Shaping Up in the World of Parental Alienation

The world of parental alienation is a world which is divided in a binary manner. There are no shades of grey.  Everything about parental alienation is good/bad, right/wrong, black/white and so on.

This way of thinking in the world is infectious as the split mind of the child causes others to think in the same way.  I have worked in many cases for example, where not only were the children and their parents suffering from psychological splitting, everyone around them including the legal team were suffering it too.

Understanding the binary world of parental alienation enables us to avoid being triangulated into it and in doing so becoming compromised in our perspective. Understanding the shapes in the minds of the people we encounter in doing this work is an essential route to survival in it.

I have worked with many cases of alienation and have seen the way in which children integrate the split state of mind in a matter of moments. I have also seen children struggling to integrate and moving back and forth across the splitting defence when the external conditions were not fully in place to enable them to heal.  When the movement back and forth across the splitting defence is observed, it is a signal that the child is still influenced either by some kind of contact with the influencing parent or by too much fear of the consequences of reunification in their relationship with that parent.  When we work with alienated children we must first of all understand the defensive mechanisms they have employed in order to survive in a world which on the surface (conscious mind) feels like love but in the deeper levels of awareness (unconscious) feels like a threat of abandonment.  And when children are threatened with abandonment, they will do anything at all to avoid that.

In alienation the child projects onto the parents a good/bad split. This is the very core of what alienation is, which in the trauma literature,  is considered to arise from a split in the self and the development of a false self or persona.

In the emotionally detached children described earlier and also, I believe, in adults who have developed the kind of personality that Winnicott ( 1960) describes as ‘false self’ and Kohut ( 1977) as ‘narcissistic’, the information being blocked off is of a very special type. So far from its being the routine exclusion of irrelevant and potentially distracting information that we engage in all the time and that is readily reversible, what are being excluded in these pathological conditions are the signals, arising from both inside and outside the person, that would activate their attachment behaviour and that would enable them both to love and to experience being loved. In other words, the mental structures responsible for routine selective exclusion are being employed — one might say exploited — for a special and potentially pathological purpose.

  • Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.

The false self described by Winnicott,  is described by Kohut as narcissistic and in this respect links back to Klein and her thinking on infantile splitting, a condition which is the result of the induced splitting defence and it is this false self which acts out all of the behaviours listed by Gardner as the eight signs of alienation. In this respect the signs of alienation as curated by Gardner are the red flags that lead us to understand that splitting is in play and when we recognise that we must next investigate  how the child came to utilise the defence in the first place. Understanding who is inducing splitting in the child is the first task,  reorganising the dynamic around the child is the intervention that addresses the problem.

In a binary world of good/bad, where children are operating from a false self however, the risk of triangulation into the family drama is extremely high for all professionals who venture near.  Triangulation, in which a third person is used to strengthen the hand of the alienator, is a common risk factor and to avoid it practitioners must recognise the dangers that alienating parents pose both to their children and to anyone who comes too close.

When children are operating from a false self and that false self has taken control of the family system, being the person who attempts to shift that dynamic can be dangerous, especially in an environment where people do not understand how psychological splitting presents in a child.  The witch trial atmosphere of the parental alienation case can be alarming, this is because the world created by the alienating parent is a good/bad binary world in which one must be placed on one side or the other. Keeping perspective and recognising that there are no sides, only the focus upon helping alienated children to resolve the split state of mind, is a key part of survival in this working world.

Triangulation is an enormous risk in the binary world of alienation and many find themselves almost hypnotised by the opportunities that this dynamic creates. Feeling that one is important, that one holds a key to the problem, that one must rescue the child from the harm they are facing are all signs of being triangulated. Becoming the hero in a story full of villains is a seductive storyline and many practitioners both legal and mental health find themselves falling into that drama triangle.

At the very core of the alienation drama are triangles, splits and parts of the self and the wider family which are separated from each other. Information flow in the alienation drama is controlled by the person from whom the dynamic originates and that someone has often themselves been subjected to controlled information flow as a child.

Growing up in a world where secrets are kept between two people and others are kept in the dark or given information on a need to know basis, develops internal family systems dynamics which can be conceptualised as individual silos.  In the internal lives of families affected by this dynamic, knowledge is managed carefully by people in control of what they want others to know.  Thus, anyone venturing into this distorted world must be able to recognise the shapes which govern these families on the inside – triangles, individual information silos and binary thinking all give clues to the dysfunctional world we are working in.

This is a dark and difficult dynamic to work with and it causes significant damage to the unaware professional.  For parents who find themselves rejected, it is bewildering but when explained it is often not surprising to them.  Clues in the shape of manipulation of information, recruitment of children into a hostile coalition and a history of wider family members being carefully erased prior to the alienation taking hold are all often well recognised by many rejected parents.  For others, their vulnerability in the form of a history of childhood abuse, estrangement or alienation from one of their own parents, pre-conditioned them to accept as normal, many behaviours which are well recognised as alienating.

As a psychotherapist, understanding the shapes that govern the world of parental alienation is an essential task which enables us to keep perspective and understand from a wider angle how to assist families. Keeping our wits about us means understanding that anyone and everyone involved with a case of parental alienation is vulnerable to the distortion of vision that comes with being seduced into the drama.  When we approach our work with this perspective, safe conduct is maintained and stress levels are reduced.

For anyone involved in a case of parental alienation, the essential task is to care for the self first in order to do the best for the children and families we are seeking to help.

Shaping up, recognising risk and deeply understanding the internalised world of the families we work with is the best protection.


The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners will hold its third conference in Zagreb in 2020.

