Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Exporting Pseudoscience: Attachment Therapy Comes to Russia

Communications and interactions between the United States and Russia are marked by suspicions and sanctions these days. Some commodities that used to be readily available in Russia are no longer imported from the West.

Regrettably, sanctions have not prohibited the export to Russia from the United States of various pseudoscientific ideas about psychology and child development. In particular, we are seeing the spread in Russia of the theories and practices of “attachment therapists” and their helpers who subscribe to the use of “Nancy Thomas parenting” with vulnerable children.

Some readers will already know exactly what I am talking about, but for those who do not, I’ll supply some brief definitions. “Attachment therapy”, sometimes known as “holding therapy”, is an implausible, non-evidence-based treatment claimed by its proponents to be effective for certain childhood mental health problems. Advocates of “attachment therapy” (AT) also claim that their principles are derived from the work of John Bowlby, the originator of attachment theory, a framework for understanding the feelings and behavior of young children with respect to familiar and unfamiliar adults. As I have pointed out in other posts on this blog and in various print publications, the beliefs about attachment employed by AT proponents share almost nothing with Bowlby’s theory, but are instead essentially retrofitted to provide a rationale for AT practices such as restraining children physically, shouting at and intimidating them.

Two other points to define here: AT proponents describe adopted and foster children as suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder, a real though rare psychiatric syndrome described in DSM-5 and ICD. However, the alarming symptoms they list, including eventual serial killing, have nothing to do with the symptoms of RAD. They form instead a pattern that I have referred to as faux-RAD , resulting in a counterfeit disorder to be treated with a counterfeit therapy. Finally—and to my mind perhaps most importantly—AT advocates claim that their restraint treatments need to be accompanied by adjuvant methods sometimes referred to as “Nancy Thomas parenting”, created and taught by one Nancy Thomas, a self-identified instructor of foster parents, who recommends limiting the amount and variety of a child’s diet, withholding information as well as food from the child, requiring the child to ask permission for “privileges” like a drink of water or use if the toilet, and so on. These methods, joined with rocking the child like a baby and hand-feeding him caramels (yes, really, but I don’t want to take time to explain her reasoning right now) are said by Thomas and her followers to correct attachment problems that adopted and foster children may have experienced, and as a result to render the children docile, grateful, and affectionate. (The actual results of this kind of  treatment in one case may be seen at http://www.wbay.com/cotent/news/Wrightstown-couple-accused-of-starving-adopted-son-mentally-abusing-him-433665943.html --- and this case is not an outlier.)

AT and “Nancy Thomas parenting” (NTP) had their beginnings in the United States, and they have always seemed to me to have a peculiarly American, pioneer spirit, rough frontier justice, snake-oil salesman flavor to them—like something out of Mark Twain. Other countries have their own ways of abusing children (as witness the old German “black pedagogy”), but AT and NTP seem to be genuinely “made in America”. Our British cousins have picked AT up a bit, but on the whole their [former] EU membership made them somewhat wary about legal concerns related to maltreatment.

Now, however, we see Russia picking up AT and NTP with apparent great enthusiasm. For some years. American advocates of authoritarian child treatments have flirted with Russia, occasionally being invited to speak, and occasionally being prevented from speaking. In the last few years, an influx of AT proponents and AT ideas has penetrated Russia—in spite of the very clear fact that Russian adoptees who were harmed in the United States, leading to the ban on foreign adoptions, were in many cases harmed by AT and NTP practices! This connection appears to be invisible to groups of Russians who have hurried to encourage adoption of large groups of children from orphanages and have sustained the belief that they can “fix” these children by following AT and NTP precepts.

What exactly has happened in Russia? I have been receiving a series of descriptive comments from Mihail Able (see comments at childmyths.blogspot,com/2017/07/the-russian-adoption-ban-magnitsky-act.html; scroll down to the comments section, and please understand that Mihail is doing this with Google Translate). Mihail discusses specific families’ problems resulting from their acceptance of AT and NTP principles and practices.

In addition, my friend and esteemed colleague Yulia Massino has been following with distaste news of tours in which Nancy Thomas herself has come to instruct the Russians how they should deal with adopted and foster children. She has made her usual claims of “curing” 87% of children who have come to her as crazed future killers. (For some reason, the numbers 80%, 85%, 87%  have great power in AT circles, although of course there have never been systematic studies either of the children’s initial conditions or of the outcomes of NTP or similar treatments --  much less any randomized trials, and much less any detailed publications.) Interestingly, Thomas describes this trip as a “missionary” trip without mentioning the country visited (http://www.facebook.com/ntparenting/posts/1322659427848500).

