Almost time for the annual sign off from me as I head into deep retreat to complete the project we will launch in the Autumn for all alienated families and their children everywhere. This has been quite a labour of love as well as determination as we have been running the Family Separation Clinic at full tilt for the past year alongside preparing our new project.  All of my writing about parental alienation is rooted in our direct experience of working with families affected by the problem and this year, more than ever, in working with alienated children. Having achieved a number of successful reunions between children and parents this year, it is particularly satisfying to be able to contribute all that we have learned to our new self help site and to share with a much wider audience, the knowledge and skills we know are necessary for parents suffering this horrible problem.

So what are the major learning points for me as a therapist working with alienated families this year?  I guess the major points look like this.

Parental alienation can be caused by any of the following problems in the family system –

  • Coercive control by one parent over the other which is continued through the use of the children as weapons to hurt and harm.
  • Mental health patterns in one parent which are destructive and which are played out using the children as enabling tools that allow dysfunction to continue.
  • Attachment disorders which are normalised and not readily visible to the outsider.
  • High levels of conflict between parents which is ongoing and toxic over time.
  • Wide differences between parenting styles, expectations and demands, where parents see the world only through their own eyes and not the eyes of their children.
  • The ineptitude, lack of understanding and very poor skill sets amongst professionals who work with separating families.

The last point is one which I will be taking up in the autumn as a key issue for change, because it is the ineptitude of the professionals in many of the cases that I have worked in this year which has brought about the escalation of the alienation reaction in children.  From one end of the country, (where the commonly held perception amongst the psychological services appears to be that parental alienation is only about one parent deliberately and consciously turning the children against the other parent), to the other, the lack of real understanding about what alienation is, what it looks like in a child, how to spot it and how to treat it, is frankly terrifying. Increasing the knowledge base and skill sets for professionals who work with separated families is the next chapter in our development of services, when we have put the tools and strategies into the hands of parents, our next job is to put the same into the hands of professionals, so that the risk to children facing alienation is significantly lowered.  Whilst there remains some opposition in professional circles to the very existence of parental alienation, there are also some doors which are wide open to learning. This autumn I will be training CAFCASS, Social Workers, Therapists and speaking at several high level conferences including the Annual Conference of the Family Law Association in Scotland in November. The next steps in our work are to raise awareness of the complexities of parental alienation amongst professionals in the UK.  Beyond that we are preparing to form a new network with European partners who are also working with parental alienation to further our cross border understanding of best practice in treatment of the problem (more about that in the Autumn).

The first few points in the list will be well known to people experienced in working in the field of parental alienation but for us at the Family Separation Clinic, each of those categories will be further studied and examined as we go forward in our work. One of our new projects coming up is a collaborative project on domestic abuse with Erin Pizzey, looking at how her original theoretical and practical experience of working with family violence was and is the key approach to interrupting cycles of abuse in families.  Working with Erin has brought enormous learning to my own practice which, as regular readers will know, has moved beyond the constraints of feminist (women’s rights first) practice and into the field of transgenerational transmission of trauma patterns as well as the theory of how violence is normalised in families and thus passed down the generational line. This wholly therapeutic approach to understanding and tackling domestic abuse patterns has brought a sharpened triaging of cases that we work with and has allowed us to open our practice as widely as possible to perpetrators (male and female) as well as those who are in relationship with someone who uses violence in the home. It has also allowed us to understand at a much deeper level, how coercive controlling behaviour underpins the alienation of a child and has enabled us to work with parents at risk of losing their children much earlier in the cycle of violence which continues after separation often through the use of control of children. This is such important work in this field and because it is not readily understood and is prey to people not recognising that this is about safeguarding women AND men as well as children, I will be writing more about it in the Autumn.  Parental alienation as an act of coercive control is one of the major themes of our work going forward.

Another major theme of our work will be the impact on children of being alienated and how that can be recognised by professionals and others working with children.  My work with alienated children this year has allowed me the privilege of working with a wide age range of children, the youngest being four and the oldest being 19 (out of court).  All of these children have helped me to learn more about what it is that creates the resistance and rejection as well as what is necessary to help children change.  From the little girl who told me that her daddy was just the worst person who ever lived, to the twins who told me that they had been poisoned by their mother whilst they were growing inside her, all of these children have shown remarkable similarities in their coping mechanisms and defences as well as distinctly different needs for support to change.  As I have worked with these children and young people I have been able to observe their individual struggles to reorganise their beliefs about the parent they have rejected and their experience of emergence from alienation.  For some that emergence has been immediate and I have been witness to that gone in a puff of smoke moment, whilst for others the emergence has been a gradual thawing, begrudging at times but slowly warming up to the point where the resistance drops and the smiles return. I have also been witness to the terrible, horrible tragedy of the child so abused by a parent that their mental health has been damaged beyond immediate repair, where the allegiance to the also mentally unwell parent has been so strong that change has been impossible. Witnessing this leaves me cold with frustration and despair, especially when the loss of the child has been compounded by the incomptence of the professionals surrounding the family.

But to end this post  on a high note, this year I have also been working with some remarkable professionals in partnerships which have brought swift and significant change for children. Across the land we have been partners and players in teams where change has been brought about by the careful and diligent work of alienation aware professionals. Demonstrating that where skills and awareness are high, dramatic and powerful change in dynamics can be delivered to liberate the child and protect relationships going forward. In the months ahead this too is where we will be placing our focus and doing more of what works to bring change for children.

We have done much this year to bring about change but there is so much more to do. We will be back in the Autumn with our launch of our new site and book as well as interviews with parents and advice on developing alienation aware parenting skills.  You will also have chance to book on the first of our series of webinars and sign up for our self help forums. I will tell you more about that when I return in September.

Until then, thank you all for reading and commenting on this blog and I hope you will follow us as we migrate over to our new site. You will still be able to read my thoughts and ideas about all things to do with equality and family separation here but all of our focus on alienation will be over at our new home where we will look forward to welcoming you.

Thank you to all of you from all over the world who are regular readers, your comments and views and your encouragement and support have helped us to keep on keeping on.

I will look forward to being back in September.