Rescuing the mind of the captured child

Those of us working in the field of parental alienation spend a lot of our time thinking about and working with, children whose minds have been captured by a parent’s emotional or psychological reactions to significant change.  As someone working regularly with children who reject or resist a relationship with a parent after separation, I spend more time than most in the company of such children.  I find them to be both fascinating as well as terrifying and somewhere in between, deeply troubled.  For these children, the task of coping with the schism in the sub and unconscious mind of the families they are torn between, can be impossible. Helping them to escape from the pressures that this brings to bear in their lives is what our work is all about.  Helping to restructure the power dynamics around the family is part of that process.

My fascination with alienated children began a long time ago.  It was deepened when I met and worked with two children whose lives changed forever when they were moved from one parent to the other.  I noticed when this happened that not only did these children look more alive post transfer, they no longer looked like an extension of the parent that they had left behind. These two children stay with me throughout my work, the scowling, angry, defiant and downright self righteousness of them showed me the way in which alienation can wreak havoc with their emotional and psychological relationships with others.  The lifting of the alienation reaction when we transferred them was astonishing. From almost feral children to happy and contented children in the blink of an eye, it seemed that a miracle had occurred.

Through the years, as I have worked with more and more children, that miracle has repeated itself over and over again. Showing me that when the differentiation route is right and it is clear that the power dynamic cannot be changed in any other way, removing the child to live with the healthy parent is the best way to bring relief.  Like stripping a plaster from the skin, doing it slowly causes pain, doing it fast means that the alienation reaction disappears in a puff of smoke.  Underneath, the mind of the captured child remains preserved in almost perfect health.

All that needs to be done after that  is  assist the child and family to unwind the worst of the buried secrets and lies in order for the child’s mind to be free of its burden. From thereonin, the biggest task that awaits us as therapists is assisting the child to reconnect to the parent who caused the suffering in the first place, if that is, indeed possible.  Once an alienated child, always a child at risk of the underlying problem of psychological splitting, is our experience and so gentle and persistent reconnection and testing is the way to go with this kind of work. Whilst the mind of the captured child is intact and well, the risk is always that they may return to using the adaptive coping mechanism of rejection. Monitoring and careful watching is necessary for lengthy periods in some cases post residence transfer.

The mind of the captured child is interesting for many reasons, one of which is that not all children in the same family system are affected by an alienation reaction. EVEN when there is a powerful and determined alienating parent holding the power dynamic. What often happens however, when one child resists the efforts to bring them into alignment, is that the other children will apply the pressure being applied to them by the parent. The covert and overt messages being to submit to the instruction to reject.  Resisting this can be an impossible task for many children because if they do not give in they risk being ostracised by the clan.  Being shunned by the group that you live with is something so psychologically painful that many children will fold within hours of such pressure being applied.  Children’s survival depends upon the parent they are dependent upon and if the parent they depend upon is unwell or angry or vengeful, no amount of efforts to help the child resist the pressure to reject will help. This is because the child depends upon the parent that the live with and as Craig Childress says in one of his blogs, why would we ask a child in that position to put themselves in danger of being rejected by that parent unless we are able to break down the power structure and liberate the child completely.

This is why therapy with children who are alienated, on its own does not work. This is why using talking therapy as a stand alone approach is damaging to children. This is why a multi model intervention which is firmly and clearly boundaried by someone with authority (The Judge) is important. The mind of the captured child can only be freed when the power dynamic around them changes and someone is willing to intervene.

