The world of parental alienation is a binary world, which means that in all sides of the issue in the family affected, there are divisions and schisms into one or the other thing.
Consider the following binary statements – rejected/alienating, targeted/alienator, healthy/unhealthy, good/bad, right/wrong, happy/sad, suffering/punishing.
All of these words, which are grouped together to describe the world of the alienated child and family, work not only to describe, but to concretise the experience of the child. Whilst these are just words, the sentiments are often found to be pulsating around the child like electrical currents which wire up the thought process and then solder it fixed. There is a reason why we do not pursue the binary division of parents into wholly good and wholly bad when we do this work with families and it is this. To pursue the good/bad split whilst doing the work of assisting the child to recover from alienation, would simply mean switching the alignment and rejection response in the child. In other words, to heal the child we must not only address the defence of psychological splitting, we must retrain the whole family system out of the defence of binary thinking and bring them into the real world, where shadows and shades of grey in between the black and the white are common place.
The psychologically split state of mind in a child is the core presentation of parental alienation, it is what lies beneath. To measure whether a child is using the defence of psychological splitting, we use a range of assessment tools, which measure whether the child is unjustifiably rejecting a parent. These tools, one of which has been peer reviewed, ensures that we are making the correct first line diagnosis. When we recognise that the child is unjustifiably rejecting, we begin the process of assessing the background and differentiating the child’s route into the psychologically split state of mind. For it is the child’s route into splitting, which gives the basis for the treatment route for the family. How the child became split, tells the story of how the child can be helped to recover.
Examining how the child came to use the defence of psychological splitting requires us to differentiate the case. We do this by looking at the behaviours in the child, the actions of the parents and the responses to those actions on each side. A case which is pure alienation, will show particular significators in the behaviours of (usually) one parent. These behaviours may include making false allegations of sexual abuse, rigidly believing that the other parent is abusive to the child, interpreting the other parent’s love for the child as being harmful and as a result, persistently interfering with the child’s sovereign right to a healthy relationship with that parent. Parents in this category are seen to be delusional in their belief and to display symptoms of personality disorder. If we see this in a parent in the UK, there is a process which must be followed, which is not as simple as some make out. It is not possible for anyone in the UK to diagnose a parent with a personality disorder via the behaviours seen in a child for example and it is not possible in the UK Family Courts to force a parent to be psychologically assessed. Such interventions, if they take place, can only take place if the parent agrees to it and many don’t, which leaves a gap in the evidence about the family, which makes intervention more difficult to deliver.
What lies beneath in PA work in the UK is not just the schisms and divisions into good and bad in the family but the schisms and divisions into good and bad in the ancillary services around the family. Outside of that, the approach to hearing the case in court, in which the outcome is for or against, increases the way in which the family narrative of good/bad is continued. None of which assists the children, none of which resolves the problem of splitting in the family. Doing this work in the midst of this kind of divided mind can be somewhat discombobulating for the practitioner, who must manage the splits in each of the concentric circles around the family in order to bring the child back to a place of integration.
Which means that anyone who does this work must be well integrated and not prey to the I’m ok, you’re not ok belief system. This is not easy to achieve in a world which is full of people with strong beliefs. From the psychologist with the belief that their ethics are considerably more important than anything else, to the social worker who is fixated upon the voice of the child, meeting and managing other people’s split thinking is an absolutely essential task.
Which is what we teach on our training courses and what we enable in the practitioners who come to do this work with us. Moving beyond the I’m ok/you’re not ok narrative is an important step in the delivery of interventions, because remaining integrated in the face of the inter-psychic world in which the alienated child and family are located, is part of how the child is helped to move beyond the defence mechanism of splitting.
When a child is being helped to restore the relationship with the parent they have been rejecting, they are being helped to move beyond the infantile defence of good/bad thinking. I have written before about the infantile defence mechanism of splitting the world into wholly good and wholly bad and have described the way it is utilised by children who are in a position where a parent or sometimes both, are placing impossible demands upon them to align with them against the other. Helping a child to move beyond this state of mind is not easy because it is employed as a defence by the child and as such, it is used to manage the behaviours of other people.
The reason why parental alienation is so difficult to treat in circumstances where professionals are untrained in this field is that as well as a lack of training, practitioners lack insight into their own personal belief systems. This is why this work should not be done by anyone who is not in their own personal therapy and supervision and why anyone without therapeutic training should not be delivering interventions. Entering into the world of the psychologically split child without awareness of one’s own belief system, is like getting into the driving seat of a Porsche and putting it into top gear when you have only just passed your driving test. Furthermore, it is like expecting to be able to drive that Porsche at top speed in a densely populated City and not doing damage to other people. Here’s why.
