One of the biggest problems which we face when working with parental alienation is the lack of understanding in professionals around the family of the need for the rebuilding of the family hierarchy.
In these days when a family as a group of people who are related by blood with mutual interest in supporting each other has been replaced by the idea that families come in all shapes and sizes, blood related or not, the idea of hierarchy has fallen out of favour.
Hierarchy has also been demolished by the feminist agenda in which men in families are seen as representative of patriarchy and are no longer regarded in this arena as authority figures in the lives of their children.
With the whole ‘voice of the child’ agenda, along with ‘child led parenting’ in which parents allow the child to set the route map for learning and development and the idea of children as ‘mini-me’s’ or best mates, the notion of hierarchy in families has pretty much flown out of the window.
Which makes the task of rebuilding the hierarchy in a family affected by parental alienation all the more challenging. And yet it is this which is our fundamental task when we begin to put the pieces of the family back together.
Hierarchy is an essential part of life, we cannot escape it and cannot thrive without it because we born helpless and without an elder to care for us, we will die. I read recently that one of the primary motivations for children smiling at their caregivers is the drive to survive. In attachment theory the whole purpose of living is to be in relational flow to another, in the early days our primary caregivers and in our later years to a family of our own.
Wherever we stand in life we are in hierarchy and that is true whether we are lovers of authority or fans of intersectionality which is, in reality, the inversion of a construct called patriarchy which is a hierarchy of power over others believed by feminists to rule the world.
And so living in hierarchies, challenging hierarchies, changing them, breaking them and repairing them, we are all in relationship to hierarchy somehow.
In parental alienation the fundamental hierarchy which has broken down is that of the child’s unconscious experience of living in relationship to mum and dad.
Above is a healthy family hierarchy. The parents are in relationship together and they relate to their children as being below them in the hierarchy of authority and responsibility. The parents are aware that it is their role to care for, guide and teach the children in age appropriate ways, how to behave towards others and function well in the world. In this hierarchy the children are unconscious and free to enjoy their childhood.
Above is the most commonly seen pattern of broken hierarchy in parental alienation where the children are enmeshed with a parent they are pathologically aligned to and the rejected parent is placed at distance.
In the second scenario, the children’s unconscious experience of childhood is interrupted and they are placed in the wrong place in the family line. When a child presents in this way they come to feel entitled to join with the pathologically aligned parent in a rejecting coalition of denigration of the rejected parent. A child in this position is anxious, angry and agitated, their emotional and psychological needs are not being met and they are being harmed.
I should be clear here and say that when a practitioner meets a child the first task they must undertake is to differentiate the case to determine whether the child is alienated.
The signs of alienation in a child are evidenced by the eight signs of alienation and beyond that through the analysis of the child’s position in the family and after that through the presence or absence of attachment disruptions and after that through the presence or absence of personality disorder.
The absence of this differentiation is a key error in treatment, here are some more commonly seen failures.
Some practitioners treat the child as they have a phobia of the parent, others treat the child as if their voice is authentic, others seek to change the parent who is being rejected to see if that will create change in the child. None of this works and here is why.
- The child does not have a phobia – although the child may behave as if they are phobic they are not. In observation of children who are alienated it becomes apparent that they are not afraid of the parent they are rejecting, they are afraid of the parent they are aligned to and of displeasing them. Treating alienated children as if they have a phobia simply buys into the distorted narrative of the alienating parent who has caused this problem in the first place. Treating alienated children as if they are phobic does not rectify the underlying problem seen in parental alienation which is that family attachment hierarchy is broken.
- The child’s voice is not authentic – Regarding the voice of the alienated child as their authentic voice is a fundamental error in working with parental alienation. If a child is psychologically split, then they have, by very definition, adapted their behaviours due to splitting. What their expressed voice is therefore is the result of that adaptation to the pressures upon them. The alienated child is being harmed because they do not have an authentic voice and do not know their own wishes and feelings. Treating the child’s expression of feelings as if they are authentic is simply working with the adaptation the child has made, it strengthens their defence and makes alienation much worse.
