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.