Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Spaces in Parental Alienation

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance,
and there is only the dance.”

T.S. Eliot, from Burnt Norton (‘Four Quartets’)

This is the point in the Calendar in which we all enter into liminal space.  Here we are neither in the old year or the new, betwixt and between we linger, remembering the old, wondering what the new will bring.

Liminal space is that place we enter when our lives are in transition from one state of being to the next.  Liminal space for alienated parents becomes a kind of purgatory, in which the natural progression of change is halted.  If parents allow themselves to become poisoned in this space, their fate is to live in this hellish wasteland unable to process the feelings of anger, grief and the rage that comes in the face of impotence.

Keeping parents out of this place is what we are aiming to do with our coaching support at the Family Separation Clinic.  When parents are enabled to move through the liminal space created by a child’s use of psychological splitting, they are protected, educated and informed.  Their loss is no less than before but the impact upon them and thus the future of their relationship with their child, is reduced significantly.

Alienated children are in liminal spaces, stuck in a regressive defensive reaction to the problems in the post family separation landscape, these children feel that they have taken it upon themselves to resolve the unresolvable. In the conscious awareness,the rejection is justified and justifiable, but just beneath the conscious level of awareness, they know the truth of the matter.

Screen Shot 2018-12-28 at 10.04.46

The diagram above shows the way in which liminal awareness is held between the conscious and unconscious world of the alienated child.  This is the place where the normal feelings that a child who has rejected a loved parent are held. Grief, shame, guilt and confusion are all alive in the liminal space in the mind, which is why at times you will see an alienated child experience shifts in behaviour which are difficult to understand.

An alienated child who has split off their loving feelings for a parent and pushed those into the unconscious, sets about forcefully trying to keep those feelings out of their conscious mind. This is achieved through the use of psychological splitting in which all of the positive healthy feelings for the parent they are attempting to reject, are pushed into the unconscious.

Sometimes however, the liminal space between the conscious and unconscious mind, experiences bleed through, in which the normal feelings of guilt and shame which have also been split off, emerge into the liminal space and the child once again feels the horror of what they have done.  For many of those children however, the horror is so great that they must swiftly push the feelings back into the unconscious. This is why, when we are working with alienated children we must be careful not to put them into a place where those feelings are brought into consciousness but the child is left in the same impossible position.  Doing so is to abuse the child and contribute to entrenching the problem of psychological splitting.

There is a reason a child has used the defence of psychological splitting, it is because they have been abused by the parent with whom they are aligned.  Correcting the outer dynamic to prevent that parent from holding the power to keep abusing is the first action any practitioner should take.  Only then can the child be brought carefully out of the defensive reaction to feel the feelings they have split off.  In doing so we work alongside the rejected parent who acts as our co-therapist until the child is once again able to allow the relational flow to stabilise, at which point our work in the liminal space is done as the transition to recovery is completed.

Liminal spaces in parental alienation are key places for any reunification worker to understand and know. Being unafraid to work in the ‘still point of a turning world’ is about being comfortable with change and having the courage to work with what other people cannot see. In my court work, when we are carrying out a residence transfer, other professionals are often stunned to see a fiercely rejecting child shift across the liminal space to a loving connection with a parent they have vehemently put at distance. In the face of this I often hear unaware professionals working hard to force this shift into their own model of understanding of what is happening, even hearing some say that the child is only doing it because they have ‘no choice’.  Given that the child has entered into the place of rejection because they had too much choice in a world where they really didn’t want to have to make a choice, this lack of awareness in professionals who work with separated families, astounds me.

A child who makes the shift from rejection to warm loving acceptance, is a child who has been liberated from the coercive control which forced them into the psychologically split state of mind.  As such that child has been freed to once again use the whole of their mind, to experience the full range of emotions and feelings they are entitled to feel and is able to once again recognise that good people sometimes do bad things but that doesn’t mean they have to be rejected forever.  That child has re-entered a healthy mindset in which liminal spaces are once again part of a natural flow of life, not the purgatory of a split way of thinking.

I once worked with an alienated child who had become so stuck in the liminal space in his mind that he was unable to make any kind of choice about any kind of action he could or should take in any capacity whatsoever.   This child could not walk to school, he had become so avoidant of even the pavement upon which he feared his father might walk on that he had to be driven.  Later his drive to school took a five mile detour as he was unable to tolerate even the sight of the road where his father had lived. Each time his mother drove the route which would take him past his father’s road, this boy would be sick and so she ended up driving him the long way around in order to keep him regulated.  What was happening to this child was that the guilt and shame which he had pushed into his unconscious mind, leaked into the liminal awareness space in his mind and he reacted with great force (the trauma of being forced to reject his father was so great that the guilt and shame literally made him vomit).  By the time I came to work with this child, a horror story of epic proportion had been created in an effort to explain why this child was so afraid of his father.  Ignoring all of the evidence which countered this horror story, the professionals continued in their quest to find the ‘truth’ about this father – the only truth being that he had been rejected by his son because his son’s mother was so determined to drive him out that her anxiety and fury leaked through into the liminal spaces in her relationship with her son that she was terrorising him into rejection.

