Welcome to 2017, a year in which we plan to raise the awareness of parental alienation even higher in the UK and in which we will be joining with European colleages to form the first Alienation Practitioner Network in Europe. Later in the year we will be travelling to the United States to undertake a working tour, this is the year that the Family Separation Clinic focuses upon its global contribution to changing the way that parental alienation affects families.
This year the majority of what I write about will be the education of family services across the world, exploring and explaining the fundamental principles of alienation aware practice. As part of this work I am writing two new books, the first being a series of interviews with alienated children who are now recovered and in healthy relationship with the parent they were forced to reject and the second a training manual for social workers and other frontline workers. This manual enables the reconfiguration of practice around children who reject a parent. All of this work is informed by the practical work that I do each day with families, the training manual emerges from our pathfinder partnership work with social work teams where we act as consultants. Part of the manual is dedicated to helping social workers to understand the dynamic of reunification, including how to train foster carers (often key players in the UK in transfer of residence) to prevent enmeshment in the stepping stone approach of residence transfer.
So there is much to do and much to write about, as I go along I will be posting updates about all of our projects as well as sharing some of the content with you. Today, I am talking about how to hear the voice of the alienated child. Unexpectedly for many who attend our training, learning to hear the voice of the alienated child begins not with the child’s voice but with the practitioner’s own internalised narrative. The voice of the alienated child is most often unheard because of this internalised narrative, much of which is inculcated in standard social work practice. Cleaning this up and clearing it out is about personal and experiential learning. It is also about recognising that much of what is taught about working with families in social work training, comes from a political ideology in which women are considered vulnerable to coercive control by men. Our training, which is based upon our gender equality work which we have delivered for almost fifteen years now, including to government departments in the UK, (DWP and DFE as well as the Child Maintenance Commission), demonstrates how, when delivery of support services comes from a political ideological standpoint (feminist), children’s emotional and mental health needs are overlooked or missed completely. This is because in a feminist model, children’s needs are considered to be indivisible from those of their mother. In our mental health model of work, children’s needs are recognised and supported as being separate from those of both of their parents and their right to have those needs met healthily is placed first. What comes next is an assessment of the healthy capacity of a parent to meet those needs. Underpinning this model is the factual understanding that children grow in a relational world in which interruptions to healthy attachments are damaging to them. When one begins assessment from this perspective, alienation aware practice becomes easy and hearing the voice of the alienated child is a skill which is better developed. Children do not completely reject a parent in any circumstances other than when they are being influenced in the conscious or unconscious relational world to do so. Getting practitioners to this point is a great step forward, after this, differentiation and developing interventions become part of everyday practice, allowing family practitioners to determine the difference between a child who is being abused and a child who is being alienated (who is also being abused only not by the parent who is often accused of it).
I want to give an example of how feminist social work practice impacts so negatively on children’s lives, often leading to the complete loss of a relationship with a once loved parent and entrenching what is a maladaptive coping mechanism into a dysfunctional defence of shame and guilt which the child has to carry into adulthood with all of the attendant problems that brings. This example is straight out of my own experience though I have disguised it somewhat to protect confidentiality.
Annie is a nine year old girl who is rejecting her father who she says is mean to her and always angry. Her mother is upholding Annie’s decision and saying that she supports contact in principle but she isn’t going to make Annie see her father when she is so able to describe how he has been angry with her. A social work report is commissioned and the social worker meets with Annie’s father to talk about Annie’s rejection of him. Annie’s father is anxious during the meeting and keen to explain that the things that Annie has been saying are just not true. He shows photographs of Annie to the social worker who then shows them to Annie who tells her that she was only smiling because she was afraid of her father who was angry with her if she didn’t look happy. The social worker, steeped as she is in feminist teaching, listens next to Annie’s mother who tells her that Annie’s father was always unpredictable and angry and that she left him because he frightened her, she says she doesn’t want Annie to feel the same about him as she grows up. On this basis Annie’s father is considered to be in need of some parenting training, learning how to be empathic and more considerate. When he objects to this, saying that he is empathic and kind and that he doesn’t need to attend classes to teach him to be so, the social worker considers this to be evidence of him being inflexible and controlling and the narrative begins to build that Annie has justifiably rejected her father. Indeed in the feminist narrative, this IS justified rejection. In a system where women analyse relational behaviour in terms of a belief that men are always advantaged over women, Annie’s mother has escaped a controlling man and Annie herself is simply taking the enlightened step of doing the same. Thus upholding Annie’s ‘decision’ is a natural step and one which is considered to be both empowering and insightful. Loss of the father in feminist ideology is nothing much to be concerned about. Such has been the underlying framework of family services for more than fifty years in the UK. The same is true elsewhere in the world.
