Shifting Blame and Disguising Shame: The Alienated Child’s Struggle

Working with children affected by parental alienation is a life changing experience. Life changing because in all encounters with alienated children, the change which is brought about occurs within the relational dynamic of the adults with whom the children are involved. This means that anyone who comes into contact with a child who has suffered from parental alienation, must understand the harm that has been done to the child and the way in which the child remains vulnerable to the splitting reaction which underpins alienation. Being sensitive to the way in which this splitting affects children, requires a counter intuitive way of working and a strong sense of what the child needs in order to recover a balance in perspective. Without experience of working with alienated children, their behaviour can seem confusing and somewhat contradictory.  Once encountered in practice and understood from a theoretical perspective however, the counter intuitive approach makes sense and it becomes easier to work with alienated children.

The alienated child in recovery, is in a struggle to understand what has happened and why and how it happened.  Children who are moved from life under the control of one parent to life with the other, are often shocked into reality as they leave the encapsulated delusional state of mind which is only present in relation to the parent who is influencing them.  Such reality shocks, which occur when the alienated child encounters the split off and rejected parent, often produce the bizarre reactions seen in children who move from an hysterical and almost phobic like reaction to calm acceptance of the rejected parent in seconds.  Whilst some practitioners in the UK use an approach of desensitisation, in which the child is very very slowly, over periods of weeks and months, introduced to the rejected parent, in my experience, the kindest, quickest and ethically most sound approach is to address the underlying power dynamic which holds the child enthralled and transfer the residence of the child to the rejected parent.

Whilst a direct transfer of residence in alienation cases is a brutal sounding approach and whilst many aligned parents and their legal teams portray this approach as being terrifying and harming to the child, when the differentiation work is done and the treatment route is right, the change in the child is remarkable.  Far from being harmful, it immediately liberates the child from the dynamic which is causing the rejection of the parent, it then offers a platform for the healthy care of the child whilst the work of reorganising perspective and understanding is done.  Anyone who has seen a child change in a transfer of residence situation will not forget it.  Anyone who thinks that densensitisation is a kinder way, is forgetting that the child is being coercivelly controlled by the psychology of the influencing parent.  When it comes to helping children, do we drag it out or do we fix it fast? I know which one I would want for my children.

The alienated child’s struggle is that they are caught fast in the net of the alienating parent’s control behaviours which are often coupled with a problematic psychological profile. In such circumstances, where children are utterly dependent upon adults, it is essential that children who are being influenced by psychologically unwell parents are helped quickly.  This is not a matter of whether a child has a relationship with both parents, it is not a’contact’ problem.  It is a child protection issue in which a child is being used to further an agenda and/or defend an unwell parent against decompensation.  Anyone treating it any differently is somewhat deluded themselves, or not alienation aware.

Children in recovery after residence transfer tell us much about what a child experiences when they are captured in the mind of a parent. This is the focus of my research and I continue to gather rich seams of empirical evidence from the children I am interviewing as part of this work. When this work is complete, I will be able to make a contribution to the field of parental alienation research on the impact on children of residence transfer.  This will help parents, practitioners and policy makers as well as those working in family services, to understand how and why residence transfer works and what the impact on children over the longer term is.  I will, as part of this work with our research team, be producing papers along the way on the learning we are achieving from mining this data. There is very little known about children in longer term recovery from parental alienation, this work will bring to light much more knowledge to help change the way we work in this field.

What is noticeable in children in the early part of their recovery is the way in which the alienated self runs in parallel to the recovering self.  Children show remarkable similarities in what they say and do in this phase and as in all other phases of alienation, when it is understood and experienced it is easy to work with.  Working with a child who on the one hand delivers a litany of rehearsed sounding narratives and on the other shows a growing awareness that those narratives are not sound is about being able to be with the child and listen with alienation awareness for the narrative to begin to run itself down.  Drawing out the healthier perspectives is a matter of validating the child’s real time experience and offering reality checking when they become confused.  And children who have been alienated do become confused. They become very much confused about who is right and who is wrong.  This is a problem for them in the early days of recovery because having been pushed back into the infantile state of splitting, the world is divided into goodies and baddies. And if the parent they have been moved to live with is not the baddie they thought they were, then the parent they were previously living with must be the baddie.  Many children risk flipping from rejecting one parent to rejecting the other when they are in recovery and helping them to avoid this is an essential part of post transfer support.  Helping a child to arrive at a place where the world is not firmly divided into two distinct parts, is about working alongside them, being able to cope with hearing the alienation narrative running alongside the emerging perspective and providing a solid framework of security and safety from encountering others who could re-trigger the alienation reaction.

