Keeping Mum

Today is Mothering Sunday in the UK and all around us are images of families sharing happy times and celebrating the love of a mother.  In my home life I too will celebrate   four generations of motherhood; my relationship with my own mother, my being a mother and my daughter’s mothering of her son. Spending time with my family as I have this week and watching my grandson flourish in his place in the family line, is a never ending joy.  His unconscious contentment is my victory and my Mother’s Day gift of time spent with him is the deepest pleasure life can bring.

In my working life however, I carry with me the empty spaces of those whose children are not with them today and those for whom those absences are such that their children are now like ghosts in a nursery from long ago.  For those mothers  I send a special wish of love and care and a reminder, from my work with children in recovery from alienation, that if they could be with you they would be. No matter how much time has passed and no matter how much distortion has taken place, no-one can take the place of a mother and that reality, in their deepest heart, will never fade away.

I heard recently from a mother whose children had been alienated from her for seven years. They are now in their mid twenties and all reunited with her.  She told me of their emergence from the alienation and the way in which they had each, individually, struggled to reconnect over a period of several months. I asked her what she felt the challenges were for children in spontaneous reunification and she said this –

The real problem for all my kids was that their father had controlled their thinking and their belief system for such a long time that they had not really been able to develop any sense of individual self. Which meant that they were a sort of gang and they all felt the same way, or thought they did.  It wasn’t until the eldest went off to university and found a girlfriend that something changed. Even then when he reached out to me he was aggressive in how he did it, telling me I had been a useless mother and that he wished he’d had a better one. Had I reacted as I felt I wanted to at that moment (by telling him the absolute truth and defending myself) I think he would have sprung back into the gang and reinforced their collective belief about me.  But I didn’t, I used the empathic responses I had learned and invited him to come and find out whether I was the mother he remembered.  I think his girlfriend may have encouraged him to meet me as she came with him when we did finally meet, but that didn’t matter to me, whether it was because he was doing it for her or for him or something else, the only thing that mattered was that he wanted to meet me.

We met in a cafe in the town where I live now and I felt sick with anxiety beforehand. When we met though it was simply as if the years rolled away and there he was, my little boy.  Bigger now and looking very like his father, but still the same boy with the same floppy hair over his eyes.  When I saw him I stood up and I saw in his face the realisation of how much time had gone by. He hugged me, he actually hugged me and as he did he mumbled in my ear ‘I’m sorry mum, I didn’t mean it’ and it was like he was ten years old again  and sorry for breaking something. In that moment, it suddenly didn’t matter that what he had broken was my heart, I was in my rightful place again as his mother, soothing him and forgiving him as all mothers do with their children. After that it was a matter of months to meeting all my other children, brought one by one by their brother when they were ready.  One day we all met for lunch and after that we went back to my house where they spent hours looking at all the things I had kept for them, including their dog, now old and a bit fragile but still delighted to see them (and they him).

I asked this mother how she had managed in the time that her children had been away and she told me that she had done what she had been told to do, she had gone on with life and lived as best she could. She had spent time with other children and had nurtured friendships. She had remarried and was happy in her marriage and a good step mother to her husband’s children.  All along however, the space in her heart where her children belonged had been naggingly empty and her worries about her children and their wellbeing had never abated. She told me –

The worst thing was the worry and what I suppose is the biological drive to love and care and protect which is thwarted constantly. That feels like a damned up stream which cannot flow and at times it nearly killed me wondering how they were and who was giving them that love and nurture that is mothering.  I kept going though and kept that stream flowing as much as I possibly could, I drew pictures for them and wrote letters that I never sent and I talked about them and I kept myself strong and sane and well and healthy.   When they came back, this meant that I could step right back into those mothering shoes and give them what they had missed out on and it was clear that they had missed out and that they needed that love in their lives again. Now they are with me whenever they want to be, their father isn’t happy about it but they have grown strong enough to withstand his disapproval. We never talk about him other than in passing and I make sure to keep that light and happy and respectful. They seem contented and comfortable with me and I am grateful to have reached this place.

This mother’s journey was a long one, too many others suffer the same long wait. But the mother in us never dies and the need for a mother never leaves alienated children.

For all alienated mothers everywhere, may the space where your children should be, be filled with love today and always.

Until it is time for  you too, to put your mothering shoes back on.

 

With love x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The See-Saw Challenge: Helping Alienated Children in Recovery

I am about to take a break for a few days in order to recover my equilibrium. This is something that we do at the Clinic every twelve weeks or so.  Running our programmes over a twelve week period means that we are often on call 24/7 as we work with children in residence transfer and beyond.  At any one time we are delivering on several cases in which alienated children are at different stages of the recovery process.

Working with alienated children and their families is an exhausting job although it is also extremely rewarding too.  It is draining at the outset, when we are working with the highest levels of tension brought about by the family court process, whilst being the people who provide the ballast that keeps the children stable whilst we do the work of assessment and intervention. Further down the road, when the children are being re-introduced to the previously aligned parent, we have to work hard to ensure that the child’s psychologically split self does not drive the child to counter reject that parent.  Balancing the child’s psychology is our core goal. Preventing the ‘see-saw’ effect is how we achieve that.

