The Voice of the Child? Listening to Alienated Children

Love our children

The evolution of culture is ultimately determined by the amount of love, understanding and freedom experienced by its children, because only love produces the self integration and individuation needed for cultural innovation. Every abandonment, every betrayal, every hateful act towards children returns tenfold a few decades later upon the historical stage.

Lloyd de Mause

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Somewhere in the midst of the current campaign narratives on parental alienation, is the reality of what is happening to children who are induced to use the defence of psychological splitting.

Children of divorce do not have a separate advocacy service from those which speak for their parents. Their needs have been wrapped up in the he said/she said fight for so long that we have become used to thinking about their experience in terms of how it affects their parents.

It is the child who carries the biggest impact of the dynamics which cause alienation. Whilst the rejected parent suffers immensely, the child’s right to an unconscious experience of childhood is taken from them completely and the impact lasts a lifetime.

The impact on the rejected parent is rejection, which leads to a defensive splitting in itself. For the parent however, the capacity to reflect, understand and recover from splitting is possible, for the child, growing up with splitting, the recovery process is far more complex.

Children are incredibly vulnerable in divorce and separation, that is quite simply a fact. We may not like to hear about that fact  but it is reality.  When children experience their parent’s separation, it causes them to have to adjust their understanding of the world both inside and out. Many parents recognise this and work hard to protect their children from the worst of the impact. Some struggle but do their best and do a good enough job. Some are simply unable to do anything at all because they are faced with decompensation and destruction.

If the voice of the child is the determining factor in what happens in care arrangements in the midst of a situation where a parent is decompensated, then the child is going to be the battle ground through which allegiance and rejection dynamics are achieved.

The voice of the child in situations where a parent is decompensated, is a mirror of the parental distress and the child becomes a conduit for the underlying psychological difficulties of their parent.

When the child is using the defence of splitting (and all cases of a child’s rejection are differentiated for splitting behaviours), the essential task is to compare the child’s narrative to that of each parent.  A child who is being influenced into an alignment with a parent’s beliefs and views of the other parent, will echo the words and phrases and mirror that parent’s beliefs.  Sometimes this is a subtle mirroring but often it is starkly apparent that the child is not speaking about their own feelings but those which are understood by the child to be the right thing to say and feel.

I tell this story in our training to demonstrate what is seen in children who are using splitting as a defence in situations where they fear a parent’s decompensation.

Three children aged 11 and 9 and 7, were assessed after rejecting their mother for twelve months. During the assessment the children drew pictures of themselves and their father and stepmother who had joined the family two years previously, as well as pictures of their mother.

The eldest two children then coloured in the pictures to show how much love they felt for their father and mother.  They coloured their father in completely, telling me as they did so that they loved him ‘to the moon and back’.  They refused to colour their mother in at all but determinedly and somewhat showily, coloured in their stepmother fully too, as if to make a point.

I asked them to show me where the love for their mother had gone, why was there no love there for their mother? The middle child coloured in the feet on his drawing of himself. I expressed curiosity. What was his love for his mother doing in his feet?

He told me, ‘I have to keep my love for my mum in my feet so that I can put my shoes on and my dad won’t see it. That way, if I have to go and see her, I can pretend I don’t want to because I don’t love her.

This little boy, aged only 9, had learned how to manage his feelings so that they did not show. He had utilised the defence of psychological splitting but managed, somehow, to hang on to his love for his mother and keep it where it could not be seen by anyone. That way, he could conform to the expected narrative in the family home.  The exaggeration of his professed love for his father and step mother was the over inflation of the defended self, brought into being unconsciously to protect him from the fear he felt of  displeasing his father.  He had however, found a way to protect his love for his mother and keep it in his conscious mind whereas most children have to split off and deny those feelings to themselves as well as to other.

At the Clinic and within EAPAP,  we think of alienation as non accidental psychological and emotional injury to the mind of a child, caused by boundary violations which involve the child in the breakdown of the adult relationship and featuring coercive control dynamics along with enmeshment and triangulation.

We further differentiate between the ways that fathers alienate their children from the way that mothers alienate their children. Fathers are more likely to alienate using coercive control in the manner we are used to being told about and mothers are more likely to enmesh their children in their own feelings about the other parent. Both fathers and mothers who alienate their children, are likely to be experiencing transmission of unresolved inter-generation relational trauma.

