The fluidity of feeling: inside the world of the alienated child

Inside the mind of an alienated child is a strange place to be but that is where I spend much of my working life. In our work at the Clinic we are constantly experimenting with different ways of helping rejected parents to understand that world so that the behaviours that their children exhibit do not seem so strange. One of the ways that we do that is to teach parents about the fluidity of feeling and the subjective world that alienated children inhabit.

Children who are most vulnerable to an alienation reaction are often sensitive children, they are often bright children with a strong sense of right and wrong too.  The eldest child is often most vulnerable, this is the child who entered into a world where two people became three people and as such, experienced the outpouring of love from two sources that met in the internal world of that child. Later children enter a world which has already divided into three parts and the dilution of the original investment of love appears to have an impact on the risk of alienation. It is not that later children are loved any less but they are, perhaps, loved differently. It is difficult to keep up the intense focus of the first product of a couple’s love, the second and third and fourth child are miracles but perhaps not the miracle that the first child was. Thus the battleground which is the subjective world of the child most often takes place around the eldest child who takes on the role of co-warrior with the alienating parent, bringing the younger children onside over time.

An alienated child usually has one parent who is extremely intense in emotion and psychological reaction, creating a subjective flow of feeling between parent and child in which the child is made hyper alert to the actions and reactions of that parent. This is something which can be readily witnessed by other people but which is rarely understood.  The flow of feeling in the subjective relationship is without words, it doesn’t need them, the child is made hyper vigilent by body language and things not said rather than things said. A child who looks to their parent before speaking and a child who remains physically close to parent at all times is a child who is subject to the fluidity of feeling in that parent. Where the wind of emotion blows, so goes that child and when this dynamic occurs it is very difficult to disentangle it by therapeutic means. This is because the child is being bound into the trans generational teachings of a family system which has normalised this behaviour. A parent who is binding a child in this manner often has no understanding at all that anything they are doing is wrong or harmful to the child, they are simply doing what was done to them by manipulating the subjective flow of feeling to control the child’s external and internal experience. This is called enmeshment and it is an attachment disorder which is damaging to the child, but it is rarely recognised by professionals as such and whilst it can be bizzare to see it in action, it is not experienced as abnormal or strange to the child. Quite the opposite in fact.  A child who is enmeshed in this way will speak of feeling deeply loved and cared for, these children feel that their every need is paid attention to and that their parent is the most wonderful person on the planet. This has been achieved by a deep, more or less unconscious manipulation of the child’s reality and it is incredibly difficult to address when it is deeply embedded.

Alice Miller wrote about female generational enmeshment in her wonderful books about childhood trauma.(The Drama of Being a Child and other books). In these she writes of the cultural expectations surrounding motherhood in which daughters are taught that their needs are subservient to those of their mothers and that when they become mothers themselves, their needs will be taken care of by their daughters. This reversal of parenting roles, in which daughters care for their mothers rather than the other way around, is created by the subjective manipulations of the mother towards her daughter. These manipulations teach the growing child that her needs are secondary to those of the mother and that pleasing mother and keeping her happy is the key role for the child to play. This is generationally learned behaviour and it can affect both boys and girls although girls are very much the target in some cultures.  Keeping mum happy is one of the absolute requirements of an enmeshed relationship and these children will go to extreme lengths to deliver on that demand.

The lengths to which children will go to please mum are astonishing. They include denial of feeling, distortion of reality and disbelief towards anything or anyone who challenges their mother’s views, feelings or opinions on the world. If your child is in this kind of enthralled position and you are the targeted parent you must, without delay, understand the world of your child as deeply as you possibly can because only by being able to move around in the fluidity of that feeling will you be able to protect your child to some degree.

From the outside and to the rational mind the child is captured and under the control of the other parent and this is wrong and harmful.  From the inside and to the irrational subjective mind of the child, anyone who tries to intervene in this safe, warm and cosy world, is the enemy and to be feared and rejected.  You cannot save a child in these circumstances by using rational thinking. If you are going to help you are going to have to go into the woods with Hansel and Gretel and find your way around the winding, shifting, ever changing paths that lead to balance and harmony. Just remember to leave the trail of breadcrumbs before you enter in, otherwise you too will end up in the house with the witch and her cooking pot. At the heart of this family scenario is the devouring mother, the woman without ego who compensates for this by eating her children. This is the truth of the enmeshment scenario, the child only exists to serve the needs of the mother as the mother exists to serve the needs of her own mother, when you have mothers and grandmothers dominating the care of children and acting as if they are the child’s natural parents, you have role corruption in action and it is extremely complicated to help a child to remove herself from this place.

