Avoiding the he said/she said trap

This weekend I am writing for our new website and I am so excited about it that I just cannot help sharing a bit of it. Our new site which is in my eyes at least is self help central for anyone affected by parental alienation, will lead you through the pains and the pitfalls of understanding alienation, coping with it and healing from it. It has reading material, discussion groups and resource lists, it is designed to help you become an alienation aware parent who is skilled and confident in building and managing your own strategies for change. Accompanying the book, which is now going through the publishing process (not much longer now I promise), the site will do what we have always known is needed in this field. It will demystify alienation, decrease the amount of time you spend wondering what to do and direct you to the right resources at the right time.  We know that putting power in the hands of parents themselves is the best way to go in achieving change for families right across the world.

And today I have been writing for the coping part of the site. A section which is dedicated to supporting and sustaining you through the worst of the battles that come with facing alienation reactions in your children.   Coping over the short, mid and longer term is a real fight for many parents because it is full of ups and downs and potholes in the road. As you cope with the anger and bewildering behaviour in your children, you are also having to cope with the despair and anguish you feel as you watch them suffering.  Coping as an alienated parent is a challenge, a trial and in the end an art form as you begin to assimilate the learning, adjust your expectations and match your child’s needs with your new found parenting skills.  Sounds like a breeze doesn’t it. We know that it is anything but. Alongside coping with your children, you are likely to have to cope with your family, your friends and additionally, if you are using the family courts, your practitioner, (do I hear a long slow release of breath?) I know that that sigh is not a sigh of relief.

For too long parental alienation has been overlooked and ignored by all family services in the UK and in many other countries too. This means that just as you find the answer to the mystery of why your children have suddenly turned into feral aliens when they are with you, you have also encountered the first big hurdle you have to overcome as an alienated parent – dealing with any practitioners or professionals who are sent in to help you.

At the Family Separation Clinic we know all about parental alienation. We know what it looks like, how it presents, we know how to categorise it and treat it. We know when cases are  severe and when they are mild and we know when it is alienation and when it is not.  We know all about it because it is what we work with every day. It is not a mystery to us, we understand the language that alienated parents speak and that spoken by the alienators, naive or otherwise.  When you come to the Clinic you can talk about alienation.  That is because it is a safe place to do so, we understand what you are going through.  Outside of the Clinic however are a fair few million people, including your legal team, family services, Judges, GP’s, schools and college staff and more, who have not got the first idea of what you are talking about when you say the words parental alienation. The first thing we teach you to do at the Clinic is take your extensive learning about parental alienation and translate it into language that all those other people can understand.  That way, when you come up against the people who are sent in to help you, those people who are, ironically less skilled and knowledgeable about alienation than you were on the day you first heard the words, you will not fall into the he said/she said trap, which is caused by the lack of training and awareness in professionals who work with divorce and separation.

I don’t understand why people who work with divorce and separation do not understand or even care to start to understand, the intricacies of parental alienation. Having worked in this field for some 25 years now, I have always been aware of it and have always known that in the high conflict end of the spectrum, learning about it and working with it is essential. It still mystifies me when I meet people who sniff haughtily at the idea of parental alienation or assume that it is something which is only referred to by obsessives who just want to be difficult after divorce.  From psychologists to legal people there is sometimes a whiff of superiority when we discuss parental alienation, as if somehow it is a crackpot science which is far beneath them. If only it were.

But it is not.  And accepting that it is not means being able to learn all about it and learning all about it means being able to work with families affected by it and working with families affected by it brings immense developments in treating it. To me parental alienation is (as well as traumatic and tragic), fascinating, because it is about the intimate life of the family, about its history and its narratives and it is about people, in all of their human frailities.  Most of all what it is about is children and protecting them and helping them.  Parental alienation is a problem with a human face and in my view, too many people who are supposed to help the separated family, do not know anywhere near enough about parental alienation  leaving the people they are supposed to be helping vulnerable not only to lack of skill and insight but to a particular inner bias which I call he said/she said syndrome.

