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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Looking at the Claimed Symptoms of "Parental Alienation" : Developmentally Appropriate Characteritics?

Proponents of “parental alienation” (PA) have generally not been in a position to know whether, when a child of divorce resists or refuses contact with one parent, the other parent has actually worked to manipulate the child’s attitudes. The posited “alienating” behavior would be hard to observe for anyone outside the household, and even parents who have behaved in that way are likely to deny it if taxed with it.

PA proponents generally point to child behaviors as evidence that the preferred parent must have influenced the child’s attitude toward the other parent. Following Richard Gardner, they state that a list of symptoms indicates that the child has been “alienated” from one parent. Naturally this list is headed by resistance to or refusal of contact with the non-preferred parent—although oddly enough, PA has been claimed in cases where a child does not resist or refuse contact at all.

Gardner listed other symptoms of PA, based on his clinical experience, and as far as I can see no systematic empirical work has been done to show that these symptoms are more common in children who resist or refuse contact than in any other children of similar age. Indeed, PA advocates do not seem to have done any systematic testing of children to indicate that the claimed symptoms are reliably found. This lack of evidence raises the possibility that the child behaviors said to indicate alienation, where they exist, are in fact simply characteristic of children and adolescents at certain stages in their development, especially those wh
o are experiencing stress..

Let’s look at some of the claimed symptoms and see how they compare to developmentally-expectable characteristics of cognition and behavior.

1.      1. PA proponents state that affected children not only resist or refuse contact with a non-preferred parent, but give weak, frivolous rationalizations about their refusal. For example, a child or adolescent may cite the eating habits or other personal characteristics of a parent as a reason to avoid contact. There are a number of explanations for these apparently inadequate reasons for refusal. Some may have to do with other people in the parent’s household or with poor parenting skills on the part of the rejected parent, both currently and in the child’s past experience. In addition, when personal characteristics or behaviors of the adult are referred to, the problem may have to do with the appearance of misophonia, a sensory processing and emotional disorder, in adolescence (see Both school-age children and young adolescents may have a great deal of trouble identifying and communicating factors that lead to refusal of contact, as their cognitive development makes it difficult for them to frame complex communications in ways that are easily understood by others; this would be particularly true when children are confronted by hostile adults bent on denigrating their statements.

2.    2.  PA proponents state that alienation is shown when children and adolescents show a lack of ambivalence or “black and white thinking” about their preferred and non-preferred parents. But this unsubtle view of life is characteristic of children whose thinking is at the concrete operational stage (which may last in some ways until the late teens). Concrete operational thinkers have many cognitive skills but do not think abstractly or create hypotheses that can be tested against reality. Thinking about multiple factors that operate simultaneously is most difficult for them, as is seen when they are asked to solve problems about pendulums or levers; they tend to focus on a single factor and ignore other possibilities. Thus, concrete operational thinkers, of school age or in early adolescence, are not likely to be able to consider multiple characteristics of parents and to compare multiple causes of parental behavior, or to accept that a person can be both bad and good at the same time. Even adults, whose tolerance for ambiguity is much better than that of children, have a strong tendency to categorize people as all good or all bad—in fact, we might say that concepts suggested by PA proponents are a good example of this tendency to demonize one member of a pair of people. Young adolescents, as they begin to develop the formal operational thought that will allow them to consider several factors at the same time, tend to thinking idealistically and are quick to reject any person whose bad qualities seem to outweigh their good ones.

3.    3..   PA proponents state that children who have been “alienated” from one parent display the “independent thinker” phenomenon—that is, they deny that anyone has influenced them and maintain that they have come to their positions entirely on their own. However, it is characteristic of school-age children to be unable to explain how they came to a belief, because their concrete operational patterns of thought prevent them from examining a range of factors that determined their ideas. As adolescents shift their loyalties from parents to peers, they typically deny parental influences on their ideas and are likely to assert their mental independence from any adult (as in “not trusting anyone over thirty”). Children and young adolescents generally have difficulty thinking about why they assume something is true, and like adults may resent the idea that they have been manipulated or persuaded by others.

4.   4.   PA proponents claim that children who resist or refuse contact with a parent are marked as “alienated” because they do not feel guilty about their treatment of that parent. This point is easily explained by comments already made in this post; if a child or adolescent actually believes that a parent is bad enough to reject, he or she will assume that it is the parent who should be feeling guilty. In addition, although even quite young children experience some kinds of empathy with others (and may try to get adults to help a person who seems to be in trouble), human beings of any age tend to empathize best with those who seem like themselves and are in need of protection. To expect a child or adolescent to feel guilt toward or empathize with a parent – to empathize with a person who neither resembles them nor needs help—seems equivalent to parentalizing the child. When guilt and empathy are felt toward a preferred parent, PA proponents speak critically of parentalization, but they are equally concerned when a child does not empathize with or feel guilty toward the non-preferred parent. Looking at this matter developmentally requires us to go beyond cognitive characteristics of childhood and to look at moral development, which has a less predictable sequence than cognition does. Higher degrees of empathy are displayed when individuals are at the level Kohlberg called “conventional morality”, with emphasis on rules associated with group membership and shared relationships. Many people do not achieve this stage until adulthood and even then tend to be limited in their capacity for empathy.

This examination of PA claims and common characteristics of children and adolescents suggests that the PA symptoms described may well indicate nothing more than a child’s age and developmental stage.

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