The generation game: grandparenting and parental alienation

There is a place in our lives from where we can stand and look back and forward all at the same time. That day is the day that our grandchildren are born and we experience, perhaps for the first time, a sense of self standing in a line that stretches back into the past whilst at the same time we cradle the future in our arms. Grandparenting brings with it a perspective on life which is not yet achieved when we become parents and it causes us too to be especially vulnerable.

For grandparents, the love of the child of our own child is unique in all of the relationships that we can experience.  Not only do we suddenly experience ourselves within the perspective of generations, we also  experience  giving love entirely whilst negotiating our place in the hierarchy which surrounds the child. As such, as grandparents, we are at a cross roads of interfamilial dynamics.  Little wonder the world around our grandchildren can sometimes become tangled with mixed messages and complex meaning.

There is an old saying that goes ‘a son is a son until he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter for life‘ and it is no accident that many of the paternal grandparents that I work with become the ones who are pushed to the margins of their grandchild’s life in the years after separation.  When the family is together, the lines of relationship may be criss crossed and grandparents may be more or less equally welcome in the lives of their grandchildren. Come separation however, the relationship between the mother of the children and her own mother (and sometimes father) can become a determinant of how well the family manages post separation relationships between children and both sides of the family.

I am not jumping here on the bandwagon of grandparent bashing or indeed grandparent idealising.  Grandparents are simply people who are no more or less special than parents, they are simply different and bring to children’s lives different things.  In terms of how grandparents go through family separation, some grandparents maternal and paternal are brilliant at negotiating the challenges of relationships, some are not.  Those who are not can act to compound the problems that face children in the family accidentally, whilst those who are deliberately difficult and who become fused with a parent who has taken control are deeply problematic for children.  In other words, there are alienating grandparents and alienated grandparents and they each experience their own unique and yet similar experience to that of the parents they watch going through family separation.

And it is not the case that it is automatically the maternal grandparents who remain close to the children, in cases where mothers are evicted from their children’s lives by alienating fathers, there are often paternal grandparents in support of that behaviour.  Issues of power and control, which play out through generations are often reinforced by the actions of grandparents who have learned that behaviour from those who brought them into the world.

In that respect, the alienated child often has four generations of behavioural imperatives to contend with.  Their parent and then their grandparent who learned from their own parent and grandparent about what happens when the family is in crisis.  This is how transgenerational ghosting happens, where repeated patterns of estrangement and relationship severance are learned and grandparents are key conduits in that phenomenon.

Just as an alienated parent must look to examine the routes that brought them first into relationship with an alienating ex, grandparents must seek to examine the ways in which they have been part of the dance which has lead to the frozen place that their grandchild now occupies.  When alienation strikes, whilst it is not useful to spend hours berating and blaming onself, knowing your own place in the family history can bring great clarity about how best to help (or not).  Many grandparents, particularly paternal grandmothers, see themselves as bridge makers, honest brokers or fixers of the broken relationships.  Whilst in some cases this can help, it can aso hinder, causing deepening of the dynamics instead of alleviating them, causing great pain as the offers of help are rejected, pushed away or seen as the cause of further rejection in children.  For grandparents, the greatest risk is the breaking of their own hearts as they stand helplessly by and watch the fall out from the family separation they are helpless to resolve.  For any grandparent in those circumstances it can be a devastating experience to lose such a special relationship at the same point in time that it becomes clear that it was only on loan to you anyway.  On loan, with special conditions attached. Conditions which required you not to challenge the giver of the loan (parent) and not to assume any right to a relationship independent of the giver of the loan. Conditions which can become virtually impossible after separation when emotions are high and negativity between parents is at its peak.

Post separation relationships illuminate the criss crossed lines of power and control very effectively.  Suddenly the relationship that was had with grandchildren is visibly entwined with the power of a parent to gift it or withhold it.  Suddenly the relationship is no longer straightforward but is experienced within the all encompassing power of a parent to give or take away permission. Suddenly they are not YOUR grandchildren but HIS or HER children and things as simple as an outing to a pantomime or a trip into town becomes the kind of task that even the most skilled negotiator would find daunting.  For many grandparents, this first encounter with the mother or father of their grandchildren as an alienator is a deeply shocking (and often painful) one.

