Following on from the last post in which we explored the variables of location, situation and transition, this post looks at the variable of power and control, which in parental alienation, is the very heart of the matter.
A variable, is something which exists in different measures and which affects the subject we are looking at. If we do not take account of the variables in our consideration of a case, we are completely ignoring hugely important factors in a case, such as how a child became alienated. When we understand how a child became alienated, we understand how to build an intervention route to help the child and it is that intervention, which currently in the UK, is the only route to assisting in these cases.
Assessing the child’s route into alienation allows us to go to the heart of the matter, which is how, when we meet the child, is he/she currently being impacted by the power and control dynamic in the case. Put another way, what do we as practitioners need to do in order to free the child from the control the alienating parent has over them.
The way in which we are currently brought into a case in the UK is to be instructed as a ‘part 25 expert’ which means that our expertise is required by the court in a case where a child is resistant or refusing to see a parent. Even in such circumstances as the court requiring our expertise, it is not a given thing that we will be instructed. Many parents who are determined to control outcomes, recognise that appointing an expert in parental alienation is not what they want in their case and so simply refuse to agree to instruction. Even writing this blog can be a reason for exclusion in a case, as can the use of information on the internet such as that which is written by other bloggers about me. Being recognised as an expert in parental alienation and someone who has achieved a large number of successful reunifications in cases in the UK, is not a precursor to automatic appointment therefore. In fact in some cases it goes completely against instruction, which means that writing this blog and working in court appointed cases is always a juggling act for me. Parents can simply refuse to appoint someone with expertise in a case in the UK (although they must put up an alternative if they do) and so it is by no means as easy as ABC to get your preferred witness into your case in the UK.
The Systems Variable
And therein lies our first power and control variable, the adversarial nature of the court proceedings in which these cases are managed and the way in which a determined alienating parent can, if they choose to do so, exert power and control even at the point where the court recognises that there is something deeply wrong in the family.
All cases of parental alienation have at their heart an imbalance of power which leads to one parent taking control of the children. This is something which I have been long interested in and it is something which many supporters of a presumption of 50:50 shared care, believe will remedy the problem. Unfortunately, because of my experience in working in cases where there is 50:50 shared care, I cannot agree that this alone is the remedy for the power and control imbalance in parental alienation. I completely agree that the more time a child spends with a parent, the more protected against alienation they are. But I do not agree that 50:50 is an automatic preventer of parental alienation. Because it simply is not borne out by the evidence in our practice. Let me dig deeper.
In our work with children affected by parental alienation, what we see is that the biggest protection from parental alienation comes from the balancing of power and control between parents. This not just about what the state sets in terms of what is fair and just but in what parents themselves bring to the table. This means that a child is protected from the alienation reaction by the manner in which their parents are able to hold the power in balance so that one or the other cannot gain control over the minds of the children unduly. Unfortunately, 50:50 care alone does not prevent that from happening.
This means that even in the scenario usually seen in the UK of 80:20 division of care, children are not swayed one way or the other if the power is held and maintained evenly. Whilst I accept that 50:50 as a starting point is a fair and just principle, I have seen far too many families start at 50:50 and end up at 100:00 because the parent with the most control behaviours, managed to influence the child into complete rejection. I have also seen cases where 10:90 division of care ended up 100:00 in favour of the parent who started with least care, because that parent was able and willing to exert control over the child and persuade them to reject the parent with the majority care. (These are cases where mothers begin with majority care but are edged completely out of their children’s lives via the determined campaign of denigration and control waged by the father).
Power and control therefore is a huge factor in these cases and can devastate a family even where equal care was the starting point. In order to address this problem, 50:50 care plus education and support to the family throughout the establishment of this arrangement is a much better bet in my view.
What the Child Experiences Variable
The child is the location for the alienation reaction to take effect, therefore what the child experiences variable is a critical factor to take into account when analysing any case. The child may, even in cases where a parent is making overt threats, prove to be resilient to them. A child’s resilience depends upon many things, not least self esteem, critical thinking skills and attachment relationships. A resilient child will not become alienated but will find a way to manoeuvre around the efforts to control in order to maintain the relationship with the parent being pushed out.
