The Ambivalence Problem in Alienation

This week I continue to work on the ambivalence problem for alienated children. This is one of the biggest problems that children in recovery from alienation face and it is one which is particularly pernicious because the harm that has been done, leaves a long term problem for children in its wake.

Let us look at the lives of children.  Born into the world completely dependent, their whole experience of being is shaped by the adults around them. For children, there is no possibility of comparing and contrasting experience, there is no way of knowing that what they are experiencing in their lives is good or bad. It just is.  This means that if a child is being brought up in a household where estrangement patterns, conflict, manipulation and lack of healthy boundaries are normalised, that is what normal is for the child.

And in many respects one might say who are we to judge what is normal and what is not. The private lives of families in the UK are not subject to routine scrutiny and thus, if parents want to bring up baby in a dysfunctional manner, it is not going to be considered such unless the watching eye of the outside world becomes involved.

Therefore, it is often only when the family hits crisis that the outside world gets to look in on the lives of the children involved. As such it can be surprising what one finds when the door is finally opened. From the boy who was brought up as a girl by his mother (a not so rare occurence across the whole of time if one looks at the psychoanalytic literature) to the children who believed they were part of a satanic ritual (also not uncommon throughout history, think of the Salem Witch Trials), what lies beneath the outward presentation of many ordinary seeming families is, in fact,  high functioning dysfunction dressed up as normal.

And it is the dressing up of dysfunction as normal which is the problem for children who become alienated, particularly those who grow up in families where ‘normal’ stretches back through generations. In families where children become alienated it is common to find estrangements through the history of one or both sides of the family and/or sudden deaths, tragedies and unspoken things which seem to haunt the family without every being made visible to its members. Transgenerational haunting, long an interest of mine, in which the children of the family convert the unspoken and unresolved issues of the family into either physical ailments or trauma re-enactments, are very present where children become alienated. In fact in some of my own cases, the alienation reaction is interlinked with the conversion of unspoken trauma which is re-enacted through the projection onto the rejected parent.  Families where false allegations are made are an example of this, the crisis of the separation bringing the ghosts of the past up through the schism of the parental psychological and emotional divide which is triggered by the physical separation.

In this landscape we expect children to live and to form their personalities and characters. I still, after more than two and a half decades of working in this arena, cannot believe that it is not universally recognised that bringing up children in the midst of family separation, puts them at severe risk of psychological and emotional/mental harm.  I cannot think of a worse environment for a child to be than in the middle of parental separation with all of its attendant trauma and all of its heightened emotional and psycholgical risk.  When parents go mad, as they often do in the midst of such crisis, it is children who lose the most. They lose the peace and quiet of an emotionally and psychologically secure world and they witness the break down of the adult framework which is supposed to keep them safe.

For many parents, this risk is something they are acutely aware of and they work hard to protect children from the worst of the harm that can be done.  For others, it is as if the children are but extensions of their own personal experience  and with their own decompensation into the disparate parts of their own emotional crisis, they take their children with them.  In these circumstances, unless someone from the outside stops this from happening, the children become lost to the coping mechanism of psychological splitting which they utilise in order to survive in a world which has suddenly broken into a million pieces. Splitting, which requires a child to represss normalising feelings of guilt and shame in order to reject a parent they love causes the child to enter into a place of absolute vulnerability because once the child has repressed those normalising feelings, anything goes in terms of what they can be made to believe. Should the parent they are dependent upon have absolute control over the child and should that parent be decompensating into delusional beliefs about the other parent, those children can and often are drawn into that fantasy. At this point the child loses any ability to keep perspective and in the intrapsychic world begins to join with the fantasy of the parent they are dependent upon, often elaborating and expanding the beliefs through a mutual mirroring back and forth.  This is the endgame for children’s mental health and at this stage it is more than just an issue about whether the child should have a relationship with both parents, it is a serious and sustained mental health and child protection issue. Should no-one intervene in such a scenario, the only way for the children to go is loss of sanity and entry into encapsulated delusional belief which is a form of psychosis.

Little wonder children who emerge from such a nightmare find it difficult to recapture the ability to hold ambivalent feelings, which are the bedrock of perspective and a core skill for a growing mind.  Losing the ability to know that people can do good and bad things or that mum and dad can hold different opinions and not like each other any more but that doesn’t mean that they no longer love their children, is often seen in children who are becoming vulnerable to parental alienation, ( or psychological splitting or pathogenic parenting) whichever your preferred term. Regaining that ability after the alienation reaction has been treated through intervention, is one of the hardest possible steps a child can take. This is because the breaking of perspective, which underpins the lack of ambivalence in a child’s belief system, causes endless confusion for a child.

Psychological splitting is an infantile defence mechanism which should really be overcome in the early days of a child’s life. For a parent to force a child back to that defence through pressuring them to fear or hate their other parent, is abusive and upholding that position, as some practitioners do in their lack of skill in this arena, causes the child long term damage and significant trouble in achieving perspective again.  For once a child’s trust in the adults around them is broken, the child finds it hard, if not almost impossible, to return to a fully unconscious trusting place. And why would they not find it hard?  For a child, wholly and utterly dependent upon the adults to provide for them the care that they need, to understand in recovery from alienation that the care they received was not normal and was not healthy, is a terrifying experience which takes innocence with it. Children in recovery often do not need to be told the truth because once emerged from the alienation, the recognition that a parent is not and never was the terrifying monster they were forced to believe he/she was, shocks them back to reality.

