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Parental Alienation: Projective Identification & Provoked Target Parents

Parental Alienation: Projective Identification & Provoked Target Parents

(your ex-spouse may be faking it on the looking good scale)

Counseling Assessment,  Assignment  2

Paper for Graduate Class

by Monika Logan, LBSW

 No one disputes that many marriages end in divorce. A portion of these un-happy endings will result in blame, court battles, and bitterness. According to The Center for Divorce Education 10% of divorces are considered high-conflict. The couples that cannot end their divorce by agreeable terms do a great disservice to their children. Frequently, one parent turns a child against the other parent. As a result, the child may reject a once loved parent.  This phenomenon has been described in the literature for over 60 years and has been debated for about the last 15 years. It was coined in the 1980s by Dr. Gardner, as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Out of a rejection for the medical model, it is frequently referred to Parental Alienation (PA). As a caveat, PA and PAS are frequently used interchangeably by the lay person and in various professional circles.  Nevertheless, PA is a growing dilemma. Especially problematic is when the alignment becomes so entrenched that children join forces with one parent to completely reject and denigrate the other, once-loved parent. (Warshak, 2001; Baker & Andre, 2009; Darnall, 1998; Wallerstein & Kelly 1980).  This denigration may lead to a loss of extended family and severed relationships.

Not only is PA an increasing problem for families; it is contentious among professionals. Some clinicians are staunch supporters of the concept that multiple factors contribute to PA. Their clinical work includes samples of divorced families whose children reject them for valid, but nonetheless poignant reasons such as physical abuse, normal developmental phases, or in cases where a parent is an alcoholic.  One view (Johnston, 2001) offered is from a family systems’ perspective indicating that PA has many contributing factors. I agree that many factors may lead to estrangement and interrupt, if not destroy, a parent child relationship. Conversely, I propose that it is possible for one parent to harbor hate and resentment towards another; the detestation can be manifested in such a way that a child may suddenly reject a parent that they previously loved.  Irrational alienation is possible.

 According to Gardner’s formulation, “alienated parents are innocent of any behavior that justifies their children’s total alienation from them. If a parent’s behavior does warrant the children’s alienation, this is not a case of PAS” (Warshak, 2001). I agree with Warshak (2002), “When there is no brainwashing parent there is no PAS.” Clearly, it is ideal that the conflict between the parents that prevents the children from having a meaningful relationship should be addressed (Jaffe, Ashbourne, & Mamo, 2010). Yet, the stark reality is that “a minority of parents who suffer from personality and mental disorders may ignore the court and spend their waking hours finding ways to exhaust the other parent emotionally and financially” (Jaffe, et al., 2010).

 I consider that some parents’ cannot move on with life and may not recover from a divorce.  Clearly, alienating parents may benefit from counseling and divorce education programs. However, it is also possible that some will not benefit. A number of alienating parents defy court orders and do not believe that he or she has any parenting deficits. When custody battles enter the court, psychological testing may be administered.   One commonly utilized objective [italics added] test is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2). A study by Gordon, Stoffey & Bottinelli (2010) employed this test to determine differences in  primitive defenses such as splitting and projective identification, between cases of PAS and those without PAS. Gordon et al. (2010) defines projective identification as “when one denies personal faults, and projects them on to another and then treats and provokes that person accordingly” ( ¶ 2, p. 225). The concept of splitting is viewed as extreme black and white thinking. As an example, of splitting, alienating parents would describe their ex-spouse as a “bad parent” with no room for human error. In turn, alienating parents indoctrinate innocent children into believing mom or dad is a sorry no-good for nothing of a parent.

 Gordon et al. (2010) utilized a sample of 158 MMPI-2s from seven forensic psychology practices. Their study consisted of 76 cases of PAS; the control group consisted of 82 cases in which PAS was not present. The authors note, “because of the heated environment surrounding PAS fueled by a number of competing interest groups, only accumulated objective findings can fairly assess PAS” (Gordon et al., 2010). Their research consisted of two traditional validity indexes. The first included: ( L) Lie + (K) Correction for Defensiveness — (F) Unusual Psychopathology as a measure of primitive defenses. Gordon et al. (2010) notes that although L+K–F adds little additional independent information from the individual scales, this index has retest reliability greater than that of the individual scales (¶ 1, p. 216). The scale can measure the denial of aggressive motives. The authors additionally point out that the LFK relationship corresponds to the defense mechanism of splitting. The second utilized was the Goldberg Index: (Lie + Paranoia + Schizophrenia) – (Hysteria + Psychasthenia). Incorporating two indexes allows for measurement of “primitive defenses in different ways” (Gordon et al. 2010, ¶ 2, p. 217).

