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.
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Thank you for your work Karen. The children are the most important. Thank you.
I think hindsight is a very powerful thing. In hindsight as parents, we can more easily recognise where we didn’t act in the best interests of the child at that point. Perhaps because we didn’t recognise the full extent of the emotions at that time & the potential triggers that may affect that child further.
When your relationship with your child has changed so quickly, it can be difficult to accept & keep up with what’s happening in front of your eyes. When you feel powerless to stop it getting worse for the child/ren, you just act out of instinct. But instinct, especially if that is a way that you used to act, before things changed in the child’s emotions, can be dangerous.
These are not excuses, for there is no excuse, but these are maybe reasons why the parent who feels like they are starting to be rejected, acts like they do. And unknowingly, allows the alienating behaviours to develop further, as their child/ren can’t handle the emotion.
Being much more mindful & aware is harder, but we recognise now it’s absolutely necessary. To think & think again before acting or speaking.
Yes the children are the most important thing here. You need to be their voice & are doing an amazing job at it. And in educating us all.
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Ally you are so right. At the time it was happening to me (and for all of the next 19 years) I had no idea what was going on. I only knew how it made me feel. It wasn’t until after I gave up and moved away that I started searching for answers. At the time I thought I was going crazy. At the very least I thought I lived on another planet. I thought if I could make my husband understand what he was doing it would fix my daughter but there was no way I could through to my husband and so no way to fix my daughter. I knew it wasn’t right but had no idea how to deal with any of it.
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Karen, I praise you highly for speaking about this issue. I can understand why parents who have been alienated feel tremendous heartache. Children are hard-wired to attach to their parents and parents are hard-wired to attach to their children. When a parent has been alienated the grief and loss can become all-consuming. Without support, from people that understand, a parent can become incapacitated and have no idea what to do to help the child. Many know the difficulties faced within the UK family court system, it is a horrendous journey. However, it is, of course, the child that needs to remain the focus.
Yes I too understand the suffering of alienated parents, on this site there are thousands and thousands of words written about the plight of the alienated parent. I have written for years and years about the issue,about how to help yourself, how to cope with the child, what to do and what not to do, how to cope with the Family Courts and more. I understand. What I find really hard to understand however is that when I write from the perspective of the alienated child it produces a range of behaviours in some people who seem to believe that by writing from the alienated child’s perspective I am not understanding of theirs. Whenever I write from any other perspective than the alienated parent I have people jumping up and down telling me I am doing it wrong. If I didn’t understand the pain I wouldn’t write the reams of words I write for alienated parents but I don’t work for parents I work for children and sometimes, just sometimes, I think their experience should be curated, heard and understood too. Someone has to speak for these kids because no-one else is. An alienated child’s world is actually really miserable underneath the contempt and dislike they project. Children are frightened, anxious and worried about who will help and how they will cope. We all need to think about that before we think about parental rights, in my humble opinion.
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Karen – I have to say, I find it SO helpful when you write from the perspective of the child… it helps me to understand the plight my daughter is in (she’s 25 now) and while there are plenty of times I wallow in my own pain with the estrangement, I always try to understand it from HER perspective as well… and what I might do to help the situation. More than anything, the parental alienation syndrome has to be incredibly painful for her as well and all I care about is for my daughter to live a happy life… it’s heartbreaking when I think of the pain she must feel with the alienation from me. I’ve been trying to come up with *strategies* on how to handle it – for the past 9 years when she moved in with her father and step-mother after our divorce, I’ve always reached out… in any event, it’s now been 1 1/2 years of full estrangement and while I’ve reached out over and over, the past 4 months, I decided to cool it for now. Just trying something different I guess, but not sure if it’s the right thing to do or not. *sigh* Anyway, I follow your blog faithfully and can’t tell you how much I appreciate your efforts on all you do – to help our children and us parents as well.
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After all the abuse I received and that of my son…..in hindsight, I would have stayed and taken it, cause as sure as hell my alienated son is still getting whooped, and that’s why I left in the first place!
If I’d read the article before I left their daddy Karen, I wouldn’t have put both my children in this situation!
