Inside the mind of an alienated child is a strange place to be but that is where I spend much of my working life. In our work at the Clinic we are constantly experimenting with different ways of helping rejected parents to understand that world so that the behaviours that their children exhibit do not seem so strange. One of the ways that we do that is to teach parents about the fluidity of feeling and the subjective world that alienated children inhabit.
Children who are most vulnerable to an alienation reaction are often sensitive children, they are often bright children with a strong sense of right and wrong too. The eldest child is often most vulnerable, this is the child who entered into a world where two people became three people and as such, experienced the outpouring of love from two sources that met in the internal world of that child. Later children enter a world which has already divided into three parts and the dilution of the original investment of love appears to have an impact on the risk of alienation. It is not that later children are loved any less but they are, perhaps, loved differently. It is difficult to keep up the intense focus of the first product of a couple’s love, the second and third and fourth child are miracles but perhaps not the miracle that the first child was. Thus the battleground which is the subjective world of the child most often takes place around the eldest child who takes on the role of co-warrior with the alienating parent, bringing the younger children onside over time.
An alienated child usually has one parent who is extremely intense in emotion and psychological reaction, creating a subjective flow of feeling between parent and child in which the child is made hyper alert to the actions and reactions of that parent. This is something which can be readily witnessed by other people but which is rarely understood. The flow of feeling in the subjective relationship is without words, it doesn’t need them, the child is made hyper vigilent by body language and things not said rather than things said. A child who looks to their parent before speaking and a child who remains physically close to parent at all times is a child who is subject to the fluidity of feeling in that parent. Where the wind of emotion blows, so goes that child and when this dynamic occurs it is very difficult to disentangle it by therapeutic means. This is because the child is being bound into the trans generational teachings of a family system which has normalised this behaviour. A parent who is binding a child in this manner often has no understanding at all that anything they are doing is wrong or harmful to the child, they are simply doing what was done to them by manipulating the subjective flow of feeling to control the child’s external and internal experience. This is called enmeshment and it is an attachment disorder which is damaging to the child, but it is rarely recognised by professionals as such and whilst it can be bizzare to see it in action, it is not experienced as abnormal or strange to the child. Quite the opposite in fact. A child who is enmeshed in this way will speak of feeling deeply loved and cared for, these children feel that their every need is paid attention to and that their parent is the most wonderful person on the planet. This has been achieved by a deep, more or less unconscious manipulation of the child’s reality and it is incredibly difficult to address when it is deeply embedded.
Alice Miller wrote about female generational enmeshment in her wonderful books about childhood trauma.(The Drama of Being a Child and other books). In these she writes of the cultural expectations surrounding motherhood in which daughters are taught that their needs are subservient to those of their mothers and that when they become mothers themselves, their needs will be taken care of by their daughters. This reversal of parenting roles, in which daughters care for their mothers rather than the other way around, is created by the subjective manipulations of the mother towards her daughter. These manipulations teach the growing child that her needs are secondary to those of the mother and that pleasing mother and keeping her happy is the key role for the child to play. This is generationally learned behaviour and it can affect both boys and girls although girls are very much the target in some cultures. Keeping mum happy is one of the absolute requirements of an enmeshed relationship and these children will go to extreme lengths to deliver on that demand.
The lengths to which children will go to please mum are astonishing. They include denial of feeling, distortion of reality and disbelief towards anything or anyone who challenges their mother’s views, feelings or opinions on the world. If your child is in this kind of enthralled position and you are the targeted parent you must, without delay, understand the world of your child as deeply as you possibly can because only by being able to move around in the fluidity of that feeling will you be able to protect your child to some degree.
From the outside and to the rational mind the child is captured and under the control of the other parent and this is wrong and harmful. From the inside and to the irrational subjective mind of the child, anyone who tries to intervene in this safe, warm and cosy world, is the enemy and to be feared and rejected. You cannot save a child in these circumstances by using rational thinking. If you are going to help you are going to have to go into the woods with Hansel and Gretel and find your way around the winding, shifting, ever changing paths that lead to balance and harmony. Just remember to leave the trail of breadcrumbs before you enter in, otherwise you too will end up in the house with the witch and her cooking pot. At the heart of this family scenario is the devouring mother, the woman without ego who compensates for this by eating her children. This is the truth of the enmeshment scenario, the child only exists to serve the needs of the mother as the mother exists to serve the needs of her own mother, when you have mothers and grandmothers dominating the care of children and acting as if they are the child’s natural parents, you have role corruption in action and it is extremely complicated to help a child to remove herself from this place.
And so into the woods you must go if you are to help your child in this situation. Into the woods with the task of being your family’s transitional character. Actually what you are doing is helping your child to be the transitional character, the person in the family narrative that changes the story and turns it away from its generational march of destruction of selfhood. As such you will be seen as the enemy and you will feel the full force of the subjective resistance turned against you, this will flow through your child as well as her mother and her grandmother and it is likely to be aided and abetted on the outside by the wider family too, all of whom know that the silent subjective messages must be kept in place in order to protect the players in the drama.
If you go in with your rational mind you won’t get further than the outer ring of trees, there is no reasoning within this wood. If you go in with the flow of your child’s changing feelings, using them as a litmus test of how the beating heart of this drama is feeling, you will find your way quickly to the little house in the wood where the witch waits. Knock on the door gently and be ready with flowers, watch her face and learn how to react with lightening speed. If you can get her to open the door you are one step on the way, if you can get her to keep it open you have a chance. Once inside watch for her baring her teeth, this is the wolf in her sheep’s clothing, be on guard, she is only one flick of an eyebrow away from taking off her bonnet and gobbling you up for her breakfast. When you sit down do not do so until she is settled and smiling, if she frowns jump up and ask her what you can do to help. When she offers you porridge smile and be grateful, make sure you eat it all up, you don’t want to offend her. When someone knocks at the door freeze with her and look fearfully out of the window, share her anxieties, her terrors, her irrational thinking. When it all gets too much get under the duvet with her on the big bed in the corner of the room and soothe her to sleep. Watch carefully to make sure she is asleep whilst you fall fitfully into your rest beside her, ready to jump awake at the slightest movement.
Live with this woman for long enough and you too will know how to respond to the fluidity of someone else’s feeling.
Then you too will understand what it is like to live inside the world of the alienated child.