Relational space is that place where we as practitioners work with children and their families. This space, is where the healing of alienated children takes place and as such it is about helping children to adapt to the structural change which we as practitioners have helped to bring about. Therefore it is essential, when doing this work, that we take responsibility for that in our work with children, so that they are clear about who holds the lines of authority. Children are adept at sensing who is in charge, if we as practitioners fail to hold the reins of power firmly, children will immediately know. In this world where children are increasingly empowered, their immersion in the unsaid, invisible world of family dynamics means that they are quick to take control through the use of psychological splitting. Knowing how to head this off or to help a child recover from that is not just about knowing the theory, it is about being involved in that relational space in the here and now with children. Having the courage to do that and keep doing it isn’t easy, especially in an environment where the prevailing wishes and feelings agenda, which often contributes to the over empowerment of the alienated child, holds such sway in the family courts.
Working in relational space in alienation cases requires a practitioner to be wholly involved with the family and children being assisted. The more I do this work the less I rely upon meetings in offices with parents and the more time I spend at home with the family in their own personal space. Being able to do this requires me to be known as quickly as possible. This requires me to be present as myself, not as an expert, not as a therapist but as myself. It is the relationship with who I am which brings change in families, not a label. Of course being present as me does not mean that I will reveal or share much of my own life experience, but it does mean that I will allow myself to be known. I cannot change the lives of children without them knowing who I am and to that end I will play with beloved pets, walk in the woods, play games and eat with a family so that I can help in the here and now. This puts me in the relational space around a child and allows me to experience with the child the dynamics and power lines and how they are held and exchanged (or not) around a child. When I have understood that to the deepest possible degree, I am then in a position to plan a route out for the child which I must then put to the court and defend if necessary, against a resistant parent. All of this puts me out there on the front line with no place to hide. It’s an often lonely business because there are not many who do this work, but it is worth it when the child emerges from the alienation.
Therapy can be many things, it is not just about talking. What it is at its core, is the relationship between human beings and the power that brings for positive change. Children who are alienated do not need talking therapy, what they need is active change of relational dynamics in the family. Sitting in a room talking doesn’t achieve that. Helping families affected by this problem requires one to do things with people and to be wholly involved in that doing whilst being able to assess the dynamics and shift these incrementally.
It also requires a sharp forensic ability to understand the whole of the patterns of power and control and to be able to face dissonance and disagreement, without seeking to placate or please people. Absorbing the negative transference and transforming that into healing potential is probably the most difficult part of this work. Being able to absorb hatred and anger whilst at the same time working to understand where this comes from, allows one to transform negative projections into the mind shifts which bring about change. Facing those things intensively due to the insertion of the self between the child and the projections of the alienating parent, can become destructive if one is not able to withstand that. This work is within the most negative realms of relational space and, where one is working with psychologically disordered parents, it is in those realms of the most unwell. Self care and protection in this space is essential as are those markers which allow one to enter into this world and exit it safely.
This relational space, which is the most toxic and the most damaging for practitioners, is the space inhabited by alienated children. It is the lack of understanding of this reality which most concerns me when I think about the impact of alienation on children. As I face the negative transference, which are those reactions from the alienating parent whose behaviours I am seeking to change, I understand the full force of the psychological pressure upon a child who has to resort to psychological splitting to survive. What flows towards me, is what flows towards the child who attempts to resist an alienating parent’s covert and overt demands for conformity. It is what has flowed towards the rejected parent in order to create the alienation in the child. At times even I falter in the face of some of this behaviour. Recognising the vulnerability of a child in the care of parents who compel a child to rejecting behaviours is what keeps me engaged in the process.
Relational space is that place where we do the work which brings about change for alienated children and we must be unafraid to go there as practitioners. If we are afraid, we take with us into that space our own fears and anxieties which become added to the toxic mix which makes it even more difficult to clean up. To be successful in this work we must go boldly and confidently as well as openly and willingly. We must give of ourselves so that children can trust us and we must be able to face negative projection and undermining behaviours as well as outright attack from the alienating parent. We must additionally create a platform of trust for the parent who has been rejected and help them to wait for long enough for us to do the work which will bring their children back to them. In doing so we must do that knowing that we cannot always be successful because it is not just our work which creates the change, but our ability to work with the court process and have our proposals challenged and our arguments cross examined. That’s a tough package to keep delivering but that is what we must do if we are to be successful in this field.
We must engender hope whilst at the same time keeping that based in reality, stand firm in front of the negative transference and change that into healing and we must be brave enough to do what is right for children first and foremost, which is protection from alienation and the preservation of healthy relationships with parents.
Going boldly into relational space, it is therapy at relational depth using the whole of the self to bring about change. It is not for the faint hearted and it is not practiced by many people. But it brings change to children’s lives and it helps to arrest the generational trauma patterns which feature in these families.
This is why I started doing this work, this is why I keep doing it, despite everything that is thrown at me in doing so.
The lives of children and their need for a healthy future keeps me going and when I see the lights come on and the joy return, that is enough to keep me here on the front line.
One day this battle to get help to alienated children will have passed and the acceptance of the cruelty bestowed upon children who have been forced to make a choice between their parents, will be common place.
Until then, you will find me in relational space.