I have been reading Oliver James’s book ‘Not in Your Genes‘ this week and in doing so have found myself uncovering another layer of understanding of what it means to be a child in the post separation landscape. In this book, James speaks of ‘offspring Stockholm syndrome’ which he describes as being the manner in which children are forced to curry favour with the parents they depend upon, simply because of their absolute dependency upon them. Which if one thinks carefully about parent/child relationships, is exactly what children are forced to do in order to survive. In reading this, I am reminded of Alice Miller’s work on children and the way in which she uncovers the terrorism of parenting in her exploration of child maltreatment in her book ‘for your own good.’ This book, more than any other in my long years of reading about children, opened my eyes to the reality that when parenting is healthy, children can become their own person. When it is unhealthy however, the core wounds which are passed forward between parent and child, are those which were unresolved in the family history. Unhealthy parenting is how trans-generational haunting occurs. People pleasing, is one of the behavioural significators that such haunting is present in a family.
People pleasing is a negative behaviour which is very close to psychological splitting in the manner in which it requires the person doing the pleasing to split off their negative feelings and deny them in order fulfil the needs of others. As such it is a behaviour which is seen in families where there are very poor boundaries and where keeping everyone happy is a strong goal in the central control panel of the family. In such families, there is likely to be one or more people (usually but not always) women, who control the emotional space. Within this group of women, there is likely to be one dominant, usually older woman, who is the leader. This person is likely to present as being selfless and kind, nurturing and long suffering. This is a mask which hides the reality, that this person and her acolytes, are controlling the emotional energy within the family. In short, what happens in the family is about what this person wants or needs to happen in order to make her feel emotionally stable. This is presented with sleight of hand however, to make it appear that this person is endlessly meeting the needs of others.
In such a family, beliefs about other people outside of the family circle are usually that anyone not ‘in’ is an outsider and that outsiders are dangerous people. The people pleaser at the heart of this family circle, is unlikely to allow herself to be the visible controller of this in/out dichotomy, but is likely to rely upon an enforcer of the rule, such as a husband or brother or father. This male person, is likely to appear to the outside world, to be the one who must be pleased. The people pleaser may make it appear that she is pleasing this person first and foremost. This male figure is likely to be presented as being controlling to others, but in reality he is being controlled, in that he is being required to play his designated role in keeping the people pleaser emotionally stable. This male figure becomes the regulatory object for the people pleaser who may interweave use of this male figure with her children.
A regulatory object is a relationship with someone who is expected to provide the behavioural responses which soothe and calm an unstable personality. Unstable personality is often seen in people who please others and is indicative of boundary diffusions. People who live in a world with windows and a house without doors, in which the outside world is defended against as being dangerous and the internal world of the family is without boundary, are likely to have unstable personality. They are also likely to use their children and others as regulatory objects.
When a child is born into a family where this type of covert dysfunction is dominant, their needs as individual sovereign human beings, become subsumed into the vaporous needs of the people pleaser. Whilst on the surface this person is likely to be helpful and attentive, the underlying themes in the relational space are those of controlling how the child will be related to. Relational management is a core driver of the people pleaser, who is likely to feel a drive to replicate the patterns of the past which strongly agitate for attention during the birth of a new generation. This is because a new generation must be recruited into the covert dysfunctional family drama in order to keep the people pleaser stable. If they are not, they become the outsiders who must be split off and denied.
Children born into these families, who are also candidates for offspring Stockholm syndrome simply by virtue of being children, are destined to carry the sins of their grandfathers and grandmothers, as the unresolved trauma pattern is passed down the line. Alice Miller speaks of this in the Drama of Being a Child in which she describes the way that children accept the brutalities meted out by their parents, ‘forget’ them and then, when they become parents themselves, mete out the same punishments as an unconscious repetitive pattern which brings relief to the damaged child within. When children are maltreated emotionally and psychologically, it is much harder to discern than when a child is physically harmed because the child does not know that the care they are receiving is harmful, especially when it is being meted out with a ladleful of people pleasing behaviour. The message, ‘you are loved to the capacity to which you are willing to please me‘, becomes a normalised experience for such children, who, in their complete dependency upon the abuser, will become the willing carrier of the transmission of trauma through the generations.
