Caught in the Mirror: The Human Face of Narcissism

Some years ago I wrote a piece entitled ‘I am the Alienator*’ which has now been read over a hundred thousand times in over thirty countries around the world.  This piece, which was actually written from the house where I was working with a diagnosed narcissistic  parent, is really nothing more than my observations of how two parents with personality disorder behaved towards each other.

Whilst narcissism is an issue which appears to be used routinely by lay people in conjunction with parental alienation, it is not as common as it is made out to be.  Diagnosed narcissistic personality disorder is rare in the UK ( perhaps because clinical psychologists are encouraged to formulate not diagnose, or perhaps because true narcissistic personality disorder IS rare) and so it is not often that one gets the opportunity to work directly with parents who suffer from it.  What I observed in this piece of work taught me an huge amount in terms of how true narcissism presents itself and how impossible it is for the person suffering from it to do anything about it without help.

In therapeutic terms, working with narcissism is a long term task, the most difficult of which presents at the outset because people who suffer narcissistic personality disorder do not believe they need treatment.  The presentation of grandiosity and inflated self image prevents them from understanding that they have a problem and the way in which they have often manipulated others around them for many years, causes them to see the problem ‘out there’ rather than take responsibility for it.

Narcissists are incredibly fragile people in reality, their ego strength is extremely weak and they rely upon others to shore up this fragmented sense of self which lies beneath their arrogant self assurance.  The insecurity that a narcissist feels drives them to pull people to them only to leave those same people stranded when they are not needed anymore.  My work with these particular parents, taught me a great deal about how children become used as extensions to bolster vulnerability and shore up the defences.

Whilst the ‘I am the Alienator’ piece came straight out of my observations from this work, what was missing in it was the compassion I felt for these parents whose child was attached and loving and always happy when in their care.  What was also missing  was the light side of the narcissist’s world, the laughing and playing and the dancing and singing which went on.  In the most desperate of circumstances these parents could and did have fun.  One might say that the defence of narcissism helped to create fun even in the most desperate situation, but there were times in our work together when we laughed a lot and the child involved enjoyed that time.  Helping the narcissistic parent to deepen their engagement with their child so that the child emerged as a real and separate person from the parent, was part of what we did together.  Keeping the child in relationship to both parents (both diagnosed with personality disorder) was my key goal.

When I read about parental alienation and narcissistic or borderline personality disorder in everyday writings by some lay people, I find myself saddened by the way in which these parents are caricatured as mad/bad/sad people who should be punished.  Whilst there are many parents who are able to take control of their children after family separation and thereby manipulate them into rejection of the other parent, diagnosed narcissistic parents are uncommon.  It is therefore misleading for all parental alienation to be characterised as narcissistic/BPD parents acting in evil ways against the other parent.  It is also, in my view, harmful because it prolongs the belief in all good and all bad.  What this characterisation does is maintain the splitting defence which runs rife through both parents in many families, where children are alienated, so that the whole clinical picture simply looks like two parents wholly locating the bad in the other person, whilst upholding themselves as perfect and beyond reproach.

Life is just not as simple as that.

The narcissistic alienator can be characterised as a wicked person and indeed, in my piece ‘I am the Alienator’ I am describing a wicked person. In that piece I am observing  the diagnosed narcissist manipulating and managing events and relationships in what appeared to be a determinedly vicious campaign.  At times however, I regret having written the piece, simply because of the way in which the person I am describing is only portrayed in the completely negative light.  Whilst many people have told me that I am describing their ex perfectly, I regret leaving out the the lightness and brightness of the narcissist, the charm and the warmth and the absolute sunshine that comes with the shadow side.

What I also missed out, was the compassion I felt as I worked with this family and the affection I felt for them even as I recognised the harm that could be done to the child without my protective input.  What I recognised was that these parents, both of whom were diagnosed with personality disorder, were not doing anything other than what they believed was the right thing to do.  Locked into their distorted world view, they each did the best that they could with the limited vision they possessed.  The child, born into a world where parents saw life differently to others, had the unasked for task of surviving in this mayhem.

When I write about parental alienation I do not do so from a theoretical standpoint but from the experience of doing, being and working with families affected by it and that includes those who are personality disordered, the alienated AND the alienating parent and the children.  In doing so I work not in the safety of my office from the view point of someone who ticks boxes and writes reports, but from being with, doing with and at times living with disordered families.  From within so much more can be seen and the living dynamics of parental alienation can be experienced and worked with.

Parental alienation is not a story of monsters, it is not about good and evil and it is not about angels and demons.  Parental alienation is a problem with a human face and even the narcissist is, in reality, human.  Working from a place of curiosity, care and compassion so much can be achieved, as my work with this child and parents showed me.

Some years later the very same narcissistic parents who inspired the piece ‘I am the Alienator’ are sharing the care of their now older child, who is thriving and showing all the signs of being healthy and well.

A cautionary tale if ever there was one which teaches me, at least, to keep my mind open and my box of labels and assumptions firmly closed.

Not all parental alienation involves narcissism and not all narcissism leads to parental alienation.

And even when it does, it doesn’t always end in disaster for all children.

And the humanity which is required of those of us who do this work, demands that we keep that in the forefront of our minds in all that we do.

*All of my writing comes directly from the work that I do with families.  This means however that I must take the greatest care to disguise the people I am writing about. I do so by scrambling the people I work with so that they cannot recognise themselves or be recognised by others. This piece is therefore derived from elements of a range of cases I worked with some years ago.  It is, nonetheless, based upon direct work with diagnosed narcissistic parents, which is something I have been doing for over a decade now.


63 thoughts on “Caught in the Mirror: The Human Face of Narcissism

  1. My bordeline narcistische sister van be very charming And fun
    So whats important aboutthis Message of she is backstabbing you at the same time?
    They are plating you only showing that side
    My bordeline narcistische sister has aliened my niece for years And almost Every friend!
    And she working on my sisters ! So whats of she is charming ???? Its totaly irrelevant if you look at her evil things she has doen
    And oh Yes she also traumetised me And my niece ! So who gibev A shit that she charming And plating eyvery ome !! I Sony annemiek


  2. This article is a breath of fresh air and I’m glad you wrote it as a follow up to the page I found and bookmarked.

    I have no idea whether my husband is a narcissist, maybe he just has traits of something , I really don’t know but these words of yours rang so very true:

    1) “people who suffer narcissistic personality disorder do not believe they need treatment.”

    I managed to get my husband to attend a Relate session by in effect tricking him although I meant what I said and stuck to my word. When I asked him to go he outright refused. When I promised I would keep quiet and he could have his say about me he literally jumped at the chance. During the session I kept mostly quiet much to the frustration of the counsellor , but I hoped that by doing that I’d get to see what he was thinking and so start to understand him. When our hour was up and the counsellor asked if we wanted another session my husband said “I don’t see why I have to come again. I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s her and her behaviour and her obsession with daughter’s dog”. It was at that point I decided to leave him because I finally realised there was no hope.

    2) “Narcissists are incredibly fragile people in reality, their ego strength is extremely weak and they rely upon others to shore up this fragmented sense of self which lies beneath their arrogant self assurance. The insecurity that a narcissist feels drives them to pull people to them only to leave those same people stranded when they are not needed anymore.”

    You have described exactly what I always knew about my husband. His discovery of our daughter when she was 15, attractive and very popular with his racing colleagues drew her to him. She massaged his very fragile ego and, as he told me, he preferred me to her so he pushed me out and she joined him. I am convinced that his awful childhood (mother’s attempts at suicide with him going home from school and finding her) had a huge part to play in this.