There is a reason why alienated children dream of wolves with fangs and knives and guns and being locked in cupboards or chased and stolen away.  These children are steeped in fear and anxiety in the liminal spaces which stem not from the parent who is being rejected but from the alienating parent who has terrorised the child in the inter-psychic world (inter-psychic means between two minds).

When this boy was removed from his mother’s leaky terrorist activities, he was introduced to his father again and all of the sickness and avoidance stopped.  Whilst he had to be assisted to tolerate a lot of distress in the first hours of introduction to his father, our pendulation approach to exposure to his father, meant that within a day he was once again able to receive his father’s love without blocking it.

Working in the liminal space with alienated children is a particular skill requiring particular knowledge and capacity to assist children to tolerate discomforting feelings. It also requires us to be able to hold two realities in mind, that which the child begins with and that which the child is moving towards.  Being the person who can hold two different realities for a child requires the capacity to hear the child say no I don’t want to but encourage and support them to do it anyway.  That is about being willing to be the adult in the child’s world and to work from a place of knowing that a child requires us to make decisions and choices on their behalf so that they do not have to.

So much of what we are doing in the liminal space of parental alienation awareness in the world, is showing others the truth of what is required to assist these children.  In this place, where there is still so much conflict, being able to be calm and stable is key.

As we move between 2018 and 2019, contemplation of liminal space and being comfortable in the ‘still point in a turning world ‘ is an important meditative theme for me.  With no work to do on the outer, the inner space becomes a place where I regain peace and readiness for the year ahead.

For all alienated parents too, the theme of liminal space is essential to get comfortable with.  No matter how much your children appear to be firm and fixed in their rejection of you, in reality they are stuck in the transitional liminal space of attempting to fix a problem on the outside via a maladaptive response on the inside.  That means that at any point, breakthroughs in the defence can occur which will propel them out of alienation into integration (and back again). This is particularly true of older children who are less controlled by the parent who has enabled this continued defence.  This is why we always tell rejected parents to be ready and able to receive a child, the psychologically split state of mind is not as fixed as it appears and when breakthrough feelings occur, the child can seem to ping pong back and forth until the integration is complete.

One day all of this will be common knowledge but for now, in the liminal space of growing awareness, those of us who know must keep building the evidence base.

In the rear view mirror, we will know that we did a good thing.




9 thoughts on “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Spaces in Parental Alienation”

  1. I’m not allowed back on fb just yet but intend to post this for his eyes when I can. I felt myself getting trapped in that liminal space tween and twixt full of anger sadness hate and regret until I snapped myself out of it.. all because I hadn’t received word or a card from him again.
    Anyhow after pulling myself through having read some memories I decided I was going to post this to him…

    ‘Those who don’t know, those who are unaware would say you are a coward, pathetic, cruel, dumb, souless, heartless, stupid and mean.

    Those who do know, those who are aware know you are a vulnerable victim of child abuse, otherwise known as Parental Alienation.

    I love you Son, I will be here for you when it’s your time to recover and heal. When you find the courage i know you have in abundance deep inside you, and find your heart that made you the most fantastic incredible and brave son and the best and most beautiful player in Sheffield bar none. I miss you lad. ‘

    Love and best wishes to you and yours for the new year flower and thank you for all you do raising awareness. Xxx


  2. Karen,

    Thank you.

    Your regular words provide understanding and hope and gentle reminders to keep on loving our alienated children in the best ways we can.

    Again, thank you.



  3. Hi Karen,
    I read each of your blogs and it helps me stay sane as the rejected parent (Mother). I have been enduring horrendous visits to my ex’s house to see my daughter weekly who only, yells, hits, throws. I then end the visits within 10 minutes due to watching her having to maintain this rejecting stance with her Dad present. I decided to take the plunge and insists that my visits only happen in my home without Dad. I was terrified as I knew this could be the end of any contact even bad awful contact. Knowing that my daughter reads her Dads texts and emails. I have also not engaged with my ex but just keep saying ‘the court order is that time occurs in my home’ my ex will then try and have me meet him at the shops, or at a kids playground so he can tick the box of visitation. All of these contacts with him present are awful and my younger 2 girls (not alienated) witness it and it affects them terribly.

