This week I have been starting the process of codifying the principles of practice in working with alienated children and their families for the development of training programmes. As part of this work I have been sifting back through the cases where I have achieved rapid reunification of children with the parent they have rejected. What has always been clear to me as I do this work, is that it is not therapy in the traditional sense, in that the actual reunification work is not achieved through talking or through regular meetings in the therapist’s office. Reunification work is done actively, largely in situations where children are shifted swiftly through psychological change. Successful reunification means that the child is freed from the alienation reaction and changes from lacking in perspective as a cause of the psychologically split state of mind, to an integrated perspective in which they are able to see those things which they have previously been unable to allow into their conscious mind. Sometimes this shift occurs instantaneously, at others it can take some time. However, done correctly, integration occurs within hours or at the most days.
Whilst training in parental alienation awareness can give information about how to think about helping alienated children, there is absolutely no substitute for learning the principles and practice of the actual reunification process. Anyone who tells you that reunification takes months or years and that in order to achieve this you must attend regular sessions in offices with therapists, is not working with reunification but something else. In the UK, where some therapists claim that they are working with parental alienation but are unable to demonstrate rapid reunification, the issue remains that parents and children are subjected to a practice which is not recognised in international research. It would appear that the same is true of other countries in Europe and in fact, around the world.
Reunification of alienated children means that they move from the psychologically split state of mind to an integration quickly. This translates into normal warm responding to the parent who has hitherto been rejected. Thus, the person who is able to recognise whether reunification has worked is the targeted parent, not the ‘expert.’ In some cases of parental alienation in the UK, targets parents are told that their child is recovered in situations where the child is still in the position of deciding whether and when they will see a parent. This is not recovery, this is something else and it is usually seen in situations where the people who consider themselves to be ‘experts’ in this field are making decisions about parents and children from a place where they regard both parents as being active contributors to the problem.
Many systemic family therapists for example do not believe in the concept of pure alienation. In fact at the Children’s Mental Health Centre last Saturday I was told by one such therapist that people with personality disorders are usually married or in partnership with other people who have similar disorders. On a blog this week about the launch of the European Association a comment was made that most cases of parental alienation are hybrid, meaning in this setting that both parents contribute. When I trained some systemic family therapists in 2013 I was told the same thing, that in such cases each parent makes their own contribution to the problem and therefore the concept of pure alienation is not valid. This is so completely out of step with international researchthat it is frankly offensive to targeted parents and in my view, dangerous to children. Because if one spends time trying to fix the healthy parent in order to placate the unhealthy one, the children lose out on the one chance they have to escape the terrible dilemma which faces them, which is to be in positive and recovered relationship with the parent who can help them.
When I do reunification work with children I am aiming to put them back into a relationship with a rejected parent in a normal and healthy manner as quickly as I possibly can. This may take some time at the outset because in achieving the right dynamic for swift liberation, one has to have the right dynamic configured around the child. I will not attempt the reunification until I have the right conditions, which in pure and severe alienation means that the child is removed from the care of the alienating parent and placed directly (where it is at all possible) with the targeted parent. During the removal and placement, I undertake the dynamic intervention which shifts the child from split state of mind to integration. It is this which causes the immediate disappearance of the alienation and which returns the child to warm and normal relationship with the once targeted parent. I have done this with eleven children this year, last year I worked with twenty seven children in this way.
What is very apparent to me is that the removal and placement elements of this work HAVE to be undertaken with by someone who can deliver the dynamic intervention which shifts the child’s perspective. I have come to understand this much more clearly this year as I have also been working with children who were not removed and placed by me but by social workers or CAFCASS officers. When I work with these children, which I am asked to do because of the continued problems in their behaviours, it is clear that removal and placement without the accompanying dynamic intervention, the child remains alienated and the split state of mind is simply transferred with the child. Put simply, transfer of residence works, but only in circumstances where the child is enabled to resolve the psychologically split state of mind in the process of transfer. This makes it clear that the legal and mental health interlock, in which the legal framework holds the mental health intervention, is utterly essential in the reunification process.
The dynamic intervention which shifts the child’s perspective is codified within the skillset of the therapist or other who carries out the removal and placement of the child. In the USA, it is common to send a child to a reunification programme such as Family Bridges or the High Road Protocol. In the UK it is common to use a direct residence transfer or a stepping stone transfer for such work. I work with either of these although I much prefer the direct transfer to the stepping stone. This is because in stepping stone transfer, there are too many other people whose feelings and beliefs can cause blocks to the child being enabled to make the dynamic change. When I am working directly with a child I find it easier to provide for them the psychological intervention which resolves the split state of mind. When I have to negotiate my way around several other dynamics, social work, CAFCASS and foster carers and educate them to hold the right dynamic in place, the work becomes much more complex. This is because the intervention which causes the shift in the child’s mind depends upon me being able to hold an integrated dynamic around the child. This is an example of how such an intervention works.
