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.