Hurting the Heart of a Child: Parental Alienation is Child Abuse

I continue to work with children in recovery from parental alienation, this is the bulk of my current work and as such it puts me in prime position to understand at the most fundamental levels, the harm that parental alienation does.  Close examination of how children recover from alienation is the subject of my doctoral research which, now that our book is being readied for publication (looks like end July folks), I can now spend more time on.

This week I heard the hurt of a child who has been harmed by the psychological splitting that comes with parental alienation. It was a visceral experience which took me straight to the core of the problem caused for children by parents and other adults who cause a child to reject a loved parent.  Overwhelming guilt and shame and the utter bewilderment that comes when a child blames themselves first.  Because being in a position of utter vulnerability in relationship to adults, it is all too easy for a child to assume that if something is wrong, they must have caused it.

My confrontation with the harm that parental alienation causes to a child, made me realise that, parental alienation causes similar damage to that which is caused when a child is sexually abused. It is a primal wound against the child’s sense of sovereignty over their own selves and soul.  A child who has been alienated against a parent, feels guilt and shame for having been made to take part in acts of hatred against a loved parent, so much so that the feelings impact in a physical as well as emotional, mental and psychological way.  The distortion of the child’s experience, in which they are aware that what they are doing is hurting the other parent but in which they are pushed to bury those normalising feelings of guilt and shame for having done so, by the parent causing the splitting reaction, causes deep wounds which take time to recover from. Trusting others after being alienated is something that many children appear to be unable to achieve.

When a child is sexually abused their sense of violation of the boundary of their self and soul is total.  When a child is caused to reject a parent either by covert or overt means, the violation of the child’s right to unconscious love of a parent is equally complete. Worse than that, the child’s sense that the world is a benign place in which they are loved and protected, is destroyed forever.  A child who has been alienated, who has been caused to participate in a campaign of denigration and harm towards a loved parent,  can never return to the complete unconscious sense of the world as being wholly in their favour. Far too soon, a child who is alienated is made aware of the world as a troubled and troubling experience and the deliberate removal of all of the tomorrows a child can never now live in unconscious peace is a strike against their very existence.

A child enters the world in complete innocence and the right to this is and the sovereignty of the self is, in my view, the responsibility of adults to protect. This is our primary role as parents, to ensure that the child grows in such a way that their awareness of the troubles of the world develops age appropriately and in shades as they grow to maturity.  We cannot protect children forever, we know that and the older a child becomes the more they become aware through their own felt sense, that the world is not the fairy land they once believed it to be.  This is called coming to consciousness and in doing so at the right pace, in the right time, the child emerges into young adulthood with a sense of self and the strength to survive the challenges life brings. Those who transgress this right to an emerging consciousness, by harming a child for their own ends, are taking away not only the child’s rights today but they are harming all of their tomorrows as well. This is an act of extreme aggression against a child in my view and one which is harmful like no other.

Who would want to tear open the cocoon of security and safety in which a child lives?  Those who were harmed themselves in childhood perhaps, for whom the sight and experience of the unconscious child triggers rage and fury.  Those whose own unresolved issues mean that their child becomes the salve to the supperating wound. And those for whom children are simply an extension of themselves, those without boundaries, whose sense of self did not develop and who therefore are unable to assist another human being to achieve what they did not achieve.  All of these psychological profiles drive people to destroy a child’s right to safety and peace.  All of these psychological profiles are seen in alienating parents.

The deliberate deprivation of a child of a once loved parent is a harmful act which removes the child’s right to sovereignty. It is child abuse.  The unconscious alienation of a child by an unwell parent who is attempting to resolve childhood issues through the use of their own child, is a harmful act which removes the child’s right to sovereignty. It is child abuse. And abuse is something which children must be protected from without question.

This child whose voice I listened to this week shows me that the harm that has been done is deep and it is lasting.  It produces tasks for the child which do not belong in the world of childhood and it demands of the parent who now cares for this child, the strongest, deepest and most consistent love possible.

For where is the floor if the feet have been bound?  And where is the ceiling if the head has been harmed?  The sense of the world as safe and predictable is gone so the child has to learn how to walk through a door which has been opened too soon.

Hurting the heart of a child takes away all those tomorrows and demands that they throw up defences.  As I roll up the barbed wire for this child and take up my post in the watchtower, I am protecting the still living child inside the persona which was built in the face of the abuse which was suffered. I am guarding the child so that the defences don’t have to. This way the layers of the child’s developing self do not harden like shells and the chance of authenticity grows as the alienation recedes.

