Karen Woodall

Parental alienation: part two – treatment routes

Parental Alienation, as a story of our time, is most often encountered in families where litigation is high and ongoing. Cases in the UK courts, which have dragged on for years, often end up intractable and at a complete stand still because no-one knows what to do.

When a child is alienated and the family is stuck in the court process, it is as if no-one dare to move.  The family ‘dance’, already broken by the separation process, has become frozen in time.  CAFCASS, ill equipped as they often are to understand or deal with the issue, can exacerbate the problem when it reaches this point, by pointing out the obvious, there doesn’t seem to be very much that anyone can do.  The child is in complete refusal, often accompanied by expressions of terror and high levels of anxiety about any prospect of seeing the rejected parent, the aligned parent is upholding the child’s position, sometimes deliberately, sometimes out of fear about what will happen next and the rejected parent is on the outside of the family dynamic, scapegoated, powerless and often angry.

The problem is that when the family dance has frozen in time in this way it is because the efforts that the family system has been making to adapt to the changes brought about by separation, have failed.  This is a family system in deep trouble and the child’s actions speak volumes.  If a rejecting child could say it in words it would go something like this –

the people I once loved and depended upon, the people who make up the whole of who I am, are angry with each other.  I seem to be the focus of that anger and it has fractured my sense of wholeness and wellbeing in the world.  I no longer know who I am and I am very very frightened.  For a while I tried to cope by switching my allegiance from one parent to the other and back again, now I can’t do that anymore because instead of making it better, it has made it much much worse. I cannot cope with going back and forth anymore and feeling the pull of the two separate parts of who I am.  Either one parent demands that I love them more or both parents demand that I love them individually more than the other.  One way or another, my health and well being are under too much pressure, I cannot cope anymore and so I am going to do what all human beings do when they are in this position, I am going to psychologically split and project all of the bad feelings onto one person and the good feelings onto the other.  When I do so I will feel much much better on the surface and my school performance will be excellent.  I will seek refuge in learning and behaving as well as I possibly can, so that the feelings of guilt, shame and horror, that I have buried deep inside me after making the agonising decision to choose one parent over the other is far removed from my consciousness.  I will deny that I feel anything other than fear of that parent and I will invent stories eventually to ensure that I am able to keep my strategy for staying safe in place.  If anyone tries to challenge me, I may invent more stories to explain my rejection and I may reveal these to the parent I have ‘chosen’ to be the good parent, because when I do, I get the feeling that this is welcomed.  Don’t push me back to that place where I could not cope with the feelings of being torn in two, don’t ask me to think about it, don’t even speak about it and all will be well.  Keep things just as they are, no-one move.

When I come to work with a family system that has been affected by alienation, the dance is almost always frozen in this way.  The freezing has also extended to many of the professionals who have been involved, who have also succumbed to the child’s desperate need to keep everything in its place.  Some professionals consider that therapy for the parents is the way to unfreeze the dance, others that the child should be given time to grow up a little bit. My take on it is that if we always do what we have always done in these situations, we will always get what we have always got, my first action is to do something different.

That something different is to take control and responsibility away from the child.  A child who has ‘managed’ the family system into this frozen state is a child in emotional and psychological danger.  Professionals who interview the child and support his ‘decision’ are not acting in the best interests of the child in my opinion, they are further burdening the child with a responsibility that he is unable to deal with.  The first action that I take, when working with children and families in these situations is to help the child to understand that from now on, I will be the responsible adult in the family system and as such, I will make the decisions and cope with the consequences of those.  In doing this for the child, I am enabling him to know that I understand, at a very deep level, that he has had to manage the adults and that from now on he doesn’t have to.  The next thing I do is to restart the relationship between the child and the rejected parent and continue this throughout all of the therapeutic work that I do thereafter.

This re-starting of the relationship can be remarkably straightforward when the child understands that there is an adult in the system who will carry the burden of coping with loyalty conflict for them.  Even the most terrified children, those who have acted as if they have a phobia of their rejected parent will, given the right kind of support, find that those terrors melt away and that the parent that they once loved is still there, still waiting for them.  Getting to that point of reunification however can be quite difficult, particularly if there serious issues to deal with such as personality disorders in a parent.  That is when it takes a court managed process to bring about change.

Understanding what kind of alienation is present in the family is my key task in any work that I do.  Whilst alienation of a child presents itself in a uniform way, the reasons for the presenting issues must be clearly understood before any remedy can be applied.  A case of alienation can be understood in several ways, the way that I understand it is as follows.

The case is ‘pure’ alienation if the child is severely rejecting, is exhibiting all of the signs of alienation and the aligned parent cannot work with me on changing behaviours because of a personality disorder.