And cross generational arguments about power and control are common in families where alienation strikes.  As the hierarchy begins to fragment and the holding of power and control changes hands, grandparents, like parents can feel the shunting to the margins of the children’s lives that takes place in alienation.  Slowly but surely the special times are eroded. Slowly and insidiously, the things that grandchildren used to enjoy become discarded and eventually it becomes clear that the removal of the special relationship is complete as the child tips over the point of no return.

What sadness and sorrow waits on that day, when grandparents watch for their loved ones who no longer come and when the joy of standing in the generational line becomes the ache of the empty space.  Like burying a child, losing a grandchild to alienation is to be in the wrong place in the march of time.  It is too painful and too wrong for too many to bear.

Like the grandmother who asked me this week for a hug so that she could hug someone who had hugged her grandchild, this loss is unspeakable.

But it is not untreatable.  And when we begin to understand that parental alienation is a problem with a human face and that those faces range from the very youngest to the very oldest of our citizens, we will begin to heal the intergenerational hurts and we will stop the institutionalised support of this very human problem.

I left this grandmother this week angry, sorry and saddened by the suffering that is caused by the people who look away from this problem when they could so easily understand how to put things right.  So much wasted resource, so much indifference.

It is incumbent upon all of us, no matter where we are in the generational march across the years, to do something about it. For today’s alienated grandparents we are already running out of time, for the grandparents of tomorrow that alienated children will one day be, time is something that we simply cannot waste.

Leading Women for Shared Parenting

Today I have joined several other well known women in the UK alongside many other women working in the field of families and family support across the world in Leading Women for Shared Parenting.

Leading Women for Shared Parenting (LW4SP) is an international child advocacy organization supporting the implementation of a presumption of shared parenting as a standard in child custody determinations. Founded in 2013, LW4SP is comprised of prominent female psychologists, attorneys, elected officials, domestic violence practitioners, social scientists, authors, child advocates and others who support shared parenting. We advocate for shared parenting as LW4SP is in contact with the most prominent social scientists in the world and is aware, except in cases involving abuse, neglect or abandonment, shared parenting produces the best outcome for children. LW4SP focuses its advocacy on educating politicians, judges, policy makers and the public about the value of shared parenting for children of divorce.

UK women in the group are

Erin Pizzey – International Founder of Refuge/Refuge Movement for Victims of Domestic Violence and Author

Dr. Nicola Graham-Kevan – Professor of Psychology, Domestic Violence Expert

Ruth Langford – Manager, Wikivorce Philippa Dolan, Esq – Partner,

Practicing Family Law Attorney Celia Conrad – Solicitor, Author

Alison Bushell – Co-Founder, Child & Family Solutions

Information about the other leading women from around the world can be found at the LW4SP site.

As many of my readers will know, my journey to supporting legislative presumption of shared parenting has run alongside my personal journey away from feminism and towards a whole family approach to work with separated families. It is almost as if, as I emerged from the orthodoxy of thinking inside the box, my ability to understand the importance of legislative change grew clearer. Whilst I continue to firmly believe that legislative change is only one part of the change we seek in terms of how we educate, inform and support separated parents to help their children, I also know that it is the bedrock upon which to build a different, more egalitarian future, in which our children’s rights to strong relationships with both sides of their families (and selves) is protected over the longer term.

I have joined LW4SP because I know that here in the UK, the Coalition government’s  attempt to create change in the two arenas that affected separated families was eventually distilled into a meaningless sentence in the Children Act and a pointless waste of money by the DWP in what became ‘help and support for separated families.’  The latter being created by a group of people who appear in the latest news about Child Maintenance to have ditched everything that was originally planned in order to revert to the Gingerbread land terminology of ‘absent parents’ who must be ‘made to pay.’ This clear reversal of what was actually a progessive agenda, tells me that there is still a mountain to climb in terms of persuading people that change is due in this field.  Having abandoned UK politics in favour of working with families directly again, it seems important to me to work on this issue internationally to fight the all pervasive women’s rights dominated agenda that drives this field here.

