This week I am continuing work on the formation of therapeutic approaches to working with families affected by parental alienation, an ongoing project of mine which examines three things –
a) The differentiation process by which the route into the child’s split state of mind is examined, understood and responded to
b) The impact upon children of what is called in the UK a change of residence in which a child is moved to live with the parent they are rejecting as an intervention to treat the split state of mind
c) The therapeutic needs of the family as it goes through significant change on intervention.
Having carried out many transfers of residence in the UK, what I am always concerned about is that the split state of mind is not transferred with the child because if that happens, then the intervention has failed. The split state of mind is the child’s use of defensive splitting of feelings into wholly good and wholly bad in order to resolve the impossible dilemma they face. When a child is in this position they are defending themselves and the family as a whole from the ongoing dysfunctional dynamic which is at the heart of the problem. This dynamic may be caused by one unwell parent acting against the other, it may be caused by action, reaction and counter reaction between parents or it may even be triggered by the child who is incapable of holding two realities in mind. However it happens, finding the route that the child took into the split state of mind is the first part of the assessment process, interviewing and assessing all of the family members and meeting them all together including seeing the child with the parent they are rejecting is an essential first step to full understanding.
What I have discovered in my years of doing this work is that without an intervention which reconfigures the dynamics which caused the split state of mind in the first place, a residence transfer is not enough to treat the child’s split state of mind. I have worked with children who have been transferred without corrective intervention and children who have not and it is clear to me that those who have not remain split in their thinking. In these scenarios, whilst the child’s body is with the parent they have been rejecting, the child’s mind remains captured by the pathologically aligned parent. Distance from that parent is not enough. Ninety day separations, whilst becoming the norm in the UK in residence transfer situations, mean nothing unless the intervention to correct the distorted dynamic is undertaken during that time.
My research work is focused upon this and the work of excavating what we are doing and why in this space is the job I am doing right now.
In doing this job I am working with psycho-genealogy, a form of trans-generational psychotherapy which examines the individuals in a family in the context of the family as a whole and then the family as a whole in the context of its history across time and space. In doing this work with families over the past decade, I have come to understand that parental alienation is the story of how the branches of families become entwined and how unresolved issues from somewhere in those branch lines, erupt in the present in the crisis of divorce and separation. As I do this work I also set the families I am working with in the context of the psycho-social background they are situated in. In doing so I understand the ways in which behaviours of individuals are affected by the wider backdrop of social policy. In the UK at least, the past forty years of feminism has had a profound influence on all families affected by divorce and separation and we cannot ignore it.
The Diversionary Role of Feminism
Families affected by parental alienation are a particular group of families within the overall group affected by divorce and separation, there is something separate and different about them. Whilst families affected by parental alienation are also affected by divorce and separation, not all families affected by divorce and separation are affected by parental alienation. This reality leads to questions in my mind about why, when divorce and separation have been normalised for decades, are we only really caring about parental alienation as an issue affecting children now? Could it be that the following things, buried in the landscape of divorce and separation are true?
- For four decades since the change in divorce laws our social policy has only focused upon the physical needs of children, seeing fathers as providers and mothers as carers?
- For four decades since the change in divorce laws, the needs of women in the family have usurped the needs of children, placing focus on mothers as the rightful carers of children and those whose children reject them as doubly deficient because of this blinkered approach?
- Has feminism forced us away from understanding and using those forms of psychotherapy which see the nuclear family as the bedrock of a child’s developing psychological health?
- Has the idea of hierarchical care of children in a family system been sidelined in favour of seeing the post separation family as a coalition between women and children with men placed at distance, useful only when they are being made to pay and provide and included only at the behest of women?
- Leading mothers who are alienated to fall foul of a winner takes all system in which the alienating father has achieved a win in a stereotyped and biased system?
At the EAPAP Conference in London last year I introduced the standards of practice which we are establishing for practitioners in this field in Europe (and beyond as the template becomes laid down). In doing so I spoke about the fact that these standards have already been available already for twenty years and referenced the first parental alienation congress in Europe which was held in Frankfurt in 2002. As I did so the question in my mind was why, when these standards have been laid down for so many years and why, when parental alienation as a family story has been known about for generations, have so few people cared so little about the group of families affected by it?
