Reconfiguring the Child’s Mind: Post Reunification Work

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.



  1. This kind of work is not for the faint-hearted and it is easy to see why so many practitioners shy away from it. Well done Karen for having the conviction of your diagnosis being right and the courage to carry it through.


  2. Thanks Karen. It is really good for alienated parents to see generally how this stuff goes, because who ever has much of an opportunity to see multiple scenarios?. From what I have seen, yes, one important key is the children being relieved of the burden of being the driving force in the scenario.

    And for anyone who wants to see a little bit of how the drama goes, check out the youtube video “60 Minutes interview: Australian government helps in abduction of children”, where the drama begins at the 0 minute and 55 second mark. Two other follow on videos confirm that this was simply a case of parental alienation, where a witness says the drama was manufactured and then where the children speak about the incident two years later.


    1. Howie, I completely agree with you. I am afraid that I am the victim of a severe case of PA and Child Abduction from the UK to the US. I have read a great deal of information on this subject and I think Karen’s 8 manifestations of severely alienated children are exactly the same as Dr Richard Gardner’s recognised years ago. They are now known as the (G8) I think she has just reworded them. There is nothing new about this.

      I have HUGE amount of respect for Dr Gardner and he pioneered the study of this phenomenon, but unfortunately his ‘Syndrome’ has not been accepted by the MH professionals in the courts. Hence, there is an impasse and something has to change. I have recently turned towards the ideology of Dr Childress and for me this makes sense. I am a Gardnerian, but one cannot deny that it has not been recognised by the Family Courts basically because it is not in the DSMV. So after 30 years victim parents are not getting their children back and we have to look at another approach. For me Dr Childress has a simple resolution to the whole problem for our children with his 3 diagnostic criteria – which we all know and has basically nailed it.

      I KNOW there are mild, moderate, hybrid cases which need attention and therapy but it is the severe cases that are so urgent. My case was handled in the US in 2002 and I have no knowledge of how the ‘follow up’ after the Judge’s orders are decreed are handled in this country (UK). All I can say, is that from my experience there was NONE in the US. After the court case I didn’t see my children for many years. I don’t know what the situation is over here with the Family Courts – maybe they do – but I suspect not.

      Another question, I would like to ask you, Karen, is how many cases do you handle a week, a month or year through your Clinic? Imagine how many other parents are out there without the funds or knowledge PA (for want of a better word!) This needs to be thought about.

      I am just interested that’s all – I have great admiration for the work that you do but we need more Clinics helping families in the UK because I think there is nowhere like enough help for these families in trouble.

      My thoughts for they are worth,

      Pamela Roche

      PS. Howie, I don’t have the time – too late UK time – but will definitely watch that documentary that you mentioned.


      1. In my view Pamela, the reason there are not more practitioners doing what we do at the Clinic is as follows a) highly pressured work which is emotionally and psychologically demanding and unpleasant at times. b) horrible process of being cross examined in high conflict cases – many practitioners don’t want to do it c) attacks from all sides from the parents and children we work with who are highly conflicted often, very aggressive at times and the children are fixed, fused and at times aggressive and not nice to work with – would you want to work with a child who calls the police and tells them they are being abducted? d) risk of being sanctioned, complained about, attacked etc by one’s governing body. It is a very very very tough environment to work in, people don’t want to do it, they burn out or get their fingers burned or feel that it is simply not worth the effort because of the unpleasantness that goes on. Additionally when you have international squabbling going on over the answers to the problem it makes it even tougher. Finally, the risk of people who turn their projections onto you as the practitioner if you do not agree with their version of what has happened is high and ever present. I noticed a waspish comment from someone I had helped a lot online recently, clearly this person felt that what I had done was not good enough and so this person took a neatly and aggressively written pot shot at me – because they could….who would want to work in that kind of environment unless they understood the truth of what is happening to kids and the truth of how to deal with it. Many show an interest in this work, not many stay for long. K


  3. You can see attempted re-union dramas played out on TV in real life scenarios.

    A couple of days ago I watched as a daughter and father met on stage, the father having been absent from his daughter’s life for 10 years.