One would think then that in this model, all mothers would be safe from alienation from ther children, after all, if the foundation of thinking is of bad men and good women who are victims, then only fathers should be alienated and this can be considered justified. What we know however, is that in the UK, just as is the case right across the western world, mothers are at almost as much risk of alienation as fathers, making many people argue that alienation is not gendered. In fact, the opposite is true, parental alienation IS a gender issue, it is an issue in which the internalised narratives about gender in our society are responsible for the escalation and perpetuation of alienation of a child. An issue in which the personal belief system of the family practitioner becomes entangled and enmeshed with the intrapsychic dynamics of the family to devasating effect. Back to our social worker example.
The same social worker who upholds Annie’s ‘decision’ to reject her father also upholds another child’s ‘decision’ to reject her mother. This time the reasoning is different but it once again rests upon the unresolved personal issues of the social worker which are heightened by the political ideological training they have received. In this case, Emily’s story is that her mother is not a good mother, that she neglected her and that she got head lice twice when she lived with her. On meeting Emily’s father, our social worker is bowled over by how good he is at parenting, how caring he is and how much he does not fit the standard image of the abusive man she has been taught to expect. Steeped in her social work training, an abusive man is characterised by his lack of empathy and his control of women, here she is presented with a charming, kind and and compassionate man who is very concerned about Emily’s lack of relationship with her mother, he tries so very hard to make things happen but again and again Emily’s mother lets Emily down. She also spends such a long time bad mouthing him and accusing him of alienating Emily that Emily herself has chosen to reject her. The narrative builds that Emily’s mother has alienated herself. The social worker recommends no further contact. The scene of attachment disruption, use of the coping mechanism of psychological splitting, evidence of coercive control of the child and manipulation of the relationship with mother is distilled into the social worker’s framework of belief that when good mothers turn bad they turn very very bad.
There is no-one more dismissive of mothers than family practitioners who are trained in feminist ideology. The complete dismissal of the psychological markers, the evidence which is presented clearly and the research evidence which underpins the mental health model of understanding the child’s voice in separation situations, is almost breathtaking at times in cases I am involved in. As this case study shows, in a model which is underpinned by political ideology, all men (apart from those who fit the model of compassion and kindness (which is the idealised version of masculinity) are advantaged and all women are victims (apart from those who are shown to be failing in the idealised areas of compassion and kindness) and children are increasingly to be made the arbiters of their own future.
It is a model which fails each member of the family but especially the child, it is a model which eradicates fathers and which demonises mothers as being the wrong sort and it routinely leaves children in entrenched rejecting positions which are underpinned by psychological maladaptive coping mechanisms. It is a failure of monumental proportions because it overlooks risk and condemns and silences children who are the true victims in such circumstances.
So how does one hear the voice of the alienated child? Here is the A-Z guide for the family practitioner.
a) recognise that family separation is a psychological change which is challenging for the child.
b) recognise that feminism is a political ideology that has no place in psychological work with families.
c) learn how to approach work with separating families from a psychological perspective.
d) place the needs of the child to continue to live in healthy relational space between parents before everything else.
e) accept that a child who rejects a parent completely in the absence of any evidence to suggest that there is a basis for this (and evidence has to be absolutely within the range of serious harm to a child), is using the coping mechanism of psychological splitting, which itself is a regression to an infantile state of mind.
f) learn to recognise that parents who appear to be complaint on the outside are often manipulating the child so that the child carries out their wishes covertly.
g) recognise your own internalised bias and how to overcome those internalised barriers to offering an equalities based service to families.
h) be curious and open minded.
i) begin to research the psychological theory behind alienation.
j) stop asking children what they want to happen (because you recognise they cannot tell you anything other than what they are aware they are supposed to say).
k) learn the signs of alienation in a child
l) learn how to give an alienated child reassurance by conveying to them that you recognise the predicament they are in.
m) teach the alienated parent about the predicament the child is in.
n) create opportunities to put the child with the parent they are rejecting (if you are a social worker you have the absolute power to do this – use it)
o) Let the child know that you will manage the backlash they might face from the other parent and demonstrate your capacity for doing so.
p) Do not be afraid to use consquences to compel behavioural change in the influencing parent.
q) revisit your own internalised prejudices, good men are not simply those who appear to be kind and compassionate.
r) revisit your own prejudices, good women are no simply those who appear to be kind and compassionate.
s) expect and demand that a parent who says they are supportive of contact will support contact.
t) hear the hidden narrative of the generational trauma pattern which is often being played out in these families.
u) Don’t allow healthy parents to be eradicated from a child’s life.
v) build courage to break boundaries of your own practice, understand that working counter to your internalised belief system is how to approach this work.
w) Put children’s needs for healthy parenting first, last and always.
x) recognise that the dynamic which causes alienation is going to turn on you eventually, you WILL become the focus of the alienating parent’s negative transference if you are doing this work properly. Your role is to absorb that and not allow it to throw you off balance or frighten you.
y) Build your determination through successful intervention, each time you liberate a child you will spur yourself on to continue this work.
z) spread the word, changing the world of alienated children means it is incumbent on all of us who do this work to pass it on.
Wishing you hope and health in the year ahead – something tells me 2017 is going to be a good year.