Treating alienation in children: it is therapy but not as most people know it.

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.


  1. Karen, I know this may not be related to the post, but have you seen the work by Dr Craig childress on attachment based ‘parental alienation ‘


    1. Hi Col, yes I have much sympathy for Craig’s views, we treat children very much in line with what he recommends in his book, which is why we do not offer therapy routinely. The problem however with his views are that they are not widely accepted in the UK especially in the court system, so there is an educative requirement for the Judiciary and family services. I would ideally separate many of the children we see at the clinic from the aligned or alienating parent before treatment but it is just not possible to persuade the court that it should happen. This is where I think the aspiration and ideal approach in Craig’s work parts company with what can actually be achieved. But as a principle I am in complete agreement with him as it tallies exactly with what we are doing at the Clinic. K


  2. Karen, thank you for giving back four Children their Childhood as that is so precious and leads to a happy fulfilled adult. Well done once more to you and your colleagues at the Clinic.


    1. If I could bring them all back home I would, I would because I know what alienation does to the mind of a child and I know how disabling that is emotionally and psychologically. I know how it interrupts life chances and changes the course of a life that should be lived but is not. I will never stop trying, until we have travelled every road, every avenue and every nook and cranny has been investigated and even then I will keep going. Never give up, never give up hope. K


  3. Dear Karen
    It is now 2 years since contact was reinstated after a hiatus of almost the same amount of time. I’m so grateful that my relationship with my daughter is now thriving. There have been ups and downs but slowly fewer downs than ups.
    Your work and experience emphasises the importance of the initial assessment and differentiation in order to develop an appropriate program of, what sounds like, relatively intensive therapeutic intervention.
    In my situation CAFCASS intervened and showed my daughter a photo album I’d put together. This was suggested because my daughter was apparently unable to recall any positive experiences with me. Anything related to me had become classed as bad and evil whilst everything associated with mum was good, kind and about as perfect as anything could ever be. The pictures showed lots of very happy times and smiling faces. Her view of the world had been completely corrupted and the pictures challenged it. She actually asked the guardian if she could keep them and she later told me how she kept them safely hidden under her bed and how she would go to her room and look at them afterwards.
    Around the same time I was taken ill. Friends contacted my daughter to tell her and ask whether she wanted to see me. She thought about it but said she did not want to. This friend, not one to mince her words and someone my daughter loved and respected, gave her a stern talking to.
    Around the same time my sister also saw her. She is also quite forthright and she also spoke to my daughter about me and about her behaviour in terms that she had become unaccustomed to hearing. These are the main interventions but there were others. They seem to have been more confrontational and directly challenging.
    During the time I had no contact with my daughter I know that she and her mum were virtually joined at the hip. Her mother became more insular and spent far more time using facebook to communicate with a select coterie of friends and confidants. I know that a few people that I am aware of disagreed with her then and they were unceremoniously dumped. She was careful to surround herself with people that agreed with her and did not contradict anything.
    When the court proceedings intensified, again around the same, she began to hear views from authority that did not concur with those held by her and her peers. She has always been very sensitive to the way she is perceived and this disapproval was also something that she had become unaccustomed to hearing. It made an impression.
    Miraculously, a lot of what happened in my case seems to have worked. It is fantastic that you are able to help people achieve good results with a degree of confidence in the outcome.
    On father’s day my daughter gave me a plaque. It read, MY DAD IS GOOD AT EVERYTHING. It’s not true but she knows that I’m prepared to give anything a go. We’ve travelled a long way and she has “come home”, but the last couple of your posts are stark reminders of times I’d rather forget and that this will continue to be a work in progress for a while.


    1. Cafcasstrophy, I read your post with interest and am wondering if you could maybe clarify something. You mentioned that a friend ….
      ‘not one to mince her words and someone my daughter loved and respected, gave her a stern talking to’
      and you also said that
      ‘Around the same time my sister also saw her. She is also quite forthright and she also spoke to my daughter about me and about her behaviour in terms that she had become unaccustomed to hearing.’

      Have I understood correctly that you feel these occasions when people spoke to your daughter and ‘told it as it is’ contributed to bringing about what was eventually a positive outcome?

      My reason for asking is that I cannot tell my own children ‘it as it is’ myself, firstly because in their alienated state I do not get the opportunity to do so directly, but secondly because even if I did I would appear to be blaming them, or their mother, neither of which would I believe be condusive to the children changing their attiude towards me.

