The unbearable madness of knowing

This week I have been working on several projects concerned with increasing parental awareness of what is happening to their children when alienation strikes.  All this alongside working with parents whose children are alienated and children who think that the parent they have rejected is quite simply horrible. I have also been working with parents who are so indignantly determined that their version of why a child no longer sees a parent is correct, that they will go to any lengths to ‘prove’ it.  The world of children’s rejection of a parent is indeed a world in which everyone is concerned about what they know. And of course,  everyone believes that what they know is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Working in the midst of this can feel a little bit like being down the rabbit hole with Alice, I half expect the mad hatter to turn up at times.

I have written elsewhere about working with children who are alienated and the need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs as we go into the woods like Hansel and Gretel. I like the use of fairy stories in my work with alienated children and I use them as metaphors a lot when I am with them because the world of the unspoken, the symbolic and the roads not travelled, is the world that these children inhabit.  When the mirrors reflect not your own self but that of the alienating parent and when the words which are spoken jar horribly with the language that the body of the alienating parent is speaking, the brain and the mind becomes used to responding to the ‘truth’ and not the lie which is heard. Of course the ‘truth’ is the lie and the lie is the truth in this world and keeping that firmly in the foreground of the mind as a practitioner is a critical element of successful practice.  If only it were that simple then all would be easy in reversing these children’s ‘decisions’, but it is of course not that simple. Nothing about an alienation reaction in children is simple, which means for pracitioners who work with these families, being able to tolerate the behaviours of the parents and children involved as well as cope with them over the longer term, is an essential tool to have to hand.

So how does one cope as a practitioner in this topsy turvy, upside down world that is inhabited by families where alienation strikes?  Here is a short list (yes there is a long one too) of how to cope in working with families where children are refusing or rejecting a parent. Keep it handy if you are working with these families, if you are in one of these families, keep it close too, it could keep you sane when things become unbearable.

1. Understand that there is nothing that you can do to remedy the situation without taking control out of the hands of the alienating parent.

2. Understand that when you do attempt to take control out of the hands of the alienating parent, they WILL turn their attentions to you.  Therefore, when you decide to take control or attempt to, be ready for their attack on you.

3. When the parent attacks you it will be a reflection of their behaviours seen in relation to the rejected parent. They will blame you, argue that you are on the rejected parent’s side, drag up intelligence on you, accuse you of trickery, bad practice, lack of focus on children’s needs and rights, tell you and others that you are unethical, attempt to discredit you in as many ways that they can think of.

4. If your first reaction to this attack is to try and defend yourself you will only cause the dynamic caused by the parental dysfunction to escalate. Put on your teflon coat, this is your knowledge base which allows you to understand why the parent is doing what they are doing.

5. In short, if you are going to work in this field you are going to become a target, understand that and you will be fine, forget it and you will end up bruised and suffering.

6. The rejected parent needs you to be empathic but knowledgeable and skilled, this is not a field for learning as you go along. If you have never worked with an alienated child before and you haven’t had training and don’t know the rules, don’t go there. Would you go into a burning building to fight a fire or perform open heart surgery without training? Empathy is one thing, knowledge, skill and experience is quite something else.  If you want to work in this field, get yourself trained, accompany a practitioner who has knowledge and skill and work with them.  I did exactly that for longer than I have been working with these families and it helped – enormously.

7. Just because you have read something or researched something, doesn’t make you an expert in this field.  Knowing is one thing, doing is another. Don’t experiment on families, it is unfair to them and it is abusive to the children who need your help.

8. Never take things personally, grow a rhinoceros hide which keeps the soft and skilled part of you safe. You need that softness to bring the children to safety, you need the tough hide to protect yourself from the alienating parent when they go on the attack.

9. Find something that you love to do outside of this work and do it – a lot.  Whether it be crochet, singing, walking, watching birds or simply sleeping, whatever you do when you are not with these families, do it and let it take you out of the madness and into the wonderful healthy world out there.

10. Compare your work to others, talk to others who do this work, share skills and learn from those who have gone ahead on the path, this is one of the most powerful ways of learning about traps and unexpected outcomes. There are as many unexpected outcomes as there are traps in this work, never stop believing there is something else to learn.

11.  Love the families you work with, love them wholly and completely and fight for them. This dysfunction which has blighted their lives does not make them any less important or any less in need of respect and your deep and abiding care.  Human relationships are astonishing, people are amazing and every parent, even the most dangerous ones, have a story that brought them to this place. If you cannot love the families you work with, do not do this work because you will harm them.

I could go on.  There is so much in this work with families which needs to be unpacked and explored and discussed and shared. This unbearable madness, which is resident is so many of these families, this urgency of knowing and this desperate desire to be in control is compelling.  For me as a practitioner it is a fascinating and never ending jigsaw, in which every piece has something to offer. Though at times, (especially as I come up to holiday times, I wonder whether I will indeed find my way back up from the rabbit hole into the other world), what I learn, about what it is to be human and in relationship to each other feels incredibly privileged.

