Understanding Power and Control in Parental Alienation

The issue of power and control is one which underpins the dynamic between parents in parental alienation and it is coercive control in its varying guises, which causes a child to enter into the infantile defence mechanism which is called psychological splitting.  When a child has entered into this state of mind, it is impossible to cajole, persuade or use generic therapy to persuade them out of it. This is because what lies beneath the use of the defence mechanism is primal fear.  When a child has entered this state of mind it is because the biological imperative to survive has become dominant. This is only ever seen in situations where children are, at depth, afraid.  This fear can derive from those things which a parent is doing to the child to ensure that the child is aligned to them strongly and it can derive from the fear of deep rooted beliefs that the rejected parent is not capable of keeping them safe. This is usually seen in situations where a child has witnessed sustained control of the rejected parent by the alienating parent.  Whichever route the child took into such a situation, it is not the case that generic therapy will resolve the issue.  Such a situation requires strong and swift intervention.  When it is applied it must be continuous and uninterrupted.

When we analyse a case of a child rejecting a parent, we look at all of the different elements involved from a psycho-relational perspective, including coercive control.  We do not however use the Duluth model or any politically influenced model of analysis to do so.  The dangers of analysing a case of a child’s resistance to a relationship with a parent using any of these models based upon a belief in patriarchal power, is that they enable the practitioner to miss the reality of what is happening underneath the presenting dynamic. Through the use of the Duluth model for example, the eye is drawn not to the child’s experience but to the mother’s experience.  Only when the analysis begins with the child’s experience, can the multilayered analysis give the truth of what is happening to the child.

The model below is one of the tools used by the Clinic to analyse the child’s route into the psychologically split state of mind.

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In each of the sections, a series of assessments are undertaken of both parents, in order to determine the conditions in which the child entered into splitting.  Each parent, aligned and rejected, is assessed and the result gives a picture of the dynamic which caused the problem in the first place, allowing treatment routes to be developed to assist the child to change.  In pure cases, where a parent has a personality disorder for example and where this results in a number of issues in each of the other sections, whilst the other parent has stronger, healthier results, the outcome is likely to be a recommendation for a change of residence (which is the UK’s preferred route to dealing with severe alienation).  In other cases, where there is no personality disorder in the aligned parent but a number of other issues arising and the rejected parent has a good enough parenting style with fewer issues in each of the sections, an intervention for hybrid is developed. This is likely to be a multi modal, court ordered and robustly managed programme which has as its core focus, the immediate restoration of the relationship between child and rejected parent.

The core feature of working in this way is that it is responsive to the spectrum of parental alienation and it offers education and support for families to improve health and wellbeing over the longer term.

Children entering into the split state of mind is caused not just by the presence of personality disorder and this model of work allows for intervention across a wide range of such cases.  Considering the problem from the perspective of relationships between parents and their influence on children, ensures that each child’s unique response to the dynamics around them is properly understood and responded to.  Children are at the heart of this work and the power and control exerted over them in a case of parental alienation is considered in this model to be child abuse.

I will write more from this perspective over the coming months as I am focused upon children’s experiences of recovery from alienation and the way in which their relational capacity is changed by the experience of being controlled by a parent’s influence.  As I continue to work with children in recovery, it is clear that their needs for relational support are strong and that their capacity for improving understanding of the relational space is too.  With the right kind of intervention even the  most severely alienated children can and do recover well.  Largely due to the healthy interpersonal relational dynamic with the formerly rejected parent and the plasticity of the brain.  This is the reason why we say so often to rejected parents that they must keep healthy and well. It becomes ever clearer in working with children in recovery that this is indeed, their route to a healthy future.

The above diagram is taken from Woodall, K. & Woodall, N. (2017). Understanding parental alienation: Learning to cope, helping to heal. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

See extracts here

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17 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for all your sacrifices and hard work. One day and soon and very soon all will know about PA. You will be part of the solution.
    If intervention is not swift and fast forward the child is now an adult, it is hard to imagine that now the narrative that they are still afraid of the rejected parent. How do I help my children to fix this unresolved trauma and correct the narrative?
    Yes coercive control was severe in the beginning of how all the narrative started. The father wanted to erase me out the children’s life and his control strategy was horrific. His first action was to go to the domestic violence center and FALSELY claimed I abused the kids. Since I was the main disciplinarian and he was there friend, it was easy to sway the children and have them think I was abusive. From there every word that escaped his lips was to fortify his claim. His tactics became very severe in nature and I could not keep up. He undermined my role and turned and twisted everything I said and did. Though, the false abuse allegations were not founded, the PA did not end and only the start. He took the kids and went to live with his parents. When finally at court, the judge declared 50/50 custody. His control only became very extremely severe. He coached the kids to come steal paperwork, admonish me and mock me, listen to my phone conversation, erase messages, destroy my papers to the lawyers or steal them to give to their father, steal items from the home. He was in constant communications with them. He coached them to call the police and claim abuse at the most frivolous things such as me saying no you cannot have soda it is not good for you or you must do your homework. The oldest child (target child) did his most dirty work. Everything became about abuse since that was his claim as he wanted it to stick. The court and all the participants played a role in the alienation outcome too; the guardian ad litem, the court social worker, the therapist and the therapist friend who completed evaluations. The more I was outraged and tried to defend myself the more I fit the image he created for me. I was humiliated, shamed and defeated. I was no match for this monster.

