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.
This blog is so relevant today, my partners child have recently agreed to see him after 4 years of refusal. It was a shock but welcome news, a spark of excitement throughout the family that something has changed. However after two lovely days out alone with their dad they now text to say they dont want anything to do with the rest of their family, grandparents and cousins etc, my partner said it was fine he was just happy to see them but now they say they don’t want him to talk about ‘his other life’. Should he agree to these terms? He is reluctant to as he feels his is influence from their mum but the alternative is go back to not seeing them and having zero influence in their lives. They don’t see any extended maternal family, it feels like she want to keep them in a tiny box. 😦
In such circumstances contact should be very carefully continued, the parent should see the child but not allow the child to constrain talk of other family members but should step carefully forward. This first connection is important and can built upon and talk of the wider famly should be gently expanded over time. What must be avoided is the child’s control over the ‘other life’ but what should be enabled is the child’s digestion of the reality of their parent and the fact that his ‘other life’ includes the child too. This is careful step by step work which depends upon sensitivity on all sides to encourage and enable the child to emerge into a new reality. I send you all my best wishes, take time, be patient and expect set backs but keep going because it is very worth it in the end.
I am a parent educator and have worked in family court as an ADR professional for a number of years. What I find the most difficult is that each family member needs to develop their own self-awareness and healing before they can truly understand how to have healthy relationships, let alone repair them. Most desperately want to feel “normal” and have happy healthy relationships and families. Due to their own life experience, they often do not know how. They have never seen healthy and therefore struggle to believe healthy exists. Until they themselves are in a healthy place, building a healthy parent-child relationship is beyond difficult. I’d like to see courts treat these families separately, rather than bringing them together for the sake of “co-parenting”. One has to understand parenting before the idea of “co” is workable. Unfortunately, doing things that way means the child or children have to be somewhere and it leads to a child being in one’s custody over the other, but the harm is so damaging to children, it should really be a child protection matter in these types of cases. I have seen parents succeed in repair, but usually their child is an adult by the time the parent settled their own mind and emotions. I applaud you for the work you have done and your continuing commitment to these families.
Thanks Susan, your comment really resonates with me, I so agree that co-parenting is impossible when parenting is so difficult due the personal struggle so many parents have. I think education, support and endless efforts to raise awareness of the fragilities within these families is necessary to protect new generations. It is my project and has been for many years, for better or worse and I will stick with it through thick and thin because I know the harm these children suffer because of the lack of support and awareness. Your thoughts are mine on the matter of placing the children, if only we could fund restorative parenting retreats for parents who suffer and whose children suffer because of that suffering. K
How is the targeted parent ever able to reconcile the unreconcilable in THEIR lives? knowing their much loved children are being psychologically tortured and denied this parent…. Missing their children deeply, painfully ….. How is the targeted parent able to go on?….. especially when the professionals they turn to for help do not understand the toxic psychological reality they are living….. How?
I am a targeted parent. My 22 year old son has cut off all contact with me for 8 months. He
does not answer my phone calls or my texts any more. When I have tried to have a relationship with him over the last 7 years he has been hostile. I have read your book and now understand the structural dynamics. He is aligned with his father and the family hierarchy has been disrupted. My ex husband is a narcissist. I have decided to let go of all hostility towards my ex-husband and have communicated with him to work together to help our son who has anxiety and doesn’t sleep well. I have not explained to my ex what he has done just that our son is in pain and needs both of us. Our son doesn’t share his feelings with his dad. My ex has invited me to go to dinner with them next week. If my son can see his parents together without the hostility, maybe he can raise his attachment gaze with me again. I realized I triggered my ex’ abandonment issues when I left him 14 years ago. I believe my ex elevated my son to a higher hierarchy level to get his own needs met. Then my son’s tipping point was 5 years ago when I married my boyfriend. I believe my ex had spoken negatively about my boyfriend for years. At that point he moved in with his dad. I am hoping that trying to repair the family parental unit will lead to reconciliation with my son. My son has split off a part of himself, he said he felt more stabile when moving in with his dad, the psychological gap was too great going back and forth. He told me he would have a terrible day after talking to me and would get headaches. I now understand this is his dissonance. I am a clinical psychologist in California. I did not learn about PA in school. Thank you for your book. I hope I now have the knowledge to turn things around.