Following Thomas, there has recently been an exporting trip by staff of the Attachment Institute of New England, an organization that has for many years pushed AT principles and practices. Yulia Massino wrote about this trip on her own blog, http://yuliamass.livejournal.com/232733.html   and http://yuliamass.livejournal.com/235689.html    (in Russian; use Google translate to read). She pointed out the activities of the two AT visitors, Ken Frohock and Megan “Peg” Kirby, who raised money from sympathizers for their trip and now describe it on the AINE Facebook page and announce lectures at their website http://www.attachmentnewengland.com.

A 2007 press release from AINE (www.attachmentnewengland.com/press.html ) referred to their therapy as utilizing parental eye contact and parental holding of children. The same press release mentioned a presentation by Nancy Thomas and referred to her training with Foster Cline, probably the best-known proponent of intrusive, authoritarian treatments targeting adopted and foster children. AINE has never recanted publicly from these positions; they have in the last few years picked up the most recent terms having to do with trauma, but have not stated any changes in their treatment methods. Although I do not know exactly what they said or did on their trip to Russia, if they were horses I would bet that their track record of AT and NTP involvement would be the best predictor of their performance there.

It seems that a fruitful new market has opened in Russia for the export of pseudoscience manufactured in the U.S. Interestingly, Yulia Massino has told me that the concept of emotional attachment, which “everybody knows” (not always correctly) in the U.S. and U.K., has not been discussed much in Russia. This may leave many Russians open to the impression that attachment, and therefore AT, is a brand new discovery of ingenious Western scientists. Fortunately a new article in circulation by Michael Ivanov may help counter this impression—but I am very much afraid that Russians are not learning from observation of the ill effects these beliefs have had for children in the U.S. You would think they might remember the harm done to Russian adoptees in the U.S. some years ago…

You can see Michael Ivanov's new article at https://www.researchgate.net/publications/318420576_Harmful_Treatments_in_Child_Psychotherapy.



















Monday, July 10, 2017

The Russian Adoption Ban: Magnitsky Act, or Attachment Therapy Problems?

On July 9 and 10, 2017, the New York Times published articles by Jo Becker, Matt Apuzzo, and Adam Goldman on the subject of meetings between Trump campaign representatives and a Russian lawyer during the 2016 election campaign. These articles reiterate a common belief about the Russian prohibition of adoption of Russian children to the United States—they claim that Putin put this restriction in place when infuriated by the Magnitsky Act of 2012 and the sanctions it put on Russia.

It may well be that Putin was annoyed by the restrictions, but concerns about the fates of Russian children in the United States had started rather earlier in both countries. Russian-adopted children had appeared repeatedly in news reports of ill-treatment and even child deaths. In 201l, I commented on this at https://childmyths.blogspot.com/2011/11/nathaniel-craver-case-many.html. In the same year, www.childrenintherapy.org/news.html discussed the USA-Russia Adoption Treaty, with reference to child maltreatment; at that time, Pavel Astakhov, the then-ombudsman for children in Russia, had been asking for continued contact with children adopted from Russia to the U.S. and for continuing their status as Russian citizens. Also in 2011, this issue was discussed at https://phtherapies.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/reactive-attachment-disorder-rad-dispelling-the-myths/. The Beagley case in Alaska, involving mistreatment and “hot-saucing” of a Russian-adopted boy, caused much horrified discussion in both the U.S. and Russia.

All of these very genuine concerns about inappropriate treatment of Russian children in U.S. adoptive families were under discussion before the Magnitsky Act. There is no question in my mind that Russian adoptees, as well as children adopted from other places, were in many cases badly mistreated by adoptive parents who had bought into mistaken beliefs about attachment and about Reactive Attachment Disorder.  These parents had been told by “attachment experts” that emotional attachment of children to parents occurred because of power assertion by the parents, and that such attachment was essential to prevent later vicious criminal behavior. The parents believed this, and they did assert power by physical means including withholding food and exposing children to cold and other discomfort. In some cases, they countered disobedience by forcing children to eat or drink large amounts, sometimes causing death.

