Be kind to people you meet, you never know who might be raising teenagers…
Research tells us that the most likely period of time for a child to become alienated from a parent is between 8 and 14 (Fidler 2010).
Research also tells us that the developmental tasks of being a teenager are similar to those experienced in the toddler years. Growing used to the changing body learning about the self and expression of personality, are all part of being a teenager. (Rageliene 2016).
What is also key to adolescent development is the need to pull away from parents and the drive to form relationships with peers. This is a period of time when parents despair that their beloved child has turned into a monster.
Whilst we, as adults, can laugh about the horrors of the teenage years, it really is no joke for parents or teenagers themselves when the stable platform for parenting through the teenager years is not present due to family separation. And it becomes even less funny when one of the parents of a teenager is either suffering from unresolved issues in their own childhood or teenage years.
This is when the risks to teenagers, of being unable to complete their developmental tasks, increase significantly. Worryingly, in separated family situations where a teenager has entered into the psychologically split state of mind which causes hyper alignment and rejection as in alienation, there is not only a lack of a stable platform, there is also a likely entanglement with unresolved trauma in a parent, making the completion of tasks of adolescence almost impossible. It is in this scenario that splitting, leading to alienation is also wrapped up in role reversal which is attachment disruption. When this occurs, sorting out which is normal teenage behaviour and which is a result of the entanglement with a parent’s unresolved psychological issues, becomes important.
The teenage brain requires significant remodelling in order to function as an adult brain and during this period of time this work is intensive. The pruning of neural pathways leads to a more effective brain function whilst development of new neural pathways grows the capacity for new and more sophisticated thinking.
The reason why teenagers are more impulsive, emotional and at times aggressive is down to the reliance upon the amygdala, the part of the brain which governs fear based reactions. Anxiety, self consciousness, anger and explosions of feelings are all down to the unregulated effects of the amygdala upon which teenagers depend the most. It is not until late adolescence and early adulthood that the pre frontal cortex, the part responsible for decision making and reasoning, is developed. Which is why at times teenagers will appear to swing from reasonable to irrational in seconds. The teenage brain is not an adult brain and cannot make adult decisions. And yet this is the time during which teenagers are often given decision making power over their relationship with a once loved parent. This is nothing short of tragic, particularly when we understand that it is most often the healthy parent who is not enmeshed with the teenager, who is rejected.
Working with splitting and alienation in teenagers is tricky for practitioners precisely because of the over reliance upon their age and the inherent belief in the family services that this means they are capable of making informed decisions. Just as teenagers are not allowed to smoke, drink or drive cars however, in the light of the necessity for healthy, stable parenting, teenagers should not in my view, be enabled or empowered by the court system to reject a healthy good enough parent.
The following diagram is taken from guidance to social workers on working with children, it shows just how much a child/teenager is regarded as being capable of understanding and making decisions about their own lives at a time when the neuroscience demonstrates that the teenage brain does not possess the capacity to do so.
When I examine this kind of information and consider the plight of the teenager in a separated family, who is not only struggling across the developmental tasks of understanding their own changing self but is being engaged in executive decisions far beyond the brain’s capacity to deal with, I understand how and why so many teenagers become alienated. It is far easier in this confusing landscape, to submit to the pressure being placed upon the self to align with one reality and reject the other, than it is to make any kind of informed choice. In fact there is no such thing as informed choice for teenagers who are trapped in the landscape of family separation where their drive is to get away from parents anyway but their fate is to have to uphold one reality over the other. When family services become involved therefore, it becomes almost inevitable that the alignment and rejecting behaviours which are caused by induced splitting, are further entrenched by the treatment of teenagers as if they have the capacity to make informed decisions about parents.
Teenagers need stable boundaries to push against. Just as toddlers need someone to stop them from pulling everything off the supermarket shelves, teenagers need someone to stop them from being reckless due to their feelings of invincibility. All teenagers experience that sense of being bigger than and better than their parents, what they need are parents who are capable of putting up the boundary that lets them know that they are not.
