moving the family furniture: therapeutic treatment of alienation of children in divorce and separation

Whilst many people claim to understand the issue of alienation of children in divorce and separation, not many know how to treat it successfully. Many who say they treat the problem, use the approach of ‘trying it for themselves’ in the belief that they know better than others. As Steve Miller M.D says however, this is often disastrous for the family, entrenching the problem rather than resolving it.

Many of those who come to this work without respecting the experiences of those who do it successfully, will, on failing to make an inroads into the problem, blame the rejected parent for not being ‘fixable’, failing to understand that the child has become the ‘homeostatic maintainer‘ in a system which is rigid and inflexible due to the personality profile of one of the parents.

Success in therapeutic treatment of alienation of children looks like one thing and one thing only, it is the withdrawal of the projection of good and bad onto the parents, which denotes that the child has integrated a sense of self. How that is achieved therapeutically, depends upon the capacity of the therapist to move the family furniture around, which requires the ability to manage the meta and micro systems which are in play. Achieving the capacity to do that swiftly, will depend upon the pressures blocks and barriers as well as the openings and opportunities available to the therapist. One therapist, acting as team leader, with control over all of the systems at play, is what is necessary to achieve rapid resolution.

Many practitioners in this space are too timid for this work, they are risk averse and unable to shoulder the burdens which are necessary to bring a family system through to resolution. Some are wedded to ideological concepts which force family members into strait jackets of the therapist’s own belief system. When this occurs, the family is led to a fragile place, in which the ‘shoulds’ of the practitioners own internalised beliefs, are imposed upon the family. Success will never be achieved this way because this imposition is an external projection of a person who is not a permanent part of the family system. Practitioners who lead families in this direction, will find that the alienated child remains alienated and, when able to, will return to the regulating role with the alienating parent, upholding that split narrative and claiming that they were ‘forced’ into compliance. Interventions which fail to treat splitting in the child, will leave the child vulnerable to influence again as soon as the power dynamic over the child shifts again.

Practitioners who are successful at this work are those able to hold boundaries, absorb negative projections, understand the need to manage the risk of splitting in teams and recognise that the model of intervention must be adaptable, flexible and creative. Capacity to hold clear boundaries around the work, preventing it from being diluted and upholding standards of practice which are transparent to all involved, is essential.

Therapy as it is ordinarily understood, cannot reunite a child with a rejected parent in a case of alienation. Anyone who claims that it can, does not understand alienation or is doing something else. The only approach to therapy which has any real meaning in this work is structural and even that has to be adapted in order to bring about the conditions in which a child can resolve the psychologically split state of mind. Life story work, making amends, shifting the power balance as in residence transfer, are all futile unless the systemic and structural conditions are right. It is folly to intervene in such a random and unevidenced way where splitting is in play and it is absolutely impossible to impose upon families an inflexible one size fits all model of intervention.

The Family Separation Clinic model of assessment, is a rolling differentiation and clinical trial approach to resolution which is undertaken over a period of twelve weeks. It is used in the High Court of England and Wales as well as other jurisdictions. It has a flexible structure which interlocks with different legislative structures. It is currently being used in live cases in Hong Kong, California and Israel.

The aim of the rolling programme is to scrutinise the family, move the ‘furniture’ around (meaning impose changes upon the system) and challenge the system into change. The model is flexible and creative, it empowers therapists to bring about swift change for children by interlocking the treatment with the legal management of the case and with therapeutic parenting training for the rejected parent. The model is the result of over a decade of work and successful interventions with 69 severely alienated children within the UK family court system. It is a short term, dynamic intervention with proscribed protocols, treatment goals and identified outcomes. It is capped costswise in the majority of cases so that intervention is transparent in terms of the financial costs. The Family Separation Clinic provides low cost intervention where possible by charging high where a family can afford it and subsidising input where it makes a significant difference and a family cannot afford it. The Clinic is also now extremely fortunate to have investment into development so that services can be replicated for all families who need them.


The International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children

The fourth conference of this group of senior practitioners from Israel, Croatia, Republic of Ireland, UK, USA, Romania, Holland and Germany, will be held in Israel in 2022. More news shortly.

Evaluation of the Work of the Family Separation Clinic

The evaluation of the services of the Family Separation Clinic, including the outcomes of residence transfers carried out over the past twelve years, is ongoing, Results will be available in 2022.

Clinical Handbook and Training for Practitioners

An accredited and evidence based training for practitioners will be available as a result of the evaluation above. A handbook of clinical practice will accompany the training. Training which is underpinned by this model of understanding and intervention is already being delivered in the UK to Social Workers, Therapists, the Judiciary and Guardians and will be delivered across Europe, USA and Australia from 2022 onwards.

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