Pavel Astakhov investigated these problems carefully and recommended prohibiting adoption of Russian children to foreign countries. One part of his reasoning about the U.S. is that this country has never ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children, a distinction that we share only with Somalia.

The point I am making here has nothing to do with the Trump campaign or any election events, of course. I simply want to remind people that the ban on Russian adoption is not a simple tit-for-tat reprisal created by Putin in response to the Magnitsky Act. It was based on very real events in this country, and I could only wish that Americans could ban adoption of American children to persons who are likely to use attachment-therapy related power assertion methods that have harmed children in the past—and are still harming them today.    



   

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Attachment Spandrel: A Speculation

When people talk about evolution of structures and functions or of behaviors through natural selection, they sometimes use an intriguing metaphor. They suggest that human evolution can have a an aspect that can be compared to a spandrel—an architectural feature like an arch that was originally developed as a way to support a building, but that later was liked for its attractive appearance and put to work as a way to decorate a structure. It seems possible that human evolutionary change involves spandrels too, with traits that began with one function later becoming useful in other ways. For instance, eyebrows might originally have been useful for keeping sweat out of our eyes, but now are used in facial expressions and gestures that convey our moods and intentions to people we encounter.

Can young children’s emotional attachment to their parents be considered as a trait that can be “spandrelized”? (Maybe there’s a proper word for this but I don’t know it.)   This would certainly not be the way that many people, including quite a few unconventional psychologists and counselors, think about it.  It’s commonly, but incorrectly, assumed that once an attachment relationship develops in early life, that attachment stays the same unless something happens to stop it. For example, the death of a parent and subsequent mourning would deactivate that attachment; some “parental alienation” advocates hold that one parent can destroy or at least suppress a child’s attachment to the other parent by emotional manipulation. People who believe in these ideas apparently miss the fact that both attachment behavior and cognitive abilities that are part of thinking about attachment change in the normal course of development, and this contributes to changes in the nature of relationships that originated in toddler’s emotional connections to familiar adults.

So where does the spandrel part come into this? What I am going to say is speculation, just like most of the Just-So stories that are put forth as ideas about the evolution of behavior. But it is possible to make the case that attachment began as a result of natural selection for certain advantageous behaviors, and then later was put to work for other purposes.

Many birds and mammals show some form of “attachment” to parents. Ducklings and goslings, for example, follow moving objects that they see soon after hatching, and those objects are most likely to be their mothers. Whatever kind of object they initially follow, they will during early life follow that same object, and in adulthood will court and attempt to mate with a similar object. This initially serves a protective function and encourages survival, because although a mother duck might not be able to fight off a fox, her behavior against a predator does increase the young duck’s chances of escape. The same consideration applies for young humans, whose curiosity and exploratory behavior could lead them straight to an enemy if they were not “attached” so that they stayed close to familiar adults and avoided strange creatures. Whereas ducks and some other animals form their “attachments” shortly after birth or hatching, humans, who are very immature at birth and cannot move independently for many months, do not show attachment behavior until roughly the time when they might be able to wander away.

Looking at it this way, we can see the enormous survival value for the young of preferring to stay near familiar adults and being wary of strangers and unfamiliar creatures. But within a few years after birth, human children become much more able to judge danger and to keep themselves safer (perhaps not in today’s high-speed traffic, but in the environment of early adaptation). They don’t need attachment for survival in the same way, yet they retain strong relationships with familiar adults under many circumstances, and do this right up until their own adulthood, often modulating into a “reversed” relationship when an aging parent needs the adult child’s care.

Feelings and thoughts about attachment thus lose much of their survival value after the child gets to “school age”, but those feelings and thoughts can be seen as serving new, useful purposes for both the individual and the group--  in other words, attachment has become a spandrel. For the individual, behaviors learned from experiences in the attachment relationship can provide a foundation for understanding other social relationships—that is, they form the internal working model (IWM) of relationships that John Bowlby proposed. The IWM allows the older child and adult to participate in any social relationship with some confidence in assumptions about how social interactions work. The individual does not have to develop new rules from scratch about interacting with any new person he or she meets, and this saves time and energy.

