Working with the Intrapsychic Experience of the Alienated Child

As someone who works with alienated children almost daily, I know a lot about the subject of parental alienation. I read a lot about it as well as write about it but most of what I know comes directly from my experience of working with it in families.

When I read about parental alienation I sometimes become confused by the terminology used, most particularly what people actual mean when they say they are alienated.  For me, alienation is the reaction in the child which arises from the dynamics configured around them. To determine whether a child is alienated I use the eight signs of alienation which were curated originally by Richard Gardener. To determine how a child has become alienated I look at the parenting capacity of each parent, the intergenerational relationship patterns, the presence of traumatic generational  events and repeating patterns and the presence of attachment disruptions signalled by behaviours which may denote personality disorders.  If I suspect a personality disorder is present I will ask our clinical psychologist to evaluate this and on the basis of this outcome we will design and deliver a treatment route, often in a team setting, sometimes headed by our clinical psychologist. We will use a ninety day separation protocol as part of our treatment for pure and severe alienation and combined psycho-educative and behaviourally contracted therapeutic input for hybrid cases. All of our work is judicially managed and conforms to the well evidenced and researched international standards set by worldwide experts such as Amy Baker, William Bernet, Richard Sauber, Richard Warshak amongst others.  As such, my work, which is focused largely upon the child, is a combination of strategies drawn from other experts and combined with my own experience in working with children. There is nothing unique about this work other than we are the only people in the UK delivering this way. My specialism in working with children however, allows me to make visible some of that which is not yet well known in this field, most noteably the experience of children themselves both before, during and in recovery from the experience of alienation.  The intrapsychic world of alienated children is my world, expecially the egodystonic (negative psychological) experience.  This year it is my goal to make that experience more visible. I will start straightaway with a short piece explaining how children in recovery from alienation remain at risk of it when they are in contact with the previously alienating parent. This explains the necessity for the ninety day exclusion period which is seen around the world in reunification programmes.

The world of the alienated child is somewhat exhausting, it is confusing and it produces behavioural oddities which can be clearly described. Parents whose children are descending into the alienation reaction will often say to me that their child is unpredictable, swinging from contented unconscious behaviour to anxious, snappy hostility.  When parents tell me that a child is cold and unresponsive in the first hours after arrival but warms up and suddenly appears normal again in a short space of time I know that the child is in a psychologically dangerous place, let’s take a closer look at what is happening in this common scenario, we will use the neuroscience of attachment to help unpick the reality for the child.

Attachement to primary figures begins during the birthing process and continues from the first moments of birth throughout the first five years intensively. Attachment is a biologically driven process in which the helpless infant is primed for attachment to its primary caregivers, mother, father and anyone else who provides daily close care of the child. Anyone who wishes to understand more about attachment should be reading Allan Schore (see references below) who is the key writer in this field (although one should avoid the way in which his work has been associated with the likes of Jennifer Mcintosh who drew conclusions from his work which have caused much controversy in Australia and who has attempted to prevent children under the age of three from having overnight stays with their father using Schore’s research to underpin her argument. I have no time for Mcintosh as readers will know, however neither do I have time for parental rights arguments in the field of parental alienation because the focus on parental time as a resolution to parental alienation is a complete red herring. Parental alienation is caused by mental health issues which would be present regardless of how much time a child spent with each parent and as such, all arguments about time spent with each parent resolving the risk of alienation are simply erroneous and distracting from that reality in my view. Parental alienation as an issue belongs in the field of mental health not parental rights).  Back to Schore.

Schore writes beautifully abou the attachment process which takes place during the birthing process and intensively during the first five years of life in particular. The neuroscience of attachement demonstrates that it is all in the gaze, the way in which the infant and carer become attuned through eye contact, stimulates the development of mirror neurons in the developing infant brain. Mirror neurons are those which cause us to mirror behaviours back and forth and as such they are the social glue which binds humans together in groups. Attachment, that feeling of love, identification and connectedness which denotes a family grouping, is caused by the mirror neurons being triggered and is maintained by positive feedback loops between the infant and primary caretakers.  As the child grows, secondary caretakers such as grandparents are added to the mirror neuron responses and so goes the development of the family circle.

When a child is secure within a circle of family love and is uniformly attached on all sides and when a child is enabled and allowed to be in positive feedback loops with all the major figures on each side of the family, the child is securely and healthily attached. From here, the world looks and feels like a benign and loving place to a child who is able to venture off to explore with an open heart and undefended self. What parent would not want such a life for a child? What parent would not be overjoyed to know that their work in assisting a new being on the planet to simply and unconsciously ‘be’ in the world is successful?

The alienating parent is often vehemently opposed to their child being open and unconscious in the world and sees this as evidence that they have failed.  For the alienating parent (who we must remember is often scarred by their own childhood trauma), sees uniform attachment as a threat and in the unconscious world of the child, begins to compete and challenge the child’s contented state of mind with threats to the secure self.

