Working in the Egodystonic World of the Alienated Child

This weekend I am taking a short break out of London to be by the sea and celebrate Nick’s birthday.  Here, where the wind is whipping over the moors and the sea is crashing against the cliffs, is an opportunity to let those immersions in the intrapsychic world of the alienated child, lift for a little while. This time away from this work, which I build into my working practice as a safeguarding measure, allows me to re-enter the adult world and reflect upon those things I am learning about the  children I am working with.  Here by the sea, emerges that particular ability to analyse alienated children’s felt sense of the world that they have inhabited, giving perspective and critical evaluation of their route to recovery.  This time to reflect and consider is something I have built into my working practice for a decade now, the rule being that for every twelve weeks of intensive work with children, I will spend take a break to think, reflect and write about the cases I am working in.  It is essential in this work to create and maintain such structure and escape routes because the egodystonic (negative) intrapsychic (internalised experience)  of the alienated child has a particularly quality to it which can lead to sensory overload, which  for practitioners leads to risk of losing the ability to make formulations which in turn leads to confirmation bias.

Although every case of alienation in a child is different and every family has its own particular qualities, the world of alienated children looks and feels remarkably similar.  Whilst the major players are all individual and unique in some of their ways of being, the family around alienated children have remarkable things in common, which allows for a foundation platform for entry.  I have written before about the way in which entering the world of the alienated child is a little like going into the woods with a bag full of ribbons to tie on the trees to find a way back again.  Entering into the relational space in such families without doubt requires the ability to put such markers in place in order that to begin to create an understanding of how alienation happens.  These families, where boundary diffusion is common and where cross generational coalitions are firmly locked in place are like the densest of woods, difficult to navigate, deep and silent apart from the odd crack of wood and the call of a bird here and there.  Entering into these forests as a naive practitioner, it doesn’t take very long to become lost and  be unable to find the way out. Entering in without the right tools and the right understanding, means that the encounter with the alienating parent who seeks to block further progress, comes too soon.  Only when one is able to tread slowly and carefully and when one has all of the necessary tools to keep going into the deepest, darkest part of the wood, is it possible to find the child hidden in the forest of alienation and draw that child out again.

Children do not always become alienated by the overt actions of one parent against the other although I work with that scenario often.  Sometimes they become alienated because of the culture of the family in which they live and the way in which in such families there are covert behaviours which appear normal but which in fact are not. These families are those which are most likely to contain the transgenerational trauma patterns in which cross generational dyads form a framework within which hostility, conspiracy and covert coalitions act to demonise a child’s parent. These are the children who become locked in the little house in the wood with the witch in popular fairy tales or the children who stray from the path to find the wolf snapping at their heels. The intrapsychic world of the alienated child is easily described using folk tales and fairy stories, though the happy endings we seek for such children are not framed upon the overcoming of the bad by the good but rather the ability to help childre to see that both parents can be both bad and good. The overcoming of the infantile use of psychological splitting being our overall goal in treatement.

Recently a recovering alienated child called me Mary Poppins, which apart from appealing to my life long love of the film and my fantasy that I would one day grow up to be Mary Poppins, told me much about the role I had played in this child’s life.  Where there was chaos in the intrapsychic world, now is order. Where the intrapsychic world was egodystonic, now the negative is balanced with the positive. What alienated children really need is a guide out of the woods and back into a world in which the hierarchy of authority is rebuilt and adults are once again in their rightful roles taking responsibility for the wellbeing of children. When that happens, the intrapsychic world calms down, becomes quiet again and the monsters which populate the landscape disappear.

There is a reason why alienated children say the same things and why they dream of similar things and draw pictures depicting similar themes. An alienated child’s drawings will describe wolves, fangs, knives, guns, stabbings, and other things which puncture the body. Their dreams will be about being chased, hunted, locked up in cupboards or other dark places and being kidnapped. Alienated children talk about being taken away, harmed, terrorised and threatened, they will locate small instances of fear in the intrapsychic world and will build upon those things to tell a story which liberates them from the terror they feel. A terror which is not caused by the loving, healthy parent who is being pushed away, but the fear and anxiety of the alienating parent in an intrapsychic world in which there are no boundaries and in which monsters, ghosts and other horrors stalk the alienating parent’s consciousness which is shared osmosis like with the child.  Whether the child is prepared for that by overt descriptions of terror by the alienating parent or is witness to that parent’s irrational fears, the end result is the same, the child becomes bound in the intrapsychic world into a nightmare in which their only option is to join with the parent and reflect it back. Once a child has entered this space they will often add to it with pictures of their own and terrifying depictions of harm which is drawn from the mirroring back and forth between them and a parent. It is a horrifying descent into madness from which many children only emerge when they are removed from that parent’s care.

