Following on from a couple of comments recently, I thought I would write a piece on leaving an abusive relationship when alienation of children is a risk. In our work with alienated parents, we are regularly presented with the problem of someone who managed to leave a relationship but at the same time, lost their children to the coercive control of the abusive parent. I understand that leaving an abusive relationship is difficult and that doing so can take enormous courage, (as well as careful planning), but I am always concerned that in managing to leave, so many do not understand the dynamic which causes the child to align with the abusive parent and reject the one who leaves. Therefore, In my view, anyone who is planning to leave an abusive partner, must first recognise the risks of the abuser turning their coercive control strategies onto the children.
Even if there has been no evidence of alignment with the abusive parent before leaving, there is still a very high risk that on being left behind, this person will seek to use the children to do one or more of the following –
- Bolster their sense of control over circumstances
- Regulate their sense of self
- Protect them from feelings of abandonment
- Regulate their rage at losing control
In very severe reactions, abusive parents may suffer serious psychiatric reactions such as the Medea Complex or in the case of fathers, intermittent explosive disorder, in which children’s lives are at risk due to the extreme desire for revenge and the inability to regulate behaviours.
The point at which an abused person leaves the relationship is the most dangerous point of all. It is when the control that the abuser holds over that person is about to be broken and when the abuser becomes aware of that, they will attempt to tighten their grip. On leaving an abusive relationship therefore, you must have all of your plans in place to keep you and the children safe before you take such a step. We work with too many parents who managed to escape an abusive relationship, who do not understand that what was done to them is now being done to their children. Being aware, well ahead of leaving, of the risk to children of being triangulated into the coercive control dynamic, is to be well prepared for protecting your children from what comes next.
Do not be confused by this post. I am not writing about people who leave relationships and then decide that the left behind parent is abusive. I am not writing about those who leave a relationship and on doing so decide that their children should too because if they’ve moved on, so should their children. I am writing about the abused parent who has suffered a campaign of coercive control, who is choosing to leave the relationship to protect themselves and their children from harm. There is a big difference between the two and whilst DA campaigners want to roll up all mothers who leave relationships into one homogenous group, the difference between an abused parent and children at risk of alienation and one who is claiming that they are protecting their children from an abuser, is clearly differentiated.
Differentiating the child who has been abused by a parent who is being rejected, (what we might call explained rejection), from the child who has been triangulated into a parent’s emotional and psychological reactions, who is rejecting because of that, (what might be called unexplained rejection), is all about understanding induced psychological splitting. Let me say something about explained rejection and unexplained rejection here because I am using different terms to justified and unjustified rejection, which are commonly used in this field. When I say explained rejection, I mean that there is something that a parent has done to cause the child’s rejection. We can explain it. Explained rejection might be evidenced by a parent having been abusive to the child, neglectful or frightening over a period of time. Differentiating this is very important, because unexplained rejection can also involve allegations of harm and fear and the child who is using splitting as a defence often presents as fearful (although the quality of this fear is very different from genuine fear).
Explained rejection is evidenced by fact finding in court cases. Unexplained rejection is also evidenced by fact finding. The difference in the child’s presentation in explained rejection and unexplained rejection is the presence of psychological splitting which is accompanied by contempt, disdain and an omnipotence in the child. The child in explained rejection, does not display disdain and contempt for a parent but instead wishes for the parent to change. The child who is being influenced in unexplained rejection, will readily show disdain, contempt, omnipotence and will echo the aligned parent’s narrative about the other parent.
Cared for healthily, children do not reject parents. They do not even reject abusive parents but rather they adapt their own behaviours to try and placate that parent. Only in situations where there are pathological patterns of behaviour, such as in domestic abuse, do children maladapt their behaviours and use psychological splitting as a defence. Children are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence when they are under threat and under pressure. In circumstances where they are witness to domestic abuse, there is a real risk that they will maladapt their behaviours and align with the abuser, taking on that parent’s behavioural patterns in order to regulate the abusive parent and protect themselves from suffering what they have witnessed being done to the other parent.
This means that a parent who is leaving an abusive relationship, must be able to find ways of protecting their child at the end of the relationship, this of course, ideally means, ensuring that the child leaves the dangerous situation at the same time as the parent because to leave the child behind, is to expose the child to the dynamic which will cause psychological splitting.
I recognise in writing this that leaving and taking the children with you is not always possible, especially when an abusive parent is in control of the children already. If you have to leave and cannot take your children with you, keep in mind that you may have to use external control to remove the power the abusive parent has over the child. This means the family court. If you are going to use the family court in these circumstances, here is a quick guide to managing the process.
