Undoing Mind Games: Helping Alienated Children

Recently I have been working on a new approach to helping alienated children, an approach which combines the recognised interventions used in short term dynamic psychotherapy, with my understanding of how the manipulated mind of a child presents itself.  I have already had some remarkable results with this combination of understanding and intervention, so much so that I am further pursuing this as part of my Ph.D research work.

Alongside all of the training and development work I have been doing I continue in my clinical practice and this year, more than any so far, I have been working with adult children and older teenagers who are experiencing alienation. This work has been tremendously helpful in enabling me to develop new thinking and practice with the alienation dynamic.

What we know about parental alienation is that the dynamic locks itself into the child’s mind and then begins to spread through the family and into anyone else who comes into contact with the child.  This is because the underlying cause of the alienation, which is the psychologically split state of mind, is a defence mechanism which the child is using to prevent themselves from being exposed to impossible demands and pressures upon them.  Depending on whether someone upholds the child’s  ‘choice’ or not, the reaction rises and falls. Thus you will see a child escalating allegations and insisting a parent is truly wicked towards them when no-one is looking, when they engage with anyone who tries to challenge the defence by making them see the parent they have rejected.  Whilst others, who do not challenge but who accept the child’s narrative, are accepted by the child and liked and ‘trusted.’

This alignment and rejection dynamic, which is the outward sign of splitting is one which is poorly understood and therefore one which triggers enormous splitting elsewhere around the family.  In some cases I have worked in, the professionals became so affected by the splitting in the case that they were fighting each other inside and outside of the court process.  Add the UK adversarial court process, where someone is always right and someone is always wrong to the child’s display of alignment and rejection and a perfect storm awaits for anyone who comes close to a case.

The right/wrong problem in parental alienation spreads throughout professionals and even into the minds of those who work to solve the problem of parental alienation.  This everyone is wrong and I am right approach, comes from a place where the psychologically split state of mind runs even into those who seek to resolve it.

I work with alienation and it fascinates me.  It fascinates me because it is a problem with a human face and it is as old as time.  From the way in which ancient cultures controlled human behaviour through shunning people and placing them outside of the tribe so that they died, to the explicit mind control of cults, alienation as a life experiences is very real. Finding the places and conditions where it flourishes is about noticing how society regards human behaviour.  Recognising that the divorce and separation landscape is the perfect condition for alienation is part of what drew me to this work in the first place.

This week I watched a young person heal from the psychologically split state of mind in less than two hours.  Just as the conditions are right for an alienation reaction to occur, when the conditions are right for healing, this problem is very easily resolved.  The more I do this work the more I know that the formula for healing is – A + B + C = D

A) Understand the route into alienation (Identify the conditions in which the child took up the use of psychological splitting)


B) Change the way the aligned parent holds power over the child


C) Deliver the dynamic intervention which shifts the mindset in the child


D) Integration of the split state of mind of the child

When the alienated child is enabled to integrate the psychologically split state of mind, they are no longer using the defence which denies the positive memories and experiences with the rejected parent.  It is the defence in the mind which creates the denial (and the defence which triggers all of the other clear signs of alienation such as lack of ambivalence, entitlement, cruelty, reflexive support of the aligned parent and more).  This is how a perfectly normal child comes to be able to say cruel and untrue things about a parent they were once seen to love dearly. This is exactly how a child is brainwashed into behaving as if a parent is a cruel and abusive monster when all of the evidence proves that this is untrue.

Undoing the mind game is therefore about creating the right conditions for the delivery of the dynamic shift which creates integration.  And whilst the right conditions for that in younger children, are almost always created by the court process, the right conditions, I have come to realise, can be created without the court for older children.

I wrote once about children whose eyes are wide open but able to see nothing at all.  What I have come to know about older alienated children is that even when they are confronted with the evidence, that is even when everything is contrary to what they are saying, they are unable to psychologically see it.  They may be able to physically see it but they cannot see it psychologically and will therefore argue with anyone who tries to persuade them.

Thus the route to integration is not about talking but about listening, it is not about teaching, it is about learning what the alienated person needs to experience and about watching and waiting for the opportunity to push the button which creates the dynamic shift in thinking.

