The Drama of the Alienated Child

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.



25 thoughts on “The Drama of the Alienated Child”

  1. Hi Karen
    You have recommended Alice Miller’s writing in previous posts. I followed your advice and bought ‘the drama of being a child’. I’ve since read it several times since and it has usually been an uncomfortable and challenging experience in terms of how we parent and how we were parented. It was also liberating.
    it is one of the most influential books i have read and one that anyone touched by alienation can only benefit from reading.


      1. hi karen,

        it seems tsnba is out of print – can you recommend how best i might get a copy (i’m in north london)?


      2. Karen – just re-read your comment and now see you may have meant you have all her books….and that in one of them…..

        If I’m right about my misunderstanding please ignore the bit of my last post that relates to this


    1. Yes, please – I’ll email you my details later this afternoon when I return home. Thank you


      1. Its ordered EHFAR, it should be here tomorrow so will post it on – it was only 1p!!


      2. Thank you so much……..I often see used copies for amounts like that but have never bought one, to date. they do say “the best things in life are free” or as near as damn it 🙂


  2. I must go back to this book again. It is dense and concentrated and I find it too painful to read more than a short stretch at a time. It evokes in me memories of the shortcomings of my own parents and their parenting style, my father’s especially, of occasions when I failed my daughter, of her mother’s manipulation and control. Still, we learn by recognising painful truths, not by evading them. The original German title of the book translates as The Drama of the Gifted Child, and by ‘gifted’ I understand Miller to mean that the child is precociously attuned to an adult’s emotional needs at the expense of her own, which goes to the heart of parental alienation.

    Note: early editions of the book, like the one I picked up in a second hand bookshop, are heavily Freudian and not easy for us non-specialists to understand! Miller later broke with the Freudian school – over its failure to believe patients’ accounts of childhood abuse – and by its last edition the book had undergone a drastic rewrite. This is the one to get.


    1. Thanks DHU, that’s good advice about the editions, she did break with her Freudian training and went her own way. It is the way in which she discussed how children become attuned to their parent’s needs rather than being able to develop their own which makes her work so valuable in terms of parental alienation work. I find it painful to read her at times but I persevere because of the breakthroughs in my thinking she delivers. I have all of her books, in one, she discusses and demonstrates the use of drawing with the non dominant hand to help children (or the child in the adult ) to break through their intellectualisation of the harm that was done to them. It is a technique I use now with alienated children, it is incredibly powerful because it removes the alienation reaction immediately (brainwashing works by replacing real experiences with inculcated fear based beliefs but does not last when the person being brainwashed is not with the source of the brainwashing and thus when a child is separated from an alienating parent, they are more readily able to drop the fear based beliefs, getting them to draw or write with the non dominant hand moves them from the dominant brain function into the non dominant one which allows for release of the learned behaviours). It is amazing how quickly these children emerge from their repetititive story telling about fear of a parent into talking about their real feelings and how they came to say what they said about a parent. Miller is a very valuable resource for all alienated parents in my view.


  3. Thank you so much for this post, Karen. So much of it resonates with my experiences at the mercy of both an alienating mother and then, as a parent, an alienating ex-spouse – I’m off to pick up a copy from my local book shop this afternoon. It also seems to concurs with much that I have learned over recent years and believe to true for most of us…..that (a) we are born in a naturally happy state that is the the “true self” but that (b) very soon the world imposed a sense of “inadequacy/unworthiness” upon us that manifested in feelings of emotional pain that accumulated over time, layer-upon-layer, until (c) many are forced to find ways of coping with the pain which are often addictions of one kind or another (substances, unhealthy behaviours with other people, pastimes/activities that lead to physical or mental harm of Self, etc). Thanks again


    1. Just wanted to share an excert of the book where Alice Miller contrasts depression and grandiosity (the exaggerated sense of the fasle self) which she sees as “flip-sides” of the same coin where a parent is responding to unresolved emotional pain from his childhood….