The ‘see-saw’ effect is something which is observable in all children who emerge from alienation.  When the child emerges spontaneously from alienation, often as an older teenager or adult, I call it the ping pong effect.  The behaviour which is seen is curious in that the child is prompted by the stirrings of the guilt and shame they have buried, to reach out to a parent, only to quickly retreat as fast as they appeared. In spontaneous emergence I always tell parents to hang tight and not pursue the child, give a welcome but do not immediately leap upon the child when they appear in your lives. If you do you will push the child back into the place where the guilt and shame will become intolerable too quickly and they will bury the feelings and return to their hiding place of complete rejection. If you sit tight, almost ignoring them but not quite, they will come further towards you. The trick is to know that they have to deal with a lot of repressed feeling in order to properly reach you and you must let them.  However much you love your children, you cannot resolve the split state of mind for them, however much you would take away your child’s pain in a heartbeat, it is their coping mechanism they are trying to overcome and they must be able to do it themselves in order to heal. You can help but you cannot do it for them and neither can you force it. If your child appears, making phone calls and then putting the phone down or ‘accidentally’ texting you only to disappear again, don’t bombard them just send them a hi, I’m here and I love you and wait. Waiting for a child to emerge is like fishing, you have to be patient, vigilent and know the signs. Ping pong behaviour is a clear sign that the child is struggling to emerge.

The see-saw effect in a child who has been reunited with a parent through intervention from court comes later down the line, after reunification, after the honeymoon of recovered love and after the search for forgiveness. The see-saw effect is one of the danger points for children who are being assisted therapeutically to emerge from alienation and it’s resolution gives way to the search for congruence which indicates that the cycle of recovery is almost complete.  The see saw effect is a risk which occurs if the receiving parent (previously rejected parent) is unable to hold the child firmly in a non judgemental and accepting manner whilst the work of reconnecting the child to the previously aligned parent (alienating parent) is done. The see-saw effect messes with the child’s mind when their two parents are now, in their mind, held in a tense balance as the child attempts to work out who is right and who is wrong, until they come to the place where they recognise that neither is right OR wrong and both are right AND wrong.

This is not about teaching the child that the previously alienating parent is a bad parent and the receiving parent who was rejected is the good parent, it is about restoring the child to the normal psychological ability to hold ambivalent feelings about people. Learning that a parent has done bad things but is not a bad person, helps the child to heal the splitting. Learning to understand the bad behaviours and how to protect the self from them, is about building resilience in the child.  Because lest we forget this fact – parental alienation is the result of the alienating behaviours in the parent plus the sensitivity in the child plus the third ingredient, this being the contributions positive and negative made by the the other parent.

The see saw effect then is the ability of the now primary caretaking parent, to allow the child  the freedom to rebuild the relationship with the parent they have been moved from AND assist in building the resilience in the child. As we do that work we set the child in a new and balanced environment, in which their ability to hold perspective is gradually rebuilt.

When the child does not swing between one parent good, the other parent bad, we have reached the place of healing. To do that we have to dispense with the splitting in all aspects of the child’s life, including blaming others. As we go along, the balance is found and the child’s resilience is built giving them a stronger chance of resolving the splitting reaction for good.

As I go off on my break to balance my see-saw of energy and strength, I wish you all well.  I will be writing more about the alienated child’s journey to recovery very soon.

From Division to Resilience: The Recovery Journey of the Alienated Child

The alienated child in recovery goes through a series of psychological changes, these are distinct and recognisable and are mapped through our work with children post intervention.

Children in recovery are repairing the psychologically split state of mind, that which is used as a defence against the intolerable dilemma of having to choose one parent to love and one parent to lose.  This is not an easy recovery journey.  Although it can be swift at the outset with alienated children being able to immediately move from absolute rejection to acceptance and warmth, the conditions for this response must be right for this to be seen.

Children in recovery go through a recognised process from rejection of a parent  to acceptance and then into an encounter with grief, shame and guilt. After this comes search for meaning (why did this happen to me) and then a search for congruence (how can I trust that adults around me are telling the truth). From there a child must be helped to gain and maintain the perspective which was destroyed by the alienation reaction. The final phase of recovery for the child is the development of resilience, in which the child is able to recognise that the ‘choice’ they made to reject a parent, was made at the behest of a parent who created an impossible situation for them. When this stage is reached, the child recognises that their needs are primary and that alignment with either parent is not helpful, they also recognise what healthy parenting feels like and are content within the reconfigured hierarchy of authority which governs their lives.

Helping a child to reach this stage of recovered self is undertaken in the months after the reunification work is done.  Attempting to do this with a child who is still living in the situation in which they are being influenced by a parent is unethical for practitioners because the child is being asked to change in an unchanging dynamic. This is a key issue for practitioners to consider and is the reason why the legal and mental health interlocking relationship is so vital.  It is clear from all of our work with children and from the research in this field, that children who are alienated are responding to the dynamics created by the adults around them. Whilst it is the child’s vulnerability to these dynamics which determines whether an alienation reaction flourishes or not, a practitioner who attempts to get the child to change without attending to the dynamics which influence their behaviour, is causing harm to the child. The only right way to do this work as a mental health practitioner is to accept the responsibility for advocating on behalf of the child in court, in order to change the dynamic and then carry out the intervention which liberates the child. Leading on from that the therapeutic work with the child can begin.

