I read a comment from a reader today who sounds really angry that I write about targeted parents in ways that encourage them to understand how a child becomes alienated and how their own behaviour might contribute to that. The gist of this appears to be that all targeted parents are innocent of all wrong doings and that the only debate to be had is how to prevent parents from alienating children. This blame projection and finger pointing is not useful when working with children who are alienated and it is very definitely not useful to the targeted parent. Understanding how a child becomes alienated and whether the alienation is something that can be avoided by changing behaviours, is a far more empowering approach to helping families. Differentiating between those cases which can be changed by therapeutic intervention and those which require a more robust approach is also a far more direct way of rescuing the child from the dilemma they find themselves in. Either way, based on the evidence of many years work with families where children reject a parent, finger pointing and blame projection are not the way forward to helping to change the child’s reality.
How does a child become alienated? To begin with it is important to understand that not all children are at risk of alienation, even children in the same family can be more or less at risk of it. Secondly it is important to recognise that not every withdrawal from a parent by a child IS alienation. Sometimes the withdrawal is temporary, sometimes it is justified (and I know there are those who hate it when I say it, but some children justifiably withdraw) and sometimes it is a result of intolerable levels of cross projection of blame, which we would call hybrid. Pure alienation, which is when one parent is actively, either consciously or unconsciously working to undermine the relationship between a child and a parent, is very recognisable and the closest in presentation to Gardner’s original formulation of alienation. In my view this is the smallest group of families within the risk category of withdrawal but it is often presented by rejected parents as being that which they are experiencing.
And this presentation of a case of a child’s withdrawal as being pure alienation when in reality it is because of the cross projection of blame or the behaviours combined of both parents, is incredibly difficult to unravel. The comment I read today, full of anger and self righteous indignation on behalf of targeted parents, reminds me just how difficult it can be to let a parent who has been rejected know that there IS something they could change to make it easier for the child. When we tell a parent in such situations that this is not pure alienation (based on our extensive and comprehensive assessments) but is hybrid and as such is something that can be treated and changed, some seem almost disappointed. It is far easier it seems, for the blame to be wholly placed upon the other parent, than to understand and take responsibility for what belongs to the self and what therefore can be readily changed.
Parental alienation, which in reality has several things underpinning it, causes a child to withdraw from a parent in order to either a) conform to the parent’s unspoken wishes and carry out for the parent and unresolved trauma pattern (pure and unconscious) b) conform to the parent’s spoken or otherwise clearly articulated wishes (pure and conscious) c) conform to transgenerational patterns of behaviours (pure and unconscious but sometimes conscious) or d) cope with the intolerable pressure of two parents who are entangled in conflicted behaviours and blame projection (hybrid). Rarely does a child withdraw entirely on the basis of e) something a parent has actually done (justified rejection). At the clinic we are currently examining the category of hybrid alienation to differentiate it into sub categories because the more we work with families, the more we recognise that the hybrid alienation cases, where a child utilises withdrawal as a coping mechanism, are not served well by the family courts because of the lack of nuanced strategies that can be applied in the family courts.
When we work with differentiating alienation we do because we know that it is the best way to develop treatment routes that help the child. And it is the child with whom we are most concerned because it is the child who has been forced into using the coping mechanism of splitting their feelings about parents into all good and all bad and it is the child therefore who is most at risk.
Our commenter this morning is angry about lost periods of childhood and lost time with the child and whilst I understand that anger and frustration my concern is that the child’s loss is not the time with that parent but the destruction of the healthy mind and perspective that comes with that loss. I have absolute sympathy for targeted and rejected parents, the experience of being in that position is a pain like no other, a seam which runs underneath everyday life which can be unbearable at times. But for the child, the suffering is not painful like that, or at least not in any way that they could articulate. What it is, is seriously damaging, causing psychological and emotional life changes which are difficult to repair and using energies which would be far better utilised in every day living.
And so for me, it is imcumbent upon all parents rejected, targeted, aligned and alienated to recognise what they can change and when and how and what they cannot change. If all that happens when a child withdraws is that a parent spends their whole time pointing the finger and projecting blame, nothing can change and the child will remain frozen in time and space. If your specialist tells you that there is something you can do to bring about change, it is a time for rejoicing not being furious. If your specialist tells you there is nothing you can do to change things because the withdrawal is due to a one of the patterns of behaviours demonstrated in a pure case of alienation, then it is time to seriously worry about your child and hope that the family court process can bring about liberation.
Of course we all want it to be impossible for a child to become alienated and the ways that some professionals approach alienation does deepen the problem because they treat it as a he said/she said issue. Hybrid alienation is not a he said/she said situation but it is one which is more readily treatable through behavioural change in both parents and this is why differentiating alienation is not about blaming rejected parents, it is about helping them.
Stamping one’s feet and demanding that all alienation is the same however, serves no purpose other than to create a situation in which many children cannot be helped because blame projection remains high. Is that what targeted parents want? I don’t think so. I think targeted/rejected parents want information, education, support and strategies so that they can take responsibility where it is possible so that their children do not have to.
Which after all, is the corner stone of healthy parenting, something the alienated child very desperately needs.