I didn’t know that Dandlebear

One morning, when the sunlight poked its fingers through the curtains, Jack woke up in a grumpy mood. ‘Who told the sunshine it could come into my bedroom’ he said to himself under his breath as he climbed out of bed and went to brush his teeth. ‘Who put my toothbrush in the wrong place’ he mumbled as he reached around the toys to get it back from where he had thrown it the night before, ‘who said I wanted toast for my breakfast’ he groaned as he sat down at the table, where his mum had already finished eating.

‘What’s up’ said his mum as Jack took a big bite of his toast, ‘nothing’ said Jack in a miserable sort of a way. ‘Oh well’ said mum, as she got up to put the dishes in the sink, ‘I am sure things will get better.’  I don’t think they will thought Jack as he swung his feet backwards against the chair legs, frowning all the while.

Later that day Jack was back in his bedroom still feeling gloomy though he could not work out why.  He picked up his racing car and looked at the broken wheel, he put it back down again.  He picked up his tool box and tried to decide which of the tools he would need to use to mend the wheel, he couldn’t figure it out, finally he threw the car on the floor and flung himself on the bed, he didn’t know what was the matter with him, he just could not feel happy today.

After some biscuits at three o clock, Jack went down into the garden to see if he could find something there that would make him feel better.  He kicked his football around the grass for a while but that just made him feel worse so he stopped.  He could hear the children next door in their garden and the sound of their dad’s voice booming over the hedge. “kick it Fin,’ he heard Fin’s dad say, ‘go on, give it a whallop.’  Jack heard a thud as Fin gave it a kick and as he did so he felt a feeling inside him that he hadn’t felt for a while, a sort of pulling and aching, a nagging sort of a feeling that made him feel restless and a little bit like crying.  He sat down.  He tried to make the feeling go away.  He could hear the children next door laughing and shouting. He went indoors, he didn’t like this feeling that was growing inside him.

In his bedroom he pulled open the cupboard and rummaged around.  There, at the back, all pushed out of shape and a little bit battered was a familiar face, a round sort of face all furry with big eyes. Jack reached into the cupboard and found the arm of his Dandlebear and yanked him out, falling over slightly as he did so that the two of them sat down on the floor with a Pffff sort of sound.  Dandlebear looked at Jack in a squinty sort of a way. “what did you do to your eye?’ Jack asked Dandlebear.  ‘You squashed me up in the back of that cupboard’ Dandlebear replied, silently of course because Dandlebears do not speak they sort of send their thoughts in a magical way.  Jack looked at Dandlebear and took hold of his great big paw as he did so he remembered that Dandlebear’s paw is a big as one of daddy’s gloves.  As he remembered daddy’s glove, he began to think about Fin and his daddy and as he thought about Fin’s daddy, he began to feel that funny sort of feeling was growing again, he dropped Dandlebear’s hand quickly and looked out of the window.

Dandlebear quietly shifted up close to Jack and sat with him looking out of the window.  ‘You miss your daddy don’t you’ he said silently, Jack nodded slowly but kept on looking out of the window, the feeling was getting stronger and stronger, he was scared of it and wanted it to go away. ‘Do you know that your daddy misses you too?’ said Dandlebear, Jack shook his head and looked glumly at the floor.  ‘I don’t like my daddy’ said Jack out loud, as he watched Fin from next door kicking the football high into the air.  Dandlebear sent a sort of hurrumph noise to Jack in reply as if to say, I don’t think that is true, but Jack just kept on looking gloomily at the floor.

Dandlebear shifted as close to Jack as he possibly could and snuffled in a Dandlebear way. ‘There are things you don’t know Jack that you need to know and there are things that you don’t need to know that you do know’ Dandlebear sent this message silently to Jack in a kind sort of a way because its a big thing to understand and Dandlebear wanted Jack to know that he was being kind.  ‘What do you mean’ said Jack, starting to feel a bit curious but a bit irritated all at the same time.  ‘Well’ said Dandlebear, its a bit like this.  You see Fin out there with his daddy.  Well in the world that Fin lives in, his daddy is good and his mummy is good and his sister is good (though not all the time of course because sisters can be naughty) and that makes Fin happy.  But in your world Jack, your daddy is bad and your mummy is good and you haven’t got a sister so that’s not a problem but the truth is Jack that your daddy is not bad, you just have to believe he is and that makes you very unhappy. Dandlebear sat back for a rest after that big message and Jack stared silently at the floor thinking about what this all meant.  Was his daddy bad or was his daddy good.  Dandlebear certainly had a point, Fin seemed to be having a lot of fun with his daddy, that must make him good, but Jack could remember when he used to play with daddy like that too, did that mean that daddy was good, Jack felt confused, he tried to squash the thoughts back down and think about something else but Dandlebear was sitting there watching him with his big wise eyes.  Jack remembered when Dandlebear and he used to go over the bridge to his daddy’s house, Dandlebear had always been there, daddy had always been there, but then daddy wasn’t there and mummy seemed to be crying all of the time and things felt scary and Jack had decided that he didn’t want to go over the bridge anymore, even with Dandlebear.  He got up to put Dandlebear away in the cupboard again, he picked up his big paw and started to swing him back into the pile of toys when he stopped, he looked at Dandlebear’s big paws and he thought about daddy’s big gloves.  Outside he could hear Fin and his sister laughing and playing, he wondered where daddy was and whether he missed him. Dandlebear looked at him with his great big eyes and sent him a message, ‘Jack’ he said  ‘your daddy still loves you and he misses you every day.’  Jack stopped and sat down on the bed again with Dandlebear on his knee, ‘does he’ he asked, ‘does he still know where I live?’  Dandlebear smiled, ‘of course he does’ he said, ‘of course he does’.  Jack thought about it  for a while and then picked up his racing car, daddy would know how to mend the wheel, he would know which tool to use.  The feeling inside Jack that was heavy and grumpy and not very nice began to change into something different, something lighter, something softer, something all together better.  ‘I didn’t know that Dandlebear’ said Jack.

The Dandlebear Bridge

A Dandlebear is no ordinary bear. A Dandlebear is specially made for children whose parents do not live in the same house. A Dandlebear is small and quick and can send messages without talking. A Dandlebear looks after little children.

Dandlebears live underneath bridges. Some of the bridges lead from mummy’s house to daddy’s house. Sometimes a bridge leads from daddy’s house to Nanny’s house and some other bridges lead from mummy’s house to nursery. All little children have to go over bridges and some get to like it a lot but others find it too scary and so these little children have a dandlebear to help them.

Dandlebears have long arms and big paws. This is so that you can hook them into your trousers whilst you are playing at daddy’s house. Some dandlebears go over the bridge with children and then go back to skimming stones until its time to go back over the bridge to mummy’s house. Some dandlebears stay with little children and get hooked into their trousers so that they are there when they are needed but don’t get in the way.

Dandlebears love little children and they love the bridges that little children cross too. Some Dandlebears are especially fond of growing flowers and plants on the bridges so that as little children skip over them to their mummy’s house, they can smell the flowers and hear the bees which buzz happily as they collect pollen.

One day, a little girl called Milli was getting ready to go to her daddy’s house when she felt a funny little feeling inside. She told her mummy that she did not know what this feeling was but that it had started to get bigger every time she put her coat on to go to daddy’s house. ‘Ah’ said her mummy, ‘that means its time for your Dandlebear to come.’ ‘My Dandlebear?’ said Milli in surprise, for she had never heard of a Dandlebear before. ‘Yes indeed’ said her mummy mysteriously, ‘your Dandlebear’ and without further ado, she put on her own coat and took Milli by the hand and into the lane which lead to the bridge.

The bridge was, by now, something that Milli was used to crossing. Her mummy would go half way up the little humpty back and her daddy would walk up the other way. Half way, on the top of the humpty back her parents would meet and her mummy would let go and her daddy would take hold of her hand and they would walk back down together, after waving goodbye to mummy of course.

Today though, as they walked up to the bridge, instead of it just being flowers and bees and birds singing, Milli could see a little creature was climbing up the ivy which flowed down to the river in great strands of green and gold. ‘Humpppph’ went the little creature, whose arms were as long as a monkeys and whose paws were as big as one of daddy’s gloves, ‘Huumppph’ it went again as it landed on the bridge, just in front of them, smiling in a sort of ‘pleased to meet you’ kind of a way as it brushed down its fur and blinked its huge eyes at Milli.

Milli stood and stared at the little creature, she wasn’t quite sure what it was but somehow she knew it was a kind creature and that it belonged entirely to her. “This is your Dandlebear Milli’ said her mummy, ‘your very own Dandlebear’ and as she said that, Milli felt a lovely feeling coming from the Dandlebear towards her and smiled happily. Somehow she just knew that things would be so much better now.

The Dandlebear held Milli’s hand as mummy and Milli and Dandlebear walked up the humpty backed bridge in the sunshine, the birds and the bees were all around and they were all smiling too. ‘Look’, hummed the bumblebee, ‘Milli’s Dandlebear has come with her today’ and the birds chirruped their approval as Milli and her Dandlebear strolled happily up the bridge together hand in hand.

Without knowing how they had got to the top of the humpty backed bridge, Milli suddenly found herself face to face with daddy! ‘Hello Milli’ daddy said, looking pleased, ‘I see your Dandlebear has come with you today.’ Milli was amazed to hear that daddy already knew about her Dandlebear and looked for mummy to ask her how he knew but when she looked she realised that mummy was already on the way back down the bridge waving bye bye. Milli didn’t worry though, Dandlebear was hanging on with his great big paws and smiling at her with his great big eyes and somehow Milli didn’t feel that funny little feeling anymore, she felt instead the fuzzy feeling of Dandlebears paws and the warmth of his smile. Milli put her hand in daddy’s hand, ‘come on’ she said, let’s go and do some baking’ and tucking Dandlebear into her trousers, she set off down the hill with daddy beside her whilst the birds and the bees on the bridge kept on singing and humming.


(your feedback on this would be very welcome, I am thinking about making this into a series of stories for children aged between 3-8 who are moving between homes.  A Dandlebear is, of course, a transitional object, which we know for this age group, can be especially useful in helping children to manage transitions between homes.  This series starts with the transition bridge but contains also stories such as Down amonst the Dandlebears, for children who are starting to resist transitions and Dandlebear doesn’t work on Fridays for children who are refusing to see a parent.  I have wanted to write for children for a long time and have played about with ideas based upon my understanding of how children in different age groups experience living between two parents.  I am particularly interested in the void which opens up between parents after separation in terms of how children conceptualise and manage this space and it is this which I am writing about here.  I want to write not only for children but for parents to read with their children when difficulties strike.  I also want to give something to parents who are on the fragile end of the child’s transitional difficulties, so that they have tools to use when things begin to become difficult.  I would appreciate all of your feedback, tell me if you think it is worth writing for children in this way, if you would find it useful, what you would like more of and so on.  My daughter, who is an illustrator as well as a writer, is a child who made many transitions between myself and her father over the years, I have asked her to work with me to bring these stories to life.  I hope that between us we can fill up that void in children’s literature about life as a child at risk of alienation and bring something new to this field.  Watch this space for more on this soon).


Going underground: into the world of the alienated child

First real day of sunshine and I am thinking about the way in which we survive cycle after cycle, the downward spiral into winter and the way in which the myth of persephone in the underworld plays itself out in our lives over and over and over again.  Born as we are, in a cyclical world, none of us can avoid the reality of life, death and separation from our loved ones.  Demeter lamented as  her daughter Persephone was taken from her by Hades the god of the underworld, in a story of abduction, reconciliation and regeneration.  In the Persephone myth, there is the foretelling of spring, renewal and reunification.  For the alienated child and family, none of this normal and natural renewal is allowed to occur and so the world becomes frozen in time as the child disappears, deep into the underworld, where the family they have rejected cannot follow.  As spring emerges from its slumber and the green shoots of renewal and regeneration are all around us, I think of those families, for whom the lament cannot end and where normal and natural cycles are stilled, frozen, almost as if between time.

So I thought it might be useful, on this spring morning, to write something of what happens to children in that underground world where families cannot follow.  In doing so I hope that I am able to bring some light to dark places and some relief to frozen feelings of loss and lack of hope.  I know that living with the experience of being alienated from your child can cause all manner of pain and suffering, it can bring hopelessness and helplessness and at times great waves of anger and resentment, directed not only to those who have caused your loss but to others too, sometimes those who do not even touch your life in any meaningful way.

I was prompted to think about how being alienated from your child can cause such a tsunami of anger and pain, by something written on a facebook page in recent days, from a father who is alienated to a mother who is alienated.  The anger directed by this man to this woman was palpable and I could hardly bear to continue reading the way in which he dismissed her experience, her suffering and her pain.  I was tempted to write something on the page to comfort her and to draw this man’s attention to the fact that she was not his ex wife, not the mother of his child and not the person who had taken his child away from him.  And that in actual fact she was suffering, just as he was, the same fate of having had a child taken away through distortion of the child’s mind and feelings.  I let it be, this man clearly has things to work through, this woman will hopefully find help elsewhere. It reminded me though that alienation does terrible things to people which, if they are not able to deal with them, may cause them to unwittingly prolong the withdrawal of their child and maintain the frosts in the underground world their child has disappeared into.

One of the things that I tell alienated parents to do is to keep themselves healthy and well and to embrace the emotional and psychological process that they are being forced to experience and understand it.  That’s not easy to do when there is so little understanding of parental alienation in our culture and its definitely not easy to do when your child has behaved as if you are the lord of the underworld himself, come to steal them away.  But those parents that I have met and worked with who are able to do this are those for whom the reunification process is swifter and easier and those for whom the possible future in terms of a relationship with their child over the rest of their lives, is a healthy reality.  Those who are well and focused and alive in their world, are those who understand what is happening and what the prognosis is for their child.

This post then, is directed at those of you who are currently in that frozen and distant place who need to know more about what happens to children when they go underground.  This is part of the empathic responding series of posts that I began a few weeks ago and gives you a window on the world of your child when they are in the fully rejecting stance.  It does not offer anyting other than a peek into that world, it does not offer answers and it cannot tell you how to retrieve your child from that place.  But it can give you a sense of where your child has gone and what your role, as the rejected parent  feels like as you sit and wait for spring to come.

