I appreciate your weekly insights and value the fact that there are therapists and mental health professionals who are true bnei Torah. I have heard rumblings about an issue and would like to give you an opportunity to clarify it for us. Can you please explain what is “parental alienation” is, which I understand to mean when a therapist instructs a client to break off contact with a parent? Is this something that frum therapists do? How common is something like this? Is this ever actually clinically necessary, and even if it is, do you consult rabbonim on something like this and is this type of thing ever sanctioned by rabbonim? If it is being done incorrectly and unjustifiably by therapists, what course of action would you recommend that could prevent something like this from happening in our community?
Chaim Neuhoff, Ph.D.
You ask complex questions that really need a chapter, if not a book, to tackle well. You ask six questions, and I will attempt to respond to each one separately. Please realize that I speak for myself and for many colleagues who work within the framework of following clinical professional guidelines with input from Shulchan Aruch and rabbonim.
1) Can you please explain what is “parental alienation” which I understand to mean is when a therapist instructs a client to break off contact with a parent.
Parental alienation is often confused with parental estrangement. I suspect that your question as well as some recent chatter in frum circles is more about estrangement but will try to briefly describe both.
Parental alienation refers to children who have been intentionally alienated by one parent from their other parent or other family members. It is typically perpetrated by divorcing parents in an attempt to gain custody, child support, or revenge. Parents use various tactics to accomplish this, and the results are often devastating to the children. This entire process is beyond the scope of this column; please email me if you’d like to discuss further.
Adult children looking to separate from their parents is typically referred to as parental estrangement. This is about rejecting a parent, sometimes with good reason and often not. Unlike alienation, which needs to have a third party involved in the “influence” (usually a parent), estrangement often comes from the (adult) child. Most of the chatter in frum community involves cases where a grown child cuts off his/her parents.
People blame therapists as being a source of these tragic cases because the person didn’t consider doing this until he was in therapy. In the cases that I am familiar with, there are two types of estrangement. First, is where there is a long history of serious abuse (of various types) often ongoing, and there are lingering emotional scars. The second type is related to parents consistently crossing boundaries. For example, parents who repeatedly tell their daughter to divorce this person or shame and criticize her (or her spouse) in front of their young children. Despite repeated attempts, these boundaries were not kept, and the adult child then says that until we can come to fair terms, I am unable to see you.
Please realize that most people who need to do this are miserable and broken. They describe years and months of agony that they waited to have to do this and don’t feel good afterwards. The clients usually desperately want to connect with the parents, but they are simply unable to. They come to therapy and attempt to work through these challenges precisely to try to be mikayem kibud av vaeim appropriately.
2) Is this something that frum therapists do? At times, frum therapist can be involved in this process. As mentioned, alienation typically comes from one parent against the other and estrangement comes from adult children against parents. The job of the therapist is to help clients clarify and meet their own reasonable goals, and sometimes this may involve the process described above. This does not mean that it is always correct. Keep in mind that the community of “frum” therapists is quite large and I certainly cannot speak for everyone.
3) How common is something like this? I am not aware of the prevalence within the frum community. I do know that in the secular world 27% of people reported estrangement (cutting off contact with a family member) and up to 25% of custody disputes may involve some sort of alienation. It is doubtful that the rates in the frum community are this high. However, Rav Uren Reich told a group of professionals that he participated in a meeting where 60 estranged parents attended, which is extremely high and painful.
4) Is this ever actually clinically necessary? This was touched on before. Yes, on occasion it may be clinically necessary both in situations of estrangement and boundary crossings. And yes, in my opinion, it is sometimes not clinically necessary. As far as I have been trained, this certainly needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and rabbonim definitely need to be involved.
