Into the mystery: on working with alienating parents

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.

17 thoughts on “Into the mystery: on working with alienating parents

  1. I am pretty certain my own case falls into the first category, as over the years my ex appears to have very deliberately and consciously alienated our children from me and their entire paternal family, without me having done anything to justify her doing that.

    However, whilst it has always seemed clear that my ex wanted to inflict as much pain on me as possible, I cannot be so sure if in reality, she is conscious in respect of the potential damage this could cause our children, because if she is, then why would she do it?

    I have on occasions tried to point this out to her, as did the Judge at our last hearing, who made it quite clear to her saying that if her behaviour was responsible for our children refusing to see me, “it will cause them emotional and psycholgical harm in the short, medium and long term”.

    However, despite this, nothing has changed, so either she is in denial, or it is her deliberate intention to harm our children?

    What is for certain, is that when I speak to other parents, whether they are still happily together, or seperated but working together for the benefit of their children, they find it impossible to understand how any parent could do this to their children.

    I am interested to know your thoughts Karen on the level of consciousness, and attitudes, you typically find in alienating parents towards the harm they are likely to inflict on their children by using them as weapons like this, and how do they justify these actions, when they seem to be so obviously harmful to most other people?

    In my own attempts to resolve the situation, given the Family Courts system has been so ineffective, I have always very much taken account of what you say in your final sentence, and I do not think any reasonable parent would want their children not to have a relationship with their other parent, unless it would put them at serious risk of harm.

    ‘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.’

    One of my greatest fears, is that (if and) when my children eventually break free from the invisible chains that hold them, and if they then realise why they were left with no option but to reject me and their paternal family, they may then turn on their mother and maternal family and treat them in the same way.

    Some might see that as karma, and in some sense perhaps it would be, but for the children it would be another tragedy to add to the one they have already suffered, and is something to be avoided if at all possible.

    On occasions I have written to my ex and appealed to her to work with me for the benefit of our children, and have tried to point out that her doing so would not only benefit them, but also me and her, by enabling us to repair an existing damage they may have suffered, and prevent any further damage occuring

    It doesn’t matter how carefully I word such communications, I never get any response to my appeals and comments, and the behaviour of my children and their mother does not change, so again, I have to conclude that she is either in denial about the possible implications for our children, and for herself, or simply does not care.

    However this, along with examples in the article, contain complex issues which I guess are never likely to be resolved by the alienated parent attempting to communicate, and reason with an alienating parent so entrenched in their own view and determined to continue to behave in the same way.

    This of course highlights the need for Cafcass, Social Workers, and all those who become involved in these narratives to better trained, more aware, and thus be more able to make effective interventions when it has gone beyond the stage when it is possible for the parents to sort it out between themselves.


    1. my personal opinion is they simply just dont care and being a good decent person it is impossible to understand this way of thinking, hurting you means more than what is best for the children and by pushing yourself on this nasty little skip rat asking for her to reason with you is more than likely giving her the satisfaction of knowing your pain.
      you cannot win or reason with people like this as i do not believe they are a full deck.
      its not right and its cruel but its happening to good caring decent parents man or woman day in day out, its child abuse of the highest scale and the courts let these creatures get away with it and thats why they do it and its as simple as that.


      1. I know where you are coming from Mickey, and whilst I know that my attempts will be fruitless, and do play into her hands, I guess I do it so that if nothing else it is evidence to the kids that I kept on trying…..and assuming that actually ever counts for anything, then I guess the benefits of doing so outweigh the negatives…..I can only but hope so!!!!


      2. Yes those things are true, but what are you going to do Mickey, spend your days wringing your hadns or get on and do something. The nasty little skip rat doesn’t need to know what you are doing and you don’t have to reason with her there are many ways to skin a nasty little skip rat (though one of them to my mind would be to reframe your use of labelling of your children’s mother away from such wording and towards a level of understanding of why she is doing what she is doing – doesn’t mean you have to like it or give a toss about it but it does mean you need to understand it in order to work out what you can do next).

