“They build their houses with sand, and they play with empty shells. With withered leaves they weave their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep. Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.
They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl-fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.
The sea surges up with laughter, and pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach. Death-dealing waves sing meaningless ballads to the children, even like a mother while rocking her baby’s cradle. The sea plays with children, and pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.
On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.”
― Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali
Childhood is a time of unconscious play and the capacity with which a child is able to enjoy that experience, depends upon what Winnicott called ‘good enough’ parenting, by which he meant that parents had the ability and understanding, to continuously put their child’s needs before their own. This capacity, which ensures that the child is enabled to live free from adult concerns, is impaired in one or both parents when the child is seen to be alienated in divorce and separation, the lack of capacity to put a chld’s needs first, causes emotional and psychological harm.
There are times when parents may not be able to put a child’s needs first, divorce and separation is one of those times, which is why we guide parents to ensure that their feelings about their child’s other parent are kept well hidden. One of the most common problems which are seen when children begin to reject a parent and align with the other after family separation, are the leakage of feelings from parent to child which can either be overt as in bad mouthing, or covert as in enmeshment. When leakage of feelings about the other parent is negative and continuous, the child must defend the self against what is an intra-psychic boundary violation, this is because children are not built to manage adult to adult communications as they do not have the brain capacity to process meaning and outcomes from doing so. Therefore, the child raises a defence, which by its very nature is unconscious and when they do this, a process of maladaptations begins.
The current debate about domestic abuse holds that a violent partner is a violent parent and that is why children reject that parent outright. In terms of what children do in the face of fear about a parent’s violence, it is more likely that a child will align with the abusive parent than reject that person. This is because in order to continue loving a parent, the child must split off the conscious awareness of harm that a parent has caused to them and others and project the negative and fearful feelings they have onto another person, in most cases the other parent. This is called identification with the aggressor which is a psychoanalytic concept which explains why so many children align with abusive and aggressive parents and reject the healthy parent instead.
Alienation of a child is a complex process involving defences, attachment disorders, structural deficits within the family and violations of the child’s unconscious experience of childhood. In this respect it is a non accidental injury to the mind of a child and no matter how much ideological campaigners try to change that, it holds true when scrutinised. Underlying patterns of harm, which are seen in cases of alienation, are evidenced by the diagnostics of early developmental attachment disorders and the onset of psychological splitting, a behavioural defence which is caused by relational dynamics. Without intervention, a child suffering these problems, not only suffers the interruption of their right to unconscious play but in later years, from the age of ten onwards, development of personality is also at risk. All of this explains why interventions to restore the child’s relationship with a healthy parent are necessary and why protection from harm is important.
When the family courts are opened up to provide greater transparency about what happens there, the evidence of the underlying harms done to children in family separation will be plain for all to see. Children who are alienated are suffering harm, if it were their arms and legs being broken, there would be a universal outcry that so many children do not get the help they need, because it is the child’s mind which is being harmed and because we can neither see nor readily understand that harm, it has been far too easy to ignore it. Conversely, reframing what is happening when children align and reject based upon the idea that children never lie, is the other route taken to explaining away the problem. But alienated children who are using defences and who are suffering attachment disorders do lie, they lie because it is the only thing they can do in a situation which is impossible for them to resolve otherwise. Children dependent upon their parents are completely trapped and should a parent with the most control over a child, decide that their agenda and their feelings are the dominant experience, a child will raise a defence, maladapt their behaviours and align with that parent. That is the basis of alienation, the child eschews their own feelings and experience in order not to be abandoned.
The child’s right to an unconscious experience of childhood is something we should all be fighting to defend because when it is interfered with, it can never be returned to them whole. It seems to me therefore, that the theft of a childhood through emotional and psychological abuse, is one of the greatest harms which can be done. Which is why the work to raise awareness of it and stop it, has been at the forefront of my mind for all of my working life.
Family Separation Clinic Evaluation of Services
The evaluation of interventions in cases of alienation of children continues and will be available in 2022. Funded independently of the Clinic, the evaluation is undertaken by a UK University and will contribute information about outcomes of residence transfers of children aged between 8 and 15. Testimony from children moved in residence transfer who are now over 18, is included in this data.
International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children
The conference of IAPAC will be held next year in June in Israel, details of speakers and format will be announced shortly, the conference will focus entirely upon clinical practice with alienated children and their families.