The lives of others: Psycho-Genealogy and Parental Alienation

This week we have been travelling and training as well as broadcasting to the world.  In St Helier,  the Jersey Centre for Separated Families was hosting a training day for a fantastic new group of volunteers.   On a baking hot day, we worked with another amazing group of people, developing more support to parents on the island who are experiencing separation and the problems that it brings to adults and children alike.

On Sunday evening, from our hotel bedroom, to an audience drawn from across the globe, we discussed alienation and the role of domestic violence on a webinar for Parental Alienation Awareness Organisation (PAAO). Throughout all of our work this week we have been meeting families and people who care about them.

Families and the people who live in them are the whole of what we do when we work with family separation and the problems that arise from it.  In that respect we are working in the crucible of the future generation’s developing selves and we are shaping the lives of the parents that our children will one day become.  Working with families where alienation strikes, the concept of family, how it is configured, and what it brings in terms of messages to our children is a core element of what we do at the Family Separation Clinic. Some of what we discussed in our training and our webinar was drawn from ‘Psycho-Genealogy’ a therapeutic framework that we use to understand the way in which alienation reactions have arisen in families.  Psycho-Genealogy is something that I am using in my own research work, as well as therapeutically with parents and it is a powerful tool for understanding how trauma patterns of behaviour can be transmitted through the generations.  One of my big suspicions, evidenced by the work that I do with families, is that an alienated child is very much at risk of becoming an alienated parent when the time comes.  How this experience is affected by the internalised experience of being parented is what I am currently examining.

This week then, with the summer break upon us when some of you might have some extra time to think about your family tree, I thought it might be useful to outline for you, how this important idea is useful in understanding your own experience of alienation.

Understanding Families

Our family is the place where we learn, as children about how to be in relationship to others.  It is where we learn that we are either important or not important, loved or not loved and it is where we understand how being in relationship to others makes us feel.

Our family is also how we learn to be parents to our own children.  Parenting is often something which is considered to be inherent in our nature, something that we do not have to learn.  Actually, a great deal of learning about how to parent children is taken in the very earliest days of our existence.  As babies and children, the way that we are handled, loved, nurtured, responded to and guided, sets out the blue print for how we will ourselves, one day, care for our own children.  So much is given in those early days.  Not just the day to day care of a growing child but the template for the next generation, which is sown and nurtured in the fertile fields of the child’s receptive self.  Little do we know it but what we are doing in caring for our children, is also caring for our grandchildren and our great grandchildren too.  

When a child is born

When a child is born a family is created.  This family, however it is configured, is made of narratives from all of the people who are involved with the child.  Maternal and Paternal narratives are powerful drivers in our lives, they cause us to be the mum and dad we eventually turn into.  They also transmit, the messages about family which have laid dormant in our selves until we are transformed into family by the arrival of our children.  Some of these messages are buried deeply in our own unconscious selves. Some are buried in the fabric of our existing families. Most of these messages are silent, spoken only through action and expectation.  The child’s  arrival however activates these messages which rise up from the unconscious and into our conscious world.  Some of those messages might be about the value of children or their place in the world, some might be about what it means to be mum or dad.  And some are messages from the past which come hurtling into the present unexpectedly when a child is born.  Understanding that we born into a tightly woven network of relationships, is how we begin to understand the power of the family, its history, its narratives and its compulsions.

