Stories from the transition bridge: Polly plays ping pong

I get a lot of emails asking for help with older children who are emerging from ‘alienation’ and so I thought I would share with you Polly’s tale.

Polly is a twenty year old woman who has not had a relationship with her father for the past eleven years.  Polly was separated from her father when she was nine years old after her mother moved out of the family home and took her with her.  Polly recalls spending the odd Saturday with her father but nothing more, her memory of him is hazy and she is worried when she first arrives at our Clinic, that she has idealised him and that he will let her down.

Polly and I worked together for six months before she felt able to connect with her dad on Facebook.  She arrived for one of our sessions one day looking furtive and slightly anxious.  She said that she had sent her father a message and that he had replied straight away.  Now she had no idea what to do.  She was terrified that her mother would find out that she had been in touch with her father and that her step father would be upset because ‘he had brought her up as if she were his own.’  Together we pondered on the possibilities that might arise from her impulsive action and I tried to help her to see things from her father’s perspective as she descended into an anxious review of the implications of being back in a relationship with him.

That anxious review included a lot of concerns about her mother and her step father.  What would they think, how would they feel if they found out that she had contacted her father.  I asked Polly to tell me about these concerns, which sounded to me like worries about being seen as betraying her mother.  ‘Of course’ she replied, ‘of course I am worried that my mother will feel betrayed, she has been the one who brought me up, who was there when I needed her, why would she not feel betrayed?’  It didn’t matter which way I put it to her, Polly could not let the theme of betrayal go and when she moved on to expressing feelings of anger, I could see that there was some way to go before she would emerge from her current position.

In the months of our work together Polly had long conversations with her father on Facebook and eventually they arranged to meet.  It took two cancellations and a series of text conversations before Polly felt she was in a good place to see her father face to face.

 For her father, being on the other end of this process felt like torture.  Having long let go of any hope of ever seeing his daughter again, he had been overwhelmed by the feelings of longing and missing her that came surging up through him in an almost Tsunami like reaction.  Speaking with him on the phone, something that Polly had asked me to do on her behalf, I could sense that he too was struggling with feelings long repressed, which he had thought were gone forever.  His anger came and went in waves, mirroring Polly’s who flailed around from being angry with him for ‘abandoning’ her to being angry with herself for betrayin gher mother.  Her father was quite simply bleached by the fury that his daughter, from whom he had been kept for so long, was still unable to see things from her own, individual perspective.  It took many more months before each were able to gain some sense of balance in the maelstrom of emotions that washed around them.

Polly eventually, after appearing and disappearing from her father’s life for nineteen months, settled into a pattern of seeing him every weekend and speaking to him on the phone several times in the week.  From their first meeting, some seven months after Polly’s first message to him on Facebook, to the current day, Polly has only ever once spoken to her mother about being back in touch with her father.  Her mother’s response? Silence and what Polly called a ‘hurt and troubled look’ which is deployed whenever her mother feels that Polly is not balancing her time and attention evenly enough between her parents.  Polly asked me what I thought she should do to try and make things better with her mother.  I asked her which she felt was more important, her mother’s need to be top of her list  or her own needs to have a relationship with the people who brought her into the world.  Her answer was unequivocal.  “My needs’ she said, to be in relationship with both of the people who brought me here, I may not like them and I may find those relationships difficult, but to be without one of them meant that I missed out on such a lot.’

Polly’s father, who never thought he would find his little girl again, spoke of his shock as he opened the message from her on Facebook.  ‘I thought I would never see my daughter again’ he said, ‘and that if I did I would be nothing to her.’  I asked him to describe the journey that the two of them took from that first message to the present day.  Like a rollercoaster ride with an unknown ending was his description.  A frightening time when Polly would appear and then disappear without explanation and without warning.  A time when all of the monsterous thoughts of loss and fear and sorrow would come rolling back around to torment him.  Sometimes, he confessed, it was so much worse than when she was not present in his life at all.  The unpredictability and lack of control being the very worst thing of all.

