Attachment disorder arising from family separation: not in the best interests of the child

Attachment disorders arising from upholding a child’s decision to reject a parent after separation

The Family Courts are often presented with the phenomenon of a child who no longer wishes to see a parent after separation. This phenomenon, which arises after family separation is one which presents serious challenges for the courts. Use of instruments such as ‘wishes and feelings’ reports by CAFCASS and Social Workers, can lead to an over reliance upon what a child says they would like to happen after separation. It is this focus upon the child’s voice, that can lead some practitioners to feel that only by upholding the child’s stated wishes are they acting in the child’s best interests.

This article explores the way in which an over reliance upon the stated wishes and feelings of a child can act, not to uphold their best interests, but to force a terrible burden upon that child; the decision to remove a once loved parent from their lives forever. Children who are given this responsibility, through reliance upon their stated wishes and feelings, are also frequently burdened with an attachment disorder, which has arisen because of the family separation and through the actions of the parent with whom they are aligned. This attachment disorder arises from the fear of the child that to go against the wishes of the parent with whom they live with, may render them vulnerable to further loss. This creates a dynamic within the child in which they begin to split their feelings for their now separated parents into all good and all bad. This enables a child to state, without guilt or remorse, that they no longer wish to see the parent that they now consider to be their ‘bad’ parent. In effect it is a coping mechanism that is brought about by the separation of two loved and internalised figures, in which one figure is now seen to be hurting and suffering and the other is seen as being the cause of this. This causes the child to fuse their own views of the more distant parent with that of their aligned parent as a way of ensuring their own safety and security with the parent with whom they are now left.

A child who is in this position is attending not to their own needs but those of the parent with whom they are aligned. In this way, the ‘voice of the child’ can be interpreted as expressing what has happened to the attachment hierarchy in the family system and can be heard as a signal that their needs for safety and security are not being met.

How children arrive at rejection

There are many reasons why children refuse or resist parenting time with one parent after a family separation. Resistance or rejection is sometimes called ‘alienation’ and, whilst the term is still not often used in the UK, recent judgements have brought about a greater acceptance that this is a phenomenon that the courts may have to deal with.1

It is essential. when working with children who reject or resist parenting time, to understand why this has occurred and to differentiate this in as detailed a manner as possible in order to bring about successful interventions2.

This is because cases of ‘alienation’ are complex and, whilst they may share things in common with a range of cases within the same category, each case is also unique and has its own indicators which allow for tailoring of the treatment route.

Cases are analysed in several different ways. All are differentiated into the following categories.

Justified Rejection – in which a child rejects a parent because of something that a parent has done. This includes different acts by a parent that would reasonably be regarded as being abusive to a child such as physical harm, emotional harm or psychological harm. It should, however, be noted that even when harm done to a child is fairly severe, a child is unlikely to reject a parent and is more likely to seek to blame themselves than blame the parent.3

Hybrid or mixed – in which the conflict between the parents and the extreme differences in parenting and personal ways of being, cause the child to be unable to relate to both parents after separation.

Pure – in which a parent is engaged in behaviours which are designed to drive a child away from the other parent, causing a child to join with the parent in rejection and causing the child to display signs of ‘alienation.’

Further analysis breaks down cases of Pure Alienation into two further categories:

Pure and conscious alienation – where a parent is aware of what they are doing and will not stop it.

Pure and unconscious alienation – where a parent is unaware of what they are doing and cannot stop it.

A case of children resisting parenting time starts with understanding the factors that lead to the family separation in the first place. Analysis of the dynamics that contributed to the breakdown is important, as is analysis of power and control in the relationship and how this was played out in the separation. It is the case that in many situations where children become ‘alienated’ from a parent, that issues of enmeshment with the parent that they are aligned to are featured.4

Enmeshment takes place when a child is unable to determine their own views and feelings as being different from that of a parent. A parent can also be enmeshed with a child and be unable to see or experience their own views and feelings about the other parent from being different to how the child feels about the other parent.

Parentification is another element which is often present in cases where children reject a parent. Parentification is the result of the attachment hierarchy collapsing, in such a way that the child is elevated to the position of being in charge of the family system.5 A child in this position can also be said to be experiencing ‘role reversal’ which is an element of Attachment Disorder6, this is when a child is elevated to the position of caring for a parent emotionally in order to maintain the attachment relationship.

