The issue of therapy manipulated by brainwashing and alienating parents and the modifications of memory that can occur must likewise be understood. A competent evaluator must be able to describe memory interference and explain the effects of therapy and modifications of reality within the child, by interviewers and therapists. Take for example the child who has not been abused by a parent, but who nonetheless is taken for therapy for the alleged (but false) abuse. At first, the child’s denial that any such abuse happened may well be met with the therapist asking repeated questions about the alleged abuse.
This of course, would send the message to the child that they got the answer wrong. In the repeated question environment, the child may eventually respond with “I don’t know…maybe.” The naive therapist then takes this as a confirmation and it is fed back to the child as a validation. Therefore in a later session, the therapist may say something like “you told me that this happened” which then further commits the child to the false accusation. With the passage of time and a number of sessions, the child is likely to believe that such abuse – originally denied – did in fact occur. At this point the child has become delusional. With respect to the kind of therapy children in these cases may be forced in to by a brainwashing / alienating parent, Campbell (1992) explained:
“A play therapist can profoundly distort the memory of a child by suggesting interpretations of what the child supposedly encountered or experienced. In response to the therapist’s influence, children accept these interpretations as legitimate. They then resort to their imaginations – though convinced they are searching their memories – inventing anecdotes of past events which appear to validate the therapist’s interpretations.”
Ceci and Bruck (1995) point out that when children who have not been abused are subjected to treatment as if they had been abused, great harm is done to the child. Such treatment has the effect of interjecting a false belief in the child that they had been abused when in fact they had not. In so doing, the child’s reality testing is further damaged. They point out, referring to the inappropriate therapy following a false positive evaluation for sexual abuse, “You do harm to the child because you don’t help the child to distinguish between what is possible, what is real, what is not real; what is a fantasy and what is real….So a lot of these children got worse in the course of treatment (Ceci & Bruck, 1995). Further, regarding therapy or evaluative interviews on a child who may or may not have been abused, they point out that therapy and all interaction with the child should be restricted to coping strategies. Other therapeutic enterprises such as the use of fantasy induction, imagery pal and so called “memory work,” should be saved for after the legal resolution. (Ceci & Bruck, 1995).
“Modification” is a form of suggestive questioning in which the interviewer contradicts or incorrectly restates what the child just said. Research makes clear that “Children frequently agree with interviewers who either reword their statements in a way that changes their meaning or who claim that the children made statements they did not make” (Warren, Woodall, Hunt, & Perry, 1996). When reviewing actual forensic interviews these researchers found 93.9% of them overflowing with such modifications based on interviewer rewording. In a follow-up study, Warren and Marsil found that this form of suggestive questioning “may be equally or even more detrimental to children’s testimonial veracity than leading questions” (Warren & Marsil, 2002). Citing a high rate of modifications by police and forensic interviewers and a low rate of disagreement from children in actual interviews, researchers Hunt and Borgida explained that these “commonly used interviewing techniques can have serious, deleterious effects on children’s testimony” (Hunt & Borgida, 2001). Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has repeatedly demonstrated that when people do not have an original memory, they can and do accept misinformation and adopt it as their own recollection of events (Loftus & Hoffman, 1989).
This happens all to often in Parental Alienation cases. For a recent review of best practices in PA cases, readers should see Templer, K., Matthewson, M, Haines, J and Cox, G. (2016) Recommendations for best practice in response to parental alienation: findings from a systematic review. Journal of Family Therapy October, 2016.