The See-Saw Challenge: Helping Alienated Children in Recovery

I am about to take a break for a few days in order to recover my equilibrium. This is something that we do at the Clinic every twelve weeks or so.  Running our programmes over a twelve week period means that we are often on call 24/7 as we work with children in residence transfer and beyond.  At any one time we are delivering on several cases in which alienated children are at different stages of the recovery process.

Working with alienated children and their families is an exhausting job although it is also extremely rewarding too.  It is draining at the outset, when we are working with the highest levels of tension brought about by the family court process, whilst being the people who provide the ballast that keeps the children stable whilst we do the work of assessment and intervention. Further down the road, when the children are being re-introduced to the previously aligned parent, we have to work hard to ensure that the child’s psychologically split self does not drive the child to counter reject that parent.  Balancing the child’s psychology is our core goal. Preventing the ‘see-saw’ effect is how we achieve that.

The ‘see-saw’ effect is something which is observable in all children who emerge from alienation.  When the child emerges spontaneously from alienation, often as an older teenager or adult, I call it the ping pong effect.  The behaviour which is seen is curious in that the child is prompted by the stirrings of the guilt and shame they have buried, to reach out to a parent, only to quickly retreat as fast as they appeared. In spontaneous emergence I always tell parents to hang tight and not pursue the child, give a welcome but do not immediately leap upon the child when they appear in your lives. If you do you will push the child back into the place where the guilt and shame will become intolerable too quickly and they will bury the feelings and return to their hiding place of complete rejection. If you sit tight, almost ignoring them but not quite, they will come further towards you. The trick is to know that they have to deal with a lot of repressed feeling in order to properly reach you and you must let them.  However much you love your children, you cannot resolve the split state of mind for them, however much you would take away your child’s pain in a heartbeat, it is their coping mechanism they are trying to overcome and they must be able to do it themselves in order to heal. You can help but you cannot do it for them and neither can you force it. If your child appears, making phone calls and then putting the phone down or ‘accidentally’ texting you only to disappear again, don’t bombard them just send them a hi, I’m here and I love you and wait. Waiting for a child to emerge is like fishing, you have to be patient, vigilent and know the signs. Ping pong behaviour is a clear sign that the child is struggling to emerge.

The see-saw effect in a child who has been reunited with a parent through intervention from court comes later down the line, after reunification, after the honeymoon of recovered love and after the search for forgiveness. The see-saw effect is one of the danger points for children who are being assisted therapeutically to emerge from alienation and it’s resolution gives way to the search for congruence which indicates that the cycle of recovery is almost complete.  The see saw effect is a risk which occurs if the receiving parent (previously rejected parent) is unable to hold the child firmly in a non judgemental and accepting manner whilst the work of reconnecting the child to the previously aligned parent (alienating parent) is done. The see-saw effect messes with the child’s mind when their two parents are now, in their mind, held in a tense balance as the child attempts to work out who is right and who is wrong, until they come to the place where they recognise that neither is right OR wrong and both are right AND wrong.

This is not about teaching the child that the previously alienating parent is a bad parent and the receiving parent who was rejected is the good parent, it is about restoring the child to the normal psychological ability to hold ambivalent feelings about people. Learning that a parent has done bad things but is not a bad person, helps the child to heal the splitting. Learning to understand the bad behaviours and how to protect the self from them, is about building resilience in the child.  Because lest we forget this fact – parental alienation is the result of the alienating behaviours in the parent plus the sensitivity in the child plus the third ingredient, this being the contributions positive and negative made by the the other parent.

The see saw effect then is the ability of the now primary caretaking parent, to allow the child  the freedom to rebuild the relationship with the parent they have been moved from AND assist in building the resilience in the child. As we do that work we set the child in a new and balanced environment, in which their ability to hold perspective is gradually rebuilt.

When the child does not swing between one parent good, the other parent bad, we have reached the place of healing. To do that we have to dispense with the splitting in all aspects of the child’s life, including blaming others. As we go along, the balance is found and the child’s resilience is built giving them a stronger chance of resolving the splitting reaction for good.

As I go off on my break to balance my see-saw of energy and strength, I wish you all well.  I will be writing more about the alienated child’s journey to recovery very soon.


  1. You have certainly had a lot of stress on this blog recently. Come back refreshed and with renewed energy. And thank you for the work you do.


