The idea that children only become alienated through the actions of a narcissistic parent acting against the other is not borne out in the evidence from our practice with alienation children and families over the past decade. It is not borne out either by the international evidence, which is extensive and contributed to by many people who have worked tirelessly in this field. What the evidence shows in fact, is that some cases where a child rejects a parent are caused by a narcissistic unwell parent who acts to bind the child into their delusional state of mind (as per the Childress Model), whilst others are caused by varying factors in the post separation landscape around the family.
What I should make clear is that alienation in a child is alienation, regardless of how it is caused. It looks the same, it has the same impact on the family and on the child and it causes devastating pain and suffering for the rejected parent and wider family. It also has exactly the same impact on the child’s longer term wellbeing, regardless of how it caused. But the reality of alienation reactions in children is this. Should the intervention not be matched to the cause of the child’s rejecting stance, the intervention will and does fail. This is why we use differentiation in our work at the Family Separation Clinic, this is how we get successful outcomes in cases which feature personality disorder in parents as well as those which do not.
The model of the child becoming bound into the encapsulated delusion of the unwell parent, has been used as a diagnosis in the UK for several decades. When I first began work in this field, the problem of a child’s unjustified rejection of a parent was not referred to as parental alienation. Instead, on being assessed by a psychiatrist, the problem was recognised as care of a child which had caused significant harm and as such as having met the welfare threshold. The welfare threshold in the UK is the point at which the level of harm a child has suffered is considered unacceptable and it is measured thus
A child who meets the welfare threshold is one who is considered to have suffered or who is at risk of suffering significant harm and therefore the case moves from private family law to public law in which the state has a responsibility to intervene. Whilst most cases meeting the welfare threshold, in which a child is demonstrating alienation as part of an encapsulated delusion with an unwell parent, do result in the child being removed from the unwell parent, It is by no means a given thing. At this stage, many factors will influence whether removal is carried out Not least of which is how the social workers who are managing the case understand and interpret the harm being done to the child. Social workers in the UK, have little understanding of alienation but a disproportionate amount of power in these cases and can sabotage even the most clearly diagnosed and judged case of a child’s unjustified rejection.
This group of families however, is only a small group with an overall much larger group where children are alienated. The larger group contains many variables in terms of the reasons why children resist or refuse a relationship with a parent. One of these is location, the geographical space between parents which the child must travel in order to be in relationship with each parent. The other is the situation in which the child is living, the dynamics of the shift from together to apart and how well the parents have managed that. The last is transition and it is this, combined with the others, which is most often likely to trigger the coping mechanism of alignment and rejection which heralds the child’s entry into an alienated state of mind.
As I said previously, alienation is alienation is alienation. Regardless of how the child comes to be alienated, the reaction is exactly the same, the child absolutely refuses to see a parent and will, if pushed or pressed to do so, become phobic, haughty, hysterical and other such behavioural reactions seen in these cases. The child will also, however they are alienated, show the eight signs of alienation. They show these signs in a case of encapsulated delusional disorder (pure alienation or that which fits the Childress model) and they show these signs in hybrid cases, (where there is no diagnosable personality disorder in either parent). There is a reason we use the eight signs of alienation in a child as our doorway to full assessment, differentiation and design of treatment route and that it is to determine whether or not the case may be that of a child’s unjustified rejection. Beyond that first door, many other doors must be opened, not least the door which determines whether or not on or other parent has a personality disorder. In the UK, diagnosis of personality disorder however, can only be undertaken by a psychiatrist or psychologist and it is simply not possible for this to happen based upon the symptoms of the child alone. In addition, a parent can refuse to be assessed, leaving a huge gap in the evidence in a case and therefore preventing diagnosis. And anyone who tells you otherwise, has little working knowledge of either UK family law or the UK mental health system.
Back however to the wider group of cases seen in parental alienation which do not feature personality disorder. These are still cases of a child’s absolute rejection and they are still cases of parental alienation. How do these cases occur and why should we be interested in that?
They occur because of the family failing to make adjustments to the post separation landscape, but they occur not because of personality disorder but because the child is being influenced by variable factors in the post separation world. Location, situation and transition are the three key variables which contribute to the child’s use of the coping mechanism of psychological splitting. These converge in some cases, to cause the child to pass the tipping point (our word for the dynamic change which occurs when the child enters into the use of the infantile defence of splitting).
Let’s look closer.
If we refocus our attention upon the experience of the child in the post separation landscape, one sees quite easily how this occurs. How to prevent it occurring in the first place also becomes much more apparent, which shifts the focus of our energy from repair to prevention, something which is far more preferable across all types of alienation than shutting the door after child’s mind has been divided by the intolerable pressures placed upon them.
(The credit for this series of images goes to Kelley Baker Ph.D, from Austin Texas, who is an FSC trained practitioner in this field).
