I am putting together a series of seminars at the moment, for professionals working with intractable cases where children are fully rejecting of a parent. As I do so I thought it might be useful to hold a regular Sunday seminar on self help for alienated parents, let us know what you think and we will add this to our new service as an additional self help tool.
Self help is a way of working with families that enables and empowers the individuals within to find their own way to healing. This week, a family I have been working with for over a year now, have moved into a phase in which they have taken over the therapeutic work of healing their children from alienation by working together. This might seem astonishing to some who read this and of course, it is not for everybody, but the truth of the matter is, that if the child is to heal, the best people to support that are the parents themselves. This family have turned an astonishing corner of late and the alienating parent (with whom I have worked intensively to educate and inform and support), has taken the lead in repair and change. I watch this with absolute fascination because it goes against the grain of everything I have seen in alienating parents previously. However, the tension is tight, the protective layers of legal control are in place and so it is imperative to let this unfold because if the desired outcome is reached and the child reconnects healthily and is able to have an independent relationship with the once rejected parent, the healing is complete and there is nothing more that needs to be done. Self help, in these circumstances, is about tailoring what we offer to be responsive to the needs of the family, it is not about imposing it.
Self help is a way of working with families which ironically stems from the women’s movement, in which the idea of lofty expert and dysfunctional patient was hugely challenged as being unnecessary. Whilst I have renounced the feminist faith, the self help ethos remains a fundamental part of who I am and what I do. For me, working with families and helping to create dynamic change, is much less about being an expert and much more about being human. Parental alienation is a problem with a human face and it requires the ability to connect to people, understand them at the deepest level and to fundamentally care. Caring about alienated children and their families, for me, is about all of the toxic layers that bind the family into the place of stasis in which alienation can arise. Caring is about knowing that this can happen to any family where the dynamics are configured in particular ways and caring is about knowing that the systems that families struggle to cope in, are part of the problem that they face in crossing the space to healthy separated parenting. In this respect self help is not just about activating the ability of individuals in the family to create change, it is also to accept the responsibility incumbent upon all practitioners in this field, which is to work to change the systems which create the potential for alienation in the first place. Accepting this responsibility takes the power dynamic out of the expert/patient relationship and prevents alienated parents being subjected to the remote and disinterested attentions of the ‘expert’ who is healthy, treating the patient who is not. In truth alienated parents and their children are not unhealthy, they are trapped in a toxic system and the practitioner who enters this world must work to establish a powerful alliance which harnesses the family’s inherent ability to heal itself. It is this which forms the foundation for dynamic change, alongside the determination by the practitioner to fight for the right conditions that liberate the child.
Self help for alienated parents starts with informing and educating and moves on to strengthening and clarifying the ability of the parent to create change. Beyond that are all manner of possibilities because the principle that changing oneself compels others to change, applies here. What I notice from this way of working is that the journey of change in alienated children, mirrors that of their parents and the journey of change in alienated and alienating parents, mirrors that of the relationship with a pracitioner. These mirroring behaviours are called parallel processing, in which the change in one person is mirrored and runs parallel to the change in another person. Noticing this, when working with all of the members of a family where children are rejecting (which is what we are mostly engaged in at the Family Separation Clinic), means that leading the change requires being able to keep out of the attempts by the alienating parent to control the mirroring patterns. These attempts, which can often feel like going into the woods with Hansel and Gretel, are born of many different things. Learned behaviour in which generational dysfunction is passed on and normalised, personality disorder, in which the parent is unaware that what they are doing is wrong and conscious and deliberate attempts at manipulation are all at play when working with alienating parents. Working respectfully but determindedly to free the child, requires an ability to know what the mirrors are and where they are and when they are being deployed. In doing so one is able to enter the woods safely and exit when necessary, mirroring healthy behaviours and expectations and creating the conditions in which the parent who can make the choice to change is given the opportunity to do so. For those who cannot change, the use of court processes to bring about the liberation of the child is necessary. But at every stage this is about offering the chance for self help and being willing to stand aside should the parents be able to take it. Where they cannot, for example where a parent simply cannot understand that it is their own anxiety and expectation which creates the double bind for the child, action must be taken to change that dynamic. At all stages this work is about activating the ability of the family to help itself and intervening only when it is apparent that it can’t.
Self help is the theme for the coming months and getting information into the hands of parents themselves is our goal. It is surprising how many aligned parents contact us as well as those who are alienated. Something which tells us that the need for understanding and coping skills is high in this group of families. All of which means that healing, which is activated and managed by the family itself, is possible. After all, in parental alienation, the best therapists of all are parents themselves. Those people whose unconditional positive regard for their children is inherent in their love for them.
Which leaves us, as people working with families who suffer so badly, with the task of creating core conditions for change and providing the tools to use that make the difference.
Which is the next step in our work for alienated children and their families everywhere.