5) And even if it is do you consult rabbonim on something like this and is this type of thing ever sanctioned by rabbonim? Absolutely. Keep in mind that in addition to clinical questions, there are questions about halacha and about values. There are halachic questions of kibud av vaeim and various considerations such as “chayecha kodmim” and “kibud av mishel av.” There are also questions about values. The secular world puts much emphasis on the “self” and feeling good, while our Torah also emphasizes the broader picture and responsibility towards family and community (in addition, of course, to the self). This is why these questions should ideally have input from Daas Torah (where the client is willing).
I am privileged to be part of a group of hundreds of bnei and bnos Torah professionals who regularly meet and consult with rabbonim. In fact, in recent years, we have posed these types of questions to Rav Shlomo Miller, Rav Aharon Feldman, Rav Elya Brudny, Rav Reuvein Feinstein, Rav Yechiel Mechel Steimnetz (Skverer Dayan), Rav Uren Reich, Rav Uri Deutsch, and Rav Yisroel Derbarimdiger (Boyaner Dayan). The Bais Havaad in Lakewood and other rabbonim, dayonim, and poskim are also familiar with these questions. It is puzzling why people feel the need to run to Eretz Yisroel with these types of questions when so many of our rabbonim can speak to it.
It is difficult to summarize all relevant halachic sources and guidelines in this column and feel free to email me. Typical guidance can be summarized by this recent quote to us from the Skverer Dayan. “The truth is that there are rare situations where someone is totally abnormal, and it is simply impossible to interact with them. However, to advise someone to cut off relationships with parents, one must be exceedingly careful. There are so many steps one can take before advising someone of such an extreme reaction. If someone has trouble with his feet, he should put on a bandage and if this doesn’t work, then we can take the next step. But to advise cutting off one’s feet is extreme and almost always not necessary. Is this any different? In any case, a therapist needs to discuss these situations with a rov.”
6) If it is being done incorrectly and unjustifiably by therapists, what course of action would you recommend that could prevent something like this from happening in our community? I think that the greater the collaboration between therapists and rabbonim, the less we will see these unfortunate situations in our kehillos. People seeking a therapist for these types of situations should make sure that the therapist is licensed and speaks with a rov prior to advising on anything of this nature. It is also important for rabbonim to receive training to understand the “metzius” of parental alienation as well as the factors leading to estrangement and boundary crossings so that they can pasken correctly. Some of these dynamics are counter-intuitive and a thorough understanding is required.
Mordechai Weinberger, LCSW
The subject you’ve raised is complex; it should really be the subject of a book, not just an article. However, I can certainly try to clarify the issues involved in these situations. First, for accuracy’s sake, let’s define the term “parental alienation.” The clinical definition refers to situations in which one parent alienates a child from the other parent, as sometimes happens in acrimonious divorces.
In popular usage, however, it has come to mean children disconnecting from their parents. The opposite occurs as well; parents sometimes disconnect from their children, although usually for other reasons. The stereotypical instance of this disconnection, to which the letter-writer refers, is that a therapist “instructs” an adult child to cut off contact with his parents.
In psychoanalysis and psychodynamics, which were the first therapy modalities, and in the more up-to-date modality of family systems theory, an imperative goal is to help a client work through issues with his parents and family members to find healing and have productive life. Disconnecting is the opposite of “working through.” Therefore, the entire premise that therapists disconnect children from their parents is inaccurate. Rather, therapists help children recalibrate their family relationships so that they can relate in an emotionally healthy way.
So, we are left to wonder why a child would say that his therapist recommended that he create space and distance from his parents. Let’s start with the premise that every human being has issues. No one is perfect. To interact with other human beings successfully, we train ourselves to see the 90 percent of the person that is good, and to respect that other 10 percent as that person’s issues to work on. As parents, our issues impact our children. Usually, the love and care we bestow on them, as well as their own increasing maturity, outshine the negative; the relationship can thrive.
