Monday morning and I am on my rounds again. As I zig zag across the country, meeting family and friends between working with families affected by parental alienation, I am carrying with me my own life experiences and processing them, filing away the feelings, the reactions and responses, in order to provide the clean sheet for the next piece of work.
As I do so I recognise that all those things we ever were, are with us as we go about our daily business. All those things we were supposed to be, made to believe we could be or simply told we were, are carried with us in our mind and body. All those things we were given as a life script on the day we were born are the gifts which were bestowed upon us, some of which turned out to be the burdens which we bear, some of which have been transformed in the alchemical process of living, into the skills we use to help others. All those things we were, become all those things we are for better or for worse.
All of which gets me thinking about how the field of parental alienation, which is about working with the unresolved burdens of the past, which are passed on through the generations like unwanted gifts, is not so much about working with dysfunction but about working with adapted functionality. When the gifts which are being passed like parcels through generational lines are about as toxic as it gets, adapting to survive seems like healthy behaviour to me.
If our function as children is to survive our childhood, with all of the brutality that can entail, if our survival depends upon making it as easy as we possibly can for ourselves to hang onto the little love we possess in the world, then parental alienation, as an adaptive defence seems like a perfectly reasonable behaviour to me. Looking at it this way, helps me to recognise that the children I am working with are simply doing what they can to survive a terrifying inter-psychic world. Which means that my job is to relieve the terror and bring some order and reason as well as love and affection into that life. How we do that is about opening the gateway of the child’s defence so that the healthy love and affection from the rejected parent can flow in. How we get the child’s defensive gateway to open is about constraining the terror the child feels from the threat of withdrawal of love from the aligned parent. For it is this threat of withdrawal, that causes the child to create the defence. When a threat looks and feels like loving attention however and the healthy love from the rejected parent has been reconfigured to feel like harassment and pursuit, how do we turn the key to show the child the truth?
Well the truth of the matter is that we cannot do that in the physical world. At least not at first. What we have to do for the child is first constrain the terrorism which is causing the defence mechanism of alignment and rejection, which means we have to find a way to prevent the aligned/alienating parent from continuing to do what they have been doing. First protect and then treat is the motto, which is why all work with alienated children and their families should rest upon a child protection model of intervention and not a generic therapeutic approach.
This work is not therapy as it is usually delivered and all practitioners who are doing this work should know this. Whilst we are working with family narratives and scripts, with toxic triangles in which pass the blame parcel is endlessly recycled, we are not working with equal measures of unhealthy parenting. What we are working with is unhealthy versus healthy parenting. Adapted and maladapted behaviours and family secrets that are so deeply buried into the unconscious life of a family that those who are repressing them are not aware they are there.
When a child is born the ancestors gather at the crib to pass on these hidden legacies through the living generations. As the child is first held, fed, welcomed or rejected, as the child is given the first messages about their entry into the world, the hidden gifts both positive and negative are fed into the psychic world of the child. When a baby is born, those messages imbue their early days with presence or absence of colour. Like pale water colours or bold acrylic paint, all of the hopes and dreams and fears and anxieties of the family are transferred to the child in the spoken and unspoken narrative. We might think a new life is a clean slate, in reality it is inscribed with the handed down commandments of the ancestors. Thou shalt not know the secrets buried within, is the first commandment of all families affected by alienation, which in other generations would be called estrangement or a falling out. Which in our generation is coming to be known as child abuse for the way in which it constrains the child’s capacity to live their own lives free of such harm.
The paradox of parental alienation is that it is a problem with a human face and as old as time itself and as such it is unlikely that we will ever truly eradicate the tendencies of children to use the psychological defence of splitting in such circumstances as divorce and separation. The good news however is that the way in which the changing societal norms have failed to recognise and help children who flounder in the post separation landscape IS changing. Which means that more and more we are recognising that abandoning a child who is struggling with the impact of the ghosts which have risen through the schisms in their family, is harmful to them.
All those things we ever were will continue to be handed to children as their welcome gift from the previous generations, but when those gifts turn toxic and start to curtail the child’s right to a healthy childhood in which their own potential can unfurl, we are recognising the need to step in and protect the child from being consumed by the spectres from the past.
Which is how it should be. The adults in the here and now are taking responsibility for protecting the children from the harm of the past. And when we do that, the children do not have to maladapt and create defences against that overwhelming influence.
As I go back to digging at the coal face, tunnelling through to find the connecting passages which will bring us through into the light, the toxic parcels of my past, long since discovered and observed are cleaned and folded away neatly on the shelves for reference. Knowing the routes to recovery for alienated children requires knowing all those things I ever was as well as all those things they ever were when they were born. That way when we are tunnelling our way out of an alienation reaction, I am working only with their family narrative and not mixing it up with mine.
All of those things we ever were stay with us for the whole of our lives. Understanding the gifts we were given on the day we were born, helps us to understand those gifts we passed on to our own children. It helps us to recognise those which were helpful and those which turned toxic in the traumatic times. Which in turn helps us to focus upon the needs of the child in the post separation landscape.
All of those things that alienated children ever were, back then in the crib on the day they were born, gives us the key to the path out of the alienation and into the healthy world.
Which makes us both midwife and guide through the toxic places where the ancestors live to a place where the child can receive the key to the right to life on their own terms.
As I go back on my rounds, I see ever more clearly how the future is already changing as the ghosts of the familial past are once again being made visible.
The International Conference on Shared Parenting 2018 will be held in Strasbourg in November. Nick and I will be presenting alongside many others who are working to support children in post separation relationships with both of their parents. The Programme and tickets can be found here.
We have ten places available for an intensive training on reunification work with families affected by PA in Strasbourg in late November. This will include structured interventions for assessment as well as reunification work itself. If you are interested in joining this training please email us now at firstname.lastname@example.org.