Back to Basics – How a Child Becomes Alienated

The Family Separation Clinic regards the problem of alienation in a child as one which is caused by many factors and one which is a spectrum experience.  This means that the alienation response in the child ranges from mild to severe and that the psychologically split state of mind which underpins alienation can range from sporadic to permanently seen.

In assessing the presence of the alienation reaction in the child we use a wide range of tools to evaluate, including the presence of coercive control.  Where we suspect pure alienation (the child is captured in a dynamic caused by a psychologically unwell parent), we seek evaluation for personality disorder and in some cases where it is observed, for encapsulated delusion in parent and child.

Our focus however is always the child because we know that the psychologically split state of mind is caused not simply by psychologically unwell parents but other factors too. This means that there are a wide range of parents whose children are psychologically split and therefore showing signs of alienation, who are not in the care of a parent with a psychological or psychiatric disorder. Those children are still however, in the predicament of having divided their feelings for parents into all good for one and all bad for the other. They are still alienated.  We know that these children, as well as those who are in the care of a parent with a mental health problem, need our help. We know their parents do too. An alienation reaction in a child is an alienation reaction regardless of how that came about.  We do not choose to ignore one child and help the other when they are both suffering exactly the same response to the dynamics around them. We help both and all.

A child who is in a psychologically split state of mind is in an unsafe environment and needs help.  The infantile state of psychological splitting is one which the child regresses to in order to resolve an impossible dilemma, which is that they have been forced to use a coping mechanism of choosing to lose one parent in order to keep the other.  No child should suffer that pain.  Children who regress to this state of mind do so for many reasons, not just because they are mesmerised by the actions of an unwell parent. They regress because of high levels of anxiety in a parent, they regress because of trigger events which make life feel impossible for them in two homes and they regress because they are psychologically terrorised into doing so.

Our focus is upon the alienated child, the route into the alienated state of mind and the most appropriate match of solution to the problem.  It is the case that not all children will respond to a transfer of residence and separation from a parent for example. In hybrid cases, where there are dynamics which do not involve personality disorder, transfer of residence will simply transfer the problem of psychological splitting with the child, leaving no resolution and continued alienated behaviour, this time as a counter rejection of the parent the child was previously aligned to.  This kind of flip flop response, in which the child continues to be unable to resolve the internal splitting, has to be treated on a whole family basis to ensure change for the child.

The concept of the alienated child was introduced by researchers Kelly and Johnston and was later further refined by Friedlander and Walters.  This approach challenged Gardner’s original theory, which created debate and discussion amongst academics working in the field at the time.  Working with the concept of the alienated child however, as a starting point for understanding the route into the psychologically split state of mind, offers the capacity to develop interventions for the whole spectrum of dynamics which cause the child to use the coping mechanism of dividing their feelings into wholly good for one parent and wholly bad for the other.

What is very clear in working from this perspective, is that there are a wide range of reasons why a child enters into the psychologically split state of mind but the end result is always the same. The child denies any positive feelings for one parent and any negative feelings for the other.  The division of parents into one good and one bad is then ‘evidenced’ by the child who uses the behavioural signals which were curated by Richard Gardner as the eight signs of alienation.  As such, the child who is using those signs of alienation, is showing the outside world that there is a problem. When those signals are recognised by professionals working with the family, the child’s complete rejection of one parent and alignment with the other, alerts us to the need to complete a deeper assessment.

Deeper assessments of the family include many elements of investigation.  This is a snapshot of one of the chapters of our new book, combined with the others it gives a clear route to analysis.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 17.38.40

All of these elements and more are investigated in any assessment by the Family Separation Clinic in order to arrive at a conclusion about how the child became psychologically split in their thinking and how a child can be helped to recover.  In pure cases, with personality disorder in one parent and a good enough response in the other, a transfer of residence plus a ninety day cessation of contact is the treatment route recommended. In others a multi modal intervention which is robustly court managed and reviewed in stages is the intervention of choice.

The Clinic draws upon the experience of child adolescent psychiatrists who have worked in this field for fifty years or more.  When I began work in this field, parental alienation was not used as a label and psychiatrists would discuss the fused dyadic relationships, enmeshment, parentification, spouseification and encapsulated delusion labels which were (and still are) used today in court assessments.  Today however, parental alienation is increasingly accepted in the UK as the overall label to indicate a case of a child’s unjustified rejection of a parent.  Which means that when a child is rejecting a parent, investigation using all of the diagnostic indicators above are still used under the heading parental alienation.  Investigation of such a case, involves working in teams with Clinical Psychologists and Child Psychiatrists to arrive at a formal diagnosis and intervention plan, which is then proposed and carried out.

