Critical Thinking and Alienated Children
One of the most notable presentations in children who are hyper aligned to a parent and rejecting of the other (alienation), is their lack of critical thinking. This often mirrors the lack of critical thinking seen in the parent to whom the child is aligned and is encouraged by campaign groups who also often appear to lack the capacity to weigh their subjective viewpoints against the facts.
Critical thinking is the capacity to do several things when evaluating information, such as –
Keeping an open mind
Asking questions and establishing facts
Suspending inherent biasesThink critically, Avoiding Rumination
Karen Woodall, Holding up a Healthy Mirror (2022)
People who lack critical thinking skills act upon emotion first and have a tendency to ruminate, which in psychological terms means to go over and over beliefs and feelings and create a version of a scenario which is based in subjective feelings rather than reality. A lack of critical thinking skills also causes people to jump to conclusions and allow inherent biases to drive their beliefs. Children who are in the care of a parent who lacks critical thinking skills are likely to mirror those behaviours by becoming rigid in their belief systems and intolerant of challenge. Children who are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence, develop the opposite of critical thinking skills, which are subjective and emotional reactions which are based upon narratives which are mirrors of the influencing parent. Rigidity of thought is also seen which prevents the child from being able to develop the capacity to resolve relational difficulties.
Critical Thinking Through Difficult Times
Helping children of divorce and separation to avoid using psychological splitting as a defence, requires that the child is helped to use critical thinking from an early age. A child who is able to recognise that there are such things as external facts, (the sky is blue, the grass is green and those are fixed things which do not change for example), can be helped to approach condundrums in ways which allow them to think for themselves. Many children who are caught in loyalty conflicts are those who are unable to think for themselves and whilst many younger children fall into this category, they are also not old enough to be influenced into alignment with a parent, due to their inability to compartmentalise or tell lies.
Children over the age of 8/9 however, can and do compartmentalise, which means that they can and do hold information away from some people and some children in this age group tell others things which they know not to be true. Children who grow up in this environment become reliant on difficult behaviours such as triangulation, lying and criticising people when they are not present, instead of learning how to resolve complaints collaboratively. Helping children to learn critical thinking skills early, helps to build what Sean Covey calls Loyalty to the Absent, which means that children learn early, the value of not badmouthing or complaining about people who are not present. If you follow this rule with children as you go through divorce and separation, you will protect children from being pressured into splitting when loyalty conflicts occur. Children who learn that people not present are still held in mind, learn empathy and compassion which builds resilience to influence and control.
Listening to Alienated Children
Listening to alienated children requires an understanding of how the defence of psychological splitting impacts upon the way that they process information and share it. Children who are found by the Family Court to be alienated, present in ways which are clearly recognisable and which denote lack of critical thinking and reasoning skills. Alienated children will display some or all of the following behaviours –
Fixed narratives which circulate around one or two events and which are historical in nature, these narratives fall away when the child feels safely protected from the parent who is inculcating them but will return when that parent comes into close proximity to the child. Examples of fixed narratives with what I refer to as talismanic events (the child uses them as a go to excuse), are – ‘once when we were at the seaside he pushed me under the waves and I nearly drowned.’ ‘She locked me in the car when I was seven.’
The key to understanding the fixed narrative is that it is used as a single event repeatedly as evidence for rejection. The essential element is that it is historical and not part of an observable pattern and that it echoes the parent to whom the child is aligned. This is evidence of the child identifiying with a parent who is upholding the narrative, in order to feel safe in the care of that parent. Whilst pushing a child under the waves and locking in a car are not good parenting skills, the key to understanding whether these are fixed narratives are that they are not part of a pattern of allegations, they are historical, they are interpreted differently in context and they are used by the influencing parent as talismanic events as well as by the child.
Testing for fixed narratives involves exploring the child’s capacity to use critical thinking skills. An example of how that is done in therapeutic terms is to see whether the parent and child alignment can move in response to challenges. An example of this is to ask the child and parent to consider different perspectives and how other people might view the same scenario. Those with fixed patterns of thinking will reject an efforts to consider other view points and will harden their stance, entrenching their narratives and often escalating or embellishing it. This shows that the narrative is emotionally based and reactive and is designed to maintain the split state of mind in order to ensure that the defence remains in place. People with this level of fixed thinking, will maintain a narrative based upon the strongest evidence available which counters it, this is seen in situations where a parent is influencing a child to believe that something happened when it did not, where the allegations escalate in the face of evidence to the contrary. This level of fixed thinking is emotionally and psychologically abusive to a child because it prevents the child from being able to develop and use critical thinking skills, in favour of mirroring a distorted narrative emanating from the aligned/abusing parent.
Listening to alienated children therefore, requires the capacity to understand the ways in which the narratives of aligned parent and children are fused and the ways in which these narratives present, in terms of the splitting defence (everything and everyone is good or bad). It also requires the capacity to understand how children present talismanic events which they repeat when the aligned parent is in proximity and how the vertical split in the child creates two parts of self, one which is false and which is identified with the aligned parent, the other which is the authentic part of self which retains an integrated sense of the world.
