April 25th is international awareness day for the problem called Parental Alienation, a growing issue for separating parents and the people who work in the family separation arena. The issue however is not a new one, it has, I would argue, existed as long as children have been experiencing family separation. It even exists in our fairy tales, Cinderella and the ruination of her relationship with her father by her step mother and step sisters, tells us how, when children are in separated family situations, they are vulnerable to loss of relationships with their natural parents.
In Cinderella however, there is a happy ending as she is liberated from the oppression of her step family through the transformative power of loving and being loved by the prince. For too many of our alienated children however, as they reach adulthood, the slipper will not fit, and when the prince does arrive, he will be split and fixed in his thinking. Alienation is a cruel affliction, often not showing the full scale of the damage done until children are old enough to enter into their own adult relationships. It is here that the evidence, of guilt and shame and distortion of perspective finally shows itself.
In other countries, notably the US, there are a number of people who are leading the way in enabling an understanding of Parental Alienation and how to treat it. In the UK, where there is less enthusiasm for the concept, we struggle to offer even the most basic help to parents, who cannot understand what is happening to their children, whilst treatments seem like an impossible dream for too many families.
Alienation strikes families right across the socio economic spectrum and children at all different ages. Common factors that give rise to children becoming alienated are high conflict separations where unresolved anger on the part of one or both parents, leads to ongoing tensions around handover times.
But the system in which families are trying to cope with the devastating impact of family separation contributes to an increasing problem of parents engaging in long and drawn out court battles over parenting time. When it can take around three months to even get a court hearing date and during that time anxiety and interference is increasing, alienation becomes an even greater risk for children who are left coping in the midst of the parental war raging over their heads.
Even when one parent does not engage in parental warfare and remains more measured and more direct, the insidious and often deliberate actions of a hostile other parent is enough to ensure that children struggle to maintain relationships with both of their parents. By the time that CAFCASS arrive, ill equipped as they often are to write a basic report, never mind analyse the complexities of children’s transition difficulties, the damage is often done. It only takes the application of a Wishes and Feelings Report at this stage to confirm that the work of the aligned parent is complete and the court hears that the children no longer wish to see their once much loved parent.
Alienation however is a spectrum disorder and as such it ranges from the mild transition difficulties that children experience as they move from one home to the other to the severe alienation that is seen in a child’s complete rejection of a parent. When the alienation is mild, there is still much that can be done and any parent who is experiencing these signals from a child should act at once and with conviction. Mild alienation is signalled when a child begins to make a fuss during handover time and doesn’t want to leave a parent. Similarly, when it is time to return to the other parent, the child will again make a fuss and become upset at having to go back. Children who are mildly aggressive with the parent that they do not live with the most can be displaying symptoms of mild alienation and any child who begins to call a parent by their given name instead of mum and dad is moving from mild to moderate alienation.
When alienation is mild to moderate it is possible to reverse it if the root of the problem is that two parents are in conflict during handover or if one parent is too anxious, resulting in the transmission of this to the child. Handing over away from each other is a good way to stop the alienation, collection and drop off at school, nursery or other neutral place will often stop the behaviour in its tracks.
Mild to moderate alienation can also be reversed by ensuring that the child spends more time, not less, with the parent that they are resisting. The issue is not that the child does not want to spend time with that parent, it is that the child does not have long enough to recover from the transition from one to the other. For a child to get the most out of time with a parent they need to have down time as well as doing time. A child should have ordinary time with the parent that they do not live with the most and enough of it to enable them to relax, wind down and feel comfortable and ‘at home’ when with that parent. Short visits, such as two hours after school, are not long enough to allow a child this kind of down time, whilst every other weekend can feel like every other year, particularly to younger children who do not have the same concept of time.
Mild to moderate alienation is the most common form of problem that propels parents into the court process but instead of being given the kind of advice that could reverse the problem, parents are often encouraged in their belief that there must be something terribly wrong. CAFCASS can one of the worst culprits for causing this, by recommending that time with a parent is restricted or curtailed. I have lost count of the number of times that I have worked on cases where mild alienation escalates very quickly into severe rejection, simply because CAFCASS have recommended that time with a parent be cut in half rather than increased. The way in which this happens is, in my view, a scandal, when it could be so easily prevented by ensuring that CAFCASS have a basic training in the psychology of alienation.
Severe alienation then is the outcome on the outer edge of the spectrum with children in this category exhibiting most of the eight signs that determine that alienation is present. When severe alienation is free and active in a child it is impossible not to know it. Being in a room with child in this state is like being in a psychological prison with them. Children in a severely alienated condition have told me fantastical stories about the parent they have rejected, regaling me with tales of how they were almost murdered by this parent when they were a baby or telling me that they will almost certainly die if they have to have anything to do with him again. It doesn’t matter how incredulous I become whilst listening to these tales, children will repeat them to me almost mantra like in the belief that they are explaining why they cannot, must not and will not see their parent.
Treating a child in this condition is very difficult. It takes time and patience and, where the child is still living with the aligned parent, it can take a lot of careful building up of trust to ensure the therapeutic alliance with that parent is in place. In most, if not all, of these very severe cases, the aligned parent will have a psychological issue that has caused the intensity of their influence upon the child. Most parents in this condition, are either unaware that they are doing anything wrong, or, if they are aware, do not know how to stop it. In the most serious cases, parents have to be curtailed in their behaviour by the court process, some are curtailed by a social work intervention, most need intensive therapeutic co-ordination to treat the problem in situ.