Oh it is such an impossible thing to think about though Frankie, the roads diverge and open up one way or another and we have to do what we do. I wonder all the time about the choices I made and those imposed upon me and how they affect the next generations. One thing is for sure, if you were married to an alienator, that person will do what they do whatever you did or didn’t do. It is important to think about it from your son’s perspective though, for you it will help you enormously to know how it is for him because it will mean that you will not blame yourself, you will know you must keep well as you are waiting and that when he is big enough he will do what you did and escape. Such fragile lives our children lead. I know that by writing about it it hurts but I think we adults have to hurt so that our children don’t have to. That is tough stuff I know but it is how I come to do what I do. xx
Frankie, I stuck it out for 19 years and trod on eggshells for all of them within an intact marriage . It made no difference to the outcome. Why should we have to stay and take it. I did but it made me look weak in my daughter’s eyes and turned her further against me in favour of her dad.
Karen, I think that when you say that alienation is caused by the behavior of BOTH parents and the child’s vulnerability, it feels blaming to alienated parents because they feel as if, while they made mistakes as all humans do, they tried every which way of dealing with what was essentially an impossible situation with an inevitable outcome and nothing worked. So it’s a bit confusing – on the one hand you have said that alienating parents are very good at setting traps for the other parent that are almost impossible not to fall into, but yet, the behavior of the alienated parent is still part of the problem.
I can see where my husband made mistakes and I saw them in the moment, but at the same time, looking back, I don’t think anything he did would have changed the outcome, because of the above-mentioned traps, as well as the alienation-unaware therapists and court that were involved. It felt like being on a roller coaster ride over which we had little to no control, and I’m not sure of what he could have done differently to make it better, not in the long run. To me, honestly, while I don’t see my stepson’s mother as “all bad” and my husband as “all good”, I do believe that her unhealthy psychological state was and is the biggest driver of the alienation and absent that, my stepson would not have been put in the “impossible dilemma”.
I also still struggle to understand why older teens and young adults remain in that fixed state of splitting even when there is no longer a battle or a transition to endure, but maybe that’s a future post. 🙂
Could anyone show me where I have said that parental alienation is caused by BOTH parents please.
Parental alienation is the combination of the alienating parent’s strategies, the rejected parent’s responses (positive and negative) and the resilience or vulnerability of the child. How is that saying that BOTH parents are to blame?
I am sorry if I sound a little frustrated but I feel as if my words are being deliberately twisted here.
A child cannot become alienated in a vaccuum. A child becomes alienated in the relational space between parents. If a child was not attempting to have a relationship with two parents they would not be at risk of an alienation reaction. That is simply a fact. Therefore, the rejected parent makes a contribution for good or bad conscious or not conscious. It is just not possible to state that all alienating parents are devils and all rejected parents are angels. Unless you live in a neatly chopped up world of goodies and baddies, which most of us don’t.
I simply have not said that parental alienation is caused by BOTH parents, that is an interpretation you are making about a way of considering the issue which is actually very successful in terms of helping children out of the alienation reaction.
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and I apologise for any frustration which is leaking through, I actually want to write more about this because it is at the heart of so much of what we do at the Clinic and I have had other therapists writing to me saying that they agree with me but that they cannot say it because they get silenced by angry rejected parents. I want to be able to open this box up and take it all out and look at it and help others to look at it without being shouted down or told that I lack professional integrity because I don’t advocate dividing the world into alienators bad vs alienated good. Whether I will write about it depends on how determined I feel in the next few weeks. But it is an essential topic and one which is not dealt with in anywhere near enough detail in public writing although it is carefullly dealt with academically and between practitioners. Perhaps it only a subject that practitioners should talk about, perhaps some alienated parents feel more comfortable in a good/bad world where they are the victim, I don’t know. Perhaps it is possible to empower alienated parents more fully by writing in this way, perhaps not. Perhaps it is only possible to empower rejected parents through intensive support. My aim is always to take rejected parents out of victim mode, into empowerment as the healthy parent who can help the child and then into reunification with the child. I do this by education, movement away from victim and blame projection and into whole family thinking in which the other parent’s difficulties are recognised and worked around so that the child is able to remain in relationship of some sort with both parents. These will always be this child’s parents is my motto so best do the best I can for all so that the child does not have to once again lose one to gain the other.
Karen – just my opinion, but please continue writing as you see fit… it’s important for all of us to learn and we (parents) need to keep an open mind and gain insight, even if it means accepting some responsibility for our part in an estrangement. As you’ve said, this is not an all or nothing situation – one parent to blame while the other is 100% blameless etc., and the more we can learn, the better for not just ourselves as the alienated parent, but more importantly, our alienated child.
