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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Zombie Ideas Causing Trouble Again

Recently I came across the term “zombie ideas”. I really don’t remember where it was, so I can’t give due credit to the inventor, but I have to borrow this. A “zombie idea” is one that ought to have been dead a long time ago, but it won’t lie down and give up. Regrettably, there are a lot of people who welcome zombie ideas and keep them in circulation--  perhaps just because they heard of these ideas a long time ago and their vague familiarity gives them some of the credibility of tradition. Anyway, zombie ideas are definitely in our midst, and if you look through some past posts on this blog you will see that I have been aiming silver bullets at them (all right, I guess that’s for werewolves, so maybe that explains why there are still so many of the zombie kind.)  By the way, zombie ideas eat your brain and keep you from thinking straight, so they are not to be welcomed, even if like real (traditional) zombies they seem to save you from some heavy lifting.

The New York  Times Sunday business section has just given half a page to a zombie idea (Martin, C. [2016, Nov. 27]. A smashing new way to relieve stress. NY Times, Business, p. 4). This story recounts how one Donna Alexander has set up a for-profit Anger Room in Dallas, and how similar rooms now exist in Houston, Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Australia. According to the article, “the Anger Room charges $25 for five minutes [yes, you read it correctly, minutes] of crushing printers, alarm clocks, glass cups, vases, and the like.”  Persons desiring to smash things can get special set-ups for $500 dollars or so—one of those having been “a faux retail store, replete with racks of clothing.” ”.  Recently, mannequins dressed as Trump or Clinton have been available for smashing. The idea is that this is a space where “stressed-out people could relieve their tension in a safe, non-violent way”.  

The zombie idea at work here is the belief that by acting angry, people can get rid of persistent uncomfortable anger and frustration that they experience. This belief, often referred to as catharsis, dates back to the ancient Greek drama, whose audiences were thought to benefit from the vicarious experience of sadness and grief. Sigmund Freud expanded this idea to suggest that all kinds of lingering negative emotions could be re-experienced in some way and deactivated as a result. Freud’s view involved a hydraulic metaphor for emotion, as if it were water collecting and pressing hard against a dam, which could be drained in order to release the pressure.

Two points about this zombie idea: First, doesn’t it seem odd that no one ever worries that acting happy will remove happiness from your life? Presumably, if catharsis worked for one kind of emotion, it ought to work for all of them, no? Second (and more important), research like that published by Jill Littrell almost 20 years ago has clearly indicated that behaving in an angry way actually makes people feel more angry, not less.

 Although it’s clearly time for this idea to lie down and let itself be buried, Alexander and other people in the rage business find the zombie idea too profitable to let go. Is what they are doing fraudulent? Probably so, but to win a lawsuit against them, a client would have to show that the owners knew you can’t destroy anger this way, and also would have to demonstrate that he or she had actually been harmed. These things are not very likely to happen.

Although the writer Claire Martin was obviously mainly interested in the Anger Room as a business venture, she should be given credit for consulting a clinical psychologist about the emotional benefits of smashing things. The person she talked to, UCLA psychologist George Slavin, warned that physiological responses during angry behavior can actually be bad for health, and recommended that people who feel tense and angry should use cognitive therapy and stress-reduction techniques to help them feel better in the face of the stresses of daily life. He described the idea that acting angry can relieve stress as “appealing” but not supported by evidence. But although Martin included these remarks, she spent all the rest if the article talking about related business ventures.

Zombie ideas of all kinds are “appealing” in the sense that they are simple and familiar and don’t require us to do much mental heavy lifting. Some of them, like the Anger Room idea, are presented to us over and over because they can be so profitable for a few individuals—so they become even more familiar than they were at the beginning. Claire Martin’s article in the Times did this job too, even though she paid lip service to “giving the other side” in a couple of paragraphs. Her focus was on the bottom line for the entrepreneurs. If you and I want to emphasize the bottom line of our own well-being, we need to watch out for the zombies.

Friday, November 18, 2016

More Queries About Baby Eye Contact

I think nobody reads instructions! Even though I've asked people not to post queries on my first "eye contact" post, they still try to do that--  and there are so many on there already that more cannot be posted. So, let me start yet another page for these questions, and I hope the writers will find this. Here's one to begin with.

