It was only a few weeks ago that I first encountered the name of the California psychologist Craig Childress. The context was a discussion with advocates of the concept of parental alienation (PA to its familiars). If you have not yet encountered PA, you have been lucky so far, but that luck is about to run out if you keep reading. There may be such a thing as PA—no doubt there sometimes is—but it is embedded in a morass.
PA is a designation for the events and results that may occur in a divorce if one parent influences a child to reject the other. The rejection is evidenced by the child’s willingness to remain in the care of one parent but fear of and reluctance to be with the other. If the first of these people is seen to be persuading the child to fear and avoid the other parent, the former is sometimes described as the alienating parent, and the latter as the alienated parent (although this last is rather confusing because it is the child who feels alienated from the rejected parent, not the parent himself or herself). My own preference would be to call the people the accepted parent and the rejected parent, respectively.
Some students of PA, especially, it seems, those connected with fathers’ rights groups, propose that a child cannot develop in a mentally healthy fashion without relationships with both parents, and that therefore the alienation must be resolved for the child’s own sake. As a result of this assumption, they define situations of PA as child abuse, unless there are rational motives for the child’s rejection, for example that the rejected parent has been frightening or abusive in the past. If PA is abusive, the accepted parent is an abuser, and needs to have his or her behavior corrected; the rejected parent is a victim, and needs the relationship with the child restored in order to facilitate the child’s emotional development. When courts are in the picture, of course, the treatment of the accepted and rejected parents can include the threat or reality of custody or visitation changes as means to stop PA, or court-ordered therapies designed to correct the situation and foster good relations between the child and the parent(s) who cooperate in the process.
Advocates of PA have argued that there is a definable parental alienation syndrome (PAS) that should have been included in DSM-5. The DSM-5 group rejected this proposal on the grounds that there is no evidence that PAS exists in some way that makes it separate from other diagnoses in the manual. Similarly, there is at this time no support for the idea that any treatment used for PA is an evidence-based treatment. (This is why I refer to all this stuff as the parental alienation swamp.)
Now, here’s where we get to Craig Childress. Childress, a licensed clinical psychologist in California with a Psy.D. degree, and a faculty member at California Southern University, a distance-learning, on line outfit, has attacked others’ claims to treat PA and has presented his own claim that he knows 1) what causes PA behavior by accepted parents, and 2) how to treat the child’s rejection of one parent. He has published a book with a “boutique” publisher, Oaksong Press, about how this all works, and maintains an elaborate Facebook page and web site to argue for his views. There he comments on the “abject ignorance” of his opponents, a statement no doubt entertaining to some of the FB audience, but certainly not professional discourse. (Childress’ on line CV appears to show no activity between 1985 and 1998, raising more than one question about his professional history.)
Let’s have a look at Childress’ claims about the sources of PA behavior by the accepted parent and the impact it has on a child. Childress attributes a parent’s persuasion of a child to reject the other parent to re-enactment of the accepted parent’s own traumatic attachment history. Where such a history exists, he proposes, the affected parent develops a narcissistic/borderline personality, with a tendency to “split” the world into all-good and all-bad components. Childress chooses two aspects of a problematic development of attachment as critical here: the early existence of disorganized attachment, and relationships that involve role reversals, so that, e.g., child cares for mother. These characteristics, according to Childress, make the accepted parent a “pathogenic parent”. This is an interesting set of ideas, and eminently testable by empirical means. But… Childress has not done this testing, and although on his web site he refers to his claims as “well established in the scientific literature” (notably omitting a list of references), this is certainly not the case if we assume as many do that “scientific literature” involves empirical work beyond the level of anecdote or clinical report. Yes, attachment theory is based on careful observational work and on longitudinal studies, but the fact that there is a scientific foundation for some aspects of attachment does not mean that the foundation can properly be generalized to every statement that shares concepts with attachment theory. (There is a good deal of this kind of thing around just now, I’m afraid.) As for pathogenicity of any parenting pattern, this requires longitudinal study to ascertain.
Let’s look at Childress’ claims about treatment of PA effects on children. He rejects the idea that reunification can be facilitated by work with the child and both parents. Instead, he proposes that help can be given only by “protective separation” of the child from the accepted parent. During this period of separation, the child experiences treatment as described by Childress on his web site, with the goal of coming to enjoy and seek to be with the formerly rejected parent. If the child is successful in meeting this goal for 10 weeks, two one-hour Skype or phone sessions per week with the formerly-accepted parent will be allowed. According to Childress, this method empowers the child: “It is in the child’s power to extend or shorten the Treatment period. If the child continues to remain symptomatic [i.e., express rejection of the parent], then the Treatment period can be continued to six months or longer. However, if the child chooses [sic, N.B.] to become non-symptomatic, then the Treatment period can be ended in as little as 8 weeks or less, based on the child’s behavior. “ Childress argues that a study design can be used to demonstrate the effectiveness of this method, but he does not appear to have done this, nor does he take into account the effect of maturational change.
Is Childress’ approach less supported by empirical work than other PA approaches? No, it is not, although his pugnacity and undue confidence about his statements tend to obscure that fact. Actually, all of the PA discussions of which I am aware, as well as many judicial decisions concerned with parenting relationships, have the same flaw. They completely neglect to consider the effects of developmental change on the child’s interactions with the social environment and their effect on him or her. The effects of parenting patterns on children involve transactional processes in which each person affects the other in ways that change over time; the changes occur because of learning by both parties and because of maturational changes, rapid in the child and slow but present in the adult. This means that when treatment is appropriate (an enormous issue), the way it is done, especially if it is to involve separation from the accepted parent, must be congruent with the child’s developmental needs for attachment and for exploration. These are vastly different in toddlers and in kindergarteners, and different from both in teenagers. Perhaps Childress does not mean to suggest that a two-year-old who resists going with his father should be separated from the mother for 8 or 10 weeks or longer-- but if he does not mean this, he would do well to say so.
There are many more issues to be considered here. I am still taken aback, I must say, by Childress’ view that a child may “choose” whether or not to show fear and rejection of a parent; there is a flavor of “breaking the spirit” about the whole thing. But the main considerations, I think, are 1) show us the evidence for these claims, 2) tell how developmental age should be taken into account, and 3) describe the treatment goals in transactional terms. This is a challenge that I hope will eventually be addressed not only by Childress but by other PA proponents.