In his book, Oliver James provides a startling example of how the emotional abuse of children through forcing them to meet the needs of a parent rather than have their own needs met, is intimate terrorism. The passage goes (page 25) –
Although in itself a small thing, done repeatedly I can prime my children to anticipate such dumping of my emotional toxic waste upon them. The patterns become a form of emotional abuse….I can get my children to live in unwitting fear of my bad moods…..use domestic arrangements to subtly torment them…..It becomes a form of intimate terrorism, so that I only have to use a buzzword or display a gesture for that to signal to the child that the abusive pattern is about to happen. The child finds themselves walking on eggshells, looking out for signs that it is going to happen, living in fear of it.
This is what I observe in those pure cases of parental alienation where children have become the carriers and conduits for the unresolved traumas. This trans-generational haunting pattern, which I have written about previously is a powerful configuration of signals which speak of something in the history of the family which is unresolved in someone. The manner in which the unresolved trauma is carried forward, is the turning inside out and upside down of the parent/child relationship, so that instead of having their needs met as a sovereign individual, the child learns to gains safety, security and a welcome in the world, from regulating the emotional disturbance of the parent.
The question which arises in this exposure of a dysfunctional and disruptive pattern of covert child abuse, is why is it not more widely recognised.
The answer to that, is, in my view, due to the manner in which the family, as the crucible of all that is good and bad about our society, was, some fifty years ago, taken over by a way of thinking about the world which made sense to a lot of women. Particularly women who had suffered at the hands of their fathers and grandfathers. Abused women. Women who, instead of resolving the experience of having been abused, turned their focus outside of themselves to the belief that the cause of their suffering was a structurally imposed patriarchy which suppressed their needs and inflicted abuse. The sins of the fathers and grandfathers became evidence that the whole of mankind requires reconditioning and suddenly, in the seventies, rather than therapy, political ideology marched its way across the consciousness of the world and the problems in the family were re-attributed to the gender war.
And since then, whilst women left men in their thousands, taking their children with them, the gender war has raged and the needs of children in the post separation landscape have been completely ignored.
Trauma patterns of believing that a child has been abused when they have not, have been reconfigured as dangerous dads and victim mothers. The role of men in family life has been scrutinised, brutalised, politicised and dramatised. Men as fathers have had to defend their position, find ways of becoming more acceptable, they have had to ditch their ‘toxic’ masculinity and adapt to the demands of a rampantly controlling feminist agenda which has hidden the harm that women can do to children, especially when they carry unresolved trauma.
In this landscape, Gardner located and recognised a child’s maladaptive response to being the carrier of the familial trauma as the eight signs of alienation. Underneath these signs lie the pages of the dysfunctional family script. In this landscape, the abuse of mothers which is unresolved and therefore passed down the line to the child through the vehicle of the distorted parent/child relationship, is reconfigured as being about protective mothering and abusive fathering and battles between mothers rights and fathers rights group rage.
Some blame Gardner for taking everyone off piste, whilst ignoring the reality of the landscape in which Gardner did his work in the first place. A landscape which is shaped and controlled by dominant forces which look through a particular (feminist) lens. Blaming Gardner, whilst ignoring the feminist controlled environment, is a bit like focusing the blame on the prison guard whilst letting the prison governor off the hook. Nothing can be removed from the environment it operates in, an environment which influences the development of ideas and thinking powerfully and in the case of feminist ideology, in a strongly biased manner.
In this feminist dominated landscape, individual women are not held responsible for the harm they are conveying in the intra-psychic world of the child they have control over and men may be considered abusive simply for wanting to have a relationship with their child.
And at the heart of it all are children. Born helpless into the world and dependent. Bound to their parents through their incapacity to do anything other than conform to the wishes of their mother and father be they for good or for bad.
Hidden currently behind a wall of belief that children’s needs are indivisible from those of their mother, this wall is made of other people’s subjective experiences. Which means that objective reality is whatever people feel it to be.
I have been saying it for years. Feminist ideology has no place in the understanding of the family and its therapeutic needs. It especially has no place in any kind of work to uncover and heal trans-generational haunting wounds.
The sins of the grandfathers and grandmothers become the sins of the mothers and fathers and the children are destined to live out the unresolved burdens of the past. To start a new way of thinking and working with children we need to scrap the ideology and build a framework in which the abused are recognised as needing help and the by standers made helpless (rejected parents) are enabled to provide the healthy care which provides the child with a chance of becoming the transformational character in the dysfunctional landscape.
There is no good/bad split in this world, just men, women and the relationship between them and their capacity as parents to meet the needs of their children.
And when we recognise that, we will arrest the intergenerational march of familial trauma and terrorism
And the haunting will stop.