How to understand and identify brainwashed children, present a case, and craft solutions in parental alienation cases.
Podcast and Interview with Stanley Clawar, Sociologist and Mediator
Family Lawyer Magazine recently interviewed sociologist and family mediator Stanley Clawar to discuss how family lawyers can identify, and work with professionals to handle parental alienation cases.
Could you provide us with the background on your book, Children Held Hostage?
The book actually started as a research project back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. We discovered this problem, which some call alienation but we refer to as programming and brainwashing. It goes by about 50 other terms as well. This was occurring in many, if not all, cases of conflict in family matters. The courts, attorneys and therapists were searching for an understanding of who was responsible, why and what was happening to the children – and more recently, what can be done to undo such damage and help children re-affiliate with their parents. Originally we had a sample of about 700 families, and that was published in 1991. This new edition adds another 300 families for a total of 1,000, and has about 8 new chapters with updated research from the 1990s.
Can you explain the difference between brainwashing and parental alienation?
We break brainwashing down to a more complex process. Whereas alienation is a term that’s become global, and there’s a confusion of the process, the methods, and the results. In the book we show a delineation between motivation, techniques, impact and, more recently, we’re looking at reunification and what can be done if a child is alienated. But basically they all mean the same thing. And this is where a parent intentionally or unintentionally sends messages about the other parent with the goal of damaging that relationship either in terms of physical contact, or their ability to love that parent.
Most of it has to do with distorting the child’s perception of reality. If a parent is successful in distorting such a perception, the end result is ultimately a brainwashed child. For example, a child may come to believe that his mother never had anything to do with him, and valuators and therapists will hear this said in the evaluation. You then gather, as an expert, independent information that shows the mother did everything from breastfeeding to teaching the child how to read, and the like. And yet you’re sitting and listening to a child who is saying my mother has done nothing for me.
These kinds of assertions are what we call distortions. The child has come to believe a lie. In fact, they then live out the lie because often they will say they don’t want to see or be with that particular parent, which some therapists think is a conundrum.
What are some of the driving factors for parents to do this to their children?
In the book, there are about fifteen motivational factors that we identify. We are talking about cases where there is no objective basis for abuse. The motivations can be everything from revenge for leaving the marriage, revenge for having a new life, revenge for being successful, all the way down to practical measures. Sometimes if a parent gets more custody, they are likely to get more financial support. They might even get the marital residence. Another motivation could be their belief that they are a superior parent. In some cases, keeping these conflicts going is actually a way of maintaining the marital relationship.
How do you assess the qualifications of professionals working with brainwashed children?
It’s a field that’s becoming glutted, meaning that every time a phenomenon is important, you have professionals rushing in, in good faith and bad faith, to offer their opinions. An individual that’s going to be helpful to an attorney here should have clinical and research experience, at least to know the research completely, and be able to differentiate the weak studies from the strong studies. They also should have a lot of grassroots experience in working with families in high-conflict divorces and forensics. They should be able to have expertise, whether it’s forensic sociology or forensic psychology.
Regular therapists may be able to share some information but they’re not going to be of paramount use in these kinds of cases. You need to look at a professional’s history objectively. Is their history one where courts generally appoint them for objective evaluations? Do they work with both sides in what is called attorney agreed-upon cases?
You’re looking for professionals who have a solid ethical and procedural reputation and are going to give as fair an opinion as they can. Most importantly, the professional has to have expertise in taking comprehensive social histories. Without a comprehensive social history in the case, you’re not going to be able to delineate if this phenomenon exists.
By bringing in a comprehensive history, you can effectively determine whether a child’s view is distorted or not. There is a popular opinion in some disciplines, including psychology, that perception is reality. Well, in these kinds of cases, perception is not reality. When a child believes that his father abandoned him, but never did, that’s a distortion. That is not reality. And so the professional has to be able to distinguish between what is perceptual and historically factual. That is what becomes the hub of these cases.
Have lawyers embraced the need for developing more knowledge in this field?
In my travels around the country, I have found lawyers and judges extremely receptive to new information. They’re the ones sitting in the middle of these problems, either having to guide their clients, or the very judges having to make decisions. I find that most judges and lawyers want to get educated. The turnouts at continuing legal education meetings, for example, are very high. The participation is very intense, and the questions often challenging. So I believe there is a thirst for more knowledge, which is one of the reasons we published this second edition – with what we hope are some new ideas.
There are a number of new chapters in the second edition, right?
Yes, we did. And one of the more interesting chapters, at least from our point of view, is Chapter 14, which is the smallest chapter actually. It’s called “Children’s Statements.” We decided to put together, over the years, statements that children have made about their life. These are children who have often been educated and clinically helped to understand that their views – for example, hostility, hatred, misperceptions, are in fact not accurate. And once they come into a kind of clearer view of their parents and their family life, they often have made statements to us which are somewhat astounding about their views of what their parents have done.
There’s been some question as to whether this phenomenon really exists. Well, when you work with these children who are going through different stages of redefining their social perceptions and then their behaviors – including kids who have said I’ll never see my mother, I’ll never see my father– and then through the interventions that we do, you see them starting to re-affiliate and those are very powerful, not just clinical experiences, but human experiences. They can be children of all ages. We have very young children, we’ve had teenagers who will often say because of my age the court or others have to honor my opinion, but if their opinion is based on ten years of brainwashing and subsequent distortions, then their opinion may be invalid.
Children Held Hostage: Identifying Brainwashed Children, Presenting a Case, and Crafting Solutions, Second Edition, by Stanley Clawar and Brynne Rivlin is available at the American Bar Association website. www.ShopABA.org.
Stanley Clawar is a Professor at Rosemount College. He is also director of Walden Counseling and Therapy Center in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and a certified clinical sociologist. Dr. Clawar has been a consultant on approximately 2,500 cases involving domestic-relations issues. Children are sent to his clinic from around the country for help.