The practitioner who does the work of freeing the child can also deliver the therapeutic assistance which moves the child into recovery. The therapeutic alliance in such circumstances is strong because the child has already placed trust in the practitioner who has listened to the unspoken narrative and acted upon it. Children in recovery are clear that they did not want to reject their parent but that they understood the instructions to do so, instructions which are given sometimes verbally and sometimes in the behavioural commands which are conveyed in the intra-psychic relationship between parent and child.  Having someone intervene, lifts the burden of responsibility of choosing to change from the child’s shoulders. This creates trust and builds a willingness to be guided in therapeutic work. For some children, this work offers them their first opportunity to understand that their needs are separate and distinct from a parent, for others it offers them reassurance that their lives can be lived under their own control rather than that of the parent who has hitherto swallowed up their independent sense of self.  All of this work is undertaken in short term therapy which lasts no longer than six months post intervention in most cases.  By the end of this phase of work the child should be in complete recovery in relationship to the previously rejected parent and should be well on their way to re-establishing the relationship with the previously alienating parent.

Healing the split state of mind in a child however is a tricky task and the core conditions for therapeutic work must be in place at the outset in order that this occurs as the foundation stone for all future work.  The core conditions for therapeutic work are that the child has entered into the warm acceptance of the previously rejected parent and that this parent is enabled to provide for the child the reconfigured hierarchy of authority in which they will flourish. Within this setting, which occurs within the first days of reunification, the child experiences a resetting of the external dynamic which in turn triggers a change within.  A child in these circumstances has often arrived into reunification from a world in which they were enmeshed with the alienating parent and in which they were given responsibility for making decisions which they were too young to make. Helping the child to experience the warmth and security of being held and contained in a relationship in which their parent is beneficent is an important part of this work.  Reducing anxiety and confusion is helped by the child being helped to recognise their own needs and how these are now being met.

Children are often in the early days of reunification, concerned with feelings of guilt and shame which arise from the reality that the cognitive dissonance which has been present in their lives, has been changed. Alienated children know deep down that what they are doing is wrong and they feel, underneath the brittle proclamations of hatred and rejection, a great sense of guilt and shame for it. When they are released from the trap they have been in, they encounter those feelings and seek forgiveness.  When this is received, they can move on and in giving the child release from these powerful feelings, the once rejected parent moves back into the position of authority.  Helping parents to recognise when a child is seeking forgiveness and the importance of giving it even though it is not required by the parent, is part of what a practitioner must do to ensure that the flow of healing is maintained in the right direction for the child. Many formerly rejected parents are simply so happy that their child is back to normal again that they are at risk of overlooking these important stages. Guiding the parent through the child’s recovery is an essential part of the skill of providing post reunification care.

A child who is forgiven enters into the stage of searching for meaning and has in place the building blocks for a return to a healthy future. When this stage is reached it is time to look at the reconnection of the child with the once alienating parent. This stage is a delicate one but it cannot be missed out upon because if a child has to lose one parent to gain the other, their recovery cannot be completed. Unfortunately, for some children, the alienating parent does not, cannot or will not engage in assisting the child at this stage and continues their distorted belief system, refusing to see the child and in some situations simply disappearing completely. This is often seen in situations where a parent has a personality disorder and in the most severe cases of alienation where a parent has a delusional disorder and cannot change their beliefs.  When this occurs children have to be helped to understand the objective reality of this parent’s state of mind and have to be assisted to see that this is the responsibility of the parent. Preventing children from relapsing because of the pressures brought about by a return of the old dynamic (if my parent will not see me it must because I have done something wrong) which is filled with guilt and shaming strategies, is key in this stage.

Beyond the reconnection with the alienating parent the child begins a search for meaning and then for congruence in which they seek to make the reconfigured meaning of the past fit both internally and externally. The challenges for children here being that if the alienating parent does not change, the child encounters cognitive dissonance but this time in the direction of the alienating parent.  Preventing the child from using the splitting mechanism to deal with this is a key part of therapeutic work and is achieved by ongoing exposure to the alienating parent in tandem with therapy. Having one practitioner undertaking this work is critical to ensure that the child has one consistent person to depend upon. Thus a practitioner who reunites the child will work with the child and the once rejected parent and will supervise contact with the alienating parent whilst a second therapist will work with the alienating parent if they are considered suitable for that input.

This work takes no longer than six months maximum and leaves a child, where possible, in a relationship with both parents which is as near normal as possible.  Only where severe contraindications are in place, such as lack of acceptance of contribution to harm and lack of behavioural change, would we wish to continue supervision in such circumstances. Whilst we can and do supervise contacts for much longer than six months, largely we would move to the use of parenting co-ordination to case manage beyond six months. Parenting co-ordinators offer management of child arrangements orders in such a way that the dynamic is held firm so that a return to previous behaviours cannot be used.

The journey of the alienated child in recovery is predictable and responsive to therapeutic input and it can be demonstrably replicated through assistance.  When children recover they go on to live normal healthy lives. This work is not long winded and it is based upon interventions which seek to change the dynamics around the child first after which therapeutic work is made more potent. Understanding this, a practitioner in this field must pay attention at first to getting the right conditions in place via the legal process. Only when this is achieved, can the healing really begin.