The lives of others

When a new family is created it is a weaving together of two different narratives.  The story of the world according to two different and distinct families, is brought together to weave a new story for a new generation. This bringing together is not without its difficulties and we do not, as yet, enter into the act of this weaving together, with a passport or a full disclosure of our family story and our family secrets. Whilst falling in love is wonderful thing that protects us from seeing the warts on our beloved’s face, it is also something that propels us headlong into a process of offering our hidden selves to someone whose self is also hidden from us.  Whilst this often ends up happily, for those who experience alienation, the ending is often catastrophic. This is because, when examining the family trees of those who experience alienation, it is clear that estrangement patterns do not arise out of the blue or in a vaccuum.  It is astonishing how many alienated parents that we work with were, themselves, either alienated children or living in families where estrangement from loved ones was normalised.  So much so that I wonder whether estrangement in the family as a child is a key indicator for becoming an alienated or alienating parent. It is certainly clear that shunning, estranging and rejecting, are very powerful relational patterns in alienation situations, often visibly striking on one side and absent on the other.  So much so that creating a family tree in cases of alienation is one of the tools that we use to enable parents to understand what happened to them and why and how this may be a case of transgenerational transmission which can be extremely difficult to avoid.

Whilst I do not have time this week to take you through the steps of creating your own family tree, thinking about your family and it’s historical narratives is one way of starting the process of building your understanding.  Key to being able to help yourself and your children where alienation strikes is the understanding of what has happened and how, in many many cases, this is almost an inevitable part of your parenting, forced upon you by the other parent’s silent narratives which you could not hear or see until it was too late.  When you understand the power of this, you can begin the process of standing back a little to gain some perspective.  This was not your fault, it could not be avoided, you were almost lured into this situation by the ancestoral call which was locked into place across the generations.  When you gain this kind of perspective, you begin to see the road ahead open up.  You are still a parent, you are the parent of an alienated child in a transgenerational transmission of estrangement pattern.  Escaping this yourself is the first step, helping your child to get free is the next.  Like putting on your oxygen mask before you help others, psycho-genealogy can help you find the building blocks to the exit route.  Becoming your family’s transitional character (the person who changes the historical narratives) can change not only your life and your child’s life, but the lives of those who come after you. Breaking alienation patterns can rescue not just your children but their children and their children’s children too.

I am writing more about this in my book Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to Cope, Helping to Heal.  The delay in getting this published is simply down to the overwhelming workload that we have at the Clinic and the demand for help and guidance. I am however, committed to making certain that you get your copy and I will be completing it in August ready for publication in September when we will also be launching a very exciting new initiative – watch this space!

The Webinar on Sunday evening was recorded and will be available from Parental Alienation Awareness Organisation shortly.



  1. woodman1959 · July 29, 2014

    Very powerful post. Deeply insightful, and 100% agree.


  2. daddyhardup · July 29, 2014

    Thank you Karen. So much sound spiritual practice comes down to this, to saying, the violence stops here with me, I refuse to pass it on, least of all to the next generation. I won’t repay abuse with abuse, but with a blessing. Easy to say, harder to put into practice, because the urge to retaliate can be so strong, as can the urge to relieve my humiliation by inflicting it in turn on a weaker, more vulnerable person.

    My ex-wife was rather evasive about her family background, which is from Central Africa, and I didn’t get to meet any of the rest of the family apart from my stepchildren. But our daughter’s godfather told me once that my wife had spent most of her childhood apart from her mother, raised by other relatives, and that he believed this to be a cause of her difficulties in human relationships. My ex’s two older children (my stepchildren) in turn spent eight years of their childhood separated from their mother, as she was unable to bring them to Europe with her. Now the youngest child, my daughter, is separated from her father and paternal family by parental alienation upheld by the court… And so the cycle repeats itself.

    I am glad at least that I was able to be present to my daughter in her early years, so important for establishing a well-grounded sense of self secure in relationships. And I can now begin to plan ahead for a time when she may want to see me again, and will need my help and support so that she is not compelled to turn the wheel again and visit the suffering on others….


    • woodman1959 · July 30, 2014

      It’s interesting that we both got involved with women from Africa. Although she seemed innocent and charming at first – my wife later said that I had to suffer – for everything the *white people had done to the black people”…even though it was white people bringing advanced technology that saved her life at birth.

      Her need to dominate others that she is “unable to change” – she puts down to having been *made that way by her father* – so clearly, this corroborates exactly what Karen is saying.

