Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.

Caught Between Parents

How to Find a Parental Alienation Expert, Part 2

Common mistakes non-PA experts make.

Posted Nov 10, 2015

Anyone can claim to be an expert in parental alienation regardless of his or her knowledge, experience, or skill.

This is problematic because—as a bona fide, specialized field of practice—there is a knowledge base and core content that experts must have to properly assist families affected by parental alienation and to avoid common errors that can result in poor outcomes for such families.  Such errors are very common among non-specialists because many aspects of parental alienation are highly counterintuitive.  The field is counterintuitive because the human brain is hard-wired to commit certain types of systematic cognitive errors that are particularly common in PA cases. 

Consequently, non-specialists who attempt to evaluate or manage such cases will often fall prey to a variety of cognitive and clinical errors, particularly if they rely on naïve intuition rather than a highly-specialized knowledge base.  Furthermore, such clinicians are likely to have great confidence in their incorrect conclusions.  Indeed, the usual repertoire of clinical skills is often inadequate in such cases and will often result in poor clinical and forensic outcomes.  To avoid such errors, clinicians require highly-specific training in PA and related family dynamics such as pathological alignment and pathological enmeshment.  PA-specific training and knowledge is required in order to avoid such mistakes.  Three examples are provided here.

The first is that mental health professionals are trained to rely on their clinical judgment and impressions when meeting and working with clients.  These impressions form the data points that clinicians draw on when making decisions about their client’s mental health status.  This is problematic for PA cases because targeted parents often present as anxious, agitated, angry, and afraid.  Having sustained severe psychological and emotional trauma, they are in crisis mode and will therefore often make a poor first impression.  They may have pressured speech.  They may display psycho-motor agitation.  They may avoid eye contact.  They may interrupt the clinician. They may appear to have an agenda and may even appear paranoid or delusional because they are likely to believe—accurately, if the case is indeed one of PA—that the other parent is trying to undermine their relationship with their child.  They are also likely to appear defensive and—not unreasonably—be unwilling to take responsibility for causing the crisis.  In contrast, alienating parents are likely to make an excellent first impression.  They present as cool, calm, charming, and convincing.  They are poised and in command of their emotions.  They are basking in the glow of victory—of their children’s professed preference for them and emphatic rejection of the other parent.  To a PA novice (regardless of how experienced the clinician might be with other types of cases) the parents’ contrasting presentations may seem genuine and come to dominate hypothesis generation and clinical decision-making as to the family dynamics.  The children’s complaints about the targeted parent may appear well-founded and their preference for the alienating parent may appear reasonable.  Non-specialists who fail to recognize this characteristic pattern are likely to accept the alienating parent’s version of events, especially when provided with an almost identical history by the child.  They are also likely to find the alienating parent more pleasant and likable, and thus more sympathetic.

The second counterintuitive aspect of PA, one that is rarely appreciated by non-specialists, is that in moderate and severe cases the alienation is usually accompanied by pathological enmeshment.  This is problematic because unless the observer or evaluator has extensive expertise in this area, pathological enmeshment appears to be—and could be mistaken for—healthy bonding—a close, loving, healthy, parent-child relationship.  But evaluators who mistake enmeshment for healthy bonding fail to appreciate the serious psychopathology that is typical of enmeshed parents including pathological dependence or co-dependence, delusional thinking, and severe boundary violations.  Such observers may also fail to appreciate that an enmeshed child has lost his or her identity, sense of self, individuality, autonomy, and critical reasoning skills to the point that he or she has become an extension of, and proxy for, the parent.  This is potentially catastrophic in the setting of a custody dispute because the clinician or custody evaluator, having made these mistakes (often with great confidence), may then recommend that sole custody be awarded to the pathologically-enmeshed parent.  If this happens, the child has been entrusted to a deeply-disturbed, personality-disordered, abusive parent who is incapable of putting the child’s needs ahead of his or her own.  Indeed, when cases of severe alienation and enmeshment are evaluated by professionals who are not bona fide specialists in alienation and estrangement, such errors are common.

Third, a non-PA specialist is unlikely to know how to differentiate an abused child from an alienated child.  Alienated children present as extremely angry, rude, aggressive, and provocative towards the targeted parent.  They are likely to deny ever having had a good relationship with that parent and are unlikely to express any interest in repairing the relationship in the future. While this may appear to be a rational response to abusive parenting, it is actually not the expected response from an abused child.  Research and the clinical literature consistently report that abused children generally cling to and are protective of the abusive parent.  They want to repair the relationship and forgive the abuser, and they are likely to deny or minimize past abuse. In fact, it is only alienated children who demonstrate a particular clinical picture which may—to the untrained clinician—appear to be consistent with maltreatment. 

Because of these, and related, cognitive and clinical errors, it is essential for targeted parents to select PA experts who are true experts in the field. The remaining sections of this blog post will focus on (1) credentials of a true PA expert and (2) core beliefs that any PA expert should endorse.

This blog is based on the collective work of the following people:

Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D.

Steven G. Miller, MD.

J. Michael Bone, Ph.D

And in alphabetical order

Katherine Andre, Ph.D.

Rebecca Bailey, Ph.D.

William Bernet, M.D

Doug Darnall, Ph.D.

Robert Evans, Ph.D

Linda Kase Gottlieb, LMFT, LCSW-R

Demothenos Lorandos, Ph.D. JD

Kathleen Reay, Ph.D.

S. Richard Sauber, Ph.D.