 

 

 

 

 

Launch of the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners

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Readers may be interested in a new venture being convened by the Family Separation Clinic in London.  The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners will hold its inaugural meeting in Prague on July 11th 2017.  Hosted by the Family Separation Clinic, the idea for the Association arose in partnership work with the colleagues in Croatia, the Netherlands and Belgium, through recognition that working together, with the difficult problem of parental alienation,  brings mutual support, learning and stronger outcomes for children and their families.

The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners starts from a place of recognition of international best practice in intervention in cases of parental alienation and member practitioners will be committed to the furthering of knowledge and understanding of the importance of working in ways which are known to assist alienated children.  The Association will provide for practitioners, a safe place in which discussion can be held about working methods which may be considered controversial in some member countries, but which are known to offer the swiftest route to liberation of children from the psychological bind which is caused by parental alienation.  This safe place is created so that the generation of new ideas and strategies for informing policy and practice in member countries, can take place in such a way that practitioners feel supported and secure in their ongoing professional development.

We are delighted that William Bernet M.D.who is President of the Parental Alienation Studies Group will be present at this meeting to give an address and support this European initiative.  Members from eight EU countries are currently listed to attend and we welcome all practitioners in this field to join us.

I am very excited to be part of this venture which leads on from our work in the UK and our partnership work with the City Child Protection Centre in Zagreb.  This year we are training in four EU countries and in the USA and Canada as well as delivering at key conferences in the UK.  This is all part of our work to raise awareness of the problem of parental alienation. This particular venture is part of our work to raise awareness of the needs of practitioners in the field who as readers know, are often under attack from parents and other practitioners, making the field incredibly difficult to survive in for some.  The aim of the Association is very much to nurture strength amongst practitioner groups and to share our knowledge and skill to further the outcomes we can deliver for children and families.  I have been delighted by the interest shown in this idea and look forward to growing the seeds we have planted in collaboration with esteemed colleagues across Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Happened Next: Three Vignettes on the Successful Treatment of Parental Alienation

This week I am writing up the final chapters of my case notes in three cases where we have successfully treated parental alienation.  I thought it would be useful to share these (heavily disguised of course), so that what happens after our intervention is made visible. So much of our work takes place behind closed doors and it can be difficult for people to understand the interventions and outcomes of what we do because of this. By making such vignettes available we aim to show what we do and how we do it. We will share more of this information at our forthcoming clinical seminars, news of which will be posted here shortly.

Case 1:  This is a case of two children who we  removed from their mother in a direct transfer of residence ordered by the court.

The children had not seen their father for almost four years and were ferociously rejecting him, their behaviours included writing letters to the Judge and threatening to self harm.

The children were removed from their mother on the basis of serious emotional harm, on arrival to collect, both children laid down on the floor and refused to get up, the collection process took us over three hours.

During the ride to their father’s home, the children shifted in their behaviours and showed the first signs of emergence from what had been strongly refusing behaviours. Both children asked whether their father would be angry with them and were relieved on hearing that he was not angry and was looking forward to seeing them.  On arrival at their father’s home both children climbed out of the car and walked voluntarily into the house, whilst they were somewhat cold towards their father during that first hour, they subsequently demonstrated the behaviours we expect in such cases, unwinding the refusing behaviours and emerging from the alienated stance.  During the first six hours both children ate well, talked with their father and showed all the signs we expect to see in alienated children in recovery.  By the following morning both children had slept well and were showing increasing warmth and interest towards their father and his wife.

Six months after their removal from their mother,  the children have recanted all of the allegations made about their father and have completed their therapeutic treatment with the Clinic. This treatment route included testing of the children’s ability to tolerate exposure to their mother who had chosen not to undergo psychotherapy to help her to change her alienating behaviours.  The children’s resilience improved strongly throughout the six months of treatment and they were assisted by a programme of cognitive behavioural work in which their distorted beliefs and confusion arising after reunification with their father were brought into a healthy range. Both children see their mother on a weekly unsupervised basis, both cope well with the transitions to and from their father.

Reports from the children’s school show improved concentration, a relaxation of the tension and anxiety previously seen and better relationships with peers.

Case 2:  This is a case of two children who were being subjected to alienating and undermining strategies in which their father was influencing them to believe that their mother has a mental health problem.  The children, when they came to the Clinic, were both on the verge of completely rejecting their mother.  A programme of observed and supported therapeutic time with mother was put in place and the children’s father was ordered to make the children available for this to be undertaken. Work took place in situ at the children’s GP surgery and then at the children’s mother’s home.  A sixteen week programme of twice weekly time with mum took place, this was lengthened week on week until the children were spending the whole weekend with their mother by order of the court.

The children were eventually placed in a shared parenting situation in which they spent one week with their mother and one week with their father. The alienation reaction was still present however and the children’s father remained focused on undermining the relationship between the children and their mother.  A parenting co-ordination programme ran on from the therapeutic treatment however which meant that the Clinic continued to monitor the children’s resilience to what their father was doing.