Alienated children are all very different to each other in personality but they share some very common and recognisable traits.  They are usually very bright children and sensitive to the feelings of the people around them.  Many are the oldest child in the family system or the only child.  They are likely to have been very close to you before the rejection began.

Alienated children do very very well at school, in fact one of the things that their aligned parent will say to you and the world is how well their child is doing at school.  Immense pride in school achievements is a key feature in alienation cases, it is as if the child takes flight into doing well at school to cover the shame of what they have done in rejecting you.  Some very key research evidence points to this, Warshak, Baker and Bala have all written about the alienated child who does exceptionally well at school.  My own practice suggests to me that this is without doubt one of the major features when alienation reactions begin.  Down the line however, school performance can suffer as the child cannot maintain the flight into perfection. In the underworld, the child who has split parents into good and bad, has also split their own sense of self in the same way and maintainance of behaviour becomes difficult as the child occillates between good and bad within their own selves.

The early part of an alienation reaction is not the same as the middle part or latter part.  You will notice that I am speaking about alienation as a journey not a static experience and indeed it is though some reactions become fixed and immoveable, most particularly when a child is left in the care of a parent with a personality disorder who captures the child within that and fuses their developing selves with the disordered adult self.  Those children who remain fixed and rejecting are those for whom the prognosis is not so good and it is useful, in all cases, to know whether your child is moving along a spectrum or static and unable to do so.

Early alienation for a child feels like a relief.  As they disappear underground, taken not by you but their other parent, they will project their fears of being abducted onto you, the parent that they have chosen to reject.  In actual fact, many children appear to ‘know’ at some level that they have been taken by a parent and will talk about being chased, hunted, stolen or grabbed as one of the core fears that they hold of the parent that they are rejecting.  The reality is that these fears, which arise because of the ‘choice’ they have made, are being pointed at you when they really belong to the other parent.  Underground, in the world of the alienated child, what is good is bad and what is bad is good and black is white as everything becomes topsy turvey and upside down.  When the parent who has captured the child reaffirms this, the rejection deepens and becomes entrenched as the child literally loses the ability to know their own mind.  The relief in the early days for the child, is not having to try and process things through each time they are confronted with reality in the form of you.  No longer having to face the psychological trauma of turning things upside down and back to front and then having to reverse it again, brings an immense sense of escape and many children speak of feeling safe again and no longer fearful.  Whilst they project the fears onto you, the fears they really feel are those which arise from the fused nature of their relationship with the parent they have chosen to keep in their lives.  Perhaps as you read this you can begin to understand just how scrambled the internalised world of the alienated child feels.  In the early days there is much relief at not having to keep on coping with that.

As things move on however things become more difficult for the alienated child.  The further away from you they travel, the more complicated their reaction becomes.  If they are absolutely removed from you, without any form of contact and if the image they have been forced to accept of you is one of danger, fear and terror, a phobic like reaction may take root.  This is when children become upset and angry or sometimes even hysterical when anything about you or your family is mentioned. The distortion of you in their internal world has become so powerful that they cannot cope with any knowledge of you or any exposure to anything to do with you. These phobic like reactions are common to severely alienated children, who are protecting themselves from the pressures they are still experiencing from the parent that they are aligned to.  These are the children for whom life underground becomes fixed and permanent. These are the children who are very much at risk of emotional harm if they are not helped.

Towards the end of the journey of alienation, when reconnection becomes possible, your child starts to detect a light at the end of the deep dark tunnel they have been travelling through. Children at this stage will often make attempts to contact a parent, perhaps looking at facebook pages or connecting on other social media, perhaps sending messages and then retreating in silence.  Children in this stage remind me of small animals unable to tolerate too much light and working with them takes great care as over exposure to perspective work can be too much for them.  But children in this stage are those for whom the future looks brightest, if the parent they have lost is sitting at the entrance to the tunnel waiting for them, well and healthy and welcoming.  When children can put their hand in yours and move off with you into the next phase, safe in the knowledge that the past has gone and will not return, their lives (and yours) can rapidly repair.  You may need to be patient for some time as they come and go and retreat and come forward again, but once a child has started to reach out it is highly unlikely that they will disappear from your life again for ever.  Be ready, be healthy, be well for when that happens.

Rejected parents are many and varied and working with them as I do I see many for whom I know it is a matter of waiting and some for whom I know that spring is going to take a long time coming.  This is not to blame parents who are alienated, I know how painful and difficult it is to experience never ending loss in this way. It is however, to flag up that there is a condition that some parents experience which acts against reunification possibilities and against your child returning to you.  This condition is best described as fixed projection of blame and it comes when a parent is so focused on the wrong doing of the other parent and what has been taken away, that they lose perspective.  This condition perfectly mirrors that of the alienated child and when it occurs, it is as if the child and parent become perfect reflections of each other, neither one moving for fear that change will come.  For parents in this condition, I often experience the fear of change as being greater than the desire for reunification.  When it occurs, it is incredibly difficult to raise with the rejected parent, who will become angry and blaming towards the therapist, solicitor, court process, anyone else who gets in the way, even, in some cases, other parents who have themselves been rejected as in the case of the man on the facebook page whose anger towards a fellow rejected parent so obviously demonstrated.  Loss of a child is a terrible thing, injustice suffered at the hands of your child’s other parent is intolerable and forced prevention of a relationship at the hands of the family courts compounds the nightmare.  The way you respond to this however, lies in your own hands, your own heart and your own ability to understand and cope with what has happened to you and your child.  Do not let the bitterness, fear and anger overwhelm you, keep a place in your heart for compassion, humility and strength to carry on. Most of all, keep your own life alive and live and laugh and share your world with others, and never forget that  those who really understand are those who have experienced the worst of it. Do not close them out.

Nelson Mandela, a man who experienced injustice, forced separation from loved ones and absolute discrimination in his life said of his release –

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

When your child comes up from the underworld, be free, be well and be there, right where they need you to be.

(This post is dedicated to Tim Haries, father of two children lost in the underworld and Paul Manning, father of a child also lost underground.  For your dignity, courage and ability to move beyond bitterness and blame, towards a better future, where your children are returned and restored to you).

Launch of the Jersey Centre for Separated Families

The Jersey Centre for Separated Families was formally launched on 27th February at the Royal Yacht Hotel in St Helier.  Tim Loughton, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham and ex Children’s Minister, spoke at the launch about the need for community based services and the importance of ensuring that the needs of mothers and fathers going through separation are met.

A gathering of around fifty participants, from organisations working with families across Jersey, were present to hear speeches and presentations and take part in workshops.  It was a lively and fascinating day, bringing together the best of local knowledge and expertise which is now linked in to the National Network for Separated Family Centres which is governed by our online Family Separation Hub.

Those of you regular readers will remember that last year I wrote a blog called ‘Imagine if’…this blog concentrated upon the possibilities of working together with other like minded people and the difference that such a network could bring to the lives of separated families.  Well that network is now real and our Jersey Centre is launched and already serving the needs of families on the island, using whole family strategies to build and maintain co-operative relationships after separation.

The Jersey Centre is built upon the model developed on the Isle of Wight and joins Isle of Wight Separated Families as another community based support service which delivers support to the whole family using local expertise and knowledge.  We have new Centres in the making and will add the Midlands, North West, South West, London and, we hope, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland  to our network in 2014/15,  all of which will stream information to and from the online hub, making best practice across the country widely available.

And all of this without the need for government funding, which frees us to deliver these services in ways that meet the different needs of mothers and fathers without being constrained by the cognitive dissonance that is a feature of the large charities which sit around government.  Charities which, for example, whilst purporting to deliver support to help parents collaborate, are, at the same time, signatories to the campaign to effectively destroy the changes to the Children Act that Tim Loughton proposed on entering his post as Children’s Minister.  Relate, One plus One, Resolution, all funded in the millions by the DWP’s disastrous help and support for separated families campaign, all signatories to the Coram campaign to kill the proposed changes to the wording in the Children Act 1989.  If anyone can tell me what sense it makes for a government to try and make a significant change to policy and practice whilst funding the very charities which stand against those changes, I would welcome the explanation.  For now however, let’s just say that I am happier than I have ever been in my working life, to know that from our imagination, we have brought to life the very services we know will change lives.  And it is only the beginning.

Little did those wonderful women on the Isle of Jersey know that in their determined and focused work with us back in July of last year, they began a revolution in our hearts and minds. A revolution which has not only brought about change on their island but will bring about change across the UK as other people recognise that being the change that you want to see in the world is the very best way to live and work.  Many people have come forward keen to be part of our work and now that the Jersey Centre is launched our focus will be on the next steps, development of the online Hub and training for the next centres.

This initiative has been brought to you by the determination of the people of Jersey and our belief that banging one’s head against insitutionalised walls is a pointless exercise.  Now that we are no longer doing that, our vision is clear and the outcomes are obvious.  It doesn’t take millions to deliver what people need and as Tim Loughton said on Thursday, it’s not rocket science either.  Away from the glare of the westminister disconnect,  the vision of whole family support, delivered in ways that value the importance of mothers AND fathers was quietly brought to life last week. And a way of thinking and working which brings a revolutionary change to the lives of families in ways that circumnavigate the blocks and barriers that continue to be placed in the way of collaboration, continues.

The others might pay lip service and pretend whilst all the while, behind the scenes they are working furiously to resist change.

Here, we are simply getting on and doing what we have always done, delivering services that work in ways that are accessible to the whole family.

Our thanks to Denise and her team on Jersey, (a remarkable woman leading an amazing team) for the dedication, determination and committment to bringing this service to life.  You are collectively inspiring in your understanding of the needs of the families that you work with.  You have indeed become the change that we wanted to see in the world

For more information see the links below

The Jersey Centre for Separated Families

Family Separation Hub

For news of more Centres joining our National Network, keep checking back at either of these links.

There is hope: M’s story

I just wanted to share this with you, with the permission of the father who sent it to me.  I am always incredibly grateful to receive your feedback on work that we have done because it helps us to understand how we help and what we can do to help more.  This father came on one of our workshops and I worked with him a few times individually to support him through a very difficult period.  It is wonderful to hear how he and his children have come back together.  In the period after separation, if children are captured by one parent’s psychological and emotional reaction, it is imperative to work through this carefully.  Waiting can seem such a difficult task when all hope feels as if it is slipping away, but with the right analysis and the right action, children can and do pull through.  I will let this dad tell his story now, any comments and thoughts, as usual, are always welcome and I am sure he will read and respond.

I just wanted to send you a quick email to share some events that have been happening in my life and to again thank you for the advice you have given at key moments.

It was about 18 months ago that I attended your all-day workshop in Euston, as my three teenage children had just become alienated from me, due to my wife (now ex-wife) reacting so badly to me moving back to this part of London into a flat a mile or so from the former matrimonial home. The two boys (J now aged nearly 16 and D, 19) managed to get through that time and I managed to re-establish a good relationship with them, where they would stay maybe one night a week, without any agreement or discussion between me and their mother. But my daughter R, completely conflicted and very aligned to her mother, was very hostile to me and refused to answer my texts or to meet up. That was around the Autumn of 2012, not long after having had a really nice two-week holiday with all three children in the summer.

As time went on, I realised my youngest son was struggling at school and his attendance had fallen to 88%, meaning he was missing a day of school every two weeks. So I rang his school and made sure I attended his parents’ evening, where the full picture of my ex-wife’s neglect of his education became clear (and she is herself a primary school teacher). J and I had a long chat after that parents’ evening and I basically said to him that something had to change in his education and that something was he should stay with me for at least two nights a week to make sure he did his homework. He agreed that this was the only real solution. I offered to tell his mother but he said he would do it himself – three days later on a Saturday morning, he told his mum that he was going to be staying with his dad for two nights a week – Monday nights and Tuesday nights. It was an incredibly brave thing for him to do and from the start of the following week he did exactly that – and has done so ever since. At the start of the year I said to J that I wanted him to increase this to three nights a week and he said that was ‘cool’ – so J now stays with me three nights a week, every week, without my ever having discussed or agreed that with his mother. 

Christmas 2012 was sad in that my newly-alienated daughter (she is 18 in April) did not get in touch and so I had some days up to Christmas Eve with my two boys but not my daughter.

However, I followed your advice of just sending texts, never ringing though, and sometimes I would get an acknowledgement, more often than not though I didn’t get anything back. For all of 2013 I was missing my daughter, occasionally hearing news that she had a boyfriend or that she was doing well at college, which is 10 minutes walk from my flat. I rented this flat so that she would be able to stay here and walk to college. As the year went on, the boys were staying more, I had a fantastic two weeks abroad with just me and my youngest J and we were settling into a good routine of me seeing both my boys regularly, again without ever having discussed or agreed this with their mother, so simply refused to engage with the issue. I was learning more about my two boys, seeing them as the young men they were becoming and allowed to have a relationship with them without a depressed, angry and often screaming mother standing between us. I essentially made my home a happy and welcoming place for them, lots of food and fun, without anything heavy. But I missed my daughter, prayed for her often and hoped that what you had said, about the mist lifting one day, would happen soon.

In the run-up to last Christmas I began to send R more texts and she began to reply more often. If I was away I bought three presents, gave the boys’ theirs in person and sent R’s home with the boys and would get a ‘thank you’ text. Little steps that meant a lot.Then one evening I was at work and I sent her a text asking her about university places and she began to reply and we had a long text exchange lasting around an hour. I had to go, so I signed off and said ‘Hope to see you soon’ and she said ‘yes, I would like that’.

About a week later, the two boys were coming over to decorate the Christmas tree and I sent R a text saying ‘would you like to join us’. She replied immediately and said ‘yes, I wanted to come over but didn’t know how to ask’. So she agreed to come over to the flat on Saturday morning. (I think J agreed to meet her outside the flat, so they came up together – safety in numbers).

