The role of domestic violence in parental alienation

Parental alienation is the enactment of power and control over a targeted parent through a child or children by an alienating parent. To that extent, it falls within the widely accepted definitions of domestic violence and abuse (i) which are enshrined in legislation and policy around the world. However, in our experience, whilst domestic violence and abuse may be recognised as an element of the relationship between parents in dispute over children matters, the professionals who advise the courts rarely, if ever, approach the case with an understanding that a child’s rejecting position may be the extension of a pattern of domestic abuse that has been present between the parents whilst the family was together.

Around the world, domestic violence and abuse is almost exclusively set within a feminist framework which argues that it is ‘a consequence of the inequalities between men and women, rooted in patriarchal traditions that encourage men to believe they are entitled to power and control over their partners’ (ii). Indeed, the 1993 United Nations resolution (iii), the first international human rights instrument to exclusively and explicitly address the issue, defined domestic violence and abuse as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women’. This both reflects and reinforces the belief and the standpoint that domestic violence and abuse is perpetrated by men against women. So widely is this narrative believed, so often is it repeated and so powerfully does it match the stereotypes about gender behaviours and relationships that the international research goes almost unnoticed. So, what does the research tell us?

Contrary to the orthodox belief, the international research clearly demonstrates that domestic violence and abuse is not a problem rooted in gender power imbalances. For example, a 2014 report (iv) published in the United Kingdom which examined the male control theory of men’s partner violence, concluded that, ‘contrary to the male control theory, women were found to be more physically aggressive to their partners than men were,’ and that, ‘using Johnson’s typology (v), women were more likely than men to be classed as “intimate terrorists,” which was counter to earlier findings.’ They conclude by suggesting that their findings do not support the male control theory of intimate partner violence (IPV), but that they ‘fit the view that IPV does not have a special etiology, and is better studied within the context of other forms of aggression.’ Similarly, the respected US experts Joan Kelly and Michael Johnson suggest that the data supports claims ‘that women both initiate violence and participate in mutual violence and that, particularly in teenage and young adult samples, women perpetrate violence against their partners more frequently than do the men’ (vi). Significantly, a 2007 study (vii) in the United States found that almost 24% of all relationships had some violence, and half (49.7%) of those were reciprocally violent. It found that in non-reciprocally violent relationships, women were the perpetrators in more than 70% of the cases. However, it found that men were more likely to inflict injury than women were. These, and many, many other studies demonstrate very clearly that, rather than domestic violence and abuse being a gender issue, it is a result of issues such as individual pathology, substance misuse and relationship dysfunction and that women and men both inflict it and are subject to it.

In their important work (referred to above), Joan Kelly and Michael Johnson argue that empirical research has demonstrated that intimate partner violence is not a unitary phenomenon and propose a differentiation approach to family violence and abuse that recognises four types that can be differentiated with respect to partner dynamics, context, and consequences. These, they describe as Coercive Controlling Violence, Violent Resistance, Situational Couple Violence, and Separation-Instigated Violence (we would use the term violence and abuse in all of the categories except Violent Resistance).

Coercive controlling violence and abuse occurs when one parent controls the other through fear, physical harm, mental and emotional harm or psychological threat. In these cases, there is a clear power imbalance in the relationship. Situational couple violence and abuse occurs as fights between couples where both are involved. It may be recurring or ‘one off’ in nature and usually causes shame and embarrassment. Separation instigated violence and abuse (i.e. that which can accompany a divorce or separation) occurs at the end of a relationship and, whilst it may cause distress, it is not experienced as control. It often involves violence on the part of both parents, both physical and verbal fighting and parents, again, will often feel ashamed and uncomfortable. Violent resistance is the use of violence to resist a violent or coercively controlling partner. It may be almost automatic and surfaces almost as soon as the coercively controlling and violent partner begins to use physical violence. Our practice tells us that, in cases where violence and abuse is either the cause, or is a contributing factor, in a child’s rejecting position, it is that which falls into the coercive controlling violence and abuse category that is at play. By extension, it must be recognised that not all types of domestic violence and abuse can be assumed to be the cause of alienation.

In looking at this category more closely and in examining how it is a constituent part of parental alienation, we consider that the exercising of coercive power and control by one parent over another is invariably reflective of a learned family narrative that is passed down through the generations and it is, therefore, within this framework that we examine the potential for domestic violence or abuse to have played a part in causing or contributing to a child’s rejecting position. Gendered models of violence or abuse, such as a patriarchal analysis, leads to omission of critical aspects of understanding. It conceptualises women’s and children’s experience as being the same rather than different and legitimises or dismisses women’s use of violence against men and against their children. Worse than this, it transmits generational trauma and prevents an interruption of the cycle of power and control through the resolving of trauma patterns. Understanding how power and control plays itself out in the family means understanding dysfunction and how the use of violence to uphold power and control, whether that is physical, emotional or psychological, is woven into both the horizontal and vertical relationship patterns.