The way that we work at the Clinic is distinct, boundaried and very very closed in terms of the engagement with the child. What this means is that whilst the child is in recovery, we seek to ensure that the child is not seen by any other professional who is not alienation aware.  This is because a child in recovery from alienation is vulnerable to having the reaction re-triggered if they encounter anyone who has an opposite view to that which is now prevailing in the family system.  This view which prevails, is set by the court judgement and in our work it is maintained completely and firmly until the child is fully recovered. What this means is that when a child is moved to live with the parent they are rejecting, a new narrative is written in which the reason for the move is explained, the harm that the child has suffered is clearly set out (in child appropriate terms) and the plans for the future relationship with the alienating parent are made and the child is helped to understand these in stages.  The most healing aspect of this work with children is that which names for the child the reality of what they have experienced, it is a relief for children to have someone say it and to know that others understand it. Being the person who holds that framework in place is a big responsibility and this relationship is, for me, of the most primary importance. Because it is this ability, to hold a steady framework in which the truth is gently told and the child is gently helped to understand that what they were taught to believe and feel was wrong, which triggers the trust in the child that moves them towards recovery.  In these circumstances children will often find great comfort in telling the story of how they came to have to reject a parent and why what they said about that parent was untrue and how they knew at the time it was untrue.  They will then go on to express the guilt and the shame that lies buried beneath the alienated narratives of blame. After which the work is about holding the child steady and protecting them from having that new experience of their world challenged by any further efforts to distort their reality.

This work is incredibly delicate and is often done against the backdrop of hugely problematic dynamics in terms of the alienating parent’s ongoing inability to accept that their view of matters is a distorted one.  Being able to hold that at bay whilst engaging the formerly rejected parent in the work being done with the child is a core skill of any practitioner working in this field.

Fortunately at the Clinic we are now training therapists and social workers to work in our model, which means that our ability to meet what is an increasing demand for our transfer and post transfer support programmes is expanding.  As I work with our new members of staff I find myself admiring their courage, tenacity and calm under fire approaches.  Knowing that they face the negative transference from parents as well as other practitioners but that they are not being put off by that, means that I know I can trust these people.  And trust in a team delivering this work is the core ingredient which leads to successful outcomes for children. Because it is trust in the research, trust in the experience and trust in the work of those who have gone before us which means that we know what to do and how and when for children.

On the  shifting sands of a relational world an alienated child requires adults to be able to understand their experience, whilst not being led down the rabbit hole by the rehearsed narratives which play themselves out until the grooves in the recording are worn down.  An alienated child requires adults to resist shifting blame from one side to the other but to lead them to an understanding that adults do good and bad things. And a child desperately needs someone to hear the guilt and the shame that has lain buried for too long because of the need to survive what was being done to them.

When a child encounters those adults, they heal.

Providing the conditions in which they can encounter those adults quickly, is the responsibility of the court and then the mental health professionals who implement the decisions of the court. The legal and mental health interlock being essential in such cases. As a mental health practitioner, taking this responsibility for the child means that shifting blame and disguising shame is no longer a necessary coping mechanism for the child. Which opens the road to the perspective which underpins healthy relationships now and in the future, bringing with it  health, wellbeing, security and trust.

And when we do that, children can go back to the unconscious world of childhood, in which adult concerns are left behind and the emotional and psychological tasks of growing up can be completed in peace.

And who, in all the world,  would not want that, above all else,  for every child, everywhere.

Why Parental Alienation is Child Abuse and Why Punishing Such Abuse Can Never Rebound on a Child.