    Boxing day my daughter turns up at the door. (of course, I suspected she would want to see her Christmas presents). The last time I saw her in my home was Christmas day last year. She walked in gave me a hug, she was happy, too happy, everything was great, our new cat, my artwork, new items in the house she hadn’t seen, I knew from your blogs to just be in the space with her. My other daughters were grinning, and happy and kept giving me excited looks. My daughter then asked if she could sleep the night. I was stunned and also cautious her behaviour was overly happy and positive. At bedtime, she asked for a story and cuddle and back scratch. I was happy but also felt like I was in a dream, her happy demeanour was surreal. it was like she had never left 2 years earlier like no time had passed. I am suppose to see her again tomorrow but accept that she may ping pong as you say.
    Karen, could you explain why she arrived in this ‘extremely happy’ state? should I be ready for her to ping-pong as such? Anon


    1. This is interesting anon, I think you should adopt the stance of the curious observer here which is always useful when children are in the early stages of reconnection – i.e. watch and wait – test and re- test, be prepared for ping ponging, be prepared for her having been sent in as a Trojan horse to gather evidence, test her for emotional stability (I will write some more about testing children in recovery for their stability soon, it is about whether they can tolerate two realities or not). Generally when I see children over compensating it is because they are not properly integrating but are experiencing upsurges of need for the rejected parent which when satisfied allow them to use splitting again to maintain their previous rejection – in real terms it is like proximity seeking in toddlers, she needs to come back to make sure you are there – she needs reassurance that you have not gone away and then she can go back to the previous state of mind safe in the knowledge you are still there waiting. I generally see this in the early stages of reconnection proper, it is bizarre, children arrive and disappear sometimes for a few years until they come back to stay. You need to be curious, welcoming, warm and keep yourself protected without disconnecting from her. Watch and wait and let us know what happens. K


      1. Karen, thank you for your words of wisdom. Like you wrote. the myriad of reasons swirl in my head. My daughter did come over again for a day visit. However, at the very end of the visit things spiralled downwards very quickly. I without realising said to her ‘i looked forward to her next visit’ which was to be Tuesday afternoon. This is the court ordered time which to date has not been complied too. My daughter completely freaked out and yelled ‘you don’t arrange the times, Daddy and I do, I am not coming here without my sisters… no way, her eyes filled with tears and she was shaking and white as a ghost, she was experiencing her ‘phobic’ reaction again which I have seen many a time particularly when I see her in the school grounds. She ran off with her mobile phone frantically trying to ring my ex-husband. She was completely dysregulated and I trying to offer her comfort only made her more scared. My heart sank. I knew she would be going home to Dad’s complaining about what happened.. I then get an email from my ex telling me how I ‘stuffed it up once again and how its taken him 3 hours to get her to settle down etc and why couldn’t I just not have conflict with her and that this triggers her past memories of when she was little etc etc.(of course in court-ordered therapy and family therapy these supposed past memories neither he or my daughter can articulate what these incidents where). he writes how my daughter then wets the bed and has nightmares of me trying to kidnap her and so on. All things you have written about in your blogs. I am so grateful for these posts as they keep me connected when as an alienated parent sometimes hearing that your child has nightmares of you kidnapping them, if taken at face value, it’s just devastating as a parent.
        At least I have glimpsed some insight that she feels most safe visiting only when her sisters are in my care also. Fingers crossed she does visit again……


      2. Hi Anon, I think it is worth spending some time on your post as it really illustrates what is going on for alienated children.

        The reality is that your daughter’s fear comes from her terror of her father seeing her having a good time with you on her own. She has found a way to spend time with you that she can go back and justify to him ‘well at least when my sisters are there she is nice to me’ I can hear her telling him. This keeps him regulated, he believes that he is control of her and that she is not going to leave him.

        Should she spend time with you on her own however, she would have to justify that to him, she would have to face his anger and her fear that he is going to abandon or worse still, hurt her.

        Her being in this stuck place comes likely from her having witnessed his power over you in the past. She believes that he is more powerful than you are and that in a fight to the death he would win and so she must, to save herself, bind herself to the aggressor in order to secure her long term survival. This is not conscious, it is a reactive, instinctive, biological drive to survive in her.

        The ‘phobic’ behaviour is her way of demonstrating her fear of him – in reality it is her fear sending her sympathetic nervous system into overdrive. She is not phobic of you, it is not caused by conflict with you, it is her terror of him believing that she could have a nice time just with you which kicks it off and then she blocks your efforts to soothe her so that she cannot be brought into a situation which is impossible for her to deal with -ie: she allows you to soothe her, she reveals her love for you and then what is her real fear – can mom stand up against dad and keep me safe?

