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.