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

The Gendered Reality of Parental Alienation and Coercive Control

Coercive control is a hot topic in the UK at present. Dominated and manipulated by the women’s rights lobby groups as being solely about masculine power in a patriarchal society, we are asked to believe that only men coercively control women.  In a recent paper proposing to amend Practice Direction 12,  statistical evidence from Women’s Aid and other political ideological women’s groups appear to be relied upon and balancing evidence from other groups concerned with childrens needs and the experience of men who suffer violence in the home, appears to have been overlooked. Thus the reality that coercive control is a behaviour which is perpetrated by men AND women, often, in the case of family separation, involving the use of children to further that control, is overlooked.

In cases of parental alienation, where coercive control is the behavioural dynamic underpinning a child’s absolute refusal to countenance a relationship with a parent, this omission of reality in such an important part of the legislative procedure is concerning.  Therefore, lest we believe that parental alienation, like coercive control, like violence in the home, is only perpetrated by one gender against the other, let’s take a closer look at how this dynamic is gendered and why it is important to know that.

I read many papers and many articles which proclaim that parental alienation is not gendered.  This is untrue.  Parental alienation IS gendered and it is important to understand what that means if one works in this field.  Having arrived at this work through many years of working on gender equality policy and practice, I understand that for many lay people, saying that something is not gendered, to them means that it affects men and women.  Let me tell you this.  Saying something is not gendered is a bit like saying that something is not real.  Everything in the world is gendered.  Not because it is inherently gendered (before anyone gets on my case about trans issues) but because we project gendered ideas and assumptions onto the world.  Sex is fixed, it is what we are born with (and again, forget the trans arguments because sex IS fixed, it is why trans people have to go through transition) but gender is not fixed, it is changeable, mutable and how we present our gendered selves depends upon how we are taught to believe about the world, how we believe that sex and gender are interrelated and how we feel comfortable in our subjective experience of the world.  Sex is fixed it is in your genitals and endocrine system. Gender is not fixed it is how you experience and perceive the world as a result of that.  Got that?  Right onto parental alienation as a gendered issue.

Parental alienation IS gendered. That means that how it is enacted by mothers and father is different depending on the gender roles those mothers and fathers play in their children’s lives.  Thus mothers who alienate do so most often in the subjective world and fathers who alienate do so most often in the objective world. This means that children who become alienated by a mother against a father will often have become that way because the mother has manipulated the child in the subjective relationship through enmeshment (mother’s inability to tell the difference between her own and her child’s experience) and through the playing out of the mother’s unfulfilled needs using the child as an extension of her own psychological self.  Children who are alienated by fathers against their mothers are most often those who turn their objective controlling behaviours towards their children when the mother leaves the relationship.  Analysis thus allows us to see that the  alienating strategies of mothers have become hidden in the external narrative of the women’s political lobby groups (all women who prevent contact are only doing so because of a coercive controlling father) whilst the alienating strategies of fathers, whilst more easily recognisable because they match the political ideological narrative of coercive control, often become silently accepted by practitioners because of their own gendered narrative which is – if a child rejects a mother that must be because the mother is a really really bad mother.

In this way, the gendered narrative of parental alienation becomes submerged beneath the women’s rights narrative which is fully present in family law through the ideological training and beliefs of practitioners in this field.  A field which is also increasingly reliant upon the voice of the child.  Ask an alienated child what they wish for and you can be sure that the reply you get will not be their own but that of the coercive controlling parent. That’s because they are being controlled coercively, the very definition of which is – a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self. (Evan Stark).

I have not yet met an alienated child who has not had their liberty curtailed and their sense of self stripped away.  Nor have I met an alienated child who has not submitted to the emotional terrorism that is parental alienation, not because of anything other than they are a child, they are utterly dependent upon their parents and if one of their parents is psychologically unwell and driven to control the child, the only thing the child can do is submit to that.  I don’t think there is a clearer example of coercive controlling behaviour than parental alienation in its pure form and whether it is being caused by mother or father, the impact upon the child is just as bad if not worse than the experience of an adult suffering the same. At least an adult can escape. What chance has a child to do that, especially in this era of listening to the voices of children and elevating them to the top of the decision making hierarchy.

