Home > Public Distortion > Blinded, Bound, and Burdened: Parental Alienation and Two Theories– The Double Bind & Cognitive Dissonance.

Blinded, Bound, and Burdened: Parental Alienation and Two Theories– The Double Bind & Cognitive Dissonance.

Blinded, Bound, and Burdened: Parental Alienation and Two Theories– The Double Bind & Cognitive Dissonance by Monika

A double bind was first described by Gregory Bateson in the 1950s.  Bateson did not invent the double bind, but he was the first to describe the dilemma. What is a double bind and how is related to parental alienation? I will borrow the definition from Wikipedia. Obviously, I could refer readers to studies that high-light Bateson’s observations.  However, as many misinformed groups decide to dismiss Dr. Gardner’s empirical findings, it appears reality and reason is not always a concern.   

A double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, in which one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will be automatically wrong regardless of response. The double bind occurs when the person cannot confront the inherent dilemma, and therefore cannot resolve it or opt out of the situation (Wikipedia).

An alienated child is in a double bind.  As an example, a child arrives home smiling, eager to report about the great time spent with dad. Unfortunately, the mother never recovered from the divorce. She certainly does not want to hear about her former spouse. As the child starts discussing the good time at dads, the mother’s emotions begin to fester. She yells at the child. Next, she walks over  and holds  the child tightly. She glares into the child’s eyes, informing this just seconds ago happy child, that she does not want to hear about time with daddy. The child, startled, starts to cry. In turn, the mother acts concerned, at least for the moment. After that, she places  her arms around the child, giving an affectionate hug. All is well– at least for a moment.  The hug temporarily soothed the child. The mother realized the hug worked. Consequently, to gain back the unholy alignment she desperately craves, she  appears  teary eyed. As her eyes water up with tears, she looks at the child and says, it is okay to talk about time at dad’s house, but that it hurts mommy very much to hear about dad. Mother then smiles, and states, “hey lets go buy that $100 doll/ truck you have been wanting.”

Double binds are often utilized as a form of control without open coercion—the use of confusion makes them difficult to respond to or resist (Wikipedia).

A double bind generally includes different levels of abstraction in orders of messages, and these messages can be stated or implicit within the context of the situation, or conveyed by tone of voice or body language. Further complications arise when frequent double binds are part of an ongoing relationship to which the person or group is committed. (Wikipedia). One does not need an explanation—further complications will arise.  As a parent child relationship is ongoing, the child is committed and bound to live in perpetual emotional abuse. Because parental alienation does not include situations of physical abuse or neglect, the parent-child relationship will remain (with the favored parent).   

The double bind is often misunderstood to be a simple contradictory situation, where the victim is trapped by two conflicting demands. While it’s true that the core of the double bind is two conflicting demands, the differences lie in how they are imposed on the victim, what the victim’s understanding of the situation is and finally, who (or what) imposes these demands upon the victim. Unlike the usual no-win situation, the victim has difficulty defining the exact nature of the paradoxical situation in which he or she is. The contradiction may be unexpressed in its immediate context and therefore is invisible to external observers, only becoming evident when a prior communication is considered. Typically, a demand is imposed upon the victim by someone who they respect (a parent, teacher or doctor), but the demand itself is inherently impossible to fulfill because some broader context forbids it. For example, when a person in a position of authority imposes two contradictory conditions but there is an unspoken rule that one must never question authority (Wikipedia).

Gregory Bateson and his colleagues defined the double bind as follows:

  1. The situation involves two or more people, one of whom (for the purpose of the definition), is designated as the “victim”. The others are people who are considered the victim’s superiors: figures of authority (such as parents), whom the victim respects.
  2. Repeated experience: the double bind is a recurrent theme in the experience of the victim, and as such, cannot be resolved as a single traumatic experience.
  3. A “primary injunction” is imposed on the victim by the others in one of two forms:
    • (a) “Do X, or I will punish you”;
    • (b) “Do not do X, or I will punish you”.
    • (or both a and b)

The punishment may include the withdrawing of love, the expression of hate and anger, or abandonment resulting from the authority figure’s expression of helplessness.


