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.