A Canadian colleague recently sent me an immense document with PowerPoints and summaries of presentations that took place at the conference Children’s Participation in Justice Processes: Finding the Best Ways Forward, sponsored by the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, in Calgary, Alberta, Sept. 15-16, 2017. You can see the PowerPoints of this conference through links at www.findingthebestwaysforward.com/Materials/index.html.
There were some really excellent presentations given at the conference, best of all in my opinion one by the well-known lawyer Nicholas Bala, who gave a brilliant discussion of children’s cognitive development and the ways that a stage of cognitive development could affect participation in judicial proceedings. This is really worth reading for anyone who is concerned with laws and judicial decisions as they work for children’s best interests.
However, the conference included some much less admirable presentations as well, notably one that focused on the idea of parental alienation (PA). As many readers will know, PA is the hypothesized situation in which one of two separated or divorced parents “brainwashes” a child and persuades the child to believe that the other parent is bad, abusive, dangerous, etc. The child who is persuaded in this way then rejects and avoids the parent who has been targeted (to use PA) language and strongly prefers to be with the other, alienating (in PA language) parent. PA advocates like Craig Childress and Dorcy Pruter claim that the child who has been alienated (in PA language) has been made mentally ill in ways that will have long-term effects, and needs to be rescued and treated. PA advocates suggest that this can be accomplished by various treatment programs, most of which have infrastructural names involving paths, roads, and bridges, and all of which focus on removing the child by court order from the preferred parent and placing him or her in the custody of the non-preferred parent.
It would be silly to claim that no preferred parent has ever manipulated the child’s attitudes—this can happen even in an intact marriage, and can be encouraged by grandparents, friends, new romantic partners of the preferred parent. However, as is usual in human affairs, multiple factors work together to produce a child’s rejection of a parent, and how often they include “brainwashing” has never been empirically demonstrated. Neither has it been shown that the child’s attitudes, however negative, are indicative of mental illness.
Let’s look more closely at the idea of mental illness as a facet of the child’s rejection of a parent. PA thinking suggests that the child’s thought processes are distorted and that, no matter what the child’s age, some attachment problem has been created. These ideas have not been validated, but in many ways they are the least of the issues here.
The great difficulty with this view is the claim that the hypothesized mental problems will be exacerbated by giving the child any choices—that the child’s stated wishes are narcissistic wishes that must be dropped in order for mental health to be regained. This idea, that adults must exert complete authority, and that children are damaged by autonomous decision-making right up to the age of 18, is common among alternative therapies. Attachment therapists too claim that children they have diagnosed as having attachment disorders must yield all authority to adults, must obey instantly and cheerfully, and should be given no information about what is going to happen to them. To treat a child as an autonomous individual and to allow the child to express beliefs and feelings is seen as a sure way to worsen any existing problems; this is why attachment therapists insist that conventional child psychotherapies will make children “worse”.
At the conference in Calgary, presentation stood out as representing the PA belief system. They argued against the idea that a child in custody proceedings should be allowed to speak, claiming that this would be detrimental to the child.
The presentation, “The voice of the alienated child”, was the work of Rob Croezen, Melissa Ander, and Alyson Jones. These presenters listed a series of dangers of allowing the child’s voice to be heard:
· Boundary issues
· Being caught in the parental conflict
· Improper empowerment
· Loss of leadership by adults
· Loss of hierarchy
· Loss of stability
· Loss of security
· Doing the job of an adult
· Increased anxiety
· Feeling of responsibility
· Adultified children
· Role confusion
· Heightened anxiety (yes, as well as increased)
· Attachment disruptions
· Lack of resolution
· Black and white thinking
Let’s have a closer look at this list. What do we see here that indicates long-term issues of mental health? Keep in mind that this list is not even about the effects of experiencing PA—it’s about being allowed to contribute to the discussion leading to custody decisions. But are the items on the list unusual? Are they problematic? Are they supported by evidence about what happens either in high-conflict divorces or when children’s voices are heard?
1. 1. Boundary issues certainly occur in some families and may be associated with certain kinds of parent-child relationships, but surely the argument here, if any, would be that if children have boundary issues their preferences may reflect those issues—not that being allowed to speak will cause boundary issues.