Kanza Sharjeel has left a new comment on your post "Eye Contact With Babies: What, When, Why, and How":

Hello doc
Mu son who was sga botn at 36 weeks started his eye contact at 3.5 months . Now he is 5.5 months and no babbling as yet.. Just ooo and aaa
He has just started rollinh.
I think he doesn't recognid me. He doesn't know thst i m his mother.
He looks at me wen i cal husname
But when i cal my name in a loud voice he looks at me too. Dors this mean that he doesn't know his name?
He also doesn't etend his arms as a way of saying that he needs to b picked up

Also he has just started grabing objects and mouthing them
Mu nephew is alao autistic 
Dear Kanza-- If your son was not only small for gestational age but born at 36 weeks, you should not expect him to be doing these things at the same times that a full-term baby would do. He does not sound as if he is very different in his development from a one-month-younger full term baby, He is not yet old enough to prefer familiar people, so although he may "know" you, it isn't yet important to him that one person rather than another cares for him.

Responding to the name does not usually happen until about 6 months, so he has a while to go before you would expect that. I think it's an excellent sign that he pays attention when you raise your voice-- he has learned that it's important to pay attention to the way people talk, even though he doesn't understand words yet. It's good that he is cooing, and babbling will probably start in the next month or so. I would expect him to be sitting up before he put his arms up as a signal to pick him up.

I understand why you are worried, but it seems to me that he is doing reasonably well. The best thing you can do for him is to pay attention carefully to any signals he gives you, and to try to talk to him or play with him in ways that interest him-- notice whether his eyes brighten and he seems attentive when you do something, and keep on with whatever that was for a few minutes.

Good luck to your family!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Can Brain Science Help With Practical Decisions about Child Welfare, Custody, and Treatment Issues?

In the last week or two, I’ve come across several situations where neuroscience is referenced as helping provide understanding of interventions for children’s mental illness or educational problems. This use of scientific information is often called “translational” science, and it is receiving much well-deserved attention as we try to move from laboratory successes to practical benefits.

But, can neuroscience as it exists today tell us anything more about how to help at-risk children than we can learn from behavioral studies? That was the question I thought of when I read the following:

1.      A Norwegian psychologist working with child placement decisions expressed his concern that evidence of maltreatment is equated with brain damage and used to argue that children should be placed in foster homes.

2.      An editorial in the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter was entitled “Distracted driving prevention needs leadership from the neuroscience community”  (CABL, Nov. 2016, p.8). The author very correctly pointed out the failure of “scare tactics” to work with teenagers with respect to drug use or criminal behavior, and expressed doubt that such an approach would be helpful in preventing teenage distracted driving. But instead of suggesting other well-established techniques that are known to change behavior effectively, the author said, “what is sorely missing is the voice of the neuroscience community… each scientific nugget… may open a door in the prevention effort”. 

3.      In Child Development Perspectives (2016, Vol. 10 [4], 251-256), Philip Fisher and his co-authors have an article with the title “Promoting healthy child development via a two-generation translational neuroscience framework: The Filming Interactions to Nurture Development video coaching program”. This very helpful-sounding program for parents and young children uses videotaped interactions between the two to teach parents to pay attention to a child’s communications, to monitor and reflect on their own behavior, and to wait for children to respond rather than moving on impatiently. All good goals, and very much in line with recent efforts to help foster good parent-child relationships—but where did the translational neuroscience actually come into this program? Did neuroscience help the authors decide how to shape their program, or did they create a program that did the things we think are good for behavioral reasons, and then seek a neuroscience context to strengthen their argument?

4.      If anyone wants more examples, just think about things like teaching to one side or the other of the brain, patterning, the “cross-crawl”, and dozens of other claims that a method has specific effects on the brain.

Let’s look at some of the assumptions that these examples share (and remember the old saying, ASSUME makes an ASS of U and ME).
 One is that behavior and mental abilities are directly related to brain structures and functions. Of course, this is true at the coarsest level. Damage the visual areas of the cortex and you don’t see. Damage the frontal lobes and you don’t plan or anticipate well. But in fact brains have a lot of redundancy and can do many things in more than one way—even the person with damage to the visual cortex may be able to walk around an object in his path, although he is not aware of seeing it. People’s brains are not all just alike, with most people having the left hemisphere dominant and a smaller number having the right hemisphere—yet right- and left-handed people can do most cognitive tasks equally well, as can men and women, whose brains have some differences.

