losing the labels: Evidencing Clinical practice with alienated children and families

The Family Separation Clinic will welcome university researchers next week as the evaluation of over a decade of work with alienated children and families gets underway. The Clinic has been active in court mandated interventions in the UK since 2009 and in recent years has extended its work to include Croatia, USA, Sweden, Hong Kong, Israel, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. With a substantial case load of successful interventions with families, this evaluation will examine several areas of service delivery, including outcomes of residence transfers undertaken in the UK and outcomes of supervision of residence transfers in other countries. Clinical work with families affected by alienation will be examined along with the experiences of children who are now in their majority, who were moved in residence transfer with support from the Clinic. This evaluation will be undertaken by a team of researchers funded separately, to ensure the independence of the evaluation results. Results of this evaluation are expected in 2022 and will be the evidence base upon which a range of accredited training for court mandated interventions will be develped. We are excited by this opportunity to make visible to the outside world, the model of clinical assessment, differentiation and intervention, which has been developed over the past decade. This can be used in different legislative settings around the world, to treat the problem which is popularly known as parental alienation. In clinical terms, this is a well recognised defence in children, which when understood, can be more readily and properly, prevented and treated.

I say treated because that is what I mean. When we work with families affected by a child’s hyper alignment and rejection behaviours, we examine for the red flags which tell us that the child is suffering from induced psychological splitting. Those red flags, which are unique to the harm a child is suffering when they become alienated from their own self first and then from one of their parents, are determined not by using diagnostic labels but by understanding the relational dynamics which have become configured around the child. When we see hyper alignment and rejection behaviours, we know we are looking at family trauma, but to ensure that the family trauma we are looking at is caused by the parent to whom the child is aligned (as opposed to the rejected parent), we look more closely at the child to understand the quality of the hyper alignment and rejection. Is the hyper alignment accompanied by disdain and contempt for the rejected parent? If the answer is yes, then we look even closer at that child’s relationship with the parent to whom they are aligned. A child does not usually display disdain and contempt for a parent who has been abusive towards them, instead they display ambiguous feelings, sometimes, out of fear, they align with that parent in order to avoid being further harmed. What they do not do, is reject the parent with contempt and disdain and they do not display omnipotence (the belief that they and only they can control the outcomes within the family).

Notice that as I write about this, I do not use the popular label of parental alienation. In the UK, we do not need to use the popular label parental alienation because case law has established what the behaviours are that cause a child’s alienation of self and it has established the route to intervention AND to prevention.

As to alienation, we do not intend to add to the debate about labels.We agree with Sir Andrew McFarlane(see[2018] Fam Law 988) that where behaviour is abusive, protective action must be considered whether or not the behaviour arises from a syndrome or diagnosed condition.

It is nevertheless necessary to identify in broad terms what we are speaking about. For working purposes, the CAFCASS definition of alienation is sufficient:

When a child’s resistance/hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”

To that may be added that the manipulation of the child by the other parent need not be malicious or even deliberate.It is the process that matters, not the motive.Where a child’s relationship with one parent is not working for no apparent good reason, signsof alienation may be found on the part of the other parent. These may include portraying the other parent in an unduly negative light to the child, suggesting that the other parent does not love the child, providing unnecessary reassurance to the child about time with the other parent, contacting the child excessively when with the other parent, and making unfounded allegations or insinuations, particularly of sexual abuse. Where a process of alienation is found to exist, there is a spectrum of severity and the remedy will depend upon an assessment of all aspects of the child’s welfare, and not merely those that concern the relationship that may be under threat.

Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult

Since the Appeal Court Judgment in Re S was handed down in 2020, there has been no need in the UK to use parental alienation as a label in court. In fact in the UK, I would argue, that the label has never been necessary. When I began work in the field, the label was regarded as being a concept imported from the USA, the focus in court here, being the underlying psychological and psychiatric conditions in parents which created the dynamics which cause a child to align and reject.

Unfortunately, the importation of the concept of PA into the UK, has been accompanied by USA style campaigns against it, the most notorious of which has been the co-ordinated effort to convince the outside world that PA is a tool used by abusive men. This campaign, which is frankly at times, accompanied by some bizarre allegations by its campaigners, has dragged the project to establish alienation of children as a serious child protection issue, back into the fight about whether PA is a real thing or not. And therein lies the rub. Whilst those who work with families are doing so without having to refer to parental alienation, (except as a label which is in popular use), the campaigners are slogging out a battle about whether PA is a tool used by abusive men or whether it is real. The focus on children has been lost in this battle (which I would argue was the intention of the anti PA campaigners all along, because they want the focus to be on women) and the chance to educate the outside world about the pernicious harm to children, becomes lost in a fog of he said/she said gender war. It was ever thus.

Let’s go back to Re S and take the most cogent point from it in terms of how the issue of alienation is addressed in the UK Family Courts, because this is the reality of what is happening in the UK – (the campaign battle to prove or disprove parental alienation as a real thing is simply a side show).