J walked in first, gave me the usual ‘hi dad’ and a hug – and my lovely daughter R was standing here on the doorstep, looking nervous and a bit uneasy. She had dyed her hair blue, had pierced her nose and lower lip and had massive ear-rings actually embedded into the full ear lobe. I could see she continues to struggle with her weight. But I just thought she looked lovely. I remembered at that moment what you had said – that the alienation between a parent and child will lift in an instant, as if it had never been there. I stepped forward and gave her a hug and she came in and sat down and we watched TV, I went to pick up the Christmas tree, we then all went shopping in Bromley, came home and had a nice meal and then R went home. Before she went home, though, just as she was watching TV, she just said in a very matter-of-fact sort of way, ‘Dad, would it be OK for me to stay here a couple of nights a week so I can walk up to college?’

Within a week she was staying two nights a week and now stays two or three nights a week. She is an amazing young woman, studying hard for her A levels, including in philosophy, and we have lots of thinking-type conversations. She is so caring, so lovely, she has really found herself and knows who she is and where she is going and I am very proud to call her my daughter. I lost about 14 months with her, time she needed to take, but time that has made her an amazing person, wise beyond her years.

We’ve not had any big ‘why did you stay away’ type conversations, no blame, no recriminations, no explanations really, it just was what it was and now that phase has ended and R is back in my life. We sometimes go to the pictures together (still not sure what the Hunger Games is all about), haven’t met the boyfriend yet, but just having her back in my life is the most amazing thing. She said to me this week, ‘Dad, I’ve got a study month at college in May, can I stay here five nights a week’. I rented this flat so she could have access to college, so it is here for her as she prepares for her all-important A levels this year.

I just wanted to thank you, Karen, because you give people real advice about real situations and you set a real expectation for what they can hope for, but you also fill people with hope, real hope, that eventually our children return to us. I have had barely a taste of what some people (mostly men) endure, often years of silence from their children, losing them as toddlers and only having them return as young adults, and that must be utterly heart-breaking. I have had just a tiny taste of that, and it was at times unbearable, but your advice to hope, to keep in touch as best you can, to be ready for when they return, was a real life-saver. So thank you for all that you do.

Sowing the seeds of doubt: first stage empathic responding with an alienated child

We are discussing empathic responding with an alienated child at the moment. So far we have looked at the concept of walking a mile in your child’s shoes in order to understand the different pressures placed upon them.  Last week I asked you to find a photograph of your child and put it somewhere prominent so that you could practice sending your love towards your child on a daily basis, thinking only of the positive feelings you have for them and letting the negative ones, engendered by their alienated position, drop away.

This week we are going to look at how, as an alienated parent, you are in the unenviable position of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t and how, if you understand the position you are in, you can shape your responses to your children to influence them differently.

This series of posts is for those who are still in relationship with their children or whose children are emerging from an alienated state.  I will write specifically for those who are not seeing their children at all next.

When you are in the position of being or becoming the targeted or alienated parent it is important for you to understand what is happening fast.  As the targeted parent, you are the one upon whom, all of the negativity around the ending of the relationship is being projected. You are the scapegoat, you are the route your child uses to protect themselves from the horror of the holocaust surrounding them and you are the parent that they have decided can cope over the longer term with the loss of a relationship with them.  You are also, paradoxically, the parent that they bet upon being there when the chaos dies down.  In their minds you are the stronger, kinder, more objective parent, the one that right now they can afford to do without. Because when an alienation reaction takes hold, children who choose to lose a parent, are usually being unbearably pressured by the parent that they live most of their lives with. This parent is usually, though not always, their mother but whether it be mother or father they align themselves with, this parent will be skilled at emotional manipulation, guilt tripping, outraged self righteousness, long standing public suffering and will, themselves, usually be involved in significant campaigns to ‘split’ the family into good and bad.  Children align themselves most to the parent who plays the blame game and given that most children are living most of the time with one parent involved in this kind of mind manipulation, it is little wonder they cave in eventually and split up their own feelings into good and bad.

I said last week that children who split and who go into an alienation reaction want you to confirm for them why they should reject you.  This leads to all sorts of horrible behaviour in children which often mirrors the outraged self righteous indignation that is displayed by the aligned parent.  A child who is regularly saying ‘I don’t want to…come withyou/have you as my parent/love you/like you/do this/do that….is entering into the alienation reaction and at this stage you must do everything you can and more to avoid giving them justification for escalating it.

But here again you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t because if you give them justification they will escalate the reaction and if you don’t give them justification they will also escalate the reaction.  So what do you do, when a child is entering into the alienation state, or, conversely, is coming out of the alienated state (when they will often display behaviours in reverse order.

Let me explain that last bit just for clarification.

Children entering into an alienated state will usually follow this route –

Passive resistance – they will say they don’t want to see you/don’t want to stay over/try to reduce their time with you. When they are with you they will sulk and not want to do things.

Resistance – they will start to create situations which cause trouble and which allow them to avoid being with you, you will often want to simply send them home.

Active resistance – they will avoid coming with you when its time to do so, they will create scenes at handover, they will start to tell the parent they live with most that they don’t want to go, they will become hysterical, they will be obnxious in your company if you do get them to come with you.

When children come out of the alienated state they will often go through these stages in reverse order, ping ponging back and forth between them so that you are not quite sure what is going on.  A child might contact you in active resistance for example and demand that you do things for them and then, shortly afterwards, might hop straight over to passive resistance and spend some time with you that isn’t quite normal but isn’t actively resisting either.  Knowing where your child is in the alienation process is critical if you are going to use empathic responding in any of your encounters with your child.

Similarly, a series of emotional states accompanies each of the stages of alienation.  In order for a child to become alienated they have to amputate their conscience in relationship to you and so they go through a process of disabling their ability to feel guilt or shame about their rejection of you.  A child in passive resistance can still locate normal feelings of guilt and shame whilst a child in resistance is seeking help from you to disable those feelings by creating circumstances in which you behave in ways that contribute to the chaos.  When you do you are inadvertently confirming for the child why they should reject you and as you do so you are helping them to amputate their normal conscience in relationship to you.  This is why, when a child is behaving badly in an alienation reaction, you must take care not to contribute by being overly aggressive, overly pushy or overly demanding.  Difficult I know, but important to understand and keep in your toolbox for parenting an alienated child.

A child in active resistance has fully split up their feelings and can no longer feel guilt and shame in relationship to you.  Interestingly, one of the anecdotal evidences of a child who has fully split in their feelings, is that they seem to do incredibly well at school and the aligned parent will parade their ‘goodness’ and their achievements as evidence of how not seeing you has helped them to blossom.  The reality is that the child is no longer coping with the demand to relate to two parents who are in conflicted positions and they are, as compensation for the terrible ‘choice’ they have made, trying desperately to show that they are good children.  What they are however, are children removed from connection to normal feelings of conscience and as such they are in a very vulnerable emotional and psychological state.

First stage empathic responding with an alienated child means understanding how vulnerable your children are and what you need to do to assist them.  You need to become, very quickly, an adept at parenting an alienated child, which means removing from yourself all of the hooks that we discussed last week, focusing upon letting love flow towards your child within your mind and heart and then being willing and able to sow seeds of doubt at every opportunity.

Sowing seeds of doubt is an immediate task that creates mid and longer term opportunities for you to revisit and use in the future.  Your seeds of doubt need to be nurtured and cared for so that they will eventually blossom into the flowers of hope for reunification.  Seeds of doubt are less about direct explanation and more about challenging perceptions, they are usually unvocalised and they are symbolic in nature.  First stage empathic responding with an alienated child is about challenging their determination to use you as the repository for all that is negative, bad and wicked about their world.  Sowing the seeds of doubt is about your child encountering the love you feel for them on a consistent basis and about experiencing you over time as a containing adult who can face what they are throwing at you.  Sowing seeds of doubt can arrest an alienation response and it can expedite a recovery from alienation. Sowing seeds of doubt means that every time your child encounters you, they experience something other than what they have been made to believe about you.

So what has your child been made to believe about you?  This week I want you to spend time thinking as clearly as possible about the things that your child’s other parent has used to create you as the shadow in the child’s mind.  How have you been demonised, how have you been set up to be the place where the negativity can be dumped, what is it about you that has created this circumstance right here, right now?

In writing this I can hear the uproar of outrage that I should suggest that an alienated parent has somehow created his own fate.  I can see the posts denying that any such dynamic exists. Let me tell you this.  In each and every single case of alienation that I have ever worked with, the alienated parent has contributed something, somehow.  Even in those very severe cases, where personality disorder drives the child into rejection, the target parent has not been perfect.  I am not asking you to find what you have done that has caused this, I am not asking you to accept the blame.  I am asking you to consider what it is about you that meant that you could become the disposable parent in the child’s mind.  Were you too pushy, too aggressive, too passive, too confused, too malleable, too tired, too frustrated. What?  What was it about you that put you in that position?

Know yourself, know your child and know the other parent inside out, just as they know you inside out and have used whatever it is about you to create this split and make you and not they the rejected parent.

And when you know yourself and them and how, you will know how to do something different and when you do something different you start sowing the seeds of doubt.

This week I want you to get those seeds of doubt out of the packet and put them into sunlight ready for sowing.  Next week we are going to warm up the soil and till it carefully ready to receive them.  Until then. Find a mirror. Look back and reflect. Your seeds of doubt, in your symbolic gestures and behaviours in the future, are going to be different to those things that you were in the past.  Find yourself, know yourself, prepare your seeds of doubt in the different things you are going to do and be and say.

Seeds of doubt challenge your child’s perceptions, they confuse your child and change the way that the alienation reaction affects them.  Seeds of doubt concentrate your child’s mind and experience on the love that you feel and even though they may continue their reaction, will call up their conscience and make them think.  And thinking is what we need alienated children to do because thinking critically and independently is what they have lost.  Your seeds of doubt are designed to encourage your child to think with perspective over time.

If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got, seeds of doubt are about doing things differently.  Doing things differently creates dynamic change.

As the land warms and the sun returns, lets get ready for digging for difference together.

Until next week.

Preparing for empathic responding with an alienated child

I said that I would post about using empathy to respond to an alienated child this week and I have been thinking about that and how to best structure this.  It has taken some thought because alienated children are, as many of you will know, incredibly difficult to deal with at times, being variously, over empowered, withdrawn, aloof, obnoxious, dismissive and angry.  Responding to each of these manifestations of the issue of alienation as and when they arise, is your task as the targeted parent.

Lets start with the facts.  Your alienated child is not actually anything other than the tiny little tot you first held in your arms all those years ago.  Underneath the layers of self righteous indignation, unpleasantness and downright arsey attitude, your child remains there, frozen in a sort of bubble which is covered over by the impact of the role corruption they are suffering.  In so many ways, when I meet alienated children what I want to do most of all is reach out and hug them close, I want to rock them and sing to them and stroke away the oppositional defiance which is born of nothing other than fear.  Fear of the future, fear of the past and fear, most of all of the present.  What each alienated child carries with them each and every day, is the fear that if they were to drop this stance, they have no idea what might happen.  And that comes from repeated experiences of facing emotional chaos in the conflicting demands of the two people who love them most.  One of whom is helpless to do anything but sit by and watch and the other who is either consciously or unconsciously pulling the strings.  When I meet alienated children it no longer really matters to me who is doing what, all I really want to do is say ‘hush, its ok, trust me, you will be safe,’

Providing safety for an alienated child is not always possible however.  That’s because the dynamics around them are such that even within the court process it can be hard to achieve their liberation from the cross tension of competing demands.  And so the very best that I can achieve for some children is to teach the parent that is alienated from them, how to at least ‘do no harm’ if or when they do see their children.  And I can teach rejected parents how to develop the skin that allows the barbs and the hurts to roll off them like water from a ducks back and I can help them to speak in ways that alienated children can sometimes (not always) hear.

Alienated children are primed to find your ‘hooks’ and when they are near you they will come fishing for those hooks with the rod and line provided for them by their other parent.  Their other parent, being someone who knows you very very well, is well placed to teach your child what winds you up and hurts you.  When your child comes fishing for those hooks, you have to first of all remember that this is not your child who is trying to hurt you, its the other parent who has primed the rod with the information needed to hook you like a prize trout from the river.  If you are going to use empathic responding with an alienated child, remove those hooks, those things that the other parent used to use to wind you up before you start because without fail, your child will retaliate by fishing around to try and hook you into an argument or hurt you with a comment about you.

You see alienated children don’t want you to be nice to them.  What they really want, when the alienation process is underway, is for your to prove to them why they are right to have rejected you.  Neither do they want you to demonstrate any kind of empathy with them, they do not wish to feel the guilt and shame that empathic responding draws up in their minds and will become angry in response to try and drive those feelings down again.  Guilt and shame are normal and natural responses, they are the signs that our conscience is working. When we are horrible to someone or about someone, we feel guilty and ashamed.  An alienated child acts without conscience when a reaction is in full sway and so is unable to feel guilt or shame.  Couple that with the elevation of the child to the top of the family system by the other parent and you have a child who acts as if they are in charge, as if they are without feelings and as if they are superior in every way.  When you are going to use empathic responding with an alienated child, be prepared for an angry reaction.  At least at first.

Empathic responding means showing the child that you understand the position that they are in and how they feel.  Empathic responding with an alienated child however also means going a little bit further than you would in normal empathic work because you have to be able to sustain that long enough for the anger to drop and the guilt and shame to rise and then wait, whilst the child’s psychology rearranges itself.  All of this can sometimes happen in an instant, as in the case of spontaneous emergence and younger children may surprise you with an immediate switch back to their normal happy self. With older children however it often happens over time and you have to be able to keep yourself free of the hooks and protect yourself with a teflon coat for a sustained period whilst you continue to respond empathically.  You have to be able to get through the ‘whatever’ stage and the ‘you’re not going to win you know’ stage and the ‘you’re not my mum or dad stage’ and the ‘I hate you ‘ stage and more.  And you have to keep being able to do it over and over and over again.  Especially if the child continues to live with the other parent.

There is an argument going on at the moment in PA literature about whether alienated children should always be removed from an alienating parent in order to enable them to drop the reaction.  I have some sympathy with that having seen many children liberated from what is an horribly anxious position for them to be in.  For those children however who remain trapped with an alienating parent but who are spending time with you, using empathic responding can at least do no harm and at best offer your child the understanding that you know what they are going through.