However, what about a very unhealthy parent who may be rude, embarrassing, demeaning – someone other people try to steer clear of? They are thankful that we only need to interact with them for a few minutes a week. A child growing up in such an environment doesn’t have the inner strength to interact with this parent and remain emotionally intact. Such children adopt a variety of coping mechanisms, many of them unhealthy, to survive their childhood. When they get married, they finally have a safe haven. But the unhealthy parent wants to continue the relationship at the same level, weighing in on everything, intruding on the couple’s privacy, criticizing, and undermining. The new marriage cannot survive with the intensity of the unhealthiness of this parent. The child has to choose between submitting to the parent’s demands or investing his energy in his marriage. Rightfully, a rov will advise such children to prioritize their marriage.
Now, when the parent sees what is happening and bemoans the fact that the child is no longer so accessible, he usually portrays it as an occurrence that came out of left field. “He went to a therapist and bam, we don’t hear from him anymore.”
It’s worth noting that in some cases, the child’s efforts to erect boundaries – not to disconnect, but simply to interact with the parent in a balanced way – incites the parent to disconnect. “If they won’t come for Shabbos when I invite them, they don’t have to come at all.” Or “If she can’t talk to me when I call, I won’t talk to her at all.” The parent withholds attention or money in an attempt to squeeze an apology out of the child, and matters go from bad to worse. The sad part is that these parents then go around crying to everyone saying that my child disconnected from me!
Another common scenario is when the child of an unhealthy home feels threatened by his spouse’s normal relationship with her family. He is suspicious of the time his wife spends on the phone or visiting with her parents and siblings, certain that they’re talking about him. He cannot stand the idea that his wife might discuss everyday family matters – a planned vacation, a new job, or perhaps some problems like a child’s poor performance in school or a health issue. He recoils at any advice her parents might offer, even in the most unintrusive way. The wife is stuck between her husband and her family, and a therapist might support her choice to choose her husband for a while, to strengthen the marriage so that he doesn’t feel threatened and then work on reconnecting to her parents and family.
From my perspective, the challenge is that when people do not have adult skills for dealing with difficult situations, they see things in black and white. “Either I connect to my parents and get hurt or I disconnect and feel safe.” They don’t recognize that disconnection itself is a challenge and a trauma. It’s like amputating an infected leg rather than trying to treat the infection with medication.
For example, in the above scenario where the husband thinks his mother-in-law is prying when she is only being a concerned and helpful parent, the solution might be for the couple to outline specific topics they agree to keep private. Anyone involved with challenging people – which is everyone – has to look for a middle ground where they can feel comfortable. A therapist, a rov and the client need to see the goal with clarity; not disconnection, but a healthy connection at whatever level it can be maintained. It is also important to relay the reason for the boundaries and how you would like the relationship to look. To share the goal of these limits and to demonstrate how this will help heal the relationship.
In cases where clients are advised to pull back their level of interaction with a parent, the purpose is to strengthen the client to the point at which he can interact without having his emotions thrown into turmoil. The best-case scenario is when the parent seeks therapy as well, so that he or she has a chance to process the powerful emotions evoked by the situation. Otherwise, when the child and parent do resume their relationship, the pent-up emotions might explode, throwing everyone back to square one.
The most important point to draw from this discussion is that while some level of space may be helpful temporarily, except in very rare circumstances, disconnection does not help but it makes matters much worse.
Esther Gendelman, MS, LPC
Parental alienation is a strategy whereby one parent intentionally displays to the child unjustified negativity aimed at the other parent. However, in our community, this expression has been used when adult children choose to cut ties with their parents. I have never instructed any client to do this nor have any of my respected colleagues with whom I confer. When I do see clients whose parents are abusive, and they are suffering physical and emotional trauma responses interfering with their life functioning, I consult with daas Torah to navigate my own therapeutic work. Usually, we can work through the trauma and help them create healthy boundaries and adjust their expectations without severing the relationship. Very rarely do therapists tell clients what to do in therapy. The nature of therapy involves the process of the client exploring what is working and what is not and taking a better look at themselves as the therapist holds up a mirror.
