On Saturday I presented at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London at the conference ‘Too much Pain‘ on the issue of parental alienation as a child mental health issue. The subject is clearly one which resonated with delegates as many had questions to ask afterwards and we discussed the issues facing children and parents in the context of us having watched the film Resilience at the start of the day.
Watching this film made me realise that the experience of parental alienation is not just about children’s mental health, it is about the impact of their mental health on their physical wellbeing. In fact, at worst, it is a public health issue in which children who are alienated from a parent face the likelihood of having a shortened life expectancy of – wait for it – 20 years less than their peers. Let me unpack that.
Resilience is a film made about a group of people in the USA who noticed that the people they were working with who had physical health problems, had many things in common in their childhood history. One of those things was sexual abuse. Another was being witness to violence and another was the divorce or separation of their parents. All of these things were recognised anecdotally by this team as having an impact on the physical well being of patients and so they began a longitudinal study, to find out whether this translated into evidence. What they found was shocking. So shocking that even they could not believe it at first. Patients who reported adverse childhood experiences were likely to suffer from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other life changing illnesses. The risks for some were so high that it could be said that they reduced life expectancy by twenty years.
An adverse childhood experience is described as being an event or series of events in which a child is left to cope without the help of any other trusted and safe adult. Sexual abuse, witness to violence, divorce and separation, removal of a child from a relationship with a parent they had a stable attachment to, all of these things are considered to be an adverse childhood experience which leads to higher levels of cortisol in the body and a traumatised response to the world which causes life long changes in the DNA. Put simply, the child who has experienced traumatic events without any support from trusted adults, remains on high alert in the body and encounters life routinely as if it is dangerous to their wellbeing. Over time this impacts upon the cellular life of the body and the changes within lead to physical illness. Add in the efforts of the growing child to self medicate the problems they encounter in the body, smoking, drinking, drug taking, addiction to gambling, driving at speed and more and you have an environment in which toxic stress causes irreversible changes.
The team who began this study, noticed that children were being brought to them with behavioural difficulties which their parents considered to be ADHD. Instead of medicating these children however, the team began to educate parents and help children to learn mindfulness meditation and took them on woodland adventure days. What happened was astonishing. The children began to respond to the support being given and learned how to switch off the trauma response in the brain sufficiently enough for their behaviours to change. The team realised that these children did not have ADHD, they were traumatised children trying to cope with life the only way they knew how.
The parallels with the children I work with stopped me in my tracks. Many of the alienated children who I see are said by their parents to be on the autism spectrum and indeed, when they are in the alienated state of mind it is easy to see how this belief arises. Alienated children are often mute or monosyllabic, they are often repetitive in their behaviours and they are difficult to predict emotionally. In addition they do not respond to the social cues given by others and can appear rude, difficult to deal with and are often described as living in a world of their own. Those same children, when reunited with a parent, appear completely different. They are animated and appear to come back to life. Their faces no longer appear frozen, they are able to converse and discuss across a wide range of topics. They laugh and smile and show appropriate emotional responses such as empathy and compassion. Could alienated children be exhibiting a trauma response I wondered as the film unfolded. Without a doubt is the answer as the film showed that the loss of a stable attachment through divorce and separation, plus dependency upon an unpredictable parent concerned with their own needs first, is one of the most toxic traumatic childhood experiences a child can face.
The team in the USA who conducted this study talked about how, when they began this work they were laughed at and ridiculed and then opposed by people who said that the general population could not be asked questions about their childhood in case it made them ‘decompensate,’ (break down psychologically). The intimation clearly being ‘don’t go there‘. One of the things that we have faced in our work over the past twenty years is the oft repeated ‘you can’t say that‘ in response to our assertion that divorce and separation harms children. In one meeting, a leading researcher even told us, ‘well if you are going to say that divorce and separation harms children then you are actually promoting marriage and we can’t have that.’ Whilst this person shall remain nameless, her role in the feminist research community remains and it is this community, who for fifty years have controlled feminist policy around family separation who are the biggest silencers and the biggest mockers of anyone who is concerned about children’s mental and physical wellbeing in relation to divorce and separation. I have always found it difficult to understand why people concerned with women’s rights find it so hard to consider children’s needs and experiences as being separate to those of their mothers, the clear reality is however that the way in which social policy has been shaped has been to consider children’s needs as being indivisible from those of their mothers.* They are not. This film shows they are not. Removing children from relationships with a loved parent causes significant harm which is evidenced by one of the largest research studies of its type in the world.
As I watched how the team in the USA simply did what they did in the face of opposition and discovered the truth about the emotional roots of physical illness in the largely middle class community they were working with, I quietly determined that this would be the next part of my work in this field. To raise to public consciousness, the fact that the adverse childhood experience of loss of a loved parent leads to a trauma response which creates significantly higher risk of ill health in adulthood. Parental alienation is not simply a parental rights issue, it is not just a child mental health issue, it is a public health issue as well as a child protection issue. Protecting children from a trauma based experience in which they are helpless, is an urgent concern for us all. Finding ways of shaping this message and putting it out into the communities concerned with children’s health and wellbeing is my next task.