A second assumption is that we actually have quite a clear idea of how parts of  normal. human brains work. In fact, neuroimaging gives us only a glimpse into what is happening in the specific parts of the brain we choose to look at, at a particular time.  Most of what we know about connections between different parts of the brain still involves what has been studied by autopsy in individuals whose brains have been damaged during life. And, of course, we have the problem that some of the evidence put forward as explaining human brain functioning actually comes from information chosen from a variety of animals and not confirmed by human studies (see

A third assumption, and a very tenuous one, is that we know what experiences are problems from brain development, and that we can treat those problems with appropriate interventions, reverse the effects, correct the brain’s characteristics, and end up with desirable behaviors (Cf. the first assumption, above). This assumption seems to avoid the possibility that we could identify experiences that put a child at risk, intervene successfully, and have a desirable behavioral outcome—without having any measurable effect on the brain at all!

I am not in the least trying to claim that human brain functioning is not an important and most interesting topic of study. Of course it is. But to assume that we know all about the brain, understand how brain events cause or are caused by experiences, and have interventions (other than surgery and drugs) that “fix” brains—no, none of those are true.

 So why do people bring neuroscience into discussions where no relevant information exists? The forthcoming book by David Wastell and Sue White, Blinded by science, will focus on this and similar issues and should be well worth reading. From my own perspective, I would say that today neuroscience is not only a discipline, but a rhetorical device. Whatever people would like to argue for in child welfare and related fields, they feel their arguments are stronger if neuroscience is invoked. And on the whole we let them get away with this; we don’t challenge their statements and ask what the one thing has to do with the other. To do so would for many of us open the door to a humiliating loss of face, as others whisper, “she doesn’t know how important neuroscience is!” If this happens in the context of professional work, it could mean loss of a job.

But perhaps we need to learn to tolerate this discomfort and question whether or not the neuroscientific emperor is wearing clothes. This may especially be the case when practical decisions are being made about children, as in my Norwegian correspondent’s concern about child placement.  In the situation he mentioned, the argument appears to be: “This child was maltreated and neglected. Therefore, his brain is damaged. If a parent struck a child in the head with a brick and damaged his brain, we would terminate the parent’s rights. Brain damage is brain damage, so the brain damage resulting from neglect or verbal abuse is the same as that resulting from the brick, and the response should be the same.” Can anyone step forward and say, “Wait one minute. What evidence do you have that this child’s brain is damaged in any meaningful sense? And what can you say about the outcomes for the child if this parent is helped to improve his or her parenting skills, as compared to what will happen if the child enters the foster care system?” To make the best choice for the child, we may have to abandon the easy and fashionable neuroscience rhetoric, with its scary conflation of head trauma and the problematic (but very different) effects of neglect and poor parenting.

I admit, though, that few can step forward in this way, because the practical consequences of getting “out of step” may be quite severe.   

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Conduct Problems and Callous-Unemotional Traits: Something to Think About When You're Worried about RAD

I’ve pointed out again and again that Reactive Attachment Disorder in children is not characterized by aggressive or hostile behavior, by lying, by lack of remorse—and certainly not by an inability to connect cause and effect. But when people ask, “Well, then, what DOES my child have wrong?”, it’s an impossible question for anyone to answer without seeing the child and family in action.

Nevertheless, I want to put forward a possible set of problems that could in fact produce some of the unwanted behaviors that are so often attributed to RAD in Internet material. These are conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits (CPCU). Children who show CPCU are antisocial and oppositional, and often continue to show antisocial behavior later in their lives. These conduct problems, which may occur alone, are in CPCU associated with a number of other concerning traits. For example, they may not show guilt or remorse after misbehaving, they may show no empathy when other people are in distress, and they do not seem to care whether they themselves perform well or poorly.

These CPCU characteristics are not simply disturbing to teachers, parents, and other children; they evoke from the social environment a set of responses that are likely to worsen the child’s behavior problems.  We expect children to be upset if they do poorly at school or in sports, or even when they lose a game with other children, and we are ready to offer comfort or at least “bracing” remarks about how there will be another time or how the child should be a good loser. When a child says, or shows, that he or she does not care what happened, we tend to be at a loss for what to do—we may simply ignore the child, and then or later we may make sarcastic remarks about how we know the child doesn’t care what happens. It’s very difficult for us to model empathy in this unexpected situation, so we model indifference instead. In addition, when we see that a child “doesn’t care” about a person in distress, or “doesn’t care” about what he or she has done wrong, we often feel confused and vaguely hostile, and again model indifference or verbal attack—often, the same sort of behavior that we object to in the child.