  2. Enjoy your break.

    My stepson ping-ponged in and out of our lives and we got to see him twice last year. Since then, there is silence, punctuated every few months by spontaneous hostile and demanding texts. Wonder if those count as him reaching out. I always figured that was driven by his mother’s need to periodically make sure my husband knows she’s still in control and vent her ongoing hatred through my stepson, rather than my stepson actually reaching out himself.


    1. Hi Cara, no those texts are the still alienated child who is likely to be doing as you say and being the conduit for mother’s hatred. Children who ping pong as they emerge will make contact pleasantly and then go silent and will do that on a number of random occasions as a way of testing you out. It usually happens once and then silence and then in a group which leads on to proper reaching out. When it happens you have to keep still in order to test whether it is a real attempt or a false one, a false one is the one set up by mother, they come with a large dose of alienated behaviour usually after which follows a long silence or, worse than that, taunting behaviour from the parent. K


      1. Thank you, Karen. I think last year’s reentry into our lives was set up by the mother, still not sure why. He wasn’t acting alienated at first, but then disappeared in a flurry of angry behavior after a few weeks. So perhaps a false one.


      2. Hi Karen, thank you. I think when he came back into our lives last year it was orchestrated by her, for whatever reason, so what you say makes sense about false attempts. And the hostile texts sound so much like her, it’s hard to see it as anything the child is initiating. Hopefully someday we will see a real emerging, though I think it’s a long time off.


    1. The ping pong is such an interesting and accurate article I m still trying to react in the right way to my now grown up daughter who suffered from this all her life
      In our case it was ping pong and ping again because it was my ex wife and my own Mother a professional alienator all her life !


      1. This is a fascinating triangle Moishky1, we are looking at transgenerational alienation patterns, your mother/your ex wife – we are drawn to people who exhibit the behaviours of our parents – we spend our lives trying to right the wrongs done to us by our parents through the relationships we have and unless we can become conscious of the harm we fall for someone who is either very like or very unlike the damaging parent – the very unlike pattern revealing itself eventually to have underlying similar traits if that makes sense. Use empathic responding with your daughter at all times, be other than who the alienators tell her you are and be constantly present in the calmest and most steadfast way, she needs a firm foundation, one which is not going to mirror the behaviours of the alienators, she will eventually stop ping pong pinging and settle with the reality based parent – you. K


      2. “we are looking at transgenerational alienation patterns”……..
        and so…….
        ” we are drawn to people who exhibit the behaviours of our parents – we spend our lives trying to right the wrongs done to us by our parents through the relationships we have…”

        …..what I’m wondering Karen is how do we break this cycle early enough in our lives that we avoid ‘spending (wasting’) our lives in this unconscious pattern that brings so much grief and lost life? Looking back with new found knowledge at the carnage in one’s life brings understanding but the wasted years remain just that, wasted years whose consequences live on in the present.


      3. nothing is wasted Ss, when you become conscious of patterns from the past then the onward journey of life becomes meaningful. The first task is to forgive the self and find meaning and renewed hope, the second to repair what the past has done to our inner and outer selves and the third task is to recognise that however wounded we were/are we are nothing more or less than our neighbours in terms of our worth and our place in the world. Life is about that journey of awakening in my view and healing and then helping, I know that is an almost religious approach to life, I am not religious in any way but I understand that life flows and that our task on this earth is to help it flow in ourselves and others. When we have recovered ourselves we come to know that our parents, however badly we were treated, were simply unable to unwind the harm that was done to them. A good read in this area is Alice Miller, the drama of being a child. K


      4. Karen thank you for your thoughtful reply… And book recommendation….. I think however there must be a grieving stage for all that has been lost, for the futility and waste that is transgenerational patterns repeatedly played out. So much happiness missed, so much life lost that could have been lived so much more fruitfully and an ever present lingering fear that the grip of the past is still lurking in the shadows ready to destroy again any new found future freedom and chances for the kind of life one had hoped for………


      5. that is all part of the recovery process Ss, it is what comes when one embraces the learning and the understanding that this horrible process called alienated from loved ones brings. It cannot be avoided but must be absolutely inhabited, once it has been completely lived in and felt at every level the defences are no longer necessary and the transgenerational patterns are interrupted. A victory over the past patterns is a life lived in unconscious peace without any reference to the past generations, this is the goal of all of us who live and work with this life pattern. Sending you my support. K


      6. Hi Karen, I’ve just reread your Post “Helping the hopeless:caring for the alienated parent” from Oct 8 ,2016…….which seemed very relevant to our discussion. I’ve also only just read your reply to a late query I posted on that thread…..mustn’t have seen the notification of reply …..thank you for that… finding myself again, having a renewed purpose, not allowing self doubt to corrode me, etc are all things within my sphere of control and that is where I need to focus……then I can be whole, ready to reunite when the moment presents itself……an Olympic flame of hope that never dies….


