A few weeks ago, I spoke to a gathering of a group of parentally alienated mothers and fathers in Waltham, Massachusetts. Parental alienation is a phenomenon where children are turned against one of their parents (either mother or father) by the other parent, usually when there is a divorce, without good reason. In some cases, children are physically and psychologically isolated for years and they are programmed against the non-custodial parent. Of course, negative programming is done all the time in cult groups, when a parent decides they want to exit the cult. What I have learned is that this problem happens in non-cult situations quite frequently. So I decided to set up an interview with a friend and colleague from Scotland Dr. Nick Child, BSc MB ChB MRCPsych, MPhil. He is a retired child psychiatrist and family therapist who has focused a lot of his energy on the problem of parental abduction and alienation.
Nick retired in 2003 from a career as an NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service community-based psychiatrist in Edinburgh and Lanarkshire, Scotland. Until 2016, he worked in the voluntary sector in a Family Therapy team in Edinburgh. He met a remarkable client, now a colleague. This client had mailed him Amy J. Baker’s “Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome” with his request to be seen. Nick discovered his culpable ignorance of Parental Alienation (PA). Interestingly, Baker wrote about my work in her book. He believes that no client should ever have to teach their therapist first in order to get help. He has since used his energy and talent to read, think, write, advise, network and campaign, rather than do direct clinical or court work.
Alienation, Abduction and Coercive Control
Parental Alienation is a form of undue influence in which one parent deceives and manipulates the child to feel fear, anger, disgust, or other negative emotions towards the other parent. The alienating parent may attempt to even instill false memories of abuse or phobias about the other parent in the child’s mind. They may encourage the child to spy and tattle on the other parent. In other words, parents who unethically alienate their child against the other parent use similar tactics that cults use to distance their members from family, friends, and ex-members.
All-too-often, when parents divorce, one parent will wrongfully influence their child to hate and cut off from the other parent. Some take it a step further and physically abduct the child.
Abduction and alienation are closely related, with the first occurring much more quickly. And there is much in common between the patterns of family and non-family undue influence/coercive control.
Dr. Nick Child told me he really liked Spike “Karin” Robinson’s application of Robert Jay Lifton’s “Eight Criteria of Thought Reform“ to family coercion or family undue influence. (Read Nick’s blog about, “Lifting the lid off Lifton’s list matches harmful coercion in families and cults.”)
“Here we like teaming up coercive patterns in families (e.g. domestic abuse, parental alienation) with those outside families (e.g. cults, terrorism, scams). All of them are an alienation experience. Teaming up means we can campaign more powerfully. At first sight, Robert Lifton’s list of features of brain-washing in cults doesn’t really look right for family coercion. But a second look shows how well they fit.”
Key Discussion Topics During our discussion, Nick discusses parental alienation which he defines as when one parent turns one (or more) of their children against the other for no good reason in a lasting way. This is emotional abuse of the child. It often entails false allegations. The many harmful effects can be life long. Often the controlling parent has attachment issues due to childhood trauma in their background. They are desperate and have such a deep fear of losing their child, they turn to these coercive techniques to keep them close. They do not understand healthy parenting always puts the child first, especially in a divorce situation and it is never ok to force a child to choose between one parent or the other and cut off normal regular contact. Such a controlling parent often feels justified in causing pain to their spouse (for having an affair or wishing to leave them and has no realization of the trauma and pain they are inflicting on the child (children) too. More and more adults, who had been alienated from their mother or father, are tracking down the lost parent and reconnecting and learning the “other side of the story”. Often when a parent is cut off, so are their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It is tragic.
Recommendation: If you do not have any contact with a mother or a father (and especially extended family), I invite you to start reading and communicating with those who had been parentally alienated and parentally abducted and start processing the emotions. Realize that love is stronger than mind control and there is no better time to begin the healing process than now! I have recently talked with Dana Laquidara who is writing a memoir about her journey. Here is a blog she wrote called “The Stranger I call Mother“. She is a terrific writer and she is learning more about cult mind control patterns as they applied to her father’s influence.
As I mentioned earlier, another cause of parental alienation and abduction exists in high-control groups. These cults often teach that if a parent leaves the group, the remaining parent is the “true believer” and they must protect their child from the bad influence of the parent, often described as being demonized or taken over by Satan. This negative programming, that the child’s parent has betrayed God, can cause lasting, emotional damage. And in some groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology, they shun and disconnect from their loved ones, including separating parents from children. I was an expert witness in what became a precedent-setting case which reached the Massachusetts Supreme Court: Kendall vs. Kendall. The court established that the father’s religious freedom to believe that Jewish people are going to hell was less important that the children’s psychological well being. In other words, the cult-member father was not allowed to say horrible things to the children about their mother and he could not bring them to cult sessions, needing supervised visitation.
Nick and I go on to discuss additional causes and examples of dysfunctional family systems, the dual-identity that cult members experience, and the need to help family members break free and think for themselves. Additionally, we talk about the current legal system and the need for a review of current family law to better protect victims of parental alienation and abduction.
If you find yourself struggling with parental alienation in your own life, please remember it can be overcome by taking the time to learn and get qualified help. I also recommend that family therapy with a specifically trained professional be attended. (see list of resources at the end)
Parental alienation and abduction are much more common than most realize and many are affected. By learning about it, we can better protect our own families and help protect children, everywhere.
Video Discussion Between Steven Hassan and Nick Child
Contact Info for Nick Child
Dr Nick Child, BSc MB ChB MRCPsych, MPhil
Retired Child Psychiatrist, Family Therapist
Twitter: @Nick234678 & https://twitter.com/Nick234678
Lifting the lid off Lifton’s list matches harmful coercion in families and cults
Parental Alienation Harms Children by Using Undue Influence
TEDx talk “A Maverick’s Mission and Mistakes”
Select best PA resources:
Amy J Baker (developmental psychologist in NYC and author of several excellent books. I am trained in her reunification program)
Sutherland Lecture on PA:
Concise comprehensive summary of PA:
“The Shame of Scotland’s Family Courts”:
Lita Ford – Mother (official video)
Victims of another war Documentary about Parental Alienation
Links Mentioned During Interview:
Ira Chaleff books including “Intelligent Disobedience”
Amy J Baker
“Victims of Another War” (three adults tell their stories of ‘parental childhood abduction and alienation’)
Alexandra Stein “Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachments in Cults and Totalitarian Systems”
Richard Warshak “Divorce Poison” (2010 edition):
Julia Gutgsell and her JW thesis here (title as given):