Whether these “normal” responses of adults actual worsen CPCU behavior or not is not clear, but it certainly seems unlikely that these responses will help the child develop in a more acceptable direction. There is no evidence that any form of “attachment therapy” is effective in changing CPCU traits, nor would we expect there to be, because the issue is not about attachment-related behavior. However, it’s possible for behavior therapy to bring about changes in CPCU behavior like disruptive behavior, disobedience, tantrums, and inattention. But it may be that children who show CPCU respond differently to rewards and punishments than most other children do, and therefore behavior therapy may need to be fine-tuned to work well with them. They may do well with responding to rewards, but less well than other children when the therapy uses punishments.

An article by Daniel Waschbusch and his colleagues (“A case study examining fixed versus random criteria for treating a child with conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits”, Evidence Based Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 1(2-3), 73-85) looked at possible ways of fine-tuning behavior therapy for one child with CPCU characteristics. They looked at the results of using one approach with this child, then shifted to another approach, and compared the effects of the two.

The little boy, “Juan”, was  adopted at 17 months and began to show concerning behavior at about age 2 years. (That is, of course, a time of life when typically-developing children often begin to be resistant, to have tantrums, and to react badly to frustration, so it can be difficult to know whether a child’s behavior is or is not problematic with respect to later development.)  Entering school, he was disruptive, aggressive, inattentive, and silly, and his teacher said he did not seem to care about his school performance. His teachers also felt that he lacked warmth and kindness.

Behavior therapists working with Juan focused on managing his behavior with effective commands, positive reinforcement, and immediate consequences for his behavior. They gave or took away points for complying or failing to comply, and he could use the points to buy free time at noon and privileges like screen time at home. In addition, a daily report card helped to determine whether Juan could participate in a “fun field trip” on Fridays. The focus for Juan’s behavior therapy was on his tendency to interrupt other people, to violate classroom rules, and to tease his classmates. Juan’s behavior did change in response to this regimen, and he did best when the behavior change he was asked to perform was clearly stated – not just that he should interrupt less, but how little he had to interrupt in order to be rewarded.

Waschbusch and his co-authors mentioned that there has been less research on the effective use of punishment in behavior therapy than on the effective use of reward. They noted that it seems plausible that effective punishment must be mild, consistent, and predictable, but parents of children with conduct problems often do not manage this. Instead, they ignore bad behavior for some time, then unpredictably use serious punishment, which does not seem effective in changing behavior. Waschbusch and his colleagues also noted how little is known about the use of aversive events as punishments rather than punishment by taking away points or privileges.

Although there is much still to be understood about treatment of children with CPCU, these unwanted behaviors are apparently not related to attachment or any version of RAD. Also, they are treatable with standard treatments and need not destine a child for the school-to-prison pipeline. Treatment both at school and at home seems to be a key to success, and effective treatment requires changes in both teacher and parent behavior.    

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Blinding Them with Science: The Epigenetics Issue

The idea of epigenetic factors—events that shape the ways genetic material is expressed in the developing individual—goes back a long way. For example, the geneticist Waddington suggested what he called an “epigenetic landscape”, in which factors like exposure to infection could push development into a different pathway from what might otherwise have been. These different pathways, once entered on, would further direct the course of development and might take the individual farther and farther from the developmental outcome that would have occurred without the infection.

Within the last half-century, it has become apparent that a range of factors can change the ways in which genes are expressed in individual development. One of these factors, a biochemical change called methylation, alters matters like the number of repeats of a genetic pattern in the individual genome. The very interesting thing about methylation is that this genetic change sometimes is, and sometimes is not, apparent in an individual’s developmental outcomes. For example, the gene responsible for Fragile X syndrome (a problem characterized by mental retardation and behavior problems) has already begun to change several generations before any developmental problems are apparent. A Fragile X patient’s mother and grandmother already had genetic changes at work, but these had not advanced to the point where development became atypical. (Note, by the way, that when genetic problems of this kind occur, some, like Fragile X, develop only in the maternal line, while others develop only in the father’s and  grandfather’s genomes.)

