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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Thursday, October 12, 2023

What's the context for "alienating behaviors"? (Baselines and all that)


It would seem quite likely that some parents do sometimes do or say things that can be considered "alienating behaviors”—actions that might make children tend to dislike or avoid the co-parent. Amy Baker, William Bernet, and others have discussed lists of such behaviors, which can range from a simple eyeroll to a deliberate statement that “your mother is an evil woman and does not love you”. Some authors, like Bill Eddy, have even suggested that “alienating behaviors” can be unconscious on the part of the parent who performs them and can have impacts (on the brain, no less) even though a child does not consciously notice them. The certainty with which some authors write about “alienating behaviors” has led to the belief that these actions are readily observed and that it is known that they are damaging to children—the natural conclusion being that children must be separated from “alienating” parents.

It's not all so simple, though, even if we accept for the sake of argument the claim that children are harmed by a parent’s “alienating behaviors”. There are so many things still unknown about these actions. What is the context in which they occur—what are the associated events that we must understand before any conclusions can be drawn about these lists of behaviors? What standards of comparison apply here? 

The situation is rather like the one in which people ask about the effectiveness of a vaccine. The number of people who get sick or die (from any cause) after being vaccinated is only one small piece of information. People do, of course, get sick and die for a lot of reasons. We need to know how often people get sick and die if unvaccinated, and compare that frequency to the frequency after vaccination. (Knowing this gives us a baseline to which we can compare the effects of the vaccine.) If the numbers are the same—or if the vaccinated people do worse—we may have to conclude that the vaccination is ineffective or even harmful. In addition, our conclusion may be different if the types of illness are different in the two groups, or if we see that people of different ages have different outcomes. And, we especially need to know whether different kinds of people got the vaccination than went without. All of these points form the context within which we decide whether a vaccine is helpful or not.

What, then, is the context within which we need to look at “alienating behaviors”?  It’s possible to make a list of possible context items—but it’s critical to realize that we do not in fact know anything about the frequency of any of the events we can consider as “alienating behaviors”, or the contexts in which they occur, so we presently cannot know whether it's in any way useful to use about such behaviors in decision-making. 

1.      Baseline measures and standards of comparison 

How often do functional, happily-married parents display actions that could be considered “alienating behaviors”? How often does an annoyed mother or father say, to or in the presence of children, “your Dad (or Mom) is late again”, or “your Dad (or Mom) just can’t manage money”, or “your Dad (or Mom) chose this movie and now changed their mind”, or “you better go and wake your Dad (or Mom) because they are supposed to take you to soccer today”. How often do these happily married parents perform eyerolls or other gestures to express displeasure at their partner? (For comparison, how many husbands and wives, asked if they ever considered divorce, reply, “never, but often homicide”?) Nobody knows!

These questions are important because (if answered) they would establish a baseline or standard of comparison that would provide the context for knowing whether a divorcing parent was indeed displaying an unusual number of “alienating behaviors”, or was behaving in much the same way as any married parent.

2.      Looking at frequencies of types of behaviors that could include “alienating behaviors”

“Alienating behaviors” generally involve negative statements or actions directed by one divorcing parent toward the other. A more general form of this type of behavior could include negative statements or actions directed toward various other people, not just the co-parent. If a mother has many negative things to say about her own mother, her sister and brother, neighbors, and her children themselves, should her negative remarks about her children’s father be considered to be “alienating behaviors”? In this context of negative remarks, it seems unlikely that negative remarks about the father should carry the same weight that they would in a case where most of the mother’s other statements were positive.

Some people who have many negative things to say will also make many positive statements. A mother or father could be highly reactive and have a lot to say about everyone they meet, and speak freely to the children about their opinions. If a father, for example, both praises the neighbor for his nice yard and complains vociferously that the man parks in an inconvenient place, this is a different matter than saying only negative things. Yet a practice of counting or listing “alienating behaviors” would ignore context and give the two sets of negative statements equal weight.

3.      Cultural issues

Both negative and positive responses to other people are to some extent determined by cultural standards. Some groups deliberately say negative things about beloved people so as not to attract bad luck. Others believe that “Praise to the face is open disgrace”. Some make a game of mutual insults. Children acculturated in any of those groups would probably respond differently to “alienating behaviors” than others—and they might well be more accustomed to observing “alienating behaviors”. Little as is known about “alienating behaviors” in any case, but even less is known outside the middle-class Anglo cultural context. Establishing a baseline or standard of comparison is thus especially difficult for families where one or both parents are minorities or immigrants or members of small, culturally unique groups.


Can unanswered questions about any of these “alienating behaviors” issues be answered, in the future? This might be possible with a great deal of hard work. However, the work would have to involve actual observation of behavior. It is not sufficient to infer that there must have been “alienating behaviors” just because a child is avoiding one parent. As of right now: if there are no established baselines or standards of comparison, it is not possible to argue credibly that a parent’s actions are “alienating”, whether or not they match items on the behavior list presented by Baker, Bernet, and others..



Friday, August 4, 2023

Parental Alienation, The Tower of Psychobabble, and the ":Straw Woman"



Karen Woodall, a UK proponent of the parental alienation (PA) construct, has outdone herself in her 29/7/23 blog post ( She presents an attack on what she believes feminism to be, as if it were a statement relevant to the evidence about PA. Feminism (as defined by Woodall) is criticized, and via the usual PA method of abuse of analogies, Woodall concludes that she has given a powerful argument in support of the PA belief system. Has she managed this? Well, let’s look at some details.