After this, many children spend months trying to weigh up the past and work out how and why they were forced into such a position. As they do so the normal feelings of guilt and shame emerge and they seek forgiveness for their part in what happened. After which a tsnami of anger may erupt as they work through the vulnerabilities they felt then and feel now. ‘How dare they’ is an often heard phrase from children in this position, it can be uttered for many months as the child struggles to come to the place where they can accept what happened. Only when the ability to hold ambivalent feelings returns can a child fully tolerate the past and move on. Witnessing the struggles of children who go through this process is painful and incredibly moving at times. Being able to help children more and more through this phase due to the increasing understanding in our family courts of the problem of a child’s unjustified rejection of a parent, has become a focus for me.

This work aims to illuminate the lives of those children whose unseen experience of being bound into their parent’s decompensation through dependency, through ignorance of the outside world which prevents intervention and through being born into families where this risk exists.

Suffer these children because as adults, without help and intervention they and their own children,  in time, still do.



  1. Exactly Karen; that is why we have to make legislation in the same manner of Mexico where Alienation is a serious criminal offence and incarceration of up to 15 years in prison and loss of custody is effected by such criminals. Carrot and Stick; but only by integrated legislation as given and full parity of legal rights to be an engaged parent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder how much involvement you have had with CAMHS? I would have thought this is one of the main arenas in which these issues may have some potential to surface.

    Having said that, some recent experience of CAMHS has not been great, and I will be meeting a manager tomorrow to discuss what I imagine will be a general insensitivity to a non-resident parent, but will want to touch on the issue of alienation too.


    1. Hi woodman, CAHMS do not seem to understand these concepts in the main, it is very problematic that children suffering thus are sent to an institution which has no real understanding or acceptance of alienation issues. I work with a lot of children who have been through CAHMS who have been damaged by their input because they worked as if the issues were real when of course they are not real. Big problem in my experience unfortunately. K


      1. my experience, entirely, karen.

        as with so many involved in the process, the lack of cahms accountability ‘after the event’ (of damaging/misleading assessments) perpetuates and reinforces that problem


  3. “After this, many children spend months trying to weigh up the past and work out how and why they were forced into such a position.”

    Little bit of synchronicity threaded through this somewhere…

    Been thinking about Dad a lot, as per usual, and also because my sisters father in-law passed away two days ago after suffering a massive heart attack three weeks ago, never regained conciousness. Relatively fit man early seventies…boom, from out of nowhere. He was a nice man, came and watched bongo play a few times and was always smashing with him.

    Thinking about Dad, and Grandad…how dad spoke little of his childhood, of what there was to tell in regards to how he lived as a boy minus all the 1970’s and present days mod-cons. 1940’s Sheffield, was a different place, 1950 or 52′ before the first television recieved a signal in sheffield….dad was 10yrs old in 54′ and well into his teens before nan and grandad got a tv. By comparison they/he had “nowt” to what my sister and i had. Outside toilets, no hot water/heating, tin bath. Raised when the radio was king at the time of Elvis’s arrival into folks ear oyl’s….dance halls, cinema’s…plenty of drinking. Simple pleasures and entertainment, no haughty expectations, salt n soot t’earth.

    Grandads life….raised in the 20’s, lost his dad as a boy, he was 10 in 25′. Sheffield, back then by the 40’s/50’s standard’s wasnt pretty. Life was hard. Pleasures were simple. Comparing the 20’s with todays time with our modern utilities and electro magnetic wizardry it isnt possible really, on the surface, two entirely different worlds. Though internally, subconciously, spiritually i believe we are all very much the same….perhaps with a micron of expansion as knowledge and language expands over time(if we dont let the pc brigade choke and stifle our imaginaitions and greatest gifts)……..yet not moving further away from our roots….they are always with us, but completing them…..and that completion for those who have a mind to know, is way off into the beyond, from here…its always one step away, and for the most part in any direction too.

    That old saying…”kids nowadays dont know theyre born”…..when youre young, youre like…erm, what? What? Piss off. Well i was, …..probably down to two loads of dysfunction coming together and questioning what was happening from an early age and having saw different worlds played out in front of me in a time of quite dramatic social changes too, the rise of womens lib in the seventies and with the hippies, rockers, mods, skinheads and punks, a private world behind closed doors and curtains and a public world where no matter what day is was the sunday best was worn. It took me a while to understand the phrase…”sometimes the face doesnt fit” …when the front doesnt marry the pitch. ..when the smiles are hiding pain, when the smiles are fake, or people are selling yarn’s.

