Far from being the kind of cosy kitchen table topic portrayed by the BBC in recent weeks, parental alienation is actually, often, a scene straight from a horror story. In cases I have been involved in over the years, the transmission of intergenerational trauma has transmogrified the behaviours of children into a grotesque pantomime. The issue is chilling in the most extreme form and it is nothing short of a descent into madness which encapsulates all who come near it. In a recent report on from the USA, this horror is illuminated by the vengeful rage of a mother who, determined that the other parent shall not have the child, murdered her daughter. This is the Medea Complex which is seen in some cases of parental alienation. In recent cases I have worked in, themes of false allegations of sexual abuse in extreme circumstances have been prevalent. There is nothing normal or run of the mill about this topic, it is not about straightforward contact disputes and it is not about conflict. To portray it that way does all families affected by it a gross disservice.
Parental Alienation is a serious mental health issue which is often triggered by family separation but which in reality is not about the rejected parent at all but about the hidden pattern of intergenerational trauma which erupts because of the decompensation of a high functioning parent who is confronted by the withdrawal of the relationship through which they defended themselves from the primary wounds inflicted upon them in early life.
Parental alienation is properly located in the field of parental mental health in the context of post separation family relationships. It is also properly located in the field of children’s mental health and wellbeing, where it can be properly considered and responded to. Putting it anywhere else fogs the issue as well as ensuring that it is dumbed down and claimed by anyone whose child struggles in post separation relationships, making working with this issue more difficult not less. As I have written recently, there is a risk that in bringing the issues to light, the media attention will obscure the real story of parental alienation. Prettifying it in order to make it palatable and interesting to the mainstream media risks eradicating the reality. The reality we work with at the Family Separation Clinic. The reality which leaves nothing to the imagination in which the nasty underbelly of trauma, passes through the generational line to transmogrify children into unrecognisable gargoyles in the lives of previously beloved parents.
Narcissistic people are chilling to work with. Charming at first they can hide the lack of self in their first encounters with new people very well. They do this by being extremely kind, very focused and utterly delightful in their interactions. They exude warmth which strangely chills at times but when they notice that you feel cold, they will turn on the charm and turn up the heat so that you forget that cold spot and return to basking in the glory of their focused attention. Eventually, as you spend time with this person you will notice that at times their mask slips. You will notice that their focused attention falters and when that happens you will observe and become aware of a chasm in your own felt sense of the relational depth you are experiencing. A sensation of sudden absence will begin to evolve in your relationship and gradually you will begin to realise that you are alone here, your value being something other than that which you were led to believe it was, at first, when the sun was shining. Narcissistic people are extremely common in the group of parents who alienate their children,alongside the unstable personality (borderlines) and the histrionics, the sociopaths and sometimes the psychopaths. And then we have people who experience the eruption of vengeful rage which captures the child in a tsunami of terror, those with factitious illness and those whose projective identity problem is out of control. These issues are nothing to do with the child’s relationship with the parent they are rejecting and everything to do with the unwell parental behaviours that the child is not capable of managing.
The transmogrification of trauma is nothing to do with parental rights, it is a mental health issue and placing it anywhere other than in the arena of mental health fogs the reality of just how serious an issue it is. As legal commentators have recently shown, the location of the issue in the field of parental rights, has done it a great disservice, bringing it out of that place and into the field of mental health is a core focus for the Clinic in the coming months.
Fortunately the mental health field in the UK is alive to the reality of parental alienation and is listening and learning fast. Countering the risks posed by the parental rights groups claiming the topic for their own, mental health practitioners are starting to recognise that this issue is one which affects children deeply, not just because of the lack of relationship with the rejected parent, but because of the harm being done by the parent with whom the child lives. This leads to the potential for opening up the issue within the field of children’s mental health and allows it to be considered and evaluated in terms of responses from children’s mental health services. The Clinic is involved in developing conversations around parental alienation and children’s mental health and will be presenting case studies and discussion at major conferences in this field this year.
As we continue our work with families, our research programme and our policy development, we are shifting the issue of parental alienation out of the midst of the parental rights argument and into the mental health arena where it belongs.
Because parental alienation, as Dr Childress so eloquently puts it, is not a parental rights issue it is a child protection issue. And the sooner we update the UK understanding of that the better equipped we will be to offset the fogging and the dumbing down of this horrible problem affecting children, which is currently in fashion.
I will be presenting at the Centre for Child Mental Health Conference ‘Too Much Pain, Helping Children with Traumatic Life Transitions, Separations and Losses’ in London on July 8 2017
and with Nick Woodall at the Third International Conference on Missing Children and Adults in Scotland in June 2017