Known as I am for throwing off the feminist shackles and being able to see the world more clearly because of it, I have found myself recently experiencing another round of enlightenment in my work with families and in my own understanding of myself. Perhaps it is the midlife transition which has prompted this shedding of another skin, perhaps it is my work with children and young people, which teaches me that certainty in the world is not one of our instincts. Whatever it is, it leads me to question and question again, the way in which thinking and working in the field of parental alienation is as much prey to belief systems as any other system in which we work.
I was prompted to think about this more closely whilst reading the paradigm shift idea promoted in Dr Craig Childress’s book Foundations, much of which chimes with our work at the Clinic. In reading it however, I also realised that missing from it are elements that we work with daily at the Clinic, elements which are widely written about by Professor Bala in Canada with his colleagues. And again that missing from that work are elements which are contained in the work of Baker and Sauber et al in what for me provides a compendium of must do things in working with alienation. Which is added to in Bernet et al’s must have handbook for mental health professionals, containing immensely important work on issues such as false allegations, something we are working with regularly at the Clinic. As I mapped the great scholars of work in the field of alienation in my mind (and there are so many more which have contributed to our work at the Clinic that I have not mentioned), I realised that I was starting to lose another layer of belief system. This time the certainty of the belief that PA is one clear thing with one clear outcome and one clear remedy. In short, this week, I have stopped looking for ‘the’ answer and begun to understand the multiplicity of answers to the behaviours and issues which are loosely grouped under the term parental alienation.
All of which might be said to be poor timing, given that we are finishing up editing the book we have written about alienation. This book however, is not written as ‘the’ answer but as a guide to finding out what the answer might be in your own individual circumstances. For all cases are uniquely located in their own transgenerational histories, their own individual circumstances and their own pathologies. Whilst one answer may fit, the other may not. It is the skill of the practitioner working alongside families which locates the key that fits the lock. If the key fits, the lock turns easily. Finding the right key the first time comes down to knowing the field, knowing the beliefs of the people who work in the field, taking the best practice from each and using it within a detailed knowledge of the legal processes which govern the work in any individual country, alongside a familiarity with behavioural patterns presented by families. Working this way requires one not to be a believer in ‘the’ answer, but curious about finding an answer. And when an answer is found and the key fits the lock it requires the willingness to use and reuse the approach until the child is liberated. Whatever works, is my new religion, losing my religion on a daily basis is my emerging state of being.
And it is so important to lose one’s religion every day in this work because losing it means the eyes remain open and the mind remains willing to be surprised. This way of practice means that one avoids confirmation bias, that tendency to find the evidence that fits the belief, missing evidence that contradicts that belief along the way. I was this way surprised only recently when I made what is termed an advanced empathic challenge to a severely alienated boy aged 14. This challenge felt risky, I put it to him that he is nothing like the father he has rejected. I did this to reach beyond his fixed and determined outward projection that he is nothing like his father to see if I could connect with the reality, which is that he is exraordinarily like his father. In the seconds I waited after this challenge, with baited breath to see if he would respond in the way I hoped he would, I went through all of those emotions that parents of alienated children go through daily. Had I gone too far, was I too bold, would he have a tantrum because I had brought up his father, would he demand that I be evicted from the premises. He looked at me steadily. He considered my challenge. And then he spoke.
‘ I think I am more like my father than you think I am’…
I drew breath and whirled all the possible questions around in my brain and settled on an even riskier challenge,
‘Oh I don’t think you can be,‘
I said looking at the floor,
‘your dad is really stuck in his beliefs about you.’
A 30 minute dialogue ensued, in which the boy told me all about how much he is like his father, how much this means that he cannot be like his father when he is with his mother and how difficult that makes it for him to see his father because he finds it hard to pack away those things about his dad which he shares, when he goes back to his mum. We ended that day with an agreement. I would help him to pack up his similarities to his dad on returning to his mum and he would see his dad again.
In my work with young people who are alienated I see two clearly distinct behaviour patterns.
1. An outward conviction that their beliefs about the world they inhabit are the truth.
2. An internal jumble sale of contradictory beliefs about themselves and others, which cause a deep uncertainty about the world as well as a lack of self esteem.
Whilst some of their internalised jumble sale is borne of dysfunctional behavioural patterns, some of it is borne from confusion and fear. Some children know that what they are doing is using a coping mechanism, some don’t. This boy did but he didn’t know how to tell that until I used a counter intuitive challenge to give him permission to talk. Counter intuitive challenges are advanced empathic responding techniques in which the therapist understands the unspoken things (he is like his dad and knows it) and uses the surface projection to overcome the resistance to direct discussion.
An intuitive response would have been to say to this boy,
‘I think you are more like your father than you know’
but this boy is alienated and so the response would have simply been to operate the defensive coping mechanism and say –
‘no I’m not’
after which empathic engagement would be lost and the opportunity for further exploration shut down. By responding to the dysfunctional outward presentation however (working with the alienation not against it), the hidden reality is provoked and the boy is liberated to speak. This work is not for the faint of heart and I confess my heart was almost jumping out of my chest in this exchange, but it worked and whatever works and when it works the key turns and the prison door opens and the child can speak again.
That is not to say that this boy is home and dry, he is not, not by a long chalk. Before this boy is home and dry there is other work to be done to clear up the toxic boundaries, skill him to cope with the maternal pressures and enable his father to understand how to work with him over the period to his majority so that when he is physically free he can also be emotionally and psychologically free.
Because separation protocols in the UK are incredibly hard to achieve (not that that will stop us asking for them in those severe child protection cases) and many children will, if we rely only on one answer, remain locked up. Contrast that to an active and dynamic range of interventions which, coupled with using an open mind and a tool box stuffed with the very best tools we can utilise, can bring liberation to so many more children (and their families).
And I say their families and I mean their whole family, not just the rejected parent but the aligned parent too. For whilst the debate about alienation is polarised into good/bad/ right/wrong, real/not real and whilst the arguments is focused upon paradigm shifts and answers to the problem, many many families are suffering. I agree that alienation is used by both sides of the camp, so much so that it becomes a really toxic tool for those families who enter into tribal warfare using it. I am not interested really in arguing about whether it is real or not or should be in the DSM or not, I am more interested in understanding the myriad ways this group of behaviours presents in adults and children and finding as many keys as possible to unlock the different doors behind which the children affected are imprisoned. When I work with parents I do not think of them as alienating parents until I uncover the patterns of behaviours I know are seen in situations where the child is immediate need of protection. And if I never uncover those patterns, that parent remains the aligned parent to me and not an alienating parent. That means that I work in very different ways as I go through the woods with these families, always waiting to be surprised, always giving opportunity for change.
Losing my feminist religion taught me how restricted my vision had been until that point. Losing my alienation religion, or never having really succumbed to it in the first place, has allowed me to dissolve another layer that lies between me and the families I work with.
Whatever works. Find it. Do more of it and then do it again. If it takes you a lifetime, never stop looking for it. One day it will come, when you least expect it.
Never give up and never stop being surprised.
Your children will one day thank you for it.