Six months later the court has ordered that the children live mainly with their mother in order to reduce the time that father spends with the children and thus limit his ability to influence. This decision was taken because of the way in which father was unable to make use of the assistance available and continued his behaviours. The parenting co-ordination plan offered the Clinic the opportunity to monitor and manage the arrangements between parents and gave ongoing access to the children in order to monitor their resilience. When the parenting co-ordinator recognised that the children were sliding into alienation again she requested a return to the court and asked for a change in pattern of time to protect the children.  This worked, the children now manage the movement between parents and are able to recognise that their father is using subtle messages in an attempt to influence them. The children are now in the age group where their conscious understanding of how parents act is strong and their natural sense of fairness and justice at this age has been used to establish strong resilience to their father’s behaviours.  The alienation risk is lowered now and the children are monitored on an arm’s length basis by the parenting co-ordinator provided by the Clinic.

Case 3: A case of three children who were 13 and 14 (twins) when they were removed from their mother’s care on the basis of serious emotional harm. The children are now young adults and have lived with their father for the past six years.  During the removal, the children were strongly resistant and the police were used to assist.  On arrival at their father’s home, all three children used a strategy of refusing food to continue their efforts to resist and refuse a relationship with their father. I stayed with these children for almost a week as they went through the first recovery stage from the alienation reaction, after 24 hours they began to eat and after two days the alienation reaction began to lift as each of the children began to acknowledge their father. By the end of the first week the children had begun to discuss why they had been so strongly refusing of a relationship with their father, the basis of which was that they had been told by their mother that their father only wanted to see them to hurt her.

The children were assisted by a programme of therapy after removal and after twelve weeks they entered into a supervised contact relationship with their mother which continued until they reached the age of sixteen.  After that, the children continued to see their mother weekly on a day time basis only as she continued to try and persuade them that their father did not really want them. By now all three children had reached an age where they were able to understand the reality of the situation and had built a strong resilience to their mother’s beliefs.

Six years later their mother has remarried and has a toddler and a new baby, the older children see their half siblings regularly but not in any recognisable pattern. They have taken charge of their lives as is expected of children of this age and are able to move between parents without needing assistance.

In discussion with these now adult children, their reflections on what happened to them during the period of time when they rejected their father are interesting. One of the twins told me –

I didn’t really believe what my mother was telling me about dad because I knew dad and I knew that he wasn’t like that, but there wasn’t anything that I could do really to change things.  If I showed any sign of wanting to see my father or even think or talk about him, mum went off on one or worse still, became completely silent and ignored me. So we just learned really that dad was not ok and that seeing dad was not ok and that even talking about dad was not ok unless we were criticising him.  At the same time I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do but if I tried to do what I wanted to do I knew I would be in trouble so I just did what was expected and at that age, when you just want a quiet life anyway, or at least you don’t want to have much to do with your parents, it seemed easier to go with what we knew mum wanted us to do. By the time you came to collect us I think we had lost the plot a bit really and didn’t know what we were doing, we just got more and more stuck in it as mum became more and more determined to prevent dad from having anything to do with us.  It feels embarrassing now when I look back, you must have thought we were a real bunch of no goods, I remember telling you to F off and you just carried on telling us what was happening. It wasn’t until I realised that you were not going to back off no matter what we did, that I let it go really. When I did, it was a relief, now it all just seems so pointless and unnecessary.

What happened next in all of these successfully treated cases of parental alienation, demonstrates that the core need for children in these circumstances is resilience building. This work is what we do at the Clinic with children after intervention.  Resilience building cannot be undertaken whilst a child is alienated, the necessary work to treat the alienation must be undertaken before resilience building can begin.

The other necessary ingredient in these cases is Parenting Co-ordination which is offered by the Clinic in all treatment plans for parental alienation.  Parenting Co-ordination, which  offers one practitioner to work with both parents and children to monitor arrangements made, ensures that the reconfigured family system is held steady throughout periods of up to twelve months post intervention.  The Clinic has two parenting co-ordinators in place currently who are available to deliver such programmes of support, which can be invaluable in ensuring that the dynamics which cause the alienation reaction in the child, are prevented from re-arising.

For information about Parenting Co-ordination, intervention in parental alienation cases, assessments for court and the other services available at the Clinic please see our website at http://www.familyseparationclinic.co.uk or email office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk

We will be holding a Clinical Seminar in London in May 2017 for legal and mental health professionals  in which we will discuss our work with families. More news on this early next week.

Our new self help website – Parental Alienation Direct will launch soon – watch this space for news about how to obtain help to deal with your own situation and to learn much more about what to do and what not to do when parental alienation affects you and your children.  This site will include a series of psychological education videos which we are filming now to put as much information into your hands as possible.

The Family Separation Clinic is hosting the first meeting of the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners in Prague on July 11th 2017. This Association brings together practitioners who are working directly with families affected by alienation in different countries in Europe, to share best practice and to inform policy debate and development in each individual country.  Invitations have been sent out to those who have expressed interest in joining the Association, if you are interested in doing so and would like to attend the meeting at Charles University in Prague, please email office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk

The Clinic has recently expanded capacity and although there is a twelve week waiting list to instruct me in cases, we have additional experts who can be instructed quickly.  Please email office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk for details.

