Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Who Should Be Punished When Maternal Mental Illness Kills Children?

In 2014, a young mother who had been evaluated and given prescription medication for a mood disorder killed her two young children (as described in; see also Lynh Bui, “Mother who suffocated children with plastic bags and duct tape sentenced to 45 years”, Washington Post, June 7, 2017). She had initially threatened to kill herself and her daughter, and her own mother called the police, who took the younger woman to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. Against her mother’s objections, the young woman, Sonya Spoon, was released with a prescription for antidepressants four days later. Hospital staff apparently did not have information about her threats to the children. A day and a half after that, Sonya Spoon killed her 3-year-old and 1-year-old children by suffocating them, and put the same plastic bag and duct tape around her own head, but then went to get her mother to help remove the suffocating material. The children were unconscious and died later. Sonya subsequently said she did not know what was wrong with her and apologized to her dead children.

Arguments about mitigating circumstances for Sonya Spoon’s actions included the off-base claim that she suffered from an attachment disorder because of having been abandoned as a young infant by her Russian biological family, spending several years in an orphanage, and finally being adopted to the United States. This experience, although very sad and distressing , might well have interfered with her cognitive and language development, but attachment disorder is less likely and in any case would not make her likely to be either suicidal or harmful to others. A factor with a more probably connection to her behavior was a traumatic brain injury from and accident when she was 18—an event likely to interfere with her cognitive abilities and possibly to produce post-traumatic stress disorder. At least one of her children was fathered by an abusive man, who wanted custody, which she resisted. Either in addition to or because of these experiences, Sonya Spoon had perinatal mood disorder—often called post-partum depression, but sometimes continuing well after the post-partum period.

Shifting and negative moods are typical of the days soon after childbirth, but most women experience only “baby blues” in which they feel easily overwhelmed and ready to cry. Many traditional cultures have made sure that new mothers are honored, cared for, and petted during these days, which do not last long. A small number of women experience much more profound anxiety and depression, often focused on whether there is something wrong with the baby, and this may not begin at once. Whenever depression and anxiety are in the picture, suicidal thoughts and actions are very possible, and these may be part of the more severe perinatal mood disorders. Finally, a very small proportion of women experience a post-childbirth period of psychosis which again may not begin at once. They may have delusions of hearing voices that tell them to harm themselves or their children, and some obey. In the famous Andrea Yates case of some years ago, Yates drowned her five young children in the bathtub in obedience to “voices”; she also gave the rationale that she felt they should die and go to heaven at once rather than risking the sins of childhood and adulthood.

Andrea Yates had experienced perinatal mood disorders with each of her five children, but her husband was said to have encouraged further pregnancies. She was found competent to stand trial, a very low bar for which it only had to be shown that she could understand the charges and could work with her lawyer, but she was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity (the death penalty had been sought). Sonya Spoon was also found competent to stand trial and convicted; the judge said some of her actions had been “selfish”.

Yes, it’s true that the children did get the death penalty, and their terror and pain as they died hardly bears thinking about. But who is really in the wrong here? Does Sonya Spoon deserve 45 years in prison, but the child’s father who did not pay attention to her state of mind is not to be punished? How about hospital staff who did not explore her situation far enough to know that she had threatened the children? For that matter, what about insurance and other regulations that limit the amount of mental health care available even to those who desperately need it? And what about a judge who brought a trivial view of the human mind to the trial by declaring Sonya Spoon “selfish” because she asked her mother to release her from the suffocating bag before seeing to the children? Just like Andrea Yates’ husband and family, these people contributed much to the tragedies, but punishing mentally ill mothers alone is a fine old tradition that apparently must be kept up.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Unborn Babies and Faces: What to Make of This?

I recently received an email from an anti-abortion group who referenced a recent study about the visual behavior of 34-week fetuses—still 6 weeks before they would typically be born. Although the number of abortions that take place at that point in gestation is vanishingly small, my correspondents wanted to use the study to argue against terminating pregnancy at any point. That’s what they do, so I won’t argue with it, but I’d like to look at the study itself and what it means about early development of human beings.

You can find a discussion of the study in a number of places, but here’s one you might try: The researcher was able to shine a bright light through the uterus and amniotic fluid that surrounds the fetus and at the same time to do imaging that would reveal how the fetus turned toward the light. What does this have to do with faces? Well, there were two kinds of lights, each involving three dots arranged in a triangle, which adults might perceive as “two eyes” and “one mouth”. The lights were shown either in a position where they looked like the basic elements of a face, or “upside down” so that the “mouth” was above the “eyes’. The babies moved to “look at” the right-side-up face more than at the upside down non-face.

Because the fetuses discriminated between the two patterns by moving differently, it was concluded that they could were reacting differently to things like faces than to other things that were not so face-like. It was that discrimination that led to the statement that they recognize faces while in the womb. It would be less exciting but a good deal more accurate to say that they respond differently to the face-like triangle than to the other. They do not recognize faces in the adult sense of being able not only to tell one actual face from another but even to know which person has which face. No such claims were made, and for good reason. You might as well say that unborn babies recognize point-down triangles as that they recognize faces in the sense that even a three-month-old does.
Under ordinary conditions, there is no light inside the uterus, so an unborn baby has no visual experience whatsoever. He or she has had no opportunity to learn what people, dogs, moons, or crib bumpers look like. Any visual response that occurs—either in the womb or right after a preterm or full-term birth—has to be produced by functions that are built into the visual system as a result of genetic commands to the developing brain. (Brain? Yes, because developmentally the retina or light-sensitive part of the eye is actually a part of the brain.)

The visual system is the last sensory system to begin its development in the prenatal period, so we might not expect vision to be very good at 34 weeks gestational age—it’s not great at 40 weeks or full term. When babies look at faces after birth, they tend to scan the eye areas and the mouth area a lot, but as is shown by all the comments I get from mothers worried about lack of eye contact, the very young babies do not look at faces very much. They just look at them more than they look at other things. Babies in the first month or so after birth are also very limited in their ability to see objects that are too close or too distant, so even then they do not get a lot of time to look at and learn about faces.

So how does it come about that before birth they can “look” at a face-like pattern and respond to it as if it means something special to them? The most likely reason is that in their still very immature brains they already have feature detectors that are activated by a seen pattern. A feature detector is a cell in the visual system of the brain that is connected to a particular part of the retina and responds only to certain kinds of images that fall on that retinal area. This is a lot easier to demonstrate with frogs than with human beings (who tend to excuse themselves when you want to do things to their brains), but frogs have feature detector cells that are “fly detectors” and become activated when an image the size and shape and speed of a nearby moving fly falls on the retina. The frog feature detectors signal the tongue, and zip, the tongue nails the fly. Mammals too have feature detectors, although fortunately they do not make us catch flies with our tongues. Face detectors are among them—brain cells that are activated when the image of a shape that resembles a face falls on part of the retina. Even sheep have face detectors that respond to human faces. Sheep “recognize” faces in the same sense that unborn babies do.

