“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.”

                                                             T S Eliot. Little Gidding

I continue my research this month with a deeper exploration of the concept of trans-generational haunting, an approach to psychoanalysis which I first wrote about in 2013. Since then I have undertaken much work at depth, with children and parents affected by parental alienation and I have come to understand that the most complex of these cases, those which we would call severe, are in fact trans-generational in nature and texture.

I speak of texture because I am currently examining the routes by which the ‘hauntings’ which I observe in these families, seem to me to be all of a similar ‘flavour and flavour and texture are for me (a synesthete) closely linked.’  Jill Salzburg (2015), in her paper about the texture of traumatic transmission, speaks about the way in which families which are haunted by trauma, transmit this through the attachment relationship, largely between mothers and their infant children.

This transmission, in this respect, is not spoken, it is a covert symptom which, rather than being something that can be listed, (as in the seventeen strategies of alienation which are curated by Amy J L Baker), are observed through close attention to the behavioural, language and responses to therapy, which are seen in some alienated children and parent to whom they are aligned.

Those of us who work with alienated children and their families know that we are not working with one homogeneous group of people who all present in the same way.  In fact, the only thing which the group of families affected by parental alienation have in common is that they contain a child or children who refuse a relationship with a parent they were once known to have loved dearly.  Sorting out those children whose rejection is temporary from those who are bound into a trans-generational repetition of trauma (which I wrote about in 2013 and 2014 and which Nick wrote about in his work for the UK Government think tank – the Centre for Social Justice) from which they are unlikely to extract themselves from without help, is our first task when we work with these families.

At the Family Separation Clinic we use internationally recognised standards of assessment as part of that process, including spending a good deal of time with a family to observe and understand the dynamics which have led to the presentation in the child which is seen.

Because it is simply not the case that all families affected by a child’s unjustified rejection of a parent (we will leave the justified/unjustified argument out for now), will contain trans-generational transmission of trauma and it is simply not the case that intervening in families requires a one size fits all approach.  Some families will be suitable for a structured therapeutic intervention, others will not.  Some cases which are presented as being parental alienation will turn out not to be.  Others will demonstrate the complexity of the severe alienation of the child which has the quality, symptoms and markers of trans-generational trauma repetition. Each of these ‘types’ will require a bespoke tailored treatment route to bring about swift and long lasting change, none of these can be dealt with using checklists and all require a relationally based intervention in which the parent who is being rejected works as co-therapist in the process of reunification.

In differentiation work with children and parents who have not seen each other for some time, it is clear that for some children, the use of their voice to guide professionals has been the driving reason why the lack of contact has gone on for so long. It is as if no-one actually thought to simply put the child and parent in a room together to observe the outcome.  For others, the binding to the parent they are enmeshed with is so clear in the part of the assessment where we see the child with each parent, that the symptoms of trans-generational haunting jumps, like a cat out of the bag.

When we are confronted with the unremembered past through what appears to be completely irrational behavioural responses, not only in the child but in the parent they are aligned to, we know that something is being played out in the here and now which belongs not to this child and perhaps not even to this parent, but to someone somewhere who may not even be alive anymore.  The ‘flavour’ of the trans-generational haunting pattern is particular, it is confusing and it can take some time to learn the ‘language’ which is being spoken by the family affected by it.  Being close to this dynamic is as fascinating as it is fear inducing, it is a dynamic which is as imperious as it is dysfunctional and it is devastating to the child and their childhood when it appears.

I see these cases as vampirism of the child’s soul. It is the theft of the unconscious right to childhood in return for the feeding of the parental need for something. That something is often unspoken and unspeakable and it is defended strongly and repeatedly.  These are the parents who when everyone else shouts ‘stop, we can see what you are doing’, refuses to stop and continues to search blindly for someone or something else to project the blame onto. These are the litigious, complaining, often terrifying parents who will not stop because they cannot stop, because what they are defended against is the ghost of the unremembered past which forces them onwards in their quest to protect themselves  from the horror which lurks somewhere.  Most often the terror which lurks resides in their own mind.

Tracking the ghosts of the unremembered past is what I am doing currently in my research work.  Finding out from within those families where this dynamic occurs, what went on before, and before that and before that, opens up the language of the family which reveals the hidden secrets.  As Abraham and Torok (1994, page 12) tell us in the Shell and the Kernel, ’explicit acknowledgment of the full extent and ramifications of the patient’s suffering is one of the analysts functions.

In working with parental alienation however, the trans-generational therapist cannot open up the language of the family without first protecting the child in the here and now who is being haunted by the ghost of the unremembered past.  Children first, reconfiguration of the family dynamic second, sealing off the conduit for further haunting is the overall goal.

What is emerging from this work is a form of adapted therapy which can be used with children affected by severe parental alienation and the parent they have rejected in order to bring about the cognitive shifts in understanding which liberate the child from the shackles of the unremembered past.  It is a therapy which interlocks with the Court (which is the only mechanism by which the power over the child which is exerted with great force in trans-generational cases can be shifted), to a place where intervention is possible because space is made for it.  It is a whole family approach, it includes the parent the child is aligned to and it puts the child at the forefront by protecting and healing them first.

Betwixt and between, in those liminal spaces, lie the clues we seek to understand.  And when we understand we are equipped to help and heal.  Locating the family in time and place and then examining the two strands of family which came together to make this alienated child, gives us the clues we need to understand why this, why now.  An archeological dig of the trans personal life of the family is the route we take to unearth the evidence.  An understanding of the psycho-socio-cultural landscape this family grew from, further contextualises our understanding of how this happened.  When we know how this happened we know what to do to unravel the ties that bind and exorcise the ghosts.

Much trans-generational study and therapy comes from wide scale traumatic events such as disaster, war or other generational suffering.  My view of the hauntings I see in parental alienation cases is that they are the unrecognised and unacknowledged result of fifty years of divorce and separation, a crisis in our relational world which has simply been ignored.

I know that many children get across the divide which opens up after divorce and separation and cope with it.  Others don’t.  Still more are left haunted, unknown because unlooked for, unacknowledged, unheard and desperately unhappy.

It is time to help these children to heal.

SALZBERG, J. (2015), THE TEXTURE OF TRAUMATIC ATTACHMENT: PRESENCE AND GHOSTLY ABSENCE IN TRANSGENERATIONAL TRANSMISSION. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 84: 21-46. doi:10.1002/j.2167-4086.2015.00002.




We are currently convening our UK training group for 2019.  This is a group which will work with us intensively in training, mentoring and supervision.

If you are interested in joining this training, which is in London in April over two days, please email us at office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk.   Please note that to join this training group you must already hold a qualification in either: Social Work, Counselling, Therapy, Mediation or Coaching.

Cost of training and one year’s group work is £1200 plus VAT.  Training only is £600 plus VAT. Payment plans for those practitioners taking up the full year’s training and mentoring are offered over 6-12 months.

This is a training group of a maximum of eight practitioners, with five places still available.

This training will equip you to work to internationally recognised standards which are curated by EAPAP.

We welcome practitioners from other countries providing that you are able to use English as the training language.

Email office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk and mark your email – UK Training Group 2019.