But you have to be strong and able to cope if you are going to use empathic responding because it is an active and dynamic way of relating to your child and it invites the child to respond back to you.  When they do they will use the coping mechanism that they have developed in the alienation process to try and force you back into the place where they and not you are in control.  And so being prepared is a key stage in starting this kind of work.

To be prepared you must know what your own weak spots are.  Think about them.  How did the other parent used to hurt you? What kinds of things did they say that felt painful?  Get rid of your attachment to these things, they are not true, they were never true, let them go, you don’t need them anymore.  When your child starts to sound like their other parent, you are going to use distraction techniques to switch off from the game being played to try and hook you in.  Think of some music you love and hum it in your head, think of an image of calm flowing water and focus on it, imagine yourself in a cool meadow, barefoot on grass wet with rain.  And breathe.  And let love flow towards your child, however angry she or he is.

This week then I want you to find a photograph of your child and stand it somewhere you can see it. I want you to imagine that child as she or he was before the alienated set in and I want you to call that image up in your mind several times every day.  I want you to let your love flow to that child, forgetting the hurt and the pain that has been caused and I want you to feel, in the depths of your being, the love that you have for your child that fills every cell of you.  I want you to prepare for empathic responding and re-entering into a dynamic relationship of change.

You might feel afraid, you might wonder what on earth you are doing.  You are becoming, again, the parent you always were and are still.  You are preparing and when you prepare, you create an expectation of change.

Next week we will go together through the steps of empathic responding and learn more about this journey of change.

Nothing is static, nothing has to stay the same.  Your child’s fear has frozen the waters,  in time you can thaw them out again.


*This article is for parents who are still in relationship with a child who is in an alienated position.  I will write for those parents who are not in relationship shortly.

When children reject you: using empathy to challenge the alienation process

One of the most painful experiences for targeted parents is when the alienation process begins to escalate and children begin to become difficult, challenging and sometimes downright obnoxious.

We may not be familiar with the child who is overly empowered within what is called a ‘fused dyad’ with the other parent and so when that behaviour appears it can seem almost as if your child has turned into someone else. Some parents liken it to their child being possessed, others worry that their child is mentally unwell. Understanding what has happened and why is a very important step to learning how to deal with it.

In an alienation scenario, when one parent is angry or holds unresolved frustrations or is quite simply determined to drive the other out of a child’s life, it is often the case that the child will be elevated to a position of power within the fractured family system. This position of power, is often equal to that of the parent who is angry, who upholds the child’s ‘right’ to do as he or she pleases. Parents who are in this position will often speak about their children being ‘more emotionally aware’ than they are and will tell you and others that they are only being guided by their children because if their children say something is wrong then that must be the truth. This is a very dangerous position for a child, who should not be wielding decision making power at the top of what is called the ‘attachment hierarchy.’ To be in control of the broken family system in this way is, in fact, extremely damaging to children over time.

A healthy attachment hierarchy is when two parents, in relationship together, share the decision making and guiding power that runs a well functioning family. Contained within this hierarchy, children know that their parents are in charge and that they, as children, do not need to do anything other than concentrate on their own developing selves. When families separate however, the sharing of the decision making and guiding power often breaks down, creating a space in which the children themselves become elevated to the top of the hierarchy, often sharing power and decision making with the parent they now live with on a daily basis. The other parent in this scenario is pushed to the outer margins of the family system and quite often begins to be viewed by the parent and child as being unnecessary in daily life.

Children who are at the top of the broken family hierarchy are placed in a position of risk. Children should not hold the same level of decision making power as a parent, the role of a parent is to be the guide and decision maker in a child’s life, gradually handing over the reins to the developing young adult. When children are taken by a parent into a fused dyad in this way, they are often what is called ‘spousified’ which simply means that they have replaced the role of spouse in the parents life or they are ‘parentified’ which means that they are taking care of the emotional needs of a parent and not the other way around. Both of these corrupted roles within a family system are damaging to children and are signs that the attachment hierarchy is broken and harmful to the child involved. When a child is in one of these positions, they can very quickly become extremely difficult to handle when with the other parent as they refuse to recognise that parent’s validity in their lives and actively fight them for the decision making power.

A child in this position will often

  • Use sarcastic statements when with you.
  • Try to undermine everything that you say.
  • Refuse to come with you when you turn up to collect them.
  • Act aggressively towards you and your family
  • Sneer at you and call you names
  • Act as if you are somehow ‘less than’ they are
  • Tell you that you are no good, that you don’t do anything right
  • Demand to be taken home to their ‘real’ parent
  • Blow hot and cold, they may drop their defiance for a while only to pick it up again when its time to leave
  • Tell lies
  • Make false allegations against you
  • Remain silent in your company

There are many other behaviours that children who are elevated to this position will use, the main thing that targeted parents must be aware of is that when they begin to act like this, the alienation process is well underway.

The end game in an alienation process is when the children simply refuse to make the transition to you. This is often the result of a ‘trigger’ event which enables the child to justify complete withdrawal. A trigger event can be engineered by a child who is in this elevated position and many children will push continuously to try and create this just so that they can ‘decide’ to completely withdraw. It is important to remember at all times, however, that trigger events, just like the behaviours that the child is displaying are unconsciously driven by the child who is using the only coping mechanism available to them. Children in these circumstances are extraordinarily vulnerable, they are hurting inside, they are psychologically harmed and they are doing whatever they can to survive. All targeted parents MUST, at all times, keep in mind that their children would not behave like this if the pressure upon them did not force them to do so. With that in mind, target parents can assist their children to avoid the trigger event by following these golden rules.

When a child is in an elevated position of power and is displaying the symptoms above you must:

  • Not try to reason with them, they are not in a position to listen
  • Not try to use logic, there is nothing logical about what is happening to them
  • Remain patient, calm and collected, do not become angry and feed their self righteousness, it only pushes you into the trap set for you by the other parent.
  • Develop a thick skin, your child is in a vulnerable psychological state, you can help if you let their commentary about you flow by you without reacting.
  • Be firm as much as you possibly can but avoid scenes which could become the trigger event your child is unconsciously seeking. Remember, they want you to confirm for them why you are the bad person they have been told you are. You must avoid that at all costs.

The most powerful tool in your toolbox is empathy

Children in this vulnerable position want you to confirm for them their desire to reject you. Their desire to reject you is born of trying to cope with the terrible pressure placed upon them by the anger and unresolved frustration and the conscious or unconscious determination of the other parent to evict you. If you fall into the trap of confirming for your children why they should reject you by, for example, being drawn into arguments, by shouting at them, by becoming angry at their unreasonable behaviour or other such scenarios, you will unwittingly give them the justification they are seeking to withdraw.

Empathic understanding and the ability to empathically respond to their behaviour will protect them and you from arriving at that trigger point.

Empathy is the ability to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ to step into their world and see things from their perspective. To walk a mile in your children’s shoes when they are in this position is the most powerful thing that you can do, for yourself and for them.

Walking a mile in alienated children’s shoes

Terri’s story

Terri was six years old when her parents separated, she can remember the day very well that her father told her that he was leaving. He asked her if she was alright, far from being alright, Terri felt as if her world was spinning out of control. She watched him carry his bags to the car, after that night all she could hear was her mother crying and alternatively raging about her father. Her hurt and pain about losing him became thoroughly mixed up with her mother’s all encompassing rage.

For short while she saw her father every weekend but each time she did so her mother would come crashing into the time with complaints, demands, tears and shouting. terri began to feel that she didn’t know her father anymore and felt that he was the cause of all this chaos.

Back home with her mother, Terri began to hear that her father was not a very nice man, that he had done this and done that in the marriage to her mother and that he was pretty much worthless as a father too. Together, as Terri grew up, she and her mother shared all sorts of good times together, cosy times, nice times. In the middle of this was a sense that it was she and her mother against the world.

When Terri reached eight years old she felt that she was big enough to take on her father and stand up to him. After all, her mother hadn’t been able to but she would show her mother how it was possible. She would make her mother proud and safe again by rescuing her from her father. Terri began to tell her father how bad he was and ‘stand up’ to him and ‘put him straight.’ Terri’s father, on seeing his daughter becoming more and more defiant against him spoke to her mother about it who told him that his daughter was ‘twice the man that he would ever be’ and praised and thanked Terri for doing what she had been unable to do. Terri’s father, increasingly shocked by his daughter’s behaviour, took to trying to reason with her and be logical, he told her she was being poisoned against him by her mother and that she was brainwashed and alienated. Terri didn’t know what that meant but she did know that her father was turning out to be everything her mother said he was, mean and shouty and angry with her.

The mistakes that rejected parents make

Terri’s dad fell into the trap set for him by Terri’s mum. Not knowing that his daughter and her mother were in a fused dyad in coalition against him, when Terri began to show the signs of this he went straight to the source of the problem and demanded that her mother share decision making power with him again to try and bring Terri back into the role of a child in his life. Terri’s mother however, had elevated her daughter to the role of replacement spouse in her life, using her as a confidante, friend and comforter. The only thing that Terri’s mother could do was uphold that position when challenged by Terri’s father. Role corruption in this family system was well established.

If Terri’s father had known about how alienation arises he would have been equipped to deal with it in a smarter way. Simply using the word alienation and knowing that it is happening is not enough, target parents must know how alienation arises, how it progresses and how to react when it is clear it is happening. The most powerful tool to use against alienation is empathy. If your child is behaving in ways that seem like an alienation reaction to you, your first task is to step into your child’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. Walk a mile in those shoes and understand the way in which your child perceives what happened in the separation, the kinds of behaviours in the other parent that your child is being subjected to and the ways in which your child is acting in the only way he or she knows how in such difficult and painful circumstances.

Children do not want to reject their parents, its not in their nature to say I choose this one or that one. Children who reject are in a vulnerable place and if you are the target parent your role from now on is to understand, as much as possible, the pressures placed upon your child. When you do understand that, from your child’s perspective, you are in the place where you can really start work on interrupting what is happening.

Remember, empathy, its not about your experience its about theirs. Its not about what is happening in your world, its about what is happening in theirs. Its not about you feeling good, its about making them feel good.

You are not powerless as a targeted parent.  When you have walked a mile in your children’s shoes you are ready to begin the process of using empathic responding to disarm your child and change their perspective. When you do this you actively interrupt the messages they have been given about you. When you interrupt those messages, you are acting against alienation. Equipped with the right knowledge and the right tools you can make a difference to what is happening to your child.

Next week: Empathic responding with an alienated child.

Silent Night

Two weeks to Christmas, I am readying for the annual co-ordination of several different strands of the people who make up our family.  This year we will be bringing together his  and mine from all different parts of the country so that for a few days at least we will be together to remind ourselves and each other that we are indeed a family.  The almost military organisation that this requires could, if I let it, make my head spin.  In these days when distant relatives refers to geography and not relational space, getting us all together under one roof is no easy task.

Around the country and indeed the world I guess the same thing will be happening.  Christmas being the one time of the year when family comes together to celebrate the ties that bind us and the safety and the security, both inside and out, that this offers.  For those of us in fractured and separated families, those who we gather with us are often the precious survivors of a holocaust of grief and loss.  Each year I give grateful thanks for the ones who survived my own family separations and send out love to those who did not, all of whom will be remembered throughout this coming festive season.

Each time the lights twinkle in the darkest time of year I am taken back to the times when I too was suffering loss.  My family is made up of fracture lines and my husband’s too.  We have both known the cold hard pain of Christmas without the ones we love around us, though he more than I, the experience of silence that greets you as you return from dropping the children at their other parent’s home on Christmas Day.  As he says now though, at least he got to see his children on Christmas Day and tuck them into bed on Christmas Eve and share with them those special warm hours that this time of year brings,  whilst once again, so many parents this year, will not.

We talked again recently about how we individually coped with the most difficult times of our losses.  For me it was being able to fold my home around me, fill it with warm smells and lights and things that made me feel safe and cosy.  For him it was being able to put on a comedy or a film, cook himself something good to eat and relax.  For both of us it was about knowing that taking care of ourselves, in whatever way worked for us, was what got us through.  

Self care is so important for separated parents, because it is this willingness to take responsibility for your own self as a deserving person that sustains the self worth that pulls you through the sorrow and the pain.  When your world has come crashing down around you and there is no-one to take care of you, being willing to take care of yourself is a gift that no-one else can give you but one which is worth millions in the long run.  For you are worth all the love and care in the world.  You are worth it because you are your children’s parent, you are worth it because you are someone’s  son or daughter and you are worth it because you are, just simply, you.  If your children could give you that gift of showing you how much you are worth it, they would and if they can’t because they are prevented from doing so, it doesn’t mean that they do not want to or would not if they could.  Children love their parents, they love them deeply and unconditionally and fiercely.  When that love is interrupted it is not the case that love dies, it does not.  The love your children feel may run in rivers deep beneath what you can see, but it runs there just the same and it would take more than one parent can do to prevent that love from flowing towards you one day in the future.

  Wherever you are on the path of separation,  know that there are others with you, travelling the same rocky and difficult road. Whether you are with your children or without them, whether you will see them at Christmas or not, when it comes to the time when the night falls silent and they are not there, take heart and take care of yourself because you are not alone. This too will pass and life will change and those who will help you are those who have been there, where you are now.  However you celebrate the middle of winter, whoever you celebrate it with, whether you are with loved ones or alone, wrap your love around yourself and know that those of us who have travelled the path you are on will be with you in our minds and in our hearts. Because when you have travelled this road once, you will travel it again, with the others who come behind you.  No-one who has sat through a Christmas night, in separation from their loved ones can ever go through this time of year without sending out silent thoughts to those who are coping with that right now.

In this silent night to come I will be sending out mine and hoping, for each of you, a stronger, better, happier new year.

With love x



Loving the lost ones

Walking home tonight with the lights twinkling all around and festive songs drifting out of shops I fell to thinking about my own Christmas past and my own lost loved ones, all missed and all still dearly loved.  Though I have started to grow older, I still know within what it was like to be a treasured grandchild and the love and the special feelings that brought with it.  My grandparents have gone now but they walk with me every day of my own life as a grandmother and bring back to me all the of the pleasures of my young days to share with my grandson.  And too there are those relationships in my life which fell through the seismic fracture lines, those who are gone but will never be forgotten and who will always be loved. Relationships which stay with me, as I walk back through the leaves in the cold, remembering Christmas past.  My lost ones can never leave me because I carry them with me.

