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.
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.