The Voice of the Child has become a world wide phenomenon in which the wishes and feelings of children are sought in the family courts, in matters concerning the care of a child and in areas of health and well being which affect the child. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that –
You have the right to an opinion and for it to be listened to and taken seriously.
children and young people have the human right to have opinions and for these opinions to matter. It says that the opinions of children and young people should be considered when people make decisions about things that involve them, and they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand on the grounds of age. It also says children and young people should be given the information they need to make good decisions.
In the UK, it is incumbent upon those delivering public services, such as social workers, to implement this into their work with children. In the field of family separation, this often leads to disastrous results when a child is in the care of a parent who is influencing the child and who may have an undetected mental health condition.
Where does all this focus on the voice of the child come from? Sometimes in my work with families, particularly those in public law cases, I feel as if the common sense button has been paused in favour of handing over all power for decision making to children. I see the same patterns of behaviours in parenting these days, in which children are seen as friends or ‘little mates’ or ‘mini me’s’ instead of children with unformed brains and unfocused needs and wants, who are very much in need of adult guidance and supervision. At times it makes me want to scream in frustration when yet another professional says that we need to ask the children what they want. Why bother with parenting I wonder, why bother at all with adulthood, why don’t we just hand over all of the decision making power to the children because they are somehow considered to be wiser and more aware than adults. I have even seen it written, by the children’s commissioner for England for goodness sake, that children should be allowed to decide whether they want to have a relationship with a parent after separation. I give up. Let’s just let the children decide on their future wellbeing in difficult situations, after all, they have inherent wisdom so their voices must always be listened to and in the case of public law at least, usually followed slavishly to the letter.
Hello UK…..are there any adults left with the moral courage to stand up and argue against this madness? Children’s wishes and feelings, in a case of parental alienation, are not their own wishes and feelings but those of the psychopathology of the parent they are enmeshed with. The voice you hear is not the child but the unwell parent speaking through the child. That is why they speak in borrowed words and phrases. That is why their speech pattern is odd and often adult sounding. That is why their reasoning is poor and brittle, that is why when you have an alienated child in the room it is as if the influencing parent is being channelled. When you hear that and witness that, are you really going to act upon those wishes and feelings. When you hear a child telling you that she doesn’t want to see her mummy because she puts broccoli in the lasagne, are you really going to uphold that decision, or are you going to stop, think and wonder why a child is so vehemently opposed to seeing a parent on the basis of such frivolous reasoning. Are you going to be brave enough to turn over the stone and see what is underneath. If you are truly concerned about children you are, if not then the surface voice is all you will hear and act upon and the child will remain stuck in the horrible trap unable to speak anything other than the dysfunctional narrative of the controlling parent.
There is a truly bizarre juxtaposition in the UK of over reliance on the voice of the child and the ignoring of the reality of parental alienation being all about coercive control. That is because for five decades we have been taught by political ideologues that coercive control only means men controlling women and that the voice of the child must always be believed. In the shadow of the child abuse scandals, it is very tempting indeed to believe that the voice of the child must always be believed and this underpins, in my view, an increasing over reliance on asking children their wishes and feelings. However, in the case of parental alienation, the asking of children about their wishes and feelings can lead to the entrenchment of false allegations of abuse, which are a very strong feature of alienation cases. It can also lead to children who have not been abused, being left believing that they have because of the reinforcement of the false allegations which become located as false beliefs within the child’s memory. This in itself is abuse of a child and in my experience it is an endemic risk throughout UK family services because of the over reliance upon the voice of the child which is listened to without any analysis whatsover.
In cases of parental alienation the voice of the child is enmeshed with the psychopathology of the influencing parent and should be interpreted in its meaning and analysed to determine the pressures upon the child. This should be set against an analysis of the child’s needs which in turn should be assessed within the capability of the rejected parent to provide for the child the healthy parenting that they are in need of. Analysis of coercive control should be undertaken utilising not the political ideological framework which is located within a patriarchal analysis (Duluth Model), but a psycho-social model in which current and past behaviours, familial influences, capacity for understanding the need to change and the level of control exerted, are assessed. Intervention should be planned based upon this complete assessment in which the child’s expressions are analysed against the reality of the framework in which they are vocalised. Only then should a planned intervention take place and when it does and it is properly matched to the case, the voice of the child will be seen to shift dramatically from ‘I hate you’ to ‘I love you’, often within a matter of hours.
Those who have no real idea about this work will express shock when this occurs and will be unable to understand which voice is speaking the truth. The issue being of course, that for children, there is no one truth but many and they are capable of holding many different feelings all at once, which shift and change like the wind. That is because they are children, their brains are not hard wired yet and they do not possess reasoning in the same way as adults. That is why they require adults to do the work of analysing and guiding them to the best care possible.
The reality for children who are trapped in an alienation reaction is that their feelings are mutuble, manipulated and managed by the influencing or alienating parent. That parent, who is the source of the child’s angry and self righteous rejection, can often not see the link and so plows on believing that the child is speaking their own mind when in reality they are speaking in the mirror of the parent’s psychopathological responses to the separation. Children in these circumstances are being harmed because their right to an unconscious childhood is being taken from them. It is vital that they are protected in these circumstances and the correct interventions offer that. We may not like what we have to do to protect the child – removing a child who is protesting love and faithful allegiance is a very difficult thing to do – however when we know that the child is being harmed, that is what we must advocate. When we see the child’s changing reactions from feral fear and hatred to re-emergence of love and normal responses to a rejected parent, we know that we have acted in the best interests of that child. Our task then is to reconnect the child safely to the previously alienating parent, always the most difficult part of the work but always essential to the wellbeing of the child.
The voice of the child is over relied upon and under analysed in my view and the failure in both of these respects lies with the way in which things like the UNCRC is interpreted and delivered upon. Until we do the work of ensuring that the scientific facts which separate adults from children and place adults in the role of guide and mentor and safeguarder to children are the driving force in what we do, children will continue to risk being trapped in the mirror of the alienating parent’s beliefs and behaviours, aided and abetted by unaware practitioners who believe they are helping when in truth they are furthering the harm already done.
It is time this stopped. The tools and training are available, the research evidence is significant, the model of work of intervention is demonstrated to be successful right across the world. The only thing standing in the way are the adults who refuse to take the responsibility for giving children back, the unconscious childhood which is rightfully theirs.