A coping strategy is a plan for dealing with what is happening to you over a period of time.
Approaching the problem of alienation requires you to build multi layered strategies which you will operate sometimes simultaneously sometimes and individually at others. The strategies for coping emotionally and psychologically are covered in this chapter. The practical strategies are covered in chapter seven.
Some of these strategies are needed only for a short time, some bring you to a place of awareness and others help you to work with professionals and the family courts. In our experience it is not possible to avoid building these strategies because if you do you will simply find yourself drowning in the impact of what is happening. Also, it is very important to remember that alienating parents often have a very clear strategy which they adopt to ensure that you are erased from your child’s life. Whilst they may not sit down and plan it out as clearly as we are going to plan out your counter strategy, they are usually skilled at knowing what they want to achieve and how to use people to achieve it. Some are so skilled that they can run all of their alienating strategies all at the same time, hitting you with the child’s rejection, their ability to convince professionals that this is not them it is you and at the same time appearing to co-operative perfectly with everything that is being asked of them. Behind the scenes however, these people are also planning sub plots and sub strategies to deepen the impact of the alienating behaviour in the child all while they keep pointing the finger at you.
Coping with your child’s behaviours
A child who is severely alienated will show distinct signs but these may not be easily understood if you are not aware of what an alienation reaction looks like. Therefore, it is useful to take a closer look at how children behave when they are developing an alienation reaction and how this behaviour changes as they move into being severely alienated from you.
A child who is severely alienated may cause you to feel a large amount of anxiety, they may also cause you to feel frustrated, disgusted, angry and desperately sad all at the same time. This is because they appear to you to be very far away from the child that they once were. They may seem as if they have arrived from another planet.
Alienated children and teenager behaviour
The best way to describe the change in a child who is alienated is to encourage you to think about how teenagers behave. Think about the stereotypical teenager, depicted in books and magazines and on the TV as turning overnight from an angelic loving child to a sullen, withdrawn and rude monster. This is the kind of change which is reported by parents whose children have become severely alienated. Their children appear to have suddenly disappeared and been replaced by alien children from another planet.
Understanding what has happened to your child is important if you are to avoid making things much worse at this stage. When children are alienated against you, so much of what you do can be used to heighten the reaction in the child by the other parent. Understanding the reaction, how it happens and what you can do to reduce it, is part of the longer term strategy that you are going to need to build.
The purpose of being a teenager is to break away from parents, to experiment with independence and to build a strong sense of being a sovereign individual in the world. This is why teenagers appear to have morphed into someone else, it is because they are busy with the physical, mental, emotional and psychological tasks of separation from their parents. For a time they can appear to be alienated against their parents too, although on closer inspection the eight signs of alienation are not present (unless they are involved in an actual alienation situation, in which case all of the behavioural issues seen in teenagers are heightened alongside the eight signs being present).
The reason that alienated children appear to be so similar to teenagers is because their psychological responses and understanding of the world have been corrupted by the information they have been given by the alienating parent. This has propelled them into a psychological space in which they have been taught to believe that they have the right to challenge their parent. Alongside this, the hierarchy of authority has been actively undermined and broken by the alienating parent, which means that the child no longer sees the parent they have rejected as someone for whom they should have respect or care for. This increases the child’s sense of entitlement to act in any way that they please.
Alienated children therefore be rude, obnoxious, cruel, dismissive angry, sullen, withdrawn, silent and more. They can erupt into furies of self righteous indignation if they are made to do something (such as spend time with you) and they can be increasingly unpredictable in their moods and resistance. Whilst this behaviour is similar to that seen in some teenagers, the difference is that the alienated child will maintain this response without any reprieve and will not show any signs of guilt, shame, fear or sorrow for their actions. Whilst teenagers can act in all of the ways listed above, they still have access to the other side of those feelings and will often show great remorse for their outbursts. In alienated children this remorse is missing, replaced instead by a cold defiance or a self righteousness which can at times appear haughty, cold and distanced. Sometimes, under pressure, or conversely, if they are relieved of the pressure of the alienating parent’s influence for long enough, alienated children will suddenly appear quite different, almost normal again. This can be an alarming phenomenon to observe and can convince parents that their child has a mental health problem, especially when the alienation reaction appears again and the child withdraws back into the rejecting stance. Some parents find this changing behaviour so worrying that they go to great lengths to find out what is wrong with their child, often in doing so, inadvertently adding to the belief in the child that they are right in their beliefs about their parent. Some parents take their children to psychiatrists or psychologists and locate the problems that they see in the child. This is very problematic for the child and parent because it encourages the child to feel that they are being blamed by the parent and gives ammunition to the other parent for further opportunities to encourage the child to reject.