The problem for these children, whose parents suffer decompensation in the post divorce and separation landscape, is that there is no real understanding of what is happening to them.

Which is why advocating for children is so important and why understanding that the voice of the child in cases of complete rejection, is a sign that something is wrong in the alignment relationship between child and parent, not in the relationship the child is rejecting.

A simple reality is that children who use psychological splitting as a defence, are suffering from alienation from their own sovereign self first, alienation from their own feelings and emotions  as well as their unconscious right to childhood.  The second alienation is from a normal and healthy relationship to each of their parents. In its place they have a formed a pathological alignment with a parent who is causing them to feel fear either intra-psychically (meaning in their internal world) or externally, via threats and coercion.

In this situation, the rejection of a parent is a by-product of the anxiety and fear the child feels. The reason that children are most susceptible to this between the ages of 8 and 14 is likely to be the over dependency on the fear regulating part of the brain (which is called the amygdala,)  during this developmental stage.

The argument that children reject parents outright after divorce because that parent has been abusive is contradicted by the evidence from attachment studies  which demonstrate that a child will continue to love a parent who is abusive because of a biological imperative which is hard wired into the brain.  In reality, working with children who have been abused by a parent, demonstrates the way in which children have to be protected from that parent because they continue to love them and want to be with them.

In such circumstances, whilst children will show anticipatory dread ahead of seeing a parent, they will also show happiness in being with them and want more time with that parent.  This is in stark contrast to the child who is using defensive splitting to cope with the leakage of feelings or deliberate influence from a parent, where splitting is observed as a defence and the narrative is of one parent being wholly good and the other being wholly bad. These children show nothing other than an over inflated and exaggerated alignment to one parent and a cold, disdainful and contemptuous rejection of the other.

What we are seeing in such circumstances, is a child who is forced into using a defence to cope with intolerable pressure. A child who is hyper aligned with one parent’s views and rejecting the other parent,  is regulating the decompensation in a parent which has terrified and terrorised them. They are parenting their parent, in order to keep themselves safe, an attachment disruption which is harmful to their long term wellbeing.

Remember, children who are abused by a parent will often want to be with that parent, they are biologically hard wired to love their parents even if their parents are abusive. Which is why, when children feel threatened by a parent’s decompensation, they do not reject them but become hyper attached to them.  It is the abusing parent to whom the child becomes pathologically aligned, not the rejected parent.

Far from alienated children being handed to abusive parents in the family courts, what we are really seeing is that children who have suffered non accidental injury to their minds are being removed from the parent who has caused this particular type of abuse. The family courts increasingly recognise it and do not require it to be labelled parental alienation, nor do they require the problem to become entrenched before action. The recognition that hyper alignment and rejection is a problem that must be dealt with quickly is established in case law in the UK.

In the shadow of this, whilst I no longer carry out residence transfers as others are doing the work now, (meaning that I can concentrate on research and therapeutic work with adults alienated as children), the necessity for that intervention is clear.  If a child was being physically harmed would we consider removal from the abusive parent harmful? No we would not, we would support that happening even if the child protests love for that parent. We would support that because we are supporting the child’s wellbeing.   When non accidental injury to the mind of a child is in play, removing them from the parent causing it is no less important to protect the child’s right to wellbeing.

Remember the boy whose love for his mother was hidden in his feet?  He loved his mother and wanted to be with her but was not allowed to show that or experience it freely.  His love for his father was exaggerated and inflated, it was a defence which hid the harm that his father was doing to him.

The same goes for children whose mothers cause hyper alignment, the child is afraid of their mother’s decompensation, not an abusive father.

This is the reality for children who suffer induced psychological splitting.  An abuse of children which is increasingly visible to the outside world.

The voices of children have been drowned out by the adults clamouring for control of the divorce and separation landscape for a very long time.

Increasingly, we can hear them.


 

24 comments

  1. Karen, I enjoyed reading the story of the little boy hiding his love for his mum in his shoes!

    My little boy who left at 13 and is now 20 has also kept his love hidden…. You know how it goes!!

    On a night just like any other I got a knock at the door and there was my son standing with a “Hello mum, I need to talk with you” It wasn’t all a fairy story because he wouldn’t come in the house! I looked down and saw his father sitting in the passenger seat. We talked for nearly 2hrs and due to a disability I had to say I couldn’t stand up any longer! It was quite the conversation at the start but as it progressed and I told him my truth, he left saying he needed to go process all we had talked about but would be back!

