Being alienated is a deeply unpleasant experience. Watching your child behave in inexplicable ways, feeling that there is something unsaid and unresolved between you and knowing that whatever you do or say will make it worse not better, is about as frightening as it gets when it comes to parenting. It is therefore essential, if you are an alienated parent, to keep your wits about you.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the meaning of the phrase to ‘keep your wits about you‘ as the need to be constantly alert. This is itself is alienation from a normal way of living because if you have to be constantly alert in terms of parenting your children, you are deprived of the ordinary everyday trust between a child and parent and your capacity to parent effectively is deeply impacted.
But keeping your wits about you is an essential skill for anyone who is alienated. Being alert to the subtle changes in children who are being exposed to negative narratives about you, ensures that you can maintain your position as an alienation aware parent. And being an alienation aware parent is the sticker on your parenting toolbox which ensures that the way that you parent is adapted to the needs of your alienated child.
As someone who works with alienated families in a deeply conflicted professional arena, I too find myself having to keep my wits about me. Whilst it is something of an anathema to think about those of us who do this work being alienated from each other, it is a truism that the most deadly alienation experiences I have ever encountered have been between professionals who work in this space.
Willingness to be open to discussion and to find ways of resolving conflict together, sharing opinions and being able to tolerate difference and most of all being direct in communication instead of covertly spreading misinformation whilst denying that behaviour, is what I trust these days. I have spent too many years being denigrated by unwell people who create fantasies about me on the internet to waste time with people who cannot be direct and honest. Unfortunately for parents who are alienated, choice about who to trust is not an option and therefore keeping your wits about you and your antennae up high is an important approach to coping.
Being able to analyse and put two and two together and make four is also a necessary skill. Intelligence gathering without making assumptions and observation from a high platform are both essential skills in surviving as an alienated parent. To help you understand these two skills and the importance of them, here is an explanation of what you are doing and a little vignette from my casebook to explain why.
Gathering intelligence without assumption
Alienated children behave in really odd ways and the biggest giveaway that they are being actively and consciously alienated (which I evaluate as being directly exposed to deliberate bad mouthing behaviours) is that they will appear angry with you but withdrawn, sullen but silent and that when you try to challenge them about this they will tell you parts of the story but not all of it.
Or they may tell you a complete lie in order to throw you off the trail. Alternatively they may partly lie and partly tell the truth. A child who is being actively alienated may also arrive into your care and quite suddenly spill the beans about what they have been told, only to later deny it. Children who are being actively alienated make you feel that their words cannot be trusted. They will flatter you and attempt to get close to you through sharing things about the other parent that they believe you don’t like. If you feel you are being ‘played’ by your child, you probably are. But that doesn’t mean that you should jump to conclusions or make immediate assumptions. When you are intelligence gathering you are doing so for a reason and that reason is not to make assumptions, it is to gather the information that will allow you to understand what is happening so that you can take action.
Intelligence gathering with assumption can lead to rumination which is your absolute enemy if you are alienated. Rumination, defined in psychological terms refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Rumination means you focus upon the negative distress and you begin the process of confirmation bias in which cognitive bias develops that involves selectively finding and relying upon information that confirms your previously existing beliefs.
It is therefore essential that your intelligence gathering is done without assumption. You are not seeking to prove that your child’s other parent is alienating you, you are seeking to understand the child’s behaviour so that you can think about how to provide an antidote to the problem your child is facing. In doing so you are gathering and recording data in order to analyse it from the position of being at the top of the hierarchy as the wise elder.
Observation from a high platform
When you observe your alienated child’s behaviour from a high platform you see with greater perspective. Observation from a high platform means going to a higher place of vision in your mind, standing in a higher place and looking down upon your child’s behaviour in the context in which it is being played out. This is a great skill for avoiding taking things personally and can be deployed to evaluate the intelligence gathering so that you have a clear picture of the what, why and how of the alienation scenario you find yourself in. When you have a clear picture of the what, why and how, you can make your own behavioural modifications which allow you to manage your child.