This is such a difficult time of year.  But then every time of the year is difficult when a child you love is no longer in your life.  It really doesn’t matter whether there is snow outside or blazing sunshine when the undending loss of your little ones is your reality.  Through family separation, where once was warm and safe and well but is now not that, it is the loss of the little ones that hurts the most that scars the most.  When you live in the face of a mind turned against you, it can be so extraordinarily hard to find a way to carry on.

Carrying on with your life though is what you must do.  For your lost ones and for your own self, sake and sanity.  Though you feel that carrying on is not possible, that despair has dragged you to the depths and that light and hope will never dawn again, carrying on is what you must do.  We carry on by putting one step in front of the other, day in day out, focusing on nothing more than getting through, one step at a time.  When the pain is too great and the sorrow too much to bear, putting one step in front of the other gets you through the worst of it, as does putting on the kettle for a cup of tea, wrapping yourself up in a cosy blanket, sorting out your seeds and things to plant when Christmas is finished or anything that gets you through.  As the title of a Woody Allen film goes, whatever works.

Loving our lost ones is a task that many people bear and the more that I do this work the more that I understand how many people suffer this same silent fate.  Our lost ones are taken, through trauma, through separation and sometimes through manipulation, a deliberate act to eradicate relationships which were once vibrant, loving and strong and most of all present.  If your Christmas present is without your lost ones, do not stop loving them, do not despair but love them anyway. For whatever has been done to you and to them, cannot turn off the flow of your love towards your lost ones, even if it is only in your thoughts.

As we move towards the longest night, when the darkness prevails and despair can take over, take heart, take care and know that there are many of us  who stand beside you, who understand how it feels and who know that you are still the mother or father or grandparent  of your beloved children (not forgetting  your wider family).  And your children know it too, deep down inside, where the memories stay, where the imprints that teach us who we are cannot be removed.   You do not ever stop being a parent, a grandparent an aunt or an uncle, no-one can take that away from you.  As the lights twinkle and the world turns inwards, keep on loving your lost ones, even in the face of your pain and your heartache.  Keep loving them, because one day, Christmas future, they will need you.

Stories from the transition bridge: Polly plays ping pong

I get a lot of emails asking for help with older children who are emerging from ‘alienation’ and so I thought I would share with you Polly’s tale.

Polly is a twenty year old woman who has not had a relationship with her father for the past eleven years.  Polly was separated from her father when she was nine years old after her mother moved out of the family home and took her with her.  Polly recalls spending the odd Saturday with her father but nothing more, her memory of him is hazy and she is worried when she first arrives at our Clinic, that she has idealised him and that he will let her down.

Polly and I worked together for six months before she felt able to connect with her dad on Facebook.  She arrived for one of our sessions one day looking furtive and slightly anxious.  She said that she had sent her father a message and that he had replied straight away.  Now she had no idea what to do.  She was terrified that her mother would find out that she had been in touch with her father and that her step father would be upset because ‘he had brought her up as if she were his own.’  Together we pondered on the possibilities that might arise from her impulsive action and I tried to help her to see things from her father’s perspective as she descended into an anxious review of the implications of being back in a relationship with him.

That anxious review included a lot of concerns about her mother and her step father.  What would they think, how would they feel if they found out that she had contacted her father.  I asked Polly to tell me about these concerns, which sounded to me like worries about being seen as betraying her mother.  ‘Of course’ she replied, ‘of course I am worried that my mother will feel betrayed, she has been the one who brought me up, who was there when I needed her, why would she not feel betrayed?’  It didn’t matter which way I put it to her, Polly could not let the theme of betrayal go and when she moved on to expressing feelings of anger, I could see that there was some way to go before she would emerge from her current position.

In the months of our work together Polly had long conversations with her father on Facebook and eventually they arranged to meet.  It took two cancellations and a series of text conversations before Polly felt she was in a good place to see her father face to face.

 For her father, being on the other end of this process felt like torture.  Having long let go of any hope of ever seeing his daughter again, he had been overwhelmed by the feelings of longing and missing her that came surging up through him in an almost Tsunami like reaction.  Speaking with him on the phone, something that Polly had asked me to do on her behalf, I could sense that he too was struggling with feelings long repressed, which he had thought were gone forever.  His anger came and went in waves, mirroring Polly’s who flailed around from being angry with him for ‘abandoning’ her to being angry with herself for betrayin gher mother.  Her father was quite simply bleached by the fury that his daughter, from whom he had been kept for so long, was still unable to see things from her own, individual perspective.  It took many more months before each were able to gain some sense of balance in the maelstrom of emotions that washed around them.

Polly eventually, after appearing and disappearing from her father’s life for nineteen months, settled into a pattern of seeing him every weekend and speaking to him on the phone several times in the week.  From their first meeting, some seven months after Polly’s first message to him on Facebook, to the current day, Polly has only ever once spoken to her mother about being back in touch with her father.  Her mother’s response? Silence and what Polly called a ‘hurt and troubled look’ which is deployed whenever her mother feels that Polly is not balancing her time and attention evenly enough between her parents.  Polly asked me what I thought she should do to try and make things better with her mother.  I asked her which she felt was more important, her mother’s need to be top of her list  or her own needs to have a relationship with the people who brought her into the world.  Her answer was unequivocal.  “My needs’ she said, to be in relationship with both of the people who brought me here, I may not like them and I may find those relationships difficult, but to be without one of them meant that I missed out on such a lot.’

Polly’s father, who never thought he would find his little girl again, spoke of his shock as he opened the message from her on Facebook.  ‘I thought I would never see my daughter again’ he said, ‘and that if I did I would be nothing to her.’  I asked him to describe the journey that the two of them took from that first message to the present day.  Like a rollercoaster ride with an unknown ending was his description.  A frightening time when Polly would appear and then disappear without explanation and without warning.  A time when all of the monsterous thoughts of loss and fear and sorrow would come rolling back around to torment him.  Sometimes, he confessed, it was so much worse than when she was not present in his life at all.  The unpredictability and lack of control being the very worst thing of all.

I have often likened this stage of emergence in older children to a game of ping pong in which the child has the task of bringing together the two split off psychological parts of themselves first, before the outer reunification can occur.  I have also often said that the route out of alienation follows the route in and that in my experience, the psychological splitting, which heralds an alienated reaction, has to be healed permanently before a young person can move into a relationship with both of their parents.  For some children this can take years and for others a lifetime and it is still not healed.  Working with Polly made me realise that this game of ping pong, is as much about time limited exposure to what has been rejected, almost as if the young person has to take reunification in chunks of experience rather than in one smooth flow.

And of course, with a parent who has encouraged rejection and a society which supports the dislocation of a parent from a child’s physical, psychological and emotional world, the task of reorientation is made so much harder when the instinctive drive to reconnect kicks in.

For anyone out there who is experiencing this game of ping pong, know that however hard it is, it is part of your child’s struggle to become psychologically free.  Have courage, have patience and whenever your child is in contact with you, be strong, be calm and most of all be there.  The journey is a long one, there are no midwives available for this rebirth, but with patience and time and that love that you felt on the day that they were born, one day soon, your child will come home for good.


Polly is a pseudonym for a young woman I worked with in 2012.  Her father and I worked together after Polly asked him to talk to me on the phone before she felt able to.  From Polly I learned much about the reconnection process for children who have completely lost their parent through separation.  Facebook being one of the modern phenomenons that I believe will play an increasingly big role in supporting the instinctive drive to find the lost other parent in generations of our children.

I am particularly interested at the moment in hearing from anyone who is experiencing this kind of ping pong behaviour in their children.  I would like to compile a multi sided account of the process of re-establishing relationships after long term loss of this nature.  If you would like to tell me your experience please email using karen.woodall@familyseparationclinic.co.uk

I am delighted to be able to say that Facebook is hosting our Professionals training day on Understanding and Coping with Parental Alienation in London on November 21st.  This is the first of a number of professionals training days and it will feature Thomas Moore, the father who wrote the book ‘Please let me see my son…’ which tells the story of my first encounter with severe parental alienation as well as the story of Thomas and his family and their struggle to free their son.  I will report on this training in the weeks to come and Thomas will be holding a question and answer session on this site very soon.

This training day is full, but there are many more to come, so do check back at the Training and Workshops section in the new year.


The 53rd Hour

I just had to share this beautiful film which appeared this week and which details so perfectly the way in which parents who share care of their children, bear the pain, so that their children do not have to.

The moments after your children leave to go to their other home, can leave you speechless with the shock of silence and gasping with the repeated nature of loss.

For those who spend their time telling us that family separation does no harm, this film speaks of the way in which separation, from loved ones, hurts adults. And the tsunami of sorrow that must be borne for the sake of children.

A similar film, from the perspective of children, might illuminate those things that I write about so often, the transition bridge, the cold, creeping sense of ending, the never quite at home, never quite not at home feeling that can pervade life in a shared care world.

For those who tell us that fathers cannot love children in the same way as mothers, I say watch this film. For those feminists who tell us that men who love children like this are obsessional or not doing it right, I say, find in your heart the compassion that has been removed by your focus upon your individual rights.

If ever there was a film that should be routinely shown to parents BEFORE they decide to have children, this is it.

I make no apology whatsoever for my stance on family separation, when even Diane Abbot acknowledges the pain and suffering it brings, it has to be time to speak up. I lived it. My husband lived exactly like this, week in, week out for almost eighteen years. The first time I experienced the free fall of that 53rd hour, I was speechless with shock.

I share this film because there has to be a more compassionate way to support our separated families and because its time we acknowledged that dads have hearts and souls too.

This is how it happens: D’s story

D worked abroad on and off, he was paid well for his trips away and saw them as a way of making sure his family was well cared for.  D’s wife encouraged and supported him, whilst he was away, she spent her time with one of his best friends.  One day, D came home and his wife and his best friend were nowhere to be seen.  D’s children were gone too, along with much of the furniture that he had worked so hard to pay for.  D was devastated, lost and incredibly afraid.  It took him three weeks to find out that his wife had moved to another town, with his children and his best friend.

Seven weeks after D’s wife was discovered to be living with another man in another town, D went to court to ask for permission to see his two beloved children.  Before he arrived at the court however, he was notified that an injunction had been granted against him, on the grounds that he had been violent towards his wife.  D was mystified, he had never been violent and as he had not seen his wife for seven weeks, how could he be guilty of the harassment that his wife was alleging?  D found out, when he exited the court room, that the injunction prevented the court from hearing his plea for time with his children.  If D was a violent man, the court reasoned, then he should not be having contact with his children until that issue was investigated.

D was bewildered.  He went to every  agency he could find to ask for help but no-one listened.  As soon as he reached the part where an injunction had been granted, they shook their head and said they could not assist him.  D was completely destroyed by the time he went home to his nearly empty house.

When the injunction was lifted on the grounds that there was no case to answer, D resumed his efforts to see his children.  His wife consented, after some wrangling in court, to his children spending two nights each weekend with D and though D was disappointed that he had not been able to agree more time, he set about making those two nights cosy and comfortable with his children (who were overwhelmed with delight when they finally got to see him).

Two weekends went by without a hitch but on the third weekend, D received a phone call from his children’s mother, she was almost hysterical, she had had a miscarriage she told him, the children would have to go home to her, she needed them.  No amount of persuasion that the children did not need to be exposed to adult sorrow would move her, if he did not bring them home at once she would call the police.  D dutifully returned the children to comfort their mother.  His heart was incredibly heavy as he walked back down the path.

Each and every weekend following that,  D got used to the time he spent with his children being disrupted by their mother until one evening, tired of the battle he did not answer the phone.  Shortly after, a banging on the door woke up the children who were terrified to see their mother on the doorstep, angry and outraged that the phone had not been answered.  D tried to calm the children’s mother and placate her, to no avail.  Soon she was attacking him, in front of the children, accusing him of stealing her children away from her when she needed them most.  D fell silent as he watched the children’s faces, his heart felt like lead in his chest.

Twenty two weeks later and D does not know where the children live anymore.  In the time between that last event and now, his children have been moved by Women’s Aid, working with the Local Authority and the Police and the children’s GP.  His children were not under a care order, they were not subject to a child in need plan and they were not on the at risk register.  His children’s mother however was considered to be vulnerable by Women’s Aid workers who interpreted D’s desire to care for his children as being a deliberate attempt to control their mother.  Using an allegation of Domestic Abuse, these workers secured a Local Authority home for D’s children and their mother and her new partner (his ex best friend) and made sure that no-one told D where the children were.  Using the Police, these workers made sure that D’s children were considered to be at risk of harm from D (he hadn’t touched a hair on their heads), using Social Services, these workers made sure that the children’s mother was seen to be vulnerable.  These agencies formed a ring of impenetrable steel around D’s children and their mother which prevented him from seeing his children normally for almost three years.  A struggle through the family courts, with supervised contact centres, expert reports, stop/start contact and wave after wave of allegation almost killed D.

When he finally got to see his children in what could be called a normal setting, they were mute in his company and horribly withdrawn.  D was in despair, not at the sight of his children, so still and so silent but at the damage that had been done to their relationship with him.  He could not conceive of how such horror could be inflicted upon children, as an adult he felt he could at least understand on an intellectual level what was happening.  All his children could see was that their father, with whom they had built sandcastles and played rounders with, who had tucked them up and read stories to them, was gone from their lives.

It took less than ten minutes to bring the children round and begin the process of rebuilding their relationship with D, it will take those children a lifetime to recover from the scarring caused by those workers, who saw nothing but the desire of the mother to be free of the father to live a life of her own choosing.

They still hang on to D each time they leave him and ask him again and again, ‘will you still be here next week dad?’

Their mother recently made a new allegation.  Who knows whether he will be.

