Parenting Coordinator/Decision-Making Services
William G. Austin, Ph.D.
Parenting Coordinator Service for Cases involving High Conflict and Allegations of
Restrictive Gatekeeping and/or Alienation
Dr. Austin offers the service of Parenting Coordination/Decision-Making (PC/DM) when there is considerable parent conflict including when there are allegations of alienating behaviors by a parent (ABP). Dr. Austin treats parent conflict over child and access issues as “gatekeeping disputes.” The gatekeeping framework is a fresh approach to understanding and managing parent conflict. The gatekeeping conceptual language allows Dr. Austin to integrate co-parenting education and coaching into the PC role with the goal of achieving a permanently improved co-parenting and problem solving relationship between the parents.
Dr. Austin and his colleagues have developed a conceptual framework and forensic model of parental gatekeeping for analyzing the co-parenting relationship. The gatekeeping articles are available on the website. The gatekeeping model is a tool for courts, evaluators, parenting coordinators, and co-parenting educators to better understand and manage parent conflict. The PC can attempt to “manage the gate” so that children have to opportunity to experience and benefit from an unimpeded flow of parental resources to them.
Parental gatekeeping, and the related concept of co-parenting, have been extensively studied in research and applied to the context of separated and divorced parents. Parental gatekeeping refers to how parents’ attitudes and actions affect the involvement and quality of the relationship between the other parent and child in either a positive or negative way. Scholars have proposed a gatekeeping continuum that varies in degrees of facilitative to restrictive on the issue of supporting the other-parent–child relationship (Austin, 2005a, 2005b, 2011; Austin et al., 2013a; 2013b; Pruett, Arthur, & Ebling, 2007; Trinder, 2008).
With Facilitative Gatekeeping (FG), the parent is engaging in cooperative co-parenting; proactive in trying to be inclusive of the other parent’s relationship with the child; and recognizes the importance of the other parent for the child’s development and well-being. With FG, the parent is engaging in gate-opening behaviors.
With Restrictive Gatekeeping (RG), the parent is acting in ways to hinder the other parent’s involvement with the child and there is a lack of support for the other parent-child relationship. RG consists of gate-closing behaviors and attitudes that can impair the other parent’s relationship with the child. RG fuels parent conflict. In cases that require the appointment of a PC there often is mutual RG that escalates. Children are often exposed to RG attitudes and behaviors that are part of the parent conflict.
Framing the parents’ behaviors and dispute in terms of gatekeeping can be an enlightening experience for embattled parents. Parents can focus on specific gate-opening or closing behaviors. The parental gatekeeping “bench book” article can be downloaded from the website. It provides specific examples of FG and RG behaviors. The PC can encourage reciprocity in FG behaviors, or positive gatekeeping can beget the same in the other parent. The goal is a gradual reduction in tension (GRIT).
RG behaviors need to be distinguished from RG attitudes. High conflict parents who need a PC almost always hold negative or restrictive attitudes about the other parent. Research shows that children will show a reasonable adjustment if both parents are highly involved with them, even if one or both parents hold RG attitudes.
Parents who engage in RG and want to limit the other parent’s involvement may do so because of concerns about a risk of harm to the child. When a parent’s reasons for being restrictive and/or not supportive reflect safety or developmental concerns, then it is a case of Protective Gatekeeping (PG). For example, if there has been a history of intimate partner violence, substance abuse, or harsh parenting, then one parent may want the other parent’s contact with the child to be limited or even supervised. Or, a parent may be engaging in PG due to concerns about the other’s competence to take care of a young child for an extended period, or to have overnights. With PG, the court, or parenting evaluator, or a PC needs to determine if the restrictive attitudes and behaviors by one parent towards the other are Justified or Unjustified based on the facts, circumstances, and needs of the child.
As a PC, Dr. Austin educates the parents about the gatekeeping framework and language, and how to identify gate-closing and gate-opening behaviors. PG concerns are addressed. When conflict and disagreements arise, the goal is to promote mutual facilitative gatekeeping so it can be a win-win-win outcome for the child and both parents. Dr. Austin’s PC approach is a combination of co-parenting education, coaching, and conflict resolution. As parents hopefully learn to view their disagreements, power struggles, or impasses through the lens of gatekeeping they are participating in “gate training.”
Dr. Austin’s approach to co-parenting/gatekeeping education also adopts a “performance enhancement” approach that attempts to foster a mindset that parents will strive to enhance their performance in their parenting and co-parenting roles. Parents are encouraged to step back from conflict, not just to work towards cooperative co-parenting, but also to strive for excellence in their parenting and co-parenting. Dr. Austin’s approach in PC work is not just to manage the conflict and settle disputes, but also to challenge the parents to work at succeeding and achieving excellence in parenting and co-parenting. [See http://thetobincompany.typepad.com on the performance-enhancement approach.]
