Doing Not Talking: Counter-Intuitive Practice with Alienated Children

 

IT IS WELL KNOWN in this field that generic therapies fail alienated children and families and that adapted therapies that fit the dynamic are those that demonstrate clear resolution of the psychological splitting that underpins parental alienation (Clawar & Rivlin, 2013; Miller, 2013; Gottlieb, 2017; Fidler & Ward, 2017). When practitioners work with this vulnerable group of families, therefore, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that the preferred models of intervention are those that are adapted to fit their needs. To do otherwise is to risk further harming already abused children and parents.

One of the biggest mistakes that can be made in working with alienated children is to expect them to respond to therapy that is delivered in a standard way. In normal circumstances, therapists asking children to talk about their feelings will seek to build a therapeutic alliance with the child in which the child’s feelings are regarded as coming from an undefended place.

In parental alienation, however, the child’s feelings are coming from a maladapted position in which the healthy feelings held by the child are hidden behind a defensive split. This defensive split arises when the child faces an impossible dilemma caused by pressure placed upon him or her in the family system via a pathological alignment with a parent.

This means that asking the child how they feel in therapeutic work will simply elicit defensive responses. Given that the child is using a narrative that has been transmitted to him or her through a pathological alignment, approaching therapy in this way will simply entrench the problem and heighten the fusion.

Therapies that work with alienated children focus on doing something rather than talking. Weekly therapy in an office is not useful for these families, but active therapies, some of which involve animals such as dogs or horses, work well. The purpose of this is to bypass the split state of mind in the child in circumstances that allow the child to encounter the rejected parent in an environment that enables the child to enter into uncon- scious play. When a child encounters a parent he or she is rejecting in these circumstances, the potential for spontaneous reconnection is dramatically improved because the defensive splitting is reduced and the authentic feelings can emerge.

Successful therapies are those in which the child is helped to encounter the rejected parent as early as possible in the process. Waiting for an alienated child to say he or she is ready to see a parent is futile. Persuasion or de- sensitization approaches simply re-expose the child to the dilemma of the double bind the child faces. In these circumstances, the defense is heightened and the child remains fixed and refusing.

Adapted therapies that resolve the projected good parent/bad parent split, by enabling the child to spend time with the rejected parent, use proximity to the parent to trigger the awakening of the attachment relationship. In such circumstances, the integration of the splitting will often occur rapidly.

Therapists working in this environment should be aware of the necessity to ensure that all work is properly structured and tied back to the legal process. It is highly risky to both the child and rejected parent to attempt this work outside of a strong framework.

Practitioners who attempt this will often find themselves complained about, or worse, will become entangled in a series of he said/she said arguments that prevent any forward movement towards reconnection of the child to the parent who is being rejected.

In this space there is a great deal of opportunity to adapt existing models of therapy to fit the needs of the families involved. When practitioners understand that a child utilizes psychological splitting in a situation that is impossible for the child to resolve alone, therapists are more ready to identify the way in which this is induced and intervene to prevent it. Intervening in these circumstances means working to constrain the behaviors of the parent who is influencing the child and then building an alliance with the child in which it is understood that the words spoken by the child do not match their authentic feelings.

In therapy in non-PA situations, abused children who cannot speak about the harm being done to them will act out their maladapted feelings. However, in therapy in PA cases, abused children who can- not speak about the harm being done to them will act out their authentic feelings, which are hidden behind the defensive split caused by the pathological alignment.  Karen Woodall 2019

Watching those feelings emerge and then disappear again when the child is placed with the parent to whom they are pathologically aligned explains the way in which alienated children have adapted their behaviors to fit the distorted situation in which they are reside.

Giving space for the child to “act out” their real and healthy feelings, which happens in activity-based therapies, demonstrates that while an alienated child’s voice says no, their actions in fact say yes. Therapists working in this space must therefore seek to create the circumstances in which those authentic feelings can be acted out, supported and experienced safely.

This is the counterintuitive understanding necessary for any therapist working in this space to grasp hold of. Once understood, it becomes easier to work with this group of families and develop new approaches to helping them.

References

Clawar, S. S. & Rivlin, B. V. (2013). Children Held Hostage: Identifying Brainwashed Children, Presenting a Case, and Crafting Solutions (2nd Edition). Chicago, IL: American Bar Association.

