Healing the heart of a hurting child is the way that I conceptualise all work in the field of reunification. How we achieve that healing is different depending upon which intervention we use. At the Family Separation Clinic, we use therapeutically based interventions in our reunification work. We do this because we understand that what we are doing when we undertake this work, is traversing the criss crossed lines of the hidden dynamics in the family in order to bring about the integration of the split state of mind in the child. In doing so we recognise and acknowledge that we are working in the intergenerational line, with the trans-generational narratives and that changing the dynamics in one child’s life, leads to changing lives for future generations.
In this respect the work we do at the Family Separation Clinic is most aligned with that which is undertaken by Linda Gottlieb in her programme in the USA which is called Turning Points for Families. Linda and I met last year at the PASG conference in Washington and I was immediately struck by the similarities in our work. Linda was mentored by Salvador Minuchin and her book The Parental Alienation Syndrome is an absolute bible in terms of its application of family therapy principles to the understanding and treatment of parental alienation. Linda recognises that the problem of parental alienation is a systems problem, a family systems and a social systems problem. Those of us who recognise this understand the complexity of the problem and the way in which we need to build a movement with many hands to create change in the lives of future generations of children. Linda is someone from whom I have learned a great deal and I am delighted that she will be with us in London in August this year at the EAPAP 2018 conference.
Healing the heart of a hurting child requires that we as experts and practitioners in this field, hold a vast array of knowledge and skill in relationship to children and families and how they navigate change, especially the devastating change of family breakdown. Regardless of those who promulgate the false narrative that there is one simply magical solution to parental alienation, there is not and there never will be in my view.
Not that there are no solutions, there are and many of them. Not there cannot be a vastly improved awareness and response to the problem there can and there will be. But parental alienation is a problem with a human face and just as when we say that we are going to eradicate human problems like bullying, what we really mean is that we are going to make it less acceptable to bully others, we cannot eradicate parental alienation because it is a human relational issue which arises in a crisis. Even in Romania, where parental alienation IS illegal, the problem remains, it is simply that the deterrent and punishment is stronger. Parental alienation is a human problem, it is one which we are increasingly aware of and one which we are increasingly capable of addressing but it will not be eradicated because of one simple reason. Let me explain.
Parental alienation arises in families even when they live together although in those circumstances it is often seen as normalised behaviours and is called shunning or estrangement. Parental alienation when it really gets hold however takes place in families which separate and the increase in parental alienation goes hand in hand with the normalisation of divorce and separation. Parental alienation was first written about in the 1940’s by Wilhelm Reich (although it was not called parental alienation) and back then it was referred to as narcissistic injury and the incidence was rare. Moving into the 1980’s, when Gardner analysed the issue, the incidence of a child unjustifiably rejecting a parent was more common. Coming forward into the current day, when divorce and separation are routine and normalised, parental alienation is a common feature of the landscape. The reason why parental alienation will not be eradicated therefore is because –
a) it is a feature of the behaviours of some separating parents and separation is a normalised part of our life journey
b) some children who have to navigate the space between separating parents become vulnerable to psychological splitting.
Those are simple realities. They are not down to someone not doing something right or a magical solution being withheld from parents, they are just reality, just how it is. Parents will separate, it is a routine part of life now and some children are vulnerable to psychological splitting. Add into that mix a parent who is unwell or two parents in a cross projection of blame and what you will get is parental alienation. Add another variable into that which is delay in the family courts and a dose of professionals who are poorly trained or wielding their own biases and what you will get is what we have always got.
And until we pull apart all of those variables and address them, parental alienation isn’t going away anytime soon.
The alienated child, is hostage to adult behaviours and those behaviours are not readily eradicable. If they were then the problem of parental alienation would be resolved by making it illegal, it would be resolved by educating parents about the harm they are doing to their children and it would be resolved by knowledge which has been curated in the psychological literature and used by psychiatrists and psychologists for decades. All of these things have been done and none of these things have prevented children from aligning with one parent and rejecting the other. Parental alienation today, still takes hold of a child at a rate which correlates with the divorce and separation statistics and it will continue to do so even in the world which is fully awakened to the problems it causes the child.
