I came across the trailer of a film which is badged as being about a father’s coercive control of a child. It is heralded by anti-parental alienation campaigners as being about domestic abuse of a child, when in fact it is a classic depiction of how children are alienated by a father. As I have written before, the underlying dynamic which is present when a child becomes alienated, is the imbalance of power over the child. When one parent holds all the power and the other holds little or none of the balancing power, coercive control becomes all the more potent.

This film depicts the boy being able to tell someone, which means two things – a) he has a strong enough ego (sense of self) to do so and b) he is aware that on telling, his mother will have enough power to take action and keep him safe from his father. Those twin dynamics, are what keeps children safe from the splitting of the ego which occurs with the identification with the aggressor dynamic which causes alienation, first from the self and then from a loved parent.

When children’s sense of self (ego) is weak and they have witnessed powerful patterns of coercive control which have weakened the other parent’s capacity to fight back, their belief is that the parent who is being controlled cannot protect them and then splitting, (an unconscious defence against the anxiety), denial, (of the love for the parent who is to be rejected) and projection, (of negative aspects of self and other onto the rejected parent), relieves the anxiety that if they do not conform to the abusive parent’s wishes, they will be harmed next.

The current and constant battle between DA and PA campaigners is a real distraction from the reality of what so many children face in the post separation landscape. So much so that I find myself wishing that those who ‘get’ this film, would open their minds just a little bit more to recognise that what they readily recognise here, is what is happening to children of mothers who are alienated from their children. Of course, the reason they cannot accept that this is alienation, is because to do so, would be to recognise that this film could so easily be made to show a controlling mother who is causing her child to reject a father. These campaigners themselves defend against the reality that both mothers and and fathers control children. They do this by splitting off and denying the reality of maternal control of children and then projecting the belief onto fathers that only they can do harm in the post separation landscape.

Alienation of children and coercive control dynamics are intertwined. The child is triangulated into an inappropriate relational dynamic, they are made to feel that this is a coalition against the other parent, towards whom, they are encouraged to feel fear and anxiety. When a child is made to feel afraid and anxious by a parent and is made to keep this a secret, unless their ego is strong enough, they will use splitting as a defence.

Spotting the signs of alienation of children by fathers is about understanding the identification of the aggressor dynamic. Identification with the aggressor causes children to split the ego and the object which means that they split off their love for the parent they perceive as weaker and project onto that person the negative aspects of self, the parent they are identifying with and the rejected parent. The love they feel for that parent is disposed off into the unconscious and what arises in the child then, is a false self which idealises the perpetrator of abuse and rejects and devalues the loved parent.

Spotting the signs of alienation of children by mothers is about understanding enmeshment and parentification dynamics. Mothers who use their children as regulatory relationships to confirm for them their feelings about the ending of a relationship, the disappointment in the father, the anger and rage of abandonment (which also triggers alienation of children by fathers), are also creating reservoirs of anxiety in their children. Sometimes mothers will use readily recognisable coercive control dynamics, they will threaten and instil fear and anxiety into their children. But more often, alienating behaviours by mothers are covert, they are a pattern of suffocating enmeshment or they are a fixed belief that having left a relationship, their child should too.

Alienation of children in divorce and separation is caused by patterns of behaviours, some of which overlap with those behaviours seen in domestic abuse (as depicted in this film).

  • Significant power imbalance over the child (one parent assumes control and pushes the other out of the child’s everyday life)
  • Coercive control strategies both overt and covert
  • Causing a child to feel afraid of being abandoned (you can see him but I don’t know what that will make me feel or whether I will be here when you get back)
  • Labelling the other parent as being deficient or somehow harmful to the child
  • Triangulating the child into the adult relationship (we have escaped)
  • Terrorising the child into alignment (I will do to you what I have done to her if you do not do as I tell you)
  • Using the child to regulate adult feelings
  • Causing the child to believe that the other parent does not love them anymore

A child becomes alienated when they do not have a strong enough ego (sense of self) to withstand the psychological pressures placed upon them. Early develpmental trauma is one of the reasons why a child may not have a strong enough ego, this can be caused by being exposed to a pattern of coercive control behaviours when the family is together. It can also be caused by a pattern of enmeshment and parentification.

Relational family trauma in divorce and separation is far more complex than this short trailer shows us. When we are working to disentangle this, we must be aware of so many more signs than are shown here because children who are triangulated into adult issues at a time when the family is at its most fragile, maladapt their behaviours in order to survive. This boy manages to tell, far far too many do not. They are the children of the lost generations, the ones who suffered in silence, the children who were not helped.

Alienation of children is part of a pattern of domestic abuse and coercive control of children by fathers is the most easily recognised aspect of this. Until however, we recognise all of the signs and are collectively able to see that children can be triangulated by mothers as well as fathers, the splitting debate of DA versus PA will continue.