For a double bind to be effective, the victim must be unable to confront or resolve the conflict between the demand placed by the primary injunction and that of the secondary injunction. In this sense, the double bind differentiates itself from a simple contradiction to a more inexpressible internal conflict, where the victim really wants to meet the demands of the primary injunction, but fails each time through an inability to address the situation’s incompatibility with the demands of the secondary injunction. Thus, victims may express feelings of extreme anxiety in such a situation, as they attempt to fulfill the demands of the primary injunction albeit with obvious contradictions in their actions. (Wikipedia)

Double binds can be extremely stressful and become destructive when one is trapped in a dilemma and punished for finding a way out. (Wikipedia). An alienated child does not have a way out. Sometimes claiming to love the other parent may cause the other parent to flee the country with the child. At minimum, the parent will become enraged and  engage in a full campaign of denigration.

The classic example given of a negative double bind is of a mother telling her child that she loves him or her, while at the same time turning away in disgust. (The words are socially acceptable; the body language is in conflict with it). The child doesn’t know how to respond to the conflict between the words and the body language and, because the child is dependent on the mother for basic needs, he or she is in a quandary. Small children have difficulty articulating contradictions verbally and can neither ignore them nor leave the relationship. (Wikipedia).

For some time, the word “theory” has been scrutinized. Many hurting parents have been told that their pain is nothing more than a theory. A theory does not equate made up junk science. On the contrary, it is a way to organize and verify information. In fact, given the double bind theory, another theory comes to mind. One wonders, if this situation is repeated, what possibilities the child may use to organize this information. Coming to mind is cognitive dissonance. Yes, another theory.

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. I may be wrong, but hearing that it is okay and both not okay to discuss a good time at dads house, the child may feel conflicted. What is the child to do?  The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

 In cases of parental alienation, the child may adopt a hateful attitude. The child is both internally motivated from the emotional roller coaster of the favored parent and externally motivated by fear of abandonment.  Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. The alienated child, may say something such as, “we no longer like daddy, he left us.” Most realize if this child were age six, the statement is borrowed (dad left mom, not the child).  It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology. Parental alienation is also an extensively studied “theory”. Dr. Gardner identified eight manifestations that child may display. I included two of the many methods that may lead to parental alienation syndrome that are borrowed from the others theories. Please click here for peer-review studies.  

Caveat: Parental alienation is gender neutral. Both men and woman are alienated parents–the children suffer. Please pray for alienated children and their families.
Categories: Public Distortion
  1. March 8, 2011 at 3:16 PM

    Monika-Thanks for the article. I had to read it twice, but now I can see how complicated these underlying verbal/non-verbal messages are for children to decipher. This type of situation is mentally challenging for an adult to deal with, much less a child.

  2. March 8, 2011 at 3:31 PM

    Thanks Chelsey: It may be one manner in which “covert” alienating parents operate. The above example of the mother, behaviors were carried out without one bad word about the childs father. She simply conveyed the message that it hurts to hear about daddy. What is a child to do? . Parents such as in this example get to shurg his/her shoulders, smirk and say, “what did I do?; the child does not like you.”

  3. M. Annabelle Twilley
    March 8, 2011 at 5:47 PM

    Bateson’s double-bind theory, and how Watzlawick elaborated on both how it works in relationships, has been very important in Family Therapy and Systems for some time. I found it very useful in trying to figure out my own reactions and responses when figuring out some “best way” to approach my ex-husband when something needed to be done. It worked by getting me to give up that impossible challenge, and just do what I thought best according to my own ethics. As watzlawick said, we do not have to “play the game”. I wasn’t supposed to “win” and really I didn’t need to. I would really like to see more of the work with this “theory” being applied to PA/PAS, especially in helping parents reconcile with badly alienated children.

  4. Cindy
    March 8, 2011 at 10:06 PM

    Monika, you should have this published as well! So many still think only mothers alienate. Send it to ACA, maybe flipflop the roles…. Love it! Makes so much sense! Thanks for sharing!

    • March 8, 2011 at 11:02 PM

      Thanks Cindy, The association captures the nuances of the favored parent. Most rejected parents know that the favored parent overtly alienates via badmouthing. Others, such as the aforementioned example, use subtleties that go unnoticed. As a graduate student, I will not have much of a chance getting it published, but I am praying researchers studying parental alienation will make the connection. Or, later on it may be a good idea for a dissertation.

  5. September 20, 2011 at 4:39 PM

    I loved this article. It explained alot…and gives me an idea of how to move on with Meg now that I have her fulltime.

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