“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” Anna Karenina – Tolstoi
This weekend I am spending my last couple of days in the USA in New York, staying just around the corner from ground zero, where the names of people who died in the attacks of the twin towers, are illuminated at night. Yesterday, when I encountered what is a beautiful and deeply moving memorial to those lives, I was silenced by the reality of what was taken from so many families that day. And what has been taken from so many since. And in coming close to the reality of what that attack must have done to the soul and psychology of a City, I was taken back to the ways in which our lives are lived not just on the physical, but the emotional, the psychological, the spiritual and the trans-personal level. For everything that happens in the outer, began on the inner and everything that grows from the inner is bound up with the intra-psychic messages from those living and no longer living. At ground zero, where the grief remains palpable, the names of the people who died are written into the metal which surrounds the memorial. At night when the lights shine up through the letters, it is as if we are asked to listen and to never forget that these were people, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. In our own lives, when darkness falls, the voices of the long gone people come up through the behaviours of the living, for good and for bad, leaving us at the mercy of the ghosts of the unresolved past. Truly this world is haunted by the actions of those who went before us and in living, we must bear the consequences for those who died without us even knowing them.
Each family where a child rejects a parent, experiences that rejection in its own way. There is no one size fits all pattern of behaviours which are seen in parental alienation. For sure there are distinct groupings of behaviours and particular themes which run through families and indeed, an alienation reaction in a child is the same however it was caused. But there is no one size fits all diagnosis which leads to treatment and there is no magical answer to the problem when it strikes. Parental alienation is as unique in a family as the ghosts which haunt the cradle when the child is born. Whilst one child may reject a parent because they are in the care of another who is personality disordered, another child may reject a parent because they are unable to continue making transitions. Yet another may reject a parent because of the way in which the dynamics around them do not match their particular needs at that time. Other children may be completely and utterly unaffected by the behaviours of one parent against the other.
What is true of all families is that a child’s rejection of a parent looks like the same thing. The child refuses point blank to see a parent and then utilises a series of behavioural maladaptations to justify and manage that refusal. Those behavioural maladaptations are the eight signs which were curated by Gardner and it is curious that in every case of parental alienation, one sees those signs to a greater or lesser degree. If we did not see those signs, how would we know that a child was alienated? The strongest sign of all being the presence of psychological splitting which is marked by the lack of ambivalence and the division of feelings into good and bad. When we see those signs, we know that it is necessary to assess the family using all of the protocols available to us. In the UK this has included assessment for personality disorder in the aligned parent and for encapsulated delusional disorder, for shared delusions (folie a deux) and for trans-generational trauma patterns, for the past fifty years or more. When assessment is complete and formulation is reached, treatment routes are developed and delivered. All of this work is a highly tailored and individual response to the problems seen in the family. All of this work takes account of the things said and not said in the family as well as the way in which the outer circles of professional interaction, shift and change the landscape this work is located in.
There is violence in this landscape and secrets and lies. The hidden dramas of the family are infectious as well as toxic and can be extraordinarily difficult to work with. Those of us who do this work are not only talking with the living, we are conversing with the dead and when one is right inside such a world, that can be a terrifying place to be. When one is confronted by the ghosts of all of the possible pasts, it is a truth that one is both helpless and too powerful all at the same time. Conjuring up spirits is something that should only be done by someone with the capacity to cope with the consequences. For what does one do if the dead consume the living and the trans-generational repetition of trauma becomes real in the here and now? Beware those who enter into the familial tombs of the traumas, the outcome may be more than you bargained for.
The responsibility of the practitioner who does this work is to accept that in doing so one is actively shifting the dynamics in the family, dynamics which are there for a reason. Finding the reason why a child has rejected a parent is like finding a key, only the keyhole one wishes to put it into, is not quite there yet. To get the keyhole into place, the practitioner has to locate the places where the power dynamic can be changed around the child and use all available strategies to make that change happen. Given that the door is actively guarded not only by the aligned or alienating parent but the ghosts of that parent’s past AND in many cases, other professionals involved in a case. The task of getting the lock in place and then fitting the key into it, becomes a bit like a game of chess played in 3D. For some reason, parental alienation cases cause the personal and subjective experiences of everyone involved to be sucked in, leaving the practitioner who is doing the work of resolving the trauma, vulnerable to drawing the negative transferences. Which is why so many practitioners err on the side of caution. It truly is a terrifying thing to be the one who says ‘check mate‘ to an alienating parent in a pure case of alienation. A somewhat cautionary tale for those who think that solving such problems are as easy as ABC.
I’m going out into the cold New York afternoon shortly and as I walk past ground zero again on my way into town I will be thinking about those ghosts of all possible pasts. Here in a city which only recently suffered another terrorist attack, I find myself thinking about how to explain to the outside world, the terrorism of the mind which is parental alienation. A terrorism of the child’s mind, in which the normal relational feelings of love and loyalty are shifted and manipulated by adults both living and dead for reasons both known and unknown.
In the coming year there are many plans to bring to fruition, not least the curation of international standards of practice in this field and the bringing to life of the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners which will hold its first conference in August 2018 in London. As the macrocosmic ghosts gather and the world begins to wake up to the problem of parental alienation, there will be struggles ahead as the global response to the problem takes shape.
Walking past ground zero I will remember that the microcosmic reflection of family trauma, mirrors the macrocosmic traumas of the world and that what happens in the outer always begins on the inner.
And so on the inner I will be praying for peace on the outer and making ready to be part of creating a new response to parental alienation, which is truly capable of matching resolution to the individual unhappinesses of alienated children and their families right around the world.
We have six remaining places available for our December 2nd Workshop in Central London – Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to Cope, Helping to Heal – for Parents only. Book here to ensure your place.