    I have no doubt the last person he wanted to come with him was his father, and I can only assume that I never got the goodbye hug for daddy would have seen it!

    I’m still waiting for the return call to discuss more of what happened or indeed what didn’t happen when he comes back!

    I am so proud of him, how much courage must it have taken for him to walk up to the front door to face me after all that happened! My daughter who is 16 and lives with me, and whom her daddy never bothers with told me later he told her he wanted to see me but couldn’t get up without his daddy being suspicious, so he let his daddy come along!!
    It truly is a hard road but for the sake of our kids who will eventually see the light we have to keep strong, keep the faith and keep walking! The love is there… just hidden for now!

    Frankie x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Children young enough to believe on Santa given the authority to reject a parent from their lives is so wrong.They have no autonomy in any other respect. It is very rare they have the ability or opportunity to overturn this arrangement as absence and time will further endorse their decision.

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    1. That is the problem Moira, the way in which their ‘decision’ is upheld in the world, deepening and entrenching the harm that the child has been forced to collude in against their own self.

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  3. Karen, thank you for the increasing insight you are providing.
    I have a question though: do you think a child can heal on its own? Mine are now 17 21 and 23. Completely attached to their father.
    I stopped all court actions and went silent. Only birthdaycards are now on my list. My oldest son recently moved house and I have no adress anymore, because he is afraid I will turn up there. No contact there is possible aa I am blokked everywhere else.

    Back to my question for you: can they heal by them selves and return one day? Hopefully before I die? Or do I need to persue any action? Say with the father? (No contact their is possible)

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    1. Hi Caroline, My experience with older children is that they hit a time when the cognitive dissonance of what they are doing becomes overwhelming. Amy Baker’s research tells us that most children do reconnect by the time they are in their late twenties and that is my experience in doing this work too. However. I see many adults who are reconnected to a parent but who have not properly resolved the split state of mind. This means that the reconnection can feel to them and the parent somewhat blocked. The issue is that the splitting is a defence which if it is not resolved, does not drop and so continues to prevent the felt sense of connection. I will write some more about this next week as it is what I am researching right now and there are helpful things to do as a parent which can assist adult children to think more critically and uncover ways of finding deeper connection and resolution. You cannot do anything with their father at this stage, unless he is going to be willing to work with you and I guess he is not. The hyper attachment to father is therefore what you need to think about in terms of flagging to your children how others in the world live their lives. I will write more about it to help you. K

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will look forward to your writing about ‘… helpful things to do as a parent which can assist adult children to think more critically…’.
        This is much needed. Single steps have been taken, but they remain single steps. And we remain in the lighthouse and on the edge of the quicksand. Rope in hand.

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    2. Hi Caroline. Thanks for your post. Your situation is very close to mine and I too struggle to know what to do as my children are older. I only recently discovered Karen’s website and it has changed my life. But knowing others are going through this is a comfort in a strange way. Mainly because I thought my experience was unique and now I know it isn’t. Thank you

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      1. Hi John! Karen is a life saver for me to hold on to and cope. We are unfortunately in the same boat and that is not our fault. Keep your sanity and live your life. Hoping one day, children will be strong enough to find their way back. But I am not waiting. They are always welcome.

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      2. Hi John – same age as my boys, there are many of us in the same boat, don’t worry you are not alone

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  4. Again I think of the Lighthouse metaphor. Standing silent, sending its persistent light outward. Yes, they may ignore the light, keep their backs to it, but it will cast a shadow. A shadow where they are the focus. And when, and only when, they are able to face that shadow, their self, only then can they turn back to the lighthouse.

    May the light burn long enough. Because this all ends eventually.

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  5. All this is very hard to read Frankie. I wish now I had not let my ex control how she spoke to the children about the divorce, refusing any structured time with me was pretty fundamental. Given what I hear from them they knew about the divorce and the finances. All that has caused them to pretty much cut all ties with me and my family, they barely talk to me now. They are 17 and 15 now, and they were 15 and 13 at the time I chose to leave. Everyone says they will come back, but they wont get that chance until they leave home, in reality I have to wait on the side lines.

