This weekend I begin a new project called Homecoming. This is an exciting piece of work for me because it is based upon my practice with alienated children who are reunited with a once rejected parent. As such it is a close look at the needs of children who move from the psychologically split state of mind through to full recovery. It is a journey which I share with the children that I work with and this project, brings to the surface those hidden challenges that children face as they move towards restoration of health. My intention in developing this project, is to provide for practitioners and for parents, those insights, tools and skills which help children in these circumstances. For children, I hope to give voice to the harm that they suffer and their struggle to find balance and peace in their world. For the wider world I hope to illuminate the reasons why parental alienation is child abuse. I will update as I go along but today, to help me to focus and concentrate on bringing this project to life, I thought I would tell you two children’s stories, both of whom were severely alienated, both of whom are are now in recovery.
Shulamith is a ten year old girl whose parents separated when she was six. She is now reunited with her mother but for the past three years she was fiercely rejecting of her. Shulamith was moved to live with her mother six months ago and her journey of recovery, from fierce rejection, hatred and furious resistance to all attempts to intervene, has followed the route that many alienated children travel when the protective intervention is made that prevents ongoing harm being done.
When we undertook the intervention, Shulamith showed an almost instantaneous response when she was told that she was going to live with her mother, acting out resistance for a period of less than an hour and then showing anxious anticipation ahead of seeing her mother for the first time in almost a year. When Shulamith realised that her mother was simply happy to see her she dropped the resistance immediately and reunification was spontaneous, warm and exactly as is seen when children whose rejection is influenced by the coercive control of an alienating parent, are removed.
Daniel is a fifteen year old boy who is now reunited with his father after seven years of hatred, rejection and latterly, a campaign of false allegations in which Daniel alleged that his father had sexually abused him. All allegations were found to be false, in fact they were found to have been implanted memories in which Daniel was repeating stories he had been told about his father’s behaviours when he was too young to be able to remember them. Daniel was moved to live with his father as an intervention to protect him from his mother’s mental health problems, it took four days for the alienation reaction to drop and for him to accept his father again. Within a week he had recanted on all of the allegations that he had made and within two weeks was showing normal range responses to his father and his paternal family.
I worked with both Shulamith and Daniel in removal from the alienating parent and reunification, I continued to work with each child for a period of 24 months post reunification.
Both of the children so described are composites of real cases, I have disguised their ages, gender and relationship to their parents in order that they cannot be recognised. Shulamith and Daniel however, follow a journey which is similar in all cases of parental alienation. Their responses to intervention show the remarkable path which can be predicted when the family dynamic is properly and fully understood. What is less understood however, is the onward journey after reunification has taken place and the tasks for the child in dealing with the harm that has been done to their psychological self and their ability to hold and maintain recovered health. This, for me, is where the reality of parental alienation as child abuse is not properly understood, for Shulamith and Daniel and for all of the other children who have been alienated and who strive for recovery, this project is necessary so that the reality of the harm done can be illuminated. I firmly believe that only when the reality of parental alienation as an insidious and pervasive form of child abuse is understood and accepted, will children of divorce and separation be safe. This is my all encompassing driver, this is why I do this work amidst what often feels like a war zone. This is why I will keep doing it, because I know what these children suffer and what they have to live with and cope with in order to survive.
Around six months after reunification both Shulamith and Daniel are showing normal range responses to their once rejected parent and are showing capacity for understanding what they have gone through. They are also, both showing, the emergence of repressed guilt and shame and are struggling with this in terms of their ability to properly and fully settle into home life. Guilt and shame are two normal and healthy emotional responses and in ordinary circumstances, one would welcome the expression of both as a regulatory force which socialises a child. In formerly alienated children however, guilt and shame are two expressions of feeling which have long been repressed as part of the alienation process, because in order to reject a parent who is loved, a child must first adopt the psychological defence of burying all good feelings for that parent and projecting only negative beliefs and feelings upon them. This action, which is a defence and a coping mechanism which allows the child to safely survive in the world of the alienating parent, causes shame and guilt but instead of these being a regulatory force, preventing the child from complete rejection, they become unwanted feelings which must be denied, split off and repressed along with all good feelings for the now hated parent. The child enters a psychological space at this juncture, in which he is unable to locate any of those feelings, allowing him to fully and completely, join the delusional belief of the alienating parent that his rejection is justified. When the child has entered this place, anything goes in terms of allegations, projections, delusional beliefs and more, because the normal regulatory feelings are completely removed from consciousness. Instead of these healthy responses, a self righteous anger appears which can make a child appear to be completely without guilt. Sadly, though the outward appearance is such, the repression of those normal feelings does not actually wash them away but instead swallows up a whole lot of emotional and psychological energy in keeping them out of the conscious mind. Children in this condition actually look frozen in their faces and unable to do anything other than react in an almost feral knee jerk response to intervention. The effort of keeping those regulatory feelings repressed is one which takes immense amounts of energy, leaving some children lethargic, exhausted and disinterested in the world around them. This is the presentation of buried grief which accompanies many alienated children.