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Thank you Cathy I will. But I must reiterate, the concept of the alienated child is not about blaming the rejected parent, it is NOT about blame, which should be a word erased from the minds of anyone who is involved in a situation where a child is alienated. Forget blame, focus on what it is possible to do. Forget who is doing what to who and focus on what you can do to change things. I am not asking rejected parents to accept their role in estrangement, estrangement is not parental alienation which is when the child shows the signs of alienation and is fixed and rejecting. I am asking parents to stop focusing on parental view points and step into their children’s shoes. That is the first step towards empowerment as a rejected parent and it is not about blame or accepting it x
Karen, I actually agree with you that there is not a “good” parent and a “bad” parent, but don’t you think that in the absence of the alienating parent’s issues, there would be no alienation? In my mind, their diagnosed or undiagnosed issues are the root cause of the alienation, ultimately – if their child is vulnerable, there will be alienation, regardless of how the other parent responds, unless there is a helpful intervention of some sort. Most rejected parents don’t get that helpful intervention, so they end up alienated eventually.
All that is not to say that the solution is to lock up alienating parents and throw away the key – it’s not. It is the child’s other parent and they have to come to terms with what that means, both good and bad, I get that. Sometimes the alienating parent can change and other times it means the child only has supervised contact with that parent (from what you have said).
I struggle to see how the rejected parent’s responses really play into it much, quite frankly. Is there something the rejected parent can do to stop the alienation reaction when it’s coming down on them? Without any intervention with the alienating parent?
If an alienating parent attempts to alienate a resilient child they will fail.
If an alienated parent tries to alienate an alienation aware parent who knows how to manage their behaviours, they will fail.
If an alienating parent tries to alienate the child at a time when the child is not vulnerable to their efforts, they will fail.
Alienation is not just caused by one parent acting against the other. It is caused by their actions, the response of the rejected parent and the vulnerability of the child.
Some rejected parents make it worse.
Some rejected parents make it better.
Come rejected parents make it neither better nor worse.
Every single case of parental alienation relies upon the dynamics of a particular family set up.
I have seen alienating parents doing their utmost to alienate and it has sailed right over their children’s heads.
And others who are only mildly influencing and the other parent has become fixated to the point of hysteria and pushed the child over the edge.
I have seen parents who say they are alienated when they are doing the alienating.
And children who have lied to cope with their journey on the transition bridge and have escalacted the hostility inadvertently so that their only option left was withdrawal.
I have seen parents who are utterly hopeless in terms of empathy and attunement expecting their child to be delicvered up to them regularly who are unable to relate to the child in any way but who blame the child and demand the child’s love and attention.
And parents who are so insufferably suffocating that their child is unable to breathe unless that parent is doing it for them.
I have worked with children who are simply overwhelmed with the psychological task of relating to two parents.
And children who cope extremely well indeed.
The reality is that parental alienation is not just about one person, it is about a dynamic. And that dynamic, like cancer, is unique to the family it arises in.
Hope that helps. K
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Yes, thank you very much, it does help.
“And children who have lied to cope with their journey on the transition bridge and have escalacted the hostility inadvertently so that their only option left was withdrawal.” I think this was at the heart of our situation. We are aware he lied to the judge in chambers not long before he stopped coming over. Sad that he was put in that position by our court system.
Dreadful that he was Cara and actually he should not have been allowed to. Judges are not supposed to have wishes and feelings meeting with a child. I will write about children on the transition bridge and the lies they tell shortly. x
Thank you, Karen – sadly the US is still very much about what the child wants.
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Karen wrote: “If an alienated parent tries to alienate an alienation aware parent who knows how to manage their behaviours, they will fail.”
In an intact marriage, where the onslaught was relentless, I have no idea HOW I could have known how to manage my husband’s behaviours or for that matter, my daughter’s, since my husband validated her behaviour in front of me at every turn. Yes, I could have left the room (sometimes I did). Yes I could have laughed it off (it was not in the least bit funny). Yes I could have tried to speak to her quietly and jolly her out of it (to an extent – she was after all 15 and in the eyes of my husband an adult and perfectly entitled to her opinion about me). Instead I was left increasingly powerless.
