Shifting Blame and Disguising Shame: The Alienated Child’s Struggle

Working with children affected by parental alienation is a life changing experience. Life changing because in all encounters with alienated children, the change which is brought about occurs within the relational dynamic of the adults with whom the children are involved. This means that anyone who comes into contact with a child who has suffered from parental alienation, must understand the harm that has been done to the child and the way in which the child remains vulnerable to the splitting reaction which underpins alienation. Being sensitive to the way in which this splitting affects children, requires a counter intuitive way of working and a strong sense of what the child needs in order to recover a balance in perspective. Without experience of working with alienated children, their behaviour can seem confusing and somewhat contradictory.  Once encountered in practice and understood from a theoretical perspective however, the counter intuitive approach makes sense and it becomes easier to work with alienated children.

The alienated child in recovery, is in a struggle to understand what has happened and why and how it happened.  Children who are moved from life under the control of one parent to life with the other, are often shocked into reality as they leave the encapsulated delusional state of mind which is only present in relation to the parent who is influencing them.  Such reality shocks, which occur when the alienated child encounters the split off and rejected parent, often produce the bizarre reactions seen in children who move from an hysterical and almost phobic like reaction to calm acceptance of the rejected parent in seconds.  Whilst some practitioners in the UK use an approach of desensitisation, in which the child is very very slowly, over periods of weeks and months, introduced to the rejected parent, in my experience, the kindest, quickest and ethically most sound approach is to address the underlying power dynamic which holds the child enthralled and transfer the residence of the child to the rejected parent.

Whilst a direct transfer of residence in alienation cases is a brutal sounding approach and whilst many aligned parents and their legal teams portray this approach as being terrifying and harming to the child, when the differentiation work is done and the treatment route is right, the change in the child is remarkable.  Far from being harmful, it immediately liberates the child from the dynamic which is causing the rejection of the parent, it then offers a platform for the healthy care of the child whilst the work of reorganising perspective and understanding is done.  Anyone who has seen a child change in a transfer of residence situation will not forget it.  Anyone who thinks that densensitisation is a kinder way, is forgetting that the child is being coercivelly controlled by the psychology of the influencing parent.  When it comes to helping children, do we drag it out or do we fix it fast? I know which one I would want for my children.

The alienated child’s struggle is that they are caught fast in the net of the alienating parent’s control behaviours which are often coupled with a problematic psychological profile. In such circumstances, where children are utterly dependent upon adults, it is essential that children who are being influenced by psychologically unwell parents are helped quickly.  This is not a matter of whether a child has a relationship with both parents, it is not a’contact’ problem.  It is a child protection issue in which a child is being used to further an agenda and/or defend an unwell parent against decompensation.  Anyone treating it any differently is somewhat deluded themselves, or not alienation aware.

Children in recovery after residence transfer tell us much about what a child experiences when they are captured in the mind of a parent. This is the focus of my research and I continue to gather rich seams of empirical evidence from the children I am interviewing as part of this work. When this work is complete, I will be able to make a contribution to the field of parental alienation research on the impact on children of residence transfer.  This will help parents, practitioners and policy makers as well as those working in family services, to understand how and why residence transfer works and what the impact on children over the longer term is.  I will, as part of this work with our research team, be producing papers along the way on the learning we are achieving from mining this data. There is very little known about children in longer term recovery from parental alienation, this work will bring to light much more knowledge to help change the way we work in this field.

What is noticeable in children in the early part of their recovery is the way in which the alienated self runs in parallel to the recovering self.  Children show remarkable similarities in what they say and do in this phase and as in all other phases of alienation, when it is understood and experienced it is easy to work with.  Working with a child who on the one hand delivers a litany of rehearsed sounding narratives and on the other shows a growing awareness that those narratives are not sound is about being able to be with the child and listen with alienation awareness for the narrative to begin to run itself down.  Drawing out the healthier perspectives is a matter of validating the child’s real time experience and offering reality checking when they become confused.  And children who have been alienated do become confused. They become very much confused about who is right and who is wrong.  This is a problem for them in the early days of recovery because having been pushed back into the infantile state of splitting, the world is divided into goodies and baddies. And if the parent they have been moved to live with is not the baddie they thought they were, then the parent they were previously living with must be the baddie.  Many children risk flipping from rejecting one parent to rejecting the other when they are in recovery and helping them to avoid this is an essential part of post transfer support.  Helping a child to arrive at a place where the world is not firmly divided into two distinct parts, is about working alongside them, being able to cope with hearing the alienation narrative running alongside the emerging perspective and providing a solid framework of security and safety from encountering others who could re-trigger the alienation reaction.

