The argument that children who reject parents after divorce and separation are doing so because that parent has been abusive, has gained traction this year, along with claims that children are being handed to abusive parents by professionals in the family court who do not understand domestic abuse. The more lurid claims suggest this is a mysoginist plot to traffic children from the arms of protective parents to abusers, claiming that children are plucked from their beds at night to be reprogrammed. At this end of the spectrum, the false belief that mothers in these circumstances are then routinely banished from the lives of their children is also promulgated. In this world, mothers are all victims of coercive control and fathers are all domestic abusers.
In the real world however, the evidence shows that mothers AND fathers manipulate children and enmesh them or control them into a mindset in which they reject a parent outright. Therefore, as the circle of denial that children can be manipulated against a loving parent becomes clearly visible around the world, it is incumbent upon those of us who work to help children who are emotionally and psychologically abused this way, to speak up and offer the evidence to those with the capacity to understand it. We must ensure, at this juncture, that what lies beneath a child’s alignment and rejection, is properly and fully articulated, because to fail to do so, will allow the tsunami of what is clearly a planned strategy of intimidation and obfuscation, to sweep away the rights and needs of yet more generations of children.
I have been articulating the problem of children’s alignment and rejection behaviours since 2009 when I first encountered a child who said he hated his father but who, in protected space, showed that he loved his father and was entirely comfortable with him. This story, of the first child I observed to be alienated, is told in Thomas Moore’s book ‘Please Let Me See my Son‘. The story is the template for all of my work with children who reject parents since and, as I am still in touch with Thomas and his son, I have had the opportunity to understand the recovery journey of the child who aligns and rejects. That is another story in itself, which is told and retold by all of the parents and children I have worked with over the intervening years. In 2023, those stories will be widely heard, as our evaluation of residence transfers, in the words of children themselves, will be told. Evidence indeed that when a child is removed from an abusive parent, the road to recovery and the capacity to thrive, depends upon the parent who has been rejected. Those same parents who are being so horribly denigrated by this joined up campaign to destroy public understanding of what really lies beneath this transgenerational trauma.
Dispelling the myth that children reject a parent outright because that parent is abusive.
This is a strong theme which is repetively used by campaigners to try to persuade the outside world that parents are simply being rejected because of their behaviour. The problem with this myth is the evidence which disproves it, not least that which uses neuroscience to do so.
In their article entitled Fear in Love – Attachment, Abuse and the Developing Brain, Sullivan and Norton Lasley, describe their work which demonstrates why children remain attached to abusive caregivers. Their work describes the epigenetic changes to the brains of the descendents of abuse victims, explaining why the trauma of a child’s alignment and rejection is transgenerational.
The brains of children who suffer neglect or abuse—about 10 out of every 1,000 children in the United States in 20081—also develop in a way that reflects the child’s experiences. And the effects of early abuse can be notoriously difficult to detect. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, it is difficult to identify an abused child unless there are obvious signs, such as bruises or injuries. The child’s behavior usually provides few clues—in fact, when social workers, doctors, or police officers attempt to rescue a child from an abusive situation, the child will often lie to protect the parents.Regina Sullivan, Ph.D.,, Elizabeth Norton Lasley
The issue we are working with when a child aligns with one parent and completely rejects the other, is, in my clinical experience, the transmission of unresolved trauma which resides in the family system, often silently recognised by family members who accomodate that trauma by treading carefully around it. The sign that the trauma exists, lies in the use of primitive defences of denial, splitting and projection, attachment maladaptations such as enmeshment and triangulation and coercive controlling behaviours. When parents separate, the eruption of unresolved trauma creates the systemic pressure upon the child as the structural power asymmetry renders the most vulnerable people in the system helpless to the power of the unresolved trauma. This is when we see children being induced into the mindset of the parent with unresolved trauma, the defence of splitting, which pushes the child back into an infantile dependency upon this parent, is the outward display of the systemic pressure.
When we work with children who reject a parent outright therefore, the first thing we examine for is the presence of psychological splitting in the child’s relationship with their parents. A child who tells us that one parent is perfect and the other is not, who cannot tell us anything good about the demonised parent but who can tell us endlessly that the parent to whom they are aligned is wonderful, is showing us the presence of the primitive defences of denial, splitting and projection. When we see this, we know that the powerful drive in the child to cling to a parent, is precisely because of the biological drive to remain attached to a parent who is causing harm. The harm being caused however, is not simply that a loved parent is being rejected, the harm is the splitting of the child’s ego or sense of self, leading to the child’s sense of who they are fragmenting. In this scenario, the child is vulnerable to both attachment and developmental maladapatations which mirror the influencing parental mindset. This is why this problem is so harmful to children
In Sullivan and Norton Lasley’s article, the neuroscience of attachment is described, including the way in which the amygdala plays a key role in biological survival strategies. The science is a complex mix of chemical responses in relational bonding but it explains why, in biological terms, children do not reject abusive parents outright but instead seek to remain bonded to them. When we combine this knowledge, with the theory of latent vulnerability, which explains how neurocognitive and biological systems adapt to early adverse environments to achieve short term advantage, all the while increasing future risk of poor psychological/psychiatric outcomes, we see the reality of what happens to some children of divorce and separation.