Parental alienation is about power and control, who has it and who wields it.  Some children, when the power dynamic is in stasis between parents, are drawn into tipping the balance for the alienating parent by taking on the role of decision maker themselves. When children ‘decide’ for themselves that they no longer wish to see a parent and their views are fixed and determined, practitioners who view this as normal and about a choice a child has made are much mistaken when they uphold it.  A child who has made a decision never to see a parent again, absent of any visible and good enough reason, is a child in emotional and psychological danger because they are controlling the family system and they do not have the psychological resources to cope with that responsibility. They are in the wrong place at the wrong time in their lives and as practitioners it is our responsibility to deconstruct the power and control dynamic around the child in order to ensure that the healthy parent holds the power. This IS, without a shadow of a doubt, a child protection issue and is something which is often urgently in need of remedy when the child is displaying independent thinker syndrome and holding the reins of power in the family.  These are the children who can be terrifying because these are haughty, arrogant, cold and difficult children who believe they are older than their years and righteous in their position.  Dealing with these children takes up much of my thinking time (as well as my intrapsychic energy), they are challenging children to work with in their own right, encountering them in a system where the parent who holds the power is in thrall to them, is draining and difficult work.

The mind of the captured child would, if we could look inside it, appear not as we expect it to be, but would appear to be almost empty. This is because the doors to the unpleasantness that these children direct towards the parent they are rejecting, remain firmly closed when that parent is not around.  Put simply, when they are not busy rejecting, these children do not want to think about the parent they do not see because it brings up too many painful feelings for them. This is why so many of them cannot actually tell us what a parent has done but will use phrases such as ‘he knows what he did.’  Looking for clues to what a rejected parent did in the mind of the child is futile, instead one must look for the clues in the relationship with the aligned or favoured or alienating (depending on how you think about them) parent.  There we see the adult concerns which litter the mind of the captured child, the unnecessary burdens of boundaryless relationship in which all that flits through the parent’s mind is transmitted to the mind of the child. A process which eventually clutters the child’s mind with such confusing and yet compelling messages, that the splitting process begins and the child compartmentalises their internalised relationship with a parent in order to defend themselves.  No wonder these children look tired, sad and lifeless, like marrionettes which collapse or dance according to the whims of the parent who is pulling the strings. They are burdened and careworn in a manner which robs them of childhood.  Working to save them is about giving them back that which is their right at birth, to be held, helped and handed on to the place where they can take up the reins of their own lives.  This work is about helping children as refugees from a war that they have no power to stop and no agency to change.

Those of us who do this work must be prepared to face the cross fire of the psychological war zone we work in, dodging bullets which come from all sides in an effort to stop us. This is not easy work but the knowledge of the miracle which occurs when the child is finally free is what keeps us going.

Inside the mind of the captured child is a prayer for peace and a flickering hope that someone will save them.

Until the peacekeeping forces arrive en masse, this is the work that we do.






  1. Wow – an absolutely stunning portrayal of the child abuse supported en-masse by those who seek to empower women (generally) and to denigrate, alienate and eliminate men from children.

    Yet I can hear these people arguing that such obviously damaged children will constitute only a tiny minority.

    I would say rather, that they are like the visible tip of the proverbial iceberg.

    Underneath this minority are a vast mountain of children who are able to maintain a farce – that is; who present a superficially amiable and reasonably responsive relationship to the alienated parent – but which actually disguises the existence of a profound contempt on behalf of the alienator which acts to undermine their entire personality, robbing them of the vitality and richness that they should be experiencing.

    The same symptoms of weakness, listlessness and exhaustion are likely to be there – but not to the extent that medical services might be alerted or the Courts become involved.

    As Karen is able to expose the existence of this phenomenon highlighted by the visible minority of the most extreme cases, I hope we can address the plight of the hundreds of thousands of children who are less obviously but still profoundly traumatised by a system which overwhelmingly supports domination by one parent, and has simply been unable to understand and therefore facilitate the essential importance of a balanced parental input into children’s lives.


    1. Yes, Woodman, the courts don’t get it – & actually the people who advise the courts don’t get it. They have been too busy on politically correctness and women’s studies at university and the whole environment which has been transfixed on “the best interests of the child” to not have noticed that dad-deprived children are ultimately sure to suffer the worst fate of all.


    2. The listlessness is often a link to the effort it takes for the child to maintain the coping mechanism in my view, in younger children particularly it is very noticeable. In older children a cold and haughty righteousness often descends upon them, again a coping mechanism. Both very troubling to witness.


