First encounters with an alienated child

Many professionals who have not ever encountered a child who is alienated find it difficult to know how to understand or respond to the phenomenon.  In this current climate of continuous elevation of a child’s voice in the process of family separation, professionals may well be meeting children who have, for quite some time before their encounter, been given all of the decision making power over their relationship with their other parent.  This process, of placing a child in charge of relationships, is one which is upheld by the increasing reliance in the UK on tools such as Wishes and Feelings reports.  When these tools are used indiscriminately and without any kind of analysis, professionals working with the alienated child are simply colluding with the alienation and entrenching an already serious problem of role corruption.

A child in a separated family should not be in control of the relationships that are had with both parents.  When a child is elevated to that position, it is often accompanied by role corruption, which means that the child is being used as a replacement spouse or partner to the parent with whom they are living.  This role corruption, which is a serious form of attachment disorder should, in itself be considered abusive by professionals.  A parent who is relating to a child as if they are a partner or a spouse should be assessed further to understand what has gone wrong in the relationship.  When this is accompanied by the child’s fervent expression of independence in terms of making decisions about the relationship with the other parent, alienation is very likely to play a strong part in what has gone wrong.

Many alienating parents rely upon their child to uphold the ‘decision’ that the other parent is not a good parent and has caused the rejection themselves.  Professionals who are challenged by the notion of a parent having caused the rejection should look closer at what really happens when parents do abuse their children.  Justified rejection, which is the rejection by a child of a parent who has harmed them, does not occur because of small and relatively minor problems between a child and a parent.  Any child who is rejecting a parent based on frivolous or minor issues (he made me do my homework, she got hold of me and made me wash my face) is likely to be exaggerating everyday happenings which are then amplified by the aligned parent as if they are abusive acts in themselves, they are not.  What they are are events which an opportunistic alienating parent has seized upon as ‘proof’ of the other parent being dangerous to the child.  They are examples of how the child’s mind has been manipulated and the child’s dependency upon that parent has been exploited.  Any professional confronted with a child who uses frivolous, absurd or weak reasons for complete and total rejection of a parent should be on the alert.  When a child’s mind is used in this way to achieve the objectives of revenge, that child is being abused and action should be taken to prevent it immediately.

For professionals, the first encounter with an alienated child is an important one. This is because it is within this first encounter that one can begin to assess the level of pressure which is being placed upon the child to maintain their rejecting stance.  First encounters with the child should ideally take place close to the assessment of the aligned parent, although they should never be undertaken with the aligned parent present.

A checklist of presenting behaviours can be used with both parent and child if alienation is suspected.  This should be cross referenced and analysed to determined how many of the signs of alienation in the child and alienating behaviour in the parent are demonstrated.  With experience, it becomes easier to determine when alienation is present within a very short period of time, but at the start a professional should cross reference and analyse at length to ensure that what is being seen is actually alienation.

Alienation is not difficult to mix up with justified rejection.  When a child is justifiably refusing a relationship with a parent they are able to articulate that with reasoned argument which does not appear to be fragile or brittle or repeated.  A child who uses phrases which are uncommon for their age group or sound rehearsed, alienation should be suspected and further indepth analysis of the relationship between the child and the aligned parent should be undertaken.

One of the common mistakes that professionals who do not understand alienation make is to treat the rejected parent suspiciously.  This is often the approach taken by professionals who are schooled in the idea that the voice of the child is of paramount importance in any dispute between parents.  Rejected parents, whether they are newly rejected or have been struggling with the relationship with the child for some time, are deserving of support, care and guidance at all times.  Rejected parents may have made some mistakes in the past, especially when the child first went into withdrawal from them. This does not mean that they are the cause of the problem and it does not mean that they should be treated in the same way as the aligned parent.

When alienation is suspected the aligned parent should be treated firmly but with respect.  The rejected parent however should be supported to talk and express their feelings in readiness for the work that can bring about change.  Many professionals unfortunately do not behave this way but instead act as if both parents are to blame in an attempt to keep the aligned parent onside.  The aligned parent who knows that they are doing however will only exploit that kind of approach and will exert all of the power that they possess (control of the child’s mind for one) to manage the professional’s interaction.  Professionals who are unknowing or uncertain can easily be lead into the triangulation into a collusion with the fused and indignant dyad of alienating parent and child. When this happens, rejected parents lose heart and what little hope they have hung onto and alienating parents grow stronger and more powerful on the control that they continue to exert.  In between the child loses hope that rescue is at hand and collapses further into compliance with the wishes of the dominating parent upon whom they realise they will have to continue to depend upon.

