Yesterday, the ‘collective memo of concern’ authored by Linda Neilson and signed by people opposed to parental alienation being included in the ICD-11, was reposted on that site in an effort to influence removal of the words parental alienation.
I re-read that collective memo of concern and noted the names of the people who oppose the inclusion of parental alienation. Many from the UK are familiar to me as they are feminist academics with a long standing influence on the lives of families in divorce and separation. These people have sought to prevent a closer examination of the experiencing of loss of a child after family separation for all the time that I have been working in this field. I wondered why there is such vehement rejection of the reality that a child who is rejecting a parent after family separation without having been harmed by that parent, is a child at risk.
The answer of course is something those who come here to read are well aware of. I have been raising this red flag for all the time I have been doing this work. In the field of divorce and separation, the promotion of children’s needs as being synonymous with women’s rights has been the driving force behind the lack of attention paid to alienated children and their families. The focus on women first and children as part of that campaign has led to generations of children around the world not only being denied a relationship with a healthy father after separation, it has also led to children being denied relationships with their healthy mother.
Parental alienation does not respect gender, when it occurs it happens as often to mothers as it does to fathers (the Family Separation Clinic disaggregates cases by gender and in the decade 2009 to 2019 the balance of work with alienated mothers and fathers was 46% mothers and 54% fathers). In line with other evidence of parental alienation as a non gendered issue, this tells us that the problem impacting on families is far more complex than the feminist academics would have us believe. In fact it is so complex that the very women that the denial of parental alienation is supposed to support, are not only being alienated from their children, their experience is being ignored or dismissed.
Alienated children’s experiences are simply invisible in this landscape and have been for four or more decades since the divorce laws changed in the western world in the seventies. Since then, children’s needs have been enmeshed in policy and practice with the rights of their mothers and the result has been a holocaust of loss in terms of relationships between children and one side of their family.
The experience of children suffering from induced psychological splitting which is also known as parental alienation is truly ghastly and its impact on their lives and that of their family is beyond conceptualising in words. The longer I have worked with alienated children the closer I have come to their lived experience and it is truly, in my view, a scandal that this has been allowed to go on for decades without any real attention being paid to their needs.
Alienated children suffer from the induced defence of psychological splitting which places them at the centre of a family in crisis in which they, as a child, are burdened with the horrific responsibility of resolving it.
In this landscape the rejected parent is a helpless bystander whilst the parent to whom the child becomes aligned, plays out their own unresolved issues through the distortion of the parent/child relationship. The child in the midst of this is induced to utilise a defence mechanism which triggers the fracturing of the self and the parents into good and bad. Now the child is in charge, omnipotent and weaponised to deliver the most devastating impact upon the parent who is the recipient of the projected shadow side of the fused parent/child idealised dyad.
In this trauma story, parent and child are now set against the demonised parent and what follows, based upon the design and delivery of a feminist workforce around the family, is a truly ghastly witch hunt process of blame, shame and institutional ignorance of what is really happening to the child.
The collective memo of concern simply reinforces that ignorance and seeks to shift the focus away from children and back to women. It also seeks to demonise parental alienation and skew the argument towards the idea that seeking to understand why a child rejects a parent in the post separation landscape is akin to child abuse because it validates violence against women and girls. It does not, here’s why.
Parental alienation is a catch all phrase for a child’s unjustified rejection of a parent but at its heart it is not about the rejection of a parent, it is about the child being induced to use the defence of psychological splitting. The rejection of a parent is simply a by-product of that, it is not the cause.
Neither is high conflict the reason a child rejects a parent who has been shown to be loving and healthy, although it may appear that conflict is part of the landscape where a child rejects. Many children live through high conflict divorce without being induced to use the defence of splitting. The conflict seen in cases of alienation arises largely from the desperate attempts by the rejected parent to flag, stop or tell someone about what is happening to their child.
In my experience, induced psychological splitting in a child arises because the child is exposed to unhealthy behaviours in one parent which threaten the child with abandonment if they do not align their views and which enmeshes the child into a pathological pattern of behaviours which are about as close to that of coercive control as described by Evan Stark (signatory to the collective memo of concern), as it is possible to get.
