I continue my work with families affected by parental alienation and as I do so I find myself learning at the deepest level, about the splits in the internal landscape which underpin this cruel phenomenon.
The cruelty of parental alienation is the manner in which it first presents itself, coming to light in the closing down of the child’s empathy circuits, beautifully described for us at the EAPAP Conference this year by Steve Miller in his curation of two significant signs that a child is alienated – the lack of empathy and the use of pathological splitting as a defence.
The closing down of the empathy circuits causes the child to begin to shut down in their relationship with a parent, which makes them appear to be frozen, robotic, defiant or frightened. What is happening to the child is that they have crossed the ‘tipping point’ which we describe in our book as being the point at which the child can no longer tolerate the pressures being placed upon them in the inter and intra-psychic world. This is the point at which the child begins, without conscious awareness of doing so, to shut down the relational channels. In response, the parent becomes terrified and terrorised, convinced that there is something wrong with the child and horrified that they are disappearing from them in front of their very eyes.
For the child this phase is equally terrifying. However the child enters this phase, (meaning whatever the pressures that have been placed upon the child to push them to this point – badmouthing, determined campaigns, subtle undermining, rumination, tribal warfare between parties), the response of the child is the same, In their internal landscape, the defensive splitting begins in order to allow them to survive in an intolerable situation. Whilst this intolerable situation may look to the outside world as not being very different to how it has always been, for the child it is a terrifying place where they cannot stop the shutting down of their relational system and as they do so the parent they are closing down against becomes more and more upset, angry, confused and terrified.
At the height of the dynamic, with the child completely shut down into a place beyond even fight or flight, a child can become mute, immobile, unable to make eye contact. In my work with one such child in 2010, his automatic response to his father entering the room was to place his head on his lap and his hands over his ears. The external symbolism of the internal biological response to the emotional and psychological pressures upon this child were immediate and irreversible through any method of standard therapy.
I have learned a great deal in my work in almost a decade since I worked with that child and in doing so I have understood that the child who is shut down against the parent who is being rejected is a child who has entered a place in which they themselves cannot emerge spontaneously in therapy. Neither can children be persuaded out of the split state of mind. Children cannot be desensitised to a parent (because they are not phobic about that parent) and they cannot be gradually introduced in weekly sessions where they sit and talk with the parent.
I have also understood that the diagnostic procedures which we must undertake to properly match the intervention to the problem for the child must be carefully done. It is for example, of no use simply applying a residence transfer to a case where a child is rejecting if the once rejected parent is not properly equipped to receive the child. To do so is to simply move the problem of the split state of mind in the child with the child, meaning that when they arrive at the receiving parent’s home they can and will reconnect but they will then go on to counter reject the parent they have left behind, or they will simply be warehoused by the receiving parent until the day comes when they are old enough to go back to the parent they were removed from.
In my most recent work with families I find myself working in the deepest complexities to bring about sustainable change over the longer term. I would say that what I am doing now is about transforming the internal landscape of the family, working with the splits and defences to help to integrate and heal these so that the child can not only recover from the defence of splitting, they can experience the potential for a whole new future.
This is deeply satisfying work as well as being a goldmine of information about alienated children and their families and the way in which this work is located in the most deeply split landscapes around the family, by which I mean the family court, the institutionalised services which sit around separated families and the legal system which is the route we have to use to shift the power balance which triggers the potential for healing in the family. All of these things are ridden with splits and schisms and potential for causing entrenchment of the harm which is already being done to children of divorce and separation and my learning deepens my commitment to bringing further to light the real risks to children whose parents are unable to successfully make the crossing from living together to living apart.
None of the work that I am currently doing is done in an office on a weekly basis. Most of it is done in the homes of the previously rejected parent (who is called the receiving parent in our residential programmes) and some of it is done out in the world with parent and child together. Increasingly this work is done with the sign up of the once aligned parent and using international standards of intervention, in doing so we are helping children to retain relationships with both parent after our treatment is finished.
The key factor in our treatment programmes is a Judge who understands the manner in which alienation requires a cool head and firm hand. In all of our most successful work, the core ingredient has been such a Judge. When I know that the process is being held by someone who understands the process and who is committed to providing the framework which is needed, it is a matter of applying the programme in the approach which has been shown internationally to work over and over again. There is a reason all reunification programmes work over a four to five day period, there is a reason none of them take place in an office, there is a reason why therapy in its standard generic form is contraindicated and it is this.
