The drama of the alienated child (2)


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.

16 thoughts on “The drama of the alienated child (2)”

  1. Powerful stuff that hardly anyone else seems to be saying. How on earth has the psychological community ended up in a situation where they advocate eliminating parents from children’s lives – because the slightest “conflict between parents” is considered so damaging?

    Sure, conflict between parents isn’t great, but the effects of alienation as you are articulating are likely to be incomparably worse…and are now being promoted by the very people who should be doing their best to protect the children.

    By raising conflict between parents as the overriding concern the psychological community have handed all the power in the situation to the more immature parent, giving them every encouragement and opportunity to increase the level of abuse.

    That seemingly intelligent people should have allowed such an extraordinarily stupid policy to develop just seems mind-boggling.


  2. I recently came across a story of a child losing contact with a parent after divorce. Resident parent was supportive of contact but non resident parent was too ill to engage and hence resident parent was left to deal with the grief of the child. An enormous grief that is quite overwhelming for a young child.The comment added was that the grief of this child is exactly what parental alienation is like. In one way this is correct: we see alienated children and they express no grief. We (society) accept the children’s reassurances that they are perfectly fine, in fact much better, without their other parent. Just because we cannot see the grief doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.
    However, it is also so very wrong because in stating that PA is similar to a child’s well supported grief of having lost a parent we fail to understand that alienated children face a double blow. Not only have these children lost a parent, they are also left in a situation that is devoid of capability to support their basic emotional needs, allowing the children to grieve, allowing the children to express love. As long as we keep thinking that PA is no worse than a child losing a parent (which is severe enough in itself) then we are really failing these children. It struck me that this may well be one of the reasons why there is such a reluctance for changing residence in PA cases.


    1. This is so true-alienated children have lost a parent, but have no support in the grief process and in fact (speaking from experience) are not even allowed to grieve. How do you express your sadness to the abuser who cannot tolerate your emotions? You don’t. I recall, as an alienated child, thinking how much easier it would have been to have a parent who had died, rather than a senseless, confusing estrangement that I felt powerless to change or understand.


  3. John was perhaps better known as “never too late Joe”. Since splitting from his Ex it had been an uphill struggle to maintain good relations with his children. It was not as if he hadn’t tried and there had been spells when he had seen his daughter and experienced normal conversations with her. Always there lurking in the background was the other parent; the one who didn’t talk to him and definitely didn’t approve of him. The dismantling of Joe’s personality was what gave his Ex her peace of mind and justified her behaviour and stance with the children.

    John imagined how it might be if he could explain away the past to his daughter in such a way that she would believe him. Of course John’s daughter was oblivious to the truth, John’s truth that is.

    It wasn’t that John’s daughter didn’t want him as a Dad. She just couldn’t justify having him in her life.

    It was John’s persistence, downright cheek and attention to detail that brought him back to where he wanted to be. Never mind that time spent in absence and the birth of the new bourns had let generations slip by without him, the worn out little shoes with the curled up toes from yesteryear.

    Whilst no explanation nor reinterpretation of past wrongs was good enough for Joe’s daughter Joe instead turned to the present moment and all the wondrous opportunities it had to offer.

    Joe had worked a lot on himself, building up his confidence, understanding his daughter’s predicament and empathising with his Ex.

    He still didn’t manage a conversation with her but he did pull off what previously he thought impossible. He had researched what father’s do, he had trained with a cooperative friend, he had discovered his identity belonged to him and that his opinion didn’t have to pass muster with anyone else, he was no longer malleable John, simply Joe. He’d dispensed with the need to protest and replaced self-pity with worthiness. He had regained control of his emotional wellbeing and learnt how it affected others. He began to pull strings. He recognised modern day culture as a blame game and detached himself from it by accepting all feelings. He became curiously interested in the ways of his Ex. and her narcissism and discovered his own. He learnt how narcissism flourishes and how it withers too. He procrastinated less, upsetting people sometimes but not being so effected by rejection as he had been.

    In the outside world Court cases rumbled on, the Court was still secretive, the protectionist barriers that women use to hide children from their fathers was still in evidence, the well-meaning gender discriminative Institutions were still making preferential choices rather than supporting and healing but Joe had detached himself from all that. It was no longer his battle.