    There were good times with my husband and good times as a family. When my daughter was ten we went on holiday to America. It was the most perfect two week family holiday I ever had. We were so happy. I would have given anything to have a fraction of that back again but my husband couldn’t or wouldn’t change. He could see that he had done nothing wrong – ever. He is utterly convinced that I ‘brought it on’ myself with my ‘awkward behaviour’.

    So very sad.


    1. The preferring of your daughter to you is a demonstration of the way in which he felt it easier to get his needs met by her and to get the stuff that he needed to keep his defences up. What narcissistic people need most of all is something which helps them to prop up their belief that it is everyone else who is wrong and they who are right. The howling void that is exposed when there is a break in that defence is really terrifying to behold, perhaps that is what you sensed and that is why you simply had to leave in the end. The recognition that no-one can fill that void is a truly horrific thing to behold.

      You didn’t bring it on yourself. Your daughter didn’t bring it on herself either. The difficulty being she didn’t see through his defence to the void quickly enough. She will one day. x


      1. Thank you Karen.
        You are of course, spot on. I was 19 years coming to that conclusion but in the end it was obvious to me. And it’s why I don’t ‘blame’ my daughter though I recognise in her much of my husband and sadly, much of my own mother.


      2. A lot of us marry people like the parent who harmed us in childhood Willow, we do it to try and put right the wrongs done to us. We fail of course, no-one but us can put those wrongs right. Takes us a long time to realise that though xxxx


  3. Karen, the humility, compassion and generosity of spirit that leaps out from your post is beautiful.

    Childhood is human beings Achilles heel. For so many it goes wrong emotionally and psychologically, leaving them as damaged adults. Yet self awareness/ understanding is little taught to children/ young people so how are they meant to learn? Until mental health has parity of importance, or even predominance, over physical health in our society, children will continue to become damaged adults, who in turn will become parents unable to parent in healthy ways. And so the cycle continues….. heartbreakingly so.


    1. It does continue SS you are right, it is handed down like a legacy by unaware people to unaware children often facilitated by unaware practitioners and it is tragic in every way. I would advocate a mental health programme in schools across the land to assist children who are themselves trapped in dependency on adult whims for good or bad.


  4. I don’t know whether anyone can decide someone is a narcissist or not by their behaviour. But there does seem to be a situation where a Mother’s hatred and desire for revenge overcomes the love and needs of the child. And a mistaken belief that they are doing the best for the child by giving them a new stable family with a new husband siblings, and getting rid of that awful ex who is selfishly trying to force the child to have to go backwards and forwards when they could have a nice normal full-time family. Blind to the understanding that that child has a very strong bond with their biological Father and loves them and wants his other home, but wants to try and please their Mother. When that hatred and desire for one new normal family and get rid of the biological Father, leads to accusations of abuse (especially after a history of co-parenting for 9 years and no welfare issues), it is quite clear that that is a pre-meditated attempt to get an end result. We were on the receiving end of such things and it was a concerted effort including telling the child terrible lies about the Father and the things he had done and how much she hated him and how the child would be punished by cold rejection if he didn’t agree with that.
    I don’t know if that is alienation or not – the child was not alienated but was under extreme stress and seemed to believe some of the things and have forgotten most of his early happy history. But when things when quiet he recovered normality again. So how do you best help that child? We had the terrible dilemma of considering whether to give up trying to keep contact to avoid the stress for the child, or whether to go the court route to try and keep regular contact and try and get assistance with the understanding of the child’s need for both parents as part of the process. We chose the latter and think it was the right decision due to the child’s relief when he knew something was going to get sorted out.
    The processes along the way (Cafcass and SPIPP courses) did clearly show what a child needs and did help – to some degree. Except when you are dealing with someone who still has a clear goal in mind and just reverts to the same behaviour once all the processes are over. Our experience was that any suggestion of alienating behaviour was ignored with the courts focusing on decreasing conflict between the parents (ie both tarred with the same brush). It was a bit like being beaten up in the playground by a bully and both you and the bully being sent to the Headteacher – both of you saying the other one started it and both being punished with the Headteacher assuming it was probably a bit of both. Actually though it doesn’t matter whether we have been beaten up and verbally and emotionally abused – we are adults and can seek resources to cope and heal. What matters is when the child is being harmed. Sorry – lost the thread a bit there. But whether narcissistic or not – some people don’t have insight – or are just so enragedly determined to have their own way that anything in their path gets annihilated. That is quite scary and dangerous. And I think you have to tread softly when dealing with people like that and find ways to communicate and deal with things as respectfully as possible even when you are regularly being berated. In other words – you have to put up with a lot of things for the child. And keep sight of that.

    As you say Karen, the Mother has lots of fun times with the child and the child enjoys things and has a bond with her. All he wants is the negativity to stop. I do actually think that if the law was clear that both parents had equal lives with status and time with the children on separation, that knowing that is the case would prevent some resident parents from trying to get rid of the other parent when they have remarried and had a new family. Because it is a knowledge that it is the way it is.


  5. I also think a parent who is experiencing rejection and changed behaviour (and it is incredibly painful and messes with your head) should take a step back and think about what else is going on. Hormones can account for a lot and when you have a child who is a pre-teen and Mother who is menopausal it is a highly charged mix. But what to do? The court process can actually be a distraction from the attack on the other parent I think and draw the focus back onto the child’s needs. So it can help. You can’t force the other parent to get help, even if you understand what is going on with them. One thing that makes me think – as a way of treading carefully when dealing with highly charged people making accusations is – Mother hamsters cull their young if anyone handles them before they are old enough. It’s an instinct to protect them. The Mother would rather cull them herself rather than risk a predator getting at them. Not quite the same with humans obviously, but I do think that maternal instinct sometimes becomes skewed when the Mother feels her new husband is a better Father and that she wants a different lifestyle for the child. Failing to understand that the child can care just as strongly for the real Father, as for the Mother. That if you can get something workable for a few years, things may change again.


    1. I think that the issue of how to equalise the rights and responsibilities of parents is always a thorny one Stella. Having worked on the steering group to improve this situation in the UK in 2011 I was left astonished by the way in which the effort to make things more equal was sunk by a consortium of organisations behind the scenes. I am not a believe in 50/50 shared care without the education and support that we know families need to go alongside it. Working as I do in court and with parents whose children transition back and forth between them, I know how hard it is for children to do that and how much assistance some parents need to make that work. I also know that when it does work children benefit enormously and I would always support that movement back and forth with as much education and support as possible. The issue of mother wanting to reconfigure a new family is a present reality in the western world. Generated as a woman’s right in the seventies, this approach to post separation family life has been supported around the world. If mother is happy then children are happy is the thinking. I have seen so many children for whom that is untrue. So many generations who have suffered. Is this mother narcissistic? Well she might be but she is unlikely to be too. What she is is a product of the past forty years of social policy. Changing that is a lifetime’s work. Changing mother in this environment is too. Difficult enough without calling her a narcissist and, when you think about it, if the reason she is behaving as she is is not narcissism, then the magic answers promised by those who believe in narcissism will not work.