2. 2. Being caught in the parental conflict is unpleasant for children and can take up energies and resources they need for their own developmental tasks, but children in high-conflict divorce are already caught in this way. Playing a role in decisions about their own lives would appear to allow them to use the situation for their own developmental purposes, of which a move toward autonomy is one.
“ 3. "Improper empowerment” suggests that children who are heard in court will use the experience to take over decisions they are not capable of making. In fact, working to re-establish family rules and decision-making processes is one of the tasks of divorced families, and some children do “take up the slack” from distracted parents and feel empowered in ways that later need to be corrected. This is a general issue of post-divorce adjustment and not a matter either of PA or of child participation.
4. 4. Loss of leadership by adults often occurs during a post-divorce period of several years, as parents struggle to reorganize their own lives and deal with financial and emotional issues; this is true even for the parent who initiated the divorce. Parents do not lose their leadership because a child is heard, but for other reasons.
5. 5, Loss of hierarchy: how I would love to know what is behind this one! It’s so reminiscent of the German “family constellation” therapist Bert Hellinger, who believes that the breaking of age and gender hierarchy causes emotional disturbance in a family. Hellinger wants children who have been molested by an older family member to apologize to the molester because they have been instruments of breaking the hierarchy. I don’t want to exaggerate the possible connection here, but you don’t get a lot of conventional psychologists troubling themselves about hierarchies in this way.
6. 6. Loss of stability: divorce does this, especially if the child has to move to a new house (cf. custody change with PA claims, by the way) or change schools.
7. 7. Loss of security: divorce also brings about financial loss, disagreements about child support, and the loss of the sense of a back-up adult if one has a problem. We don’t need to look for the child’s voice in court as causing these things.
8. 8. Doing the job of an adult: this is only a concern if we assume along PA lines that only adults can speak about their thoughts and feelings. Conventional therapists generally try to teach children to do those things.
9. 9. Increased anxiety is the lot of any child in a high-conflict divorce and would presumably be reduced by a sense of some autonomous participation.
1 10. Parentification: This will be a problem if the child feels that he or she must “take care of” a parent who is incompetent, no matter whether the child can speak in court. The solution is more likely to be to give the adult guidance toward competence, not to silence the child.
1 11 . Adultified children: same as #s 8 and 10.
1 12.. Role confusion: I think the presenters really mean the same thing as they meant in 8, 10, and 11, rather than the term role confusion as used by Erik Erikson in his discussion of adolescent personality development.
1 13. Heightened anxiety: see #9.
1 14. Attachment disruption: oh, dear. Our presenters do seem to have forgotten the principle of developmentally appropriate practice. Children over age 3 or 4 do not experience overwhelming distress over separation from a familiar caregiver as younger children do. By age 6 or 7, children all over the world are sent to school, even to boarding school, or are sent out to do farm work or other tasks away from their parents. By the time they are at that age, the powerful emotional attachment of infants and toddlers has changed to an internal working model of social relationships in which caregivers play an important but not exclusive role. Even toddlers adjust in a few months to loss of attachment figures and are able to make new attachments—although if they have been through more than a few separations they may need help in this. These sinister references to attachment, with implications of attachment disorders and severe mental health problems, are characteristic of alternative therapies and unconventional beliefs about child development.
1 15. Lack of resolution: this is caused by having a voice in custody decisions, is that the claim? Is it not instead a feature of loss by divorce rather than by death?
1 16. Black-and-white thinking: again we have a problem with developmentally appropriate practice. Young children normally have trouble understanding overlapping categories or multiple factors working together. What is the evidence that continuing to have these characteristics of early thought is more common among children who are allowed to contribute to custody decisions, even if only by having their voices heard? There seems to me to be a problem here in parsing the overlapping categories of children of divorce and children of divorce who either do or do not have their voices heard—a class inclusion problem, in terms of cognitive development.
I think I’ve said enough (or perhaps too much, I don’t know who’s still with me) to show the difficulties inherent in the claims made by those who argue that children’s voices should not be heard in custody proceedings. There is no danger to the children in being heard, and a good deal of danger in being subjected to ill-considered PA thinking and practices.