This post is from my case work although it is heavily disguised to ensure that the family’s identity is protected.  In the spirit of a discussion that we have been having recently about whether or not debate is welcome on this blog, I welcome comments on this post, particularly your views of whether or not it is right to approach cases like this from the perspective of the rights of the woman first (which in my experience is the usual approach to family separation support) and the children as secondary with their needs being indivisible from those of their mother.

My approach to supporting families like this is to acknowledge and support the vulnerability of the mother whilst helping her to accept that making a choice to leave her husband does not mean that she can automatically eradicate their relationship with their father.  Where there is evidence of violence, either situational, couple or separation instigated, I would ensure that the safety of both parties is paramount and that the children do not witness the struggle of the parents to get free of each other,  Where there is co-ercive directive violence in either direction (meaning that flight from the other parent is a flight for life and limb and where there has been sustained and violent oppression of one parent by the other), I would indeed support removal to a place of safety.  In this case however, as in so many others I work in, violence is alleged and behaviour is interpreted using the Duleth Model or the Freedom Programme.  One of the ways in which a man can be considered to be abusive in these models is by wanting to maintain a relationship with his children.  In many cases the allegation that a man only wants to be with his children to punish his wife is made, this is usually alongside statements such as ‘he only wants the kids to get a house for himself’ and other sweeping allegations which are part of the process of interpreting a man’s behaviour using feminist ideology.

I am therefore interested in hearing from people, their views of this case and whether it echoes their own or others and whether they feel that there is indeed a different way of doing things which is outside of the feminist paradigm of putting the needs of women first and children secondary.

And debate is welcome, it will inform my thinking and impress some of my commentators who will know that I am listening!

Step parenting in the post separation landscape: not wicked and not always to blame

Two tragic deaths of children have been reported recently, responsibility for which have been attributed to mothers and in one case a step father.  Two needless deaths which could have been prevented, one of which at least was predicted by the biological father of the child.

In the twittersphere, I have been watching with interest a debate around the issue of step fathers and mothers who are dangerous to children, the intimation being that step fathers are more dangerous to children than biological fathers.  I have heard this argument before, from the top of the FNF tree and have been most concerned each time it is confidently repeated.

The idea behind this argument appears to be that mothers can be as dangerous as fathers to children after separation and the proof is that mothers can bring any old Tom, Dick or Harry as step father into the family home, whilst the natural father of children, no longer viewed as being his child’s guardian in law, can be banished to the outer reaches of the child’s consciousness.

Now I have a big problem with this argument and it is not just the focus on blaming mothers that annoys me, it is also the focus on demonising step fathers.  I don’t know if the father’s movement intends to offend at least half of its membership, but it appears to forget that many step fathers are also likely to be biological fathers and offering these men up, as sacrifices to the feminist movement (who demand that wherever there is violence in the home there must be a man behind it), is disingenuous and quite simply wrong.

Step fathering, like step mothering is a thank less task.  It requires the patience of a saint and the ability to know when to step forward and when to step back.  Most of all it requires the ability to dance with the devil, to be nice to that person who was once your beloved’s beloved and smile when all you really want to do is pay them back for all the hurt, control and harm they wreak in your life.  It requires that you are endlessly able to smile in the face of adversity, provide the family framework that brings normality into your step children’s lives and take the face slapping sting of being, quite simply, disposable when the ‘real’ parent demands attention.  Step parenting, be it fathering or mothering is no walk in the park and I admire each and every person who takes up the challenge and survives it.

The argument put forward by the men’s movement appears to be that natural or biological fathers of children are more protective than step fathers and also that mothers appear more likely than fathers to bring the demon step parent into children’s lives.  The recent death of Daniel Pelka appears to confirm this argument. However, whilst I have no quibble with the fact that Daniel’s mother and step father killed him, I take absolute exception to the way in which this is portrayed as ‘evidence’ that mothers and step fathers are more dangerous to children than fathers (and presumably step mothers).

NSPCC evidence shows that children are harmed almost equally by natural mothers and fathers.  This evidence, for me, blows the whole step father argument out of the water and shows that it is not biological or step parents who are more or less dangerous, every person who plays a parenting role, be it biological or step, has the capacity to harm children and, whilst some do,  most do not.

Where I do agree with the fathers movement, is that the involvement of the natural father or mother of a child has a protective quality about it, which is born, perhaps of a vested interest and which is, when it is supported, hugely beneficial to children.  As a step parent myself, I love all of my children dearly, but I know, deep down inside, that my love for step children is different to that of my own child.  This does not mean that my step children are less important or less wonderful in my eyes, it does not mean that I would not do anything and everything for them.  What it means however, is that I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that my step children have their own mother’s love, their own mother’s care and their own mother’s fierce protectiveness, the same as that which  I feel for my own daughter.  Allowing that space, for that love from their own mother, means that I do not have to compete, I do not have to struggle and I do not have to beat myself up for not being the perfect step parent.  I know that I am important in their lives and that they feel, as I do, the once removed ‘step’ relationship is good enough, for all of us.

That once removed quality can sometimes be different.  Where a natural parent is no longer alive for example or no longer available to a child.  Where that space is empty and available, step parents can fill a role which is much needed by children.  But to try and do that, when a parent is still around and especially, still available, can be to take away from a child that special connection which can make a massive difference in life.

Working with the whole family after separation, as we have done for many years at the Centre for Separated Families and now at the Family Separation Clinic, we know that parenting after separation is a tricky task which can take many years to gel and settle.  Our work with families, is focused upon helping parents, both biological and step, to learn the different elements of good enough parenting after separation so that children can settle into their new lives in strong and enduring relationships with all of the important people in their lives.  Negotiating new roles in post separation family life can take some time and many families get caught up in defensiveness as they try to rebuild their lives.  Children, in these circumstances, can find it hard to understand adult reactions and responses to these changes, especially when they are faced with their own psychological tasks of adapting to change.

In this world there are no perfect and no demon parents.  All parents are, just parents, trying to do the best for their children in very difficult circumstances.  Mothers in these difficult places can be absolutely overwhelmed with the demands of  daily life and fathers can be equally stunned by the damage that family change brings. It doesn’t matter, in these circumstances, who left who or who did what to who, all parents need support and all parents are vulnerable.  As life moves on and new relationships are formed by the adults, more change is introduced to the family, which once again has to shift and adapt to cope.

Family separation is a transition which itself renders the family and the children in it vulnerable.  Add into that emotionally vulnerable people and it is easy to see how children flounder.  When a mother and a step father end up damaging a child so badly that he dies,  or a mother leaves a child dead in a cot for so long he is mummified, we need to understand that these are seriously damaged people who need to be removed from society so that they cannot harm other children.  What we must not do, is jump on the feminist band wagon and start seeing the actions of damaged women as evidence that step fathers are to blame, especially when so many step fathers are also biological fathers who are likely to be parenting in two directions at the same time. Yes some mothers and step fathers harm children, but so do some fathers and step mothers.  It doesn’t mean we are all straight out of a fairy story in which the wicked step parents must be vanquished by the ‘proper’ parents in order to restore order to the world.

Learning to weave step parenting with biological parenting is one of the most sophisticated psychological achievements possible in my view and those who do it should be supported and cheered, not labelled and lumped together as potentially dangerous to children.  To do so is to fall for the feminist propaganda which relieves women of the burden of responsibility whilst finding a man to pin the blame on, all the while creating yawning gaps of knowledge and awareness through which children fall, as Daniel Pelka did, when no-one quite believed his mother could be so dangerous to his well being.

And those in the father’s movement, do nothing but shore this up, each and every time they confidently tweet the same poisonous nonsense.  Someone should give the tree a shake and bring them to their senses.

Attachment disorder arising from family separation: not in the best interests of the child

Attachment disorders arising from upholding a child’s decision to reject a parent after separation

The Family Courts are often presented with the phenomenon of a child who no longer wishes to see a parent after separation. This phenomenon, which arises after family separation is one which presents serious challenges for the courts. Use of instruments such as ‘wishes and feelings’ reports by CAFCASS and Social Workers, can lead to an over reliance upon what a child says they would like to happen after separation. It is this focus upon the child’s voice, that can lead some practitioners to feel that only by upholding the child’s stated wishes are they acting in the child’s best interests.

This article explores the way in which an over reliance upon the stated wishes and feelings of a child can act, not to uphold their best interests, but to force a terrible burden upon that child; the decision to remove a once loved parent from their lives forever. Children who are given this responsibility, through reliance upon their stated wishes and feelings, are also frequently burdened with an attachment disorder, which has arisen because of the family separation and through the actions of the parent with whom they are aligned. This attachment disorder arises from the fear of the child that to go against the wishes of the parent with whom they live with, may render them vulnerable to further loss. This creates a dynamic within the child in which they begin to split their feelings for their now separated parents into all good and all bad. This enables a child to state, without guilt or remorse, that they no longer wish to see the parent that they now consider to be their ‘bad’ parent. In effect it is a coping mechanism that is brought about by the separation of two loved and internalised figures, in which one figure is now seen to be hurting and suffering and the other is seen as being the cause of this. This causes the child to fuse their own views of the more distant parent with that of their aligned parent as a way of ensuring their own safety and security with the parent with whom they are now left.

A child who is in this position is attending not to their own needs but those of the parent with whom they are aligned. In this way, the ‘voice of the child’ can be interpreted as expressing what has happened to the attachment hierarchy in the family system and can be heard as a signal that their needs for safety and security are not being met.

How children arrive at rejection

There are many reasons why children refuse or resist parenting time with one parent after a family separation. Resistance or rejection is sometimes called ‘alienation’ and, whilst the term is still not often used in the UK, recent judgements have brought about a greater acceptance that this is a phenomenon that the courts may have to deal with.1

It is essential. when working with children who reject or resist parenting time, to understand why this has occurred and to differentiate this in as detailed a manner as possible in order to bring about successful interventions2.

This is because cases of ‘alienation’ are complex and, whilst they may share things in common with a range of cases within the same category, each case is also unique and has its own indicators which allow for tailoring of the treatment route.

Cases are analysed in several different ways. All are differentiated into the following categories.

Justified Rejection – in which a child rejects a parent because of something that a parent has done. This includes different acts by a parent that would reasonably be regarded as being abusive to a child such as physical harm, emotional harm or psychological harm. It should, however, be noted that even when harm done to a child is fairly severe, a child is unlikely to reject a parent and is more likely to seek to blame themselves than blame the parent.3

Hybrid or mixed – in which the conflict between the parents and the extreme differences in parenting and personal ways of being, cause the child to be unable to relate to both parents after separation.

Pure – in which a parent is engaged in behaviours which are designed to drive a child away from the other parent, causing a child to join with the parent in rejection and causing the child to display signs of ‘alienation.’

Further analysis breaks down cases of Pure Alienation into two further categories:

Pure and conscious alienation – where a parent is aware of what they are doing and will not stop it.

Pure and unconscious alienation – where a parent is unaware of what they are doing and cannot stop it.

A case of children resisting parenting time starts with understanding the factors that lead to the family separation in the first place. Analysis of the dynamics that contributed to the breakdown is important, as is analysis of power and control in the relationship and how this was played out in the separation. It is the case that in many situations where children become ‘alienated’ from a parent, that issues of enmeshment with the parent that they are aligned to are featured.4

Enmeshment takes place when a child is unable to determine their own views and feelings as being different from that of a parent. A parent can also be enmeshed with a child and be unable to see or experience their own views and feelings about the other parent from being different to how the child feels about the other parent.

Parentification is another element which is often present in cases where children reject a parent. Parentification is the result of the attachment hierarchy collapsing, in such a way that the child is elevated to the position of being in charge of the family system.5 A child in this position can also be said to be experiencing ‘role reversal’ which is an element of Attachment Disorder6, this is when a child is elevated to the position of caring for a parent emotionally in order to maintain the attachment relationship.

Alienation in children is the end result of a spectrum experience in which children are influenced/pressured by one or both parents to align themselves to one or other parent or sometimes to each parent at the same time. 7

Impact on children of rejection of a parent

Alienation proper is often triggered by an event which causes a child to withdraw. This is often after a long process of difficult ‘transitions’ to and from parents who are either in conflict with each other or from one parent who is using high conflict approaches with the other parent. Alienation causes a child to split off all good memories and feelings about a parent and project all bad memories and feelings onto that same parent. This allows a child to withdraw from a parent without having to feel shame or remorse. The longer term outcomes for such children are poor and are documented by research.8 Children who withdraw from a parent can appear to do well at first and can seem to find relief from withdrawal. Children who have rejected a parent may seek refuge in school work or studies, seeking to excel in these, perhaps in order to find relief from the guilt and shame of having made an awful choice.9

Outcomes over time, however, show that children who reject a parent may suffer from low self esteem, poor relationship skills and ongoing issues around mental health and well being. Studies demonstrate that in some cases, children may become especially skilled at dealing with infantile adults, so much so that they are robbed of their right to a childhood.10 As children grow older, they may be exposed to further demands from the parent that they have aligned themselves with. These demands may be the result of the family separation process, in which the parent perceives any independent move by a child as evidence of betrayal. The child, having utilised the coping mechanism of psychological splitting in order to reject one of their parents, now becomes vulnerable over the life cycle to repeated efforts to maintain the dysfunctional attachment bonds.

In this regard, all children who are in an alienated position are extremely vulnerable both in emotional and psychological terms and, by using rejection as a coping mechanism, are signalling that something is wrong in the family system. Children who are displaying the signs of alienation may also be showing signs of attachment disorder, the reflexive support for a parent often being related to ‘parentification’ in which a child is compelled to take care of a parent. This phenomenon was also called ‘spousification’ by Minuchin11 and can create conditions in which the child is elevated to the top of the family attachment hierarchy12 by a parent and given the choice and the responsibility for taking care of the parent by rejecting the other. Practitioners who are confronted by a child who is displaying signs of alienation, especially where the child is expressing undue concern for the well being of the aligned parent, should be on the look out for role reversal which is denoted by parentification and spousification and should be prepared to further assess the family for evidence elsewhere of the existence of alienation.

