Why Right to Love Doesn’t Use the Term “Parental Alienation”

There is a factor in some intact families that causes harm, can lead to family breakdown and post-separation abuse. That factor is the existence of a parent with a severely maladaptive attachment strategy. This includes parents with narcissistic/borderline personality disorder. Only a person who has significant difficulty with information processing, with reduced ability to mentalise for their child’s needs, could create the conditions rising to the level of severe abuse that would result in a child emotionally cutting off one of their parents.

Some people use the term “Parental alienation” to refer to this type of abuse, but this is not a term that Right to Love supports. Here is why:

  1. It’s blocking solution.
  2. It doesn’t describe the severity of what is happening.
  3. It’s not child focused.
  4. The public doesn’t know what it means.
  5. “Parental alienation” has been rejected by multiple organisations.
  6. It will never be accepted by policy makers.
  7. It wastes time and resources children and parents do not have.
  8. The “parental alienation” model may have led to suggestion it is “justified” to reject a “good enough” parent.

1. It’s blocking solution.

I’ll circle back to this one last.

2. It doesn’t describe the severity of what is happening.

What is happening in private law family cases is child psychological abuse and intimate partner violence, using the child as a weapon.

People adapt to danger throughout their lives. Children who are raised in environments that lack adequate protection or care are likely to develop an insecure attachment style. This impacts on their behaviour and future outcomes. At the heart of all insecurely attached people is a fear of abandonment.

The end of a relationship often draws abandonment wounds and insecure behaviour. A parent with a severely maladaptive attachment strategy is likely to:

  • seek to triangulate their child into parental conflict.
  • employ psychological control.
  • use professionals to continue their abuse of their ex.

Child psychological abuse is by-product of the process to achieve their main goal, to patch their abandonment wound and exact revenge on their ex.

3. It’s not child focused.

When a “good enough” parent is removed from a child’s life that has devastating outcomes for that parent but the term “parental alienation” comes nowhere close to describing the psychological abuse the child will suffer or the damage it will have on their emotional and psychological development as a result of losing that parent.

4. The public doesn’t know what it means.

Anyone who has been on marches or in front of courts holding signs that say “parental alienation”, started petitions or spoken to the public will tell you that people have difficulty understanding it or pronouncing it. You have to explain what you mean but as soon as you say “it’s when a child is psychologically controlled to reject a parent after parents separate” BOOM! petition signatures, understanding and self-identification as people declare “I know someone who is doing that to their ex”, “It happened to me”, “It happened to my family member”.  The public understands child psychological abuse, they understand a child being used as a weapon to reject a parent, and they know it happens often.

5. “Parental alienation” has been rejected by multiple organisations.

It is not a term that has been accepted by psychology or other organisations that have an interest in mental health.

In 2008, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a statement on “parental alienation syndrome” advising that ‘An APA 1996 Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family noted the lack of data to support so-called “parental alienation syndrome”, and raised concern about the term’s use. However, we have no official position on the purported syndrome.’

The Worldwide Health Organisation (WHO) removed the searchable term “parental alienation” from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) version 11 after pressure was applied by the Domestic Abuse lobby. It was removed as a term because it was ‘not considered a health care term’.

In 2022, the British Psychological Society has said Parental alienation is not defined in law, nor is it considered a psychological condition. Sometimes a parent engages in behaviours which are harmful to a child – precipitating the fracturing of that child’s relationship with a good enough parent. When enacted consciously, these behaviours can be best understood as a form of post-separation coercive control intended to punish, intimidate, humiliate or harm a former partner by depriving them of a relationship with their child.’

In 2023 the UK Association of Clinical Psychologists (ACP) worked with the Domestic Abuse lobby to seek the removal of experts who use the term “parental alienation” from working in family courts. Their position is that ‘Much like an allegation of domestic abuse; the decision about whether or not a parent has alienated a child is a question of fact for the Court to resolve and not a diagnosis that can or should be offered by a psychologist. For these purposes, the ACP-UK wishes to emphasise that “parental alienation” is not a syndrome capable of being diagnosed, but a process of manipulation of children perpetrated by one parent against the other through, what are termed as, “alienating behaviours”. It is, fundamentally, a question of fact.’

The ICD and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) are usually closely aligned. “Parental alienation” has not yet been accepted by the DSM and Right to Love UK suggest is unlikely to be on the basis of the above.

6. It will never be accepted by policy makers.

Several years ago “parental alienation” groups met with policy makers in London who suggested the use of the term “parental alienation” would be problematic for Whitehall to accept. Did the “parental alienation” groups listen? No.

Since then pressure has been applied by women’s rights activists in the Domestic Abuse lobby at all levels of government and organisations such as the United Nations, WHO, BPS and ACP. The Domestic Abuse lobby, with a focus on protecting women and girls, tell policy makers that the term is used by abusive men to continue the abuse of good mums. The truth is, people who have out of necessity, developed severely maladaptive attachment strategies, lie. Further, they believe their own lies (delusions). The mistake is the suggestion that only men can develop a severely maladaptive attachment strategy. In addition, it is possible albeit rarer, for both parents to have a severely maladaptive attachment strategy.

Whenever someone says “parental alienation” someone else shouts “concept created by paedophile sympathiser” – Boom! all conversation stops. As a policy maker are you going to sign up to anything that is associated/gives the impression that you support paedophiles? Not a chance. People stop listening when those words are uttered. You can try to explain it’s a distortion but it’s too late, the suggestion is in the listener’s brain.

