I said that I would post about using empathy to respond to an alienated child this week and I have been thinking about that and how to best structure this. It has taken some thought because alienated children are, as many of you will know, incredibly difficult to deal with at times, being variously, over empowered, withdrawn, aloof, obnoxious, dismissive and angry. Responding to each of these manifestations of the issue of alienation as and when they arise, is your task as the targeted parent.
Lets start with the facts. Your alienated child is not actually anything other than the tiny little tot you first held in your arms all those years ago. Underneath the layers of self righteous indignation, unpleasantness and downright arsey attitude, your child remains there, frozen in a sort of bubble which is covered over by the impact of the role corruption they are suffering. In so many ways, when I meet alienated children what I want to do most of all is reach out and hug them close, I want to rock them and sing to them and stroke away the oppositional defiance which is born of nothing other than fear. Fear of the future, fear of the past and fear, most of all of the present. What each alienated child carries with them each and every day, is the fear that if they were to drop this stance, they have no idea what might happen. And that comes from repeated experiences of facing emotional chaos in the conflicting demands of the two people who love them most. One of whom is helpless to do anything but sit by and watch and the other who is either consciously or unconsciously pulling the strings. When I meet alienated children it no longer really matters to me who is doing what, all I really want to do is say ‘hush, its ok, trust me, you will be safe,’
Providing safety for an alienated child is not always possible however. That’s because the dynamics around them are such that even within the court process it can be hard to achieve their liberation from the cross tension of competing demands. And so the very best that I can achieve for some children is to teach the parent that is alienated from them, how to at least ‘do no harm’ if or when they do see their children. And I can teach rejected parents how to develop the skin that allows the barbs and the hurts to roll off them like water from a ducks back and I can help them to speak in ways that alienated children can sometimes (not always) hear.
Alienated children are primed to find your ‘hooks’ and when they are near you they will come fishing for those hooks with the rod and line provided for them by their other parent. Their other parent, being someone who knows you very very well, is well placed to teach your child what winds you up and hurts you. When your child comes fishing for those hooks, you have to first of all remember that this is not your child who is trying to hurt you, its the other parent who has primed the rod with the information needed to hook you like a prize trout from the river. If you are going to use empathic responding with an alienated child, remove those hooks, those things that the other parent used to use to wind you up before you start because without fail, your child will retaliate by fishing around to try and hook you into an argument or hurt you with a comment about you.
You see alienated children don’t want you to be nice to them. What they really want, when the alienation process is underway, is for your to prove to them why they are right to have rejected you. Neither do they want you to demonstrate any kind of empathy with them, they do not wish to feel the guilt and shame that empathic responding draws up in their minds and will become angry in response to try and drive those feelings down again. Guilt and shame are normal and natural responses, they are the signs that our conscience is working. When we are horrible to someone or about someone, we feel guilty and ashamed. An alienated child acts without conscience when a reaction is in full sway and so is unable to feel guilt or shame. Couple that with the elevation of the child to the top of the family system by the other parent and you have a child who acts as if they are in charge, as if they are without feelings and as if they are superior in every way. When you are going to use empathic responding with an alienated child, be prepared for an angry reaction. At least at first.
Empathic responding means showing the child that you understand the position that they are in and how they feel. Empathic responding with an alienated child however also means going a little bit further than you would in normal empathic work because you have to be able to sustain that long enough for the anger to drop and the guilt and shame to rise and then wait, whilst the child’s psychology rearranges itself. All of this can sometimes happen in an instant, as in the case of spontaneous emergence and younger children may surprise you with an immediate switch back to their normal happy self. With older children however it often happens over time and you have to be able to keep yourself free of the hooks and protect yourself with a teflon coat for a sustained period whilst you continue to respond empathically. You have to be able to get through the ‘whatever’ stage and the ‘you’re not going to win you know’ stage and the ‘you’re not my mum or dad stage’ and the ‘I hate you ‘ stage and more. And you have to keep being able to do it over and over and over again. Especially if the child continues to live with the other parent.
There is an argument going on at the moment in PA literature about whether alienated children should always be removed from an alienating parent in order to enable them to drop the reaction. I have some sympathy with that having seen many children liberated from what is an horribly anxious position for them to be in. For those children however who remain trapped with an alienating parent but who are spending time with you, using empathic responding can at least do no harm and at best offer your child the understanding that you know what they are going through.
But you have to be strong and able to cope if you are going to use empathic responding because it is an active and dynamic way of relating to your child and it invites the child to respond back to you. When they do they will use the coping mechanism that they have developed in the alienation process to try and force you back into the place where they and not you are in control. And so being prepared is a key stage in starting this kind of work.
To be prepared you must know what your own weak spots are. Think about them. How did the other parent used to hurt you? What kinds of things did they say that felt painful? Get rid of your attachment to these things, they are not true, they were never true, let them go, you don’t need them anymore. When your child starts to sound like their other parent, you are going to use distraction techniques to switch off from the game being played to try and hook you in. Think of some music you love and hum it in your head, think of an image of calm flowing water and focus on it, imagine yourself in a cool meadow, barefoot on grass wet with rain. And breathe. And let love flow towards your child, however angry she or he is.
This week then I want you to find a photograph of your child and stand it somewhere you can see it. I want you to imagine that child as she or he was before the alienated set in and I want you to call that image up in your mind several times every day. I want you to let your love flow to that child, forgetting the hurt and the pain that has been caused and I want you to feel, in the depths of your being, the love that you have for your child that fills every cell of you. I want you to prepare for empathic responding and re-entering into a dynamic relationship of change.
You might feel afraid, you might wonder what on earth you are doing. You are becoming, again, the parent you always were and are still. You are preparing and when you prepare, you create an expectation of change.
Next week we will go together through the steps of empathic responding and learn more about this journey of change.
Nothing is static, nothing has to stay the same. Your child’s fear has frozen the waters, in time you can thaw them out again.
*This article is for parents who are still in relationship with a child who is in an alienated position. I will write for those parents who are not in relationship shortly.