Imagine a woman, who will try to leave many times before they actually do, being believed by the political ideological groups, when she parrots her abuser.  Imagine a woman, who tries to convince others that she is safe and well in the hands of her abuser, being told that her voice matters and will be listened to.  The political ideologues have done a great job in convincing the outside world that abused women’s voices should be analysed in the shadow of patriarchal control, how about we start to analyse abused and alienated children’s voices in the shadow of the coercive control that it really is?

To do that we need deeper understanding of what the world of alienated children looks and feels like. To do that we need to educate professionals to look beyond their stereotyped ideas of what good mothering and good fathering is and we need to impress upon those who safeguard our children through family law, that coercive control looks and feels to a child like the loving (but suffocating and damaging) arms of their mother or the deepest held fear that their father will, if they do not conform and support his beliefs, do to them what he did to their mother.

It starts with gender. It starts with the self. It starts with what goes on in the mind of practitioners and it starts with developing a wider, broader, much much more sophisticated understanding of what the family does as it goes through separation. It requires focus, knowledge, experience and an understanding that children’s voices are not more highly evolved than those of their parents and that children have needs and rights to a healthy childhood which are not indivisible from those of their mother or father.

We need a movement for children, to protect them from the way in which their needs are seen as part of a movement for women’s rights and we need a new way of ensuring that their wellbeing is protected through and beyond family separation so that they are not caused by a lack of gendered knowledge, to remain captured as prisoners of an unwell parent’s mind.

And in the light of the proposed amendments to Practice Direction 12, we don’t need it soon.  We need it now.



The Peculiar Task of Learning to Live with Two Parents in One Body

This week I continue my focus on children in recovery from alienation. This is a different aspect of the work that I do and one which I have recently been immersed in having helped a number of children to move from living with one parent to living with the other.  This means that I have been able to focus upon the ways in which children recover from alienation as well as actively help to bring about the emergence from the alienated state of mind.

Children who are alienated live with only one parent inside of themselves. This is an odd statement so let me explain what I mean.  As a psychotherapist I am focused always upon understanding the felt sense of the lives that  that children live. The felt sense being that intrapsychic and internalised world of feelings which children are submerged within.  Children are not adults.  Therefore there is a vast difference between the felt sense of children and the felt sense of adults.  (When I talk about adults here, I am talking about adults who have achieved a sense of independence and a sense of individuated self which they can experience as being their own personality.  There are some adults who cannot experience themselves as separate individuals, these people experience their internalised world as being submerged with or indistinct from the world of their children or other people or somethings things or places or feelings which they cannot understand. These people are those we would say have a psychological issue or a personality disorder).

Generally speaking then, children experience world in a vast and unboundaried way when they are young and as they grow older they learn to differentiate between ‘me and you’, ‘here and there’,  ‘before and after’ and so on. Gradually, the edges of their felt sense begin to sharpen and children begin to be able to define and experience inside of themselves, the difference between what I feel and what you feel.  Gradually children learn that the world of feelings can be managed and shaped and differentiated. As they grow, children no longer become overwhelmed by their feelings and no longer spend their time using their feelings to manage the world around them. They become used to translating their feelings into words instead and communicating with other, separate individuals, who may have feelings similar to or different to their own.

All of this however, occurs in the relationship with people around them and if the child is in good healthy relationships, with adults who are differentiated and aware of their own sense of self, they will begin the process of shaping their own sense of self within their own personal boundaries. If they are not in relationship with healthy adults however, or, if one emotionally unhealthy adult gains power and influence over them, their capacity for differentiation of their own sovereign sense of self is lost. These are the children who float in a soundless, boundless sea of emotional reaction. These are the children who become easily alienated. These are the children who do not ever gain the capacity to define and shape the internalised world which brings the developing self to the fore.