I was left with a profound sense of injustice as well as grief and sadness for all the children whose lives have been blighted in this way, many of whom I recognise have suffered that trauma response which creates an ongoing challenge for them in daily life. I also felt however the stirrings of hope as I watched the way in which the research team had developed a wide range of helping responses to the problem. In communities where this work is taking place, violence in the community is reduced at a startling rate, familial relationships are ongoing rather than severed completely and referrals of children for medications for ADHD have dropped through the floor. Mindfulness, outdoor activities, school initiatives where children are helped to talk about their feelings and worries about what is happening in their world from the age of four, perspective building so that children do not fall into being captured in the mind of parental ill health. One great scene showed children writing letters to ‘Ms Kendra’ a fictitious character played by drama therapists who receive the letters and write back to the children as ‘Ms Kendra’ with help and advice and a listening ear.
What is clear is that children need and want to talk about their world and that when they do they use their own language of metaphor which can be a mysterious language unless you understand it. Children who tell me that they are never going to daddy’s house again because he ‘put beans in the lasagne’ are telling me something about the things that they hear in their home and the meaning this has for them. Daddy may well have put beans in the lasagne but did the child really care about that? No. What the child cared about was that mummy didn’t think that daddy was feeding them right if he put beans in the lasagne and this and mummy’s heightened anxiety responses when the children arrive home, becomes translated in the child’s mind as daddy being unsafe because of the beans in the lasagne. Pity this child who is responding to mother’s trauma based responses which come from her own childhood. Pity this mother who had no-one to help. Pity this father who cannot protect this child. And pity the family service workers who uphold this child’s trauma based responses and enable her to reject her father forever on this basis.
This film, for me, crystallised my purpose and my reason for doing this work. Children’s right to an unconscious childhood which is free from trauma based responding has always been at the heart of my practice and that has been underscored for me ten fold this weekend. One day this story of the adverse childhood experience of parental alienation and its trauma impact on children will be widely known about, I am making it central to my practice from now on to be part of the movement which brings this hidden issue to light.
I ended the weekend in Prague where I am, along with many European colleagues, looking forward to the first meeting of the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners. This group of people, many of whom will have an adverse childhood experience score of 6 or more (people in the helping therapies are well represented amongst those who have survived trauma based childhoods, the key is we have learned to overcome the impact through learning and developing healthy ways of being in the world, sometimes over decades of self care) and who as a result are more open to the reality of the concept of childhood emotional trauma as the root of physical illness. I will share with them my views from the film as we discuss the need for self care and protection from trauma ourselves as practitioners. What is clear to me is that we as practitioners, are working with a group of traumatised children, who are coping the only way they know how, and who are using a language that not enough people understand. As we plan to raise awareness, standards of practice and development of training models across Europe, central to our plan will be helping others to understand the language of the alienated child, the only language the child can use, the language first recognised and curated by Richard Gardner and the door through which the reality of what is happening to the child can be illuminated.
This is our major task. This is our commitment to alienated children. This is the way that the scandal of how family services have been influenced by a feminist agenda which has caused children’s authentic voices to be silenced for too long, will be brought to public consciousness.
This is my project for the rest of my working life.
*I have, in my work over the years, received much criticism about my views about the women’s rights domination of the social policy around family separation in the UK. I make no apology for this but I do know that because of the domination of this agenda, it can be easily construed that my views are somehow extreme or ‘anti-women’ they are neither. I come from a background of working with gender equality in which I researched and worked with gender for Oxfam. My work showed me that the feminist policies around the family through the eighties and nineties were designed to uphold the belief that women are disadvantaged in divorce and separation and that their needs come first and that children’s needs are indivisible from those of their mothers. This approach, which has over the years, dominated family services, CAFCASS, social workers etc, has caused mothers as well as fathers to be pushed out of children’s lives and has caused children to lose a beloved parent because of the lack of real mental health skill and awareness in those who are supposed to help children in the family courts. The voice of the child agenda, written in the shadow of feminist policy takes this further and analyses the needs of women and children in the framework of patriarchal advantage rather than in the framework of understanding their mental health and needs for support. Thus the voice of the child, which is often the voice of the dominating and unwell parent, is taken at face value instead of being properly interpreted. The most tragic part of this, for me, being that mothers whose children say they don’t want to see them are considered as if they must have done something very very bad to cause this. The lack of mental health training, lack of gender awareness and lack of understanding of how social policy causes particular outcomes in the lives of separated families continues in both service delivery and policy development in the UK. It is of a particular concern in social work in that the interventions made in a social work model, burden the child with ‘choices’ they simply are not equipped to make. Until the policy and practice around the separated family in the UK and around the world is understood in the framework of mental AND physical health and wellbeing, I will continue my critique of the failures of government and its agencies and I will consider those who carry out the work of such agencies without questioning this, to be complicit in the continued abuse of children. This film showed me why this is necessary, it showed me why speaking up matters, it gave me courage to keep going and saying it and doing it the way we know makes a difference for children. One day we will look back at what we did to alienated children and ask why.
Until that day we press on.