I recently received a document relevant to decisions about a girl who prefers Parent A but has been sent to live with Parent B. She had been ordered to receive treatment for the “parental alienation” by Parent A that is argued to be the reason for her preference for A over B. The girl, whom I will call Sophie, is 14; the parents have been apart and in high conflict since she was 11. Parent B has asked the court’s permission to move Sophie, along with Parent B and B’s romantic partner, to a neighboring state, where they are now living and where Sophie is attending school.
B has asked a proponent of a treatment for parental alienation (let’s refer to him as Mr. P. Pat) to comment on Sophie’s present status and to support the argument that B, the partner, and Sophie should all remain together in the new state, and Parent A should be prohibited from all contact with Sophie. Mr. P. Pat argues that Sophie is doing much better now than she was at age 11, when the parental separation began. She is doing well at her school, studying music, and roller-skating This shows, Mr. P. Pat says, that Sophie has benefited greatly from 1. Separation from Parent A, and 2. Her experience of the Pat method of therapy for parental alienation effects. What’s more, Sophie’s improvement is evidence that the problem was indeed parental alienation. Mr. P. Pat also argues that Sophie must not have contact with Parent A because even the slightest contact will undo all the benefits she has received.
Let’s examine these arguments a bit (it won’t take much). Mr. P. Pat is taking advantage of the tendency most of us have to fall for the argument that post hoc means propter hoc—that if one event follows another, the second one must be caused by the first. For example, if I eat a mango for the first time and I shortly develop a skin rash, post hoc reasoning suggests that the mango caused the rash—maybe I’m allergic, maybe it was contaminated by some agricultural chemical. But, of course, I could have a rash because I’ve contracted rubella, or because I’m allergic to something else I ate in the same meal with the mango, or because I put my arm on a table that had been polished with a furniture polish I’m sensitive to. All those things could have happened before the rash, but post hoc reasoning often chooses just one of the previous events and firmly assigns causation to the chosen possibility.
How does post hoc reasoning apply to Mr. P. Pat’s claims about Sophie? He states that she has received his treatment and that she is doing well (a claim made without any independent evaluation of Sophie, by the way) and that, therefore, the treatment must have caused her to do well (post hoc, ergo propter hoc). Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Sophie is indeed doing well. What alternative hoc factors can we consider to be possible causes of Sophie’s status?
First, we need to think about maturational changes—changes in personality and behavior that normally accompany advances in chronological and developmental age, no matter what experiences the individual is having. The effect of maturation is one that is largely ignored by proponents of fringe beliefs about child development issues, and regrettably is also ignored by laws that classify humans from birth to age 18 as children, without further definition. Between age 11 and age 14, Sophie has passed through some important steps in development. Physically, this would have entailed puberty, with rapid physical growth and changes in appearance as well as reproductive maturation. Cognitively, Sophie would experience advances in executive function and in formal operational thinking, the capacity to think hypothetically and to separate variables from each other. Emotionally, she has moved through a phase of mercurial, “temperamental” responses, including unpredictable crying and anger, to a calmer responsiveness; she has also moved from a period of life in which family relationships are paramount to one in which peer relationships and school events take precedence emotionally. All of these make Sophie a different person than she was at age 11 and make her in many ways easier to deal with than she was a year or two ago.
Other changes have also taken place in Sophie’s life. One is that she and her parents and siblings have moved toward resolving their feelings about the parents’ divorce. To do this, Sophie had to disengage from the parents’ conflict and focus on her own life, a task that would be made much more difficult by insistence on the idea of parental alienation.
In Sophie’s case, her forced separation from Parent A has included separation from a sibling. She now lives alone with B and B’s romantic partner. This change has removed her from all the possible influences of her sibling for good or ill—the sibling may have encouraged or have discouraged Sophie from her positions about A and about B, may have provided comfort when Sophie was distressed about the family situation or may have acted to distress her further, and may or may not have provided a role model for a constructive response to both parents’ wishes.
Sophie has also moved away from a neighborhood and a school where most adults and many classmates were likely to have known about the parental conflict and to have weighed in on one side or the other. She is beginning high school and has much to get used to in a new school setting, distracting her from the family focus she probably had earlier.
This is enough of a laundry list to demonstrate my point that Sophie’s situation is post more than one hoc, yet Mr. P. Pat points to a single factor as the cause of any changes to be seen in Sophie. He has apparently failed to look for evidence for alternative rival hypotheses, either about the initial diagnosis of parental alienation or about the effects of the treatment.
An article by Dr. Madelyn Milchman discusses a better way to handle the task of understanding child or family problems in the context of child custody evaluations. (Milchman, M.S. (2015). The complementary roles of scientific and clinical thinking in child custody evaluations. Journal of Child Custody, 12, 97-128.) Dr. Milchman pointed out that scientific hypotheses are well-formulated only if they are falsifiable – only if it is possible for observable evidence to be used to reject the hypothesis. A hypothesis that appears to be supported by any possible observation is one that cannot be rejected and therefore is not useful for understanding events. In clinical work like child custody evaluation, practitioners are not doing scientific hypothesis testing in the usual sense, but they need to avoid their own biases and presumptions by testing their own preferred hypotheses and possible conclusions about a family. They do this by looking for consistency of evidence and pursuing issues of inconsistencies, and they also do it by formulating alternative hypotheses to see whether the evidence supports one or more alternatives better than it supports their preferred hypothesis.