The Madonna Complex: What Not to Do in Post Separation Parenting

This is a featured blog post on Huffington Post today.

In London the high profile ‘custody’ battle between Madonna and Guy Ritchie for the care of their son Rocco continues. Meanwhile in Australia, reports of Madonna weeping on stage accompany reviews of her shows. Whilst none of us can know the inside story of this very famous family, what those of us who work with children in these circumstances can and do know, is that a very public picking over of the internal workings of parental relationships with young people aged fifteen plus, is very rarely the way to go to resolve matters.

Rocco is at that age where he will be feeling that his needs should be central to the debate going on around him. In UK family court speak he has ‘voted with his feet’ and shown the adults around him where he wants to be. For now. The thing that Madonna needs to know is that those two words – for now – are critical to the story as it will unfold, if she lets it. The very worst she can do when a young person does this, is assume it is a permanent thing. Rarely is anything a teenager does a permanent thing. This is because they live in a world of immediacy, in which the future as it may unfurl is rarely thought about. Moment by moment, teenagers make decisions which are based not on a rational process of thinking but on the prompts and drivers of the developing brain and the external world which excites them. For Rocco, for now, London is the thing which is stimulating his mind and the essential elements of growth in the brain. Next month, next year, New York is likely to exercise its appeal again. The skills that parents like Madonna and Guy need to have in their back pockets are those of understanding the developmental tasks of the teenage brain and flexibility. Reacting to the ‘choices’ that their son makes as if he is somehow passing judgement on either parent is a disastrous state of affairs for them and most of all for their son.

The teenage brain is a complex thing. Complex because it is busy shaping itself for the future life as an adult brain. A frontal cortex growth spurt just before puberty, means that the entry into teenage years is all about pruning, shaping those things which will last to adulthood and beyond. Put simply, the brain grows in gray matter before puberty and the teenage experience is all about pruning that back to establish what will be the mature brain for life. Neuroscience shows us that what the teenager pays attention to is what the brain will focus upon in terms of establishing brain cells and synapses, the connections between the cells. Therefore, if Rocco’s teenage life is spent in the middle of his parents arguing about where he should live, the focus upon resisting his mother’s efforts to make him return, will limit the access he has to experiences which assist him with the pruning of his brain.
Experiences which help teenagers achieve the control over impulse, improvement in judgement and reasoning skills are those which enable participation in evaluation of decisions, reflection on action and discussion with adults around them. Whilst I would not advocate allowing a teenager to make a decision about where they live, I would always want them to be involved in processing their views on arrangements with me and their parents. Enabling discussion between young people and their parents models those skills which are necessary for entry into adulthood and at the same time assists the teenager to do the physiological work of maturing the brain. When parents enter into legal arguments instead over such arrangements, the opportunity for doing this work is lost.

Teenagers are flighty creatures who can flip flop between love and hate in the blink of an eye. That is not because they are expressing real and constant feelings and judgements about the world around them, it is because they are busy with the work of developing thoughts, feelings and behaviours which stem from as well as influence the development of their brain. The very worst thing a parent can do, when their teenager starts this behaviour is believe that it is permanent and personal. It is not. But it could be, if Madonna makes the mistake of believing that wielding her power over her son as his mother is what will bring him back to her.

The latest reports however are that Madonna, always savvy, always ahead of the game, has moved to thinking that talking around the table with Rocco and his father is the way to go. It is.Rocco will return when the work he has done in maturing those parts of himself which are about becoming a man are done. He will return to his mother and to New York as he moves into adulthood, no longer a biddable child but a man.

Madonna can play a significant role now in bringing the man in her son to birth if she steps back from the brink and invites him to talk and if, in doing so, she listens. Whilst teenagers are infuriatingly self righteous and often pompous and self regarding with it, not taking it personally and seeing it as an essential developmental stage is the right way to manage this phase. They may talk gobbledygook, just like they did when they were toddlers, but the need to do that and the process they are going through is no less serious a developmental phase.

Getting this family drama off the stage and into the therapists consulting room, getting both parents to listen to Rocco as well as work together to support him, is in my view an essential step to take to enable this young man’s rite of passage to come successfully to fruition. Hopefully Madonna will use all of that skill she has demonstrated over the years to ensure that she maintains her influence without the descent into family feuding that can leave a young person bereft of the support that they need, even when they are adamant that they do not need it. Just like a toddler stamping his feet, Rocco needs his mother to be bigger than he is and wiser. Madonna will miss her son but she can remain his mother if she understands that what is going on is not personal and not permanent, but part of his journey to adulthood. A state of being which lasts far longer than childhood and in which her role as his mother will form a place in his heart and mind forever.