And so into the woods you must go if you are to help your child in this situation. Into the woods with the task of being your family’s transitional character.  Actually what you are doing is helping your child to be the transitional character, the person in the family narrative that changes the story and turns it away from its generational march of destruction of selfhood.  As such you will be seen as the enemy and you will feel the full force of the subjective resistance turned against you, this will flow through your child as well as her mother and her grandmother and it is likely to be aided and abetted on the outside by the wider family too, all of whom know that the silent subjective messages must be kept in place in order to protect the players in the drama.

If you go in with your rational mind you won’t get further than the outer ring of trees, there is no reasoning within this wood. If you go in with the flow of your child’s changing feelings, using them as a litmus test of how the beating heart of this drama is feeling, you will find your way quickly to the little house in the wood where the witch waits. Knock on the door gently and be ready with flowers, watch her face and learn how to react with lightening speed. If you can get her to open the door you are one step on the way, if you can get her to keep it open you have a chance. Once inside watch for her baring her teeth, this is the wolf in her sheep’s clothing, be on guard, she is only one flick of an eyebrow away from taking off her bonnet and gobbling you up for her breakfast. When you sit down do not do so until she is settled and smiling, if she frowns jump up and ask her what you can do to help. When she offers you porridge smile and be grateful, make sure you eat it all up, you don’t want to offend her. When someone knocks at the door freeze with her and look fearfully out of the window, share her anxieties, her terrors, her irrational thinking. When it all gets too much get under the duvet with her on the big bed in the corner of the room and soothe her to sleep. Watch carefully to make sure she is asleep whilst you fall fitfully into your rest beside her, ready to jump awake at the slightest movement.

Live with this woman for long enough and you too will know how to respond to the fluidity of someone else’s feeling.

Then you too will understand what it is like to live inside the world of the alienated child.


  1. Not sure I entirely follow you here, Karen. Acknowledging the alienated child’s feelings is obviously important, but where is the line to pandering to those feelings, which as far as I can see will keep the child in a situation where she is elevated above her parents and in charge of/responsible for the situation?

    On a different note someone said the me yesterday in response to a friend losing her elderly mother, who has long been ill and dying: “Losing your mum is the worst that happens to you in life. It is as bad as losing a child.” I was somewhat stunned by this statement and it immediately made me wonder what this person’s experience of mothering was, maybe some of the answers to that lies in what you have written here.


    1. Hi Kat, this is a play on stories we tell parents to help them to understand how it is not possible to reason with the irrational and how walking a mile in their child’s shoes helps them to understand the things that the child has to encounter and live with in order to survive. Doing this helps rejected parents to understand the tasks ahead of them, which are not to demand that the child challenges the parent or to put the child into the dangerous position of being forced to challenge without a safety net or back up but to be able to stay close enough to the child for long enough to be able to protect the child as much as possible. These are the stories we tell those parents in hybrid cases who simply cannot understand why the child is not able to see them on a fair and just basis, they are the ways we help them to understand that there is no fairness or justice in the world that the alienated child lives in, just the changing ever fluid feelings of the parent in control, the one who, if the child challenges them, will cast them out like demons into hell leaving the child terrified of what might become of them. I think your friend is exactly like the women I am describing here, mother/child and child/mother, dyadic fusions in which the roles are reversible at will and ego is underdeveloped and missing because of the lack of attention to personal needs in childhood. When a child is raised with the explicit task of compensating her mother for the childhood her mother lost (so that the mother gets to be a child only when she has borne her own daughter), chaos ensues, especially when relationships with men come into the mix.


  2. Two points that very much resonate Karen

    ‘You cannot save a child in these circumstances by using rational thinking’


    ‘If you go in with your rational mind you won’t get further than the outer ring of trees, there is no reasoning within this wood.’

    I remember discussing this very scenario with friends and family early on in my own situation.

    We concluded that, you cannot reason with unreason

    Sadly, even though I was aware of this, as a rational person, it was incredibly difficult not to continue to try and do so, and even now, I still sometimes feel I should have just one more go at it, before I remind myself again that as previously, it would be pointless.

    Tragically, it was something the professionals involved never even attempted to stop doing, because they never did identify that what they were dealing with was irrational, and came at it from the belief that the behaviour of all those involved was reasonable.


    1. it is true Jay, you simply cannot reason with the unreasonable so you have to go into the subjective world and work your way around it that way, which isn’t easy at all but offers a route in, unpalatable as it is for many, it can work,


      1. This is possibly what is happening, and I am now doing with the elder of my two who had been lost. The flip side though is that it then appears to family/friends that I am being used by my child if I agree to her every request. However, this possibly flips again into a positive, if she realises for herself how this may appear to others, even if that means she pulls back away from our relationship slightly as a result.

