I work with alienated children of all ages and have done so for a long time now. I know the landscape in which alienated children live very well. What I have come to know about alienated children is that whilst every child who rejects a parent is very different and every entry into the alienation reaction is unique to each child, the behaviours displayed by alienated children are exactly the same. Each child (and I mean adult children too), believes entirely in their own subjective experience and finds it near impossible to countenance any other view point. In addition, each child utilises a range of behavioural responses to prove to the outside world that their internally constructed sense of a parent is correct.
What these children are doing, is attempting to align the outside world with the feelings about a parent which have been inculcated through a period of time in which the child’s emotional and psychological integrity has been challenged. In simple terms, the alienated child is one who has used a coping mechanism of dividing the world into good and bad, in order to make the outside world align with the feelings which have been forced upon them during the changes which come with family separation.
When I work with families affected by parental alienation, it is the children I am most concerned for because it is they who carry the unresolved burdens of the past.
For all alienated children this Christmas time, especially those who know deep down inside that there is a place where the green grasses grow, here is a story.
Once upon a time there was a family which lived happily in the woods. One day, a wicked witch came and sprinkled poison dust on the family which made the grown ups turn into horrible demons who hated each other. Suddenly, the children, who had lived in a happy little world until now, found that the parents they adored had become unhappy and angry. Now, instead of sunshine there was rain and instead of happy ever after, there was one parent who was angry and another who was sad. The children did not know which one would be which as they tramped across the forest to see dad and then tramped back to see mum. The children no longer felt safe in the woods and were scared that the wicked witch would come and get them too.
Sometimes, as they arrived back at their mum’s house, they saw the wicked witch sneaking out of the back door and worried that she might have poisoned mum more. On those days, mum seemed extra grumpy and the children felt that they had to make her happy. On other days, the wicked witch appeared at dad’s door and they heard him whispering to her and worried about what they were saying. On those days dad seemed extra sad and they felt as if they had to look after him.
One day when they got home to mum they found the wicked witch in the kitchen with mum drinking tea. ‘You told us that you didn’t like mum‘ said the children in surprise, ‘we heard you when you were whispering to dad.’
Mum looked surprised, ‘I didn’t know you went to his house too’ she said to the witch. The wicked witch cackled out loud ‘there’s a lot you don’t know‘ she said and flew off on her broomstick.
That night mum could not sleep. The children knew she could not sleep because they could hear her walking back and forth downstairs in the kitchen and they knew she was crying. The children could not sleep either, they could see that their mother was very upset and angry.
The next time they saw dad they felt angry with him for making friends with the witch and betraying their mother. They did not believe it when dad said that he did not know the witch or want her to come to his house. ‘You are plotting with the witch to hurt our mum’ the children cried and ran away from dad’s house through the woods to mum, who was so happy to see the children that she hugged and kissed them and that night there was ice-cream for tea.
‘We will protect you‘ said the children to their mother, who smiled and pulled them close as they sat by the fire.
Dad wondered where the children were. He stood at the door and looked and looked but no-one came. Suddenly the witch appeared, ‘they’re with their mother‘ she cackled ‘and they don’t like you anymore.’
Dad looked at the witch and said ‘you evil old witch, why did you come here if all you were going to do was betray me?’
The witch looked him straight in the eye.
‘When love dies, grief brings anger, dread and fear and sometimes more than that too, it brings up the ghosts and the ghouls of the past‘, she said. That’s why I came here, because wicked witches and wizards grow fat on the suffering when love dies.’
Back at mum’s house the children said they never wanted to see their father ever again. ‘He was cruel to us‘ they told their mother ‘he beat us and made us cry.’ Whilst mum was not quite sure that this was true, she felt comforted by what the children were saying and it made sense to her. After all, helped by the witch, their father had hurt her, so she wasn’t surprised that he had hurt them too.