Coercive control is when a person with whom you are personally connected, repeatedly behaves in a way which makes you feel controlled, dependent, isolated or scared.
When we examine the ways in which children in divorce and separation suffer abandonment threat by parents who are unhealthy or unable to contain their own emotional response to the crisis of separation, we can begin to understand how this pathological presentation, which looks like love and devotion, is actually child abuse.
.As Kerig suggests –
when parent-child boundaries are violated, the implications for developmental psychopathology are significant. Poor boundaries interfere with the child’s capacity to progress through development which (…) is the defining feature of childhood psychopathology.’ Kerig (2005)
Imagine the scenario of the child whose parent is dependent upon them to keep them stable after divorce and separation. A child whose parent is keen to surround them with love and devotion but at the same time conveys the message that unless the child takes care of their emotional needs they may abandon the child. The messages in this situation need not be even verbalised, the abandonment threat is there in the intention conveyed in the intra-psychic, the silent but powerful communications which occur between parent and child.
The message which is given to the child is ‘I depend upon you to keep me stable, don’t leave me, don’t betray me.’ To which the child can only respond in one way, which is to seek proximity and to submit to the parent, at the same time having to compartmentalise any feelings of anger and frustration at having to split off parts of themselves in order to conform to the demands.
As Janina Fisher, former supervisor at the Bessel Van Der Kolk Centre tells us
When attachment figures are abusive, the child’s only source of safety and protection becomes simultaneously the source of immediate danger, leaving the child caught between two conflicting sets of instincts. On the one hand they are driven by attachment instincts to seek proximity, comfort and protection, on the other they are driven by equally strong animal defence instincts to freeze, fight, flee or submit, or dissociate before they get too close to the frightening parent. Fisher (2017)
My worry about the feminist academics who signed the collective memo of concern to the WHO is that they are driven not to understand the experiences of children who reject a parent but to ignore those and regard them as being immaterial to the overall project of protecting the rights of women. My other worry is that even in that drive to protect the rights of women, alienated mothers are simply thrown under the bus by the feminist denial of parental alienation. Which means that alienated children and mothers and fathers who are rejected, are all discarded in this distorted vision of the world.
Fortunately, around the world, the increasing understanding that this is an urgent, hidden, child abuse issue, will not allow the silencing of those concerned with children’s needs and their right to healthy relationships any longer. There are too many of us who know the truth of what has happened to children in divorce and separation in decades gone by to stop the shift towards recognition and treatment of children and families who have suffered this abuse.
Alienated children are ignored and invisible no longer and ideology has no part to play in the future development of work with these families. That is the message, that is the task, that is the road ahead practitioners in this space are travelling.
John Cornwell Lecture – Family Mediation Association Annual Conference – October 3rd 2019 in London.
I will be giving the John Cornwell Lecture at the FMA Annual Conference this year, where I will be speaking about the mental health risks to children of divorce and separation and our work with alienated children and their families over ten years.
EAPAP 2020 – Parental Separation, Alienation and Splitting: Healing Beyond Reunification will be held on 4/5 June 2020 in Zagreb, Croatia.
This conference will bring together practitioners in the field of child abuse, trauma and attachment to explore the ways in which existing therapies and models of understanding of abuse and trauma can be translated into work with abused children of divorce and separation. Taking place over two days, the conference will deliver intensives in different aspects of parental alienation to present a cohesive set of standards for international assessment, differentiation and intervention.
This is a practitioner only conference, streaming of parts of the conference will be available for parents and a parents Q&A session will be co-ordinated on day two.
Family Separation Clinic Training Schedule 2020
We will be delivering the following training and conference presentations in 2020
February – Republic of Ireland in conjunction with Irish Practitioners – details here shortly.
February – Germany in conjunction with German practitioners – details here shortly.
June – EAPAP 2020 in Zagreb, Croatia.
Summer – Reunification Training in Conjunction with Colorado University – details to be confirmed.
Autumn – For Family Access – NC. USA 4/5