When the Lights Come On
Sometimes I just love what I do, I mean I really really love what I do.
This has been one of those weeks when the lights have come on more than once and it is a joy, an absolute privilege to witness and see it happen, all over again.
The lights in the eyes of alienated children are dim, anyone who knows such a child will recognise it, there is no-one home, unless they are with the preferred parent that is, then the lights reflect back in continuous loops, in the relationship that the child is having with that parent.
So many parents do not know that what they are doing in their relationship with their child is causing the very behaviours that seem to arise mysteriously. And yet they are. Little wonder so many deny it, project it, see it everywhere else but inside of themselves, the feedback loops which cause a child to be trapped in the mirror – literally – are incredibly difficult to become aware of spontaneously.
When I say that children are literally trapped in the mirror I mean it. They are trapped in the mirror neurons of their brain which are activated in the attachment to their parent, reflecting back on a repeating loop, the anxiety, the fear, the belief that this is all being done by someone else. If the parent is anxious then so is the child. Breaking this loop is incredibly difficult without help.
But sometimes, just sometimes, there is a sudden and clear awakening in the parent, an ‘aha’ moment in which all of those things that they can easily see ‘out there’, become clear in their own internal awareness of themselves. When this happens I have to be stopped from literally jumping for joy because when it does it means the unconscious patterns which have held the child fast have come up into the light of the parent’s mind and suddenly that parent is conscious of what they are doing. And as a result, as in this case, can change. And do. And suddenly everything that was impossible is possible and the stuckness and the weightiness and the complete fearfulness lifts and there in the midst of it all are children who were trapped but now are not.
The change wasn’t achieved by empathy or sympathy, it wasn’t achieved by positive reflections or tentative steps or analysis of family dynamics or the belief that both parents need help or fixing or changing. The change was achieved by setting a boundary, by education and by consistent willingness to face difficulties with someone who could only see what was wrong ‘out there’. In bringing the lights back on I switched off my own mirror neurons after the initial engagement and went into educator/coach mode. I was patient but determined, I offered choices for thinking in different ways and I constantly moved the parent from stuck to moving thinking. Click, there went the light bulb moment and there stood a parent who ‘got it’ and did it and, in a comedy moment, almost laughed with relief at their own final ability to understand.
And I could dance a jig of joy because when both parents ‘get it’ the chances for children rise exponetially.
Their newly awakened parent will bring these children to see the parent they have been rejecting for months now. I am looking forward to seeing the lights go on in their eyes.
Working in the Intra-psychic World of the Alienated Child
As someone who works with alienated children almost daily, I know a lot about the subject of parental alienation. I read a lot about it as well as write about it but most of what I know comes directly from my experience of working with it in families.
When I read about parental alienation I sometimes become confused by the terminology used, most particularly what people actual mean when they say they are alienated. For me, alienation is the reaction in the child which arises from the dynamics configured around them. To determine whether a child is alienated I use the eight signs of alienation which were curated originally by Richard Gardener. To determine how a child has become alienated I look at the parenting capacity of each parent, the intergenerational relationship patterns, the presence of traumatic generational events and repeating patterns and the presence of attachment disruptions signalled by behaviours which may denote personality disorders. If I suspect a personality disorder is present I will ask our clinical psychologist to evaluate this and on the basis of this outcome we will design and deliver a treatment route, often in a team setting, sometimes headed by our clinical psychologist. We will use a ninety day separation protocol as part of our treatment for pure and severe alienation and combined psycho-educative and behaviourally contracted therapeutic input for hybrid cases. All of our work is judicially managed and conforms to the well evidenced and researched international standards set by worldwide experts such as Amy Baker, William Bernet, Richard Sauber, Richard Warshak amongst others. As such, my work, which is focused largely upon the child, is a combination of strategies drawn from other experts and combined with my own experience in working with children. There is nothing unique about this work other than we are the only people in the UK delivering this way. My specialism in working with children however, allows me to make visible some of that which is not yet well known in this field, most noteably the experience of children themselves both before, during and in recovery from the experience of alienation. The intrapsychic world of alienated children is my world, expecially the egodystonic (negative psychological) experience. This year it is my goal to make that experience more visible. I will start straightaway with a short piece explaining how children in recovery from alienation remain at risk of it when they are in contact with the previously alienating parent. This explains the necessity for the ninety day exclusion period which is seen around the world in reunification programmes.