      1. Sadly, my 10 year old daughter often takes pot shots at me by saying I have awful clothes, wear ‘concentration camp’ slippers and am so old, asking what life was like during the First World War. If I tell her not to be so disrespectful, all I get is laughed at. I don’t in any way blame her for this, as it is how her mother taught her to speak to me when we were together as a family. If only I had known then what I know now about PAS and narcissists……….


    3. Well professed. This will have to be taken into consideration when support is required to enable John Henning and Caroline Lucas to begin legislation to outlaw Parental Alienation (as the legislature in Mexico and Brazil have done); just another 324 M.P’s to go!


  2. Remarkably insightful analysis and description of what an alienated child has to go through and the measures necessary to fix this. Now, if Cafcass and Social Services plus Family Courts in the UK could focus on the welfare of the child rather than the welfare of too often a narcissistic powerful and controlling parent (usually mother) then the UK children’s services would be fit for purpose. And while we have the M.A.R.A.C process which is really a front for back door social engineering working in Local Council and DV agencies that automatically bar half of all children’s parents (dads) from access to services the situation for children will only become worse. Karen’s is virtually a lone albeit powerful voice. The rest of us need to spread the message far and wide as only public awareness allied to proper regulation will ever bring about improvement in what is the worst country for children’s outcomes in the developed world.


    1. Well written. We need your support in our new Anti Child Abuse Hub…Amazing Grace !
      Please seriously consider supporting this. Millions will thank you when the factual reality of PA and DSM 5-NPD is recognised locally and glibally as psychological enslavement. Perhaps you are our new William Wilberforce!

      P.S. According to FNF – PA is a criminal offence in Brazil and Mexico!


      1. Why is it necessary to always include “mainly mother’s”….
        My heart sinks further cause I’m just a parent who’s lost a child.
        I don’t feel it necessary to distinguish gender! Just saying…..



    2. We mothers suffer to you know both my children were groomed by their narcissistic father and I have the full custody and they were bought off by him, he was violent during the marriage was done for gbh and the system let me down I went through the comments the withdrawal everything, he abducted them on mother’s day came into my home while I was walking my dog turned off my cctv and the police wouldn’t bring them back, because they both said they want to live with him, a residency order isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if your children say what the narcissist tells them to, the police officer even admitted they seemed like they were having words put in their mouths, and suggested I abduct her back, I don’t even know where they are, my heart is breaking. social services don’t want to know my daughter has an Epi pen she’s not meant to go more than two days without meds I told them meds come from hospital you can’t get it from a doctor they kept saying we told dad go to gp, school were warned he could abduct her when we moved back here 5 months ago we’ve been moving around the uk out running him for 13 years because he kept attacking me He did exactly that and now the school is dealing with him and not me !
      Took 5 days of arguing and going to director of social services to get anyone to look at him they are now looking at his police charges that was 6 days ago I haven’t heard a thing. No one cares my daughter is with a violent man, because police went in his house and his scrubber girlfriend and her kids who are something off Jeremy Kyle all masked it made it look ok, she’s walked out of a better home to a awful area not safe to a violent man, she’s been turned on me no one will listen, her behaviour changed we thought it was just moody teenager we didn’t know he was texting her and calling her saying things to her, we looked at her phone records I am livid it’s child abuse and no one cares ! She’s lying for him saying she’s un happy at home with us I am beyond disgusted. He’s promised her all sorts it’s because his girlfriend has children and she was lonely here that’s all. Now I am being painted a bad parent, yet I ve her diary saying how happy she is, he even stole her school uniform and passport it was planned for months. Evil evil man just wanted revenge, he now has 6 kids I am childless and he forced me into sterilisation so that narcissist got what he wanted he destroyed my life. I am doing what I can to not commit suicide
      The man stabbed me 9 years ago.
      He took my children out of revenge the system handed them to a thug all they say is get legal advice, all I can do is get the same custody order I have, they will take into account what my children say and they will say I want to live with him.
      He groomed her via a mobile phone I had no idea she’s met him 4 times in her life he has shown no interest in her only my son, who he has used to help groom her, he had contact with them as long as he never approached me and it was supervised as per court order, he never bothered with her, my husband raised her as his own.
      The school won’t let me near her because she now lives with him they push you out and the lads 18 they have cut off their phones I can’t get to my kids! It’s evil 13 years we adored and loved that girl we raised a beautiful intelligent young lady who is now with a thug.
      So it’s not all mothers, and believe me fathers get more help mothers just get ignored !!!!