Fast forward now to 2004, when researchers reported that rat pups whose mothers licked them more (as well as showing more of other maternal behavior) had fewer genetic methylation events than those with less attentive mothers, that this situation persisted into adulthood, and that the less-mothered pups had worse reactions to stress in adulthood. The researchers, Szyf and Meaney, also that by cross-fostering pups (temporarily giving the less-mothered pups to more attentive mothers, and trading those mothers’ original pups to the inattentive mothers) they could actually reverse the differences between the groups, thus showing that the pups’ original genetic make-ups had not caused the differences between groups. As far as I can see, these researchers assumed that all effects had to do with the attentive and inattentive mothers’ behavior; they do not seem to have analyzed the milk of each mother for differences that might influence genetic material and development of the pups.

Very quickly, a rush to apply the rat studies to human beings began. Look, people said, early bad experiences change individuals, and what’s more we can fix them! For example, at, where attentive rat mothers are anthropomorphized as “conscientious”,  Arthur Becker-Weidman uses epigenetic studies to make the following claim:

“One clear implication of this research is that the Attachment-Facilitating Parenting with Attachment-Focused Psychotherapy can be instrumental in demethylating important genes and, therefore, ‘resetting’ the stress response system to be within a more normal range. It is clear that harsh parenting methods, methods that are shaming, blaming, and critical only serve to reinforce negative expectations and the unresponsive stress-response system’s reset mechanism [N.B. I do not claim to understand this last bit; I’m just reporting the news here. J.M.]. Parenting methods that are grounded in a focus on relationships and connection of an emotionally meaningful and joyful nature may reset the stress response system by its [sic] effects.”   

Let’s examine this claim under a couple of strong lights. The first has to do with extrapolation from rats to human beings (or even from a particular strain of rats to other strains of rats). As I pointed out on this blog some years ago, if Harry Harlow had used a different type of monkey, the results of his work, and their capacity to support Bowlby’s attachment theory, might have been quite different ( Generalization from one species to another takes careful work to substantiate it, especially when the species are so different, with much different life spans and times to reach reproductive maturity. Rats take about 30 days from birth to reproductive age, as opposed to 12-14 years for human beings, so how do we decide which part of a rat’s early development is parallel to any part of human development? In addition, the work of rat mothers involves building a nest, licking the young, positioning herself so they can nurse, and retrieving them in response to their squeaks if they manage to get out of the nest. If disturbed by noises or other animals, the rat mother may well eat the babies (and although I suppose this may have happened among humans, even Greek myths usually concentrate on mothers who serve the kids up to their fathers for dinner). I leave it to readers to think about parallels to human infant care, but want to point out that humans typically have one baby at a time and concentrate on that baby’s care, with at least a year ordinarily intervening before a new baby arrives—humans are not caring for a litter of young ones as rats do.

To go on, let’s look at the statement that a kind of intervention can be instrumental in methylating certain genes. This is a rather staggering leap of logic. For one thing, it suggests that  behavioral change through psychotherapy results from change at the genetic level, caused by the therapy. As we have yet to understand any specific relationships between human genes and human behavior, the suggestion that changed genes mean changed behavior, and vice versa, is far from warranted. Unless we are to assume that all learning results from genetic change (which would be absurd), this cannot be a correct connection to make. Even if we were to have evidence that some intervention changed some genetic material, which we do not, it would be necessary to show systematic evidence supporting the claim that any other intervention had the same effect.

In addition, in this particular case of generalization, there seems to be a questionable assumption that human beings can at any point in their development be influenced in their genes and behavior by treatment, in ways parallel to the effects of cross-fostering on rat pups very early in their development. It’s curious, too, that on an Internet site so devoted to the ill effects of adoption on development, the comparison is made to cross-fostering and reversal—these rat pups were reported to do better with “good” mothers rather than to suffer from separation from the birth mother.

 Unfortunately, it is becoming all too common to see claims that because established research evidence supports part of an idea or a practice, it can then be assumed that the whole idea or practice is equally evidence-based.  When this approach is applied to epigenetics, some wild conclusions can be drawn in the course of attempts to translate lab findings into social recommendations (as Juengst et al noted in Trends in Genetics,    
(My thanks to Yulia Massino for suggesting this source.)

The lessons of “blinding with science” are applicable not only to epigenetics, but to a variety of other attempts to bring scientific concepts to bear on what are essentially pseudoscientific ideas and practices. One example is the effort to bring quantum mechanics into explanations of various “energy therapies”. Another is the enormous proliferation of supposedly brain-based educational interventions that emerged from the “split-brain” work of Roger Sperry (for an account of this, see Michael Staub, “The other side of the brain: The politics of split-brain research in the 1970s-1980s”. History of Psychology, 19(4), 259-273).

