Confusion of Tongues: The Language of the Alienated Child

It is only when the underlying predicament of the alienated child is fully understood that the particular language used by alienated children can be recognised. As part of the work that we do at the Family Separation Clinic, the language used by alienated children is recorded and analysed.

In curating interviews with children who are rejecting a parent after divorce or separation, it becomes apparent that children in these circumstances share a common language. Phrases, groupings of words and underlying intention, are recognisable by the repetition by children who are rejecting a parent, to such a degree that it is clinically possible to predict where a child is in the use of the defence of psychological splitting, via the language being used.

Whether those phrases and meanings and intentions are replicable in different languages is of course a fascinating topic and one which we can pursue via the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners.  Comparison of alienated children’s words and phrases in English, Croatian and Polish, is one aspect of the work we are involved in on language at the Family Separation Clinic.

The deeper aspects of this work however are concerned with interpretation of the alienated child’s behavioural responses, particularly in reunification work because it is here and only here, that the child reveals the duality of the self.

At the Family Separation Clinic we follow international standards of practice in this evolving field of work, which means that we use the international research evidence on how children negotiate the post separation landscape to understand the child’s defensive responses to this.  We do so because it is simply impossible for anyone to understand the child’s defensive responses to the separation of their parents without seeing the child with the parent they are rejecting.  Anyone who proffers an opinion on the child’s rejection of a parent without having seen the child with that parent, is simply guessing at what is going on.

In this respect we go straight to the reality of what is happening to the child in order to observe the defence as it presents itself.  When we see the child with the parent they are rejecting, we not only get to understand the strength of the defence, we get to understand and observe in real time, the way in which this presents itself in the family system. Thus we understand how the child has reached the point of adopting the defence of psychological splitting and we also understand how that has arisen in relationship to the parent with whom the child is now pathologically aligned.

The child who uses the defence of psychological splitting to resolve the impossible dilemma created by pressure upon them from somewhere in the family system, develops a recognisable behavioural language.  The child also develops a  behavioural pattern which is not matched to the verbal language they use.  Thus, all therapists and practitioners in this field of work must learn to observe behaviour and to use that as a guide to the child’s authentic experience.  Whilst verbal language is rejecting, body language is likely to be compliant and responsive to guidance.  Whilst verbally the child is haughty, autocratic  and omnipotent, behavioural responses are likely to conform to adult requirements.

In this way it is possible to understand what Sandor Fernenczi told us about the language of patients in relationship to psychotherapists..

The patient gone off into his trance is a child indeed who no longer reacts to intellectual explanations, only perhaps to maternal friendliness; without it he feels lonely and abandoned in his greatest need, i.e. in the same unbearable situation which at one time led to a splitting of his mind and eventually to his illness; thus it is no wonder that the patient cannot but repeat now the symptom-formation exactly as he did at the time when his illness started.  

The alienated child repeats the symptom formation in relationship to those who attempt to intervene. Thus, when the alienated child is observed, it is the symptom-formation we are concerned with if we are to treat the split state of mind which caused it.  In the alienated child, the symptom-formation is that which was curated by Gardner as the eight signs of alienation.  Those signs are simply the symptom of the underlying psychological splitting which causes them.

Whilst eight signs were curated by Gardner in reality it is only two which really matter and those are the lack of empathy towards the rejected parent and the reflexive alignment with the parent to whom the child is pathologically bound. When we see those signs, we know that the child is suffering from the split state of mind which is a pre-requisite to having the capacity to completely reject one parent.

This allows us to understand the language of the alienated child so that when we have a child who tells us they hate a parent and will never see him again on the basis of him having once told the child off for roller skating across the kitchen, and accompanying that is an idealised view of the parent to whom the child clings in a pathological alignment, we know that the child is really saying to us ‘please don’t make me do anything that upsets the parent who has most control over me, because I can’t cope with the overwhelming threat to my intra-psychic wellbeing if you do.’

Which is why as therapists and practitioners, we must ensure that we have the maximum control over the environment in which the child resides, in order to ensure that our treatment route brings a successful outcome for the child.  If we do not have that control, which is usually bestowed upon us by the court, we cannot arrest the dynamic which pressures the child and the child cannot integrate the split state of mind.

Learning to interpret the language of alienated children is something that all therapists must do and must do well in order to protect the children we work with.  Sadly, even in these days of heightened awareness, we are still struggling uphill in too many situations, to try and educate others to understand the language we are listening to.  Whilst there are positive pockets of  change across the UK, far too many social workers and Guardians  are still either ignorant or resistant to understanding the language of the alienated child, meaning that for those of us who do this work, risks remain in doing this work in the way that really helps alienated children.