Policy makers, the judiciary, magistrates and social workers need support to understand psychology and what solutions are there for families who are struggling. This needs to come from psychologists who understand attachment, personality disorders, trauma, family systems and the interventions that may help parents recover from the trauma they have experienced to improve outcomes for children.

7. It wastes time and resources children and parents do not have.

Arguing about if “parental alienation” exists, sinking more time and money into research that nobody will listen to, training more experts who can’t be registered is reducing the time and resources we could spend getting the people who should understand family dysfunction and the interventions required to help deliver solutions that already exist.

The clock ticks for abused children and parents when the answer already exists in psychology and it is not utilised.

8. The “parental alienation” model may have led to suggestion it is “justified” to reject a “good enough” parent.

 “Good enough” parenting does not require perfect parenting and nor is it the same thing as severely abusive parenting. The only reason to separate a child’s attachment bond with a parent is severe abuse. That is abuse that is “clinically significant” where it exceeds diagnostic thresholds thus separating it as notable from subthreshold problems.

The following are examples of parenting that do not meet “clinically significant” levels of abuse and many parents engage in these behaviours in both intact and separated families:

  • Removing privileges as consequences for a child’s actions.
  • Shouting or swearing in front of or at a child on rare occasions.
  • Smacking a child on the bum or hand not hard enough to leave a bruise or mark on rare occasions. A yougov poll found that smacking is still common with findings that ‘62% of parents have physically punished their children.’ N.B. Smacking is currently banned in Scotland (2020) and in Wales (2023).
  • Feeding a child unhealthy foods occasionally or feeding them later than their scheduled time.
  • Letting them stay up a little bit past bed time.

These may not necessarily be healthy behaviours and they may require intervention, but there is a significant difference between such behaviours and “clinically significant” abuse that would warrant severance of a child’s attachment bond with a “good enough” parent.

Dr Craig Childress maintains that an emotional cutoff or ‘Detachment behaviour can only be produced by the severely problematic parenting of incest, chronic exposure to severely-hostile aggressive parenting, chronic exposure to severe parental incapacity or neglect, or a role-reversal relationship with a pathological parent that is inducing the artificial suppression of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward the other parent in order to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the allied parent.’ (Childress 2015, p. 296). Subthreshold parenting is not enough to lead to a child rejecting a parent. If it were, most children would be rejecting most parents, even in intact families.

There appears to be a drive within family courts, policy making and social work to ensure only perfect parents retain attachment bonds with their children. By suggesting that a child’s rejection is “justified” it has opened up the door for vested interests to claim all behaviours meet the “clinically significant” threshold.

1. It’s blocking solution.

The above demonstrates how use of the term “parental alienation” is blocking solution. When you use established psychological constructs it allows us to draw from all of psychology based knowledge related to family dynamics and treatment options, which professionals working with our families should know. Until we properly assess families and develop treatment plans that can be monitored we are not solving anything sufficiently for parents, children or wider society.

It may not be palatable, but according to psychology, even in families where severe abuse exists, intervention is required if you really want to improve outcomes for children. Dr Patricia Crittenden, a world leading expert in attachment, makes clear ‘Helping troubled parents to raise their children adequately is of crucial importance for parents, their children, and society at large. Distressed parents have themselves often been endangered and, as a consequence, sometimes endanger their children either through maltreatment or through the effects of parental psychiatric disorder.’ (Crittenden 2017, p. i).

Salvador Minuchin maintained that ‘…those who commit violent acts are responsible and accountable for their behavior, and certainly there are cases of brutal violence where steps must be taken to punish the perpetrator and protect the victim.’ But he also provides an example where family therapy can successfully help couples where domestic violence is a factor, that ‘When family therapists begin to analyze such destructive patterns of interaction, part of what we do is to disentangle individuals from their automatic yoked reactions. We help them discover their individuality, their power, and their responsibility. It’s paradoxical. By helping people understand their connections, we empower them to take responsibility for their choices and change.’ (Minuchin and Nichols 1998, p. 66).

“Clinically significant”/severe abuse is heinous and requires a protection response. However, from an attachment perspective, psychology suggests that parents should be given the opportunity to work on their past trauma, learn new schema’s to become better parents and help improve outcomes for children. This is certainly the case in public law where severely abusive parents are given opportunity to change. In private law cases there is no such intervention, not even for “good enough”/subthreshold parents. Psychology opens up the interventions that are possible given the risks posed to the child, whether a parent chooses to accept such intervention is another matter.

A final point, as I’m sure that many will say “It doesn’t matter what we call it” those with vested interests will reject the idea. I recognise that even if we use established terminology there is no guarantee that people won’t claim child psychological abuse or intimate partner violence using the child as a weapon maliciously or in error. But at least we will be speaking the language Clinical Psychologists, attachment specialists, personality disorder specialists, trauma specialists and family systems specialists understand. We can save time and utilise the wealth of support families need from mental health and can challenge why it’s not being provided.

Book References

Childress, C. A. 2015, Foundations. Oaksong Press. Clairemont, California.

Crittenden, Patricia M., 2017, Raising Parents. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Minuchin, Salvador; Nichols, Michael P. 1998, Family Healing: Strategies for Hope and Understanding. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.