Recently I have read a few good news stories of mums and dads being reunited with their children after periods of time in which their children have been withdrawn from them and refusing to see them. In each of these stories I have read about how those children have been alienated and how reuniting in this way is a story of overcoming the poisonous acts of the other parent/the family courts/other people who have caused children to be alienated. I have no doubt that in some of these cases, some or all of those factors have been at play, but reading these stories, I cannot help but feel vaguely anxious about the way in which the term parental alienation is so freely and easily used as the reason why children enter into periods of withdrawal from a parent after separation.
Parental alienation in my experience is a rare phenomenon and in its pure form, as it was described by Gardener in 1985 is even rarer. I have myself probably only seen around five cases of pure or severe alienation in which the reason for the rejection by the child was solely caused by one parent acting in a determined and conscious manner to eradicate the other parent from a child’s life. More commonly I have seen and worked with what are called hybrid case of alienation, which were first described by researchers Johnson and Kelly and which have, at their heart, patterns of behaviours which create a double bind for a child who becomes captured in the unresolved conflict between two adults and sometimes two family systems. The pure cases are the easiest to spot and treat and hybrids the more complex and difficult to deal with. It is important in my view, that the use of the term parental alienation, in describing a child’s rejection is accurate and based in reality. Only then can a definitive prognosis be given and a treatment route set out. Sadly, for some, although this matching of analysis to treatment is done carefully and with the knowledge that this can release the child, the desire to carry on the projection of blame onto the other parent remains so strong that only the term parental alienation in its pure meaning, will do. This is the result of a determined and fixated view that the other parent is wrong and the ‘alienated’ parent is right. It serves no purpose other than to hold the child in the same dynamic that created the withdrawal and it causes endless entrenched refusal in the child. This is when it is not parental alienation and this is why it is important to understand that.
Children are most at risk of alignment and rejection between the ages of 8-14 years old, when their personality organisation is underway and when they are at their most indignant and self righteous as they go through developing their own identity. Children in this category will often naturally align themselves to one or other parent even when the family lives together and when the family separates, this alignment can become exacerbated by the difficulties that surround the child, particularly if one or the other side of their family is hostile in any way. Transitions, moving between two sides of the family can become intolerably painful for some children who will, eventually, begin a process of withdrawal. Unfortunately this withdrawal is often accompanied by excuses and ‘reasons’ put forward by the child, for why they no longer like going to mum or dads. Most children are at risk of this after separation but children who are sensitive, bright, clever and attuned to other people’s feelings are more so. Similarly, if children have been very close to a parent who is then pushed into the role of secondary parent through the implementation of the lone parent model of support to families (one parents is the carer and the other the provider) then that parent becomes very much at risk of becoming the rejected parent.
But not all rejection is alienation. A child can only be said to be purely alienated if she is unable to be in the vicinity of a rejected parent and demonstrates phobic like reactions. A child can only be purely or severely alienated if there are a set of conditions in place which demonstrate that all of the signs of alienation listed by Gardener are present and active. Thus, a child must show the following behaviours to be considered severely alienated.
Denigration of the rejected parent – name calling, hostility, relentless hatred
Use of borrowed scenarios – telling people about things that the child could not possibly remember themselves
Reflexive and repeated support of the aligned parent – that parent is wholly good and perfect
Independent thinker syndrome – an insistence that they and only they are responsible for their thoughts and feelings
Spread to the wider family – as if the whole family system is infected
No ambivalence – hatred is cold, clear and unequivocal
No guilt or shame – treatment of the rejected parent is cruel and without normal feelings of conscience
Weak and absurd reasons for rejection – ranging from ‘he made me go to bed at 7.30pm to she makes me do my homework’
Many children will show one or two of these behaviours but will not show the others, similarly, many parents will show behaviours linked to alienation but not all of them. These cases, which cannot be categorised as alienation, are those which are on the alienation spectrum and could, as a result, become alienation. These are also the cases which are not alienation but which are often pushed along the spectrum into alienation due to the parent who perceives rejection becoming frustrated, angry and upset.