Working within an understanding that domestic violence and abuse and, in particular that which takes the form of coercive control, is a generational issue rather than a gender issue, it is important to examine and understand the specific family and the specific family dynamics and to recognise and understand the unspoken messages that play themselves out in the family drama. In exploring whether domestic violence or abuse is either the cause of, or is a contributing factor in, alienation, it is necessary to analyse the family history of both parents, the attachment patterns of children and parents in those family systems, parental behaviours, and power and control patterns. This is known as psycho-genealogy and it is an extremely important tool in understanding your own alienation experience.

A Generational Model of analysis of power and control patterns looks for the presence of unresolved trauma, personality disorder, a lack of empathy, poor interpersonal skills, abandonment issues and an inability to manage rage. Importantly, it recognises that power and control through violence is a learned behaviour transmitted in childhood experiences of being parented and establishes where trans-generational transmission of trauma patterns may be being played out in the parent/parent and parent/child relationships. It also conceptualises male and female responsibilities for violence and abuse as belonging to each, individually and separately from that of their children but identifies where children are being used as conduits for the continued use of pre-existing power and control behaviours. In this way, it protects children by highlighting and preventing risky behaviours in parenting and recognises that children who are subjected to parental alienation are, themselves, victims of abuse. By differentiating between different elements of behavioural violence, it is possible to establish its roots and determine the treatment for it.

[This is an extract from the forthcoming book ‘Understanding parental alienation: learning to cope, helping to heal’ by Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall]


i. For example, the UK Government defines domestic violence and abuse as ‘any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality’. [Accessed 10 March 2015].

ii. Women’s Aid (2006). What is the cause of domestic violence? [online]. London: Women’s Aid. Available from: [Accessed 11 March 2015].

iii. United Nations General Assembly (1993) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. A/RES/48/104

iv. Bates EA, Graham-Kevan N and Archer J (2014) Testing predictions from the male control theory of men’s partner violence.

v. Johnson, M. P. (2008)A Typology of Domestic Violence: Intimate Terrorism, Violent Resistance, and Situational Couple Violence. New Hampshire: Northeastern University Press.

vi. Kelly, J. B. and Johnson, M. P. (2008), Differentiation among types of intimate partner violence: research update and implications for interventions. Family Court Review, 46: 476–499.

vii.Differences in Frequency of Violence and Reported Injury Between Relationships With Reciprocal and Nonreciprocal Intimate Partner Violence. Daniel J. Whitaker, PhD, Tadesse Haileyesus, MS, Monica Swahn, PhD, and Linda S. Saltzman, PhD. American Journal of Public Health. May 2007. Volume 97, Issue 5.


Why systemic family therapy can’t help in cases of parental alienation

Whilst the family courts and the professionals who advise them often recommend family therapy in high conflict cases where children are rejecting one of their parents, systemic family therapy faces the charge that it is not only an ineffective response to parental alienation but is, in many cases, likely to make things worse.

Of course, therapeutic interventions form a key element in working with families in distress and may offer effective treatment routes in some cases where a child is rejecting one of their parents. Certainly, where the rejecting behaviour in a child is mild to moderate, and in cases where the rejecting behaviour is a result of either a rational response to the rejected parent’s behaviours or is a response to the combined behaviours of both parents that is rooted in the still fluid and unresolved post separation conflict, systemic family therapy may be able to play a part in reordering the family dynamics in such a way that the rejection is addressed. The two significant factors that need to be considered, however, are how we categorise and define parental alienation and how the particular approach taken by systemic family therapists can actually reinforce and consolidate serious or pure cases of alienation.

Critical to this is a recognition that alienation is not a unitary but a spectrum phenomenon; not all high conflict cases result in alienation and not all child rejecting behaviour is caused by parental alienation. As Amy Baker and Richard Sauber (2013) note in their recent book, each case of a child rejecting is ‘possible to be alienation, estrangement or a combination of the two’.

Similarly, Professor Nicholas Bala, Faculty of Law at Queen’s University, Ontario, uses the terms justified rejection, where the child’s resistance or rejection ‘is justified on the basis of abuse, neglect or significantly compromised parenting’, and mixed or hybrid, which involve ‘alienating behaviours and strategies on behalf of the favoured parent’ combined with ‘behaviours and attitudes on the part of the rejected parent’ that contribute to the child’s rejection, to differentiate between those cases where alienation is not the cause of a child’s rejecting behaviour and those that we might term pure alienation (see Fidler, Bala and Saini 2013). Being able to differentiate between these categories (and, indeed, we might also wish to consider sub-sets of these categories, here) is essential in determining what responses will be most effective.

