This week I have once again been up and down the land working with families where alienation strikes. I have worked with severe cases of alienation this week and hybrid cases. In both situations the child rejects the parent and the end result is the same. Treating it however is not the same in both situations and anyone who tries to do that will soon find the problem either gets worse or the intervention backfires.  Here’s why.

A pure and severe case of alienation has particular significators. These are the pointers which your expert in parental alienation will look for in differentiating your case. If a case is pure and severe we are looking for the following (these are just a few examples).

  • Fixed and determined campaign of hatred which is shared and upheld by the aligned parent.
  • False allegations of abuse of any kind which begin with a narrative from the parent that the other parent is harmful to the child and which are picked up by the child and elaborated upon, often dramatically.
  • A pattern of trauma re-enactment (thank you Doc C) in which the aligned parent places the self as the rescuer of the child from imagined harm done by the perpetrator who is the rejected parent.
  • Phobic like reactions, refusal to speak about a parent, refusal to countenance even looking at a photograph of a parent.
  • Involvement in the adult affairs of the family and the aligned parent and a strong a highly defensive support of the aligned parent.
  • Anger which is disproportionate to what is being asked of the child by the rejected parent (to see them) and by professionals working with the family.
  • A  portrayal by a parent that the child is acting of their own free will and making ‘choices’ based on justifiable reasons for rejection.
  • An inability in the child to move from a fixed and fused relationship with an aligned parent when being questioned about possible alternative explanations or outcomes.

In a pure and severe case of alienation the child will not have been the subject of cross projection of blame, will not have struggled long on the transition bridge and will have been in a fixed and unchanging position for many months if not years.  The aligned parent is likely to treat the professionals as being intrusive, damaging and dangerous to the child and is likely to find many reasons why the professional should not be working on the case.  In pure and severe cases there is an underlying unrelenting drive for control which cannot be stopped without the removal of the child from the aligned parent. In these cases removal ensures that the alienation reaction disappears. This is because the alienation reaction is only in place in relationship with the alienating parent. Removal ensures that the energy/behaviours/coercion/fear/covert commands disappear and the child is freed.

A hybrid case is very different in its presentation. In these cases the following is likely to be true, this is what we look for when we differentiate the case.

  • The child withdrew after some time of being able to move back and forth between parents.
  • The parents however were in conflict in some way during that period
  • Both parents project active dislike and blame towards each other
  • The child describes a ‘trigger’ event which caused their withdrawal, this is often something which gave the child the excuse that they needed to give up trying to relate to both parents.
  • The trigger event was often preceded by a period of time in which the child complained to one or both parents about the other (the child is attempting to use adaptive mechanisms of switching allegiances to cope with the sense of being in the enemy camp).
  • One parent took the opportunity of upholding complaints about the parent and expanded those in the child’s mind, moving to support them in their rejection of the other parent.
  • The child showed attempts to stay in some kind of contact before giving up completely and entering into a completely rejecting state. Prior to the withdrawal they may have made phone calls to the parent they are rejecting out of the blue or may have switched between showing a lot of love and then a lot of hatred.

In such cases the aligned parent will make a big thing of supporting the child, they may say things like ‘I made him go for too long and didn’t listen, now I am listening.’  They may also be very afraid of the child’s powerful emotional statements in which there can be a threat that if the child is not allowed to stay in control they will be rejected next.

Treatment routes differ for each category depending on the age of the child.  In pure and severe cases children of all ages can and should be removed from the alienating parent using the following steps.

  1. Assessment of parents
  2. Assessment of the reaction in the child
  3. Planned intervention which removes the child either to foster care or straight to the rejected parent.
  4. Therapeutic support to the child to support reconfiguration of split thinking and prevent counter rejection.
  5. Support to the previously rejected parent to strengthen understanding and capacity to help the child.
  6. Supervision and management of the relationship with the previously alienating parent and the offer of educational reconfiguration of behaviours (if there is the capacity to utilise this).

In a hybrid case removal will not work to the same effect should the rejected parent be unable to show insight into the behaviours which have caused cross projection of blame.  If this is seen, removal is not used in these cases because of the risk of the child maintaining an independent rejecting position due to their witnessing of behaviours on both sides of the transition bridge. This risk is highest in children aged between 8 and 14.  Strong court management for compulsion of behavioural change is the choice of intervention in these circumstances. Therapeutic intervention alongside court ordered therapeutic time spent with the rejected parent in a tightly controlled programme which holds the core purpose of the work as being the confrontation of the child and the aligned parent with the reality of the other parent is recommended.

It should be noted that differentiating a case is the province of professionals with skill and knowledge and prior experience, preferably those who have had hands on training with experienced practitioners as well as those with a number of cases to make comparisons between.  Hybrid cases, in our experience at the Clinic, can shift into the pure and severe category should the rejected parent show demonstrable change and the aligned parent then maintains their hold on the child and deepens the allegations and efforts to project blame. These are dynamic situations in which the closer you are able to get to the family as a practitioner the better your skills in knowing what the child needs to liberate them fully. In our view, it is only possible to gain these skills through direct work with families.

If we see this dynamic at the Clinic we do not hesitate to change our approach to match the need of the child. The liberation of the child from the horrible experience of being captured by a parent’s psychological reactions is our major goal. Providing longer term support to ensure that the child remains free is our next core focus.

All of these scenarios come under the heading of parental alienation. Both treatment routes focus upon ensuring that the child sees the parent they are rejecting, both compel behavioural change using the court.  Neither uses open ended family or any other kind of open ended therapy as part of the intervention.

Essential knowledge for any parent in the UK is derived by asking the expert the following questions (answers below)

a)Is there ever a situation where you would not recommend removing a child from the alienating parent either in the short, mid or long term if it is seen to be pure and severe?

b) How many children have you recommended should be moved to live with the rejected parent?

c)When and how should family therapy be used when intervening in a case of parental alienation?

The answers to the above questions are

a) No

b) at least one preferably more 

 c) It should only be used as part of a planned intervention which is court managed and which is delivered as part of a process of ensuring that time is spent with the rejected parent.

Any expert who is not able to answer those questions in this manner is not an expert in parental alientation but something else.

An express warning to anyone who is told by an expert that family therapy should be used in their case where it is pure and severe (ie all or most of  the indicators in the pure and severe category are seen) should be absolutely avoided.  Therapy for alienated children and their aligned or alienating parent is absolutely contraindicated in pure and severe cases of alienation and is, in fact, in many cases, placing the children at risk of heightened abuse by tightening the double bind that the children are in. In a pure and severe case of alienation children need an intervention which liberates them fast not family therapy.

An additional warning. Researching the subject of alienation does not make anyone an expert in working with it, it simply means having a body of knowledge about the subject. There is absolutely no substitute whatsoever when you are choosing your alienation expert, for direct hands on experience. Particularly experience in creating the circumstances in which children are liberated from the reaction.  As an expert practitioner, if you have witnessed that and you are skilled and confident in your assessment protocols, intervening in a case is about freeing children from abuse.  It gives confidence in prognosis and it prevents flabby thinking and too much caution which causes delay and harm to children. What families affected by alienation need are skilled, confident and experienced practitioners who intervene, free the child and then provide the post intervention care that prevents the problem from returning.

After Easter,  I will announce a new partnership through which we will deliver a new programme of intervention for pure and severe cases of alienation. Watch this space.