    My dad didnt tell me too much about his childhood. He spent little time with me when i was a kid….so i cant blame him for how i turned out…mums fault!! i was determined that wasnt going to happen with bongo. I dont blame my dad…the childhood i had compared to what he had was disney land in gods own county…away from the filthy air and stone and 24 hour industrial clatter and noise of the steel town, inside toilets, inside bath, television, hot water…heating, and by comparison to the strict disciplined upbringing he had…..we were free by comparison and raised very liberally, my dad probably thought the same as i did, even though he thought no ill of my grandad, he wanted to do a better job than my grandad no doubt….he was going to let us “be” and not tell us what to do so much. ….which he did bless him, he let us “be” a bit too much to be fair(could have done with a bit of direction dad…but you were clueless too so dont worry about that), but a man of few words, and his patience was stretched with mum(bless her she would stretch the dalai fucking lamas patience)…and to a degree my unguided and successful apparant lack of attainment from a “star” child who was reading the bible at 5(thinking it was a wonderful story but a bit scary) able to do my twelve times table by 6 or 7…..but something was missing, time, actual time spent with my dad from that point on. My dad probably thought that was for the best..he knew i knew where he was…in the garden or in the club…but that always resulted in an argument if i ever went down the garden…too many questions he couldnt answer probably…too many carrots trodden on and i didnt like mud and everything seemed to move a bit too slowly for me…and there was work involved too…lifting heavy watering cans and digging heavy wet soil and spreading horse shit……arggggghhhhh…..i’d had enough with bringing heavy buckets of coal up from the cellar on a cold winters morning when i was six years old. What is this?? Am i somekind of slave??? Kids nowadays eh, i didnt know i was born.

    Grandad, bless him, could be a bugger. There were rarely arguments. It wasnt going to be like that in our house, with my mum living through the 1970’s….in our house, there were arguments. As a child i became estranged from my dad, began to resent and loathe him when i got into my teens, mum, concious of it or not, had a hand in that, he didnt help himself either due to his drinking and lack of ability to communicate with me and patience.

    I never once heard my dad bad mouth my nan or grandad though no matter how tough his childhood may have been by comparison to ours…..but it was all he knew and what was considered normal then en masse would be considered dysfunctional now….it was all he knew as it is for all kids raised with or without dysfunction, especially if they are in isolating circumstances….no tv, no internet, no local community to interact with, not other outside attachments.

    Not once did i hear my dad say a bad word about his mum or dad. His honour for them intact. He knew they were good people even though life hadnt been easy at times. As children we were, and are raised in worlds apart, sometimes with no overlap. Dad never complained about anything. Even in later life when he lost his dad, then his mum, and when he was blighted with cancer he kept his pain, grief and fear to himself. Stupid stupid stupid man. I wish he was here. Oh fucking hell do i wish he was here.First pint would be on me, and the next…and the next.

    Eventually i’ll highlight the little twinkle of synchronicity which happened over the last 24 hours….ive been doing all this thinking about my dad…grandad, myself, josh…how we were all raised, what the social and family expectations were upon us, how utility wise we have had different experiences….the following generations have far more advanced technologies and better living conditions, but lack so much more inregards to a sense of belonging due to forces of distraction with our new fangled technologies, quicker gratifications, and corporate enticements to let go of the past and sacrifice yourself to the future, dont think, just do, pay later, thank you, next…..something wrong with that.

    And then i came across a quote from someone somewhere which said something about todays kids not appreciating the lives of their parents/grandparents……just remembered, the quote was from something to do with a review of “video killed the radio star”……….i was saying to my mum last week about life as kids for them….no tv, just radio and how my dad was never too bothered about tv but enjoyed radio immensely even in later life and i visualised my dad as a teen listening to the radio whilst in bed at night. …my mums the other way, not one for the radio, my mum would sell her granny to watch the tv, my mum would sell her soul for one episode of coronation street. Im not exagerrating. When my mum goes in hospital they dont plug in an ECG to check her heart, they stick an aerial on her head and twiddle her ears until her eyes bounce in rythmn to her pulse. My dad spent his nights in the club, my mum had domain over the tv when she didnt got out herself… seemed to suit both. Didnt really suit me to be honest, though at that age i wouldnt have said i was missing my dad….i couldnt wait to get away from him. Anyhow…video killed the radio star….and now video is dead, its all bloody blue ray or something, its gone beyond dv bloody d’s.

    Then i came to this blog tonight,this morning, now…. and it all kind of ties in somehow but its all gone a bit wibbly wobbly.

    When i get closer to the ineffable truth, love, light, union, eternity, i feel them with me stronger….when i slip into pain, resentment, separation, hate, darkness, despair, i feel them slip away and an abyss of emptiness appears…..but they are ever present, and will be in the future as long as they are in the past, it is i who slips away in the dark fog of despair up my own arse when i forget and fail to remember what they all went through, who they are, and what planet i come from!

    It begins with K. x


    1. Just read this for first time….made me smile, form a tear, all in a moment….. everybody needs to know/ understand/ appreciate where they come from….let’s hope the alienated kids get their chance too.


  4. Ambulance, Ambivalence….both life savers at times. x

    “He’s going off, i cant get any response”
    “Quick, 50 cc’s of Ambivalence straight through his skull into his noggin, its not all doom and gloom even if the weather is shit”


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