This week I continue to work on the ambivalence problem for alienated children. This is one of the biggest problems that children in recovery from alienation face and it is one which is particularly pernicious because the harm that has been done, leaves a long term problem for children in its wake.
Let us look at the lives of children. Born into the world completely dependent, their whole experience of being is shaped by the adults around them. For children, there is no possibility of comparing and contrasting experience, there is no way of knowing that what they are experiencing in their lives is good or bad. It just is. This means that if a child is being brought up in a household where estrangement patterns, conflict, manipulation and lack of healthy boundaries are normalised, that is what normal is for the child.
And in many respects one might say who are we to judge what is normal and what is not. The private lives of families in the UK are not subject to routine scrutiny and thus, if parents want to bring up baby in a dysfunctional manner, it is not going to be considered such unless the watching eye of the outside world becomes involved.
Therefore, it is often only when the family hits crisis that the outside world gets to look in on the lives of the children involved. As such it can be surprising what one finds when the door is finally opened. From the boy who was brought up as a girl by his mother (a not so rare occurence across the whole of time if one looks at the psychoanalytic literature) to the children who believed they were part of a satanic ritual (also not uncommon throughout history, think of the Salem Witch Trials), what lies beneath the outward presentation of many ordinary seeming families is, in fact, high functioning dysfunction dressed up as normal.
And it is the dressing up of dysfunction as normal which is the problem for children who become alienated, particularly those who grow up in families where ‘normal’ stretches back through generations. In families where children become alienated it is common to find estrangements through the history of one or both sides of the family and/or sudden deaths, tragedies and unspoken things which seem to haunt the family without every being made visible to its members. Transgenerational haunting, long an interest of mine, in which the children of the family convert the unspoken and unresolved issues of the family into either physical ailments or trauma re-enactments, are very present where children become alienated. In fact in some of my own cases, the alienation reaction is interlinked with the conversion of unspoken trauma which is re-enacted through the projection onto the rejected parent. Families where false allegations are made are an example of this, the crisis of the separation bringing the ghosts of the past up through the schism of the parental psychological and emotional divide which is triggered by the physical separation.
In this landscape we expect children to live and to form their personalities and characters. I still, after more than two and a half decades of working in this arena, cannot believe that it is not universally recognised that bringing up children in the midst of family separation, puts them at severe risk of psychological and emotional/mental harm. I cannot think of a worse environment for a child to be than in the middle of parental separation with all of its attendant trauma and all of its heightened emotional and psycholgical risk. When parents go mad, as they often do in the midst of such crisis, it is children who lose the most. They lose the peace and quiet of an emotionally and psychologically secure world and they witness the break down of the adult framework which is supposed to keep them safe.
For many parents, this risk is something they are acutely aware of and they work hard to protect children from the worst of the harm that can be done. For others, it is as if the children are but extensions of their own personal experience and with their own decompensation into the disparate parts of their own emotional crisis, they take their children with them. In these circumstances, unless someone from the outside stops this from happening, the children become lost to the coping mechanism of psychological splitting which they utilise in order to survive in a world which has suddenly broken into a million pieces. Splitting, which requires a child to represss normalising feelings of guilt and shame in order to reject a parent they love causes the child to enter into a place of absolute vulnerability because once the child has repressed those normalising feelings, anything goes in terms of what they can be made to believe. Should the parent they are dependent upon have absolute control over the child and should that parent be decompensating into delusional beliefs about the other parent, those children can and often are drawn into that fantasy. At this point the child loses any ability to keep perspective and in the intrapsychic world begins to join with the fantasy of the parent they are dependent upon, often elaborating and expanding the beliefs through a mutual mirroring back and forth. This is the endgame for children’s mental health and at this stage it is more than just an issue about whether the child should have a relationship with both parents, it is a serious and sustained mental health and child protection issue. Should no-one intervene in such a scenario, the only way for the children to go is loss of sanity and entry into encapsulated delusional belief which is a form of psychosis.
Little wonder children who emerge from such a nightmare find it difficult to recapture the ability to hold ambivalent feelings, which are the bedrock of perspective and a core skill for a growing mind. Losing the ability to know that people can do good and bad things or that mum and dad can hold different opinions and not like each other any more but that doesn’t mean that they no longer love their children, is often seen in children who are becoming vulnerable to parental alienation, ( or psychological splitting or pathogenic parenting) whichever your preferred term. Regaining that ability after the alienation reaction has been treated through intervention, is one of the hardest possible steps a child can take. This is because the breaking of perspective, which underpins the lack of ambivalence in a child’s belief system, causes endless confusion for a child.
Psychological splitting is an infantile defence mechanism which should really be overcome in the early days of a child’s life. For a parent to force a child back to that defence through pressuring them to fear or hate their other parent, is abusive and upholding that position, as some practitioners do in their lack of skill in this arena, causes the child long term damage and significant trouble in achieving perspective again. For once a child’s trust in the adults around them is broken, the child finds it hard, if not almost impossible, to return to a fully unconscious trusting place. And why would they not find it hard? For a child, wholly and utterly dependent upon the adults to provide for them the care that they need, to understand in recovery from alienation that the care they received was not normal and was not healthy, is a terrifying experience which takes innocence with it. Children in recovery often do not need to be told the truth because once emerged from the alienation, the recognition that a parent is not and never was the terrifying monster they were forced to believe he/she was, shocks them back to reality.
After this, many children spend months trying to weigh up the past and work out how and why they were forced into such a position. As they do so the normal feelings of guilt and shame emerge and they seek forgiveness for their part in what happened. After which a tsnami of anger may erupt as they work through the vulnerabilities they felt then and feel now. ‘How dare they’ is an often heard phrase from children in this position, it can be uttered for many months as the child struggles to come to the place where they can accept what happened. Only when the ability to hold ambivalent feelings returns can a child fully tolerate the past and move on. Witnessing the struggles of children who go through this process is painful and incredibly moving at times. Being able to help children more and more through this phase due to the increasing understanding in our family courts of the problem of a child’s unjustified rejection of a parent, has become a focus for me.
This work aims to illuminate the lives of those children whose unseen experience of being bound into their parent’s decompensation through dependency, through ignorance of the outside world which prevents intervention and through being born into families where this risk exists.
Suffer these children because as adults, without help and intervention they and their own children, in time, still do.