Recognising that children are psychologically as well as neurobiologically attached to their primary caregivers, means understanding the relational world that children enter into. As the early world of childhood has been mapped and re-mapped over the years, moving from Freudian understanding, right through to the most modern day reworking of psychoanalysis by people like Allan Schore, the relational world in which the child develops a sense of self, is clearly recognised as the key to healthy development. When that early world is full of caregivers who can receive the child’s early projections, providing regulation and reassurance, the child’s capacity to digest and absorb messages of safety are increased. When that world is full of caregivers who are unable to regulate their own selves and because of that are unable to provide a healthy mirror for their child, a dyadic anxious feedback loop is created, in which the child begins the process of reflecting back to the parent the confirmation they are seeking, that the world is a frightening place which is full of other people who want to control and harm them.
It has been observed that patients who utilise projective identification, have dissociatively ‘cleansed’ themselves of traumatic effects in order to maintain some form of relationship with narcissistically vulnerable others.Sands, 1994 – What is Dissociated?
In my work with alienated children, I have become increasingly aware of three significant things –
a) severely alienated children are those who have early developmental trauma – making them more vulnerable to influence of a parent with a psychopathology in the process of family separation, because their attachment to that parent has been maladapted in the shadow of that psychopathology.
b) The ‘alienation’ that we are looking at is an alienation of the child from their own authentic sense of self, the child is being forced to adapt their intrapsychic world to fit the demands of the parent who has control over them.
c) The alignment and rejection dynamic we are looking at is a projection of the child’s own internal split sense of self into good me/bad me, it is also a process of projective identification in which the child is utilising primitive defences in order to be able to cope in a world which has become impossible for them to navigate.
When these three key points are understood and combined with the knowledge that children are psycho-neuro-biologically attached to their primary caregivers, the story of children’s alienation from a parent after family separation makes absolute sense. Alienation is the adaptation of vulnerable children to a frightening landscape, in which a parent who has control over them, is signalling to them the requirement to mirror their behaviour, in order to confirm that the world is as the parent believes it to be. The message is –
‘feel like me, show me that you feel like me, the world is frightening when you do not mirror my feelings, regulate me, make me feel safe by showing me that you feel like me.’Parental messages in the inter-psychic world of alienated children
If we widen the lens to examine the psychopathology in the meta narrative around these families, it becomes possible to see how parental psychopathology is exacerbated by the campaigning groups seeking to distort the reality of alienation of children. This meta narrative, which currently seeks to persuade the outside world that alienation of children is a made up thing, used by abusive fathers to control vulnerable mothers, is a perfect mirror of the child’s intra-psychic world, giving us a glimpse into the way in which the minds of parents who influence their children work. In the campaign message we hear the same messages –
‘Think like me, show me that you think like me, the world is frightening when you do not mirror my beliefs, regulate me, make me feel safe by showing me that you think like me.’Campaign messages from parental rights groups
One of the reasons why, so many parents whose psychopathology is projected upon their children, are unable to change their influencing behaviours, is because of these campaign messages, which mirror the distorted belief systems which are based upon primitive defences. In essence, what is happening is that campaign groups, mirror back to parents who have harmed their children, that it is not their fault but the fault of a system which doesn’t understand and doesn’t care about them, thus the blame projection continues and the message that it is everyone else’s fault, is exacerbated. This one sided narrative, which is ideological in nature, feeds from a belief system which demands that mothers rights are placed before children’s needs, in and of itself, this is a distorted narrative, which promotes abusive behaviours such as enmeshment as being a loving parental relationship, when it is anything but.
When we are working with alienated children we are working with victims of parental psychopathology in the here and now but we are also working with victims in the past, parents who were victims themselves as children and who did not receive the help they needed at the time. In this respect, the work that we do has to be sensitive to those dynamics whilst always protecting the child in the here and now first. As adults we have a duty and a responsibility to guard the boundaries between the generations. When we become parents, our own past is unknown to our children, whose lives begin at birth and for whom, if we do not foreshadow their lives with our own unresolved projections, the world can be a wonderful and benign place in which magical things happen. If however, our own unresolved material is projected onto our children, or, if our children find the unspoken and hidden secrets in their early attachment relationships, the past and future will collapse and the boundaries between children and adults will be erased (violated). As parents we take on a great responsibility, not only to put children’s physical needs first but their psychological and emotional needs first. And just as we fiercely protect children from physical and sexual harm, so must we protect children from psychological and emotional harm by ensuring that our own needs are met in appropriate relationships rather than relieving our own anxieties by depending upon children to reflect back reassuring messages.