Working from the perspective of the alienated child however ensures that the child is at the heart of everything we do and our understanding of what happened to the child and how it happened, puts us in a prime position to make swift and sustained change.  Helping the alienated child as quickly as we can is our goal, preventing relapse by reorganising the family dynamic, using the mental heath and legal interlock,  is our secondary aim.

When the alienation is in the pure category we know that because of the presence of the key diagnostic indicators which combined in various ways include personality disorder, trauma repetition, encapsulated delusion, attachment issues and often false allegations of abuse. In this case scenario we recommend transfer and we flag up risk to the child.

When the alienation is not in the pure category we combine understanding of the dynamics with multi model interventions which are discussed effectively by Friedlander and Walters (see above).

Because not all children’s psychological splitting is caused by a personality disordered parent but all psychologically split children are alienated. And it doesn’t matter how the child became alienated from a parent, alienation is alienation, it looks the same and feels the same to the children and families who suffer it.

We do not choose to help some and not others on the basis that one group is real alienation and the other is not real. Because in our view, an alienation reaction in a child  is alienation however it is arrived at and alienation harms children and causes immense suffering to their parents and wider family.

Which at a basic level is what anyone who works in this field is concerned about.

Isn’t it?

24 thoughts on “Back to Basics – How a Child Becomes Alienated”

  1. Thanks. Found this really useful read in your book too. How do you handle situations with siblings who are displaying different levels of alienation? When 1 is extreme.


    1. the child who is extremely alienated is likely to be a) the oldest and in a role corrupted position – i.e. acting as a parent’s spouse or parent or b) the most sensitive or c) all of those things. You have to separate the siblings in your response to them and do it differently with each one, nurture the relationships with the ones who are not badly alienated and keep reaching out to the one who is with empathic responding and if you are in court you need to raise the reality of what is happening by carefully evidencing your case as per the instructions in the book. All kids are different and alienation is the actions of one parent, the responses of the other and the vulnerability of the child.


    2. Indeed always useful and a good read. Thank you for thinking of your audience and keeping it easy to read and comprehend. This stuff can be so hard to put your arms around.

      I can relate to the different levels of alienation. My oldest girl is the one who is keeping the other two in line. My son (middle child) managed to free himself but is constantly pulled to the fold with conditions and pressures placed on him. It is hard not to succumb to the regime of the father, sisters and his side. It becomes easy for the alienator when the alienation is now done by the sibling. He doesn’t have much work to do when the child is doing the work for him. The youngest girl is easily pulled by her sister and not strong enough to stand on her own. Or maybe she too is severely alienated, it is hard to discern. I do try differently with each child, but I am very limited as to what I can do. I send emails and I am blocked from everything else. I can take a chance and show up at their residence but I am afraid they will send the police after me as they have been previously taught to do.

      Anonymous-mother of three


  2. After reading this, I realise that my husband and i must have passively alienated each other in the eyes of our children by keeping distance between us and not modelling good communication and feelings toward one another when we were in each others company even when we sometimes had to work together. We ultimately separated when the girls were in their early teens and since then my eldest child now 36 years old has estranged from me off and on for the past 19 years . And, at present she has totally cut me off for the past 4 years after taking her own young family to live on her father’s property . This was mainly due to her children’s obvious love for me (their grandmother who cared for and looked after them whenever needed). My daughter could not have her children love and want to see me when she herself was trying to phychologically split from me.
    After reading your post, I understand that I had a hand in this by all the years of phychologically splitting from my husband within and without of the marriage. Please tell me what I can do to ease this situation between my eldest daughter and myself as she wont speak to me or communicate by email. I’m fact she has text that I am ‘dead to her’.


    1. Karen are you able to give advise to my comment above please? As my alienated
      grandchildren and daughter as well as the rest of my family and myself are hurting


      1. I cannot give generic advice Janie I’m afraid, it is very difficult to do so on here. Soon we will have PADIrect up and running and you will be able to get guidance and help there. K


  3. Karen, would you agree that there are personality disorders present at times in the hybrid type of alienation as well as the pure? It may not be the total “encapsulated delusion/folie a deux” type of relationship, but it seems there are often abandonment fears, self-centered behavior, difficulties with empathy and anger, enmeshment with the children, etc, in the hybrid stories as well, which can be traits of personality disorders. In our case, while I do believe it is a hybrid case, my husband’s ex-wife has at least one formally diagnosed mental health disorder and displayed many personality disorder traits (in my opinion as a mental health professional). I think that under the right conditions, shared residency would have been possible; but at the same time, I also believe a lot of the alienation was driven by what I would say were her personality disorder traits – all made worse by the court process, some of my husband’s reactions and my stepson’s vulnerability.