I have often likened this stage of emergence in older children to a game of ping pong in which the child has the task of bringing together the two split off psychological parts of themselves first, before the outer reunification can occur.  I have also often said that the route out of alienation follows the route in and that in my experience, the psychological splitting, which heralds an alienated reaction, has to be healed permanently before a young person can move into a relationship with both of their parents.  For some children this can take years and for others a lifetime and it is still not healed.  Working with Polly made me realise that this game of ping pong, is as much about time limited exposure to what has been rejected, almost as if the young person has to take reunification in chunks of experience rather than in one smooth flow.

And of course, with a parent who has encouraged rejection and a society which supports the dislocation of a parent from a child’s physical, psychological and emotional world, the task of reorientation is made so much harder when the instinctive drive to reconnect kicks in.

For anyone out there who is experiencing this game of ping pong, know that however hard it is, it is part of your child’s struggle to become psychologically free.  Have courage, have patience and whenever your child is in contact with you, be strong, be calm and most of all be there.  The journey is a long one, there are no midwives available for this rebirth, but with patience and time and that love that you felt on the day that they were born, one day soon, your child will come home for good.


Polly is a pseudonym for a young woman I worked with in 2012.  Her father and I worked together after Polly asked him to talk to me on the phone before she felt able to.  From Polly I learned much about the reconnection process for children who have completely lost their parent through separation.  Facebook being one of the modern phenomenons that I believe will play an increasingly big role in supporting the instinctive drive to find the lost other parent in generations of our children.

I am particularly interested at the moment in hearing from anyone who is experiencing this kind of ping pong behaviour in their children.  I would like to compile a multi sided account of the process of re-establishing relationships after long term loss of this nature.  If you would like to tell me your experience please email using

I am delighted to be able to say that Facebook is hosting our Professionals training day on Understanding and Coping with Parental Alienation in London on November 21st.  This is the first of a number of professionals training days and it will feature Thomas Moore, the father who wrote the book ‘Please let me see my son…’ which tells the story of my first encounter with severe parental alienation as well as the story of Thomas and his family and their struggle to free their son.  I will report on this training in the weeks to come and Thomas will be holding a question and answer session on this site very soon.

This training day is full, but there are many more to come, so do check back at the Training and Workshops section in the new year.



  1. Many thanks for Polly’s story, Karen.

    Some people want abstract statistics. My experience is always that anecdotes are worth a thousand statistics … and a hundred polemical debates as well!

    This account speaks volumes about many issues to many audiences. By sharing these stories – Tweet, Facebook etc – I think we create the best chances of better understanding and collaboration.


    1. People like different things Nick, my biggest readership spikes are by far when I write against feminism, there is a voracious readership for those right across the world. The polemical pieces are next and the smallest readership are for these stories, so I guess people are getting different things from what I write. I write because it helps me to write and it seems to help people to read what I write. i write as the mood and interest takes me, sometimes focused, sometimes without caution, always with the intention of sharing what I am learning. K


      1. That’s interesting and thought-provoking Karen. Thanks.

        I think all these modes and readerships are important. It is essential that someone with your special practical experience (i.e. not just academic) writes polemically. And I think the anecdotes of that work are essential too. It all links together and I understand that your writing on all of it is part of your being, your ‘engine room’ as it were.

        The upside of polemics is that it converts some and gathers the converted together with a leader and a valid argument. The downside of polemics is that it can put off moderates and (of course) riles and confirms the opposition into an escalating stand-off. So polarisation begets more polarisation. Not a surprise to those who know the polarisation that happens in separating families.

        And yes yes, you’ve got good years of good reasons to give up with moderates and the opposition – you don’t need to tell us again! Entirely understandable.

        Please don’t change what works for you and yours (and for me too). But I think that it is also important for others of us to try to find bridges and doors for the moderates and the opposition so that they can get into, not be put off, such important ideas as yours, and such good practice and services and work with separated families.

        You are saying many readers here may not like reading about it, but for that purpose (of bridges and doors), I think anecdotes are golden. So thanks again. And I long for a book full of them too! A book will be quite different to a blog … it will be a particularly good “door” for everyone to get into.



