One of the most painful experiences for targeted parents is when the alienation process begins to escalate and children begin to become difficult, challenging and sometimes downright obnoxious.
We may not be familiar with the child who is overly empowered within what is called a ‘fused dyad’ with the other parent and so when that behaviour appears it can seem almost as if your child has turned into someone else. Some parents liken it to their child being possessed, others worry that their child is mentally unwell. Understanding what has happened and why is a very important step to learning how to deal with it.
In an alienation scenario, when one parent is angry or holds unresolved frustrations or is quite simply determined to drive the other out of a child’s life, it is often the case that the child will be elevated to a position of power within the fractured family system. This position of power, is often equal to that of the parent who is angry, who upholds the child’s ‘right’ to do as he or she pleases. Parents who are in this position will often speak about their children being ‘more emotionally aware’ than they are and will tell you and others that they are only being guided by their children because if their children say something is wrong then that must be the truth. This is a very dangerous position for a child, who should not be wielding decision making power at the top of what is called the ‘attachment hierarchy.’ To be in control of the broken family system in this way is, in fact, extremely damaging to children over time.
A healthy attachment hierarchy is when two parents, in relationship together, share the decision making and guiding power that runs a well functioning family. Contained within this hierarchy, children know that their parents are in charge and that they, as children, do not need to do anything other than concentrate on their own developing selves. When families separate however, the sharing of the decision making and guiding power often breaks down, creating a space in which the children themselves become elevated to the top of the hierarchy, often sharing power and decision making with the parent they now live with on a daily basis. The other parent in this scenario is pushed to the outer margins of the family system and quite often begins to be viewed by the parent and child as being unnecessary in daily life.
Children who are at the top of the broken family hierarchy are placed in a position of risk. Children should not hold the same level of decision making power as a parent, the role of a parent is to be the guide and decision maker in a child’s life, gradually handing over the reins to the developing young adult. When children are taken by a parent into a fused dyad in this way, they are often what is called ‘spousified’ which simply means that they have replaced the role of spouse in the parents life or they are ‘parentified’ which means that they are taking care of the emotional needs of a parent and not the other way around. Both of these corrupted roles within a family system are damaging to children and are signs that the attachment hierarchy is broken and harmful to the child involved. When a child is in one of these positions, they can very quickly become extremely difficult to handle when with the other parent as they refuse to recognise that parent’s validity in their lives and actively fight them for the decision making power.
A child in this position will often –
- Use sarcastic statements when with you.
- Try to undermine everything that you say.
- Refuse to come with you when you turn up to collect them.
- Act aggressively towards you and your family
- Sneer at you and call you names
- Act as if you are somehow ‘less than’ they are
- Tell you that you are no good, that you don’t do anything right
- Demand to be taken home to their ‘real’ parent
- Blow hot and cold, they may drop their defiance for a while only to pick it up again when its time to leave
- Tell lies
- Make false allegations against you
- Remain silent in your company
There are many other behaviours that children who are elevated to this position will use, the main thing that targeted parents must be aware of is that when they begin to act like this, the alienation process is well underway.
The end game in an alienation process is when the children simply refuse to make the transition to you. This is often the result of a ‘trigger’ event which enables the child to justify complete withdrawal. A trigger event can be engineered by a child who is in this elevated position and many children will push continuously to try and create this just so that they can ‘decide’ to completely withdraw. It is important to remember at all times, however, that trigger events, just like the behaviours that the child is displaying are unconsciously driven by the child who is using the only coping mechanism available to them. Children in these circumstances are extraordinarily vulnerable, they are hurting inside, they are psychologically harmed and they are doing whatever they can to survive. All targeted parents MUST, at all times, keep in mind that their children would not behave like this if the pressure upon them did not force them to do so. With that in mind, target parents can assist their children to avoid the trigger event by following these golden rules.
When a child is in an elevated position of power and is displaying the symptoms above you must:
- Not try to reason with them, they are not in a position to listen
- Not try to use logic, there is nothing logical about what is happening to them
- Remain patient, calm and collected, do not become angry and feed their self righteousness, it only pushes you into the trap set for you by the other parent.
- Develop a thick skin, your child is in a vulnerable psychological state, you can help if you let their commentary about you flow by you without reacting.
- Be firm as much as you possibly can but avoid scenes which could become the trigger event your child is unconsciously seeking. Remember, they want you to confirm for them why you are the bad person they have been told you are. You must avoid that at all costs.
