Parental Alienation: A Conversation

Father and son enjoying a "good-enough" relationship

Fountain Hill Center therapists Randy Flood and Ben Burgess recently sat down with Grand Rapids-based family law attorneys Connie Thacker and Allison Sleight to discuss parental alienation. Parental alienation is a phenomenon that can develop in cases of high-conflict divorce where one parent, either consciously or unconsciously, seeks to co-opt their child(ren)’s affection or otherwise disrupt their relationship with the other parent.

Below are lightly edited excerpts from the conversation.  To access the full “Parental Alienation” episode of the Thacker-Sleight podcast, click here.

Resist & Refuse Dynamics

RANDY: When you have what we now call resist and refuse dynamics in parent-child contact problems, is when you have children not wanting to be with another parent and they have a favored parent and they’re rejecting another one. There are numerous reasons why that can take place. So we try to evaluate those dynamics. On one side of the continuum, you can have a child resisting and refusing contact because there’s domestic violence, child abuse, child sexual abuse, and they’re actually trying to get away from an abusive parent. And those cases, we call them estrangement cases…

BEN: And, Randy, the word ‘justified’ is important there. When children reject a parent for a good reason.

RANDY: Right. So it’s a justified rejection and refusal based on their experience with that parent. On the other side of the continuum, is what we call parental alienation cases, where a child in an unjustified situation is rejecting a parent because they’re trying to remain loyal to the favored parent or they’re having a reaction to a high conflict and they can’t deal with the tension of that high conflict, that tribal atmosphere that high conflict parents create for the child. And so in order to reduce the tension and stress in their life, they choose a favored parent and reject a parent they historically had a decent relationship with.

BEN: A ‘good enough’ relationship. And ambivalence is hard. Being in that position is challenging for adults and even more so for children. So it’s easier just to pick a side, and to see things in a black and white way, as opposed to seeing all the variability.

The Value and Process of Parental Evaluations

CONNIE: Do you think it’s important for us to really try to figure out what’s the cause of the resistance that’s going on?

RANDY: Absolutely.

BEN: Sure. That definitely helps us fix whatever’s going on, or try to fix whatever’s going on. And the process of trying to figure that out is about process. It follows a model where we conduct interviews with the parties jointly and separately, and with the children, and there may be psychological testing, and parent-child observations, collateral interviews, collateral document reviews, a variety of things that help us arrive at a conclusion—before we make the determination as to what the problem actually is. We do that by considering multiple hypotheses. We don’t go into it looking for domestic violence or child abuse or parental alienation. We keep all of those options open until we have the data needed to make that determination.

RANDY: So many mistakes are made by good-intentioned therapists trying to work for the best interests of children. It’s important to know diagnostically why a child is rejecting and refusing, because if you don’t know the core and root issue for that rejection, then you’re likely to make a lot of mistakes. And if those mistakes are allowed to marinate for months and years, then it even makes it more difficult to undo it later on.

Psychological Testing and the Role it Plays in Parental Evaluations

BEN: A psychological evaluation does not tell us if someone has abused their children, does not tell us if they’ve perpetrated domestic violence or they’re engaging in alienating behaviors. But it does play a part in the overall assessment.

RANDY: We typically, I think, Ben and I, don’t see a lot of—as much value—in just having a psychological evaluation to evaluate [parental] fitness. Because typically, that is more looking at mental health issues. Not that we don’t see mental health problems when it comes to parenting fitness, but oftentimes, we’re seeing other types of situations as contributing to the problem. So our belief is that, the more expansive an evaluation is, beyond just looking at psychometrics and looking at psychological testing, the more valid and reliable an evaluation is to the courts and attorneys.

BEN: So we’re using various sources of data to arrive at our conclusions…always relying on multiple sources of data.

What Happens Once an Evaluation is Complete

CONNIE: What do you do once…you’ve done your evaluation? What are some common recommendations that you make to people going through this situation? How do you deal with the kids? How do you deal with the favored parent? How do you deal with the rejected parent?

BEN: It always depends on what we find in our evaluations. So, if it’s an estrangement case, we’ll look at ‘these’ options for treatment. In an alienation case, we’re going to look at different options. If it’s a hybrid case, we’ll look at both.

CONNIE: Hybrid case meaning a combination of both of them?

BEN: Of both estrangement and alienation.

CONNIE: How often do you see those kinds of cases, where it’s a hybrid and a combination?

RANDY: Actually, I mean again, it’s never—hybrid is not like 50/50—but a lot of times, you’ll see it dividing up 75/25, 80/20. Occasionally you have a slam dunk. It’s estrangement OR alienation. But oftentimes…a rejected parent responds poorly to the rejection, and then he or she starts being the kind of neglectful or abusive parent in the process, because they start personalizing the children’s rejection and refusal. And again, as a parent myself, I can understand how incredibly stressful and agonizing it is to have a child who you had this relationship with now saying they want nothing to do with you. But as a parent, you have to rise above what’s going on and still love them unconditionally.

The Cost of Not Evaluating Resist & Refusal Dynamics

ALLISON: What’s the result if there’s no intervention? I mean, we talk about the investment and this is a big investment. But what’s the result for a kid who grows up in this environment and there’s no intervention? There’s no court intervention, and nothing happens. What does that child look like as an adult?

BEN: Well, first, we look at biological parents generally as providing the greatest sources of social capital for children. Social capital referring to the psychological and social resources that a child grows up with and develops over time. So if a child is denied access to a good parent or a good-enough parent, then they’re denied access to that social capital. They grow up without that, and that has long-term consequences.

