Part 3: Parental Alienation, Parent-Child Contact Problems, and Gatekeeping
Parental alienation is a controversial concept in mental health and legal fields, despite its continued use in high-conflict family-court disputes. New research and several alternative terms have now been applied to cases of children who resist contact with a parent, and these cases continue to be challenging for courts, clinicians, and attorneys.
This series of articles describes the current research on parental alienation (PA) and parent-child contact problems. The first installment described the overlapping terms and concepts related to PA, such as gatekeeping and parental alienating behaviors (PABs), as well as some of the models used to assess and describe the problem. The second article described some of the major conceptual and practical issues surrounding alienation, based on recent reviews of the literature. This third and final article in the series will discuss interventions and offer recommendations for attorneys and evaluators involved in such cases.
Researchers suggest that the goal of interventions for PA or PCCPs should be to restore or repair the relationship with the rejected parent, unless the parent poses risks to the child. Risks that indicate a child must be protected from a rejected parent include ongoing risk of violence or abuse or evidence of severe alienation, usually involving emotional abuse (Fidler & Bala, 2020). Deutsch, Drozd, and Ajoku (2020) stated that delaying interventions designed to repair a parent-child relationship or delaying contact with a rejected parent generally leads to additional polarization, negative experiences, and anxiety; conflict and resistance tend to become more entrenched as time passes. They recommend “safe, structured contact to begin the process of desensitization” as soon as both the parent and child have sufficient coping skills and the ability manage distressing thoughts and feelings (p. 470). The authors note that when trauma or abuse is not severe, a child may benefit from resuming a relationship with the parent, if that parent can take responsibility in a meaningful form or demonstrate a change in behavior.
Recommended interventions for cases involving PA or PCCPs vary based on severity, regardless of the exact cause of the problem. Mild and moderate cases are believed to be best addressed with attempts to repair the parent-child relationship with a family systems-based intervention coordinated by the courts (Fidler & Bala, 2020). When concerns of violence or abuse are not present, many therapies may be useful and appropriate, including multi-modal family therapy (MMFI), child-centered conjoint therapy (CCCT), family restructuring therapy, integrative family therapy (IFT), structural family therapy, family reintegration therapy (RT), family reunification therapy (FRT), multi-faceted family therapy (MFFT), and reconciliation therapy (Fidler & Bala, 2020). All these interventions use a family systems approach that involves all family members, in various combinations. They may include a variety of specific therapeutic approaches, including psychoeducation, cognitive-behavioral techniques, solution-focused strategies, motivational interviewing, and targeted skills trainings. Importantly, the authors note that interventions may fail to resolve alienation or a PCCP if all family members are not involved; they also indicate that while individual therapy may be beneficial for both parents and children, individual therapy can exacerbate PCCPs if an individual therapist is unskilled or uninformed about PCCP issues.
According to Fidler and Bala (2020), severe cases of PCCPs are not likely to be resolved by the family systems-based interventions described above and are treated differently depending on whether or not the case involves alienation or realistic estrangement – essentially, whether the child’s rejection of the parent was unjustified or justified. In cases of severe alienation (unjustified rejection), the authors recommend a “custody reversal,” in which the rejected parent is granted custody and contact with the favored parent is suspended temporarily; this may be accompanied by therapeutic or educational interventions (e.g., Family Bridges; p. 586). This intervention can be followed by additional interventions to assist the favored parent in ending any PABs before shared custody is attempted. Alternatively, attempts at repair and reunification could be abandoned, with the child or children being told that the rejected parent is not abandoning them but instead leaving contact up to them. The authors note that although some children do eventually contact the rejected parent in late adolescence or adulthood, there is little research on such reconciliations.
In severe cases of justified rejection or realistic estrangement, abuse and trauma are likely to be present, and family members may be struggling with trauma-related disorders. In these cases, it is recommended that the problematic parent and the child each receive individual treatment, with ongoing assessment and case management implemented to determine if reunification is appropriate. In all severe cases (whether alienation or justified estrangement), careful monitoring by the court and professionals is required to ensure the child is protected; a period of supervised contact may be recommended.
Recommendations and Best Practices
Evaluations of PCCPs in custody cases should include identification of all gatekeeping behaviors between the parents. Austin (2018) recommended that custody evaluators rate and describe the gatekeeping for the court in terms of both degree and quality (low, medium, or high in terms of facilitative and restrictive gatekeeping). Gatekeeping should also be examined across multiple behavioral domains, including information sharing, willingness to communicate, compliance with schedules, support of the parenting plan, flexibility, criticisms of the other parent, and demonstrating to the child an appreciation of the other parent’s value. Although many domains should be assessed as part of a multifactorial analysis, evaluators are often required to provide an overall or general rating of each parent’s quality of gatekeeping.