The way that we work at the Clinic is distinct, boundaried and very very closed in terms of the engagement with the child. What this means is that whilst the child is in recovery, we seek to ensure that the child is not seen by any other professional who is not alienation aware.  This is because a child in recovery from alienation is vulnerable to having the reaction re-triggered if they encounter anyone who has an opposite view to that which is now prevailing in the family system.  This view which prevails, is set by the court judgement and in our work it is maintained completely and firmly until the child is fully recovered. What this means is that when a child is moved to live with the parent they are rejecting, a new narrative is written in which the reason for the move is explained, the harm that the child has suffered is clearly set out (in child appropriate terms) and the plans for the future relationship with the alienating parent are made and the child is helped to understand these in stages.  The most healing aspect of this work with children is that which names for the child the reality of what they have experienced, it is a relief for children to have someone say it and to know that others understand it. Being the person who holds that framework in place is a big responsibility and this relationship is, for me, of the most primary importance. Because it is this ability, to hold a steady framework in which the truth is gently told and the child is gently helped to understand that what they were taught to believe and feel was wrong, which triggers the trust in the child that moves them towards recovery.  In these circumstances children will often find great comfort in telling the story of how they came to have to reject a parent and why what they said about that parent was untrue and how they knew at the time it was untrue.  They will then go on to express the guilt and the shame that lies buried beneath the alienated narratives of blame. After which the work is about holding the child steady and protecting them from having that new experience of their world challenged by any further efforts to distort their reality.

This work is incredibly delicate and is often done against the backdrop of hugely problematic dynamics in terms of the alienating parent’s ongoing inability to accept that their view of matters is a distorted one.  Being able to hold that at bay whilst engaging the formerly rejected parent in the work being done with the child is a core skill of any practitioner working in this field.

Fortunately at the Clinic we are now training therapists and social workers to work in our model, which means that our ability to meet what is an increasing demand for our transfer and post transfer support programmes is expanding.  As I work with our new members of staff I find myself admiring their courage, tenacity and calm under fire approaches.  Knowing that they face the negative transference from parents as well as other practitioners but that they are not being put off by that, means that I know I can trust these people.  And trust in a team delivering this work is the core ingredient which leads to successful outcomes for children. Because it is trust in the research, trust in the experience and trust in the work of those who have gone before us which means that we know what to do and how and when for children.

On the  shifting sands of a relational world an alienated child requires adults to be able to understand their experience, whilst not being led down the rabbit hole by the rehearsed narratives which play themselves out until the grooves in the recording are worn down.  An alienated child requires adults to resist shifting blame from one side to the other but to lead them to an understanding that adults do good and bad things. And a child desperately needs someone to hear the guilt and the shame that has lain buried for too long because of the need to survive what was being done to them.

When a child encounters those adults, they heal.

Providing the conditions in which they can encounter those adults quickly, is the responsibility of the court and then the mental health professionals who implement the decisions of the court. The legal and mental health interlock being essential in such cases. As a mental health practitioner, taking this responsibility for the child means that shifting blame and disguising shame is no longer a necessary coping mechanism for the child. Which opens the road to the perspective which underpins healthy relationships now and in the future, bringing with it  health, wellbeing, security and trust.

And when we do that, children can go back to the unconscious world of childhood, in which adult concerns are left behind and the emotional and psychological tasks of growing up can be completed in peace.

And who, in all the world,  would not want that, above all else,  for every child, everywhere.


  1. Dear Karen, thank you for your updates on your work. It’s a relief to know someone is out there, working with these children, and saving some of them, and their alienated parents, from years of pain and grief.
    I wonder what is the age of the oldest age child you’re working with? Because this is a scenario that diminishes in possibility as the age increases, and just won’t be available (I suspect) to many teenage children as courts take the view that they are old enough to know their own mind. So for the 16yr old in my life there is no alternative now but to wait for them to (hopefully) mature and (hopefully) grow strong and intelligent enough to face up to the encapsulated delusional world they’re (still) living in.