Fidler, B. J. & Ward, P. (2017). Clinical decision-making in parent-child contact problem cases: Tailoring the intervention to the family’s needs. In Abigail M. Judge and Robin M. Deutsch (Eds.)

Overcoming Parent-Child Contact Problems: Family Based Interventions for Resistance, Rejection, and Alienation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, S. G. (2013). Clinical reasoning and decision-making in cases of child alignment: Diagnostic and therapeutic issues. In A. J. L. Baker & S. R. Sauber (Eds.). Working with Alienated Families: A Clinical Guidebook (pp. 8–46). New York, NY: Routledge.

Gottlieb, L. J. (2017). Amicus brief discussing effective treatment for parental alienation or for a severed parent-child relationship.

12 comments

  1. Thanks Karen. Trying to further our understanding of splitting….do you think teenage children can ‘fake’ it with their therapist? ie when a court becomes involved & they know what they need to do for their aligned parent, can they pretend they aren’t split temporarily, by suddenly started to accept their previously-rejected parent? Placating a therapist, much like a narcissistic adult can. And how do therapists ensure they aren’t being conned?

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  2. What if a teenage child has now completely aligned with the maladaptive parent, (slowly within the last 20 months or so), and this parent (father) is also aligned with his mother in the same maladaptive way? In my case there is no communication with my 17 year old daughter, and from the age of 8, even though she fought (psychologically) to stay with me, she became self destructive in my home and no “traditional” therapy was effective. She wouldn’t/couldn’t talk about it and eventually refused to try. She just blamed me for everything, as did her dad’s side, who would call me (step-grandpa), telling me I was crazy, not her. (They believed that putting her in any type of therapy was saying she was crazy, or that something was “wrong” with her)
    They (dad and grandma/step-grandpa) took this as further justification in their minds to keep her away from me. Plus, he has financial debt, even though he makes a great salary, to the point where he cannot even pay his rent without the child support he now gets from me. So he is very far away from a willingness to encourage a relationship with me. He and his mother are an alliance against me, which makes it stronger in a way that’s frightening at this moment.
    They have somehow also influenced her high school to look at me askance. So it seems the best I can do now is wait until she reaches college, when I believe something will trigger a sense of guilt? or maybe just realization? I’m not sure exactly what, but I think it will help her regain some perspective. I feel powerless and struggle with anger at their unfair treatment of me and their willingness to put their own needs above the needs of our daughter. I’m in Canada and have not found anything here that makes as much sense or seems as effective as your theory of “induced psychological splitting”. If she does decide to reach out to me, who if anyone, around here (London, Ontario, Canada), can help me help her? Please let me know of any similar resources in this area.

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    1. Kathy, we are working on a dedicated course and resources that we will make available as soon as we can get them finished. These are focused on the ‘how to ‘ reparent a child who has been alienated. Keep watching this space and I will put up a place to register your interest shortly.

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      1. Thank you. I look forward to this. I believe it will come at just the right time. Bless you for the work you do.
        Kathy

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    2. (They believed that putting her in any type of therapy was saying she was crazy, or that something was “wrong” with her)

      Uncanny how the words of the script may change, but not its foundation. For years (decades…) my suggestions/pleadings for therapy for xW, her FOO, eventually my children, were all met with a consistent rebuke: “Never tell a crazy person they are crazy!”

      Now I understand how this fits so neatly in Karen’s model of “A world with no windows, a house with no doors”.

      No windows (therapy, “outsiders”) can be opened to let the light in, while no doors can be shut to impede the incestuous evil.

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  3. Help! What’s happened to your site Karen? Instead of ‘an index’ of all topics (with useful links down the side) it’s now just one long blog with a trial and error as to how to post this message. Hope it’s just a glitch!

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    1. HI Willow, it is a full refurb which is only part way through :). Don’t worry, we are working on it again today. I am archiving much of the content from pre 2016 and am sorting out my writing from 2016 onwards under different topics. This is to provide focus for the work that I am doing now which is about treating parental alienation and helping parents to understand what they can do with children of all ages.

      The problem with the blog as it stands is that it has over 300,000 words on it, some of which are no longer relevant to what I am doing today.