Teaching Alienated Children to Think Critically
The task in terms of helping children who are using psychological splitting as a defence, to think critically, is to protect them from the proximity of the influencing parent. Many children in the care of a parent who is influencing them, are acutely aware of the risk of harm to their wellbeing if they do not echo that parent’s narrative. Children are, in part, aware of the overt risk in situations where they are caught in coercive control strategies (usually deployed by alienating/ physically and psychologically controlling fathers) and the covert risk in situations where they are enmeshed with a parent (usually deployed by alienating or emotionally and psychologically controlling/ intrusive mothers). It is therefore important when working therapeutically with a child, to ensure that the child is in protective space, as they are always conscious of the risks to their wellbeing if they drop the defence and reveal their authentic feelings for the parent they are rejecting.
The risks to wellbeing are many but are primarily focused upon the child’s fear that if they do not align with the influencing parent, something bad will happen to them. Children are driven by the imperative to attach and stay attached and will stay attached to an abusive parent, maladapting their behaviours in order to feel loved by that parent in the face of all evidence that the parent is harmful. These are the risks to children who become alienated and the risks increase the longer they are left in the care of a parent who is abusing them psychologically and emotionally, precisely because the longer they are left the less capacity they have to think critically.
Helping alienated children to think critically is therefore about protecting them first from the abusing parent and then delivering critical thinking skills training which is interwoven with therapy which works with the language of parts. Combining this work with therapeutic parenting training for rejected parents, provides a powerful recovery route for even the most severely alienated children.
Critical Thinking and Managing Alienation Cases
There is a growing understanding in the UK, of the harm done to children when they are triangulated into parental divorce and separation. A Practical Guide to Parental Alienation in Private and Public Law Children Cases, by Sam King QC and Frankie Shama is a handbook of legal management of cases where children hyper align and reject a parent which is published by Law Brief Publishing. This book provides a comprehensive cover of case law in the UK and detailed descriptions from published judgments of how such cases are managed. It is a useful tool for anyone who is working in this field legally or who is seeking to understand how to manage a case of alienation on a legal basis.
As a psychotherapist delivering court appointed treatment routes for children who are found to be alienated by the Family Courts, I write from my experience in assisting children to recover an integrated state of mind. Throughout this book, my work and that of other experts in cases is discussed and evidence based outcomes are analysed and commented upon. This is particularly welcome, during a time when there has been a great deal of misinformation about cases of alienation of children, circulating in the maintstream and on social media. Working from the facts as this book consistently does, protects everyone from disappearing down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole and focuses those with responsibility for legal management of cases in critical thinking about this difficult topic.
News From the Family Separation Clinic
Residence Transfers in England and Wales – An Evaluation of a Decade of Work
Currently there are no evaluated outcomes of residence transfers carried out in England and Wales. The Family Separation Clinic is currently undergoing evaluation of the outcomes of a number of residence transfers which include the voices of children who are over the age of eighteen, who underwent residence transfer with support from the Clinic. Slightly delayed due to a change of evaluation team, the data in this study will provide valuable evidence of the outcomes for children in decisions in private and public law. Publication due in 2023.
Court based Services
The Family Separation Clinic is currently unable to accept instructions in the lower courts of England and Wales and has a limited capacity for High Court Instructions. Please note that the Clinic offers treatment routes in cases where children have been found to be emotionally and psychologically abused. The Clinic will accept instructions on the basis of consultancy in Public Law Cases which are in the High Court only.
Autumn Courses for Rejected Parents
Holding up a Healthy Mirror
This popular course has already been delivered to well over a hundred parents and will run again in September (12/19/26/3rd October). Parents who have taken this course have reported breakthroughs with their children alongside increased understanding of the problems their children are facing and development of new perspectives alongside skills to help their children. The autumn course is limited to 25 places to ensure that people get the most out of it. Booking is open now here.
Learning and Listening Circles
The first drop in learning and listening circle will be held on October 5th and will run weekly until Christmas. Learning and listening circles are for rejected parents who want regular connection with others and an opportunity to learn, reflect and share their experience with therapeutic faciliation. Based upon the concept of listening circles for therapeutic parents, these circles will be open to parents, family members and friends who wish to assist the family to build a path home for a child. The first circles will be facilitated by me and in 2023, this concept will be further developed to expand upon the availability.
The cost of attendance at a listening circle is £30 and each session will run for two hours making it an affordable way to gain experience, knowledge and guidance. Participants are invited to drop in to one or attend as many as they find helpful. Details on how to book and join on Zoom will be available on the Family Separation Clinic website in September.
Development of Resources from the Family Separation Clinic
The Clinic received investment last year to build resources for parents and practitioners and as part of that project we are now completing the handbook of clinical practice alongside video explainers and other materials which are focused upon induced psychological splitting and the harm it causes to children as well as how to treat the problem. We are very grateful to have the opportunity to expand our resources and look forward to sharing these with the world soon.
International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children
The videos from the Conference in Israel are now ready and the links to viewing are being sent out. More news about next year’s conference shortly.
I am now on a sabbatical to work on my PhD and then I will be on vacation and will not return until mid September. Please know that we are working incredibly hard in preparation for a new phase of work at the Clinic and that we will return in the Autumn to support the ongoing raising of awareness of the harm being done to children who are induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation. With treatment routes, evidenced outcomes and clinical resources, we are better placed than ever to challenge and change the landscape for abused children of divorce and separation.