  3. What a wonderful description of the reality which affects those children who are currently psychologically abused throughout the world so much so that Brazil and Mexico have made Parental Alienation a criminal offence with custodial sentences to such perpetrators.
    Let’s have a vote on having these words put in a declaration on the office table of each room where Family Courts are held in England and Wales (and internationally) which state the obvious.
    Parental Alienation is a crime, those who perpetrate such psychological abuse should be criminalized and the children protected forever from such repugnant individuals.


  4. This is spot on. My step-son displayed the haughty arrogance and claimed for 18 months that it was his wishes not to see his father (aged 8). When the Judge eventually intervened and Ordered Cafcass to inform child contact was happening, a switch was flicked and the child has become a confused empty shell. However he still lives with the Alienator and she inflicts her will on him at every opportunity.

    The court process is still going on and the Alienator is determined to have the child heard by making him write a letter to the judge that he can only cope with seeing Dad once a month for 3 hours. Any meeting child attends with Cafcass after a period of contact, he brings written notes of things he needs to raise with them about Dad. Alienator has even stopped child going on a 3-night school trip because she can claim to the court that child can’t cope being away from home for more than one night in order to frustrate contact increasing. When the child is asked why he can’t cope he has no idea.

    He knows everything there is to know about what goes on in Court, including knowing what Dad has written in his Statements and has even accused his Dad of lying in Court.

    Unfortunately tho the Courts or Cafcass don’t seem to recognise what’s going on with this child. I’m my opinion, he needs removed from the Alienator but because Dad now lives 250 miles away, that’s never going to happen.


    1. Senior Practitioner brought in by the court recommended my 13yr old son be removed from his father because of the psychological and emotional abuse..and phased back to me!! It never happened and my son has now become exactly what Karen has described!


      1. Sadly and with anger some perverted men do this to their children. They are psychotics. They have a DSM 5 psychosis by their behaviour. Unless you have a criminal conviction of offence against a minor it has to be your legal and moral right to have full comprehensive engagement to parental responsibility in order to protect your child. The other should be arrested for psychological abuse and any custody they have temporarily stopped.


  5. Reblogged this on Parenting Abused Children: Hope, Healing & Insight and commented:
    Karen Woodall, a specialist working with families affected by Parental Alienation, shares insights on how alienation affects a child, and what they may be experiencing from a deeply personal level. Through her experience, and skill, Woodall gives voice to the traumatize and wounded children who can not speak for themselves.

    Woodall also advocates establishing a multi-model support system to help children recover, and heal from alienation. TWoodall says, “The mind of the captured child can only be freed when the power dynamic around them changes and someone is willing to intervene.”

    To Learn More, Please Read:


  6. I went to my son’s swimming lesson this morning. They had a new teacher who decided to take them to the deep end for the first time. At the end of the lesson all the children swum in the deep end, even the one who was crying and wouldn’t get in. These are of course normal children but what struck me was the teacher’s ability gain their trust and understand how children think thus helping them overcome their fears. This despite the fact that he is unlikely to have a background in child psychology.

    It also strikes me that sometimes when therapists deal with alienated children that there is a lack of ability to see how a “normal” children would react in a given situation. Hence they do not see that what is in front of them is not normal. Despite all their training and registration with the “correct” regulatory bodies they seem unable to question why a young child would berate a parent for not helping the other parent with the house work or that making fish fingers for dinner is not a reasonable ground for rejecting a parent. The importance of listening to the voice of the child takes priority over common sense and any evaluation of whether these are reasonable concerns for a child of that age and of course the result is that the child is not actually heard and not really listened to.