Timeline of descent into alienation
The following is a timeline which roughly describes how a child’s behaviour deteriorates into a full alienation reaction.
Early signs – resisting at handovers, not wanting to go back after a happy period of time with you. Child cries and clings and says they do not want to go back.
Mid term signs – The child is strongly resistant to coming to you, they may tell the other parent they are not going to see you and this may be conveyed to you in advance. They may make allegations against you or say that time with you is boring and makes them unhappy. Child is withdrawn and sullen when arriving in your care and cold and distant for periods of up to one to eight hours depending upon the length of the time they are due to spend with you. Child may warm up and become normal midway through the time they spend with you but close down and become angry and distant at the end of that time.
End signs – Child is strongly resistant and may not always achieve transition. When child does achieve transition may be cold, rude, obnoxious, attempt to run away, may swear, be angry and rejecting, say horrible things to you. Child may return to normal for periods and say inexplicable things such as ‘I love you daddy’ or ‘I really do like you you know’ these are signs of the child swinging between splitting into good and bad feelings and struggling with feelings of guilt and shame about their behaviour. Child may flip back into unpleasant and vicious behaviour and will immediately do so when the alienating parent is nearby.
Alienation in full – Child refuses to see you, the signs of alienation are all present, child is making things up about you, false allegations may be made, child is phobic, angry and rejecting. Child is in full hostile coalition with the alienating parent.
Helping the child – A Manifesto for Managing
● Remember that children who challenge you are angry, but not necessarily with you.
● When children are at risk of alienation from you and showing challenging behaviour it is important that you do not engage with their angry feelings.
● Alienated children are looking for excuses to justify their rejection of you, don’t give them any.
● Develop a very thick skin, do not feel crushed by your children’s behaviour.
● Get into the habit of seeing children who inflict pain upon you as being victims, they are not behaving in ways that are under their control.
● Do not allow children to call you by your first name, encourage at all times the use of mum or dad.
● Avoid getting drawn into debates about why children are challenging you, ignore them when they try to start these kind of discussions and concentrate upon doing something else instead.
● Make sure your children experience you in the company of others who respect you, observing you with people who feel positively about you will challenge your children’s negative feelings.
● If a child begins to argue with you, acknowledge their discomfort and move on to another activity, do not give the argument any attention.
● Exercise restraint, do not try to talk sense into children, or criticise them.
● When you are doing something together and the children have relaxed again with you, comment on the good time you are having together, bring up memories of times you shared together.
● Re-inforce positive experiences together by summarising them.
● Build empathic listening skills, learning to name children’s feelings helps to show them that you understand how they feel.
● Let the children overhear you speaking to someone else about them, all children eavesdrop, allowing them to hear you speaking positively and lovingly about them will encourage their self esteem to grow and stimulate positive feelings for you.
● Build positive bridges to the past by looking at photographs, films, favourite story books.
● Separate out your relationship with each of your children, particularly if one child is influencing the other.
● Don’t dismiss their feelings, acknowledge them briefly if they are negative towards you, share them and amplify them if they are positive.
● Don’t over react if children tell you something about their other parent, all children of separated parents will select things to tell each parent about the other at some point.
More on coping strategies in Chapter Five of our Handbook for Parents and Professionals which will be available shortly.
Coaching and support services for alienated parents are available from the Family Separation Clinic
Our retreat for alienated parents will be held in September in a location near to London, full booking details will be released shortly.
More on a brand new service for alienated parents and their children coming here soon.