This action, in causing a child to behave this way is child abuse because it is inculcated by the alienating parent, it is completely tied into the alienator’s psychological self and it is the theft of the child’s right to have their psychological self protected. Parental alienation is akin to sexual abuse of a child in that in sexual abuse the child’s physical as well as mental, emotional and psychological self is violated, whereas in parental alienation, the child’s emotional, mental and psychological self is violated leaving only the physical self untouched. It is a theft of innocence which is not well known about, just as sexual abuse was once not well understood, accepted or known about. One day, if the growing movement to raise awareness of parental alienation has its way, Shulamith and Daniel and all of the children who have lost their right to an innocent childhood because of the ignorance in our world of the harm that is being done, will have their voices heard.
One year after reunification, Shulamith and Daniel are both, separately, attempting to relate to the previously alienating parent, both are showing symptoms which are related to the emergence of repression of guilt and shame. Outbursts of anger, distress and anxiety disguise the reality that guilt and shame are now emerging in response to the requirement for the children to see the once alienating parent. Sadly for the children, because of the lack of understanding about how alienating behaviours arise in parents, neither Shulamith or Daniel’s parent have accepted the need for therapy and both are continuing in their belief that the rejecting behaviour was a justified response to something that the other parent had done. Daniel’s mother believes that she is still the better parent and is now accusing Daniel’s father and us of alienating Daniel against her. There is nothing in the court toolbox which can assist with this other than a restriction on the contact these parents can have with their children and it is down to us as mental health professionals to create the support that the children need to help them survive and rebalance their emotional and psychological selves. Educating the parent they now live with and supporting that parent throughout the rebalancing phase (which can last for many years if the once alienating parent does not change their behaviours), is an important part of what we do. The child will remain vulnerable to the influence of the alienating parent without close supervision, because the theft of the unconscious emotional and psychological responses to the world around them, leaves them vulnerable to influence.
In recent decades, those who have studied the impact of sexual abuse on children, have identified that the intrusion across the physical and psychological boundary of the self and soul, steals from the child the innocence which underpins the unconscious enjoyment of the world which is called childhood. This work, which I begin this weekend, will, I anticipate, illuminate the way in which alienation of a child does the same, by intruding upon a child’s psychological and emotional self, stealing the innocence of unconscious trust and belief in parents. The journey I made with Shulamith and Daniel is every alienated child’s journey to coming home to the parent they were forced to reject and ultimately to their own right to sovereign control over their self and soul.
Helping the reunited child come home and helping the world at large to understand that journey is my next task. As I begin it, every child who has made this crossing, facing the challenges of unresolved parental issues which underpin this unwanted, unnecessary and forced upon them experience, sits with me.
One day this will be known as the child abuse scandal that was hidden from view. A scandal which was legitimised and perpetrated by a world which looked the other way, whilst abused children were given the keys to their own particular hell on earth. I hope this project, which begins today, is part of that which brings this horror to light and not only brings children home but stops them losing their right to childhood in the first place.
Thank you Karen, as always very insightful.
While this kind of abuse may not directly affect the child physically, but the mental strain most certainly can lead to physical symptoms. What surprises me is how little the NHS is willing to scratch the surface and find out what is really behind these symptoms, even when there is a known history of stress-related illness.
It seems to me that a truly personality disordered alienating parent might find it nearly impossible to give up their own defenses – the ones that protect them and allow them to distort the truth so they feel that cutting out the alienated parent is justified to “protect” the child. I’d guess that some of them would accept losing custody over making any changes or acknowledging their part in the problem (or worse, kill the child and/or themselves due to feeling victimized and to protect/punish). I can’t imagine my husband’s ex agreeing to any therapist telling her she had to behave differently or make changes to gain custody time back, not in a genuine or meaningful way (she can make temporary changes under the threat of consequences). How do you get them to see the need for change when their own distorted views are so entrenched and established? Seems like in these two cases, that was not possible.
