In April of this year, the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Children, Youth and Families will consider the issue of changing APA’s official position statement regarding the pathology of “parental alienation.”
This consideration by the Committee on Children, Youth and Families is in response to a petition developed and launched by leadership within the targeted parent community.
The goal of this effort by targeted parents is twofold:
1. To have the APA formally acknowledge that the pathology of “parental alienation” exists – by whatever name the APA wishes to label it.
2. To have the APA recognize the children and families who are affected by this pathology as representing a “special population” requiring specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat.
I want to take this opportunity to express my recommendations to the APA Committee on Children, Youth and Families regarding changes to the APA position statement on “parental alienation.”
Conference & White Paper
Both the professional and family issues surrounding the pathology of “parental alienation” are complex and should be thoughtfully considered relative to the official position of the American Psychological Association. All sides of this complex issue should be provided the opportunity to have their voices and concerns heard and recognized. Since the wording of the APA’s official position statement will have a profound and long-lasting impact on the lives of children and families, precipitous decisions should be avoided and thoughtful consideration is recommended.
I would therefore urge the Committee on Children, Youth and Families to recommend convening a 4-day conference of stakeholders and professional experts to examine this complex family issue with the goal of producing a White Paper describing the issues and offering recommendations from a variety of perspectives for the Committee’s consideration.
I would recommend the following stakeholders and professional content experts be included in this panel:
- Attachment Theory Expertise: Two recognized experts in attachment theory who could speak to the suppression of attachment bonding motivations and the potential trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma surrounding the pathology of “parental alienation.”
- Family Systems Expertise: Two recognized experts in family systems theory who could speak to the application of established constructs of family systems theory to the pathology of “parental alienation.”
- Personality Disorder Expertise: Two recognized experts in personality disorders who could speak to the potential role of parental narcissistic and borderline personality pathology surrounding divorce and its role in the pathology of “parental alienation.”
- Trauma Expertise: Two recognized experts in childhood abuse and developmental trauma who could speak to both the child’s response to trauma and the trans-generational transmission of trauma schemas in future relationships.
- Targeted Parent Representation: Two members from the community of targeted parents affected by the pathology of “parental alienation” to represent their perspective on the pathology.
- Child Survivor Representation: Two members from the community of now-adult survivors of childhood “parental alienation” to represent their perspective on the pathology.
- International Representation: The pathology of “parental alienation” spans international boundaries and the decisions made by the APA Committee on Children, Youth and Families will have international repercussions. Stakeholder representatives should therefore be invited from the international community affected by decisions regarding the pathology of “parental alienation” to present their perspective.
- Traditional Advocates from the Professional Community: Two representatives from the professional community of traditional advocates for the construct of “parental alienation” pathology.
- Traditional Opponents from the Professional Community: Two representatives from the professional community of traditional opponents to the construct of “parental alienation” pathology.
I would recommend that the first three days of the conference involve invited paper presentations by the participants and discussion of the issues raised, with the fourth day allocated to discussion of recommendations for the official APA position statement regarding “parental alienation” pathology. This conference would result in a White Paper summarizing the conference discussion and incorporating the paper submissions from the participants. The APA Committee on Children, Youth and Families could then incorporate the discussion and recommendations of this conference in their decisions regarding the official position statement of the APA regarding “parental alienation” pathology.
The implications of the APA position statement on the pathology of “parental alienation” has profound and potentially long-lasting consequences on children and families, both in the U.S. and internationally, and should receive the highest level of measured and thoughtful consideration commensurate with this profound importance.
Proposed Position Statement
If a position statement is to be produced without the benefit of professional expert and stakeholder discussion and recommendations, I would offer the following proposal as my recommendation for an official position statement of the APA regarding the pathology of “parental alienation”:
Title: Place the term “parental alienation” in quotes to indicate that it is a popular-culture term that is used to capture a complex family pathology.
Opening Sentence 1: Definition of the construct. Operationally define the popular-culture construct of “parental alienation” which is to be addressed by the position statement.
Sentence 2: A statement regarding the range of issues that need to be considered in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of this complex form of family pathology.
Sentence 3: The designation of children and families affected by this form of pathology as representing a special population in mental health who require specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat.
Sentence 4: A statement that professional expertise and professional competence in the relevant domains of psychology is an expectation of working with this population of children and families.
Closing Sentence 5: A concluding statement that the APA does not take an official position regarding any proposal or model for the pathology.
This format might result in the following example for a position statement:
Statement on “Parental Alienation” Pathology Surrounding Divorce
When a child’s attachment bonding motivations toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent (the targeted parent) are artificially suppressed by the pathogenic parenting practices of the other parent (the allied parent), this represents a serious distortion to the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system which has received the label of “parental alienation” in the popular culture. In assessing, diagnosing, and treating this form of family pathology, a variety of factors need to be considered in addition to the potential triangulation of the child into the spousal conflict by the formation of a cross-generational coalition with the allied parent against the targeted parent, including the specific nature and features of the child’s symptoms, a potential trauma history within the family and potentially experienced by the child, and the parenting practices and possibility of parental pathology creating the child’s attachment-related symptoms. The complexity of the family processes surrounding divorce, particularly high-conflict divorce in which a child is evidencing a severe distortion to normal-range attachment bonding motivations toward a parent, warrants the designation of these children and families as a special population within mental health who require specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat. The potential complexity of family dynamics surrounding attachment-related pathology and divorce, and the potential for professional counter-transference issues, requires that psychologists who are involved in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of attachment-related pathology within the family should possess superior professional expertise in the relevant domains of psychological constructs, principles, and pathologies to be able to competently assess, diagnose, and treat the complexity of the family relationship dynamics. The APA, however, does not have an official position on any specific model for defining the pathology which has received the common-culture label of “parental alienation.”
I offer this as an example for a proposed position statement that is balanced and based in established psychological constructs and principles of attachment theory and family systems constructs. I would, however, first propose that a conference be held to more fully examine the issues surrounding the pathology of “parental alienation” from a variety of expert domains and stakeholder perspectives. The impact of an official position statement by the American Psychological Association on the pathology of “parental alienation” will have profound and long-lasting consequences for countless children and families far into the future. This decision should therefore receive the highest level of thoughtful consideration prior to issuing a formal position statement representing the American Psychological Association.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857