Hosted by the Child and Youth Protection Centre in Zagreb, this conference will focus upon practice with families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting and will launch internationally recognised standards of assessment and intervention for all practitioners wishing to work with EAPAP.

Featuring a combination of leading Judiciary, Legal and Mental Health Practitioners from at least ten countries in Europe, this conference will be for practitioners only and will offer workshops, lectures and CPD for up to 500 delegates.

Parents will be able to access parts of the conference via live streaming.

Following on from the lecture we gave in Zagreb to 250 delegates, this conference brings together best practice in the field in Europe and creates a unique opportunity to further develop  the scientific field of parental alienation into deeper understanding of the relational space in which the dynamic occurs.

More news here soon.





  1. Dear Karen, a psychologist with a blind belief in her own excellence has been appointed to our court case and a very strong wind of evidence is stacked up against her belief system and recommendation. I shall not og into details regarding the matter but you have described her in details in your blog countless of times. She is presented as the Court appointed ’expert’ and I have used your knowledge, after reading your blog for more than a year, to argue against further involvement from the so-called ’expert’. After two years of struggle as a litigant in person, I have found myself achieving very little. I am Norwegian, I have lived in the UK for more than 15 years, and I am shocked over a British Family Court operating on a barely concealed vitriolic level – and I am afraid to mention, xenophobic. I am the foreigner and it really does not matter what I say or write. Any protest from me is met with a tightening of the gordian knot and the case keeps dragging on for years, reaching its 4th anniversary.
    I would be very grateful if you could post some advice on your blog as I am sure I am not the only one being prejudged in the family system because my passport comes from another country.


    1. No trineting, sadly you are not the only one being prejudged in the family system because your passport comes from another country.
      My husband was roundly rebuked for being ‘too American’ (direct quote) and accordingly being ‘too emotional’, and for advocating therapeutic intervention and analysis for his child, as was told that was not how we did things here or what would be recommended. This was a few years ago, but not that long ago, so I truly hope that those archaic views have been superseded by more enlightened knowledge, or training or experiences.
      In our experience the child, through their school, was given the opportunity to speak with a counsellor, which gave us great hope, dashed thoroughly upon realising the councillor also was one with a blind belief in her own excellence, and she accordingly refused to consider any outside information, so that came to nothing, and in all likelihood reinforced and justified the alienating position/behaviours.
      6 years so far of no direct contact, although my husband sees his child in the neighbourhood on very rare occasions. The alienation is still complete. But every day brings one more day of growth for the child/adult, and we keep alive to the hope that the authentic child will break through and out one day.
      We are, thank god, at least out of the court system now due to passage of age and time, so my best wishes to you in your continuing journey.


  2. Parental/family alienation is so very very cruel !! The legal system and Social Services really need to start thinking about how this effects everyone’s well being. It has totally ruined our family and I worry every day that my daughter is not going to cope without her Son .. yet Social Services, Legal representatives don’t give a #f- – -… The day my daughter lost her son in court was hell and we are all 2 years on still suffering, no help from no one.. she wrongly lost her son and to this day we feel Social Services were in cahoots with the paternal grandmother who’s son was the cause of all this and they gained custody of my grandson. I will before the day I die proof that this case was corrupt!!! Until we see you again “We all love and miss you so very much “ xxxx


  3. Dear Karen,

    I forgot to mention that the youngest sibling lives with me in Norway. He contacts his father every week and has made it clear to all that he want to meet his father even though he has been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the fathers ’care’. The ’expert’ calls our youngest son an alienated child who has no secure attachment with myself his mother.

    The oldest sibling lives with his father, an arrangement made possible as a result of a previous CAFCASS officer’s perjury in court. My former QC did not challenge the CAFCASS officer, she knew it was futile, and spoke of a more than close relationship between the CAFCASS officer and the sitting Judge. The oldest sibling refuse any form of contact with myself his mother. No evidence of child abuse has ever been presented, only foggy allegations. Last conversation I had with him was over a year ago. The court appointed ’expert’ is not worried and claims there are no sign of alienation.


  4. My daughter continues to have no contact with her son and daughter (my grandchildren). Its been nearly 3 years of constant heartbreak, always trying to get a response thru email, text and WhatsApp.
    All that comes back is criticism, sarcasm and lies which are obviously from her ex demanding money, despite the children having very healthy accounts curtesy of my daughter.
    In the past few years the Family Courts and Cafcass have been unbelievably casual using ‘tick boxes’ when questioning the children, and have sided with her ex partner. Solicitors have also been unhelpful and dismissive. No one, including the Police, has taken her side and tried to help. It’s as though none of the Authorities cares at all.
    This man is evil, full of revenge, a bully who has systematically brainwashed the children, who are now 17 and 15. He has a criminal record.
    Having read lots about parental Alienation and went on the walk in London in April, I have written a few times to my MP.
    I applaud what you are doing and wish you great success in America.
    Always hoping for a change for the better.


  5. The legal system is a binary system. It is the definer of what is right and what is wrong. It has respect for authority, if authority agrees with the law. The law is subject to interpretation.
    Just like the psychological splitting that the child’s mind undergoes when coerced by a controlling and manipulative devious parent, so too plaintiff and defendant are analysed and interrogated through judicial process with the intent of seeking preference. Preference gives rise to bias, shifting power and control more heavily toward one of the opposing parties.
    The “truth” from a legal perspective is a “right” and dominance-based argument of social construction. In this scenario it is to be expected that solicitors, barristers, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, child-carers, counsellors, relatives, friends will line up on one side of the wall or another, the splitting axe to come down when judgement is made.
    The “truth” from a mental health perspective is to find a healthy parent, one who understands the difference between the use of parenting power to enhance self-control and autonomy, rather than subjugate and dominate.


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