Working in this space can cause anxiety, stress and fear for the practitioner and it is important whilst doing so that one is absolutely aware of the dangers of operating in the intrapsychic world safely.  Knowing how to enter the world and begin to clear up the monsters and calm down the terrors is a key skill. Doing so requires the ability of the practitioner to insert themselves between the alienating parent and the child for long enough to draw the negative transference (when the parent begins to act towards the practitioner as if they are the target parent) and transform that into a more positive projection or, if that is not possible, to work out that it is not possible and then find a way to take more drastic action. Doing this work requires gumption and as I have said before, the ability to wear a teflon coat. This is not standard therapy , it is whole person in depth relational work and it requires that one sees it through to the end, because failing to do so can leave a child in a desperate place.

There are some though who have to be left in that place when the intrapsychic world is too complex and all interventions have failed. Those are the lost ones I carry with me, the ones that got away. These children, as well as those I have helped, stay with me in my learning and in my thoughts during periods of time when I am resting and reflecting.

It is raining outside and the wind is whipping round the corner of the house. Inside with the fire burning bright and the warmth and safety of the adult world surrounding me I can think about the intrapsychic world of the alienated child with distance and perspective. When I do I recognise all over again how this problem is one of the most hidden horrors facing children and how when alienation strikes, the thief of their childhood steals into their world to wreck the peaceful unconscious experience which is theirs by right.  Aliention as the thief of children’s childhood, caused by adults, unrecognised by society and even dismissed still by too many people.

It is a scandal in the unconscious lives of us all which will one day be exposed for the child abuse it truly is.


  1. Thank you for your work. I am a Mother who is experiencing alienation of my child. Your words and descriptions of how a child internalizes this trauma is profound. I feel powerless, and it is painful to watch my son at the innocent age of 9 be thrown into this twisted pyschological maze of confusion, blame, helplessness, degradation of self esteem and lies. All my son wants is his Mommy and he birthright of having two, loving and supportive parents.
    I don’t know what I can do to stop this or help him. Thank you for the insight.


  2. transgeneraational collective cognitive dissonances, cultural postmodernism
    the pseudological lies feminism-homosexuality-atheism, not our norms&values
    one day alienated estranged defathered stockholmed children get older than 18, how to ‘deal’ with that..


  3. I particularly appreciated… and cringed at… the final two sentences. What an awful, mostly unrecognized phenomenon this is. I can only hope that the time of widespread enlightenment will come sooner than later, helped along by the dedicated work of those such as you who are so committed to bringing awareness and being part of the solution. Thank you for all you do, and enjoy your well-earned down time.


  4. I am working in the middle of a family in a case of coercive control too said George.

    How is it going? said John. Can you tell us a bit more about the protagonists?

    The person we are all trying to help has a mental health condition which puts him out of action for about 75% of the day. For that time, he just has to rest up in the dark and do nothing. He appears to be recuperating from extreme anxiety.
    What we are trying to do is make life as comfortable and normal for him as possible, increase the amount of time per day that he is able to operate normally, help him recover his self-esteem and confidence.
    The people in his life that are helping him are, his father, the social worker, a group of four or so support workers such as myself and the hierarchical private organisation that employs us, an occupational therapist, his doctor, his psychiatrist, his mental health nurse and a flurry of anonymous officials who intersect at best interest meetings.

    Wow! said John, no excuse for not getting well then.

    You’d think so wouldn’t you with all that support. In an ideal sense we are looking at helping him become as independent as possible and the master of his own destiny.
    There are cases of persons with his symptoms that through self-management lead fulfilling and productive lives. In time support for the individual can be reduced to the bare minimum, in fact the individual will want it that way.
    You mean they appreciate their independence and freedoms that we all take for granted, said John.
    Coercive control, said George. Quite apart from his mental health issues, Jed’s father has almost total control over the way his son thinks. Jed has spent most of the last seven years in hospital receiving all manner of analysis and care. He has become what we call “institutionalised”.
    In his new “normalised” setting (his own home) there are two main jobs to be done. One is to seduce him away from the “institutionalised” environment that he has become so accustomed to and helping him live in a society as independently as possible and the other is to lure him away from the controlling and demanding influences of a father who continues to smother him with attention, care and demand.

    Which from the outside looks strange, because Jed is not a child, he is a mature adult 30 plus years in age. Why would his mature father be doing all his laundry for him and providing him daily with simple meals that he only has to microwave? Why would his father be so critical of the army of health experts that surround his son? Why would his father be in denial of his son’s mental health illness?

