It seems that the UK has finally arrived at the place where the alienation of children after family separation is an acceptable topic for debate. Ahead of the Withers Worldwide and 1KBW debate, which is being held this coming week in London, I thought it might be useful to assess where we are in terms of our understanding of the issues and the difficulties facing those of us who seek to bring this problem out into the open so that we can deal with it as we know we need to.

The coming debate is one amongst other upcoming events which focus upon the problem of parental alienation. This one is key in that it is led by some of the big hitters in the legal field and as such it commands attention within the legal community. What matters now, is how the emerging debate is actually shaped and influenced, so that those of us who work with the issue are able to take what works forward in the way which most helps children. Because it is the wellbeing of children which is at the heart of this debate, not the rights of their parents on either side. Parental alienation is a pernicious and hidden form of abuse in its worst form, and it is this reality which must take centre stage in my view as the debate moves on. This is about healthy and unhealthy parenting, not about parental rights.

The  legal system in the UK is not yet fully comfortable with the concept of parental alienation, which is a label which, just as in other countries, has been compromised by the parental rights movement on both sides of the fence. On one side we have the women’s rights argument which states that parental alienation is just something that fathers use to control mothers and on the other side we have the father’s rights movement arguing that most women are using children as a weapon to harm them aided and abetted by the courts.  Neither of these arguments are valid in my view and they have no place at all in the clinical debate about alienation as an issue affecting children. Parental alienation in its truest form is underpinned by the psychological and emotional abuse of a child, the child being forced into maladaptive coping mechanisms in order to survive the harm being done.  Parental alienation is not a parental rights issue it is a child protection issue and we would do well to ensure that this is where the focus is kept, when we discuss it.

Neither is parental alienation a gender issue although the way in which alienation happens in children’s lives is gendered. That is a confusing statement so let me unpack it a little bit. Some people argue that because more fathers experience alienation than mothers, it is a gender issue affecting men. This is an erroneous statement based upon a lack of awareness of gender analysis.  In truth, the incidence of alienating behaviours in families is roughly equal.  To unpack that a little more.  90% of parents who assume control over children after family separation are mothers. This is supported by the gendered legislation which underpins family separation. In short, the use of the gateway Child Benefit system, in which whoever holds entitlement to Child Benefit at the point of separation, holds the power over the children.  CB is paid mostly to mothers, it was designed that way in the legislation entitled ‘from the wallet to the purse’ which was a calculated move to put money directly into the hands of women in the seventies.  Thus it is largely mothers who assume that they are in control over children at the point of separation.

And so we have our 90% of mothers holding power over children and 90% of fathers who, as non resident parents are already more vulnerable to the child’s withdrawal over time. The dynamic of ‘power over’ is strong in alienation cases and whoever is willing to utilise the power they hold is able, if they wish, to alienate a child, subtly, covertly or obviously.  The non resident parent is experienced by the child as being weaker and less important in alienation cases and thus, if the parent seeking to push the other parent out is willing to exploit this in the child’s mind, it is an easy step to achieving it.  In these circumstances, shouting about equal rights does nothing apart from give further ammunition to the alienating parent who uses this to evidence to the outside world that the child has withdrawn because of the demands being made upon them. Around 10% of fathers are trapped in the alienation net and  simply left to drown, the louder they shout the more they confirm that they are the cause of the problem. Legislation change, long the cherished antidote to the perceived power imbalance, has no real way to address this kind of alienation case, because the problem lies not in the legislative framework but in the psychology of the alienating parent. Who would do what she is doing regardless of what legislation looked like.

So what of the 10% of fathers who hold the power over children after separation? What we see in this cohort is that the accompanying 10% of mothers who are non resident parents are almost always in that place because they have been alienated. If we concern ourselves with popular notions of what a non resident mother looks like (most notably in recent years portrayed with acidic glee on a Marylin Stowe Blog Post by an angry father), she is mad, bad and hugely dangerous to children. This father claimed that all non resident mothers are drug addicts, mentally unwell and never really wanted to be mothers in the first place. Little wonder we hear so little from non resident mothers given that kind of vitriol. The shaming and blaming of women who do not hold primary care in their children’s lives is rife in our culture.

There are no clear figures about how many parents become alienated from their children after separation because no-one collects them and no-one records them. Similarly, no-one records the outcomes for children in the family court process and so we simply do not know how many families are affected by this problem.  In our experience however, mothers AND fathers experience alienation and mothers AND fathers alienate children.  How they do this is often different and based on gender roles but alienation is not a gender issue.  Removing it from the gender based parental rights field is an essential step in moving the debate on in my view, here is where the debate this coming week is perfectly focused, moving it away from the experience of parents and onto the experience of the child.

Alienation of a child from a loving parent is a cruel act and one which causes intra-psychic distress to the child. There is a wealth of respectable research from around the world which has mined the reality of this issue. Research which is not based upon the self reported experience of parents who are part of the parental rights based movement, (which can only ever provide a one dimensional view), but research which gets close to the interplay between the parental relationship and the impact of the transgenerational messages on either side of the family upon that. This is where the focus of the debate must go and this is where the answers to the problems facing children in these families will be found.  Around that is the way in which the legal system listens to the mental health field and responds in ways which create the right conditions for changing these children’s lives. Dialogue between the mental health profession and the legal system is well underway now and I am confident that what is emerging is a strong foundation for the UK’s response to parental alienation, based on the right research with the right approaches to resolution at the core.

At this critical juncture there are key people working together to bring about change. Mental health practitioners and legal people with the power to bring about the cultural shift  that safeguards children and creates new protocols for changing their lives. I am heartened by this positive movement and delighted to be part of it. As we gear up for a summer of debate and dialogue, I will report back regularly on our progress.

For everyone affected by this horrible problem in the UK, hope is on the horizon and change is in the wind. It isn’t going to happen overnight but that it is happening at all is a wonderful thing.

1KBW and Withersworldwide debate on Parental Alienation is on Tuesday 24th May for invited guests.  On the panel are  Deborah Eaton QC, Stephen Jarmain, Dr Florian Ruth, Dr Mark Berelowitz, Lisa Lustigman, Sarah Brooks and Karen Woodall.