We are currently very busy with training delivery in Europe and from July 2017 will be focused on working in Europe and then in the USA and Canada.  We have been approached however by many people in the UK seeking practitioner training, we are therefore considering how we might offer a one day practitioner training in London this year and will post details of this when we have them.

 

 

 

The Transmogrification of Trauma in Parental Alienation

Far from being the kind of cosy kitchen table topic portrayed by the BBC in recent weeks, parental alienation is actually, often, a scene straight from a horror story.  In cases I have been involved in over the years, the transmission of intergenerational trauma has transmogrified the behaviours of children into a grotesque pantomime.  The issue is chilling in the most extreme form and it is nothing short of a descent into madness which encapsulates all who come near it.  In a recent report on from  the USA, this horror is illuminated by the vengeful rage of a mother who, determined that the other parent shall not have the child, murdered her daughter.  This is the Medea Complex which is seen in some cases of parental alienation. In recent cases I have worked in, themes of false allegations of sexual abuse in extreme circumstances have been prevalent. There is nothing normal or run of the mill about this topic, it is not about straightforward contact disputes and it is not about conflict.  To  portray it that way does all families affected by it   a gross disservice.

Parental Alienation is a serious mental health issue which is often triggered by family separation but which in reality is not about the rejected parent at all but about the hidden pattern of intergenerational trauma which erupts because of the decompensation of a high functioning parent who is confronted by the withdrawal of the relationship through which they defended themselves from the primary wounds inflicted upon them in early life.

Parental alienation  is properly located in the field of parental mental health in the context of post separation family relationships. It is also properly located in the field of children’s mental health and wellbeing, where it can be properly considered and responded to.  Putting it anywhere else fogs the issue as well as ensuring that it is dumbed down and claimed by anyone whose child struggles in post separation relationships, making working with this issue more difficult not less.  As I have written recently, there is a risk that in bringing the issues to light, the media attention will obscure the real story of parental alienation.  Prettifying it in order to make it palatable and interesting to the mainstream media risks eradicating the reality. The reality we work with at the Family Separation Clinic. The reality which leaves nothing to the imagination in which the nasty underbelly of trauma, passes through the generational line to transmogrify children into unrecognisable gargoyles in the lives of previously beloved parents.

Narcissistic people are chilling to work with.  Charming at first they can hide the lack of self in their first encounters with new people very well. They do this by being extremely kind, very focused and utterly delightful in their interactions. They exude warmth which strangely chills at times but when they notice that you feel cold, they will turn on the charm and turn up the heat so that you forget that cold spot and return to basking in the glory of their focused attention.  Eventually, as you spend time with this person you will notice that at times their mask slips. You will notice that their focused attention falters and when that happens you will observe and become aware of a chasm in your own felt sense of the relational depth you are experiencing. A sensation of sudden absence will begin to evolve in your relationship and gradually you will begin to realise that you are alone here, your value being something other than that which you were led to believe it was, at first, when the sun was shining. Narcissistic people are extremely common in the group of parents who alienate their children,alongside the unstable personality (borderlines) and the histrionics, the sociopaths and sometimes the psychopaths. And then we have people who experience the eruption of vengeful rage which captures the child in a tsunami of terror, those with factitious illness and those whose projective identity problem is out of control.  These issues are nothing to do with the child’s relationship with the parent they are rejecting and everything to do with the unwell parental behaviours that  the child is not capable of managing.

The transmogrification of trauma is nothing to do with parental rights, it is a mental health issue and placing it anywhere other than in the arena of mental health fogs the reality of just how serious an issue it is.  As legal commentators have recently shown, the location of the issue in the field of parental rights, has done it a great disservice, bringing it out of that place and into the field of mental health is a core focus for the Clinic in the coming months.

Fortunately the mental health field in the UK is alive to the reality of parental alienation and is listening and learning fast.  Countering the risks posed by the parental rights groups claiming the topic for their own, mental health practitioners are starting to recognise that this issue is one which affects children deeply, not just because of the lack of relationship with the rejected parent, but because of the harm being done by the parent with whom the child lives. This leads to the potential for opening up the issue within the field of children’s mental health and allows it to be considered and evaluated in terms of responses from children’s mental health services.  The Clinic is involved in developing conversations around parental alienation and children’s mental health and will be presenting case studies and discussion at  major conferences in this field this year.

As we continue our work with families, our research programme and our policy development, we are  shifting the issue of parental alienation out of the midst of the parental rights argument and  into the mental health arena where it belongs.

Because parental alienation, as Dr Childress so eloquently puts it, is not a parental rights issue it is a child protection issue.  And the sooner we update the UK understanding of that the better equipped we will be to offset the fogging and the dumbing down of this horrible problem affecting children, which is currently in fashion.

