Being alienated is a damaging psychological experience for anyone but for children it is devastating, toxic and causes a lifetime of struggle to regain psychological health and wellbeing. This issue is far beyond that of a contact dispute and far beyond that even of conflict or disharmony between parents, it is one which interferes with the right of any child to grow healthily, in the right place in the hierarchy of the family. Suffering an alienation reaction causes children to suffer the loss of a beloved parent, it creates a psychological defence mechanism of splitting and it interferes with the brain development of the growing child. All of these things are tragedies for children in my view and as devastating to them as physical or sexual abuse. That there are few people who understand this but legions of people who disregard or dispute it, continues to fascinate and horrify me in equal measure. I cannot help but wonder whether Alice Miller’s views, that we collectively accept the generational march of abuse of children, because we ourselves are alienated from what it is to be healthy and whole, applies here.
I was reading this week, as part of my research work, an article about psychological splitting and the impact of this on the child’s developing brain. I have written before about the neuroscience of alienation and I hope to write more about it as my research work develops. This is a field which is giving us huge amounts of information about how children develop in the relational world and about how attachment processes work and why they are so important. I cannot help but wonder how the brains of the children I am working with are affected over their lifetimes. Working as I also do, with adult children who were once alienated, I witness the struggles they have to maintain a secure and balanced sense of self. Trusting one’s own self, when that self was built using defences against the incoming hostility in the relational world, is an almost impossible task.
Because it is the case that every time a child faces the covert or overt instruction to reject or not love or hate a parent, that child is handed a disadvantage in terms of trust, belief in the world as a benign place, belief in adults to care and know better than them and in the wiring and firing of the neurons in the brain. Every single time a child faces the dysfunction of a parent acting out their own dislike or distrust or simple dismissal of the other parent as a valid person in the child’s life, they add another disadvantage to the wall of defences that causes them eventually, to split their world into good and bad. Add up those disadvantages which are bricked into the child’s mind like a dividing wall between the two sides of a child’s relational world and what you are left with is a child who is damaged, dysfunctional and condemned to a lifetime of either acceptance of the situation as if it were the truth or a mammoth task of taking down that wall brick by brick to find a way through it.
Children in recovery from alienation tell me that they feel as if they do not know how to trust or who to trust. Children in recovery tell me that they didn’t want to be part of the war between their parents or be party to the anger and hatred of one parent against the other. Children in recovery tell me that all they want to do is be a child and have the grown ups in their lives do the grown up work of sorting everything out. Those same children who, before recovery, were telling me how bad one parent was and how perfect the other one was, tell me that they never wanted to say those things, they simply had no other way of managing the landscape they were trying to navigate. Children in recovery want someone to act on their behalf and make it all better again for the adults around them. The drama of the alienated child is that they are travellers in a landscape they do not belong in and do not want to be in. As practitioners it is our task to Shepard them through to a safer place, a childhood place where their troubles, carried on behalf of adults, are behind them.
Someone once said to me, ‘suffer the little children and as adults they still do,’ the drama of the alienated child is that this is the absolute truth. In working with children once alienated who are now adults, the suffering that I see is immense, it is more, so much more than the loss of the relationship with a parent, it is the fundamental growth of the child in an environment which prevents health and which prunes the brain and primes it for addiction to trauma and drama. Trauma addicted children, whose only way of feeling alive is to be in the midst of drama and conflict are regularly seen in the psyche of adults who were alienated as children. Changing that takes hard work and concentration, it requires focus on the emotional, psychological and physical self, for the way that trauma addicted children become embodied adults can be seen visibly.
I work in this field because I care about children. I work in this field because I am a mental health professional and not because I am a parental rights advocate. I do this work not because I care about the rights of one parent or the other but because I care about the relational world of the children who are affected by family separation. As part of that I write and talk about the politics of family separation and the institutionalised rights and wrongs of the field. In reality however, I know that parental alienation is a psychological issue which goes far beyond the rights of parents to have a relationship with their child. Parental alienation is a child protection issue and children have the right to be protected from it.
One day, that is the way we will all think about it. Until then, the drama of alienation remains that which lies beneath the collective consciousness. When enough of us wake up and realise what has been done, I hope that change on the biggest scale possible, will come.