      Professional services need to be alerted to this, for sure, and empowered to engage with families where they see destructive narratives playing out…especially where one partner is clearly calling for help.

      On the more informal side, the community round about the family also need to be empowered to intervene when they see the emotional harm that is being done – as they will be the ones to witness more than any formal health or social worker is likely to do.


  3. J · July 29, 2014

    Yes, thank you Karen, another extremely interesting and insightful piece.

    I found this sentence particularly poignant

    ‘Key to being able to help yourself and your children where alienation strikes is the understanding of what has happened and how, in many many cases, this is almost an inevitable part of your parenting, forced upon you by the other parent’s silent narratives which you could not hear or see until it was too late.’

    During our marriage I had noticed that my now ex wife appeared to have a love hate relationship with her own mother, something I initially found rather odd, and I certainly had no idea how significant it might be later on. I now believe that amongst other things this was probably due to a period when her mother abandoned her and her father to live with another man.

    Her mother did eventually return, but according to people that knew her well then, it seems purely motivated by money, since whilst she was away from her family, her husband was diagnosed terminally ill, and he was worth a few quid. He died soon after, something which also deeply effected my ex wife just as she was entering her teens.

    By comparison, I had what I could only describe as an idyllic childhood, with two parents that both contributed immensely each in their own special ways to my development, something I think my ex wife started to resent, I presume due to disappointment at her own childhood, which had included the temporary loss of her mother, and complete loss of her father.

    I am sure these events all became major factors in the behaviour of my ex wife leading up to and after we separated, when repeating history she left me for another man. The difference between me and her father being, I was not diagnosed terminally ill, and she did not come back.

    Given the sadness my ex wife always expressed about the loss of her father from her life, after we separated I found it strange that she seemed to want to exclude me from the lives of our children. I also found it extremely strange that having expressed such strong disapproval of her mother, and said so many times during our marriage that she did not want to be like her, she has indeed ended up being just like her.

    I am not a psychologist so have no idea which of these events, or combination of them, may have led to the alienating behaviour of my ex wife, or the mechanism of this, but what I do know is that the alienation I am now experiencing from our children appears, as you suggested, to have been forced upon me by the other parent’s silent narratives, which unfortunately I could not hear or see clearly enough until it was too late.

    Although looking back I can see there have been possible causes of my ex wife’s behaviour deep rooted in her past, I am not sure that me now becoming aware of this gives me a key to help myself as an alienated parent. I cannot change her past, and as far as I can see, and in the absence of an effective legal process, there is nothing left I can do to change the dynamics now or in the future, which sadly leaves my children without their father.


  4. King Lear · July 30, 2014

    I’m sure there is a lot of truth in what you say Karen. It certainly resonates with me.

    My ex wife lost contact with her own father in her mid teens. Her story was that they stayed in touch for a couple of years after her parents split up but he was never very interested in them and then moved away and started a new life and a new family. According to her, her mother raised the kids heroically and single handedly from that point (although the absent dad did continue to pay maintenance until the end of university). I’ve no idea whether he chose to abandon them or was alienated – and often consider contacting him to find out.

    I feel I have been cast into the same role as her father, marginalised and then excluded (while continuing to pay maintenance) and she is replaying the role of her mother. When we were married she often said she hoped she would do as good a job as a single parent if it came to it. I’m sure that these days she will be positioning herself as a stoic and long suffering single mother, battling to protect her girls from their abusive and neglectful father and struggling to make ends meet (on about £2500 a month net income!).

    If she is receiving praise and approval from friends and family for the role she is playing she will do it all the more because she is highly motivated by external recognition and I think the influence of her “support network” did a lot to inflame the situation when I was still seeing the kids (e.g. Facebook comments from her friends that I didn’t deserve to see them). Again, I suspect much of the approval she seeks is to compensate for the loss of her father’s approval because he set high standards for his children when their family was intact. There are also quite a lot of similarities between her first husband, me (second husband) and her father. I don’t think you need a lot of psychology to figure that one out!