      ‘You have to put up with a lot of things for the sake of the child.’ Never a truer word spoken about post separation parenting. That is exactly where we start in our teaching of post separation parenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. One of the biggest problems for the world in which rejected parents are living in, is the existence of lay people who believe that narcissistic parents are the only people who alienate children. These people, who appear to do the rounds online preaching their belief system, are full of blind rage themselves in some cases and in others appear to be fixed in their beliefs and projecting blame at the other parent. When I see this kind of thing online it makes me feel really sad for the rejected parents who could get help but don’t because they are brainwashed almost, into believing that the other parent must be a narcissist. I see people labelling others as ‘narcs’ and using language which comes straight out of the glossy magazine sites of popular psychology sites. Having worked with diagnosed narcissists I see absolutely nothing which is true in the comments these people make and nothing of any value to the rejected parent who could be helped but instead is simply entrenched in their split thinking and belief that everything is the other parent’s fault and everything would be well if there were only a ‘magic’ solution. I see angry people stuck in their desire for vengeance in some of these places, people who are so far away from reality in terms of how to repair and rebuild that I wonder if they will ever be able to help their child heal from the defence of psychological splitting. I see rumination and hyper-mentalisation in which people make assumptions and make assertions with absolutely no basis in truth and I see such little understanding or even care given to the life of the alienated child that I am left thinking that revenge upon the aligned parent is preferable to finding a way to reconnect and rebuild. Narcissism is nothing like what it is described as in these places and the closest I often see to true narcissism is displayed by these lay people who set themselves as experts. What I see here, in the comments made today, is a real understanding of the problem of parental alienation and a real engagement with the nuanced realities of how children enter into the defence of psychological splitting. It heartens me that this place IS still a safe place, protected from those who spend their time diagnosing others (including me) with personality disorders in a sort of pseudo defence of their own inability to resolve the split state of mind in themselves. I wanted this place to be safe for rejected parents and others who need help and I am so glad to see, from the thoughtful and reflexive comments which are made, that it is. It means that the work we can do here is worthwhile and people can come here and read and reflect and think things through and make their own decisions. Thank you to all of my readers who journey with me, you help more people than you can know (62,000 pages views and 41,000 visitors so far this year). K

    Liked by 1 person

  7. ‘You have to put up with a lot of things for the sake of the child.’

    Whilst appreciating the truth of what is said, I struggle with knowing, in practice, where to draw the line between gritting ones teeth for the sake of the kids and allowing oneself to be walked over ….and worse still, being seen to be weaker than the other parent in the eyes of their children and hence undermined as a parent in their eyes.


  8. Wonderful article Karen. It brings me to Dr. Bill Bernet’s valiant effort to have a diagnosis for Parent Alienation included in the DSM V. Various antagonists point to this to prove Parent Alienation doesn’t really exist; but really diagnosing is mostly for the insurance companies. Having read the Atlantic article (I don’t remember which year) where a description of the panel of experts for the DSM was in such discord, the task fell to someone who was emotionally unstable (much like the Oxford Dictionary being authored in part by a prisoner ). The DSM has it’s place, but as you say, it does not fully provide for the humanity of the alienated and alienating parents.


    1. It is that lack of humanity which concerns me most Lynne and the anger and splitting and desire for revenge in simple steps that I see people howling for.

      Dr Bernet is a stalwart, a true champion for alienated parents and children and he along with all of the others in PASG worldwide deserve all of our gratitude for the endless work in an incredibly difficult space which is has been done and which is ongoing.

      We are strong together and there is so much movement now, change will come, we must make sure it is the kind of change which really brings healing to the lives of parents and children, not the false promise of fast fixes for which those same vulnerable people must send money, that we see elsewhere on the internet. K


  9. Thank you Karen – yes labelling people as Narcissists isn’t going to solve anything. I didn’t know the transition was hard for children with 50/50. Partner’s son has known nothing else since birth and has always seemed ok with it and expressed when he wanted things different. But I suppose for most people the children have lived with both parents as a family before separation.

    Sadsam we used to worry about being seen as the weaker parent in the eyes of the child, but we don’t any more because that child loves you for who you are. And I think they work a few things out as to who has the power to do xyz and who doesn’t, but I don’t think it changes their love for you. If anything I think it can help with respect for you by the way you handle things. It has taken us a long time to get past feeling depressed by it, gritting teeth over it and to come to a position where you accept it is just the situation and you’re not lesser. And just having a normal life when the child is there and they see you being calm and having a normal life.


    1. Ah the child who lives in 50/50 and then hits the point where they want things to change…the biggest conundrum of all and yet one which, if it is handled right, will pass. 50/50 is touted as the gold standard, it can be if it is accompanied by the knowledge and skill necessary to help the child manage the phases of change they go through. Otherwise it can become the alienation trap, as dangerous to a child who has lived 50/50 as any other kind of arrangement can be. The key being that children change and they need to be able to change and have the adults respond in kind to those changes. If they don’t, if one adult becomes fixed on the same arrangement and the other upholds the child’s grumbles you have all the conditions in place for alienation – and a fast alienation reaction at that. The proponents of 50/50 don’t tell you the truth about the dangers of that arrangement if it is attempted without knowledge and skill of the needs of children in shared parenting situations. There is no manual for it. I think I might write it!!


  10. I love this post. It finally brings the human element that is absolutely 100% needed to stamp out the stigma associated with personality disorders.

    I’d not limit them to just narcissistic \ BPD I’d say it could be any PD or even other issues that affect cognitions or people’s perceptions. I think HPD will become more and more significant as time passes because of the influence of social and public media…

    This is key when working with people with distorted cognitions and their perceptions it’s very difficult to communicate and help them without stigmatising them. Afterall, who wants to be labelled anything let alone a narcissist!?

    The number of people I have tried to preach this message to is so completely consumed by pain and themselves to protect themselves and deflect blame sadly turn the tables and project it back onto me, the messenger.

    The key to a brighter future you have absolutely hit the nail squarely on the head and is one of the big 6 – openness. A lyric from a favourite song of mine, Metallica – Nothing Else Matters – “open mind for a different view”. it’s rare in this society and that ranges from all \ most people in public service jobs, friends, family we’re all so obsessed with being perfect we have forgotten what it means to make a mistake and raise our hands, take responsibility for it and say, look its my fault, I’m sorry.

    I love the message of this post and a LOT of people in and around the PA arena need to take this advice on board. As you say it is not good vs evil. It’s two human beings each with different experiences and compassion and empathy is, in my humble opinion, the first response we need in solving the denial \ projection or barriers we face for the sake and emotional and psychological health of the children.



    1. Steveyt, if I could put those words of your into fifty foot lettering with lights behind them and hoist them high into the sky I would….the first response we need in solving the denial/projection or barriers……is not to mirror the splitting in the parent who is causing the problem in the child and to provide for the child the safe platform for recovery. I don’t spend long in those online spaces, they are full of unhealthy people who are angry and and who are looking for revenge. I see vulnerable people being whipped up into a frenzy of belief that there are people who are keeping solutions from them and gurus who are selling those same vulnerable people stories about how only one way works and everyone who doesn’t do it that way is crooked or trying to make money. And then those same gurus ask those same vulnerable people for money and tell them that if they don’t pay they are not really caring about their children. Some of it sickens me if I am honest because it is all manufactured and it keeps vulnerable people in extremely vulnerable places.

      What I know about my work with personality disordered people is that their lives are no less valuable and their actions, whilst harmful to children, do not eradicate their importance in their children’s lives. Those children have the task of learning how to live with a PD parent and when they have a rejected parent who is blaming that PD parent, they may as well have two PD parents.

      So much of what I see is wrong in the online spaces and rage and vengeful attitudes are encouraged along with utter disrespect for the people who do this work who like me suffer the consequences of doing it. The world just isn’t good versus evil, parental alienation is a problem with a human face, narcissism is a problem with a human face.