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    1. Tiger, We all have to wait on the sidelines, but we must stay strong while we wait! I understand its hard to read but what else can you do? Many alienated kids will not be able to understand and as Karen says may be in their late 20’s before they gain an understanding of what’s happened to them!

      Me as a mum, all I can do is wait and I don’t say that lightly! I spent a fortune and 5 years involving courts, solicitors and a very outdated, not fit for purpose Social Services department!!
      At times I was suicidal, but I discovered Karen’s blog and realised it wasn’t my fault, and I can’t control other people’s actions. I had no option but to be strong in the hope my son will return to my life some day!
      I apologise if my comments offended you but I take comfort in how other people view the scenario for alienated parents and children when it strikes straight to the heart of the matter!
      All we can do is hope and as I enter my 8th year without my son in my life I do take comfort from knowing I did all I could to save my son!
      At times I felt I was going mad but you have to try and keep strong for when your children do see what has happened because of their alienating parent be it mother or father!
      I count myself lucky I have my 16 year old daughter who sees the situation as it is, and who I must stay strong for…. she asked for none of this! I don’t go to bed any night without wishing I’d been smarter and saw what my ex husband was doing but as abusive and cruel as he was, I never saw this coming!
      Frankie x

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      1. Thank you Frankie. So good to know you’re not alone. I take comfort in having learned that this is something that happens to others as I could not understand what had happened and why my children had rejected me after being a loving and involved parent for so long. I feel so much guilt thinking there must be some way I can solve all this. But these blogs and everyone’s comments help me realise some things are out of my control. John

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  6. It’s hard to hold on to hope, especially when you’re an older parent like me.
    The only point I would make is that, although these cases are now in the canon of case law, they are so because they’re so rare. I don’t know how long it will take for that awareness to filter down to the lower courts and I don’t believe cafcass can ever be reformed. They are fundamentally hateful; married to, and driven by an agenda that has nothing to do with the welfare of children.

    Thanks, Karen, and please keep going. That’s all.

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  7. Phil, who hadn’t seen his son for some fifteen years or so, had us all convinced that the world was being taken over by feminists who wanted total control but never took responsibility for whatever went wrong, always defaulting to the de facto position of masculine coercive control was to blame for all grievous circumstance.

    Jill was wondering how all this rhetoric was going to help in his quest to recover a relationship with his son whom Phil last saw when a mere six years old.

    Jill couldn’t see how Phil’s protestations would encourage his son to approach him. It seemed to Jill that Phil was asking his son to turn his back on his mother, who had spent the last fifteen years as a devoted parent to him.

    Your son, Chris, she said wasn’t he an avid Stoke City supporter, his bedroom bedecked with all sorts of red and white paraphernalia? Didn’t you take him to all those home games, proud father, sharing your passion?

    Of course, piped John.

    Then why are you now telling him they are rubbish and that Birmingham City, arch rivals, are the best team in town and more worthy of his adulation?

    ………………….

    Phil pondered a while and then said, I’m hurt, I’m still angry, it’s just not right.

    I’m sorry said Jill, very sorry for you both. What do you want to happen?

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  8. Thank you, Karen, for your words. For some time now I have been reading your articles regularly. They help me a lot to get the right words for what has happened and is still happening with my children and me. My son is 16 years old, my daughter is 10 years old. Both live with their father, the youngest son at 7 years lives with me. He is the reason why I get up every day and can still feel something like joy and happiness.

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    1. All very sad to read and digest. I guess that some parents who are in control/looking after children with absent parents may do so in “their (as in the childs)” best interests. I have to read back on previous emails and realise that some alienation was intentional (over finance especially – which filters down eventually), and some was not. Also after attending a course run by Karen, I read and digest what has been said and what others have said to me, and how the child can feel in a divorce. And of course some alienation was not intentional, some was out of the wanted/desired control of the children – but isn’t that the same thing ?. For those who struggle the only thing I have learned is to be true of your relationship with your children, they do love you, the bond is there and it will come back. I am now divorced and moved out 2 years ago, but have only had quality time twice, the last being 2018. Its very hard, and its not fair, but sometimes there is little you can do but live your life and tell them you love them all the time (even if you get nothing back).

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  9. Jill wasn’t one to miss a window of opportunity.

    By the look on Phil’s face you could tell he had been affected by Jill’s story. There was a sort of blank stare, frozen and sad, eyes large and deep, unblinking.