Children who find transitions between their parents difficult will show a range of behaviours which demonstrate that they are not coping well. These children will, often well before they finally withdraw from a parent, give signs that they are not coping. Children who become angry, resentful, tearful, dramatic, cold on arrival, distant on departure, are those who are not coping with transitions between their parents. Children not coping with transitions will often want their other parent to rescue them and will ‘play off’ parents against each other in order to cope with their anxious feelings. When this kind of reaction sets in, if you are the parent who perceives rejection, what you do next can be the difference between helping your child to cope and pushing your child into full rejection of you. Its not your fault, when your child is showing an alienation reaction its extremely difficult to know what to do but whatever you do, it has to be done carefully, attentively and gently. You have to keep love in your heart and patience in your actions, children who begin to show these signs are telling you that they cannot cope with the psychological space between you and their other parent and, most significantly, what is filling that space. Chances are, what is filling that space is mild to moderate negativity which spikes now and then and disappears for a time. This will be related to how you and your child’s other parent relate to each other and whether there are external issues impacting upon you both. If you watch your child’s reactions, keeping a diary if you can, you will see that when things are tough in the space in between your child’s behaviour will become more problematic, when things are calm and quiet, their behaviour subsides and disappears. Children in these circumstances are like super powerful emotional weather vanes, it doesn’t take much to swing them round to stormy or back again to calm.
One of the biggest issues we come across at the Family Separation Clinic is the problem of the parent who has decided or been told that their child is being alienated. These parents come to us, often from father’s rights forums, telling us that their child has been alienated and they need help to deal with that. Given that alienation is a rare phenomenon which can take a lot of painstaking months to raise in the court process, this kind of presentation is very difficult to deal with. How does one introduce the notion, for example, that a parent has contributed to the child’s rejecting position, especially when they have already been told that their child has definitely been alienated and should be treated. The truth of the matter is it is a very difficult road to unpick and help to resolve a child’s rejection when it is not alienation which has caused it but the tangle between two parents determined to enact their rights and get their own way over the care and control of children. Yes, many many dads suffer the horrible and cruel experience of being pushed out of their child’s life on a day to day basis and yes, many dads do experience a sort of hybrid alienation but not all children who decide that they can no longer cope with the toxicity between parents are alienated. Some withdraw until the storm passes, which can take time if two adults are intent on prolonging the problems between them, some soldier on, withdrawing only when it really gets impossible. Understanding where your children are and taking the emotional temperature of the weather between you and your child’s other parent is a much faster way of improving things for your child than becoming fixated on a self given diagnosis of parental alienation and refusing to let go of that come what may.
But some parents are indeed alienators and where those alienators exist you will find conditions which are fairly similar although of course each case of alienation has its own typifications. Alienators act in ways that are designed to make you and not they the ones who are scrutinised and you and not they the recipient of blame. Alienators will often try to convince the world (and you) that you are mad/bad/dangerous to know and will sweetly smile and be ever so co-operative whilst all the while ensuring that they are setting you up for a fall. Alienators are clever, cruel and often very very cold people without empathy, but they understand other people, especially you, very very well. When an alienator has you in their sights you must be careful because what they are most skilled at doing is throwing attention onto you. If you wriggle and squirm and jump with fury like a worm on a hook when an alienator has you at their mercy you will soon be swallowed alive. Alienators look for people they can manage and manipulate. In order to know an alienator you have to know yourself very very well indeed because knowing yourself better than the alienator is to be able to protect yourself when they come fishing for your soul.
But there is an accompanying player on the alienation scene, this is the parent who, whilst fervently declaring that they are alienated, is busy projecting blame onto the other parent in order to make them appear to be the alienator. This is a controversial concept I know but it is one which, in our work with families where children reject a parent, we must take into consideration if we are to get the treatment route right for the child involved. The double bluffing alienating parent is one who simply cannot or will not accept that their child is withdrawing because of things that they have done as well as what the other parent has contributed, this parent will stick fast with their blame projection, seeing nothing whatsoever wrong in their own behaviour which in fact can be one of the major contributions to a child’s withdrawal.