RANDY: And just the psychological impact when you’ve allowed a child to have their cognitive thinking crystallized in this black-and-white, polarized view, they end up actually having problems later on in their relationships. They end up becoming black-and-white and polarized in their thinking. So one day, their friend’s the greatest friend in the world, and they start experiencing tension and stress and problems in that relationship, and the only thing they know how to do is to make that friend a bad, bad friend. So how they’re experiencing and managing stress in their family of origin then gets transferred into their relationships with friends and then future intimate partners, and there’s been research to kind of follow those kind of problems. So there’s long-term impact on children.

Regarding the Need for More Mental Health Professionals Trained in High-Conflict Divorce Dynamics

ALLISON: What are the biggest mistakes that you see mental health professionals making in these types of cases?

BEN: The biggest—and we talk about this regularly—is that they don’t consider that there might be multiple hypotheses. They don’t consider that abuse AND alienation are both real things. And they go into it thinking that the only option is that this child has been abused or that alienation is the cause. On one hand, we risk exposing children to a potentially abusive parent, and nobody wants to do that. On the other hand, we run the risk of denying children access to a good or good-enough parent. And they both have risks associated with them.

RANDY: And I think as mental health counselors, the biggest mistake we see…is the infamous letter that’s written by a therapist who’s seeing the children, who’s hired by mom or hired by dad, who’s never, ever met the other parent and will write a scathing letter saying the children should not have access to this abusive parent they’ve never met. They get the children’s signs and symptoms contextualized from one parent, and then they write this letter. And most good judges and good attorneys—like you guys—will bring those letters to the judges and say, we need to just—what do you call it?—just discard it, or um, expunge it or—

CONNIE: Yeah, it’s all hearsay and it needs to not be written.

RANDY: So mental health professionals, again from good intentions—

CONNIE: Right.

RANDY: —but [also] lack of training…and it’s hopefully going to become increasingly unethical and maybe some malpractice will have to happen before we start training them at education levels to not write those letters.

CONNIE: Right. Yeah.

ALLISON: Yeah, exactly.

The Value of Collaboration

CONNIE: I think it’s so imperative on these kinds of really high-conflict cases that we have people like you guys who are trained in this area involved. Because every once in a while I’ll have an attorney that doesn’t really deal with a lot of these types of issues that will suggest somebody to me…because they’re the counselor down the street and they’ve known them and think they’re going to do an okay job, and that’s just not what happens in these kinds of cases. And then you know, sometimes, too, we hear that, oh, you know, we can’t send the whole case and the whole family over to Ben and Amy and Randy, because Amy might be doing—from your office—parenting time coordination, and you might be doing reunification, and Ben might be doing, you know, the evaluation itself, um…

ALLISON: All for the same family.

CONNIE: All for the same family, which I think is critical, and I don’t know why some judges and some lawyers are threatened by that. But in my world, having you guys all in one spot and to be able to collaborate and cross-talk about issues that you see really enhance the process rather than diminishing it.

RANDY: In a medical model, we see that as advantageous, when you get specialists. You know, you send someone to a Mayo Clinic or a Cleveland Clinic or whatever, because you have these multiple specialists who are working with the patient from various expertise, various roles professionally. And they touch the case, touch the family, touch the symptoms, and then they can have access to each other to talk, challenge each other, have competing theories, in the room together, to try to get the best outcome. That’s what we have at Fountain Hill. We love to argue with each other.

CONNIE: Yes, you do! I can attest to that.

RANDY: We challenge each other. But it’s the ability to be in the same building and have meetings where we can talk about a case and challenge each other. If we have some psychologist from across town, it doesn’t mean that I’m [not] going to challenge them because they’re not in the same building; it’s just that we’ve got to find time to talk, which is more difficult.

CONNIE: Yeah, and I think that that’s sort of a concept that a lot of lawyers and some judges don’t understand, and so I think it’s good that you speak to that, too.

BEN: Because that’s different than with attorneys. If you represent somebody, then nobody else in your firm can represent the opposite party. It’s different in mental health.

About Equine Therapy

CONNIE: What’s the deal with this equine therapy?

RANDY: Basically, it’s experiential therapy. In some of these cases, you have to bypass the narrative, bypass the cognitions… Talk therapy doesn’t work because they’ve been—as we’ve talked about, I used the metaphor of marinating—in something for too long. So you get them out of the narrative, and you get them back into experiencing the relationship. And you use equine therapy as a medium for them to begin to interact with each other, and try to resolve, you know, tasks in the stables together, and just be together in their physicality and try to experience things without having to talk about the problem. Sometimes that can be a medium, or a way, to intervene and try to make progress better than just meeting in an office once a week for an hour.

Long-Term Outcomes

ALLISON: What can lawyers and the courts and judges do better to aid in this process, and what do you see as the failures of the court system?

BEN: Early intervention is important. We can try and head these families off, earlier on, getting evaluations when needed, and then following up with accountability. Having reasonable access to the judge. If consequences are needed for one parent or the other not following through, or violating the order, then, you know, we need rapid access to the judge to mitigate that. And, you know, one judge, for the family.

CONNIE: Yeah, which is what we’ve really started to do here in Michigan.

To learn more about parental alienation, estrangement, parent-child reunification, psychological testing, and other court-related services available to families involved in high-conflict divorce, access the full conversation here. Or contact the Fountain Hill Center at (616) 456-1178 or