Mind bending: Understanding the world of the alienated child

One of the most difficult tasks that we undertaken at the Family Separation Clinic is helping the rejected parent to understand how the alienated child experiences the world.  When a child has turned against you and has become angry and rejecting or fearful and phobic, it can be the most horrifying experience to witness and be on the receiving end of.  Some children will tell lies about a parent, others will take up arms against them and a significant group will be recruited in the most poisonous and pernicious of reactions, where they become the conduit for the other parent’s hatred. However children express their rejection and whether it has arrived suddenly and starkly or slowly but insidiously, not taking it personally is one of the first tasks a rejected parent must learn. Learn this fast and you can avoid some of the pitfalls that come with an alienation reaction, take your time or fail to learn it at all and you put yourself at much greater risk.  When your child has entered into an alienation reaction, however they arrived there, there is much you can do as the rejected parent to avoid making it worse and to assist in making it better. Learning to understand the world of the alienated child helps you to build empathy. Not taking things personally helps you to deliver empathic responding. Two very key components for avoiding traps set by the alienator be they conscious or otherwise of what they are doing.

The world of the alienated child is mind bending.  Their mind has been bent and you will need to bend your mind to their experience in order to understand it.  This is what happens to an alienated child’s mind.

Children love their parents.  They are born dependent upon them and their dependency grows into attachment which is supported by love and the history of the relationships.  They would not, unless they were forced to, choose to get rid of one parent in order to please the other. Unfortunately, being dependent upon their parents, children have no choice but to do this when they are confronted by a situation in which they have no other choice but to choose.

Imagine the scene.  Jamie is 10 years old, his parents have been arguing and his mother leaves and takes him with her, now they live with grandma.  Jamie hears his mother crying and his grandmother telling his mother that his father is useless and she should have left years ago. Conversly, every time it comes to time for him to go and see his father the air in the house becomes dry and crackles with tension, his mother is red eyed and silent, his grandmother’s mouth is pinched in a line of disapproval.  Jamie is 10 years old. The people he loved are angry with each other. HIs visits to his dad are peppered with his dad richocheting from anger to sadness and back again.  Jamie does not know what to do. In the background his grandmother is telling him he doesn’t have to see his father, it upsets his mother and he doesn’t want to lose her as well does he?  What can Jamie do? He becomes more and more anxious. HIs grandmother tells him that his father is spending all his money on his new girlfriend and their children, his mother looks upset and sad or distant. He starts to feel that he has to do something. When he visits his dad his dad is not emotionally present though they still play on the play station together. Jamie asks his dad about the money he is spending on his girlfriend, his dad goes mad and calls his grandmother a witch and other horrible names. Jamie starts to think his dad must be horrible, he upsets so many people.  Jamie begins to bend his mind, he begins to forget the good times with his dad and see only the difficult times, he begins to increase in his anxiety ahead of his visits to dad. His grandmother tells him he doesn’t have to go. His mother feels supported and listened to and helped when Jamie says that dad has treated her badly. Both women talk about Jamie’s maturity and are grateful to have him around to help them. Jamie feels rewarded. He withdraws from his dad and joins the love-in with his maternal family, now he is truly one of them and hates his father as openly as they do for which he is rewarded further. When his father takes the matter of not seeing Jamie to court, Jamie takes it upon himself to put the whole thing right. He systematically refuses to see his father, nothing that anyone can do will force him to. His mother and grandmother are amazed at his maturity and his ability to see his father for what he really is.  Jamie has no idea by this time that the love that he felt for his father has been stolen from him by adults who were more concerned with their own needs than they are about his.  He has no idea that his value in the family system rests not upon his worth as a human being or love but for the role that he plays as defender of the maternal family against the hated father.

Children whose minds have been bent in this way are fragile and vunerable although they do not know it.  The bending of their mind has taken from them the normal processes of development and the normal relationships which are theirs by right.  Their psychology has been damaged because of this and their emotional reactions and their capacity for emotional intelligence have been severely arrested.  Children in thse circumstances most often build a defensive false self which they deploy to get them through the difficult times, whilst inside they feel hollow and uncertain and find themselves frequently struggling through quicksand emotionally.  On the outside they may look strong and confident but they are at risk of decompensation in which their false self fragments and the lack of self underneath is exposed.  Building relationships in this emotional state is not easy because the child has learned that their use in the world is to care for other people’s needs not their own and in severe cases, they have been left without any sense of their own needs or even that they could have needs.  These children are those who will grow up to look after other people, they will be attracted to fragile others and those who have problem personalities. These children are more likely to end up alienated from their own children, they cannot help but be so, that is what they have learned in their parenting template. To the degree where they will partner with dominators who are similar to the people who caused them to reject a parent. These dominators will of course end up pushing them out of their children’s lives. Without the integrated personality which protects them from such abuse, they will passively accept it, completely unconscious of the fact that their mind was bent as their own child’s mind is bending. Thus the generational march of alienation continues.

