This is the time of year when we all want to go home. Even if our childhood home no longer exists, the idea of going home and finding our place of origin, of sharing memories and making new ones is powerful.
In the UK, where the light dims to the shortest day, the sensation of wanting to hibernate with our nearest and dearest grows strong. The older I get the more I believe that there is a biological as well as psychological drive to most of what happens to us and how we feel at times like this is prompted by that.
One of the most overlooked problems facing rejected parents is, in my view, the way in which the biological drive to take care of their children is blocked and how that, in return sets up a fight/flight response which triggers the sympathetic nervous system to full alert.
As someone working regularly in reunification of parents and children, I notice that one of the first things I must do to ensure a smooth reconnection is calm the sympathetic nervous system of both parent and child. Using PolyVagel Theory in therapy is one of the ways that we do this, working with the way in which the inability to co-regulate the child triggers a dysregulation in the parent, we return the capacity to co-regulate using the three R’s – rhythm, repetition and routine.
Since 2010 I have been working to understand the way in which the disrupted relationship between parent and child affects each and how to re-establish, in the swiftest way possible, that deep bond we know exists. Using a range of approaches in one to one care with a child and parent, we have built interventions which work and we continue to develop them to bring each child back into loving relational flow with a parent.
All of our reunification work is based upon routine. Each day in one of our reunification programmes is the same. As we move a child and parent closer together, we observe the way in which the old care patterns revive the relational flow. If we are lucky we are all brought up being held, soothed, rocked and cared for in a routine. When we go back to basics with a child to reunite them with a parent, we bring the parenting in the parent back to life and return the child back to being a child. We use rhythm, repetition and routine to do this.
One of the rhythmic routines which must be repeated if you are currently at distance from your child is letter writing. This is an essential part of keeping the thread between you active. Do not fall silent on the letter writing front because even though your alienated child views the letter with disdain and reads it through a disagreeable lens, the very fact that you have written it keeps you alive in the inter-psychic world.
So much of what we do with alienated children is not about talking. There is no possible way to revive the relational flow and loving bonds between a parent and alienated child by talking. The only way to revive the flow is by doing and in letter writing you are are doing even though your words are talking to the child. What I want you to think carefully about is how you construct your letter and the visual and visceral impact your letter has upon the child.
A picture paints a thousand words and your communications should always include a picture of something. By sending pictures you are conveying meaning symbolically and symbolism in the child’s internal world is meaningful. Whilst many alienated children, in the internal landscape, are lost like small boats bobbing on a stormy ocean, they can and do take notice and symbolic things get through. A card shaped like a heart, a vividly coloured picture of somewhere or something you have shared together, a photograph of a loved toy from the past, all are symbolic and all will land in the place in the mind of your child which is still connected back to you.
I want to say a few words about the part of your child which remains connected to you. In reality all of your child is still connected to you but there is a defensive structure in place which is preventing the relational flow from unifying your child’s mind.
(Figure is adapted from Franz Ruppert’s Theory of Splitting)
The above diagram describes the defensive splitting of the alienated child’s mind. In this diagram you can observe the way in which the defensive splitting keeps the traumatised part of the child’s awareness (the part which recognises that the ‘decision’ to reject you is wrong and the part which holds the normal regulating feelings of guilt and shame away from the conscious mind to enable the rejection to take place) in the unconscious. The defensive part of the child is the child who displays the signs of alienation, lack of empathy for you and use of borrowed scenarios from the past to justify what they are doing, this is the part which comes out and attacks you when you try to connect with the child. On the surface the other part of the child, the authentic part, escapes into adapted well being and doing. This is the part which appears to flourish when the rejection of you is complete. You have heard how well they do at school after rejection and how happy they are, this is because the defensive splitting is complete and they no longer have to navigate the stormy sea of being exposed and re-exposed to the impossible dilemma they find themselves in. That authentic self though is squeezed, like toothpaste out of a tube into an adapted version of who they are. With vision reduced to telescopic and the capacity for perspective massively reduced, your alienated child attempts to get on with life. The problem is they are haunted now by the split of part and are forced to switch between adapted authentic self and defensive self, a requirement which is necessary to keep the split off part which is traumatised at bay.
Back to your letters home.
The letters you write must be written to the split off part of the child and the authentic child by passing the defensive child. It doesn’t matter how many times your child launches the defensive part at you, your intention must go to the part of the child which holds the guilt and the shame and the love for you. I know how difficult letter writing is for many of you because you tell me. Here then is one format you can use (please please adapt it to fit your child and do not send it ‘as is’) in bold is the reasoning behind it.
My Dearest Child,
I am sending you this card because it reminded me so much of the time when we ………….. do you remember how much we loved doing………. This opening calls on their empathic memory, they will try to resist it but you must pursue this line of drawing up their empathic feelings.
I know that you must glad that you no longer see me and that you must feel that you are safe now speaks to the part of the child which is split off and which holds the guilt and shame, the phrase ‘you must feel’ speaks to the adaptation the child has made.
I want you to know that even though we are not seeing each other at the moment, I am always here for you and always hoping that you are doing well in the world names the dynamic which is in place and reminds the authentic child you are still here and then gives unconditional love for the child by hoping that they are doing well.
I went for a long walk yesterday with Uncle Sam, we walked up through the Dale and into the Valley where all of the trees were bare now that it is winter. Do you remember when we walked there in summer? The trees were so green and all the blossom was out.Speaks to the memories held by the split off part of the child.
This year I will be celebrating Christmas with….. I am very much looking forward to it. Lets the authentic and split off part of the child know that you are doing ok, the split of part of the child needs to know this in order to feel regulated.
I will miss you though as I always do and will be thinking of you on Christmas Day and hoping that you will open the presents that I have sent you. Reminds the authentic and split of part of the child that you are there and that you matter too and that you have honoured their day.
One day when things are different we will go for a walk with Uncle Sam again and go paddling in the river. Although summer seems a long way a way, it won’t be long before it is back again. Calls to the healthy part of the child in the adapted authentic self and reminds the split off part that life is not a permanently fixed experience
I am sending you my love which will always be here for you and which will never go away because I am your mum/dad and that will never change even when I am no longer here. Reminds the child of the permanence for your relationship and of the fact that life ends one day – this reminder calls to the part of your child which is split off and which holds the regulating feelings of guilt and shame.
See you soon Slightly stirs the emotional pot and causes the child to wonder how soon.
Notice how in all of this writing, not very much is said and not very much is expected of the child in words. Much however is said symbolically and when you combine a letter with intent in the words such as this with pictures and memories of the past, you speak directly to the split off part of the child to trigger reaction.
Many people say to me that writing to their child in this way produces a big negative reaction, to which I say good, that’s the purpose of writing in this way. The big negative reaction can be understood because it comes from the defensive/protective part of the child, the part which is trying to keep the split off part at bay and unconscious. The bigger the reaction the more the letter has hit home, ignore the negative reaction, it is a defence, wait a little while and then write again. As you do, the child begins to adapt the defence and accept the letters.
As in all things in reunification, rhythm, repetition and routine is the key. Do it and keep doing it. Letters home to your children’s heart can eventually turn into reunification.
Don’t give up. Keep writing.
Next year it will be ten years since I began to write this blog and to mark that I am starting a new project in which I will provide for you some new tools and resources to use. One of these is a book about how to use love and empathy in your communications with your children to build a path for them to walk home on. I am working on these things now and will let you know when they are ready to use.