It’s really interesting and important for researchers to show how early and how gradually human sensory and other systems begin to develop. Those systems don’t just “come on line” instantaneously at some point, and although birth is a dramatic event in the course of development, not all developmental changes are closely related to it.  However, when the researchers have done their job, it’s also important for the media and their audience not to jump to conclusions about the implications of findings. We humans don’t seem to have feature detectors that respond to exaggerations!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Children, Family Systems, and Parental Alienation

Yesterday I was listening to an audio recording of an appeals court hearing related to a high-conflict divorce and the wish of two teenage daughters to avoid contact with their mother. The father’s attorney brought up the point that one of the girls was headstrong, obstinate, difficult to persuade, and always had been so. The characteristics attributed to the girl were presented as an argument why the father could not force her to visit her mother, but there was no mention of the role her characteristics might have played in her initial reluctance to have contact with one of her parents.

When children of high-conflict divorces have strong preferences for one parent and avoid the other parent, the non-preferred parent may allege that the preferred parent has intentionally alienated the child and turned him or her against the non-preferred one. This is especially likely to occur if certain attorneys or mental health practitioners or “coaches” are in the picture. These advisers rather piously allude to family systems theory and the need for all members of a family to work together, even though they live apart. They invoke family systems theory as a reason why courts should order changes of custody and forced treatment of children who avoid one parent. They argue that unless a child has a “reasonable” explanation for avoiding a parent, the avoidance must be a result of parental alienation (PA) by the preferred parent; that parent should be punished, and the children should be rescued so they can reunite with the non-preferred parent. (“Reasonable” explanations are limited to substantiated child abuse.)

But let’s look at family systems theory for a minute. This fruitful theory considers all members of a family to bring their unique characteristics into family and dyadic interactions. This means children too, of course—but PA proponents generally focus on the preferred parent, who is described as narcissistic and emotionally disturbed, but who has almost never been seen or interviewed by the person giving this description. Little is said about the personality characteristics of the non-preferred parent, and even less about the personality characteristics of the children.

Going back to the “headstrong” girl described in the first paragraph of this post, let’s speculate (yes, SPECULATE, because no one has really studied this) about how child characteristics could lead to avoidance of a parent even when there was no demonstrable abuse by the non-preferred parent and no intentional or unintentional attempts at alienation by the preferred parent.

What I am about to say has nothing to do with diagnostic categories of mental illness, although a child with real mental disturbance or developmental problems like autism might rather readily come to avoid a parent who did not handle those problems very well. But all children, whether emotionally or mentally typical or atypical, have from the time of birth individual patterns of responsiveness to the environment, created by their own unique constitutions. These patterns are often referred to as patterns of temperament, and although no one could claim that temperament explains everything about personality, this concept is of enormous help to understanding of social interactions and why two people do or do not get along well.

Studies of temperament suggest that the patterns unique to an individual in infancy are stable and are still present at 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and into adulthood. Naturally children do not continue to express their temperaments in the same ways as they get older, because they mature and learn to behave conventionally, but they do retain basic constitutional characteristics. For example, the person who cried a great deal and was easily distressed as an infant will not cry so much as an older child but will still show more negative mood quality than most other children of the same age.

Research on temperament has focused on characteristics that make an infant difficult to care for. Difficult infants tend to have negative mood quality, to react intensely to internal or external events, and to be slow to adapt to changes. They are often distressed and are hard to soothe. They need a lot of time to get used to new situations like starting out-of-home child care. Because these temperamental characteristics are rather stable, we can predict that these difficult babies will also later be the children who go to the beach all summer but will not go into the water until Labor Day, who cry when there is a clown at the birthday party, and who need to be taken to visit a new school several times before opening day so they will be able to cope.

So what does all this have to do with avoiding the non-preferred parent? Again, let me say that this is pure speculation on my part, because as far as I know work on PA has largely ignored child characteristics (I have just seen one reference to this factor in an on line paper by Bala and Fidler.) But a plausible hypothesis can be offered: children who have the temperament of difficult infants may bring to high-conflict divorce an unusual readiness to prefer one parent and avoid the other. A tendency to a generally negative mood quality pushes such children in the direction of disliking whatever new situation they find themselves in. Intense reactions predispose them to strong distress that may be very difficult for them – or for either of their parents—to tolerate. The factor of poor adaptability means that these children will take a good deal of time before they can feel comfortable with changing circumstances, including new living conditions and contacts with parents’ new romantic partners (and possibly those people’s children). Children of difficult temperaments need appropriate parental support to help them deal with the world and eventually master the skill of looking beyond their own temperamental reactions, but in high-conflict divorces the chances are that neither parent will immediately be able to provide such support. The entire situation seems designed to cause such children to decide that they can only tolerate what is happening if they can choose one parent and stay with that person.

Yes, I’m speculating when I hypothesize about how child temperament may be relevant to PA. But I’m not speculating when I say that family systems theory would demand attention to child characteristics. The question is, which characteristics are the ones that interact with high-conflict divorce to create avoidance of one parent?  Temperament is a strong possibility, but not the only one.

N.B. Readers may notice that I don’t speak of children “rejecting” a parent. I believe that language plays into the sense of humiliation and frustration that motivates some non-preferred parents to believe that the former spouse has manipulated the children.  To speak of “avoidance” seems to me to make the issue less personal and more focused on the child’s needs and feelings.  

Thursday, May 25, 2017

When Children Wet or Soil Themselves

When people write in to this blog with queries (or expostulations!) about children’s behavior problems, it’s frequent for them to mention that their school-age children still wet themselves in the daytime or urinate in strange places, and that some even defecate in their pants or in some hidden place that is revealed only by the smell. Frustrated and angry, the parents often feel that the children are doing these things intentionally as hostile actions toward the adults (and often the parents think that such hostile actions would be a sign of an attachment disorder—but I don’t want to get into that today).

As it happens, a child clinical psychology listserv that I participate in has recently been having a discussion about exactly this. One member had written in to ask for suggestions about working with a ten-year-old girl who was defecating in her pants. An interesting discussion ensued, and I want to summarize some of what was said and elaborate on some of the ideas.

A most useful point made by several people was that many of the children with these behavioral elimination problems were never completely toilet-trained in the first place, and the behavior of those children is an indication of their lack of mastery rather than their hostile intentions.

