The Unbearable Experience of The Alienated Child: Lessons From The Recovery Journey

Back from Belfast where this week I presented to 110 Solicitors attending the Law Society of Northern Ireland Children’s Order Conference, on the legal and mental health interlock in case management of parental alienation.  Whilst I was only able to attend for a short time due to a workload that makes my eyes water at times, it was clear to me from the conversations I had, that interest in the alienation of children from once loved parents is a feature of much of the work of the people I met.  What is also clear as I move around the UK, is that people understand parental alienation at a fairly sophisticated level, what they don’t know is what to do about it.  What they also often do not know or do not realise, is that the alienation of a child can cover up other problems in the relationship with the aligned parent and that in that and so many other respects, it is so much more than a child contact issue.

Much of my current work is with children in recovery from alienation through my work with residence transfer cases in which a child is moved to live with the parent they have been rejecting.  This work, in which I am working with the child from the vehemently rejecting position through to the recovery of a normal loving relationship with a parent, demonstrates very clearly the challenges faced by these children.  In essence, the unbearable position of the alienated child is one which should concern anyone who is working with children’s mental health, because it is child abuse at the deepest level of the developing psyche. Whether the alienation is caused deliberately or through the unconscious upholding of the child’s maladaptive efforts to cope with post separation family life, the end result is that the child is being abused at a level which is life changing.  And because this abuse is so hidden and so much attributed to external factors which can be too readily dismissed or overlooked (it’s all about parental rights, it’s a he said/she said situation), the harm which is being done, which is at the fundamental level of developing personality and even brain structure, is being completely ignored.  Parental alienation is not about conflict between parents, it is not about a parent’s right to have a relationship with a child, it is not about whether a child should live in a shared care situation or whether a presumption of shared care would prevent the problem, it is a pernicious and dangerous form of emotional and psychological abuse which is perpetuated by parents and entrenched by our family law system.  Parental alienation is a child mental health issue and like the concerns raised about the brainwashing and grooming of children in Rochdale, it is an issue which is hidden from our immediate view by the attitudes and beliefs about post separation parenting which are prevalent in our society.

Being alienated from a loved parent is a terrifying, lonely and confusing experience for a child and it does not matter what their age or how they arrived in the place where their psychological coping mechanism of dividing their feelings into all good and all bad, living with alienation is clearly something which children find unbearable.  There is a reason why alienated children are so often mute, or angry, or in need of the ‘protection’ of the parent they have aligned themselves with.  To have to confront the horror of choosing to lose a loved parent is simply an intolerable experience for them.  Being with children who are now recovering from being alienated, allows me to understand directly from them, the journey they have made into alienation and then out of it again.  What is clear in my work with children, is that each and everyone of them, ranging from aged 6 to aged 18,  knew that they were living a double experience of consciousness, in which they were aware that what they were saying and doing was wrong but that they had no choice but to do it. Living with the pain, shame and bewilderment of being aware whilst trying to desperately not be aware of this, causes particular recovery tasks for children when the alienation lifts.

As I understand more and more about how and why children become alienated I find myself recognising the ways in which children in our society are incredibly vulnerable at an emotional and psychological level.  Without sovereignty over their being, children depend upon adults in every minute of every single day for their basic needs being met.  As I get closer and closer to a visceral understanding of alienation, I can see, hear and smell the reality of a child’s life in the post separation family, and I can see how, the entry to alienation is caused  not just  by a cold and calculating determination on the part of one against the other, but often simply a failure of the child to be able to cope with the adult decompensation into despair and depression due to the crisis of separation.  These families, where alienation becomes the child’s only refuge, are great tragedies, because it is the lack of support around the family, lack of knowledge about how to deal with children who are vulnerable to alignment and rejection and lack of care or interest in our society as a whole about how to help children. For all the years I have done this work, for all the millions that government has poured into it, for all the voluntary sector agencies, the NSPCC and the other children’s charities, the lives of children in separated family situations remain simply unbearable, intolerable and incomprehensible.  Whilst these charities say they work for children, the truth is that behind the scenes their ethos is largely based upon feminist principles of women’s rights first with children’s needs being indivisible from those of their mother. Which means that mothers whose children are aligned with them post separation are believed and mothers whose children say they no longer want to see them, are viewed as being deficient.  Fathers on the other hand are largely dangerous, disposable and dismissed.  Forget the real experience of children in separated family situations, forget the fear, the confusion, the fact that in a separated family it is only the children who have to continue to relate to both sides dug down into enemy camps. Forget it all in fact and in our current system, simply ask a child what their wishes and feelings are, which in the midst of an all out war or a situation where one side is waging psychological warfare and the other is simply trying to do the right thing, is a bit like breaking the child’s legs and then asking them which shoes they would like to wear.

