Defending the Defenceless: Practice with Alienated Children

“If not consciously acknowledged and mourned, uncertainty about one’s descent can cause great anxiety and unrest, all the more so if, as in Alois’s case, it is linked with an ominous rumor that can neither be proven nor completely refuted”

Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence

Working with children in divorce and separation who are induced to use psychological splitting, I see first hand, the damage done when parents are unable to contain their own experiences. The defencelessness of children and their utter dependency upon their parents, means that whether they are exposed to deliberate badmouthing or inter-psychic leakage of unresolved psychological material, the maladaptation of behaviours due to defences being raised, are often unavoidable.

Children have to survive and to do so in the face of adult decompensation, they will find any way possible to carry on as near to ‘normal’ as possible. In the case of alienation, where one parent is focused upon ensuring that the other parent is kept at distance, the child will adapt to fit the internal narrative they are being exposed to, producing ‘evidence’ for the influencing parent to ensure the regulation of the family system. The problem for such children, is that the repression of their own connection to an authentic sense of self and the prioritisation of the need to keep the influencing parent calm and contained, leads to adaptation, not only of behaviours in the here and now but potentially in the longer term. For too many generations, children of divorce and separation have been abandoned to their suffering of psychological splitting, due to lack of understanding, mischaracterisation of what is happening and the difficult nature of the work itself.

Those of us who do this work want to ensure that all children are protected from all forms of abuse including alienation, which in reality is the child’s triangulation into the adult relationship brerakdown. In some of the most serious cases of this I have worked in, triangulated children have made allegations which were so implausible that it was evident these were false. In others, there are patterns of allegations which are repeated and sustained but which, on medical examination, are proven to be without any foundation whatsoever. The parent who shows delusional beliefs and who insists the child has been abused to the degree where they demand (and sometimes organise themselves) medical investigation, causes serious harm to a child. The psychiatric and psychological profile of such a parent makes therapeutic work impossible and child protection very necessary.

Added to the complex nature of this work, the often aggressive nature of online anti- alienation campaigners, which is directed at those who do this work, can be offputting and for new practitioners, frightening. I recently came across a tweet which claimed ‘Karen Woodall is the devil’ which I have to say, is mild compared to the more lurid claims made about me on the internet. I am used to this, but practitioners who are new to this work will most certainly be startled when they receive their first attacks of this nature. This kind of behaviour is common place in field, it is the uncontainable material which causes children to use psychological splitting as a defence. When used by campaigners it is a defence against the reality that children can be influenced by parental thoughts, feelings and behaviours. When the unwell parent is surrounded by campaigns of this nature, which seek to divide the narrative into good parents/bad parents and good campaigners/bad practitioners, keeping the truth of what is happening to children visible, is not always easy.

This is the reason why this problem for children, has been so well hidden for so long. The uncontainted material, erupting from people with problematic psychological profiles, who are in control of defenceless children (and seeking to stay in control of them), causes chaotic narratives. If practitioners are disturbed to see themselves depicted as the devil, imagine what child might feel like when they are confronted with the inter-psychic messages that a parent is harmful to them. Adapting behaviours to placate and regulate angry and unwell parents, is the major defence mechanism that children utilise in such circumstances, because that is all they have got to protect themselves. When parents go bad or mad or both, children will do anything to avoid being the target of the next attack and if that includes identifying with the influencing parent, hyper aligning with them and joining in a campaign of rejection of the other parent, that is what they will do.

Strengthening a workforce with the skill to address the issues facing vulnerable influenced children is a major aim of a group of senior practitioners working together across borders. With members in the UK, Israel, Ireland, Croatia, USA, Malta, France, Germany and Poland, the group which used to be called EAPAP, is renamed as the International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children (IAPAC). This renaming heralds the focus upon the alienated child which has always driven our clinical practice. With a raft of new projects ahead of us, including a journal of practice (all news here and on the IAPAC website which also comes soon), developments in the field of clinical practice with alienated children and their families, will be our focus.

Defending the defenceless, is the major goal of IAPAC and we will achieve that by development of a workforce with the skills to bring about real change for alienated children. Bringing our knowledge of what works with children, as well as our experience in our individual countries, to working within different legislative systems, we will steer a path away from the concept of alienation as a mental condition in the child and around the use of labels such as resist and refuse, to find clarity and precision in our work within the psychoanalytic literature, which tells us exactly what this issue facing children who align and reject after family separation is. It is a defence mechanism, deployed in an impossible landscape, a way of managing uncontainable dynamics within a separating family and a method by which the child attempts to make the uncontainable, contained again. As such it is child abuse and making sure that fact stays visible amidst the uncontained material of the campaigns around the issue, is what IAPAC will also work to achieve.

But the major goal of IAPAC is to make real change in alienated children’s lives through education, information, training and consciousness raising. As all of the senior clinicians involved are well connected in their member countries, what we develop together will be mainstreamed throughout the services which touch the lives of alienated children. Showing how to intervene in families where children reject by utilising the mental health and legal interlocking framework, showing why it is necessary and what happens when everyone in the team around the child understands what is really happening, is a core goal which we will not be distracted from by arguments about whether or not alienation is real.

Giving children their right to an unconscious childhood back, enabling children to know their heritage and helping children to avoid the ghastly fate of having to eschew their own dreams, in order to keep a parent calm and regulated, is our driving force.

Defending the defencless, triangulated children in divorce and separation is what moves us forward, together.


International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children

Formerly known as EAPAP, this group of senior clinicians are working together to set standards, evaluate impacts, discuss and debate interventions and write about clinical practice. More news about a journal of practice as well as the work of IAPAC will be announced shortly.

The fourth conference of this group of clinicians will be held in Israel in 2022. More news here and at the soon to be launched IAPAC website.

AFCC Presentation – When a Child Says No

IAPAC members Kelly Baker (USA) Nick Woodall (UK) Amy Eichler (USA) and Karen Woodall (UK), recently recorded an on demand clinical seminar for the 58th AFCC Conference entitled when a child says no. Press here to book.

Family Separation Clinic – Evaluation of Services

The Family Separation Clinic has welcomed a university research team to evaluate all of the services delivered over more than a decade of work in this field. This major step, which has received third party funding to preserve the independence of the evaluation process, offers a unique insight into the work undertaken with alienated children and their families in the UK, Hong Kong, USA and Israel. Evaluation of the training to other clinicians which has been developed and delivered by the Family Separation is a part of this process. A full description and evaluation of the model developed by the Clinic is included. This insight into the work of the Family Separation Clinic, includes the voices of children over the age of eighteen who were moved in residence transfer in England, supported by the Family Separation Clinic. This will provide a window on the longer term outcomes for alienated children who are moved due to emotional and psychological harm. First results will be available in 2022, providing an evidence base for an accredited training for those working with alienated children and their families in legal and mental health settings around the world.

3 thoughts on “Defending the Defenceless: Practice with Alienated Children

  1. Dear Karen,

    Thnakyou for an excellent post. There is a typo in your 4th paragraph that might limit our fully understanding the point you were making: When used by campaigners it is a defence against the reality that children can be influenced by parental thoughts, feelings and behaviours.alienation of children doesn’t exist.
    Thanksfor your continued wonderful work.

    Like

  2. Dear Karen,
    Thank you for your endurance!
    For me retrieving the child out of the thought and coping mechanism they need to stay alive, to me I see similarity in retrieving children from cult groups. Do you agree?

    Like

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