    There is no replacement for the practical experience of working with the alienated children that you have Karen. It is most unfortunate that we cannot clone you 🙂


  7. Thoughtful and wise piece as always Karen. Just raising my hand up as one of the many, many mothers who has been alienated. A reminder that this is equal opportunity abuse and it happens to plenty of mothers as well, I hope that in my lifetime it will be a rarity for mothers and fathers.


    1. You are so true with your statement that Mothers also can be victims to PAS and not just fathers. I have been going thru this now for 4 years and it has been the most unimaginable torture I think a human can go thru. Hopefully our voices get heard and change happens.


      1. I am so thankful for the day I stumbled upon PAS on the internet. Prior I searched aimlessly trying to understand what was happening and why this man won’t co-parent with me. Ive now learned it’s not about me at all but yet it is. I have watched my family be a model example of PAS after I started going thru many tragic family losses. My daughter 17 and Son 14 are Exceptionally Amazing Kids. Exceptional Athletes, Honor Course Students, and so much more as they have been alloted many opportunities mainly on their Dads part but I’m supportive none the less. All these wonderful behaviors yet my daughter HATES me yet can give no valid reasoning for it. My son is slowly being manipulated to turn as well. I just die a little bit more inside when I look into my children’s faces and see the real pain and struggle in their eyes the displaced anger and in my son its a nervous anxiousness and paranoia that he even whispers to me he love me then looks around for his Dad. We went from a Close and Loving Home and Relationship to I haven’t had my babies in my home in 4 years. As smart as my kids are though their is a Narcissist on one end doing everything he can to destroy me to them, to make them feel unloved or unsafe by me for no warranted reason, encourages hate, and he’s called their Dad! Thank God I learned about PAS or I might have gone crazy trying to rationalize. Many don’t know about it. Funny thing 11 years ago during our 3rd go around in family courts he demanded a 730 Psych Evaluation done on me so it had to be done on both side and the closing report the Psychologist states that he had the potential for pulling PAS.


  8. We do not have to clone Karen. It’s all about education and practice. We all gain insight from the blog and there are additional opportunities to learn and progress on appropriate courses/educational programmes.

    If we can skill up in all but the most intransigent alienation cases satisfactory results can be had.
    There always will be a tendency to alienate, that is a given, but there are elements we can deal with that will reduce the likelihood of alienation becoming a fully blown entrenched problem.

    We know parents arguing/blame projecting post-separation is a huge problem.
    Long haul geographic separation.
    Lack of emotional intelligence.
    Insufficient empathic parenting skills.
    Deterioration of mental health in the target parent.
    Lack of funds
    Delays to healthy intervention, procrastination, distraction

    These are just some of the things it is within our remit to do something about. They don’t require a sixteen year wait followed by a hopeful stab in the dark at re-unification with the lost children.

    These are things we can take personal responsibility for now and if we succeed other things will start to change too.

    Kind regards


  9. There are so many more mothers than anyone realises suffering from PAS! You have hit the nail on the head Karen, as always…the inability of the professionals to cope with alienating parents has allowed my son’s father to alienate him further!! Yet he has no interest in his daughter…. A family torn apart by someone hungry for revenge and control and it’s two innocent children who suffer…. Thank you for your words Karen, they have helped me through several years of anguish and given me the strength to carry on!!


  10. Karen-another brilliant insightful post.This sentence hit particularly hard.
    ‘These are the children who can be terrifying because these are haughty, arrogant, cold and difficult children who believe
    they are older than their years and righteous in their position’.

    Our latest painful blow is a notice from the school to my son that my grandson (now 16) has changed his surname (by deed poll) to his mothers maiden name.
    I tell myself that whatever his name in law he is still my beloved only grandson.

    My son has been prevented from seeing,speaking or contacting his son for five years. He is often so depressed and despairing that I fear for him.

    We have tried to arrange counselling with your team in London but have had no response.
    I will be 85 soon .the chances of rescue of my grandson’s mind in my lifetime seem very slim.