Nick and I work together at times on reunification and last year we undertook such a piece of work on a cold day in November in the south west of England. Two children were involved aged 12 and 9, both completely rejecting of their mother and both vehement that they would not see her ever again. We set out on that day with the children being delivered by the foster carer they had been living with for several weeks (we did not remove the children into foster care and they had become stuck in care unable to reunite with their mother and not able to go back to their father who had been judged to have seriously harmed them). The children’s mother had arrived earlier and was sitting nervously in the playroom where we had decided the early meetings would take place. The children shuffled angrily into the room adjacent to the playroom, both were scowling and both were absolutely furious that they were being made to do this. I had met with each child previously at their school and had heard the same dark mutterings from each that emanate from all alienated children. On this day the two muttered together in the corner and demonstrated the same rehearsed and overly dramatic responses seen in many of these children. They couldn’t go into that room they told us, their mother was a monster who would hurt them. We didn’t know her really, she would be nice in front of us but horrible to them when our backs were turned. This litany of phrases is so familiar to me in such situations that I didn’t break from my bright and somewhat school mistressy shunting of the children into the room where their mother sat quietly. Scooting across the room to the far side, both children sat down determinedly with their backs to their mother who looked upset and anxious. We signalled to her to breathe deeply and simply sit there. We sat down on the other two sides of the room and relaxed.
What I know about alienated children is that they have internalised radar systems on red alert. The psychologically split state of mind occurs in bright and sensitive children who have become used to ‘reading’ the emotional temperature of the spaces they inhabit. These children are watchful and I knew that sitting with their backs to us would cause them some discomfort because they could not sweep for emotional responses. Sure enough, after some more dark mutterings, the eldest child turned round to scan us. I had instructed their mother that until I signalled, she should not look directly at either child. But I did. As I met this child’s eyes I could see the search of the face which is common in these situations. I gazed back. The child turned back. We had engaged and I knew that this child was now aware that there was someone in the room in more control than they were.
The most powerful reunions which take place are in silence and this one was no different. As mother sat quietly and I watched both children carefully, I noticed that the elder child was fidgeting with fingers. Those fidgets got more pronounced and I noticed the drop in the shoulders and the tuck of the chin which comes when a child is moving to wards tears. When tears come the resistance is breaking and the time has arrived for the offer of reconnection. I gestured to mum to come closer and Nick too up his place next to the younger child. With mother sitting behind the child on the floor and Nick sitting cross legged and playing noughts and crosses with the younger child, I tentatively put my hand on the older child’s shoulder. The child turned, not towards me but towards her mother who she sensed was sitting behind her. Her mother opened her arms and the child climbed onto her lap and cried. The younger child, watching this in confusion at first and then recognition, turned and did the same. We left them then in a three way hug that lasted for as long as it needed to. When reunification comes, it is best to feed it and enable it as much as possible. The love that the children had rejected from their mother was all the healing that they needed.
Reunification work is not standard therapy and it requires something other than standard skills and understanding. What it requires is not easily codeified but we are doing so in order to train others to do what we do. Without the ability to actively demonstrate success in this arena, awareness and knowledge offer little in terms of supporting alienated children and their families and so it is the whole package which is absolutely necessary to effect greater change in this arena. This is what we provide at the Family Separation Clinic, this is what we will be putting at the heart of the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners.
As I work further on my doctoral thesis and examine all of the elements of intervention with children, one of the clearest recognitions that I have about our work is that the alienated child is a child who is not being parented by either of their parents, one of whom is using the child as a conduit for processing their own psychological issues and the other who is being prevented by the alienation reaction from assisting the child in any meaningful way. Alienated children are therefore in a precarious place psychologically and the intervention we are using restores them to both a place of psychological integration and safety in relationship to a healthy parent. In doing so we are utilising eye contact and body language to reconfigure the landscape the child is used to dominating. Alongside story and metaphor, we are using the child’s language to tell them that help has arrived and they are no longer in charge. Having the courage to do so in a world which burdens children with making choices and decisions they are too young to make, is one of the core skills for anyone practicing in this field.
For now, telling the stories of reunification (heavily disguised to protect identity but containing the principles and relational dynamics which are always involved), is the best way to convey the reality of what successful treatment of parental alienation looks like. As we move on, the codeified principles of practice will be made available to others and intensive trainings such as those we are delivering this year on our French retreat and in the USA, will begin the process of building the workforce. As EAPAP comes to life, all of this will be at the heart of our training and education work in Europe to enable more people to practice successfully with children.
I leave you today with the thought of that mother and two children wrapped in her lap. They had ‘hated’ her for two and a half years. They had told stories about the harm she had done to them to every professional they had encountered (all of which was shown to be false). That cold day in November, they sat with her for four hours before they went off for a pizza and a game of ten pin bowling. Three days later they went home with her and they have lived with her ever since. When I last visited the eldest child and I played a game of bowls in the garden as the youngest one did cartwheels. ‘How’s things going‘ I asked as I bowled a ball across the grass, ‘oh, you know‘ said the elder child, ‘it’s cool again now.‘ Mum knocked on the window and called us in for tea and cake, she had talked to me earlier of the sense of trauma she had felt as her children came home. ‘It was as if my mind and my body could not really comprehend what I had been through’ she told me, ‘as if I had been knocking loudly on a plate glass window to tell the world that my children were in danger and nobody listened.’ The youngest child came in and wolfed a large slice of chocolate cake down ‘I’m off down the road to play with xxxx for a while‘ and was gone. ‘Take your coat‘ shouted mum as the child hurtled out of the front door. I looked at the older child who met my gaze and half shrugged as if to say, ‘bonkers sibling!’
I drank my tea with mum. Somewhere spiderman was saving the day on TV and an ice-cream van tinkled its way down the street. Life had become ordinary again.
This is what successful treatment of parental alienation looks like. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than this.