Alienation in children is the end result of a spectrum experience in which children are influenced/pressured by one or both parents to align themselves to one or other parent or sometimes to each parent at the same time. 7

Impact on children of rejection of a parent

Alienation proper is often triggered by an event which causes a child to withdraw. This is often after a long process of difficult ‘transitions’ to and from parents who are either in conflict with each other or from one parent who is using high conflict approaches with the other parent. Alienation causes a child to split off all good memories and feelings about a parent and project all bad memories and feelings onto that same parent. This allows a child to withdraw from a parent without having to feel shame or remorse. The longer term outcomes for such children are poor and are documented by research.8 Children who withdraw from a parent can appear to do well at first and can seem to find relief from withdrawal. Children who have rejected a parent may seek refuge in school work or studies, seeking to excel in these, perhaps in order to find relief from the guilt and shame of having made an awful choice.9

Outcomes over time, however, show that children who reject a parent may suffer from low self esteem, poor relationship skills and ongoing issues around mental health and well being. Studies demonstrate that in some cases, children may become especially skilled at dealing with infantile adults, so much so that they are robbed of their right to a childhood.10 As children grow older, they may be exposed to further demands from the parent that they have aligned themselves with. These demands may be the result of the family separation process, in which the parent perceives any independent move by a child as evidence of betrayal. The child, having utilised the coping mechanism of psychological splitting in order to reject one of their parents, now becomes vulnerable over the life cycle to repeated efforts to maintain the dysfunctional attachment bonds.

In this regard, all children who are in an alienated position are extremely vulnerable both in emotional and psychological terms and, by using rejection as a coping mechanism, are signalling that something is wrong in the family system. Children who are displaying the signs of alienation may also be showing signs of attachment disorder, the reflexive support for a parent often being related to ‘parentification’ in which a child is compelled to take care of a parent. This phenomenon was also called ‘spousification’ by Minuchin11 and can create conditions in which the child is elevated to the top of the family attachment hierarchy12 by a parent and given the choice and the responsibility for taking care of the parent by rejecting the other. Practitioners who are confronted by a child who is displaying signs of alienation, especially where the child is expressing undue concern for the well being of the aligned parent, should be on the look out for role reversal which is denoted by parentification and spousification and should be prepared to further assess the family for evidence elsewhere of the existence of alienation.

Treatment routes for children who reject a parent

Deeper assessment of such families involves interviews with both parents, each of whom must be asked a series of questions which are designed to determine whether or not blame projection13 is present. Projection of blame is a common feature of separating couples, but is one which is often alleviated over time. A parent who remains fixated upon blaming the other parent however, without being able to accept or acknowledge any responsibility for the current position, is unlikely to be able to ameliorate a child’s fixed views and this fused, dyadic presentation is one which should arouse concern.

Fixed views from an aligned parent, projection of blame and an insistence that a child is making their own decisions about a parent are all signs that a child who is displaying the signs of alienation is trapped in a conflict of loyalty to a parent. Loyalty conflicts develop when children become afraid to love both of their parents because of pressure being placed upon them.14 Presence of loyalty conflicts should alert the practitioner to the need for deeper investigation and possible intervention.

Work at the Family Separation Clinic is focused upon the combination of differentiation of alienation and the delivery of combined treatment routes to liberate children from the problem. Utilising a combination of family therapy and therapeutic mediation with additional elements of parenting co-ordination, Hybrid cases are being treated with some success. Pure cases, where parents have personality disorders are being supported through Therapeutic Bridging Programmes, which are convened to support a change of residence and where alienation is determined to be Pure and conscious, suspended residence transfers are being supported with education, parenting co-ordination and family systems therapy approaches. All of these combinations of treatments are designed individually after depth assessment and all are convened in ways that offer the maximum benefit for the children concerned.

One of the unusual aspects of the delivery of such support is that it is most often located in situ, that is that therapists, mediators and parenting co-ordinators attend at the home of the parents involved rather than parties being required to attend for meetings in offices during office hours. A further element of difference is that alienated children are reintroduced to a rejected parent as quickly as possible after an intervention begins, thus exposing the child to the feared or hated parent in a safe and supportive environment with support from practitioners.

Longer term outcomes for children in treatment

Longer term prognosis for children who are re-introduced to once rejected parents is good providing that both parents are enabled to overcome the rejecting stance in the child and each are able to encourage and support the child to maintain the rebuilding of the relationship. Where parent is unable to recognise that the child’s rejection is linked to their own feelings about the other parent, restriction on the relationship between child and that parent may be necessary to liberate the child from the loyalty conflict. A child who is freed to relate to both parents on a regular basis is unlikely to suffer any of the known consequences that face children who remain burdened with the responsibility for rejection over the longer period.

1EWCA CIV 291 (Re: S) a child. HHJ Bellamy. ‘The Concept of alienation as a feature of some high conflict parental disputes may today be regarded as mainstream.’