In my research work I am examining the way in which trans-generational family therapy can enable families which have become rusted and stuck in the process of changing from together to apart, to understand those things which have caused that stasis. In doing so it is very clear to me that the feminist take on psychotherapy and the social policy in the UK which is absolutely framed around the notion of mothers as the natural carers of children and fathers as the provider has contributed to this problem. At the EAPAP conference in London, when I spoke about the damaging impact on children of a women’s rights based therapeutic approach to resolving parental alienation there was a sharp intake of breath from those therapists in attendance who are using this approach. The inference was clear, women’s rights take precedence over children’s needs and if the use of feminist therapies are challenged then it will make some people extremely uncomfortable.
In my excavation work, I have found that the drift away in family therapy from family work to focus on viewing the family through a feminist lens has been strong and sustained. In re-reading Salvador Minuchin’s book ‘Families and Family Therapy’ in its reprinted version, I note that the introduction makes reference to the way in which Minuchin was criticised by feminists for his lack of analysis of power structures and how he adapted his therapy because of this. These themes. of adaptation of therapies and psychological theory, arises throughout my reading in this sphere, reminding me that through a feminist lens, children’s needs are seen as indivisible from women’s rights in theory and practice, and this is a tightly sown seam which is clearly visible whenever we do this work.
If parental alienation is a deeply buried story of the branch lines of families which converge as one in the here and now and present to us the symptom of something wrong in the system, then feminism is one of the influences which have lead to the lack of interest and resolution for families so affected. Far from the lack of interest being down to people who do this work and the lack of a workforce being due to those who do this work wanting to be seen as expert (as fervently espoused in one corner of the internet), I would argue that this lack of interest is down to the diversion of practitioners from assisting the family as it could and should be assisted, to viewing and treating the family as a dysfunctional unit in which power imbalance is invested in men due to a system of thinking called ‘patriarchy’ (itself a constructed analysis of psycho-socio-economic structures).
If you view a child’s rejection through a feminist lens you will always see the child as being the vulnerable powerless victim of the parent with power who in a patriarchal analysis will always be the father. Thus you will always ask the question ‘what has this man done to cause this child to reject him?’ Which is, of course, the most biased question one can possibly ask in a scenario where a child is using pathological splitting to defend themselves against extremely difficult dynamics. And in being confronted by a child who is rejecting its mother, if you analyse through a feminist lens the first question will always be ‘how bad must this mother be for their child to reject them?’
In my archeological digging I am finding the layers of resistance to the underlying causes of parental alienation, the influences which cause practitioners to struggle in their understanding and the reasons why, for so long, this issue has lain buried beneath a manufactured belief that divorce and separation do not harm children.
The only world in which divorce and separation does not harm children is a feminist world, in which the rights of women usurp the needs of children and in which the false construction of power dynamics based upon a non existent thing called patriarchy, sustains and maintains that belief system.
In the real world, where men and women share power in different settings in different ways and where the needs of children as they cross the divorce and separation landscape require urgent attention, family focused therapy which draws upon all of those teachings from before feminism took us off down a blind alley into permanent coalitions between one parent and the children, and the cul-de-sac of state sponsored single parenthood, is a very necessary thing.
For more than a decade now I have been working with family focused interventions which rebuild broken hierarchies and which enable parents to take responsibility for post separation dynamics so that their children do not have to. In doing so I have faced much opposition and a great deal of effort to discredit me. But I will not stop doing it because I know that the answer to parental alienation is not to view the world through a blinkered lens which tells me that one person is inherently advantaged and the other is not. The answer is in the branch lines of the story of the family and the manner in which the poison seeping down those branches presents in the child in the here and now.
As I continue the work of building a new family focused trans-generational therapy for families affected by that which we call parental alienation I have left the feminist lens far behind me. In doing so I have achieved a broader, wider, clearer vision of the past, the present and the possible future.
It is there I am headed.
Following the principles of self care that we encourage for all families affected by parental alienation, I have been on retreat for January to rest and recover energy and strength. I return to work on February 4th after which we will announce our trainings for practitioners and parents for the year ahead, including training for practitioners in the USA, Canada, UK and Europe and for Parents in the UK, Europe and USA.
For USA readers: We are working with clients in the USA using our online therapeutic parenting coaching and our trans-generational therapy. We also offer guidance and strategy for managing your court case. Depending on your location we offer morning and afternoon sessions and we can put you in touch with clients we are already working with before you begin, so that you can find out more about how we can help you.
Email appts@familyseparationclinic for more information. Our costs are comparable to other services of the same nature and we offer time packages so that you can take up our services in the most cost effective way possible.