Second post of 2018 and I write from our annual retreat where we go to build our resilience for our onward journey with alienated children and their families. As a matter of routine, the first week of every year is spent in seclusion in order to refresh and refocus our minds and our wellbeing. This allows us to keep on doing this work in the year ahead. Working on the principle of putting on our oxygen masks first, this self care ritual is one which we teach to all of the parents and wider family members we work with.
Self care is what we teach to all parents and wider family members. Self care first, resilience building second and allowing and receiving third. All of these things are states of mind and all require subtle and not so subtle shifts in focus and intention. All of these states of mind can be difficult for rejected parents to achieve because of the unending loss they are suffering and yet, paradoxically, all are necessary in order for alienated children to find their way home.
Self care is more or less easy to describe and understand although it is surprising how many rejected parents find it difficult to maintain. When one’s self worth is invested entirely in the existence of one’s children and, when the control over the relationship you have with your children is stolen away from you, self care can be incredibly difficult to maintain. Too many parents have lost their sense of self along with their relationship with their children, far far too many have lost their right to life due to the intolerable pain of loss they suffer in the face of their child’s rejection of them. In teaching parents who suffer a loss of self and soul and hope, how to regain their right to a normal and healthy life, we start by helping them to retrieve the locus of control over their lives from where it is invested – in the helplessness caused by the other parent – and to relocate internally. As holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said –
Choosing one’s own attitude in the face of the loss of a child is a difficult thing to do but if one is to remain sane and sober and capable of maintaining meaning in life, retaining control over your own responses to what is being done to you and to your children is an essential task. Understanding how your children are being influenced and why they are capitulating to that influence, is a critical element of remaining sane in the face of the madness which is wrought by alienating behaviours in a parent. Learning how to offset the damage which is being done to you and to them is another.
Resilience building is something which grows when self care is practiced routinely. Resilience building is something we teach reunited parents to pass on to their recovering children. Resilience means being able to withstand the influence of the alienating parent, something which may feel as impossible to some rejected parents as it does to their children. Resilience means being able to withstand the interpersonal threat of harm and the coercive controlling behaviours which are being played out in the relationship. Resilience to the behaviours of the other parent, resilience in the legal process, resilience in the face of all efforts being made to persuade and break a child’s mind are all critical survival tools.
Resilience isn’t easy but it is possible, it is especially possible when self care is practiced. Self care requires a strong sense of entitlement, you would be surprised at how many rejected parents do not feel entitled to take care of themselves first. Perhaps this is because amongst this group of parents there is a high percentage of adults who experienced abuse as children. Many rejected parents grew up in households where their needs came second to those of their parents and where taking care of adults by children was a normalised behaviour. When one grows in that environment it becomes incredibly difficult to feel entitled to anything at all. Too many rejected parents who come to the Family Separation Clinic start from a place of absolute lack of entitlement, whilst their alienated children are behaving in over empowered and entitled ways. Teaching parents how to unpick expectations which first took root when they were children, is part of our longer term therapeutic coaching practice.
The final part of our work in this area is supporting rejected parents to allow and receive. This seems such a topsy turvy notion that it requires some explaining. Let me start by outlining the mindset of many of the parents who first make contact with us.
Many parents who first come to the Clinic, come because they want their children back. Of course they do, the loss of their children is the biggest and most overwhelmingly painful experience they have ever endured. Many have no idea how this happened to them and are completely focused on getting us to fix it the problem. Introducing the idea that they, as parents, might have to make some subtle mind shifts first is something we have to take time to make clear to many parents and some, rail for a very long time against the idea that they have to make any changes at all. But they do. They do because their own internalised template of what it means to be a child is that of being unworthy. As children, many rejected parents felt unworthy because they were being raised by parents who made them feel that way. Parents who were narcissistic perhaps, alienating or otherwise estranging behaviours being normalised in the family, which leads to a child having to make behavioural adaptations in order to survive. So many of the alienated parents who seek our help have the unworthy child as an internalised template. Helping those parents to go back to that child and listen to what that child is saying, is the first step we take to building a new template which enables the parent to allow and receive. Which means allowing themselves to receive love and allowing themselves to feel worthy of being loved.
The receiving muscle, as my own therapist told me, is under developed in abused children, who adapt their behaviours in childhood so that their capacity for giving is enhanced. These children grow up to be healers and carers, givers not receivers. These children are schooled very early indeed and grow up to find themselves unable to know what their own needs are, so used to meeting the needs of other first do they become.
