First real day of sunshine and I am thinking about the way in which we survive cycle after cycle, the downward spiral into winter and the way in which the myth of persephone in the underworld plays itself out in our lives over and over and over again. Born as we are, in a cyclical world, none of us can avoid the reality of life, death and separation from our loved ones. Demeter lamented as her daughter Persephone was taken from her by Hades the god of the underworld, in a story of abduction, reconciliation and regeneration. In the Persephone myth, there is the foretelling of spring, renewal and reunification. For the alienated child and family, none of this normal and natural renewal is allowed to occur and so the world becomes frozen in time as the child disappears, deep into the underworld, where the family they have rejected cannot follow. As spring emerges from its slumber and the green shoots of renewal and regeneration are all around us, I think of those families, for whom the lament cannot end and where normal and natural cycles are stilled, frozen, almost as if between time.
So I thought it might be useful, on this spring morning, to write something of what happens to children in that underground world where families cannot follow. In doing so I hope that I am able to bring some light to dark places and some relief to frozen feelings of loss and lack of hope. I know that living with the experience of being alienated from your child can cause all manner of pain and suffering, it can bring hopelessness and helplessness and at times great waves of anger and resentment, directed not only to those who have caused your loss but to others too, sometimes those who do not even touch your life in any meaningful way.
I was prompted to think about how being alienated from your child can cause such a tsunami of anger and pain, by something written on a facebook page in recent days, from a father who is alienated to a mother who is alienated. The anger directed by this man to this woman was palpable and I could hardly bear to continue reading the way in which he dismissed her experience, her suffering and her pain. I was tempted to write something on the page to comfort her and to draw this man’s attention to the fact that she was not his ex wife, not the mother of his child and not the person who had taken his child away from him. And that in actual fact she was suffering, just as he was, the same fate of having had a child taken away through distortion of the child’s mind and feelings. I let it be, this man clearly has things to work through, this woman will hopefully find help elsewhere. It reminded me though that alienation does terrible things to people which, if they are not able to deal with them, may cause them to unwittingly prolong the withdrawal of their child and maintain the frosts in the underground world their child has disappeared into.
One of the things that I tell alienated parents to do is to keep themselves healthy and well and to embrace the emotional and psychological process that they are being forced to experience and understand it. That’s not easy to do when there is so little understanding of parental alienation in our culture and its definitely not easy to do when your child has behaved as if you are the lord of the underworld himself, come to steal them away. But those parents that I have met and worked with who are able to do this are those for whom the reunification process is swifter and easier and those for whom the possible future in terms of a relationship with their child over the rest of their lives, is a healthy reality. Those who are well and focused and alive in their world, are those who understand what is happening and what the prognosis is for their child.
This post then, is directed at those of you who are currently in that frozen and distant place who need to know more about what happens to children when they go underground. This is part of the empathic responding series of posts that I began a few weeks ago and gives you a window on the world of your child when they are in the fully rejecting stance. It does not offer anyting other than a peek into that world, it does not offer answers and it cannot tell you how to retrieve your child from that place. But it can give you a sense of where your child has gone and what your role, as the rejected parent feels like as you sit and wait for spring to come.
Alienated children are all very different to each other in personality but they share some very common and recognisable traits. They are usually very bright children and sensitive to the feelings of the people around them. Many are the oldest child in the family system or the only child. They are likely to have been very close to you before the rejection began.
Alienated children do very very well at school, in fact one of the things that their aligned parent will say to you and the world is how well their child is doing at school. Immense pride in school achievements is a key feature in alienation cases, it is as if the child takes flight into doing well at school to cover the shame of what they have done in rejecting you. Some very key research evidence points to this, Warshak, Baker and Bala have all written about the alienated child who does exceptionally well at school. My own practice suggests to me that this is without doubt one of the major features when alienation reactions begin. Down the line however, school performance can suffer as the child cannot maintain the flight into perfection. In the underworld, the child who has split parents into good and bad, has also split their own sense of self in the same way and maintainance of behaviour becomes difficult as the child occillates between good and bad within their own selves.
The early part of an alienation reaction is not the same as the middle part or latter part. You will notice that I am speaking about alienation as a journey not a static experience and indeed it is though some reactions become fixed and immoveable, most particularly when a child is left in the care of a parent with a personality disorder who captures the child within that and fuses their developing selves with the disordered adult self. Those children who remain fixed and rejecting are those for whom the prognosis is not so good and it is useful, in all cases, to know whether your child is moving along a spectrum or static and unable to do so.
