The work being done in families affected by alienation of children is best described as ‘containing the uncontainable.’ When families separate, most struggle in the first few months but find a way to make the crossing safely. Those who do not are those families where other difficulties, hidden until the family breakdown occurred, come sharply into light. In doing so, those difficulties breach the ordinary everyday boundaries of the family. Let me give an example.
When families are together they replicate the patterns of behaviours which are learned in childhood by each parent. If mom grew up with strong messages of ‘do your best’ and ‘behave yourself’ and dad grew up with ‘anything goes’ and ‘children are equal to adults’ then the psychological wrangling between these two when they first become parents, will be to find either a happy middle ground or one will be forced to bend to the other’s will. In terms of how that operates on a day to day basis when the family is together, most will find a way to live in the moment and make things work. Some will not. When parents separate, some will find a way to make partnerships that work for their children, some will recreate the internal struggle within the family when it was together and a small minority will enter into an uncontained (and uncontainable) state of distress, in which the crisis of the separation, allows the leakage of repressed psychological material to erupt.
Within this small group, are those parents who as children, suffered early attachment disorder. Early developmental difficulties, lead to behavioural patterns in adulthood which can be termed compulsive. (Johnstone and Roseby 1997). Unresolved harm, done to the adults in childhood, can drive problematic patterns of behaviours in the crisis of divorce.
Similarly, patterns of coercive control, enacted within the marriage, can erupt into uncontainable patterns of behaviours which triangulate children into the adult relationship when the family separates. For children who themselves, may have suffered early developmental trauma, this brings significant risk of exposure to leakage adult psychological and emotional distress.
All of these conditions are seen in families where children reject a parent outright in the absence of anything that a parent has been found to have done to cause that. Finding out what lies beneath the alignment and rejection behaviours in children in this group of families, is what we are doing when we assess and differentiate the problem.
Treatment of this problem however, is an entirely different matter. When the differentiation process is complete and the child’s route into the psychologically split state of mind – (children who reject a parent in circumstances where the cause of that is triagulation into adult distress, show a clear pattern of induced psychological splitting), treatment is focused upon relieving the pressure upon the child so that the split state of mind integrates.
I come to this work with one focus only and that is the harm that is done to children who are induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation. My work is with those children and families where this occurs and those children who, over the years since rejecting a parent, have struggled to integrate the split state of mind this caused. I work with adult children who struggle with the impact of having rejected a parent in childhood as well as children in the here and now. All of these children tell the story of living through the uncontained and (at the time), uncontainable emotional and psychological eruption of their family. The story of family separation for this group of families, is of volcanic eruptions of pain, blame, projection, rage, terror and fear. In the midst of this, children tell their stories of having carried the responsibility for preventing parents from psychologically disintegrating and the impact of that on their lives.
Doing this work with children in the here and now, is about containing the uncontainable and putting boundaries around the unboundaried emotional and psychological eruptions experienced by adults, so that children are protected. When children feel protected, the risk of being triangulated decreases and their capacity to enjoy life unencumbered by the responsibility to protect a parent emerges again. Doing this work with adults, is about taking them back to that point of eruption and retracing the ways in which they took up the responsibility to protect parents from disintegration.
Far away from beliefs that those of us who do this work are against parents, our work is, in fact, to help parents to focus upon the needs of their children and to provide them with support to relieve children of the burdens that uncontained emotions place upon them. Some parents understand this and work with us to put in place the necessary boundaries. Others are unable to, focused only upon furthering the patterns of behaviours which are rooted in defences from their own childhood. During treatment of families, those who can understand are differentiated from those who can’t. Where parents cannot understand and cannot utilise help to contain the uncontained material, child protection protocols guide further work so that the child is not continually exposed to a reality which has its basis in projection and blame.
Containing the uncontainable is something that I have spent my working life doing with families. I do this because of the deep harm that children suffer when they are exposed to adult psychological and emotional distress and triangulated as little helpers who attempt to resolve what is, for them, unresolvable.
I do this work because of the life long impact some of these children suffer and because this harm is hidden, it is ignored and it is covered up, by those who seek to roll up the experience of children into the needs of their parents. These children have already found themselves rolled up into the psychological and emotional issues of their parents, they need help to be separated from that, not further immersed in it.
In telling me the story of his adult daughter, found in a mental health hospital in her twenties, after two decades of being enmeshed into the emotional and psychological life of her mother, one father described the reality of the life long impact of this on children.
Forced to reject her father and silenced in terms of her own psychological life, this young woman had kept her father’s address with her all of those years. When her own mental health broke under the traumatic impact, the treating team found this address and called for her father.
At the end of the story of this uncontained and uncontainable family breakdown, this father said to me in tears, – ‘suffer the little children and as adults, they still do.’
That is the reality of what happens to children who suffer uncontained relational trauma in divorce and separation. That is why we do this work.