When we work with alienated children we experience the internal splitting off and externalisation of negativity onto the rejected parent. At once the child shuts the image of the parent they are splitting off into a box in the mind whilst simultaneously projecting hatred onto the thought of that person in the external world. And I say thought of that person for a purpose, because severely alienated children will project so much hatred onto their thoughts of the rejected parent that they will seek to silence anyone who even brings the thought into their conscious mind.  When the alienation is complete, the child has therefore accomplished two extremely difficult psychological tasks, they have split off an internalised object (the relationship they once had with a loved parent) and denied it to the degree where it is repressed into the unconscious and they have projected so much hatred and negativity onto it that they can no longer bear it being brought out of the box in their minds to be examined.  Using objects relations theory we would say that they have created a defence mechanism against the impossible position they are in when they are being pressured by a parent’s negativity about the other parent (both internalised objects in the child’s felt sense of the world).  By splitting off one object and putting it into a box in the mind, piling on a whole lot more negativity and hatred and then shutting the box tight for good, the child hopes to resolve the dilemma of not being able to love two parents in one body.  When this psychological work is complete, the child then experiences only the one parent in the one body in the form of that parent as an internalised object in their felt sense of the world.  Think of the child as one of those dolls which have smaller and smaller dolls inside them. In a healthy child the two dolls inside will be representative of the two parents, they will each bear the felt sense or feelings the child has about the parent or the feelings which the parent evokes in the child. In alienation, the child puts one of these dolls into a black box and shuts the lid. If they are left without help, the black box with the shut tight lid, lives in the unconscious world of the child until the psychological development of the child disturbs the box and it opens. When it does, out come the butterflies and moths, the feelings both good and bad that the child has shut away.  The child who has grown older without help to open the box, can become overwhelmed by the guilt and the shame of the knowledge that they took part in the wilful attempt at murder and repression of one of the two parents which lived in their psyche.

Children who have one parent introjected (experienced inside) which they are conscious of and which they project all good things upon and the other which is denied, split off and repressed,  do not know that they have two parents inside one body and do not know as a result that they have two sides to their selves. This is a difficult scenario for a child who then encounters the reality that there are two parents in the one body, two objects they must relate to in the internalised (felt sense) world.  This is why resolving the split off state of mind, the body in the box dilemma as I think of it, is so important.  Confronting the body in the box (who is thankfully still alive) is an enormous task if it is found spontaneously (which happens when young people’s brains grow to be able to hold perspective). Suddenly the splitting off of a parent seems faintly ridiculous or surprising or just plain weird. Conversely it feels overwhelmingly shameful and impossible to ever put right.  When the mind swings into trying to find perspective, living with two parents internalised in one body becomes an incredible struggle as children try to find out which one was right all along and which one was wrong.

And therein lies the absolute nub of the problem that faces children who have been alienated, they have not learned that both parents can be people who do good things sometimes and bad things sometimes.  Arrested in their development (or more realistically speaking regressed in their development), these children live in  good/ bad worlds. Finding out that they have two internalised objects internalised not one, can be a terrifying thing for these children who often spend a lot of time trying to externalise one of the objects in order to put it into a box again.  This is the scenario of children counter rejecting, if one parent caused them to hate the parent who has just reappeared then that parent, not the previously repressed and split off parent must be bad.  The peculiar task for alienated children is that of learning to relate to two people outside of themselves when they have only been used relating to one inside.  Finding the second parent is still intact when they spring out of the box is a relief to a child but preventing them from putting the other into the same box is a delicate task which requires focused attention and time.

Which is why alienating a child is abusive. Not because this is a contact problem in which the child is not seeing a parent but because it is a mental health problem which can take some time to rectify.  Whilst it is relatively easy to spring open the box for the child either by confrontation with the split off object (rejected parent) by force or by stealth, stopping the child from shovelling the other parent into the box instead is a real therapeutic task which requires patience and skill.  Helping the child with the peculiar task of relating to two parents inside the one body is about knowing about how a child’s mind works, how it recovers and what it needs in order to find and maintain balance over time.

The more I know about what it takes for children to recover from what has been done to them the more I know that alienation cannot continue to be ignored.

One day children will not be asked to murder one parent and put them in a box and hide them away in their minds in order to survive. One day, more of us will know how damaging that is and prevention rather than cure will be what we are really interested in.

