Avoid providing material for the drama that is always stretched tight between parents and children; it uses up much of the children’s strength and wastes the love of the elders, which acts and warms even if it doesn’t comprehend. Don’t ask for advice from them and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is strength and blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.
Rainer Maria Rilke
There is a flow of life which goes in one direction, from the ancestors to the present day children to the ones as yet unborn, there is a place for each of us to stand and when we are standing in the right place, the flow of life and love is free and unchallenged. Putting people into the right place in the family flow, is what we are doing when we are working with children affected by parental alienation, children who are always in the wrong place in the family line at the wrong time in their lives. When I visualise this, I see a family like a jigsaw puzzle put together wrongly, pieces hammered in where they do not fit, the picture itself is confused and confusing.
Linda Gottlieb told the EAPAP Conference in London last year that her teacher and mentor Sal(vador Minunchin) would never have allowed a child to be disrespectful to a parent and that he would have ‘always corrected it.’ Correcting the alienated child’s entitled behaviour which comes from being put into the wrong place in the family hierarchy, is what all of us who do this work must be be brave enough to do. This is not easy in the era of the ‘voice of the child’ which appears to me to be a blind adherence to allowing everything a child says to lead the way in a family. In doing this work, to remain truly child focused (which is to not allow the child to lead the way but to make decisions for the child which at times they may not like), one must be able to recognise that hierarchy of age, place and wisdom is present in every one of our lives.
Hierarchy is a word which has fallen out of favour in recent times largely due to the idea that equality is all about everyone being the same. Family Therapists don’t often talk about hierarchy these days and yet it is the hierarchy of the family which was first conceptualised by structural family therapist Salvador Minuchin in the sixties. In this approach to therapy we work with the structural framework of the family, the relationship each person has to each other and the hierarchy of authority, experience and need which holds the family together.
This way of working fell out of favour in the later seventies due to feminist ideas that the family was a toxic place for women and children and a new way of working with family therapy emerged in which analysis of the family using notions of patriarchy and empowerment of women and children took precedent. It is this which has, in my view, lead to the growth in families affected by divorce and separation, suffering an increase in the alienation dynamic. The lack of family structure, the pitching of men against women and the over empowerment of children in divorce and separation has created nothing short of disaster for too many generations.
Family Therapists who are working with broken family attachment hierarchies without putting the children into their proper place in relationship to their parents and grandparents are, in my view, abusing those children and harming their parents. If we watch how separated families unfold their laundry , what we see first of all is the way in which the first actions of separating parents is to claim their ownership of that part of the marriage they believe to be theirs. This claim of ownership includes not just the house and car and other physical trappings, but the roles within the marriage such as carer or provider. It is no accident that most primary carers of children are mothers, that role is claimed even by feminists as being a primary right of a woman. In the UK at least, the social policy which drives behaviours in parents, underpins this claiming of the primary care role, putting mothers at the head of a new hierarchy which emerges, in which they are partnered not with the father of their children but with the state which supports the new single parent family financially.
Feminism has done the family a great harm in my view and has destroyed the natural hierarchy and order of experience and authority which governs us all. When the new hierarchy empowers women but puts men at distance from any meaningful role other than financial, children receive the message that their distanced parent has no presence, no purpose and no power in their lives. For mothers who are put at distance from their children because of an alienating father, the message that this mother is mad, bad or simply downright sad is broadcast not only to the children but to the wider world in a shaming and blaming campaign which underlines the idea that if a mother is not the primary carer of her children she must have done something very very bad indeed.
Children are not meant to be in the same place in the family hierarchy as their parents. They are not meant to be the arbiters of their own destiny until their brains, their minds and their physical selves are capable of coping with the responsibility that this brings. Burdening children with the idea that they know their own minds better than anyone else is a little like putting them in a car and telling them to drive themselves to school. No need for lessons or life maps, giving children choices about relationships with their parents is to hammer jigsaw pieces into the wrong places whilst telling the outside world that the picture one is making is perfect. It is not.
The right way to treat a family affected by parental alienation is to restructure the hierarchy immediately. In her walk through in Stockholm last year, of the intervention she uses, Linda Gottlieb explained that her first correction of the family hierarchy comes when the child is told to ask the rejected parent when they wish to use the bathroom or take some time out instead of asking her. This is entirely in line with what we do at the Family Separation Clinic in which we work alongside a rejected parent to restore their authoritative role in a child’s life. This is not damaging to the child, indeed it could only be considered to be so if the child had been harmed by that parent previously and as we know alienated children have not been harmed by the parent they have rejected. Those who consider it harmful are those who do not understand parental alienation and who do not perform clear differentiation, leaving themselves as judge and jury over the rejected parent and believing that everyone in the family is contributory to the problem being seen.
We all live in hierarchies there is no escaping this reality. In fact the only time in my work that I see a lack of or broken and distorted hierarchy, is when I come to work with a family affected by alienation. And once again Linda Gottlieb has such valuable insight from her work with Salvador Minuchin, as she showed us in her presentation in London, the only time a child is able to look down on a parent is when they are standing on the shoulders of the other parent.
Having the courage to be the person who restores a family hierarchy in a world which sees this as somehow harmful to a child, is to be able to see that the right of the child is to an unconscious experience of childhood in which their needs are taken care of by adults and not the other way around.
Building the hierarchy of learning, training, supervision and accreditation in this field is where our focus lies in 2019.