In very severe cases a change of residence may be necessary to free the child from the psychology of an aligned parent. In my experience, these are the easier cases to treat because once removed from the aligned or alienating parent, the grasp on the child of the alienation, is removed. These children, when reunited with their rejected parent, are those for whom, alienation disappears like magic. In my work with these kinds of cases, I have never failed to be amazed at how a child can change from being anxiously held in the terror of one parent, only to immediately change when released, into the loving, normal child that they used to be.
When alienation strikes, it can rapidly spread. I often think of it as an infection of the child’s ability to hold perspective, in fact it becomes, quite quickly, an infection of the whole family system’s ability to hold perspective. Add CAFCASS into the mix and you have an infection which is not only left untreated, it is often actively spread. By the time I get to most of the cases that I work on, the infection has seriously wounded the child and the family and it can take several months of strong intervention to bring about any kind of change. Sometimes the wounds are too deep and the children too distanced and I have to recommend a strategic retreat to enable the targeted parent to recover and the child to grow up a little. Fighting alienation is a draining, exhausting and miserable experience and my advice to some parents is to stand back and recover the purpose of living for one’s own self. For all of those parents whose children have rejected them, I say this. Live and live well, take care of your body, your heart and your soul. One day, when your child comes to find you, they will be looking for the person they remember. If you are exhausted, bitter and broken when they do, their recovery process will take longer and their guilt and shame more pervasive than before. Your child, underneath all of this, loves you and needs you to survive.
Aisha (not her real name) was one of the first alienated children that I worked with. Born to parents who separated when she was three years old, Aisha told me, when I first met her that her father had tried to kill her when she was ‘inside mummy’s tummy’. Her father told me that there had been a discussion about termination, when Aisha’s mother was first pregnant but that both he and Aisha’s mother had not wanted to go down that route. Aisha however, was convinced that her father wanted to kill her then and wanted to kidnap and kill her now.
Aisha was an incredibly difficult child to work with and her mother even more so. FIVE years of consistent work with Aisha’s father went by, five years of court hearings, CAFCASS reports and my regular, drip, drip, drip of visits to Aisha and her mother at home. During that time I never even got to see Aisha with her father, she wouldn’t be persuaded and the Judge wouldn’t use enforcement measures. Eventually, Aisa’s father decided to make a strategic retreat, Aisha was reaching eight years old, an age when alienation reactions can deepen.
A year later, Aisha’s father was asked to go into her school. The head teacher explained that he was worried about Aisha. There had been a number of unexplained absences over the year and Aisha appeared listless and withdrawn. Previous issues like this had been explained away by Aisha’s mother as being the impact of court hearings, the head teacher knew that these had ended a year ago.
Aisha’s father restarted the court process and asked the court to investigate why his daughter, in the absence of court hearings, was causing such concern at school. Once again the rounds of reports commenced and attempts were made to assess the situation by CAFCASS, by the School and eventually, by me.
Aisha was eleven years old when she was taken into foster care after a section 37 report uncovered the fact that her mother was suffering from Munchausen’s by Proxy Syndrome and her maternal grandparents were aware of it and had hidden it from view. Aisha’s absences, throughout all of the years that her parents had been separated, had not been caused by the court process, or anxiety about her father, they had been caused by her mother, deliberately making her ill to gain the attention of the medical profession.
Twelve CAFCASS assessments had failed to discover this, focusing instead upon Aisha’s father and his fitness to have contact with his daughter. The court process had gone on throughout seven years of Aisha’s life without ever stopping to consider why her mother was so implacably hostile and why a child of three would be able to ‘remember’ that her daddy had wanted to kill her before she was born.
No-one, from the Judge to the School Nurse had ever really wondered what was really going on, only her father knew that something was wrong.
Aisha is now a fit and healthy twenty three year old. Since the age of eleven she has lived with her father and her step mother and has had limited contact with her mother who continues, to this day, to argue that she has done nothing wrong. When I last saw Aisha, she was getting ready to go sailing with her dad, something they have done together regularly since she reunited with him shortly after going into foster care.
I asked her if she could remember the times when I used to go and see her at home with her mum. She said she could and that she used to think I was like Mary Poppins, only I couldn’t make it better because her mum wouldn’t let me.
I asked what her relationship is like now with her mum, she told me that it is still difficult, her mother still tries to persuade her that her father is evil and so she no longer spends very much time with her.
Finally, I asked her about her dad and what was it that made it possible for her to reunite with him after all of those years of rejecting him. She smiled at me.
‘That’s easy’ she said, ‘he was there. When I finally came out of it and went into foster care, he was there, just like I remembered him. But most of all,’ she went on, ‘most of all, despite everything he went through and all of the time it took, he never ever gave up on me.’
On Parental Alienation Awareness Day 2012, for all targeted and rejected parents and all of their children, no matter how long or whatever it takes. Whether you are actively fighting alienation or making a strategic retreat, keep hope alive always, keep well and keep strong. Your children need you to survive and, when they make their escape from alienation, they need you to be there. Most of all, for your children’s sake, live and live well and do not ever, ever, give up.