      I am just pleased that this place is safe and that people can and do come here to discuss and reflect and share. And some come to share the good news of their reconnections, which again is wonderful to hear and share.

      Kindness and an open mind. Compassion and care for the human spirit however it presents itself is key to this work and key to reconnection and key to health and wellbeing in the world for all of us.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your response. The online spaces you talk about are not conducive to how responsible adult humans should be treated, or indeed, behave.

        A person’s worth is equal to another person’s worth – I like to think that is an immutable truth.

        If these people are parents it remains the same.
        If one is codependent the other narcissistic it remains the same.
        If one is an alienator and one is being abused by their actions, it remains the same.
        If one is a man and one is a woman, it remains the same.


      2. I so agree Steve. Those spaces are toxic, they are magnets for the unhealthy and those who mirror the splitting. In some of those spaces the narcissists are the very parents who claim to be alienated. The labelling and diagnosing, the rage and the desire for vengeance is clear, any rejected parent who is seeking to find a way cannot get help in those spaces they can only be brainwashed into the beliefs that are being promulgated.

        I am so glad that here is not a place where people spend their time turning everything that is said into evidence of narcissism or covert narcissism or some other kind of not yet discovered narcissism. Here is a safe place and I will keep it so. Fortunately by protecting this place from that kind of nonsense we have maintained the integrity of our work and so we are listened to by those who can make a difference in this world. I will for certain, on behalf of all children and parents who suffer parental alienation, keep it so.

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  11. I accept your point that Narcissists are human’s too. That they have most likely suffered trauma in their own childhood as a result of abusive parenting. In that respect I do feel sorry for them and of course the natural instinct would be to want to help them or the situation. However, when children are involved and you see the damage narcissistic parenting can do I think it is hard to maintain that sympathy or put it before the need to protect a child. As per earlier comments sometimes you have to accept that nobody and nothing will ever fill that void. A child certainly shouldn’t be expected to.

    I’m not a psychologist, nor would I want to be. I don’t know for a fact if Narcissism is the key to the alienation my family experiences – I’d be happier if it wasn’t because it would make it easier to fix. But based on my background and research I suspect that it is.

    It’s well documented that Narcissists as a general rule don’t usually seek help or diagnosis because they don’t actually acknowledge their short comings. So possibly this is the reason for the low number of diagnoses. As you have documented in your book, most parents would want to avoid court or distressing other people. Most people with empathy for their children can put aside their pain to work with the other parent to make suitable and fair arrangements for contact outside of court. I don’t thinks it’s un-reasonable to consider/suggest that a higher number of intractable cases where the child has gone on to be severely alienated do in fact have a parent with a personality disorder at their heart whether that be the alleged alienating parent or the parent claiming to be a targeted parent. Unfortunately, MOJ and Cafcass don’t do these assessments or keep this kind of data so I do not think it is really something that anyone can make a blanket statement that it is low volumes.

    I accept that not all cases of parental alienation will be as a result of a narcissistic parent but I know, as do you, some are. I’m also sure in some cases alienation is justified. I also accept your point that there is an element of social conditioning/unrealistic expectations from women as a result of campaigning by the women’s rights movement which has now gone far past the campaign for equality and is impacting on the ability of children to maintain valuable relationships with both parents and thus impacting on the life chances of children.

    What we all really need is for early intervention and assessment by qualified people up front in private law cases for contact and residence. Definitions of PA need to be agreed and, the levels of severity and the corresponding recommendations to be agreed and applied consistently. Normal parents/family/friends should not be scrabbling round trying to find the answers themselves. The professionals should be doing it. I appreciate all those that are trying.


    1. I think that if some lay people who preach the narcissistic narrative were less vocal and in control of online spaces Angela, rejected parents would get chance to understand exactly what IS being done to assist them. From my knowledge of those lay preachers and online spaces, they are filled with armchair psychologists who think they are experts when all they are are promulgating lies and half truths. Behind the scenes, in places where those online preachers cannot go, standards, definitions, courts, MP’s, presidents, heads of judicial services and others are listening and working on all of those things you say should be done. The professionals ARE doing it but the shouting and bawling done by those lay preachers and those who want you to believe there is only one way to resolve this, simply prevent you from knowing what is being done. Around the world there is a massive movement now for change, all joined up and linked together. As for blanket statements about low numbers of narcissists, as someone who works in this field exclusively, I can only go by my own experience, which is that in over a decade of doing this work, only four diagnosed narcissists were involved. Four. Only Four. Out of hundreds of parents I have worked with. Make of that what you will. I am not going to be forced to sing the lay preacher line when it does not fit my professional experience and when I know for certain that that line they sing to rejected parents keeps rejected parents in an angry and unresolved place for far too long. Behind the online scene so much is happening. If those who shout the loudest would pipe down a little they would hear so much more about what is really going on in this world. I have been speaking to some of the most powerful people in Europe on this very issue, in the UK some of the most powerful people in the courts are listening. So much care and so much dedication, all ignored or dismissed or unheard because of those who want it all to be about narcissism. It is not. It never was and it never will be. Much is going on Angela, big ears ARE listening.

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      1. I appreciate things are going on behind the scenes and I’m very glad of the effort from all sides – change cannot come fast enough.

        I take away nothing from your years of experience with my next comment because that is what you have personally found. Amy Baker’s initial study of Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome concluded that there were 3 familial patterns of PAS. That based on the behaviours participants described, over half the sample (22 out of 40), involved what appeared to be narcissitic mother’s in divorced families or in intact families.

        You will be closer to this work than I but that sounds pretty high to me.


      2. I accept Amy’s sample but 40 is an extremely small sample. Also, I am talking about diagnosed narcissists and there were not 22 diagnosed narcissists in that sample just 22 mothers who were described as narcissists by others. This is the issue Angela. Diagnosis is the key with narcissism, otherwise all and sundry can go around talking about it and diagnosing it in people. It is dangerous in my view to draw conclusions about narcissism from studies which are self reported. If you tell me that out of 40 people 22 have a formal diagnosis of narcissism that is something entirely different. We can argue that we need scientific outcomes and then base all of our arguments on non scientific research. I have worked with 4 DIAGNOSED narcissists – I know they were diagnosed because I read the diagnosis before I began work. Therefore when I say I have worked with 4 diagnosed narcissistic parents I am on firm ground. I acknowledge that diagnosis is rare in the UK because we do not use the DSM and in fact we are discouraged from doing so – in a recent case a Judge told me he didn’t like diagnosis, he prefers formulation thank you very much. Amy’s work is important but those are self reports of the views of others of a parent and they cannot be construed therefore as evidence of the number of narcissists in the study. To rely upon that one would have to have seen the diagnosis. In this field of work it is critically important to listen to the people who have done the work and not go around following the lead of people who bleat about narcissism. Yes narcissism is involved in parental alienation but it is not the only PD involved and it is not the major pattern seen. And when you read and quote evidence, you should keep firmly in your mind that narcissism is only narcissism when it has been diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist. Otherwise it is just the latest trend in pop psychology and a label that anyone can stick on anyone else. Narcissism is a serious PD, it requires diagnosis. We would not go around telling people they have cancer and we know that because they show the signs of cancer, we would not do that because we know that cancer requires diagnosis. PD’s are no different.


      3. Thank you for your responses. I’m fully aware that only a psychologist can diagnose a personality disorder – I wouldn’t even want to try, far to worried I’d make a mistake and ruin lives.

        The difficulty for me Karen is that the current court process does not include a psychological assessment until it is requested and IF allowed by the court. By which time it is too late and damage has been done. There is no real support for children or parents. I know people are working on making improvements and I hope whatever happens it’s not too late for our kids.