None of this should be necessary. But it is.  All of this should be understood more widely. But it is not.

As I sit in my watchtower I scan the landscape for help. I can see it coming, over the horizon.  One day tomorrow will not seem so impossible for this child. One day, more will come to help those children coming after.

Until then, I will be on guard.


39 thoughts on “Hurting the Heart of a Child: Parental Alienation is Child Abuse

  1. A shocking parallel which underlines the extreme seriousness of this offence which has been almost normalised as a right in the eyes of many of those initiating family breakdowns.


  2. Thank you Karen. As always painful reading, but so very heartening to know there are children you can help, and others who will read your words, and recognise themselves or more hopefully others that they can help.

    My question then – what of the child who is moving out of childhood – the young adult, who continues to be deeply, completely, alienated, but now is growing a shell that is thickening, maybe through the lack of any help, or challenge, or intervention, or advocacy for the parent they have cut off, or any other perspective about the ‘reality’ they live in.

    What will prick this shell? As they grow, and are encouraged by others to become a ‘mature young person’, what will be the thing that makes them want to shake the edges of the world they are making for themselves? What stops someone continuing to be alienated, through indifference?


    1. A very difficult question, CG, as In some cases it may never happen – the damage is that deep. If childhood sexual abuse is anything to go by, then people may only be able to start to deal with this in their 40’s & 50’s, but there’s no guarantee of that happening or being succesful. One has to keep believing that ‘while there’s life, there’s hope’…that something may just happen to trigger that process of wanting to understand what really happened – when the received narrative just doesn’t feel comfortable any more…or even feels distinctly uncomfortable and jarring – perhaps as children come along, or one of any number of possible scenarios.

      To offer the tinniest ray of hope, we still hope to begin our Community Music program this autumn (it had to be delayed for a year). This is an initiative completely outside of the court system, aiming to be a resource to assist families in crisis in particular, as well as being a general personal development opportunity.

      Obviously, there will be no compulsion involved whatsoever, but nevertheless we hope that that people who have been in total refusal to deal with the kinds of personal traumatic issues which tend to lie behind alienator actions, we somehow be persuaded to attend and that the locked doors of consciousness can begin to be opened in this kind of safe, supported, but highly emotional environment.

      We are but one tentative lone initiative in a sea of desperation – planning to begin in Abbey Wood, SE London, but our long term goal is to be able to show what we do on YouTube and so inspire people anywhere to get something together on similar lines in their local area. This kind of project falls under the heading of ‘psychosomatic medicine’ – a branch much neglected but we believe capable of remarkable results in both the mental and physical health fields because both mind and body are being engaged with and helped entirely at one and the same time, rather than separately, as is overwhelmingly the case in regular medicine.

      I do believe that outside of Court System intervention, community led programs like this are the best kind of hope we have of dealing with existing problems of this nature. The other aspect being that prevention strategies really are infinitely better than attempting to cure, but if as a result of all the heartache that has happened there can be a wider re-appreciation of the importance of holistic family life, that would be something profound to come out of it.


      1. Thank you Woodman59 – I look forward to hearing more about your project as it develops – at its most basic base level, music soothes, and community music can be hugely uplifting, and as you elude, anything that helps people to come together and share a healing experience can only be good.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Karen, I am very interested in this question as well – what will help my young adult children begin to realise that they are being used for their father’s ‘salve’? That they are being moulded to stay ‘undeveloped’ like him, that they are being constantly controlled and organised by him on the premise that he’s only doing it to help them, out of his own good will of course? I am afraid that I will lose touch with my two beautiful boys completely, that they will continue to reject me as they have for 7 years now. I believe they have a right to a mother and carer who can give them unconditional love, as I had done before the marriage break up. I know this is not about me but about these children who continue to be under the influence of a malignant, abusive (but equally charming and persuasive) father.
      Thank you Karen for your work, I look forward to the ‘mainstreaming’ of your views and research to challenge to the automatic judgement that seems to travel with marriage breakdown and child alignment.


    3. I too am waiting for that trigger moment. Comes a time after trying everything , all that is left is to wait and hope with the door open. If that moment does not come I don’t want to have shortchanged my own life any more than already so. With mindfulness I am getting on with my own life so if and when they come back, they find a parent with as full a life as possible – not a half empty shell.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Karen, you’ve talked in the past about people being unknown (or unconscious) advocates, who can give a child a good impression, or trigger a good memory, about their alienated parent. One such tiny, tiny seed maybe sown for us this last week. I pray it finds fertile ground, or at the very least a sliver of a crack in the rock, where it can sit until the sun shines, or the rains come.