Eventually the children, who had once loved their father dearly, came to almost believe those things they had told their mother about him. Almost but not quite. Even though the children no longer saw their father, sometimes, usually in the dead of night or in the stillest of days when their minds were not on guard, the children found themselves remembering things that he had said and done which were not bad. In those moments their hearts grew bigger and they found that their breathing slowed down with the memories. Those moments, like little cracks in ice, allowed little bubbles of love to emerge from the depths of the children’s frozen minds. The bubbles were shaped like question marks and they were disturbing to the children who tried to pop them quickly with the spiky feelings they had learned to protect themselves with.
‘Dad was NEVER nice to us’ said the children.
POP, went the bubble shaped question mark.
‘Dad didn’t really want us when we were little’ said the children
POP, went the bubble shaped question mark.
‘Our mum is just the nicest person in the world, she didn’t do anything horrid to us at all’ the children stamped their feet.
POP went the bubble shaped question mark.
The children shouted louder.’Our dad is just a monster and that is that’
POP went the bubble shaped question mark.
As the children grew older, the moments when the bubble shaped question marks floated by increased and one of the children noticed that as they increased, his ability to keep popping the bubbles diminished. One day as he was shouting out loud into the wind to pop a particularly big question mark of a bubble, the witch flew by on her broom.
‘I see you are still in that trap I set you,’ she cackled, sounding particularly satisfied and flew on.
In that moment, the boy was suddenly aware that all around him were question mark shaped bubbles and that for the past ten years of his life, all he had been doing was trying to pop them. Suddenly, he felt the crack in the ice in his mind open wider, so wide in fact that instead of bubbles appearing, his thoughts seemed to flow like a river in full flood.
In that river he could see that there was the flotsam and jetsam of the past. He saw the chairs and the table from the house where he lived with his mum and his dad in the days when everyone was happy. He saw the lamp float by from the room where he slept when his mother and father first separated and the curtains, all soggy and the books he had read with his dad before bed. The boy felt strange. Lighter inside and less fearful. He poked about in the river and found all manner of things he had forgotten in the time when his memory was frozen and cold.
Now what to do, thought the boy as he noticed the witch float by, hanging onto her broomstick for all she was worth. He noticed inside that as she went by, the witch didn’t look at him, she was too busy trying to keep her nose out of the water so that she could breathe. As he watched her he felt inside of himself a feeling he had always avoided. The feeling was strong, a mixture of guilt and of shame as he thought of his father and how long it had been since he’d seen him. As he did, an old feeling came by and the words started forming ‘he’s evil…..’ the words in his head started to say and then stopped.
For the very first time the boy felt the question marked bubble float by and he didn’t want to immediately pop it. Instead he reached out and ever so gently guided the bubble to sit by his feet and he sat and he looked at that thought.
His mind started to flow again and he remembered the days that his dad had lifted him up to knock chestnuts out of the tree with a stick. He saw himself laughing and his dad pushing him fast on his bike. He remembered the times when his dad had been cross and then the times when his dad had been happy.
Evil he thought. No, that’s not evil.
He sat and he thought. He pulled down the bubbles and considered the questions. He felt fear and felt shame and felt guilt. He felt love and felt missing and felt sadness about all of the things that had happened to him. He sat by the river of thinking for a very long time and eventually he noticed that someone was sitting, close by his side, her feet in the river (with wellies on).
‘Who are you?’ said the boy and ‘what are you doing here by my river‘.
‘Tilly’ the girl replied kicking her feet in the water.
‘Well Tilly, he said, ‘I don’t know what you are doing here but you can jolly well go and find your own river to sit by‘.
‘This is my river’ said Tilly and pulled out a lollipop, pulled off the fur and popped it into her mouth.
‘No it’s not’ said the boy, ‘it’s mine and I’ve just discovered it so go on your way (and stop licking that lolly it’s gross).’
Tilly stopped kicking her feet and turned to the boy with solemn eyes.
‘It so is my river’ she said ‘and I am here because you have come to the place where the green grasses grow.’
Now the boy was really foxed and more than a bit cross too.
‘What do you mean where the green grasses grow’ he said in a stomp. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Come with me’, said Tilly, her hand was all sticky as she pulled him along, ‘let me show you.’
