Supporting Children after Reunification

I was supposed to be taking a break from writing until September, but as usual there is so much interesting work going on at the Clinic that I cannot help wanting to share some of that.  One of the growing areas of our work is post reunification support to children and their families and for me, the really exciting part of that is the way in which we focus upon keeping the child in a balanced relationship with both of their parents.

A child who has rejected one parent and aligned themselves to the other using the psychological coping mechanism of splitting their feelings into all good and all bad, is in a precarious place. A child who has entered into an encapsulated delusional state of being in which the aligned or alienating parent’s distorted view of the other parent, is in an even more fragile position.

An encapsulated delusion is one which Dr Childress has written about  and it is something which I have seen and worked with several times. Where it exists it is stark in its clinical markers which demonstrate a shared belief between child and alienating parent, that the other parent is harmful to the fused dyad’s wellbeing. When it is present it is fixed and unshakeable and arises from a psychiatrically unwell parent who is usually high functioning and seemingly well in all other respects.  A child who is caputured in this shared delusion however is at risk themselves of going on to develop a problematic psychiatric profile, which is where the safeguarding issue comes in and why children in these circumstances must be removed.

Much of my work this past year has been in assisting children in transfer of residence and then working with both sides of their family post reunification with the once ‘feared and hated’ parent. This is the work that I truly love to do because it is extremely positive in terms of its prognosis and because the post reunification period is one in which so much can be done to assist children to achieve balance for the rest of their lives.  As part of this work I have been recording the words that alienated children use pre and post reunification and measuring and monitoring the ways in which they return to balanced beliefs about their parents. What is really fascinating in this work are the clearly repeated words and phrases which are used by almost all of the alienated children I have worked with pre and post reunification, the most popular of which are as follows –

Pre- Reunification (when severely alienated)

‘I really hate him’

‘He’s had his chances and he isn’t getting anymore

‘She was never a good mother to me’

‘I don’t need him/her’

You can’t make me

‘My feelings are more important than his/hers’

Post – Reunification (after full transfer of residence)

‘She/he made me do it’

‘I didn’t really feel that way, I just didn’t know what to say’

‘He lied to me’

I feel bad inside for what I did

‘It was all just too scary for me’

Post – Reunification (relationship restored whilst child in situ with aligned parent)

‘I just want them to get along’

‘I don’t want to be involved anymore’

‘It is not my business’

‘So long as they don’t argue I am fine’

I wish she would just leave me out of it’

The highlighted phrases above are the ones which are used over and over again by the children I work with and, if we were to use only those to describe what is happening to alienated children we would get a good idea of the damage being done. Alienation, whether it is created by one parent acting against the other to create an encapsulated delusional state, or whether it is created by two parents struggling in conflict over control of their child which goes on to cause the alignment and rejection pattern, causes children immense pain. In their own words, taken from the lists of things  said to me this year alone, children say this about being alienated –

‘I don’t want to be involved, I wish he/she would leave me out of it, when I get dragged into it I am forced to use coping mechanisms that make me say things that I don’t mean and that makes me feel bad inside when I realise that I have been lied to.’

Is that not enough to stop any parent who is using alienating behaviours to cause psychological splitting in a child, from continuing?

In some cases it will be, in others however it is not and never will be and that is because the parent who is causing the alienation is usually suffering from a psychological or psychiatric disorder in which their unresolved issues are being projected onto their child. Those are the cases of pure alienation in which a transfer of residence (which is actually a change of the power dynamic over the child), is the only answer.

Looking closer at the power dynamic, it is the case that it is often this which is the locus of the problem in terms of the child’s entry into the encapsulated delusional state. The power dynamic in alienation cases is another key area of interest for me and one which bears much closer scrutiny in terms of how we help children trapped in this situation.  Power and control are big issues in terms of personal politics in the UK right now with coercive control being criminalised. In my view, coercive control of the child in an alienation situation is also one which should be criminalised because it is this which is the cause (and thus the remedy) of the reactions seen.