Systemic family therapy is based on a theoretical approach that identifies the family, and other interpersonal relationships, as being a system. Each system has its own shifting but balanced order which, at times of change or stress, can become unbalanced and, therefore, threatened. As a response to this, one or more members of the system will develop symptoms such as behavioural disorders or psychological disturbance. The role of systemic family therapy is to offer interventions to allow the members of the system to adjust to the threats in a way that rebalances it.

In systemic theory, a member of a system (in this case, the family) who displays psychological or behavioural disturbances is considered to be the ‘symptom carrier’ for the entire system. This person is often excluded from the system and is held responsible for all of the difficulties and conflicts within the system. Systemic therapy aims to help members of the system identify and understand the symptoms, gain new perspectives on the existing dynamics, understand the perspectives of others within the system, think about patterns of communication and interaction, and contribute to and participate in the processes required for change.

Critically, systemic family therapy differs from other interventions in that it does not seek to identify one individual within the family as being the cause of the problems but identifies the problem as being a disturbance in the family system. As Rivett and Street (2009) put it, ‘most helping services are designed to “blame” one family member and seek to organise, change or ameliorate that person’s behaviour, beliefs or feelings. For this reason early family therapists warned against family therapy becoming part of mental health services. Contrary to many such approaches to therapy, family therapy always places individual’s beliefs, behaviours and emotions in context. In doing so, it either dilutes blame or seeks to escape blaming interventions’.

In this way, systemic therapy doesn’t seek to address the issues on an individual level but, instead, focuses on understanding problems in a contextual framework. What it fails to do, however, is respond effectively to circumstances where the contextual framework is captured and controlled by the pathological behaviours of one of the parents. And it is in such circumstances where we can identify that pure alienation is present.

In cases of pure alienation, the alienating parent can’t or won’t change their behaviours and no amount of systemic therapy can alter that. Such behaviours often come about because the response of the alienating parent to the separation or their hatred of the other parent has become pathologised. Sometimes the behaviours are a continuation of longstanding patterns of power and control (Woodall, 2014) and sometimes because the alienating parent has a defined personality disorder which prevents them from behaving otherwise.

In such cases, it is simply wrong to subject the targeted parent to the ongoing pathological hostility of the other parent whilst being asked to reflect on their own contribution to the family dynamic. And it is tantamount to complicity in the damage to the child to allow the alienation to continue indefinitely in the hope that the alienating parent will at some stage come to recognise that their behaviour is, ultimately, abusive.

Most importantly, alienated children are not in a position where professionals can engage in open-ended therapeutic interventions in the hope that the disordered system will once again function. What is required is not that each parent is asked to reflect upon the dynamics and accommodate the other parent’s perspective but that the alienating parent is forced under threat of sanction to behave differently and, where that is not possible, the child is removed from the harm being caused to them.

The job of those of us working with families where alienation is present is not to bend the realities of parental alienation to meet the structures and theories of our own practice but to ensure that the interventions we use meet the realities of the situation.

As Richard Gardner (1999) suggested, ‘the “Mr. (Mrs.) good-guy” approach, so important in traditional individual and family therapy, has no place in the treatment of PAS families. Only therapists who are comfortable with stringent and authoritarian treatment procedures should be involved in conducting therapy with PAS families.’

It should go without saying that children who are subjects of pure alienation are children in danger. These are not ‘child contact’ disputes, these are child protection cases. In such circumstances, it is critical that causes are accurately identified and treatment routes do not leave either the targeted parent or, most importantly, the child subjected to the ongoing psychological and emotional harm that is caused by the alienating parent’s behaviour.

Baker, A.J.L. and Sauber, S.R. (2013) Working with Alienated Children and Families: A Clinical Guidebook (eds). Routledge, New York.

Fidler, B.J., Bala, N. and Saini, M.A. (2013) Children Who Resist Postseparation Parental Contact: A Differential Approach for Legal and Mental Health Professionals. OUP, Oxford.

Gardner, R.A. (1999) Family Therapy of the Moderate Type of Parental Alienation Syndrome. The American Journal of Family Therapy. 27:195-212, 1999

Rivett, M. and Street, E. (2009) Family Therapy: 100 key points & techniques. Routledge, Hove.

Woodall, K (2014) Domestic Violence and Alienation Abuse. PAAO webinar, Toronto.