The community also benefits from the attachment spandrel for several reasons. One is that the social rules learned in the early attachment relationship help young adults care for their own children effectively and enlist other community members to help in this task when needed.  In addition, the community survives and thrives better when social interactions among members are orderly and constructive, when conflicts and aggressive impulses are modulated by attachment-influenced social rules. For just one more, community values and beliefs are more easily shared and passed on in the context of existing close relationships where they are modeled and implied, than if they had to be taught through direct instruction.

Thinking about attachment after the toddler period as a spandrel can be a helpful way to understand how some aspects of attachment work. But the really basic point is that attachment changes through the course of development, and that toddler attachment, fascinating though it is, cannot be considered to define the nature of attachment later in life.






Monday, July 3, 2017

Too Little or Too Much: Bringing Complaints About Patterns of Child Maltreatment

Now and then I encounter questions about some abusive practices that are done as part of unconventional “attachment therapies”. Adopted and foster children are often the targets of practices advised by non-mainstream therapists, counselors, and coaches of various stripes. The suggested methods can include all or some of the following:

·         Limiting the quantity and variety of children’s diets
·         Requiring children to “strong sit” tailor-fashion for periods of time without speaking or moving
·         Insisting that children ask permission for everyday actions that are normally handed independently after age 2 or 3, such as using the toilet or getting a drink of water
·         Punishing children who eat or drink without permission by forcing eating or drinking of large quantities
·         Confining children to a bedroom or a basement for many hours, sometimes providing only a bucket for sanitary purposes
·         Placing alarms on bedroom and cupboard doors
·         Removing all but minimal furniture from the bedrooms where children spend much of their time

These methods are claimed to be directed at creating parent-child attachment and preventing children from becoming murderers in later life—claimed goals that would certainly get the attention of most parents and make them likely to work zealously to do as they are told.

The first problem, of course, is that these methods have nothing to do with creating attachment, attachment has nothing to do with murder, and thus the methods do not treat either mental illness or criminal tendencies a child may have.

The second problem? Well, this is what I want to get at. I hear from worried people who tell me they have seen a sister or neighbor or someone else who seems to be using methods like those above. Sometimes they have reported to child protective services, sometimes they haven’t but wonder if they should—don’t want to get anyone in trouble unnecessarily but don’t like the looks of the situation, etc. What would happen if they reported?

Generally speaking, nothing would happen.

Unless a child is injured or killed as a result of an adult action, using methods like the list above is not illegal. Research definitions of child abuse contain categories that most of those items would fit into, but laws about child maltreatment do not. Like most laws, those laws have the goal of covering as much territory as is needed without getting into too many details.  We don’t have laws that say not to lock the child in a bedroom, because such a law could easily be evaded by locking the child in the basement, woodshed, broom closet, or garage instead. A law can’t include all the possible places a child could be locked up. And, we don’t want a law that will punish parents for child abuse if they accidentally shut a door and leave a child locked in until they hear him yelling five minutes later. Many of the things on that list are actions that a parent might carry out unintentionally or in a very mild form. (“You took that extra pancake that your sister wanted, now I want you to eat it!”)

Because we do not have such very detailed laws about child abuse, and because most parents might occasionally do something that was a bit like the items on the list, it would generally be assumed that any parental act that would be considered abusive must pass a pretty high bar--  one that could not be met by insisting someone eat the pancake he swiped or ask permission before eating something specially prepared for a party. As a result, a complaint about one incident of a listed action  would not—and probably should not—be given much attention by a child protection agency. Even a set of complaints about many items on the list would probably not contain any one item that would reach that high bar. The items on the list would not even be picked up by a checklist of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that are known to be associated with problematic developmental outcomes.

Each item is too little to trigger official action, but many repetitions of many items  are likely to form a pattern of experience that includes too much adversity to foster good development. Just as an accumulation of small injuries can lead to untoward physical consequences, it seems possible that repeated psychological injuries can have an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, there is usually no way for a concerned observer to report a pattern of problems; an outsider sees only the occasional event and has no way to know what happens between times. Even if the pattern were carefully recorded, child protective staff may have no mechanism for interfering when each incident, standing alone, looks unpleasant but minor. The parent’s actions may not be “best practice”, but which of us can claim that we always make the best choices? There is plenty of evidence that we just need to be “good enough parents”, and we do not really have clear standards about what is “good enough”.

