Near and Far Memory: The Experience of Generational Loss in Parental Alienation

Parental alienation doesn’t just affect the horizontal family line, parents and children, it affects the vertical family line too, the grandparents and great grandparents.  This week I have been sent two emails, one from a parent I worked a couple of years ago and another from a parent who I haven’t worked with but whose experience is familiar to me.

In both of these communications the trans-generational reality of parental alienation is starkly apparent.  The first email ends as follows….

P.s what you always miss is, it isn’t that you saved the kids and I, you saved all future generations, and for that reason you should sleep well……

and reminds me that the work that we do with families affected by parental alienation is not just one dimensional in the here and now, like most ordinary therapy, it is in fact three and even four dimensional, working with trauma patterns from the past and correcting and healing dynamics so that future generations can live their lives free of trans-generational suffering.

This is not work for the generic therapist and it is not work for anyone who is incapable fo dealing with toxic stress either.  Working in a four dimensional therapeutic space with the need to have an eye to the past as well as the future is tiring, understanding how the configuration of parental alienation arises in families assists in adapting therapies to fit the needs of this defined group of families.

The definition of families affected by parental alienation is to my mind important. These are not families I would characterise as high conflict although conflict arises in them.  These families are affected by a particular pattern of behaviours which once seen and understood can be recognised as thematic in terms of trans-generational patterns of behaviours.  Once the trans-generational theme of the problem is understood, the underlying threads which contribute to the eruption of the problem in the here and now can be unearthed.  And once unearthed, the problem can be addressed.

How we address the problem is different depending upon where we are in the world, but all interventions which address parental alienation must necessarily focus upon healing the pathological splitting in the child which is where all of the other splits seen in the family emanate from.  Of course getting to the child is the problem for so many parents and in the same vein practitioners, because the sign that the child has utilised splitting as a defence is the reflexive pathological alignment to one parent and the rejection of the other.  When the parent to whom the child is pathologically aligned acts to further support the child’s split state of mind, the fusion is cemented and hardened.

Which is why the family court system is the only way to obtain sufficient power to loosen the fusion and force a path to the child.

The child using psychological splitting does so because intolerable pressure is being placed upon them from somewhere in the family system, sometimes overt but often covert. The most covert pressure is that which emanates from an unseen and unresolved trauma within the pathologically aligned parent’s own history, perhaps even the grandparental or great grandparental history.  Near and far losses and trauma are  very necessary to understand in cases of parental alienation and it is within the vertical history of the family to whom the child is pathologically aligned where those losses and trauma patterns will be found.

That is not to say that there will be an absence of trauma in the rejected parent’s history because it is true to say that there is something in the coupling of alienating and alienated parents which contributes to the configuration of dynamics which cause a child to align and reject.  That isn’t about blame, it is about the way in which one is drawn to the other and the way that one utilises the other to feed a need which may be hidden until the crisis of separation triggers the unresolved trauma.

The experience of near and far loss in parental alienation is most often that which is present in one side of the family and is transmitted to the other via the rejection of the child of one side of their family. Thus you may see a family where an estrangement or loss was present in one or two generations back on one side and the child in the present is strongly fused with that family leaving a space in the other side of the family where none has previously existed.  In such circumstances a child is the conduit for the way in which the pathologically aligned family resolves the shame of having lost a family member in the past.  The child is a compensatory object for the family, a triumph of alignment where estrangement had previously existed.

In understanding the way that children attune to the need of the family in this way, my research work takes me into the manner in which children receive covert messages in the attachment relationship and form their own personality around the perceived loss in the internalised parental landscape, seeking to compensate the parent for that loss and in turn become parents to their own parent, itself a disorder of the family attachment system called parentification which I wrote about in 2012.

Family attachment disorders are rife in parental alienation and create transmission across the horizontal relational plane of loss.  The second email I received this week tells the story of the pain of this loss and how the vertical transmission continues, this time on the other side of the family to where the unresolved trauma pattern lies.  This beautiful story of love and generational loss brings into sharp focus the suffering that parental alienation causes and the three and four dimensional impact it has. Not only are we concerned with the living family here, we are concerned with the children as yet unborn who will enter a distorted familial landscape should the dynamics not be healed.

For a missing daughter and an unborn grandchild

Once upon a time there was a little girl who after a busy day at school sat down at a sewing machine with her grandma.  The little girl would go to her grandma’s house regularly after school where her grandma would teach the little girl and her older sisters and brother to paint, bake and sew.

On this occasion the grandma and the little girl had a plan as they sat down together at the sewing machine, as the little girl had asked the grandma to help her to make something special.  The little girl wanted to make her mum a patchwork cushion for Mother’s Day, because a long time ago the little girl once remembered that she and her mum loved each other.  The mum remembers the little girl excitedly giving her the cushion, the little girls cheeks were pink with excitement, her beautiful brown eyes sparkled.

What the little girl doesn’t know is that cushion has sat on her mum’s bed every night, it’s a memory of the time that the little girl and the mum were together, when the little girl wanted to sit next to her mum and would still slide onto her lap for a cuddle. The fabric on the cushion is now faded and worn and the seams are frayed and beyond repair.  The mum thinks sadly much like her relationship with her little girl, so the cushion cover has been carefully washed and ironed and is now folded away in a drawer for safe keeping.  The empty space since the cushion has been removed is just another painful reminder that something is missing and memories are fading.

Her grandma’s house is empty of children as they’ve grown and now visit as adults, with only the echo’s in the shadows remain of the lost grandchild. The little girl’s photos have been put away as the grandma is very aware of the struggles that her own little girl, the mum, goes through daily over her lost little girl.  