In my work with alienated children I am coming to know, at the deepest level, the ways in which the damage which is done to a child in an alienation reaction is both emotional and psychological AND systemic in that it impacts upon a child’s developmental stages and it causes changes to the life chances of the child. Recovering from such a reaction is not easy for a child although normal responses to a rejected parent can be seen to occur within seconds when the underlying dynamics are dealt with.  It is not just the relationship with the rejected parent however which heralds recovery. The child has a post reunification journey of recovery which has particular tasks which I have written about before.  If the child is assisted to move through these tasks their integration of the divided self begins. If not, the child continues the process of splitting but reverses it so that the once aligned parent now occupies the role of rejected parent. This leaves the child reunited with a once rejected parent but still psychologically divided. This for me is the clearest evidence that the underlying challenges of parental alienation are not concerned simply with relationships with parents but with emotional and psychological damage which must be repaired if the child is to heal.  And yes, there are many once rejected parents who are devoted to healing the underlying problem for the child and who ensure that the child is assisted to continue to be in relationship with the once aligned parent to assist them to do so. But there are others (and this is a fact so we had best get used to it), who will, on receiving the child, allow the counter rejection of the previously aligned parent and feel justified in doing so. Just as for the children whose once aligned parent abandons them completely when the child is removed from them, the child who reunites with a rejected parent who then allows the child to counter reject the previously aligned or alienating parent, is a child who continues to suffer.  And the suffering is long and it is sustained.

And it is the suffering of children which is my primary and abiding concern in the work that I do.  It is the damage that is done to them in post separation relationships and the way in which the extreme of this, which is parental alienation, causes life long challenges. I do not write as a disinterested bystander either, I should be clear that I was once a single parent, I am married to a man who shared care of his children for many years, I am a step parent and a grandparent. I understand, from both a personal and professional standpoint, how family separation affects children. I know how the impacts of it cause children to struggle at all stages of their lives. And I understand parental alienation, from just about every possible standpoint there is to understand it. And I know it to be one of the most pernicious and problematic experiences a child can suffer.

To cause a child, who should be unconsciously free to play and grow and emerge with their right to their own identity intact, to divide their feelings about loved adults into good and bad, is to steal away childhood and replace it with something else. A dread, a fear and a burden no child should have to carry.

As I continue my journey of learning from alienated children, I intend to make their voices, their wishes and their feelings, as loud as it is possible to make them.  I will speak because they can only act it out. I will say it because they are prevented from doing so.

These children, who are amongst us all every single day, are some of the most vulnerable children in our society and they  deserve to have the reality of their suffering shouted from the rooftops.

Which is what I intend to keep on doing.


I will be speaking at the Missing Children Europe Conference on June 15th 2017  on ‘Missing Children in the Lives of Good Enough Parents’

And at the Child Mental Health Centre  Conference ‘Too Much Pain’ on July 8th 2017




26 thoughts on “The Unbearable Experience of The Alienated Child: Lessons From The Recovery Journey”

  1. Karen, your writing becomes more and more powerful with each blog you write….. this is a hard hitting, eye opening article and I’m glad you “intend to make their voices, their wishes and their feelings, as loud as it is possible to make them. I will speak because they can only act it out. I will say it because they are prevented from doing so.”