Sometimes clients come to the conclusion that they cannot shake their depression or work on their marriage, by way of example, as long as they are being constantly criticized by parents and they consult daas Torah for advice on how to navigate this. With confidentiality as a central aspect of the safety of therapy, the client might attribute this decision to the therapy or therapist and the therapist must be quiet.
It is painful to be misquoted and I have spoken to rabbonim who also have experienced being misquoted and blamed for giving certain instructions when in fact they were misquoted, or their words and messages were distorted.
In general, most therapists who hold Torah values as their guideposts, and as such deeply value the parent child relationship, do not take any decisions to cut that off in a light way. In fact, the opposite is true. Helping clients align with their deepest values is an important goal in therapy. When people choose from a healthy place, they live healthier lives, view themselves better, and have improved relationships.
I currently work with one woman who took care of her abusive parent until her dying day I work with someone else who hosts her parents regularly despite her pain and humiliation and yet another who regularly goes to visit and calls. They all work to get support and grieve for the relationships they cannot have while they do all in their power to give respect and dignity to those who brought them into the world.
I do not doubt that there are parents that are suffering unfairly and feel discarded after doing their best. Their pain must be unbearable. Hashem gave children to imperfect human beings and most parents truly do their best to raise their children. Maintaining relationships is by far in most cases the healthier option for most people. Some severe cases might be exceptions which would then be carefully guided by daas Torah.
Every person has choices to make, and it is the tefilah each day of this therapist to be a zakai in helping people become the healthiest version of themselves so they can make healthy choices which include preserving relationships with parents wherever possible. To quote one adult child who was very hurt by her father, she said she worked on herself in therapy until she realized that she wants some relationship with her father despite his shortcomings as that is better for her than feeling totally fatherless. She learned how to develop a stronger emotional boundary and not get as hurt or triggered by his words and behavior.
Thank you for asking this question and I truly hope you receive the clarity you are seeking.
Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
Parental alienation, although not a clinical term, generally refers to a child’s separation from his parent (or parents). This term is often used to describe the actions of someone other than the child. For instance, one parent may aim to alienate a child from the other parent. Or an outside party may be the cause of this.
I have heard stories of therapists who were instrumental in the alienation process. I believe, however, that cases in which a therapist “instructs a client to break off contact with a parent” are few and far between. It is not a therapist’s job to instruct anyone to do anything. In fact, in my opinion any therapists who do this are likely not very well trained. Or worse, they are placing their own egos and emotional needs before the client’s.
Theoretically, for a therapist to be “instrumental” in the alienation process, all that is required is for clients to discuss their parental relationship with the therapist. I would like to believe that with regard to most stories of therapists instructing clients to terminate any relationship, the therapist’s domineering role has been exaggerated.
I have certainly had clients who have alienated their parent or parents. Sometimes this occurred long before I met them. In these instances, my role in this regard is to help the clients to understand their own needs and motivations. At times, this has led to reconciliations. At other times, the determination was made—by the client—that alienation would continue. Regardless, it was not my job to sway the client one way or another. Rather, my job was to help them better understand their own triggers, emotions, and actions so that they would be in a better position to make as informed a decision as possible.
At other times, I have had clients who were not alienated from their parents, but through the process of better understanding their own needs and issues began to feel that their relationship with their parents was hurting them. Once again, my job was to help them to better understand their thoughts and feelings.
Ultimately, the goal of therapy is to help clients deal with their own issues to the degree that no relationship has the power to badly hurt them. This would allow for them to maintain relationships without a detrimental effect. However, this can be a long process. For various reasons, some people never accomplish this. Thus, they may continue to place a band-aid on the problem (as we all do at times). In some instances, however, the band-aid may be separation from their parents.
If any therapist feels that they have the right (morally, emotionally, logically, or otherwise) to direct clients and to play the role of mentor, I believe that they are doing their clients a disservice. We are not the arbiters of right and wrong. Nor are we trained to give advice. Any advice that we give will likely be tainted with aspects of our own needs, insecurities, issues, and unconscious desires.
The Couch is moderated by Elchanan Schwarz LMHC