The world of the alienated child is somewhat exhausting, it is confusing and it produces behavioural oddities which can be clearly described. Parents whose children are descending into the alienation reaction will often say to me that their child is unpredictable, swinging from contented unconscious behaviour to anxious, snappy hostility. When parents tell me that a child is cold and unresponsive in the first hours after arrival but warms up and suddenly appears normal again in a short space of time I know that the child is in a psychologically dangerous place, let’s take a closer look at what is happening in this common scenario, we will use the neuroscience of attachment to help unpick the reality for the child.
Attachement to primary figures begins during the birthing process and continues from the first moments of birth throughout the first five years intensively. Attachment is a biologically driven process in which the helpless infant is primed for attachment to its primary caregivers, mother, father and anyone else who provides daily close care of the child. Anyone who wishes to understand more about attachment should be reading Allan Schore (see references below) who is the key writer in this field (although one should avoid the way in which his work has been associated with the likes of Jennifer Mcintosh who drew conclusions from his work which have caused much controversy in Australia and who has attempted to prevent children under the age of three from having overnight stays with their father using Schore’s research to underpin her argument. I have no time for Mcintosh as readers will know, however neither do I have time for parental rights arguments in the field of parental alienation because the focus on parental time as a resolution to parental alienation is a complete red herring. Parental alienation is caused by mental health issues which would be present regardless of how much time a child spent with each parent and as such, all arguments about time spent with each parent resolving the risk of alienation are simply erroneous and distracting from that reality in my view. Parental alienation as an issue belongs in the field of mental health not parental rights). Back to Schore.
Schore writes beautifully about the attachment process which takes place during the birthing process and intensively during the first five years of life in particular. The neuroscience of attachement demonstrates that it is all in the gaze, the way in which the infant and carer become attuned through eye contact, stimulates the development of mirror neurons in the developing infant brain. Mirror neurons are those which cause us to mirror behaviours back and forth and as such they are the social glue which binds humans together in groups. Attachment, that feeling of love, identification and connectedness which denotes a family grouping, is caused by the mirror neurons being triggered and is maintained by positive feedback loops between the infant and primary caretakers. As the child grows, secondary caretakers such as grandparents are added to the mirror neuron responses and so goes the development of the family circle.
When a child is secure within a circle of family love and is uniformly attached on all sides and when a child is enabled and allowed to be in positive feedback loops with all the major figures on each side of the family, the child is securely and healthily attached. From here, the world looks and feels like a benign and loving place to a child who is able to venture off to explore with an open heart and undefended self. What parent would not want such a life for a child? What parent would not be overjoyed to know that their work in assisting a new being on the planet to simply and unconsciously ‘be’ in the world is successful?
The alienating parent is often vehemently opposed to their child being open and unconscious in the world and sees this as evidence that they have failed. For the alienating parent (who we must remember is often scarred by their own childhood trauma), sees uniform attachment as a threat and in the unconscious world of the child, begins to compete and challenge the child’s contented state of mind with threats to the secure self.
Actually, in real terms, a child born to a parent who eventually becomes alienating in a separated family situation, is a child born to a parent who cannot properly attach with the child in the first place. Alienation, often being present in the parent themselves when the child is born, is passed to the child in the distorted gaze of the parent (usually mother). This is a controversial area to write about and one which has, in my view, been covered up for far too long by feminist analysis of women’s mental health. Whilst this article is simply a short piece about the egodystonic world of the alienated child, I will write more about this subject over the coming months as part of my development of training for social workers.
A healthy attachment is triggered by a relationship with a carer who is secure in themselves and mentally well. Many children who go on to become alienated are often alienated from a healthy sense of self from birth because the attachment to their primary caregiver (usually mother) is distorted. Mothers (and fathers) bring their own unresolved childhood issues to the relationship with their own child and in the triggering of attachment, project those issues onto the child. Thus children grow up feeling that their role is to care for and protect their mother rather than the other way around. Children also grow up without any sense that they are individual beings with feelings of their own. To do that one has to be validated when one cries as a baby and has to have those primary needs responded to and met consistently. When a child is not responded to consistently but is made to feel that in order to get those needs met they must first meet the needs of the primary caregiver (stop crying you are upsetting me, you are not being fed until you stop upsetting me), they do not develop the capacity for unconscious and relaxed absorption of the world around them, instead they begin to develop defences.