    His daughter (now a teenager) came in with attitude, aided and abetted by the Host of the show. She wanted to know why her father hadn’t been there for her.

    The father, a somewhat numbed and perplexed figure felt compelled to give his version of events. This explanation went down like a lead balloon, not only with his daughter but also the Host who laced into him saying, “your daughter deserves an apology”. He then, in critical tone accused the father of “not doing enough”.

    The father felt compelled to tell his daughter that her mother had kicked him out of the house. The daughter eas strenuously supported by the shows Host who told the father to “not even think about going there”. Father was shamed into not even think about passing responsibility for his absence from his daughter’s life to her mother.

    Of course it is easy for us to see that father would be better advised to eat humble pie and concentrate on the future putting all his efforts into being the parent that he is capable of. But it seems the talk show Host will not allow him to proceed until he takes full responsibility for his 10 years absence.

    The father’s ego just won’t let him do that. In his own mind he has to be reasonable and true to himself. His daughter is upholding the view (perhaps of her mother) that father’s absence is entirely of his making. She wants answers, just like the Host of the show.

    But there are no answers that will satisfy both the desire of the daughter to lay blame at her father’s feet for his for absence and at the same time satisfy father’s need to ease his pain through vindication of his past actions. He still seems to be searching vainly for recognition of the powerlessness of his predicament; the one that put distance between him and his daughter.

    The Host becomes animated seemingly frustrated that the father isn’t on his knees begging for forgiveness from his daughter, but the father stumbles and stutters on still trying to explain the practical facts and impediments to continuing his relationship with his daughter that he had lost 10 years previously.

    This only fuels the Host’s annoyance with the father at which point I want to rush on stage and tell the father that he needs to change the subject and concentrate on his daughter and her needs. She is looking for her father, that’s you. If you behave like a parent and ignore the Host’s bullying you will get to where you want to be. You must accept your daughter’s anguish and pain; all her distortions and miss-beliefs. This is not about your opinion, it’s about your parenting skills and your need to reach out to your daughter. You are trapped by your own desire to vindicate yourself. You don’t need to vindicate yourself. Those of us who have been in similar situations know how unfair even impossible your situation can seem. You need to do what parents do, stay child focussed.

    In this particular case the father appeared to remain lost in a haze of criticism that obscured a new start to his relationship with his daughter.

    Kind regards


  4. Thank you for doing a story on this heartbreaking issue! I know from personal experience the suffering that a parent who has been alienated from their children is forced to endure there are no words to describe the pain. My decision to leave my abuser cost me my children and opened my eyes to the corruption occurring in our family courts at the expense of our children but what I found so troubling was the fact that there is no oversight what so ever! The agencies responsible for protecting the public from harm caused by professionals in the legal system are brazenly refusing to carry out their obligations to the public which is beyond appalling. The agencies who are failing us miserably are the WSBA, COMMISSION ON JUDICAL CONDUCT AND THE DEPARTMENT Of HEALTH and THE DENTAL QUALITY ASSURANCE COMMISSION. These agencies are responsible for committing criminal law violations and are responsible for assisting other individuals with concealing their criminal wrongdoings in order to evade accountability I have personally experienced this with each one of these state agencies. If you would like to hear more about my story please contact me thank u! Keep up the good work!


  5. In order to do this work effectively, what shines through is that you really do care about each and every child you work with Karen.

    In order to get this work done robustly, you also need to be aware of the mechanics and balance a detached attitude together with that of caring for each child. A balancing act that is a phenomenal feat itself it seems to me.

    Such delicate work is not for just anybody. No wonder certain so-called-experts can’t cut it regardless of how many letters they have after their name.

    I still pray, and still hope my prayers get answered soon Karen, that you can somehow be there to structure the reunification in my case.

    Best wishes to you.


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