This week I have been working with children who are affected by intergenerational terrorism. In writing about this I should be clear about what I mean by the word terrorism as in the current climate we are living in, the word conjurs up particular images. There are however, so many similarities between what happens in parental alienation and what happens in the world at large in terms of how terror impacts upon the mind. In the terrorism created by ISIS for example, the fear of suicide bombers and other random attacks, keeps us both vigilant and cowed as well as shocked and horrified by the possibility of such barbaric acts of violence. In cases of parental alienation, the fear of the power of the alienating parent to escalate the situation, and remove the child completely, keeps the targeted parent both vigilant and cowed in terms of their parenting of the child and their horror of the possibility which they can see coming, ensures that their mind is controlled in the same way as the child.
In this respect parental alienation is the same as the current worldwide situation. One is terrorism on a macro level, the other is terrorism on a micro level. Both are terrorism of the mind. Both cause immense fear and damage.
Interpersonal terrorism has been long discussed by the women’s rights groups as being all about men’s control of women. In this model, men are more privileged than women by virtue of possession of a penis and women are always disadvantaged because of this. Whilst this model bears no scrutiny in real terms (try telling a homeless man that he is more advantaged because he has a penis than the woman who lives in a mansion block in Kensington for example), it remains a dominant belief system in our family services. In reality, interpersonal terrorism is an act of coercive control in which the power held by one person is used to strip the other of their sense of control and ability to make choices about their lives. The truth is that interpersonal terrorism is used by men against women, by women against men and by both men AND women against children. The underlying dynamic is the use of personal power to manage and manipulate another person. In parental alienation, the child becomes the conduit through which the power wielded by an interpersonal terrorist is deployed.
I never fail to be astonished at how little awareness many of those involved in family services actually have about interpersonal terrorism. Whilst some ‘get it’ and are absolutely able to analyse and understand how power is held and used by parents, some are absolutely blind to the very dynamic being played out before them. In the case of parental alienation this blinkered approach becomes so obvious that it is almost painful to watch the same assumptions being played out again and again in case management. Let me try to explain.
In the feminist model of men being born advantaged, one is expected to analyse power in the shadow of the man holding it and the women being divested of it. In the case of a mother being alienated by a father therefore, one would expect, would one not, that such a worker would be able to see that the children’s allegiance to the father is a manipulated process enacted to strip the mother of her right to a relationship with her children. If only. So many times when I have been asked to work with a family and the children have become alienated against their mother, the whole of the focus has been upon what the mother has done to cause her children to reject her, the assumption being that if she as a mother is being rejected then what she has done must have been very very bad. Couple that with a charming father who turns his hands up and expresses that he is simply doing the children’s bidding because mother was never a very good mother in the first place, and what you have is the perfect terrorist trick of the mind. It can’t be me, I really want them to have a relationship with their mother, it has to be her because she is not good enough and never was. It is as if, unless the father has a large knife and is holding his children by the throat, all of that feminist teaching goes out of the window. It would seem that a man is privileged by virtue of possession of a penis, unless he is in possession of children who say they don’t want to see their mother again, in which case he becomes a saint.
And the reverse. In which a child says they do not want to see their father again. In which case as men are bad by virtue of possession of a penis, mother, who can be harming the child right under the nose of the professional concerned, is also a saint.
Interpersonal terrorism is enacted by alienating parents. It is used to pursue a personal agenda which can be triggered by many different things but the outcome is always the same the child becomes hostage to the parental schema which is predominantly concerned with control. When a child is speaking in absolutes, ‘I hate/she never/he always/I won’t/ you can’t make me’…and so on, they are giving away the truth of what is happening to them which is that they are being held against their will and are being convinced by the manipulation of their mind, to believe that they love their abuser.
Those first signals, which were curated as the eight signs of alienation by Gardner, are heard over and over again by people who work in family services all around the world. Many know instinctively that what they are hearing from children is somehow wrong, but they do not know how to interpret the signals and so they find themselves drawn into the interpersonal terrorism dynamic and triangulated by the Svengali behaviours of the alienator against the rejected parent.
One of the reasons why I will not reject Gardner’s work is that those signals are the child’s only way of telling the outside world what is happening and in learning to interpret those signals more people know how to recognise a child who is captured in the interpersonal terrorist activities of an alienating parent. Those signals are the child’s only hope of attracting attention and asking for help and when we notice them we can respond to them by unpacking the family dynamics on both sides and building a forensic picture of what is happening to the child. When we have built the picture we can convey the meaning to those who hold the power to tackle the terrorism and in combination with that legal power we can unlock the door to the psychological prison the child is being held in.
Just as when we tackle terrorism in the outside wider world, tacking terrorism of the mind on a micro level is about understanding who holds power, how they wield it and how a child is being used to further the power over dynamic. Recognising the signals, unpacking the story and building the response is about being able to understand, plan and respond in a way that changes the power balance as swiftly as possible. This is about an interpersonal game of chess which is played in 3D, in which to liberate the child one has to be able to manage all of the pieces as well as know who is going to move what, where, when and why. At times in these games I feel as if I am playing chess with Dr Who in outer space, such are the unseen and unspoken forces at play. Add into the mix the adversarial system in which this game is played and you have the Daleks, the Zygons and the Cybermen playing along with or against you. I jest, you get my meaning.
Interpersonal terrorism is something that everyone concerned with divorcing and separating families should be aware of. In this current climate, where coercive control is being increasingly discussed and the tactics of terror manipulate all of our minds on a daily basis, we should all be aware of the vulnerability of children to having their feelings for their parents managed by force. It is a strange paradox that whilst we become entranced by the external dynamics of terror which dominate our screen lives with ever increasing regularity, the terrorism of children still goes largely unnoticed, even when children are shouting the truth at the people who should be able to help them.
Interpersonal terrorism of the mind means that the child cannot say it how it is and can only speak the language of the terrorised child. Learning that language is an urgent task for anyone who works with families, letting the child know, in the only language they can currently understand, that help is at hand and the voice of the captured child is heard, is a critical task.
When we know how to converse with the terrorised mind we will bring freedom. When we bring freedom we will bring peace to the world inhabited by the alienated child.