The fact that a PC is needed means that the parents need to improve their performance in their co-parenting behaviors. The irony and tragedy for the children is that parents who have functioned very highly as parents and co-parents prior to the separation and divorce have often exposed their children to conflict and may have performed very poorly at co-parenting because of the angst of the intimate partnership ending and difficulty in making the transition to separate residences. The PC’s aim is to try to keep the parents in the 80% of parents who are able to largely eliminate their conflict in the two years following separation.
The gatekeeping model encompasses what is known as “parental alienation.” Examples of extreme alienating behaviors by a parent fall at the extreme RG end of the gatekeeping continuum. All behaviors which are defined as showing parent alienation are by definition examples of unjustified RG. However, the reverse is usually not true. Many RG behaviors are linked to a specific disagreement and conflict about an issue and do not represent what is generally thought of as alienation. The term alienation unfortunately is routinely used very loosely. Most allegations of alienation actually are examples of restrictive gatekeeping that can be framed as such an addressed by the PC as specific behaviors that can be changed, for example, like the need to be flexible on the parenting schedule; to share ski equipment, etc. RG disputes can be addressed by “gate training,” co-parenting education, and practical problem solving.
What is appropriately labeled as alienating behaviors by a parent are those that are predictably potentially very damaging to the other parent’s relationship with the child and that might negatively color the child’s perceptions of that parent. ABPs often are mean-spirited or vindictive and may reflect a pattern of behaviors that signify that the alienating parent sees little value in the other parent’s contributions to the child. ABPs may reflect distorted thinking by the parent and/or be part of a personality dysfunction or disorder. Alienation may include a deliberate attempt to “poison” the other parent-child relationship.
Alienation cases often present with parent-child alignments and boundary problems. There may be enmeshment and over-involvement with the child. A child may be treated more like a partner than a child, or parentification. The PC needs to look at the role of both parents and child when alienation exists. The actions of the child and reactions of the rejected or targeted parent need to be considered.
Often there are ABPs present but the child is not alienated. The Alienated Child is one who is resisting or refusing to have contact with a parent without justification. When the resistance is grounded in inappropriate behaviors by the rejected parent, then it is a case of Estrangement, not alienation. Parents and children may become estranged for a wide variety of reasons.
Alienation cases are more time-intensive for the PC due a more entrenched pattern of conflict and damage to parent-child relationship has occurred. The PC may be involved in monitoring progress and parent and child responses to court-ordered interventions such as family or individual therapy, supervised parenting time, how parenting time with the rejected parent is going, or progress in a reunification process. In extreme cases with an alienated child, the PC may be asked to facilitate a referral to a residential program such as Family Bridges and monitor progress in the alienated child-rejected parent relationship. When primary custody has been changed in an extreme case, the PC may be asked to monitor the alienating parent’s acceptance of the value in the other parent and response to gate training so that destructive co-parenting behaviors can be replaced by cooperative co-parenting/gatekeeping.
Austin, W. G., Fieldstone, L. M., & Pruett, M. K. (2013, in press, January). Bench book for assessing gatekeeping in parenting disputes: Understanding the dynamics of gate-closing and opening for the best interests of children. Journal of Child Custody: Research, Issues, and Practice, 10.
Austin, W. G., Pruett, M. K., Kirkpatrick, H. D., Flens, J. R., & Gould, J. W. (2013, in press, July). Parental gatekeeping and child custody/child access evaluations: Part I: Conceptual framework, research, and application. Family Court Review, 51(3).
Austin, W. G. (2011). Parental gatekeeping in custody disputes. American Journal of Family Law, 25(4), 148-153.
Austin, W. G. (2005a, February). Considering the Process of Support for the Other Parent and Gatekeeping in Parenting Evaluations. Colorado IDC News: The Newsletter of the State of Colorado Interdisciplinary Committee, 7(1), 10-13.
Ganong, L., Coleman, M., & McCalle, G. Gatekeeping after separation and divorce. In L. Drozd & K. Kuehnle (Eds.), Parenting plan evaluations: Applied research for the family court (pp. 369-398). Oxford University Press.
Pruett, M. K., Arthur, L. A., & Ebling, R. (2007). The hand that rocks the cradle: Maternal gatekeeping after divorce. Pace Law Review, 27(4), 709-739.
Trinder, L. (2008). Maternal gate closing and gate opening in postdivorce families. Journal of Family Issues, 29(10), 1298-1324.