    It’s because his father feels a need to be in control. Coercive control. Such that his son feels compelled to ask his father permission to do things which mature adults would normally feel obliged to do for themselves.

    Such as?

    For example, if you offer Jed a choice, say what is your favourite colour or where would you like to go, or what would you like to do he is incapable of making a decision. That’s because his father whom he is dependent upon has always made decisions for him.

    Jed’s answers are invariably, “I don’t know”, or,” what do you think?”
    All the professional helpers, said john, are they all pulling in the same direction?

    No, said George, each has their axe to grind.

    The social worker’s prime concern is to reduce the level of care that Jed receives because she says finances have been cut and she cannot justify the expense.

    The occupational therapist is aware of the malfunctioning family dynamic but appears to be operating from a detached distance (calls in once every week to see how things are coming along). She is very good at the big listening ears technique when talking to Jed but as yet she doesn’t appear to have done anything to affect the adverse coercive control that Jed’s father has over him.

    The psychiatrist seems to imagine Jed is some kind of test tube experiment balancing the toxicity and effectiveness of his drugs to control Jed’s behaviour and mood. I wonder if it ever occurred to him to balance his own mood using a cocktail of drugs;……………….. maybe he does?

    The mental health nurse travels hundreds of miles to make flighty notes in a book for Jed’s support workers to read. He tells Jed in an optimistic sort of way that he has helped lots of people like him and they all get better.

    And then what, said John

    He goes away.

    To be fair, said George he has left us with a cognitive behavioural therapy paper that offers guidance for care workers helping individuals with mental health issues.

    What about your own organisation, the hierarchy, what do they do to help?

    That’s an easy one said George, they punish us, the support workers.

    Punish you said George, alarmed.

    Yes, because of the mountain of protectionist legislation surrounding mental health, life consists of do’s and don’ts. For example, there is a whole page in our contracts telling us how we will suffer financially if we dare to have a day off through illness. You are obligated to find other persons to cover your shift should you dare to have the affront to become ill. There is a points system that delivers stronger punishments depending upon the number of days you have off. People become ill in this job because it can be extremely emotionally stressful, the last thing they need is more pressure from their employer.

    So how can you help? George. It must be a nightmare.

    No, I find it fascinating in spite of all the protagonists and their individual traits and their slavish institutionalised norms.
    I have befriended Jed’s father; the one who has coercive control over his son. I have become a surrogate parent to Jed and I am walking out with Jed into the big wide world. I am learning just as much from Jed as he is from me and I feel privileged. Privileged to be in the bubble.
    In the bubble, queried John.
    Yes, the relational space which Karen talks about. You can’t effect a great deal of change unless you can sit comfortably inside the dynamic and become part of the system. Your influence will be negligible unless you can empathise with the one who has coercive control. Jed’s father’s behaviour needs attention. Jed needs help to see his father in a different light.

    Phil said, this is all very interesting George but I don’t see how it helps any of us.
    There was a moments silence, George was getting ready to go.
    Judy said, I know where you are. You are living on Dandle bear bridge.
    And you fly between both places, because you have empathy, you have accepted what is, you don’t discount anyone’s feelings.
    Peter said, how come you are so sure of yourself? Because of my experience said George. I know just what it is like to be dangling in relational space.

    Kind regards


    1. “I know Kung Fu” said the Alien, “what planet are you from?” he asked of George. x


  5. I have the unenviable position of just coming through a nightmare of severe alienation after 3 years and some hideous statements from the children perpetuated by what I now consider the first line of defence (schools).

    The drawings (knives, stabbings) and thought patterns outlined above appear to have a common theme as Karen suggests, and when assessed against any acrimonious seperation or inter family hostilities, should outline a child’s state of mind rather than actual events.

    I appreciate that safeguarding has to be the underlying position, but a simple cross examination of these ‘warning signs’ are not being undertaken.

    1) Is their a history of DV ?
    2) Is their an evidential trail of abuse at the GP, Hospital, Police or school.
    3) has the seperation of the parents been amicable or hostile?

    The schools, social services or the police and their default belief in a false narrative has untold damage to the children, those parents wrongly accussed that can never be rectified.

    I expect that this false narrative can and generally always is leapt upon by the alienating parent, which in itself is the worst form of child abuse.

    Im one of the lucky ones to get my children back, and it breaks my heart to think about those less fortunate than me, who haven’t had the resource, ability or frankly the fortune to identify the madness to the authorities.


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