    What strikes me is how much parents and the wider society need this kind of psycho education. At one point, before I learned from you otherwise, I grew angry at my child(ren)’s silence, feeling hurt and betrayed, yet such feelings are to completely misunderstand what the child(ren) are going through. Thank God you have taught me otherwise and enabled me to send love, not anger and frustration, into the void. Psycho education can change lives. Far beyond just those you directly work with. May you understand how much you are appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Karen, for this brilliant article, full of understanding and help. I am hoping that you will have some words of wisdom for those caught trying to help the children, who, after residence change, need to re-work their relationship with the formerly resident parent, who is still emotionally abusing them at every contact visit. For instance, how do you keep the children psychologically safe when the now non-resident parent is claiming despair and threatening suicide, blaming the children in advance and even triangulating the hospital staff who will ring the children to tell them of the suicide and that it will all be the child’s fault? This same parent shouts “alienation” when the children don’t want to go for their weekends or holidays, but they mostly do, reluctantly, go for their regular contact visits. They fear the inevitable abuse and sudden rages and hate the constant rows with the current partner. How can they be protected?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh crikey Susang, this is one which I am increasingly being asked to help with and because the courts are doing more residence transfers without residence transfer therapeutic care it leaves the children continuously exposed. I will do the next article on this. I am writing an academic article on it right now as well as my mind is focused upon it. K

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you Karen for taking this aspect of emotional abuse and crying “aleination wolf” seriously. I await your next article with hope.


  3. Karen, this is, as always I might add, an incredibly insightful post. I am curious to know more about your thoughts on how a child is to cope, if there is a change in residence, with the alienating parent. Or if as an adult they come to understand what has happened to them and need to work out what relationship they want to have with the alienating parent.

    Obviously, there are different degrees of alienation. I am especially interested in the extreme end, when the alienating parent is most likely suffering from a personality disorder.

    You touch on it here, and I agree that for a child to reject the alienating parent can also cause harm.

    From a cult perspective, however, it can be a really important aspect of recovery to have nothing more to do with the cult once exited. People can be extremely vulnerable to the coercive tactics that cult leadership use, if a person chooses to walk out. Rejecting the abuse can be a very important aspect of recovery, which ultimately manifests as rejecting the cult. There are different exit routes out of a cult, and this will be something I will be writing about in the future. As always similar patterns to children exiting from parental alienation.

    So I am very interested in your thoughts on how a child copes in this situation and what relationship they might have with an alienating parent that can be healthy.


  4. Thank you for this article, your work is inspiring and helping children become free from alienation.


  5. Superb article again. I have said all week that there are so many parallels with this & the ‘Three Girls’ grooming story.

    There does need to be a massive change in society’s view. Just like we would never now leave a girl to be groomed, just because she looks like she wants to be there!

    If a child says they don’t want to see their parent, we must dig a lot lot deeper to understand why. Rarely is it because the parent is dangerous or has harmed them.

    And for the courts to walk away & leave the children to cope alone is disgraceful. If a child lost their father to death, everyone would be extremely sympathetic. If that child also lost all of their paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles & cousins, possibly also step-mums & step-siblings, you would know that this child needed some major emotional support.

    But not our courts. Our judges think the children are capable of standing up to their mother, with whom they live and rely on 24/7 (as it is in our case) & if the children can’t, then they just walk away.

    This is child abuse.
    This is neglect.
    This is a safeguarding issue & should be a criminal matter. It’s not about conflict & ‘bad dads’
    We no longer shut the door on wife batterers & say it’s a private matter (although we sometimes still do on husband batterers). But we shut the door on these children & leave them to it.

    This is the last taboo. Mothers do abuse their children. Tens of thousands of children (just in UK).
    And just because it’s emotional/psychological abuse makes it no less horrific than physical abuse.

    We must put a stop to it & make it completely socially unacceptable.

    Keep up the good work Karen. Hope to meet you soon.


    1. I appreciate you are writing from a specific gender bias based on what appears to be your own personal situation. HOWEVER, PA is NOT restricted to one gender, a fact Karen is always balanced about in her work and writing.

