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Parental Alienation and the High Conflict Myth

Type of protection : Granting release

A conflict, by definition, must involve two or more sides (unless it is within you).

Therefore if parental alienation is about high conflict divorce it  must mean that both of you are fighting.                       

Or does it?

One of the biggest myths that I encounter in my work with families affected by parental alienation is that they are all about high conflict.  They are not.

Often times I despair when I read and hear people talking about parental alienation and high conflict as if they are interchangeable realities because it seems to me that most often what is really going on is not high conflict but in fact, the very opposite of that.

So why do people characterise parental alienation cases as being about high conflict, almost as a matter of routine.  In the UK, the interchangeable terms high conflict and parental alienation are seen over and over from CAFCASS, almost as if it is a given thing that anyone involved in a case where a child resists contact with a parent, is a high conflict personality.

This could not be further from the clinical truth and up close and personal with families affected by PA the reality shouts so loud it is almost deafening.

Parental alienation is not about high conflict, I will say it again, parental alienation is not about high conflict.  Parental alienation causes conflict, there is no doubt about that but it is not caused by high conflict in the main although I have worked in a tiny handful of cases where two people were highly conflicted and couldn’t stop fighting.

I despair at the characterisation of parental alienation being about two people fighting because it is just about the laziest definition of what is a serious mental health issue that could be arrived at.  Worse than lazy, it is also an easy way for practitioners to dismiss all cases of parental alienation as being caused by a combination of both parent’s behaviours.  And when practitioners get the easy way out of these cases, children lose out badly on their life chances and capacity for a healthy future.

So let’s take a look at the high conflict myth and strip it back a bit to see what lies beneath it.

High conflict divorce and separation is when two people are in constant conflict and unable to resolve any decisions about their children.  Within a high conflict divorce you may have a child who is vulnerable to alienation or you may have a child who is resilient and for whom the conflict sails right over their heads.

It is not the conflict which causes the alienation in child, it is the vulnerability or the resilience and many children get used to their parents being in high conflict and find their own ways around it.  Some children might drop out for a bit and come back in and others might simply ignore what is going on and see their parents anyway.

Alienation in a child is caused by three factors in my experience –

a) the actions of one parent

b) the responses of the other

c) the vulnerability of the child

Whilst some alienation may be triggered by an escalating level of conflict caused by one parent controlling arrangements and the other responding to that, it is not the case that alienation is caused by one parent being aggressive and the other responding aggressively.

I used the following scenario in a recent post, it is worth using again because it outlines very well the experience of the parent who responds to the alienating behaviours of the other.

Your child is being hung over a crocodile infested pit behind a curtain.  You can see the danger your child is in.  No-one else can see it and when you point it out, the parent who is hanging your child over the pit pulls the child to safety with a warning not to tell anyone.  As soon as no-one else is looking, the parent hangs the child over the pit again and waves to get your attention.  This is repeated until you are blue in the face from screaming about the danger your child is in and everyone has begun to believe you are insane.  By the time this game has finished, your child is joining with the abusive parent to tell everyone that they love the game of crocodile pits and feel no danger, the abusive parent is perfect. Others believe you are simply a high conflict trouble causer.

That is the usual version of parental alienation that I find myself working with.  By the time I get to the coal face the child is indoctrinated and the rejected parent is exhausted from trying to flag to the outside world the danger the child is in.  The alienating parent on the other hand is bright, breezy and ever so co-operative, they have nothing to worry about because the alienation is free and active in the child who will swear to everyone they meet that the rejected parent is the abuser and the alienator is just perfect.

There is nothing high conflict about that although when I watch some of the exchanges which go on at the desperate ends of these scenarios I can understand why naive practitioners think it is.

Characterising parental alienation has high conflict simply diminishes the horror and casts the rejected parent in the role of co-villain and subjects them to even more torture as they are asked to account for their inability to change.

Meanwhile the child, psychological split and absolutely steeped in the belief that they must uphold the wellbeing of the parent they are pathologically aligned to, divests themselves of all of their healthy chances and choices in life.  Reduced to a consort of the alienating parent, the child’s world retracts to become that of helpmeet to the hidden issues that the alienator cannot resolve.

The terror and terrorisation of rejected parents through the high conflict model is deeply harmful.  It is exactly the same as blaming abuse victims for their abuse and it must stop.

High conflict divorce and separation are NOT the same as parental alienation and those of us who know so should say so.

Whilst some high conflict divorce and separation will lead to alienation, not all parental alienation is caused by high conflict divorce and separation.

Practitioners should know the difference, families depend upon it.

Source : https://karenwoodall.blog/2019/03/03/parental-alienation-and-the-high-conflict-myth/amp/

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