- Time is of the essence. If you have left an abusive relationship and your children have aligned with the abuser and are refusing to see you, DO NOT WAIT TO ISSUE AN APPLICATION FOR CONTACT, the longer you leave it, in the hope that the children will come around, the worse it will get.
- All of your efforts to establish a contact routine should be recorded carefully.
- All of your communications about contact, should be in writing, should be polite, should be reasonable and should be child focused.
- Your proposals should be made regularly, you should not respond to any abusive emails, letters, texts or other communications but should keep them as a record.
- Keep a clear chronology of all of your efforts, do not make this emotional or weighted with huge amounts of evidence but keep it short and to the point. You should record the date, the proposal or communication and the response.
- Put together a short, neat, photographic record of your relationship with your children.
- If your children are angry/aggressive towards you during any contact you have, use therapeutic parenting skills to support them. Keep short, clear, detailed records of all issues arising in contact.
- Get support to keep healthy and manage your emotions, this is a marathon and not a sprint, you need to be strategic and resilient.
- When you go into court, write your position statement for court focus only on the facts – your children are rejecting you, there is no explanation for this, you are concerned for their welfare and want the court to investigate. You can explain that you have left the relationship because of abuse but do not focus upon this because it is unnecessary and distracting, this is about your relationship with the children, not your relationship with the other parent.
- Your position statement should be no longer than six pages, your short, neat, chronology of events can be appended to this.
- You must be cool, calm and collected so that when the other parent tells the court that you are unpredictable and the children are scared of you, this is recognised as a manipulative tactic.
- You can avoid the he said/she said bias of family court professionals by understanding that the family court is a place where you must put your case and your case must be carefully presented and coherent.
Children of divorce and separation are abused when their parent alienates them and this can be caused by abusive parents who frighten the child into alignment and abusive parents who enmesh the child into alignment.
As family court practitioners, we differentiate between the genuinely abused parent who is protecting their child in an explained rejection from one who is alienating the child in an unexplained rejection. We begin to do this, by understanding the following reality –
- Not every parent who is rejected is being alienated, some have caused the child to reject by their actions. In such circumstances, the rejection by the child will not present as induced psychological splitting but will be more ambiguous.
- Induced psychological splitting causes the child to reject in a recognisable pattern of behaviours, these include idealisation of one parent an demonisation of the other accompanied by disdain and contempt for the parent who is demonised.
- Induced psychological splitting is present when children are being pressured and that can be caused by both parents in conflict and using alienating strategies against each other.
- Fact finding on domestic abuse allegations is a must, to properly differentiate the case the clinic does not accept any cases, where allegations are in play, for treatment for alienation, without a judgment on disputed facts.
- Only when investigation has demonstrated that the rejected parent has not made any contribution to the child’s rejection, do we move into thinking this might be alienation.
- When we assess for alienation we look for the presence or absence of psychological splitting in the child. When we see this is present we move onto clinical observations of the child with the parent they are rejecting.
- This process can take weeks because we do not undertake snapshot assessments, we spend time with the family and examine the capacity for all members to change their behaviours in order to release the child from the dynamics causing alienation.
If you are an abused parent whose children are rejecting you, understanding the above can help you to manage the process of assessment and when intervention begins, you can assist through your understanding and use of therapeutic parenting skills, to free your child from the coercive control which has caused the rejection. Coercive control in such circumstances, is an unexplained rejection because the child who aligns to the abusive parent, will echo that parent’s narrative (my mum is mad/bad, my dad is dangerous/frightening), and will demonstrate contempt and disdain for the rejected parent. The child who is in a situation where they are rejecting because of something a parent has done, is not contemptuous and the omnipotence, which is created when the aligned parent gives the child permission or encourages a child to reject, is not present.
I know that there are parents out there who have been cut out of their children’s lives because they left and abusive relationship and the abusive parent took control of the children. Those parents, both mothers and fathers, are alienated from their children’s lives. Alienation of children, which causes alienation of the child’s self from the self (hence the false self which is omnipotent when the child is alienated), is an outcome of patterns of behaviours which include coercive control, enmeshment and parentification as well as other complex psychological and psychiatric issues.
Understanding all of this is the first step to protecting yourself and your children when you leave an abusive relationship. It is not a binary issue of good mothers/bad fathers, it is a complex and nuanced problem which requires a great deal of differentiation and understanding. If you are in this position, it is important to spend time thinking about how your children will manage the dynamics you are escaping so that they do not become trapped when you do.