Understanding all of this is part of the role of being the rejected parent. Not taking it personally and not falling into traps set for you are key tools in your toolbox.  Empathic understanding of what is happening can arrest the reaction in the child before the mind bending goes too far.

Learn more about how children become alienated in our workshops and seminars, online and in London to accompany our book Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to cope, helping to heal  – details coming soon.

22 thoughts on “Mind bending: Understanding the world of the alienated child

  1. Hello Karen – I just wanted to add a different perspective, I didn’t realize until the last 6 months that I was alienated as a child myself. We are into 3.5 years of complete and total alienation with a child now a legal adult and 21, alienation has been going on since she was 5, and only reached completion and the “achievement” of total destruction of the relationship after 13 years of non-stop attempts to alienate. A I realize now my ex was also alienated from one parent. I fought it when it happened to me as a child, I was incapable of hating either parent, both were and are sick narcissists and I refused to give up the little crumbs of attention I got by turning against either one of them as demanded by each. I recognized PAS in my child as soon as it began, no one believed me, our therapists didn’t see it but I wasn’t passive, I fought tooth and nail but I fought alone and lost. I’ve about lost hope, family and friends have joined with the alienator and we’ve found that people avoid grief stricken people like my husband and I like the plague. My therapist and best friend believe in PAS now, but it’s too late. All we can do now is wait for her to wake up and see what’s been done to her. I just wanted to say it took me a long time to realize I was alienated myself, but I definitely wasn’t passive. I fought my heart out to save her from this situation, but I lost.


    1. Hello OM, I notice in so much of our work at the Clinic that what happens when we begin the process of family mapping that the rejected parent realises that they too were alienated as a child. I used to think that alienated children would become alienating parents, but then I realised that the internalised template of parenting that an alienated child receives is that one parent has to be split off and put out of mind and so this makes them a) vulnerable to being in relationships with alienating people (they accept the pattern they are familiar with and do not notice it) and b) when their adult relationships break down they passively accept being pushed out because they have internalised that belief about relationships – one person gets split off. When you are fighting alienation as an alienated child who is now a grown up person you are fighting with fog really because although you can see the alienation in the child you are helpless to do what you need to do in the adult relationship because you never learned the skills of relating to two people so how can you pass them on to the child who is being alienated. When you are the child of a narcissist or two parents with narcissism, you are unable to establish the clear and firm sense of self that prevents you from being pushed around by adults when you are older, the world constantly feels as if it is moving out of your grasp. And so you end up knowing what is happening and feeling as if you are screaming behind glass but you fail to be able to show what is happening because people assume it is you not the other person who is the problem. This is why working with a coach or therapist who understands alienation and how the alienator deploys the weaknesses in the target parent to achieve its goals. Your coach or therapist has to be also be able to skill you quickly to replace the skills you did not receive because you were alienated yourself. The pairing of an alienated child who becomes an alienated parent is a repetitive pattern that we see at the Clinic and one which I am studying closely.

      When you are fighting you have to be capable of using counter intuitive approaches as well as straightforward challenges and you have to be able to use super powered empathic responding alongside it if you still have a relationship with your child. Only these combinations can bring about reversals. Similarly you have to be willing to fight virtually to the death with the alienator to achieve the outcome of liberating the child. Sadly however, you can only fight to that level if you can persuade the courts to fight with you.