When the little girl’s name is mentioned there is always a pause everyone’s eyes slowly creep around to look at the mum, no one wants to forget about the little girl but her loss is a hard burden to carry so it’s easier not to mention her name and pretend that she never existed.  But that is worse for the mum when the little girl is not mentioned at all, the little girl is real and she is alive, so everyone’s eyes awkwardly look down and reassurances are mumbled that the little girl will come home one day.  But no one knows if this is true, the mum doesn’t think it will happen now as it has been so long.  They all know that little girl must be very brave because so much time has passed, but honestly she has nothing to fear she will be welcomed back into her family with open arms; the mum longs to hold her child close once more. 

The grandma has grown weary with age since she last saw the little girl, and is slipping deeper and deeper into a silent and at times lonely world as her hearing fails her and her heart slows down.  Her eyes filled with tears when she heard the news that the little girl was all grown and was soon to become a mother herself.  My first great grandchild she said, but one I’m unlikely to ever get to meet.  And to the mum she said, you’ll be a grandmother, no said the mum as she sadly shakes her head no I won’t.

But the mum misses her little girl sometimes it hurts so much it catches her breath and she feels the familiar sting once again of her tears before they fall.  She knows that there is no longer a place in the little girl’s life for her and she has been replaced, but she’ll never lose hope, and she’ll never stop loving, but for now all she can do is wait.  So today the mum sat at her sewing machine and carefully sewed the fabric squares together, lined, backed and edged a baby’s quilt.

What will happen to the quilt, will it even get to the little girl? Will it be thrown in disgust into the bin, or will a brown eyed baby be laid to sleep under the fabric lovingly sewn together as a symbol of love by a heartbroken mum.  

These emails received this week tell me why this work must be done and what it is we are actually doing when we resolve the twisted and tangled dynamics which cause parental alienation.

It is not just for children in the here and now, it is for the children yet to be born and their children’s children.

For all those families and their children, this work must continue.

Readers please note that I am currently away from direct family court work on the orders of my doctor.  I will continue to write as much as I can here during this period where I am coping with personal responsibilities. I will continue with my research as much as possible during this period and will continue to update you with news about work with parental alienation from around the world.



  1. Tell you a story from my life: I am the first quiltmaker in a long line of seamstresses. Back in 1992 I made lap quilts for two maternal aunts who due to
    fertility issues and SIDS had no living children. I was in my early 30s and the only niece who had significant contact with both of them
    as I was growing up – something which my alienating mother had issues with: but I didn’t know that then and my mother played a long game.
    When she died in 1994 the trap was sprung : I never saw my aunts again. Fast forward to 2017, I join Facebook to progress my research
    as a family historian and while looking through the timeline of a cousin who lives in another state, there was a photo of her grand-children sitting on
    the quilt I made for one of the aunts (who had died in 1998). The other aunt saved it and passed it along breaking the spell, so to speak.

    There is such a profound truth in the saying “tempus omnia revelat” as to take my breath away…


  2. It is all true and a reality
    But unfortunately the children’s court in South-Africa got NO insight on Parental Alienation.My brother lost his daughter
    becauce the court are cluelless and don’t care


  3. My x abandoned our daughter just 7 days old. Came back after 4yrs just because wanted a reference for fostering. Didn’t comply with order. Disappeared for 6mths, took me to Court putting blame on me. Then started to follow order but Harassing me to fast forward the order. Didn’t agree as was not in best interest of my daughter. Then wanted me to give reference again for fostering (He and his new partner wanted to become foster carer) Then disappeared for 6mths took me back with a Enforcement order. After a incident took place him abusing me in front of our daughter. Now been 7yrs she doesn’t know him she sees him to be a stranger. Refused to call him as Dad as she has a extremely close relationship with my brother and sees him as a father figure. And I can see that courts are seeing that I am Alinating her.
    But she has cousins Grandma whole family circle she is happy and loves.
    Please any advice email me


  4. The attitudes of the past influence the instinctive behaviours of the present. I am at an age where I was fortunate enough to be friends with both the father (who recently died) and the son whom I am still friends with. I am but fifteen years younger than the father but fifteen older than the son.

    Going back some forty years or so, father left his wife to continue a new beginning, finding a new partner with whom to share his life. He loved his kids and would come back to take them out, although he tried to avoid paying for them, hiding his new address.
    The son, in support of his mother, would be used to find out Dad’s new address and relay this information to mother so that she could pursue financial child support. When Dad found out that his son had given his new address to his ex-wife he became very angry and disapproving of his son, believing his son to have joined forces with his mother against him.
    Tragically Mum was not well and although eventually she did receive child support she spent it all on booze. (she died some years later of alcohol poisoning). The son at the tender age of eight was taking on adult responsibilities not only of the father that had left but also the mother who was largely incapable because of her alcohol addiction. The son had a younger sister whom he took under his wing, making sure she was fed and attended school. (Tragically some 40 years later she would also die from alcohol poisoning)
    The relationship between father and son was never healed, son believing father abandoned them, and father believing son had betrayed him.
    This story has many twists and turns, all the psychological damage emanating from a broken adult relationship in which children became pawns in a game of resentment, mistrust, blame stubbornness, misunderstandings, accusations.
    The children didn’t get the parents they deserved, neither parent having the emotional wherewithal to help their children develop free from their own psychological burdens.
    The son remains bitter about his father who never seemed able to show him any love, nor understand how being left at the age of 8 to take over his role once father had left the family home, robbed him of his childhood.
    This has been a mere snip of a family lifestyle and is only part of a bigger familial picture. There have been other relations along the way who have been influential, mostly in a good way.

    Maybe it is easier to come to terms once we untangle the threads of our emotional ancestry.


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