There is no lack of evidence to show that children do well when both of their parents are involved in their lives. International research can be found at LW4SP and other sites dedicated to raising the reality. However in the UK, just as international research around family violence is ignored by government, this research is too often quietly shelved in favour of that which is commissioned and paid for by women’s rights interest groups.  With the reduction of the representation of the needs of fathers in government to feminist appeasing groups such as the Fatherhood Institute, it seems very clear to me that the road to legislative change in the UK is going to be long and hard indeed.

The issue of legislative change has been resisted massively in the UK.  Even where organisations such as Relate and One Plus One have in public received millions for supposedly helping parents to co-parent, they have, behind the scenes, been campaigning to make sure that legislative change is stopped.  These and other organisations were signatories to a campaign to effectively stop the changes to the Children Act which were originally proposed by Tim Loughton when he was Children’s Minister.  What eventually emerged from this was a change so futile that it could in many circumstances make things worse, not better for children.  UK family politics is dominated by feminists and it was clear to me, in my work with the Coalition Government, that it is women’s rights that come first in family policy with fathers and children a very long way behind.  I believe that is wrong.  I believe that in family policy and practice the rights and needs of children should come first by a long way.

I work with children of family separation every day of my life.  I see the damage it does to them.  I also see the damage that our current legislation does, making things worse not better, driving adversarial approaches to separation and failing on a daily basis to ensure that parents are helped to work together.  In the UK, the rise in the focus upon the voice of the child is seen as the way forward as adults abdicate their responsibilities in favour of asking children what they think should happen.  Even the Children’s Commissioner for England is in favour of allowing children to decide whether to see a parent after separation. Websites have sprung up which have children affected by separation assisting other children going through the experience.  These wheezes even proclaim that children have raised the funding for these projects. Leaving me despairing at the absolute lack of understanding of what children really need when their parents separate, which is two parents working together to ensure that children can carry on being children, not pseudo agony aunts or decision makers about their relationship with the two people who brought them into the world.  This is why we need legislative change.  This is why I have joined LW4SP.

Joining LW4SP allows me to share my experience internationally as well as learn from some key women who share my own views and experience in the field. It also allows me to continue to push for the very best outcomes for children of family separation all over the world. I am delighted to join such a strong and visionary group of women for whom children’s needs and rights come first. One day, all support for separated families will be made this way.

More information on LW4SP, research, articles and public polling on shared parenting is available on our website:

Dandlebear saves the day

It was November, it was very cold and grey.  The hedgerows were still and bare and the birds were huddled in the ditches trying to keep warm.  Dandlebear watched out of the window, he could see that the coldest time of year was coming.

‘Stop doing that’ said a cross voice behind him and he turned to see Emily jumping up and down on the sofa. Thomas, a little boy who was just a little bit taller than Dandlebear when he stood up straight, looked cross and squabbly.  Dandlebear smiled across at him, ‘stop it now Emily’ he said and Emily flopped down looking glum. Dandlebear turned and looked out of the window again, it was going to be a difficult few weeks before Christmas, he could see that for certain.

Emily and Thomas were at their daddy’s house where they always were on a Saturday morning.  Emily and Thomas had a mummy who lived in one house and a daddy who lived in another house.  Every week they lived in one house from Monday to Friday evening and then another house from Friday evening until they went to school on Monday morning.  They had been doing this ever since they could remember, so it was very normal for them.  The problem was that Emily didn’t seem normal anymore, for some reason she had started to get cross when it was time to go to daddy’s house and that was causing an awful lot of problems, not just for Emily but for everybody.