Consider what happens when a functional, “normal” family toilet-trains a child. First, the fact is that the parents have been communicating to the child for many months that there is something special about elimination. It’s not like drooling or even like spitting up. There is an emotional response to urine or feces, a strong motivation to clean them up and get rid of them, that is communicated to the baby by attentive, engaged parents. They sniff the baby or peek down her diaper to see what needs to be done. When changing a dirty diaper, they pay attention to the diaper and not the baby, complaining quietly if the baby kicks and gets her heel into the mess. Caregivers talk to each other in front of the baby: “Did she poop?” “yes, and what a smelly mess it was!”. If the baby is just wet, the diaper change is much more relaxed and probably involves some smiling, talking, and playing. In all these ways, a well-cared-for family baby is learning for a long time that something about elimination is special and important, and that urine and feces are different.

Well-functioning families also pay attention to whether a baby seems ready to be trained, whether she seems to be aware of bowel or bladder pressure, and whether she has the words to ask for help. Caregivers “talk up” using the potty or toilet, with the reward of big-girl or big-boy underwear held out for encouragement. Once the child has some success in managing elimination, adults follow him around reminding him, asking if he needs to go, paying attention to cues like dancing the “potty dance” or passing gas that indicate elimination is about to happen. They give careful instruction on the use of toilet paper, and may give boys paper “targets” floating in the toilet to practice their aim. Toilet “accidents” may or may not be punished, but certainly adults tend to respond to them with some degree of exasperation once they think a child has mastered the basics and just needs to pay attention.

These common and effective methods of toilet-training only happen under certain circumstances: The child is being cared for by people who have the time and energy and motivation to do the job. The child is being cared for by people who know him or her well, understand the child’s language or other communication, and are not completely distracted by other needs or obligations. The caregivers are thus able to be consistent and to predict elimination, so the child is helped to understand what events are likely to follow certain internal sensations. After all, to be completely toilet-trained, a person must be able to recognize internal cues and to understand the time available to get to the toilet once certain sensations occur. A child is not completely toilet-trained if he has to depend on others to tell him when to go.

As you can see, all this work by caregivers is not so likely to happen if a child has been passed from foster home to foster home, has been in the custody of an adult who uses drugs or alcohol or who is physically or mentally ill or who lives in a frightening environment. Some adults in these circumstances will focus on punishment following inappropriate elimination as their main toilet-training strategy; this is not only emotionally problematic but would be difficult to do effectively even by a skilled user of aversive methods. In addition, caregivers who use punishment in this way often do it inconsistently and out of irritation—even when a child defecates in a recently clean diaper.

Although some children may become completely trained under those conditions, others will not. Later in their lives, in school or in an adoptive home, toilet “accidents” may occur repeatedly and even may appear to be intentional because children do not seem to feel guilty or concerned. By that time, negative attitudes of adults and of other children to the child himself or herself, not just to the toileting problems, may begin to have effects on the child’s  mood and behavior, further complicating the difficulties.

So what to do when this situation has developed? The first consideration is about medical problems that may cause toileting difficulties. (As one participant in the listserv discussion I mentioned earlier said, the causes are often thought to be volitional, but they are probably biological.) Urinary tract infections may be involved. As for inappropriate defecation, strange as it may seem, these children are sometimes suffering from constipation, with hardened feces held in the intestines, but softer feces passing around the hardened part and being passed involuntarily or leaking. This problem may have developed because children are afraid to use the toilet or because it has been painful to pass hard stools and the child is actively resisting this. If constipation is a problem, children may need to be treated with stool softeners and with changes in diet that can return them to a healthier elimination pattern.

Behavioral treatments are also useful, especially if a child has found defecation painful and needs to be rewarded for sitting on the toilet at first and later for defecating there. Frequent reminders and rewards, given in an encouraging and nonpunitive way, are needed until the child has some success.
If urinary problems are not caused by medical issues, the problem may be that the child has not learned to associate the sense of a distended bladder with urination soon after. Encouraging the child to drink large amounts of fluids and then measuring the urinary output (with a bucket or some other device) can call his or her attention to the connection between the two.

Children who have toilet difficulties of these kinds may also have other mood or behavioral problems, including defiant, oppositional, or callous-unemotional behavior, but it is probably a mistake to assume that  the toilet behavior is just another aspect of defiance or opposition. The two kinds of problems are likely to have different causes and to need to be treated differently.

Need I say that when children are locked in their rooms, or when door alarms are used so that they have no free access to toilet facilities but must use buckets to eliminate or wait as long as they can, difficulties in controlling elimination are likely to emerge even if they were not present before? Limiting foods, as in the peanut-butter-sandwich-and-milk routine advised at one time by Nancy Thomas, is likely to play into any tendencies to constipation. Incidentally, I understand that the said Nancy Thomas, now touring Russia to spread her beliefs, is recommending that children with poor bladder control must  wash their clothes by hand with cold water and vinegar; this is not likely to accomplish anything but to increase anxiety and lessen the child’s ability to control urination.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Young Psychopaths at the Atlantic Magazine: More Zombie Ideas

Readers of blogs and quasiprofessional websites will be familiar with the practice of calling children “psychopaths”. Readers of professional psychology and clinical social work will find this terminology strange and sensationalistic; they will be accustomed to the use of terms like “callous-unemotional (CU) behavior” or “conduct disorders”.

Many of the ideas associated with the “psychopath” label are zombie ideas: they are dead, but they won’t lie down—and they accomplish certain kinds of work for the people who use them. The current (June 2017) issue of the Atlantic magazine features an article full of zombie ideas about children’s aggressive and angry behavior and is entitled “When Your Child is a Psychopath” ( This article recounts frightening stories about children obsessed with anger, taking pleasure in hurting others, and becoming more dangerous as they grow. These children are different from others, it is stated, because their problems are genetically caused and cannot be treated (except, maybe, a certain residential treatment program might be a bit helpful).

“When Your Child is a Psychopath” is one of a large group of scary-exciting bedtime stories for adults; these focus on the Bad Seed concept, that children may only appear to be innocent, and that some of them are just waiting for the opportunity to do us in. For parents of quite well-behaved children, these tales are thrilling accounts of how bad other people’s lives are, a sort of inversion of the equally-loved stories of serious child abuse with torture and sex. The good parents know that they are okay when they read these things. They would never do such bad things, nor would their kids, and in their hearts they believe the problems are caused by the bad parents rather than by genetic factors.

For parents of sometimes-aggressive, occasionally-antisocial children (i.e., most of us), the Bad Seed stories provide a chance to think how bad things can be and to breathe a sigh of relief that ours are not as bad as that. In addition, the stories present the possibility that whatever problems the future holds, it may be genetics that cause them—these parents (most of us, again) are absolved from blame if that’s the case.

Parents of really callous-unemotional, antisocial children probably do not get much chance to read, but if they do read the stories, they can take comfort from the idea that they are not the only ones with these problems.