The most powerful tool in your toolbox is empathy
Children in this vulnerable position want you to confirm for them their desire to reject you. Their desire to reject you is born of trying to cope with the terrible pressure placed upon them by the anger and unresolved frustration and the conscious or unconscious determination of the other parent to evict you. If you fall into the trap of confirming for your children why they should reject you by, for example, being drawn into arguments, by shouting at them, by becoming angry at their unreasonable behaviour or other such scenarios, you will unwittingly give them the justification they are seeking to withdraw.
Empathic understanding and the ability to empathically respond to their behaviour will protect them and you from arriving at that trigger point.
Empathy is the ability to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ to step into their world and see things from their perspective. To walk a mile in your children’s shoes when they are in this position is the most powerful thing that you can do, for yourself and for them.
Walking a mile in alienated children’s shoes
Terri was six years old when her parents separated, she can remember the day very well that her father told her that he was leaving. He asked her if she was alright, far from being alright, Terri felt as if her world was spinning out of control. She watched him carry his bags to the car, after that night all she could hear was her mother crying and alternatively raging about her father. Her hurt and pain about losing him became thoroughly mixed up with her mother’s all encompassing rage.
For short while she saw her father every weekend but each time she did so her mother would come crashing into the time with complaints, demands, tears and shouting. terri began to feel that she didn’t know her father anymore and felt that he was the cause of all this chaos.
Back home with her mother, Terri began to hear that her father was not a very nice man, that he had done this and done that in the marriage to her mother and that he was pretty much worthless as a father too. Together, as Terri grew up, she and her mother shared all sorts of good times together, cosy times, nice times. In the middle of this was a sense that it was she and her mother against the world.
When Terri reached eight years old she felt that she was big enough to take on her father and stand up to him. After all, her mother hadn’t been able to but she would show her mother how it was possible. She would make her mother proud and safe again by rescuing her from her father. Terri began to tell her father how bad he was and ‘stand up’ to him and ‘put him straight.’ Terri’s father, on seeing his daughter becoming more and more defiant against him spoke to her mother about it who told him that his daughter was ‘twice the man that he would ever be’ and praised and thanked Terri for doing what she had been unable to do. Terri’s father, increasingly shocked by his daughter’s behaviour, took to trying to reason with her and be logical, he told her she was being poisoned against him by her mother and that she was brainwashed and alienated. Terri didn’t know what that meant but she did know that her father was turning out to be everything her mother said he was, mean and shouty and angry with her.
The mistakes that rejected parents make
Terri’s dad fell into the trap set for him by Terri’s mum. Not knowing that his daughter and her mother were in a fused dyad in coalition against him, when Terri began to show the signs of this he went straight to the source of the problem and demanded that her mother share decision making power with him again to try and bring Terri back into the role of a child in his life. Terri’s mother however, had elevated her daughter to the role of replacement spouse in her life, using her as a confidante, friend and comforter. The only thing that Terri’s mother could do was uphold that position when challenged by Terri’s father. Role corruption in this family system was well established.
If Terri’s father had known about how alienation arises he would have been equipped to deal with it in a smarter way. Simply using the word alienation and knowing that it is happening is not enough, target parents must know how alienation arises, how it progresses and how to react when it is clear it is happening. The most powerful tool to use against alienation is empathy. If your child is behaving in ways that seem like an alienation reaction to you, your first task is to step into your child’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. Walk a mile in those shoes and understand the way in which your child perceives what happened in the separation, the kinds of behaviours in the other parent that your child is being subjected to and the ways in which your child is acting in the only way he or she knows how in such difficult and painful circumstances.
Children do not want to reject their parents, its not in their nature to say I choose this one or that one. Children who reject are in a vulnerable place and if you are the target parent your role from now on is to understand, as much as possible, the pressures placed upon your child. When you do understand that, from your child’s perspective, you are in the place where you can really start work on interrupting what is happening.
Remember, empathy, its not about your experience its about theirs. Its not about what is happening in your world, its about what is happening in theirs. Its not about you feeling good, its about making them feel good.
You are not powerless as a targeted parent. When you have walked a mile in your children’s shoes you are ready to begin the process of using empathic responding to disarm your child and change their perspective. When you do this you actively interrupt the messages they have been given about you. When you interrupt those messages, you are acting against alienation. Equipped with the right knowledge and the right tools you can make a difference to what is happening to your child.
Next week: Empathic responding with an alienated child.