    1. My daddy died after having had no contact from my son for early 3 years! They had a very close relationship for 13 years and idolized each other, but as soon as my ex husband got his hands on him we all became out of reach! The hardest thing was that I contacted my son and asked him to please come to his grandads funeral but his father said no, as his presence would cause to much trouble!! As a mother myself I hope to be able some day to console my son when he realises what has been done to him, and how he never did get to say goodbye to the man he loved most in all the world!! I do hope you and your son get to see your grandson before it’s too late! The aftermath of this type of alienation is horrific for children to have to deal.with in later life! If only the alienating parent could prioritize their child!!


  11. Grandmani – my son is in a similar position. After sharing residence for over seven years my 15 year old grandson turned against my son. It was sudden and brutal. At the end of October they were fine, by Christmas they were estranged, or rather my grandson was alienated. My son asked what he had done, but was told ‘you know what you have done and wont take responsibility’, the type of vague response which has been identified by Karen. My youngest grandson has not been alienated but my son is aware what a powerful influence his ex. is on the boys. I needed to be in the area of my grandson’s school yesterday, so I delayed my shopping in order to bump into him. I felt I needed to set eyes on my grandson. I saw him and called out, he did not seem to hear me, so I had to run after him (I’m 75). It turned out he had his headphones on and didn’t hear me. He told me he did not love his father and had no intentions of meeting up with him to discuss what had gone wrong. He informed me that his dad had ‘lied to his face about his shift pattern’. This was something confirmed by my son’s employers in October but which they have been slow to implement but is still ongoing. Somehow the seed of doubt was planted in my grandson’s mind that his dad was a ‘liar’ as my grandson called him. He also said his dad did not give him enough space, typical of most complaints by teenagers I would suspect.

    So, on the surface, some trivial things which would be sorted in a few moments in most families, but with an alienating mother taking the opportunity to twist a child’s mind, the effects are devastating and have smashed a good relationship beween a loving caring father and his son These women have no remorse for what they do, as the end justifies the means.

    One bit of light in the tunnel was I said to my grandson that his dad would walk through fire for his boys, and the reply was ‘I know he would’. I would never have predicted that my grandson could be alienated from his dad but such is the power of a determined parent.


  12. I found this article by Karen very informative and recognisable in my situation. I suppose I wish I knew of this when my daughter was being systematically alienated from me. I had a supportive and loving relationship with her up until then, but missed all the signs – not realising such a thing could happen. I felt my daughter was approaching teenager years looking for space, but!!!


  13. How long do you allow the custody change to go on? If after 3 months with the rejected parent, no contact with the preferred parent, the child still wants to be with his preferred parent and not with the rejected parent what do you do?


  14. How long does this process take?
    If a child does not want to be with one parent, do you force them to be with them? For how long? two hours? five days? three months? Until they graduate high school?

    What do you do if, after spending some time with the rejected parent against their will, the child still rejects that parent?


  15. So sad we are robbed of our children like this, the pain is unbairable some days, all because one parent wants revenge. I left because of abuse, there are days I sit and wish I just stayed and put up with the beatings so I can just see my children, I am a good mum, gave them everything, he did nothing didn’t even do a school run, he just popped up and spouted poison.
    Made it look like I’d kept him away ! Truth he hadn’t bothered he told them I’d alienated them lied and lied, manipulated them behind my back using their phones, meeting them, I asked him to sort out a proper arrangement He said he would sort it around his work, I waited and all the time he was planning to come into my house on mother’s day while I walk my dog and take my kids.
    Broken beyond belief i ve shouted down every route and there is nothing I can do I can’t even have him arrested for entering my home and switching off my cctv because my daughter opened the door.
    Took her uniform her passport.
    Planned it in advanced.. I thought she was being moody 13 year old just staying in her room tried talking to her obviously she was talking to him being manipulated.
    Can’t believe my child has been mentally abused like that and no one will help or listen to me.
    I don’t know if I’ll ever see my children again.
    Narcissist parents are the most evil people to walk the earth they don’t love their kids they want revenge I can only pray she doesn’t suffer abuse at his hands now.


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