I work with alienated children, I know them well. I work with them when they are alienated and fiercely determined not to see a parent and I work with them through and beyond reunification towards a place of psychological balance. This year so far I have undertaken seven reunifications with fifteen children and all have been successful. None have used force, all have utilised the reconfiguration of the dynamics around the child via the legal system with a subsequent quiet and peaceful encounter with the rejected parent. What I know about reunification of children is that it is not a mystery, it is not a magic wand and it is not something which is within the skills range of only a few people. Anyone can reunify a child if they understand how to work counter-intuitively and are sensitive the alienated child’s way of speaking. To do this one has to get out of the way of everything one thinks one knows and start again.
Alienated children do not speak the same language as other children, they speak with their bodies as well as their mouths and they convey meaning as much in the unsaid as those things they tell you. When I am working with an alienated child I spend a lot of time with them doing ordinary things. We will play games, go for walks, eat cake, watch tv and hang out. When I do these things I do so to learn the language this particular child is speaking, because although all alienated children say the same things, they each have their own dialect. As I learn the dialect and absorb the things which are said and unsaid, I begin to understand the way in which this child entered the split state of mind. I find out how, who, why and when and by that point, I am ready to go with reunification.
The easiest reunifications are done when the framework of power is properly configured. I want the Judge in the role of super-parent to charge me with the power to do the work. I want the alienating parent’s power over the child to be completely constrained, by force if necessary. Then I want the rejected parent to be right beside me with all of the understanding in place which will assist when the time is right. Getting to this place isn’t always easy because we often have a court process to go through before we get there, but when we do, we are ready and when we are ready, we wait for the signals that the child is ready. This is not about hanging around waiting until the child says they are ready, for if we waited for that time we would wait forever, it is about taking the time to listen to the language of the child so that we use the best opportunity available.
I do undertake forced reunification where children are removed from a parent’s care and taken to the other parent. These are not easy interventions but they work. What happens during the removal in such circumstances is that the power dynamic shifts from the alienating parent to the person carrying out such a removal and then to the rejected parent. In direct transfer of residence, this is can be initially difficult for the child but with the right person who understands the psychological shifts the child has to make doing the transfer, the child arrives in a place where the alienation reaction is starting to lift. Unfortunately, those transfers which are done in this way without the right psychological intervention, means that the problem of alienation is transferred with the child. Recently in the UK I have been asked to work therapeutically with children who remain alienated from the parent they have been removed to, so that the child remains rejecting, angry and difficult for a parent to manage. This is because the failure to undertake the psychological work which is necessary in transfer which is rooted in the management of exchange of power, leaves the child psychologically split. This is hugely problematic and something that I will write much more about because we must raise awareness of the need for the psychological intervention which addresses the split state of mind to be undertaken along with residence transfer if the treatment route is to be absolutely right for the child.
I prefer however, those quiet reunifications in which a child is helped to reconnect easily and peacefully. One such reunification took place last year which exemplified the way in which an alienated child speaks a different language. This child had not seen his father for three years. Much time and litigation had passed. The usual story of allegations made and dismissed in court. The usual delay. The usual lack of understanding about what to do.
Fortunately, this family was seen by a Judge who really ‘got it’ and who did not spend any time creeping around the issue. The power dynamic was changed. Mother would do as she was told. Father would be reunited and a week later he was.
I watched as the father entered the room. The child continued to play and appeared to be ignoring him. I gestured to father to go closer and crouch down which he did. The child appeared to ignore him but in the drop of the child’s shoulders I could sense that he was fully attuned to his father. Dad sat down and without looking at the boy handed him a brick to add to his building. The boy appeared to ignore him. Dad put the brick by the boy’s feet and looked straight ahead. I saw the boy glance at his father to check him out. Dad picked up another brick and the boy pointed to where he wanted it to go. Dad put it there and the boy put another on top of it. Dad picked up another brick and gestured with it very slightly, did the boy want it here, or there? The boy took the brick and put it where he wanted it to go and looked at the bricks to say ‘give me another.’ Dad handed him another and so it went on for twenty minutes. No-one spoke. The room was absolutely silent and yet, within those minutes, so much communication was going on between them that it was as if a symphony were playing. Twenty minutes later the boy turned and fully faced his father who stood up as he did so. The boy reached up his arms to be scooped up by his dad and the hug which followed was accompanied by the ‘click’ which happens when the alienation reaction lifts and the need for rejection has gone. Nothing left to do in terms of reunification. So much to do in terms of educating, assisting and working through the recovery journey with the child.
That comes after reunification however. What comes before is the shift in power dynamic which brings the attachment relationship to the fore and the work to give the child the knowledge that things have changed sufficiently for them to let go of the coping mechanism of rejection. That lies in the hands of the facilitator of any such reunification and the better one gets at speaking the language of alienated children and the stronger one becomes at getting the external framework right, the easier such reunifications become.
The more that I work with alienated children the more I know and understand them. The more I know and understand them, the more I know that the answer to their problems lie in people who know what to do in terms of changing the dynamics around them and who are prepared to go out on a limb to do that for them.
Alienated child whispering is a somewhat tongue in cheek title for this week’s blog, but it speaks of the skill which is necessary to do this work well and it speaks of the need to learn the unknown language of the alienated child.
A language which is barely understood at first and which is spoken in only a whisper. A voice underneath the narrative about a parent they tell the world verbally that they never want to see again, whilst all the while they are also telling the world everything that they needed in order to be helped, but in a language not enough people can understand.
Alienated child whispering, it is less about doing, more about listening and all about forgetting everything you think you know in order to hear what is really being said.
So that what is eventually heard is the true voice of the child, which when it is fully liberated, roars like a lion in an unmistakeable upsurge of love.
Once witnessed. Never forgotten. Once loved. Never truly rejected.