    There may be no hope for my situation, but I will voice my story in hopes it may help others in their journey or help bring PA out in the open.

    Anonymous- mother of three

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    1. Yes, I understand – the one who wishes to provide discipline and structure for the child is presented as being abusive. The alienator aims to present themselves as more liberal and relaxed…may occasionally come up with productive ideas for the children but will almost never do the hard work of following them through. Undermines any attempts to do so as “putting pressure on the child” etc.

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  2. Karen, thank you for the diagram, it’s helpful to me as a mental health professional – I try to help therapists I supervise determine what’s going on in these sort of cases. We have almost no ability to manage these situations when the alienation is severe, because the courts are not on board, but it can be beneficial to understand the dynamic and know how to intervene in cases where it can be addressed successfully without court intervention. It’s so hard to figure out what’s going on and this gives a framework.

    Also, my husband has worked hard to not let the alienation drag him down, and it’s worked – we’ve been able to not only survive but thrive despite not having much meaningful contact with his son over the last 2.5 years. Recently, his son has reached out in a pleasant, conversational way, and we are hoping he is gaining some perspective and emerging from the alienation at almost 18. If he does, he will find a healthy father to help him sort this out; and if it’s just a false emergence orchestrated by the other parent, my husband is still in a healthy place and can wait for the next opportunity. So taking care of yourself and finding peace works regardless.

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  3. My little 6 year old daughter told me on Sunday that she had a nightmare on Thursday night that she would never see me again. She told me she came down the stairs crying and told her dad. This the reason she was ‘available’ to see me in a park on Sunday for 30 minutes. This was subject to my agreeing to the condition that I do not leave the park and he would be remaining in the park. I made those 30minutes the best most fun time I could with her because I do not know when I will see her again. I last seen her in May. A court order stating contact as can be agreed between parties has added further misery to our lives by allowing us to be coercively controlled by the other parent – the only reason I cannot look after my 6 children for half the week. No that’s not strictly true at the same time as this order was made, there was an order made not to allow us back to court for a year.

    I think I may always be allowed to see one child to retain a measure of power and control over me.

    Four of my children are hostile and rejecting. They are young and they have been programmed to behave in an ugly way towards me. The fear is almost palpable. I see it in their eyes. Their reactions, particularly of the younger children are phobic. It confused and hurt me at first. I understand now why they behave this way because of all the information I have read here. Thank-you Karen for all you share and for bringing a sense of sanity to this sort of world. It has helped me to respond in a healthier way. And thank-you for sharing this model of identifying the possible ways the childs parents may have caused the alienation of the parent. I would like to be able to provide the treatment you do because so many children and their parents need help, every child deserves to be cared for by a loving parent and there is so much work to be done to put the systems that work in place to allow this to happen.

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    1. “The fear is almost palpable. I see it in their eyes. Their reactions, particularly of the younger children are phobic. It confused and hurt me at first.”

      Oh, how I know this feeling. And that look in my children’s eyes (but they are fine, they are thriving…(sic)).

      The best explanation I have read of this (besides so much here) was Childress’ description of an “Encapsulated Persecutory Delusion”. When I read that, I was reading my life. And I began to understand what my children were living.

      https://drcraigchildressblog.com/2016/06/28/delusions-encapsulated-delusions-encapsulated-persecutory-delusions/

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      1. Encapsulated delusional disorder has been diagnosed in the UK for the past fifty years in these cases Peter. It is well understood as part of the PA landscape and is used to evidence a transfer of residence in some cases. It was first referenced in my work by my mentor Dr Hamish Cameron who is a now retired child adolescent psychiatrist, it is well known amongst people who do this work as part of a range of issues which cause psychological splitting in children. K

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    2. Hun, you are so right when you say that the alienating parent only needs 1 child to keep a certain amount of control! I have a son with his father and my daughter sees them for a few hours on a Sunday! I always worried that at the grand old age of 13 my ex wld try to do to my daughter what he did to my son!! He has absolutely no interest in her other than to carry stories back and forth from both houses, however as she gets older she’s seen how this game works with her daddy!

      I have to agree that even when the so-called professional bodies see alienation happening and mention it by name in reports, nothing happens!! So the point is what….?????

      I cannot imagine your pain……but you must hang in there even when it all seems lost! If I didn’t have hope I’d be no use to my daughter or indeed my son, should he return!

      Frankie x

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      1. Thank-you Frankie. The stronger I get the more determined I am to make the most of my life. Focusing on what I have control over makes me feels stronger and being able to get my career back on track has put a sense of purpose back in my life. I had 6 children in 8 years and was a full-time stay at home mum for 11 years. I knew I had to fill my life with something to lessen the pain I needed a distraction, something to add meaning and prevent parental alienation from being all-consuming. Its like a rolling stone, things start to get better and better and you become stronger and calmer and you begin to embrace life again. I think this is better for my children. I will be able to help them when they return.