Moral: Before hurrying to conclusions about application of research findings to the more complicated world outside the lab, we need to ask ourselves—“exactly what does the research have to do with the practical problem we’re worried about?” Often the answer will be “Nothing—yet.” Realizing that can help keep us from treatment scams of which there are so many looking for suckers.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

More Parental Alienation: What Are the Characteristics of Rejected Parents?

Internet sites focused on “parental alienation” (PA) during high-conflict divorces give vivid descriptions of the behavior and moods of children who unreasonably reject and avoid one of the parents, while preferring and seeking the other one. Some such sites also describe the preferred (or “alienating”) parents as suffering from personality disorders like narcissism, which drive them to brainwash children and to make false accusations against the rejected parent. These descriptions are questionable and concerning because in most cases the preferred parent has not been seen by the practitioner who suggests these diagnoses.

There seems to be much less discussion of the characteristics of the rejected parent. Does rejection take place “at random”, so anyone involved in a high-conflict divorce is as likely to be rejected as anyone else in a similar situation? Or are there characteristics and behaviors—other than actual abusive treatment-- that make a parent more likely to be rejected by his or her child? Given that human relationships are ordinarily transactional, or influenced both by characteristics of all members and by time and experience of interaction, it seems most likely that everyone in the conflict contributes something to what happens, whether for good or ill.

Not surprisingly, and quite humanly, rejected parents tend to feel that they have done and said nothing that would make the children reject them. But as it turns out, there have been a few comments on how characteristics of rejected parents may help to drive the process of rejection. These suggestions are not based on careful empirical work with large numbers of cases and so should be considered with some caution, but I think they are worth a look.

Descriptions of characteristics of rejected parents have been given by Barbara Jo Fidler, Nicholas  Bala, and Michael Saini in their 2013 Oxford University Press book Children who resist postseparation parental contact, and were further discussed by Nicholas Bala and Katie Hunter in a 2015 Queen’s University Faculty of Law research paper (“Children resisting contact & parental alienation: Context, challenges, & recent Ontario cases”; 2015-056).

Here are some of the characteristics suggested as more likely to belong to parents rejected by their children in the course of a high-conflict separation and divorce, as described by Bala and Hunter:

·         Harsh, rigid and punitive parenting style
·         Outrage at child's challenge to his/her authority
·          Passivity or withdrawal in face of conflict
·          Immature, self-centered in relation to child
·          Loses temper, angry, demanding, intimidating character traits, but not to level of
abuse (an important point, as a parent may not perceive this “permissible” behavior as problematic—JM)
·          Counter-rejecting behavior (the parent responds to the child’s rejection with coldness and hostility—JM)
·          Lacks empathic connection to child
·         Inept and unempathetic pursuit of child, pushes calls and letters, unannounced or
      embarrassing visits

·          Challenges child's beliefs and/or attitudes and tries to convince them otherwise
·          Dismissive of child's feelings and negative attitudes
·          Induces guilt
·          May use force to reassert parental position (this, of course, may be easier when a court has been persuaded to order treatment including an abrupt custody change, or transport of the child to a treatment facility by hired “transport staff”—JM)
·          Vents rage, blames alienating parent for brainwashing child and takes no

I would add to these points a term that I have not heard used for some years, but which I think describes an important consideration in both high-conflict and other divorces. The term “funneling” has been employed to describe situations where a noncustodial parent  
continues to treat a visiting child just as he or she did when last sharing a home with the child—for example, if the separation occurred when the child was three years old, the parent may continue to read the bedtime stories the child liked then, even if five years have passed, or may continue to come into the bathroom at will even when the child is nearing puberty. These are not abusive behaviors, but certainly demonstrate a lack of empathy and therefore (when combined with other factors) may be part of the picture when the child rejects and avoids the parent.

My point in this post is not to attack or defame rejected parents, but simply to say that because human relationships are largely bidirectional and transactional, it would be surprising if child custody issues did not share those characteristics. Therefore, we could hardly expect rejection of a parent to be due entirely to the character traits and actions of the preferred parent, or even to those of preferred parent and child combined. Neither could we expect genuine changes in relationships to be brought about simply by custody change without serious work to alter the factors the rejected parent brings to the situation.

