Vincent Papaleo
Clinical Psychologist
81 Denmark St
Kew, 3101
Tel 98539022
[email protected]
Wilhelm Reich 1949
“ …. a certain personality type amongst divorced
parents who defended themselves from
narcissistic injury by fighting the other parent to
rob that parent the pleasure of the child
Wallerstein and Kelly (1990)
“ ….. An Unholy alliance between a
narcissistically enraged parent and a vulnerable
child who together waged war in order to hurt
the other parent.”
Ticknore and Fields 1989
“ the Medea Syndrome” to describe the parent
who seeks revenge on their former spouse, to
destroy the relationship with the other parent
Richard Gardiner
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)
• process that arose exclusively in the context of
custody disputes
• pattern of denigration by a child against a
previously loved parent that has no
Narcissistic Injury
Narcissistic Personality Traits
Lacking a well-established self identify
relying on primitive defenses
PAS Symptoms
• combination of programming or brainwashing
by an indoctrinating parent
• contribution by the child themselves to
account for the vilification of the targeted
PAS Behavioural presentation
Appeared to share a common Pathogenesis
borrowed scenarios
a lack of ambivalence
complete rejection of a once loved and cared for
• an alarming level of dispassion and indifference
• Children show Phobic like reactions
Core Presumption
• there is an unspoken but clear expectation by
the favoured parent that the child reject the
now alienated parent
• the clear understanding that should they not
do so, that they too will face rejection,
removal of love or abandonment by the
favoured parent.
Kelly and Johnston (2004)
• reformulated systemic model
• more sophisticated multifactorial perspective
• looked less at a linear causality
• more at an interactional model to explain why
a child rejected a parent following separation
A Systemic Perspective
• The behavior of the favoured parent and rejected
• Parents’ relationship with the child before and after
• Level of parental competence
• History of family violence and, or neglect
• contribution of the legal process
• influence of extended family and friends
The Child’s Contribution
Kelly and Johnston proposed a model that looked at
the interaction of all these factors along a
Importantly they considered the vulnerabilities
within the child themselves
psychological and developmental factors
Greater Nuance
• the systemic model conceptualized that the
behavior of the favored parent was one, but
not necessarily the main component in
understanding the child and parent problems.
Fiddler, Bala and Saini. (2013)
• Johnston quoted …. I prefer to keep the term
“Alienation” for what a parent does, which I
think is emotionally abusive”.
Normal Divorce Reactions
• rejection of a parent to some degree is common in
• there are normal affinities
• It is normal for some children to support one parent more
• not all rejected parents are passive victims
• family violence, emotional, physical and sexual abuse do occur
• neglectful parenting and parental abuse are all reasonable justifications
for why a child may not want to see a parent
• Some rejected parents do provide a genuinely compromised level of
• Some are active architects of their own demise.
The Facts Remain …….
Alienation is:
• easy to observe
• easy to describe
• its behavioral manifestations are familiar
• there is no consistent pathogenesis.
• each family brings with it a unique set of dynamics
• There is hardly any predictive reliability to what
cases will and will not traverse down the path of
• Hard to treat
Short and long term Effects
heightened levels of anxiety,
lower levels of self esteem,
lessened social competence,
higher risks of depression
generally lowered psychological functioning across
• extends into adulthood and subsequent parenting.
• There is general consensus that the long-term
implications are sufficient to warrant active and
determined intervention.
Therapeutic Successes
• Success is more limited to those cases described
in the literature as mild and moderate in severity
Efficacy of change of Custody
Reversal of living arrangements
Usefulness and role of therapy
Sensibility of maintaining the status quo
These cases are Hard!
• Courts seem unable to deal with the problems
• Courts become very concerned about the
combination of developmental and health issues,
especially when compounded by the allegations
of abuse
• Distinctions between abuse and alienation can be
difficult and especially when both alienation and
abuse appear together
Points of Distinction
• alienation is different to normal reasons for why a
child might reject a parent.
• Alienation is different to estrangement
• Alienation involves a message of restraint,
regardless of the extent to which the rejected parent
may have contributed to their own predicament
• Alienation entails a significant level of influence
• Usually a combination of:
– Legal
– Education
– Psychological
– Works best for mild to moderate problems
when refusal is mainly related to affinities,
age and gender issues
when the rejection is related to circumstances of divorce
these families benefit enormously from psychological
– Especially with the over riding imprimatur of the Court.