Evaluations of any problematic parent-child relationship should give careful consideration to the role of trauma and chronic stress, as trauma has been found to frequently precede and predict resist-refuse dynamics (Johnston & Sullivan, 2020; Deutsch, Drozd, & Ajoku, 2020; Fidler & Bala, 2020). Authors also note that PCCPs or PA can also exacerbate or elicit a trauma or a stress response in a child and/or in one or both parents. Screenings for traumatic experiences are recommended “in every case where parent-child contact problems are suspected or found,” and screenings should be conducted with each family member prior to any interventions (Deutsch, Drozd, & Ajoku, 2020; p. 473). If trauma is present, a comprehensive assessment of trauma-related symptoms is recommended.
Researchers have also recommended that careful consideration be given to the types, targets, and order of interventions provided. Fidler and Bala (2020) note that screenings for violence, forms of IPV, and psychological disorders are necessary in order to plan and implement effective interventions. In addition, based on assessments of physical, emotional, and psychological safety, clinicians and evaluators must determine whether all family members should be included in an intervention, when trauma-focused treatment is required, and when parenting interventions are necessary (Deutsch, Drozd, & Ajoku, 2020). The order of interventions must also be determined; some treatments may be able to be implemented concurrently, but some may need to occur sequentially. For example, if a parent or child is struggling with emotion regulation or a traumatic reaction, trauma-focused therapy would be recommended prior to other interventions. Several authors emphasize the difficulties involved in evaluating families with PCCPs; conflict has often been present for years, and reactions may be polarized and exaggerated. Fidler and Bala (2020) added that any failed interventions, either clinical or legal, should be examined in order to inform treatment planning, noting, “…often, our attempted solution becomes part of the problem and exacerbates the PCCP” (p. 588).
According to Johnston and Sullivan (2020), overall “best practices” in cases of alleged PA include:
Deutsch, Drozd, and Ajoku (2020) indicated that the involvement of the court increases accountability. They suggest the use of a structured form, such as the Changes in Resist/Refuse Dynamics Checklist (CRDC; Drozd, Saini, Walters, Fidler, & Deutsch, 2020), in order to assess changes in the parent-child relationship. Fidler and Bala (2020) recommend single-judge case management for all high conflict cases, particularly those involving PCCPs. In their 2013 bench book, Austin and colleagues recommended that judicial orders include clear, detailed parenting plans and timesharing arrangements, and any orders for services should include specific referral reasons and questions.
Importantly, researchers acknowledge that not all cases of PCCPs or PA will result in the repair or restoration of a relationship with a rejected parent. Fidler and Bala (2020) stated that in cases of significant safety, mental health, or substance use issues, the termination of a parent-child relationship may be necessary. The authors indicated that although the assessments and decisions to be made in these cases require a significant amount of time, severe cases of PA or PCCPs “should not be allowed to drift through the courts without a judicial resolution” (p. 590). Unfortunately, researchers indicate that the complexity of PCCPs often makes conclusive findings and legal decisions exceedingly difficult (Fidler & Bala, 2020). Professionals must recognize the limits of legal interventions as well as the available resources for PCCPs, as well as the difficulty of grappling with the uncertainty and complexity of the problem.
Overall, PA and PCCPs are far more complex than is commonly understood, and their causes are multi-factorial. Evaluations must consider the many possible contributors to such problems, including traumatic experiences as well as untreated mental health and substance use issues. Legal and clinical professionals should consider the many recommendations for assessing and intervening in cases of PA or PCCPs; professionals must also remain mindful that such problems may, unfortunately, not respond to their best efforts.
Austin, W. G. (2018). Parental gatekeeping and child custody evaluation: Part III: Protective gatekeeping and the overnights “conundrum.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 59(5), 429-451.
Austin, W. G., Fieldstone, L., & Pruett, M. K. (2013). Bench book for assessing parental gatekeeping in parenting disputes: Understanding the dynamics of gate closing and opening for the best interests of children. Journal of Child Custody, 10, 1-16.
Deutsch, R., Drozd, L., & Ajoku, C. (2020). Trauma-informed interventions in parent-child contact cases. Family Court Review, 58(2), 470-487.
Drozd, L., Saini, M., Walters, M. Fidler, B., & Deutsch R. M. (2020). Changes in Resist-Refuse Dynamics Checklist (CRDC).
Fidler, B. J., & Bala, N. (2020). Concepts, controversies and conundrums of “alienation:” Lessons learned in a decade and reflections on challenges ahead. Family Court Review, 58(2), 576-603.
Johnston, J. R., & Sullivan, M. J. (2020). Parental alienation: In search of common ground for a more differentiated theory. Family Court Review, 58(2), 270-292.
Saini, M. A., Drozd, L. M., & Olesen, N. W. (2017). Adaptive and maladaptive gatekeeping behaviors and attitudes: Implications for child outcomes after separation and divorce. Family Court Review, 55(2), 260-272.