Parents who are afraid to put their foot down, usually have children who step on their toes… chinese proverb

Parental Alienation is a story of our time. It is a story of divorce and separation and of the lack of support that families suffer as they go through one of the most devastating life changes it is possible to face. It is also a story of a childhood gone wrong and of years stolen either by the deliberate and malicious actions of one parent against the other or of the inability of two parents to cope with change. Parental Alienation is an increasing phenomenon affecting many families and their children. Parental Alienation causes suffering, loss, grief and sorrow. However it happens, Parental Alienation blights the lives of those it touches.

The anguish of a parent experiencing estrangement from a child is akin to a living bereavement. Our expectations of parenthood, on the day that our children are born, is that our love and our care will suffice throughout the lifetime of our little ones and that as older people, we will see them fully functioning and happy in their own parenthood.

The parent whose child has become separated from them, not by geography or even through the divorce or separation from the other parent, but seemingly by the child’s own psychology, suffers greatly. Until the late seventies, the phenomenon of the alienated child or as Richard Gardener termed it in 1983, ‘The Parental Alienation Syndrome’, was largely unknown in psychological terms, although many parents were already likely to have experienced it by the time it was given a name. Today, the terms Parental Alienation and the Alienated Child have, as one High Court Judge said recently, ‘entered into the mainstream consciousness’ and can be recognised as a bona fide problem that must be addressed.

Parental Alienation is most often described as a deliberate effort to undermine and destroy a relationship between a child and a parent and is most often often carried out by ex partners who are hell bent on revenge. In the UK, where it is estimated that around 20% of the population are affected in some way by family separation, Parental Alienation is one of the biggest issues that can face separated families.

Badmouthing and brainwashing are, it would seem, behaviours that are common place amongst parents who are separated but it is usually the case that dads are the ones suffering the most from it. Statistically, more than 1.9 million dads are separated from the mother of their children and out of this number only 9 percent are the main carer for their child. For the rest, part-time relationships which are under the control of the other parent are more usual and with this comes the frustration and fear that this second best parent status may, in itself, erode the relationship that was once present between parent and child.

But this is not an issue which is wholly described by bad mouthing mums evicting dads from their children’s lives. Dads too can be the parent who influences a child to reject their other parent and the living bereavement that is suffered by dads is also the fate of some mothers. The Charity MATCH supports mothers who are living apart from their children and they are witness to the way in which mothers are not only suffering a living bereavement but are coping with feelings of shame and guilt at being rejected by their children.

Parental alienation is a spectrum experience in which children range from being mildly affected and struggling to cope with seeing both parents after separation to being severely and irrevocably alienated. Some children who reject a parent whilst very young, may take years to seek out that parent and reconnect. Others will find that when they do seek out the parent that they were alienated from, that parent has already died. In these cases the child, now usually a young adult, is the one to carry a sense of shame and unresolved guilt throughout their lives.

The issue at the heart of all of these experiences is that alienation in whatever form it takes, causes pain and suffering for parents and children alike. It is also something that can be intergenerational as patterns of upbringing are repeated when children become parents themselves. When parental alienation strikes a family therefore, it is necessary to put it right, to do something active rather than sit back and expect it to go away. In previous decades, divorcing parents were told that children would not be affected by the separation unless there was conflict involved and were exhorted to be on friendly terms for the sake of their children.

These days, with developments in neuroscience and our understanding of the way that the brain works, it is clear that children are affected by divorce and separation from one of their primary care givers and that what happens between parents after a separation is key to ensuring the well being of children over the longer term.

Our understanding of the child, living in a relational world has also increased alongside the need for both parents to possess a range of skills and tools to help children to cope and adapt to change.

It is, therefore, a curious paradox that whilst our understanding has increased, the incidence of problematic reactions to divorce and separation amongst children have also risen. Some of this is due to the social changes that have happened in recent decades, with fathers seeking a greater role in their children’s lives and wanting to continue that beyond a family separation. The days when it was considered normal for children to live with their mother and see their father for weekend ‘access visits’ are, it seems, long gone and more fathers than ever are seeking to have more time with their children and be more involved in every aspect of their lives.