2Bala N -Children resisting post separation contact – a differentiation route for Legal and Mental Health Professionals – Oxford University Press (New York) 2012

3Levenkron S – Stolen Tomorrows – (Lions Crown) 2007

4Friedlander and Walters – Family Court Review – Vol 48 Pages 98 – 111 2010

5Gottlieb L Linda – The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Family Systems and Collaborative Systems approach to amelioration – Charles Thomas (New York) 2012

6Brisch H K – Treating Attachment Disorders – (The Guilford Press) 2002

7 Knier. G Dr Children Splitting (alienation) from a parent (2011)

8Baker A Dr – Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome – (2012) Norton: New York

9Garber B (2011) Parental Alienation and the dynamics of the enmeshed child/parent dyad; adultification, parentification and infantalisation – Family Court Review 49(2)

10Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark (1983) page 22

11Minuchin, S. & Fishman, H. C. (2004). Family Therapy Techniques. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

12Kerns and Richardson (2005) Guildford Press

13Glen O. Gabbard, Long-Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy (London 2010)

14Retrieved from article by Stahl, M Philip, remarks made at the plenary session of CRC’s conference in May, 2001.

This article is written by Karen Woodall for the Family Separation Clinic and can be downloaded, copied and shared freely providing that the rights of the author are recognised and properly referenced.  Nothing within this article can be reproduced without reference to the author Karen Woodall –  31.7.2013

22 thoughts on “Attachment disorder arising from family separation: not in the best interests of the child”

  1. Another wonderfully clear article Karen, thank you. I think this is a really helpful way to demystify the issue since the caring professions will be familiar with attachment theory and therefore perhaps rather more likely to engage with something they know than the “allergy inducing” (for many) concept of alienation.

    Your comment that “A child who is freed to relate to both parents on a regular basis is unlikely to suffer any of the known consequences that face children who remain burdened with the responsibility for rejection over the longer period”, will give hope to many parents I’m sure.

    I imagine this “freeing up” is most always likely to be a positive step in the life and well-being of alienated children, yet frequently (apparently compelling) legal arguments are put forward to suggest the passage of time itself simply makes the type of restrictions you suggest on the alienating parent or a transfer of residence away from that parent, an option the courts won’t even consider. If there’s been a period of years where the children and alienated parent have never even spoken that seems to be especially true. In such extreme cases (for example of pure and unconscious long-term alienation, where the alienated parent is clearly a “good enough” parent), is there still room for optimism that the longer term prognosis for children reintroduced to the once rejected parent might be good, and if so what counter-arguments can be used to convince a reluctant court?

    I realise the answer to these questions depends on a great many variables and very careful assessment of the specific circumstances in each family – and possibly even more on the person who happens to be sitting on the bench – but I wonder if it might be possible to offer a more general overview.

    Best wishes


    1. Hi Expofunction, well yes there are variables but, where the alienation is pure and the rejected parent is a good enough parent as you put it and there was a strong attachment bond and a clear memory pattern within the child (and we can test for that, many children will ‘forget’ good memories but with projective testing it is possible to dig underneath that coping mechanism), reunification is amazingly swift and the prognosis good (providing the alienating parent’s behaviour can be contained). Where children are older, I have seen some very good results after reunification with children emerging from alienation over a period of weeks (it goes shade by shade with older children rather than lifting immediately). Arguments for convincing the court are varied but should be based upon the long term known outcomes for children and young adults who remain forcibly estranged from a parent. These can be found in research studies by Kelly and Johnson and also Bala and Fidler. Amy Baker’s study called ‘breaking the ties that bind’ is also an important document. I will write up an article on the ways in which older children who have been longer term alienated can be assisted to return to near normal balanced relationships through therapeutic assistance which is largely parenting co-ordinator based though heavily front loaded with therapeutic debriefing of children’s resistance. I am now immersed in my Phd studies and so it is easy enough to put together different articles as I am spending a lot of time researching and writing is a relief from all that reading! K


      1. Thanks Karen. I’m familiar with the sources you quote, but it’s also important to have the informed views of someone who’s actually been involved in successfully delivering these services; especially (for the courts) from someone who’s based in the UK.

        Whilst I’d not want to disrupt your studies I’d be very interested in what more you can offer on this (and once again I’m in awe of your prolific output and boundless energy)! I’m also keen to hear more – if possible – about testing for a clear memory pattern within the child. I’m aware how powerful “hard evidence” (such as photographs, videos or other reminders of shared happy times) can often be and also that (alienated) children can sometimes develop “false memories”, but haven’t come across much more than that.