The problem is that the issue of parental alienation is not caused by the child but it is located in the child’s responses to the dynamics around them. The real problem we have in intergenerational terms, is that the person who is most impacted over their lifetime, is also the child, leading to repeated patterns of family breakdown which repeatedly provides fertile ground for the next generation of children to suffer the same fate.
In this respect the problem of parental alienation is not a simple one. It is a relational problem which has many variables and one which is additionally underpinned by the social policy of the countries in which it flourishes.
Take the UK for example, which has the highest rate of divorce and separation in Europe and which has suffered five decades of intergenerational family breakdown and corresponding rates of parental alienation. It is well known that UK social policy has been largely driven by feminist academics for the past five decades and it is no accident either, that parental alienation as an issue has lain buried beneath denial and dismissal that a child’s relationships with each parent is even necessary.
In the UK, generation after generation of children have become dislocated from their relationship with a parent through the widespread belief that children did not need fathers and that the family was not important in children’s lives. In the early nineties for example, feminists such as Harriet Harman simply dismissed men as fathers, when she said in a policy document for the IPPR
“It cannot be assumed that men are bound to be an asset to family life, or that the presence of fathers in families is necessarily a means to social harmony and cohesion.”
Healing the heart of a hurting child becomes extraordinarily difficult when one is attempting to raise to consciousness the harm that parental alienation does to a child in this kind of environment and it has taken until now in the UK to even get the problem of parental alienation into the consciousness of many people. When I first began this work, the concept of parental alienation was almost vilified by some people and as someone who wrote about and worked with alienated children and families, I was routinely dismissed by many. Today I am less dismissed and much more listened to although I am still pushing the ball up the hill in those spaces where the feminist social policy holds sway (social work/CAFCASS/some therapists). What I have always known however, is that until the foundational stone of feminist policy and practice upon which parental alienation rests is rolled away, we are going to have to keep on with the project of education and equipping of practitioners with the necessary tools to do this work in a danger zone.
Healing the heart of a hurting child is about integrating the split state of mind and restoring, where possible, a child to a relationship with both parents. This is not so simple as ABC and it is not about one size fits all solutions. Whilst I fully appreciate that parents who have lost their children through divorce and separation want simple answers, the truth is that there are no simple solutions and in my view it is highly unlikely that there ever will be. That is not to say that parental alienation cannot be treated, it can be. That is not to say that parental alienation cannot be prevented, it can and it definitely should be. But it cannot be eradicated because it is a problem with a human face and whilst ever we have humans who are having children and separating, we will always risk parental alienation arising in families.
And the people who are most harmed by parental alienation are children.
And the people whose future is taken away from them before it has even begun are children.
And the people whose future parenthood will be blighted are children.
For five decades or more now we have seen repeated generations of alienated children go on to become parents only to find themselves in the repeating parental alienation nightmare as they become alienated from their own children.
And that is why, in addressing the problem of parental alienation we need now to come together to look at the ways in which we heal the hearts of hurting children. Because it is only in the healing of hearts and minds which will prepare a new generation for psychological health. It is in the attention to the variables in the landscape which allow the problem to flourish, that we will raise awareness of the harm that it does. Which in turn will force us to change those things which make it more likely to happen.
Those things which lie beneath but which fertilise the potential for parental alienation must change.
- Social policy which is driven by political ideology (women’s rights), must give way to therapeutic and psychological foundations.
- public services which are driven by the same beliefs must give way to properly informed and educated services which put children’s needs first.
- Focused support for children who live in separated family situations must be urgently provided to enable them to continue relationships with both of their parents.
Healing the heart of a hurting child is about healing the harm which has been done by societal changes over decades. Societal changes which have benefited women over men other than in the space of parental alienation, where the ‘unintended consequences’ have been disastrous for alienated mothers, and which have not met the needs of vulnerable children whose parents divorce or separate.
When we recognise this we become alive to the relational problems which exist when families separate and we notice the hurting hearts of children in this landscape. We recognise that parental alienation is a response to the monumental changes which family separation brings and we become ready to respond to those as a society.
And in responding we become human again.