      2. i absolutely agree nick that it will take many hands and many different ways to push through new thinking, i have my own way, others have theirs. i write the anecdotal pieces so that others who do this kind of work can see the themes and issues that we need to think about and deal with, I write the polemical pieces for those who need to have the fire in the belly approach to change..most of all I write from my heart and soul because honesty about myself and about the world I live and work in, has stood me in good stead for so many years of my life. K


  2. In Welsh we have a saying ‘ Cadw frigyn ir yn dy galon ac fe ddaw’r adar yn ôl i ganu’ – keep a green branch in your heart and the birds will come back to sing. The difficulty of keeping such a branch of faith will be known to too many parents and children. The years of not being able to influence a child’s upbringing, and also of not having the chance to be influenced by a child, can be unbearable. The parents who set out purposefully to ring bark a loving parent child relationship, and the visionless politicians and judges who stand idly by, handing a sharpened axe every now and again, will one day be condemned in history books. The only hope is that they fail to sever every fibre and that however tenuous the connection that remains between parent and child, better times will allow the union to strengthen again.


    1. My experience is that the failure to sever ever sinew is virtually universal, just like when a tree is chopped down, its essence lives on in its roots which creep and find new places to grow, the essence of the love between a parent and child can never be severed completely. Keeping a green branch is so hard when children are in a rejecting place, they become so unpleasant, so unreasonable and so unrecognisable that it takes a gigantic heart and leap of faith to keep on believing that love is still alive in there. But it is. In the midst of reunification work sometimes I have to hold my breath when we get to the point where we are waiting to see the sparks of love….. When the angry rejection drops and there is a sort of vaccum in the room, I find myself forgetting all over again the truth of the matter and falling into the belief that love has gone…and then it comes, sparking back into life, like a rusty engine with the fuel flowing in coughs and spurts and the warmth comes flooding back into faces and eyes light up again with recognition and I remember all over again, the power of love between a parent and child. One day perhaps I may get to film some of the work that we do so that the truth that i try to keep telling, that is so hard to believe for parents and practioners alike, can be witnessed. Keep a green branch, keep it always because those birds do come back to sing.


  3. I like this story. Many of us who go through separation will experience at least some of these forces which pull families apart. It is only due to the understanding and empathy that is demonstrated that healing and reunion takes place. Although the child remains on a tight rope between pleasing mother and exploring what it could have been like if had dad been around, the child (at least and at last) is receiving the psychological help necessary to allow her real father to play his role. I have no doubt that father’s passage to a regained fatherhood is equally painful.
    In quieter moments this takes me back to the time when I was chastised, accused and rejected by my daughter who carried the brunt of her mother’s rejection of me.

    Something to be wary of here. When you stand before your Social Workers and Cafcass Officers who have finally decided that they want to learn something from you, the only lesson they may take back to work is this:

    What Karen does is excellent work. This must be the way forward. After we have split the family up post-separation and advised the father to “…keep his distance” (this is what Social Services told me) , when the children reach adulthood there will be lots of professionals available to heal the relationship between father and child.


    At risk of sounding patronising towards Social Services I don’t think they have the capacity, feeling, nor empathy to realise that father should never be made an outcast. I have first-hand experience of Social Services and Cafcass neither of which provide me with much hope that father is little more than just a filler-in for when things get tough for Mum and sometimes not even that.

    If I could say something to Cafcass it would be this: in your minds eye take the image of a happy family and project it onto every troubled relationship you see. Then see what it is that needs to be done this precious second, to turn around the demons of division and return the hearts and minds of the children to the places they belong.

    kind regards


    1. I could not agree more with most of what you say here someone, apart from the idea that there will be a lot of professionals around to help stick those relationships back together. There isn’t and there won’t be as things currently stand, which is why we get generation after generation of fatherlessness and fractured and fragile families. Those kids who are being forcibly separated have no-one to help them in a world where family separation is seen as troublesome only in financial terms. Those parents, who are coping wiht Tsunami like reactions, have no-one to turn to, either at the point of being ripped away from their kids or when they finally find each other again. We continue, in policy terms, with an apartheid approach to supporting families, mum on one side, dad on the other, always labelled good or bad, carer or provider, necessary or not necessary. my greatest wish would be everyone knows how to do it when they separate or no-one separates because our helping services


    2. “.. told me not to worry because when my children grew up they would probably come looking for me.”

      This is a story frequently told – and at best it will have been well intentioned – but professionals must not mislead parents with hoplessly inadequate offerings of false hope in this way.