First encounters between professionals and alienated children are critical because of the hope that children in these circumstances harbour, that rescue from this dreadful dilemma is close at hand.  The professional who is equipped with the right knowledge and the courage to act swiftly and determinedly is the professional who will help the child.  Those who are uncertain of themselves, unable to confront conflicted people and who are swayed by the alienating parent’s expressions of distrust and dislike will fail the child.  Liberating alienated children is not easy and it does not come with an automatic ‘like’ button.  Professionals who act for children in these circumstances face complaints, outrage, disbelief and accusations as well as the often gruelling process of being cross examined.  There is often little in the way of thanks other than the gratitude of the rejected parent and the knowledge that children whose lives have been split, scarred and damaged, will have a chance to grow up more normally.

So why do we do it?  Ask anyone who has had a first encounter with an alienated child reuniting with a rejected parent. The magical reappearance of the love for a parent that was previously so violently disavowed by the child, which  emergences in an instant when the child becomes aware that they are freed from the grip of the alienating parent is all that is needed to understand why.

Liberating children from the child abuse which is parental alienation should be the core skill of all professionals who work with children in separating families, currently it is not.  But when enough people understand the reality of alienation and its impact on children, it will be.

Mother shaming: the dynamics of the alienating father

It is often said that parental alienation is not a gender issue, by this people mean that the issue can affect either mothers or fathers. At first glance however, it would appear that alienated mothers are in the minority, but in reality they are not so small a group.  What faces alienated mothers however is something so deeply unpleasant and so deeply shaming, that it is small wonder that so many women in these circumstances do not reveal to the outside world what has happened to them.  Not only do alienated mothers face the loss of their children and all of the grief and suffering that goes with that, they face the hostile and deeply suspicious attitudes of society at large, where the belief that if a mother has lost her children, she must have done something dreadful to deserve it, is an obstinate and poisonous mindset.

This mindset is one that the alienating father is often quick to feed by exploiting the assumptions that other people make about mothers who are not the main carers of their children.  Manouvering a child into a position where he is expressing fear of his mother and making allegations about her behaviour towards him, is a key component of the strategy used by alienating fathers.  Whilst in this respect it is similar to those which are used by alienating mothers, the alienating father will seek to ensure that the belief structures held by many professionals, about the importance of mothering and its primary function in a child’s life are utilised to the full in the process of convincing the outside world that this mother is not fit to be a mother and this mother has caused her own child to reject her.

On another blog this week I read a comment in which it was asserted that non resident mothers are either drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes or dead.  I kid you not.  In taking this person to task on the matter it became clear that this belief system runs rife even through the mind sets of those who want a more egalitarian way of parenting after separation.  When men who seek shared care, loftily and without even blinking, proclaim that non resident mothers are to be thus described, is it any wonder that so many women fight to maintain the role of primary carer after separation and would not choose to share care even if they wanted to?  For alienated mothers, exploited, shamed and shoved to the outer margins of our society (as well as their own children’s lives) what hope is there when such horrible attitudes exist?

Alienated mothers are a group of people for whom there is very little support and very little written which is dedicated to them. In the UK there is one support group called MATCH which is lifeline for women in this situation and whilst Families needs Fathers welcomes mothers as well as fathers  this may not be readily apparent to mothers in this situation, (leading me to believe that they really should get their act together and call themselves Families need Mothers AND Fathers).