        All I see is what’s happening with my family and a pattern that fits. If I’m wrong, fine but right now the current process we are subjected to gives no reassurance either way and no acceptable remedy. Still reeling from Cafcass Officers suggestion last week that we should let the child go.


      4. There is much wrong with the system here in the UK Angela but also much being done to rectify it, much more than can be written about right now. The issue is that there IS support for children and parents if you know where to look for it – and looking for it in places where people spend their time encouraging the split state of mind through false beliefs in magic solutions, is not going to get you the help that you need.

        Cancer is called cancer and it has a pattern, but the actual diagnosis of cancer is as individual as the person who has it. So it is with alienation and believing that there is one size fits all solution is never going to help you or your children. Cancer isn’t treated the same in everyone and neither is PA. And learning to deal with CAFCASS is one of the very first points of assistance you can receive but you won’t find it in places that spend all the time talking about narcs and promoting false beliefs about magic solutions. CAFCASS are wrong in so many ways but they are being tackled even as we speak. K

        I should also add that managing your case in court is another key skill you can learn for next to nothing, it is why we wrote the book, it is all in there and costs very little compared to what some charge around the world.


  12. Do write the manual on 50/50 Karen! Partner doesn’t actually have that. I was only speaking from our experience where son would always tell us if he wanted to change things. He did that when he was four and it changed. We know he would tell us if he wanted to come less or differently. What he would do is say – Mum says I have to tell you I don’t want to come. We could see and understand that he would say one thing to his Mum to please her and something else to us. It is hard – I am sure ideally they would want one normal family but neither do they want to lose anyone. Son used to say why couldn’t both his families all live in one house when he was little. I can see it would be so much harder for children who have had one normal family that breaks up. I am interested in what the easiest thing is for transitions though – in our case there would have been less transitions than there are now, if it was 50/50.


    1. It is always such a difficult thing for children in transition because they can become the agents of their own alienation. The issue is that they use switching and splitting behaviours as defence mechanism in the transitional space and that is not readily recognised as a developmental difficulty for children who live in two homes. The switching and splitting behaviours often cause the problems between parents as the child gives each parent a different self and feeds the parents what they think they want to hear. Not because they are bad children but because they are defended children who are trying to cope with transition. Defended children need to be parented differently to other children and they need to be understood differently. When you understand that it all becomes much easier to deal with. I will write more on this soon. We are doing a two hour session at the moment for a USA group in which we are talking about this stuff too. I might also try and do a podcast on it in the coming weeks as it is a very little understood difficulty which can be managed with a shift in parenting style. K


      1. Karen, it seems so obvious now, having been reading your words for some time, that transitioning from one parent’s house to the other parent’s house, can and does, cause some children real difficulty and can end in alienation…..yet who was there to teach us about this when we were divying up the children’s lives? Mediator? No. Solicitor? No. Apparently parents have just been supposed to know this stuff sonehow and if they didn’t know it, then they must be crap parents. I think of all the missed opportunity at mediation stage to educate parents about transition from the children’s point of view. As for standard parenting classes they are largely irrelevant to split families (from my own experience). It really is time resources are put into helping split families manage what can be torturous connections. Less condemnation, less labeling and more, much more, compassion and empathy for split families would, I think, go a long way to easing some of the problems children in these situations find themselves facing.


      2. I agree with you SS 100%. I have long advocated for a national family breakdown service to assist families in transition and I have argued long and hard with 50/50 advocates about the problems that transition without support brings – back in 2012 we were attacked mercilessly by F4J on that very matter because we would not say that 50/50 would make everything ok. It doesn’t make everything ok, transitions are difficult for children if there is no help to help them make those transitions and they are extremely vulnerable to becoming the agents of their own alienation simply because of the manner in which they adapt to survive. It is tragic in my view utterly tragic. We’ve written two books on the subject now and I’ve written thousands and thousands of words on the matter, I’ve campaigned and lobbied and argued and fought and to date not very many people listen. They prefer to blame parents, they prefer to look the other way as children struggle to cope and eventually they prefer to call it parental alienation caused by narcissism in order to make a neat little ending of it and blame someone. Sometimes no-one is to blame, sometimes it is just and out and out tragedy and that is what makes me saddest of all, that lives are blighted when they so easily could be changed for the better. I really think I will do some podcasts on this as podcast or videos seem to be liked these days, I will try anything to get help to parents who have kids in transition. K


  13. Well I’ve certainly had my light bulb moment on this issue, Karen………
    You write “they prefer to blame the parents….” and in turn the parents blame each other, using armchair psychology when it suits. Everybody is hurting/angry in relationship splits……that’s to be human….there’s no need to be in denial over this….that’s where empathy comes in, recognising human reality and offering those involved, parents and children, the outlets they need to safely express these feelings and from there learn how to handle themselves, and for parents, how to handle the kids as well.
    I wonder if part of the problem is how split relationships with children involved are really viewed in society? Have we really moved on from looking down on divorced people? Whether families who stay together, at some level, look down on split families, enjoying judging them as failures etc, so they can shore up the sanctity of their own coupledom? Enjoy a feeling of superiority? Yet underneath hiding their own fear that such a fate could befall them?
    If the issue has fallen on deaf ears, despite your best efforts to date Karen, it makes me think there is an underlying bias in society against split couples with children.
    I for one would have welcomed support, right from the get go, (and on going) on how to handle my own emotions and those of the children. Isn’t this something you were directly involved in in your early days in York?


    1. it was SS, it was where I began my work in this field, it was there that I became aware that children of divorced and separated parents desperately needed help. I wonder if there is a bias, there is certainly a vulnerability in separated couples which is readily exploited by social workers and others with power over families.


      1. The more I think on this I am convinced of such a bias.

        If, in any society, marriage is held up as the utopia in which to raise children, then by inference split families can only be disapproved of by that self same society. Indeed wasn’t somebody arguing here that women have been bailing out of marriages for selfish reasons (it’s become a long thread!!).

        Humans seem to like to judge others and in so doing feel superior to others. Fuelled perhaps by their own hidden fears and sense of vulnerability they are so keen to hide.

        Until split families are no longer seen as second class and as failures, I fear that help for them from certain professionals will continue to come with condescension, disgust and a desire to make parents in these situations feel shame. Humanity? No. Compassion? No. The societal context in which split families are having to survive is not easing the suffering of anyone, least of all the children it purports to safeguard.


  14. You have made me think too. In our case it was very much the case that one parent was hostile to contact due to wanting a new family set up and child had always been happy with arrangements. Due to long separations and what we know to be a lot of denigration of partner (as told to us by child who wanted to know why Mum was saying this) alienation seemed to be starting. Or what we thought was alienation because child seemed to be like an alien and very contradictory and different. It was clear he was trying to please both parents and trying to find a way to do so. We thought if it wasn’t for the other parent’s hostility then everything would be as before and child would have regular happy times with us.

    But after reading what you say I can see child may have unwittingly had something to do with it. We were aware he had begun to “pretend” he didn’t really enjoy things much with us to please his Mum and that he was asked lots of questions about his time with us and so said he couldn’t remember. And he could well have done that so well that his Mother began to think he was having an awful time with us and seek ways to reduce contact – trying to protect child.

    That may have happened. But we do know, from the long history, that the Mother was never supportive of contact and we were just useful for a few years. When we ceased to be useful and she wanted a new family the gloves were off and child was expected to take sides. Which he couldn’t. So he was juggling and compartmentalising.