This desire, for sharing of parenthood and continued involvement has lead to struggles between separating mothers and fathers over who is the dominant parent and who is not. Because of the gender roles that are still heavily proscribed for men and women in our society, mothers still assume that their major role is to care for children and many find it difficult to share this with fathers after separation. This refusal, leading to struggles between the parents inside and outside of the court arena leads to children being caught in the grasp of competing parental loyalty.

The belief that If I cannot love both then I must love one more than the other is the common undercurrent when working with children affected in this way.

This leads children to believe that –

the one that I love the most will be the one that I am with the most, or, conversely, the one that I am most dependent upon or most afraid of losing.

Wilf’s story

Wilf is ten years old, his mother and father separated when he was seven. Since that time, Wilf has spent two years living with his father during the week and his mother during each weekend, arriving at his mother’s home after school on Fridays and returning to his father’s home after school on Mondays. When Wilf turned nine, he began to find it difficult to leave his mother’s home and he would return there after school on Mondays for a couple of hours before his father collected him. Gradually, he began to ask his mother if he could stay with her on Monday nights too and his father, when asked agreed that he could. Both parents noticed during this period of time that Wilf was very quiet each time he arrived at their home. He would stay quiet and withdrawn for a couple of hours or more until gradually he would start to come around and be himself again. Over the summer holidays however, Wilf refused to return to his father on several occasions and kicked up such a fuss that his father decided that it would be better to leave him. His father was worried that Wilf’s mother was influencing him although she said that she was not. Things deteriorated until the end of the holidays when Wilf simply refused point blank to leave his mother’s home saying that he preferred living there and that his father was always angry with him.

One year on and several court hearings later and Wilf is still refusing to go back to his father. In fact now, he refuses to see his father at all. As the months have passed by, Wilf’s father has tried everything possible to persuade Wilf to see him, promising him trips away, presents and even a new pet. Wilf’s mother is equally worried, but for different reasons. Now Wilf is telling her that his father used to leave him at home on his own for hours on end and that his father would shout at him and become very angry. Wilf tells his mother that this is the real reason he will not see his father. The court hearings go on. No-one knows what to do. Wilf says he is terrified of his father and that if he has to go to see him, terrible things will happen. His father is heartbroken and powerless to do anything, his mother says she wants Wilf to see his dad but she cannot do anything when he is so terrified.

When you are in a room with a severely alienated child it is impossible not to know it. That is because the behaviours of the child are so out of keeping with what is really going on that it is clear that their reality has been distorted. Severely alienated children tell fantastic stories about the parent that they are refusing to see, from how that parent conspired to kill them when they were a baby, (which somehow they managed to remember), to how a parent is so evil that even god could not forgive them for what they will do. Severely alienated children can only see absolute badness in the parent that they are rejecting, whilst their other parent, the one that I call the aligned parent, is the very embodiment of goodness. No matter how often therapists or others try to help children in this state to gain some perspective, asking incredulous questions to challenge their certainty that the rejected parent is evil, they will stick to their story and repeat it mantra like over and over again.

One of the eight symptoms of severe or ‘pure’ alienation, is the telling of fantastical scenarios to support the rejection of a parent. I have heard many such tales, each carefully detailed and nurtured in the telling and retelling, all equally impossible and unbelievable and easy to disprove. No matter, when a child is in the severe stage of parental alienation, facts are irrelevant and the stories, if challenged will only escalate, clearly these children are trying to say something about their lives and their experience of their relationship with a parent.

The reality is that Parental Alienation in this form is quite rare and there are factors that are present that can help to determine whether the child is indeed being deliberately ‘poisoned’ by a parent. Parental Alienation is akin to a spectrum disorder, with a range of behaviours present in parents and their children that range from the mild and unconscious, to the extreme and conscious actions on the part of one parent against the other. In between these two polarities, lie a number of behavioural themes and actions that occur between parents and between children and their parents that can lead to the phenomenon called Parental Alienation.

The work of deepening an understanding Parental Alienation has been taken on by researchers across the world, most notably in Canada where Kelly and Johnson (citation) have done much to explore the nuances of children’s rejection and Fidler, Bala and Friedlander and Walters have all contributed to the development of a consistent approach to differentiating between the pure cases of alienation and those which have mixed or hybrid reasons behind it.