Until then,  we press on.

The Ambivalence Problem in Alienation

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.


Homecoming – Helping the Reunited Child

This weekend I begin a new project called Homecoming.  This is an exciting piece of work for me because it is based upon my practice with alienated children who are reunited with a once rejected parent. As such it is a close look at the needs of children who move from the psychologically split state of mind through to full recovery. It is a journey which I share with the children that I work with and this project, brings to the surface those hidden challenges that children face as they move towards restoration of health.  My intention in developing this project, is to provide for practitioners and for parents, those insights, tools and skills which help children in these circumstances.  For children, I hope to give voice to the harm that they suffer and their struggle to find balance and peace in their world. For the wider world I hope to illuminate the reasons why parental alienation is child abuse. I will update as I go along but today, to help me to focus and concentrate on bringing this project to life, I thought I would tell you two children’s stories, both of whom were severely alienated, both of whom are are now in recovery.

Shulamith is a ten year old girl whose parents separated when she was six.  She is now reunited with her mother but for the past three years she was fiercely rejecting of her. Shulamith was moved to live with her mother six months ago and her journey of recovery, from fierce rejection, hatred and furious resistance to all attempts to intervene, has followed the route that many alienated children travel when the protective intervention is made that prevents ongoing harm being done.

When we undertook the intervention,  Shulamith showed an almost instantaneous response when she was told that she was going to live with her mother, acting out resistance for a period of less than an hour and then showing anxious anticipation ahead of seeing her mother for the first time in almost a year. When Shulamith realised that her mother was simply happy to see her she dropped the resistance immediately and reunification was spontaneous, warm and exactly as is seen when children whose rejection is influenced by the coercive control of an alienating parent, are removed.

Daniel is a fifteen year old boy who is now reunited with his father after seven years of hatred, rejection and latterly, a campaign of false allegations in which Daniel alleged that his father had sexually abused him.  All allegations were found to be false, in fact they were found to have been implanted memories in which Daniel was repeating stories he had been told about his father’s behaviours when he was too young to be able to remember them. Daniel was moved to live with his father as an intervention to protect him from his mother’s mental health problems, it took four days for the alienation reaction to drop and for him to accept his father again. Within a week he had recanted on all of the allegations that he had made and within two weeks was showing normal range responses to his father and his paternal family.

I worked with both Shulamith and Daniel in removal from the alienating parent and reunification, I continued to work with each child for a period of 24 months post reunification.

Both of the children so described are composites of real cases, I have disguised their ages, gender and relationship to their parents in order that they cannot be recognised.  Shulamith and Daniel however, follow a journey which is similar in all cases of parental alienation. Their responses to intervention show the remarkable path which can be predicted when the family dynamic is properly and fully understood.  What is less understood however, is the onward journey after reunification has taken place and the tasks for the child in dealing with the harm that has been done to their psychological self and their ability to hold and maintain recovered health. This, for me, is where the reality of parental alienation as child abuse is not properly understood, for Shulamith and Daniel and for all of the other children who have been alienated and who strive for recovery, this project is necessary so that the reality of the harm done can be illuminated. I firmly believe that only when the reality of parental alienation as an insidious and pervasive form of child abuse is understood and accepted, will children of divorce and separation be safe. This is my all encompassing driver, this is why I do this work amidst what often feels like a war zone. This is why I will keep doing it, because I know what these children suffer and what they have to live with and cope with in order to survive.

