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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..



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