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 –

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.