    Surely if two parents are both supportive of child spending time with both of them, and things can be talked about and child feels safe to express what they think and feel, then alienation would not happen? I know every situation is different and children react to parents behaviour, but there are cases where one parent just wants rid of the other one and what we found was if they couldn’t stop contact then the next step was to turn the child against the parent so the other parent gave up.

    Just confused myself a bit there. I realise it can be very complex but there must be some situations where it is premeditated by a parent by their actions and desires.


    1. Hi Stella, yes there are cases where it is definitely premeditated and consciously done and there are others where the child picks up through the ‘leakiness’ of emotional and psychological boundaries, that the other parent is considered disposable. But there are also other cases, which are actually really tragic, where the child begins to switch, which means they are different children in each parent’s care, adapting their behaviours and selves to suit the care and expectations given by the parents and then through that switching behaviour, they inadvertently trigger the hostility of parents and then the real trouble begins as the child has to rapidly adapt to the hostilities which have broken out. The thing is that the only person who experiences both sides of this situation is the child. When parents don’t speak to each other to mediate the space, the child does that instead. I was once a nanny to some children who moved back and forth between two parents who didn’t speak to each other, even I ended up adapting my behaviours as we moved back and forth so difficult was it to remain my authentic self in the face of expectations of each parent. It is a massive problem for kids and beyond switching comes splitting which is when they just cannot carry on, it is often heralded by a trigger event, we write more about that in our book. The trigger event is the thing that the kid hangs their reasoning on for never coming back. In truth the child has reached splitting and is now defending themselves using an infantile defence. If the child tells the mother that he is having an awful time and the mother moves to support the child and upholds the child’s ‘decision’ which is not real but a defence, then she has inadvertently deepened an alienation reaction. It doesn’t have to be conscious or deliberate although it can be – the way you discover which it is is through the assessment process and by evaluating the child’s route into the reaction. That’s why it is simply not possible to say that all alienation is caused by one thing only. I know it is not because in the past, early in my work, I tried to apply the same treatment route to all cases of a child’s rejection and it did not work. I learned by my mistakes, which is why I write so much about how there is no one size fits all approach to alienation. Hope that helps, I can write more and talk more about children in transition, I will try to do that soon. K


  15. And this ‘differing behaviour’ at separate parent’s homes can then be latched unto by social workers ( and CAMHS if inadequately knowledgeable) as ‘evidence’ that one parent is the ‘bad/inadequate’ one, which in turn, can then be used by the ‘good’ parent as a lever against the social worker defined ‘bad/inadequate parent and so begins a long nightmare.

    Karen the more you can educate us all about this subject the better.


    1. absolutely SS and I think that far too many children enter into the alienation reaction along these lines. I have probably worked with around 300 hundred families directly in my time and I am supervised by Dr Hamish Cameron who has probably worked with triple that number in his professional career. In comparing and contrasting cases we notice that the biggest group of children who are using the infantile defence of splitting, entered into it whilst in transition back and forth, adapting their behaviours to the parental attitudes on either side. We also notice that when children shift gear as in they make developmental changes which mean that their parenting needs change and they need their parents to respond to those changes and the parents don’t because they are too scared too allow change in the arrangements, the child takes it upon themselves to manage the changes and becomes the driver of the disaster that often occurs shortly afterwards. So, the need to educate parents whose children are moving back and forth is utterly crucial and the needs for social workers to understand the child who is transitioning back and forth is equally critical. Our first differentiation is whether the child actually IS showing an alienation reaction, our next differentiation is whether the child entered into the alienation via the transitional route or whether the child shows signs of encapsulated delusional disorder and then the next differentiation is to assess how each parent responds to our therapeutic trial. After this we are able to determine how the child became alienated, what the response to therapeutic intervention is and whether or not change is possible with the child is living in situ with the parent who is aligned. If it is encapsulated delusional disorder (only determined by a psyche report not just by our say so) we advise removal of the child for a 90 day period and restorative care through our reunification work. If it is not we use a scaffold of compelled time between the child and rejected parent with therapeutic guidance and input to restart the relationship and then educate the parents intensively on what the child needs going forward. We also use parenting co-ordination to ensure that the child transitions healthily. The problem we have with social workers is that they do not understand (yet) the underlying theory and they are robotically schooled to listen to the child’s voice. But this will change. Some significant changes are already happening in social work, I mean truly significant changes, which I will write about shortly. K


      1. “Our first differentiation is whether the child actually IS showing an alienation reaction, our next differentiation is whether the child entered into the alienation via the transitional route or whether the child shows signs of encapsulated delusional disorder……”

        Well I’ll be damned…….. no-one, in all the time social workers and CAMHS leapt in and out of our lives, ever mentioned that there might even be a ‘transitional’ route….. in their eyes it just had to be one parent or both of them……..have to say I’m a bit stunned at what I’m learning here from you Karen. I can only think of a few choice swear words to say which I won’t repeat here…….


      2. that’s because social workers and CAHMS have no idea what parental alienation is SS, they hear it and assume that it HAS to mean one thing and one thing only and then they crash into the picture and start telling everyone what to do. They have no training, no knowledge, no skill and no previous experience. It’s a bull in a china shop approach and they use the power they can wield in such terrifyingly harmful ways that I find myself often unable to work with social workers because of it. I can speak of six LA cases which were trashed by social workers in the past five years alone. I find myself not wanting to go near social workers in a pa case because they are dangerous.


  16. My swearing is getting worse……these people need to be made answerable for their actions…….they are overly protected against accusations of incompetence…..


    1. They have disproportionate power SS to their skill level and yes they are hugely over protected as are many of the people who work in the family court system..


      1. Karen, you emphasize how important it is to analyse and get a firm grip on the route by which alienation has come about, in order to be able to work out the best route back to integration. Yet who is deemed qualified to do this work?
        I felt I was a lone voice amongst social workers, CAMHS, and even my own supposed legal defense team, in saying we need to look at this right from the beginning…..that later events were just the entangled mess of earlier actions. SWs were keen to hone in on only the latest scenario, not understanding that by then things had become entrenched and that at least one parent was at breaking point, as well as the children.

        I really would like SWs to justify why, and in what way, they consider themselves trained and knowledgeable enough to investigate cases of emotional abuse.

        To my mind it really is time the courts took a lead and seriously questioned just ‘who’ is appropriate to be involved in these cases. So much damage has already been done, to so many, by professionals going beyond their knowledge and skills set. It’s time to say ‘enough is enough’.


      2. Clear answer – social workers are not trained, CAHMS are not trained, therapists and court experts are largely not trained. This is what we are doing with the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners, we are standardising the interventions, training and certification and aligning it with worldwide standards which draw upon the leading research. We are doing it to stop the damage done by unskilled people with disproportionate power. We are working with MP’s to push through a pilot which will test this and on our conference which is bringing together leading judiciary in the UK with key mental health people to standardise this field. It IS time to say enough is enough, I have had enough of working in a war zone with unskilled people wielding weapons of mass destruction that they don’t know how to use. I was horrified by the idea that CAFCASS were promoting the notion of removal of children without the proper training, skill or even an ounce of experience in how to do such removal work. Thankfully they have retracted all of that and are shifting over to a belief in hybrid as both parents being to blame – the worst CAFCASS are going to be doing is pushing everyone into some kind of therapy and promoting the belief that PA is about both parents acting badly – which is bad but not as bad as them crashing around ordering kids to be removed from parents willy nilly – which is what social workers have been seen to do in too many cases in my experience. K


      3. “…..crashing around ordering kids to be removed from parents willy nilly – which is what social workers have been seen to do in too many cases in my experience. K”

        Which raises the question are they just replacing one kind of damage with another?

