The experience of being alienated from a child is extraordinary, it is like nothing else that happens in child/parent relationships. As such it is an under articulated experience and it is one which is often ignored or not listened to in any significant way by people who could and in my view should, care about children and their families.
We work every day with parents who are alienated from their children, as well as with parents whose children are aligned to them and parents who are actively alienating their children. We also work with children of all ages as well as grandparents and wider family members and friends. We even at times, work with family pets who have become alienated. All players in the family drama are part of the work that we do. All players have a role to play in unfreezing the dance and helping the child to be relieved of the burden of controlling the chaos which has erupted in the family.
But one group of people within the family drama is very much unheard and that is the parent who is targeted for rejection, the alienated parent. Whilst the other players have their own role to play, this player is both key to the child’s health and well being whilst at the same time being the player who carries the child’s split off negative projections. Not only that but this player also carries the negative projections of the aligned parent, the aligned parent’s wider family and often the practitioners and professionals who surround the family. This player is therefore the keeper of the family shadows and as such lives an extremely painful and unheard experience. Whilst all around are busy listening to the child and the aligned parent, how many pay attention to the unheard narrative of the rejected parent and how many, when they do listen, are able to hear through the noise created by the fused dyad of parent and child?
The white noise of the fused dyad is like no other. This is why, at the Family Separation Clinic, we only accept families for therapeutic treatment after assessment of all members. Whilst we regularly coach targeted parents without seeing the other family members, working towards reconnection requires the participation of all family members and it also requires the strong framework offered by judicial process. Within this setting, the white noise of the fused dyad becomes possible to fine tune so that the complexities of the relationship dynamics begin to appear, a little like a photograph emerges in the developing tray in the dark room. Only in the right setting can we differentiate between what is and what is not the phenomenon called parental alienation, only when the voice of the rejected parent is heard within the symphony of the whole family, can we begin to fine tune the treatment routes.
Many parents who have found themselves prevented from having a relationship with their child after family separation feel that they have been alienated and many indeed have been. However the truth of the matter is, that there are many cases which are self reported which cannot be identified as Parental Alienation without the confirming information from the wider family dynamic. This is a critical aspect of differentiation which provides the confirmation or otherwise that a child’s response to the changed family dynamic is alienation. It is also what allows properly designed treatment routes which are configured around the whole family and which offer a platform for sustainable change over time. One of the most important pieces of this jigsaw being the judicial process and the way in which the practitioner works inside the concentric circle of the court and the family dynamic.
Accepting self reported cases of parental alienation for treatment without differentiation and without hearing the narrative in context is a little bit like offering a treatment route for cancer without taking blood tests, xrays and other relevant examinations. This is why we our work with reunification is only undertaken within a court setting and why we would only ever offer treatment route after understanding the whole story as it has unfolded from pre-separation to the current day. The child’s voice within this narrative is an extremely important clue to the way in which the post separation dynamics have been distorted and disfigured to create alienation. Sometimes this is because of one parent’s actions, sometimes it is becase of both. Additionally it can be because the court process has acted to end the relationship and as part of that, practitioner awareness (or lack of it) can contribute enormously to the outcome.
Missing pieces in professional practice however do not just include lack of awareness but at times bias and fixed thinking which prevents the ability to see beyond the presenting narrative. In these days of ‘child focused’ practice, which to many practitioners appears to mean hearing only what the child has to say and not analysing it in context, many practitioners come into a parental alienation case in ways that make things worse not better. If a practitioner hears only the voice of the child speaking about the surface level dynamics and then seeks to find evidence to uphold that reality, what they are effectively doing is colluding with the alienating parent in a form of coercive control. This is true of several cases that I have recently worked on, leaving me somewhat despairing in knowing quite how to tackle it. One professional who recently informed a targeted parent that they must have caused the child’s rejection because they (the professional) experienced her as being exactly how the child described her, left me fuming on behalf of an already victimised parent who had already been the recipient of two decades of coercive control by her former partner. Now, not only is she the continued subject of that coercive control (as perpetrated by the father through the control of the child’s behaviour towards her), she is victim of state control through the lofty proclamations of the supposed ‘professional.’
It seems to me that whole family analysis, set within an understanding of how children are psychologically affected by things like coercive controlling patterns of behaviour, loyalty conflicts and other such things (all of which are very well written about and articulated in the psychological field), should not be beyond the scope of people who are advising the courts on what to do about children and their families after separation. And yet those missing pieces continue to bedevil the lives of rejected parents and their children and, actually, aligned/alienating parents too, because they too will one day suffer for the short sightedness of professionals.
The professional without missing pieces works with the whole family, listens to the narrative in context and analyses the child’s voice and behaviour within the crossed dynamics. This professional understands the importance of the court process and how it is used within such dynamics and is willing to undertake cross examination on their view and opinion (a sometimes gruelling process which is not for the faint hearted). Hearing all the voices and being able to persuade, cajole, support and sometimes force a different outcome is a critical skill. Being willing to receive the negative projections, the criticism and the blame at times, is part of the package.
Children need defenders working on their behalf who are willing to protect their childhood not elevate them to the position of anxious decision maker. I don’t see too many of those people from where I am looking. But I remain hopeful they will appear over the horizon, sometime soon.