Mindbending:Into the World of the Alienated Child

I am compiling a series of interviews with children who have recovered from alienation and in doing so I have found myself back down the rabbit hole at the mad hatters tea party. The world of the alienated child, even after recovery is a strange one and finding my way around it is a bit like being Alice and at times not knowing whether I will find my way back again. Of course I do find my way back again, just like the young people I am writing about have found their way back to surface reality. This group of interviews is with young people who are now over the age of 27 but who were alienated from a parent for an average of 4 years and 3 months during the years between 11 and 25. All are reunited with their parent now, none were assisted to reunite by me but I have worked with them all in some capacity since. I am interviewing them at the age of 27/28 because that is the age when the brain finishes the work of wiring itself up. That is when young people have perspective and the capacity for self reflection which is not present until that work is finished.

It is fascinating to spend time in the company of any child or young person. As I grow older, the world that I inhabit changes and my horizons grow smaller and more definite. When one is at the stage of life where there begins to be a finite amount of time left to play with, choices become more significant and experiences become deeper and, if we are able to concentrate upon the moment in time, more purposeful. The lives that children lead however are not anchored in the same way. Children wake up to a wonderful world of possibilities each day of their lives and those possibilities only begin to shrink as they pass certain milestones. The work of the twenty year old age group becomes more anchored as time goes by and the desire for creation takes hold. Whether that creation be a degree or a job or a baby, when young people hit the age of twenty or so they begin to want to bring something of themselves to birth and the desire to nurture and care for kicks in. As it does, the young person finally experiences themselves standing in line, looking back at their childhood and ahead at the possibility of another childhood. There is a reason young people get excited by sweets and tv programmes they watched when they were kids the looking back to being a child at the same time as the desire to create and share kicks in hard around the late teens and early twenties. Nostalgia for the freedom of childhood strikes on the border of responsibility for self and others, it is from this point that the alienated child is often prompted to search for the lost and rejected parent.

The further we get, away from childhood, the more we forget (and I mean literally forget as well as emotionally and psychologically forget) what childhood is like. From our place of anchored adult reasoning, in which our perspective allows to set everything in context, we forget that being a child is like living in each single frame of a fast running film. Children do not have perspective, their brains do not possess the capacity for it and they do not have the same sense of time either. Their worlds are not sharp and clear, they are full of smells, sounds, feelings, impressions and emotions and time runs at a completely different speed. A moment in time can feel like an hour and a day like a lifetime and things that occur in those days are magical and mystical. There is a reason that teenagers yearn for their childhood days, it is because the world, which is becoming sharp and delineated in their minds, feels far more scary than the marshmallow soft days of their early years. Us adults, so fixed and clear in our minds, forget that the world inhabited by children is not the world that we live in and our attempts to impose on our children the rational and reasonable clarity of adulthood fail and fail miserably if we are not careful. This is the message that comes through my interviews with alienated children who are now recovered. That world and this are two different places. If we who work in this field want to help children, it is that world we need to learn how to enter and that world where we need to learn how to work.

A particular interview this week struck me as being an amazing example of how we adults must learn how to enter the world of the child if we are to assist them. A young man aged 29 who had refused to see his father for nine years from being aged eleven to twenty, told me that his attempts to spend time with his father had ended when his father had told him that his mother was crazy. He said that he realised his mother was crazy when he got to university and after two years he had managed to reach out to his father and they had reunited over a period of time. You might think to yourself, see, father was right and mother was crazy. When he told me the story however, he set me the scene of his childhood and led me through the mists of his life, dependent on his mother and not knowing any other way of living after his father left the home when he was eight years old.

‘I was playing with lego and wishing I could have a burger for tea at my dads’ he told me, ‘I remember my dad saying but your mother is crazy, when I asked him if we could have burgers because mum always let me have burgers. That was it, I left his house that night and didn’t go back, not because of anything he did but because he wouldn’t let me have burgers and told me my mother was crazy, which I told her when I got home. She didn’t say anything at all at the time but I didn’t see dad the next week and the week after that and soon after I remember thinking he must have decided that he didn’t want to see me again. I never asked why, I just got on with my life and my mother filled all the weekends with fun things to do so I never missed him, never even asked about him.’

Soon after this young man entered into the years of his teenage development and naturally pulling away from his mother he rarely thought of his father, when he did he soon moved on because teenager living is fast paced and challenging enough without fretting about dad.

From our adult perspective we agonise and imagine, we project onto alienated children our adult beliefs and our griefs and we think that what we suffer is the same as what they must be going through. It isn’t. It really isn’t. Like Alice down the rabbit hole as targeted parents (and alienating parents too to some extent) go through one version of reality, children go through another, a different one a more diffuse one and one which is more real on the inside than outside and one which affects not their concrete and conscious experience but the internalised landscape, which is shaping the road ahead that their older selves will walk on.

The pain and the suffering is different. For adults the grief of the loss in the adult here and now. For the children the unconsciousness of losing the road not yet travelled which is being shut down and narrowed, closed off into cul de sacs.

Which is why those of use who work in this world have to know how to enter it because when we do it is the language of the alienated child we need to speak, not that of adults.

I grieved for this young man, the loss that he never knew (and can never know ) he suffered, even whilst I shared in his happiness that his dad is now back in his life.

Getting into the world of the alienated child and whilst doing so,  bending my mind to understand them as well as I can is something I will continue to do. Because lost down the rabbit hole, drinking tea at the mad hatters tea party, are too many children who have no way of knowing that some roads out of the world they inhabit, even exist.

Childhood, that mystical place, which those of us grown find hard to believe still exists.

That’s where the work lies.