A child who is not resilient however and who is highly sensitive, who has perhaps been witness in the past to control behaviours from a parent and who has an insecure attachment, is not resilient and will, over time, respond to the control being exerted over them. What this child experiences looks pretty much like the diagram below. The large circle being the controlling parent, the small circle being the child or alternatively the parent being targeted for rejection.
The child experience variable requires us to examine the case through the eyes of the child and to look at the resilience or lack of it in order to determine what needs to change in the situation to free the child. Once again, power and control dynamics can exist with a parent with a personality disorder or without a parent with a personality disorder and it can exist with systemic control or without systemic control.
Systemic Control Variable
The systemic control variable is the manner in which the family system as it moves from together to living apart, is influenced by the wider family members. This variable, which can be wildly different in every case, (although some common fixed factors exist), is one which helps us to understand who in the family is the source of the power and control dynamic. This may be a parent, it may be a grandparent, it may be an aunt or an uncle. In such families, cross generational power and control dynamics are strong and what is happening here in the present can often be caused by drivers in people who are now long dead. Picking apart the power and control variable in the family system, leads us to the source of the power and control dynamic and when we find the source, we begin to understand what we must do to free the child.
Parental Alienation as an Onion Variable!
A Strange thing to say but absolutely true in terms of how we understand a case of parental alienation. The child at the centre of a set of concentric circles, all of which involve a layer of influence upon the child. How the key players in each of these layers interact with each other, works to increase or decrease the pressure upon the child. And the more pressure upon the child, the more the child will cling to the use of psychological splitting.
Each of the players in these concentric circles, has power and some have more power than others. In assessing any case of parental alienation therefore, the first thing we do after recognising that this is a case of alienation (because we see that the eight signs of alienation are present), is assess where the power lies. We assess where the power lies by understanding the characters in the concentric circle drama and analysing who has the most and who has the least power.
We do this because it is power we seek when we are liberating children from alienation. Power over is the dynamic which is seen and competing patterns of power are woven into every case. When I ask the question ‘who has the most power’ in our supervision sessions, what I am looking for is the practitioner’s capacity to understand where the power lies in a case. In doing so I am looking at their capacity to understand that liberation of a child from alienation requires the practitioner to lever power where it is necessary. Let me explain.
In the UK the person with the most power in a case in court should be the judge. That is not however strictly the case if the judge is not conversant with the case as a power and control issue. In such cases, it is often the CAFCASS officer or Guardian who holds much of the power because the judge listens to what they say and acts upon it. Therefore, as practitioners in this field we have to understand the judge and understand the understanding of the Guardian.
We also have to understand the skill of any other professionals in the case, the psychiatrist for example or the clinical psychologist. And if there are social workers in the case because it is a public law not a private law case, we have to recognise that they, by default of holding the purse strings, hold the most power of all. Unless the judge is powerful, knowledgeable and determined, which is of course what we all want our judges to be in these cases.
Because stabilising a case of parental alienation and obtaining the power to rectify the power and control dynamics, requires us as practitioners to work under the power of the judge to hold the concentric circles steady. Regardless of how good our differentiation is and how good our formulations are, how sound our theories might be and how definite we are in our diagnosis, if the judge doesn’t get it, the system isn’t stable and a fight will break out for power amongst the professionals. When the alienating parent sees this, they will use that instability to manipulate unstable power dynamics, persuade bendy thinkers like social workers and snatch victory even from the jaws of defeat because of it. I know because I have been there, as has anyone who really does this work. In an unstable system, an unstable systemic system is always going to wobble. Add in a dose of wobbly thinking professionals and what you have is really just a long big punch up of subjective beliefs and experiences.
Managing cases of parental alienation is not as easy as ABC. If it were I would be shouting it from the rooftops and would spend all of my days working to get that simple formula into place in every single nook and cranny which exists in this field. Sadly, from experience I know that it is not and that the variables in all cases cause it not to be so.
Science is built upon the work of the past and by testing, exposing and researching a model in different situations. Which means that all of the elements, all of the variables and all of the remedies too have to be on the table and in my toolbox for use.
Because by any means necessary I want to free the child to live an unconscious experience of childhood.
It is all that being a practitioner in this field ever wishes to do.