The truth of the matter is that parental alienation IS a gender issue.  It is a gender issue because the experience of being an alienated mother or an alienated father, whilst having much in common internally, in the endless loss and lack of completion of the process of grieving and the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that this brings, is a DIFFERENT experience externally.  This difference is caused by the gendered attitudes of the people around us, by the professionals who attempt to assist parents and by the internalised gendered expectations of the parents AND their children.  A good mother is ‘supposed’ to be a mother who is eternal and ever present.  A good mother is the parent who cares.  A good mother is there when her children get home.  A mother who is alienated and whose children are making allegations about her being not good, is a mother who faces first the horror of her own alienation and then the horror of other people’s suspicions about why her children have rejected her.  The final nail in the coffin of her self confidence and belief is then the disbelief of the professionals around her who, having fallen foul of their own assumptions about good mothers, walk blindly into the trap set by the alienating father in swallowing whole the projection of the mother as the cruel/evil/hopeless/ wrong doer.

This theme is very common in situations where children become alienated from their mothers and whilst many commentators will say that it is also true where children are alienated from their fathers, different attitudes about mothering and fathering, in the professionals around the family, act to create distinctly different outcomes.

For some professionals for example, the thought of a child being alienated from a mother by a father raises the question of whether this is a domestic violence situation in which the father is using the child as a weapon against the mother.  In others, the assumption that the child’s rejection is because of something the mother has done, is easier to go with, especially if the father does not readily present as the stereotype of the violent and aggressive man that they expect to see.  When a child is alienated against a father by a mother, it is often more readily accepted as being simply the collatoral damage of the separation itself, the assumption being that so long as the child is loved by the mother then that is all that is necessary.  In others a child alienated against a father has to have been abused by that man in order for the rejection to have occurred.  Some Judges may feel comfortable with the idea of removal of a child from a father, but removal of a child from a mother may be an anethema.  Similarly, the alienated mother who faces allegations from her child, may be more suspicious to professionals because her role is to be good and there in her child’s life and if she is not then she cannot deserve the intervention that will change the dynamic.  So much depends upon the outside world and the beliefs held about mothers and fathers that the alienating father, alive to the assumptions that other people make, will set up the child to confirm the worst of the negative stereotypes about the not good enough mother.

In many respects this is an issue which should be of deep concern to feminists given their focus on the rights of women and the ways in which they are exploited by men but it isn’t.  Alienated mothers seem to face the same kind of dismissal of their reality by feminists as they do by the population at large.  In a recent case I was astounded at how social workers who we consider to be working in a feminist industry, swallowed the whole of the tale of a mother who had caused her children to reject her by taking them on holiday to Cornwall instead of the Caribbean.  This ‘abusive’ act had even been cited as one of the reasons why the mother was not able to put her children’s needs before her own.  The lack of understanding and the complete lack of analysis of why children would use such frivolous reasons for rejecting wholesale a relationship with a mother they had been close to up until only 18 months previously, astonished me.  When I questioned them about their understanding of the Duleth Model approach to domestic violence and whether this might just be a case that fitted into this post separation as it likely had prior to it, it was their turn to be astonished.  Feminist approaches to post separation support appear to me to rely upon the presence of the stereotyped mother as carer and father as either hopeless and refusing payer of child maintenance or demanding and controlling absent parent. Reverse that dynamic and it is as if the ability to analyse the reality disappears out of the window. The truth is that much of the alienated mother shaming that I see happening is perpetuated by those feminist trained professionals who profess to care so much for women.  Which is another reason why this group of alienated parents is invisible and unable to share their experience widely.

Mothers AND fathers are alienated from their children and both suffer immensely.  For mothers the loss of the role of carer as well as the loss of the relationship with their children is a burden made heavier by the attitudes of people around them. That is not to say that alienated fathers do not suffer equally, they do and their burdens are made heavier by the attitudes of those around them too, only those attitudes are often different, more dismissive and less caring whilst those facing women are more inquisitive, judgemental and damning.

All of course made so much worse by the very attitudes that poison the world that post separation parenting takes place in. The notion that the only good non resident mother is a dead one, featured strongly this week. It is the other side of the belief that the only good resident father is a widowed one, which is also strong across our society.  It speaks of our deeply held societal beliefs about men and women and what they should be doing in the world.  It is outdated, it is shaming and it needs to stop.  When the only good separated mothers and fathers are those who willingly and co-operatively work together after separation, then we will live in a modern society in which alienation as a crime against children will be recognised and acted upon swiftly and decisively.  Until then we must work to eradicate the ignorance that causes the already deeply wounded to suffer even more.