    1. Hi Cara, I have worked with cases where encapsulted delusion was not present but where histrionic personality traits were. In BDP and narcissistic profiles there is also not always the encapsulated delusion present if there is sufficient resilience in the child. Intrusive parenting with collapsed attachment hierachy but with a vulnerable child and a too aggressive parent can produce splitting in the child. The key thing to understand first is the child’s entry into the alienated state of mind taking very careful case notes of the path into the full splitting, that gives you a really good picture of what caused the problem in the first place. Then you have to finesse your understanding of all of the different strands of the dynamic around the child to be able to build a clear idea of how to help the child out of it. Hybrid is as full of enmeshment and trauma repetition as pure is but the difference is that in a personality disordered parent who has the child captured in a fixed and fearful belief that the other parent is harmful, the removal of the child produces the remarkable shift in presentation when the alienation appears to disappear like a puff of smoke. In others the alienation reaction comes and goes in shades and is strong and then fades depending on what is going on around the child. I have recently come to understand that untreated bipolar disorder in a parent can also cause splitting in the child, possibly as the child mirrors the shifts in presentation in the parent.


  4. Interesting as always Karen – thank you. Can I pick up on a point – you say “The key thing to understand first is the child’s entry into the alienated state of mind taking very careful case notes of the path into the full splitting, that gives you a really good picture of what caused the problem in the first place.”
    Can you bullet point how you unpick and identify this initial path for the child? so that one might do this themselves by going back over events against a framework as it were?


    1. It’s all in the book CG, laid out nicely for you with step by step guidance on how to record it and analyse it xx


      1. Thanks Karen – purchased e-book now.
        I sat and read some of it last night – and one thing that stood out was – my husband once challenged his son, when his son said he was making him do things all the time that he didn’t want to do, or some such words. This was an echo of his mother’s claims about manipulation and control. My husband challenged him by gently (in his view) asking him to give an example – his son didn’t answer – at the time, and afterwards, my husband read that as he having to concur his view and reality weren’t connected. Whereas now I see that was probably another trigger point, in that my husband was making his son feel the dissonance and the pressure came as a result.
        So then, how do you challenge falsehoods, and generalisations, without getting into that double bind and in fact re-inforcing the stress around transition?


  5. Emeshmnent, spousification, parentification, boundary violation, and triangulation are symptoms of children being abused by a narcissistic parent. Dr Childress’ view is that PA is caused by narcissistic parents. If they are not narcissistic it’s not PA. I agree.


    1. As someone with a lot of experience with family therapy, I’ve seen all of those dynamics present in families where the parent is not diagnosable as narcissistic. Those are the core concepts of structural family therapy and if provided the right treatment, those families can be changed. Many parents don’t even realize they are enmeshing or parentifying their kids and can and will change when they understand the dynamics. (Speaking of cases where alienation is not the issue, but the child displays other troubling symptoms). Some of these parents are most certainly focused on their own needs but that’s not the same as being narcissistic.


      1. Children become psychologically split for reasons other than being parented by a narcissist. Psychological splitting produces an alienation reaction in the child – the child refuses to see a parent. Therefore not all psychological splitting is caused by narcissistic parents but all psychological splitting causes an alienation reaction. There is no formula that proves that one is parental alienation and the other isn’t because they both are but they both have different reasons for it and therefore different requirements for treatment. Every alienated child tells the unique story of their entry to alienation which gives the story of how the exit can happen. Put the power of that knowledge in parental hands and you will find a) there is no split between the ‘proper alienation’ and ‘not proper alienation’ camp and that there is no argument whatsoever to be had about how to treat or diagnose pure alienation – there never has been – all that is said that should be said and done, is said and done in the UK and has been for five decades.


  6. Karen I don’t understand this. Can you explain further please what you have said in the last sentence please?


  7. psychological splitting produces an estrangement chemical reaction in the kid – the kid refuses to get word a parent. As my alienated
    grandkidren and girl as well as the repose of my home and myself are hurting


  8. psychological splitting produces an disaffection response in the kid – the kid refuses to experience a parent. As my alienated
    grandkidren and daughter as well as the relief of my mob and myself are hurting


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s