One of the startling features of reunification work is the way in which the child’s psychologically split state of mind is mirrored by the rejected parent. This is a problem, in fact it is a very big problem when it comes to reawakening the shut down relationship between the child and parent, because in order to heal the split state of mind in the child, we need the rejected parent in a fully integrated state of mind too.
At the outset of our reunification work we have found in the past that we have to deal not only with children in the split state of mind, we also have to deal with the problems that come with sudden changes to the way in which the child is maintaining the defence of splitting. Translated this means that in the past, reunification work has had to be undertaken in a short sharp shock approach of removal of the child from the parent, leaving us with the task of dealing with the child’s overloaded anxiety response at the same time as supporting the rejected parent to stay focused in the belief that the child can and will emerge from the alienated state of mind. Whilst this works, it is also vulnerable in its unfolding to many different outside influences. When we get it absolutely right, with all of the professionals lined up in the same mindset, the reunification process is swift and the child’s encounter with the rejected parent can be held for long enough for the alienation reaction to drop and the healthy responses from the child to emerge. When we get it wrong, which is when the professionals in the team are not all committed to the process, the child receives the signal that that it is not safe to drop the responses and the alienation reaction continues, leaving the rejected parent feeling unsafe and uncertain. In those circumstances, nothing can change and the child will remain rejecting.
I have watched some cases fall apart because social workers were not fully able to support reunification work. I have watched professionals covertly unpicking judgments they didn’t agree with. Going behind the judgment is a known strategy of some professionals who seek to get the outcome they believe in, in such circumstances I have learned that being the professional involved is not only an impossible place to be in, it is dangerous too. Working in this field, when one is doing it right, is akin to being a bomb disposal expert in a field full of landmines. Having the courage to keep going and to keep the rejected parent going too is a necessary quality, especially if one is surrounded by people with disproportionate power to the level of skills they possess. In such circumstances, all we have to rely upon to bridge the gap between the rejected parent and the alienated child, is the love which flows between them. Love which is currently frozen in time and denied by the child. And there is nothing, but nothing, more anxiety provoking in this world where the voice of the child is exalted and over relied upon, than a child who denies that s/he loves a parent.
Little wonder so many practitioners do it in ways that are less than the right way. Little wonder so many are risk averse and tending only to the surface voice of the child. Would they, if they truly understood, be so timid and so determined that desensitisation and a softly softly approach is the right way? Would they, if they truly knew that the child we are assisting is a coercively controlled child, be quite so prepared to have the rejected parent spend hours, weeks and months, waiting for them to say that the child is ready? I hope not. But who knows?
A child who is rejecting a parent is doing so because they have identified with the aggressor. Just as a battered woman identifies with the man who batters her in order to psychologically protect herself because she knows she cannot escape and if she tries she will perhaps be harmed fatally, the child who is driven to tell lies and fabricate stories about a parent is identifying with the threat to the loss of their relationship with someone who could, if they so chose, harm them significantly. And why would they not do that? It takes a battered woman several attempts to leave an abusive man and that woman has, at the very least, the adult capacity to identify where help can be given. A child who is being threatened with harm in the inter-psychic world (this is the psychological space between the child and the parent they are controlled by), has no such adult awareness and no sense that help is at hand.
Here is Richard Warshak
And from further back, as Nick presented to the PASG conference in Stockholm recently, Ferenzi on identification with the aggressor.
When I hear of interventions in which rejected parents are being treated as being contributory to the problem of the child’s rejection and efforts are expended on getting that person to change his/her behaviours to please the child, I think of the dynamic of psychological splitting and the way in which that is caused by the child’s identification with the harmful parent and I wonder all over again, why those people do not recognise that parental alienation is a child abuse issue and act accordingly.
Truth is they don’t really understand what is going on. What they are trying to do is adapt the model of parental alienation to fit their own personal model of practice and their own comfort zone. Which means that they do not ever really have to face the terrifying reality of what reunification work really means, because they don’t ever really successfully reunite the child and parent, they just like to think they do.
Here’s the thing. Right from the heart of what those of us who reunite alienated children and families really do.
We work with the rejected parent in a co-therapy role and we put the child in the room with the parent right at the start of the process. When we do this we are working with the real dynamics in an alienation case, not the pretend ones. By provoking the true dynamics onto the surface we have the capacity to reorganise the child’s experience of the parent using the love which exists between the parent and child, love which never dies, it just becomes frozen – in the child AND in the rejected parent sometimes as a way of coping with the horror of what has happened.
In our assessments at the Family Separation Clinic we see the child and rejected parent in clinical observation right at the start of the intervention. We ensure that we see the child in those circumstances by asking the court to direct that the child is made available to us for that purpose. We don’t waste time waiting, we don’t pussy foot around, we get on with the purpose of the work which is to restore the child’s relationship via the confrontation with the denied and split off ‘object’ which is the rejected parent.
We are British, we use Object Relations Theory. The ‘objects’ which are the introjected (internalised representation) experience of those people who love us, can be split off from our conscious awareness if we cannot tolerate the cognitive dissonance of trying to relate to everyone in our internalised world. Thus the rejected parent becomes the recipient of negative projections and is split off and denied, (pushed into the unconscious) never to be related to again if the child has their way. When we come along and make the unconscious conscious by putting the split off and denied object in the same room as the child, the real dynamics which have caused the child to enter into the defence of splitting become sharply defined. If we have successfully ensured that the power dynamic around the child has shifted prior to this first meeting, then we will see the swift change in the child and the bridge of love emerges immediately as the real feelings begin to flow. If the power dynamic is not properly shifted this is less likely to occur and we will see the child fluctuate in response to any anxieties perceived around them.
Creating dynamic shifts for the child is a combination of three things –
a) the power a parent holds over the child being changed
b) the presence of the denied and split off object which contains the positive projections – the child must be present in the room with the rejected parent for this to occur.
c) the capacity of the reunification specialist to support the parent as well as the child whilst holding the split state of mind in both for long enough for the love to start flowing again. (The therapist must be able to tolerate the child’s rejecting behaviours and work with them for long enough for the awareness of the child to emerge that the dynamic has shifted and it is safe to express love for the parent – at the same time the therapist must be able to tolerate the parent’s disbelief that the child does still love them for long enough for the love to flow).
Increasingly we know that the dynamics we need to see in place are possible to achieve for families. We know that the court will give us permission to see the child with the rejected parent in clinical observation and we know that we have the power to educate and inform the court about what is really going on at the heart of a parental alienation case. As we move forward with EAPAP, our educational programmes are starting to take effect and the fallacy of parental alienation as a ‘high conflict’ situation or a ‘he said/she said’ case is more and more known.
Parental alienation is harm to the child and at its heart it is the coercive control of the love a child feels for a parent. Love which is the bridge, love which is always preserved, love which simply needs the right conditions to flow again.
Teaching the world how to make it flow again in the swiftest way possible is what we are all about now.