First, let’s examine Woodall’s critical method. It’s a familiar one—claiming that an opponent’s views are not only wrong but distorted by their own emotional aberrations, which are easily identified and named, and which prove that the opponent’s argument is dead wrong. Anyone who has seen first-year university students at play will recognize this technique. Having learned a list of terms describing psychopathology, students trot these out in all disagreements and consider them to be quite telling tactics that successfully make opponents furiously annoyed. The fact that the terms also serve to darken counsel is ignored, as actual constructive discussion is not the goal. The PSYCH 101 method is also common among proponents of controversial experimental treatments; I saw this years ago during the behind-the-scenes fight about Holding Therapy, when anyone who opposed the use of this dangerous treatment was instantly said to be suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder.

But Woodall does not seem to understand that using this diagnosis-as-evidence approach just makes more competent opponents roll their eyes with boredom and vicarious embarrassment. She seriously and apparently shamelessly points to her antagonists in the PA discussion as showing “denial”, “splitting”, “primitive defenses”—as if these statements, even if true, had anything to do with evidence for or against PA. By using this approach, of course, she is ignoring the requirement that practitioners of psychotherapy have some contact with people before they offer a diagnosis. But beyond that, she ignores the idea that the accuracy of a statement should be assessed by observation and measurements of events, not by the characteristics of the speaker. The reasoning problem Woodall displays here is ad hominem—or ad feminam – argument; the stress is on irrelevant material about the opponent that has no purpose in serious discussion other than to irk the opponent.

For a second issue, let’s have a look at Woodall’s attempt to attack feminism, or what she apparently thinks feminism is. It’s perfectly true that feminism is an ideology—that is, it’s a statement of values that does not necessarily include any description of the ways in which those values should be applied. It’s my impression that Woodall does not understand the values of feminism. Feminism simply states that girls and women are as much human beings as boys and men are, and that all human beings deserve equal dignity and respect from society. Woodall’s claim that feminism “splits” humans into good women and bad men is simply untrue.  Woodall, I think, has feminist values confused with a matriarchalist approach in which women’s needs and wishes dominate those of all other people. This is parallel, of course, to a patriarchalist approach, in which men’s wishes have priority over those of women, girls, and even boys. It’s very easy for people with an authoritarian bent to mistake the values of feminism for those of matriarchalism, as authoritarian thinking always assumes that someone must be owner and someone else be slave.

But let’s suppose that Woodall could in some way demonstrate that feminist values are all wrong. What would be the conclusion to draw from that?   Woodall’s blog post seems to suggest that there is some connection between the facts about feminism and the facts about PA—but there isn’t. Woodall is setting up feminism as a “straw woman”. She seems to believe that if she can make readers think badly of feminism, they will also think that she has proved bad things about opposition to PA ideas.

Now, there’s a lot more that needs to be said about Woodall’s arguments. Painful as it is, we need to have a look at the Tower of Psychobabble she has constructed in this blog post and elsewhere. An interesting place to start is with her citation of Melanie Klein. Klein, a British psychoanalyst of the 1940s (give or take), was deeply committed to the idea that observation of children’s behavior was of no use to efforts to understand emotional development; instead, the appropriate technique was to consider the fantasy operations of the infant psyche as they could be thought of by analytically-trained adults. Such thinking yielded the idea that the mother’s breast could be thought by infants to be either completely good or completely bad, in a process described as splitting which could occur later in development as well. Klein and her followers were strongly opposed to the thinking of John Bowlby, who used observations of child behavior to develop the concept of attachment and a plethora of empirical research on early emotional development. Citing Klein allows Woodall to name a famous historical name but in fact Kleinian ideas have not received any empirical support that connects them with PA. (The Bernet work that appeals to “splitting” as an explanation is highly questionable.)

Interestingly, Woodall drags attachment into her discussion, as well as Kleinian concepts. She does this by citing the egregious Craig Childress and his self-published claims about the role of attachment in PA. Childress, like many who have incomplete mastery of attachment theory, believes that the “attachment system” is easily manipulated and that a child far past toddler age can have a switch flipped to make them feel attachment to a parent they have been avoiding. The flipping is done by exposing the child to a treatment called High Road to Reunification, as carried out by the high-school graduate Dorcy Pruter. This treatment has never been tested and is in fact an experimental treatment (as defined by Kaminsky and Clausen in 2017); it has apparently often included transportation of children to the venue by youth transport service workers. Childress nevertheless has claimed 100% success of the treatment—a most unlikely outcome. (Woodall seems unaware of the downside of citing Childress and may not know that he has been disciplined by two state psychology boards.) In her blog post, Woodall shows her commitment to the view that PA is an attachment issue by her reference to “attachment healing” as facilitated by the treatment she uses.

There is much more to say about statements and implications in this blog post. One is that Woodall assumes that “splitting” can be and has been measured, so that she feels safe in saying that children in PA cases show this tendency. Another is that Woodall suggests that if there were “splitting”, it would have to be caused by the influence of the preferred parent rather than by any of a myriad other factors in divorcing families. Woodall also implies that any suggestion that fathers commit more domestic violence than mothers is based on “splitting” the parents into good women and bad men, whereas in reality statistics show that men are more inclined to DV than women are, though no one has claimed that women never display violence; not all population differences can be attributed to “splitting” even by proponents of this psychological construct. Finally, Woodall suggests, without a clear statement, that a parent who is alleged to have alienated a child is in fact an abuser from whom the child must be removed and protected—a proof by assertion borrowed from the U.S. PA proponent Jennifer Harman.

To sum up this too-lengthy critique of Woodall’s thinking, then: an ignorant attack on feminism, however it is bolstered by borrowings from psychoanalytic thought and attachment theory, does not constitute evidence that supports the PA belief system. If Woodall or other PA advocates want to show that their identification of PA is accurate or their treatments safe and effective, they need to do this the old-fashioned way, by empirical outcome research.