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Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Apparent "Parental Alienation" and the "Chameleon Child"

 It would be silly to claim that no parent ever caused a child to be alienated from and to reject contact with the other parent. This can be done inadvertently, as when one parent is afraid of the other and an infant sees this through social referencing, or it can be done intentionally with the goal of hurting the other adult. However, it is not silly to consider that the apparent alienation of a child, with refusal to be with one parent, can have a wide variety of causes. That range of causes is not so easy to explore, and a parent who feels rejected may readily assume that any problem is of the other parent’s making.

Benjamin Garber has discussed one possible situation, in which each parent believes that the child fears and wants to avoid the other parent. He calls this pattern the “chameleon child” (Garber, B.D. [2014]. The chameleon child: Children as actors in the high conflict divorce drama. Journal of Child Custody, 11,25-40). The point of Garber’s discussion is not to blame children, but to consider that they are not simply passive recipients of parental pressure. Rather, they actively involve themselves in an uncomfortable situation and attempt to adapt themselves to the situation, and the situation to themselves. In pointing this out, Garber follows (without mentioning it) some important principles of modern developmental psychology. One of these principles is that the effects of family experiences are not just bidirectional but transactional: parents and children affect each other, and the ways in which they do this change over time. The second is that children’s own characteristics can influence the ways in which experiences affect them. This is most often discussed in terms of the ways a child’s genetic make-up and her experiences interact to change developmental outcomes, but it can also be considered with respect to the ways a child’s needs may evoke responses from caregivers, or the ways a child may actively seek to get from caregivers what he or she wants; in either of these cases, the child can also be influenced by the caregivers’ responses.  

The “chameleon child”, according to Garber, is one who tells the father how much the child likes to visit him, and what bad things the mother does. The same child does the reverse with the mother, praising her and criticizing the father. For both parents, the child cries and resists going to the one she is not presently with. Each parent is convinced that the other parent is mistreating the child and that the child hates and rejects the other one.

What is going on here? Is the child simply a wicked little creature who lies and likes to cause trouble? No--  a much simpler and more accurate statement would be that the child wants both parents and wants to have them together. The child wants both parents to love him, so he tells each one what that parent seems to be fascinated by hearing: 1. How much the child likes to be with the present parent, and 2. What bad things the other parent does. This line of conversation gets the deep interest and attention of whichever parent is hearing it at a given time. The child does not imagine that parental conflict is heightened by the stories told to each parent. On the contrary, he may imagine that the conflict is just about him, that one or both parents don’t like him so much and that’s why each is with him for only part of the time, and that if he can get them to like him more, they will reunite and both be with him all the time.

What about the parents? Are they trying to cook up some attack against each other? They may be, but chances are that they, and their attorneys, and their therapists, are all just suffering from the same confirmation bias that all of us have to fight. This means that they (and we) are ready to hear and remember information that supports a way of thinking that we already have, and ready to ignore or forget anything that confuses us by contradicting or only partially supporting our existing assumptions. For each one, the co-parent is a person who is unreliable, or unsympathetic, or sneaky, or cruel in some way--  if it were not so, they would not have separated, and that is the opinion of both the “one who left” and the “one who was left”. That such a person might mistreat a child in some way seems fairly credible, and anything that supports the idea that mistreatment has actually happened fits beautifully into confirmation of this  assumption. In addition, of course, each of the parents sees himself or herself as a protector of children, and to find that someone else treats the child badly and should be stopped is an event that confirms the bias about the self as well as about the other adult. These biases are so powerful that most parents do not investigate further or seek other information to help them decide whether a conclusion is correct—and this may be true of the attorneys and the therapists as well.

Garber recounts an anecdote that shows how confirmation bias can not only lead to the wrong conclusion, but can interfere with seeking stronger evidence about an issue. A four-year-old girl returned from a visit to her father and announced cheerfully to her mother, “Daddy showed me all about sex!”. The mother was flabbergasted, but not altogether surprised--  after all, we all know about pedophiles, don’t we? After a restraining order and much consulting and investigation, it turned out that the father had taken the girl to a museum with an entomology exhibit. He showed her all about, not sex, but insects. The child was obviously safe and happy, but the mother’s confirmation bias prevented her from asking a few questions about this “sex” business, which might have revealed that butterflies and moths were the real topic.

That child’s “chameleon” position came to be when the mother misunderstood or misinterpreted a statement that everyone would agree to be ambiguous at the very least. But a number of children provide fodder for their separated parents’ confirmation biases by adapting their behavior to what a parent seems to want to hear, praising the present parent and criticizing the absent one. Like real chameleons, the children make themselves safe and comfortable by doing what the social environment signals them to do, in ways that are no more antisocial than telling Aunt Lily you like your birthday present when you actually don’t. We want children to have these skills of social adaptation. We also want to know if anything bad does happen to them. For the best outcome, then, we need for co-parents, attorneys, and therapists to examine their own confirmation biases and seek all the factors that may determine a child’s attitudes and statements, rather than leaping to either the parental alienation or  the child abuse conclusions. 


    here is how Craig Childress describes Dorcy Pruter's "High road of reunification" protocol.
    He asserts that it is comprised of a series of steps to get from STart A to Goal G, and if the process is interrupted or the steps are not taken in the right order, it is doomed to failure, that's why it requires an intensive 4-day-workshop.
    The workshop is composed of heart-warming films about families, structured exercises and semi-structured exercises. As far as I understand, the films are the same for each family.
    As far as I understand, Dorcy Pruter is training non-mental-health professionals to perform her workshop exactly according to her instructutions, and Craig Childress approves of this. He thinks that there are not enough "reunification specialists" (or whatever he wants to call it), and he thinks that no serious training in mental health, education or social work is warranted to conduct those workshops.
    Dorcy Pruter asserts that there is a 100% success rate for her "High road of reunifcation" workshop, although she does not cite the number of clients she had. She asserts that the success after the intervention depends on the "maintenance care" done by someone else. So she can blame any failure on the other therapist.
    To me, the very structure of the protocol looks like short-term brainwashing.
    I heard from youths who were forced to participate in residential programs for "at risk" youth like those proposed by the wwasp network that their program is similar: they also have to watch videos and participate in pseudo-therapeutic group sessions.
    It might well be that this high road of reunification protocol was inspired by those practices.

    1. Thanks so much for this information. Certainly a 100% success rate (out of however many people) is a dramatic claim that raises many questions-- none of them answered by the claimants,of course!