    Stoke City v Wolverhampton Wanderers, a Cup match, Spring 2009, the Fox & Hounds a pre-match drink.

    We met these guys in the Pub, which was packed with football fans all in eager anticipation of the forthcoming match, hoping that their team would win. In these situations it is easy to meet people because you are all focussing on the game, there is a good feeling of fervour, excitement, a real buzz about the place.
    It’s easy for those not too familiar with protocol to end up in the wrong drinking hole, but it was only because we got chatting that we realised we were talking to the opposition (they weren’t wearing their team’s colours). In only an hour or so we would be screaming blue murder at one another from opposite ends of the stadium in support of our respective teams. And yet here we were having a good old jolly together, who would have thought we were arch enemies of old? The commonality was the game, something that immersed, absorbed us all. The difference was the sworn allegiance, come what may.

    Clashes were inevitable, rivalries abounded. Sometimes they would flare into full blown fisticuffs, mob versus mob.

    How was it that seemingly normal people could end up so bitterly opposed to one another?
    What was it that, without judgment, enabled people with a common interest and goal to be civil to one another, even pals.

    …………………

    Simon said Jill was missing the point, “you can’t expect people to change their minds who have become ensnared in a mindful obligation”.
    …………………

    Shane said he couldn’t see that Jill was offering anything new, anything workable.

    ………………….

    Carl said that Jill’s story was relatable in the sense that if you changed the way you look at situations, the situation changes. Just when you think all doors are closed to you, a little self-reflection can be enabling.

    …………………..

    Sadiq said that psychological barriers were there to be breached and Jill was astute in her observations.

    This group of players had taken on their very own sense of the familial.

    ………………..And so the familial lurched and stuttered forward in it’s own inimitable way, conversations criss-crossing, juxtaposing and bouncing off one another like summer lightning flickering electrical discharge across a lake.

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  10. Living with just the hope my child will come back isnt enough anymore!!!! And all the time and beautiful moments we miss….. Can never be replaced!!!! Shouldn’t have to miss these things in the 1st place!! There’s no healing without my son!!!! And i cant do this on hope alone…… And live with this heavy heart for 6 more years or so!!! There’s NO WAY!!! NOR SHOULD ANYONE HAVE TO TRY TO!!! Sorry….. Turned into a rant!!!

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    1. Dear Marcia, if you stay on that road you won’t stay healthy. Time has changed the outcome of your pictured future. It is different. The sooner you start living your own life, the better it is. You give your children roots and wings. It has to be enough to cope without you. Hold on to your own life. That is all that is left.
      Ofcourse I know what you are saying, but it is not going to get you anywhere.

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  11. Sending you a hug Marcia, we all need a rant now and again including me!

    I’m hoping that Karen might have some useful advice when (hopefully) she writes her post as she suggests in her reply to Caroline above……… Quote: “The hyper attachment to father is therefore what you need to think about in terms of flagging to your children how others in the world live their lives. I will write more about it to help you. K”

    I think there are a few of us on here with adult children – beyond the reach of any court – who are still stuck in enmeshed role with the other parent and we could all do with that kind of input!

    Living in hope is indeed hard.

    Kind regards, Willow

    Today I found a very (very) long letter to my parents from way back in 2004 describing in tiny detail the summer/autumn of 2004 which happened to be the only one where I wasn’t accused of spoiling my husband & daughter’s holiday (the holidays that just happened to be my holidays too). The many pages of that newsletter, type letter were sanitised and very upbeat. They describe another life, a life where I was a targeted parent (often a bullied wife and parent) but not yet fully alienated. It describes good times that I’d almost forgotten – our trip over land via Austria to Slovenia where we met a cyclist who had cycled all the way to our Slovenian campsite from Arnhem, Holland, on his way to the Olympic Games in Athens; the story of the lost village where we staying which had been flooded in a mining accident and cost 250 people their lives; the stealing of my caravan keys while were all sleeping on a service station in East Germany after I left a small side window in the caravan open because it was baking hot … waking up to someone trying to find the right key to enter our caravan while daughter slept through it all. All things that should have made us a very happy family but in the end meant nothing to anyone but me . So sad because we could have had it all.

    Today, I sent a copy of that 2004 letter to my daughter (and her husband) with the words “Hope you’ll read it and enjoy remembering.” Whether she will or not …. who knows? I expect to hear nothing as per usual.

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