Karen Woodall

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.