        Take care, and all the best with your studies.


      2. Have a look at Amy Baker’s new book for clinical practice, its a goldmine of information, I have already incorporated some of the tests she sets out into our assessment processes. What we are doing when we use photographs and videos is awakening the memory patterns, when we use projective testing we are looking at the strength of the memory print and the way in which the child is affected by overlaid ‘memories’ which are inculcated by the alienating parent. When we have gathered all of that information it is possible to predict whether use of photos and videos are enough or whether we need to go straight to exposure to the rejected parent.


      3. Thanks Karen I will (Amy Baker’s Clinical Practice book is overdue for promotion within my stack of unread material anyway), but your compelling account makes that a priority now.


      4. We are about to begin using a one way mirror approach to children who are severely alienated, I will report back on this but it is the stage in between photos and videos and actual exposure, which for very phobic children can cause panic attacks and other difficult reactions and can also be difficult for th rejected parent as it is too dramatic and painful. These severe reactions however are only to be found in particular circumstances where a child is between 8-14 and usually female. Outside of that most reunions are quiet and eventually very very moving, which is why I make it a policy to ensure that social workers and cafcass workers are present when we do reunification work, so that they can see that this is a problem with a human face, not a mental health disorder and not about problem families but a problem which arises from a peculiar dynamic which configures itself around the child, when that dynamic is removed, it is as if the child has returned to normal and the relationship between child and parent is as strong as it ever was.


      5. Karen,

        I’m working my way through Amy Baker’s new book (at last) and have read – and been blown away by – Ben Barber, Linda Gottlieb and Jack Weitzman’s (Reunification and the One-Way Mirror) chapters so far. Thanks for the prompt!

        My goodness don’t these people just understand alienation in so much minute detail. It might go by unnoticed by some, but there are just so many little precise details they describe as important that are instantly recognisable as the mark of in-depth knowledge or prolonged exposure (though professional practice or personal experience, or in some cases – I suspect – both).

        And some of the descriptions of practice (even if it’s only in isolated pockets) in North America, simply take the breath away. For example:

        “The Attorney for the Child referred a family for reunification and therapy to a family therapist who practices using structural family therapy modality (one school of family systems therapy). The therapy had been strongly advised by the judge.”

        .. and ..

        “The therapist creates intensity by making the point that New York State case law declares: ‘Indeed a custodial parent’s interference with the relationship between a child and a non-custodial parent has been said to be an act so inconsistent with the best interest of the child as to per se raise a strong probability that the offending party is unfit to act as a custodial parent. (Young v. Young)'”

        It’s of course incredibly encouraging to see this in practice, but at the same time my heart sinks when I consider how far off this might be as even a hopeful, distant prospect for the UK.

        Yet again this reinforces how incredibly important your own work and practice are, and it provides ample justification for every decision – no matter how painful – where you reject compromise in pursuit of these critical standards.

        Thank you.


      6. Hi Expofunction, I am grateful for your comment because it is incredibly difficult to do this work in this country where the structural barriers are so high and the debate is so polarised. This leads at times to me taking a battering from mothers groups AND fathers groups as they see my position on behalf of the child as being ‘anti’ the right thing to bring about change. All I have ever cared about or been interested in however is healthy families which give children the security that makes their life chances greater. I too love the book, it is a goldmine of information, ideas and strategies. I particularly like the concept of therapist as shaman, wholly involved in healing and restoring family ties, it is the intensity and the depth of relational input that makes the difference and it is explained so well in this book. K


    1. Hello, not sure whether you are struggling to post? I have been having difficulties too when I try to post from another device, not sure what the problem is will investigate. K


  2. FANTASTIC article…will need to re-read later…as there is so much in there! – and introducing the various terms and concepts to us like this in a compact form is VERY much appreciated.


    1. Hi Harry, glad its useful, have a lot more to say on this matter, will be working my way through it all and posting up articles as I go along. Mainly this is what I feel CAFCASS should be trained in, it would offer CAFCASS so much more than their reflexive dependency on what children say. The reality is that many children will say whatever they think an adult wants them to say, so scared are they of losing another attachment bond after the loss of the attachment hierarchy when the family separates. K


      1. I am trying to draw the attention of Kids Company to your work…I do hope they can start to be a bit more “family” oriented, in the round, as it were, perhaps (perhaps they already are, to some extent) who would then might be ideal people to help extend these concepts more widely?


  3. I think it’s also important to remember that alienation is a continuum. There’s extreme alientating behaviour then more subtle and insiduous actions. It’s impossible to control the actions of another parent when it is at a low level. Most commonly I come across cases where the child goes straight from one parent to the other and the handing over parent engages in behaviour to highten the child’s anxiety. The best way to avoid this is to have the school day between parents care time.


