When Children are in Charge: Rebuilding The Family Hierarchy in Treatment of Parental Alienation

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days when a family as a group of people who are related by blood with mutual interest in supporting each other has been replaced by the idea that families come in all shapes and sizes, blood related or not, the idea of hierarchy has fallen out of favour.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.

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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.

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. The meta hierarchy (Court) holds the system firmly – everyone knows what the consequences are for stepping out of line.
  2. The pathologically aligned parent is contained and prevented from being able to further influence the child.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.









  1. Hearing you and recognising the pattern Karen. Thank you for being so clear and concise.
    No one listened to me when this happened to my daughter and I was not able to protect her. Over the years she and her father, along with other adult paternal family members, have created a completely different version of me to everyone around them, so I am completely shut out by everyone in her life that has a false opinion of me without even knowing me. Now, as an adult, she alienates me from her children and so far, I am unable to protect them either! I do not know, nor do I wish to know what is being said about me but those two little girls will start to ask questions that will not be easy for her to answer. I dearly wish that I could change the pattern of alienation, I do not wish it to continue past this generation.


  2. Karen, if I had those involved in my case singing from your hymn sheet things would be so much different for me and my son!

    I hope for the sake of future generations your voice is heard!

    I cried as I read this as its exactly how my scenario has played out for 6yrs!!

    Frankie x


  3. I was firmly at the bottom of the family hierarchy from the time until my daughter turned 15 until she fully rejected me when she was 33. I could write a book on what it felt like to live with that scenario and stay in that so called family in the hope that I could stay in my daughter’s life. We were once getting back in the car on our way from Germany and I was so upset and angry at the way they had been treating me (completely ignoring me) on that holiday that I decided I (big black capital letter) was going to sit in the front seat of the car like a normal parent. My twenty something daughter, taller than me and strong because she was used to hauling horses around, barged me out of the way and took her rightful place beside her dad, my husband. And as usual he said nothing and acted as though nothing had happened – he was good at that. Complete madness.

    And yet, until the last ten years with him, when he wasn’t around, my daughter could be completely different and even sometimes, lovely. The minute he walked into the room he had to be centre of attention – with her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Willow,
      I can really empathise with your pain. When your daughter is rude, takes the front seat and your husband says nothing. It’s humiliating but also so powerful in its symbolism that your daughter is equal to your husband. If you react then you confirm in his and her eyes that you are difficult and over emotional. That look passes between them. You are alienated whilst still being in a family unit but it’s not until you finally separate do you see the full alienation take a hold. I hold your pain.


      1. Hey Freud!? How right you are!

        Quote: ” If you react then you confirm in his and her eyes that you are difficult and over emotional. That look passes between them.”

        Well, I reacted in spectacular fashion because I couldn’t get away to do what I usually did which was pound away at my keyboard to get rid of the anger. That time, I had to get in the car or refuse and have to find my own way back to the ferry. I wanted to run but I couldn’t. I couldn’t get away and in anger and sheer frustration, I sat in the back seat and batted him twice on the back of the head which was hardly hard because I had to reach over the headrest but it was an ‘assault’ all the same. And I gave him full barrels. Neither of them ever let me forget it and all it did (other than venting my frustration in the worst possible way) was prove to my daughter that I was as mad as her dad made me out to be .

        So in that one act, it was all me, my behaviour and if it had ever gone to court, it would have been classed as a high conflict relationship and I’d have been seen as the aggressor. But I didn’t know then what I know now. I am so glad I’m away from him! He was toxic. I can’t imagine living anywhere that I’d end up bumping into him.

        There is a high profile case going on here at the moment (UK), not parental alienation related but coercive control related, where the wife took a hammer and killed her husband after years of emotional abuse. I would never ever have done that but boy, can I imagine how things got that far. I certainly lost it that day.


    2. Willow, I always had a small shred of doubt that ate away at me .making me wonder if I’d have stayed with my ex husband wld my relationship with my son have been ok!
      I read your comments and realized it wldnt have been!