      Where’s the evidence on which this ‘reassurance’ was based? Even if it was evidence based – what sort of professional thinking concludes it’s OK that you should have to accept missing out on the remainder of your offspring’s entire childhoood?

      If it was evidence based, it would probably need to rely on Dr Amy Baker’s 2007 study of 40 individuals who believed they were alienated as children, which showed:

      The length of time alienated ranged from 7 to 47 years, with an average of about 20 years. (page 16)

      This – and other kinds of – sloppy practice must be robustly challenged because it’s the manifestation of underlying sloppy thinking which so often contributes to the alienation and leads to a cascade of disasters for children.


  4. i think what we have to be clear about is that alienation is rare and not always the reason why children refuse or resist…in Amy Bakers study those adults were fully alienated children, many of those who do not see a parent do not do so because of the sloppy work done by professionals and the aiding and abetting of loss of relationships that that causes…those are not alienation cases and those children do go looking for a parent as they emerge from their frozen place ( which is not alienation)… So, yes, the alienated children will not go looking for a very long time, those are very rare cases, the others, in my experience do go looking sooner…Polly was an alienated child and I was surprised at how active she was in seeking help with her issues, this arose because she was depressed during her second term at university and this was focused around her boyfriend leaving her, what emerged was her loss of her father and her guilt and sorrow and anger at losing him. Only when she had dealt with the first could she deal with the latter and only when she left home could she even contemplate doing anything about finding her father, prompted in part by her mother and step father disapproving of her having lived with her boyfriend. I happened to have been in contact with the University Counsellor who referred her to me, had she not been doing that work she may never have gone close to that issue of loss around her father. This is why education, awareness and training of others is our key focus in the next months and years. If children do not go looking then we as adults must prompt them to do so in my view. K


  5. I don’t think alienation is rare, maybe full-scale and irreversibly damaging alienation is rare, but having read several books on the subject, I think there are several degrees of it, and that it is actually quite common among those who are insecure and have a need to have their children side with them or favor them.


    1. I disagree blake, pure alienation is rare, i work with alienated families…the spectrum is realistic but the severe cases are rare. K


    2. Lots of people say alienation when its not which is why we have to so careful in assessments and treatment


  6. That view seems to excuse those who do everything to seek to alienate but never quite succeed. Is attempted murder or robbery really more excusable than murder or robbery?


    1. What view Blake? this is not a view its my experience in working with families right across the spectrum. When you do this work and meet the families where it happens you will see that there is no such thing as one straightforward case of alienation. Pure alienation is very rare, it has particular significatora, many others do not have those significators which is why it is not pure alienation, Read Bala and Fidler for more informaion about the research evidence, essential to ensure that we treat these cases correctly. K


  7. Hi Karen
    Apologies because I know you have written extensively about alienation in previous bloggs.
    Could you elaborate more on what qualifies as full blown alienation and what does not. Amy Baker identifies attitudes between family members that might sow the seeds of alienation. The name calling, blaming and refusal to talk openly and honestly about issues that matter to each parent. The verbal, emotional and physical violence that sometimes affects the lives of couples. Under these conditions the child becomes the victim of self-imposed allegiance. Quite apart from being hurt and confused the child will begin to form preferential allegiances with either of the parents, often for no other reason than safety and psychological security, a need to feel approval. The allegiance may for a time fluctuate dependant upon which parent the child is with but as the parents move apart from one another, perhaps through geographical separation, the child will begin to align more closely with the carer they happen to spend more time with. This parent, simply by asserting their own schedule will be creating familiar secure patterns of behaviour which will form a “norm” for the children. By virtue of having less time with the children and not doing the day to day routines that the other parent is doing, the other parent will be experiencing a change in the relationship he/she has with the children. She/he has moved from day to day carer to, “high days and holidays parent” with additinal financial responsibilities.
    Psychologically the parent/child attachment has become extremely vulnerable. I think statistics tell us that within two years of parents separating 50% of Dad’s have been lost to their children. (even if only temporarily)

    Last Thursday, at a parenting course run by the local council I watched an excellent video in which better parenting techniques were played out to show us how to improve our parenting skills. (an excellent programme which has my full support) What struck me was how much Dad was doing…….he took up at least 50% of the programme. If Dad is such a prime commodity here why do we dish the dirt on him post-separation?