There are so many distortions in the current day popular narratives about alienation of children and it is easy to see the primitive defences which are at play which perpetuate the myths and untruths about what happens when children hyper align and reject parents after divorce and separation. The denials of responsibility for harming children, the projections and finger pointing of blame, the false narratives and one sided stories which are relied upon by ideological campaigners, are like huge red flags waving in the wind in front of us. When I observe this in action I realise that in order to protect children in the divorce and separation landscape we need to demonstrate the reality of what is happening to children and how and why that is being hidden. This is our task, to continue to bring children out from the shadows of parental psychopathology and establish their rights to a childhood which is free from projections of unresolved parental material. We need to build the inter-generational boundaries higher and stronger and advocate for the right of children to live a life which is free from the fears and anxieties of their parents.
This is far away from the projected narrative that alienation of children is a tool used by abusive fathers, when in fact it is often nothing whatsoever to do with post separation parental relationships. In reality this is about protecting vulnerable victim children from the psychopathology of parents who are abusive but in denial about that. It is about protecting practitioners from the abusive behaviours of campaigners who deny harm being done to children, some of whom try to normalise that harm and pass it off as something everyone does. It is about protecting and upholding the reality, that emotional and psychological abuse of children is the responsibility of the state.
Victim children of parental psychopathology is another way of describing alienated children. Finding ways to language this reality so that the outside world can get beyond the denial and projection which is deliberately obfuscating the harm being done to these children, is currently our most urgent task.
Evaluation of Residence Transfer Outcomes
FSC has carried out a number of residence transfers over the past decade in serious cases of alienation of children. The evaluation of outcomes for children who are over the age of eighteen is now underway, bringing the voices and experiences of these children in the UK, to light for the first time. Via a series of case studies, the lived experience of now adult children, are being articulated and analysed. Results from this project will offer a unique insight into the impact upon emotionally and psychologically harmed children, of residence transfer and the core dynamics which create beneficial change for children, in the interventions provided by FSC.
Therapeutic Parenting – Learning and Listening Circles
FSC has adapted some of the principles of Therapeutic Parenting for parents of children who are victims of parental psychopathology. Working on the premise that alienated children are using psycholgical splitting as a defence in an impossible situation, helping parents to prepare to assist their children via highly attuned caregiving, provides these children with hope for a healthy future. Learning and Listening Circles will be open to all parents who have undergone the Holding up a Healthy Mirror Course which begins again in July and will then run in September and November this year.
The first Learning and Listening Circle will begin in mid September and will run every week for two hours, providing parents at all stages of the alienation journey, the opportunity to understand the problem at depth and use therapeutic parenting skills effectively .
The cost for attendance will be £30 per session and the circle will run on Zoom on a drop in basis, meaning that attendance can be regular or one off to meet particular needs. Each week will cover a particular topic which will be shown on the new FSC Parenting Portal (more news on all of this coming soon).
FSC Development News
From the autumn of this year FSC will be focusing upn development of resources and training for parents and professionals in the area of post divorce and separation care of children who use psychological splitting as a defence. This phase of work will include a new clinical handbook as well as courses for parents and professionals and videos and other resources on demand. After well over a decade of working with families affected by alienation, we recognise that it is now time to build the infrastructure which will support practitioners and parents more effectively. We are already working on the materials for this phase of work which is very generously supported by private investment.
FSC Services in the Family Courts
We will continue to accept instruction in the High Court of England and Wales and will continue to provide consultancy in a limited number of public law cases where our expertise is helpful. We no longer however, accept instruction in the lower courts in any circumstances.
Where we do accept instruction, it is in situations where we are asked to provide psychotherapeutic treatment post assessment or judgment of emotional and psychological harm. FSC does not provide psychological assessments.