Dandlebear was the bear that looked after Emily and Thomas.  Every little boy or girl who lives in two homes needs a Dandlebear.  This is because living in two homes means that little children have to do things that little children sometimes find difficult.  Having a Dandlebear makes those things easier because Dandlebears go with little children as they move between houses.  Dandlebears understand you see, which makes everything a whole lot easier.  The problem was, Emily had fallen out with Dandlebear and was not doing as he said.  Dandlebear could see that she was unhappy and he knew why.  Being oh so wise, he put on his thinking hat (a rather fetching affair in blue velvet with a large red feather) and sat down to ponder.

Emily is nearly eleven, thought Dandlebear.  That means she is probably missing her friends at the weekends.  Thomas however is only four years old, that means he wants to play with his daddy and spend a lot of time with him.  Emily is probably feeling left out he concluded, which means we must do something to make sure she is not.  Aha, thought Dandlebear with a bright look on his face, I know what we must do for Emily, and he went off upstairs to make some plans.

Meanwhile downstairs Emily was busy getting into trouble. ‘ I don’t want to go to grandma’s house’ she shouted at her daddy and ran upstairs passing Dandlebear who was on his way back down with a large box with lots of feathers sticking out of it.  Emily looked at the box as she ran past Dandlebear and wondered vaguely what he was up to but carried on and slammed her bedroom door shut with a loud BANG.  Dandlebear went into the kitchen and put the box on the table and looked at Emily’s daddy who looked back at him with a sad look on his face.

Now we all know that Dandlebears don’t talk.  They don’t talk because they don’t need to, everything they need to say is sort of passed between them and the people they love on a silent wave.  As Emily and Thomas’s daddy looked at Dandlebear and then at the box with the feathers and then back at Dandlebear, he knew in an instant everything that Dandlebear was trying to tell him.  ‘Aha’ said daddy out loud, ‘I see what we need to do’  and he and Dandlebear got to work, daddy using the mobile phone a lot and Dandlebear sorting out feathers and hats and what looked like a lot of old clothes.  Soon, daddy and Dandlebear were finished and they sat back in a satisfied sort of a way looking at their handiwork.  Shortly after, the doorbell rang and then the fun began.

Later, as Dandlebear watched from behind the curtains, Emily’s friends, who had all come round for a dressing up party, danced their way around the living room for the seven hundredth time, singing along and laughing as the feathers in their hats twirled and spiralled after them.  Dad had ordered pizza and they sat and ate it whilst they were watching their favourite film, which this week happened to be about witches in hats with feathers in them.  Dandlebear looked at Emily’s face, which instead of being grumpy was happy and shining.  As he watched, Emily spotted him behind the curtain and blew him a kiss.  ‘Thank you Dandlebear’ she smiled silently at him and Dandlebear beamed back to her ‘you are welcome Emily, you are a good girl, you were just lonely and missing your friends, now you are not and so all is well’  and Emily twirled and danced her way once more around the room, happy that she had Dandlebear to help her and her daddy, all felt well and happy and good again.  Daddy waved over to Dandlebear as he passed with Thomas on his shoulders and gave him a thumbs up, he was so glad to see Emily so happy again. It wasn’t that Emily was unhappy being at daddy’s, she was just lonely and was missing her friends, as all eleven year old girls do.  Daddy hadn’t thought about that until Dandlebear helped him, now that he had he could see it was ever so simple. He was so glad to have Dandlebear.

Everyone needs a Dandlebear and this was one time when Dandlebear had really saved the day.

Stories of hope: Reuniting children after alienation

Following one of my reader’s requests for case studies of work that I have done with children who have reunited with a parent after alienation, this is a short collection of stories from my case book. Publishing case stories is not straight forward when one is working with families affected by alienation, as their privacy is vital and I am bound by confidentiality in both my work in the court process and my role as a therapist. Following good practice therefore, I must heavily disguise the identity of the families and their children with whom I have worked. I cannot identify anything within the case stories that could lead to anyone recognising themselves or others and I cannot give details of any cases within the court process that could lead to the same. What I can do is occasionally publish stories which are written by parents themselves and I can publish disguised case histories. I have done the former over the years, here, by popular demand, are a few short case histories of those cases I have worked in which have lead to successful reunification both inside and outside of the court.