Differentiating Alienation of Mothers and Fathers
The differences between alienation of mothers and fathers will be explored in the evaluation which is now underway at the Family Separation Clinic. With a case load of 48% mothers and 52% fathers in most years, the Clinic holds substantial gender disaggregated records over a period of twelve years. These will be analysed and evaluated to demonstrate the numbers of mothers and fathers who are alienated from children and their experiences as well as the different alienating influences used by mothers and fathers.
Voices of Adults Who as Children Experienced Residence Transfer
The evaluation which is underway will also include the experiences of adults who as children underwent residence transfer after a finding of emotional and/or psychological harm, who were assisted by the Family Separation Clinic. Longer term outcomes of residence transfer will be identified and evaluated via this part of the evaluation process.
Domestic Abuse and the Risk of Alienation of Children
The experiences of parents who left an abusive relationship and lost a relationship with their children afterwards, will be explored within this evaluation. Approaches to resolution, including assistance given by the Family Separation Clinic will be articulated.
I agree that the Court is the arena for determining disputed narratives. I also agree that the Court can do something about this type of abuse, but I must say that it rarely does.
Sometimes this is because of the child’s age and sometimes due to the impact of ‘ anti-pa’pressure groups, who seek to influence even the experts and other court professionals.
In my view the progress in real terms in the Court arena, is woefully inadequate and child protection is being subverted by external forces and in favour of finance.
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If needed to enterthe Court arena the child will think more harm is done to the abusive parent. Lawyers will go into their defence and more harm than good is done. I thought to seek justice, but only found a swamp. The deeper in, the more I drowned and the further away my kids went.
This is a very long video – 2.5 hours, but Dr. Steven Millar covers PA in the most lucid, comprehensive and knowing manner. Highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand just how PA works. He also covers abusive relationships and defines what is and isn’t abusive.
This is really vital knowledge and I wish I had been aware of it before I left.
A lot of parents leave not considering that this might happen to their children afterwards.
With emotional abuse (especially covert) it may be hard to realise what is really going on and see the extent of it. It is not until you start recovering that you realise how much it has affected you. Unfortunately I was not in a place where I had enough confidence to handle the accusations from the alienating parent and the children in the best way. The alienator got a head start.
Thank you for all the work you are doing to help already affected families and prevent so many future cases. It has helped me understand where my children are coming from and how I can try to be there for them.
Thank you Karen, it is so important for divorcing parents to understand this risk and plan for it. Like Em above I wish I had had some awareness of this. Although I recognised that I was leaving an emotionally abusive relationship and had a vague understanding of potential physical risk, I did not comprehend the true extent of the forethought and manipulation in play from my husband. In retrospect he began aligning the children before we separated. Ideally parents find ways to protect the children before separation so that this is prevented before courts need to work to untangle an enmeshed child.
But how do you prepare for it?? I only started to recognise my husband was emotionally abusive after we’d been together for 10 years. It’s so subtle and manipulative. Just controlling/domineering behaviours with an attack defence so that he would twist things and for years I just thought we weren’t communicating well. Once I could see what was happening and started to really stand up for myself he started on the name calling and aggressive behaviours. It was only around that time that I started to realise that his bond with our oldest child was not healthy. He elevated her to the same level as him in the family hierarchy. A psychologist warned me about this but not how damaging this could be. But she has been taught to see me through his eyes and is rude, dismissive, mocking of me. So I know that she is already aligned with him and he has caused major issues in our relationship. And that’s while we still all live together. We have separate rooms and we don’t speak to each other, but I am so scared to leave. I have 2 other children who weren’t his favourites and are very bonded to me. But he’s started showing our middle child attention. After years of being overlooked for his sister, our son is really enjoying all this dad attention. And he looks up to his sister, despite the fact that she is generally horrible to him. But I could see him being brought into an alliance with his sister and dad. Their dad does not want to deal with our relationship breakdown and I think would keep living like this indefinitely. I’m so stuck. I hate my kids growing up in such a dysfunctional living situation and thinking that this is normal. (I suspect this is what their dad’s family was like except his mum was more compliant and let their dad control everything.). But at least while I’m living here I can still have a relationship with my children and can protect them from his abusive outbursts.