    I can’t say exactly when the tables turned. Was it the time he turned up with a new child buggy for his now adult daughter who had put out a plea for one on Facebook? Was it something to do with the guy he befriended at the local pub who happened to work for the same company as his daughter? Was it the short conversation he had in passing when he allayed fears that his daughter might think he still hated her Mum. Was it the photo of happy times past that he slipped through the letterbox? Was it the offer of a lift which his daughter had had to decline because Mum was standing next to her when she answered the phone?

    I guess it was kind of creepy in a way Joe’s daughter had been warned about men like her father……..”you can’t be too careful, your father stalked you before, remember?”

    No, it wasn’t easy for Joe, but nothing worth fighting for ever is. He definitely wasn’t a stalker at least not in a sense that he was preying on anybody. He simply wanted to have time with his children.

    Kind regards


  4. Thank you for writing without regard to parent gender. Discussing alienation as a gender battle does nothing to help the actual victims (children).

    I can only imagine the damage done to a child’s psyche when one parent not only encourages distrust of the other parent, but also mentors, teachers, coaches, extended family including siblings, friends – basically everyone but that parent and their significant other, who will probably eventually be driven away also. My son has no one to safely turn to (in his mind) except for my ex. So untrue. So sad and damaging.


    1. I think it is wrong to assume that gender doesn’t play a part in alienation MT, it does but perhaps not the way you think it does. Everyone assumes that when we talk about gender we mean that men suffer alienation more than women but we don’t. Alienation is actually gendered, which means that men suffer it differently to women. The difference part is important because it is the difference which we need to work with to prevent alienation. So for example, men alienate children in a different way to women. Men are alienated differently to women etc. If you are trying to understand your own experience in order to better help yourself, understanding gender is a big first step to doing so. I will write more about that shortly. K


  5. My children I love so much have been alienated from me for 20 years I am a British Mother. My children are with my ex I do not know where. I have not had one phone call,not one Christmas card or Birthday Card in 20 years. My ex was very controlling of me when we were together as teenagers we only did the things he wanted. I could only dress the way he wanted, we only went to see bands and films he liked. He was an only child. Once we married I was not allowed to have friends. I felt completely powerless. I never had any money he controlled everything. When I finally got free of him I had 3 lovely children and was trying to find me again. When he finally left I felt utter relief the children and I were together for 6 years he never made any contact. Then one night he showed up demanding to see the children. I said our lives could not be disrupted again. He went for residency to hurt me. The court at Sheffield UK Judge Goldsack have my Beautiful Babies to him knowing I could never have another child that was in September 1996 I have never seen them since. I feel like my children have been kidnapped.


  6. The dislike of change, to substitute the familiar for the unknown. Our familiar beliefs are undermined when Parental Alienation is recognised. P.A. exists for sure yet it’s not recognised. Why? Our wish or aspiration to assign a perfect parent to a gender yet when P.A. is recognised it undermines the central core of that wish.

    Yet a return to the commonality of parenting (the good, bad and ugly) to people rather than one gender is far more honest. It allows aspiration to be a good parent for everyone. It encourages openness in conversations, removing old familiar narratives used by so many institutions to block out today’s scientific understanding.

    Instead the damage to children is left unrecognised and silent for the ‘work face’ groups own self interest. An effective ‘blind eye’ chosen rather than it’s primary job to protect children.

    Good parenting has no boundaries, it exists irrespective of gender, the same with bad parenting, yet parenting is still defined by historical gendered segregation. Personally I’d prefer the understanding of good and bad parenting to be made common knowledge for children to grow up within and pass on. To use our accumulated knowledge is a pretty reasonable expectation. Today damage to children is an unintended consequence of carrying on protecting old style narratives that as long as we remain human beings can never be fulfilled.


  7. It makes me feel sick to know the damage that has been and is being done to my babies. They are wonderful people and did nothing to deserve this. I wait and wait. I write to them every week and hope that one and soon, they will begin to understand what has been done to them. I love them so very much. I am the mother that has been alienated which is not the norm I know but it is very real. There is a very controlling paternal grandmother that has been behind all of this. It is so very sad for my babies. I will send them this article and perhaps with their age they will begin to see what has happened to them. I love them and miss them so much. I am so worried about them.


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