The child who has entered into the psychologically split state of mind has done so because they cannot tolerate the position they have been in. They have utilised the only defence against the psychological pain they possess, a regression to an earlier, infantile state of being. In this situation, people who are unaware of this, respond to the child’s signals as if they are true responses to a parent and enable the child to deepen their ‘belief’ about the parent they are rejecting. In an environment where the ‘voice of the child’ is written into state legislation, what children say is already routinely believed without question by many professionals in the field, leading to children becoming increasingly entrenched in the infantile defence of splitting. Around the child, whose determined rejection increases exponentially in relation to the pleas from parents, professionals and others to change their views and feelings, an increasing division of feelings amongst family members and ancillary workers is then seen.
Entering into this scenario as the person who is going to hold the split and enable the child to recover the integration which is healthy, if one is distracted by the often unholy fights and arguments going on in in the legal and familial arena, the project to assist the child is lost. And when one becomes the lightening rod via which the panic in the systems around the child is grounded, if one is unable to maintain an integrated sense of self in the face of that, the potential for recovery of a healthy perspective in the child is also lost.
In order to do this work one has to be the person who is capable of holding an integrated view of parental alienation, it’s cause, it’s treatment and the shadows and shades which exist in this world. Remaining integrated and interested in all aspects of how the family functions and what it does as it moves through transition from together to living apart is a key function for any practitioner in this field. Doing this work means recognising that people do good and bad things and that children, in the midst of those good and bad things, are the only people who have to attempt to relate to two now separated parents. Focusing on the vulnerability and resilience of children rather than them being victims of evil doing, is a core function of healthy practice in this field. Working out how to move the power balance in order to free the child, comes from understanding the dynamics around the child as they began to utilise the coping mechanism of splitting. There truly is no one size fits all approach to this problem, no matter what we are told by some. For children will utilise the splitting defence in the absence of personality disorder in a parent as well as when a parent has such a problem, they will use it in circumstances where previous generations have been healthily in relationship and where trans-generational haunting patterns are present. For children, the split state of mind, in a world which is increasingly led by their voice, is a perfect tool for people (parent) management and is one which is seen to be incredibly effective in relieving them from their offspring Stockholm syndrome situation after family separation.
When we consider how to move forward in thinking about how to resolve the problem of parental alienation, it is the environment in which we do this work which must take our attention first and the state of minds of those ancillary staff who populate it. Removing the ‘I’m ok/you’re not ok split in the thinking of those who are involved with children living in separated family situations, is one of the first tasks to undertake to clean up the landscape for these children. When this has been achieved, the assessments and interventions become much more easy to perform and children can be much more easily helped to understand that it is the adults around them and not them, who lead the way.
The resolution of parental alienation in a child is, at the very heart of it, a simple exchange of power. Whilst to the outside world the child appears to be making their own decisions, the use of the coping mechanism of splitting is in reality forced upon them by a power dynamic. What underpins all of the reunification programmes in the world is the exchange of power which is undertaken in the court room first and then enacted in the outside world by people who understand that when the split state of mind is held for the child, the defence will drop and integration will occur. When it does, it is signalled by the child’s capacity to access the shut off part of their mind and the release of the warmth and connectedness to the parent they have been rejecting occurs.
To make that work the people involved in reunification work, have to hold the ‘I’m ok/you’re ok’ state of mind for long enough for the child to recognise that they and their defence mechanism are no longer in charge. Whilst the very core of such programmes are very simply explained, delivering that dynamic in the midst of a drama which is nothing short of shakespearean, in terms of division of allegiance and feelings, is no mean feat. When the differentiation of a case is right however, the restoration of the integrated state of mind can be sudden, immediate and permanent for the child. After which the task of reintroducing the child to the formerly alienating parent, building resilience and testing impact, becomes the longer term work of the therapist.
Which leaves us with one last, vital component of healing the I’m ok/you’re not ok split in the parental alienation landscape, which is the rejected parent’s mindset and the manner in which they are able to offer the stable platform for recovery that the child needs. I have said often that the best therapist for alienated children is the healthy rejected parent and that is a truth which has always been the focus of my work. For when a healthy and well rejected parent is available to the alienated child in recovery, the instability that the child feels in mood and mindset, is held firm and the uncertainty about who to trust and whether trust is well invested is removed. Which is why all rejected parents are, for me, best served by support which works on integration and refocusing towards the child’s mental health, rather than a focus on what the parent has lost or parental rights. Because whilst the parent has indeed lost much and has indeed a right to their relationship with their child, they are the parent of a psychologically split child and as such must reconfigure their understanding towards that in order to provide a stable platform for the child to recover upon. For after all, a rejected parent is still a parent and being a parent is about providing for the child the healthy parenting they need.
Healing the splitting that divides us is about the I’m ok/you’re ok state of mind, integration not division and above all education and self awareness. When we reach that level of collective understanding, we will be well on the way to recovery of the ground we work upon. Ground which has been, for too long, fertilised by gendered beliefs about parents as they go through separation and lack of understanding about how children navigate the post separation landscape.
I’m ok/you’re not ok, it’s not ok in work with PA.
And all who do this work should know it.