This weekend we have been in Plymouth UK working with family court professionals and parents in two separate workshops about parental alienation. On Friday evening, to a surpringly large audience for an end of week seminar, I spent two hours discussing our practice with families, differentiation of alienation and how to bring about a better triage system for the UK so that child protection in these circumstances is improved. The seminar which was billed as a 45 minute delivery with questions, ran on for two hours as we debated and discussed, with court practitioners, family support workers (and the youngest family court Judge I have ever met), the pros and cons of presenting an alienation case in the UK courts and how to achieve better outcomes for children so affected.
On Saturday we furthered this theme with alienated parents directly and unpacked the issues that lead to a situation where a child refuses to see a parent after separation. During this session and on Friday night I became increasingly aware of the ways in which the splitting reaction of the child – that of dividing parents into all good and all bad in their minds – is readily mirrored by family court practitioners, family support workers and parents themselves – demons and angels being the overall motif that emerged from discussion and debate, something which mirrors the attitudes I experience projected towards me at times, from parents as well as practitioners, many of whom are either for me or against me, seeing me as wholly good or wholly bad but rarely from a balanced perspective. Working as I do, in the space between the demonic and angelic projections, I thought it might be useful to look more closely at these themes and see them for what they are, unhelpful projections which mirror the child’s coping mechanism of splitting. If all that one sees are demons or angels in the world that one inhabits, what of the grey areas, the uncertain parts and the ambivalent. What becomes of the balance within as one battles with the impact of the loss of a child? Today then our theme is of demons and angels and the traps that are laid when they take over the world.
I am often referred to as an angel when I work with families where children are able to heal from an alienation reaction. That projection, of my presence as an angel sent to heal, is one which is borne out of the helplessness that parents feel as they navigate the loss of their child and the attempts that they make to remedy that through the courts. When one has negotiated many assumptions, many closed eyes and many people who are either unable or unwilling to assist in changing the dynamic that caused a child to reject, having someone arrive on the scene who understands, validates and changes that dynamic will seem like an angelic intervention. But it is not.
Similarly, for those parents who are stuck in the behaviours that cause children to reject, who are afraid or unable to change, who have found that their distorted view points are not only shared but upheld by people in the family court system, my arrival may feel demonic, as the control they seek and often need is removed from their grasp. Demonic projections, in which parents (and sometimes family court practitioners) completely and determinedly dismiss every part of the work that I do, based on their own drive to keep control over the landscape they inhabit are as unhelpful as the angelic ones. Both because they are not real and both because they mirror the splitting that goes on in a child’s mind when one or both parents projects their own issues onto them.
Alienated parents are not angels and alienating parents are not demons, they are people. And so am I, a person, not an angel or a demon. And parental alienation is a problem with a human face not an archetypal one, much as it seems that way at times. Parents alienate and are alienated. Parents are people, not angels, not demons and definitely not monsters. Whilst alienating a child is a monstrous act, alienating parents are not monsters and it is folly to believe that they are, because in doing so one removes the power for change from the hands of the parents who are healthy. If all alienating parents are demonic monsters, then all alienated parents are helpless and innocent victims who need angels to come in and save them. Which is a myth worthy of the greek gods. Only we are people, not gods and alienation is a problem with a human face not an archetypal one.
It is true however that the archetypes of good and evil are drawn up from the depths of the psyche when the possession of a child’s mind, body and soul are concerned. In the work that I do I see mythology being played out in people’s lives over and over again. Perspehone in the underworld, disappeared and lamented by her mother who sits and waits for her to return after she has been kidnapped by her father, Medea and her revenge upon the husband who leaves her, triggering abandonment rage and vengeance in the shape of the murder of her child and the Oedipal and Electra stories which are played out through role corruption and boundary blurring in alienated families. All of these scenes from a marriage are present but whilst they may bear the hall marks of the tragedies and they may draw up the energy of the archetypes, they remain human at every level. They are ordinary stories of the family, played out against a backdrop of the culture and society we live in. Ordinary people, living extraordinary lives in the crisis that is family separation, which causes the defences to fail and the angels and demons to rush in to occupy the space in between.
And it is in that human experience that we must work as practitioners concerned with alienation because if we allow ourselves to carry the projections of good and bad we do parents a disservice. Our work as practitioners is about absorbing those projections and balancing them, giving back to the parents we work with the perspective they and their child have lost. This is what we do when we work with alienated children and it is what we do with parents too, we may recognise, acknowledge and validate the innocence of one parent and the damaging actions of the other but we do not encourage the splitting of two parents into wholly good and wholly bad. Neither do we subscribe to the notion that parents whose children have chosen them over the other are monsters, even when we know that the act of alienation of a child is a monstrous and deeply damaging thing to do to that child. Even when we advocate the removal of that child from that parent.
To accept the projections of angel or demon or support the division of parents into all good or all bad is to play god with children’s lives. Divine justice is for the gods to mete out, we are human, in the business of bringing resolution and balance back to the lives of children we work with. We struggle for perspective by working through the challenges parents create so that their children do not have to. Teaching parents on the way that dividing their world into wholly good or wholly bad is a projection not a reality. Even the most personality disordered parent who has coldly and determinedly alienated their child, is a human not a monstrous myth. Understanding that is the first big step to wresting control over life back from the hands of that parent.
Projections do not help and our destiny does not lie in the lap of the gods. Our children’s health requires us all to live in the real world, taking care of adult concerns so that they do not have to. Some until the day their child is able to wriggle free, some for even longer that that. All because being a parent is a human condition which never leaves us, can never be eradicated or taken away. And because we are not angels or demons but fallible human beings, which one day, our children, wherever they are, will thank us for.