Self Sovereignty is the right to self determination, the ownership of your own mind and freedom to choose how you will live.
An unconscious experience of childhood, is the freedom to live as a child, in the world of play and fantasy, in preparation for the responsibilities of older teenage years and adulthood.
Working with children who are triangulated into the divorce and separation of their parents, shows me that we have not yet got a complete grip on how we support the rights of the child. Reviewing the year’s campaign battles around the family courts, it is not surprising to me that there is a lack of clarity on what we mean by children’s rights. Some would say that children have the right to choose how they have relationships with parents after family separation, others would say that children should be living in a fifty/fifty shared care situation. I would say that we have not yet understood that what is taken from children during divorce and separation, is their sovereign right to self and an unconscious experience of childhood. These two things are, in my view, the core of what we should be fighting to protect when we examine how families are helped after family separation, and yet they are often the two most disposable concepts in practice.
How can a sovereign right to self and an unconscious experience of childhood sit side by side? On the face of it, we are saying that children have the right to grow up unconsciously and yet, at the same time, have the inalienable right to a sovereign self. In my view, these two things are perfectly paired, the one supports the other and if we truly understand what we mean when we say that these things are stolen from children in divorce and separation, perhaps more of us would be fighting to protect these things, instead of fighting to uphold the rights of parents on either sides of the gendered war which constantly rages in this field.
A sovereign right to self means to be able to truly experience your own true self. Your healthy self, which in childhood is largely unconscious and enacted through fantasy and play. The unconscious in childhood, is a rich tapestry of experiences, not all of which are understood by the child but which contribute to the development of the brain and the sense of self. In childhood, more than at any other time in our lives, we could and should be living in our unconscious world, it is the crucible in which our future selves are created and yet, so many people in the field of family separation, seem to believe that breaking into that unconscious place, (which should be sacrosanct and fiercely protected), is what child protection is all about.
Children are dragged into adult matters the moment someone says to them, tell me about your mummy and daddy, or show me how you feel about your mum and dad. Often, when professionals do this, they believe that they are creating a safe space for children and they ‘buddy up’ to the child, in an attempt to create a sense of safety. What these professionals do, is fracture the child’s trust in adults even further and they give the child the message that the child must now be in charge of what happens.
Children who have been triangulated into adult matters in divorce and separation are exposed to the leakage of parental feelings about each other. Now the two people who once kept the child safe, are the two who cause the child the most anxiety. Fear of loss of one or the other or both, stalks the child’s unconscious mind daily. Is there any wonder that a child becomes clingy or terribly afraid that if they leave their mother, she may not be there when they return?
Asking a child who is traumatised by the separation of their parents, to tell someone how they feel about it, is like burning down the childhood home and then asking the child which room they would like to live in, it is harmful to the child and it causes more anxiety not less. Nevertheless, professionals from all over the world, continue to believe in the idea that consulting children and making them more involved in decisions about their care after family separation, is what is needed. It is not.
More than ever these days I understand that children who suffer from alienation, are alienated from their own sovereign self first. (Johnson and Roseby 1997). I recognise this from the many hours I have spent with alienated children in recovery. I also recognise, that at the heart of this problem, is a two step formula which is guaranteed to create alienation of the child. The first step is to break into the child’s unconscious experience of childhood by triangulating them into adult feelings, (your father/mother left us), the second step is to traumatise the child, either by causing fear of abandonment, (I cannot cope alone, if you see him I will be so scared until you get back), or terrorising the child into fear of aggression (I can do to you what I did to her).
I will say that again.
Alienation of a child is caused by –
- Shattering the child’s unconscious experience of childhood by triangulation into adult matters.
- Traumatising the child via fear of abandonment or aggression.
The first outcome of this two step approach to alienation is that the child relinquishes their unconscious experience and becomes conscious of adult matters in the wrong place at the wrong time in their lives. Now we have a parentified or adultified or spouseified child (Minuchin 1974).
The second outcome of this two step approach, is that the child is terrorised (traumatised) into hyper attachment to the parent who is threatening either abandonment or aggression.
I will repeat that.
Outcomes of alienation of a child are –
- The child is now in the wrong place in the family hierarchy and conscious of the need to regulate a parent.
- The child is now traumatised, alienated from their own sovereign self and hyper vigilent to the needs of the parent who has caused this.
The alienated child learns that the world is not a safe place.
In my work with alienated children, I see how close their suffering is to that of children who have been sexually abused. Children who have been sexually abused, have had their unconscious experience of childhood shattered, by being used by an adult for sexual gratification. The child is now in the wrong place in the family hierachy at the wrong time in their lives and conscious that the world is not a safe place. Children who have been sexually abused, have been traumatised by having their sovereign rights to their physical selves shattered, they have often been threatened by abandonment (I will tell you mother and you will be blamed and sent away) or aggression (if you tell anyone I will kill you).
Sexual abuse of children used to be a secret, until those children able to speak out about what they suffered were able to do so. Now we understand that sexual abuse of children is a theft of childhood, an intrusion into the child’s inalienable right to sovereign control of their own body and an act of child abuse.
Alienation of children is still a secret and many around the world are fighting to keep it that way by distorting what alienation is and trying to mischaracterise the issue as a battle between abusive fathers and protective mothers.
Sexually abusing a child removes their right to an unconscious childhood and their own developing sovereign self in favour of gratifying an adult’s sexual needs.
Alienating a child removes their right to an unconscious childhood and their own developing sense of self in favour of gratifying an adult’s emotional and psychological needs.
Each as damaging as the other. One still a secret to be hidden away, in favour of upholding the rights of women over men.
As 2021 unfolds, let us hope that vaccinating children against abuse in divorce and separation, through ever growing awareness of what alienation of a child really is, grows to be a worldwide project.
Johnston, J. and Roseby, V., 1997. In The Name Of The Child. New York: Free Press.
Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy . Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.