Children in our society are under the control of their parents. We know this and we support it. When children are controlled healthily by their parents, we call this security and a positive upbringing. When they are controlled unhealthily, for example by neglect or by abuse, we ask the state to intervene. What is missing in our understanding of power and control over children is the way in which they are utterly at the mercy of their parents and during and after family separation, even more so. What I have consistently found to be alarming over twenty five years of doing this work, is the way in which a child who is being controlled in their relationship with the parent they do not live with,  is seen by too many professionals as acting as if this is a choice they have made of their own free will.  Children do not choose to lose a parent, they are hard wired to be attached to as many adults in their family as possible a) as a biological drive to survive and b) as a neurologically developed attachment. When a child tells me that they really hate a parent who has had all the chances he is getting, what I am hearing is the voice of a child who has been forced through manipulation of reality, to make a choice that is not really theirs.

And those voices, of children before and after they have been helped to reunite with the parent they are rejecting, tell us clearly that this is so. I cannot think of a more succinct wat of putting it than ‘I don’t want to be involved anymore‘ said to me very recently by a once fiercly rejecting child who is now reunited with her mother.

We need to listen to that voice and create the circumstances in which  children do not ever have to be involved, by educating parents and by recognising the risk of alienation reactions in all children facing separation so that we can prevent it rather than having to treat it.

The more I work with children post reunification, the more I know how utterly essential it is to stop them ever suffering from psychological splitting in the first place. Recovery from the splitting reaction is painful, it is emotionally and psychologically draining and children who are going through it require dedicated services which are focused upon reassurance, reconfiguration of perspective and rebuilding of their ability to trust the adults around them. In essence, the child who has been psychologically split has to be taken back to their early childhood (where the psychologically split state is located) and re-parented steadily and consistently until they are standing on firm ground again. Trusting others, is for children the most precious gift that they receive from the people who love them. To destroy that trust is cruel, it is abusive and it is deeply damaging to the long term wellbeing of the child. Those once rejected parents, who care for children who have been abused in this way, also need help because the process of recovery for their children takes an often circuitous route with many regressions and many slips and falls along the way.

In my work post reunification I am drawn back to the need to prevent, to educate and to assist parents to avoid the trap of alienation and the harm it does to children. This truly horrible, hidden rabbit hole of adult issues, is one into which no child should be allowed to fall. Leading children out of that topsy turvey world, teaches me so much more about the need to keep them safe from it in the first place.





  1. A student I knew had, as a child, been placed in a situation where he had to choose one of his parents over the other. He said to me: “I was too young and I didn’t understand. I made the wrong choice”. At this stage, now in his early twenties, he had rejected the parent he was once aligned to, unable to forgive her for what she had done, but had a relationship with his once rejected dad though not close. Given the scale of neglect he and his brother had been subjected to I do not understand why they were not taken into care and for this young man the lack of intervention in effect meant that he lost both his parents. I remember having a chat with him about his problems with girlfriends, originating from the fact that he didn’t have sufficient awareness of who he was himself, his own identity still fluid in some ways. This lack of personal identity I have seen in other young, once alienated adults. Reading Childress’ book gave me some idea where it comes from. How can you develop your own identity when your entire childhood is spent observing and responding to the needs of your parent setting your own needs aside to support your parent. How can you learn normal communication when you are used to things being presented as choices and options but the reality is that there is only one acceptable choice. I sincerely hope you are able to help these children and allow them to develop more healthily and I hope that they will be able to form healthy adult relationships at one point in the future.


  2. Along the lines of what “Kat” wrote, I wonder about the availability of services for young adults (or even not-so-young adults) who come to realize that they were victims of alienation. My children are now 16 and 18 and living with their father. Given their ages, I’ve been told that there’s not much I can do legally at this point (the court ruled that my 16 year old daughter was old enough to choose where she wants to live, despite multiple counselors’ findings of alienation). I’ve been told that my best hope is that they may come around on their own in their early-to-mid twenties, though I’m also aware it could happen much later than that, or not at all. Of course I’m dreadfully saddened by the prospect of years ahead without them. But I’m also concerned for their wellbeing should they come around as adults (which I hope beyond hope they do!).

    I’ve now read many positive stories of adults who were once alienated reconnecting with the rejected parent. While those stories give me hope, something for me to cling to as a rejected parent, I can’t help but notice that those once-alienated adults are often still tormented. In many of the stories the young adults coming out of alignment feel weak for having been manipulated; guilty for having participated in the bullying and campaign of rejection against the targeted parent; cheated of a loving, healthy relationship with the rejected parent; and confused as to why and how it all happened in the first place. I’ve also been told by counselors, as Kat said above, that my children will most likely have relationship issues for the rest of their lives. I was told that because they’ve been taught to question, scrutinize, and reject real love, and also have been severely manipulated by people they believed loved them, they will have a hard time understanding or trusting real love for the rest of their lives.