        From everything you have been saying on here, I can only feel that, whilst emotional abuse IS undoubtedly damaging, without widespread clarity on how to investigate and deal with it to date , I wonder if the majority of interventions to date ( which in practice don’t involve you) have ended up being as harmful , if not more, harmful than the original abuse which they were attempting to address. Substituting one harm for another is pointless.


      4. In a nutshell SS, yes, many of these removals of children are done in such a manner that they cause harm because they don’t resolve the splitting and the child ends up counter rejecting the previously aligned parent. It makes me incredibly sad that it is allowed to happen. I will give you an example of a case in which social workers had removed the children, the resistance to parent remained, we came in and did the reunification and worked with mum and dad and set up an ongoing programme so that the children would move between mum and dad and not counter reject and the social workers simply trashed it, refused to follow it, put the kids with the formerly rejected parent (it was a hybrid case in which both parents were cross projecting blame) and the kids promptly counter rejected the formerly aligned parent and never saw that parent again. That is not success in treating parental alienation, it is child abuse in my view as abusive as allowing the alienated child to stay put without treatment. A bit like using old fashioned chemotherapy to blast every living cell instead of delivering the focused treatment which is now available to give health and lengthy lives. So it is with PA, which requires a focused and nuanced intervention which is matched to the entry into alienation and which confronts the child with the split off and denied parent in an environment which is supportive but challenging and which then goes on to properly reconfigure all of the dynamics preserving the child’s ties with all important people (where those people can show recognition of the need for change and the risk of harm).


      5. “That is not success in treating parental alienation, it is child abuse in my view as abusive as allowing the alienated child to stay put without treatment. ”

        Thank you Karen for reassuring me that’s I’m not mad to think this way………though this is so close to home that all I want to do is cry and cry and cry. Who will compensate these kids for what they have been through? Too often it’s the blind leading the blind in this arena. Parents and kids are lost in a hell without hope.


  17. Hi Karen

    3 more questions if you don’t mind.

    In your experience what percentage of the hundreds of cases you have dealt with are pure alienation by personality disordered parent and what percentage are hybrid?

    Also can you point me in the direction of any further research material on the difference between pure and hybrid alienation and how it is assessed please?


    1. Hi Angela, First off let me be clear about the difference between pure and hybrid because it is important. Some people use hybrid to mean that both parents have contributed to the alienation. That is NOT in my experience the reality. In the UK at the moment, CAFCASS are focused on the belief that hybrid supports the idea that alienation is caused by both parents, you can see it in the documentation they are putting out and the way they speak about it. This fits with other practitioners in the UK who also believe that hybrid means both parents have contributed or caused the problem. The issue with this belief (which is primarily promulgated by family systems therapists) is that it allows those people to believe that the problem is one which can be resolved by therapy. So, back to hybrid and pure. The reality of hybrid is that it describes the route the child took into alienation and it is absent of personality disorder. The child is still alienated in exactly the same way as in pure but the route Ito it is different and therefore the route out of it is different. You cannot apply the treatment for pure alienation to a hybrid case – I know because I have been involved in cases where that was attempted and it did not go well. When I talk about matching treatment route to the route the child took into alienation I base that on my experience, the closer you get to the matching of a treatment route to the entry into alienation, the swifter, cleaner and easier it is for the child to emerge. Hybrid does not mean that both parents caused the problem, it means absence of personality disorder and entry into the alienation by means other than encapsulated delusional disorder. The aligned parent is tested in hybrid to see if they can change and the assessment is adjusted on a rolling process to see if it is possible to do the work in situ. The rejected parent is tested to see if they can make any changes along the way which are necessary to ease the dynamic for the child.

      Percentage of cases – ball park figure – 20% pure and 80 % hybrid, we are working on refining the hybrid sector into recognisable categories right now as there are clear patterns. You can read more about differentiation in our book. Key research on this is by Friedlander and Walters 2010 and 2016 and by Fidler and Bala and Saini. Categorisation and differentiation models are in Fidler Bala and Sain 2012 and Baker and Sauber 2013 and Bernet et al 2014. FSC differentiation and intervention model combines much of these with the work of therapeutic parenting.


      1. Thanks for the estimate.

        I have read your book, I really liked how it was written – easy read of complex stuff. Page 36 states “Hybrid alienation is simply a way of describing a set of dynamics that have arisen between two parents to cause an alienation reaction in the child.” Which I interpreted to mean both parents behaviour contributed to the alienation and this is backed up by your earlier blog here which states both parents behaviour in hybrid contribute to the freezing of a child.

        You do explain in the book that hybrid is a complex areal which you are investigating further to refine your definition so might be worth doing a blog on that when you get time so people understand that hybrid doesn’t always mean both parents behaviour but it could primarily be the behaviour of one parent that lacks a personality disorder. Would be good to get better understanding and numbers round this when it is available. I can see now why you say some practitioners don’t like to use the concept of hybrid.

        Thank you for the clarification and the time you have taken to respond.


      2. The thing about alienation Angela is that we are learning from every case we work with. This is because this is a relatively new field in terms of practice with families and so as we build our case files we refine, consider and review our perceptions. We build on the work done by others and contribute to the scientific debate that way. So, in 2012, which is now six years ago, we were working with just one differentiation route between pure and hybrid, we are now working with several which have been built in the intervening six years. As we do so we refine our definitions on the basis of the responses of the families we work with. So in 2012 we were thinking that both parents were contributory and looking at how that was so. Six years later we are working with our Assessment and Therapeutic Trial intervention which allows us to do the forensic differentiation of who is contributory and what we are finding from this is that whilst there are several routes into alienation, in the hybrid category there are several sub categories, a small handful of which involve cross projection of blame and fixed behaviours in both parents (essentially both parents are contributory) but the bigger group of hybrid is where one parent has gone to uphold the child’s use of the defence of splitting, or has caused the child to take it up in the first place via pressure on the child through changing circumstances. In this category there are also clear patterns of rejected parent behaviours which intermix with the child’s age/behavioural patterns/vulnerabilities and which trigger the dynamic which causes alienation.

        It is the refining and testing and review (which will this year lead to published papers and peer review) which will take the learning further. Working with other researchers, offering our contribution for their opinion and refining it and testing it again is what gets us a reliable and replicable model.

        This work is really not simple or easy to do because in all that we do we have to almost fight our way through the court process to get it first of all accepted, then we have to prove not only to our peers but to an adversarial system, a sceptical workforce (CAFCASS) who want the easiest answers and who hold disproportionate power in relation to their understanding and then we have to do the work.

        I am having a rest from reunification work this year because after 12 years of doing this work in an adversarial system and after dealing with the stalking and harassment online last year, I need to recover some strength to go back into the ring. Sometimes I wonder how anyone could do this work in such circumstances, it is a complete war zone.

        which is why we are building the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners and why we are bringing the leading experts in the field worldwide to London this year. Big ears in London and Europe are listening to us and whilst I feel CAFCASS will always seek to take the easiest option by promoting the idea of hybrid as being both parents responsibility, we are putting pressure on CAFCASS too by the work we are doing. CAFCASS and social worker WILL, eventually, have to recognise the scientific evidence and we want to make that happen sooner rather than later.