As the purpose of the assignment is to evaluate testing, provide my opinion and a personal reaction; I will not detail findings for all three hypothesis as listed by Gordon (2010) et. al.  For starters, I agree with the authors “the MMPI-2 proved to be a valuable research instrument in assessing primitive defenses” (¶ 3, p. 225). This test measured what it intended to measure. The combination of LFK provides insight regarding admission of lying, a tendency to spin answers, and if someone is “faking bad” for special attention (Neukrug & Fawcett, 2010). This test is also useful for the clinical scales. I concur, that multiple assessment measures should be used. Special caution is in order when the issue at hand is a child’s life. High-conflict custody decisions should be made by those with high standards, adherence to ethical standards, extensive training, and out-right common sense.  

It appears that the MMPI-2 is complementary to clinical interviews, self-reports, and observations. It is not in the child’s best interest to base custody solely on an adolescent’s voiced wish. While Texas law specifies that adolescents may choose; it seems logical that evaluators would realize that a child may be enticed into saying what one parent has taught them. Or, as another example, the adolescent may desire to live where more freedom and material benefit is granted. In cases of Parental Alienation, multiple measures are necessary. In Dr. Richard Warshak’s book, Divorce Poison, How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing (2010) a disheartening story is provided regarding a twelve- year- old girl that had an inexperienced social worker. The girl wrote her mother a letter and reported that she no longer desired a relationship. The girl’s reasoning was that the mother did not treat her with respect and treated her like a baby (p. 36). This was a case of Parental Alienation in which the father had provided instruction on writing the letter. The social worker in this case recommended that the mother get counseling to learn to deal with teenagers. This social workers failure to include multiple assessments and sound reasoning caused great harm. The outcome was a loss of mother daughter relationship. 

 The MMPI-2 sheds light on the fact that rejected parents, contrary to some findings, are not necessarily part of the problem. In no doubt there may be multiple contributing factors for a child to be estranged from a parent. Yet, I suggest that one person causes Parental Alienation; a bitter ex-spouse.  Pathological parents poison their children’s mind and destroy their souls. Gordon, Stoffey and Bottinelli (2008) findings suggest that rejected parents do not favor primitive defenses. As I support the idea that rejected parents in custody litigation are not psychologically different than parents in intact marriages; their research supported my reasoning. They found that alienating parents (both mothers and fathers) had higher T scores compared to the control group (comprised of mothers and fathers) who were in the normal range.

  I was not surprised by the findings.  It is not mind-boggling that one parent via words and actions can turn a child against another parent. This research exposed the poor emotional boundaries between alienating parents and their children. The authors note, “The sharing of primitive defenses helps the child maintain a pathological symbiosis with the idealized alienating parent who is seen as all good while the target parent is seen as all bad” (¶ 5, p. 225). At this point in my graduate studies, I deem that the MMPI-2 augments other assessment measures. In addition to other measures, assessment requires sound reasoning, reflection, and regard.

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Categories: Professionals
  1. ebonyunkle
    March 30, 2010 at 12:38 PM

    This is very informative and educating article. It is very unfortunate the situation here in the UK is still not able to acknowledge PA/PAS is real psychologially/medically let alone on an informal basis. The Family Courts and supporting agencies remain oblivious, if not hostile to this advanced study and findings by otherwise emminent experienced learned professionals. Has anyone out there got any suggestion how one can get support or access to help with this subject in the UK. I am someone who is currently experiencing the early stages of PA as my son was only 2yrs old when separated. Its now close to 7mths and the other parent is refusing any form of contact, and in a very hostile manner too. Plse HELP!

  2. March 30, 2010 at 12:48 PM

    I am very sorry to read about your situation. Believe me, you are not alone. For starters, you might check out some of the facebooks such as target parent society, parents against parental alienation post your question there. Or, there are on-line groups such as PAPA that you can join. In addition, you might check out http://www.warshak.com the author of Divorce Poison–this is an excellent book that does not sugar coat the situation. It is very practical and applicable. Also, Dr. Michael Bone has a facebook and web page. Check all of these out. Best of luck to you.

  3. Jenna
    February 24, 2012 at 2:31 AM

    After 25 years of marriage, I filed for divorce. Since then my adult son and daughter (23 & 25 yrs old) have cut me totally off. They are filled with hatred and nothing I do seems to reach them. Before this we had a warm and loving relationship. Now I can do nothing right, their father can do nothing wrong and their perception of things both past and present aren’t even close to the truth. Is there any support groups dealing with adult onset PAS?

  4. February 24, 2012 at 4:53 AM

    Hi Jenna, you may want to visit Dr. Joshua Coleman’s web-site. His page is http://www.drjoshuacoleman.com/ as you have adult children, his site may be helpful. Or, you can search “support groups for estrangement.” Best of luck to you!

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