Psychotherapists are people who seek to create health and wellbeing in the people they work with and It is usual in psychotherapy, for the alignment between the therapist and client/patient, to form the cornerstone of the therapeutic contract. Those of us who work with the Family Courts, are therefore working from the unusual perspective of engaging with parents who may be resistant to therapy and resistant to us as psychotherapists. Right from the outset of our work with such parents, the negative transference, those behaviours seen in people who project their internal state of mind upon others, is encountered strongly. It is therefore essential that anyone who is working with court involved psychotherapy with families going through divorce and separation, knows exactly what the risks and realities of this work are.
I have often said in delivery of training that there is no happy ending in working therapeutically with families affected by alienation. By this I mean that it is very rare to undertake this work in such a way that everyone in the family system is content with the outcome. Because of the high level of emotional and psychological dysregulation which is present in the family system from the outset of our work, a child protection approach is always necessary to triage the risk to children caused by the dynamics within. The group of families in which children are seen to reject a parent outright without discernible evidence of harm done by the parent who is rejected, are a particular group which contain very particular layers of behaviours, some of which are readily visible, many of which are stratified, hidden from view and in need of deeper levels of unfolding and understanding. These families require the most sensitive of assessment, ruling in and ruling out the aetiology of the problems seen, until the working hypothosis stands up to the rigorous testing regime applied by a clinical trial which can take many months to complete. This is no quick fix approach, it is methodical, replicable and transparent, it requires understanding of individuals in the family and their relationship to each other and the capacity of parents to make changes in behavioural patterns to release children from the alignment and rejection which is caused by psychological splitting. This is psychotherapy but it is not as psychotherapy is usually utilised. The aim of this work is to release children from the grasp of the unresolved issues extant in the family system in ways which allow childhood to be lived rather than held hostage to parental concerns. The outcome for a child is the release of the need to split the self from the self and the restoration of an unconscious experience of childhood. For so many parents however, the longer term therapeutic work which is necessary to help them to reconcile the unreconcilable in their lives, is simply impossible to deliver.
It is impossible to deliver because of the entrenched defences which have brought the family system to the point at which a child is induced to use psychological splitting as a defence. The defence in the parent, there for a reason and protective to a degree in terms of preventing psychological fragmentation, becomes harmful to the child when it is projected onto or passed in the inter-psychic relationship between parent and child. Put simply, when a parent believes that their experience is the same as the child’s experience, when the child cannot differentiate between the need for regulating a parent (keeping that parent calm) and when this leads to a fused belief that something which is not happening IS happening, the damage to the child is significant and protection of the child must be our first priority. This means that the first patient in the family system in this work is always the child in the here and now and acting to protect that child is always the first action we must take. In such circumstaces, where parents cannot understand, accept or show insight into why the child is being harmed, action to protect the child inevitably leaves a parent with therapeutic needs, in a vulnerable place. And that, necessary chain of events, inevitably leads to defences being raised higher and a search for other, alternative explanations for the outcomes seen.
This is the irreconcilable reality of alienation, particularly severe alienation cases which involve parents who deny, split off and project their own responsibilities onto others. Those who deny and project, cannot own their own shadow side and therefore inevitably see it in other people, the other parent, the therapist working with the famly court, the family court judges, the family court system itself. All become entwined within a shadowy projection which is heavy with blame, anger, grief and lack of understanding of what has happened and why.
I wish there could be a reconciled happy ending for families affected by alienation of a child, I wish for all such families, that capacity to resolve these deeply fractured states of mind could be achieved. Realistically however, I know that it is simply not possible to bring about a balanced place where children can easily move between two parents who have reconciled their differences. Too much is weighted against such outcomes, from the polarisation of ideological campaigners to the reality of the personality profiles of the parents involved. In the middle of this are the children, trapped on the one hand in the mindset of unwell parents, their childhoods spent trying to cope with the fallout from loving the other.
This year we begin another development phase at the Family Separation Clinic in conjunction with colleagues from all over the world, who are joined with us in building the International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children. With our conference in Acre in Israel shaping up well, we will be looking at the dilemmas present in working with child-parent reunification practices and how to keep the focus on the best interests of the child affected by induced psychological splitting. Headlined by hugely experienced clinicians, (announcements due shortly), our work to develop replicable models of practice in this area continues, so that psychotherapists, social workers and other court involved practitioners can be assisted to do this work effectively.
Working together with colleagues through thick and thin, sharing and shaping our practice to protect children, is the way we will continue to illuminate the reality of the hidden harms in this group of families.
Working with the irreconcilable reality of alienation is not easy work but it is sustained and sustainable via a shared vision for alienated children and their families and we look forward to sharing our progress with you in 2022.