This week I have been re-reading the Drama of Being a Child by Alice Miller. For any readers not familiar with her writing I would urge you to find out more about her thinking, which is rich in empathy and full of close observations about the inner world of children. Additionally, Miller writes widely about how we become alienated from our true selves by everyday parenting practices. When I read her writing, I become ever more conscious that what happens to alienated children is a malfunctioning of what could and should be empathic attunement to the individual needs and feelings of a child. It is a disruption of the child’s right to grow to feel their own feelings and an imposition of adult responses to the world onto a vulnerable, virtually helpless being. Which makes me angry and then sad, at the way in which normalised parenting practices trample on the growing child’s mind. In our world of institutionalised beliefs about children and parenting, it appears to me that guarding a child’s right to grow freely, like a flower to full blossom, is not protected by our legislation and not promoted by our family services. In fact quite the reverse in so many cases.
According to Miller our true selves are buried under layers of solidified defences against the way in which we all were/are, as children, brutalized by ordinary parenting practices. These practices, which are about civilising the child and preparing them for entry into society are about normalising what is in effect cruelty. Leaving a child to cry for example, in the belief that this teaches self soothing, telling a child that they do not feel something that they are clearly trying to express and demanding conformity to what are essentially adult needs rather than childrens, are all designed to remove from a child the agency that a growing child needs to feel in order to become an individuated and independent person in the world.
Little wonder some children are so easy to alienate from one half of themselves. By the time they are able to speak they are likely to have become alienated from the whole of themselves and attuned to the needs of one of their parents in a corrupted relationship in which the adult imposes their needs upon the child. Children involved in these relationships do not have a sense of a real self because that has never been allowed to develop. What they have is a false persona, developed in the mirror of the parental dysfunction, which is now malleable and under the control of that parent whilst the other parent stands by helplessly witnessing this drama.
It is the case that many alienated children are likely to have grown up in this type of family pattern and if you go back to the previous generation and the one before that, the same kind of enmeshment, claustraphobia and dysfunction can be seen in the primary relationships. This pattern is seen most often in mothers and their daughters, but I have also seen it occur in vertical cross generational patterns between sons who are enmeshed with mothers who support their sons to alienate children from their mother in order that the son and his mother provide primary care. I have also seen it in horizontal cross generational patterns in which aunts have assisted in the alienation of children from their mothers, taking over the role of mother with assistance from other members of the family. In all of these cases, the children’s susceptibility to being alienated is assisted by the presence of the child’s lack of access to a sense of true self. The child’s ability to know feelings and how to express them having never been truly developed, leaving only a fragile persona which is vulnerable to the command of others who want to control.
The drama of the alienated child in this family pattern is therefore two fold. It is first the prevention of the child’s ability to develop a normal sense of self and it is second the manipulation of the child to obey the commands to sever connection with half of the false conscious self. Underneath, the child floats in limbo, unable to understand what is happening and unable to resist it or challenge it. This is why so many children who are alienated remain in such serious and sustained stances of rejection, they lack the capacity to do the emotional and psychological work of change and cling instead to what they know, pleasing the person they feel the safest with in order to get the care they believe they have to have in order to survive. This for me explains why young people who are in the process of being liberated from the control of their alienating parent want to hang on so tightly to them. When all you know is the security of the false self which is enmeshed with the parent who has had all of the control, being suddenly exposed is terrifying and can feel almost life threatening. This is why removal of children straight to the rejected parent is, for me, essential. When a child is exposed and vulnerable what they need is the healthy parent to give them anchor and safety. At least then the internal development of a sense of self can begin, which, however late it is, is what will help the child to grow to health and wellbeing post alienation.
Healthy relationships for children are those which help them to identify their feelings and express them from as early an age as possible. Helping a child to understand that their feelings are welcome (though they may not drive everything in the world) is a way of proofing them against manipulation by others. Allowing a child to feel is a critical stage of their development, facilitating tears, anger, frustration and fear as well as the wide range of positive feelings allows a child to know its own mind. And knowing your own mind is a valuable protection against manipulation by others across the life cycle.
For anyone interested in the family drama of child alienation, Alice Miller provides incredible insight and learning about those things which cause it and those things which help to heal it. Her writing, which I first encountered thirty years ago, is a relevant today as it was back then. We are all alienated from our selves, particularly those of us born before children were actually recognised as individual and valuable human beings instead of trainable minatures without feelings of our own. Reading Miller is like being given the keys to your own psychological cage. Read her and let yourself weep.