Treatment routes for children who reject a parent

Deeper assessment of such families involves interviews with both parents, each of whom must be asked a series of questions which are designed to determine whether or not blame projection13 is present. Projection of blame is a common feature of separating couples, but is one which is often alleviated over time. A parent who remains fixated upon blaming the other parent however, without being able to accept or acknowledge any responsibility for the current position, is unlikely to be able to ameliorate a child’s fixed views and this fused, dyadic presentation is one which should arouse concern.

Fixed views from an aligned parent, projection of blame and an insistence that a child is making their own decisions about a parent are all signs that a child who is displaying the signs of alienation is trapped in a conflict of loyalty to a parent. Loyalty conflicts develop when children become afraid to love both of their parents because of pressure being placed upon them.14 Presence of loyalty conflicts should alert the practitioner to the need for deeper investigation and possible intervention.

Work at the Family Separation Clinic is focused upon the combination of differentiation of alienation and the delivery of combined treatment routes to liberate children from the problem. Utilising a combination of family therapy and therapeutic mediation with additional elements of parenting co-ordination, Hybrid cases are being treated with some success. Pure cases, where parents have personality disorders are being supported through Therapeutic Bridging Programmes, which are convened to support a change of residence and where alienation is determined to be Pure and conscious, suspended residence transfers are being supported with education, parenting co-ordination and family systems therapy approaches. All of these combinations of treatments are designed individually after depth assessment and all are convened in ways that offer the maximum benefit for the children concerned.

One of the unusual aspects of the delivery of such support is that it is most often located in situ, that is that therapists, mediators and parenting co-ordinators attend at the home of the parents involved rather than parties being required to attend for meetings in offices during office hours. A further element of difference is that alienated children are reintroduced to a rejected parent as quickly as possible after an intervention begins, thus exposing the child to the feared or hated parent in a safe and supportive environment with support from practitioners.

Longer term outcomes for children in treatment

Longer term prognosis for children who are re-introduced to once rejected parents is good providing that both parents are enabled to overcome the rejecting stance in the child and each are able to encourage and support the child to maintain the rebuilding of the relationship. Where parent is unable to recognise that the child’s rejection is linked to their own feelings about the other parent, restriction on the relationship between child and that parent may be necessary to liberate the child from the loyalty conflict. A child who is freed to relate to both parents on a regular basis is unlikely to suffer any of the known consequences that face children who remain burdened with the responsibility for rejection over the longer period.

1EWCA CIV 291 (Re: S) a child. HHJ Bellamy. ‘The Concept of alienation as a feature of some high conflict parental disputes may today be regarded as mainstream.’

2Bala N -Children resisting post separation contact – a differentiation route for Legal and Mental Health Professionals – Oxford University Press (New York) 2012

3Levenkron S – Stolen Tomorrows – (Lions Crown) 2007

4Friedlander and Walters – Family Court Review – Vol 48 Pages 98 – 111 2010

5Gottlieb L Linda – The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Family Systems and Collaborative Systems approach to amelioration – Charles Thomas (New York) 2012

6Brisch H K – Treating Attachment Disorders – (The Guilford Press) 2002

7 Knier. G Dr Children Splitting (alienation) from a parent (2011)

8Baker A Dr – Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome – (2012) Norton: New York

9Garber B (2011) Parental Alienation and the dynamics of the enmeshed child/parent dyad; adultification, parentification and infantalisation – Family Court Review 49(2)

10Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark (1983) page 22

11Minuchin, S. & Fishman, H. C. (2004). Family Therapy Techniques. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

12Kerns and Richardson (2005) Guildford Press

13Glen O. Gabbard, Long-Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy (London 2010)

14Retrieved from article by Stahl, M Philip, remarks made at the plenary session of CRC’s conference in May, 2001.

This article is written by Karen Woodall for the Family Separation Clinic and can be downloaded, copied and shared freely providing that the rights of the author are recognised and properly referenced.  Nothing within this article can be reproduced without reference to the author Karen Woodall –  31.7.2013

Children on the transition bridge; Annie’s story

Annie is just 24 months old, she is doing well and has started to attend nursery for the first time. This new world, which she skips into every Friday morning, is widening her experience and challenging her internalised world. From her mother and her father, to the wider world of other children and other adults, Annie is coping with the change and skipping over the transition bridge on a regular basis.

Annie has a mother and a father who have lived together since before she was born. Annie has grown between these two beloved creatures on a daily basis, moving between one and the other as each appears upon her radar, with the surety that comes from an attachment which is secure. Annie has lots of time with her mum, who gave up work for the first 18 months of her life and also lots of time with her grandmother, who took over looking after Annie on a daily basis when Annie’s mum went back to work. In the mornings, Annie skips over the transition bridge to spend five hours with Nanny and in the afternoons she skips back to spend the rest of the day with her mum. Each evening and every weekend, Annie’s dad appears on her radar screen and sometimes, she skips happily over the transition bridge to go on an adventure with this beloved man in her life. Annie’s internalised world is stable and steady and all is quiet upon her radar screen.

The quiet space between Annie’s mum and dad gives Annie peace and allows her to concentrate upon doing all of the things that she needs to do in order to learn and grow and enjoy her world. This quiet space is born of a fluid and interchangeable daily routine, in which sometimes, surprising things happen. One day, for example, Annie wakes up to find that it is her dad who is making breakfast and her dad who is taking her over to be with Nanny. Annie’s dad explains that this is because her mum is not feeling very well. The space around Annie remains calm and quiet however and so her internalised radar also remains calm. All is well, the grown ups who appear and disappear in her world have everything under control.

Over time however, Annie begins to be disturbed by some crackling on her radar screen and although she does not know why, she feels uncomfortable and upset. Her dad, who used to appear each evening, begins to appear randomly in the daytime as well as in the evening and her mum, who used to be very calm, is now quite snappy with Annie. The transition bridge doesn’t feel so easy to skip over in the middle of this noisy environment and Annie begins to feel under attack from some very new feelings. These feelings happen as she sits in the car on the way to Nanny’s house as mum and dad shout at each other. She starts to feel whirly feelings inside and doesn’t want to go over the transition bridge to Nanny’s house when they arrive, no matter how calm Nanny is, Annie keeps looking back at mum and dad and feeling the whirly feelings. She starts to feel distracted by these feelings and begins to cry, they hurt and frighten her.

One day daddy does not appear on her radar screen anymore, neither in the evening or during the day and not at weekends either. The noisy atmosphere has become a heavy fog and mum doesn’t have much time for her anymore. The transition bridge, when she goes to Nanny’s house, is far too difficult for her to cross, no matter how much time that her mum and her Nanny spend persuading her its ok. Nursery, by now, has become a place so terrifying and overwhelming that she no longer goes there. Nappies, which she has started to move out of, become something necessary again. Annie seeks refuge in her mother, who, for much of the time, seems to be the safest person to hang on to. Annie sychronises herself with her mother’s moods so that her internal radar quietens again and she can cope with the world. Her mother is good at keeping things calm.

One day her dad is at the door, Annie is surprised and very pleased, she skips off over the transition bridge and out on an adventure with her dad, they have a grand old time and Annie is in heaven as they swing high on the swings and roll down the grassy bank. She has missed her dad, though she does not know how to express that, so she gives him lots of cuddles and sits on his knee and kisses him a lot.

When they back to the house though, dad doesn’t come in, he stands on the doorstep and the noise in the space between her mum and her dad suddenly becomes very very loud. Annie’s internal radar can barely cope so bad is the disturbance. She runs up to her room and hides in her play tent until her dad has gone. Her mum comes in and sits her on her lap and tells her everything is ok her dad has gone away now, don’t cry. Annie is confused, she was upset because of the noise between her mum and dad, not because of her dad. But being only two and unable to explain that, she settles down and goes to sleep and dreams about swinging up high on the swings and laughing.

The next weekend her dad appears at the door again. Annie does not know how long it is since she last saw him but skips happily over the transition bridge again and sets off down the path. As she does so however, a shadow of a memory passes over her as she turns and waves and sees her mother looking very unhappy. Annie’s internal radar immediately goes into hyper alert, she is confused again, her mother looks unhappy, the noise on the radar starts up, she pulls away from her dad and runs back.

Annie’s dad comes after her and kneels down, he says very quietly to her that they will go and play on the swings again and eat ice-scream, she liked that last time didn’t she? Annie nods and looks up at her mum, who remains looking unhappy and holds her hand. Eventually, after a lot of persuasion, dad prizes Annie’s hand from her mother and picks up Annie and they set off. That afternoon, Annie’s radar is picking up something and she is to preoccupied with the way that this makes her feel to enjoy the swings and the ice cream, today she doesn’t kiss her dad and hug him in the same way, her dad wonders what is going on.

On return home, the noise in the space between her mum and dad is deafening and Annie runs straight up to her room to get away from it. This time she sits in her play tent and will not come out when her mum comes up to see her. Her mum tells her she will do something about it so that she is not unhappy. Annie does not know how to tell her mum that it is the noise between her mum and dad that is causing the problem, that night she does not sleep very well, her internal radar will not quieten.

The following week Annie’s internal radar remains on alert and she is constantly preoccupied by the way it makes her feel. The transition bridge from her mum to her Nanny is too difficult for her to cross now, she is too scared of the whirly feelings that come up each time she tries to leave her mum. This weekend her dad comes to the door but the whirly feelings are so bad that she cannot even go to the door to see him. Her dad goes away. Annie is left alone with her mum who cuddles her and tells her that everything will be ok. Annie feels a new feeling inside, it is a flat and heavy feeling. She stays quiet all day and will not eat her lunch.

It is six months before Annie sees her father again, in the period in between the last time she saw him and the next time, her mother has refused to allow her dad to collect her. Her mother says that this is because it is too upsetting for Annie. Her father says its because her mother is influencing Annie to feel anxious and upset. Annie still goes across the transition bridge to see her Nanny, although she doesn’t feel quite so happy when she does these days. Nursery is far too difficult for her and her mother has given up trying to persuade her to go. Annie does not really remember her dad when she is asked about him by a lady who comes to see her. She says that she loves her mum and her Nanny and is happy.

When the lady asks her if she would like to see her dad, Annie is puzzled, she does not know who her dad is. The lady watches one day as Annie goes into a room to see her dad. The lady writes things down as Annie cries when she sees her dad. Annie wants to run up to her dad, she does remember him, all the feelings that she felt about him come rushing up, she remembers laughing and swinging high on the swings and the smell of his coat as he cuddled her.  A memory of something quiet and safe surrounds her father too, but at the same time, so do those whirly feelings that scare her and so, instead of running to her dad she runs outside the door to her mum. Annie cries, she doesn’t want to feel those whirly feelings. Annie’s mother says to the lady that this is how things are. Annie’s dad looks sad but Annie doesn’t see that, her mum takes her home in the car.

Annie does not see her dad ever again. When she is nineteen she goes to look for him but does not find him. He died when she was twelve but no-one told her. Annie struggles with loss and guilt and shame.  She finds relationships difficult and does not trust her feelings.  When she is 22 she enters therapy, the first year of which she spends mostly in tears, grieving for the father she feels responsible for pushing away.

Annie’s story is one of a series of true stories that I have been gathering recently.  Annie is now 23 years old and struggling to understand the past and the feelings of guilt that erupt as she tries to confront the reality of the loss of her father.  Annie is now estranged from her mother, her Nanny died when she was seventeen.  Annie feels alone in the world and is angry about that,  Annie wants to know why there was no-one there to help her or her mother and father cope with separation.  Annie is a casualty of the past forty years, when the consistent message that we have been fed is that children cope and all that matters is that children do not live in poverty.  Annie’s struggle is testament to the reality that family separation hurts children and, as in Annie’s case, leaves them feeling fractured, frightened and alone. Annie leaves me wondering, when will we ever learn?


On dignity, equality and respecting the difference between us

As the weather has heated up so it seems has the impact of what I have recently been writing.  The last post about the Bad Men Project being one which has particularly stirred things up.   I admit that I can, at times, write with a somewhat sharpened pen.  But the reactions to my latest piece of writing appear to me to be a little over exaggerated.  Is it the subject matter that is the cause of the unsettling, or is it because I have finally decided that I will, no longer, collude with the charade that is the Bad Men Project, (which of course, liberates me fully, to speak up and speak out on the matter).

The reactions to the latest piece have encouraged me to sit down and consider what it is exactly that I am looking for when I talk about the way in which we could and should support families in this country.  Being very good at illuminating what is wrong is one thing, being able to shape the way that we could put things right is quite another.  In some quarters, there is the allegation made that I am unable to articulate how things should be, relying only on describing what is wrong with the way things are.  Forgive me then for pointing out however, that much of what I have been doing on this blog since I began to write it, is discuss how things could be, as well as illuminate how things are delivered differently in the work that we do.

I have been demonstrating the difference that equality and respect based work with separated families makes since1998.  Alongside colleagues, I have written about it, delivered it, evaluated it and even shown the Minister for Child Maintenance herself the way it works.  We have embedded the difference in the Child Maintenance Options service (not that you would find it there these days) and we have recently trained over four thousand early years workers to do it. We have worked with families themselves, with Local Authorities and even trained an Australian Relationship Centre to use our programmes.  We have worked with practitioners up and down the land, what more could one do to demonstrate that there is a different way that delivers a different outcome, that is based upon respect for the difference between men and women and underpinned by an equalities based approach?

The answer, I fear, is nothing.  The reason, I believe, is because the reality of what we are showing crosses a boundary which is held firm by the orthodoxy  around family services in this country. This orthodoxy being that women have problems, but men are problems.

I should make it clear once again, that the way that I work is based upon an equalities approach in which the reality that mothers as well as fathers struggle after family separation is placed centrally, and which recognises that separation  is equally painful on an individual level but unevenly supported on a collective level.

This uneven approach to support is, I believe, because the BMP is at work in much of our service provision, encouraged and supported by the gender neutral legislation which surrounds the family.

Gender neutral legislation, (which I am almost sick of talking about now, so long have we been banging on about it) is the way in which a law is created without paying attention to the different experiences and different needs of men and women.  Legislation, laws and the services which are created underneath that, are key drivers of behaviour in our society.  To make a law gender neutral is to fail to consider how it will impact upon men and women differently and therefore drive their behaviours differently.