Pure and severe alienation – two children aged ten and thirteen, alienated from their mother for five years. Intervention ordered by the court.

These children were in a severely alienated position when I met them. They were angry, phobic and resistant to all intervention. On several occasions when trying to collect them from school for contact with their mother they called the police and said they were being abducted. Therapeutic intervention was impossible, the court reversed residence and the children went into short term foster care until their alienation lifted. This took a period of 2 days for the younger child and 14 days for the older child who hung onto alignment with the father. When alienation lifted both children returned to a normal relationship with their mother and behaved normally throughout subsequent months until contact with their father began. Issues with alienation reactions returned until contact was stopped again when both children returned to normal behaviours within 24 hours. Contact was eventually stopped in its entirety to protect the children. They live normally with their mother now and no further problems have arisen.

Pure and severe alienation – three older children aged 16,17,18, alienated from their father for ten years. Intervention outside of the court.

These children were alienated from their father over a period of ten years and had no contact with him at all for nine years. Restoration of the relationship was undertaken outside of the court process after the father utilised legal services to write to the mother to ask her to take part in out of court support programme. The intervention was continuous for a period of nine months with joint therapy being undertaken by the parents and work with the children being undertaken alongside this. After seven months supported contact took place for the first time in almost ten years. The children remained resistant however and acted as if the father was dangerous and all said they were afraid of him. Therapy continued with mother and father and mother reached a point where she accepted the inevitability of the children’s reunification. At this point faciliated and supported contact increased to twice weekly and was lengthened on a weekly basis. Within two months the children spent overnights with father and began to show normal behaviours in his company. The eldest child however continued with severe phobic like reactions towards his father and this continued through a year of supported therapy between father and child. Eventually, after a four week holiday abroad, all three children settled into normal behaviours and were able to make transitions to and from their mother and father’s home. All three children are now at University.

Hybrid alienation – one child aged 8 alienated from father for three years. Intervention ordered by court.

This child had been living in foster care for two of the three years he had been alienated from his father. The child had been removed from mother because of emotional harm. Work with the child took place over 12 months and consisted of exposure therapy and eventual reunification. Reunification took place at a point where the child was still expressing fear. The fear reaction dropped within five minutes of encountering father and the child began a process of rebuilding the relationship with father. The child left foster care two months later and lives with father and his new partner and two half siblings. No contact with mother as diagnosed with severe personality disorder.

Pure and severe alienation – four children under the age of eight, alienated from mother for a year. Intervention ordered by the court.

These children were in a severely rejecting state and had been in the care of their father for a year after rejecting their mother after transitional problems and behavioural changes resulting from them had taken place. All children said that their mother had hurt them and that she was mean to them. All of the children said that they were just pretending when shown pictures of them looking happy with their mother. The oldest child said that mother had made them smile but that they hadn’t wanted to. Assessment showed that all of the children had entered into severe alienation after a significant event which had been distorted by the children’s father. Investigation showed that the extended family were party to the distortion of the event and the children’s beliefs about it. Court reversed residence and third party foster care was used to allow the alienation to lift. The children were reunited with their mother three days after being taken into foster care and all behaved normally on reunification. All children remain with their mother and their relationship with their father is how supervised at all times after he was observed to be attempting to influence them against their mother during visits.

These case stories are truncated and may appear to be shorter in intervention duration than they were in reality. Working with cases of alienation is not an easy process and there are many weeks and months in which we have to progress very slowly with parents and children, patiently building up a case history, carefully understanding the dynamics at play and recording them. In all cases we assess the situation first using our own assessment framework and others which have been created by experts in the international field. Currently we are developing and evaluating our own assessment framework which we aim to establish as a gold standard within this country for triaging alienation cases and matching them to the correct treatment routes. This is long term work which will eventually provide a way of enabling the courts to understand how to deal with alienation, especially those cases of alienation which clog up the courts and cause suffering to parents and children alike.