However, I want to emphasize the fact that none of the descriptions of either preferred parent or rejected parent characteristics are at this point supported by systematic investigation of a large number of cases.

Friday, November 4, 2016

When "Spirituality" Is Confused with Primitive Superstition

In a proceeding presently underway in Fort Collins, Colorado, Leah and Doug Dyer are being tried on charges of child abuse because of the harm done to their daughter by their neglect of her medical needs ( The child, who has a seizure disorder, was found at the age of 7, weighing 37 pounds and unable to walk. With proper care, she has gained weight and can walk but still does not talk normally.

The Dyers are said to have thought that their daughter’s illness might have some spiritual component and had looked into this possibility. They sprinkled salt around her bed and through the house in an attempt at spiritual protection.

 The belief in the protective spiritual properties of salt was not unique to the Dyers. For example, one Internet site states that “if you are dealing with any kind of negative energy, black magic, ghosts, demons or other entities, salt can serve as a mighty spiritual weapon… Worried about entities invading your sleep? Place a little salt at each corner of the bed…Try sprinkling a circle of salt around the bed” ( Another Internet source advises the use of salt to provide protection against demons: “There are very few demonic elements that will venture to cross a line of protection once it has been established. What is it that gives salt these special qualities [?] First is the perfect cubic crystal shape. Second is that in solution salt will always dissociate into a perfect electrolyte. Blessing can be said over salt that turns it into a perfect weapon against evil. It has been demonstrated that proper constructed prayer generate an electric charge equivalent to 50,000 watts of radiant energy. And is capable of radiating that energy at a constant rate for 24 hours” ( These views are especially interesting in their mixture of material and non-material events, somewhat traditional to sacraments of Christianity (though in the modern world these saceamental events are usually considered to be in a metaphorical relationship), and in their neoplatonic appeal to the “perfect shape” as having a spiritual power.

Although few people in the United States consider seizure disorders to have spiritual causes, the Dyers were again not alone in the world in having this belief. Ann Fadiman’s book The spirit catches you and you fall down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures, told the story of a Hmong family, immigrants from Laos, whose beliefs of this nature complicated the treatment of their child’s epilepsy. The Hmong family fortunately found people who could explain the two cultures to each other, but the Dyers, who were described as not social people, had no translator who could work with their belief systems and those of medical providers.

What do these points have to do with the trial? It appears that the defense attorney (doing her best by her clients, as indeed she should) has argued that the jury must give consideration to the Dyers” “spirituality” and its importance in the case. In doing so, I would suggest that she is confusing a world-view shared by an entire culture that considers a spirit world to exist hand-in-hand with the material one, with the ad hoc superstitions of a socially isolated couple. The use of the word “spirit” does not necessarily imply a life guided by spiritual considerations.

In the United States, laws and principles protect religious practices of the kinds that would have been recognizable to the framers of the Constitution. Beliefs and communications of beliefs are all protected, but all practices are not—as we see in the prosecution of polygamous Mormons and the disapproval of female circumcision (but not male, as far as most people are concerned). Animal sacrifices as part of Santeria are not considered acceptable or even seen as part of a religion.  What are the differences between protected and unprotected practices? When is a religious practice seen as a superstition? Just as the Hmong shared and protected a belief system, protected religious practices in the United States are those that are broadly shared and recognized even by those who do not share them. Superstitions are shared by few and unrecognized by many; they may even involve actions forbidden by law.
But since the 1970s, a new term has developed in an effort to bring hitherto unprotected practices under the aegis of religious freedom. This term is “spirituality”, and although it can be used as a protective description of superstition, it can be most properly applied to  beliefs that are deeply embedded in a culture so that neither can exist without the other. Alternatively, it can be used to refer to some set of non-material values that are considered independent of any organized belief system. (A Muslim student of mine once described herself as “spiritual” as she explained why she never went to the mosque, and plenty of nominal Christians take the same position.) Although it’s not completely clear what “spirituality” is—simple superstition, a fully-elaborated belief and value system, or something else—it is clear that people are arguing that it should be protected under the umbrella of religious freedom. With respect to the Dyers, this has meant that the defense claims that their use of “spirit” terms and “spiritual  warfare” methods, and their related reluctance to give their child effective medical care, are somehow deserving of protection as religious practices.

I would not argue that severe punishment of the Dyers would be to anyone’s benefit, but I am quite sure that a bad precedent would be set if the jury were to accept these people’s actions as deserving of protection under the First Amendment.