On Jan. 2, 2022, the organization Family Access
Fighting for Children’s Right presented one of a series of webinars related to
the parental alienation belief system. The Jan. 2 webinar was a presentation by
Dr. Steven Miller, the emergency medicine physician, with the following title:
“How Should Alienated Parents and their Attorneys Respond to False and
Misleading Criticisms of Alienation Science?” Readers will note that Miller’s
title did not suggest that he would address accurate criticisms of the parental
alienation belief system, and indeed he did not do so.
I will summarize as well as I can some of the content
of Miller’s talk, but I should note to begin with that he rather flatteringly
called me out by name as a critic of PA concepts and practices. There are quite
a number of other psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and other professionals
who have taken positions similar to mine. Perhaps Miller wanted to do me a
favor by making my opposition more generally known.
Miller’s rather turgid and rambling presentation went
on for two hours and in most points resembled the testimony I have heard him
give in court. The apparent organizing principle of the presentation was to
stress critical thinking errors and fallacious logic that Miller feels PA
opponents have used and misused. Oddly, it appeared that in pointing to various
fallacies used by PA opponents, Miller was falling into the same problematic
paths. I will give some examples of assertions Miller made and when it seems
necessary I will note logical errors.
1. 1. Miller
stated that PA opponents say that there is no such thing as parental
alienation. I have never seen this statement, that PA does not exist, made by
any of the people I know to have discussed this topic. In the thirteen chapters
of Challenging Parental Alienation (Routledge, 2022), not a single
author says that PA does not exist, although all of them express concern about
the overuse and weaponization of this term in family courts. One chapter in
that book discusses at length how to rule out other possible causes of a child’s
rejection of a parent until only PA is left, thus showing that the author
considers PA to be a possibility.
Miller noted in the
webinar the deceptive reasoning involved when one attributes to others
positions that they have never taken. In the course of my decades of study of
alternative psychologies and psychotherapies, I have seen this kind of
attribution used frequently, and it is no surprise to see it used by PA
proponents. Attributing a denial of PA to PA opponents like myself is a clever
ploy because parents and others who are involved with PA allegations are likely
to interpret the statement that someone denies the existence of PA as a hostile
denial of anger and distress surrounding family conflict—this understandably
makes them angry at the person who is said to have denied their troubles.
2. 2. Miller
played the M.D card frequently and implied (at least) that PA is a medical
problem that can be identified only by specialists, who are likely to be
physicians. One of his efforts along this line involved attempting to reason by
analogy from medical concerns to PA and vice-versa. (I will omit the detour
into affirming the consequent he took in this process, because the abuse of
analogies is more obvious.)
I, and other authors,
have noted that identifying alienating behavior on the part of a preferred
parent is regrettably often done by inference rather than direct observation. A
child shows some or all of the “ eight manifestations” of PA, and it is
inferred that the preferred parent has caused these manifestations by
persuading the child to reject the other parent. PA proponents regularly say
they do not do this, but their published work does not describe the methods
that they use to establish that alienating behavior has occurred; I would think
this would be a topic of interest to them, as such would make possible
investigations of cases where a parent did
his or her best to alienate a child, but the child continued to do well
with both parents.
Miller has said, and said
in the webinar, that if this reasoning were followed (that inference should not
be used in this way, I think he means), no medical test would be possible. An
electrocardiogram could not be accepted as a way to identify a heart attack,
for instance, and this test IS accepted, therefore examination of the eight PA
manifestations should also be accepted as a way to identify PA.
However, EKG use and PA
identification from “manifestations” are quite different things:
depends on electrical activity in the heart muscle and elsewhere.
When a heart attack
occurs, the electrical activity is disrupted.
An external measure, the
EKG, evaluates the internal electrical activity and allows symptoms like pain
to be interpreted as resulting from a heart attack with its electrical
disruption, or from some other cause in which electrical functioning remains
Because the mechanism of
heart functioning is known to involve electrical activity, treatments that
alter electrical activity can be put to work to restore good functioning.
However, a child’s rejection
of a parent can occur for many reasons, not solely because a preferred
parent has persuaded the child. Unlike heart electrical activity, rejection of a
parent can depend on multiple factors.
Measures of any of the
possible causes of child rejection are ambiguous and difficult to carry out,
unlike the EKG measure. The “eight manifestations” describe the child’s
behavior, not the reasons for it.
The mechanism by which parental
alienating behavior could cause the child to reject one parent has never been
described; this is true of all examples of persuasion, where only a few
mechanisms (like cognitive dissonance) have been identified.
In the absence of
adequate measures and mechanisms, there is no way to discriminate between
rejection caused in one way and rejection caused in another way except by
observation of parental alienating behavior. There is thus no parallel between
identification of PA on the basis of child behavior and the use of an EKG, the
latter being effective at discriminating between some causes of symptoms and
Because the mechanism of
persuading the child to reject a parent is not understood (and would probably
be different for children of different ages), there is no obvious treatment
method based on a mechanism, and identification of PA is not parallel with use
of an EKG or other medical tests.
3. 3. I
will address one other statement made by Miller in the webinar. This is the
statement that PA is not necessarily refusal of contact, but is rejection of a
normal relationship with a parent without justification.
The definition offered by
PA proponents like Miller, Bernet, Lorandos, etc. has always failed to be
either operationalized or clearly defined, because of the inclusion of
justification as a criterion. Reasons that are or are not “justified” will vary
with child age, culture, personality, even religious beliefs. Unless a specific
list of reasons deemed to be (or not to be) justified is provided, decisions
about justification are clearly subjective (or, to use Miller’s and Gottlib’s
locution, “pattern recognition”).
Now, it appears that
Miller is adding a second ambiguous term, “normal relationship”. Once again,
the age of the child, the culture and other circumstances, individual
differences, and so on, all help to determine a range of “normal”
relationships. Without clear definitions and examples, this addition to the definition
of PA opens the door for identification as PA of anything a parent does not
like—a child’s affection, obedience, gratitude, enthusiasm, affinity of
personality, for instance. I acknowledge freely that some children’s actions
toward a rejected parent are shockingly inappropriate and it is no gift to the
child to allow them to go on, but to include the ill-defined term “normal relationship”
does not help us deal with these real problems. I am afraid that instead of
helping families, speaking vaguely of normal relationships can simply encode parents’
and practitioners’ views about authority and family hierarchy that do not work well
in intact families and have the potential to explode conflicted relationships following
That’s all from me,
folks. Anyone who wants to see what Miller actually had to say is free to buy
the recording from the Family Access website.