In this young person’s mind this week I watched the switch in thinking happen after a process in which we had carefully led the way to the right conditions.  As I watched it happen I realised how much of a mind game had been played and how tricky alienation really is.  As the switch happened I found myself paddling furiously to prevent the counter switch from being triggered so that the young person didn’t counter reject the parent who had caused the splitting.  Working in the mind of a young person to bring this change about, requires the capacity to know the depth and breadth of how the problem impacts.

I will unpack more of this in the workshop with Linda Gottlieb especially for parents at the EAPAP conference.  We will also hear much more about how the mind of a child is influenced and how we can work to bring about swift changes in children through the use of the right stepwise approaches.

To book for the EAPAP conference as a professional please use this link 

The EAPAP Conference will have an interactive parent panel throughout both days and you can join us to have your say and vote on all of the things being discussed and proposed.  To do so please email us at office@eapap.eu and register your interest.  Tickets for parents cost £150 and you will have free access to the parent workshop with Linda Gottlieb and Karen Woodall as well as being able to take part in the interactive process.




  1. Is (B) satisfied if the alienating parent has died? The alienation started with the younger child in her early teens and spread to her older brother. They are now adults, 30 and 36.


    1. Yes, I was going to say that (B) is the hard one! But I do know a woman who was alienated from all 4 of her children and 3 of them returned to having a relationship with her when their father, the alienating parent, died. Obviously, it’s sad and hard to have to wait so long. And for the 4th child, (B) was not satisfied by the father dying. He was the youngest of the 4 and had spent more of his life alienated from his mother.


    2. Not necessarily, a dead parent can be an idealised parent and exert power over the child even from the grave. What needs to happen in those circumstances is that the adult children need to be confronted with living evidence without reinforcing the idealisation of the dead parent. Dead parents live inside of us, we carry them everywhere as internalised relationship ‘objects’, thus alienating parents can be just as powerful beyond the grave. To get them to B you would need to overwhelm them with living evidence.


  2. Wondering if teaching teenagers and you get adult children how to set up and have boundaries would stop them from being alienated or at least realize. As growing up in an alienated family that was intact until I left the house I know you aren’t taught to have any boundaries and boundaries are violated. Plus the alienator is a person that communicates and teaches triangular communication. So teaching those two skills would be super helpful to teenagers and young adults. Maybe even help to establish better relationships with people. You don’t realize that some people don’t care about boundaries in relationships or don’t even realize they are appropriate.


  3. Wondering if teaching teenagers and adult children how to set up and have boundaries would stop them from being alienated or at least realize what is going on. As growing up in an alienated family that was intact until I left the house I know you aren’t taught to have any boundaries and boundaries are violated. Plus the alienator is a person that communicates and teaches triangular communication. So teaching those two skills would be super helpful to teenagers and young adults. Maybe even help to establish better relationships with people. And both parents. As an alienated kid, You don’t realize that some people don’t care about boundaries in relationships or don’t even realize they are appropriate. They don’t realize they have any other options because no one taught them. I think that is why it takes to your 30s and 40s to realize something isn’t right.


    1. Yes teaching children how not to triangulate and how to have straightforward conversations about feelings is one way of helping them to avoid alienation – prevention is 100% better than cure in alienation for certain.


      1. Now I am thinking about a parental alienation ‘vaccine’ in the form of protective parenting from the early years of a child’s life – thing is you would have to go into relationships believing that the other parent had the capacity to alienate in order to practice that.


  4. I can believe it can happen quickly as witnessed something myself personally recently and am now quite frightened and we are feeling out of our depth. A time and a place and a familiar memory and suddenly child’s relationship was as it always had been – like 2 years had been wiped out and everything was happy again. This was shortly followed by a massive backlash from the other parent and child beginning to defy them which led to concerns for safety and we are now up to our eyeballs and had to involve social services – as a result of which now being accused of harrassment and malicious complaints. We are worried that dealing with social services may make things worse rather than better and may lose contact with child completely. So far everyone has believed/sided with the Mother in this case who is quite strong personality, and so we are quite worried at the outcome and don’t know what to do.


  5. what you describe is switching behaviour in parental alienation, where the alienation drops suddenly and the real child underneath appears again. It sounds like the real child went back to their parent and tried to stay real and was punished for that. Your actions triggered the state intervention which simply cannot help you because there is no capacity to understand what is going on in state services. A very common outcome is accusation of malicious complaint and harassment, if you are in the UK you are probably going to have to stand back for a time because if you try to pursue this head on you will be accused of alienating the child. Remember PA is counter intuitive – they are all going to follow mother because mothers are the holy grail in family services (unless their kids are firm and clear that they don’t want to see them, when mothers then become wicked and dispensable ). You probably need to manage things in a holding pattern for now, you need to work directly with the child without putting the child in danger of backlash from the other parent. There is no simple answer currently I am afraid.