  3. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    “My confrontation with the harm that parental alienation causes to a child, made me realise that, parental alienation causes similar damage to that which is caused when a child is sexually abused. It is a primal wound against the child’s sense of sovereignty over their own selves and soul. A child who has been alienated against a parent, feels guilt and shame for having been made to take part in acts of hatred against a loved parent, so much so that the feelings impact in a physical as well as emotional, mental and psychological way. The distortion of the child’s experience, in which they are aware that what they are doing is hurting the other parent but in which they are pushed to bury those normalising feelings of guilt and shame for having done so, by the parent causing the splitting reaction, causes deep wounds which take time to recover from. Trusting others after being alienated is something that many children appear to be unable to achieve.”


  4. There is a research paper by Liz Trinder from 2010 on shared residence which some UK Family Courts are still relying upon to dissuade often alienated parents from even attempting to apply for shared residence. In a nutshell, the conclusion of the paper suggests that shared residence in higher conflict cases is associated with negative outcomes for children. Unfortunately this approach from the courts merely encourages and enables alienating parents to remain as hostile as possible safe in the knowledge that this will achieve their goal of ever marginalising the target parent. Any Court adopting this stance is playing nicely into the hands of the alienator, effectively helping to cause harm and distress to children. Courts seem oblivious to early any warning signs of alienation or of alienating behaviour ( changing surnames, repeated breaking of child arrangement orders, an inability to support or encourage contact with the non-resident parent, etc), the festering situation becomes more and more hostile and intractable, and finally the alienating parent is rewarded by Courts who ensure that the alienated parent is further excluded and marginalised. What recourse to the Court do Children who believe that their right to have 2 loving parents was denied to them by a lazy / uncaring/ inept (and likely long since retired) Judge? The Welfare of the Child is meant to be paramount yet there is no mechanism for recourse when the court’s actions (or inactions) cause harm or damage to the Child.


    1. There is a wealth of excellent, recent, reliable, peer-reviewed research from a wide range of researchers and professionals in the field, on the benefits (or lack of downsides) of shared parenting (I use that term to cover all aspects of co-parenting, rather than the strict 50/50 time division it means for some people).
      See here for abstracts from some of this research presented at the very recent International Conference on Shared Parenting, held May 2017.
      As to how we get this research referenced, rather than something from many years ago, I’m not sure. As a minimum I think I’ll print hard copies and send to the Cafcass librarian, who will maybe, just maybe, disseminate.


      1. I’ve just received the full list of the CAFCASS literature in their library CG, I am sure if you send them in they will use them. K


      2. Thank you CG. Many have personal experience of Cafcass UK who are deeply enmeshed with and actively promote Liz Trinder’s views. In the UK, Courts and Cafcass still have mountains to climb regarding Human (esp. Children’s) Rights, PA, Voice of the Child, Shared Parenting, Children’s Best Interests, Welfare… I could go on and on.. Until there is judicial accountability to the Children caught up in family disputes and full records and monitoring/ reporting of actual outcomes for the children who’s family life has been determined by Courts, Children will continue to suffer as a result of naive and outmoded beliefs and practices. Because Cafcass and the Courts favour secrecy over transparency, it remains too easy for life changing decisions to be made in secrecy and without recourse.


  5. Liz Trinder has said a lot of things up and coming intellectual feminists would be proud of. At one conference on “the family” we were discussing whether fathers were really necessary………….


  6. “Far too soon, a child who is alienated is made aware of the world as a troubled and troubling experience”

    “……that their awareness of the troubles of the world develops age appropriately and in shades as they grow to maturing”

    I couldn’t help but be struck by, what I can’t help perceiving as a degree of utopianism, in these points you made in your post, which I’ve quoted above, Karen. Not to detract anything from your comments but I feel a need to express a wider view beyond the realm of PA, that there can be many external reasons why a parent, parents, cannot achieve this high minded goal, for example, societies in which war and terrorism exist. The reality is that, much as we want to, it is often simply not possible to protect children in the way you feel parents should. In relation to PA, actions may arise from (as you recognise above) ‘unconscious’ motives, as opposed to overt conscious actions. Can such unconscious actions really be labelled ‘abuse’? How can someone be held accountable for doing things they are not consciously aware they are doing? Many folk walk through life with limited psychological self awareness, limited self awareness of their own impact on others…..and without psychoeducation are likely to remain so. And so the cycle continues….


