This week I am pursuing my work on the shadow theme and looking at all things not seen in alienation because they are lurking in the shadows caused by the blinding light shone by the alienating parent. Light and shadow has been a real metaphor for me recently as I have assisted in several successful reunions of children and their rejected parents and have noticed in all of them that the light in the children’s eyes has been restored through that. This light, which to my eye looks like the liberation of the child’s repressed love for a parent, is so clearly missing in children who are alienated that I have recently begun to photograph the faces of children with whom I work to determine the before and after difference. Not because I think it is something that we can scientifically rely upon, but because it is such a startling visual image that it is useful in helping people to understand the outer as well as inner ways that children in these circumstances present. I am often asked about the lack of animation in a child’s behaviour and their fixed and almost frozen facial presentation. When the child is freed, the light in their eyes conveys such freedom (and love) that it is unmistakeable (to my eye at least). This week then I am concentrating upon light and the shadow it casts and the difference between the alienator’s blinding light and the normal and natural return of the light in a liberated child’s eyes (and all things in between).
I have written before about the alienating parent’s ability to shine a light so bright on the target parent that everyone is compelled to look in that direction. In my experience, this light is created by the loud and vociferous proclamation that there is something deficient in the target parent’s behaviour that causes the children to reject the parent. Whenever I experience this demand to examine the target parent’s behaviour I begin by looking not in that direction but at the parent shining the light. In many of these cases, within the shadows cast by the blinding light, there are things being done by the alienating parent which cause the children’s rejection.
This compulsion, to pin onto the target parent as many deficiencies as possible can be confusing to practitioners, who are drawn into colluding with what is, in truth, a projection. A projection is an unowned and unrecognised behavioural trait which belongs not to the person one experiences it in, but to ones own self. It is the unknown and often unbearable part of the self which has been repressed, hidden and secreted away in the shadows. In so many of these cases, where there is a determination to focus attention on the behaviours of the target parent, projection is at play. What one cannot see in the self is revealed in the behaviours of others. Thus, looking into the shadows by reversing the projection and seeking evidence of what the alienating parent is hiding, is one of the first things to do when unravelling what is really going on.
Of course children are also drawn into this projection and because they are largely living in a relational world in which things unsaid are just as powerful (and at times more so) than things said, they are particularly vulnerable to projections that are illuminated when the alienating parent is shining their light onto the target parent. When children are telling me that the parent they are refusing to see is scary and harmful and that they will probably die if they have to be anywhere near them, I know I am likely to be hearing their experience of living in the shadows with the alienating parent. It is not that they really think these things about the target parent, they simply know that they are supposed to know these things and as they also know the consequences for not joining in seeing the projections, they willingly join in and recount them. When you see and hear children acting as if a parent is dangerous, especially when you have seen the evidence of those children in loving and close relationship with that parent through photographs, videos and direct observation, you are likely to be watching children utilising the coping skills of pretending to see the projection they know they are supposed to see. And yes, that is dysfunctional. And yes that eventually distorts the child’s ability to tell the difference between what is real and not real and yes, eventually, the repression of the awareness that this is the behavioural trait of the alienating parent, means that the child places into their own shadow, their real feelings for the parent they are rejecting so that they eventually forget that those feelings ever existed. This is the nature of splitting and it is caused by an unhealthy parent causing healthy children to distort their natural feelings of love and affection for a parent. Which is why the light dies in the eyes of these children as they become consumed by the shadow of the alienating parent.
Another theme of light and shadow came into play for me recently as I began to unravel some of the issues around how to safely extract these children from what are, after all, unhealthy parenting patterns and psychopathology. I was prompted to do think more about this issue in a case in which the children concerned were separated from the unhealthy parent and within what I have come to know as a pretty standard period of time (4 -14 days) all four of these children had safely reunited with the parent they had been severely rejecting of for eighteen months. Contrast this with the children who have been in proceedings for some seven years and who has been removed from the parent but is still severely rejecting. And contrast that further with the children who are severely rejecting apart from two, who are able to continue a normal and happy relationship with the parent who is completely rejected by all of the other children. These differences in reactions in children lead me to understand that the presentation of rejection/alienation in children is both remarkably different and similar. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms it is. In all of the cases I have worked in there are themes, motifs, pairings, patterns and degrees of alienation reaction seen in the child. In every single case, the light shining brightly, combined with the shadow work of the alienating parent, plus the transgenerational history and the horizontal line of current relationships which influence the children, all bring their own dynamic, not all of which is resolved by separation of the child from the parent. Whilst it is true that in pure and severe cases where there is psycopathology in the aligned parent and a healthy and strong parent who has been rejected, separation is likely to lead to that magical phenomenon of the puff of smoke moment (and the alienation is gone), in others cases, particularly hybrids and particularly where there is weak court management and fluidity in the concentric circles around the family, rejection continues. What people do not realise in doing this work, is that the alienation reaction in the child, which is a direct result of over empowerment plus the maintainance of control, is continued by the merest whiff of disbelief in the circles around the family. Put simply, give the child a chink in the determination of the professionals to restore power to the parental coalition and the child will make use of it, deepening resistance and if necessary, to maintain power, escalating allegations. The child cannot help it, this behaviour is a coping mechanism which is about survival in a relationship with a disordered parent. But professionals should be aware of it. I have seen far too many alienation unaware professionals escalate a case and render it impossible to resolve because of their inability to properly hold the line in restoring either a parenting coalition (sharing power over children) or transfer power from the unhealthy parent to the healthy one.
And of course none of this analysis would be complete without the political element which causes so many families to struggle and fail in these circumstances. When feminism shone a light on the family and proclaimed that what was wrong with it was fathering, what it did was put into its own shadow the tendency to behave in exactly the way that it accused men of behaving. When feminist practice is taught in social work and used in court evaluation processes, it begins and ends with the notion that women have problems and men cause them, thus rendering every father potentially suspect and every mother potentially at risk from a suspicious ex. This light, which shines so brightly upon one parent, whilst completly exonerating the other from any possible contribution to the problems encountered in the family, allows too many children to continue to be at risk of harm in pathological parenting patterns. It also causes mothers to become more at risk when they are the parent the children are rejecting, because the shadow self of the practitioner projects the belief onto the mother that if she is being rejected by a child she must have done something really really bad. Those of you who read regularly know that I consider that feminist practice around the family to be dangerous and politically motivated, so much so that it has no place in this work. I form this view precisely because feminist practice so closely mirrors the behaviours of unhealthy parents (in pushing all things negative about the self into the shadows which causes projection onto others of that hidden self), that it is not possible to evaluate or work with families as a whole from that perspective. In fact I consider that to do this work from a feminist perspective is dangerous, as dangerous as leaving the children who are being harmed by unhealthy parents in situ without help or hope of release.
In my work with light and shadow I understand the words of Carl Jung when he spoke of the need to be whole and that, to understand the self one must understand that which lies in the shadows.
In order to understand and help families where alienation strikes, working with the family as a whole, looking beyond the light and into the shadows, is what brings back the light to the eyes of the children who are captive within.