        And thank-you Peter. I have looked at the information on the link you attached. This is good to read to get a better understanding and explanation of the distortion that is going on. I am glad your children are doing well. I find it a relief to hear from Karen that with the right intervention the alienation can disappear quickly. I know instinctively that that would happen mine as deep down they know I am a good loving mum and they would behave differently if they could.

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  4. Firstly, I do understand what you are trying to do and it does make perfect sense. Training personnel to do the same is also right and pooling similar ideas from around the world feels equally sensible.

    The present-day reality is far from perfect and it needs a strong healthy challenge.

    Parents who separate and who have children seldom know what is the best thing to do at any given time, in respect of the continuity of effective parenting.
    The argument that has caused irreparable damage to the parent’s relationship affects the way they parent their children. It shouldn’t but it usually does.
    If only parents could remain child focused.
    Instead a competition develops, an argument festers and lines are drawn in the sand. The splitting process grows on all levels, psychologically, geographically, critically.
    One parent takes control and the other feels disadvantaged, their complaint taking on many different forms.
    At this juncture, it is vital that the parent losing ground to the other who appears to dominate is acutely aware of the appropriate ways to counter this manipulation. (many aren’t).
    In the rare cases where one parent has become so successful at destroying the child’s relationship with the other parent legal process is an effective tool that can be used to remove the child from the poisonous influences of the offending parent.
    Deciphering these cases is what Karen does. By all accounts she does this well. They are the worst-case scenarios and the children need to be saved from long term damage: their identity recovered.
    For the rest of us struggling with co-parenting, a few months or even like myself ten years into the game we need to skill up. On a personal developmental level. As a skilled practitioner of parenting skills. As an emotion coach. As an empath. We need to be brave and resilient understanding and considerate.

    By now we may be students of Gardener and his diagnostic list, or something more current. For some of us these grave moments pass as we wheedle our way back into our children’s lives the scars and poisons of the past fading as we create fresh and new possibilities. Our backs are stronger and the language and mannerisms of hurt stll directed towards us are less harmful to us and the kids. As parents we may even have time to consider how to disengage our former partner from the psychological trap they have unwittingly laid for themselves. But then, perhaps we fool ourselves, because the damage we see in our former partner is rooted in their past and that stone can only ever be overturned by them.

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    1. In the book you will find the strategies you need to work with the child and to build the skills to do this yourself. Whilst most if not all cases of alienation require the mental health and legal interlock to be resolved, it is essential that anyone in the position where their child is rejecting or resisting becomes an absolute star in the department of understanding how to parent an influenced child. The book is THE handbook for parents and means that you don’t have to wait for the professionals to catch up and catch on or for the world to change in its relationship to parental alienation, These are your kids, this is your life, you can do it yourself and in my view should do it as much as possible yourself using professionals only when necessary. The court is a necessary tool but it is not a magic wand, the three key elments are – understanding, coping and healing and all of those things can be done by the parent who is being rejected and all can be done with the key firmly in hand and mind – knowledge is power and power is the key in these cases.

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  5. Karen I would love to read your book but I can’t afford it especially since I don’t know what it can offer me specifically. My daughter is now 36 and refuses to answer any emails including a recent one when I told her that her grandfather is dying and hasn’t got long. I truly daren’t ring her because I’m sure she’d either not answer or yell at me again. You may remember that her father began alienating her and setting her up to feel sorry for him from when she was fifteen years old. She is convinced that he is totally innocent and that I treated him badly – not true I just answered him back. It was he who was verbally abusive and treated me badly. She has spent the years feeling like she has had to protect him from me and he’s encouraged that. He’s the victim.

    Is there something, anything that your book can offer to parents like me who feel they have no hope and whose children are now well into adulthood?

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    1. I think the last part of the book, healing, is the key part for you Willow. But much of the book will give you answers to what you have gone through too. I will be serialising some of it on here and it will be available in libraries too I think so you will be able to get hold of it. K

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      1. Thank you for your quick reply Karen. I’m going to try to get your book one day and will ask the local library if they could stock it.

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    2. Thank-you for sharing how your daughter’s father alienated your daughter. Getting the kids to feel sorry for him is one of the tactics my children’s dad used.

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  6. I relate to all of this thank you Karen and you have been part of my family case but been vilified by one side so your services, experiences have been set aside for tactical reasons..so much for the primacy for the well being of the child(ren). I have a worthless High Court Order and my children (14 and 11) are totally phobic about me and getting worse. The LA have applied for a Care Order (who now want a Transfer of Residence) and this has taken 2 years to get no where, we have had 14 days of a High Court Hearings and still nothing.

    Some day very soon, I too will publish a book and will name and shame all Judges, officials , legal professionals etc who allowed this to happen despite every service being available. They know who they are but ‘untouchable’.

    The working title of my book is ‘when is a Court Order not a Court Order’……

    Its too late for my children but not others.

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