Book Review    [Deutsche Übersetzung davon]
by Christian T. Dum, Ph.D.

A Family's Heartbreak

A Parent's Introduction to Parental Alienation

by Michael Jeffries with Dr. Joel Davies

A Family's Heartbreak, LLC Stamford, Connecticut, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9796960-1-5, 295 pages,

available from and AMAZON (USA).

  Separation and divorce usually mean a major economic and psychological upheaval in the lives of the former partners and, if they are parents, also of their children. An especially stressful situation develops, if there are conflicts over custody or over visitation rights with the children. It becomes truly heart breaking, if children are not strictly kept out of this conflict, but eventually take sides, aligning with one parent (usually the residential parent) and rejecting the other parent for no valid reasons. This phenomenon, although described long ago, is now known as Parental Alienation or Parental Alienation Syndrome, the term psychiatrist Richard Gardner coined when, starting in about 1985, he elaborated on the characteristic behavioral patterns. Although a very vast amount of professional literature has been developed since, most  target parents of this alienation will be at a total loss for understanding how a child with whom they always had a close, loving relationship can suddenly reject, even denigrate them and refuse contacts. This is exactly the situation the author of this book found himself in, literally over night even, after he had informed his wife that he definitely wanted to end their deteriorated marriage. He had never heard of parental alienation, but in his desire to understand what was happening he eventually found in Dr. Davies a psychotherapist who was very familiar with this phenomenon. Their latter cooperation as affected parent and psychological expert on authoring this book makes it truly exceptional, different from professional literature dissecting the problem from the view point of a neutral scientist, different from the usual self help book, and also from personal accounts of similar experiences, of which several exist by now.

  It has long been recognized that sharing a difficult personal experience with others, or reading related stories and in this way finding out that the own experience is not as unique as it seemed, can already be of considerable therapeutic value, as is writing up the own story, for those with writing skills (or with skilled helpers). Amy J. L. Baker (2006) elaborated on this point specifically with regard to parental alienation, selecting four typical stories describing such behavior, even not all mention parental alienation explicitly. Compared to these stories, the story the author has to tell of his experience, although to him as a parent certainly dramatic and completely inexplicable at first, is by itself, at least for people experienced in this field, not at all that unusual, even more or less predictable, especially when one learns more about the childhood and family background of the participants, which in such cases often plays a key role. The basic behavioral patterns are always similar in a way, which at first seems amazing, but proves that parental alienation is a real phenomenon. What makes the story still good reading is that the author not only has excellent writing skills, with a professional background as former journalist even, but that he concentrated on the parts of his experience that directly relate to the topic of parental alienation, giving a rather precise account of it by relying on notes he had taken all along. But what makes this book especially valuable for parents in or going to face a similar situation is that the author did not stop at just telling his personal story, but at each point asks in every day language why something is happening, what motivates or drives the mother to put the children in the middle of the conflict and making them choose between Mom and Dad, what the children may feel in this situation, what he can possibly do about it, and that these questions are directly answered by professionals truly experienced in this field.

  The basic questions also most everyone asked when hearing the story were (Chapter 11, p. 177)
1. How can she [the mother] do that to her child ?
2. Doesn't she realize how she's hurting him?
3. Why can't (fill in the blank -- your attorney, the judge, the psychologist, the police) do anything to help Adam? [the younger of the two sons. The older son managed somehow to stay neutral in the conflict, although he also remained in the family home after the father had left it. He continued to maintain regular contacts with his father, unlike the younger son, who refused visits, hung up on any phone calls, tore up letters, but still accepted gifts, however without a thank you, or demanded money for a trip, but without revealing where to, and was rude, denigrating and even punching his father when they met somehow, all behavior his mother at least tolerated, if not directly encouraged. The mother among other things also played the "telephone game", familiar to everyone experienced with such cases.]