And herein lies the problem of Gardener’s original concept of parental alienation and the way in which it is widely used by many parents who face children’s rejection. In this world there HAS to be a determined, conscious and wicked alienating parent and a blameless, innocent parent who has done nothing at all to cause the dynamic which has created the situation. As Professor Bala from Queen’s University in Ontario Canada repeatedly states however – ‘It is very rare that Hitler marries Mother Theresa….’ and yet that is the concept that we come up against time and again in the field that we work in where hybrid cases are so much more common than the very rare phenomenon which is pure or severe alienation.
I understand why so many parents who face rejection want it to be about the other parent being wicked and conscious of what they are doing. It is painful enough to face a child’s withdrawal, to have to accept some responsibility for that too is like scalding an already open wound. But it is this acceptance, when a child is captured in conflicted dynamics, which has to be achieved if change is to come. In our work with families, we take parents back to the original dynamic between them, educating, informing and supporting them to understand their own contribution and helping them to change. This is undertaken in many ways, through coaching, counselling, psycho-education and by increasing the confidence of a parent to arrive at the place we know will make a difference to children, acceptance and withdrawal of cross projected blame and a refocus upon the parent/child relationship. In a hybrid case, this is the only way that the complex tangled web of emotions can be untangled and, if achieved, with time and patience, the prognosis for reunification, repair and restoration of a normal relationship is very good indeed.
I have been watching reports of reunification recently and the comments that go with them with interest. It is clear to me that for some parents, the passage of time, the emergence from the danger zone years of 8-14 and the maturing child’s emotional and psychological self brings the necessary changes that lead to a child looking for their lost parent. Whilst these children have been captured on the alienation spectrum however, it is highly unlikely that they were purely alienated in the first place but rather that they were captured in an impossible double bind that caused them to withdraw. The difference? A purely or severely alienated child could take well over two decades to reach a point where they seek out the lost parent and it remains unlikely that they will do so without help. Similarly, purely or severely alienated children are noticeable by the ongoing mental health problems that they are likely to face, the broken relationships left behind them and the narcissistic tendencies that they are likely to display. If your child returns to you in late teens or early twenties and has been gone less than ten years, it is highly unlikely that they were purely or severely alienated and thank heavens for it. If you are there when they return and well and healthy and able to focus on what they need and not the reasons for their rejection in the first place, you will both be onto a winning streak in which your lives as you could and should have continued them, can now fall back into step.
Alienation is a complicated and deeply concerning reaction and in its pure or severest form there are usually personality disorders behind it and other worrying child protection issues. The rarity of the issue when it presents in this form is why it is so vital to understand that not all withdrawal is alienation and the difference in treatment routes that are required to resolve it.
If you face a severe alienation situation you are not going to resolve that through therapy, through adjusting your own behaviour, through waiting or being patient. The only true remedy in a pure or severe case is removal and when that occurs, the miracle of the phobic, howling, terrified, vicious, lying and fantasy dwelling child who turns back into their normal self, can be seen to occur. But these are rare cases, so rare that I have only seen a handful in my work in this field and when I do see them I know them without a shadow of a doubt. Children in these circumstances are, in my opinion, being terribly abused emotionally and psychologically and liberating them from this is an absolute priority. Parental alienation, in this form is horrendous to witness and very different in many ways to the hybrid cases which are far less dramatic and far less easy to resolve.
If your practitioner tells you that your case is that of a hybrid reaction it lies in your own hands with the help of your therapist and other support workers to deal with your own behaviour first and then the dynamic between you and your child’s other parent. This is the biggest ask of all for all parents facing rejection but it is the swiftest, cleanest and most healing route to repair of your relationship with your child. Taking on this concept when you are the one being rejected is a herculean task but take it on you must. Recognising the difference between pure and severe and hybrid alienation is the first step. Understanding the difference is the next. And all of those who campaign about and discuss parental alienation will do the people that they work with a great big favour by doing the same.