At the Family Separation Clinic we are regularly working with parents who in the outside world are called alienating. In our world these parents are called the aligned parent, (until or unless we can demonstrate that they are indeed alienating). Why do we start from this place, especially when we know that alienated parents face too many professionals working from the he said/she said position? Well we do it because we know that unlocking these incredibly difficult cases depends on us being able to work with both parents not just one as well as the children.
We also do it because we know that many alienating parents do not know that what they are doing is causing alienation in their children. We do it because if we simply marched into someone’s world from a preconceived standpoint we would miss much of the nuanced behaviours that go to make up difficult behaviours. And we do it because we believe, without fail, that everyone who comes to the Family Separation Clinic is deserving of the kind of care that heals not harms and to start from a place where our understanding of someone is not already formulated before we have met them.
That said, working with alienating parents is our daily experience and it is both mysterious and illuminating at the same time to meet parents who have caused their child to reject the other parent.
Many parents come to us and tell us that they are alienated parents. They do so on the basis of their child’s withdrawal from them and/or the court’s decision that there should be no further contact. Whilst we recognise that all of these experiences are that of alienation from a child, we work very carefully with each family before we ever get to a place where we offer a view on whether this is a pure or hybrid case or indeed whether it is a case of a child justifiably rejecting a parent. Parental alienation is not, in our experience, one simple experience, it is as different and as nuanced as each individual person is. Whilst the narrative of alienated parents has much in common, each family is configured in unique ways and each family separates in its own individual way. When designing and delivering treatment routes, accepting the narrative of one parent over the other, without meeting and working with the other, would be like diagnosing cancer on the basis of listening to someone describe their symptoms. This is why working with the whole family is so important in cases of parental alienation.
We know of course that not everyone can achieve the goal of getting the other parent into a situation where they are compelled (sometimes invited) to work with us and we do work with alienated parents individually too. However when we work with individual alienated parents, we will spend a good deal of time working out whether this is a pure or hybrid case and whether this person has done something to contribute to the child’s withdrawal. And where that has happened, we are fearless in raising that with the parent (a process which is not always easy).
But it is in working with aligned parents that we uncover much of the mystery around the alienation experience and discover much of what causes it in the first place. Whether the aligned parent is a naive alienator or a conscious and deliberate one, their actions, thoughts, beliefs and behaviours contribute hugely to our understanding of how and why a child splits their thinking into all good and all bad and withdraws from the parent they are projecting the negative feelings onto.
Some recent work has given a great deal of insight into this. What follows is a composition of alienating parental behaviour, this is heavily disguised to ensure that no-one can be identified.
Pure and conscious alienating behaviour Dan is sixty and father to Archie who is eighteen. When Dan’s partner and Archie’s mother left him two years ago to live with someone else, Dan entered into a period of fury which caused him to do damage to property and threaten harm to his partner. Dan’s rage has calmed down now into a cold and at times viciously cruel tendency to use Archie to harm his mother. Although Archie no longer sees his mother because he cannot cope with his father’s rage when he does, Archie’s whole life is sent to his mother by his father in pictures and narratives which describe what a wonderful boy and man he is and how much she is missing by not being there. When Dan comes into the Clinic to work with us (by choice not compulsion) he spends many hours showing us how Archie’s mother brought this upon herself. Archie, when he eventually comes in to see us, is almost catatonic and unable to do much other than agree with his father that his mother is someone he will never countenance seeing again. When we finally get Archie on his own he is resigned. Dan sees this resignation as evidence of how much Archie’s mother has let him down. Our work is focused on allowing Dan to unload the rage which is linked to narcissistic wounding. Archie sees his mother ten months after first coming to the Clinic. She is strong and supportive and understanding with him. He looks less burdened after they have spent two hours together, she tells him she knows that she will have to wait. Dan eventually, through the regular attending receives at the Clinic, experiences a reduction in rage and a normalising of his behaviours. Dan came to us because he wanted us to support Archie in his rejection of his mother. He leaves us knowing Archie has seen his mother and will do so again. Dan’s fury has abated although he will not ever give his blessing (he says) to Archie having a relationship with his mother.
Pure and unconscious alienating behaviour Agnetha is a forty two year old woman who has three children aged between 9 and 14. English is her second language but all of her children speak it as their first language. At home Agnetha only speaks Danish and her children do too. Their father is English however and speaks to them in English. Agnetha came to the Clinic via a court order and we spent several weeks working with her alone to understand her views on why her children had withdrawn from their father. It became clear through doing this work that Agnetha believed that the children’s father had ulterior motives for wanting the children to spend time with him at his home, she believed he wanted to abuse the children. When we took Agnetha through the reality, which was that their father wanted to share in the children’s upbringing she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) accept that this was true. we asked for a psychological assessment on Agnetha and it turned out she had borderline personality disorder, a presentation which is unlikely to be treated swiftly. This determined our treatment route.
Hybrid alienating behaviour Asar and Mamun came into the Clinic via a court order. Their children are aged 8 and 9 and have aligned themselves to Asar. They refuse to see their father and hide when he comes to pick them up. When we start work with Asar she says she has always supported the relationship between the children and their father and that she is confused, upset and bewildered by their refusal to see him. Mamun on the other hand sees Asar as the person responsible for the children’s withdrawal and continuously points out behaviours that he sees in her which cause it. Asar sees Mamun as being too aggressive with her and with the children and says that she understands why they don’t want to see him, she used to feel like that too. On working with Asar it is clear that she sees herself and the children as a unit with Mamun an outsider. Asar’s mother comes into the clinic with her and confirms that Mamun is aggressive. When we work with Mamun he can present as aggressive although it is clear this is caused by frustration more than anything else. Asar says that she wants to resolve the problem. Eventually we start a programme of parenting co-ordination which restores the relationship between the children and Mamun although he still interprets much of what the children say and do as being the influence of their mother and grandmother.
Aligned parents are all different and their behaviours are as unique as they are. Respecting aligned parents is an important part of working with them even when we know that they are deliberately alienating children, even when we know that it is severe and therefore abusive. Respect is an important part of our work and we have respect even when we are acting against the wishes of the aligned parent, even when we are asking the court to do something powerful such as change residence. Respect and understanding is what is missing in so many of these families and it is therefore essential to offer this even when making decisions against someone.
When we are working with alienating parents we never forget that this person is part of the child and always will be and that the child’s journey, once alienated, will always require them to know how to cope with what has been done to them and the person who has done it. Healing alienation happens when all parties are involved and new behavioural patterns are established. Even when a child has to be removed from an alienating parent that is still the case. The mystery of alienating parents is that they cannot ever be removed from the child’s internal and external landscape and it would be wrong to even try.