So, you see, the Bad Seed stories offer something gratifying for everyone. Of course, there’s a serious difficulty connected with the fact that they are probably not true. And there’s an even worse difficulty in the possibility that such beliefs will cause parents and practitioners to act in ways that will cause additional trouble for the children, for instance failing to seek treatment for the children and/or the parents because they accept the idea that antisocial behaviors are not treatable. The children can also be affected negatively by these ideas, perhaps assuming that they will never be able to control their impulses and that they will inevitably commit crimes and go to prison or worse. (There is quite a flavor of Attachment Therapy in this; it’s reminiscent of practitioners who tell children “unless you cooperate, you are gonna kill somebody some day!”)

As it happened, on the day I read the Atlantic article, I also opened a new issue of the journal Child Development Perspectives and found two useful articles commenting on antisocial behavior in childhood.  The first article, by Dale Hay, had the title “The early development of human aggression” (CDP 2017, Vol. 11(2), pp. 102-106). Hay referred to genetic factors in aggressive behavior, but pointed out that aggressive tendencies resulted from a combination of genetic make-up and maternal sensitivity. Although all typically-developing children are capable of physical aggression by the second year, toddlers are more likely to develop increased aggressive behavior if their families live in poverty. Mothers who have been depressed during pregnancy, who have shown antisocial behavior themselves, and who react with hostility to their children’s displays of anger are more likely than others to have children who behave antisocially. Hay also noted that after age 2 years there are increasing differences between boys and girls in physical aggression. A group of factors acting together may make boys increasingly aggressive during early childhood. These would include the facts that girls mature more rapidly, that boys are more likely to have neurodevelopmental problems like ADHD, that parents treat boys and girls differently, and that young children prefer to play with peers of their own sex, which makes them likely to imitate and learn gender-related habits of aggression. Clearly environmental factors affect the development of angry, aggressive behavior, and when this is the case it should be possible for treatment to alter the pathway of development—contrary to the claims of the Atlantic article.

The second article in Child Development Perspectives was written by Rebecca Waller and Luke Hyde and entitled “Callous-unemotional behaviors in early childhood: Measurement, meaning, and the influence of parenting” (CDP 2017, Vol 11(2), pp. 120-126). Waller and Hyde pointed out that many children show early angry, aggressive behavior, but most stop this; the important question is why some continue and show long-term antisocial attitudes and behaviors. This is a complex question and the article is a complex one, but Waller and Hyde make some comments that I want to emphasize because of their relevance to the claims made in the Atlantic magazine. They noted that particular language about callous-unemotional (CU) traits  (in which I would include the word “psychopath” as applied to children) “could have unintended consequences, especially given its origins as an extension of psychopathy in adulthood, which clinical lore (falsely) purports to be inborn (i.e., purely genetic) and even untreatable. Such notions are problematic when applied to young children, particularly when some children with high levels of CU traits benefit from treatment. Moreover, using the word traits [or other words like “psychopath”—JM] carries a risk that treatment providers, parents, or children may inadvertently receive iatrogenic messages about stability or untreatability, which become self-fulfilling prophesies”—as therapist and parents avoid treatment or seek it with no real expectation of benefit, and children understand themselves to be members of a special and dangerous group of human beings and follow the associated “script”.

It is unfortunate that the Atlantic chose to publish an article on an important and interesting topic, but did so without weeding out the zombies (excuse this mixed metaphor, I don’t know what you do to rid yourself of zombies). Let us hope that the effects of these ideas do not show that problems can be mediagenic as well as iatrogenic.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A New (to me) Book Addressing the Problems of Martha Welch's Holding Time

Quite a while ago, on March 18, 2012 to be exact, I posted on this blog a piece called “Attachment Therapy: Where Are the Testimonials From the Children?” I was hoping to hear from people who had experienced or observed various kinds of holding therapy as children and to learn what they remembered about what happened. I have had a few responses over the years, but not long ago, and again yesterday, I heard from someone who had experienced Martha Welch’s “holding time” version of this treatment and had seen  and heard her autistic brother as he was put through a brutal form of holding. This correspondent made a suggestion that I had never thought of (doh!) and led me to look at the Amazon reviews of Welch’s 1989 book “Holding Time”, which recommended daily holding of screaming, resisting children, both as a treatment for autism and just for ordinary parenting purposes.  Looking over those, I came upon a reference to a book I had never heard of, which amazingly turned out to be on the shelf in my town library.

Let me hear your voice: A family’s triumph over autism was published in 1993 by Catherine Maurice (I see elsewhere that this name was a pseudonym, so I am not at all sure how to reach her for further information—like what happened to her children later). Maurice had a typically-developing son, followed by a daughter and another son, both of whom began by developing typically and then showed many signs of the regressive type of autism. Both also recovered a typical developmental trajectory, a recovery that Maurice attributed to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a behavior modification program that has research support.

This beautifully-written book is a candid account of the actions and feelings of parents dealing with first one, then another autistic child while trying to keep their daily lives somewhat intact. It includes an appendix with specific information about the treatment and gradual changes in each child. As such, it offers a great deal to parents who need some hope and understanding about how a treatment may proceed.

From my point of view, however, the great value of Maurice’s book is its exposure of Martha Welch’s proposed treatment for autistic children. Welch visited  Evergreen, Colorado in the heyday of the town’s existence as home of the attachment therapy cottage industry. She absorbed the idea of physical restraint and the power of parental authority to force changes in children as the parent wished them to occur. However, in creating her own method, Welch added the seductive element of “mother love” as a cure for childhood mental illness. She proposed that all holding had to be done by a child’s mother, and indicated that this was a cure for all emotional problems of concern to parents—including aloofness or ingratitude in typically-developing children. In instructional videotapes, Welch presented her son Bram as an example of what could be achieved by daily holding of a resisting child until he or she relaxed and became accepting and affectionate. For many years, the great selling point for Welch’s method was her claim that it cured autistic children, but by 2006 she had altered this to presenting the treatment, now called Prolonged Parent-Child Embrace (PPCE) as a therapy for children with Reactive Attachment Disorder and oppositional behavior; autism was no longer a focus by that time.

Maurice openly admits how she “fell for” Welch’s approach and explanation of autism. Autism, according to Welch (and her mentors Elisabeth and Niko Tinbergen, the latter a Nobel laureate), was caused when a mother and child failed to “bond”. This failure caused the child to be terrified of the world and of people, whom he or she avoided. Inside each autistic child, according to this view, is a typically-developing child who is simply too frightened to speak or look at anyone. Holding therapy forces the child and mother to bond, the child loses his fears, and voila’, the concealed development is demonstrated to be there. Welch’s charm and air of authority convinced Maurice that she must be right, and indeed anyone who watches Welch’s instructional tapes can see how this attractive, warm, caring person would appear to answer the needs of any wretched, frightened, exhausted parent who saw a child deteriorating before their eyes. Of course, from a safe, objective distance, it is much easier to discern in Welch the deep conviction and enthusiasm of what Freud called the furor sanandi – the “lust for curing”.

