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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

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.


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