        People who are not a full deck need managing just as much as people who can reason with you do. You just have to find a different way of doing that.


    2. Jay, I’m not a technical expert yet have significant experience on this. The more you explore her to do the right thing for the sake of the children the more delight she gets from your abject misery. We are experts about who we speak of , no judge or jury can change this unfortunate experience.

      Wish I has a center that I could go to and ask for help yet also understand that while good centers exist many are additional false hopes.

      What therapists need to understand is the victims are the experts on what we are dealing with and you may have seen several cases you do not share this degree of commonality that drives most to the brink. It is only because we care.


      1. I am inclined to agree Flynn, as I did with Mickey in the previous comment, but if nothing else it at least provides evidence to the kids in the future that I kept on trying……and I can only but hope that the positives of doing so will eventually outweigh the negatives.


  2. I echo Jay’s words in relation to my own situation. I would add that I think that my ex-wife truly believes that what she is doing by not encouraging contact with me and my family is in the best interests of our children (now 12 and 9) and that she has arrived at a point where she knows she need do nothing to improve the situation for our separated family as it is already improved as I have been removed from their lives. I must have been and must still be such a terrible man and father! However, my trying to understand what is going on in her mind is of no consequence, as we are all in a frozen state and I do not believe there is any way out of this for any of us as my ex-wife will not budge. Even if I had the financial means to go back to court, I do not believe she would cooperate. She knows that through persistance and determination to shut me out, the status quo will remain.

    If my case is a hybrid case, then it doesn’t make any difference as my ex-wife will not communicate. If it is a pure and conscious or pure and unconscious alienation case, then it also doesn’t make any difference as my ex-wife will not communciate. If my case is one of justifiable rejection, then it doesn’t make any difference as my ex-wife will no doubt leap on this as being the reason why the children are rejecting me and she would only use this to finally shut the door on me. Whatever the situation, my wife chooses not to communicate and without her communicating, there is no hope for our separated family.

    Having had only indirect contact through writing monthly letters to our children with no replies despite my ex-wife having been ordered to read my letters to our children and to encourage them to write to me, I really do not see any hope for us and our children will simply grow up without their father in their lives at that time in their lives when it really matters most: when they are children.

    If the aligned parent refuses to communicate, even with the help of a third party such as the Family Separation Clinic, what can be done to change the status quo?


    1. Not very much in the outside world Chris unless you are willing/able to take this matter back into court. Without the stick the carrot doesn’t work and so you are left completely stuck as your comment conveys. That said in the internal world the essential part of being a parent to alienated children is to take the longer view, however much that pains you and however much that robs you of the days in between. Taking the longer view is about being able to reframe your understanding of what has happened and who has the power in your life. if what you do is place your focus on the power that children’s mother has to NOT engage with you then all you will receive back is the frustrating sense that she won’t engage with you. If she has a personality disorder she is unlikely to be able to engage with you, if she is repeating generational patterns she will see no need to engage with you, if she is doing what she is doing just because she can, you sitting and watching her do what she is doing and feeling unable to do anything about it will simply feed her and please her and she will do it even more. What you have to do is reframe your understanding of what is happening. Your children are captured by their mother aided and abetted by the services around them and the system. You have to work out how and whether you can work the system to get it to do what you need it to do, which is look closer at what their mother is doing. The most successful alienated parents, the ones who break through are those like rottweilers who won’t let go, however long it takes, whatever you have to do, whether you rest and step back and then have another go, never giving up is the way forward. In many respects it doesn’t matter a jot to you why this is happening, it is just happening. The reason we talk about differentiating cases of alienation is because we know you cannot treat all cases the same and differentiation is very very important when it comes to understanding what can and cannot be done. But for you all you know is she won’t engage and so you have to find a way to make her engage. Many of the dads we work with don’t feel able to take the toughest line, some of them feel it is not manly, some of them feel it is about confirming for the mother what she says they are, but some of them do take the toughest line and they are the ones who break through this. Explore all of the court options, explore all of the latest judgements that support engagement by parents, find a way to configure those things and do it. Your ex wife is not complying with court orders and you are not doing anything about it, why not? Ask yourself why not? is it because you have come to believe that it is impossible to change anything? You might not change the outside world but you can change yourself and you believe that nothing can be done then nothing will be done. Reframing is very important for alienated parents, that and understanding that being an alienated parent requires you to do things differently. This is why we coach parents in your position, we do so to help them to manage the internalised barriers which have been created by external barriers. The two go hand in hand and overcoming the outside ones depends upon you being able to overcome the internalised ones.


