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:
Heart functioning 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 normal.
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 others.
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 divorce.
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.