Goal of treatment
foster a positive relationship between both parents
help reestablish functional parental roles
help the child develop less black and white thinking
more realistic perceptions within the family
addressing historical inaccuracies
encouraging development of a full range of affect
finding a middle space
Increase flexible thinking.
Get parents and children in to treatment
Traditionally successful techniques
– cognitive behavior therapy,
– family therapy
– family based interactional therapies.
The Severe End of the Continuum
• What distinguishes these cases is their
impenetrability and immutability to change
• may be that more severe cases reflect a
different underlying pathology and
pathological processes that are more than just
greater severity, than less difficult cases
These cases are High Risk
• running away
• violent and aggressive towards the rejected
• place demands on the most resourced of
• intervention has a window of opportunity and
a use by date.
Family Bridges Program
• In an attempt understand and explain what he
observed, Warshak (2010) looked to the
existing body of Psychological and Social
neuro-science in order to understand and
explain what he observed and then direct how
to intervene
Genuine Alienation
Fundamental to all cases involving rejection of a parent by a
child is consideration of the amount of the influence of one
parent on that child.
Reicht (1949)
Wallerstein and Kelly (1980)
Tickmore and James (1989)
Gardiner (1985)
Johnston and Kelly (2001)
The alliance between a narcissistically inclined parent and
the child
There is a Power Differential
• The Favoured parent is in a more dominant
• The alienation involves a child who is in a less
dominant and subordinant position
• There is a power differential between parent and
• The distortion of family hierarchy elevates the
level of dominance of the child in the family
system to equal and above that of the rejected
The Level of Influence
• An increasingly nuanced and sophisticated
understanding and intervention in mild and
moderate cases.
• this has not been the case in relation to the more
severe cases
• What these cases have in common is
– the level and process of influence by one parent
– that child’s perceptions, independent of that child’s
past relationship with the other parent.
Old Ideas
• The ability to influence the behavior of another person because of
the unspoken feelings and communication by that person is also a
process well documented in psychological literature.
Folie a Deux
Emotional Contagion
Double Bind Communication
Projective Identification
Social referencing
Rosenthal Effect
Laseque and Fulnet in 1887
• first described a case of folie a deux
• entailed that transmission of delusional beliefs
from a psychotic individual to a healthy family
• They describe this syndrome as characterized
by the emergence of the same symptoms in
family members who “ …. are emotionally very
close and psychologically entwined.
Soriano, R.M. (2009)
• When describing a paranoid disorder (Folie a
deux) between two sisters, concluded:
“ …. an induced delusional disorder most often
occurs between a group of people who share
close relationship bonds and mostly family ties.”
• .... even though epidemiology remains
unclear, these people who develop this faulty
thinking share a close co-existence and
intimate emotional links, a distorted set of
beliefs that are plausible, based on past
events, and that the person in whom these
faulty beliefs are induced has an easily
influential personality ….
…. treatment should begin with the separation
of the induced from the inducer.
Emotional Contagion
• The transmission of faulty beliefs shows
features of emotional contagion
• usually involves a dominant person impinging
their beliefs on a subordinate person
The Common Behavioural features
• a child’s reconstruction of reality
• Phobic like behaviour toward a once loved parent
• based upon plausible but highly exaggerated content
• that has often been obtained to a larger or lesser extent
from the other parent
• disproportionate beliefs about the other parent and their
capacity to do harm or damage to the child or to the
favored parent,
• there is often heavy reliance upon borrowed scenarios
• that is an incorporation of fact, information that has been told to
them in the third person,
• common is the independent thinker phenomenon
• the presentation of their reality is often grossly disturbed and
• any challenge to this construction is met with angry and often
frenzied denial about any influence from the other parent
• in the vast majority of these cases the child previously had at least
a good enough relationship with the parent who is now vilified and
The Need to Reconceptualize the
Behaviour of the Favoured parent
• The parent who simply supports the child’s right to choose
• who overly includes the child in discussion about the other
• denigrates of the other parent
• The unspoken disapproval or threat of rejection, removal of
love or abandonment should they have a relationship with
the other parent
• directly contributing to the psychological alteration of their
child’s experience.
A Subtle, but Pathognomonic
Communication Style
Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch (1974)
Change – Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution
• double bind communication
• Most will also have experienced directly the double bind when the
words that the child hears convey the message that they should go
• the posture, facial expressions, communicated ambivalence and
tone clearly communicates the message don’t go.