With respect to holding therapy, Maurice’s story concentrates on how she and her husband responded to Welch. Catherine initially saw Welch as the savior she was looking for, although from the beginning she was concerned about the idea that something had happened to prevent a bond between her daughter and her self. Welch suggested that such an event could occur when a baby of a few months overheard her mother say something negative, or even when an unborn baby was in some way exposed to its mother’s thoughts and opinions. Catherine Maurice doubted this to begin with, and over the months began to question Welch’s views more seriously (although even after she broke with Welch, she seemed to feel that holding did something positive). Her husband was not pleased with Welch from the start, wanted information about the outcomes of the treatment which he did not get, but decided to go along with his wife’s wishes.

Speaking of encountering another mother who was devoted to Welch, Maurice noted: “In this woman, as in other holding therapy disciples, I was beginning to see something I didn’t like—something I recognized in myself: blind faith, idealization of  human individual, unwillingness to admit we can make mistakes about what is right for our children….Before my relationship with Dr. Welch ended, I was to understand what it might be like to be seduced and drawn into a cult. To those who are frightened enough and desperate enough, it becomes harder and harder to hold onto sense and intelligence, reason and objectivity. Cast into an unknown land, uncertain of our bearings, we parents at the Mothering Center took enormous solace from the calm assurances, the sweet promises, of our savior.” However, over time Maurice realized that although she could see the positive results of the ABA treatment her daughter was also receiving, Welch consistently told her how harmful it was. She also came to understand that she had never seen any of the “cured” children Welch claimed to have come out of holding therapy. One case, published in Life magazine rather than in a professional journal, did not seem to Maurice to have had anything like the successful outcome claimed for it.

 Maurice and her daughter visited a group in which holding therapy was being done by mothers with autistic children and were terrified by the screaming and the shouts of mothers “expressing” their rage that the children were not paying attention to them. Among other things, she saw a mother restraining her severely impaired three-year-old son; when the child accidentally bumped his head, the mother asked for ice, and an aide told her, “Mary… that bump is insignificant compared to the damage you will do if you don’t get a resolution from this child” – a resolution being a change in the child’s behavior from screaming resistance to cuddling. The aide went on to say that the reason she could not “get a resolution” was that her husband was not supportive enough. All these things were concerning to Maurice, but the final straw was that when she was asked to speak about holding for a BBC production on the treatment, her attempt at a balanced presentation, speaking of the various treatments that were being used for her daughter, was edited so that only holding was recommended.

Maurice’s discussion of her attraction to Welch’s method and her gradual loss of faith is a real, though sympathetic, object lesson to parents who find themselves devoted to an “alternative psychotherapy”. The impact of the misguided treatment on her family may have been as serious as the challenges presented by autistic children. At the time this book was written, Maurice’s children were still too young for their thoughts and memories to be articulated very well, so we really do not know how they experienced Welch’s treatment or any other treatment they received. I know Maurice has continued her concerns about autism, because, still using her pseudonym, she more recently co-edited a book with two well-known professionals in the field. Could she tell us now how her grown-up children are doing? Could the children tell us what they remember or think about their experiences? I wish she, and they, would round off the understanding she supplied in her 1993 book with that additional information.     

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy Claims on Amazon

On an Amazon comment page, a mother recently wrote of her concern for her 9-year-old daughter, who had much difficulty coping with frustration and responded with lengthy tantrums to everyday problems. The mother sought suggestions for treatments focused on attachment, and stated that she was now aware that her own behavior was partially responsible for her daughter’s situation (although she did not comment on how she knew this or what she felt about her conclusion).

In response to the mother’s comment, the following appeared:

“Arthur Becker-weidman says:

DDP would be most helpful for you as it is an evidence-based and empirically validated treatment. See the California Evidence Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare for their independent review of this and many other approaches.                “             

For those who have not encountered Becker-Weidman before, I should point out that he is a clinical social worker who was at one time associated with Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP) as promulgated by Daniel Hughes. Becker-Weidman and Hughes published several papers in which they claimed, incorrectly, that there was an acceptable evidence basis for DDP. The British DDP website, which Hughes now runs together with Kim Golding, no longer refers to Becker-Weidman’s work, but acknowledges that there is currently no published evidentiary foundation for DDP.

So, let’s have a look at the claims Becker-Weidman is making on Amazon.

1. He points to the California Evidence Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare (, an organization that posts information about child mental health treatments that are used or marketed in California. I looked into CEBC in some detail for a presentation at a conference last September and found the following:

 The information posted is obtained by asking developers of treatments to supply materials that can be used in rating each treatment. Programs are evaluated and rated according to the following scale (for further details, see

1. Well-Supported by Research Evidence
2. Supported by Research Evidence
3. Promising Research Evidence
4. Evidence Fails to Demonstrate Effect
5. Concerning Practice
NR. Not able to be Rated on the CEBC Scientific Rating Scale

 CEBC lists descriptions and findings about 286 programs, primarily for children and adolescents. Of listed programs, 26 were “non-responders” to inquiries about empirical support. Programs are rated according to stated criteria from 1 (excellent supportive evidence; 21 programs) to 5 (concerning; 0 programs, despite connections of some listed programs with adverse events), or Not Rated when supportive material is insufficient (77 programs). Seventy programs were rated “promising”.
To be rated 3, promising research evidence, as DDP was, requires only one nonrandomized study that compares outcomes for treated individuals to outcomes for some other group. This is a good deal lower bar than even the 2 rating, which requires one randomized controlled trial; treatments are properly described as evidence-based only when two independent randomized controlled trials have shown significant benefit from a treatment.

Incidentally, CEBC was responsive to my query about a program, Circle of Security, that was listed as “well-supported” although published research reports did not agree with this evaluation. CEBC took down the existing statements about Circle of Security and a representative said that further material would be requested from the program developers. When I have time, I need to comment to CEBC about the difficulties with research on DDP that I will come to in a moment.

2. The material Becker-Weidman (or someone) may have provided to CEBC has serious problems beyond its relatively weak design. As other authors and I have pointed out in professional publications, the treatment used in one study and a follow-up published by Becker-Weidman does not appear to have been DDP as it is presently described by Hughes. The original study, done in the late ‘90s, appears to have a number of features that are closely associated with holding therapy (HT), an intrusive and dangerous unconventional treatment. Becker-Weidman cites in his papers recommendations to parents to learn and use methods associated with HT, especially those suggested by the foster parent/dog trainer Nancy Thomas. Given the likelihood that DDP today does not use those methods, and that Becker-Weidman’s version did use those methods, it appears that Becker-Weidman did not do outcome research on DDP, but instead did it on DDP plus some other treatments, making it impossible to generalize from Becker-Weidman’s conclusions to current DDP as practiced by Hughes and Golding. A rival hypothesis about this situation is that Becker-Weidman and Hughes do still use the HT methods but do not disclose the fact; if true, that would earn DDP the CEBC rating of 5, concerning practice.

