Children who suffer from alienation in divorce and separation are at risk of serious psychological and emotional harm due to the mechanisms by which they are caused to align with one parent and reject the other. The issue of alienation of a child, is now well recognised in case law in the UK and it is being addressed with foresight and wisdom in terms of the need to safeguard children from longer term harm. Despite what is being promulgated and promoted by public servants, who have, in my view, been remiss in failing to listen to the whole of the story of alienation of children, the capacity of UK family law, to manage serious cases of alienation of children, is undiminished and rightly so. Because what we are dealing with when we are working with alienated children is a serious level of child abuse, it is a non accidental injury to the mind of a child and it demands that it is treated robustly and consistently in order to provide protection to these vulnerable children.
Non accidental injury to a child is well understood. When a child is physically harmed we do not question or argue the point that the child must be urgently safeguarded, even if that child protests and says that they love mummy or daddy, we do not turn away from doing the right thing. We definitely don’t say that the child with broken legs who protests that they want to stay with mummy, is on balance better off with mummy. What we say and do is take action to ensure that the child is protected first and then, where possible, we do the work to rebuild and support an abusive parent to provide safe care.
It is no different when the abuse is psychological and emotional. The child who shows the red flag of complete rejection of a parent, who protests that they want to stay with mummy or daddy who loves them best, and who shows the serious signs of psychological splitting such as lack of empathy and false allegations of harm, requires our protection just as much as the child with broken legs. When a child displays hyper alignment with a parent who has inculcated fear of the other parent, or who has bound the child into a delusional belief, or who has incited false allegations, that child’s mind is being injured. The capacity for free thinking and holding of authentic wishes and feelings, is destroyed when a parent binds a child into their world view in this way, and the encouragement and support of allegations which are shown to be false, causes a child’s capacity for reasoned thinking and experience of their own feelings to be damaged. This is serious harm, it is non accidental injury to the mind and all of the research evidence across many years, shows that it is harmful not just in the here and now but in the longer term life chances for the child.
The most serious harm to the child is the causation of the onset of the divided self, which is caused by identification with the aggressor, a serious defence which is caused by abusive parents who terrorise their children into splitting their experience of abuse off in order to carry on loving a parent who is causing them harm. When the child identifies with an aggressor, their capacity for understanding what is happening is impaired, because they are led to believe that someone who has done nothing harmful them is in fact harmful. They are also forced to defend themselves against the overt and covert mechanisms deployed by the abusing parent who is trying to get the child to align with their world view. Children in this state of mind suffer psychological splitting, they deny the bond with the healthy parent in order to align with an abusive parent and when this is explored in psychological or psychiatric assessment, it is seen as stratified layers of maladaptive behaviours in parent and child, which have led to an alignment and rejection dynamic which is popularly called parental alienation.
The reason parental alienation as a label is attacked so ferociously and the reason why it is portrayed only as a tool used by abusive fathers, is because it has been understood in the wider society as child abuse. In truth, the label is just a label, it is the underlying strata of behaviours in these families which we are concerned with, because those are the behaviours seen in non accidental injury to the mind of the alienated child.
Whilst debate rages on and public servants promote people who peddle the split narratives of domestic abuse versus parental alienation, (in reality both exist and the patterns of behaviour in each are well recognised in the family courts), the child at the heart of this toxic issue, is the voiceless victim whose needs are not recognised by those with responsibility for protecting victims. This shameful denial of the alienated child’s experience and the blanket refusal to listen to anything other than one side of what is a very complex story, is worrying but it is not defining. It is not defining because the genie is out of the bottle in terms of wider understanding of how the alienated children’s suffering is caused, and it cannot be put back no matter how many vicious campaigns of lies and denigration are launched to obfuscate reality.
Alienated children suffer a lifetime of impacts and require a systemic and structural intervention to safeguard and protect them from non accidental injury to the mind. One day, in the not too distant future, that will be the starting point for all interventions when the child shows the red flags of alienation of self from self and the harm which is done to the mind when parents weaponise children to perpetuate their own dysfunctional belief system. This is a marathon not a sprint, to uncover the decades of obfuscation and determination to wrap up the needs of children with the rights of a parent.
Children have sovereign rights of their own, the right to be protected from all forms of harm comes first. No matter what the divided narratives say, the child in the midst of this is the victim upon whom we must focus and those who know this, will not be deterred from ensuring that the help that abused alienated children need, is made widely available to them.