A Where a process of alienation is found to exist, there is a spectrum of severity and the remedy will depend upon an assessment of all aspects of the child’s welfare, and not merely those that concern the relationship that may be under threat.

Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult

It could not be written in starker terms, that where a process of alienation is found, the remedy for the problem depends upon assessment of all aspects of the child’s welfare. This is not a fight about whether or not a child is alienated, this is about how a child became alienated, who is doing what to cause it and why are they doing it, what psychological and psychiatric issues are in play and how do those affect the child. Finally, the question is, what is the most appropriate intervention to address this?

It is incredibly important that parents understand that there is no need to use the label parental alienation in court in the UK. It is also vital that parents understand that telling a child that they are suffering from parental alienation, is never going to resolve the problem. For all the years that I have done this work I have been clear that going into court and telling a Judge that this is a case of parental alienation is foolish. I have also been clear that telling your child that they are alienated is equally foolhardy. Going into court and telling people who do not know your family, who have not observed your children and who are part of a system which is not primarily geared towards immediate forensic analysis , that a child is alienated, is going to fail as a strategy. How do they know that your child is alienated? For all they know, you could be an abusive parent who is using parental alienation as a cover for your own deficiencies – court personel, are as vulnerable to campaigning messages as anyone else. It takes time and patience to demonstrate the patterns which are seen in alienation cases and that means losing the label parental alienation and focusing upon the behaviours instead. Equally, alienation of children causes a defence in the child and you cannot take down a defence by telling someone they have a defence. The only way to remove the defence is to reorganise the dynamics so that defence can drop, this has never been more true than in cases of alienation of children. Therefore, your task as an alienated parent is to understand how to show the patterns of behaviours which have caused the child’s hyper alignment and rejection of you and show that to the court and ask that the power imbalance, which underpins the control that the alienating parent has over the child, is changed.

Treatment of alienated children has been my major focus for the past decade and more. It has been my goal at all times, to bring the reality of the harm to a child, which is flagged by the hyper alignment and rejection behaviours which are seen, into public consciousness. Helping the outside world to understand that when a child is induced to use the defence of psychological splitting in such circumstances, the child is suffering an alienation of the self from the self first. The child has developed a false self, a defence which if left untreated, not only removes the child’s right to an unconscious experience of childhood, but which leaves them with a lasting legacy of harm which they do not know that they have suffered until later in their lives.

My secondary goal has been to bring more people to do this work in ways that fully heal the split state of mind in alienated children. I have written reams of words in pursuit of these goals and worked with many families. Along the way I have been praised and pilloried, appreciated and attacked, I have found support in many surprising places and I have been subjected to campaigns to alienate me from others. I am the recipient of so many projections, all of which I understand, none of which I have allowed to get in the way of my overall goals.

But finally, here we are. We have arrived at a place where the work we have done with alienated children and families over a decade or more, will be collated and analysed in order to show the outside world exactly what can be done when a child says no after divorce and separation. In opening the doors to the Family Separation Clinic this way, our aim is to show what works, to analyse what gets in the way of successful treament and to evidence all of those words that I have written over all of these years.

I have worked with children of divorce and separation since 1991. Three decades later, as our work is analysed, understood and made transparent and those we have helped are invited to speak about their experiences, our clinical practice in this field will be evidenced and the model we have developed will be made visible and replicable. When it is, more will come and when they do, the thirty years I have spent talking, writing, training and working to flag the needs of children of divorce and separation, will have been worth it.


FSC Evaluation of Services

This project begins on May and runs to September 2022. First results will be available in April 2022 and will be presented at the fourth conference of the group of senior clinicians which is currently called EAPAP but which will change its name shortly to widen its clinical focus worldwide. The fourth conference of this group, will be held in Israel in spring 2022.

AFCC on Demand

This week we recorded our on demand clinical seminar for the AFCC Conference with Kelly Baker and Amy Eichler from the USA. Focusing upon the clinical partnership work between the Family Separation Clinic and two highly experienced clinicians in the USA, this seminar examined induced psychological splitting in children and how to assess, differentiate and treat this using the Family Separation Clinic model. This seminar can be viewed by those who register for the conference.

FSC Worldwide – Resources for Parents

The FSC Worldwide service offers access to webinars and resources for parents, some of which are free to watch as part of the Lighthouse Project, some of which are available at low cost. This service will go live shortly and access details will be announced here soon.

7 thoughts on “losing the labels: Evidencing Clinical practice with alienated children and families

  1. Hi Karen
    This article is an absolute belter!

    Every day we hear many parents obsessing about the ‘PA’ label. Before we can help them recover their children through the court system we have to do a lot of talking and coaching to encourage them to shed a label / slogan / misleading description we all know as PA. We have to painstakingly explain that, within England and Wales, the family court has acknowledged that children refuse / resist contact due to the influence of another person. They have been doing so for over 200 years! However, more recently the president, Sir Andrew MacFarlane and the higher courts have galvanised the court’s position in alienation cases. This culminated with the court of appeal’s judgment in Re S which you have quoted from.