As I said earlier, the Hughes and Golding website no longer references Becker-Weidman’s publications. They would certainly do so if they thought the work provided evidentiary support for DDP. Becker-Weidman, however, seems to retain his conviction that “what I tell you three times is true”.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

What Are the Probable Earliest Signs of Autism?

Of the comments and queries I receive on this blog, the greatest number are from parents concerned that their babies are showing signs of autism. Of questions about autism, almost all of them focus on a lack of eye contact—the babies do not gaze at their parents’ faces as much as the parents expect them to.

Most parents, and certainly many Internet authors who discuss autism, assume that whatever are the signs and symptoms of autism in older children and adults, those will also be the signs and symptoms of autism in young infants. They know that social awkwardness and a lack of eye contact and other communicative gestures are common among older children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), so they assume that infants who are fated for an ASD diagnosis will also lack eye contact. But in making this assumption they miss two important points.

The first point is that infants in the first two or three months are not easily attracted to pay attention to people. They will do it now and then, but often they respond only to quite dramatic adult facial expressions with wide open-mouthed smiles. Years ago, this developmental period was referred to as a stage of normal autism—the word “autism” deriving from the Greek word for “self”, and the babies being focused on themselves rather than the environment. Now that people are terrified about ASD, one doesn’t come across this expression, normal autism, any more, but that doesn’t mean that the stage no longer exists. What would be a symptom of ASD in an older child is a sign of perfectly normal development in a young infant. There is no point in expecting a baby of a few months to make extensive eye contact, any more than there would be any point in expecting her to build a tower of two blocks or to spoon-feed herself.

My second point is that earlier and later behavior patterns may be remarkably different in cases where there are developmental problems. A good example is the pattern shown in Williams syndrome, a genetic syndrome resulting from loss of certain parts of a chromosome. Williams syndrome is not terribly debilitating, but it does cause developmental changes that are rather different from typical development. Young babies with Williams syndrome are terribly colicky and cry frantically no matter what is done to soothe them. They are not interested in other people at that point. But when the colicky stage passes, they become extremely interested in people, stare at them intently, and appear to be “starved” for eye contact. We might expect them at this point to be very interested in communication and to speak early, but no; in fact, their speech is delayed by about a year. Once they do start to speak, they became chatty conversationalists. As adults, they are still talkative, with wonderful language abilities, and highly sociable—but socially awkward at the same time because they seem to lack the social anxiety that guides most of us. The screaming colic and delayed speech of the younger Williams syndrome individual are by no means symptoms of either the strengths or the weakness of the Williams adult—and it’s very possible that a similar situation holds for ASD people, whose later symptoms may not mirror the earlier ones (if there are any).

A possible conclusion from these two points is that the current preoccupation of parents with eye contact may be irrelevant to the diagnosis of autism. The fact that older ASD children may not use eye contact for communication very much does not mean that we can identify infants who will later be diagnosed with ASD by looking for them to make eye contact.

A recent paper on autism  provides some interesting insights into possible early symptoms of autism. (Thomas, M., Davis, R., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Knowland, V., & Charman, T. (2016). The over-pruning hypothesis of autism. Developmental Science, 19, 284-305.) This is a very complicated paper, and I am only going to refer to one of its points here.

The Thomas paper is one that discusses an idea about how ASD develops. The basic idea is that autism results when a particular problem occurs during early development. It is well known that during the first year, there is great overdevelopment of synapses or connections between neurons in the brain, followed by disappearance of many that are little used—a process sometimes called “pruning”. Although some authors have suggested that autism results from too little “pruning” of synapses, Thomas and his co-authors hypothesize that too much “pruning” could be the problem. They have tested this hypothesis by developing a neurocomputational model to allow them to predict what kinds of problems should result from excessive “pruning”.

Like all good scientists, Thomas and his colleagues are testing their model against some longitudinal studies of development of autistic children, and to some extent are finding that the longitudinal studies show the symptoms they predict on the basis of the timing of pruning events during early development. These do NOT include symptoms of social interaction problems. They do include difficulties with sensory development like over- or under-sensitivity to sound or touch stimulation, and difficulties with motor development. Motor development problems as a precursor to autism have been discussed since the 1980s, when studies of home videos were sought by researchers as a way to see the early development of children later diagnosed with ASD. Even before that, clinicians had noted that unusual movement patterns like crawling asymmetrically or always reaching with one hand during early childhood were related to a variety of later developmental problems. These sensory and motor problems in the first year or two may indicate that children will later show the social interaction problems often associated with autism—even though the children when younger do not show unusual social interactions.

The sensory and motor forerunners of autism are not yet clearly understood, so they cannot be used for accurate  identification of “pre-autistic” babies. In addition, many young children who are thought to be autistic at age 2 show normal development later. Much as we might like to have early identification and early intervention, we don’t have it yet. But if identification and intervention are ever going to work, they will have to be focused on development that is really not typical—and it is quite typical for babies in the first weeks and even months to look at things other than faces a good deal of the time.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Qigong Parent Training (Believe It or Don't)

Today I received an email from a professional group I have respected in the past. They invited me to attend a session about qigong training for parents. I am somewhat startled about this, especially because this group, like others of its kind, is supposed to be alert to the evidentiary foundations of methods they recommend. They need not restrict themselves entirely to evidence-based treatments, because there may be perfectly good treatments that have not yet been thoroughly researched, but they should not be suggesting methods that are neither research-based nor plausible. They apparently don’t know this.

Qigong is a method that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine classes as a “putative energy therapy”. This classification indicates that qigong is said by its proponents to involve a field of energy (qi) that fills the body and surrounds it, but this energy is not electricity, light, or heat, and is not measurable by any physical means. Qi is thought not only to surround and fill the body, but to flow dynamically along meridians or pathways that connect body parts. If qi movement is blocked, there is resulting pain or distress. Of course, the distress experienced by the individual is the only thing that indicates to proponents that there is blockage of qi, or indeed that there is qi at all, since it cannot be measured.

Like many other “energy” methods, qigong is claimed to be an ancient tradition handed down for centuries. Although the practice does use traditional Chinese philosophical systems and meridian charts, the anthropologist David Palmer, in his 2007 book, dated current qigong practices to 1949. The method was created by a Chinese political functionary as a body training technique combining breathing techniques, meditation, and gymnastics—with the traditional belief systems omitted. In the 1950s, qigong became popular in China as political objections to foreign influences developed and there was new encouragement of Chinese traditions.