Around six months after reunification both Shulamith and Daniel are showing normal range responses to their once rejected parent and are showing capacity for understanding what they have gone through. They are also, both showing, the emergence of repressed guilt and shame and are struggling with this in terms of their ability to properly and fully settle into home life.  Guilt and shame are two normal and healthy emotional responses and in ordinary circumstances, one would welcome the expression of both as a regulatory force which socialises a child.  In formerly alienated children however, guilt and shame are two expressions of feeling which have long been repressed as part of the alienation process, because in order to reject a parent who is loved, a child must first adopt the psychological defence of burying all good feelings for that parent and projecting only negative beliefs and feelings upon them. This action, which is a defence and a coping mechanism which allows the child to safely survive in the world of the alienating parent, causes shame and guilt but instead of these being a regulatory force, preventing the child from complete rejection, they become unwanted feelings which must be denied, split off and repressed along with all good feelings for the now hated parent.  The child enters a psychological space at this juncture, in which he is unable to locate any of those feelings, allowing him to fully and completely, join the delusional belief of the alienating parent that his rejection is justified. When the child has entered this place, anything goes in terms of allegations, projections, delusional beliefs and more, because the normal regulatory feelings are completely removed from consciousness. Instead of these healthy responses, a self righteous anger appears which can make a child appear to be completely without guilt. Sadly, though the outward appearance is such, the repression of those normal feelings does not actually wash them away but instead swallows up a whole lot of emotional and psychological energy in keeping them out of the conscious mind.  Children in this condition actually look frozen in their faces and unable to do anything other than react in an almost feral knee jerk response to intervention. The effort of keeping those regulatory feelings repressed is one which takes immense amounts of energy, leaving some children lethargic, exhausted and disinterested in the world around them.  This is the presentation of buried grief which accompanies many alienated children.

This action, in causing a child to behave this way is  child abuse because it is inculcated by the alienating parent, it is completely tied into the alienator’s psychological self and it is the theft of the child’s right to have their psychological self protected.  Parental alienation is akin to sexual abuse of a child in that in sexual abuse the child’s physical as well as mental, emotional and psychological self is violated, whereas in parental alienation, the child’s emotional, mental and  psychological self is violated leaving only the physical self untouched. It is a theft of innocence which is not well known about, just as sexual abuse was once not well understood, accepted or known about. One day, if the growing movement to raise awareness of parental alienation has its way, Shulamith and Daniel and all of the children who have lost their right to an innocent childhood because of the ignorance in our world of the harm that is being done, will have their voices heard.

One year after reunification, Shulamith and Daniel are both, separately, attempting to relate to the previously alienating parent, both are showing symptoms which are related to the emergence of repression of guilt and shame.  Outbursts of anger, distress and anxiety disguise the reality that guilt and shame are now emerging in response to the requirement for the children to see the once alienating parent.  Sadly for the children, because of the lack of understanding about how alienating behaviours arise in parents, neither Shulamith or Daniel’s parent have accepted the need for therapy and both are continuing in their belief that the rejecting behaviour was a justified response to something that the other parent had done. Daniel’s mother believes that she is still the better parent and is now accusing Daniel’s father and us of alienating Daniel against her.  There is nothing in the court toolbox which can assist with this other than a restriction on the contact these parents can have with their children and it is down to us as mental health professionals to create the support that the children need to help them survive and rebalance their emotional and psychological selves. Educating the parent they now live with and supporting that parent throughout the rebalancing phase (which can last for many years if the once alienating parent does not change their behaviours), is an important part of what we do.  The child will remain vulnerable to the influence of the alienating parent without close supervision, because the theft of the unconscious emotional and psychological responses to the world around them, leaves them vulnerable to influence.

In recent decades, those who have studied the impact of sexual abuse on children, have identified that the intrusion across the physical and psychological boundary of the self and soul, steals from the child the innocence which underpins the unconscious enjoyment of the world which is called childhood. This work, which I begin this weekend, will, I anticipate, illuminate the way in which alienation of a child does the same, by intruding upon a child’s psychological and emotional self, stealing the innocence of unconscious trust and belief in parents.  The journey I made with Shulamith and Daniel is every alienated child’s journey to coming home to the parent they were forced to reject and ultimately to their own right to sovereign control over their self and soul.

Helping the reunited child come home and helping the world at large to understand that journey is my next task. As I begin it, every child who has made this crossing, facing the challenges of unresolved parental issues which underpin this unwanted, unnecessary and forced upon them experience, sits with me.

One day this will be known as the child abuse scandal that was hidden from view. A scandal which was legitimised and perpetrated by a world which looked the other way, whilst abused children were given the keys to their own particular hell on earth. I hope this project, which begins today, is part of that which brings this horror to light and not only brings children home but stops them losing their right to childhood in the first place.