The boy flew behind Tilly who ran like the wind. He realised he couldn’t escape if he wanted to, her hand was too sticky. Suddenly they skidded to a halt in front of a ring of trees. Tilly stepped back and pushed him inside ‘see‘ she told him, ‘this is the place where the green grasses grow.’
The green grasses did indeed grow inside the circle of trees. The grasses were fresh and all different shades of green. Some were soft and some were strong, some were woven into hammocks and some were made into beds where children lay reading or making things, everyone was talking quietly and an air of complete peace surrounded the clearing.
‘What is this place?’ Said the boy and stepped forward in wonder, the children looked happy and a great sense of completeness washed over him.
A rustling noise made him turn suddenly and he saw a shadow he remembered step out of the trees.
‘This is the place where the hurting children come to heal’ said a voice he had not heard for many years. ‘It is the place where the witch of worry and fear cannot get you and where love can safely return to your heart.’
The boy stepped towards the shadow and saw as he did that it was who he had hoped it would be.
For a moment he worried that what he was doing was wrong and the face of his mother appeared in his mind. As that happened he felt the bubble of protectiveness pop and he realised his mother, like all adults, could take care of herself. In his mind his mother smiled and he felt a great letting go. He stepped forward.
‘I missed you dad‘ said the boy, and as he did so his dad put out his hand and led him to his bed of soft green grasses.
‘I know’ said his dad, ‘I missed you too’ and he plumped up the pillow and the boy snuggled down in the bed.
As he did so his foot touched something hard in the bed and he reached down to find out what it was.
‘Look dad’ he said, ‘it’s that book we were reading’…..
‘So it is’ said his dad turning the page, ‘now, where were we‘…..
Alienation is not just caused by one parent saying bad things about the other. Alienation is a subtle thief of perspective which can be driven in children through actions not words and the manoeuvring of memories so that things appear differently when viewed in the mirror. In addition, children who have to navigate the post separation landscape are prey to so many terrifying things. Witches and wizards of the pain and suffering of their parents, trans-generational hauntings, when the ghosts and ghouls of the past come up through the cracks in the family breakdown and take over the world. Children more than anyone in family breakdown have to carry the emotional and psychological consequences of family separation and for all of these reasons, my work will always be first and foremost focused upon helping children to navigate the tracks and trails of post separation family life.
My goal is to create a world where every child lives a whole and healthy integrated life. Where no child is forced into using the defence mechanism of believing that one parent is good and the other parent is bad. After all, such a defence should be long gone in the lives of children beyond the age of two or three. When children have to use it again to defend against intolerable pressures in the post separation landscape, it is a tragedy because their minds become frozen in an infantile space and the flow of love and creativity is denied to them. Little wonder so many alienated children suffer anxiety and neurosis. Little wonder so many find themselves fixated on keeping the divided mind in place, the energy it takes to keep believing that someone is wholly bad is enormous.
No-one is a wholly bad person. Even when children really are abused by a parent they do not view that parent as wholly bad, longing instead for a time when that parent might give them the love that they desperately crave. It is only when a child has been forced to use the coping mechanism of dividing their mind, freezing the love that they feel for a parent into their unconscious, that the range of alienation behaviours seen in children are clearly presented.
Richard Gardner first curated those signs and they remain to this day, present in all children who are alienated. When I see children waving those red flags of alienation, that is when I know it is time to go into the woods and do the deeper work of investigation. Leading children out of the woods is not easy and I keep working to find the different ways to understand and work in those darkest places. Finding ways of describing an alienated child’s felt sense of the world is one of those ways I dig deeper, working with the defences which distort the felt sense is something I am just starting to get to grips with.
This story is for all children, of whatever age, who truly believe that one parent is wholly good and the other is wholly bad.
Believe me children. The world is not so simple as that and whilst it is scary, you can find the place where the river flows.
And when you do. All that you fear and all that makes you gasp with injustice now, will be washed away, leaving you feeling peace and freedom.
Because you deserve to live life healthily, fully and completely, like all of the other children in the world.
Which is what waits for you beyond the place where the green grasses grow.