I would like to propose that agencies and organizations move toward recognizing the patterns of multiple, apparently low-impact, possibly cumulative, but risky, parenting behaviors. At the least, such an approach could prevent some of the child deaths from slow starvation and exposure that crop up in the news with relentless regularity. At the most, such an approach, coupled with parent education and supervision, could improve the chances of excellent developmental outcomes for large numbers of children now at risk.

  


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Who Should Be Punished When Maternal Mental Illness Kills Children?

In 2014, a young mother who had been evaluated and given prescription medication for a mood disorder killed her two young children (as described in http://www.oxygen.com/blogs/mom-suffocates-her-two-kids-to-death-with-plastic-bags-and-duct-tape; see also Lynh Bui, “Mother who suffocated children with plastic bags and duct tape sentenced to 45 years”, Washington Post, June 7, 2017). She had initially threatened to kill herself and her daughter, and her own mother called the police, who took the younger woman to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. Against her mother’s objections, the young woman, Sonya Spoon, was released with a prescription for antidepressants four days later. Hospital staff apparently did not have information about her threats to the children. A day and a half after that, Sonya Spoon killed her 3-year-old and 1-year-old children by suffocating them, and put the same plastic bag and duct tape around her own head, but then went to get her mother to help remove the suffocating material. The children were unconscious and died later. Sonya subsequently said she did not know what was wrong with her and apologized to her dead children.

Arguments about mitigating circumstances for Sonya Spoon’s actions included the off-base claim that she suffered from an attachment disorder because of having been abandoned as a young infant by her Russian biological family, spending several years in an orphanage, and finally being adopted to the United States. This experience, although very sad and distressing , might well have interfered with her cognitive and language development, but attachment disorder is less likely and in any case would not make her likely to be either suicidal or harmful to others. A factor with a more probably connection to her behavior was a traumatic brain injury from and accident when she was 18—an event likely to interfere with her cognitive abilities and possibly to produce post-traumatic stress disorder. At least one of her children was fathered by an abusive man, who wanted custody, which she resisted. Either in addition to or because of these experiences, Sonya Spoon had perinatal mood disorder—often called post-partum depression, but sometimes continuing well after the post-partum period.

Shifting and negative moods are typical of the days soon after childbirth, but most women experience only “baby blues” in which they feel easily overwhelmed and ready to cry. Many traditional cultures have made sure that new mothers are honored, cared for, and petted during these days, which do not last long. A small number of women experience much more profound anxiety and depression, often focused on whether there is something wrong with the baby, and this may not begin at once. Whenever depression and anxiety are in the picture, suicidal thoughts and actions are very possible, and these may be part of the more severe perinatal mood disorders. Finally, a very small proportion of women experience a post-childbirth period of psychosis which again may not begin at once. They may have delusions of hearing voices that tell them to harm themselves or their children, and some obey. In the famous Andrea Yates case of some years ago, Yates drowned her five young children in the bathtub in obedience to “voices”; she also gave the rationale that she felt they should die and go to heaven at once rather than risking the sins of childhood and adulthood.

Andrea Yates had experienced perinatal mood disorders with each of her five children, but her husband was said to have encouraged further pregnancies. She was found competent to stand trial, a very low bar for which it only had to be shown that she could understand the charges and could work with her lawyer, but she was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity (the death penalty had been sought). Sonya Spoon was also found competent to stand trial and convicted; the judge said some of her actions had been “selfish”.

Yes, it’s true that the children did get the death penalty, and their terror and pain as they died hardly bears thinking about. But who is really in the wrong here? Does Sonya Spoon deserve 45 years in prison, but the child’s father who did not pay attention to her state of mind is not to be punished? How about hospital staff who did not explore her situation far enough to know that she had threatened the children? For that matter, what about insurance and other regulations that limit the amount of mental health care available even to those who desperately need it? And what about a judge who brought a trivial view of the human mind to the trial by declaring Sonya Spoon “selfish” because she asked her mother to release her from the suffocating bag before seeing to the children? Just like Andrea Yates’ husband and family, these people contributed much to the tragedies, but punishing mentally ill mothers alone is a fine old tradition that apparently must be kept up.



Friday, June 16, 2017

Unborn Babies and Faces: What to Make of This?

I recently received an email from an anti-abortion group who referenced a recent study about the visual behavior of 34-week fetuses—still 6 weeks before they would typically be born. Although the number of abortions that take place at that point in gestation is vanishingly small, my correspondents wanted to use the study to argue against terminating pregnancy at any point. That’s what they do, so I won’t argue with it, but I’d like to look at the study itself and what it means about early development of human beings.