      This is why books like Amy Baker and Brian Ludmer’s High Conflict Court Battles is so important. You have to have a therapist and a solicitor/attorny and you have to have the sharpest possible barrister in the UK to get the court to see the pattern. Sadly it costs money to do this and there is no easy way through it. I am so sad to hear that you fought hard and lost but as an alienated child yourself, you were in such a disadvantaged position. First thing to do when she comes home is help her to understand, get her therapeutic support. She will wake up. I hope before she herself has children. Keeping hoping though because miracles happen. I am one of them. Kx


  2. This article has helped me a lot in my own present situation, and reading it has to some degree opened my eyes a great deal towards my own daughters disposition. I shall try to apply it instead of the quick reaction to fight back or justify myself. I would like to have a relationship with my daughter, my heart and feelings scream out for such, I wish it were so and I would be prepared to go all the way in trying to regain her. I guess I need help with that Karen, from someone who has the care and the time, someone like you perhaps who has the understanding and the experience to guide us back to each other. I am here if anyone could help me. This posting is a real help to me. Thank you.


  3. Such a good articulation! So my oldest son was an ally early in the process so have not seen him for six years. Such was the conflict that cafcass recommended sole residency for me for the younger twins. We settled at shared 3 years ago and it worked ok. BUT as they grew older(13) and perhaps the memory from the lecturing by the high court judge faded, the last year has been filled with a long string of manufactured conflicts which are blamed on me including moving house ( they moved further away), changing school despite school order (yes you guessed it, further away and 2 min walk from M’s house) and changing sports club (yes, further away). This is despite consent orders of all these matters in place. And to no surprise one of my twins now thinks I am against him and refuse to come or go skiing etc. the other twin is hanging in there but it’s close. It is very scary to experience this cruel tactics as every time M wants something I agree in court and as soon as she leaves with an agreed order she start undermining it creating a newconflict. “Serial Conflicter”. Children must be very confused…


    1. 13 is a risky age CP, do not feel afraid to go back into court for a reinforcement of orders, consent orders are no good, you need to get back in and get a direction asap and do not be scared by the thought that mother will use that against you, she will but you need to get the orders absolutely nailed down so that she cannot gradually undermine them as she is by getting the children to do her bidding. We are working with an excellent direct access barrister at the moment who can help to get swift and positive outcomes. Contact us for details. office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk


  4. Dear Karen – thank you. I have followed your blogs for a while now. I have 4 children 3 of which are alienated from me badly. The fourth I am hanging on in with. I have worked closely with an excellent family therapist and expert in PA. I get it. I understand the PA and my ex who is borderline NPD. I did make big mistakes in the past which aggravated the PA but now, mostly (as its not always easy in the heat of the moment,) manager to defuse the PA and not make it worse. Occasionally I manage a small victory.

    I still see the 3 that are alienated but less and less and I think it will soon dwindle to nothing. My ex of course just says that its up to the children to decide (ages 10-16) knowing now that they are so “PA’d” she is safe.

    You talk a lot of great sense in understanding the PA and advice to not make it worse. But the reality in PA is that it is the alienated parent that has to change by learning how to deal and measure up to the alienator, the alienated children and the process. And most importantly how to deal with the rejection and the immense pain. I only have three options.

    One – is to just give up completely. I can’t do that it’s not in my nature and I would be a broken man.

    Two – to continue fighting. I have looked at lawyers and court options and have decided that as my ex is a classic narcissist it will achieve nothing. The children are never going to be taken away from her (and I wouldn’t want that) and she will never accept that she is doing anything wrong. She occasionally has agreed changes with a mediator only to walk out of the door and ignore them. Continue fighting is counter productive. It makes it worse and it exhausts me mentally and emotionally.

    Three – learn how to deal with it, how to protect myself and how to pray that one day things will change.

    I love your blogs they say a great deal about PA, understanding and learning about it all. I don’t learn anything about how to correct it and put me back in a happy family situation that I once enjoyed. I was incredibly close to my children when they were young. So close that when my boys then aged 3-5 had to spend a night in hospital (on 3 separate occasions) they chose their Dad to stay with them as opposed to their Mum.

    I have huge support from my ex’s mother, sister and brother. But none of them will do anything to help me. They don’t want to be alienated either. She has huge power and I can see she will control her children for a long time yet. The eldest boy is now her surrogate husband and a surrogate parent such that when they do come I have to co-parent with him. That is an immense challenge. But if he doesn’t come then of course the others won’t come without him. He is her eyes and mouth.



    1. Nick, I cannot write generically about how to rectify PA because that would cause people to use the strategies and then shout ‘it didn’t work’…each and every case has its own unique significator, that is why we work with families, rarely do we only work with the alienated parent, usually the whole family. If you would like to talk to people we have worked with we have people happy to tell you their process and their outcome.

      I can however tell you the unique significator in your case, simply by reading your post.