  5. Anonymous · July 30, 2014


    “which sadly leaves my children without their father”.

    I hope this statement does not mean you have lost all hope, J.

    With each new day there is fresh hope. I don’t think the purpose of this exercise is to disentangle our emotional genealogy and then hold our arms up in despair as if it is a fait accompli. I would say this: I don’t care whether my former partner has the hind legs of a donkey, comes from a family of devil worshippers, is a crack cocaine dealer, seeks revenge and bears the grudges of Attila the Hun. She is the mother of our children and in her own unique and special way brings those children up as she sees fit. She has many good traits too, (as I am sure does many a condemned and disparaged maternal figure) and this is where I need to let the dust settle.

    I have a history too and this is the only history I can take responsibility for. All changes in my life come from me. My behaviour my actions my thoughts and my deeds were all conjured in my head. These were choices I made, consciously or sub-consciously. If I try very hard, (having accepted what has been) I can think about how what I do affects other people and how what I do can be changed by me.
    I have many flaws and weaknesses, some of which are completely unknown to me. There is a script on my head which pre-judges people (perhaps based on a previous bad experience which remains lodged in my mind) but it is only a script and does not reflect the reality of any new experience.

    So, I apologise unreservedly to all those persons I have upset through using my past experiences to judge them. Let my naivety be my most redeeming feature.

    For every new moment in our lives (perhaps like the goldfish who cannot remember much about his genealogy on account of having such a short memory) there is an opportunity to view our personal experiences differently and to affect new and more beneficial ways of behaving. Different behaviour equals different outcomes.

    Kind regards


    • J · July 30, 2014

      Thanks for the concern which is appreciated, and my apologies as I didn’t mean the end to my comment to sound quite so dramatic! No worries, be assured I have not lost all hope, and I don’t think I ever will, but until the situations changes, which I am sure it eventually will, then my children are without the father, at least in the form of my physical presence, although I am sure I am still there in their thoughts.


  6. Lynne · July 30, 2014

    Thank you Karen, this resonates. My husband’s daughter has been alienated from us for the past three years. He told me that his ex-wife’s father had affairs, and he would ‘share’ intimate information with his daughter (the ex-wife) about his affairs. Apparently this would leave her traumatised and distraught. The ex-wife kept these affairs a closely guarded secret from her own mother who was dying of cancer. She also kept this from her own sisters. The ex-wife is also estranged from her sisters and sadly my stepdaughter is as well. I believe this transgenerational alienation is playing itself out, and the ex-wife is projecting the trauma of the alienation she experienced onto her daughter. I think the one area that often goes unreported is the number of alienating parents that suffer from personality disorders, and how to overcome a parent that presents Narcissistic or Boarderline personality disorder.


  7. mike jeffries · July 30, 2014

    Great work Karen. I know your efforts are appreciated by the countless parents and extended family members dealing with the pain and heartbreak of parental alienation.

    Thanks for making a difference.


    mike jeffries


  8. repeatedPattern · July 31, 2014

    The court has found that my ex-wife has severely alienated my child by brainwashing, and her mother did that to her as a child using the self-same brainwashing techniques.
    It doesn’t help that the child’s grandmother is still around masterminding her daughters repetition of the harmful behaviour, or the mother’s lack of resistance to her mother’s harmful influence due to the neediness and attachment that this abusive upbringing has resulted in.
    It’s all perfectly normal to those inside the dysfunctional family.
    Hopefully my son had enough input of kindness and unconditional love from me in his early years that when he is old enough to stand up to his abusive mother he’s able to find his way back to a life of love and kindness from hatred, criticism and other vile brainwashing techniques. The court will not enforce their own order or help the child.

    Our children do not have the UNCRC rights yet, still, which would resolve this. Our country is little better than syria, iran etc. People don’t know how uncivilised we are until they encounter the justice system only to find it is a farce rubber-stamping what can be agreed rather than what is right or in the best interests of the children.


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