Those of you who are familiar with the language of parental alienation will be aware of the label ‘target child.’ This label, which is used widely, denotes the child within a family system who has been singled out for the attention of the alienating parent. Thus we see the common dynamic in such situations, where one child is severely alienated whilst the others may not be. This can be something which resolves itself in reunification processes but it is also often the case that one child will remain stubbornly rejecting and aligned to the alienating parent even though the other children are returned to normal behaviours. This child will often set himself apart from the others during reunification processes and is certainly during the phase of alienation itself, actively working to support the alienating parent in aligning the family system against the parent being rejected. The label target child is useful in that respect because it allows us to see where the flow of influence is concentrated. Different to the Family Systems Therapy idea of Identified Patient, it is critical to recognise that the target child is not the carrier of the family’s projection of unwellness but the conduit through which the negative influencing by the alienating parent is delivered. In this respect the target child is the alienator’s proxy, which is why the fused dyad of alienator and target child is so powerful in terms of ensuring that siblings come onside and reject as they are required to.
The target child is, in my experience, the most abused child because they have received, with an undiluted force, the full might of the negative emotions of the alienating parent. This undiluted force of hatred, resentment, dislike and determination to destroy, sweeps away any resistance a child might have to joining with the parent in a campaign of denigration. These are the children who witness the rage of a parent at the end of a relationship or who are called upon to keep parents alive or who find themselves befriended by a parent who elevates them to the role of spouse or confidant, bestowing a special status upon them which is toxic over time. These children find it very very hard to recover any of the innocent love that they felt for the parent they have denounced and are often unable to face within themselves the void that is created when that innocent love is swept away. These children may find themselves in a position of not having any sense of being parented as they grow older, for they have cast off the hated parent and they will wait in vain for the compensatory love that they hope to receive from the alienating parent. Often, when the alienating parent has long done with her venting and projecting and has moved on to a new partner, the child is left holding the hatred and wondering why they no longer have the love of either parent. This is when a cold settling of hatred for both parents can set in and the child can become devoid of the skills that they need to rebuild a sense of authentic self in which feeling and emotion are a normal part of life.
Targeting a child for rejecting of their other parent is child abuse. It is mental, emotional and psychological cruelty as it removes the child’s right to a childhood, to being parented by both parents and to a normal range of feelings and emotions. Unfortunately it is rarely recognised as such by family services who appear unable to see that a child who rejects a parent with vitriolic hatred, is exhibiting serious signs of attachment disorder. When the target child is locked into a self righteous and indignant campaign alongside the alienating parent, the impact on siblings can be immediate and severe. Target children are often the oldest children in the system and they can be either boys or girls although there is anecdotal evidence from our practice that alienating mothers will target their sons and alienating fathers will target their daughters, particularly if these children are first in line. Perhaps because the eldest child already has an inbuilt sense of being in secondary charge (of the sibling line), a readiness for being promoted is present. Certainly there is a sense that the eldest child carries a sense of responsibility that the other children do not have, perhaps because this child was the first to experience the family as a unit and therefore the first to experience at first hand, relationships with both parents. There is also the factor of the alienating parent leaning upon the eldest child and conferring a sense of specialness or being grown up because of it which is enticing to the child. However it happens, the taking of the child into the adult world of grief and loss is an act of abuse and creates for the child a terrible dillemma which can sometimes remain unresolved for many years. The dilemma is this. If I do not side with this parent will I also be cast from this place and hated with such power? Now that I have sided with this parent, will it ever be possible to extricate myself from this place? The answer to these questions being yes and no respectively, leads the child to unconsciously begin the process of working to bring the other children onside in rejecting the cast out parent. Stabilising the family system by ensuring alignment across all of the relationship lines is a critical task for the target child who can often be seen actively and consistently enforcing the demand to conform in therapeutic work.
So how to approach such a case. The first task in any severe alienation case is separation from the alienating parent. This should be an easy task but it is woefully apparent that family court professionals and family services professionals alike are terrified of undertaking it. It never ceases to amaze me that abuse is seen by some professionals in every single corner of their practice and yet when it comes to an alienated child there is a collective terror of taking any action at all. Perhaps that is because the child presents so well in every other respect that it is far easier to believe that the things the child is saying about a parent are true, than to ask any further questions. The questions that should be asked are ‘why is this child saying this right now? What evidence supports what the child is saying? Why does the child focus only upon the parent they are rejecting, what has happened to the child’s ability to hold ambivalent feelings? Who is the child emulating? Whose story is the child telling me?’
If a child comes to us with broken bones and bruises we ask questions about how they came to receive them. When a child comes to us with broken perspective and one sided hatreds, we should similarly ask questions about how they came to receive such emotional and psychological injuries. We should also remember that a child who is broken and bruised will often still love the parent who has harmed them. A child who is broken and bruised emotionally and psychologically through alienation does exactly the same thing through upholding the campaign of hatred in support of the parent who is abusing them. Whilst the alienating parent is busy projecting a film for you to watch, in which the rejected parent has caused the child to behave in this way, it is they and not the parent they want you to blame who is doing the damage. Working with alienated children and their families requires professionals to look the other way to catch the perpetrator and to look at the child to see the force of the damage being done.
Separating siblings in reunfication work is as essential as separating the target child from the alienating parent. In many systems the target child has become the replacement spouse and the younger children are simply being parented by the alienating parent in cahoots with their elder sibling. The elder sibling can also be in a position of parenting the alienating parent which pretty much means that this child is top dog when it comes to managing the family system. Separation of siblings is an essential part of restoring the correct hierarchy of power in a family system and is often necessary as part of a transfer of residence route.
I speak breezily of separation and transfer of residence and yet I know that in real terms these actions, which bring about relief and healing for such badly abused children, are incredibly difficult to achieve in our court system. Similarly, in our family services, the resistance to residence transfer or strong intervention of separation periods for siblings, is immense. I recognise this as a sort of parallel process in which the professionals become captured by the power of alienation and find themselves frozen and unable to act. Alienation is a systemic phenonmenon which I often liken to an infection. Too many professionals, in approaching alienation will, instead of stripping off the plaster, peel it inch by painful inch from the skin, repeatedly applying doses of therapy, persuasion or encouragement in the blind hope that the child or children will come to their senses. But just as it is impossible to treat an infection without applying the right kind of anti-biotic, it is impossible to treat alienation with snake oil and wishes.
Separation of siblings and separation of alienating parent and target child are the only remedies when alienation is severe and continuous and should be applied without delay to stop the abuse. The sooner we recognise that the quicker we will see children being healed and protected from this awful experience both as target children and siblings, all of whom deserve better than what they are getting right now.