        The route to recovering her and protecting her from this dynamic is to work with the trauma which is the same as yours likely was – the part of her which knows she must behave if she is to stay safe. The dreams of kidnap and bedwetting are symptoms of her being bonded to her abuser, the fears she is dealing with are ‘what if he finds out that I spend good time with mom’ in addition she knows that she has already been kidnapped – the leakage of the control dynamic in the relationship with her father will be very powerful. The discharge of anxiety on return to him is to a) demonstrate her allegiance to him and show him she is not betraying him and b) the despair she feels at being in this position.

        So, you are right to say that being with you and her sisters is the right way forward – that is how she manages to escape him, it is her excuse for being with you, focus on that and keep that going.

        When you are with her, speak to the traumatised part – words like ‘it’s ok, I know you need to be safe, you can be here with your sisters and it will be ok,’ the message you are trying to get to the split off traumatised part is I am ok, I can take care of you, I escaped, I was big enough and I am big enough to keep you safe now. Remember at all times that she cannot run away from him, unless she is going to completely escape him she knows she has to manage this man in her life as carefully as possible. One of the biggest problems for mothers in coercive controlling relationships is that if they leave without their children or their children become caught in the dynamic, the children will become recipients of the coercive control instead of them. Too many women lose their children because of this dynamic which is compounded in my view by the way in which too many women claim that they are victims of coercive control when what they really want is to get rid of their ex. True coercive control is terrifying and it will capture children (particularly girls) in the trap of having to compensate daddy for his loss of mummy or having to help daddy to continue to punish mummy. (in alienation of fathers the dynamic is different but the outcomes are the same).

        When she visits again, go gently around the edges until she drops the splitting and then speak directly to her about how well you are, how much you can cope, how strong you have become. Don’t get drawn into any fights with her father in the meantime, just bide your time and be the curious observer – watch him playing out the narrative and observe how he makes it all fit together, disconnect from his drama and concentrate on building a safe route home for your daughter. I am working on some new resources this month, I will include some more about helping children who are visiting but still trapped in the alienation dynamic for you.

        Sending you my best – keep going, you will find she will come back. Keep us updated on how things go for you all. K


  4. Hi Karen,
    Sorry for delayed update. We have been on summer school holidays. Thank You for your reply and your words of wisdom yet again. You totally hit the nail on the head in that I was in a coercive controlled relationship but I didn’t realise the extent until the very end. Much of it was encased in this loving concern for me, he knew just how to keep me under his spell. Telling me it was my anxiety, or that my questioning was showing lack of trust and that was hurtful to him. How I was this strong and independent woman and therefore didn’t need to be in regular contact with my family. All very subtle at first and very clever but it grew more into this 1940’s housewife rules. It wasn’t until I started to question and ask for a change that things got really bad and more overt. The dramatic ending was scary, he was very seductive then angry, then seductive. As you said he wanted Mummy back, then he would slide into revenge behaviours. There was a direct correlation between all our family reports, psyche reports and so on and he then sending financial threats. A family report would be released and then instead of him writing to the recommendation, he would send letters about financial threats. It has been a very full on, drawn out and costly family court process this last 12 months. To no avail. The court did not scare him nor did any of the damning reports on him and his behaviour, particularly his enmeshed relationship with our eldest daughter and how her own personality now mirrors his. He has maintained the role throughout of the protective parent, he can’t force her to do anything etc. (And yes his own childhood his Mother was very controlling. His Father very passive. Mine, my parents divorced when I was young and my Dad tried to alienate us (my older siblings) from our Mum, the court ordered no more contact with our dad).
    Our case is deemed one of the worst that the court therapist had seen. It was deemed to risky for any court-ordered moratorium to be placed on him for 3 months. It was deemed that my daughter was in such a severe split state that it was a too high risk of her running away or self-harm. It was deemed best to let him decide on how my contact with our eldest daughter would proceed in the hope that if he had full control he would comply. He didn’t for the first 3 months and so I kept up contact in his home to keep any thread of contact and they were horrendous as previously described. I was then counselled on stopping all visits unless in my own home. I didn’t see her for 6weeks. Then suddenly she arrives boxing day! and more nights since. However, you are right Karen in that she has perceived him as the stronger one. It took many years for me to get out from under his spell. She is only a child and for her, it’s almost impossible and due to her personality more vulnerable than her 2 sisters. Her visits since Christmas have been lovely, she has dropped so many of her defended states. Her last visit she even acknowledged that she didn’t like something that Dad did. That severe split state seems to have just evaporated? I am cautiously optimistic, however, I can’t help but wonder that without any therapeutic intervention how she will fully recover? issues of object relations issues have been used in reports about both my ex-husband and my eldest daughter as has emotional dysregulation and schizoid paranoia, concepts you discuss often, so I look forward to understanding this further in your future blogs.


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