Posted to Huffington Post on 1.2.2016
Parental alienation is a corrosive pattern of behaviours and beliefs which are played out around a child after family separation and which eventually leads to a child either resisting a relationship with one parent or rejecting it completely. The subject area is controversial, however working with children who are alienated allows one to see at first hand that this issue is one which is serious for children and one which fits a pattern of coercive control by one parent against the other using the children.
Children do not make a choice to resist or reject a parent after separation, even though some believe that they do and that they should be supported in doing so. When children resist a relationship with a parent or reject it outright, it is most often because they are in an intolerable emotional position where their loyalty to both parents is conflicted. This is a form of emotional and psychological harm to children, but it is virtually invisible in the overall consideration of the impact of family separation on them.
Coercive control is a hot topic in the UK right now. We hear much about its definition and what it will mean for family life. Framed largely within the concept of male control over women, coercive control as a concept was introduced by Evan Stark who described it thus ‘a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self.‘
Such concepts of coercive control are located in a hierarchical model of power where men have power over women and children. Remedying this hierarchy requires empowering women and children so that the hierarchy of power and control is levelled out. Part of this process of levelling out the power hierarchy is to ensure that women and children’s voices are amplified in all areas of life which affect them. Thus we see children as young as five being asked for their views on how their relationships with their parents should be configured after separation.
What this amplification of children’s voices does however is place them into a decision making position which they are both too young to understand or have responsibility for. As such it forces upon them a ‘choice’ which in reality is not a choice but a reaction to an impossible dilemma. Children are not born to choose to lose a parent, they are born to attach to their primary care givers, their very survival depends upon it. To ask of them to express a wish or a feeling about a parent after separation is to burden them with adult responsibilities and strip them of their right to a childhood. I see too many children who are incredibly anxious due to having ‘chosen’ to remove a parent from their lives because of an intolerable conflict of loyalty. When it comes to coercive control, I cannot think of a better way of stripping a child of their right to a childhood self than giving them the ‘choice’ to keep one parent and lose the other.
The problem with concepts of coercive control being only located within a hierarchy of male power over women is that when it comes to parental alienation it is very difficult to see how coercive control of a child can be achieved by a mother against a father. Incredibly however, it also makes the reality of coercive control by a father against a mother using children, also very difficult to spot. This is because the notion of coercive control as being something that a perpetrator does to a victim is always conceptualised within adult relationships. The reality is that coercive control of children, by fathers AND by mothers as part of a wider campaign to strip the individuals in a family of their freedom and liberty is a common feature of some post separation relationships. Control patterns which began before the family separated often continue beyond using the children as collateral in the coercion to be loyal to one against the other. Children can become hostage to the reactions of a parent to the break up of the family and then, when the state steps in, it largely entrenches the coercion of the child by asking them to give an opinion on their parents. This is coercive control which is institutionalised but it is largely unrecognised, even when it is mothers who are being cut out of their children’s lives.
The concept of coercive control is valuable in the field of family separation because it could illuminate the power dynamics which are configured around a child and which seek to use the child to obtain and maintain power over someone. Looked at this way it would be less about assuming a hierarchical model of male power over women and children and more about examining who is holding power over who and how the children are captured in that. From there it is a short step to demonstrating that children who are alienated are being stripped of their freedom or liberty to love both of their parents and the right to develop a sense of self which is formed in relationship to each.
It doesn’t take much. Just the willingness to take responsibility for children who are suffering through separation so that their choices are not limited to life in a war zone. flying the flag for one parent against the other or life in ‘peace’ with the guilt and shame of having ‘chosen’ to lose a parent for life.
Parental alienation harms children, it is coercive control of a child by a mother or father determined to use them to further their own emotional aims and objectives after family separation. When we are talking about children, they deserve many more choices that this.