Recognising alienation in a child

When you are in a room with a severely alienated child it is impossible not to know it. That is because the behaviours of the child are so out of keeping with what is really going on that it is clear that their reality has been distorted. Severely alienated children tell fantastic stories about the parent that they are refusing to see, from how that parent conspired to kill them when they were a baby, (which somehow they manage to remember), to how a parent is planning to kidnap or somehow remove them from the parent that they live with. Severely alienated children can only see absolute badness in the parent that they are rejecting, whilst their other parent, is the very embodiment of goodness.

Before a child reaches this stage however there are signs along the way that alert you as a parent that something is wrong. One fo the first signs is that your child, who was usually happy to come to your house or come out with you on trips, begins to find it difficult to do so. This may be accompanied by the other parent telling you that the child is unhappy and does not want to see you or it may arise during a period of conflict between the two of you. If your child begins to show any of the following behaviours, you may well be facing the onset of alienation.

  • Your child acts oddly on arrival from the other parent’s home.
  • Your child refuses to go back to the other parent’s home.
  • Your child becomes angry, anxious, tearful or upset on going to or returning from the other parent’s home.
  • Your child begins to criticise, their words sound like the other parent’s way of speaking.
  • Your child makes excuses and does not come to your home on regular occasions.
  • Your child is rude to you, angry and refused to accept your authority.
  • Your child begins to act as if they are in charge not you.
  • You felt afraid of your child and their temper tantrums, your home was no longer peaceful.
  • Your child is disregarding the other people in your family.
  • Your child begins to say things about you that are untrue.
  • Your child told their other parent lies about you which cause trouble in your parenting relationship.
  • Your child’s other parent regularly over empowers them and allows them to make decisions about whether to see you or not.

When the signs of alienation are present and a child is clearly demonstrating that their ‘choice’ is not their own and when there are other signs in the relationship with the parent that they live with that this may be the result of influence or anxiety from that parent, it is not a good idea to leave the child and hope that they will come around eventually. In these circumstances children should be reintroduced to a parent, gently and supportively and should be helped to see that parent regularly again. This is a far better approach than doing nothing and hoping everything will suddenly change for the better.

This re-starting of the relationship can be remarkably straightforward when the child understands that there is an adult in the system who will carry the burden of coping with loyalty conflict for them. Even the most terrified children, those who have acted as if they have a phobia of their rejected parent will, given the right kind of support, find that those terrors melt away and that the parent that they once loved is still there, still waiting for them. Getting to that point of reunification however can be quite difficult, particularly if there serious issues to deal with such as personality disorders in a parent. That is when it takes a court managed process to bring about change.

Whilst much work has gone on in the world to understand and deal with the problem of parental alienation, treatment routes can still be hard to find. In fact it is difficult to find any therapists across the UK who are actively working in the field although there are many psychologists and psychiatrists who understand and recognise the problem.

The most effective family ‘therapists’ however, are parents themselves. This is particularly true in hybrid cases, where the inability of the parents to adapt well to the changing family dance, has caused the problem in the first place. Working with education, parenting co-ordination, therapy and facilitation of time spent between child and parent, in these cases it is possible to restore a functioning separated family system that frees the child to love both sides of their identity.

In cases where deliberate and malicious efforts on the part of one parent to eradicate the other have caused the rejection, strong and determined court intervention is the only way to liberate the child.

In our work at the Family Separation Clinic in London, we depend upon psychologists and psychiatrists to undertake an assessment in cases where we suspect that an aligned parent cannot work with us because of psychological barriers. This formal assessment allows us to determine whether the aligned parent is capable of change with my help or whether they are in need of more long term therapeutic input. In cases where personality disorders are present, it is unlikely that the child will be released from their predicament without being released from the care of that parent. This is when a change of residence can be most beneficial for a child.

In hybrid cases, those in which the behaviours of both parents have contributed to the frozen stance, a change of residence is not the first choice of treatment. In these cases, it is necessary to enable both parents to change their behaviour and to move the family dance into a more functional adaptation from where it is possible to support the restarting of relationships. In these cases, parenting co-ordination can often support a longer term, sustainable behavioural change that frees the child from the grasp of conflicted loyalties.

Finally, in cases where children are justified in their rejection of a parent, either through poor parenting or determined actions on the part of that parent, education, instruction and then a programme of supervised parenting time can enable a parent to change the behaviours that have caused the rejection in the first place.

This is a sample from our forthcoming book Understanding Parental Alienation – Learning to Cope, Helping to Heal.  We continue to work hard to get it ready for publication although the workload at the Family Separation Clinic prevents us from being able to do that as fast as we would like to but we can promise it will be published in the first half of this year as we are now in the editing process.

Our book will be launched alongside our new site which is dedicated to parental alienation and the parents who experience it.

Readers may be interested to know that I will be presenting a paper on our project called Living Losses at the Missing Children Europe Conference in July 2015 in Brussels.