I work with social workers a lot. I also work with CAFCASS (GAL’s for our stateside readers) and I teach and train psychotherapists, psychologists and others in the psychological helping therapies about how to work with alienated children and their families. Most of the people I work with are aware of parental alienation and are aware that the behaviours they are seeing in the families they are working with are unusual and most know that there is something deeply wrong in the dynamic. What they don’t know is what to do about it, how to formulate their views and how to plan and deliver an intervention which assists the child. As part of our training to Local Authority teams and CAFCASS in the UK and to professionals developing their practice in Europe, we deliver a three day training which focuses upon the what, why and how of parental alienation. Part of that three day training is the breaking down into easy to understand stages, of the underlying dynamics which are present in parental alienation, one of which is parental alienation as coercive control. I thought I would share this one with you today because it is a really easy way of helping professionals to ‘get’ the reality of what is happening to the child and why it is important to intervene in cases of parental alienation.
Here then is Living With The Alienator: Parental Alienation as Coercive Control in Five, easy to understand steps.
- Coercive control is a term developed by Evan Stark to help us understand domestic abuse as more than a “fight”. It is a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self.
- Parental alienation is the process, and the result, of the psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent or other family members. The behaviours seen in alienating parents, undermines core principles of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is viewed as a particularly adverse childhood experience which results in significantly increased risks of both mental and physical illness for children.
- Parental Alienation is coercive control of a child for the purpose of restricting or restraining the child’s relationship with their other parent after family separation.
- In order to convince others that the child is speaking their own mind an alienating parent will use distraction and manipulation of other people’s views of the targeted parent. This is the same as gaslighting behaviour seen in domestic violence situations where a perpetrator will convince the victim that they are the problem. In parental alienation situations, the perpetrator triangulates others into believing that the targeted parent is the cause of the children’s rejection.
- A child who is being coercively controlled by a parent using alienating strategies will completely reject the target parent using a clear set of recognisable behaviours. This is the child’s only way of signalling to the outside world that they are in danger.
When professionals understand the nature of the risk to the child they are more easily connected to the how to part of the training we deliver. The how to part of the training concentrates on engaging the professional with the input they can offer using the power they possess to intervene. These are the steps we use to engage professionals with the power they possess to intervene.
Arrest the coercive control of the child
When a child is signalling for help using the signs of parental alienation, care must be taken to recognise the predicament that the child is in. A child should not be asked or invited or persuaded to do anything which will cause the alienating parent to escalate their control of the child without first ensuring that the alienating parent’s behaviours are controlled externally by the court or by your intervention.
Use the power that you have to confront the coercive control and arrest it. If you are a social worker use the powers available to you to protect the child. If you are a psychotherapist or a psychologist, confront the coercive control in your reporting to court and ask the court to arrest it. Do not attempt to arrest coercive control outside of your use of the powers available to you, especially if you are concerned about the mental health of the parent using the behaviours to control the child.
Arresting the control of the child is about constructing clear interventions with appropriate orders from the court to assist you.
Reassure the child
A child who is being coercivelly controlled is not going to be able to speak openly to you about what is happening. For many the reality of what is happening is outside of their conscious mind because they are using a coping mechanism to help to keep them safe. Nevertheless you must speak to the part of the child who is aware that what is happening to them is wrong. You do this by showing the child that you are able to prevent what is happening using the power that you have. Additionally you do this by bringing the split off and rejected parent into the work you are doing with the child. By confronting the child with the reality of the split off and rejected parent and showing the child that you can manage the controlling parent’s behaviours, you reassure the child that there is hope and that someone can and will intervene.
Prepare for the reunification of the child using the powers available to you
Do not wait to confront the child with the parent they have been rejecting. As soon as you have been able to constrain the behaviours of the alienating parent, bring the child and targeted parent together for the purpose of reunification. The child will receive much relief from this intervention and you will be able to observe the way in which the alienation disappears when the dynamic which causes it (coercive control) is removed. Remember that the coercive control dynamic must continue to be controlled through the powers you possess if you are a social worker or through the courts. An alienating parent may not be able to change their behaviours and if the child returns to showing signs of alienation after your intervention, it is a clear flag that further investigation of the alienating parent is required.
The use of allegations of parental alienation as coercive control
The problem with using the label parental alienation is that there are groups representing parents who claim it for their own and this can cause confusion when you are attempting to differentiate and identify whether the child is signalling coercive control as parental alienation or justifiable reasons for rejecting a parent. There will be, amongst the families you work with, a number of parents who will claim they are being alienated when in fact they are not. This is why examination of the parent claiming to be targeted by parental alienation is so crucial. The difference between a parent who is claiming to be a target and one who really is lies in their behaviours and in the signals the child is giving. A claim of parental alienation which is being used as a coercive control tool is usually made in a fixed and rigid manner and is aggressively and relentlessly pursued. A parent who seeks to control you as the professional and who is seen to be unable to reflect and consider other view points may be using the claim of pa.
One has to be careful in these circumstances because targeted parents do become, at times, fixated, angry, upset and relentless in their belief that they are being alienated.
The comparison of the parent’s behaviours with the child’s signals will help you to further finesse your formulation. A child who is using justifiable reasoning will be able to describe those things that cause them to reject a parent and will not be so completely fixed in their thinking that they cannot consider other viewpoints. It is the comparison of the child’s behaviours with the behaviours of the parent accused of alienation and the target parent’s behaviours which enable you to make decisions.
Not every parent who says they are rejected because of parental alienation actually is. Allegations of parental alienation are used by coercively controlling parents who seek to remove children from a parent as well as by parents who seek to control a child in order to ensure the ejection of a parent from the child’s life. Working out the ways in which the child is being affected is a critical skill in order to avoid being triangulated into the existing dynamic between parents.
Living With the Alienator: Parental Alienation as Coercive Control is a module in our three day training is delivered in the UK, Europe and from October will be available in the USA and Canada.
As part of our work to help parents to help themselves we will be making our understanding all aspects of parental alienation in five easy steps series available for download on our new self help site Parental Alienation Direct.
Our one day training in London is now full, to go onto the waiting list for the next one day training please email firstname.lastname@example.org.