  These are questions any affected parent will ask himself or herself time and again, desperately looking for an answer. But these are also key questions professionals accompanying the separation / divorce process should ask, and question 3 so in the most self-critical manner. Seeing them posed here in the real life context of an affected parent and by this parent should open up a new, very important perspective. Questions 1 and 2 are fascinating from a mental health view point, because most often they relate to an alienating parent who is highly educated, sometimes even a mental health professional herself or himself (the worst cases, perhaps even), whom one would expect to fully understand the dramatic, even life long consequences of destroying the relationship of the child with the other parent. But they are also questions of most relevance with regard to the most appropriate measures the court and the accompanying mental and legal professionals should take. It is saddening to see a judge still appeal time and again to the insight of an alienating parent for changing the behavior towards promotion of a good relation of the child with the other parent or at least not impeding contacts when this parent has ignored such suggestions and even clear court orders often for many years with impunity. In such hardened, severe cases of parental alienation the alienated parent will not develop any insight into what he or she is doing to the child, that it is psychological abuse. Such a parent thus also will not see a mental health professional with a genuine desire of being helped, but will reject anyone who does not exactly support the own view, which is always knowing what is best for the child and thus acting in his or her best interest. Conventional psychotherapy thus will not work. The book sadly enough provides a very clear demonstration on how the legal and mental health system failed not only in the author's case but countless others in preventing child abuse by parental alienation with its serious long term consequences. One of these long term consequences, reaching into the adult life of an alienated child of separation / divorce, provides, however, an important clue to answering questions 1, 2. It is the observation of a trans generational effect, namely that difficulties with interpersonal relations, alienation and divorce have a tendency to repeat themselves, sometimes over several generations even. One nearly always finds that the alienating parent had himself / herself a troubled childhood,  whether the parents had separated or not. The book also provides such an example case. 

  Questions of an affected parent will not only relate to as to why these heretofore unbelievable things happen, but foremost to what to do about them, when one feels so completely powerless in a situation one could have never ever imagined before, requiring thus to be frequently reminded that it is real. The most sensitive and pressing questions concern how to handle any remaining or accidental contacts with the alienated child and also the alienating parent, and foremost, of course, on how to eventually regain the positive relationship one had with the child. Dr. Davies provides helpful answers to these questions, starting out with the frank statement that alienated parents are usually in for a long, difficult and emotionally (as well as often also financially) draining journey. Beginning this journey well informed about all aspects of parental alienation is most helpful in a therapeutic sense for the affected parent, but also for raising sensitivity in any remaining contacts with the alienated child. We know from reports of formerly alienated children, who were able to leave this unhealthy alliance with one parent, much like leaving a sect, even if only as an adult, that signs of the presence of the other parent were very important to them, even when they were not yet able to respond positively to these signs. Often an alienating parent will tell the child that the other parent has abandoned "us", has no interest anymore in the child, or even, in the case of (international) child abduction especially, that he or she has been put in jail or is dead. Signs of interest and affection and be it only neutral postcards from a trip, on birthdays etc., small gifts, with some residual chance at least of escaping censorship by the resident parent, are thus important, even when at the time they may be rejected also by the child. Reunification does not come automatically at legal maturity, but chances that it ever takes place, sooner or later, are much increased, if the alienated parent somehow stays present in the life of the child, without causing additional pressure, but assuring her or him of being still unconditionally loved, as parents normally do, and that this was the case during the entire ordeal.

   The long journey is usually not over when contacts between alienated child and parent are re-established. They may be re-established, sometimes within minutes even, if alienation was relatively brief and mild, and even if the child was mildly "coerced" into it by a counselor or other third person. Underneath the surface such a child will in any case still have a lot of coping work to do. The lost time cannot be brought back, of course, but in addition there are still many issues to be resolved, by a child especially who has long lived in another world which now again is becoming untrue in important aspects, before a loving, completely trusting and open relationship between child and formerly alienated parent is rebuilt again. Unless the child switches "camps", which is not a desirable solution, as a child needs both parents, even as a young adult still, he or she will also want to maintain a similarly good relationship with the other parent, even if this parent continues, as is most likely the case in severe cases of parental alienation, consciously or subconsciously with the alienating behavior. The child will then not only have to develop the strength and independence to withstand this negative influence, but in addition find a way to live between the two worlds of her or his parents, which in an alienation case will remain far more different than in a so-called "good" separation / divorce in which parents actively cooperate in the best interest of their child or at least try to avoid that the child becomes involved in still open conflicts between them. Finding a way in the later cases is already a difficult enough task, which not only often, but even usually lasts well into adulthood, as longitudinal and cross-sectional studies show (e.g. Wallerstein et al., 2000; Marquardt, 2005). One can easily imagine that for a child of parental alienation finding a way between the not only very different but even hostile worlds of his or her parents must be far more difficult even, although scientifically rigid longitudinal studies of such cases, with large enough random samples, including control groups, are still lacking unfortunately (see, however, the cross sections of adults looking back on their experience as alienated child, e.g. Baker, 2007).

 The father in this book (author) has not yet reached this stage of reunification, but is, after more than 3-4 years, still only dreaming of it and a normal relation with his son lost to parental alienation. For this reason we also understand his position on rebuilding the relationship with an alienated child, which he states in Chapter 12, "Solution", emphasizing that it was originally called "Solutions", but that he sees now only one solution. Here is the point where we disagree with the author, as will most mental health professionals and judges, and where the psychiatrist Richard Gardner stirred the most strongest controversy, by proposing it for severe cases of parental alienation in a manner which many consider too simplistic and schematic. He, certainly based upon his extensive experience as a custody evaluator, proposed removing a severely alienated child from the alienating parent and placing she or him, after a transition phase perhaps, with the heretofore rejected, even hated parent. He had tried to prove his point by a follow up study on cases he had been consulted on, but this study is mostly considered flawed, not meeting strict strict scientific standards, by only interviewing the (formerly) alienated parent, but not the other parent or the child, and for lacking random samples, also with control groups, although everyone will admit the technical difficulties involved in such a rigid study. Especially alienating parents will most frequently refuse any kind of cooperation, also an interview even. 

  In selected, very severe cases such a drastic measure may indeed be the only effective last resort left for ending psychological abuse of the child by an alienating parent. But it should be seen as the least desirable solution, which moreover could be mostly avoided, if the problems were fully recognized in time and appropriate measures were taken swiftly, before the case becomes hardened and the child has nearly fallen into the well of no return. The alienated parent must also contribute towards this end by making every conceivable effort, despite all likely setbacks, to somehow stay connected with the child. Every chance supervised contacts for example may offer must be used, even he or she considers himself / herself not "dangerous" and the measure thus humiliating perhaps. Supervised contacts, however, also protect against further false allegations, common in parental alienation cases. Sometimes another third person, whom the author calls a "bridge relationship", could also be helpful in triggering reunification. However, it is almost a solid rule that a severely alienated child will also refuse contacts with the family at large or any friends of the "hated" parent, at least block any mediation attempt, if the contacts are not already prevented by the alienating parent.