Which makes the madness of knowing and doing what I do, all the easier to bear.


  1. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to be working with families that are going through this. It is crazy for the alienated parent who constantly is wondering, what did I do??? The answer is very clear, nothing, I did nothing to create this. However it is the reality. I have had to work with professionals that told me, ” Well at least he isn’t throwing the children against the wall.” I would love to send your article to that person. The social worker that was completely fooled by the alienating parent. He had no idea what he was dealing with and with your comments, if you don’t know about it, don’t deal with it. Once one parent mentions Parental Alienation, get someone who knows what they are doing to be involved with the situation. The children involved have their life depending on it. No they are not being thrown against the wall physically but their emotions, their mental state and their psychological balance is being thrown against the wall over and over and over again. It is time for professionals to stop looking for physical abuse and to look for the emotional abuse that children go through. I once had DChild Protection tell me that ” it is hard to prove emotional abuse.” So does that mean you don’t try? You just give up and say it is too hard therefore we aren’t going to look into it. I understand that the alienating parent is scary for a professional but does that mean you back away??? I had a psychiatrist once say, ” want to know why everyone is so afraid of him.” Well the psychologist that became involved also was afraid of him so we got no where fast. A message to professionals involved iwth Parental Alienatinn, do your homework and be extra diligent. Mistakes happen all the time and it is devastating for the chidlren and the alienated parent. You owe it to all involved to do the best job for them.



  2. Thank you for sharing your insights, and your dedication to families dealing with parental alienation.

    A few things I would add for the professionals:

    1) Take regular education and classes about domestic violence, and its affects on the family dynamic, and how it manifests in the legal setting, and related subjects
    2) Take regular education and classes on child development, child trauma and related subjects
    3) Look for patterns – Actions, Attitudes, Behaviors, How the Children Fare etc Patterns reveal important clues about the family dynamic, and aspects of the person you are dealing with
    4) Be sure to read, and take the time to gather medical or mental health reports, CPS reports, police reports, court documents etc Read these documents with an open mind, and also utilizing your skills, education and experience. Be aware that the effects of the abuse or alienation may have affected these reports.
    5) When you become the attack or the scorn of a parent it is often because the alienator has been exposed, their con game is no longer working or they do not feel that you are on their side. I agree – do not take it personally. But at the same time, this experience also gives you valuable insight as to what the child has experienced from that parent, and what tactics or methods were used on the child as part of the abuse or alienation

    And finally… THANK YOU for your hard work, care and efforts on behalf of the children and families.


  3. Reblogged this on Parenting Abused Children: Hope, Healing & Insight and commented:
    Tips for Practitioners Working with Families Experiencing Parental Alienation.

    Insights on what an Alienated Child is experiencing, and how their perception of reality, and themselves, has been damaged by alienation.

    “When the mirrors reflect not your own self but that of the alienating parent and when the words which are spoken jar horribly with the language that the body of the alienating parent is speaking, the brain and the mind becomes used to responding to the ‘truth’ and not the lie which is heard. Of course the ‘truth’ is the lie and the lie is the truth in this world and keeping that firmly in the foreground of the mind as a practitioner is a critical element of successful practice. ”

    Article by Karen Woodall


  4. Brilliant article. I think one step would be to get family courts to stop using hearsay as fact, another to bring alienation expertise as mandatory to court proceedings and thirdly to ensure adoption and attachment issue for training for all judicial, legal and social care employees.

    The problem can be the alienating parent- but it can also be the widespread and systematic failures with local authorities, cafcass, the judiciary and legal workers who are largely unaccountable( as police collude with the failures of child protection and cover up and favour the “professionals “) above the parents, and society tends to be biased normally in favour of the mother.
    Please Karen , come and help my beloved child.


  5. I agree with you wholeheartedly Howie. From my own experience which was abduction and severe alienation. I believe that in these extreme cases you have to use what is in the DSMV as psychological abuse V995.51. It means removal from the alienator to the TP. I have witnessed this and it takes about 5 days until the children are back to normal. I spent a l long time with an esteemed and well known forensic psychologist in the US and his analogy was that extreme alienation was the same thing as getting them out of cult. Once you get them away from the alienator (cult) within a few days the whole thing falls apart but you have to keep the gate closed i.e. there is no option of going back.

    It may not work over here in the UK (yet) because our court system is different more rigid and structured and in Scotland I believe even worse! I believe that Dr Childress has nailed it. I understand very well that there are mild, moderate and hybrid situations of alienation which I am sure can treated with therapy. However, the ones with Personality Disorders cannot – narcissists cannot be treated. Dr Childress’ work is all about these extreme cases which cause huge harm to the alienated child and needs to be addressed. These are the very urgent cases that can cause psychosis in a child. Our group are not a ‘cohort within a cohort’ as you once quoted Karen – we are real and screaming from the roof tops!!


    1. I am a practitioner who removes such children from the alienating parent Pamela, I’ve moved seven children this year. So it does happen in the UK and the Clinic does it. I do it. So I am not really sure what your point is.


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