The he said/she said syndrome is the assumption that in every separation both parents are to blame.  Mediators are trained to work with the he said/she said syndrome as the very basis of their approach to helping families.  He said/she said syndrome causes practitioners to always be impartial and always assume that compromise is possible. Practitioners suffering he said/she said syndrome are keen on getting people to work together and get along.  He said/she said syndrome (aka in our household as sitting on the fence complex), is a core value held by many couples and family therapists and is believed to be the core condition for good interventions with separating parents in many family services.

Seeking compromise with an alienating parent however, is a bit like giving a crocodile a big fat chicken and expecting it not to eat it.  Working with families where alienation strikes is not about mediating, meditating or moderating the behaviours between two parents, it is about protecting the child from the pernicious behaviours of one parent acting against the other or two parents in deeply dysfunctional conflict. Differentiating between which of these patterns is going on is a critical aspect of treating alienation but differentiation itself cannot bring the change that is necessary for the family, only intervention which is designed to liberate the child from the alienation reaction can do that.

In our work we know that parents have to interact with family services and we know that the inbuilt he said/she said bias in many practitioners has to be navigated. That is why, when we are coaching parents, one of the things we teach them is how to manage behaviour and how to speak about what is happening to their children without falling into the he said/she said trap.  This trap, which closes tight around you when you point to the other parent and say it is ‘her fault’ or ‘his fault’, is caused by the activation of the practitioners confirmation  bias.  Confirmation bias means that your behaviour is confirming for the practitioner what they assume to be true about you. In this case, that all separation is about he said/she said issues.  Look at it like this.

The alienating parent says you are constantly complaining and criticising her, she says you are controlling her and that you constantly demand things from her.  You, frustrated from the endless round of having to get information from her which feels like getting blood from a stone, turn your frustration to your practitioner and list all of the things why it is her fault and not yours.  Your practitioner, fresh from her training in impartial approaches to resolving conflict in families, listens to your frustration which confirms for her what she already knows. It’s an open and shut case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.  First rule of any engagement with practitioners working with your alienated child and family, manage your presentation in ways that allows the practitioner to see and hear where the real dysfunction is. If all you do is bombard your practitioner with your side of the story and all of the accumulated evidence about why this is alienation, you make yourself very vulnerable to being dismissed by alienation unaware practitioners who are looking in the wrong direction, ironically pushed that way by your determination to show them the truth of what is really going on.

Parental alienation is a tricky phenonmenon but it can be understood and managed and you can resolve it in your family if you are patient determined and committed to following the guidance that changes the dynamics in your family.  More on he said/she said syndrome and other essential knowing, being and doing for families affected by the problem on our new site which will be with you very very soon – watch this space!

Our new self help site is being managed by the Family Separation Clinic. As specialists in working with parental alientation we want to put as much information into your hands as we can. Whilst we always want to help you to help yourself, coping with alienation does require extra assistance at times and we always recommend that any parent who is experiencing alienation recognises that there are no generic answers to the problem. Every family affected by parental alienation is different and every strategy for coping and healing from it will be different. Using our tools from our self help site you will be able to start the journey to recovery, along the way you are likely to need to bring in specialist help. Working with coaches and therapists from the Family Separation Clinic you can speed up your journey through alienation and strengthen your case and your ability to beat it. Alongside our launch of our new book and site, the Family Separation Clinic is making available additional coaching and therapeutic services to match your needs.

 More information at the Family Separation Clinic where you can book help by emailing appts@familyseparationclinic.co.uk

11 Comments

  1. Just cannot wait for this …. And as word gets around, maybe the “professionals” you mentioned will come and learn a thing or two or three…

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    1. my experiences suggest that one of the biggest “stumbling blocks” is that a hell of a lot of the professionals are so damaged themselves they do not/cannot fully appreciate that “it’s not about them” (and that includes the judiciary).

