Karen Woodall

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