Actually, in real terms, a child born to a parent who eventually becomes alienating in a separated family situation, is a child born to a parent who cannot properly attach with the child in the first place. Alienation, often being present in the parent themselves when the child is born, is passed to the child in the distorted gaze of the parent (usually mother). This is a controversial area to write about and one which has, in my view, been covered up for far too long by feminist analysis of women’s mental health.  Whilst this article is simply a short piece about the egodystonic world of the alienated child, I will write more about this subject over the coming months as part of my development of training for social workers.

A healthy attachment is triggered by a relationship with a carer who is secure in themselves and mentally well.  Many children who go on to become alienated are often alienated from a healthy sense of self from birth because the attachment to their primary caregiver (usually mother) is distorted.  Mothers (and fathers) bring their own unresolved childhood issues to the relationship with their own child and in the triggering of attachment, project those issues onto the child.  Thus children grow up feeling that their role is to care for and protect their mother rather than the other way around. Children also grow up without any sense that they are individual beings with feelings of their own. To do that one has to be validated when one cries as a baby and has to have those primary needs responded to and met consistently. When a child is not responded to consistently but is made to feel that in order to get those needs met they must first meet the needs of the primary caregiver (stop crying you are upsetting me, you are not being fed until you stop upsetting me), they do not develop the capacity for unconscious and relaxed absorption of the world around them, instead they begin to develop defences.

Defences are those behaviours we develop to protect us from the pain of primary woundings. As children, if we are taunted or laughed at, if love is withheld or conditional, if intrusion into our own personal space is regular leaving us without boundary or sense of self, we will develop behavioural defences. Even as children we will become cold, hardened and numb, impervious to our own personal hurts because of defences.  Children who eventually go on to become alienated in family separation situations, are often those whose attachments are already distorted and whose defences have been raised.

One of the key psychological responses seen in children at risk of alienation is that of separation anxiety which is characterised by the fear of loss of a primary attachment figure.  Separation anxiety is often welcomed by alienating parents who have no understanding that it is their own behaviour which causes it.  The view of the alienating parent is that separation anxiety is caused by the child’s fear of the other parent and love for them. They welcome it and tend the anxiety in the unconscious relationship, feeding it and fanning its flames until it becomes a full blown disorder by which time the child has to develop the infantile defence of splitting in order to cope with having to reject one parent to keep the other. In reality, the separation anxiety is caused by the distorted attachment to the alienating parent who is threatening the child in the unconscious (sometimes in the conscious too) with abandonment. The messages the child in these circumstances hears are that if they do not conform to the covert wishes of the alienating parent, they will be evicted, abandoned or erased from the relationship. The child, terrified of the potential threat, complies by becoming anxious and unwilling to separate from the alienating parent who then takes this demonstrate of fear as being that of love for them and fear of the other parent. For the child, it is a helpless descent into being controlled by the alienating parent and to safeguard their own mental health, psychological splitting into alienating parent good and rejected parent bad follows. From there, the enmeshed and distorted negative feedback loop is complete, the alienating parent’s mental health issues are stayed for the time being and ‘peace’ such as it is for the child, reigns.

The problem of course comes when the rejected parent knocks at the door. This is viewed by the alienating parent as a huge and often overwhelming breach of ‘the rules’ these being that no-one but no-one interferes in the world of the alienating parent and anyone who dares to try is seen as the enemy. When the fused and enmeshed dyadic relationship of alienating parent and child is thus disturbed, the child is put out to defend the coalition. It is then when the child will display the eight signs of alienation, often in text book terms and by this stage almost always completely unconsciously.

Meeting an alienated child is, for me, often incredibly sad in what can sometimes seem comedic in the way the child relates their predicament.  Children have told me that they cannot possibly see the parent they are rejecting because they make them eat broccoli (weak reasoning) or that their parent once tried to kill them in the bathtub when they were a baby  (borrowed scenarios) or that their granny is evil because she makes them sit next to the dog in the car (spread to the wider family). They will spend a long time eulogising about the alienating parent (reflexive support for) and will go on to demonise the rejected parent without any sense that this is wrong (absence of guilt) and will cheerfully regale me with the narrative of why this parent is so darned wicked that they will never ever see them again (campaign of denigration). The division of parents into all good and all bad is clear (lack of ambivalence) and they will usually round all this off with a hearty dose of ‘no-one tells me to think like this, this is all my own doing’ (independent thinker).  When a five year old child tells me that ‘being with my mummy is like being with the devil,’ without any sign of guilt or shame (or even awareness of what the content of what they are saying actually means), it is not difficult to recognise alienation. For alienated children, those eight signs of alienation are their world, the only way that they can signal to others that something is very wrong. Hearing and understanding those signals is the skill I possess that prompts me to go on and dig forensically into the family history and background to formulate how the child came to be this way and what needs to be done to release them from the predicament.