    Traditional counseling seems to help in some cases, but never fully. The adult who was alienated as a child never seems to fully recover. I think that’s, in part, due to a lack of alienation-specific resources for adults who were once alienated, who are making the reconnection efforts on their own rather than with the guidance and care that programs such as yours offer children and teens through the transition. The adults who seek reunification are left to stumble through it, perhaps with the guidance and advice of traditional counselors who mean well but don’t completely understand the impacts of alienation.

    I hope, not only for my children but for all those who will come around as adults and seek reunification on their own, that in the future programs such as yours have the opportunity and resources to expand services into helping once-alienated adults with treatment and resolution. From what I understand, alienation is often multi-generational. Perhaps services similar to those you mention above but geared toward newly-aware adults could help put a stop to that cycle.


  3. It’s unfortunate that no one did anything to help my sister and me when this was done to us. Neither of us has a relationship with either parent, I myself refused (I was 13, sister was 9) to take a side and was thrown away because of my “betrayal,” my mother never forgave me. Then after a heinous divorce, my ex did this to our daughter starting when she was five. She is now 22 and alienation is complete, She won’t speak to me and has made it clear I am
    dead to her by absolute silence. No one believed me about PA even after I knew the name for it, not my therapist, her therapist, friends, family. Now it’s too late, hopefully it won’t be for the next child.


  4. Thank you Karen, for all of your work illuminated this issue and raising the standards of care for these children and families. So many professional get it wrong and make it worse, as does the courts. Brava!


  5. I have been working very hard on trying to restore a good relationship with my eldest daughter (currently 19) some eight years after the alienation first started. She will occasionally come to see me, make some request, visit her grandparents with me, etc – has even made profound declarations of being ‘like me’ – yet this can also be reversed in an instant. To me, the splitting and alienation is still operating in a very profound way.

    I hope she can come through it all, but the damage has already been substantial…damaged life opportunities due to missing out on vital input during these teenage years – of that there’s no doubt.

    I think there’s been a very powerful belief system operating (where from, and since when, I’m not sure) that children are like plant seeds containing all the required information within them for their development. What is most needed, according to this philosophy, apart from ample (often excessive) material provision – is for them to be left sufficiently alone!

    I honestly don’t know how much healing can take place once the damage of alienation is done, especially in the situations where it is not at all obvious, and would not come under any kind of therapeutic support. I have to be optimistic, but together with all the perceptions expressed above, remain extremely concerned.

    Most of all, my thoughts turn to prevention. Wouldn’t it be possible to bring about a new social norm which brings counseling into play as soon as children are on the way? A universal understanding that bringing up children is a difficult task which no-one is really that well prepared for, and that increasingly in modern times the passage ahead is strewn with the wreckage of couples whose relationships have hit the rocks. That it would therefore be unthinkable for responsible people to try and navigate these complex waters without referring themselves to ongoing guidance? This understanding could be introduced at the antenatal stage, when both hopes and concern for future well-being are high. Couple counseling does often identify a need for individual counseling – isn’t it best to get this in place at the earliest possible stage? It’s not that sanctions would need to be applied, but more that refusal to engage would start to indicate problematic parents who would almost certainly be the ones likely to begin the alienating process if that were to happen – and so these would not be individuals who would be given residency of children should any future separation arise.


  6. Until courts stop asking children who they want to live with after divorce (as they do in the US), this will continue happening. There is not even the beginning of understanding about this issue in the courts, or with mental health professionals.


  7. If only I had had the skills that now help me be a better parent, then when my children were born my resistance to the kind of traumas which alienation and splitting brings would have been stronger.

    Kind regards


  8. Thanks Karen , it means a lot to have a voice out there that gets heard and most importantly deeply understands the issue.
    Change is slow but with people out there like yourself im hopeful.


  9. “What I have consistently found to be alarming over twenty five years of doing this work, is the way in which a child who is being controlled in their relationship with the parent they do not live with, is seen by too many professionals as acting as if this is a choice they have made of their own free will.”

    I think this goes to the heart of the problem of how CAFCASS officers, guardians and judges deal these cases. If any insight from your work gets through to them, I would wish it to be this one. Ideally a lot more than this too of course…


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