Gregory Bateson 1972 – Steps to an
Ecology of Mind
• The double bind creates an impossible situation.
• The Child connects to and “hears” the unspoken
• Postulated - The double bind theory of of mental illness
• may be particularly relevant when conceptualizing of
this kind of disturbance.
• Two messages heard simultaneously
• When confronted with such emotional conflict and
anxiety, the child becomes emotionally immobilized
and survival in that sense may require a splitting off of
one reality in favor of another.
• Split the world in to Good and Bad
– You are with me or you are against me
– There is no room for ambivalence!
Projective Identification
• The psychological depositing of unspoken feelings into
the child who then acts upon these feelings as thought
they belong to them.
• These children act upon these feelings as though they
are real and emanate from within themselves.
• The emotional experience that is deposited into them
even though at one level is alien to them, becomes
infectious to the point that it cannot be contained.
Social referencing
• the tendency for people to look to significant others in ambiguous
situations in order to obtain clarifying information about the situation.
• Young children look to the facial expressions, tone of voice, physical
posturing and by reading their parent’s faces in order to get a sense of
what is occurring and what that parent is feeling in order to make a
decision about what is and is not safe.
• Every person involved in the assessment of these difficult cases will
have observed a child look to a parent to obtain non-verbal instruction
about how to behave and whether to go to the other parent.
The Rosenthal effect
• expectations placed on a person be they positive or
negative, influence that person and their behavior
• the ability to influence the behavior of others based on
the unspoken communication or feelings about the
• a person’s strongly held views, attitudes and beliefs can
influence the behavior of people around them in ways
that that the person is not even aware.
• A more pathological process
• one person is controlled and manipulated by
another who is themselves effected with a
pathological condition such as narcissism.
• Narcissistic Insult – Reicht, Wallerstein, Kelly
The Continuum
• As a social process, the Rosenthal effect and
social referencing, and double bind
communication given tangible examples of how
non-verbal, unspoken expectation can clearly
communicate, direct and in some ways control
the behavior of others without the spoken word.
• Co-dependent relationships and Folie a Deux are
much more pathological
• Shared madness
The Common features?
• Common to all these processes
– close and intimate relationships,
– close physical proximity,
– dominant and subordinate relationships
– may reflect the dynamic most evident in cases of
severe alienation
Emotional Contagion
• The Importance of Social Neuroscience
• a process in which a person or a group influences
the emotions or the behavior of another person
or group through the conscious or the
unconscious induction of emotional states and
• It describes a process that entails a transfer of
moods and is connected to empathy and
• Emotional contagion is particularly evident in
the behavior of children who are observed to
become distressed when another becomes
distressed or happy when another is happy
• It reflects an emotional capacity to influence
the behavior of others and reflects the use of
emotion-like language in every day
• How we feel affects what we do
• The question is “How do we get that feeling in
the first place?”
• In cases of extreme alienation.
• It is often difficult for children who are the
subject of alienation to describe the changing
nature of their relationship with a previously
loved parent.
• They proclaim independence and typically
attribute blame to the rejected parent for often
trivial and frivolous reasons.
social neuro-science
• emotional contagion involves the mirroring of
how others feel
• We use mirror neurons in the front part of our
brain to mediate our social functioning
• Mirror neurons allow us to pick up subtle
social signals about how other people feel
that function outside of consciousness
• The mirror neurons mirror in our heads what
we are noticing in the social context and
explain emotional states of catching, even
more than thoughts and language.
• It is a common experience that people’s
feelings in a room or a social context become
caught by others and especially when those
people have a high status
• The more high status a person, the more
contagious their emotions because those who
are subordinate look to them for cues
• The overlap with this social psychology finding
and the observation of a child in the company
of a favored parent communicating
disapproval for the rejected parent should be
• The overlap with this social psychology finding and the
observation of a child in the company of a favored parent
communicating disapproval for the rejected parent should
be obvious.
• The more high status the person, the more that person’s
mood affects what happens around them.
• Subordinate children may read the signals and act
• If the dominant person is not able to
acknowledge their emotional state,
• then the more subordinate person will
incorporate this state and act upon it as though it
is their own although the origin of those feelings
will remain foreign to them.
• Emotions that are the most contagious are fear
and anger.
Emotional Contagion
emotional contagion is less conscious
more automatic
relies on non-verbal communication
mimics the emotional expressions of the
• picked up by the receiver.

Mon 1330 G04 Papaleo - Syd PPS