You can find a discussion of the study in a number of places, but here’s one you might try: www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/06/08/womb-view-fetuses-can-recognize-faces-while-still-inside-mom/102625620/. The researcher was able to shine a bright light through the uterus and amniotic fluid that surrounds the fetus and at the same time to do imaging that would reveal how the fetus turned toward the light. What does this have to do with faces? Well, there were two kinds of lights, each involving three dots arranged in a triangle, which adults might perceive as “two eyes” and “one mouth”. The lights were shown either in a position where they looked like the basic elements of a face, or “upside down” so that the “mouth” was above the “eyes’. The babies moved to “look at” the right-side-up face more than at the upside down non-face.

Because the fetuses discriminated between the two patterns by moving differently, it was concluded that they could were reacting differently to things like faces than to other things that were not so face-like. It was that discrimination that led to the statement that they recognize faces while in the womb. It would be less exciting but a good deal more accurate to say that they respond differently to the face-like triangle than to the other. They do not recognize faces in the adult sense of being able not only to tell one actual face from another but even to know which person has which face. No such claims were made, and for good reason. You might as well say that unborn babies recognize point-down triangles as that they recognize faces in the sense that even a three-month-old does.
Under ordinary conditions, there is no light inside the uterus, so an unborn baby has no visual experience whatsoever. He or she has had no opportunity to learn what people, dogs, moons, or crib bumpers look like. Any visual response that occurs—either in the womb or right after a preterm or full-term birth—has to be produced by functions that are built into the visual system as a result of genetic commands to the developing brain. (Brain? Yes, because developmentally the retina or light-sensitive part of the eye is actually a part of the brain.)

The visual system is the last sensory system to begin its development in the prenatal period, so we might not expect vision to be very good at 34 weeks gestational age—it’s not great at 40 weeks or full term. When babies look at faces after birth, they tend to scan the eye areas and the mouth area a lot, but as is shown by all the comments I get from mothers worried about lack of eye contact, the very young babies do not look at faces very much. They just look at them more than they look at other things. Babies in the first month or so after birth are also very limited in their ability to see objects that are too close or too distant, so even then they do not get a lot of time to look at and learn about faces.

So how does it come about that before birth they can “look” at a face-like pattern and respond to it as if it means something special to them? The most likely reason is that in their still very immature brains they already have feature detectors that are activated by a seen pattern. A feature detector is a cell in the visual system of the brain that is connected to a particular part of the retina and responds only to certain kinds of images that fall on that retinal area. This is a lot easier to demonstrate with frogs than with human beings (who tend to excuse themselves when you want to do things to their brains), but frogs have feature detector cells that are “fly detectors” and become activated when an image the size and shape and speed of a nearby moving fly falls on the retina. The frog feature detectors signal the tongue, and zip, the tongue nails the fly. Mammals too have feature detectors, although fortunately they do not make us catch flies with our tongues. Face detectors are among them—brain cells that are activated when the image of a shape that resembles a face falls on part of the retina. Even sheep have face detectors that respond to human faces. Sheep “recognize” faces in the same sense that unborn babies do.

It’s really interesting and important for researchers to show how early and how gradually human sensory and other systems begin to develop. Those systems don’t just “come on line” instantaneously at some point, and although birth is a dramatic event in the course of development, not all developmental changes are closely related to it.  However, when the researchers have done their job, it’s also important for the media and their audience not to jump to conclusions about the implications of findings. We humans don’t seem to have feature detectors that respond to exaggerations!



Sunday, June 4, 2017

Children, Family Systems, and Parental Alienation


Yesterday I was listening to an audio recording of an appeals court hearing related to a high-conflict divorce and the wish of two teenage daughters to avoid contact with their mother. The father’s attorney brought up the point that one of the girls was headstrong, obstinate, difficult to persuade, and always had been so. The characteristics attributed to the girl were presented as an argument why the father could not force her to visit her mother, but there was no mention of the role her characteristics might have played in her initial reluctance to have contact with one of her parents.

