Minding the empathy gap: mapping the world of the alienated child

One of the more complicated pieces of work that we do at the Family Separation Clinic is assist parents in hybrid cases of alienation to repair their relationship with their children.  These cases are sometimes presented as being not parental alienation but justified rejection because the children involved can talk about the things that a parent has done which have caused their withdrawal and these things, are indeed often observable in the parent.  These cases are however within the alienation spectrum because the child involved has utilised the coping mechanism of complete rejection of a parent in order to deal with the dilemma that they face.

I have said before and it is worth repeating today, children do not use the coping mechanism of complete rejection of a parent unless they are in a position where they have no other option but to do so. This situation can arise because of the pressure of one parent acting against the other or because of the pressure of two parents acting against each other. Sometimes it can be because of a parent being unable to empathically understand the dilemma that a child is in and it is often this parent who becomes the parent who is rejected.

In the space that the child lives in between two parents after separation much can and does go wrong. That space, which is unique to the child, is created by the separation and is a no man’s land that the child must negotiate in order to have a relationship with both parents. If that space is filled with toxic fall out from the cross projection of blame between two parents it becomes impossible for the child to navigate. If it is filled with the unspoken or spoken commands from one parent it becomes the pot in which the child is marinated and if it is filled with the counter commands of the other parent, the resulting stew will be poisonous to one parent or the other but rarely or never both.

It therefore behooves all parents but especially those parents with less physical power over the child to understand the empathy gap that opens up between two parents after separation. This empathy gap is created by the return to their individual tribal origin of two people who were once in a relationship. The empathy gap is the inability of each individual to continue to walk one more step never mind a mile in the other person’s shoes.  Accompanied by a fierce determination to stride out once again as a sovereign individual, carrying nothing but the clear knowledge that the other person is no longer loveable, is not to be trusted and is the living embodiment of disappointment/disregard for the feelings of others. This empathy gap is full to the brim of each person’s certainty about the other alongside the unresolved feelings about the ending of the relationship.  Into this empathic gap is plunged the child of the once loving dyad and in a small canoe or other such craft, the child must paddle furiously against the tide to cross and recross the toxic sea of distrust, dislike and disbelief.

And we wonder why children withdraw from this situation?

Now the empathy gap can also be created by one parent acting against the other and no matter how empathic one is when this happens, the actions of the parent who has the most control (and is willing to use it) can plunge the child headlong into the abyss without even a paddle to guide them. in these circumstances (which we would call pure alienation) it is impossible to help the child without removing them from the alienating parent.

But the empathy gap that we are discussing today is the gap between two parents who are cross projecting blame and the way in which this almost always leads to one parent losing out against the other. This is because an alienation reaction is an alienation reaction is an alienation reaction, no matter what the cause of it, the outcome is the same, the child withdraws. In these circumstances if you are the loser (likely if you are the parent with least power in the situation) you will find yourself up against it just like all the other alienated parents, how you react however, can be the make or break difference in terms of repairing the relationship and keeping it sustained over time.

Understanding the empathy gap starts from one place and one place only, the eyes of your child.  When you move into the world of your child and look around you, the empathy gap is terrifying, empty of love and filled instead with frustration and dislike and dismay. The child who is trying to negotiate this space is a child who needs your help more than anything else in the world and the way that you give that is to fill the space with empathy instead of blame, acknowledgement instead of explanation and reassurance instead of remonstration.

And the child needs buckets of this not a few cupfuls and it can take weeks, months and years of pouring empathic understanding into that gap to keep the child afloat and sailing between the two of you. And whilst it isn’t fair and it isn’t right and it just darned well isn’t what the system should be creating or supporting, it is reality, it is what your child needs and it is is what being a parent is all about for you right now. So best get on and get used to it because if you don’t it will be you and your child who lose out.

Empathic gaps between parents create wide open spaces for children that they struggle to bridge. This leads to some odd behaviours in them, which makes them seem weird at times and clingy or whingey. Or it makes them less confident and more fearful of the things they used to love doing, or it makes them want to be in their bedroom instead of negotiating the gap with you. Understanding this is step one, helping to change the nature of the space between you and the other parent is step two.

When we work with hybrid alienation at the Clinic we always do so by keeping the child afloat and able to paddle between two parents whilst at the same time smoothing out the rapids and making the route between parents softer, safer and more easily sailed upon. We do this by engaging two people who no longer love each other in some of the most difficult tasks known to humanity. Reflection on personal behaviour. Empathic understanding of someone who has caused hurt and pain and detachment from the normal feelings of revenge and desire to even up the score.  We call these normal behaviours because that is what they are. If someone causes great hurt it is natural to either want to protect oneself and in doing so that can lead to lashing back.  Refraining from this kind of behaviour whilst in the midst of the second most stressful experience it is possible to go through (the first being death of a loved one) is an almost superhuman demand. But we make those demands of people and the astonishing thing is that when we do those people step up and do what we support and encourage them to do.  And when they do, the empathy gap closes and their child is held safe again. Not in all cases, some cannot be helped this way, but in enough cases, we see the difference that this kind of work makes for children.

The world of the alienated child is unpredicatable, it is scary, it is unimaginably painful at times. The more that we can do to truly understand it through their eyes, the better we get at helping them to avoid using the coping mechanism of complete rejection. Not in all cases (I am clear here that I am talking about hybrid alienation here nothing else) but in many that would otherwise not be helped.

Mapping the empathy gap between parents is a key tool for practitioners if only they knew it, for it is a map of the world of the alienated child.