Readers should note that this is not about an alienated child but a young person in a transitional state who has become stuck, there is a difference in those states of being.


  1. Thank you, Karen – 15 years, to the day, since my PA story began and a welcome reminder of the real priorities (along a son/daughter’s life journey) and the so true phrase……..”this too will pass”


  2. I have to disagree with this assessment. My daughter left a couple days after she turned 18 and I’ve essentially never seen her again, and she is now 22. This was no typical teenage flip-flop, it was a calculated campaign against me from the moment I ended my marriage and it never let up, it only got worse after he married a deeply disturbed woman and they worked her constantly training her to hate me. I stood back and let her be as best I could, it felt wrong but that’s what her therapist told me to do and my own said to do. They could not have been more wrong, it was the biggest mistake of my life and the deepest regret. If anyone can get people to the table to talk it through, lucky them, but few alienators have ZERO interest in doing this and in my case my ex won’t speak to me at all, I have been completely severed from her life. It doesn’t all magically work out and there is no one size fits all answer.


    1. 18 is very different to 15 OM, their brains are in a different place for a start. Additionally you may not have seen that at the foot of this post I say very clearly that this is not a child who is alienated, it is a child in transitional difficulties. I don’t think this father is an alienator, the key is in the dynamics around the child, very different in this case to how you describe yours. K


      1. Respectfully Karen, I just don’t see how you can say that definitively either way about a celebrity child. Our worsening troubles really amplified when my daughter was 16, It was only at 18 (a young 18 to boot) that full and total alienation was achieved. Based on my experience I would advise parents to tread carefully and not just automatically chalk it up to being a teenager. I thought that when she began being disrespectful and saying things that didn’t make sense that she was just beginning to cut the apron springs, and that eventually it would get better, due to my own alienation by both parents I was robbed of much of my own teenage life and had no clue what “normal” teenage behavior was. Looking back I see what was happening very clearly, but now it is too late. I should have trusted my gut and fought harder, standing back and waiting was my undoing.


      2. I am happy to discuss why I think it is different OM. Rocco is 15, his brain development is in a very different place. He is a boy, boys naturally align to their fathers at particular times in their lives as girls do to their mothers. What I do not see in his father is the attempt to portray his mother as damaging or dangerous, I cannot see visibly the signs that he is deliberately persuading this boy to do what he is doing. I am using my skills to observe on the surface those things that I see in the therapy room. Not all cases of children’s alignment are alienation and not all transitional difficulties lead to alienation. Some do, some don’t but it is very important when thinking about these issues to recognise that your own personal case is not the same as every other case. I work with around 45 such families every year, I compare and contrast them as I go along. This piece is written from the perspective that if the drama is being played out there there cannot be any resolution, which is why it needs to get off the stage and into therapists office. we cannot know what is going on inside this family so my review here is a surface level review of course, written for the Huffington Post and not a clinical evaluation. Teenage life is a strange thing but having worked with a couple of hundred teenagers plus having brought up one of my own and helped to bring up two others, I am pretty sure I know teenage behaviours well enough. Normal and abnormal teenage behaviours are easy to differentiate if you know what you are looking for. As are normal and abnormal behaviours in parents. The key thing here is that if these parents get off the public stage and into discussions the truth of whether this is alienation of a child or transitional teenage stuff will come out.


      3. Yes, very different scenarios but the same (only in my opinion) underlying theme…..that all situations change at some point and that, in the meantime, taking care of ourselves both physical and emotional will prepare us best for the inevitable opportunities that will materialise to improve the nightmare. “Being right” (and the associated anger) about who did what to who and when is over-rated and rarely made anyone happy for long…..not the child, the alienated nor the alienator….so “going with the flow”, preserving energy, creating realistic solutions and being ready for that eventual opportunity is not the worst option


  3. Hi Karen I love your blogs, they help me a great deal, unfortunately life has taught me all about this subject, I believe my situation to be both common and unique I was wondering can you recommend any specific counselling courses I could take that would allow me to help other alienated Parents etc ? Kind RegardsMaurice Vidowsky07580585006 Date: Wed, 16 Mar 2016 09:48:43 +0000 To:


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