    It is frequently the case that although a parent may not be trying to alienate the other from their children the shift in parenting pattern exacerbated by lack of parenting time causes a rift to develop such that the parent who spends less time with their children will be suffering a great sense of loss and one which will be felt by the children. The children can’t express this loss because they don’t want to make the parent where they spend most of their time feel unimportant. The children are very much dependant and vulnerable.


    1. Hi, the care patterns we establish after separation erode the daily relationships and push one parent, usually dad to the margins, a good reason to have shared parenting patterns from day one of the separation. Severe or Pure aliention has very distinct characteristics which when they occur all together produces a clearly recognisable reaction in children. Only when all of those characteristics are seen together can one consider that a child may be aliented and even then it is hard to say which type of pure alienation is in play without a psychological assessment of the alienated parent. I use the reformulations of Gardners original theory, those developed by Kelly and Johnson and Bala and Fidler latterly to differentiate. Most cases of ‘alienarion’ that I see are hybrid cases, which are very different to pure alienation, they present differently and in my experience have to be treated diffferently. In the states they go for the more polarised concepts developed by gardner but I prefer canadian work which developed a much more nuanced and carefully screened assessment. Lets put it this way, using this approach with elements that I have developed in my work, I have yet to be wrong in matching assessment to treatment plan and in identifying those cases which WILL respond to change of residence particularly, not every case will and its uttterly disastrous for the child to use that interventon when its the wrong match for the child. Finally, the one clear thing in my experience is that alienation is NOT a mental health issue in the child…I will write more of this soon..k


  8. Blake, I did reply to your last post but I deleted it. I am not going into long winding arguments about the magic of presumption of shared parenting. You have your views, I am not going to argue about them on here, I have far too much else to do.


  9. Hello.
    My husband has a daughter from a previous relationship. The mother has always been extremely difficult regarding him seeing her from the start. My husband has been back and forth the courts over the years and spent thousands and thousands for pointless bits of paper from the court with orders that mean nothing and if broken carry no consequence to the mother. Anyway, things got worse and worse and my husband and I (who have 2 children) could not afford financially to keep going back to court, paying solicitors etc and the child’s mother kept reducing contact until it completely stopped when the child was 10, she is now 15. We have not seen her since she was 10 bar one time where we managed to sneak to a family members house where she was being looked after, and saw her for one hour. When the mother found out about that encounter, the family member was also cut out of the child’s life. As the child is now older, I have started looking for her on social media sites etc, to see how she is doing etc. I have noticed a lot of her posts state how unhappy she is with herself and her life and she even mentioned that she wonders why her Dad never tried to see her. I have the strongest urge to contact her and see that he has tried and tried and tried by god. We have sent cards, letters, tried contacting her via third parties but all to no avail and it seems as if the mother has poisoned her view of what really happened. From reading her posts, she seems like she has a lot of angst in her life and I can’t help but think a lot of this must come from thinking her Dad chose not to see her, which really isn’t the case. I can hand on heart say that a little piece of my husband has died since not seeing her and her brothers have missed her so much too. Any advice on this situation. I don’t want to charge in and make things worse and my husband is rightly feeling the same.


  10. Just read this post as it was at the bottom of today’s post. I reached out to my dad last year after 22 years no contact.
    Pollys story really hit me as I’m going through this, though it was easy who reached out to my dad, my feelings went back and forth at times wanting to cut off again but I kept pushing myself with the support of my husband who is alienated from his children.
    But then in January this year I found. Out he’d lied about something and backed off from him. At first I felt justified, he’d lied and confirmed he was everything they said he was.
    I didn’t tell him I wanted to cut off I just told him I knew he lied and I needed some time.
    I haven’t seen him since but we have exchanged a few text.
    But after reading about polly it reminded me that this is a journey and My instincts and all messed up. So Iv just text him to see how he is, I really don’t want to lose touch again.
    Iv still not told my mum I’m in touch with him, I wonder if it will be easier for me if she knows but I’m scared, it sounds crazy to say at 35years old. It’s the emotional disapproval. So hard to find the right words to describe it.
    Anyway thank you for reminding me I’m not alone and it’s not just me.
    L xx


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