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  • Susan Fletcher, Ph.D.

What Can Be Done to Combat Alienating Behaviors in a Family in Conflict? (Part Four of Five)

If you have already been following this series, you have already read where I describe the elements of parental alienation in Part One. In the second part of the series, I cover the effect alienation has on children. Even more information was provided in Part Three regarding the behaviors that contribute to alienation in a family in conflict. In this blog post, Part Four of the series, I am giving you a peek into the treatment plans that are developed for families in conflict where alienation is suspected.

Treatment plans are necessary with any presenting problem when therapy is conducted. When there is a resist/refusal dynamic for families in conflict, it is no different. Because every family is different, and treatment should be individualized, there is no formal airtight treatment plan everyone follows since the needs of the individual family need to be considered. Nevertheless, there are very common components in treatment plans for families where alienating behaviors are suspected and the common components all reflect the need to treat the family system, not just one member of the family.

As treatment planning is considered, it is important to remember the dynamics of a family involved in a high conflict divorce, or who are in high conflict due to possible modifications to a parenting plan already in place after a divorce.It is also important to remember major tasks for separating and divorcing families. According to research cited in Evidenced-Informed Interventions for Court-Involved Families: [1]

“…the major life task for separating and divorcing families is to master the tools and abilities they need to complete the family transition and enable children to achieve healthy adjustment.Studies from a variety of areas of psychology, including outcomes for children of separation and divorce, have yielded compellingly consonant findings about the skills and abilities children need for successful adjustment.These include specific coping abilities, coping efficacy, emotional independence, the ability to engage in healthy relationships, the ability to accurately perceive and interact with the environment, effective management of affect and emotional issues, and the ability to manage stress and overcome difficult or traumatic experiences.To progress in school, social, and other settings, children must master developmental tasks including both the previously cited elements and daily demands, such as managing transitions, completing homework, following rules, and interacting appropriately with others.”

In a family where alienating behaviors are suspected, there are a number of ways to intervene in an attempt to combat the alienating behaviors. These include:

  • Restricting the favored parent’s parenting time

  • Restricting the favored parent’s communication with children during other parent’s time

  • Reunification therapy to include both parents and children

  • Increasing the rejected parent’s parenting time

  • Individual therapy for the child

  • Individual therapy for the favored parent

  • Teaching and reinforcing emotional regulation for all family members, especially the child

  • Teaching empathy skills to parents to achieve the ability to validate feelings rather than tell his/her side of the story.

  • Focusing on the child being allowed to feel the way he/she feels but intervene with teaching appropriate behaviors in response to those feelings.

  • Teaching “listening to understand” vs. “listening to respond” for all family members.

  • Teaching interventions and focusing on improvement in a parents’ reactions to the conflict

  • Teaching interventions and focusing on improvements in parent functioning

  • Teaching interventions and focusing on improvements in co-parent functioning

  • Treating the family system, not just each the individual

  • Focusing on the present and future family functioning rather than continuing to focusing on data from what has occurred in the past.

In Part Five of this series I will address factors for successful outcomes. It is important that these factors be included, but not be considered to be definite criteria, for families to improve when alienating behaviors are present.

Until next time,

[1] Greenberg, L. Shifting Our Perspective: Focusing on Coping and Adjustment. Greenberg, L, Fidler, B. & Saini, M. (Eds.) Evidence-Informed Interventions for Court-Involved Families (2019). Page 5

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