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.