A child’s parent breaks the child’s legs and pretends that the child fell over. The parent bruises the child and tells the child it is her own fault. A child is sexually abused. A child is neglected and left to fend for himself. A parent engages in a campaign of hatred and denigration of the child’s other parent, persuading the child into a fused and encapsulated delusion that the parent is harmful and has done harmful things.
Q. Which of these are child abuse and which are not?
A. All of them are child abuse.
Q. Which of these should be punished and the child protected from suffering such harm?
A. All of them.
Apparently not according to the head of CAFCASS who in a somewhat bewildering statement to the Telegraph this week tells us that parental alienation IS child abuse but that abuse cannot be punished because doing so would ‘rebound on the child.’ Which pretty much echoes the belief of too many professionals working with this horrible problem, which is that parental alienation is about parents acting badly, it is about conflict and it is about both parents not just one. And even if it is about just one parent acting against the other, well, it’s just a contact dispute at the end of the day and punishing the alienator is only going to cause the child to suffer.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong on so many counts.
Parental alienation is NOT about contact disputes it is about the exercise of power by one parent over the other using the child as a conduit for control.
Parental alienation is NOT about conflict between two parents even though it may look like that from the outside to the naive or unaware professional, it is about the actions of one parent, often an unwell parent, who is causing the child to reject the other parent, which causes the rejected parent to feel upset, hurt, unheard and often angry that help is not available.
Parental alienation is NOT about parents acting badly it is about one parent acting badly and the other being drawn into a desperate struggle to save their relationship with their child.
Parental alienation IS child abuse and like all child abuse it is harmful to the child not to intervene AND stop it AND punish the perpetrator especially if that person will not stop it and cannot show insight into what they have done.
Listening to the narrative that intervening in such child abuse rebounds on the child makes me concerned that the very concept of parental alienation is considered by CAFCASS as being something that is impossible to deal with. Alternatively, the notion that therapy is what is needed for these families is bound to be posited at some point soon, (it usually follows the idea that there is nothing to be done)
In reality, without the strongest of interventions and the tightest of judicial control, such child abuse is simply continued by the alienating parent. That should be backed up with the toughest of headlines to deter alienating parents. Unfortunately, with the idea that punishment rebounds on the child being put forward by the head of CAFCASS, the message to any parent so involved is carry on as usual, we can’t stop you. Not exactly the hard line approach one needs in dealing with this issue.
Alienating parents can be stopped from causing their children significant harm – Nothing concentrates the mind of an alienating parent more than the prospect of a change of residence (transfer of power) and nothing separates the really unwell alienating parent from those who have found themselves dug into an unconscious battle with the other parent faster than the threat of one.
I work with alienated children daily, it is what I do. No-one can tell me that parental alienation is not serious child abuse and no-one can tell me that that serious abuse should not be stopped and the children protected from it. And if a parent will not stop then the toughest penalties possible should be used. We all cried out in fury when Baby P died. Where is the corresponding outcry when children’s minds and psychological selves are murdered by alienating parents?
In the worst cases I have worked with, children are without sound mind by the time they are rescued and are so confused, so disturbed and so utterly bound into the mind of the alienating parent that it impacts severely on their mental health. As someone said about his daughter, found in a mental health hospital many years after being alienated from him by her mother, ‘suffer the little children, because as adults they still do.’
We would not ever speak about other forms of physical, mental, emotional or psychological child abuse as being unpunishable because it would rebound on the child, why talk about parental alienation in that way?
Because in truth the reality of the abuse that is parental alienation, which is actually the forcing of a child back into the coping mechanism of an infantile split state of mind, is not properly understood by government agencies and family services. As a result it is still considered to be a contact dispute or a parental rights issue, it is neither.
Parental Alienation in its true form is a cruelty to the child which robs them of their right to an innocent and unconscious childhood. It forces upon a child the adult issues which they should not be privy to and it damages their psychological and even their biological development. It is a lasting harm which can be found to be passed down the generational line and it is a legacy which no child should inherit. It harms the child’s future by interfering with perspective, it causes fear and anger to be unmanageable and it causes unremitting anxiety which the child cannot manage because of the repressed feelings of guilt and shame.
Protecting a child from that harm using the strongest interventions and punishment measures available can never rebound upon that child, it can only free them to live their lives in peace and in health.
And everyone working in the field of family separation should know that.
Understanding Parental Alienation: learning to cope, helping to heal
by Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall
Due for publication by Charles C Thomas, Spring 2017:
‘Understanding Parental Alienation is unique… a balance of scholarship and practical, hands-on experience.’
William Bernet M.D., Professor (Emeritus) of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, Vanderbilt University, TN.
‘Understanding Parental Alienation is… a highly valuable resource for parents, and a must-read book for every mental health professional, social worker or legal professional working with families in divorce.’
Professor Gordana Buljan Flander, Ph.D. Psychologist and Psychotherapist
Director of Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb