There are some extraordinarily difficult relational scenarios within the overall group of families which are affected by parental alienation, one of the most difficult being the ‘non alienating’ alienating parent.
Those who work with families affected by parental alienation who truly understand the way that it presents and who use differentiation routes in tandem with treatment interventions, will recognise this most thorny case amongst the many thorny scenarios we are asked to assess.
In fact these cases are the cases which sort out the real experts from the people who want to present themselves as experts. These are the cases which will fool the alienation unaware practitioner into believing that alienation is not really happening. They are the cases that the unaware practitioner who is trying to shoe horn parental alienation in their own belief system or model of work, will call ‘hybrid’ with the intention of conveying the idea that this is a little bit of everyone’s contribution to the problem. If I were to set an exam for those who assess parental alienation to pass, I would give them this scenario and ask them to tell us what they would do to resolve it.
The Non Alienating Alienator (NAA)
The children of the NAA will tell you that this parent NEVER EVER bad mouths the other parent. They will say that this parent says many wonderful things about the other parent and that they really WANT the child to have a relationship with the other parent.
These children will appear to be earnest in the reporting of their experiences and will tell you that they would love to see more of the parent they are currently resistant to if only that parent would shape up a bit or be a little bit kinder.
When you first meet these children they do not appear to have many, if any of the signs of alienation, they do not appear to be in an angry coalition with one parent and they do not show any of the outward signs of entitlement or lack of empathy towards the other parent. They simply seem to want the parent they are resistant to, to be a bit better all round.
When you look at the parent they are aligned to, you cannot see any of the seventeen signs of alienating behaviours which Amy J L Baker curated, there is no bad mouthing, no obvious threats of withdrawal of affection. This parent is co-operative, wants to help, really really wants to resolve this as soon as possible, would enjoy the time away from the children that time with the other parent would bring. The surface of the water in these cases is very very calm indeed. Your eye is drawn to the parent who is being rejected.
Under the Surface
The aware practitioner holds their nose and dives under the water to examine what lies beneath. This cannot be achieved in a snap shot assessment and so requires a longer look at what is going on. There is an art to understanding the layers of subtle behavioural influencing which goes on under the surface of these cases and it takes a watching eye over several weeks to be able to see what is emerging in the tangled weeds beneath the mill pond appearance.
These children do not display the behaviours which are often readily spotted, they display much more nuanced versions of the behaviours we expect to see. These are not angry and dismissive children, they are not haughty and entitled and they are not living in an outwardly recognisable fused dyadic relationship with the parent they are aligned to.
Nevertheless they are alienated children and alienated children are alienated because somewhere, someone is dropping poison into the system. Far from alienation being caused by entangled dynamics between parents as some would argue, in the majority of cases by far, the unjustified rejecting behaviours of children after divorce and separation is caused by the actions of one parent against the other. This action may be conscious, half conscious, unconscious or a mix of the lot going on at once but the reality is that where a child rejects, someone, somewhere is dropping poison. Spotting who and how they are doing it is the task of assessment, building the route to get the antidote to the children is the task of intervention.
The Poisoned System of the Parentified Child
In the NAA case, the poison in the system is being applied silently with the stealth of the master criminal. I often think of these cases as those which steal the child’s right to an unconscious childhood right from under their noses. This is because the child in the NAA case has, by the time we reach them, become so parentified (they take care of the needs of the parents rather than vice versa), that this is normal life for them. I have worked with parentified children who even though their parent has taken from them half of their entitlement to who they are, half of the potential they possess and half of the opportunities they would have in their lives had they not been parentified, will nevertheless tell me that they are happy, they are absolutely content with the narrowed life they are leading and that it is not the parent whose needs they are taking care of who is the problem it is the healthy parent who they really wish would just sort themselves out and stop pressuring them.
I watch these children clip their own wings, decide to stay at home instead of going to University, turn down opportunities instead of grabbing the chances which come their way and settle for less than they deserve each and every time. I watch these children’s sheepish presentation, the emptiness of their lives and I find my heart breaking for them because they do not know that they do not know what has been done to them and if anyone tries to tell them they will fervently deny it.
