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.