    1. Hi CG good to hear from you. The oldest child I am working with at the moment is 26, he is struggling through the understanding of what happened to him, fortunately before he has children so that he can protect himself from the fate which befell him, I am working to help him build expectations of health in relationships. The encapsulated delusional world weakens beyond 16 and again beyond 18 and again post 21 and then very much so beyond 26/7 as the brain matures. It depends on the damage done to the child when they can get free but most do eventually. Which is why healthy parents and step parents and wider family waiting is such a saving grace for these children. So hard to bear the waiting but so vital to be able to do so. Sending you and K my very best. K


      1. Karen- did this 26 year old come to you on his own volition? How did he even know about parental alienation? How does this work? I feel in my situation of 13 years and going, it is hopeless. I read your blogs and research always, but lately I have been feeling this is a hopeless situation. I know you mentioned that the children will at some point come back. I feel like so what. After decades of being away, the grief the hurt and the agony the targeted parent suffered and endured and have missed decades of the alienated child’s life and grandchildren. The alienating parent left a sever wreckage behind and I don’t know if it is salvageable. And now the target parent is older what is the point if they are reaching out? I may sound mean, but I am not and I have empathy for them. I try and reach out to them all the time, but I am weary. The children will be strangers. Am I supposed to be happy they are back?? My side of the family (children’s maternal parents, some aunts and uncles) will have passed away. I know this is supposed to be about the children and they are the victims. But I will argue that the targeted parents are victims too. The children are in their mid to late twenties and there is nothing I can do to change the situation but to wait for them to mature and think critically and their eyes to be opened somehow. They are still carrying on in the delusional and unhealthy behaviors.

        I am conflicted and struggle with this. It is extremely hard. I have to make a conscious effort to go on. I am a changed person now. Most alienated parents are changed after the horrific experience. Sometimes I look in the mirror and see who I am. I am a changed person.

        It is great to know that you keep strong at this. It is a relief something is strong enough like you to bring relief to others. Thank you for all you do.



      2. Thank you Karen. I read your reply to K and we both smiled. It is hard, and it’s a lonely path, but we stay strong. I’m heartened by your reply. I know you have to be careful and confidential but I wonder how your young man of 26 came to you? My stepchild has recently moved house, and the mother refuses to give their new address, although we know they’ve stayed local. It seems the mother continues to work to keep the level of alienation high, but it feels like change is in the air, as the days lengthen and the wider future beckons. I continue to put my trust in my stepchild being half of K, who consistently sets a wonderful example of how to behave with dignity and care in the face of ugly hostility. How is the website coming on? I would still personally appreciate and I think benefit from a step-parents forum.


  2. I wish I had known about you when my daughter was 15 and my husband began his campaign against me but how would I have recognised it as alienation, how? I never saw it coming even though it was happening in front of my eyes within an intact family. I was subject to character assassinations, verbal abuse and contempt that my daughter came to copy and parrot back to me. She was convinced she had to protect her poor daddy from me, the ultimate baddie in all this. It is her birthday today. I have had no contact with her for well over two years. She has made her position perfectly clear. She will never contact me again. For the first time in 36 years I have not sent her a birthday card. I have let her go. But I will never forget that beautiful baby I gave birth to 36 years ago today. The beautiful baby that grew into a beautiful child, (a mummy’s girl because day was more interested in his hobbies than her) and became a loving teenager until my husband decided he no longer liked me when she was 15 and convinced her that I was some kind of threat to him. Happy birthday daughter. I will never forget the day you arrived on this planet or the days that followed when I begged your daddy to hold you and he turned his back on your sweet little self. Happy birthday ………


  3. The sadness in your comment Willow is such that I want to send you my deepest care and reassurance that your daughter, at some level of her awareness, knows that you are there. The years may go by (in some cases thirty years) but the awareness doesn’t go away. Part of her knows. That doesn’t help you now but it is important to say it because it is true. The loss she has suffered but defended herself against will remain as part of her shadow, strongest when the sun shines, in happy times there will be someone missing always. I know it is little comfort but it is important that you know the truth because the toxicity of believing that she really doesn’t care can hollow out your heart and soul. She does. She is trapped. One day she may have the courage to be free. This horrible scourge blights lives beyond what is bearable. I send you my love and care. K