Exercising the receiving muscle therefore is something we work to help all rejected parents to do and we do that by helping them to receive first of all, the care we can give them. In our work with alienated children and their families, we use an unusual therapeutic model, one which is not generally recognised. It is worth explaining that model a little here so that any rejected parents who are reading this can understand what it is we mean when we say that a) the receiving muscle requires development and b) the child’s best therapist is the rejected parent.
The therapeutic model we use relies upon the child’s attachment to the rejected parent and the parent’s capacity for receiving and allowing the reactivation of that relationship. As such, the rejected parent is brought right up alongside us in our reunification work and is relied upon to be able to maintain attunement throughout the reunification process. Attunement describes how reactive a person is to another’s emotional needs and moods. A person who is well attuned will respond with appropriate language and behaviors based on another person’s emotional state. We need rejected parents to be capable of being attuned and remaining that way throughout the process of reunification.
Although it sounds simple, attunement can be difficult for many rejected parents, especially those who have an internalised lack of self worth and whose locus of control is outside of themselves. It is impossible to be attuned to another human being unless you are healed to a degree in your own self, this is because attunement requires the capacity to be both aware of the self and the other as well as being capable of giving AND receiving. So many rejected parent we work with are very capable of giving but struggle hard with receiving. Being attuned requires the capacity to be aware of the child’s signals that they are ready to give and need their love to be received in the way that they are capable of giving it. Because rejected parents are so used to giving and their alienated children are so used to being manipulated, the child’s signals that they wish to give and be received, which are often given weakly and inconsistently, can be missed by a parent. Which is why when we work with rejected parents we work first on the history behind the rejection and then turn our focus to the child within the rejected parent. Because it is there, in the unhealed child within the rejected parent, that the response to the alienation can begin.
When rejected parents are able to reclaim the locus of control and strengthen the psychological allowing and receiving muscle, their capacity for managing the circumstances they find themselves in expands. Alongside this, their tolerance for what is being done to them diminishes and they begin a process of recovery of the self. As the process of recovering the self develops, the capacity for self care builds and the resilience to what the other parent is doing and has done grows stronger. When this journey is underway, the control exerted by the other parent begins to fade and the dynamic which causes the entrapment of the child fades with it. Now it is no longer a dynamic of power over but a dynamic of power without impact, which means that the enactment of vengeance is no longer real in the outside world. In short, the alienating parent is given the message that their hold on the rejected parent has disappeared leaving them holding a leash which leads nowhere. What then for the alienating parent whose behavioural patterns are those which have been handed down through the generations? Who will they control if the person they were used to controlling is no longer playing the game with them?
This work is unusual in that it requires rejected parents to undergo a parallel process in order to light the lamps for their children to come home. As we work with the rejected parent to excavate the past and bring the child within to the surface, we are also working to exercise the receiving and allowing muscle which is psychological and underdeveloped in many alienated parents. Outside of this we are working to shift the physical barriers to reunification, marking those which we can change and activating that change as quickly as possible (as in the work we do in the legal process) and then we are utilising the rejected parent’s capacity for attunement to bring the warmth of the relationship which lies dormant back to the surface. In doing so we need the rejected parent to be able to receive as well as give love. We need the child to be able to re-enter a relationship with a parent they can give to as well as receive from. We need the rejected parent to be able to receive well and show that they are receiving because the child is used to giving first and receiving second due to the care they have been given by the alienating parent. Subtly but consistently, the rejected parent must receive first and then lead the child around to receiving first and giving second. In all of the recovery journeys of alienated children, developing the psychological receiving muscle is a core task we must undertake alongside the now reunited parent.
Lamp lighting with rejected parents is what we do daily at the Family Separation Clinic and it is successful in many cases in enabling parents to find ways of bringing their children back home. It doesn’t always work immediately but when we get a parent to the part where they know that they need to focus on receiving and allowing, we know that their capacity for building the bridge their child can walk back on to them is activated.
This is not about the rejected parent being to blame for their child’s rejection of them, it is about rejected parents understanding how it happened, why it happened and what can be done to prepare for reunification when the child has the capacity to slip out of the chains which bind their mind and find their way back home.
Lighting lamps to lead the child home begins in the mind of the rejected parent. Self care, resilience and allowing and receiving. All subtle mind shifts which turn the focus inwards and bring healing to the unexplored and unknown parts of the self and soul.
For when the unhealed child within finds the way home, the child without is more able to do so.