2022 is a year of outputs from the Family Separation Clinic. This year the results of the independent evaluation of our work with alienated children and their families will be released and we will co-host the fourth conference of the International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children in Israel. Alongside these two major focal points, we are preparing new training initiatives, including a handbook for practitioners and I am working with a residence change family, to write the survival guide to parenting alienated children in recovery. This year it is all about education, information and focusing the narrative around alienated children.
Children who become alienated from a parent after divorce and separation do so because of the dynamics in the family system which cause a child to raise a defence against the pressure being placed upon them. In most divorce and separation situations, families make the crossing from together to apart within a reasonable timeframe and new, child focused patterns of care are readily established. In a small group of families, where one parent has an issue which prevents a child from being able to relate easily to all of the important adults in their lives, this crossing fails and the new pattern of relationship which is formed is hostile, defensive and conflicted. This is not to say that alienation of children is caused by conflict between parents. At times there may be conflicted parenting styles or conflicted narratives about a child and at times there may be conflict in the attempts to find a new post separation care routine. But the cause of alienation of a child is not conflict between parents and to believe so is to mischaracterise the problem we are looking at. The cause of alienation of a child is the impact of the dynamics of psychological pressure which are configured around the child, dynamics which are often present in the relationship between the child and influencing parent before the divorce or separation. These dynamics are readily seen in the psychological literature and predict the problems which erupt when children align with one parent and reject the other after family separation.
Traumatising events lead to primitive fusions with hatred as a dominant affect. The resulting attachment to the traumatising object leads to identifying with the relationship. Unconsciously they become their own persecutory objects whilst sadistically attacking their victims. They cannot escape being victim and persecutor all at the same time.Kernberg, 1992
When alienated children are pressured into aligning with a parent’s negative narrative, they are caused to utilise the defence of splitting, which is well understood in the psychological literature and from a treatment perspective, is rich in understanding and approaches to assist those who suffer. Psychological splitting, in which an unconscious mental shift occurs, which relieves the child of the impossible dilemma of trying to love a parent who is harming them, causes a false self to arise in the child which is entirely focused upon the perpetration of the negative narrative about the split off ‘object relationship’ (rejected parent).
What this means is that the child who is under pressure, must first split the subjective (own sense of self), in order to split the object relationship (relationship with rejected parent) and the cause of this is the parent with unresolved issues of their own. This leads to the child suffering from self aliention (Fisher, 2017), in which their connectedness to a sovereign sense of who they are, is broken. When a child grows up with these splits and fusions, their longer term wellbeing is impacted and they remain bound to the harmful parent’s unresolved issues. This is why this dynamic is abusive, it prevents normal healthy development and closes the child’s individual potential down. For children who grow up this way, the world feels overwhelming, choices are too difficult to make and life becomes threatening rather than full of potential.
Over the past two years, there has been a significant effort to distract public attention from the reality of what happens to alienated children, this has run alongside a concerted campaign to denigrate and discredit those of us who do this work. The battle around the label parental alienation has been furious and extremely toxic at times and in the UK at least, has led to a parental rights fight which has looked from the outside, remarkably like the ‘he said/she said’ battles of the family court. For me, the time for that fight has gone and 2022 is the year in which the detailed and nuanced reality of what we are really working with is upon us. As a psychotherapist, I am not interested in proving whether parental alienation is real or not, I am interested only in treatment of children and families and the restoration of health and wellbeing wherever it is possible. That is our goal and that goal is increasingly within our reach on a replicable basis. With the results of our evaluation, we are building an accredited, evidence based model of work which is already used successfully in the UK, the USA, Hong Kong and Europe and which will be available for use by social workers, therapists and other court involved practitioners soon. This model is based upon psychoanalytic understanding and paired with structural interventions, a preventative model is also being developed to use with mild to moderate cases of alienation of children.
Our depth focus is and always has been, the impact of alienation on children over the lifespan. This is the focus of my research and it is the focus of my preventative work this year. Knowing that residence transfer is just the beginning of healing for children, I am, this year, working with a family where two children, transferred in 2016 are now over the age of 18. These now older teenagers, suffered serious alienation in which they were induced to make very serious allegations of harm against a parent, they were moved in a direct residence transfer and recovered their relationship with self and the split off and rejected parent within the first month. Their journey to recovery is extraordinary containing all of the elements which are seen in all recovery from alienation and their self awareness and capacity to reflect is remarkable. These young people, along with the parent they were forced to reject, are ready to help others in the same situation and my project early this year is to help them to write the survival guide they wished they had had when they were younger. This valuable project, which emerges from the direct work we have done with families affected by alienation over the last decade, is one of the outputs due from FSC this year. I am excited by the opportunity to share the results of our work and focus the narrative where it belongs, on how to help alienated children and their families to recover health and wellbeing.
This is a year of outputs, of sharing knowledge and expanding education and training to parents and practitioners alike. After a period of intensive toxicity comes creativity and forward movement, now is the time to focus the narrative and put protection of children at the forefront of everything we do. News about our conference, trainings and development of educational materials will be available soon.
Welcome to 2022, a year when we refocus the narrative to where it belongs, alienated children and their famlies – understanding, learning, coping, treating, healing and ultimately, preventing the harm which has been done to too many for too long.
Fisher, J. (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors: Overcoming internal self-alienation.
Kernberg, O. (1992) Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.