but permanent and invulnerable to normal experience. In making this statement, she ignores not only the changes that have occurred among psychologists in use of the term instinct, but also the fact that the toddler’s attachment behavior and motivation modulate with maturation and experience so that adolescents feel and behave very differently toward parents. She also ignores the fact that in cases of adoption or other changes, even toddlers lose their attachment for one person and develop it for a new caregiver.

But these points are irrelevant to Gottlieb, as she uses instinct as a rhetorical device. Rather than pursuing an argument about causes of a child’s avoidance of one parent, she wants to be able to claim that an avoiding child must have experienced some powerful malicious actions on the part of the preferred parent, because otherwise the “instinctive” love for the avoided parent could not have been undone. (To support this argument, she states, incorrectly , that children who are abused maintain their attachment to caregivers. This is only true of toddlers and not of the older children and adolescents who are usually the subjects of PA cases.)

If a child’s love for a parent were actually instinctual in the old-fashioned , all-biological sense, it would by definition be invulnerable to experience. If it is vulnerable to experience of any kind, it is not instinctual, but a characteristic that develops through a combination of experience-expectant and of experience-dependent plasticity. The real purpose of Gottlieb’s “instinct” argument would seem to be to imply scientific support for claims about PA. Curiously, Gottlieb, like other PA proponents, acknowledges that not all cases where a child avoids a parent are matters of alienation—a child might learn to avoid an abusive parent.

 But wait, what about the argument that abused children still want to be with the abusive parent? Can this work both ways? It seems that according to Gottlieb’s views about abused children, those who are abused should not avoid the abusive parent, but instead want even more to be with that person. Only those who were not abused (but something else happened, like persuasion by the preferred parent) can want to avoid one parent. Thus avoiding a parent becomes proof that the child was NOT abused, doesn’t it? And how convenient this is for a parent who wants to allege that the ex-spouse or the child is lying about abuse.

If someone wants to use scientific concepts for persuasive argument, it would pay to keep up with the science. Otherwise someone is likely to come along and point out a few errors.




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