Early alienation for a child feels like a relief. As they disappear underground, taken not by you but their other parent, they will project their fears of being abducted onto you, the parent that they have chosen to reject. In actual fact, many children appear to ‘know’ at some level that they have been taken by a parent and will talk about being chased, hunted, stolen or grabbed as one of the core fears that they hold of the parent that they are rejecting. The reality is that these fears, which arise because of the ‘choice’ they have made, are being pointed at you when they really belong to the other parent. Underground, in the world of the alienated child, what is good is bad and what is bad is good and black is white as everything becomes topsy turvey and upside down. When the parent who has captured the child reaffirms this, the rejection deepens and becomes entrenched as the child literally loses the ability to know their own mind. The relief in the early days for the child, is not having to try and process things through each time they are confronted with reality in the form of you. No longer having to face the psychological trauma of turning things upside down and back to front and then having to reverse it again, brings an immense sense of escape and many children speak of feeling safe again and no longer fearful. Whilst they project the fears onto you, the fears they really feel are those which arise from the fused nature of their relationship with the parent they have chosen to keep in their lives. Perhaps as you read this you can begin to understand just how scrambled the internalised world of the alienated child feels. In the early days there is much relief at not having to keep on coping with that.
As things move on however things become more difficult for the alienated child. The further away from you they travel, the more complicated their reaction becomes. If they are absolutely removed from you, without any form of contact and if the image they have been forced to accept of you is one of danger, fear and terror, a phobic like reaction may take root. This is when children become upset and angry or sometimes even hysterical when anything about you or your family is mentioned. The distortion of you in their internal world has become so powerful that they cannot cope with any knowledge of you or any exposure to anything to do with you. These phobic like reactions are common to severely alienated children, who are protecting themselves from the pressures they are still experiencing from the parent that they are aligned to. These are the children for whom life underground becomes fixed and permanent. These are the children who are very much at risk of emotional harm if they are not helped.
Towards the end of the journey of alienation, when reconnection becomes possible, your child starts to detect a light at the end of the deep dark tunnel they have been travelling through. Children at this stage will often make attempts to contact a parent, perhaps looking at facebook pages or connecting on other social media, perhaps sending messages and then retreating in silence. Children in this stage remind me of small animals unable to tolerate too much light and working with them takes great care as over exposure to perspective work can be too much for them. But children in this stage are those for whom the future looks brightest, if the parent they have lost is sitting at the entrance to the tunnel waiting for them, well and healthy and welcoming. When children can put their hand in yours and move off with you into the next phase, safe in the knowledge that the past has gone and will not return, their lives (and yours) can rapidly repair. You may need to be patient for some time as they come and go and retreat and come forward again, but once a child has started to reach out it is highly unlikely that they will disappear from your life again for ever. Be ready, be healthy, be well for when that happens.
Rejected parents are many and varied and working with them as I do I see many for whom I know it is a matter of waiting and some for whom I know that spring is going to take a long time coming. This is not to blame parents who are alienated, I know how painful and difficult it is to experience never ending loss in this way. It is however, to flag up that there is a condition that some parents experience which acts against reunification possibilities and against your child returning to you. This condition is best described as fixed projection of blame and it comes when a parent is so focused on the wrong doing of the other parent and what has been taken away, that they lose perspective. This condition perfectly mirrors that of the alienated child and when it occurs, it is as if the child and parent become perfect reflections of each other, neither one moving for fear that change will come. For parents in this condition, I often experience the fear of change as being greater than the desire for reunification. When it occurs, it is incredibly difficult to raise with the rejected parent, who will become angry and blaming towards the therapist, solicitor, court process, anyone else who gets in the way, even, in some cases, other parents who have themselves been rejected as in the case of the man on the facebook page whose anger towards a fellow rejected parent so obviously demonstrated. Loss of a child is a terrible thing, injustice suffered at the hands of your child’s other parent is intolerable and forced prevention of a relationship at the hands of the family courts compounds the nightmare. The way you respond to this however, lies in your own hands, your own heart and your own ability to understand and cope with what has happened to you and your child. Do not let the bitterness, fear and anger overwhelm you, keep a place in your heart for compassion, humility and strength to carry on. Most of all, keep your own life alive and live and laugh and share your world with others, and never forget that those who really understand are those who have experienced the worst of it. Do not close them out.
Nelson Mandela, a man who experienced injustice, forced separation from loved ones and absolute discrimination in his life said of his release –
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
When your child comes up from the underworld, be free, be well and be there, right where they need you to be.
(This post is dedicated to Tim Haries, father of two children lost in the underworld and Paul Manning, father of a child also lost underground. For your dignity, courage and ability to move beyond bitterness and blame, towards a better future, where your children are returned and restored to you).