This week I have been working with children who are alienated as well as those who are experiencing transitional difficulties. The difference is startling, giving us the opportunity to understand at a much deeper level, the ways in which living in separated family situations, creates pressures upon children which cause them to behave in very particular ways.
The very obvious difference between a child who is experiencing transitional difficulty and a child who is alienated is that the former is still able to spend time with both parents, whilst the latter cannot or will not or a combination of both. Whilst a child who is transitioning between parents will display very obvious signs, the child who is alienated will display the eight signs observed originally by Gardener, which in my experience are stark and very clear when they are present. Being able to differentiate between a child who is transitioning and an alienated child is one of the first tasks for any practitioner working with families at risk of these issues. In my experience, this means any family where conflict remains between parents or where one parent is hostile, anxious, controlling or unable to allow the child freedom to have a relationship with the other parent.
Working closely with children as we do at the Clinic, we are able to understand directly from them what the pressures are upon them. This week we observed four children in different stages of transitional difficulty and I observed two severely alienated children. I was also sent photographs of children and their once rejected parent, smiling, looking relaxed and happy, both children now back in relationship with their parent, both reconnections achieved outside of the court process.
The longer we do this work the more it is possible to understand individual circumstances and how the reactions in the children are configured (and how to unpick those configurations). Using our family mapping tools which we have developed to analyse the route into the current position, we can deliver tailored treatments which bring about swift change. One of the key things that we have learned through developing these assessment tools, is that the rejected parent holds a great deal of information about the child’s position but the aligned parent is the person who really holds the gold. Getting the aligned parent to work with reunification can seem like an impossible dream but in the two pictures of reunited children and their once rejected parent, the truth of the matter is laid bare. When the aligned parent is brought on board, the magic happens quickly. In both of these cases we worked with the whole family and in both cases we worked intensively with the aligned parent. The way we worked however was not ‘therapy’ but a combination of education, instruction, guidance and empathic support. How it is done depends upon the parent but unless it is done there will be no progress. It would be hard for the everyday psychotherapist to recognise some of the strategies we use, but that matters not when the outcome is achieved. And the lovely pictures we received this week show the happy outcomes we always aim for.
Notice the language I am using. Here I am speaking about aligned parent, this is the parent to whom the child has aligned themselves after transitional difficulty. This is not pure alienation but hybrid, in which both parents have contributed to the child’s withdrawal. In this scenario, the parent from whom the child withdraws, is called at the Clinic the rejected parent. In pure cases, the language we use is alienating and targeted parent. The difference denotes the conscious or unconscious actions of the alienating parent and allows us to select the correct treatment route. Which in pure cases is not therapy.
Therapy may not be readily indicated in hybrid cases either. The reality of whether therapy is the right approach to such work depends upon assessment and in assessment the reality is that if the case is not right for therapy, therapy should not be offered because in the wrong circumstances, therapy will simply deepen and entrench the problem, not alleviate it. In fact pure therapy should rarely be used in any of these circumstances because therapy is based upon the notion that behavioural change can be achieved through reflection and deepened self awareness. In too many of these cases, the standard delivery of therapy, once a week at the therapists office, is absolutely contraindicated and should be avoided. Which is why all of our therapeutic routes are delivered mostly at the child’s home first, moving out and into the rejected parent’s home and are combined with facilitated contact, parenting co-ordination and intensive family support. This work is dynamic and focused, it is not simply talking about the problem, it is doing, being, feeling and compelling behavioural change in the child through change in the parental dynamics. In some cases, where it is indicated, it is about removing the child before any such work takes place.
We are increasingly asked at the Family Separation Clinic, to deliver therapy for alienated children. We are always clear in those circumstances that therapy will only be delivered if it is indicated through assessment because to do so is to further entrench the problem. Where we do offer them, our therapeutic interventions are always a combination of support and they always include the whole family.
Some people reading this will wonder how we achieve engagement with both parents and the child, inside the court process this is agreed between parents, outside of the court process it is no different. We regularly meet the aligned and sometimes the alienating parent in both circumstances, the core issue being that these parents are people first not monsters, even though they may be viewed as such by the rejected or targeted parent. People respond to people. Alienation is a relational issue and children are entangled in the cross wires of emotional toxicity. Transitional difficulties, alienation, alignment, rejection, targeting, all of these things are relationship issues. All are resolved by the therapist in relationship to the family as a whole using a combination of services but rarely, if ever simply talking about it.
It is therapy, but not as most people know it.