These images describe the emotional, mental and psychological as well as geographical divide which opens up after family separation. In what follows, you will see, that the only person who moves across the transition bridge is the child. The parents remain on each side of this metaphorical bridge, tending to their own wounds and orientating themselves to their new lives as individual beings.
The journey across the transition bridge is, for some children, mediated by two parents who are healthy and well and who are able to put their child’s need for support first. For others however, the journey is not mediated well as one parent tends to their wounds and the other has moved on to a different place in their lives. In such circumstances, without good communication between parents, children are abandoned emotionally and psychologically to the treacherous journey across a no man’s land. A space in which they have to constantly attach and detach from their relational experience of a parent and a journey in which they carry with them their anxieties about the other parent they have left behind.
There is a reason why some alienated children behave like those who suffer school phobia. It is because in school phobia the child is most usually anxious about the wellbeing of someone at home. In alienation, the child is anxious about the wellbeing of the parent who is most distressed or who is, in the child’s eyes, most unable to cope. When the child who crosses the transition bridge leaves behind an upset, anxious or not coping very well parent, they are carrying with them a baggage of anxiety which creates maladaptations to their ability to arrive in the other space in a state of quiet regulation.
Thus, the back and forth transitions, between parents who are not in communication, leave the child in attachment ‘no man’s land’ having to manage that movement without the assistance of mediated attachment.
Mediated attachment is when the hierarchy of attachment, which I have written about many times in the past – you can read what I wrote in 2013 here and again in 2014 for the Social Work Journal Seen and Heard (you can read that article here ) is managed by two parents working together. Attachment is, according to Bowlby, both hierarchical and mediated, which means that the child has a preferred list of attachment figures, which may change over time but remain constant in terms of the parents and which is mediated (managed/assisted) by attachment figures working together. There is a reason why infant school teachers and nursery staff bend down to the child’s level on entry to the classroom and why pleasantries and eye contact are used to help the child across the transitional space. It is because attachment between the child and parent must be mediated. Especially when the child has an insecure or anxious avoidant attachment and finds distance from a parent difficult.
In this environment and with the challenge to manage closeness and distance from attachment figures who are now living apart and who are unable to attend to the child’s need for mediation of that space, the child attempts to travel back and forth on the transition bridge. Making adaptations along the way, some of which are behavioural (the child who is emotionally cold and withdrawn on arrival for example and refuses to speak or will not take off her coat, the child who cries and says she does not want to go back to mummy or to see her daddy, or the child who arrives and discharges anger and anxiety in the form of dysregulated behaviours). These children, whose parents are already hurting, often angry and at very different stages of the recovery process from the crisis of separation, are those who are likely to escalate the tensions inadvertently, simply because of their efforts to adapt to change.
These children, whose behavioural responses are not understood by their parents, will display the oddest behaviours. They will have outbursts of resistance to a parent, they will seem angry and disturbed on arrival or return and they will, eventually, if they are not helped, begin to tell lies about the other parent in order to give the receiving parent what they think that parent needs to hear in explanation for their behaviours. It is incredibly difficult for a child to explain why they behave as they do and much much easier to say yes, I feel this way or am acting this way because of something that daddy did. When that answer is received, (which to some degree can comfort a parent because it ‘proves’ that the other parent IS the bad person they believe them to be), disaster is not far away. When that parent moves to choose to believe the child’s explanation for their odd behaviour, the alienation reaction is very close by. All it takes is, perhaps, one more event (we call it a trigger event), which parents often refer to as a ‘Watergate’ event to describe a seemingly innocuous event which is blown out of all proportion and which led to the child refusing to see the parent ever again.
And when the trigger event occurs……
The child utilises the coping mechanism of psychological splitting, refuses to travel on the transition bridge again (refuses to see the parent deemed for rejection, who is, paradoxically, the parent they feel can most do without them) and an alienation reaction is born.
The outcome is exactly the same as that which is seen in a case of pure alienation but the route into it is different because there is no personality disorder on either side and the cause is the child’s maladaptation to the transitions back and forth between parent who had no idea that this was even possible, never mind that their lack of ability to mediate the attachment is the cause of it.
It is nothing short of tragic in my view that this can happen after six decades of divorce and separation being a common thing in the western world. That our lack of knowledge or belief in the child’s need for assistance is still ignored and the most widely promulgated messages about children and divorce is that so long as there is no conflict, they will get over it.
Many don’t get over it. They don’t get over the attachment disruption originally caused by the separation from a loved parent who is placed at distance from them and they don’t get over the requirement to make transitions back and forth between parents who cannot mediate that space and they don’t get over the need to use the coping mechanism of rejecting a once loved parent to keep the other parent unnaturally close.
It is a tragedy in my view and a scandal and in the field of parental alienation we are all working together to build the blocks of understanding which lead us to a better world for alienated children, however they entered the alienated state of mind.
There are many variables in the world of parental alienation, it is not so simple as ABC. But it can be, when we understand the variables across the spectrum and apply all of our understanding and all of the remedies to heal the pain.