  4. And that is why Karen you send out such a beam of hope, not for me because I don’t have enough years left for my daughter to think again, but for future generations so that no other child and no other parent, male or female has to go through this again. I shall now go and walk my two year old dog in the sunshine, after a horrible stormy day yesterday it is a welcome change. Thank you for fighting the fight and not giving up 🙂


    1. Bless you willow, bless you karen. I have sent for cosmic help. It’s on its way. This year massive changes are going to take place, a dam wall will break, the truth will out. Every adult alienated child will become aware of what has happened to them and the targeted parent. They will become aware of distorted feminist social and family policy and a justice system that enables alienation. They will become aware of how culture affected the alienating parent along with trsnsgenerational haunting where it has not been identified beforehand. The alienated adult children will be ser free of shame guilt associated with infected decisions they may have made. The adult alienated children will be made strong enough to both lift and heal their alienating parent and bolster the targeted parent. The AAC, will be able to re-establish positive relations with both the once targeted parent and the once alienating parent. This is the year alienation is delivered a terminal blow. This year a better future for all children, parents and families begins. This year we seize the mainstream media. This year everyone becomes alienation aware and the spectrum upon which it sits identified anf differentiated for the purposes of healing and reunification and prevention.

      Those who have known about the inhumanity and carnage and made matters much worse for either financial reward or furthering a distorted ideological stance or both will be dealt with and stripped.

      I have a fleet of Tardis ready to go there and back again and to the future. I also have a pet dalek who is 100% under my command. It doesnt feel a thing when dispatching pure evil.

      Not last year, not next year, this year.

      This year the pathogens of alienation are destroyed. A light is shone upon all.

      Healers required. There are going to be masses of adult alienated children have the hoodwink taken off. Reunifications after long estrangements are not easy, but much more than worth the effort.

      The time space continuum is also saved. The inevitable result in contagious horzontal alirnation is a collapse of civilization.

      We cant allow that to happen, even if at its core is gynocentrism.

      Spanners out, tighten up your nuts and bolts, wipe the mid and ancient horror from the windshields… We’re going somewhere we’ve never been…. but was always the very best of our ideas.

      Soon. KTF.



  5. It is hard to hang on to hope when all you encounter is the defenses: the anger, the self-righteousness and the complete conviction that the alienated parent is a horrible person beyond redemption. It’s hard to imagine my stepson ever being able to leave the delusional world behind, he seems so stuck in it. I try to hang on to the memory of him coming to our home a year ago and telling my husband within 2 hours that he loved him, but then I wonder – who is the really him? The one we saw, or the one who reappears the minute he gets back in his mother’s orbit? I don’t think he knows. For my husband’s sake, I hope he can someone claw his way out, but it’s hard to imagine. We go on and live our lives as happily as possible anyway – that’s all we can do.


    1. Cara, I know how completely exhausting this has been, at its height, for my husband and I, so I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been, and possibly still is, for his child. I do know the child once said “it’s just easier not to see you” and I know that was the authentic child speaking. I also know how much the child seemed to relish speaking happily and normally to my husband the last time the child broke out of the alienation, and I saw, at first hand, how viciously and totally and immediately the mother responded once she knew it was happening, and how much pressure she put their child under to break contact again. I hope my stepchild breaks out of this for their own sake. I fear for every relationship they ever try to have if they never learn enough to see how they’ve been taught to cut off anyone who doesn’t play the game, and hurt and wound in order to prove their in charge.
      Like you, my husband and I live our lives as happily as we can, and enjoy what we have and what we create together. It keeps us healthy, and if the time ever comes will be the foundation of his child’s healing.