As a twenty something, she once began to almost apologise for her behaviour in one particular instance (which was actually my husband’s behaviour that she’d often copied) but at that very moment my husband entered the room and didn’t wait for her to finish. He went straight into realms of how rude I was and how much I deserved it because “She grew up and saw you for what you are”. She never did finish that almost apology.
But Willow, you were not alienation aware so how COULD you have known what to do? You were in a coercive controlling marriage and he turned that on her too. YOu couldn’t have done anything other than what you did. You must not take what I have written and try to apply it to your circumstances, each circumstance is different and yours was not the example you have taken. Yours was a coercive controlling relationship which you had to leave. He had already gotten hold of your daughter’s mind before she was old enough to get out too. You could not have done anything else. xx
Karen, maybe I need to keep on being reminded of what you wrote above. If my printer worked I’d print it out in big! You are right, it was a coercive controlling relationship and it had me not knowing whether I was coming or going or even whether I really was making it all up as he constantly told me and my daughter. We had so many good times – all three of us until well into his behaviours in my daughter’s late teenage years – that I have to constantly keep reminding myself of what he did in order to deal with it all. Otherwise the feeling that we could have had it all overwhelms me. I am cross with the way she treated me but have never blamed her. Sadly she knows that I blame her dad (if she didn’t pick that up from me she certainly was told that by her dad) and she cannot accept that. To her, her dad will always be the one who was wronged, by me and my so called “awkward behaviour”. He was always so RIGHT about everything in his world. I guess I’m still searching for fixes that aren’t there. Thank you for reminding me, again, about how it really was. I know you’re right. I just wish I could have made him see what he was doing.
Still waiting for you to write about early warning signs and strategies- do we really have to wait until so much damage has been done before doing something?
I’ve written about this elsewhere over the years William, in fact I’ve written thousands of words about it. I will attempt to curate some of them for you to pick up on. And I will write about it again for those who have joined recently. K
I want to make it clear that I will not tolerate threats of harm against me or anyone else. I write from the perspective of alienated children because I care about them. Caring about children does not mean that I do not care about parents too but I am concerned with the alienated child’s life first because they suffer more than anyone in the family in the longer term. Their lives are set to be blighted, they will become alienated parents though they do not know it. I make no apologies for my focus on children and I will not be swayed from that by anyone threatening to harm me because of it. Being motivated by parental rights is one thing, threatening harm against people who do this work is something else. I won’t tolerate bullying, threats or any other kind of coercive and disrespectful behaviour on this blog. Ever.
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Yes, we’re on the same page… that’s exactly what I meant, Karen… assigning blame to either parent does no good to the child and I really look forward to your posts from the perspective of the child. I find it extremely helpful… thank you so much for your helpful insights – I always look forward to your posts. I’ve learned a lot!
It is appalling that anyone should attack you in such a manner on your own blog, to which you give so much of your time and knowledge to help others. I venture to suggest that people who threaten, swear, coercively attack, are themselves quite likely to be somewhere on the personality disorder spectrum. It sounds all too familiar to us, after enduring many years of such behaviour. It is not possible to deal in any normal way with such disordered people, and it is extremely difficicult to obtain an official, formal diagnosis. Such people usually present to the authorities in a highly believable way, and refuse to attend for diagnosis, as they must always appear the spotless perfect one sinned against, rather than sinning. I still have a question for you, when you have time to continue on your theme of false allegations of PA. After a change of residence, from an abusive parent (mostly emotional and psychological but also physical) to a non-abusive one, for how long should one go on taking the children to the abusive parent for their regular court-ordered weekend and holiday contact, when the children frequently refuse to go, always cry, and report ill treatment? When it is simply not possible to put two screaming children on the train, always accompanied, the abusive parent always starts alleging Parental Alienation. How on earth do you as a practitioner distinguish the real from the con, especially in very practiced hands? And should we continue to force the children to endure what we know they have to face?
Thank you so much for writing from children’s perspective. It helps a lot to understand their fustration. I was in a very conrrolled abusive marriage, children were very young when ended. Now 14 years later, they completely rejecting me. I often wonder my response and decision of continue fight in court yet lose all the time has made more damage in the situation. Yet, I was filled up with concept that I am the only parent who has right fight for them. It was hell for all of us.
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