When a child is reunited with the parent they have rejected all sorts of strange things start to happen. The most strange to the parent who has been previously rejected, is the manner in which the child returns, more or less immediately, to the normal range loving relationship that was present before the alienation reaction set in. Other strange things also occur. These are to do with the way in which the child recovers from the split thinking, learning in stages to think in shades rather than the stark black and white polarised beliefs they have previously learned to adapt to. A child may not speak about things which have caused the splitting reaction to set in, at least for some time after reunification. When the child does speak it may appear to be in riddles and difficult to understand. As the child begins to settle with the parent they have been rejecting they will begin to show the normal range behaviours previously seen before the family breakdown. Memories of happy times will return, memories which only days previously had been vehemently denied. Anxieties may appear, particularly when the child is confronted with something which creates cognitive dissonance, for example the kindness of the parent they have been rejecting which they begin to recognise is for real and not the false front they have been used to accusing the parent of creating.
Post reunification work with a child is as important as the actual work of removing the child from the alienating parent. In our work at the Clinic, removal is always undertaken by me and I am the person who leads the post reunification work. In all of the removals of children that I have undertaken the following stages are true.
1. The alienated child protests hugely about the impending removal and creates a great deal of emotional and physical drama about it. Some children have called the police when I have been working on a removal and I have had to call the police to assist with others. The scenes of removal are rarely easy for anyone but if one has the experience of seeing a child who is alienated come out of that state of mind, it allows one to do the work and know that it is being done for the best interests of the child.
2. Somewhere in the process of the removal the child understands that their will is not longer the driving force in the family drama and they give up the fight. This is not the same as giving up because they are being forced to do something that they do not want to do (though at first they behave as though they do not want to do it). When the child gives up the fight, the process is immediately easier and more peaceful. The child knows at the subconscious level that they are no longer in charge.
3. At this stage the planning for the reunification with the rejected parent can begin and the child can be introduced to the idea that they are going to see the parent and discussions about when and how can be had. If the removal of the child is to be direct to the rejected parent, this takes place en route to the home. If a stepping stone approach is undertaken, either using foster care or kinship placement (two favourite choices in the UK courts for severely rejecting children), discussions take place early on the arrival at the placement. The child is part of that process and is helped to see that their new life, which is alienation free, is one in which they can have some say but not all of it. During this phase the elevation of the child to decision maker in the system is rapidly reduced. What often occurs concurrently with this is that the child immediately returns to being a child and not the over empowered, somewhat unpleasant alienated child previously seen.
Reuniting with a previously rejected parent is then often just a matter of getting over the embarrassment of having behaved in the way they have been behaving. When the rejected parent is able to offer reassurance, love and acceptance, the child moves back into step with the parent easily. Some parents say it is as if their child had never been alienated. For others there are further stages to go through before stability and balance returns.
At the Family Separation Clinic the purpose of our work with children who are removed from a parent is always to re-establish them in a balanced relationship between two sides of their family. Working intensively with children in the early days we work hard to ensure that counter rejection of the parent they have been moved from is prevented. There is little point in moving a child and not undertaking this longer term work because if we do we simply move the problem with the child. Psychological splitting is not always easy for a child to overcome and the length of time we will stay with a family to ensure that counter or re-rejecting behaviours do not begin is between 12 days and 12 months.
Our work is based upon the understanding that a child whose mind has been split is a child who needs help to reconfigure the cognitive dissonance which is produced when those things they have been led to believe do not follow through to be true when they are confronted with the split off object in the form of a rejected parent. This is a therapeutic journey in which the child is helped to re-internalise the object in the shape of the parent as a good enough and therefore acceptable person. On the other side of this work is the need to educate, encourage and enforce, acceptable and good enough parenting in the parent who is no longer in control of the child. We do this where-ever it is possible. Where it is not, perhaps because a parent has no insight, is unable to see that their behaviour is harmful, is personality disordered or otherwise unable to demonstrate mental health in relationship to parenting, we constrain the relationship to protect the child. In doing so we help the child to reconfigure their understanding of relationships so that they no longer are forced into splitting and polarising the good and the bad into distinct camps. Where a relationship with a parent is constrained, it is always, wherever it is possible, continued and supported even if it is supervised. Some parents are unable to cope with this and walk away, others do cope and do change. When they do, children benefit enormously.
When alienation in a child lifts immediately it is a miraculous thing to behold but it is not magic. Alienation lifts when the dynamics around the child are put right and the tension is held and the child receives the message that someone is bigger than they are and willing to stand up to them. Reunification in these circumstances can take a matter of seconds, reconfiguring the child’s mind can take longer depending upon the damage that has been done in the alienation process.
So much of what happens in alienation is in the sub or unconscious where children are used to living. Much is symbolic and unspoken and messages pass through glances and the things not said. Teaching children who have lived in this world how to make the unconscious conscious is an important step in assisting them to reconfigure their thoughts, the way that they use their mind and through that, the manner in which their brain functions. Cognitive work alongside mentalisation is a core structure which is helpful for such children. Future pacing, the manner in which a child is led to a new way of thinking is a key component of that work.
This work is vastly different to family therapy and it is far away from analysing the child as the identified patient who is acting out the conflict between the parents. This work is first of all about reconfiguring the foundations of power within the family and then it is about reconfiguring the mind of the child to integrate the split off object and internalise acceptance of their place as a child. The results are remarkable as the child returns to the unconscious work of being a child in the reframed hierarchy of authority.
Reconfiguration is a word which means to restructure or to put back into place, which is what we are doing to the foundations of the family hierarchy on the outer and to the mind of the child on the inner. When the two are aligned the child is freed and the problem is gone.
Having the courage to take on the challenge of reconfiguring the whole family at once, is the core competence of any practitioner working in this field.