My last post caused a flurry of indignation from some quarters because I was writing from the perspective of the alienated child and not from the perspective of the alienated parent. I make no apologies however, my work has always been about children first and parents second, that is the way of the world. Children’s needs should be met by their parents not the other way around, hence my focus. Whilst I value rejected parents and recognise their value in their child’s life, I am not a parental advocate I am a child advocate. The role of the rejected parent in an alienated child’s life is, for me, as rescuer and repairer of the broken environment around the child. A ballast in a horrendous psychological storm. Children are and always will be my primary concern, they are the future of the world and healing their pain is about ending the march of trans-generational haunting so that their children do not suffer as they have had to. I make no apology for this stance which will never change.
There is so much obfuscation on this subject that I want to write more about the world of the alienated child so that people actually really start to understand what the world feels like for a child in this position. For whilst a child may be biologically hard wired to attach to parents and it may involve significant interference to interrupt that biological imperative, children who live in separated family situations are faced with different challenges to their psychological wellbeing to those who live in an intact family.
When children live with both of their parents, both of their parents are usually accessible to them within a reasonable period of time. Thus children live with an experience of the inner and outer felt sense of relationship with their parents combined. In this way they do not have to consider the emotional winds of change which blow through the household and if they do, they can seek reassurance from the other parent by walking across the hall or going down the stairs. Having two parents in relational space as a child allows the child to combine and access the best of each and to use each relationship to offset the sharp edges of the other, if those sharp edges appear. Thus the child dances in a relational quickstep with each parent and in doing so, the child remains contentedly held in the attachment hierarchy.
When the family separates, the adults have the task of retrieving their investment in each other and building their own independent lives. They no longer have to relate to the other parent in the same way, they can choose if they wish, to not relate to the other parent at all and can set sail on the sea of their new life unencumbered.
A child however, is the only person in the former intact familial relationship who has to adapt to relating to two parents. Two parents who are now not only not available to the child in the same physical space, but two parents who not available to the child in the same relational/emotional space. The child in this circumstance, in one sudden slice apart, loses the right to the unconscious enjoyment of childhood in which their needs come first and parental needs come second. Put a child into a separated family situation and you are immediately demanding that that child changes the way that they relate to their parents. You are immediately demanding that the child adapts to the broken internalised and externalised relational space. And then put that child onto the transition bridge on a regular basis in which they have to move between parents who are emotionally and psychologically in vastly different places. Put the child on the bridge on their own, add in a few doses of hostility on either side of that bridge and soon you will break the child’s ability to resist the descent into using the only coping mechanism available to them in this scenario, the choice to withdraw from one parent and align with the other.
Who speaks for alienated children? Not many. Who tells this story? Not many. Who wants to hear this story? Not many. I didn’t want to hear it when I was a separated parent (not of my choosing) and many others don’t want to hear it either. But unless we hear it and deal with it, our children will carry the burden of coping with family separation with all of the attendant fall out which comes with it.
Children become alienated for all sorts of reasons and in separated family situations they are at risk of it in every situation you can think of, if their parents are not able to understand that the only person in the familial setting who has to do the work of adapting to two broken relationships not just one, is the child. In some families, unhealthy parents will use the child to further their own psychologically distorted drives and in others the child will experience hostility on both ends of the transition bridge. The resilience of the child, their position in the family and their access to wider family support will make or break their vulnerability to parental alienation. But it is the child who carries the burden of the alienation reaction and it is the child who suffers the most.
When I sit with severely alienated children, I understand the terrible dilemma they face. They are utterly dependent upon adults, absolutely and completely suffocated by adult choices which they were never able to influence or change and they are held in such a tight double bind that they can barely breathe. Intervening in such situations is incredibly risky for the child because if we cannot free them fully and properly we are putting them at risk of much more harm. Unless we can secure their absolute freedom, why would we give a parent more opportunity to harm them further? Anyone who has experienced this would say the same thing. An alienated child is carrying the utter inability to cope with the circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances they did not cause. Who speaks for these children? Who voices their pain and suffering? Parents have forums and support but where do these children go to get help?
Freeing alienated children allows me to speak more clearly for them and it allows me to illuminate those things that parents need to know in order to understand the world from their perspective. We can shout biologically hard wired to attach to both parents from the rooftops and we can say lock up the alienators until we are blue in the face but does that help alienated children? No it does not. It might make parents feel better but it does not help alienated children. And alienated children, who are CHILDREN not adults, are the people I am most concerned about.
This debate, which causes so much discomfort and indignation has to be had. By speaking about the child’s experience I am not diverting attention from parents and I am not, as people appear to believe I am, criticising alienated parents whether they be facing children displaying alienated behaviours or children who are fully alienated. It is NOT either or/ parent or child/ one or the other. It is possible to talk about the alienated child’s experience without criticising alienated parents and it is possible to look at the spectrum of alienation behaviours in a child without giving succour to alienating parents.
This world is not black and white, it is not full of goodies and baddies and alienated children are not helped by thinking about it in that way. Alienated children are the only people in the separated family who bear the burden of adapting to two broken internalised and externalised relationships and the more we consider their plight the closer we get to understanding how to help them.
Which is what we all want to do.