Using intelligence gathering and observation from a high platform – a case study
India and Genna are two children who have grown up in a shared parenting arrangement for the past fifteen years, they are now 24 and 21 respectively. India is the adult child who has shown behaviours across the years which are consistent with alienation, she is the eldest child and she is the one who is used the most by her mother to shore up her feelings of inadequacy. India’s father knows this and has, over the years, gathered intelligence that has allowed him to see from a high platform, how India is manipulated by her mother and how she, in turn, manipulates others unconsciously to create scenarios in which her father’s enjoyment of his second family and the celebrations and special days are disrupted. Working without assumption, India’s father recognises that Genna has been kept at distance from him over the years by India’s use of misinformation to control her, Genna relies more upon India than she does upon her father and the two girls, whilst spending time with their father, are always with their mother during holiday times and special occasions.
India’s father recognises the special pressures that are placed upon India. He has gathered intelligence which has shown him that during her growing up years her mother has parentified her during times when her mother had life crises, calling her back from University to look after her when she had a miscarriage for example (a life event which does not involve the next generation and which inveigled India into an experience of feeling that she was on the adult level of the family rather than the child level). India feels as if she is equal to her mother because of this and as a result sees this as a normal life pattern. India’s father however knows that far from this being normal, it places India at risk of being in relationship with other adults who will seek to make use of her people pleasing skills. His strategy in his relationship with his daughters, is to ensure that India recognises that she is his daughter not his friend and that Geena has needs of her own which cannot be met by India but which can only be met by a healthy parent. He has continuously over the years of living apart from them, deployed the strategic antidote to the behavioural patterns he noticed in his daughters.
Understanding India in this way means that whilst India remains in thrall to her mother’s needs, there is a place in the world where she is able to experience herself as a daughter and where she is not able to take on the role of parenting her sister Geena. In real terms this means that he has not allowed India to be part of the adult world he lives in, something she became frustrated about when she was a teenager as she felt he was preventing her from growing up by not sharing with her adult issues. One of the riskiest things that India’s father could have done would have been to allow her to parent him and to share all of the adult information she was seeking with her. Setting boundaries around his role as father and managing India’s tendency to smother her sister or keep her psychologically apart from their father, was a core strategy which was developed from his observation from a high platform of what his daughters really needed.
Whilst this has been an exhausting and at times deeply frustrating experience for India and Geena’s father, he has maintained his place of observation from a high platform and curious empathy towards both of his daughters. This has ensured that despite the strongest alienating tactics being deployed and despite India being vulnerable to alienation, both girls are still in regular relationship with their father and that there are now times when perspective and the capacity to make their own choices emerges. This is not normal parenting by any stretch of the imagination and it is not the parenting that India and Geena’s father would have chosen, but it is the parenting he realised he had to develop and deliver when the gathering of intelligence demonstrated the risks to his daughters and to India in particular.
For anyone who is suffering alienation from others, intelligence gathering without assumption and observation from a high platform, which in other words means keeping your wits about you is a habit which is very necessary to develop. Whilst being constantly alert can be exhausting, it can also prevent the most complex of dynamics from tripping you into the alienation trap in which you inadvertently confirm yourself to be that which you are covertly being set up to appear to be by alienators.
Naivety is the best friend of the alienator, keeping your wits about you is the wisdom I teach all alienated parents. I would rather not have to do so but as I have learned, other people can and do manipulate the truth, being wise is being alert to possibilities and recognising that where alienation goes, odd types of behaviours grow.
If something seems odd in an environment where alienation is a possibility, it probably IS odd and probably does mean you are being alienated but protecting yourself from being entrapped by that is about observation from a higher platform and avoiding rumination.
It’s not the way anyone would wish to live but it is life as those of us who know alienation, know how to survive it.
New for 2020: A series of short parenting podcasts for parents by Karen and Nick Woodall focusing upon understanding, coping and healing from alienation and taking listeners into the intricacies of parenting apart with alienation awareness.
This series of podcasts is a development of the book Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to Cope, Helping to Heal and is produced in response to requests from around the world for more help with coping with children’s behaviours.
Links to these podcasts will be made available here and publication will begin early in 2020.