      1. Yes, on my good days I have a lot of compassion for my stepson, and I read forums about people with personality disordered parents in order to get a better picture of what it must be like for him to deal with this situation. I watched him descend into the alienation – he would come into our room crying at night and apologizing to his father; now, it’s just hateful texts full of projection, if my H gets any response at all. My stepson is 17, doing terribly in school, and plays upwards of 100 hours of video games a week (public user profile), I assume to bury everything. He seems stuck for the foreseeable future. When he came around last year, it was because for some reason we’ve never figured out, his mother encouraged the contact, but it ended quickly. I’m grateful that my husband has been able to rise above it and we have a happy life – but I doubt my stepson will be someone we want to be around in the future, he seems so damaged at this point. My husband prefers the hateful texts to silence – I prefer the silence, but both are awful. It’s just so frustrating to be able to do NOTHING.


      2. Some interestingly similar aspects Cara. The last time my husband spent more than, literally, a couple of minutes with his child was at the behest of the mother. His child had restarted up contact that day, and text a lot thanking Dad for presents, and help, and all sorts, when the mother, completely out of the blue, text to set a meeting up. That had never, and I mean never, happened before. It was on her terms, 15 minutes in a coffee shop. She sat between them the whole time, whilst my husband had as normal a conversation as he could. My husband tried to be civil to her too (to model normal good behaviour to his child, and to try to be pleasant) and she took the opportunity to rant about a number of things, including me. My husband said his child pulled their hood up over their head whilst she ranted. At 15 mins she dragged their child out, and it has never been repeated. No idea what prompted it, although his child had got in contact. Contact remained for a couple of weeks, but was terminated totally once the mother realised the extent of it. That was nearly four years ago now.
        My husband has had no direct contact at all for over three years, and nothing more than that 15 minutes in 4.5 yrs, although he’s seen his child a few times in passing, and spoke once when they were in the same local shop. He said hello to his child, wished them well, told them he loved them, said the extended family were all well, and left it at that. The child was with a friend, and didn’t speak although did tell the mother, who triumphantly paraded the silence as proof the child wanted nothing to do with the father. My husband sends cards and says he is here when his child wants to make contact. He tells his child he is well, although he misses them. The mother gate-keeps but we work on the premise that even if she uses any contact to remind the child how awaful Dad is, the child knows the dad is still there and trying to make contact. It’s difficult, really difficult, to know what to do for the best, so we just keep sending messages and hope the child’s subliminal mind will get comfort from the contact.


      3. CG, It is very hard to know what the best thing to do is. The prevailing wisdom seems to be to try to keep in touch, and my husband does that, but at what pace can he keep it up if it takes 10 more years for my stepson to come out of it? I imagine he will get to the twice a year messages if it goes that long. It’s such a tragic phenomenon, all so the alienating parent can be “happy”, which of course, they never are. I struggle with understanding why it’s so hard for these older teens and young adults to see what’s happening and break away, and I’m not sure I will ever truly “get it”. How could my stepson be able to see it so clearly (and he did) when he was away from her, but be so utterly unable to see it when he’s with her?


      4. Try thinking about it like this Cara. When he is away from his mother and not dependent upon her he can see, think, hear and feel normally. When he is with her, she consumes all the energy and he cannot see, think, hear or feel without her being kept happy. He is utterly trapped by her psychology, he is isn’t going to be able to do it by half measures, when he goes he is going to have to go completely because he knows that when he does finally escape the grip she has on him she will never ever forgive him. She is half of his identity, he wrestles with the horror of that and the guilt of wanting to be free of her and the confusion about how and when he should make his break. He hates her at the same time as loving her, thinks she is a complete fool at the same times as feeling sorry for her, wishes she were normal but knows she never will be. When, in his young life, is there ever going to be a time when he is ready to burn all those bridges and never go back, because he knows when he makes his break, he is never going back. Does that make it make sense? He is completly and utterly trapped and he has two choices – accept her or leave her forever. He is not ready to do it yet. One day he will be. But not yet. What you can do is let him know that when he does make the break his dad will be there to help him cope with the absolute horror of what he has had to do. No child wants to choose to lose a parent, either the parent who is rejected or the parent who is alienating. It is alien to a child to do so but he knows that he will have to one day. When he does your husband must be there because the horror of what his son is going to have to do is more than any child should have to do ever. Not your husband’s fault but his son’s mother’s fault but she probably has no idea, she is just doing what she does, what she has always done, what your husband left her for, what his son cannot yet escape from. K