      …..continuous performance of outstanding achievements may sometimes enable a person to maintain the illusion of the constant attention and availability of his parents (whose (emotional) absence from his early childhood he now denies just as thoroughly as his own emotional reaction). Such a person is usually able to ward off threatening depression with increased displays of brilliance, thereby deceiving both himself and those around him. However, he often chooses a marriage partner who either already has strong depressive traits or, at least within their marriage, unconsciously takes over and enacts the depressive components of the grandiose partner. The depression is thus kept outside, and the grandiose one can look after his ‘poor’ partner, protect her like a child, feel strong and indispensable, and thus gain another supporting pillar for the building of his own personality…..

      That is one hell of a succinct summary of how I, unconsciously, contributed to becoming a targeted parent. Does it resonate with anyone else?


  4. Good post, and I agree about Alice Miller.

    Just one quick point I want to understand better. You write that alienated children “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.”

    I think where one parent demands alignment of the children or else it’s understood that this parent’s love will be withdrawn, and that parent is also coercive and controlling, vs the other parent who makes it clear that their love is unconditional, children will choose alignment with the first (unsafe) parent because at some level they realize that this choice won’t cause withdrawal of love by anyone. It’s a “safe” choice to align with the unsafe parent.

    Maybe you could clarify what you mean?


    1. Sorry David I was assuming people would know what I mean because I write about this a lot and you are right to ask for clarification. I should have put the word safe in inverted commas in order to make it clear – you are right in your interpretation, they cling to the person they feel they have to cling to because that is the person who has made them believe that they are ‘safe’ when in fact that is the person who has caused the problem in the first place but the child doesn’t know it because of the false self and the fear of what will happen without that parent’s ‘protection’. Hope that makes sense now? K


      1. Thanks Karen.

        My first post, but I’ve been reading here for over a year and I want to thank you for what you do, it’s been very helpful. I started a PA meetup group here in Sacramento, and I refer many people to this site.

        Keep going strong,


      2. Welcome David, feel free to post, ask questions, add your thoughts, we’re a fairly happy, stable bunch these days, we used to have a few verbal punch ups but things have settled down now 🙂 We are always glad to hear new voices. K


  5. I have a couple of Alice Miller’s other books, and this will certainly act as a stimulus to look at her writing again.

    My eldest daughter is caught up in quite a drama of this kind. After years of distance (including only recently – trying to justify aligning herself with her mother, rather than being close to me, as being because they are both female) last week she came round and declared that she now saw herself as far more similar to me, after all.

    I think that is true, and we had a very in-depth conversation about the long-term consequences of psychological trauma and the prospects of recovery from this, the “wounded healer” concept, and so on, in the light of the therapeutic community music project I am trying to get off the ground.

    But once back in her home, there has been not been much change “on the ground” so to speak, in terms of some of the more concerning “non-communication/non-cooperation” type issues involved. Partly this is only to be expected in that those kind of behavioural changes ought perhaps to be more gradual, but also, I don’t think my daughter has any conscious perception yet of the volcanic level of anger (even though it will not be expressed openly) that such a shift in perception and behaviour will consequently surely arouse in the alienating parent.

    So we will have to see how this particular drama unfolds.

    The first stage of funding for the community music project mentioned has now been applied for. It won’t really be sufficient to achieve much on its own, but can hopefully can be extended into a larger application for a more substantial provision. The local “action for voluntary services” has been very helpful. One understandable constraining aspect is that for every 30 or so participants there has to be at least one dedicated & suitably experienced volunteer available. So to get up to max of 150 participants which the venue would support which would also allow some folk from outside the immediate area, like yourselves, to attend, we need to find 4 or more such individuals. Some experience of group therapy/and or of community music would be helpful. We do very much want some non-local participation especially because we would love for others to go on to develop similar opportunities elsewhere!

    Karen – please feel free to give out my personal email address to anyone who enquires.


    1. Thanks Woodman, I have just watched the video you posted, I love this idea it is truly amazing. I am trying to work out how to post it onto the blog so that you can write a piece about it to go with the video, I think it deserves much much wider sharing, perhaps you can contact me and we can sort out a piece soon? K


  6. I would love to have some feedback from you on my new blog, “Mommy Never Lies,” which intends to offer resources and support to people suffering from nasty divorces and parental alienation. Thank you so much for the work you do.


    1. if you send the link I will post it up Jessica and you will get feedback from readers for sure. K


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