      Thank you for sharing your story Willow, many times I read what you write and wonder how you have survived….but you have!
      Frankie x


      1. Frankie I’m glad it helped you to read about the choice I made to stay. I long ago realised that had I left him at any time I would have lost my daughter – he told me when she was three and not long after our first child died “I know you’re not happy but if you ever leave me I will fight you for custody and I WILL WIN!”

        Stay or go, without outside help (help described by Karen in her blog posts) the result would always have been the same. I cannot in all honesty say that I completely regret staying. We had some good times amongst all the horror and I kept my daughter in my life until she was 33. Something was always better than nothing – and the truth is, I had no idea what was happening really (and he of course insisted it was all in my head……………) But once or twice I’ve imagined what it might have been like if I’d walked away , found a decent, normal man and (somehow), and had a new family. But it always comes down to the same thing……… I couldn’t walk away from my daughter.

        How did I survive?
        No idea, I just did. Maybe deep down I’m just a normal person who given the chance can actually be happy 🙂

        No doubt I’ll keep posting though I did wonder, just a bit, if my last post had been too honest …….

        Now I have come to acceptance of my new life, I’m at the stage of editing my writing about my past with him. I am intending to leave it for my daughter after I’ve gone, which is why I keep on editing it – no idea if she’ll ever read it or see any truth in it, or see the real me in there somewhere – but there’s a very big part of me that wishes it was good enough to publish. If I was younger I’d fight tooth and nail to be heard, not only regarding PA but also coercive control.

        More than ANYTHING else, I really wish I had the qualifications to get inside his head and finally understand what made him tick ……………… as a character study he’s fascinating!


  4. Karen, thank you for such a clear explanation of one of the crucial factors involved for restoring balance in family dynamics in cases of alienation.

    I have a question for you that stems from discussion of this topic. What do you do when the child is too old for the courts to be involved any longer (16-17), the alienation is no longer complete – so that there is limited contact between alienated child and rejected parent- but the child is still in broken family hierarchy, aligned to and standing on the shoulders of the alienating parent?

    That is, what takes precedence in these cases? Does the rejected parent see the child at all costs, in order to maintain a relationship with the child, even when the child dictates terms and controls every aspect of the relationship? Or should the rejected parent insist on boundaries and taking back control of the relationship, so the child can no longer come and go as s/he pleases and no longer control communication, even if this means refusing to engage with the child when s/he will not follow the rules laid down by the parent?

    If this question is too complex or multifaceted to answer here, I would be very interested to hear what you have to say about this issue in a blog.
    Thank you!


    1. Holly, you pose a very interesting question. I’m just a poster on here but for what it’s worth……………….

      Quote: Does the rejected parent see the child at all costs, in order to maintain a relationship with the child, even when the child dictates terms and controls every aspect of the relationship? Or should the rejected parent insist on boundaries and taking back control of the relationship, so the child can no longer come and go as s/he pleases and no longer control communication, even if this means refusing to engage with the child when s/he will not follow the rules laid down by the parent?

      In my humble opinion, if things are so far gone (as they were in my case) it really doesn’t matter which road you take. I couldn’t insist on boundaries because my husband over ruled me continually and by doing so stripped away my role as parent completely. When my daughter was speaking to me with utter contempt and I asked my husband not to let her speak to me like that he actually said, in front of her, “It’s nothing to do with me, it’s between you and her and anyway, she’s an adult now and she’s entitled to her opinion about you and besides, I agree with her”. If I’d told her I was walking away until she stopped treating me that way she’d have happily waved me off! She was 15 when my husband told her she was an adult and entitled …..

      I wish I’d known more then so that I could have involved someone like Karen but I didn’t know, how could I? How could any of us?

      I have long since stopped beating myself up about it and now I can live with it.
      I wish you well xx


  5. It is interesting what you say about building the family hierarchy, because traditional family as a sociological structure is increasingly being attacked and dismantled. The psychological and sociological split in the family is tragically seen more as a new progressive and liberating development. We don’t have the political willpower to challenge the damage that is being done and continue to accept new tangled and antagonistic unhealthy relations that are destined to be repeated generationally.


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