Living On the Borders: Psychopathology and Alienated Children

Let’s begin the new year with thinking about the way which the alienated child suffers when they are triangulated into the adult distress of family breakdown. Not a happy topic, but one which is at the very core of what we are working with when we work with families affected by a child’s rejection of a parent.

I have written and spoken many times about the need to differentiate those children who are rejecting a parent because of the harm that the parent has caused to the child. Such children do not display the signs of psychological splitting which denote the child who has been triangulated into the adult relationship. It is the outright rejection of the parent, accompanied by behaviours of idealisation of the aligned parent and contempt and disdain for the rejected parent, which point to the child’s alienation.

Children who are alienated are alienated from their own selves first. What this means is that they have been forced to develop what Winnicott called the ‘false persona’ which is a protective self which protects the true self from completely disintegrating. What is clear about children who develop this false self, is that they are having to maladapt their attachments, their strategies for staying mentally integrated and their behavioural responses to their parents in order to avoid serious psychological collapse. The development of the false self is a trauma based response to pressure being placed upon them, it occurs over time (chronic onset) or in an instant (acute onset) and when it happens, it is the child’s only recourse to going on with normal life in a way which is possible for them to manage.

In that respect, the alienated child is protecting the self first, finding a way to continue to live which does not completely destroy their psychological self. I call this ‘living on the borders’, because it is clear that these children are skating along the edges of surviving psychopathology which is unrecognised and unrelieved in too many cases.

I work with alienated children. Close up, I see the way in which they are placed into impossible positions. From a place of unconscious enjoyment of childhood, they are brought into the lives of their parents and asked to take sides, this occurs consciously as in the parent consciously manipulates the child and unconsciously in that the parent covertly manipulates the child to feel afraid of one parent and to take care of the needs of the other. This is grim place to exist for a child, who is robbed of their unconscious self and caused to live an anxious life, constantly seeking to take care of a parent. The child becomes either terrified of aggression or abandonment, living in limbo and forced to constantly be on alert for signs that a parent may not be there when they get back. At its worst, the alienation of a child is the use of the child to further malicious hatred towards the other parent, at best it is the unconscious plea of a parent who is unable to manage separation of the self from the child. In cold reality, it is abuse of the child, nothing more, nothing less and it is manifest in societies all around the world, causing too many children to lose their precious childhood years in which play should be the major focus not parental caretaking.

Working with alienated children enables awareness of the different ways that they suffer psychopathology, either they become maladapted in their own behaviours or they are exposed to the pathological problems of a parent. Left alone, without anyone recognising their plight, these children have struggled, across the years, to recognise and be recognised in terms of their suffering.

One of the reasons why alienation of children has been left hidden in the long grass for so long, is the way in which the problem is constantly located in the landscape of adult separation. When the narrative about divorce and separation is sharply focused upon the needs of adults and when ideological campaigns wrap up the needs of children with the rights of their parents, the impact on children is lost.

Divorce and separation are a fact of life and alienation of children, which was for decades, overlooked as being something that people claimed was happening, when in fact the child was making a justified choice, is no longer hidden in the long grass. Yesterday I watched Baroness Catherine Meyer founder of the organisation PACT, which has long campaigned against abduction of children after divorce, speak eloquently about alienation of children in the second reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill in the UK House of Lords. Baroness Meyer said –

I have long been concerned that, when people talk of domestic abuse, their frame of reference is exclusively adults. Unfortunately, children are the collateral damage from an abusive adult relationship. I therefore welcome the Government’s amendment to include in the definition of domestic abuse victims

“a child who … sees or hears, or experiences the effects of, the abuse, and … is related to” the individuals. This is a step forward but it is not enough. It does not capture the full horror of when the abuser parent uses the child as their weapon of choice.

In my almost 20 years of running a charity, I saw this happen time and again. The abuser will typically put pressure on the child, denigrating the other parent or telling the child that the other parent does not love it anymore. Indoctrination of this kind, as easily perpetrated by an abusive father as by an abusive mother—this is not gender related—is not just the poisoned fruit of a thirst for revenge. It is also deliberately intended to persuade the child to bear witness against the other parent in family court proceedings.

Of course, there are circumstances in which a child is fully justified in not wanting further contact with a parent, but I am talking about a situation in which a child’s hostility towards one parent is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent. That is known as parental alienation. Just imagine the distress and confusion that it causes the child. Caught in a conflict of loyalty between the child’s two parents, the child is vulnerable and easily coerced into making false allegations in court, destroying the life and reputation of the abused parent and denying them all contact with the child for no good reason.

