The alienated child in recovery goes through a series of psychological changes, these are distinct and recognisable and are mapped through our work with children post intervention.
Children in recovery are repairing the psychologically split state of mind, that which is used as a defence against the intolerable dilemma of having to choose one parent to love and one parent to lose. This is not an easy recovery journey. Although it can be swift at the outset with alienated children being able to immediately move from absolute rejection to acceptance and warmth, the conditions for this response must be right for this to be seen.
Children in recovery go through a recognised process from rejection of a parent to acceptance and then into an encounter with grief, shame and guilt. After this comes search for meaning (why did this happen to me) and then a search for congruence (how can I trust that adults around me are telling the truth). From there a child must be helped to gain and maintain the perspective which was destroyed by the alienation reaction. The final phase of recovery for the child is the development of resilience, in which the child is able to recognise that the ‘choice’ they made to reject a parent, was made at the behest of a parent who created an impossible situation for them. When this stage is reached, the child recognises that their needs are primary and that alignment with either parent is not helpful, they also recognise what healthy parenting feels like and are content within the reconfigured hierarchy of authority which governs their lives.
Helping a child to reach this stage of recovered self is undertaken in the months after the reunification work is done. Attempting to do this with a child who is still living in the situation in which they are being influenced by a parent is unethical for practitioners because the child is being asked to change in an unchanging dynamic. This is a key issue for practitioners to consider and is the reason why the legal and mental health interlocking relationship is so vital. It is clear from all of our work with children and from the research in this field, that children who are alienated are responding to the dynamics created by the adults around them. Whilst it is the child’s vulnerability to these dynamics which determines whether an alienation reaction flourishes or not, a practitioner who attempts to get the child to change without attending to the dynamics which influence their behaviour, is causing harm to the child. The only right way to do this work as a mental health practitioner is to accept the responsibility for advocating on behalf of the child in court, in order to change the dynamic and then carry out the intervention which liberates the child. Leading on from that the therapeutic work with the child can begin.
The practitioner who does the work of freeing the child can also deliver the therapeutic assistance which moves the child into recovery. The therapeutic alliance in such circumstances is strong because the child has already placed trust in the practitioner who has listened to the unspoken narrative and acted upon it. Children in recovery are clear that they did not want to reject their parent but that they understood the instructions to do so, instructions which are given sometimes verbally and sometimes in the behavioural commands which are conveyed in the intra-psychic relationship between parent and child. Having someone intervene, lifts the burden of responsibility of choosing to change from the child’s shoulders. This creates trust and builds a willingness to be guided in therapeutic work. For some children, this work offers them their first opportunity to understand that their needs are separate and distinct from a parent, for others it offers them reassurance that their lives can be lived under their own control rather than that of the parent who has hitherto swallowed up their independent sense of self. All of this work is undertaken in short term therapy which lasts no longer than six months post intervention in most cases. By the end of this phase of work the child should be in complete recovery in relationship to the previously rejected parent and should be well on their way to re-establishing the relationship with the previously alienating parent.
Healing the split state of mind in a child however is a tricky task and the core conditions for therapeutic work must be in place at the outset in order that this occurs as the foundation stone for all future work. The core conditions for therapeutic work are that the child has entered into the warm acceptance of the previously rejected parent and that this parent is enabled to provide for the child the reconfigured hierarchy of authority in which they will flourish. Within this setting, which occurs within the first days of reunification, the child experiences a resetting of the external dynamic which in turn triggers a change within. A child in these circumstances has often arrived into reunification from a world in which they were enmeshed with the alienating parent and in which they were given responsibility for making decisions which they were too young to make. Helping the child to experience the warmth and security of being held and contained in a relationship in which their parent is beneficent is an important part of this work. Reducing anxiety and confusion is helped by the child being helped to recognise their own needs and how these are now being met.
Children are often in the early days of reunification, concerned with feelings of guilt and shame which arise from the reality that the cognitive dissonance which has been present in their lives, has been changed. Alienated children know deep down that what they are doing is wrong and they feel, underneath the brittle proclamations of hatred and rejection, a great sense of guilt and shame for it. When they are released from the trap they have been in, they encounter those feelings and seek forgiveness. When this is received, they can move on and in giving the child release from these powerful feelings, the once rejected parent moves back into the position of authority. Helping parents to recognise when a child is seeking forgiveness and the importance of giving it even though it is not required by the parent, is part of what a practitioner must do to ensure that the flow of healing is maintained in the right direction for the child. Many formerly rejected parents are simply so happy that their child is back to normal again that they are at risk of overlooking these important stages. Guiding the parent through the child’s recovery is an essential part of the skill of providing post reunification care.
A child who is forgiven enters into the stage of searching for meaning and has in place the building blocks for a return to a healthy future. When this stage is reached it is time to look at the reconnection of the child with the once alienating parent. This stage is a delicate one but it cannot be missed out upon because if a child has to lose one parent to gain the other, their recovery cannot be completed. Unfortunately, for some children, the alienating parent does not, cannot or will not engage in assisting the child at this stage and continues their distorted belief system, refusing to see the child and in some situations simply disappearing completely. This is often seen in situations where a parent has a personality disorder and in the most severe cases of alienation where a parent has a delusional disorder and cannot change their beliefs. When this occurs children have to be helped to understand the objective reality of this parent’s state of mind and have to be assisted to see that this is the responsibility of the parent. Preventing children from relapsing because of the pressures brought about by a return of the old dynamic (if my parent will not see me it must because I have done something wrong) which is filled with guilt and shaming strategies, is key in this stage.
Beyond the reconnection with the alienating parent the child begins a search for meaning and then for congruence in which they seek to make the reconfigured meaning of the past fit both internally and externally. The challenges for children here being that if the alienating parent does not change, the child encounters cognitive dissonance but this time in the direction of the alienating parent. Preventing the child from using the splitting mechanism to deal with this is a key part of therapeutic work and is achieved by ongoing exposure to the alienating parent in tandem with therapy. Having one practitioner undertaking this work is critical to ensure that the child has one consistent person to depend upon. Thus a practitioner who reunites the child will work with the child and the once rejected parent and will supervise contact with the alienating parent whilst a second therapist will work with the alienating parent if they are considered suitable for that input.
This work takes no longer than six months maximum and leaves a child, where possible, in a relationship with both parents which is as near normal as possible. Only where severe contraindications are in place, such as lack of acceptance of contribution to harm and lack of behavioural change, would we wish to continue supervision in such circumstances. Whilst we can and do supervise contacts for much longer than six months, largely we would move to the use of parenting co-ordination to case manage beyond six months. Parenting co-ordinators offer management of child arrangements orders in such a way that the dynamic is held firm so that a return to previous behaviours cannot be used.
The journey of the alienated child in recovery is predictable and responsive to therapeutic input and it can be demonstrably replicated through assistance. When children recover they go on to live normal healthy lives. This work is not long winded and it is based upon interventions which seek to change the dynamics around the child first after which therapeutic work is made more potent. Understanding this, a practitioner in this field must pay attention at first to getting the right conditions in place via the legal process. Only when this is achieved, can the healing really begin.