      PA can be perpetrated by fathers OR mothers, and wider family of either gender.

      Sometimes (understandably) in our personal pain we can lose this perspective, but in doing so we are not helping anyone, except single gender rights organisations…. about which Karen has written her views often!


  6. Another excellent article, and piggybacking on one of the previous commentators about the fact that there needs to be a change in society’s view of parental alienation, indeed the concept of PA as a gender unbiased abuse needs to become more understood by society.

    Judging by her workload Karen is doing her very best to ‘bring PA to the masses’, and I salute her for it.


    1. AV, you and I know that I know what the essence is, you and I know that I have written reams about it before, I am not going back there again with you. I know what I am doing and what I am doing is only, always and forever for the children of tomorrow. You walk it your way, I am walking it mine.


      1. AV I am not even going to reply to your latest post, I am exhausted arguing with people who think they know the answer.


  7. George was chatting with Phil, a Dad whose son had recently come to live with him.

    “Let’s go back down your timeline”, said George.

    I know your son Johnny has crossed dandlebear bridge and there appears to be no way back. We want to create easy access for Johnny, such that he feels free in both camps. The reds and the blues are different; they have their strengths and their weaknesses and each are important in their own way.

    …………………..Do you remember the time you told me about the incident when your Ex put all Johnnie’s belongings in a bin liner, placed them on the doorstep, and then said, “if you go to live with your father you will never be able to come back here again”?

    This created a terrible bind for Johnnie. His tummy was turning inside out. He wanted to see more of you Phil, but he didn’t want to lose his Mum in the process.

    His Mum, the alienator, was using the fact that her son would be loath to give up his relationship with her for the sake of spending more time with his Dad. She was creating a huge burden upon Johnnie, much the same as what social services do today when they empower children to make a choice as to where they would like to live.

    So, Johnnie is now with you and I hear Mum is still acting hurt and bitter because Johnnie has abandoned her.
    Johnnie naturally feels guilty, he didn’t want to hurt his mother, he loves his mother despite her bitterness.

    So, what now? said Phil.

    There are bridges to be built. There are secrets to be unravelled. There are reasons to be reasoned. And then what? There is a kind of understanding, a rest that is forgiveness.

    Reconciliation? Queried Phil. Not necessarily said George, I think we can have peace of mind for Johnnie even if his Mum refuses to unlock the door.

    I think your understanding is key, Phil. You know there is love in the blue camp.


  8. Karen

    Thank you for all of your work in trying to keep children safe from this insidious form of abuse. I am in the US where the problem grows more terrifying every day due to the corruption and collusion with the court and the Bar Assoc. I am an alienated mother as I was able to leave my abuser 13yrs ago in hope to provide a healthier and safe environment for my young children at the time. I have been in family court for the past 12 years as I have been abused by the court along with my children and the rest of the maternal family. He has constantly made false accusations of abuse against me to gain sole access to the children, during these times he does not allow any relationship with me or the maternal family. I have put myself through school and had a good job until the constant custody battles caused my performance to decline and my time off from work to increase. He managed to get the court to separate the children causing great emotional distress and psychological damage to my children. He was successfully able to alienate my son at the age of 9 and my daughter 9 years later. I was never allowed to take my children to counseling unless he visited with the counselor twice before the children which would manipulate the therapist. My ex is a victim of alienation abuse from his mother, and her mother also was abusive, who was sexually abused by her own father and I am unaware how far the abuse goes back in the tree. My ex lives with his mother and my children have double the abuse. Neither my family nor myself have heard or seen my children since September 2016. They both claim that they have been abused and it’s the furthest from the truth I tried to protect them while allowing them to still have a relationship with their father and the paternal family. I have bent over backwards to all of their demands and threats to keep the piece and the conflict to a minimum. The truth is the amount of abuse I have endured during all this along with my children and family is to the point there have been health problems have now become a problem. I find it frustrating that DV centers won’t help their victims they put in these situations saying they would be there to protect you and your family. A few things that need to be stopped in high conflict families is children in the court and being put in the position to choose, personally I don’t think children should be put in this situation at all. I am 42yo and I couldn’t choose one of my parents over the other. My ex always put them in this situation. My son had severe behavioral problems which started to develop while we were still married. When we were divorced they got worse as he was diagnosed with psychopathic personality traits and once he went with his father the behavior disappeared almost over night. Which I never understood until recently that it’s the triangulation/splitting of the child as they don’t know why they feel or act that way so they act out exhibiting the disordered abusive parent. Prior to my daughter being alienated she changed drastically being alone all the time, lying, stealing, and verbally abusive towards me and my family. I have no idea why I can see and connect the dots but those trained in behavior therapy and those ruling in the best interest of the child see nothing wrong and me as the abusive horrible parent. My ex is diagnosed bipolar and antisocial personality disorder has 3 DV charges 2 from me and 1 from a previous gf along with 3 DUIS and 15mos incarcerated for them. Him and his mother have to live together and have most of their lives when they don’t he gets out of control and has legal problems. They have also moved over 63 times together. He lives 5m away from his father and has no contact with him still claiming abuse based on lies told to him. The last email I received from my ex 6mos a good “that my children hate me and they no longer want you in their life. You will know nothing about them and you will miss everything, your grandchildren will never know you and will hate you as we make sure that they know you are a piece of shit and a piece of trash no one wants and you should not be allowed to breathe anymore “. I am passing all of this on to provide education for professionals and help for other families and children since I failed at being a mother unable to protect my own.


