One of the behaviours we see in our work with families affected by parental alienation is Stockholm Syndrome in which not only the child becomes bound into the reactive behaviour of psychological splitting of everything into good and bad, the rejected parent does too. In severe cases of parental alienation, professionals are also drawn into the behaviours seen in the family system, which means that the concentric circles around the family become infected with trauma based defensive responses in those who are trying to help the child.
Stockholm Syndrome is caused by a trauma based defensive response to events which are beyond one’s control. In rejected parents, the experience of having your children removed from you, (often right from under your nose) and the experience of knowing that this has been caused by the dysfunctional behaviours of the other parent, is a sufficient trigger to cause the psychologically split state of mind. In some parents the split state of mind causes rage towards the alienating parent, in others it causes passivity and a desire to placate. Being trauma bonded to the person who is abusing their child becomes a very strong defensive mechanism for some parents, who will continue, even in the face of consistent evidence to the contrary, to believe that an abusive parent might change.
In our work we see many parents who continue to believe, long after those with a healthy mindset would be able to, that the other parent might change. This is a particular group of rejected parents who are almost always men. On interview and further investigation, these fathers are those whose children have been systematically removed from them by the mother of their children, often before the family separation occurred. Common themes in the landscape of the lives of these men are physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their ex partner and an inability to speak to others about what has happened to them. Coupled with their internalised belief about what being a man looks and feels like, these fathers often reach us in a state of shocked passivity. What they seek is help to reconnect to their children but in doing so they are keen not to upset their ex partner for fear of upsetting her or re-triggering the behaviours they have escaped from. What they often end up asking for is an intervention which will allow them to reconnect to their child without changing the dynamic at all, they seek therapy which placates their children’s mother or persuasion of her to come to the table and talk. It can take many sessions of work with fathers in this position until they come to recognise that their mind has been captured in exactly the same way as their children’s have been.
In the worst cases seen of this nature, men are so bound to the person who has abused them that they will bind together with that person against the help they have been seeking. This is a pattern of behaviour which is defensive at the deepest level, in which the unconscious traumatic experiences suffered, cause the abused parent to seek to protect the abuser from challenge. This behaviour denotes a need to defend the self against the reactive attacks from the abuser who, when challenged by those seeking to help, seeks revenge in attack upon the abused parent. Thus we see the abused parent colluding with the abusive parent to defend against outside incoming help as an unconscious self protection mechanism. This echoes the behaviour of alienated children who, when they are in the double bind of being controlled by an abusive parent, will collude with that parent to prevent outside help being effective.
The underlying dynamic seen in this situation is power, who uses it and who is affected by it. I have seen this dynamic play out in cases of parental alienation at the familial level and at the professional level in teams of people who, when feeling threatened by the abusive parent, have threatened others in order to prevent the abusive parent from being exposed or challenged. The key dynamic here being that those who are unused to working with personality disordered people or those with severe control issues, become trauma bonded to the abusive parent because of the threats that person makes against them.
Stockholm Syndrome is a fascinating but deeply destructive dynamic and when a rejected parent is bound into these responses it becomes difficult to work with the family as a whole. This is because the action and response between abusive and abused parent is maintained and the emerging patterns of collusion and sabotage prevent help being given to the child. Breaking this pattern is the first step in changing the dynamic in these cases, which are often seen at first as hybrid in nature simply because of the dynamic which is seen in which the abused parent colludes with the abuser.
When parental alienation dynamics infect a team of professionals it is equally fascinating to observe and many severe cases of parental alienation will include a team of people who become trauma bonded to the abusive parent. This causes behaviours which are consistent with Stockholm Syndrome, in which an abusive parent who is clearly judged to be so, is excused for the harm done and the abused parent is instead seen as the one who must change. What triggers this is usually the power which is wielded by an abusive parent against a weak professional who is unskilled in this area. I have seen it happen repeatedly in social work teams with social workers who are absolutely unaware that they have become bonded to the abusive parent but who will seek to placate that parent at length whilst attempting to fix the abused parent. Unaware professionals in this field are all at risk of being used in this way and many cases are hijacked by the personal subjective responses of professionals, to the underlying dynamics which caused the child to be rejecting in the first place. Avoiding this dynamic requires a strong Judge with clear oversight but even with the best of judgments a case can descend into the holding hostage of professionals to the will of the abusive parent, if people without skill or awareness and disproportionate power become infected with Stockholm Syndrome.
The clear message we give to all rejected parents is to understand the way in which the child has been captured in the mindset of their other parent and avoid being drawn into that yourself. If you have been damaged to the point of passivity, find someone to help you breathe life back into your own sense of self worth and your right to your own control over your sovereign self.
To practitioners working in this field we advise, know your own subjective self and caution against placating a parent who has been recognised as abusive. Steer clear of your need to rescue parents and deliver a happy ending. There are few happy endings involving an abusive parent making remarkable changes in cases of parental alienation, protecting the child by supporting the healthy parent is the very best route you can take.
Children, parents and professionals can all be taken hostage by Stockholm Syndrome and the court process is a perfect hatching place for such infectious dynamics to breed. Whilst the legal and mental health interlock is absolutely necessary for resolution of such cases, the combination of unskilled practitioners and psychologically unaware counsel can trigger a take over which grinds a case to a halt in minutes.
As the aware therapist amongst this, the risk of becoming the lightening rod for the pent up psychological distress generated by this lack of awareness is very high indeed.
Staying safe and staying sane where Stockholm Syndrome is present requires resilience, guts and determination. Knowing who is affected and how and when to step forward and when to step back is key as a practitioner in this field.
Loving your hostage taker. It is a defence which protects you from the harm which is being done to you but also from seeing the truth. It is a coercive controlling behaviour which is used by alienating parents freely. It can affect everyone around the family, including the professionals and it can cause even the clearest of cases of abuse to look like something else.
The captured mind. It can start with the child and end with the therapist. Those who venture inside this world beware.