I write from sunny Croatia, Dubrovnik to be exact, a place where my maternal grandmother spent some happy times. I know this place from the stories she told me, it is familiar to me even though I have never been here before. The power of narrative in children’s lives is underlined for me by this experience, here is a place I have never been and yet it is a place I feel that I know. It is not exactly as I imagined it but it is near enough for me to be powerfully reminded of the days I sat in the garden with my grandmother as she told me that in Dubrovnik, where the lemon trees grow, the old women all wear black and talk about politics. In my young mind, Dubrovnik became a place of pilgrimage, a place where I would find the blessed land of my grandmother’s dreams. A place where she was happy and a place where I would be too. Being confronted with Dubrovnik, the real place and not the construction of someone else’s dreams, is to be confronted again with the ways in which the mind of a child is vulnerable to capture and manipulation, vulnerable to the soundless, boundless sea of intra-psychic defencelessness. A child in relationship to adults is quite simply, vulnerable, to the good or the bad that is impressed upon them.
Vulnerable and susceptible. Two fragile states of being for unformed minds.
My grandmother’s stories of her time in Yugoslavia as it was then, were coloured by her political beliefs. Brought up by communists, her delight in visiting Dubrovnik was heightened by her way of life which was rooted in the make do and mend of the post second world war era. My grandmother was an original recycler, her talent for sewing led each one of her grandchildren to wear the simple but beautifully made clothes she created more or less from rags. Dubrovnik held for her the promise of the simplicity of a life lived on the land in which having sufficient was more than enough. I loved to listen to her talk about the lemon trees and the freshly picked tomatoes she ate each day and the time she spent in the sun with the women, speaking not much of a shared language but enough to get by. For me Dubrovnik became a mysterious place where people were kind to each other, the warmth of the sun and the pink light upon the buildings became diffused with the love that I felt for my grandmother and the safety and certainty she gave to my life. My confrontation with Dubrovnik in reality has revealed that whilst the foundation and framework of the place may be the same as my grandmother’s recollections, the rest was formed of the projection of her mind. At the age of fifty plus, therefore, I am confronted with the falling away of a childhood narrative which held me enthralled for decades. And in doing so, I am once again shown that the impressionable mind of a child is akin to a blank canvas. If the adults in the child’s world want to paint beautiful pictures of hope and humanity upon that canvas they can but if they want to paint pictures of fear and devastation they can do that too. In every respect a child is a prisoner of the minds of one or both parents and especially so after separation.
This for me is the absolute focus of where my work needs to be. Whilst parents are important and necessary, the mind of the child is the place where the healing needs to take place and balance must be restored. Parents in this respect, are those valuable assets which aid the healing. This is not about parental rights, in fact it is not really even about parents as individuals at all. It is about the right of the child to be cared for and protected from those people who would use the child’s mind to play out their own unresolved issues. People who are mentally and psychologically unwell, who are largely high functioning and therefore who pass unnoticed in the intra-psychic world of the developing child, but who are heaping upon their children, intolerable burdens which are not theirs to carry. This is a tricky area to navigate because it bumps up against the issue of how to ensure that the healthy parent, (in pure alienation cases the one who is rejected), can have the kind of input into the child’s life which is protective. This is where the court intervention is necessary and for me this is where the issue of the child’s mind as the battleground between parents must be differentiated from the child’s mind as hostage to one unwell parent. The difference is like night and day in terms of how to intervene, the outcome for the child is the core issue for consideration.
The unresolved issues in the mind of a parent are powerful in terms of the narrative by which their lives are lived. Those issues, which may be intergenerational as well as learned on the horizontal (here and now) plane of existence are considered to be drivers by some therapists or schema by others. I call them stories and much of my time is spent with parents and children listening to those stories. The external stories are the place where the tale begins, the once upon a time entries into the internalised world of the family which is configured around the alienated child. It is fairly pointless however, asking the alienated child what their story is because it is largely the same wherever it is asked in the world. Just as my story of Dubrovnik starts with ‘once upon a time there was a little town where lemon trees grow and the old women sit and talk about politics’….an alienated child’s story reads … ‘once upon a time my dad was really horrible to me and so I don’t like him anymore, he has had all of his chances and isn’t getting anymore.’ The only difference between my story and the alienated child’s is that mine is benign, it didn’t do me any harm and could be challenged by my confrontation with the real place which is Dubrovnik, whilst the alienated child’s is constructed, toxic and developed from the need to cope with an impossible situation.
And so, these stories take us into the world of the child although they do not take us into working with the child (there is a big difference). Those who purport to offer therapy to children to bring them out of alienation will fool only those who believe that the unresolved issues which cause alienation, reside in the mind of the child. They don’t. The unresolved issues which cause alienation in a child, lie in the mind of the unwell parent and perhaps the generation before them. Listening to the stories of the two tribes who came together to create the child, is about listening for the red flags and the sirens which herald alienation. In pure alienation cases these signals are loud and clear, in hybrid cases the signals are often masked by counter responses and so the narrative is muddied and unclear. The skill of the practitioner, is in being able to untangle the stories, unravel the disparate threads that lead back to the problem and then guide the court to bring about the conditions which will allow for the liberation of the child from the influence of the mind of the parent.