Because if one listens to the verbal language of the alienated child, the eye and focus is drawn to the parent who is being rejected and time is wasted on analysing the behaviours of that parent and efforts are expended in trying to fix that parent’s behaviours.

But if one listens to the body language and the predicament the child is in, there is no need to ask the question why and the needs of the authentic child who exists beneath the false persona of the alienated child, can be readily met.

And they are met by telling the child what is going to happen rather than asking the child if it is ok to do something and by observing the way in which the child will grumble in resistance, but will conform behaviourally anyway.

Working with alienated children is about working with duality, it is about working with duality because the child has two selves, one of which is a defensive self arising from the splitting caused by pressure in the family system. Integrating the split selves is the aim of treatment and the catalysts for integration of the split selves is the confrontation with the split off and rejected parent who in the overwhelming majority of cases is the healthy parent who has not contributed anything to the child’s original defensive split.

This work is about as far away from a dispute about contact after separation as it is possible to get and the more we do this work, the more we learn about the suffering of alienated children.

This is a hidden child abuse which is mischaracterised by so many around the world as a dispute between parents.

Learning the language and resolving the confusion of tongues is the goal of all of us who understand the terrible dilemma of the alienated child.


Family Separation Clinic – Diary 2019

The Family Separation Clinic is involved in international projects to train, educate and raise awareness of the impact of parental alienation on children.

FSC has delivered and will be delivering around the world this year as follows –

February – Antwerp, Belgium – Het Huis Symposium on Children in Divorce and Separation

May – Ghent, Netherlands – Missing Children Europe – Hear My Voice Conference on Children in Abduction cases

June 12th –  Warsaw, Poland – Empowering Children Conference in Warsaw, key note speech and training to psychotherapists and psychologists at Fundacja Dajemy Dzieciom in Warsaw.

June 27/28 – Bucharest Romania – The interdisciplinary approach of litigation with minor in cases of Parental Alienation Conference

July – Zagreb, Croatia – Development work with our partners at the Child Protection Centre in Zagreb.

July – Israel – Training to psychotherapists and psychologists working with alienated children and their families.

August – St Moritz, Switzerland – Meeting of the Board of the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners

September – Philadelphia USA (Press below to go through to the conference site)

Screenshot 2019-06-19 at 11.51.48

3 Comments

  1. Karen what steps can one take to prevent the car crash of Parental Alienation from even happening. If one parent is so controlling, using breastfeeding as a means of controlling any time spent with the absent parent. Who has prevented any contact or relationship with the paternal side of the family for 8 months. Who made false allegations against the father and therefore in effect stopped contact for 4 months. It has all the hallmarks of a disaster waiting to happen. The child is 10 months now but as the resident parent shows no sign of empathy for the father and his family regarding nurturing and allowing a relationship with the child. Shows no sign of putting the child’s needs first. What can one do?

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  2. I found this article and research spot on and have a question. I am an alienated parent but my child is no longer a child but grown man. How can this research help the millions of parents out there whose children who are grown but yet alienating them??? My son now has children and I am concerned his traits will pass on to his children without him knowing it. My son’s wife and mother-in-law support him blindly not understanding the extreme circumstances. They believe whatever he has said and I am left out. I don’t even know my grandchildren which is heartbreaking. I can’t even share this wonderful experience with my son, something we used to talk about when he was younger.
    So, while still continuing the research on this horrible form of abuse which I will add the United States doesn’t seem so concerned about. Please consider the alienated adults out there because this is the next generation making it’s next move on society. And that will make people question then why the alienated adults were not researched. There is no telling what their minds could do. If they can alienate the loving parent then maybe hurting others won’t look so bad to them either. It is scary to think about that. Please continue but include the adults and let’s get others involved.

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  3. My goodness, it would be really interesting developing a comparative “flow chart” of the phrases and language an alienated child uses; like a
    universal translator…

    The roller-skating example reminded me of the lyrics of a heart-happy song :

    I rode my bicycle past your window last night
    I roller skated to your door at day light
    It almost seems like you’re avoiding me
    I’m okay alone, but you got something I need

    Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates
    You got a brand new key
    I think that we should get together and try them out, you see
    I been looking around awhile, you got something for me
    Oh, I got a brand new pair of roller skates
    You got a brand new key…

    Wishing you well, Karen.

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