      ‘The courts would never take them away from her and I would not want that.’ Bingo. There’s your answer. I would not want that.

      Why would you not want that? You want a happy family again and at the same time you recognise that your ex is a narcissist. You will not have a happy family unless you want your children taken away from the narcissist. Full stop.

      If your ex is abusing your children through narcissistic behaviour, she is breakign their minds. If she were breaking their legs would you not want them taken away from her?

      I don’t know who your expert in PA is but if they are not telling you this they are not expert in PA. If you want to do something about this, you have to do something different.

      And doing it differently is not easy, is not painless and is very much about taking action.

      This is why I do not talk generically about how we do it in individual cases because all cases are different but you do not simnply have to understand and do nothing, you can understand and do something. This is why we back up my writing with our work at the Clinic and why the work at the Clinic backs up this writing. Helping you to understand and demystifying alienation is for free, the rest costs, in both time, energy and sadly money.

      There is so much you can do – you can shift the eldest boy’s power for example you can shift the whole power dynamic and have them removed from her if you work hard enough at it. THe question you have to answer for yourself is what stops you from doing more than understanding? Perhaps it is enough to simply understand, perhaps your expert therapist is afraid of the steps that have to be taken and is holding you back?

      Our coaching and intervention services are at the Family Separation Clinic, you can have real time, real life conversations with people we have helped, people whose kids are now safe, now well and healthy. Anytime you want to take that step, we will be here. K


  5. Karen, finding your blog allowed me to make sense of the starnge reaction I was receiving from my child initially. Reading your column allowed me to appreciate that even if I had added to the problem in the first place I now had the education and the tools to help myself and hopefully in the long run, the children. Further therapy has allowed more progress and I have a better idea of how I must react when they come back.


    1. So glad to hear PM, sometimes understanding alienation gives you the tools and confidence to do the work that helps you to feel that waiting isn’t futile and that when they come back you will know what to do. We do sometimes advise waiting at the Clinic, in circumstances where we know that getting the children out of the trap is not possible right now. I am glad the blog helps, it is really just a place where I write about all the things that impact on me and our families as I go about my working life but it emerges as help for other people and so many people tell me it is helpful that I cannot stop writing it now. k


  6. The child who resists PA is still damaged. PA also has a high rate of failure, often leaving the alienator in ongoing conflict with the child into adulthood. It is hard to imagine that the PA-resistant child’s adult relationships would not be damaged. Through all this, the target parent can help to defuse crises, but has no power to intercept them. There may be some sense of victory in stopping PA from working as planned, and we may have less concern for families in this situation, particularly when the target parent succeeds in preserving relationships with both parents. It is sad that people are forced through these situations, but we can be aware, and we can work through.


  7. Can I please ask a heartfelt question. My marriage has just ended. I have been trying for 16 years to keep it going despite the abusive nature of my ex. He has upset and lost the love and respect of his 15 and 13 year old children through his behaviour. The final three months were hell. We needed time to heal and get our lives back on track. He is accusing me of parental alienation. At first he admitted his personality was wrong and swore he would change. But now it is my fault that the children haven’t spent time with him. I am only supporting what they want. What do I do? I’m scared the courts will believe that I am alienating him and they will be subjected to continued abuse.


    1. Hello canmum, you can ask your question and you are welcome here. I recognise the pattern of behaviours that you are describing here, 13 and 15 are difficult ages for family separation, I can see that they have been affected.

      If the marriage was abusive and you felt that you had to leave then that is a very important starting point. You say that your children’ father upset and lost the respect of the children, can you describe how he did that? You describe three months of hell and that ‘we’ needed time to heal and get your lives back on track, do you mean you and the children when you say ‘we’, is that a unit of three in your mind or are the children separate to you and has their father upset them separately or, by upsetting you, has he upset the children too?

      Can a personality be wrong? A personality can be difficult, disordered or problematic but can it be wrong? We are who we are are we not and sometimes that is wrong in relationship to another person but is it essentially wrong? What made the marriage abusive, whose interpretation of abuse do you use to analyse it and how was the abuse of the children the same or different to his abuse of you?

      Why are you supporting what the children want? Is it because you feel they are right in what they are saying, is it because you feel supported by them? Do you believe your children should have a father in their lives? If so, what does he need to do to strengthen his positive input and what do you need to do to communicate that to him?