    1. Mgk, brave is the person who takes courage in both hands and leaves an abusive relationship. Strong is the parent who seeks to protect their children from an abusive relationship/partner. That such efforts and courage are not always supported by society and systems designed to supposedly protect the vulnerable is a black stain of shame on our world.

      Mgk, do not berate yourself. Now is a time to heal yourself. You have not failed. Sometimes it is an unfair fight and even your best efforts will not win through. Sometimes it has to be enough to know that you did everything you could in the circumstances, with the resources available to you. Even though the outcome is not what you would have wished for.


  9. Karen can you offer some insight into something mgk says in her comment above ie “My son had severe behavioral problems which started to develop while we were still married. When we were divorced they got worse as he was diagnosed with psychopathic personality traits and once he went with his father the behavior disappeared almost over night. Which I never understood until recently that it’s the triangulation/splitting of the child as they don’t know why they feel or act that way so they act out exhibiting the disordered abusive parent. Prior to my daughter being alienated she changed drastically being alone all the time, lying, stealing, and verbally abusive towards me and my family. I have no idea why I can see and connect the dots but those trained in behavior therapy and those ruling in the best interest of the child see nothing wrong and me as the abusive horrible parent.”?

    The issue of children ‘acting out’ the behaviours of the abusive parent, either during a marriage or with only one parent after separation, is not something I’ve found you’ve covered in your posts. In the ‘differentiation’ phase of diagnosing PA, it would seem critical that this acting out behaviour is correctly identified along with it’s correct cause. If only superficially assessed, the risk is that if a child is playing up on apparently one parent only, the danger is professionals assuming that that parent must be the cause/at fault and fail to see the true source, much to the delight of the real abuser. Your expertise on this would be much appreciated.


  10. Karen I am pretty new to your blog. Working my way through your posts, which are helping me to have a better perspective.

    Do you have any writing on what to do , to help the relationship between the alienated parent and the children who are actually rejecting the parent and openly expressing it but you are only allowed in direct contact , in the form of a letter.

    How do you communicate effectively with the children who are rejecting you.
    To just re-enter with a letter , we want to make sure it is going to help not hinder and confuse them. We want to re-establish the relationship as it’s been months of no contact at all

    How can we better understand the children’s perspective so we don’t make things worse ? . We almost feel scared to say things in fear of putting them under pressure.

    I see you have a book coming out, but is that a while yet ?
    If you would be happy to point me to any resources or your blog posts of the past , I would be interested to read these.

    Thank you


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s