      1. Thank you, Karen, for reminding me that this is not just an external battle, but an internal one. I am also attempting to overcome my financial constraints so that I am in a position to take this forward. I am pretty sure I have reframed my understanding of what is happening, and I did that some time ago, although how to deal with what my ex-wife is doing is another matter. My children are being held hostage, and I know that I have to find a way of freeing them. I do know that.

        I have just received the photo of my children (it was due before the end of February) and they are both looking down and looking distressed, sitting on the stairs at home. I am sure that any person seeing this would be perplexed at the least, but my first reaction was one of upset that my children are being put in a situation where they look like this. This is not normal behaviour and no young child should be placed under duress in this way. The photo screams abuse and I thought that perhaps I should call social services or the police to go and check on my children, but what do you think would happen if I did this? No, it is not the right approach.

        I am thinking of what to do next, so will be in touch when I have the financial means.


      2. Anything we can do Chris to assist we will, we put as much out on here and our book will be out very soon too and we will launch the new forums then so that more free support can be given. Sadly there is absolutely zero in the way of funding for this work so it is very much down to parents to pay for our services but we will do all that we can to give as much as we can alongside that too. K


  3. Karen, how does the court work with older children? Mine are 18 and 16. My son is at Uni and my daughter at home with my soon to be ex husband. Can I ask the court to order that he engages in therapy. Because I know darned well that at the moment I am the one portrayed as the person whose actions have brought this upon themselves.

    There is of course a chance I have, until I worked out what was happening and sought guidance as to what behaviour I should adopt I may well have “encouraged” (???) the process.

    I have presumed until I read this article that I had no say in where my children lived now they were abble to state a preference.

    My legals all say that in their experience it will improve once the divorce is settled? How will they when my son insisted on coming to discuss the court proceedings accusing me of being unfair because I hadn’t automatically asked for less as “Dad has to provide for us in the future and you don’t”?


    1. Hi Piglets mum, the court is out of the picture for your children I’m afraid, it is not going to be possible to get the court to do anything now that they are 16 and 18 in my experience. Depending on the reaction of their father to the impending divorce I think your legal people are telling you the truth, that when this is in the past your children may be different, in my experience it is possible to differentiate between those children caught in divorce cross fire and those who are going to be alienated for a long time. From your son’s reaction my guess is that you instigated the divorce and left because of your husband’s behaviours towards you in the relationship. When you left you expected your children to understand perhaps and were surprised when they didn’t? There is much I can tell you about what will happen to your children if you tell me more about the end of the relationship with their father and the relationship you had with him. It becomes possible to predict outcomes with the right amount of information. I think we may well be meeting up on Saturday for the launch of Living Losses, perhaps I can give you some more guidance then? K


  4. I am glad you wrote this blog. It portrays an extremely sensitive and heart warming approach to separation.

    Whilst most of the other agencies dealing with our separation seem to be purposefully cementing the split and suppressing the feelings of all concerned your organisation seems to be judiciously unpicking the messy family dynamic; then putting the whole show back on the road in much better shape.

    I understand why you got fed up trying to help the Government inspired set ups. I commend you for what you are doing around the Country……….quite the best social service in this specialist area of family separation.

    Kind regards


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