      What is the continued abuse they will be subjected to? Is it hitting, hurting, name calling, drug taking, drinking, neglect, humiliation, what is it that you are afraid they will be subjected to. If you can answer these questions I can help you to tease out the issues so that you can communicate and build a strategy for reconnecting the children. After all, their father has not died, he is still alive, unless he is seriously and objectively harming them, is it not better to deal with this and help the children rebuild, rather than subject them to a life of coping with rejecting him, an effort of mammoth psychological proportions which robs them of the energy they need to live their lives well and healthy.


      1. Thank you for replying. I see from what you’ve said how parental alienation can be perceived. My husband’s personality is disordered. Narcissistic. Lying, manipulation, degrading, critical, gaslighting, stares, silent treatment, put downs, physical threats, aggressive behavior and physically hurting the children. This was directed individually at me and each of the children. I support the children because I saw what he did to them and the effect it has on them. Yes he upset me many times but ultimately it was the daily events towards the children that has effected this outcome. I think it is very important for the children to have a father. That is why I tried to make our family life as good as i could for 15 years. Always showing love and support to my husband so he would be amicable and encourage situations where the children shared good events with him. It never lasted very long. I think too that as the children have become older they’ve seen how their friends’ dads are compared to him. How they interact with their children and it has made them feel like they never had a dad. I heard my son say this to his dad. I understand that there are people out there that alienate there children for their own satisfaction. Please believe me when I say that I’m not a vindictive person. I’m a loving mum who wants her children to have a positive life.


      2. I think the litmus test is always whether the parent puts their own needs of the needs of the child first, if what you are saying is that the children’s father is cruel, humiliating, unjust, brutal, physically harmful and more by the sound of it then the children would be considered to be rejecting him with justification. However, the key to it is who judges it, who upholds it and how do you reflect back to the children that their father is not like other fathers. There is a very fine line between being the person who makes the judgement and silently imposes and coerces the children to accept it and supporting the children in their recognition of their father’s abusiveness. In all of these situations it can be very confusing to a child to have 15 years of one parent making things work when the other one is difficult and then having that same parent decide for them that enough is enough and leaving and then reflecting the badness of that parent to the children. What you do is down to you and you alone, but how you decide to support your children’s need for a positive life can be problematic if what you are upholding is their complete rejection of a parent because that is not positive it is negative. Would it not be better to teach children that other people are good and bad people, that even those with narcissistic personality disorder are not all bad (when we remove children from such parents we never sever the relationship completely). Your children are not old enough to make decisions to remove a parent from their lives completely, you would not allow them to make decisions about other life changing matters, why is it ok to make such decisions about a relationship with a parent? There could be many ways to support some kind of ongoing relationship, loving mums find different ways to help their children to understand that the man their mother chose to have children with is not a wholly bad person.


      3. Thank you Karen. I understand what you’re saying and it makes sense. I’ve had many varied responses to questions and in the end I want what is best for the children. They’re being counselled by their psychologists to empower them to know how to interact with their dad. They’re both very mature for their age. People often think my 13yo daughter is 16yo…in mind and mentality. They both have school leadership roles and engage in accelerated learning programs. I need to remember myself that they are still children, not young adults as everyone else perceives them to be. My challenge now is how to get them to contact their dad and what arrangements to make. He is indicating that he wants to fight for custody. I obviously don’t want to lose my children. Any suggestions?


  8. Hi Karen I was wondering what your advice would be in regards to myself. I have a daughter who is 12 years old now and I haven’t seen her for 4 years. I went to court to gain access and was granted supervised due to the length of time I hadn’t seen her (a year). When it came to contact she became hysterical and was crying and shaking so I never got to see her as she refused to even come through the door. Letters were ignored by her and in the end Cafcass recommended that I have indirect contact with her 4 times a year so because of this I cancelled the next court hearing as I expected the judge to agree with Cafcass. Since then I’ve had pressure from my ex who is requesting that I allow my daughter to have her surname changed to her stepdads and give stepdad parental responsibility which I’ve refused. I don’t send birthday cards or Christmas cards as apparently all contact I make upsets my daughter so I’ve done what she wanted and left her alone. She doesn’t acknowledge her brother or sister on birthdays etc either. I’ve told her I’ll always leave the door open for her if she ever wants to come and see me but right now I don’t feel that will happen. I was wondering if there was any advice you could give of what to do or even not do. My daughter lives hundreds of miles away so I don’t see her around or anything. She’s become a total stranger that I know nothing about now.


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