      7. On reflection I’m aware of another emotion in the mix, on top of grief, and that is ‘envy’……envy of those for whom this chaos has never been on their path….a realisation of just how different the life of separated families is from the standard formula….. and how great the need is to connect with others in the same boat. A realisation of how little the judgements of non-separated families matter since they cannot begin to understand the complexities at play in separated families. A point I think that also highlights the need for those who work in this field to have experiential knowledge of it, not simply theoretical. As in Karen’s case….. she offers understanding from the inside, coupled with the relevant professional knowledge and expertise. A background I now see as critical for anyone I would want to be assisted by. Social services would do well to take note of this I think……


  3. Hi karen this is so 17 year old daughter left 16 months ago to live with her father whos brainwashing her..she ignored me for months then saw me 3 times then ignored me again then 5 months of seeing her and now pulling away and ignoring me again…im exhausted…


    1. As Karen is sensibly recharging her batteries at mo, can I take the liberty of suggesting that you read through the archived posts….I’ve found this a really useful way to gain a wider knowledge of the ins and outs of Karen’s work….though it is extremely time consuming for me it’s been time well spent. At least until her book is published and all this info will be in one indexed place.


  4. I’ve found some Posts in the archive which I think tie in well with this Post…..
    “Stories from a transition bridge: Polly plays ping pong” Nov 12, 2013
    “When children reject you: using empathy to challenge the alienation process” Jan 29, 2014
    “Preparing for empathetic responding with an alienated child” Feb 3, 2014
    ” Sowing the seeds of doubt: first stage empathetic responding with an alienated child ” Feb 20, 2014


  5. This article was posted about 2 weeks after my 17 year old daughter went silent after having reached out two weekends in a row to spend time with me. And although it makes me hopeful that her sudden and complete withdrawal is a “normal” part of the process, I’m terrified that I may have ruined things.

    In early March she reached out, after a few months of intermittent lukewarm communication, and asked if we could get out of town, just the two of us. Of course I agreed and she seemed genuinely happy to get together.

    On the way down she brought up the subject of divorce and asked why a specific couple we knew didn’t just get a divorce since they always fight. She said it seemed obvious they should. I hesitated and said that I wasn’t sure she whether I should answer. She looked quizzically and I honestly answered that they stayed together in large part due to my divorce and seeing how that turned out. (Which is true, based on conversation with the female.) I said that after seeing how my divorce was, they realized how much was at stake and how things can turn out very differently than how you imagine. I then hesitated and said I wasn’t sure I should be talking about the divorce, or if it made her uncomfortable. She responded by wondering aloud why her older brother hadn’t gone to the courts to get records and see for himself what the truth was. I told her that I understood why he hadn’t: because it’s emotionally tough stuff. I told her that even now I get physically ill when all that is dredged up. I said that she and her brother had been through a lot of negative, and that seeing all of the court records would bring it all back. I said that through it all, my biggest hope was that she and her brother would come out of it all ok. I said I understood that the conflict was really hard on them and I hoped they would eventually come to place of peace. My daughter said she and her brother just wanted to put it all in the past and move on. She said “I’ve gotten to the point where I can forgive.” And she gave me a look that insinuated she was forgiving me. Then she said didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

    That happened at the start of our day. We went on to spend the entire day in my hometown 2 hours away (her choice) and we had a blast together. We laughed and ate and talked and had a wonderful day. She was fairly open and talked about friends and school and other topics she’d previously been guarded about. We drive back in good spirits and hugged when she left to go back to her dad’s house. The next day I sent her a couple of texts and she responded positively. But the next day I text her about a tv show we’d talked about when we were together and I got no response. I have since tried to call and have sent a few texts, but no response to any. I am devastated given that she seemed to be coming around.

    I worry that me even bringing up the divorce at all caused her to withdraw. I was careful to say nothing negative about her father or his wife. But even so, if she went back to their house and said anything to them, I’m sure there would’ve been backlash. I was stupid not to think about that before I spoke.

    I found out yesterday through a parent-friend that my daughter went to junior prom over the weekend. I didn’t know anything about it and only saw pictures because my friend shared pictures with me that her daughter shared with her. It breaks my heart that I’m not a part of seeing her experience these milestones.

    Do you think her withdrawal might be normal see-sawing and she may come back around, or do you think I may have blown it and caused her to reject me permanently?


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