Elsewhere, in the United States, Warshak has continued to develop a strategic approach to reunification of alienated children with their parents through his Famiy Bridges Programme (citation) and Amy Baker Phd, has published her study of adults who were alienated as children, which has contributed to the understanding of the impact of alienation on children over their lifetime. In the United States, the debate rages on around whether Parental Alienation is a Syndrome that should be included in the DSM V, which is the Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders compiled by the American Psychiatric Association and as such the ‘bible’ for mental health professionals. Parental Alienation, however you define it or understand it, is something that is a live issue for many people experiencing family separation, for children whose families are changing and for those practitioners and professionals who work with them.

Wilf’s story therefore is not unusual and, whilst he remains trapped in his current refusal to see his father, the prognosis for future reconciliation with his father is quite good. If his father can step back and understand what has happened to Wilf and his mother can be helped to understand that Wilf is reacting to having to make the transition back and forth to his father, Wilf can, with collaboration between parents, be reunited with his father.

The problem is, that when two parents have separated, collaboration is the very last thing on their agenda. Instead of being able to sit down together, as they may have done when they were married, Wilf’s mothers and father only have their son to link them together. Wilf’s mother listens to him tell her that when he is at his father’s house he is left alone a lot of the time and this makes her very angry and worried about his wellbeing. Wilf’s father can only see that Wilf is rejecting him and refusing to see him. He assumes that this is because Wilf’s mother is deliberately preventing Wilf from being able to live with his father as he used to. Each parent consults a solicitor and soon, instead of sitting down together to talk, letters are flying back and forth making allegations and counter allegations of an increasingly hostile nature.

Time goes by, Wilf’s refusal to see his father deepens, no-one knows what to do about it. Each time Wilf is asked about seeing his father his resistance increases. Eventually his father gives up. Wilf will not see his father again until he is 27 years old.

Amy Baker, a Psychologist in the US writes about adults who, as children, rejected a parent after divorce and separation in her book called ‘breaking the ties that bind.’ The stories that are told in this book are heartbreaking. As adults, children who rejected a parent tell how they wished that someone had made them see the parent that they were rejecting, that they didn’t know why they were doing it and in some cases, once they had started they did not know how to stop. Others spoke of the deliberate campaign by one parent against the other that eventually forced them to reject a parent. Some talked of being told by one parent that the other no longer loved them, others said that they had hoped that their parent would come and rescue them. Some of the adults in Amy’s book, never saw their parent again. The average age of those who did reunite with a parent was 26.

Parental Alienation then, is a reaction in children that arrives after divorce and separation and causes the child to withdraw or reject a parent. The period leading up to the withdrawal is often the time when parents have the chance to put things right, unfortunately, because of the lack of communication between hostile parents, what happens is that things go very wrong and the alienation reaction escalates until the child is completely rejecting of a parent. Whether this happens because of the deliberate and malicious actions of a parent, or because of the conflict that continues between parents, the result is the same. A child refuses to see a parent.

A child who is withdrawn from one parent and aligned completely with the other, seeing the rejected parent as wholly bad and the other as wholly good is in a precarious place emotionally and psychologically. This is because the splitting in thinking, which is caused by such a withdrawal can remain in place for many years, causing not only the loss of a parent but of their wider family and friends and also, the loss of half of the child’s own identity. A child who splits off half of their identity and projects fear and hatred towards it, is a child who is storing up emotional and psychological problems for the future. As Amy Baker’s study of adults who rejected a parent as a child shows, lack of self esteem, guilt, shame and anxiety are only a few of the problems that have to be faced. The others are located in the the interpersonal relationships that the child will seek in the future. These can be catastrophic for the adult who was an alienated child, in terms of the way in which their expectations of other people remain split into wholly good or wholly bad. The rigidity of thought that comes with this kind of splitting, means that relationships are difficult because of the lack of understanding that other people are both good and bad and that people can do bad things without it meaning they are bad people. Intolerance in relationships is a common thing for alienated children as adults, as is the tendency to put people up on pedestals until they disappoint and are knocked down only to be rejected. Life as an adult, after being an child affected by alienation, can be incredibly difficult and it is therefore imperative, that, however the alienation is caused, treatment is found to remedy the problem. 

Next week – treatment routes and where to get them

(This series of posts are based upon excerpts from a forthcoming book entitled ‘Understanding and Coping with Parental Alienation – a handbook for separated parents’  by Karen Woodall)