Unfortunately what happens when teenagers become alienated is that they lose the parent who is likely to put the clear boundary in place that they desperately need to prevent them from entering into what Erikson calls role confusion. This confusion of identity can lead to many of the outcomes seen in alienated young adults who are unable to settle into a sense of agency in the world and is the result of the interference with the developmental tasks of adolescence, by the hyper alignment with a parent who is likely to have unresolved issues.
What then can a parent who is being rejected by a teenager do when the teenager is adamant, the family services around them are upholding their adapted voice rather than their true expression of self and the family courts have decided that the teen is old enough to decide for themselves to kill off a relationship with a parent?
The first task is to recognise that you are the holder of the healthy boundaries for your teenager and that you need to remain healthy and well.
The second task is to signal to the teenager that you are still there and will continue to be there regardless of the barriers put in your way. This does not mean that you spend your time barrelling down any opposition to your relationship with your teenager, if you do that you will fall into the confirmation trap (you are who the other parent says you are). It does mean that you think smart about how to let your teen child know that you are healthy and well and available to them. Cards, money, presents and social media presence are all ways of signalling your presence. Send these things from a place of curious observation.
The third task is to develop the curious observation position. This is a position you should cultivate in your mind and in your outward actions. Being curious about your teenager’s absence in your life is very different to confronting them with their withdrawal. It means maintaining the position of adult to their child and seeking to understand from their perspective what is happening in their relationship with you.
The fourth task is to ensure that you maintain a parallel living process. Nick likens this to skiing alongside your child even without any communication between you, which means keeping up to date with their schooling, understanding what kinds of things your teenager may be doing and being ready to welcome them to ski alongside you when they are ready to rejoin you.
The fifth task is also the most important task, it is to keep the parent in you alive and well and willing to welcome your child back into your life. Too many parents of teenagers allow the parent part of them to wither because it is too painful to keep it alive. Finding ways of keeping it alive are essential and honouring and developing that parent part will keep you connected to the reality that you are the keeper of health for your child. If your parent part withers and dies, there will come a time when your adult child is abandoned in the world without either parent. A tragedy for the child which increases the risk that they will find history repeating itself when they become parents.
A note for those whose children are moving into teenage behaviours and pulling away but who are not completely rejecting. If you are in this position you must now become like the strongest tree which bends in the wind rather than snapping during the first storms. Teenagers are going to test you, they are going to pull away from you, your task is to be able to disentangle what is normal teenage behaviour from what is being inculcated and induced. If your teenager is not rejecting you but wants to change arrangements, work with your teenager to hear what changes they want to make. Allow some but not all of those changes to happen. For example, she wants to stay overnight at her friends house during the weekend she should be with you – one night is fine, every night is not fine. Find ways of negotiating a win/win situation so that she gets some of what she wants and you get that precious time with her. Make sure that on the night she is going to the sleep over, you are the one taking her and collecting her. Navigate changes by using logical consequences rather than powerful authoritarian input, especially if the other parent is using a laid back anything goes approach which, when set against a strong authoritarian approach will always cause dissonance in the teenager who will always seek the easy route out (because the teenage brain is in development and rational thinking is not always possible for teenagers – hence their preference for the parent who ‘befriends’ them rather than the parent who sets boundaries).
There is much more to say about teenagers and splitting and alienation and I will write more for practitioners as well as parents as we go through the winter. There is much to do to keep alienated children of all ages safer than they have been.
With our colleagues we are entering new phases of research and writing and production of guidance and information for families. We are no longer focused on proving the problem, now we are focused on treating it (and in some countries in Europe, on preventing it). Movement upstream is now a reality.
Fidler, Barbara. (2010). Children resisting postseparation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums. Family Court Review. 48. 10 – 47. 10.1111/j.1744-1617.2009.01287.x.
Ragelienė T. (2016). Links of Adolescents Identity Development and Relationship with Peers: A Systematic Literature Review. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry = Journal de l’Academie canadienne de psychiatrie de l’enfant et de l’adolescent, 25(2), 97–105.
EAPAP 2020 – Parental Separation, Alienation and Splitting: Healing Beyond Reunification will be held on 15/16th 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 15/16 – EAPAP 2020 in Zagreb, Croatia.
Summer – Reunification Training in Conjunction with Colorado University – details to be confirmed.