But when the parent and the nest are themselves sources of danger, the suppression of fear circuits in the amygdala unfortunately still works. The fear, avoidance, and even memories associated with pain are extinguished—explaining why an abused child, even while trying to escape pain, will later seek contact with the abuser.Regina Sullivan, Ph.D.,, Elizabeth Norton Lasley
What is really happening when a child rejects a parent outright
The evidence is clear that a child who rejects a parent outright after divorce and separation, is not doing so because that parent is abusive. Instead, it is the parent to whom the child is aligned who is causing harm and it is the alignment we should be looking at because it is this which is abusive to the child. It is abusive because, even though it looks like love, it is a fear based response which is underpinned by the biological imperative to survive. In the framework of latent vulnerability, what we are seeing when a child aligns in this way, is a child who is already vulnerable in the parental relationship, succumbing to underlying disorganised attachments. These cause the child to hyper align as a survival strategy, the rejection of the other parent being simply a by-product of that alignment. In this respect, the onset of the splitting defence, is a simple way for the child to resolve the tension in the family system caused by the dilemma of being unable to hold two realities in mind – that of the healthy parent and that of the parent with power and unresolved trauma based issues.
Rejected Parents and Therapeutic Parenting
All of this explains why the parent in the rejected position is the best person to provide healing for the alienated child. This parent holds the healthy attachments for the child and has the capacity to provide stable care which is child focused and free of conflicted dynamics and unresolved trauma. When this parent is anchored in the position of safe parent, their therapeutic power is clearly demnstrated by the reconnection and rebuilding of the child’s sense of authenticity as the false self falls away, no longer needed or necessary for self protection. This is why rejected parents are so essential for the recovery journey for the child, whilst therapists can provide the protected space, the holding of the dynamics which cause splitting and the support for the child to reconnect, it is the rejected parent who possesses the biology of attachment. In my clinical experience, that attachment is life long, it does not die or disappear, it lies beneath until activated by proximity. It may take time to emerge and for it to be a felt sense in the child, which is why the early days of reunification can feel strange to children, as if something is rusty or low in energy or sleeping. With time and protected space however, that part of self which is identified with the rejected parent, that part which has hitherto been denied and split off, comes back into consciousness and when it does, the tsunami of attachment comes with it. This is why in my work I champion rejected parents, it is because they and only they, hold the real key to healing children who are alienated from their own right to their own sense of the whole of who they are.
Far from rejecting a parent because they are abusive, some children of divorce and separation reject as a by product of the harm they are suffering at the hands of a parent they are aligned (clinging to). What lies beneath this however is the survival adaptations caused by a threatening environment, which biology overrides in the deepest parts of the brain.
What looks like love, is in fact child abuse. It is alignment and not rejection which is the source of the pain and it is this which we must articulate in the outside world as a matter of urgency.
20th December – 19:00-21:00 – a Special Christmas Circle focused on the needs of rejected parents – Cost £20 per person (family members can join for the cost of one place).
Listening Circles have proven to be very popular with parents around the world and have been spaces in which much love and care is shared amongst those who join us. This circle, like all others, will begin with a short input from me but will then expand outwards to welcome in the experience and expertise of parents in the rejected position who know that they are their child’s best hope for a healthy future.
This circle is reduced in cost to £20 to enable as many parents to join as possible and if any parent cannot afford the £20 cost but would like to join, they can email request a free place by emailing email@example.com
For the cost of one place, family members can join free of charge, our aim is to bring as much support as possible to those with the power to help and heal.
This circle is focused upon the health and wellbeing of rejected parents and grandparents as well as wider family members and offers support and care to every member of a family where a child is currently rejecting.
The needs of rejected parents are many but the first need is to be recognised and understood. This circle provides a safe space for those who are grieving, those who are surviving, those who are coping and those who are reconnecting.
This is a place to pull up a chair, light a candle and be together to share stories, be hopeful understand more deeply the journey of the alienated child and know that you are not alone.