In my work with alienated children and their families, I am aware that they are often not the only children in the room with me. For those who are aware of the concept of the inner child the idea that within the therapeutic work with families affected by parental alienation, are tasks concerned with the wounded children within the parents of the alienated child, will not come as a surprise.
In dialogue with alienated children I often hear those words which describe to me the experience not of the child in front of me, but the child within the parent to whom this child is aligned. Thus when I listen to the narrative of the alienated child, I am able to hear what the cause of the alienation is and what the parent to whom the child is aligned has suffered in their younger years when they were actually children.
The challenge in this work for all therapists is however, the pull to heal versus the need to protect. Which is why the child protection model of work which is used by the Family Separation Clinic and which is curated in the worldwide literature is an essential model for the treatment of such families. Whilst the unresolved trauma in a parent may draw us to want to heal and help, the harm that is being caused to a child who is captured in a pathological alignment is what we have to deal with as a priority. Helping the child in the here and now is our most important responsibility, only when that child is protected from harm should we turn to healing the wounded inner child in the parent to whom the child has been aligned.
Can the alienating parent be helped is a question I have been asked many times and it is one that I yet do not have a clear response to. As each alienating parent has their own internalised wound to resolve, there is no one size fits all approach to address this. In all of the serious cases of parental alienation that I have been involved in I have attempted to work with the inner children in the adults. I do so because I know that if we do not make an attempt to help this parent, the child in the here and now will be left having to cope with the continued unresolved trauma of that side of the family.
No matter how bad the trauma, how bad the alienating behaviour, how severely harmed the child and rejected parent have been by the actions of this parent, they remain the other half of the child for the rest of their days. Whilst we must put in place protection for the child, we must also teach the child how to understand that the parent’s behaviours are harmful and that they see the world differently to other people.
Sometimes in my work with alienating parents and their children it feels as if the inner child of the alienator is fully present and at times competing with the child in the here and now. When this is apparent, a fusion of narratives can pour forth in which it is very difficult to work out who is channelling who. Lack of internalised boundaries and sense of self as in those with borderline or unstable personality disorder, means that the parts of the parent which are harmed are often present and playing out alongside the parts of the parent which are healthy. This can be extremely confusing in therapeutic work and when this behaviour emerges alongside a child in the here and now who is mirroring this behaviour and the accompanying narratives, a cacophony can erupt of competing voices clamouring to be heard.
Being mother to the inner child in the alienating parent cannot take priority although it is healthy parenting which is often desperately needed by this person. Only when the child in the here and now is properly and fully protected, can that kind of work take place and when it does it must happen well away from the child.
Lack of boundaries and fused narratives, confusion about the self and the mirroring that occurs in enmeshed relationships between alienating parents (who are most often in this scenario mothers) and their children (usually daughters but sometimes also younger sons) pose unique challenges for therapists and other practitioners in this space. Learning to listen to the inner child of the pathologically aligned parent and compare that to the narrative of the alienated child will help therapists to identify the problem which the wounded inner child is seeking to make visible.
Using the rejected parent who after assessment, can work alongside the therapist as to assist the child in the here and now, reconnection to healthy parenting can be achieved. When this crucible of safety has been developed, then the work with the inner child of the alienating parent can take place and testing of the capacity of that parent for developing internal boundaries and external understanding of the needs of the child in the here and now can get underway.
The problem that we have in parental alienation is that for five decades it has been wrongly characterised as a problem about ‘contact ‘ when in fact it is a mental health issue arising in the post separation landscape in which the child suffers induced psychological splitting as a result of pressure placed upon them, in this case by the unresolved childhood trauma of a parent. Once splitting has occurred the outward symptoms look like idealisation and devaluation of parents, itself something which should alert us to the reality of the child’s internalised split but for too long has had people running around examining the rejected parent trying to work out what he/she has done to cause this.
When this problem is surrounded by layers of political ideology such as the domestic abuse lobby groups, the idea that children are only ever rejecting because of something a parent has done takes root. It is as if everyone is chanting ‘look over here,, look over here,‘ as a distraction to prevent us from looking in the very direction which tells us everything we need to know.
The tragedies in five decades of this, are the children who have grown to become adults with the unresolved psychological splitting who lose their own children when they grow up and become parents themselves. Drawn to wounded others who are like the parent who caused the splitting in their childhood, they re-enact the scenes of the past only this time, they become the rejected parent. Because they have not been able to resolve the splitting, their involvement with others who are like the parent they were pathologically aligned to in childhood, becomes inevitable.
All of this hides in plain sight. Just like the inner child of the alienating parent who in therapy often comes out to play and ends up causing chaos.
Finding ways to do this work effectively so that we can begin to arrest the harm done by unresolved trauma, requires us to be able to understand and work with the inner child in the aligned parent, all the while protecting the child in the here and now.
It also requires us to understand how, over five decades, particularly in the UK, the issue of a child’s pathological alignment with a wounded parent has been disguised as a contact dispute when in fact it is a mental health issue affecting separated families which requires our time and devoted attention.
And thus, whilst we are working to get to the point where this issue is routinely and uniformly understood and responded to, the inner children of damaged parents will continue to rule the school.