The case is ‘hybrid’ if the child is severely rejecting, is exhibiting all of the signs of alienation and both parents have acted in ways that have caused the child to withdraw.

The case is ‘justified rejection’ if the parent who is rejected has caused the child to withdraw because of poor parenting, over demanding approaches or continued demands for loyalty.

This differentiation of alienation is taken from the work of Canadian therapists and researchers, all of whom have been significant in reformulating the work of Richard Gardener who originally gave the problem of rejection the name Parental Alienation Syndrome.

Whilst much work has gone on in the world to understand and deal with the problem of parental alienation, treatment routes in the UK are hard to find.  In fact it is difficult to find any therapists across the UK who are actively working in the field although there are many psychologists and psychiatrists who understand and recognise the problem.  In my most recent work with families, I have come to understand that, whilst my input is crucial to get relationships restarted, the most effective family ‘therapists’ are the parents themselves.  This is particularly true in hybrid cases, where the inability of the parents to adapt well to the changing family dance, has caused the problem in the first place.  Working with education, parenting co-ordination, therapy and facilitation of time spent between child and parent, in these cases it is possible to restore a functioning separated family system that frees the child to love both sides of their identity.

In cases where deliberate and malicious efforts on the part of one parent to eradicate the other have caused the rejection, strong and determined court intervention is the only way to liberate the child.

In my work I depend upon psychologists and psychiatrists to undertake an assessment in cases where I suspect that an aligned parent cannot work with me because of psychological barriers.  This formal assessment allows me to determine whether the aligned parent is capable of change with my help or whether they are in need of more long term therapeutic input. In cases where personality disorders are present, it is unlikely that the child will be released from their predicament without being released from the care of that parent.  This is when a change of residence can be most beneficial for a child.

In hybrid cases, those in which the behaviours of both parents have contributed to the frozen stance, a change of residence is not the first choice of treatment.  In these cases, it is necessary to enable both parents to change their behaviour and to move the family dance into a more functional adaptation from where it is possible to support the restarting of relationships.  In these cases, parenting co-ordination can often support a longer term, sustainable behavioural change that frees the child from the grasp of conflicted loyalties.

Finally, in cases where children are justified in their rejection of a parent, either through poor parenting or determined actions on the part of that parent, education, instruction and then a programme of supervised parenting time can enable a parent to change the behaviours that have caused the rejection in the first place.

In all of the treatment routes above, the parents are the key players and the court, where it is involved, becomes the super parent, holding the tension and the control over the family, whilst new behaviours are learned and put into practice.

The wild card of course in this is CAFCASS and the power it holds for good or bad to help the family to begin to unfreeze the dance and move on.  In too many cases CAFCASS cause not the liberation of the family system but the deep freezing of the dance so that no-one can move for many many years.  This is possibly not something that is done deliberately but it is definitely something that is done out of ignorance and the inability to understand the deeper dynamics of family change. With such a critical role to play in family separation, particularly in high conflict cases, CAFCASS should, in my opinion, be required to undertake the training that would enable them to identify very quickly where the family dance has frozen because of the phenomenon called alienation.

Treatment routes for parental alienation are not easy to find and where they can be found they are (as in our own case at the Centre for Separated Families), overstretched and limited by the lack of therapists who have the skill and the knowledge to work confidently with such families.  Richard Gardener said that therapists who do this work need to have the grit and determination to work against the prevailing family culture and the system in which it is located.  This is often, in my experience the hardest element to deal with, the fear and the frozen belief amongst professionals that to do something is worse than doing nothing.  What we know about children who are affected by alienation, however that alienation was arrived at, is that they do face difficulties as they grow older.  For children whose parents are  unable ever to address the difficulties that cause the family dance to freeze, this difficulty can last a lifetime, eroding relationships with both parents eventually and leaving them feeling like orphans. For that reason alone, doing something is most certainly better than doing nothing.

As the UK wakes up to the problem, we may find that treatment routes expand and that it becomes more possible to tackle the issue systemically in society as well as in the family itself.  I hope so and at CSF, we continue to work hard to develop the kind of training that can enable more therapists to understand and work with the issue so that we are increasing the treatment routes as well as providing them.

I firmly believe that one day, we will look back at the way in which we failed so miserably to provide the support to families as they go through separation in bewilderment and shame.  Someone said to me recently that the lack of support and the mess that it has caused families will be a similar national shame as sending children to Australia has become and I agree.  Family separation is one of the most distressing things that can happen in our society, that families freeze in their efforts to overcome the terror and uncertainty is no surprise.  As we move on, with a government who is, at least listening, I hope that we can begin to repair the generational damage and free families up so that they can dance again.

(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)

Next week – Helping yourself, helping your children, coping and managing rejection and healing the family system