        Some practitioners LOVE hybrid – CAFCASS for example love the concept of both parents being responsible, so do many family therapists who think that family therapy is the way. It is not. All evidence from around the world points to the same thing in alienation, treating it requires the right differentiation matched to the right treatment route. And that treatment route inevitably, whether it be hybrid or pure, to the overriding of the child’s expression of rejection one way or another. That is what so many people do not like and that is why the idea of hybrid as the responsibility of both parents makes it easier on practitioners. There is no easy way to do this work, it requires overriding children’s expression of rejection and working counter intuitively. Hope that helps. Numbers wise I would say in the hybrid category less than 5% are those where both parents are cross projecting blame in a manner which is fixed and unchanging so a very small number indeed. Most see one parent fixed and unchanging and the rejected parent doing all that they can to change.

        Assessment and Therapeutic Trial is the way to refine the hybrid category and build the treatment route. We will be publishing a paper about this for the conference in August. We are also working on worldwide standards of practice and certification for PASG right now.


      3. Again I am very greatful for your response and all the work you are doing. I will look forward to reading the latest. I’m personally very sad to hear you are taking a break but I know that it is completely deserved. I totally empathise given I’m doing all I can in my own personal battle let alone what you have had to do over many years for hundreds of people. I hope you enjoy it and recharge.

        Will be looking forward to the developments regarding the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners.


  18. “Our first differentiation is whether the child actually IS showing an alienation reaction, our next differentiation is whether the child entered into the alienation via the transitional route or whether the child shows signs of encapsulated delusional disorder……”

    On further thought Karen, I see you have presented it as an either/or scenario……..yet isn’t it possible to have several things going on a once ie that transition difficulties AND encapsulated delusional disorder (or on route to) are happening concurrently? Similarly that behaviours that would constitute ‘justifiable estrangement’ may be going on concurrently with transitional difficulties and indeed one feeding in to the other?


    1. Hi SS, we would do the differentiation between alienation and justified estrangement first. We use tools which measure the splitting in the child’s psychological self to do that. The difference between transitional entry into alienation and encapsulated delusional behaviours is that the child is seen prior to the alienation taking hold, to either a) be able to make transitions normally which then become increasingly difficult or b) shows distinctly the behavioural signs of being in a shared fixed dyadic belief about the rejected parent from an early stage even whilst making transitions. The difference is in the period of time just prior to the alienation reaction happening, which is why we always get the story of the route to rejection first. In c) the child is in transition and facing behaviours in the parent the begin to withdraw from which would constitute a reason for withdrawal ( justified rejection) is tested by the ‘but for’ question. Which basically means, ‘but for’ the actions of the aligned parent in upholding the child’s rejection, would the behaviours the child is saying are the reason for rejection, be enough to cause rejection. Amy Baker speaks of the ‘but for’ question and it is incredibly helpful in determining the role of the aligned parent in a hybrid case of transition where there are some problematic behaviours in the rejected parent. The other test we apply is the ‘can the’ test…’can the rejected parent shift what needs to be shifted in their behaviours’. They most often can and readily do. So you but apply the ‘but for’ and ‘can the’ tests and then you ask the aligned parent to do what they don’t want to do which is make the child see the rejected parent….we call this the ‘can they/can’t they’ test ….can the aligned parent recognise the need to support and guide the child back into relationship or can’t they. If they can then they are responsive to therapy, if they can’t then we are likely to need a psyche report and a consideration of residence transfer.

      Hope that makes things clearer. Don’t forget that we are right on the outside edge of this work so whilst we currently work with ‘but for’ and ‘can they’ and can they can’t they’ tests, these are just our in house phrases for a set of tests we use which are being tested and refined all the time. In these next couple of years there will be a set of clear clinical evaluations which are tested and peer reviewed which will clarify this space and standardise it. We are doing this work right now. K


      1. Karen, if the child feels they have solid reasons to justifiably reject one parent, do they then almost by default ‘align’ themselves with the other parent? Point being that it is not the actions of the parent which causes the child to align with them?


      2. In justified rejection you do not see the absolute splitting in the child – although in cases of severe and prolonged abuse such as repeated sexual abuse, repeated physical abuse etc of a severe nature there are some children who use splitting as a defence – however the largest majority of children with abusive parents will still seek to relate to that parent, blaming themselves first and hoping that the parent will change – it is in alienation that the alignment and rejection pattern is clearly seen and it is a defence in the child to cope with the impossibility of the situation they are in. Sometimes it is because they have no-one to share their experience with and because their behaviours adapt themselves unconsciously. The problem is that if they use the defence of splitting and the aligned parent simply supports that the deepening of the rejection occurs. I have known kids who have entered into the deepest levels of splitting because they wanted to change something about the parenting arrangement or because a parent had been cross with them and they had been momentarily afraid and they shared that with the aligned parent on return and the aligned parent was angry with the other parent and the child then entered splitting to defend against the fear of the other parent being angry with them when they next saw them. These are utterly tragic cases which require careful differentiation in order to ensure that the right route is used. If social workers crash in on such a case and simply yank the child out of the care of the aligned parent and there is no therapeutic care given to the child, counter rejection will follow. Which leaves the child in EXACTLY THE SAME place as they were previously.


      3. Ah yes, ‘therapeutic care’……… gold dust… the UK mental health provision for children has been a diminishing resource (if ever it was plentiful)………….. I have horrific memories of trying to access it……… much so that I came to the conclusion that it was a parental nightmare to have a child in need of therapeutic care……it was then I wished I had enough money to access it privately……..for anyone reliant on state provided mental health care all I can say is ‘god help them’.


  19. “…… see the absolute splitting in the child – although in cases of severe and prolonged abuse such as repeated sexual abuse, repeated physical abuse etc of a severe nature there are some children who use splitting as a defence – however the largest majority of children with abusive parents will still seek to relate to that parent, blaming themselves first and hoping that the parent will change – it is in alienation that the alignment and rejection pattern is clearly seen….”
    Karen it occurs to me that timing here is important, in terms of at what stage in this journey to alienation the child is seen by professionals……….if by the time a particular professional enters the scene a scenario has been long running, whereby a child has now entered full blown alienation as a means to deal with years of mental terrorising by one parent, all the professional will see is the alienation reaction in full swing………….aren’t the chances of them understanding that the alienation is in fact justifiable estrangement now very slim? Especially if the non threatening parent was aware of the children’s concerns but had no way to prove any of them? In situations that drag on unresolved over years, it is inevitable that a stream of different SWs will become involved, each one picking up an increasingly old case and applying their own particular biases to it.


  20. This has been really helpful in understanding all sorts of complex issues. It seems that social workers and Cafcass should be working hand in hand with psychologists so that court is not just about deciding where a child lives and for how long, but about supporting the child as well. It is confusing though, because we had just heard that parental alienation was child abuse. And so if that is proven then it makes sense to want to remove a child from an abusive parent or at least monitor contact with that parent. This is where I struggle, as whatever the complexities of the cause of the alienation, if there is outright emotional abuse, it is still abuse and it is still messing with the child’s head and the only way to stop that is remove them from the abuser. At least temporarily. I have seen the Cafcass view of thinking both parents are part of the issue and the end result was – no change. Child still in exactly the same situation.


  21. Also is it possible for alienation to be both transitional and due to personality disorder? I have noticed changes at transitional times. But although I agree, personality disorders can’t be diagnosed by just anyone, there are some behaviours in people that would be considered to be such a thing when they are so wide ranging as to affect a lot of the community and not just the child in question. But such people are unlikely to go and ask for a diagnosis. Whether it is personality disorder or narcissism or not, if there is a history of abusive behaviour that can be quiet machievellian, then how do you approach things. We have been round the houses and social services do not always spot emotional abuse.


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