Back from some time away and preparing to work intensively with families until the Christmas break. Having been at the centre of the eruption amongst parental alienation experts in the US however, I thought I had better put some thoughts down about how this has affected us in the UK and our work with families. Especially as one reader wrote to me this week to say that she felt as if she were a child in the midst of her warring parents. Something I would never want for anyone who reads this or other blogs about parental alienation.
To be blunt, the fact is it hasn’t really affected us at all and our work in the UK continues just as it always has done. The only difference that the spat appears to have made is that we have become overwhelmed with requests for help and support. Given that we are working 14 hours a day at the moment and using all of our spare time to get ready to launch our new website and book, this puts more pressure on us at a time when we are focused on our new projects. Trust me however, we will get these things done and we will meet the demand for help somehow. Working in this field has never been easy, rolling our sleeves a little further up and gritting our teeth is a familiar feeling.
I want to say a few things about working in the field of parental alienation in the UK this morning however, because it is important that we mark out the differences here from those things which are being argued about in the US. Over there, where Amy Baker has recently set out a list of experts in the field for Psychology Today, (notably missing off Dr Childress and Dorcy Pruter), the mental health field and its interaction with separating parents appears very different. The major interactions that families have, being with mental health professionals (the people Dr Childress takes umbrage with for their lack of training and awareness).
Not that things are any easier for us over here, they are not. But it is not the case, for example, that the first people that families encounter are mental health professionals. Thus, our difficulties are not just with the field of mental health. Before anyone ever gets to see a mental health professional in the UK, there are the family court professionals to deal with. People with enormous power and very little in the way of standardised or accountable training in the field of high conflict separation and alienation. This is one of the reasons why we are so far behind in alienation awareness in this country. Those family court professionals, who are empowered to act upon their subjective feelings and who are not accountable through a common assessment framework or follow up research into the outcomes they recommend, hold the key to whether or not the mental health professionals who may be able to unlock a case are even appointed in the first place.
So far then the arguments in the US appear to be about who holds power in the field of parental alienation and why. For Dr Childress the issue is that the Gardenarians (as he calls them), (practitioners who use the original eight signs described by Richard Gardener to describe alienation) are barking up the wrong tree. For Amy Baker, the issue is that true parental alienation experts have to conform to a set of standards which appear to have been drawn up by those people who are already acknowledged as alienation experts in the US (by each other). Watching this unfold and knowing that my piece for the PASG was instrumental in triggering this, reminds me of those families where alienation strikes. Difficulties rumbling under the surface suddenly hit a patch of severe intolerance and all of a sudden we seem to have reached the tipping point where the alienation reaction takes hold and rejection is complete. From there, we know that recovery of a balanced perspective takes one heck of a lot of work (unless we separate the children from the alienating parent). The problem is, who is the alienator and who is the alienated? I would say all are both and the problem with trying to unravel the mess is that when people are speaking in absolutes it becomes very difficult to narrow the widening gap between them. Perhaps it is futile to even try. Let the US experts do what the US experts have to do. We in the UK have to keep on keeping on, we have our own work to do here, which is tough enough, without becoming involved in arguments over constructs and who is an expert or not.
I have written before on choosing your alienation practitioner wisely. It is worth revisiting this today because one thing that Amy Baker left off her list in Psychology Today was that which is THE most important thing of all – experience in working with alienated children. One can have all the degrees possible, have done a huge pile of research, written books and been collaborative with other alienation professionals, but without ever having worked directly with an alienated child, one is pretty much stuck in relying upon others who have to do that work for you. And in the UK, as set out in case law, the experience of working with alienated children is really what matters.
It matters because before one can get the court to do the things that are necessary to help the child, your alienation practitioner has to be able to work with the child(ren) involved, at least for long enough to understand from the child directly, what their presentation looks and feels like. Whilst some practitioners may undertake paper based assessments (as do we at the Clinic), the real evidence that is relied upon in court in the UK, is that which is garnered from direct work with the child. Thus, the core competence for any alienation practitioner working in the UK family courts is the ability to work with alienated children. How many alienated children have you worked with, should therefore be the first question all targeted parents ask of any professional who professes to be able to offer any kind of intervention in an alienation case. (For the record, this year I have worked directly with 24 alienated children).
But there are other core competencies which I would argue are key to being a practitioner in this field. The ability to wear a teflon coat is one of them as is the capacity to mirror to targeted parents that behaviour which you know is necessary for them to adopt to survive the marathon ahead. Empathy is a core skill along with the willingness to keep on supporting parents through the darkest and most difficult times of their lives. Walking in the darkest places with parents is not for the faint hearted. In my view, those who do that best are those who themselves have lived the dark places and recovered. As C G Jung said, we can heal others only to the degree that we have been harmed and healed ourselves. When one has encountered the worst that human beings can do to each other and survived it, other people’s dark places are not scary. This work is, for me, akin to being a sherpa, guiding families across the roughest terrain and into better, safer places. Any practitioner not willing to carry parents across those spaces should not, in my view, be doing this work. This is about helping people in the most desperate moments of their lives, when they are facing allegations of abuse, loss of their loved ones and loss of hope and belief in life. It is not for anyone who is seeking glory, power or prestige.
People often tell me they wish there were more of us at the Family Separation Clinic, I can tell you, so do I. The reason there are not more of us however is not because we particularly want to own this space, it is because doing this work is hard on the soul and the spirit and not many people can stand the pace. Being a parental alienation practitioner requires the ability to fight on all levels, all at once and consistently. When one is working with complex personalities, troubled children and traumatised rejected parents as well as hostile family court professionals and the demand to give evidence in an adversarial family court, it can lead one into burn out very very quickly. Taking care of ourselves as practitioners is a key element to keeping our work with families safe. Taking care of our physical health is also a key component, especially when we are working with children and their proclivity to carrying viruses! The winter months are particularly difficult for us at the Clinic as we endeavour to stay physically well through the onslaught of bugs. Keeping emotionally and psychologically safe is about ensuring we have enough down time to counter the intensive and often combative nature of our work with families.
In listing all those things that go to making up an alienation practitioner I am aware that I have shown you that us folk who do this work are just people. Like children who come to understand that their parents are fallible, all targeted parents must know that the people they put their faith in are just people at the end of the day. Just people, but nontheless people who care. And it is that word care, which sums up the reality of what it really takes to be a parental alienation practitioner. To do this work one has to care, about parents, about children, about people. In my experience healing children who are alienated (whatever route one takes to doing that), is only really achieved when one cares deeply about their wellbeing. Which requires one to do more than offer routine appointments in remote offices on a regular day each week. Caring for children in these circumstances means doing everything necessary to bring about dynamic change. It means being there and it means caring about what happens to them.
And that for me is what matters most in this work. Beyond arguments about constructs and lists of who is expert and who is not. Beyond professional discussion groups and whether or not eight signs or three are the mark of alienation in a child. Caring what happens to children who are alienated means utilising everything and anything to create liberation routes, it means being courageous enough to keep on keeping on even when the family court professionals are heckling and dismissive and even when governing bodies are labelling one’s practice as deficient (and other so called experts are trying to use that to ill effect). Caring about what happens to children is what keeps us going at the Clinic.
And keeping going is what we will be doing today and every other day, regardless. Because families depend upon us to do so and because children’s lives are changed because of it.
Which at the end of the day, is the only thing that really matters at all.