These children have lived on the edge of a cliff for most of their lives. From an early age these children learned that their role in life was to keep a parent regulated psychologically and emotionally. These children have given up their own needs in favour of the imposed needs of the parent who has harmed them and they will tell you, quite freely and without a trace of irony, that they like helping people and especially this parent upon whom they are so psychologically dependent that one wrong look sends them swirling into outer emotional space. These are the children of the non alienating alienator, the parent who is enmeshed with his/her children, the parent who demands much from the child but reconfigures that as loving the child. If you look carefully you will see the subtle signs of the NAA, they look like this –
- Their children are watchful, they do not speak readily, if you are in a room with them and the NAA they will not answer a question without looking at the NAA to check their response.
- Their children are dedicated, they will drop everything and run if the NAA calls, they will put the NAA before anyone and anything.
- Their children proclaim that they are happiest at home, they don’t want to go far, they definitely don’t want to do anything that the NAA disapproves of.
- These children are not haughty or entitled, they are not angry or uncooperative, they are simply, silently and stupendously stapled to the will of the NAA.
Too many practitioners are led to look at the rejected parent in such a scenario and are misled by the fervent assurances of the aligned parent that they very much want the parent who is being rejected to be involved in the children’s lives. When a practitioner is faced with the subtlety of such a case it can be too easy to believe that a rejected parent either didn’t try hard enough or somehow without knowing perhaps, contributed to the children’s resistance. I have been given many cases labelled ‘hybrid’ in my time (I use the term only to describe a case of parental alienation where there is an absence of personality disorder in a parent, not as a way of saying that both parents are causing the problem), demonstrating that there are too many practitioners still unwilling or unable to take that final step to understanding that when children unjustifiably reject a parent after family separation, someone, somewhere is dropping poison into the system.
So what is the antidote to the poison in the NAA case, the case of the child being made to live on the edge of the cliff, which in reality is the edge of a threat to abandon the child if they do not fulfil the needs of the parent? For younger children it is to recognise that parentification is an emotionally and psychologically abusive strategy which coerces the child out of their capacity to know their own needs. If the parentifying parent cannot recognise what they are doing and change their ways, removal of the children in order that their needs are met by the healthy parent is the step to take. Parentification isn’t a less damaging method of abuse than physical or sexual assault, it is the systematic removal of the child’s right to know their own needs and have them met. It reduces the child to the role of helpmeet, in which their own feelings are never acknowledged unless they mirror the parent’s own. Thus the child who is parentified lives half a life instead of the whole of the life they could be living and that is an abuse of the child just as serious as other forms.
For older children, removal from the parent is also necessary – though in the UK at least – more difficult to achieve. In all cases, structural interventions which give the children space to breathe and learn that they have needs which they have the right to have met is a key intervention.
The antidote of the healthy parent
And as internationally recognised standards of intervention show, in all cases where there is a NAA, the rejected parent, far from being seen as contributory, should be recognised for the healthy input they can give. Working with that parent in a co-therapy role is the way to help the parentified child. In my work I have taught children how to recognise that they are hungry because they did not understand their own physical needs and I have taught children that they have the right to feel things which are different to the parent who has parentified them. In doing so I have come to know that the undoing of parentification is a long term job which depends hugely on the existence of the healthy rejected parent.
Parentification is caused when a parent has not had their own needs met as a child. It was, at least in the working class upbringing I experienced, an almost institutionalised reality. “Look after your mother” and “you are the man of the house now” were phrases often heard in generations past. Getting past parentification as an adult is a task second to none in therapy but it can be done.
Doing it right for children who live on the edge of a threat of abandonment means looking and listening for long enough to spot the subtle but unmistakeable signs of parentification. A pre-occupation with the needs of a parent, a watchfulness, a keenness to react and a shiftiness which is difficult to describe in any other way are the key things to look for. Shiftiness comes when the child is made aware of the frustrations felt by the parent they have put at distance, it accompanies sheepishness which is caused by the older child’s growing awareness that they are trapped in the mind and the madness of the parent they have spent their whole life tending to.
When you see those signs as a rejected parent, watch and wait, keep showing you are there and showing that it is possible to live a life without continuously knee jerk reacting to the demands of the NAA. Your role is to model freedom, individuation and health and wellbeing.
When you see those signs as a practitioner, instead of leaving the children on the edge of the cliff, take action and give them the gift of their childhood back.
If you don’t, no-one else can, or indeed, will.