      However, I have often wondered if someone else still close to them were able to speak to them and ask if they knew what they were missing by not seeing half their family, and if they realised what it is doing to their Dad and Grandma etc, whether this might give them a reality check and have a potentially positive effect on their attitude and behaviour?

      It is certainly not anything that the so called professionals previously involved in our case have ever done, they just tip toed around the issues for fear of upsetting the Mother more than anything, hence its not something that has even been tried, so I do wonder if some plain talking other than by me but by someone they respect could help contribute towards a positive outcome.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The truth is Jay that i don’t know. As time has unfolded my daughter has spoken about the time when we had no contact. I was aware of the work Cafcass were doing but i was not aware until recently of how others had been involved. I don’t know to what extent the input of other people actually helped other than that it happened and shortly afterwards contact was restored. It does not seem to have done too much harm.

        I also know that around the same time there were a number of other influences. For instance, I made a point of remaining in contact with my daughter’s school. Periodically, i would call them or send a brief note to explain where we were in the proceedings and to get progress reports. I knew that my daughter had become more insular and withdrawn. I asked them to let me know of any concerns they had. I knew that the court would be contacting them and i kept them up to speed. Apparently, my daughter’s head teacher spoke to her quietly on a few occasions. It transpired that he had also been an alienated child! He understood what my daughter was experiencing and offered kind words of encouragement. That came as a complete surprise.

        I have been amazed to discover how things i was doing, which i have to admit seemed pointless at the time, actually developed. However, they seldom developed in ways i’d have expected. But, none of them would have happened unless i’d made the effort first.

        On rocky ground the more you sow the greater the chance that at least one seed will grow. As my daughter told me, “once i started thinking about you again i could not stop”.


      2. two key things in this reply for all to note. 1. Keeping in touch with the child’s school – absolutely and utterly essential at all times, never fail to do what CAFCASSRTROPHY outlines here it is excellent advice. 2. Sowing seeds on rocky ground – sow them, tend them, sow them again, tend them again and repeat ad infinitum because one of those seeds will grow and when it does, the experience the child has of not being able to stop thinking about a parent when they do start is from my experience, almost universal.


  4. Yes, I’m wondering how you got the aligned / alienating parent to engage outside of the court process?? (As per the penultimate paragraph of this article)

    Is there any formula for this? [Sorry Karen, if that sounds like a sarcastic statement]
    e.g. do these people succumb because they see the damage to the children? Seems very unlikely to me.
    do they have some other selfish motive ? are alienators ever powerless enough to have to take such steps for their own selfish motive fulfilment?


  5. I do get to see my two younger children all two briefly every two weeks, and the eldest has had some increasingly positive experiences with me of late – after many years of what would I guess be termed ‘hybrid alienation’.

    But to be frank, this is of little avail. The level of contact my children require to be physically and mentally healthy is actually WAY above this.

    It is pretty obvious to me that both the youngest and eldest are suffering from depression – showing symptoms of weakness, tiredness, and other physical manifestations of stress. The middle child is quite significantly autistic and it is much more difficult to guage the effect my absence is having.

    Educational progress is, of course – being affected…exactly how much is difficult to tell. The typical response of schools in the past has been to simply explain such failure away by downgrading the potential of the child.

    ‘Shared care’ is practically impossible – I simply don’t have the resources. There is really nothing relevant to “transition” to!

    It is a tremendous burden on the children to expect them to communicate by phone etc – even though that has recently become possible.

    The children need me there, in the family home – as I always was…and from their point of view – NOTHING else will suffice.

    For our family – separation has been a total tragedy and disaster…and will clearly remain so. It is not something that can possibly be made to “work”…unless possibly I was to encounter a relationship with a woman who had a three bedroom house available as an equivalent resource to what the children have now.

    I don’t wish to be negative but simply speak of the reality “on the ground”. As long as we refuse to admit the phenomenal damage that can be caused by family separation, and permit (even encourage) it to casually go ahead without VERY careful psychological examination – then this is the kind of disastrous scenario which will result.

    If we care about children at all – then separation should be considered the option of last resort, and actually very carefully regulated. Relationships that are in difficulty – need to be offered high levels of support. At present there is virtually no sense of obligation on adults to consider the overwhelming impact of disruption of parental relationship on children.


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