When children of high-conflict divorces have strong preferences for one parent and avoid the other parent, the non-preferred parent may allege that the preferred parent has intentionally alienated the child and turned him or her against the non-preferred one. This is especially likely to occur if certain attorneys or mental health practitioners or “coaches” are in the picture. These advisers rather piously allude to family systems theory and the need for all members of a family to work together, even though they live apart. They invoke family systems theory as a reason why courts should order changes of custody and forced treatment of children who avoid one parent. They argue that unless a child has a “reasonable” explanation for avoiding a parent, the avoidance must be a result of parental alienation (PA) by the preferred parent; that parent should be punished, and the children should be rescued so they can reunite with the non-preferred parent. (“Reasonable” explanations are limited to substantiated child abuse.)

But let’s look at family systems theory for a minute. This fruitful theory considers all members of a family to bring their unique characteristics into family and dyadic interactions. This means children too, of course—but PA proponents generally focus on the preferred parent, who is described as narcissistic and emotionally disturbed, but who has almost never been seen or interviewed by the person giving this description. Little is said about the personality characteristics of the non-preferred parent, and even less about the personality characteristics of the children.

Going back to the “headstrong” girl described in the first paragraph of this post, let’s speculate (yes, SPECULATE, because no one has really studied this) about how child characteristics could lead to avoidance of a parent even when there was no demonstrable abuse by the non-preferred parent and no intentional or unintentional attempts at alienation by the preferred parent.

What I am about to say has nothing to do with diagnostic categories of mental illness, although a child with real mental disturbance or developmental problems like autism might rather readily come to avoid a parent who did not handle those problems very well. But all children, whether emotionally or mentally typical or atypical, have from the time of birth individual patterns of responsiveness to the environment, created by their own unique constitutions. These patterns are often referred to as patterns of temperament, and although no one could claim that temperament explains everything about personality, this concept is of enormous help to understanding of social interactions and why two people do or do not get along well.

Studies of temperament suggest that the patterns unique to an individual in infancy are stable and are still present at 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and into adulthood. Naturally children do not continue to express their temperaments in the same ways as they get older, because they mature and learn to behave conventionally, but they do retain basic constitutional characteristics. For example, the person who cried a great deal and was easily distressed as an infant will not cry so much as an older child but will still show more negative mood quality than most other children of the same age.

Research on temperament has focused on characteristics that make an infant difficult to care for. Difficult infants tend to have negative mood quality, to react intensely to internal or external events, and to be slow to adapt to changes. They are often distressed and are hard to soothe. They need a lot of time to get used to new situations like starting out-of-home child care. Because these temperamental characteristics are rather stable, we can predict that these difficult babies will also later be the children who go to the beach all summer but will not go into the water until Labor Day, who cry when there is a clown at the birthday party, and who need to be taken to visit a new school several times before opening day so they will be able to cope.

So what does all this have to do with avoiding the non-preferred parent? Again, let me say that this is pure speculation on my part, because as far as I know work on PA has largely ignored child characteristics (I have just seen one reference to this factor in an on line paper by Bala and Fidler.) But a plausible hypothesis can be offered: children who have the temperament of difficult infants may bring to high-conflict divorce an unusual readiness to prefer one parent and avoid the other. A tendency to a generally negative mood quality pushes such children in the direction of disliking whatever new situation they find themselves in. Intense reactions predispose them to strong distress that may be very difficult for them – or for either of their parents—to tolerate. The factor of poor adaptability means that these children will take a good deal of time before they can feel comfortable with changing circumstances, including new living conditions and contacts with parents’ new romantic partners (and possibly those people’s children). Children of difficult temperaments need appropriate parental support to help them deal with the world and eventually master the skill of looking beyond their own temperamental reactions, but in high-conflict divorces the chances are that neither parent will immediately be able to provide such support. The entire situation seems designed to cause such children to decide that they can only tolerate what is happening if they can choose one parent and stay with that person.

Yes, I’m speculating when I hypothesize about how child temperament may be relevant to PA. But I’m not speculating when I say that family systems theory would demand attention to child characteristics. The question is, which characteristics are the ones that interact with high-conflict divorce to create avoidance of one parent?  Temperament is a strong possibility, but not the only one.


N.B. Readers may notice that I don’t speak of children “rejecting” a parent. I believe that language plays into the sense of humiliation and frustration that motivates some non-preferred parents to believe that the former spouse has manipulated the children.  To speak of “avoidance” seems to me to make the issue less personal and more focused on the child’s needs and feelings.