    Paving the way for Re S, in Re L, an earlier, recent appeal, involving the resistance to / refusal of contact by a nine year old boy, the other person, or alienator, was a grandmother. In other cases the people alienated are grandparents, family or friends. Therefore, to label the alienation as ‘parental’ is utterly wrong and plainly misleading. The alienation is not always done by a parent and the alienated parties do not always include the parents. It does not make sense to label a process, or a result of it, by names which plainly do not apply! In fact it is delusional!

    Other cases since Re L have provided road maps and strategies for conducting these cases effectively and appropriately. This does not involving throwing around wrong or misleading labels. It also does not involve name calling such as Narcissist or border line. They focus simply upon proving a short list of behaviours which establish that a child is or will be harmed. We will shortly be describing these in order to explode the fanatical PA myth and obsession.

    This is about educating alienated people about what has worked and what will work.

    It is not about a pet ideology / construct that does not work and now has a long history of not working. ‘Doing the same things and expecting different results is a sign of madness’.

    I can think of only a very few cases where there have been specific findings of PA. It did not help to recover the child in another recent case, Re D. If anything, it has provided an impediment to repairing our most treasured relationships. Alienated people ignore these clear messages at their peril.

    I don’t know why many people and groups of people obsess about PA and doctrines from across the pond instead of taking on board clear messages from the very courts and the same people which they will need to turn to to recover their children.

    At present, I believe this is one of the most important pieces of information we can give victims. ‘PA awareness’ involves becoming streetwise about the harm which ideologies can inflict.Time is of the essence. DON’T WASTE IT!

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    1. I wondered if, for proving behaviours, having emails and text messages from one parent calling the other a loser and telling her that her children don’t need to respect her for just being her mother, would count towards evidence? I was a stay home parent with a baby, 2 school kids and no family in the country, he was gone for work 7am-7pm, my eldest was calling me names and being extremely rude to me (copying him) and when I tried to address with him by text (so he couldn’t physically intimidate me) he told me the kids didn’t need to respect me because I didn’t have any hobbies. More recently he decided I was a loser for not having a job. This suited him for 14 years, but now I’m back at university studying for a masters in social work, after 15 years looking after my kids, he decides I should be working. We don’t need my income. I am back at university so I can get a job and afford to leave and probably lots of legal fees. These are just some of the things I have in writing from him over the years, but they have all witnessed him aggressively shouting at me, pushing me, mocking me. But the eldest and middle to a lesser extent, idolise him for his power in the family. He won’t stop denigrating me to them unless there is some penalty for him. I guess I just wonder what kind of evidence is used in court to make them stop the alienating behaviours?

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      1. I don’t think he will stop until you leave Lucie and even then he will continue. Then patterns you describe are coercive control, it is that which you need to map and record carefully. However, having said you should leave (and you have plans to do so), you must be aware that in doing so the children are already aligned with him and are likely to become more so when you do. And so you need a plan of action in place which not only covers you leaving but covers your legal strategy for recovering the children. The texts you describe ARE evidence and you need to keep those safe because when it comes to it, they are part of the plan you must make to leave and take the children with you and prevent him from being able to denigrate you to them. He isn’t likely to stop alienating but you can remove the control he has over them so that they will stop reacting and it is that which you need to be thinking about. Escaping an abusive relationship and removing the children from the abuse at the same time should be your goal, how you enact that depends upon money, strategy and strength of mind, you can’t just leave, you have to have a plan and the back up support which ensures your plan is effective. Do not rely upon the children coming with you voluntarily, if they are already aligned to him, they are so afraid of him they will fight any attempt on your part to make that happen. Instead make a plan, see a solicitor, find a safe place to live, have funds to fight and be prepared to go through a process in which the children may need to either be sprung from him via the family court or, come to a place where they see for themselves what is happening – in these circumstances you have to have a safe place and show them you are strong enough to manage him. K

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  2. Karen this is an outstanding piece that, in my opinion is very valuable especially for those of us who are challenged in courtrooms about the words “parental alienation.” Thank you and be well.

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  3. Wonderful work.

    Feel free to contact me of you need a test subject.

    I qualify as a person who was alienated from her Mother and now have a child who is being alienated quite successfully from me.

    I would love to help.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so interested in the idea that this can be prevented. Do you have any information on how a parent could work from within to try and reverse signs of alienation? I’m so scared to leave by abusive partner because of the alliance he has with our eldest daughter. I lived in a fog of confusion at his subtle control of me that I didn’t see how much his denigration of me was impacting on my eldest. She is his chosen one. As he’s set her up to feel on his level in the family hierarchy – something I am trying to address by finding my own personal power again – my fear is that when we separate she will not only reject me completely, but will be able to bring along her younger brother and sister, who currently I have strong relationships with. My children live in this most dysfunctional situation, but I’m so fearful they will lose their mother completely when I initiate separation. I’m devouring everything I can find on this subject, but I can’t find anything about how to prevent it spreading to younger kids or how to address when it’s still mild. My daughter does seem to still have ambivalence towards me, she never wants to spend time with me but as we live together she still has to. He will never change his behaviour.

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