Differentiating Causal Factors in Parental Alienation

Those who listened to the call with Family Access last weekend will have heard me talking about transgenerational haunting and the psychoanalytical research on the way that trauma is transmitted down the generations via the attachment system.

Developing understanding of how this occurs is vital for anyone working with alienated children and their families, because  parental alienation is a spectrum problem which is caused by a number of different dynamics which stretch far beyond the deliberate brainwashing strategies of one parent against the other.

Intervening successfully in such cases  therefore requires a clear differentiation of the reason why a child is rejecting a parent because it is the understanding of the route the child took to using defensive splitting and the causes of that (which will still be at play when we examine the family), which determine the best route to helping the child.

Parental alienation in all of its forms is the psychological and emotional abuse of a child and the world is rapidly awakening to that reality.  From a time when the very words parental alienation could not be uttered without someone look askance in the UK, increasingly we are able to discuss it AND develop ways to address it in families.

We cannot however, stop at talking about it. The most urgent need that families have is for ways of addressing it and in that respect, correcting the idea that unadapted therapies can be used to address the problem is an important part of our education and training work.

One of the ways we are working to educate and inform is to study families and to identify and consider the ways in which each case is unique. In documenting cases in this way it becomes very apparent that parental alienation is not one homoegenous experience which can be described in one universal way.

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In our understanding of what is happening in the family affected by parental alienation we are therefore undertaking a depth forensic analysis to understand how this child became vulnerable to using defensive splitting and why it continued to a place where the child has become fixed in alignment and rejection.  Only in understanding that can we begin to consider how to treat the problem.

In our assessment process we examine the family in each component part which is known to contribute to the alignment and rejection dynamic.  In order to do so we examine the dynamics present in families in each of the areas shown in our assessment framework shown below.

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(Diagram – Family Separation Clinic – Assessment Framework (2009-2019))

In assessing the family using each of these different areas, we are able to arrive at a differential assessment which details the route the child took into the use of psychological splitting, which in turn enables us to determine which treatment route is the right way to intervene.

The Family Separation Clinic model of assessment and intervention is a child protection model which seeks to protect the child first and treat the dynamics after protection is put in place.  Protection of the child is the role of the Court or of statutory services (or both) and as mental health practitioners our first actions are to seek the intervention of one or both to arrest the control that the parent causing the problem has over the child.  It is only in arresting that control that mental health interventions will have sustained impact upon the causal factors in the family.

Symmetry in terms of power is not assumed and the first action we undertake in assessment is to determine who holds power over the child and how that is maintained. Shifting the balance of power away from that parent is key to any intervention being successful and the conditions for our therapeutic intervention require that the power balance is corrected before an intervention begins.

This model is asymmetrical in that we know from international research that treating both parents as if they have contributed to the problem is highly likely to entrench the child’s rejection due to the failure to arrest the power that the aligned parent has over the child.

It is also a model which pays close attention to the harm suffered by the rejected parent who is likely to suffer from a number of problems related to being considered the cause of the problems seen. In this respect this model is close to that seen in interventions designed to protect people from coercive control, it is a model which identifies cause and seeks to balance out the power to put a stop to it.

The FSC model of intervention acts to reunite the child with the parent they are rejecting at the start of the work not the end. The treatment goals are not to persuade the child or fix the rejected parent but to provide as much protected space as possible, where the power dynamics have been corrected, to enable the child to experience the healthy relationship which has always existed but which has been forced to be split off and denied by the child.

In this respect the difference between standard generic approaches to therapy and the FSC approach is the understanding that –

Children who have been physically or sexually abused will act out their maladapted behaviours in therapy whilst alienated children who are being emotionally and psychologically abused will act out their authentic feelings in the therapeutic space.  Karen Woodall (PAI 2019)

Thus, the treatment goals after full differentiation of a case of parental alienation, are to provide alienated children with as much protected therapeutic space as possible to enable them to recover their authentic feelings for the parent they have been forced to reject and to express and share those in a safe space away from the parent they have become aligned to, as often as possible.

This provision may require a transfer of residence in which the child goes to live with the rejected parent, or it may be possible to structure an intervention in such a way that safe space is possible to provide with the child continuing to live with the parent they were aligned to.  The difference between interventions depends upon the child’s route into the use of psychological splitting and the assessment of the depth of fusion, enmeshment and role corruption suffered in the relationship with the aligned parent.

In this model the rejected parent is assessed for capacity for healthy parenting and that assessment is calibrated by our understanding of the harm done to rejected parents in the parental alienation dynamic.

We no longer use the term hybrid at the Clinic and we regard the liberal use of the word to mean that both parents are to blame as being unethical and in some situations seriously harmful to the health of the rejected parent.  In the FSC model of work, the rejected parent who has been properly assessed as being good enough (and good enough means good enough – not perfect)  and who has not contributed to the child’s rejection by way of harm, neglect or abuse, is regarded as being a vital component for successful recovery of the child. This parent is thus championed, supported and utilised significantly in the recovery process.

This model of work is based upon international research evidence and is demonstrated in several countries in the world to provide successful intervention.  Successful intervention means that the child is able to relate normally again to a once rejected parent and that their resilience is strengthened via support for the parenting they receive.


 

The FSC model of assessment and intervention is the basis for the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners development of principles and protocols for best practice in supporting families affected by parental alienation.  This model is being developed by a coalition of experts in Europe and will be the core of the training delivered around Europe to the Judiciary, Legal and Mental Health Practitioners. This work is being strengthened by input from expert practitioners in trauma recovery in Croatia and in Israel and a shared model of understanding of parental alienation as a traumatic childhood event is in development.  All of this work is being furthered by collaborative means and will be available on the EAPAP website http://www.eapap.eu over the coming year.

News about the 2020 Congress for Parental Alienation Practitioners to be hosted by the Child and Youth Protection Centre of Zagreb will be shown here and the link to the website will be available soon.


 

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