Friday afternoon and I am having my hair done. I have written this blog in some strange places, direct from the hairdressers chair is one of the oddest. There, I have shared something about me with you, something of my personal, private world. Does that make me any less of a therapist, any less of an expert in what I do, I don’t think so. Changing lives means being human and being prepared to be exactly who we are with other people. Life lived removed from real life relationships is a poor life indeed. Especially when it comes to helping families where alienation strikes.
This week I have travelled a great deal and learned much in doing so. I have travelled in the external world and in the internal world, learning from the skills of others and from the challenges posed by those things in the outside world which are sent to try us. Mostly I have learned from the families I work with who, mysteriously but not unexpectedly, teach me about those things I need to learn at the very point at which I need to learn them. When the student is ready, the teacher appears goes the saying, those who have the most to teach me, are the very people whose lives I become involved with. As Carl Jung told us, What is unknown inside of us always appears on the outside in the reflections from other people. This week I have seen much in the mirror that I like. It is not always that way.
I am an expert in working with alienated children. I know them, I understand them and I help them to change. I do this not by being an expert or by thinking that I am the only person who can do this or by thinking that I am performing miracles. I do this because I combine the very best expertise that I can find from around the world with those skills I possess and a huge dose of what is essentially me. The me who grew up knowing all about alientation, the me who healed and the me who loved and loves children, all children, for the unique and individual joys that each brings to the world we live in. I love all of that possibility, all of that potential and I do what I do because I love to help children to avoid the trips and traps of the lives less lived of their parents. I want all children to live the life that is truly theirs not the life which is lived in the mirror of the unhealthy parent who causes an alienation reaction. Looking in the mirror as I do this work is how I manage to make sure that I keep doing what I do for every child I meet.
Looking in the mirror held up by those people we work with is an essential part of being a therapist in my view. Learning from people and allowing the healing we are offering to heal us too is what makes effective therapy. People change people, being open to change and willing to change is part of the mindset I work to achieve daily. An example of this occurred for me in the past few days in the relationship I have with a young girl who I am helping to recover from split thinking. As I worked with her helping her to think in shades instead of absolutes, I watched her struggling with the notion that it is not always necessary in human relationships to tell the whole truth. As we worked with the concept of telling white lies to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and the idea that sometimes people lie to save face, I understood how children who are alienated are removed from those things which keep relationships from running smoothly despite the disappointments and the dismay that being let down by other people’s behaviour can bring. Split thinking prevents children from being able to have the ordinary up and downs of relationships with people, it stops them from being able to take the rough with the smooth and it drives them into the cul de sac of belief that bad people do bad things instead of the freeway of thinking that is sometimes people do good things and sometimes the things they do are bad. This is how the alienating parent achieves the goal of severing the relationship a child has with a parent, it is also how the alienating parent achieves the goal of making other people believe that the severing is the result of something the rejected parent has done.
Good and bad, black and white, light and dark, right and wrong. There are no shades in the world of the alienated child, everything is one thing or the other but never both at the same time. The concept that people can be both good AND bad is something an alienated child never really learns. Or if they have learned it, they have been forced to unlearn it or forget it.
Helping children to shade in the shadows is how we teach them to move beyond the world of alienation and back into the world where things don’t always divide so easily into one thing or the other. Helping rejected parents to work with that concept and not reinforce by accident or design, the division of everything into good or bad is how we sustain the recovery of the child. It can be incredibly difficult for a parent who has been alienated however to learn how to avoid replicating the very dynamic which has caused the problem in the child in the first place and many rejected parents fall right into the trap of believing that the first thing that needs to happen for a child is that they should be told that what the other parent has been doing and saying is wrong. That could not be further from the truth. In fact in some cases we will never tell the child that what they have been told by the other parent is wrong. We might show them another way, a different way and a better way, but we may never tell the child that what has been done is wrong. Here’s why.
An alienated child has learned to think in absolutes, there are no shades of grey. This breaking of the child’s perspective causes changes in the child’s ability to consider information and make sense of it. A child who is recovering from alienation doesn’t need to be confronted with being told that what their parent has been doing is wrong, that simply reinforces the right/wrong split in their mind and flips the location of who is right and who is wrong. What alienated children really need is to feel a different way of being, something which challenges their perceptions of what is really going on. A child who is presented with a different reality instead of being told that something has changed, is a child who will move through the alienation reaction coming up for air as the reaction thaws and lets go of its grip. A child who is forced to listen to how wrong the other parent is/was, is a child who cannot emerge but who can only continue to think in the same way as they have always been thinking. This causes the child to be a) at risk of the alienating parent being able to say ‘I told you so’ and b) stasis in which the child’s perspective remains split.
What alienated children need most of all in order to heal, is not to be told anything at all but to spend time with the rejected parent and lots of it. Time to be able to see, feel and hear that things are different to how they have been made to believe they are. Whether alienation is consciously achieved or unconsciously driven, a child who is splitting their beliefs into all this or all that is in a fragile emotional and psychological position. That is why this is not an issue about ‘contact’ with the rejected parent but one about relationships, healthy and unhealthy and how a child is to be helped to navigate the real world.
The real world. A mirror was held up to me today (and it wasn’t in the hairdressers), in which the concept that people can do good and bad things was reflected back to me as being the real world. And I looked in the mirror and saw that in the real world (my world), the people I work with are all good and bad people. There are no absolutes in terms of who we are, people are people and they do good and bad things. Some have to be prevented from doing bad things and encouraged to do good things and if they cannot, their children have to be protected from them. Others have done bad things which have been exploited by others and made to be bigger and badder in the mind of the child than they actually were. In the real world there is no such thing as absolutes and children who live in it have to be helped to learn that.
Life is not as easily carved into good and bad as some might like it to be. By living in the mirror we can see those things which we ourselves need to work on in order to help the children we love avoid the trap of dividing everything up into one side or the other. And when we do, the transition space that children have to cross, becomes less of a rope and more of a suspension bridge strung between two places one of which at least is balanced and safe.
When the alienator strikes, remember that what you can see ‘out there’ is a reflection of what you cannot see ‘in here’ and avoid replicating that behaviour like the plague.
Failure to do so traps your children in the reflection of both of you.