I hope you are right, that someday we will look back on this and wonder how it was ever handled so badly. Right now, it feels completely impossible to imagine anyone will ever see alienation as the child abuse that it is.
What surprises me is how Safeguarding teams only scratch the surface too. And likely cause more harm as a result. Dealing with an alienated child who is going to & fro, not 100% alienated yet, but is at times, gives similar symptoms to the situations you describe above
Many thanks for publishing so much information concerning your ground breaking work. I am fortunate to have renewed contact with my Alienators brother (BIL). He is motivated to do what he can to reunite my ADULT children with their dad. He is stymied to do anything because his sister has suggested that they re-unite with their dad but ‘won’t force them’, and my kids are saying they do want to get to know me again sometime in the future, but not now. He believes that my kids may have been Alienated when young but not anymore ‘because they are adults now’. If you could produce a video of no more than about 7 minutes duration of all the reasons why children of any age who have been cut off from one parent should be reconnected that would be greatly appreciated. Alternatively a joint statement agreed to by a number of your colleagues would be powerful evidence for my BIL to get his whole family behind pressuring his sister to let go of her antipathy towards me and genuinely encourage my children to have a relationship with their dad would be really appreciated. The video or statement would have the potential to help lots of Alienated children who are now adults.
Alienated Parent Australia
Even though Dandlebear bridge had finally been crossed and a substantial amount of time had elapsed, the journey back to the other side was a tricky one. The all-powerful, the all capable and the knowing one was still in charge. I could see they were hurt, a little deflated but nevertheless defiant. I took on my previous role just so my alienator could save face. I felt sorry for the parent who had raised me. I could see torment in their eyes. The game was up, but still my all-knowing parent, the one who had devoted themselves to me for so many years was protecting me against the enemy.
So, there I was back on the other side of Dandlebear bridge, with the parent who had alienated me. I had temporarily ventured to the other side but now I was there protecting the alienator. Just as before, I was ready to take on anyone to protect my dear mother/father from all those who would dare to criticise us; and I say us because that is what it felt like. We were a team weren’t we, us against the outside world.
And then they captured me again and grabbed me screaming across the bridge back to the other side, where it was different, just different. In one sense I was relieved, I no longer felt compelled to defend the fortress but on the other hand there was a space in my heart a kind of longing.
I’d tried and tried to put things right but nothing I did seemed to please. There were no solutions, just rules and opinions.
Will I ever cross Dandlebear bridge again? Probably not it’s far too painful. You will have to hold my hand and it is torture. I don’t know why you put me through this, it was your responsibility to make sure the bridge was strong enough and welcoming enough; to make passage a good one and ensure I could be at ease on both sides. But all you did was throw stuff from either side, it became a conduit of hate, a blockage I could find no way through.
Anonymous I’m reading this for the first time today and find it haunting and revealing. You write from the view of an alienated child, presumably moved to the rejected parent and then an attempted reintroduction to the alienating parent, where all did not go well. But near the end I become unclear who the ‘you’ is you are referring to….is it both parents or one (which one)?
I found your final sentence a real warning shot to parents in conflict….”But all you did was throw stuff from either side, it became a conduit of hate, a blockage I could find no way through.”. A poignant reminder to see life from the child’s view. I hope your story has a happier ending in time.
The sweeping away of this type of abuse to children has gone on for long enough. Just to raise peoples awareness is highly likely to reduce parents playing out their relationship issues on children. People then self police and it costs nothing.
Alienation has no physical evidence, it is easy to denie and ignore. So do nothing about it, it’s inconvienient, it requires work and resources and politically inconvienient, all giving room for it to breathe. That’s today’s approach, creating an elephant in the room.
Alternatively educate everyone so parents that have a choice will think twice before inflicting it on children. Those parents without choice should be recognised and children living under that cloud helped. How and what help gets delivered effectively is important to define. Then we have a choice.