- Changing the rejected parent to please the child (and pathologically aligned parent). This has to be one of the worst failures a practitioner can make in work with alienated children and families. Believing that an alienated child will change if the rejected parent is helped to change is a bit like believing a rapist will not rape again if the rape victim changes their behaviours. It is victim blaming in the extreme and I wish it could be eradicated. Unfortunately, until the world truly grasps the reality of what parental alienation is – coercive control of a child to further a control dynamic over the family system, it is difficult to see how some practitioners can be helped to understand the harm that they can do to others.
Remember, the above only applies if the child is shown by differential assessment to be alienated. It does not apply simply because someone says a child is alienated.
In the above points 1-3 there is a failure to correct the family hierarchy and it is this which leads on to the catastrophic failures seen in reunification therapy around the world.
As Linda Gottlieb told us at the EAPAP Conference in London – her mentor Salvador Minuchin was clear that ’the only time a child will disregard a parent is when they are standing on the shoulders of the other parent.’
And in my experience, not only do children stand on the shoulders of the pathologically aligned parent, they will also stand on the shoulders of other professionals who work with them too. These professionals, who become drawn into the dysfunctional dance around the family which is emanating from the unresolved issues of the aligned parent, become stand ins for that parent or alienators by proxy.
Thus the first task for any practitioner in this space is to rebuild a hierarchy of authority around the child which lifts the responsibility and the right to control the system off the shoulders of the child. In doing so one removes the child from their stance on the shoulders of the aligned parent and places them back where they belong, which is as a child in relationship to adults who have control over the dynamics.
This isn’t easy in a world of devotion to the voice of the child agenda, where people feel they are being constructive by listening to a child and child centred by following the child’s lead. But it is necessary.
It is made easier when the work is done within a setting where a meta authority (the Judge) has control over the consequences for the pathologically aligned parent should the child continue their behaviours. It is made easier when that meta authority holds the dynamic firmly to allow the reorganisation of the family dynamics to occur through the intervention of the practitioner.
In situations where the meta hierarchy is held firmly this reorganisation takes minutes to achieve. Where it is less stable caution is necessary because the outcome for the practitioner in these circumstances is that they will be the person who is left holding the parcel of blame when the music stops.
The steps to reunification are simple when the rebuilding of the family hierarchy is at the core of the intervention.
- The meta hierarchy (Court) holds the system firmly – everyone knows what the consequences are for stepping out of line.
- The pathologically aligned parent is contained and prevented from being able to further influence the child.
- The rejected parent has been assessed and considered good enough to be the receiving parent (in the UK it is now the case that fact finding hearings will deliver Judgment on untested facts before the work commences which means that our differentiation is confirmed by the Court as a finding of parental alienation).
- The mental health practitioner is able to take micro control over the family system for the period of time necessary to transfer the underlying power over the child to the once rejected and now receiving parent.
- When the child recognises that the power dynamic has changed the integration of the split state of mind is sudden and complete allowing the split off and denied experiences back into the consciousness of the child. This allows for the relational flow to begin again.
Of course the above sounds simple and in reality when the team around the family understands this it is. Unfortunately, largely because people are human and parental alienation is not readily understood yet, it is often the case that those who think they are helping are actually causing the problem by proxy. An alienating parent and an alienated child will use any means possible to continue to hang on to the dynamic, including playing others to ensure that the power exchange which is necessary to liberate the child, never takes place.
What we have to remember as practitioners in doing this work is that the child who is alienated is bonded to an abusive parent and as I have written about previously, the identification with the aggressor which results from this is a biological survival mechanism.
When a child is in charge in parental alienation cases, rebuilding the hierarchy is a key aspect of the reunification process.
Those who do not recognise that will find themselves floundering.