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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Parental Alienation Treatments: The Experiences from the Children's Perspectives

When children and adolescents are placed in psychological treatment outside their homes—even treatments that last only a few days—they are sometimes held incommunicado by their therapists and staff members. Not only are they kept without phones or money, but they are told that if they do not cooperate they will be sent to wilderness camps or residential treatment centers where they will not be able to reach anyone they know. This can happen in many forms of treatment, but it seems to be especially characteristic of programs that purport to treat “parental alienation”, in which a child of divorced parents rejects contact with one of the parents.

Under the heading “When threats substitute for therapy”, I wrote the following description of a parental alienation treatment on this blog in September 2016. I’m repeating this right now because “Polly” and two other young people have now told their stories on a television program. I’ll give the link to that program later in this post.

“I recently received a long email from a young woman I’ll call Polly. She is 17 years old, has finished high school, and recently went to court to become legally emancipated. But her emancipation petition was not Polly’s first experience with the courts. Her parents, who are divorced, have become locked into an accusation of “parental alienation”—the idea that Polly and her sister, who preferred to live with their father and avoid their mother’s household and her boyfriend, must have this preference because their father had “brainwashed” them into believing bad things about the mother. (Proof of this claim was that the girls insisted that it was their own decision!)

Polly’s mother contacted a California therapist whose psychology license had been revoked but who said he could practice a “psychoeducational” method called Family Bridges. As is the case for many proprietary treatments, it is not easy to find a description of Family Bridges. However, Polly has described what happened to her and to her younger sister when a judge ordered the girls to travel from their home state to California and to participate in Family Bridges. 

According to Polly’s report, when the girls tried to refuse, they were taken away from the courthouse by employees of a “youth transport service”. (These “services” and the little regulation they undergo were discussed by Ira Robbins at The transporters responded to Polly’s crying and lying down on the ground by telling her that her father would go to jail if she didn’t go, and hinting that she herself would be confined in a residential treatment center. The two girls were taken to a town in California, where they were met by their mother, the mother’s boyfriend, and several psychologists, who met them in a hotel room and apparently do not have an office. The plan was to provide the girls with treatment that would convince them that their father had made them think that their mother was abusive.

The treatment, or “psychoeducation”, consisted of watching and discussing a number of video presentations. These included material about visual illusions, about how people may express opinions that are not really their own because of social pressures, and about the well-known study by Milgram in which participants who believed they were giving other people serious electric shocks often continued to do so when ordered by an authoritative experimenter. The implications of these presentations were apparently that the girls should understand that opinions they thought were their own had actually been created in their minds by their father—a plan with its own logic, perhaps, but not one based on any evidence that deeply emotional beliefs can easily be changed, nor indeed on any evidence that they had been influenced in their opinions by the father.

At almost 18, Polly was almost four years past the age when adolescents are normally given the chance for informed consent to medical or other therapeutic procedures. Instead, threats were used to force her cooperation, and her concerns and opinions were ignored. The threats came into the picture when Polly continued to be resistant and to speak rejectingly to her mother in spite of this “treatment”. According to Polly, one of the psychologists told her, “If you continue that behavior, you will be sent somewhere else. You seem like you need more help than we can give you”—superficially an offer of help for a vulnerable person, but in essence a threat of further disruption to her life. Arrest was threatened if she did not mind her mother, and for several days both girls were told that if they did not cooperate they would go to a treatment facility for juvenile offenders or to wilderness therapy--  these both being situations where teenagers are held incommunicado, have no opportunity to report abuse, and live in austere, even dangerous conditions. Back at the mother’s house, too, incarceration in a residential treatment center was the threat used to obtain obedience.

If Polly had not succeeded in her emancipation petition, or if she had been much younger, no doubt her behavior would have continued to be manipulated by threats--  and perhaps some of the threats would even have been acted upon. What if her behavior had changed in response to those threats? Would that have indicated that the “treatment” was effective—or simply that people respond at least temporarily to sufficiently serious threats?

One other question: when people are trained to do interventions that in practice include threats, are they trained in effective threatening?”

Now, in November, 2018, “Polly”--  real name Arianna—has joined with two other young people who have experienced Family Bridges to describe their feelings in the aftermath of the program, in the following Bay Area television interview:

Journal articles by Richard Warshak,  a major advocate for Family Bridges, fail to note the concerns raised by Arianna, Sam, and Leo, or to discuss how the use of youth transport service workers can alter the children’s experiences. Even a 2018 article by Warshak in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage ignores these points, although many psychologists today are voicing serious concerns about adverse events associated with some psychological treatments and the need to report these as part of any research program.

Family courts need to be aware of the information provided by the reports of young adults about Family Bridges and other “parental alienation” treatments and to take these into account as seriously as they take the claims of program proponents. In addition, judges--  and the public in general—should be alert to the rhetorical device employed by Linda Gottlieb in her contribution to the television interview, when she abuses analogies to create the argument that parental alienation can be equated with child sexual abuse.

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