I have been working with alienated children and their families for many years now and I am well used to the risks involved. For practitioners new to the field however, the risks may not be visible, until it is too late. Developing the new European Association for Parental Alienation Practitioners, is one of the ways that the Family Separation Clinic is committed to building an alienation aware work force which is not risk averse in its approach. Teaching other practitioners how to ensure that they do not suffer the consequences of intervening in alienation cases, via alienating parents triangulating their governing body into the dynamic is another.
This subject is dear to my heart because I suffered the consequence of being governed by a body which is not alienation aware and therefore was not sufficiently capable of recognising the way in which it was being used by an alienating parent to further an agenda. This experience, which was then used by another practitioner in an attempt to damage my work further, was one of the most horrific experiences I have ever had to survive. In surviving it however, I learned a great deal of what is necessary to keep going in this field and I built a way of working and being in this world which protects me as I do what I do. Teaching others how to avoid the unnecessary risks which come with doing what is right for alienated children, instead of what is right for alienation unaware governing bodies, is a key investment I make in ensuring that new practitioners do not suffer the way that I did. In doing that we prevent burn out and we ensure that the workforce is developed in ways that actually assist children rather than in ways that suit timid practice.
All practitioners who work with alienated children and their families must be aware that this is one of the most complex and difficult client groups to work with. Alienating parents are litigious, they are deeply complex in their personality styles, they are often emotional volatile and they will, if they possibly can, triangulate others into the dynamic, turning their attention on the practitioner as the monster in the case. Add to this the fact that many cases where a child may have justified reasons for not seeing a parent (neglect, bullying, drink and alcohol problems, rigid and cold and cruel parenting styles etc), are presented as parental alienation to practitioners,, when in fact they are not, and you have a perfect storm for a naive practitioner. Teaching practitioners that their judgement is likely to be challenged on many occasions, including parents bad mouthing to other professionals, but that their first duty remains always to the child, helps to direct the focus where it needs to be. Wise practitioners in this field know that they will hear many stories of other practitioners who failed, got it wrong, didn’t do the right thing and were otherwise not up to scratch in their work. Wise practitioners recognise that this is the nature of the alienation dynamic in which efforts to divide others into good and bad camps are regularly made. Naive practitioners, or those who lack self awareness, will allow themselves to become triangulated into the dynamic, setting themselves up as judge and jury on behalf of the aggrieved parent telling the tale. This is what happened to me and the horror of this has never left me. It was only my own experience of being so savagely treated by my governing body, which prevented me from making a complaint of my own about what had been done to me. Nevertheless the psychological damage remains.
Parental alienation is still an incredibly difficult field to work in even for the experienced practitioner. This week I was sent a piece written for the Washington Post in which the reunification workshop Family Bridges in the USA was portrayed in a less than positive light. Reading the article it made me realise that regardless of what we do, the alienating parent’s view point can still hold sway and often will not change, especially if they are personality disordered. Given the work that I do in reunification of children with their parent via transfer of residence, I could see how, just like the alienating parents views were being upheld in the article, the work we do in the UK is so easily portrayed as abusive – i.e. ‘the child was removed against his will and the practitioner’s own governing body doesn’t recognise parental alienation.’ The article was incredibly biased and was challenged by the Parental Alienation Study Group, of which I am a member and I was glad to see the robust efforts made to ensure that a balanced view point was put forward. It heartened me to know that in PASG there is a group of people with whom my practice is safeguarded. In such a risky field of work, where one is coming under fire from parents, governing bodies and even other professionals who profess to be alienation aware, feeling safe is a hugely important factor in being able to continue to do what we do.
As we progress our work in the UK we are clearly delineating parental alienation as a child mental health problem and we are moving towards developing a platform from where standards and safeguarding of practice can be provided by a new regulating body for parental alienation practitioners. Basing this in Europe where there are differing levels of protection for practitioners as well as differing levels of recognition of parental alienation, means that we can draw upon the strengths of member countries to provide a standardised framework for recognised practice. This project is one which I know will help to build a strong practitioner network which is protected from burnout and in which members can survive and thrive. Turning the horror of what happened to me into a positive protection for all other practitioners in this field, is my way of putting right the wrongs that were done. It is, in the end, the only way to survive in this field, in which we should all be working to one end, the protection of children from the deeply damaging experience of parental alienation.
Protecting practitioners requires an ability to hold onto perspective and in doing so, being able to manage the paradox of both and neither rather than one or the other. This skill, in which ambivalence and ambiguity, shades of grey and the right in the wrong and the wrong in the right is understood and held, is critical for anyone working with alienated children and their families. This is because alienated children are starkly divided in their presentation into good/bad, right/wrong, black/white thinking. Alienating parents are equally split in their thinking and can escalate this and turn the focus upon anyone attempting to help. Alienated parents can risk becoming rigidly split in their thinking too, especially if they are encouraged by parental rights groups who demonise the alienated parent, creating the good/bad split features but in the other direction. In truth, alienated or alienating, neither is wholly good and neither is wholly bad and the child must learn to live with the reality of both of their parent’s psychological selves and not just one. Holding ambivalence for the family and being able to recognise that as a practitioner we are not wholly good either and neither are we holier than the parents we work with, is a critical stage of practitioner development. Lofty pronouncements about alienating parents helps no-one, being able to recognise our own shades of grey in our person and our practice brings the humbition that Richard Warshak speaks of. In arriving at that place one recognises that this work is not about being expert in anything other than human fallibility. Helping others to blunder through to the best that they can be, is after all, the only thing we are doing here.
I was reminded then this week, of how important it is to care for our fellow practitioners in this field and how that care will build a foundation for others to walk and work upon. Having already built upon the foundations of the hard work of others, before I finish my stint, I hope to have contributed something that will encourage and support many more people to come forward and do this work.
In helping to protect practitioners, it seems to me, in the end, that that is the best I can give to the children of tomorrow, to help protect them from the suffering I see too often in the children of today.