I will be presenting at the Centre for Child Mental Health Conference ‘Too Much Pain, Helping Children with Traumatic Life Transitions, Separations and Losses’ in London on July 8 2017

and with Nick Woodall at the Third International Conference on Missing Children and Adults in Scotland in June 2017 

 

Using the Separation from Source Protocol: Tracking Effectiveness in Transfer of Residence Cases in the UK

The Separation from Source Protocol is my preferred name for the gold standard treatment route of transfer of residence in parental alienation cases.  This protocol, which we are evaluating in our work now, is sometimes called the ‘nuclear option’ by unaware alienation practitioners.  The lack of alienation awareness which is denoted by the idea that separating a child from the source of the abuse they are suffering is somehow a radical or dramatic or too powerful an act, is typical of those working in family services in the UK. It is also typical of anyone who works with alienated children but who has not ever witnessed the remarkable transformation that comes when a child who is being abused by a parent via alienating strategies, is liberated from that parent’s coercive control.

Coercive control, as I have written about previously, is perfectly showcased by the alienating parent’s relationship with their child.

Evan Stark described coercive control as  ‘a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self’

Used largely by the political ideology of women’s rights campaign groups, the idea of coercive control being something which is enacted by a parent over a child has yet to dawn on the collective unconscious in the UK.  This is however, exactly what underpins an alienation reaction in a child. It is therefore exactly what needs to be addressed when intervening to create change in a severely resistant child.

At the Family Separation Clinic, we intervene in such cases and carry out transfer of residence to begin the treatment of alienated children. We also work therapeutically with children and their families post residence transfer which is, in my view, the only place where therapeutic work, systemic or otherwise, belongs in severe cases.  Whilst hybrid cases may well respond to therapeutic adjustment work, which is very different to therapy and combines psychological education with behaviourally contracted compulsion to change, pure and severe cases should, in my experience, only be treated by using the ‘separation from source’ protocol.

I like the term ‘separation from source’ because it describes perfectly the underlying pathology of the case, the source of the problem being the alienating and unhealthy parent and the separation being the placing of the child with the rejected parent.  In my work I have separated from source, children who have not seen a parent for one, two, three, four, five six and in one case, seven years. I have placed these children with the rejected parent in combinations of direct transfer, stepping stone transfer and kinship transfer. In every such case I have seen the remarkable transformation that all alienation aware practitioners know about. The child moves from the presentation of feral, ferocious and fearsome resistance, to warm and loving acceptance. The longest period of time I have seen a child take to make this transformation is just under 96 hours, the shortest time is minutes. In each and every transfer I have undertaken (and I do these more and more regularly now that the UK is finally accepting that transfer is the right way forward in such cases), the child emerges with the attachment bond with the rejected parent wholly and fully intact and their capacity for recovery undiminished. Supporting optimum recovery however, is about how the ongoing relationship with the source of the problem (alienating parent) is managed over time in combination with how the resilience of the child can be built and their  insight into what happened to them supported.

Separating a child from the source of the problem is however, in itself, THE problem for too many practitioners who profess to be alienation aware but in reality are either only at the start of their understanding or still in resistance to the reality that alienation of a child is true child abuse.  I have worked in pure and severe cases where practitioners have resisted a transfer of residence seeing it as being draconian or nuclear based on the assumption that if a child is transferred to the rejected parent they are somehow at a risk of harm. This is a fundamental lack in understanding and causes cases to drag on and the child to continue to struggle with the double bind they are placed in.  What such practitioners fail to understand is that the child’s presentation of fear and anxiety are the acting out of the alienating parent’s agenda. That is why a child’s proclamations about a rejected parent sound so brittle, they are not their own but a photocopy of their parent’s beliefs and feelings, that is why an alienated child appears to be, at times, to those who understand their presentation, slightly ridiculous. The drama of the alienated child is that they are acting out a scene which is not their own, it is a parental script which, if you look closely  at the alienating parent, is an attempt to tell a story of something that happened, not to the child but to them and not in the here and now but in the past, sometimes the long gone past.

The truth is that the real source of the problem of parental alienation may lie in the dead and distant past and the enactment of the family trauma in the here and now is simply a mimeograph, a haunting, a ghost in the nursery come to life in the child.  When we are dealing with trauma patterns from the long dead past, there is little hope of therapeutic treatment because none of the markers of this trauma are actual in the people enacting them in the here and now. This is why therapy with pure and severe or  in truth,  hybrid cases, has little hope of success and why therapeutic programmes without changing the underlying dynamic of power and control are so pointless. It is like delivering therapy to living descendents in the hope that long dead relatives might change. In alienation cases, children do not have time to wait for those historical trauma patterns to change, which is why separation from source is the way to go to give children their childhood’s back.  And giving children their childhood back is what transfer of residence actually does.

A long time ago when I first began this work I encountered my first transfer of residence of a child who had not lived with his father since being preverbal and who had been in proceedings for seven years, professing a deep hatred and fear of the father for most of that time. This story is told in the book Please Let me See my Son by Thomas Moore.  Before I worked with this family I had an awareness of the problem of parental alienation and I had heard from Psychiatrists that transferring the child to live with the hated parent was the way to go. All through my work with Thomas he told me, ‘just give me an hour with my son and I promise you all will be well‘ and I tried to believe him even though I wondered whether it could possibly be the case that all would indeed be well.  His case, which is so eloquently told in his book, was complex in so many ways and my work with his family showed me the first real outline of how difficult such cases can be.  It was my first foray into forensic psychotherapy and it opened my eyes to much of what I know to be true today.

