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.