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.