      It will be easier to navigate by the time I have finished today don’t worry.

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  4. Karen, As a mental health professional from a Social Work background I currently work with children and trauma backgrounds. I would like to delve deeper into therapeutic practice in this area of PA. I know that you have a psychotherapy background whilst other specialists in PASG group have for example family systems background or behavioural medicine. To delve deeper where would you suggest are the foundation areas of practice?

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    1. I am not working with PASG anymore, I left before Christmas to focus on working with families and adults alienated as children and to concentrate on EAPAP and building a workforce. I don’t need or want to study PA, I need and want to build treatment routes that work and are replicable all over the world. What is missing in the world are treatment routes and people who can deliver them. Being able to talk about it is one thing, being able to help families resolve it is another and so I made a decision to step away and focus on developing treatment routes and practice standards with other practicing clinicians who are successful in this work.

      You would begin by recognising that the dynamic is multi layered and that the trauma you see in alienation is back to front – ie: the child does not express anything that looks like trauma on the face of it whilst in the care of the aligned parent but in fact the omnipotent self which is presented in that alignment, is the anxious defence of the terrorised child who is afraid of abandonment or afraid of terrorisation in the private life of the family. It requires a lot of careful study to understand the deeper dynamics which are made up of power and control, parentification and spouseification, transsgenerational trauma repetion and more. What this is NOT about is care and contact or visitation.

      As yet there is no comprehensive curation of what PA really is in psychoanalytical terms, that is what we are working on at the moment to fill the gap.

      You could read Childress who has formulated on one small aspect of parental alienation which is the encapsultated delusional dyadic relationship – in my view only a small portion of families affected by PA – and you could read Linda Gottlieb’s book the Parental Alienation Syndrome which shows how she put together her therapeutic model using Gardner’s theory.

      This is a field in development in my view and it is only just turning the corner in terms of treatments.

      You could also attend the conference in Zagreb this year where we have all of the strands of what causes alienation in a child in focus with leading speakers on all topics. This will be the point at which we reset the field in terms of therapeutic work by launching practice standards and guidance on therapeutic understanding of what parental alienation really is.

      Hope that helps. We will have a new book out for professionals which curates our therapeutic model in months to come. First our new book and course on therapeutic parenting which will also give a lot of learning and further reading for interested people to follow up.

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      1. Thank you for your reply. I have been studying parental alienation for the past 2 years for My Master’s major research project so am familiar with the authors you mention above. It has been an interesting experience in raising awareness in the realms of critical social work. I have gone against the grain so to speak in discussing feministic fanaticism as being a structural barrier in parental alienation becoming a recognised phenomenon.
        I have a good grounding in trauma, attachment, neurodevelopment, family systems, personality disorders and so on but acknowledge that I am still green in terms of practice. I am passionate about this issue and really want to raise the profile and help families hence, why I am questioning what areas do I need to delve deeper in order to practice with confidence, integrity and ethically. I am attending the Australian Parental Alienation conference occurring in June this year. I hope that this will give me some more specific direction. I look forward to reading your new book and the launch of your therapeutic parenting program. I also wait in anticipation for the outcomes of the EAPAP’s structured protocols for practice. I can only hope that this has an immediate impact on practice here in Australia also.

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      2. you might be interested in what we are doing with EAPAP as the model of work we are developing is replicated in the USA and we are working with some clinicians in Australia now to establish it there. It sounds as though the parts you need to look at are the psychological splitting and how to resolve that in structured interventions, again we will have another book out for clinicians on that at some point in the next few months. Practice is very poorly understood around the world, lots of people know how to talk about the issue, what it is and isn’t, signs and strategies etc, but few know how to treat it. That is what EAPAP is about and what our work in the USA is doing and we will bring that to Australia via our connections with serious clinicians there too. I can put you on our Australian list for training, we will consider an Australian trip next year if we have time – if not then our online work is one way to develop skills. We have trained clinicians on a one to one basis around the world, if you are interested let me know and I will send you information about how we do that. Kind Regards Karen

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  5. Hi Karen, I would very much appreciate you sending that information and joining the list for training. I knew you were here in 2018 for the Tasmanian conference but the timing was not good for me. You have my email I assume with this posting. Thanks. SW.

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