  1. Doesn’t this dilemma give those of us trying to tackle alienation such a headache?

    Opponents trying to dismiss alienation can so easily point to children apparently doing so well (at least, sometimes) and not appearing to need or miss the alienated parent?

    It’s so much harder to put forward the richness of what easily could have been, as opposed to what we can see is the relative poverty of what actually now exists.


    1. “All that glitters is not gold”…………”every silver lining has a cloud”


  2. Awesome Karen!!  I so appreciate all you do and are doing in the world of parental alienation. It gives me HOPE and I learn so much from what you write! Thank You!!:) Bobi


    1. Couldn’t have put it better, Bobi!!

      Just sent a copy of this master-piece to my youngest daughter, aged 21, who I lost (and who lost me) when she 8. It may not make any sense to her now but as you say, Karen, one day it inevitably will

      Thanks again, Karen


  3. Thank you very much for such an informative piece of work. It is great to have this strategy in mind. Where can I learn more about the tactics – the philosophy, the words, the language. To me those at the tea party are also speaking a different language.


  4. I want to preface this by saying that I follow your work and have great respect for it – but this makes it sound as if the alienated kids do not miss the parent they’ve lost and that there is no point in trying to stay in touch with the alienated child – that they do not have room in their life for the alienated parent, and that they will seek that parent out if and when they are ready. I don’t think that’s what you mean to convey -can you elaborate? My experience with my husband’s alienated son does not bear out that he has no thought about his father – on the the two occasions he’s seen us in the last 2 years, he seemed to have thought a lot about his father (if in a very confused manner). Now he is gone again, and it would be helpful to know how to make sense of it.


    1. I am talking about the difference between how children and young people miss a parent. He has gone again is a typical experience of a child who is making an attempt to make sense of things, he comes out of the alienated state and tries to make sense of things and then disappears again and down the rabbit hole he will bury his thoughts and distract himself. Alienated children, in my experience, don’t miss the rejected parent in the same way that the rejected parent misses them, they can’t, they are children not adults, their experience is much more in the moment and they are much more easily distracted, they do not possess perspective and cannot know what it is they have lost or are losing. Additionally, alienated children build defences, just as we all do when we are challenged in life, they bury their guilt and their shame and their missing under something else – the self righteous alienated behaviour to start with. I am not saying that they don’t miss a parent but I am saying they miss parents in a different way and that we as adults cannot work with children if we believe their feelings are felt in exactly the same way as adults are. I don’t think I said in the article that there is no point in trying to stay in touch with the child, what I am saying is that if you want to understand an alienated child you have to find a way to drop your projections and beliefs that what you feel is what the child feels because the two things are very very different. Neither did I say that they will seek the parent out when they are ready, what I said was that when their brains are wired with perspective and they are more able to think across a spectrum of thoughts and when they find themselves standing in line in time so that they are old enough to understand themselves as part of the rejected parent’s tribe as well as the alienating parent’s tribe, that’s when they will likely be prompted to find the rejected parent.Which is very different to people saying they will come when they are ready but in fact means exactly the same thing – when they are old enough to escape the alienating parent and their brains are fully formed they are likely to want to find the rejected parent. One essential thing to remember about alienated children, they are trapped and they are not adults and do not have the same reasoning or power in their lives as we do, understand that and a lot of your anguish will fade as you begin to realise this is about power over a child and the child’s capacity (and complete lack of it) for controlling his own life.


      1. A spookily accurate summary of the situation, Karen

        Being that child many, many years ago and, as a parent now in the firing line, I’ve attempted to use the former experience to empathise with my children in my current adult experience. If your influence on the child has been compromised you’re forced to helplessly watch him/her “come and go” in the way you describe – participation in a “power-struggle” will only traumatise the child further

        At the point the child is prompted to find the rejected parent (and also wired with perspective), in my view, it’s crucial that parent fully understands the child’s journey to that point in order to support them make sense of the “lost years” and to heal going forward……to be emotionally ready for them

        Maybe, understanding our own feelings is a prerequisite of empathise with theirs?


      2. Absolutely EHFR, if I could do one thing it would be to make ready the rejected parents for when their children come to find them because it is that and that more than anything in the world which heals the child, their healthy parent ready to welcome and help them home. Without that the child remains lost in the underworld unable to heal.


      3. Thank you, that makes perfect sense and correlates with my experience with my stepson. We know he buries his feelings with a lot of anger and statements that his father deserves to be treated this way, as well as a lot of video gaming. I think we have taken the perspective that he is trapped and dependent as well as trying to defend himself from guilt, shame, loss, etc. My husband is better at this than I am, perhaps because his bond with his son is obviously so much stronger. It is hard to know what to do from a distance as far as keeping in touch goes, since it is all ignored,


      4. My reply posted as “anonymous”, just wanted to post under my name and thank you for replying, Karen. It’s so hard to feel like we are so powerless, but I’ve said to my husband just what you said – all we can do is be healthy and strong ourselves and let him know that he’s welcome whenever he’s ready. The idea of waiting 9 years until he’s 27 is daunting, though.


      5. In one way I follow your thinking but then again I think surely kids are very good at noticing what they have/ haven’t got by comparison with their friends……they’ll see other kids enjoying/doing things with the parent gender that is missing from their life…and so it would be glaringly obvious to them what potentially they are missing from their life….no??


  5. This just leaves me wondering….is it better for these children if the court actually does step in and take them out of the alienating parent’s home in adolescence when their brains are not mature enough to understand what has happened or is it better to wait until adulthood? How much are they able to understand if the first scenario occurs and they are reunified with the target parent? I know you have worked with both populations, and I am not sure how to determine what “better” actually means….just some questions in my mind…


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