      i say this because time and time again what i saw was someone paid to know better “passing judgement” on the right & wrongs of whether a child should have the benefit of receiving the love from 1/2 of their family……a love they are entitled to receive. this judgement (ie, forming assumptions, conclusions & questionable opinions) is borne of their own underlying issues of self-worth, image, confidence and esteem that manifest in each of those individuals believing they have the ability to decipher the who is telling the truth, who the good/bad are and, ultimately, what defines a happy child. All very subjective………to the professional’s life experiences

      until professionals & the judiciary understand that most contact disputes are a result of the alienator’s need to control their feelings of loneliness and inadequacy (and that, consequently, the children are a “means to that end”) there will be a continuing failure to recognise the the real causes of alienation. for this understanding to take place, those sitting in judgement will need to be more self-aware than the alienator and, thereby, be focused on the child rather than their need to perceive themselves as being right

      only then will quality therapy be seen as the solution and, therefore, will the bar be sufficiently raised for those therapists practising in this area

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  2. As well as the he said/she said trap, the other trap I think we alienated parents often fall into is the one of being seen and classified s ‘obsessed’, not just by professionals but also often closest to us, rather than the reality which is to be seen as what we actually are ‘concerned parents consumed with worry due to the systematic abuse of our children by the other parent aided and abetted by the system’.

    What we do have is an overwhelming parental need to try and protect our children from the harm being done to them, yet by ticking the ‘obsession’ box it seems to satisfy the need for others, and particularly the professionals, to see us as part of the problem, rather than providing us and our children with the help and support they really need.

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    1. Over 15 years, I’ve come to believe that that “obsessive” allegation could well be true, albeit, with the best intensions. Having studied the AA’s “12-step programme” in great detail, it seems (to me) that the principles of “working on ourselves” as a part of the solution to the main problem provides the possibility of enjoying life as well as doing our best to deal and live with unresolved circumstances beyond our control. Surely, that leaves the alienated parent in a far better place, emotionally, if and when things should change

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  3. Unfortunately and badly needed this training is for the professionals (sic) in the family court and associated industry, it goes against their vested ideological and too often also financial interest. He said she said is conveniently used as a gloss by lazy and/or biased professionals who believe in single parent model with allowed! support from the non resident parent. 90% of parental alienation is perpetrated by mothers facilitated and supported by myriad agencies mostly unregulated and unaccountable.

    That said there is a huge need for proper training and guidance from such as Karen and others so that those who seek to correct child endangering malpractice have a resource to access which demonstrates best practice. Too many malpracticing professionals are protected by guidelines of convenient nebulousness which effectively legitimise malpractice. Best of luck and thanks in providing better service for those in need.

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  4. For the mothers amongst us who are being alienated by male parents or for those in same sex couples, I would urge you to use he/she, him/her as personal pronouns as opposed to the gender specific pronouns you are using. Alienation is not gendered and some times the level of misogyny and/or clumsy use of personal pronouns makes it harder to access information.

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    1. I use the pronouns that fit the piece I am writing about MM, if you read my blog widely you will find that I write from all perspectives and from all angles including the alienating parent’s angles. You will find pieces on here for mothers just as much as for fathers. Whatever anyone tells you I am afraid that alienation as an issue IS gendered and it the gender elements of it are hugely important. Mothers are alienated in different ways to fathers and mothers use different alienating tactics than fathers. Additionally mothers face different shaming tactics in society than fathers, doesn’t matter which way you cut it alienation IS a gendered issue – I know because I specialise in working with families affected by alientation using gender mainstreaming to underpin our practice – which is what is critically different and why you will find pieces directed just at mothers and just at fathers. The mix and match pronouns you will just have to get used to, there is plenty on here that speaks about your experience, I don’t need to personalise each piece or render it genderless.

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  5. Karen, I don’t understand how to avoid this trap…my husband and I (I’m the stepmom) have met with the therapist assigned by the court once and she has already commented that she cannot tell if its alienation she thinks it’s just “he said/she said”….what did we do wrong I wonder? In my opinion, a 14 year old hatefully and irrationally cutting off contact with a loving father, with no reason other than “I don’t like how he takes my phone away as punishment”, should indicate to any halfway- intelligent person that a little something more is going on. It’s so frustrating to be unable to present properly what has happened! How can anyone think it’s normal for a kid to do this??

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