Nick28 – I’ve found social workers just dismiss the term ‘parental alienation’. They think it’s a fad or just a “fashionable new name”. Well if it’s been around so long, why can’t they recognise it? Is it really normal for a 6yo to remember something that happened 2 yrs ago & quote that as the first thing when asked what makes her sad? I think not! Please rollout this training asap. These shouldn’t be matters for the courts. It’s abuse & safeguarding teams should be handling it to protect the children.
This is the best parental alienation article I have read in a very long time. Thank you very much!!!!!
…..this is the type of inciteful PA article for which many of us have hope and prayed over many many years. God bless you and all who sail with you, Karen
Thank you for this article, and for your work. As a former alienated child, I can attest that complete removal from my alienating parent would have been necessary for me to be able to reconnect with my targeted parent (mother). Also, the support in helping these children after the initial reuniting has to be invaluable, especially if they are to maintain any contact or relationship w/ the previously alienating parent. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to try to keep that parent “in check” if they have access to the child. A difficult situation to say the least! Your help is crucial!
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” The child enters a psychological space at this juncture, in which he is unable to locate any of those feelings, allowing him to fully and completely, join the delusional belief of the alienating parent that his rejection is justified. When the child has entered this place, anything goes in terms of allegations, projections, delusional beliefs and more, because the normal regulatory feelings are completely removed from consciousness. Instead of these healthy responses, a self righteous anger appears which can make a child appear to be completely without guilt. Sadly, though the outward appearance is such, the repression of those normal feelings does not actually wash them away but instead swallows up a whole lot of emotional and psychological energy in keeping them out of the conscious mind.”
Wow. Karen this is so good. Again you write to the depth of the experience a parent goes through. Thank you. When I am at my darkest moments, I can barely stomach to read most of the PAS articles and words of support which are normally helpful but don’t reach some depths of the darkness. Your writing reaches those depths. Thank you.
I have 3 kids (2 boys now 25 and 22 and a daughter now 20) I am currently alienated from the boys but still close to my daughter. The alienating began very shortly after separation from their mother 6 years ago while the two youngest were still minors. I remained close to them throughout the separation (my daughter decided to come live with me at the time after 4 months with her mom) as well as me being close with my oldest. It was difficult with my middle child often with challenging and difficult behavior, but we were still close prior to the detachment with him (I was often his sports coach and a very involved Dad). One day shortly after he dropped out of his first year of College he announced to me our relationship was over. Then, 3 years later and with a history of absolutely zero conflict with my oldest he too ceased contact through a text. They both live with their mother still and seem to be unable to launch their own lives but remain apparently stuck in the form of extended schooling for the oldest and the near inability to get and keep a job by my younger son.
It kills me to know they are struggling so much, and are unable to be their authentic selves in their relationship with me which was always close due to me being involved in everything as their Dad. I believe my normal shortcomings as a person have been magnified to levels that for them justify the estrangement but it does not fit with the history of our relationships. They have both cut themselves off from even the two family pets which we raised as a family (one was put down a year ago) and they even boycotted their great grandmothers funeral nearly a year ago, whose wish was that the oldest would sing at it.
I have struggled to comprehend the depth of the alienating influence of their mother because it has been so subtle and she seems so good in their eyes. She, similar to myself, is a counsellor by profession, her by social work and me by spiritual care provider. There was almost no conflict between her and I other than the hard parts of separation, and despite my attempts to keep it very amicable, which it seemed to be for a while, she ceased contact as well and also did not show up for the funeral. It has reinforced to them their decisions and due to floundering themselves, they are dependent on her as they live with her.
I was not given a lot of the parenting information even while the two youngest were still minors. Shortly after separation, she even had the nerve to without my knowledge take our daughter to counselling but not to an independent counsellor, but to her student counsellor who was doing a practicum supervised by her at the same time I was pleading for fairness and sharing of information related to the children. It has been a long and painful road that has ended in me being a complete non-person as far as they and her are concerned. I know my daughter has faced the pressure in this as she is close to her mom as well as to me (which I would insist on), but we still remain close. Even yet, fear still stalks me.
Do your thoughts in this article apply in the same way to older teenagers and young adults in the way you describe? And given they are now legal adults how can the ice be broken and possible reunification happen?
Tobias: You ask of Karen : Do your thoughts in this article apply in the same way to older teenagers and young adults in the way you describe? And given they are now legal adults how can the ice be broken and possible reunification happen?
I would be hugely interested in how all this applies or could be applied to adult children who are now firmly entrenched in this world of alienation.
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