Sorry, this is so long, but I just don’t know that being forewarned about what is likely to happen is beneficial when there is no advice on how to prevent it happening? Can it be prevented or do I just have to be prepared to fight to get them back??? I absolutely have no chance of leaving with my kids. I’m back at uni after 14 years being stay at home mum and I’ve no family in this hemisphere (I’m Irish and live in Australia). I will need to initiate separation and continue to live with him until we have a settlement. For those who left and lost their kids, do you ever wonder if staying would’ve been better??
You prepare for it Lucie by understanding what he is doing and acting covertly against it. When you understand how he is doing iy, you prepare for leaving and taking the children with you. I hear you when you say that you can’t do that but you must work out a way, stay for long enough to make a plan and then enact it. If you initiate separation and continue to live with him, he will turn the children against you and cause them and you immense suffering anyway. Preventing it from happening means recognising how he is doing what he is doing and acting to undo it in the here and now. So he is using tactics of focused attention on the children to isolate them and turn them against you, what you must do is intervene covertly with your son first, to protect him from falling into the dynamic. You must spend as much time with your son as you can, you must ensure that he has your full attention. Getting him out of the house as much as possible to spend time with the two children who are not influenced is important. You may have to recognise that to save your three children, your daughter may have to be left behind for now, what you will do for her is survive and thrive so that she can see you doing that and in her later life, she has a healthy model to follow. Your overall strategy has to be to leave and take three children with you, that may not be now but in the future but it is a goal you must work towards. Staying in this way, in a planned and focused strategy to survive and protect your children, can sometimes be the only way forward. Therapeutic parenting is an essential part of your learning to help you to understand how children with developmental trauma (which all of your children are likely to be experiencing) can be helped. K
Thanks for the reply. Unfortunately, even if / when I am in a financial position to leave I have no grounds to stop him having 50/50 custody which is generally offered in Australia. I know he will expect that and so he will be free to continue his alienation campaign. I have made some minor progress with my eldest by having that awareness of what is happening and finding small ways of taking back some of my personal power as he has also used his domineering / controlling personality to portray himself as in charge, all knowing and me as powerless and wrong about everything. This is part of the covert narc abuse that I did not see until too late. So I have been just working away from within to strengthen by bonds with my kids and work on addressing any misconceptions they have of me when I can. However, it is so demoralising and depressing to feel that I am stuck here living like this and my kids are growing up thinking this is normal family life. With all the research into parental alienation and pathways for reunification, is there nothing that can be accessed at separation that can help prevent alienation happening?? I feel like he needs an authority figure to tell him that it’s not okay to denigrate your child’s mother and these are the legal consequences if you do. Rather than it being up to alienated parents to prove they’ve been targeted and then the children have to go into recovery from damage that could have been prevented?
I agree Lucie, there needs to be a formula to prevent one parent from taking control of the children, some say a presumption of shared parenting is that, I disagree, I think a presumption of shared parenting can lead to the very scenario you are stuck in. You are correct in saying that there needs to be an authority higher than he is to take control, this is the Judge in the role of super parent. The problem of course being that in order for a Judge to see what he is doing, you have to be able to present the case in ways that allows the Judge to see that. The issue you raise about the kids growing up believing this is normal life is absolutely the issue for me, normalising abusive, controlling behaviour or normalising enmeshing and controlling behaviour is the societal problem I want to see addressed. I am sorry to hear of the position you are in, your strategy of working from within is essential don’t stop it, find as much support for yourself within that as you can and if you can, build a pathway for yourself out of it. Keep working on building resilience for your kids by showing them you are not what he says you are, keep as healthy and well as you can whilst you are doing this. If you do decide to leave and you can find a way to take the children with you, do that in a planned way, prepare for him taking you to court/keeping the children when he has them. Inform yourself on your options as thoroughly as you can and find places you can go to find respite from this. I send you my best, Karen
Lucie I send you a huge hug.
Reading your posts, it’s as though you had written about my life. Your story and mine are so alike as to be almost identical although, for me, there wasn’t the option of a sensible judge; my daughter was aged out soon after my husband began his campaign (when she was 15). I stayed until my daughter was an adult (she was 33 when I gave up and left) and all that time I was losing the ‘battle’ so, in answer to your first question, (For those who left and lost their kids, do you ever wonder if staying would’ve been better??)………. I stayed, as you have, but have no idea how I could have prevented the loss of my daughter; he was too determined and too powerful..
Quoting you “I feel like he needs an authority figure to tell him that it’s not okay to denigrate your child’s mother and these are the legal consequences if you do.” (end quote) Boy did I wish for that!
(and my downfall was that I believed somehow I could ‘make him see’)