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" which I understand to mean is 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?
Parental alienation, although not a clinical term, generally refers to a child’s separation from their 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 therapist who does this is 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 a client 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 client 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.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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