Reuniting with your alienated child – a spring message of hope

This week has been something of a milestone in my work with alienated children and their parents and, whilst it has been a somewhat exhausting week, I wanted to pick up my pen and write a few lines of hope for all parents coping with living apart from their children.

My working week began with sessions between older children and their dads, children who are now on the cusp of adulthood and who have reconnected with their fathers after seeking them out.

Thank goodness for Facebook is all I can say.  This social media, unknown to us only a decade ago, appears to be responsible for an increasing number of what are called ‘spontaneous reunifications.’ Spontaneous reunification is when a child comes out of the alienated state of their own volition and actively seeks to restore the relationship with a lost parent.  And Facebook appears to be playing a huge role in that process.  In all three of the families that I worked with early in the week, Facebook played a big role in leading children to their once rejected parent.  I cannot say it enough times, if you are a rejected parent and you are not on Facebook, sign up now and get your profile out there.  Children are nosy, curious, hungry for information about the parent that they have rejected.  Just as they eavesdrop without adults knowing, they will go looking for you, make sure you are there for them to find when they do.

As I work with families where children are reuniting, I notice how much a child’s experience of emerging from the alienation state is almost in reverse to the process of becoming alienated.  It is as if a film is being played out backwards.  What comes first often is the anger and confusion, the split thinking and the determination that everything was the rejected parent’s fault.  It can be hard, after years of suffering rejection, to be in a room with a child, however old, who retains such a skewed version of the past. The urge is always to shout ‘but that isn’t how it happened’ and on many occasions I have to make sure that the process is not interrrupted by such outbursts from parents.  Because if a parent can be patient in the early days of the alienation lifting and can sit with a child’s anger and distorted beliefs, what comes next are the tears of bewilderment and confusion as the buried layers of twisted thinking start to unravel.  When the tears come I know that we are onto the home stretch and the therapeutic work of readjusting the relationship to the past can be done.  Whilst we are by no means finished in our work, when children are able to let go of the anger which has kept them in their alienated position, that’s when the healing begins.

And healing has begun for several families this week, which I am honoured to have been part of and which I wanted to share with you, parents who may be coping with alienation, practitioners who may be working with families where alienation is present.  Whilst I cannot, of course, give you details of these families, I can tell you that they have, collectively, been alienated for an average of 8 years, their children range from 11 to 27 and they have, each and every one of them, demonstrated what I know to be true.  Alienated children do, in time, come home to you.  Which is why I spend so much of my time telling rejected parents to stay well, stay healthy and when they do come looking for you, make sure you are there to welcome them.

Its always a welcome shift in my work to spend time with families who are reuniting, somehow it replenishes me, rejuvinates me and reminds me that the theory that underpins our work is based not upon some kind of magic but sound and tested evidence.  During the harder times, when I am walking with the severely alienated parents, the deeply troubled children and the determined and resistant aligned parent, when all around me people are disbelieving or dismissive of the phenomenon of alienation, it is hard to keep believing.  Even when I know theoretically, that interventions lead to particular outcomes, when the differential diagnosis and treatment route is correct.  During the process of treatment it is hard to keep on hoping when children can remain deeply resistant.

Successful reunifications therefore restore hope and they restore my knowledge that children who are alienated, even those who are the most severely resistant, phobic, angry and tearful, do, in the fullness of time or as the result of an intervention, come home.  And when they do come home, they are once again the children that they were. When alienation lifts, it is as if the years in between disappear and families pick up where they left off as the frozen dance begins to move again.  Just as in winter, there are moments we believe that spring will never come again, it does.  For alienated parents out there do not despair, spring will come again.

For practitioners the experience of working with children who were once alienated from a parent can help us to learn much more about what we need to do when we are faced with adamant resistance in a child.   Never one to miss a chance, I will, with colleagues, be starting new research around this element of the work of the Family Separation Clinic shortly, so that we can bring new evidence to shape new practice for children in the future.

In this strange era of illusion, as the government tells us it is supporting collaboration, whilst funding work which is merely replicating the same approaches that have lead to poor outcomes for these children for decades, we who work with complex family separation must keep a clear head.  Changes to the Children Act, (lauded by some as being the gateway to a new, mythical land where all will be well), are not going to bring respite or change to parents suffering rejection.

A cautionary note for me this week was a telephone call with a dad in a conflicted case, who told me that he may wait until the Children Act has changed in order to go back to court.  His thinking, (presumably encouraged by those believers in the new world of Child Arrangement orders), was that by doing so he was ‘bound to get shared care, because the Judge would have to follow the flow chart and in the absence of issues to prevent it, shared care would be granted.  I could have laid my head on my desk and wept at the thought of this man, full of hope, exiting court with his shared parenting order.  I know that some who read this will want to keep on believing, but please, before anyone tells dads in difficult and intractable cases that the change to the Children Act will bring balance and equilirium, have a heart.

Those cases which are difficult, those in which parenting time is blocked, those in which children are captured in loyalty conflicts will never be resolved by the change in the children act, even if it does get past the indomintable spirit of Hunt, Trinder et al. Without enforcement, shared parenting orders in these circumstances are unworkable and untenable and I shudder to think of the hope that is being engendered and the despair that will be caused when that becomes clear.  As an extremely wise and deeply valued mentor of mine said to me yesterday, ‘without the most robust court management and the strong arm of the law these (alienated) children are simply being abandoned to their fate’.   Whilst the message currently is pessimistic in terms of the state however, new approaches to working with children in these circumstances are being quietly developed, tested and evaluated. And there will come a time when what works will be more widely available.

And so my working week will close tomorrow with another workshop for alienated parents in London.  As I write up my notes from the week’s work and reflect upon the tears, the smiles, the faces of those children I have witnessed coming home this week, I am calibrating that knowledge, that awareness, with the journey we are about to embark upon with a new group of parents.  As we set off together we are readying for the journey underground, excavating the past, digging up the secrets, illuminating the way and supporting parents as they discover the route that lead to their experience of rejection and start building strategies for the future.

As we do so, we will be keeping hope alive and sharing stories of how other people survived and how other children returned.  I sometimes wonder, in my darkest moments of doing this work whether this is false hope.  This week has reminded me ten fold that it is not.

(In the coming weeks I will be sharing with you stories from parents with whom we have worked who have rebuilt their relationship with their children after alienation.  These stories are direct from parents themselves, told in their own words.  I want to be able to share with everyone who reads this blog, the reality of the lives that alienated families live and their roads home to reunification.  We start next week with D’s Story).