Baroness Meyer 2021

This speech by Baroness Meyer, encapsulates, for me, the way in which Domestic Abuse has become so entwined with gendered ideological notions of what DA is, that the reality that some children, are used by mothers and fathers to further their own aims against the other parent, has been overlooked entirely. Tucked away in a small corner of a long debate, in which many from the House of Lords spoke about women and the abuse they suffer, (entirely overlooking the needs of many children), is a beacon of light and hope for children living on the borders of psychopathology, who have hitherto not been seen or heard other than in the Family Courts where some Judges have recognised at last, their desperate need for help.

In my view, this form of child abuse deserves its own recognition, separate from and entirely independent of domestic abuse debates, which can too easily subsume the needs of children into ideologically driven narratives. Whilst I hope that the issue receives the attention it deserves in the Bill which is passing through parliament, my eggs are not all in this basket, in terms of how alienated children will receive the help they need in the coming months and years.


News From the Family Separation Clinic

The Lighthouse Project

This year more than any other year before, we will be working to bring information, guidance and support to families affected by the alienation of a child. Working with partners around the world, we will be bringing parents and professionals a series of two hour seminars designed to build understanding of the needs of alienated children, how to help them, how to help the self and how to convey the problem to professionals who work in this field.

The Lighthouse Project, which is my name for the work we are doing to bring low cost services to families around the world, will be partnering with other professionals, to bring a wider range of help to families, including free seminars. Check back here regularly for details.

Training for Professionals

We will also be producing training courses for professionals which will be delivered online this year due to the Pandemic. We are currently working with a partner from Sweden to develop these resources which will be available later this year.

Partnership Work

Mediation Training

In continuation of our partnership work with the Family Mediation Association in the UK this year, we will be delivering more courses for mediators, including our new six module course which is psycho-educational and aims to assist people to be mediation ready.

In addition to our work with FMA, we are working with mediators around the world to assist in developing their understanding and skill set in helping alienated children and their families.

Child and Adolescent Protection Centre in Zagreb

We continue our partnership work with the Child and Adolescent Protection Centre in Zagreb both in furthering awareness of the needs of alienated children and families and in sharing learning about working with alienated children. Senior clinicians from the Centre, will join us over this coming year, in delivery of online seminars for parents and professionals.

Croatia has recently been suffering from earthquakes which will inevitably impact upon the psychological health of the country during the pandemic. Our thoughts and good wishes are with our colleages during this difficult time.

European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners

After a hugely successful online conference in September 2020, the EAPAP Board, will shortly meet to discuss the next EAPAP Conference, news here soon.

Conferences

Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall will present online, with colleagues Kelley Baker and Amy Eichler at the AFCC Annual Conference this year. Entitled ‘When the Child Says No’ this online presentation will look at psychological splitting and how to address this in court managed interventions.

Supervision

Supervision of cases is currently being delivered in Hong Kong, Sweden, the UK, Israel and the Republic of Ireland. For information about supervision, please contact office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk.

An international supervision group has been convened by the Clinic, to support senior clinicians. Currently comprising colleages from Croatia, Malta, Republic of Ireland, UK, USA and Israel, this group is open to applications from senior practitioners who wish to work in the model used by the Family Separation Clinic. Please email us at office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk, if you are interested in joining this group.

6 comments

  1. Brilliant as always Karen.
    Share concerns on the proposed bill. At the end of the day “the system” makes too much money at the moment and the current laws and practices would need to be turned on their head for big change in attitudes of courts Cafcass and yes the police who stand by and watch this mental abuse.

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  2. Baroness Mayer’s statement may be a beacon of light to you, Karen, but it will have zero affect on Government strategy, unfortunately.
    We have heard similar before from senior Judges, MPs, Charities etc. Nothing happens – ever.

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    1. I think if you read to the end of my post CMM you will see I’m not putting my faith in it. I disagree though that senior judges are not acting, you only need to look at recent case law to see how decisive they are.

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      1. The problem with waiting for govt is that the ideological campaign groups have so much power & they’re interest is not in children.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I just wish change would happen quickly. It has been a long wearisome road, not least for the children.

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  4. I agree, this is a child protection issue. Parental alienation is the outcome from a child being abused. The relational trauma induced by one parent. In child protection realm the statistics on which gender abuse their children would be confronting for extreme feminists. As rejected parents we are left to our own devices to save our children from this abuse. It’s crazy. Same as knowing our child is being sexually abused by the other parent and we are left to the job of trying to help our child knowing we can’t get them removed from that parent because no one sees or believes in sexual abuse.

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