This back to work week has been a joyous occasion for me as news reaches us of reunifications and reconnections between children and their loved parents and families, and we see parents shifting and moving on in their progress towards reconciliation.
I have always known that the greatest love of all in the world is the love that a rejected parent feels for the child they are temporarily distanced from. I equally, have always known that the way in which children are best helped are when the rejected parent is healthy and well and supported to hear the voice of their own inner child, so that the work of repair and recovery as a person in their own right, is done.
Alienation is not something which strikes randomly in families, neither is it something which every child in a separated family necessarily suffers from. it is not something which always occurs in every child in the same family, nor is it something which happens in a vacuum.
An alienation reaction in a child, which at its core is the use by the child of the psychological splitting defence, is caused by the maladaptation of the family as it moves from being together to living apart. The children who are affected are sensitive, seen by a parent as an ally, witness to the pain suffered by one or both parents and pressured by the dynamics around them which often emanate from one side of the family. In families with more than one child, one may be affected and that may protect the others, conversely, one may be affected and recruited to proxy alienator in order to bring the other children into line. Understanding how this child came to be alienated is key to understanding how that child can be assisted to recover from the defence of psychological splitting. Working with the rejected parent is a key part of the assessment of how and when the child may recover, measuring the health of that parent and working to bring healing and support, is how we prepare for reunification.
I do not subscribe to the belief that all cases of a child’s rejection of a parent are caused by one scenario which always involves a personality disordered parent. I do not subscribe to this belief because of my experience in doing this work, experience which is extensive across all types of alienation and all ages of children so affected. Having been an expert witness in court since 2009 and a specialist therapist in this field since 1997, I have come across a lot of different reasons why children utilise the psychological splitting defence and a lot of different ways of helping children to recover from it. What I see in assessing children’s withdrawal from a parent, is that it can be caused in a range of different scenarios, some involving conflict, others involving control behaviours, yet more involving shut down of communication between parents and others involving very unwell parents who have decompensated into a delusional mindset. In each of these scenarios we must, as a matter of routine, assess each parent, the child, the child’s responses to each parent and the wider familial setting, before we can understand if the child is psychologically split and then we must differentiate the category of alienation we are dealing with. It is this and only this which allows us to deliver the intervention which will be successful for the child and this and only this which enables the parental love to reactivate the child’s warmth and normal responses to them.
I have undertaken many residence transfers in my work in this field and have moved severely alienated children from life with one parent directly to life with the other, rejected parent. In doing so I have come to understand two very significant things.
a) the defence being used by the child is so powerful it is almost a biologically driven thing.
b) the best chance the child who is using that defence has, is if they have a healthy, well and loving parent to receive them who is not themselves, psychologically split in their mind.
In my work with alienated children and families I see psychological splitting in almost every element of what I do. In the child, in the family on both sides (see there is a split there already), in the professionals, in the court process, in the legal professional and sometimes (though thankfully not often) in the presiding judge. In this divided landscape, which is caused by the environment in which we do this work (in which families live), love often flies out of the window as everyone beds down into their bunker of belief and determination to win the spoils of the war over the child’s allegiance and affection. In the midst of this the child rules supreme, managing their deepest fears through the only means available to them, but anxious and terrified all of the time as they attempt to navigate the unfamiliar landscape they have found themselves in. Oh for an army of post separation nannies who could help these children and their parents, to understand and cope with the terrors and fears which rise up through the schisms in the fractured family, how different so many of these children’s lives (and those of their parents too) would turn out to be.
Children who have become alienated have lost so much in terms of their right to an unconscious experience of childhood. They have lost the river of love from one of their parents, they have been inveigled into adult issues and they have been at the centre of a war zone in which no-one really wins, least of all the child concerned. In this scenario, love lies bleeding and without anyone to help the child, the wound that the child suffers becomes one which is so damaging to their health and wellbeing that they are forced to protect it with the defence of dividing their feelings into all good and all bad. Depending upon which parent the child is most dependent upon (the one who usually has the most control over the child), one parent will be rejected and one brought unnaturally close. In some cases this reaction is caused by one unwell parent and in other cases it is caused by one parent the other parent’s responses. In any such case the behaviours in the child are the same, haughty entitlement (lack of remorse over cruelty to the other parent), division of feelings into all good and all bad (lack of ambivalence), lies and distortion of truths to make one person appear good and other person appear bad (campaign of denigration), use of memories they cannot possibly hold themselves (borrowed scenarios) and so on. When these signs appear in the child the splitting reaction is in play and the defence becomes so strong that persuasion or pleas fall on deaf ears. Which means that the interventions one uses must be carefully matched to the route the child took into alienation, to ensure that the diagnostics are right. It is when the diagnostics are right that the child will emerge from the alienation reaction swiftly and cleanly. When they are wrong or, when the child has been further harmed in the court process in delay, disarray and disagreement amongst professionals, that the emergence is seen to be more jagged and difficult.
But in all interventions, the rejected parent is the most valuable resource of all in terms of helping the child to release the shut off parts of their mind and allow the love to flow through again. When that parent is healthy and well, when that parent is not split in their thinking and is able to offer to the child the unconditional platform of loving responses, when that parent has done the work that they need to do to ensure that their experience of loss does not overwhelm the child’s need to come first, then the child can take steady and confident steps to reconnection. Those rejected parents, who are able to do all of this, in the face of all they have been through and who are able to do it without expectation of recompense, retribution or reckoning, hold in their hearts, the greatest love of all humankind in my view. These mothers and fathers are truly giants amongst us, for they have been tested to the absolute limits and have transmogrified their pain and grief into something so beautiful that it is a joy to be witness to. For the children of these parents, life will be healthy and settled and well. It is all I could ever want for alienated children and I truly, with all of who I am, know that supporting parents in these places is the lifeline these children need.
I saw a picture of one such giant and long lost child this weekend. It now stands upon my desk. In the smile in the eyes, so long separated from a beloved child, I see the future.
A world where family separation is recognised as the risk it is for children, where the pain the family suffers as it fragments is understood to be the truly psychologically devastating experience it is and where help is at hand through the broken and dangerous post separation landscape.
The greatest love of all is the love of a parent rejected in this landscape, lost and alone and in pain and yet somehow, anyhow, there when the child finds the road home.
There is nothing greater than the love these giants amongst us have for their children.
I am blessed to know them.