When Thomas’s son was separated from the source of the problem (his mother) he went into foster care. Shortly afterwards he was reunited with his father and has lived with him ever since. The route to reunification was simple, Thomas went to play table tennis with him. That is all. Nothing fancy, nothing therapeutic, simple exposure and a warm and loving welcome. Though the road after reunification was long and tricky at times, the actual reunification utilised the loving bond between father and son and in moments the alienation was gone. That is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of parental alienation. It appears complex, it appears fearsome, it appears abusive to take a child and place him with the rejected parent but the truth of the matter is, it is not. It never was and never will be. Which is why the separation from source protocol, used in the right way, provides immediate relief for the child. And it is the child we are concerned about in alienation cases.

In so many ways as I track the outcomes of the transfer of residence cases we work on in our research programme, I am becoming more and more aware that the problem in parental alienation is not the family affected by it but the practitioners who work with it. The infection of the doubt and disbelief that such interventions work being the primary cause in so many cases of the lack of change for the child.  At the Clinic we are regularly instructed in cases which have been to a number of other practitioners before they reach us, all of whom have cautioned against transfer of residence for one reason or the other, the most common of which is that the child cannot be transferred because they have not seen a parent for xxx period of time. And in looking at this previous work with families, it seems to me that the barrier to the separation from source protocol is not actually the appetite for it for there is certainly growing appetite amongst the judiciary in my experience, but the risk averse timidity and the slavish dependence on the voice of the child agenda amongst practitioner groups.  It is within the mindset of these people that the fear begins and it is this fear which the alienating parent plays upon, sometimes for many years, in order to ensure that their coercive control is continued.  These cases are infectious, they cause whole groups of mental health and legal professionals to act out and they cause mayhem in emotional and psychological responses within adults. All because what is being presented to them is challenging their own personal beliefs and bias and all because they do not have the awareness that the attachment bond between a child and a loved parent can never be broken.

I am not advocating the use of the separation from source protocol in every case, there are some cases where I would not recommend it and I would not carry it out if I was asked to either.  Without clearly differentiated analysis which shows me that this is a case which will respond as I expect it to I would not be foolish enough to separate from source and undertake a transfer because in some cases that would mean transferring the problem with the child. These are the hybrid cases which are layered with complex dynamics and which require a robust framework of intervention and testing.  Where differentiation and analysis shows it is the right thing to do however, separation from source is something I would undertake without hesitation because it provides for the child the immediate relief from the horrible dilemma they find themselves in. Beyond that, the longer term programme of recovery and resilience building is the core focus for the Clinic and we are working on several such cases at one time with our growing team of alienation aware practitioners.

Separation from source provides immediate change for the child, the restoration of normal healthy loving relationships with all previously rejected members of the family and a return to the full range of emotional and psychological resources available to the child. A key learning point from our research being that there is an arrest in the child’s use of a full range of psychological skill sets during alienation which are released upon recovery.  Thus we see children move from mirroring the alienating parent’s fixed and fused fearful beliefs to the freedom to develop their own sense of self, hold their own views and independent opinions and explore the full spectrum of emotional and psychological responses in the relational world. Children move from being fixed and frozen even in their physical appearance, to being relaxed, flexible and communicative. In all the cases we work in there is a return of a joyful childhood innocence which allows the child to return to the unconscious world of the development of the self.  This is, for me, why the separation from source protocol is so powerful and so ethically correct for any alienation practitioner to use. Though it is radical it is far from being nuclear, it is kinder, fairer and healthier and it gives children back the childhood which has been stolen from them by a parent’s unhealthy mindset.

The Separation from Source Protocol is being studied now at the Clinic using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis and Discourse Analysis to understand the benefit to children of this gold standard intervention. The multiple layers of influence, starting with coercive control and including transgenerational transmission of trauma as enacted by the child are demonstrating that such a protocol provides children with the opportunity to recover immediately and build resilience to being further affected by the alienating strategies of an unwell parent. Travelling with children from the alienated state of mind to a year or more beyond separation from source, it is possible to describe the benefits and dispel the myths which cause fear in the minds of practitioners.

These journeys are a privilege to track and record and will, I hope, provide the next generation of children with  the protection provided by alienation aware family services so that no more children have to be put through programmes of forced contact with the child living in situ with the alienating parent (unethical in the extreme due to the harm being done to the child who is left to navigate the rage of the alienating parent alone) and no more rejected parents are exhorted to change just a little bit more so that practitioners can alleviate their own anxieties.

The Separation from Source Protocol, coming soon if we have our way, to family services near you.

The Family Separation Clinic is currently involved in several initiatives to drive policy and practice responses to parental alienation in the UK and in Europe.

  1. A UK working group to examine  protocols in working with parental alienation in the UK family courts.
  2. A funded Research Programme to establish the effectivness of protocols as described above.
  3. The convening of the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners, to examine best practice in legal and mental health responses to the problem across Europe.
  4. A series of clinical seminars to raise the awareness of effective treatment routes for parental alienation in the UK.
  5. Two policy seminars in London and Edinburgh for the Judiciary at which the outcomes of the research and working group initiative will be presented.

The purpose of these initiatives is to raise public awareness and provide evidence based outcomes to drive policy and practice in the UK and in Europe towards an effective response to the problem of parental alienation.