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