    1. Yes anything that offers a ‘decontamination’ chamber effect is good for kids who are being exposed to negative influencing…alienation is in my experience a spectrum disorder in which at one end you have the mild influencers who are probably not conscious of what they are doing and at the other end are the malicious and determined alienators. The most severe are those who have the personality disorders and they are rhe most difficult to contain. Its important to remember as well that not all kids are vulnerable to alienation, in any one family you can have one or more who are alienated and one or more who are not. Even the most aggressive alienator cannot alienate a child who is just oblivious to the attempts and some are. K


  4. Thank you for sharing this very good read! It’s very clear and easy to understand. I learned so much from reading it. I am sure that a lot of parents will be able to learn new things here. I find it really helpful. 🙂


  5. Karen – Belated thanks for your posting on 31/7/13. It describes so clearly the ‘phenomenon of a child who refuses to see a parent after separation’.
    It helped me understand why an 11 yr old apparently happy, loving grandchild who often slept at my home suddenly over 2 yrs ago completely changed and ‘allegedly’ no longer wishes to have any contact with his father, with me or any paternal family.The family court judge believed all the false allegations and denied all contact. CAFCASS and CAMHS were heavily involved!!
    But I cannot understand how you ever manage to arrange work with these children and/or resident parents..I cannot imagine the mother and stepdad in our case ever agreeing to any mediation in their home or anywhere else .They seem totally convinced that they are doing the right thing- protecting the boy and ‘doing what he wishes’ There is no answer to that –the door is slammed – which leaves us totally depressed and despairing.


    1. Hi Granmani,

      Its not easy to get to the place where I am able to do this work. Most of the time it is the court process which brings me in, some of the time it is outside of the court. The issue that we have are that CAFCASS are often the gatekeepers to the work that can be done and they are not often skilled to do much other than work with the surface of what is being presented to them. If it is any comfort at all, the very hardest cases are those where a step father or in rare cases a step mother have come into the family and created a double bind where the parent is unable to escape from the control of the step parent to allow the other parent back in. It is often the case that such step parents are violent or controlling or that the mother wishes to form a new family. In these cases the hardening of the wall around the child is incredibly difficult to break down, especially if CAFCASS uphold the child’s rejection. A child who has withdrawn in this manner has been put under extreme pressure somewhere in the family system, either on one side of the transition bridge or both. Often the child will not give any sign that anything is wrong until one day something snaps and they ‘decide’ for themselves that they are no longer going to make the crossing anymore. In these cases, which are very very complex in terms of who contributes what and when and how, the rejected parents is simply cut out, excised along with all of the family as if they were never part of of the child’s life. The reality is that the child has made an awful choice and until the child is free or ready to face that awful choice that was made, there is not much that can be done in too many cases. Even where I do get chance to do that work with some children, the result is that the child remains fixed and will not give up on their rejection for fear of return to the problems that were happening previously. You must feel depressed and so very despairing, it is a living bereavement and I wish that I could say more that would offer you hope. All that I can say is that you should nver stop hoping because as these children grow older and their psychology reconfigures itself, as their personality shapes up and their brain develops, a sense of separateness arrives and a curiousity about who they are drives them. It does not make up for lost time, it will never make up for the pain and suffering but the research evidence and my own experience tells me that you and your family have never been eradicated in that child, you are still there as is the love that was once there, if you are well and healthy and welcome the child back recovery of the relationship is possible. I am just saddened by how many children go to find their family when it is too late for everyone concerned. If you want to understand more about the psychology of your situation Grandmani, I would recommend wholeheartedly Amy Baker’s book breaking the ties that bind, its not a help to recovery of your relationship but it might help you to feel less alone in your experience. Sending my support Karen


  6. I don’t feel close to anyone but am not emotionaly attached to my family because that and a crime victims life aren’t the same! I love them and want to be close to them again but am too hurt.


  7. A parent does not have to have custody to turn a child away from the other parent. Parental Alienation has been accomplished by abusive spouses during marriage and it has been done by noncustodial parents — too easy, esp., once the child has become a preteen or teen. Feeding a teen with lies, bribes, inappropriate privileges, and enmeshment can be done by the noncustodial parent. Tragically, this happened to my family and happens to many other moms — some too traumatized and unsupported to speak out.


  8. Teens are also taught by the noncustodial parent to reject even the custodial parent. When one parent abuses the other, that can begin alienation even when the marriage is still “in tact.”


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