    1. Goodness – is it possible to withdraw a referral to social services now? The crisis was solved and child is ok but a case was opened.


  6. I am more than fascinated with “how” B) is accomplished. The alienator in my case is my ex-husband and he would NEVER talk with a therapist unless court ordered.

    What about the switch in an adult child? I am overly intrigued in the “process” in the switch in thinking, what is the process? What did you do to lead the child to the right conditions?

    Thank you Karen for all you do!!!


    1. Which is why the mental health intervention usually has to be held within the court process, the parent with the power over the child has to be managed by the court to reduce that power as much as possible.

      To get the switch in the adult child you have to use as much power as you have to manoeuvre the adult child into a situation where they are able to experience the rejected parent and then push them into an encounter with their internal cognitive dissonance – which means you have to challenge their belief by holding up reality in front of them and then pushing their defences very hard. To lead the adult child to the right conditions you need to be a strong, healthy and powerful rejected parent who refuses to give up. In recent cases I have come into families where there has been a sort of partial reconciliation which has stalled because the dynamic switch hasn’t happened – the dynamic switch means the child’s realisation that what they have been told and made to believe is true is the opposite of what is true. when that switch is thrown there is no going back – there may be a struggle with counter rejection but there is, in my experience, no going back.


      1. Karen- how do you maneuver the adult child into a situation when you do not have any contact with them at all? I think I am a strong person who refuses to give up. I think I am there; it took a long time but I think I am there. I am not going to lie I do falter somedays, but who wouldn’t in these circumstances? The main question is how do I get the adult child in that situation where the “rejected parent and then push them into an encounter with their internal cognitive dissonance”.

        Thanks Karen for all you do.

        Anonymous-mother of three


  7. Thank you Karen – could you point me in the direction of finding out how to work directly with the child without putting them in danger of backlash. Child was reacting to uncertainty I suspect after a failed court application and trying to take control. Another court process isn’t allowed at present.


  8. I am struggling with this at the moment, I think. Both my sons refused to speak to me for 3 years. My eldest son has returned to live with me last summer, He is 18. His father left the country with my younger son, thus effectively abandoning the elder child. The youngest then subsequently returned last Xmas after 3 months away. We live together happily enough but have found no way to discuss what has happened, so I feel that we are living on unstable ground. When the elder is unhappy, challenged…or a myriad of things, he becomes incredibly abusive, exclusively to me. I am aware that I am a good and effective parent and that he loves and trusts me. If he is upset or in trouble he comes to me. I am a good listener and he will acknowledge this but when he ‘flips’ none of this is relevant. I am once again the despised parent. He will scream into my face, call me a c**t and seek to tear me apart psychologically. As he is clever and eloquent, he is very good at this. He knows exactly what to say. His behaviour is more extreme then ‘normal’ teenage behaviour but his life has not been normal. I am struggling to establish boundaries, and feel as if, by not following up with consequences, I am doing him a disservice but what do I say? Also, sometimes it occurs with no warning, we are talking and I say the ‘wrong’ thing and everything explodes. I don’t want him to think it is acceptable to speak to me( women) in such an aggressive, vicious manner. If he does this in future relationships he will rightly be described as an abuser. When he is calm he apologises but will not discuss this behaviour or take any responsibility for what he says and does. He will not attend therapy. He has no contact with his father, who now lives on the other side of the world. I do not and have not bad mouthed his father but am aware my son feels utterly abandoned. I cannot intervene as father will not communicate with me. Younger son does not have such an incendiary personality and is still in contact with father. He does not like the conflict. Neither do I. I am at a loss as to what to do.


  9. My husband has my 2 teenage daughters in our home. They asked me to leave because of some resentments my husband has due to my alcoholism. I was sober for a year. He has chosen to use the girls as a confidant into our marital problems . Now they said they want space away from me. They said if I came home, I now live with my mother, they would break all ties with me. Now the girls won’t even respond to me at all. It is very painful. I don’t have my children, my dogs or my home. I’m scared to go back because of my intergrity to my sobriety and because of hurting the relationship with my girls even more. Please help I don’t know what to do. Thank you.


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