  Power in custody / visitation cases rests solely with the court, however. Its measures can be very effective, with some court districts even claiming close to 100% success with an in the end amiable solution, if measures are swiftly taken, full cooperation between all involved professionals in the sense of best interests of the child is assured, with the court in a supervising role, and it is made very clear to the parents that any violation of court orders will have dire consequences, thus likely "helping" the "insight" of even a parent with alienating tendencies.This insight, also of the child, in mild to moderate parental alienation cases can also be helped, not by conventional psychotherapy alone (which these clients are not seeking!), but by mental health professionals, guardians ad litem, and people handling supervised visitation also exerting, with the backing of the court, a certain measure of "coercion". However, this requires great professionalism and sensitivity, more so, if alienation has already become more severe. Coercive measures, as the author describes them in this book for such hardened cases, although understandable from the view point of very frustrated parents, thus are likely to leave at least an uneasy feeling with other (professional) readers. Such measures certainly need to be observed most critically, in view of the fact that rebuilding the relationship between an alienated child and target parent is a process which the child in the end has to go alone, assisted by a parent sensitive to her or his needs and perhaps also by a mental health professional. It as a long and difficult process, even if the child has voluntarily decided on it, building on bonds that still existed from times before the separation, the residual contacts during the separation period, or sometimes also just the desire to finally know more about his or her origins. It will be a far more difficult process, if reconnection with the target parent is suddenly forced upon the child. Such cases are very different from cases of physical abuse or neglect in which child protection agencies and courts will find it much easier to act swiftly. In parental alienation cases, however, the alienating parent generally appears as a loving parent who also takes best care of the physical needs of the child and it thus will often take a long time, before the severity of the psychological abuse is recognized. Time does not heal wounds here, however, but unfortunately works in the sense of increased alienation, a fact alienating parents fully utilize by seeking to delay court procedures as much as possible and to ignore any decision when it is likely not enforced. Thus matters unfortunately indeed may have to get worse, before there is a chance that they may get better through then necessarily drastic measures of the court, such as a forced transfer of residency. Such a measure would be downright irresponsible, however, unless a careful examination (which should have been done in the first place at a much earlier time) provides reasonable assurances that at least the target parent will not only tolerate contacts with the other parent, but actively support the child in rebuilding a meaningful relation with both parents, for otherwise the child will be worse off even, for going through much the same trauma yet again. In  this sense this transition is different from leaving a sect to which one hopefully never wants to return. Temporary restriction or even complete suspension of the child's contact with the "loved" parent is a critical measure, which is part of some programs being developed now. They are supposed to facilitate court ordered transfer of the child to the "hated" target parent. Such programs deserve our special interest, but also need to be closely scrutinized for their very sensitive nature and must always be seen as a last resort, after the case has already been botched, as the author expresses it, by not having acted much earlier in an appropriate manner. The primary goal, however, must be to develop a court system with the accompanying mental health and legal professionals that effectively helps separating families at the earliest stage possible, thus helps to prevent severe parental alienation from developing over time and reduces the need for such drastic measures as a later forced transition of residence.

  The book concludes by examining why the family court system in his view failed the author and so many other parents in a similar situation. He does this again by asking pertinent questions as a parent and with answers from experts, although this time as a composite of answers he had received. The failure is in part attributed to the adversary nature of the American court system being inappropriate for child custody cases, but much the same problems occur also in  the inquisitorial systems of continental Europe in which judges have far more control over the procedure, but  the system often lacks other important ingredients for an unanimous and timely solution in the best interest of the child. Collaborative law, as the author's attorney practiced, mediation etc. are all very good ideas, but will only work in parental alienation cases, if all professionals collaborate in the best interest of the child, such that a parent with the tendency to alienate is faced at the earliest time possible with a closed front, lead and controlled by the court.

  In conclusion, this book is far from being just a sad account by an understandably very frustrated and greatly suffering parent, but especially by its very pertinent questions at every point and answers provided by experienced professionals stands out as likely being exceptionally helpful to parents in a similar situation, helping them to better get through the ordeal, by knowing what is expecting them and perhaps helping them to even prevent some of it through a better understanding of parental alienation dynamics, accompanying court action and other professional activities. To professionals the book may also offer new views, as seen from the perspective of an alert parent in the midst of a real life situation desperately requiring their help. What would be very desirable still are more direct reports on how children who need this help most and the love and understanding of parents feel in such a high conflict situation.

Amy J. L. Baker (2006), The power of stories/stories about power: Why therapists and clients should read stories about the parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Family Therapy 34(3):191-203.
Amy J. L. Baker (2007), Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Breaking the Ties That Bind. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London.
Elizabeth Marquardt (2005), Between Two Worlds. The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. Based on a pioneering new national study. With a Foreword by Judith Wallerstein. Crown Publishers, New York, 2005.                  
Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia Lewis, Sandra Blakeslee (2000), The unexpected Legacy of Divorce. The 25 Year Landmark Study, Hyperion, New York.

  Table of Contents and Cover Text

The author of the book may be heard in an extensive interview at