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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The "American Psychological Association Review"

A colleague recently called my attention to the website This is one of many Internet sites that argue in highly personal terms against “parental alienation” and claim that a former spouse and a judge have interfered with the author’s relationship with his [usually] children. Kenneth Gottfried was told he could not have contact with his children following a psychological evaluation. The two teenage girls had stated that they did not want to see him, a situation that Gottfried attributed to “alienation” on the part of the girls’ mother.

This is a sad and all too common situation, and I would say nothing about it except for the fact that the unfortunate Gottfried has become a megaphone for spreading the questionable views of the “parental alienation” advocate Craig Childress. I think I am right in assuming that Gottfried has not spent his time studying the various aspects of psychology he mentions, but that he has picked up his claims from Childress, either directly or via Internet.

The thrust of Gottfried’s statement is that the American Psychological Association is responsible for “countless” deaths associated with judges’ decisions not to give custody of children to one of their parents.  The deaths he refers to are said to include a case of what he apparently means to call “self-immolation”.  Gottfried claims that he has personally witnessed 30 deaths of separated parents in the last 4 years, but does not provide any evidence for this statement. He also appears to think that such deaths would not occur if APA were to recognize “parental alienation”; he does not say how such recognition would affect courts or parents. It may be that Gottfried confuses the American Psychological Association with the American Psychiatric Association, both confusingly referred to as APA. The latter is responsible for DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and in preparation of the 2013 edition declined to include “parental alienation” as a diagnosis. No actions by the American Psychological Association would determine inclusion of a disorder in DSM.

Gottfried uses a letter written by APA to argue that the organization knows it is contributing to causing deaths. The letter, however, is on the subject of separation of immigrant children from their parents, and refers to suicides in that group. Although abuse of analogies is common in arguments about “parental alienation”, to conflate families where children avoid one parent with parents and children involuntarily separated (and poorly treated)  is surely the achievement of a new rhetorical low.

I am a member of APA (the psychology one) but hold no particular brief for the organization and would like to see quite a few changes in it. However, although I see no way APA can or should make the moves Gottfried proposes, I think I can guess why he thinks what he does. His positions stem from those of Craig Childress. It’s my opinion that these Gottfired charges against APA stem from the events two years ago when Childress and some of his adherents delivered a petition to the APA headquarters in Washington, DC. Childress had made excited announcements on the Internet about how they were going to do this and what APA might do in response. I wasn’t present at the delivery, but what I have gathered is that someone in the office took the petition and said “thank you” and the Childress group then left. That was, not surprisingly, the end of that. But Childress has been muttering about this for two years. He has also been muttering about the events involving his presentation at a conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts group, which culminated in having APA cancel the continuing professional education units that had been planned for presentation attendees. This led to even more fulmination against APA, and more recently against AFCC, with some special personal remarks about the AFCC head Matthew Sullivan.

What do I see on americanpsychologicalass that makes me so sure that Childress is behind this? For one thing, there is the very fact that Childress is referred to. He is barely mentioned in the literature about “parental alienation”, although Jennifer Harman (not Harmon, that’s someone else) in 2018 said she thought there should be some empirical research into his ideas.  Gottfried did not come across Childress by picking up a professional journal article, but by seeing and being drawn into Childress’s and his followers’ large and noisy Internet presence.

I also see Childress in a number of references made by Gottfried. Anyone who has read Childress’s self-published work will recognize the tireless repetition of certain names: Bowlby, Bowen, Minuchin, Madanes--- and then more recently, van der Kolk and Tronick. The connection of specific ideas to Childress’s work is not elaborated  anywhere, and connections are made by jumping rather than step by step. For example, citing Bowlby’s discussion of attachment, Childress arrives quickly at the conclusion that a child who avoids one parent has had his or her attachment system suppressed.

There’s more Childress in this site, but I’ll just point to the lengthy and meaningless discussion of APA ethics guidelines by Gottfried. Childress rather specializes in describing how unethical other professionals are, especially with respect to the use of the best science. Those who disagree on various points with the “parental alienation” approach are said to be  outside the boundaries of their competence and therefore in violation of ethical guidelines.

It would be easy to look at americanpsychologicalass and conclude that it was the work of an individual angry and frustrated man, and of course it is. But there is more to it than that. On that site we see an amplification of the views of a psychologist whose claims about parents and children are recognized as concerning by many professionals but few laypeople. These views are potentially harmful to children and families because they encourage courts to order unnecessary separations and ineffective treatments. Please, readers, if you find yourselves confronted with the Gottfried site or anything like it, understand that there is more here than fury and goofy ideas. These arguments have the power to do harm and need to be countered.  

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