    1. Yes, unconscious alienation is child abuse. It is often the competition between the child inside the adult who seeks to have their needs met first over their own child or it is caused by the damaged child inside the adult whose unresolved needs drive them to harm their child psychologically. In all ways, the actual child’s needs come first however which is why we have to stop unconscious alienation in the same way as conscious alienation. Both are abuse, both cause the same harm to the child. People say to me that it is a tragedy that someone with unresolved childhood issues use their children in this way and it is, because the child inside the adult is using the actual child to get their needs met. But we have to prioritise and for me the actual child comes first every single time. I don’t think it is utopian to protect children, I think most of the parents who come here want to protect their child from too much exposure to troubles in life. Of course those who live in war time cannot protect a child, this is situational as well as located in a particular time and place but it is not utopian to want this protection for all children, in my view.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting to read what you say about unconscious alienation……it goes without saying that everyone would wish it to stop (as well as conscious alienation), but wondering how, in the wider public, this could be achieved (ie beyond the cases you are involved in)?
        For clarity please be assured that I was in no way advocating that it isn’t right that we attempt to “protect their child from too much exposure to troubles in their life”…..of course that is admirable and right (not utopian)……just that sometimes the gap between what we as parents might hope to achieve and what happens in reality can sometimes end up wider than we’d hoped/ dreamed for. My understanding is that at any one time a parent can only act at the level of their conscious understanding and knowledge at any given time. Surely any destructive unconscious drivers are impossible for the uninitiated to spot?


  7. I would like to go back to UK court. Getting rid of a two and a half year old so called consent decision that was objected immediately after it was received.
    A year before this hearing The London High Court judge used the wording: ‘minimum awareness’ (not in her edited court transcript).
    More than a year before she had nominated a retired German Dr. med. working for Anna Freud institute in London. He is called a UK psychiatrist. He made alibi contact of factually one hour every three months. At the above mentioned hearing it was said, the alienated father does not want to work anymore with Dr. A after he has failed for more than one year to re-establish contact and did not go against the alienation.

    Is there a judicial review possible as this would attack the judges failure?


    1. Highly unlikely. Judges will do anything to protect their own brethren rather than admit to mistakes or failures.. the paramount consideration for most family judges is the reputation of the judge and the court. Children’s welfare is ignored. pyrrhic defeat theory. As long as secrecy pervades and transparency is eschewed, half-decent outcomes for children will continue to be the lottery it is. Unfortunately, Judges, by their very nature are very often megalomaniacs.


      1. A number of freedom of information requests show that statistics would indicate how very very very unlikely it is that any judicial review process results in anything other than an upholding of the status quo.


  8. There has been much written on the subject for many years. I know of situations internationally where court systems have most certainly not been fair. My grandchild is nearly 16 years old, I’ve been the only one allowed to visit over the last ten years. Now we have issues to say the least. Funding or lack of it, can prevent a positive outcome with illegal retention.
    Even if there is many court orders here in the UK, things can change in an international court room.
    Shocking but true, I know there is a feeling of lack of any reasoning within our court systems.
    There was a pro bono written on the subject in 2006 for ECAS by the well known Freshfields, never listened too, or taken on board within the EU. Court to court, contact by all, working together to achieve better for children.
    So still the situation remains. I know the consequences of the lack of listening to any reasoning.
    Winners and losers.


    1. Did you have court orders (to be enforced) within the EU?
      What country has failed?
      Maybe its a similar situation than mine.


      1. Therein lies one part of the problem in the UK. Family Judges refusal to enforce orders sends a clear green light to alienators – effectively rewarding and encouraging such behaviour, thereby actively ignoring and neglecting children’s welfare and human rights. The courts effectively assisting and encouraging child abuse..


  9. I don’t want to talk about Liz Trinder. It would not be fair to her. I have only met her once and found her to be pleasant and polite. The conference/debate I attended was a sequence of events I accessed after being signposted by Adrienne Burgess. The meeting was chaired by Adrienne Burgess and Liz Trinder was asked to sum-up at the end.
    I was deeply disturbed by the whole event. There seemed to be myself and one other fairly animated guy from FNF who found the whole event disrespectful. It was basically a bunch of mainly women talking about fatherhood and whether or not fathers should be tolerated (my interpretation). The attitude toward fathers seemed to be either dismissive or critical. At one point someone said something positive about father involvement and a group of women got up to protest about men being abusers and violent. I immediately intervened because I thought this was irrelevant saying more children were abused by their mother’s. I was then subjected to the resident statistician putting me straight, telling me how wrong I was. The Chair intervened and the little group of women stopped going on about wicked untrustworthy men.
    I thought this meeting might be a one-off event; that i had just chanced upon a group of lefty women, subjected to a miserable existence by horrible men; but sadly through attending other “family conferences” it became apparent that this was the norm. The world of childcare is dominated by a women first philosophy.