        Put another way, I see each request for something from me as a positive. I also see the fact that she does not seem to want to move things on too fast as a positive, as it suggests to me that she is thinking about the relationship, and having already hurt me with her original rejection of me, does not want it to appear that she is now just using me, and thus likely to hurt me again.

        I can but hope, as only time will tell if these assumptions are correct, and there is of course no way of knowing how the witch in the wood will react to this, and thus what effect she will have on future progress, but in the meantime, I see every small step as a step in the right direction towards bringing my daughter back closer to where she should be in her relationship with me and the rest of her family.


  3. Yes, that’s the nub of the problem.

    Facts versus Feelings.

    This is not only the case with the alienated child, trapped by the dominant parent, but throughout life’s discourse.

    This is essentially a communication problem, or should I say lack of communication.

    The facts and figures, balances and margins of sound management matter not one iota in my world of heartache, trembles, joys, thrills and fears.

    When you succour to my emotion you unburden my load.

    Kind regards


  4. Heartbroken, I have somehow lost your comment as I was trying to reply to it remotely, could you write again, I was really wanting to reassure you that these posts are individual snippets of the alienation spectrum in all its forms not the definitive word on alienation. Loss of hope is a terrible thing for alienated parents, I don’t want you to lose hope I want you to feel stronger and more empowered. The article called ‘write me a river’ which is about a letter written to a child by her mother in real time as if the child were still with her might give you a sense of how your approach can and does work, that girl who framed her mother’s letter is willing to talk to parents if it helps and she will be writing on our new site for parents so please do repost your comment if you can, it is an important aspect of alienation that must not be overlooked and yes, of course, fathers alienate children just as mothers do, the difference is often however that fathers use overt control whilst mothers use covert control. K


  5. Imagine this:

    Your relationship with your child is unique and special to you and your child.

    Your former partner’s relationship with your child is also unique and special to them.

    Your concerns may well be that your ex partner is a practicing witch/warlock a member of the all men are useless tribe, a leader of the enmeshment brigade. Back in your former partners camp she/he may well be thinking similar thoughts about you………the meanest man on earth, one who selfishly does not care for his children, an aggressor, a wastrel and a philanderer.

    This is “the battle”, one built on miss-trust, fuelled by anxiety and disappointment. It is a battle between parents and it is interfering with both parents ability to do their parenting job effectively.

    When your child storms up the garden path screaming and sobbing spouting the very same words you heard from your Ex’s lips some six months previous what is your reaction? When you have recovered your composure what do you do and what do you say?

    When you lived together with your former partner you did your best to resolve your issues, the relate course that you both attended, sound advice from Auntie Jane, agreements with your partner that lasted so long and then faltered. Not to argue in front of the children, change the subject, have a holiday, take out another mortgage etc……………Towards the end, much as you did not want it to happen the kids became involved; they witnessed the sulks and the shouting and the stand-offs; they couldn’t understand which parent they should be supporting.

    Now that your child is running towards you screaming blue murder this is your chance to handle things better. If you can soothe your child, help her/him understand that you have no bad intentions toward your former partner, and at the same time demonstrate an enthusiasm and optimism for life for life’s sake then you will have done a good job. I know your time with child has been severely curtailed but each time you meet there is an opportunity to do some good work that will have far reaching positive influences for you, your child and your former partner.

    Your child has had a lot of time with your Ex and shows signs of aligning with her thoughts and feelings. You are not going to oppose that, you are going to add your little bit to your child’s psyche.

    Your child is now on your doorstep banging furiously on the door. Before you open that door you are clear in your mind.

    You remembered those building blocks your child had had when she/he was much younger and had only just learned how to walk. Imagine these are now complimentary building blocks. You have a bagful and so does your former partner. Each building block represents a positive psychological stroke from the parent to the child. The blocks are strong and create a lasting impression. Once you have lain a block in your child’s psyche it can only be removed by your child.

    You are not allowed to remove your former partner’s blocks, nor tamper with them. You can add your own blocks but only the child will be able to manipulate them, since they are now owned by the child.

    Over the course of time your child will become familiar with Dad’s blocks and Mum’s blocks, she/he will develop their own interpretation of those blocks and become familiar with the vagaries of two different personalities. The child will become confident, secure in the knowledge that both parents love her/him and that she/he is ok.

    Years later at University your daughter is attending a feminist group meeting and faced with some rather anti-father rhetoric pipes up from the back of the theatre, “my Dad’s ok”……..shock, horror!

    Kind regards


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