Unfortunately for too many children it is a map that too few people can read.


  1. What if your adult daughter is the alienator and your second adult daughter is more closely aligned to her and not you thereby doubling the effect of alienation of you as their mother and your second daughter is showing signs of the above child like behaviour with regard to negotiating the empathy gap – do you have to treat the situation exactly the same as above?


  2. hybrid alienation describes my situation and it is so so
    difficult to deal with , my eldest daughter is refusing to stay overnight with me after over 5 years.. she has false memories and is so attached to her mum..my youngest (7) is managing to stay afloat for the time being.. but it is hard for all of us….. Your words help…..


  3. What do you suggest, when the needs of the child in terms of empathy, acknowledgement and reassurance is so great that to provide it is detrimental to the parent’s own wellbeing?

    Is there a balance to be struck by a parent between supporting a child in the clutches of hybrid alienation and modelling positive behaviours? If, for instance, the reassurance the child needs prevents a parent forming a life-partnership or pursuing a career aspiration? Or the empathy towards the child results in, for instance, lack of school attendance and subsequent consequences for the parent?

    You say that it is possible to help enough children to avoid complete rejection by smoothing the journey between their parents and that this can be achieved by making demands of both parents to step up and put aside their hurt. What about those children who cannot be helped in this way? When their parents don’t step up, or when one chooses not to engage at all? While I completely agree that even if one child is helped then it is worth it, but most children are not, or cannot, be helped in this way. Is there any hope for them? Will there ever be a time when children will not experience this conflict?

    Is hybrid alienatation a new phenomenon? Or, is it an inevitable consequence of the relatively recent changes in society that have brought separated parents into greater contact, and greater conflict, about their children?


  4. Reblogged this on amississippimom and commented:
    Thank you for your work, sharing your knowledge, experience. Without professionals, real and experienced “EXPERTS” such as yourself, the definitions, explanations, descriptions, predictions, would continue to circle around among the non-professionals, others in charge, community leaders, educators, etc. and all of this would continue to convolute these issues that are hurting children, hurting their loved ones. Your work is much appreciated by those of us who need it. Education and awareness, and working together, is the only way to bring any end, any comfort and healing, to these terrible matters.


  5. Re-uniting and staying in touch………making it easy on the kids.

    I have just come off Skype having spent the best part of half an hour chatting to my daughter who lives some two hours drive away.

    Over the course of conversation I was able to reminisce with her about how her mother had sensitively spoken at her friend’s funeral in respect of her memory. It may be too late to resurrect any meaningful relationship with my former partner but it is never too late to let my daughter rest more comfortably in the knowledge that she does not have to wrestle with her parents warring ways. I have no axe to grind nor desire to score points against my former partner in spite of our former conflict……………………………..I know where to go if I want a fight or to make a point, or to put the record straight, but I know only ill will come from it.

    …………………………………….On holiday with my son at half-term I chanced to meet a gentleman who attended the same ski school. Whilst sitting in a cold lift-chair as it silently made its way up the mountain John told me about his situation. He had recently retired and was holidaying with his two grown up daughters. He had not seen either for several years during their upbringing on account of his split from their mother. He described his Ex’s behaviour as hostile giving that as the reason why his daughters had missed out on Dad time during their childhood. We briefly exchanged stories about other single parents we knew who had missed out on their children’s upbringing.

    At the end of the week we all met in a ristorante where awards were given out recognising our accomplishments on the ski slopes. John caught up with me at the bar and invited me and my son over to sit with him and his two daughters. A toast of prosecco celebrated our success and my heart warmed when John went up to get his award, his daughter’s faces in raptures. A picture tells a thousand stories and those faces said it all; enthusiastically standing up to get a better look at their Dad as his achievements were recognised by all of us. There is nothing quite as pleasing as seeing a parent loved by his children, especially when those children have been so egregiously separated from that parent for such a long time. The children have the parent they missed, returned to them in full working order, history debunked or reconciled. The false allegations that caused so much pain wafted away in the winds of time.

    Well done Dad and well done daughters; let there be many more moments like these; present moments and good moments that provide the future with a strong positive and meaningful hereditary.

    Kind regards

    The persons’ name has been changed for reasons of confidentiality.


  6. My ex, skilled at seduction with grown women and in conning the business world, was skilled at manipulating our daughter as well. After he PHYSICALLY assaulted her, leaving bruises the police saw but then ignored after he conned them, too (as he did a judge when he put his 3rd wife in the hospital) — only then has she even started to accept the reality of his motives. Her teen friends (not the professionals) saw it years ago. The point I am making is that it is not necessarily the person who has most access, but the parent working behind the scenes with skillful games designed to conquer and divide. My ex learned such games from his own father, and that alienation continues to this day. These adults were traumatized as children and teens. They may be my enemy, so to speak, but I try to remind myself that they were once victims of what you describe.


  7. Hi Torn 2 peaces

    I read your contribution with interest and wondered if these publications might help. Read the Berne one first; a really interesting take on human behaviours. Berne is a bit of a pessimist, fatalist even. But don’t be too downhearted because his protégé, Harris takes on a much more positive upbeat approach to human behaviour. You may find a lot of good stuff you can use to your advantage and begin to outflank the toughest of manipulators.

    Good luck and happy hunting.

    Kind regards

    Ref: Eric Berne. “Games people play”
    Ref: Thomas Harris. “I’m ok your ok”


    1. thanks Someone you are always offering useful information, I hope that on the new site we are building you might help others with your wisdom. K


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