    Shall we permit the father to have a role in his children’s lives?…………………… coin a legal phrase…”where she feels it is safe to do so”………………………

    You may be thinking this is bad for fathers and for children. But it is bad for mothers also. Because these women see themselves as the sole decision-makers in children’s lives. They want the best pay, the best job, the best education and their seems to be very little resistance to this progression. It is an impossible task to perform in all these areas simultaneously. So they create “the creche” to cater for her child while she pursues her career. The pressure and expectation of mothers to perform as super parents is immense.

    I was reminded of these meetings when Karen wrote about men being mad, bad and dangerous.

    If you live in London you should attend these meetings, don’t take my word for it.


    1. Adrienne Burgess – her famous words still ring in my ears ‘child maintenance is a primitive way for fathers to show their children that they care’…. as if children should ever be made aware of such things.

      If the obsessive stalker would like to make yourself known to me I can give you a complete history of child maintenance reform instead of the made up potted history you are peddling which was brought to my attention last week. The questions you ask which intrigue you are very easily answered there is no need to make it up as you go along. As for prestigious events, well hang on to your hat because there’s something big coming next year.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. My problems were with Spain. Unless we think differently things will never change. We need an understanding like the pro bono states. Court to court, social services to social services. A line needs to be drawn under what’s happened previously. If there is no legal reason to prevent access or provide a situation of danger to anyone, this includes everyone.

    I like contact centres, it’s a start. I believe a father should contribute to his child’s welfare. The problems with the over use of law is, in my opinion a hardening of the situation. It loses something and becomes centered around a court room.
    I don’t believe that the end of the relationship is crime, its what happens when emotions become heated and hurt and hurting takes over.
    I’m a woman and I don’t see blame is necessarily the answer, a small child confused, and not understanding what’s happening or what’s happened is more my concern.


  11. The worst part of this form of child abuse, in my opinion, is that in many cases it’s all wrapped up in so-called “love” by the alienating parent, who convinces the child (and often believes it him or herself) that they are the most loving parent ever, and certainly the only loving parent that the child has. At least sexual and physical abuse are more clearly WRONG, vs. this distorted love/abuse that the alienating parent forces on the child. I was struck by you saying this is an act of aggression against the child; I agree – and while being harmed, the children are told that it’s because they are loved so much by the alienating parent. I believe that the alienating parent in our situation believes she deserves the child’s loyalty and love because she is such a wonderful mother, and that my husband brought the alienation on himself – she had nothing to do with it.

    I’m not sure how any child survives that psychologically.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. They don’t that’s the simple answer. I’ve been involved in grandparents rights very recently. Mine is not quite the same but its been difficult and I never had the court action, simply too expensive. But there were legal actions, there were court orders and a failing of the system.

    The cost of international legal action is high, both emotionally and financially, often over £10, 000. No funding no further actions.

    The grandparents group found depression to be one of the main factors in how they felt, its their grandchildren and they miss them. Often relationships with their children have been a price to pay too.

    This whole subject is a total mess when it fails!


  13. CG, thank you for your response. We are trying to explore the potential for music to heal social disturbance. This isn’t automatic by any means, as musicians can be particularly egotistical and combative – but by using participation rather than performance as our goal, we hope to avoid this. Focusing on participation by the community as a whole in a multi-generational setting – means that we constantly have to look for ways to include the weakest along with the strongest, and so emphasises listening skills and empathy…the essentials for making all family life work, and most specifically for restoration work where it has broken down.


  14. I have written my story. It’s over 50 pages long. I started it the day I gave up and left my husband who had been alienating my daughter for 19 years since she was 15. I hung on in there, constantly treading on eggshells and falling into (his) traps, knowing that if I ever left him I would never see her again. Then it happened. The end. I have not seen her or heard from her for almost three years; I cannot see her ever wanting to have anything to do with me. The best book I ever read was ‘Why Does He Do That? : inside the minds of angry and controlling men by Lundy Bancroft. I’ve read it twice. It was after reading it the first time that I began to realise I was not mad, crazy, stupid. I finally realised it wasn’t me that lived on another planet, it was him and on his planet, coercive control reigned supreme.


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