      5. Karen, thank you – that’s helpful. Almost three years ago, he spent a week at our house (unexpectedly – my husband found out she had gone out of the country and left him with a teenager, so went to get him) and during that week, he cried a lot, told us many things that were going on, decided he wanted to live with us and asked my husband to go back to court. During the process, stepson kept repeating “no child should have to say these things about his mother” and ultimately, of course, he couldn’t do it, lied for his mother again and was lost to us completely. I have always seen the evidence of his love/hate feelings for her, feeling sorry for her/angry at her and the back and forth as he “changed sides” between his father and his mother. I hope he can get himself free someday, and I do think his father will be there for him no matter what. You won’t be surprised to hear that my husband had a difficult mother and spent years figuring out how to get out of her home, so he has more empathy and understanding than I do with my “normal” parents.


  6. Some time ago I read a piece by Craig Childress that made the point (and I’m paraphrasing) that children understand whether anyone involved with them is going to be able to get them out of their situation, and if they can’t be got out completely it’s better just to leave them alone, rather than expose them to even more pressure and pain in an increased tug of war they’ll find themselves in courtesy of the alienating parent. I know my husband walked away from the court process when he lost all faith in anyone there trying to help his child, and by walking away he hoped to halt the increase in pressure his child was increasingly under. I believe the guardian in that case had no faith in being able to change the situation for the child, having seen (and acknowledged) how intransigent the mothers position was (he actually said to my husband ‘animals will fly before (the mother) comes to the table for (the child)’. I know Karen you’ve spoken before about these children walking away from the parent they know will cope. I know my husband knew he couldn’t live with his child’s mother any more, but has been tormented by knowing he left his child where he himself wouldn’t/couldn’t stay. I know her behaviours haven’t lessened, and in a way I get some hope from that, because it makes me hope that one day the child will just have had enough. I know she continues to destabilise the child but her total control seems to be lessening (we know the child has taken up some hobbies not connected to her, and made contact with previously cut off friends). My question always is just how do we let the child know what we want them to know, re being a safe, welcoming place they can come to, at any time, when there is no direct contact, at all, and no intermediates.


  7. CG, our situations are very similar, my husband also stopped fighting in court when it became clear it was not only NOT helping, it was actively hurting his son to keep dragging him into court, where he was pressured to lie to support his mother, which he did, repeatedly. But he too struggles with having to leave his son, as you said, in the place he wasn’t willing to stay. And we don’t see any movement towards independence, just hours and hours of gaming every day and school performance that seem designed to keep him dependent on his mother well into his adulthood. My husband can still text and email him, though he usually gets no reply, so I’m not sure if those welcoming messages have any effect whatsoever.


  8. I am an alienated parent. It’s been two years. I have proceeded with a section 211 and gave an excellent lawyer supporting my case. My daughter called me last night after 20 months. She is 14. She shared her distorted views as to why she cut me off. It was difficult to not get defensive but I’ve had amazing counselling and focused on my daughters feelings rather than justifying. Within five minutes she was calm and curioys about my life. We shared what we have both been doing. We talked for 45 minutes. Today she wouldn’t answer my call or respond to my text. I knew this might happen and also have learned that no matter what I must proceed with the section 211 and court. It’s hard – everyday I feel pain and doubt about my children knowing about court but I must move forward. Their long term mental health is what I must focus on although short term it’s so incredibly painful. Thank you so much.


  9. My son and we as grandparents are going through the same thing for years of fighting in and out of courts then of his ex wife just deciding to take them from us one day because she didn’t like it that he took my older granddaughters cell phyaway as a punishment one day.. but it was actually being used to spy on him from her.. so we went 5 months before even being able to get court date! By then the samosas done…. after that they were only granted supervised visits st our home every other weekend.. with my son.. mainly because of lies from the mother.. and a crooked lawyer.. things were getting better girls acting more normal for a year went on like this then one day the 15 year old just got mad again over absolutely nothing.. and said they never want to come back over again.. my other granddaughter is 13.. her sister.. we don’t know what hapyso fast.. to have them change.. and say the hurtful things they said.. do not like them and our relationship.. other than more of the mothers years of guideing them and coaching them to hate us and not want to be with us.. wished we knew what to do to help.. they won’t return any texts or calls


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