In every case of alienation it is vital that the court acts swiftly in order to prevent the problem from becoming entrenched and the children severely affected. When children are severely affected the only remedy in our experience is to remove them from the parent who is causing the problem. When this removal takes place, especially in pure or severe cases, relief for the child is invariably swift and the frozen, cold and rejecting stance thaws swiftly and the normal child underneath emerges.

Treating alienation is undoubtedly one of the most difficult areas of therapeutic work to be involved in. Gardner’s view was that such therapists require determination and nerves of steel to do this work and I would agree with that. Litigious parents often turn their litigatious focus to the therapist and the testing of evidence in court is a gruelling part of the process of liberating children from the problem. This work is not for the faint hearted, nor is it for anyone who likes to please people because inevitably the outcome will involve seriously displeasing someone, especially in a severe case. Why do we do it? Because Parental Alienation is nothing less than child abuse, it is the breaking of the child’s mind and the distortion of their natural trust of both parents. It is often carried out by parents who appear well on the outside but who on the inside are damaged and often suffering from personality disorder. We do it because when the child emerges after reunification, there is a chance to break transgenerational trauma patterns and assist in the handing on of healthy relationships and parenting of the next generation. We do it because, if this were physical abuse we would be confronted by broken arms, legs and backs and we know that whilst those breaks can heal, a broken mind may never get well again.

We do it because alienated children deserve better than what they are getting right now.

I am the alienated parent

I am the alienated parent I am bewildered, angry, hurt and grieving. Someone pressed the pause button of my life and I am here, hanging in mid air, waiting for the other shoe to drop, the sentence to be ended, my children to return to my love and my waiting arms.

I am the alienated parent, I am sad in a way that corrodes my life inside and out, if you could see me on the inside you would see the hollowed out cavern of my grief. I do not understand what has happened to my children, they frighten me, anger me, sadden me. I am watching the possibility of their future being eroded in front of me. It is painful to see that their wings have been clipped, their potential has been limited and that I have been washed out of their selves and souls as if I never existed.

But I did exist, I do exist. I am still here even though sometimes I feel as if I am invisible in a room full of my relatives. I am parent to children who pretend I do not exist whilst family and friends fall silent when I walk in the room. I know they wonder what I did to cause my children to hate me this way.

What did I do? When did I do it? Why has this happened to me and not to my children’s other parent? How will I live like this, will I survive, who am I if not parent to my children? Why, what, how, when, who. Questions I can’t seem to answer though I ask them all the time.

The worst times are when someone asks me if I have children. What do I say? Like parents whose children are dead, my children feel as lost to me as if I had put them in the ground. Sometimes I wonder if grieving the death of my children would be easier than this holocaust of living loss that neither diminishes nor changes but aches, it simply aches, except when the pain becomes as sharp as a open wound. On these days I can hardly catch my breath for the rawness of my loss and missing them. The missing them is the worst, their laughter, their arms around me, the smell of their hair.

I was made to love and protect my children and not being able to give them that which I promised on the day they were born, is a cruel and unnatural punishment for simply being me on the wrong side of separation. I live with a stymied need to care, it leaves me speechless at times as I try to cope with the blocked up, stopped up, channel of my love for my children. If this were a torture it would be banned in the world.

I am the alienated parent, if you know me, acknowledge me, support me but do not let me drown in the endlessness of my suffering. If you live with me, give me the gift of holding me but do not let me drag you to the depths of my despair. Just because I am alienated does not mean my life has ended, remind me, walk with me, show me the autumn leaves and the summer sunshine and breathe for me when the pain becomes too great.

Speak the names of my children, ask me about their lives and the love that I feel for them, never let me forget that I am a mum or a dad. Keep the door open for my children and the path back to me clear. Untangle the weeds and tend the flowers. When you see them coming, hold me up so that my knees do not buckle.

Help me smile and open my arms as they come through the door.