Defences are those behaviours we develop to protect us from the pain of primary woundings. As children, if we are taunted or laughed at, if love is withheld or conditional, if intrusion into our own personal space is regular leaving us without boundary or sense of self, we will develop behavioural defences. Even as children we will become cold, hardened and numb, impervious to our own personal hurts because of defences. Children who eventually go on to become alienated in family separation situations, are often those whose attachments are already distorted and whose defences have been raised.
One of the key psychological responses seen in children at risk of alienation is that of separation anxiety which is characterised by the fear of loss of a primary attachment figure. Separation anxiety is often welcomed by alienating parents who have no understanding that it is their own behaviour which causes it. The view of the alienating parent is that separation anxiety is caused by the child’s fear of the other parent and love for them. They welcome it and tend the anxiety in the unconscious relationship, feeding it and fanning its flames until it becomes a full blown disorder by which time the child has to develop the infantile defence of splitting in order to cope with having to reject one parent to keep the other. In reality, the separation anxiety is caused by the distorted attachment to the alienating parent who is threatening the child in the unconscious (sometimes in the conscious too) with abandonment. The messages the child in these circumstances hears are that if they do not conform to the covert wishes of the alienating parent, they will be evicted, abandoned or erased from the relationship. The child, terrified of the potential threat, complies by becoming anxious and unwilling to separate from the alienating parent who then takes this demonstrate of fear as being that of love for them and fear of the other parent. For the child, it is a helpless descent into being controlled by the alienating parent and to safeguard their own mental health, psychological splitting into alienating parent good and rejected parent bad follows. From there, the enmeshed and distorted negative feedback loop is complete, the alienating parent’s mental health issues are stayed for the time being and ‘peace’ such as it is for the child, reigns.
The problem of course comes when the rejected parent knocks at the door. This is viewed by the alienating parent as a huge and often overwhelming breach of ‘the rules’ these being that no-one but no-one interferes in the world of the alienating parent and anyone who dares to try is seen as the enemy. When the fused and enmeshed dyadic relationship of alienating parent and child is thus disturbed, the child is put out to defend the coalition. It is then when the child will display the eight signs of alienation, often in text book terms and by this stage almost always completely unconsciously.
Meeting an alienated child is, for me, often incredibly sad in what can sometimes seem comedic in the way the child relates their predicament. Children have told me that they cannot possibly see the parent they are rejecting because they make them eat broccoli (weak reasoning) or that their parent once tried to kill them in the bathtub when they were a baby (borrowed scenarios) or that their granny is evil because she makes them sit next to the dog in the car (spread to the wider family). They will spend a long time eulogising about the alienating parent (reflexive support for) and will go on to demonise the rejected parent without any sense that this is wrong (absence of guilt) and will cheerfully regale me with the narrative of why this parent is so darned wicked that they will never ever see them again (campaign of denigration). The division of parents into all good and all bad is clear (lack of ambivalence) and they will usually round all this off with a hearty dose of ‘no-one tells me to think like this, this is all my own doing’ (independent thinker). When a five year old child tells me that ‘being with my mummy is like being with the devil,’ without any sign of guilt or shame (or even awareness of what the content of what they are saying actually means), it is not difficult to recognise alienation. For alienated children, those eight signs of alienation are their world, the only way that they can signal to others that something is very wrong. Hearing and understanding those signals is the skill I possess that prompts me to go on and dig forensically into the family history and background to formulate how the child came to be this way and what needs to be done to release them from the predicament.
Within the intrapsychic world of the alienated child there are the answers to the problem of how and why they are trapped and how and where to pull the lever to release them. Working with alienated children requires one to be able to withstand the determined attacks by the alienating parent whilst one digs deeper and to reassure the child through actions not words, that one is capable of rescue. Keeping the rejected parent calm and patient whilst this occurs is the other side of this work. Each time I see an alienated child emerge from the distorted sense of self and others I am encouraged to keep doing this because the difference in the child is like night and day. No longer confused, no longer exhausted and no longer struggling with separation anxiety, a child who is freed from alienation is free to develop themselves normally. That is until they once again encounter the alienating parent, when the body and mind ‘remember’ the distorted feedback loop and the risk of tripping back into the alienated state of mind is made very present again. Giving children the resilience in the brain (working with the neuroscience of attachment) is one way of protecting children from this risk over the longer term. Helping the alienating parent to change their behaviours is the other. More of all this as the year unfolds.