Working With the Inner Child in Parental Alienation

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.

11 Comments

  1. I love the statement, the Alienating Parent comes out to play and then the chaos begins. Perhaps it was easier when we were children.
    My sister loved plasters she would look for even the smallest cut to get one. That’s how simple things were.
    I’m hurting and I don’t like it, I’m afraid, simple statements. But could they be more complex for an adult.
    Of course relationships hurt, that’s where being a child was so simple. Fear is one side of the falling relationship, hurt and loneliness is another.
    I’ve written before on the case in Vienna, his ex partner lives close by because she lost her children to the father. It’s sad, but in a strange way the control continues.

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    1. I was the targeted parent and my son was successfully alienated against me. Fortunately the professionals involved identified PA and my son now lives with me full time. He has limited supervised contact with his mum but has refused to go over the past 2 months.

      My question is, through the social workers and therapst my son has in his words had his eyes opened and no longer wants a relationship with his mum due to her last behaviour. I dont know what to do to resolve this issue.

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  2. Hi Karen,
    I am curious with your statement that this inner child dynamic in the alienating parent is more present in Mothers, what is the prevailing dynamic that is mainly with Fathers in your experience?

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    1. Fathers who alienate most often do so as a result of a campaign of coercive control which was present before the end of the relationship and/or they repeat a pattern of fusion with a child (usually a daughter) which is how a parent (usually a mother) fused with them in childhood. So, fathers are less likely to appear as damaged children competing for attention with their own child and more likely to appear as controlling men who are repeating a pattern of behaviour in which they were elevated to the role of spouse with their mother. I guess, on reflection, this is exactly the behaviour of a father’s inner child – the inner child having been corrupted into a spouseified relationship with a parent and so, whilst their inner child is not chaotic but controlling, it is indeed their inner child. So I will change my view on that statement if that is ok, thank you for drawing my attention to it and helping me think about it. K

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      1. Do men perhaps have a different view of women, this starts with the mother son relationship. What relationship did the father have to the son who controls the finished relationship?
        If you control a finished relationship, you still have control over the outcome. I n many ways it’s not over, in the true meaning, it’s not allowed to be over. But will it continue to be if the controlled parent, meets a new partner, and forms a relationship.
        On the above reasoning, it’s unhealthy mentally and can never produce maybe what the controller wishes?

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    1. Hi Willow, glad you asked I couldn’t work out what to do – I really hope you don’t mind, I have an aversion to that person you linked to….he piggybacks off other people’s work in my view and bigs himself up when he is knows very little about the topic in truth. Still love you though so don’t worry!! xxx

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    2. Insightful work. Much of your position is being played out in my own situation. This allows for better understanding, even if there is nothing I can do to help the child, there is comfort in the knowledge.

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  3. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for your reply. I am curious from the point of being an alienated Mother. I am always searching for the reason it happened etc. I would be interested to see if anyone does research into the differences between male and female alienators knowing there is no gender biase in who alienates but I would like to know more the gender differences in why each gender alienates and the gender specific tactics. A lot of research just clump the genders together as just the alienating parent and rejected parent.

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    1. I agree HF, the clumping together isn’t really helping because mother alienation and father alienation IS very different when you strip it back. That is because mothers are very different to fathers, because men and are very different to women and so the patterns we see in alienation are very different.

      Fathers who alienate are often either a) weak and spouseified with their mother or b) weak and aggressive and controlling and spouseified with their mother. I haven’t met an alienating father who hasn’t had a complex relationship with his own mother even if she was dead when he was a child.

      Mothers who alienate span a spectrum which goes from controlling to enmeshed and all in between.

      Unresolved sexual abuse (as Childress points out) is rife in alienating mothers too.

      I still don’t agree with the all alienators have BPD or NPD because alienation is a spectrum and not an either/or but in general, most of the very serious cases I have worked with have been mothers with BPD and fathers with NPD.

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    2. Hey Frued, I use to think it was being difficult that led to Parental Alienation but I’m no longer so sure that there is a simple answer.
      It’s mentally unhealthy that’s what bothers me, controlling relationships are not healthy relationships.
      That’s one good reason we have a better understanding of and better ways to bring about change.

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