The mind of the child is impressionable, this is how children come to be abused and to trust their abusers implicitly, blaming themselves before they blame the person abusing them. Alienation is a terrible thing to create in a child because it is not simply alienation from a relationship with a parent or the whole of the side of the family but alienation from the self and the soul. Recovering from alienation from the self and the soul is an extremely difficult task because when all of the footholds of trust in adults are damaged and broken, it is virtually impossible to put one foot in front of the other without fearing that the next step will cause the floor to give way. Children who are liberated from alienation through the transfer of residence route ( which is in itself a blunt instrument to treat a gaping wound ), still have a struggle in front of them as they attempt to relearn how to relate to the once aligned parent. If that parent cannot or will not accept that their behaviours are contributory to the behaviours of the child then the struggle intensifies as the child’s mind seesaws between attempting to reconcile their new found understanding of the once rejected/feared/hated parent with the beliefs which were inculcated previously.
This is why alienation is a child protection issue, because children need to be protected from parents who are harmful to their wellbeing either consciously or unconsciously. Where the child’s mind is imprisoned in the unresolved issues belonging to the parent who has control over the child, intervention is absolutely necessary and must be undertaken swiftly and with determination. Differentiating those cases from those hybrid situations where parents are cross projecting anger and blame towards each other is often difficult for inexperienced practitioners who may routinely advocate therapy for all cases of alienation. Unfortunately this fails the child and leaves them imprisoned in an unresolvable emotional and psychological place, something no practitioner should be willing to do if they are aware of the damage that is done by alienation, especially in its purest form.
Currently in the UK our options for treatment of alienation are a change of residence or therapeutic intervention, both of which are not ideal if they are not properly matched to the issues facing the child. Additionally, with a workforce which is largely unaware of how alienation presents itself in a child, the number of cases actually being properly diagnosed and treated are low (although thankfully now growing due to developing awareness and willingness to help children in these circumstances). As research and evaluation of successful interventions are gathered and published, the nuanced treatment routes which are clearly excavated by the likes of Friedlander and Walters will become more routinely available. Such work is based upon the understanding of alienation as a trans-generational issue which is impressed upon the child through the narrative of the parent with unresolved issues and differentiation between that and the cross conflicted impact of hybrid dynamic. All of this work requires the ability to enter into the world of the child and to walk with them to understand the lines of power and control and the storylines which manipulate that. None of it requires the child to undergo therapy because the child is a prisoner of the mind of the parent, not a dysfunctional patient.
I work with alienated children, I know them and I understand them. From the children who tell me they hate me as much as the parent they are rejecting, to the ones who hug me and thank me in the months after the necessary changes have been made to their lives, I know them well. I can predict their behaviours and reactions and because of that I can create a road for them to travel on, even when they are adamant they do not want to follow me. What I know about alienated children is that their minds are precious, they belong only to them and their right to grow to adulthood without having their mind be the battle ground for adult issues is paramount. It is the only thing that really matters in the end. How we help children to put down the burdens they carry is about how we understand the stories of their lives, those stories which govern their beliefs about themselves and the world around them and the stories which prevent them from having the healthy, loving, supportive relationships which give them hope for the future. Being big enough and brave enough to challenge the adults who are harming their children is about being concerned with children’s needs first. It’s not about rights, it’s not about justice, it is about mental and psychological health and promoting that in the lives of children over everything and anything else.
With my grandmother’s stories about Dubrovnik fading and the real place emerging minute by minute, I will, later today, pass by the orange and lemon trees on my way to eat the freshly picked tomatoes. As I do I will be thinking about the ways in which we can refine the interventions we are already making into alienated children’s lives to build the nuanced responses that help children to recover more swiftly and certainly from the experience of alienation. It is clear to me from the successful outcomes we have achieved in the past year alone, that continued development of support services are necessary, if we are to bring healing to children affected by alienation. Children whose minds require the consistent responding from the adults around them over many years in order to begin again, the processing of trust which allows for healthy relationships in their own lives as adults and eventually as parents themselves.
Those precious minds of the next generation deserve to be protected and preserved as fresh and new as the lemons hanging from the trees on the terraces below me. This is the focus of our work now and in the future.
From September 5-7th we will be training Social Workers at the City Child Protection Centre in Zagreb, Croatia. In doing so we will be helping to develop services to families in Croatia where children are alienated from a parent.
In 2017 we also aim to develop a European Association of Alienation Practitioners which will be focused entirely upon building up the available resources for work with families affected by alienation across Europe. We know that parents have done a huge amount of work in raising awareness of alienation across the world, we believe it is time for practitioners to join this endeavour and to provide the interventions which we know are successful for children. We will be providing training, evidence based research, links to our successful work in the UK and more as part of this initiative. Please contact us after September 12th for more information about this. Please note this is a practitioner based initiative and whilst we welcome support from all parents affected by it, our major focus will be on training and research.