Within the intrapsychic world of the alienated child there are the answers to the problem of how and why they are trapped and how and where to pull the lever to release them. Working with alienated children requires one to be able to withstand the determined attacks by the alienating parent whilst one digs deeper and to reassure the child through actions not words, that one is capable of rescue. Keeping the rejected parent calm and patient whilst this occurs is the other side of this work.  Each time I see an alienated child emerge from the distorted sense of self and others I am encouraged to keep doing this because the difference in the child is like night and day.  No longer confused, no longer exhausted and no longer struggling with separation anxiety, a child who is freed from alienation is free to develop themselves normally. That is until they once again encounter the alienating parent, when the body and mind ‘remember’ the distorted feedback loop and the risk of tripping back into the alienated state of mind is made very present again. Giving children the resilience in the brain (working with the neuroscience of attachment) is one way of protecting children from this risk over the longer term. Helping the alienating parent to change their behaviours is the other. More of all this as the year unfolds.

Allan Schore –


  1. Hi Karen

    This is a great article. I can’t wait for the book and judgments to come out because they will both register a remarkable stage in the development of our understanding of parental alienation. It will be so good for the children and families involved.

    I agree that better training and a shift in the ideological foundations for social work cannot come a moment too soon. But, there is one area where i believe that it would be possible to bring about constructive changes relatively quickly by means of specific directions relating to case management and cases involving allegations, which are all too often subsequently proven to be false, in particular.

    The current position, where alienating parents and court advisors operate under the veil of child protection, involves the compulsive and generally unquestioned investigation of any allegations before ordering contact . This provides both time and space for the emotional abuse of children and for alienation to become further entrenched. False allegations provide the vehicle for many of the symptoms described here such as weak reasoning and borrowed scenarios etc.

    In the relatively few cases i have seen the false allegations have had common features: they have never been made until after the proceedings have been initiated, they have not been supported by any corroborative evidence and they often have a basis in reality which has become wildly distorted. They have also all been entirely verbal accounts. Cafcass, define “Neglect ‘ as including, ‘not taking the child to see a doctor when they need to go’. This definition surely embraces situations where abuse is alleged. Whilst it is correct to take allegations seriously this should relate to ALL allegations and behaviour which is potentially harmful to children. Therefore, if there is justification in investigating allegations which are NOT supported by corroborative evidence there are even stronger reasons for investigating cases which DO benefit from corroborative evidence i.e allegations of neglect supported by the absence of appropriate medical data.

    People making false allegations should be made aware that they are providing evidence of their own neglectful behaviour by making allegations long after the event that they cannot support. Allegations of neglect and of abuse should be investigated with equal vigour because the welfare of the child is supposed to be the paramount consideration of the court.

    If the courts truly want people to believe they are unbiased then this provides another good reason for focussing upon actual evidence of both abuse and neglect.

    However, there is a serious conflict involved when solicitors appear to be encouraging allegations in order to secure legal aid funding. Judges need to be alive to this reality in order to avoid unwittingly sponsoring those that make false allegations. An examination of both sides of the coin could go some way towards ensuring fairness and objectivity whilst eliminating a window of opportunity for further abuse.


  2. Hello Karen

    Thank you for this article.

    You say:

    “Actually, in real terms, a child born to a parent who eventually becomes alienating in a separated family situation, is a child born to a parent who cannot properly attach with the child in the first place. Alienation, often being present in the parent themselves when the child is born, is passed to the child in the distorted gaze of the parent (usually mother).”

    Does this mean it is usually the mother who is the alienator? Your other articles suggest that the alienating parent could just as commonly be the father, but this seems to suggest otherwise.

    I would really like to understand your meaning and look forward to your response.

    Thank you


    1. Hi Emma, yes I have been thinking about the way I wrote this and understand it can seem to mean that it is mostly mothers who alienate. What I should have said in the article is that it is mostly mothers who alienate in this particular manner – enmeshment and transgenerational trauma repetition. Fathers alienate in a different pattern in my experience, one which is much closer to the common understanding of coercive control or domestic violence when the act of control of the partner is transferred to the children. As such, mothers alienating are much more likely to be in the subjective relationship whereas fathers alienating is much more likely to be in the objective and more easily seen coercive control. I should also say this, that mothers can attach to their child reasonably normally or outwardly normally and then move to alienating tactics. K


  3. I often feel as though you have been an eye witness into our family life for years. The separation anxiety, the enmeshment with mother (clinical diagnosis) the spread of animosity to entire extended family and then the silver bullet – false abuse allegations taken to court (twice unfounded, forensically investigated) the vigorous denial by child of any influence from alienating parent and then the inevitable step by step descent into pure / severe alienation and no contact for 5 years. In our case we have recently discovered that the step-father (who was referring doctor of child to psychologists who refused to meet with Dad but wrote up negative reports again him) was leading a double life for 9 years whilst living with alienated child. No one knew of this double life, not the long term partner and secret son knew of his relationship with alienating Mom and alienated daughter and alienating Mom and daughter did not know of this other family. His regular weekends away (for 9 years) without alienating Mom and alienated child are now explained. I would be interested to understand how such a family dynamic would impact upon a child who was living in this dysfunctional home life for the better part of 9 years and what influence this step-father and his secret double life would have on the life of a child from age 6 until 15 years old and understanding how this behaviour of step-dad would have influenced alienating mother and her reliance / parentification on daughter for emotional support.


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