In the 1970s, however, a new group of qigong masters began to claim that they could “externalize” their qi , focus it on patients, and cure them, even at a great distance. Followers began to experience trances, “holy rolling”, and speaking in tongues, much as charismatic Christians sometimes do. Participants no longer needed to achieve skills  in qigong themselves, but could depend on a master to heal them. The Chinese government began to find these activities embarrassing and tried to suppress them, leading to emigration of qigong masters to the West.

There have been some attempts to demonstrate systematic evidence for the effectiveness of qigong (for example, a 2010 study by Oh et al). Unfortunately, like studies of other unconventional treatments I have mentioned on this blog, the research on qigong failed to isolate the variable being tested. For example, in the Oh study of the effect of qigong on fatigue and mood of cancer patients, patients were randomized either to a group that met twice a week for 90-minute qigong sessions, or to a “usual care” group that did not meet. This means that any differences between the groups may be due to social contact, to expectations, to the relationship with the leader, to effects on their qi, or to all these factors or many others.

The existence of qi, an undetectable entity, is not plausible, and attempts to manipulate qi have not received the appropriate testing that might or might not establish an evidentiary foundation for the practice. So—does that mean that training parents in qigong is a bad idea? It’s true that doing qigong will probably not hurt anyone directly, so in that sense the practice is a harmless one, however implausible. However, there are a number of problems associated with encouraging parents to believe unlikely methods or explanations. One is that parents who are convinced that they know the secret way to health for their child may reject conventional medical help when it is badly needed (yes, I’m talking about Christian Scientists too).  Another problem is that parents caught up in unconventional treatments may be unduly influenced by practitioners whom they admire, and may be unable to realize that they have been drawn into a cult that can have ill effects both on their children and on themselves. To state just one further point: of course, no one expects either conventional or unconventional practitioners to give their services for free, and parents involved with unconventional and ineffective treatments may find at the last that they have no resources to use for effective treatments.      

Netflix and Misunderstandings About Suicide

The recent release of 13 Reasons Why on Netflix is worrisome to mental health professionals and to parents who need to talk to their older children about the realities of suicide. Please go to this link for a very helpful approach to this problem:

If you are concerned about the issue, you may also want to see

Keep in mind that talking about suicide does not cause suicide, and if your children are watching the Netfliz series talking to them may be one of the best things you can do.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Critical Thinking About Child Custody, Especially Parental Alienation Claims

I recently received a document relevant to decisions about a girl who prefers Parent A but has been sent to live with Parent B. She had been ordered to receive treatment for the “parental alienation” by Parent A  that is argued to be the reason for her preference for A over B. The girl, whom I will call Sophie, is 14; the parents have been apart and in high conflict since she was 11. Parent B has asked the court’s permission to move Sophie, along with Parent B and B’s romantic partner, to a neighboring state, where they are now living and where Sophie is attending school.

B has asked a proponent of a treatment for parental alienation  (let’s refer to him as Mr. P. Pat) to comment on Sophie’s present status and to support the argument that B, the partner, and Sophie should all remain together in the new state, and Parent A should be prohibited from all contact with Sophie. Mr. P. Pat argues that Sophie is doing much better now than she was at age 11, when the parental separation began. She is doing well at her school, studying music, and roller-skating This shows, Mr. P. Pat says, that Sophie has benefited greatly from 1. Separation from Parent A, and 2. Her experience of the Pat method of therapy for parental alienation effects. What’s more, Sophie’s improvement is evidence that the problem was indeed parental alienation. Mr. P. Pat also argues that Sophie must not have contact with Parent A because even the slightest contact will undo all the benefits she has received.

Let’s examine these arguments a bit (it won’t take much). Mr. P. Pat is taking advantage of the tendency most of us have to fall for the argument that post hoc  means propter hoc—that if one event follows another, the second one must be caused by the first. For example, if I eat a mango for the first time and I shortly develop a skin rash, post hoc reasoning suggests that the mango caused the rash—maybe I’m allergic, maybe it was contaminated by some agricultural chemical. But, of course, I could have a rash because I’ve contracted rubella, or because I’m allergic to something else I ate in the same meal with the mango, or because I put my arm on a table that had been polished with a furniture polish I’m sensitive to. All those things could have happened before the rash, but post hoc reasoning often chooses just one of the previous events and firmly assigns causation to the chosen possibility.

How does post hoc reasoning apply to Mr. P. Pat’s claims about Sophie? He states that she has received his treatment and that she is doing well (a claim made without any independent evaluation of Sophie, by the way) and that, therefore, the treatment must have caused her to do well (post hoc, ergo propter hoc). Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Sophie is indeed doing well. What alternative hoc factors can we consider to be possible causes of Sophie’s status?

First, we need to think about maturational changes—changes in personality and behavior that normally accompany advances in chronological and developmental age, no matter what experiences the individual is having. The effect of maturation is one that is largely ignored by proponents of fringe beliefs about child development issues, and regrettably is also ignored by laws that classify humans from birth to age 18 as children, without further definition. Between age 11 and age 14, Sophie has passed through some important steps in development. Physically, this would have entailed puberty, with rapid physical growth and changes in appearance as well as reproductive maturation. Cognitively, Sophie would experience advances in executive function and in formal operational thinking, the capacity to think hypothetically and to separate variables from each other. Emotionally, she has moved through a phase of mercurial, “temperamental” responses, including unpredictable crying and anger, to a calmer responsiveness; she has also moved from a period of life in which family relationships are paramount to one in which peer relationships and school events take precedence emotionally. All of these make Sophie a different person than she was at age 11 and make her in many ways easier to deal with than she was a year or two ago.

Other changes have also taken place in Sophie’s life. One is that she and her parents and siblings have moved toward resolving their feelings about the parents’ divorce. To do this, Sophie had to disengage from the parents’ conflict and focus on her own life, a task that would be made much more difficult by insistence on the idea of parental alienation.

In Sophie’s case, her forced separation from Parent A has included separation from a sibling. She now lives alone with B and B’s romantic partner. This change has removed her from all the possible influences of her sibling for good or ill—the sibling may have encouraged or have discouraged Sophie from her positions about A and about B, may have provided comfort when Sophie was distressed about the family situation or may have acted to distress her further, and may or may not have provided a role model for a constructive response to both parents’ wishes.

Sophie has also moved away from a neighborhood and a school where most adults and many classmates were likely to have known about the parental conflict and to have weighed in on one side or the other. She is beginning high school and has much to get used to in a new school setting, distracting her from the family focus she probably had earlier.