A child who has shut down their relational system in response to a parent has done so because of the splits in the internal landscape of the family, which are shown in the behaviours of the parents and wider family members.
A child who is coping with splits in the internal landscape in which parents are themselves split in their own internal trauma narratives, cannot be helped through talking, cannot be helped through reason and cannot be helped by the rejected parent changing their behaviours.
The only way a child can restart the relational networks and responses to a parent is for them to be with that parent long enough for the empathy circuit to work again (like the bonding that happens during and after birth). In order to get to that place, someone has to provide the child with the support that they need to overcome the shutting down response, (which is explained well by Polyvagel theory) so that the rejected parent can simply be with the child in order for the relationship bonds to wake up again.
Keeping the rejected parent calm, present and optimistic is part of the task, keeping the child calm, present and continuously present in the parent’s loving care is the other.
I am privileged to be doing this work around the UK with children and families because I am now working at the very heart of what we call parental alienation in ways that are effective and repeatedly successful. In doing so I am using the internationally recognised standards of practice which have been curated over the many decades and which are widely available in research.
I don’t really care what we call parental alienation, I use the label because it is increasingly recognised. Neither do I care about the arguments about Gardner or whether his work was controversial or not. I know that his eight signs are always present in an alienated child, I also know that Steve Miller’s reduction of those signs to the two critical elements of pathological splitting and lack of empathy are the key to our understanding. When we see those two things we know that we have to help the child because the longer term impacts of untreated pathological splitting are deeply harmful.
I do care that some in the UK and around the world are still using generic therapy and desensitisation approaches when the research evidence is clear that this is not just helpful it is contraindicated – which as Steve Miller tells us means it is FORBIDDEN. In real terms, those who are using these approaches are akin to people calling themselves cancer specialists who use un-tested remedies and approaches which are known to be harmful. I do not understand why these people do this and I also do not understand why these people charge thousands for doing so but I know they are out there. I also know that some people who call themselves parental alienation experts in the UK, still refuse to believe that internationally recognised practice is evidence based. I can only imagine that this is due to the splits in their own selves which protect their ego.
What works in parental alienation is the internationally recognised practice with families which is curated in the research and set out as follows –
These principles work. This practice is effective. When it is set within a legal framework which is firmly held by a Judge, rapid change is possible. I know this because I do it. We do it repeatedly at the Family Separation Clinic but we never do it in an office and we never do it in a slow and prolonged way.
In the next few weeks EAPAP will meet in Strasbourg and our work begins in earnest. Our project is to provide more people who work to internationally recognised standards across Europe, to evaluate our work and to produce with other experts in this field, guidance, information and training for the Judiciary, for legal and mental health practitioners.
This isn’t about anything other than healing the interruption of the relational health of the family as it goes through divorce and separation. It isn’t about examining attachment styles or working out who is a good enough parent. It isn’t about filming people and judging people’s ability to change their behaviours. It’s not about evaluating whether someone can show insight or getting control over the parental relationship. It IS about arresting power and control and it IS about recognising where someone is unwell. It IS about recognising trans-generational transmission of trauma and it IS about protecting the child from inter-generational harm.
But beyond that it is the ability to recognise that a child’s relationship with their parents is the first and most important biological survival drive and that never dies and it never goes away. What happens to it is that in the entanglement with the parental historical traumatic splitting, in response to the impossible position the child finds themselves in, it shuts down and when it does it causes immeasurable pain and suffering to the parent who is rejected. It is that response to the splitting in the historical landscape we are seeking to unravel to bring the child to their rightful place in relational health with both of their parents.
And when we configure the treatment route it involves learning, doing and being first, teaching through therapy next. Nothing more, nothing less.
Learning about what the child has experienced and helping the child to learn how to tolerate the discomfort that the defence of splitting causes.
Doing with the rejected parent all the normal things a child would ordinarily do.
Being with the parent continuously for long enough for the integration of the splitting.
Teaching through therapeutic reconfiguration of the dynamics which triggered the problem for the child in the first place.
Healing the splitting in the familial landscape is our task as practitioners, navigating the splits in the landscape around the family to get there is what we must do to carry that out.
One day soon, in the rear view mirror, we will wonder why every case of a child’s rejection required a witch trial to deliver the treatment. (I have my thoughts on why that is which I will write about soon).
Until then, those of us who know press on.