I have been working for some time now on a new therapeutic approach with families affected by parental alienation which has its roots in trans-generational family therapy as developed by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and others.
Transgenerational psychotherapy is an approach to working therapeutically with families in which the history of the family and the unseen ties between generations are all accepted, addressed and utilised in recovery of health and wellbeing in the here and now.
My interest in this approach, which I combine with a Psycho-genealogy framework in which a psycho-(archeo)logical dig is performed by the family as a whole in therapeutic work, stems from my knowledge that parental alienation in its most severe form is caused by the unresolved issues of the alienating parent which are leaking through to the child in the here and now.
I first learned of this phenomenon from Dr Lowenstein who is now sadly deceased but who left us a rich legacy in his writings about such issues. In the development of my work with families over the past ten years in particular it is his work in relation to parental alienation which has provided me with a foundation stone upon which to build the idea of a new approach to therapy with alienated children and families as well as encourage me to build upon the historical research evidence in this field.
One of the most powerful themes which comes through my work with families affected by parental alienation, is the silence which surrounds the family on one side (the alienated side) and the almost deafening inter-psychic ‘chatter’ which surrounds the child on the side of the family the child is pathologically bound to. It was learning to listen to this ‘white noise’ and to tune it in so that it made sense to me, which triggered my interest in therapeutic work with families affected by this problem.
I work with parental alienation in the tradition set down by the research evidence. As I do this work I stand in line and look back to those who went before me, honouring their work and accepting their findings, using their knowledge and their skill as the basis for my own contribution to the project of helping families. This is how a scientific field is developed, how new things are found and how the layers of knowledge are laid down like sedimented river beds upon which developmental knowledge can flow. As such I am interested in the work of those who have built interventions which work with parental alienation, particularly those which help younger children. Saving the children in the here and now in a child protection model of intervention is a critical skill for anyone who is working with families affected by parental alienation and it is vital that we continue to use that model to best effect.
Working with older children and adults however requires a different approach because we cannot use a child protection model of work with children who are over the age where the state can intervene to protect the child. This leaves whole generations of children who used psychological splitting as a defence in the years after their parents separated, without help in real terms. When I meet these children who are now adults, I know that their needs are not only real they are urgent. As carriers of unresolved generational trauma, they are in need of attention and a therapy which helps them to both understand and liberate themselves from the traps which have been set in their mind.
Having done this work for many years now, I am aware of the pointlessness of most therapies in their unadapted forms in working with parental alienation. I am particularly aware of how feminist influenced therapies are utterly useless in addressing the problem. As most of the family therapies in use today have been altered by the influence of feminism, causing understanding of power imbalances and inter-relational dynamics to be filtered through the unhelpful lens of ‘patriarchy’, the capacity to arrest coercive control over the child in a child protection model of work is compromised. When working with children who are over the age when the state can offer input and without the power to arrest the control a parent has over a child’s mind, using any kind of feminist influenced unadapted therapy is less than worthless, it is as Dr Steve Miller tells us, doubly injurious to anyone who has been affected by psychological splitting in their childhood.
As my practice with young people affected by parental alienation grows (because more and more of them recognise that they need help to explore the catacombs of their childhood experience), I have the opportunity to explore what a new therapy requires to assist them. As I do so, I have ditched all forms of therapy which have been influenced by feminist theory and because of that I have developed a 360 degree view of the family. In doing so, I grow in my understanding that the dynamic called the ‘telescoping of the generations’ (Fairnberg 2005) is always at play in parental alienation.
The telescoping of the generations is a mode of enquiry in therapy in which the links between the generations appear not as concrete evidenced behaviours, but as that which appears in the transferential resistances. In such circumstances (which I have recently been repeatedly aware of over the years I have done this work), it is not the spoken word which is necessary to listen to and work with, but the actions and behaviours as well as the silences in the therapeutic work and the disappearances and reappearances of the carrier child which must be responded to.
It is these disappearances and silences which are followed by reappearance which conveys the evidence referred to by Abrahams and Took as an encrypted secret. In observing how children in the 8-14 age group enter into alienation, in which their disappearance is replaced in the life of the rejected parent by silence, the reality of the dynamic we call parental alienation is illuminated. Parental alienation is caused by the use of psychological splitting in the period in which the child is developing their own personality. It is psychological splitting, an infantile defence which is induced in the child by pressure in the family system, which enables the child to disappear from the intolerable dilemma of having to hold two realities in mind and to ‘choose’ to align with one reality and erase the other into the unconscious.
So where does vampirism enter the transgenerational story of parental alienation? This is where the use of transgenerational psychotherapy in an adapted form suits people who were alienated as children, because in understanding vampirism (how the undead can possess the living) it is possible to see how the telescoping of generations provides what Jill Salburg calls the texture for transmission of inter-generational or trans-generational secrets which are presented in the here and now as parental alienation.
I have long suspected that parental alienation/ psychological splitting causes an interference with the pruning of the neural pathways at a critical point in the development of the brain. I liken this to creation of catacombs within the mind and personality of the child, a creation of cul-de-sacs in which the capacity to cope with the ambivalence of life is compromised just as it should be starting to expand. When I meet adults alienated as children, even those who have reconnected to the parent they rejected as children, what I notice most about them is the manner in which they have become parentified and put in the wrong place in the family hierarchy. From this wrong place, their view of their own lives and that of their family of origin is skewed. And this skewing of vision is accompanied by an over strong trust and belief in their own feelings.
Put simply, children who have been forced into the place of being parent to their own parents through alienation, are forced to trust their own already distorted feelings in order to survive. Which makes them prime candidates for those who seek to feed from the vulnerability of others, to attach themselves to.
Therapy for adults alienated as children requires the unlocking and unpicking of the telescoping of the generations with an ear for the unsaid and an eye out for the undead walking in the present.
What I am starting to truly know about families affected by parental alienation is that this is a group affected by particular dynamics which have been rendered vulnerable by the generational approach to family separation we have seen since the change in divorce laws in the early seventies. Which means that unless we find effective ways of working with this group of adults harmed as children the risk of the continuation of transgenerational transmission is extremely high. Couple that with the way in which alienated children are rendered vulnerable to being used in a sort of vampirism of the soul by those who attach themselves to people with distorted vision and we can see the risks of repetition of alienation when these adults become parents themselves.
Clearing the way for a therapeutic approach which works for this group of families requires ditching feminism and rethinking how we understand parent/child relationships as therapists. It means bringing awareness of power dynamics to bear in a way which is far beyond the blinkered belief that power is only ever about what men do to women and it means withdrawing investments in existing therapies to work out new routes to recovery.
With an ever clearer road map, travelling those new routes and assisted by adults alienated as children, I expect us to arrive at the destination of a new form of therapy very soon.
Fairnberg (2005). The telescoping of generations: Listening to the narcissistic links between generations. London. The New Library of Psychoanalysis.