This is enough of a laundry list to demonstrate my point that Sophie’s situation is post more than one hoc, yet Mr. P. Pat points to a single factor as the cause of any changes to be seen in Sophie. He has apparently failed to look for evidence for alternative rival hypotheses, either about the initial diagnosis of parental alienation or about the effects of the treatment.

An article by Dr. Madelyn Milchman discusses a better way to handle the task of understanding child or family problems in the context of child custody evaluations. (Milchman, M.S. (2015). The complementary roles of scientific and clinical thinking in child custody evaluations. Journal of Child Custody, 12, 97-128.) Dr. Milchman pointed out that scientific hypotheses are well-formulated only if they are falsifiable – only if it is possible for observable evidence to be used to reject the hypothesis. A hypothesis that appears to be supported by any possible observation is one that cannot be rejected and therefore is not useful for understanding events. In clinical work like child custody evaluation, practitioners are not doing scientific hypothesis testing in the usual sense, but they need to avoid their own biases and presumptions by testing their own preferred hypotheses and possible conclusions about a family. They do this by looking for consistency of evidence and pursuing issues of inconsistencies, and they also do it by formulating alternative hypotheses to see whether the evidence supports one or more alternatives better than it supports their preferred hypothesis.

Like scientists, clinicians cannot “prove” a hypothesis beyond the shadow of a doubt. The job is to try to disconfirm a hypothesis and to accept it only when the evidence does not disconfirm it.  For the clinician, this involves thinking about other causes that can explain evidence that is consistent with the preferred hypothesis. In Sophie’s case, the preferred hypothesis, that treatment has changed her behavior toward her parents, is weakened by the existence of a list of other factors that may have worked individually or together to alter her attitude. Clinicians also need to think about evidence that is inconsistent with a preferred hypothesis. In Sophie’s case, such evidence might be revealed by an assessment by a psychologist who has not been involved in her treatment (and ideally, one who is not committed to the idea of parental alienation). According to the documents I have seen, this possibility has been refused by Parent

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

I'll Get to Scotland Before Ye: "Parental Alienation" Again

I recently received several documents related to an accusation of “parental alienation” (defined by its advocates as the intentional persuasion of children by one, perhaps mentally ill, parent, that they should avoid and reject the other parent). Proponents of this idea assume that unless there has been demonstrated abusive treatment by the rejected parent, such rejection is prima facie evidence that the preferred parent has emotionally manipulated the children. Such manipulation, they claim, is in itself prima facie evidence that child abuse has occurred and that the children’s mental health is threatened, so they must be rescued from the preferred parent and given treatment that will restore their mental health and with it their affection for the currently rejected parent.

There’s a lot of prima-facie-ness here, it seems, and the implausibility of these claims extends to the documents I received.

Much as I hate to do this, I am not going to reveal the source of the documents, the name of the family they allude to, or the treatment program involved. I am afraid that the identification of the source of the documents would cause trouble for someone. I am not going to discuss family details, but will focus on some of the claims made by people who assessed the family and then proposed and carried out a treatment that closely resembles other “parental alienation” treatments. It abruptly removes children from their home, places them in close contact with the rejected parent, and uses videos, games, and some threats to try to change the children’s attitudes. How is such a serious proceeding initiated ? A court order is obtained, upon the recommendation of the treatment proponents, who have been hired by the rejected parent.

There is much to be said about this situation, and I have already said various things to the effect that I am sure it is possible for “parental alienation” (as defined above) to occur, but that I see no evidence that it occurs often even among high-conflict divorcing families. I have also noted that proponents of treatments for the supposed problem have given no real evidence that their methods are effective ways to change children’s attitudes—although I have no doubt that the inclusion of threats will change children’s behavior.

In this post, I want to touch on the issue of evidence for effectiveness of treatments. To the best of my knowledge, there have never been either randomized controlled trials of the treatments, or well-designed nonrandomized studies. Instead, one proponent of a treatment claims that he has evidence for the effectiveness of his treatment in the form of a single-subject ABA design. This research method looks at behavior during one set of circumstances, usually just everyday life with no treatment given (A); then creates a new condition, generally involving an intervention of some kind (B) and looks at behavior during that period; finally, the A situation is returned and behavior is again observed. Graphs or other displays show whether the change from A to B, and back again, is accompanied by a change in the behavior of interest (in the parental alienation case, of course, this would be rejection of one parent).

That proponent notes, in one of the documents I have, that this method is “one of only two research designs that can definitively determine causality, the other design being a randomize control experimental design”. There are several problems with this statement. One is that no research design “definitively” determines causality, as the results of psychological research are reported in terms of the probability that a given outcome has occurred by chance alone, and this probability may be close to 5 % in cases where a significant difference between groups is found. In addition, a textbook on research in education points out that ABA designs are weak in terms of external validity and require many replications followed by a randomized study before the conclusion that a treatment has a given effect can be drawn.

The proponent of the treatment runs into an additional problem when claiming that the treatment causes a change in the child’s behavior. ABA studies are normally careful to identify a single variable whose effect is to be tested and to hold constant other factors that could affect child behavior. The treatment in this case changes multiple factors between A and B, and between B and a return to A. A, the original situation, has the child in his or her own home, with normal opportunities for play and other preferred behaviors, and in the company of the preferred parent. The B situation abruptly removes the child from the familiar setting and places him in an unfamiliar place, in the company of the rejected parent and of a therapist who demands attention to videos and may make threats about the child’s uncomfortable placement elsewhere if he or she does not cooperate, or about continuing separation from the preferred parent. The return to A  returns the child to a familiar, unpressured social and physical environment. Are we surprised that behavior would be different in A and in B, particularly in the light of threats made in the B situation? The failure to isolate an independent variable makes this use of ABA ineffective as a research design.

There is a further important point about material in the document that makes claims about the conclusions drawn from a variant on the ABA design. The document states that “A single-case ABAB reversal design quickly and efficiently identifies the cause of the issues and restores the child’s healthy development as quickly as possible.” The results of either ABA or ABAB studies are irrelevant to this claim. If well done, such studies could show that a treatment was effective in changing a behavioral symptom. This, however, would not identify the cause of a problem; causes of problems are not being studied by this method. (As an example, let me point to applied behavior analysis as a treatment for autism, where the fact that an operant conditioning technique is helpful to the child does not mean that he was autistic because the parents used different methods in their child care routines.)  

It seems that the “parental alienation” proponents involved in these documents are inclined to fancy footwork rather than logical analysis as they put forward claims for their methods of assessment and treatment. Unfortunately, it would appear that judges and attorneys have in some cases fallen for this line of chat, and challenges have been few.

(Could it possibly be that people who have heard once or twice of applied behavior analysis—also called ABA—recognize that abbreviation and think “oh yeah, that’s a thing, I heard of it”? I hope not, but stranger things have occurred.  )