Gender neutral laws in a gender biased society, deliver gender biased outcomes which drive behaviours which appear to uphold the assumptions that have been created about people.

Put simply, if you create a law which pays child benefit to mothers and then, when the family separates, tell the couple that the one holding child benefit is the primary carer then you will create the illusion that only that parent cares for children. If you then, continue to allow, the perpetuation of the myth that all family separation is about fathers leaving mothers and you only listen to standpoint academic research which confirms this for you, (instead of asking parents directly yourself), then what you will come away with is the belief that family separation is only about bad dads abandoning good mums and the only issue that is of concern is poverty.

That is a classic example of a gender neutral law delivering gender biased outcomes and it is at the core of our family separation policy and has been for forty years.

I cannot say it more clearly than that.

Neither can I say this more clearly.

Dads are discriminated against in family separation policy, that is why they are disaffected, disappearing and desperate.  There is nothing more, nothing less to say about it.  In a gender analysis, it is quite simply a fact.  Now we either live with it (and the fatherless society that it creates) or we do something about it.

This is not about fathers rights.  It is not even about children’s rights.  This is about the way in which our society values men as fathers and fatherhood in general.  The current message being that dads are deficient, dangerous and disposable and that after family separation they simply do not matter.

Are some dads dangerous? Yes of course and I have never said any different.  But does that make every father dangerous?  Of course it doesn’t.   Are some mothers dangerous?  Without doubt, but that does not make them all dangerous.  Some appalling cases of fathers killing their kids instill fear, but then so do the appalling cases of mothers who kill their children.  Only we do not ever end sentences about separated mothers with the words ‘where it is safe to do so’, do we?  Why not, when the safety issues around parenting after separation are almost equal in terms of risk from fathers and mothers.

The answer is, in my mind, the Bad Men Project, the collective delusion which is upheld by the orthodoxy which silences all who challenge it.  I am in no doubt that by speaking about this again and again, I too risk being silenced or sidelined, or both.  But I cannot stay silent on the matter, and I won’t.  Because even as I write, good men are being disposed of and children are being forcibly removed from relationships with their fathers, by gender neutral legislation which delivers gender biased outcomes.

Its not an accident.  Its not that fathers are inherently mad or bad.  It is the way in which the legislation has been created that delivers outcomes which appear to replicate, what we are told by those who benefit from this (the single interest groups for example).

And there are unintended consequences of this rigid legislation.  Consequences which actually damage some mothers in the most appalling ways.  Creating laws which only allow one parent to be a carer after separation for example, can put some mothers at risk of being completely evicted from their children’s lives if a father is the one who decides to take control.  In my work with alienated mothers, it is without doubt a reality that many of them have been pushed out by dads who are controlling and abusive.  But there is no way back in for these mothers.  Just like dads who are pushed out by divisive legislation, non resident mothers face the consequences of a gender neutral legislation, only they face even more collective vitriol because they are somehow even worse than non resident fathers in the minds of too many people.

If the laws around family separation were gender aware, we would deliver something completely different both in terms of outcomes for children and behavioural change.  We would keep both parents strongly engaged with their children (as they are in countries where gender mainstreaming is at the heart of social policy) and we would increase value, dignity and respect for mothering and for fathering.  Even further than that, we would support each parent to care as well as provide for their children in co-parenting relationships that are expected, not offered as a one of a menu of lifestyle choices.

We do not need to focus on anxieties about dividing the child in either physical location or time when legislation is underpinned by gender mainstreaming because we will support both parents to understand their children’s needs and how to support those together.  And we will understand that equality in family separation does not mean equal this or equal that but equality of opportunity to continue to deliver on the role of being mum and dad. Recognised, valued, and supported in ways that meet the different needs of men and women.

I don’t know how many times I have said the same thing over the past couple of decades but it is worth saying it again.

The dignity of being valued, for the wonderful things that one brings to the life of a child, is the difference that underpins the work that we do.

About as far away from the deficient dad approach as it is possible to get.

But a thousand times more effective.

You can’t push the river; mindfulness in relationships with your children after family separation

One of the biggest problems that we encounter when working with family separation is the neurological impact of the separation itself on everyone concerned.  Family Separation is a ghastly experience, it rips apart the family system, devastates all around it and attacks the nervous and endocrine system in everyone concerned.  This charging up of the fight or flight reaction puts everyone into red alert as the brain begins to go into danger signals overdrive.  And we wonder why, during the first phase of separation, everyone is on the attack and conflict escalates.

Coping with this reaction is one of the tasks of adapting to being a separated parent.  As we tell all parents we work with at the Family Separation Clinic, welcome to your new world.  This is how your life will be from now on. It will be tiring, it will be frustrating and it will be about you finding ways of coping with the pain so that your children don’t have to.  It sounds harsh but its true.  No matter whether you are the leaver or the left, as  parent your responsibility is to cope with the pain that family separation brings so that the impact on your children is minimised.

Many parents struggle with the concept of being a separated parent and spend their time waiting for when things will go back to normal.  I am convinced that this notion, that one day things will go back to ‘normal’ is one of the biggest barriers to shared parenting that face parents.  Because ‘normal’ for a lot of parents means that they are back in control.  ‘Normal’ for other parents, means that life goes back to how it used to be and children go back to the ordinary, everyday, rough and tumble of their relationships with both of their parents.  In the words of one of the children I worked with this week however

‘er – HELLO???  This is earth calling, time for a reality check, there aint nothing ever going to be the same again in my life… why should it ever be the same in yours?’

These words, spoken by a rather upset and angry teenager, say all there is to say about what parents need to do with their children after separation.  Rule number 1 is don’t expect everything to ever be the same again.  Rule number 2 is don’t push the river, meaning this is about the relational world and you cannot force things to happen in the relational world,  Rule number 3 is whether you are the leaver or the left, your leaving or being left will have an impact on your children, don’t expect to simply pick up and carry on as you did before in the belief that your kids will not be affected, because they will, they are and they need you to do the emotional work so that they don’t have to.

Before this turns into a lecture on how not to do it however, I thought I would share with you something that has been put my way in recent hours and which I have been thinking about for some time now.  I am a great believer in Jung’s theory of Sychronicity and so, having had this pushed under my nose just as yesterday I had returned to the practice of it, I have been thinking about its use in my work with alienation.  The topic is mindfulness, which put in a different way is –

Combining meditation, breathing techniques and paying attention to the present moment, mindfulness helps people change the way they think, feel and act.  (thanks to the Mental Health Foundation for that interptretation).

Being mindful, that is, being in the present moment, is incredibly difficult for separating parents who are coping with all manner of issues dragged up in the cross fire of the separation itself.  As accusations fly and each side begins the process of reconfiguring their psychology, much time is spent in the past, in the future, on the other side, on analysis of who is doing what, where, when and why.  In short, both sides spend an inordinate of time anywhere but the present moment and both sides find themselves propelled into flights of emotional, mental and psychological madness as they try to make sense of what is happening to them.

I often meet parents in this kind of state, they sometimes have their children with them.  Their children often look confused, uncertain, unnoticed and unloved.

When I point this out to parents they are sometimes quite shocked, also at times offended, as if by pointing their children to them, I have somehow crossed a boundary.  One mother said to me that it was ‘abusive’ to point out to her that her children were suffering, had she not suffered enough without having to feel guilty about her children as well?  I asked her what she preferred, feeling guilty herself or her children feeling that way and worse.

There is no question that children suffer through divorce and separation.  Mostly they suffer because for a period of time they ‘lose’ their parents to the madness that is the process of separating.  This is why mindfulness, in its theory and practice is something that I am working on, not only with myself but with the parents that I work with.   Being in the present moment, allowing yourself to know that ‘this too will pass’ and for as many moments of the day as possible, refocusing upon your children and their experience, is not only good for them, its good for you too.  Recent research shows that mindfulness alters the brain wiring, it can treat depression and it can protect against the worst of what stress (and lets face it, separation is stressful) can do to you.

But it can do more than that too and this is where I firmly believe that mindfulness in relationship with your children after separation can really help.  Mindfulness, can reorientate you away from your focus on the past, on what was wrong, was is wrong and what might be wrong.  Mindfulness, being in the present moment and being with yourself and quietening the mind, can help you to retrieve the lost self that the separation is forcing you to find. It can calm you through the dark days and hold you through the anxiety and it can, when practiced regularly, bring your children through those times too, with a sense of you always by their side.  Most of all it can prevent you from becoming fixated on the other side and assist you from becoming stuck in blame and fear and anger, all of which are toxic to your children and toxic to your relationship with them.  Because when your family system is infected by fear, the only way to go is on the attack and that creates the kind of environment that leads to the real problems that children suffer, withdrawal from a parent, transition difficulties and high anxiety.

As the days get longer and the warmth begins to return, try being mindful, even if it is just for a couple of minutes every now and again.  Stop, look around you.  Listen to the sounds.  Smell the air, breathe in and out and notice what that feels like.  Just for a minute or so, let go of the anxieties, the need for control, the fear, the loss, the anger.  Know that you can’t push the river, all things change in their own time.

Look at your childrens faces.  Remember who else made them with you.

Stories from the front line: surviving alienation – D’s Story.

By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it.  
Franz Kafka 

Today a wonderful thing happened. I had taken my two boys 10 and 12 to a local pitch and putt with two of the eldest boy’s friends. We had a picnic and later they played tag around the play area. The eldest boys are on that cusp. A place where in a year or so such childlike games will hold little allure. For now I sat on the grass in the spring sunshine and watched them laughing at their play. Their innocence and their joy. They looked and acted no differently from the other children there. Parents and other adults dotted around the benches and the edge of the play area.

One of the friends has divorced parents. His dad has moved close to me and he asked about visiting when he was with his dad every other weekend. 

I felt good in the warm Easter sun.

I was supposed to have them Saturday daytime but mum had something planned (it transpires they were watching the Grand National and having a buffet) so we had agreed that I would have them today.

I dropped them off later after tea. The youngest to mums first and then the older boy with his friends at the local hang out- a row of shops.

As I stopped the car he leant across the seat and hugged me. “Love you dad”.

In full view of his peers.

It was an embrace that I will never forget. 

Thanks dad”.

The same boy had over two years earlier waved me off when I had told them that dad was leaving. I had read up on what to say. Mum had refused a rehearsal. He stood crying at he door.” Bye dad”.

That image is seared on my heart and brain.

Now though I have other images. Balm to a wound that will never leave me but can I suppose be soothed by new memories now.

Let me be clear from the start. This has been and is a painful journey. Not just for me but for our children and their mother. I and indeed all involved can harbour many wounds and scars but be clear on one thing-no one who has walked this road is free from the pain that family breakdown brings. Separation is not like that.

 Even for those who want it (and I didn’t) it has its moments of darkness. Family life is a complex thing and even for the former there is no doubt little joy to be had in seeing our children suffer. The balance of personal need and children’s needs is a fine balance and a brittle entity. 

As a man when you leave two things happe

A whirlwind erupts riven by insecurity and fear. Secondly you realise that of all the things you left with one certainty comes with your baggage. You are powerless.

Most of all you are catapulted into a world where you have no right to have contact with your children. By that of course I mean that without legal recourse your contact with your children will be controlled by one person and one person only. The other parent. 

As I charted the course of contact allowed but consistently undermined (as I was later to type in my C100 form) it felt like I was being poked with a sharp stick. I have though faced more the vipers grin than the rhinos charge. Contact was allowed as it were, however it was constantly changed, made difficult and there was not enough of it. Not for our children. 

I could write a very thick book about it. A “Ulysses” of the separated dad.

As I stumbled along the lost highway I realise that my journey is a lower division scenario. A Shrewsbury Town to the Real Madrid’s who are out there. The dad s confined to the contact centres. The mums who refuse contact because their six year old does not want to go.

Contact became a game. The landline later installed ringing and no answer minutes before the ring now text. The children awkward, with mum chattering in the background.. After a year or so I decided to give up on it. The original landline had been taken out and for months all phone contact was via mum’s phone. 

I had consumed as much as I could in my shell shocked state about children and divorce. My yearning for the ideal of co-parenting and the reality of what was unfolding sent me into panic. I had stumbled across something called parental alienation on my internet travels and as I worked through the tick boxes it dawned on me that that I could give at least ten or more good examples of each of its indicators. Hmmm. 

A few months ago my then 11 year old told me mum had watched a documentary about a dad in a contact centre losing his children to PA. Mum had said to him “aren’t you lucky that I let you see dad?”……. 

I digress.

To say that there were dark moments of course implies that those depths are past.

I had come close to suicide twice. I did not see them for the first two Christmas days. This was pre court.

My work suffered badly and a combination of Christmas and work led me to write notes and make plans. I had even picked the day. A Sunday.

On the possible final contact I had taken them to a toy shop and burned up plastic. I had kissed them as they left the car. I could smell them. As I drove off strangely I just felt numb. There would be some release soon. It would be over. It was selfish and it was built upon two things. I felt an urge to be free from the pain. I suspect most dads have flirted with it. The suicide statistics for this country suggest that men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. For some reason it gets little public attention. There is no “one billion rising” like button for those who have taken a certain path of release from solitude and pain.

Perhaps we can try and fix it for our sons?

A simple phone call I received the next day put it to rest.

We sat in mediation for nearly eighteen months. The mediator was a family law solicitor. Chair of local Women’s Aid. It cost me a grand. It was like pushing a ball up a hill. I believe it’s being offered as the flavour of the month for separating couples. It ignores the power imbalance of course, how can you possibly negotiate when one party is invested with all the power?

Agreed overnight weekend contact was scuppered by mum.

the children don’t want to come” she said

I realised then that court beckoned. I had avoided it. At this point I had one overnight a week and a weekend afternoon..

The court held few surprises for me. In fact waiting had a certain advantage. I was more emotionally level and I had gleaned advice from forums and the friends I had made along the way. Other men and women who had their own burden, their own pain became my confidantes.

It was and is a chess game. The idea of standing in a room full of strangers to justify time with my children seemed bizarre at times of course. I had “bigged” mum up to the nice but dim CAFFCASS officer and she had recommended the ubiquitous “wishes and feelings” report for the eldest boy.

The death knell for many a father.

Her conclusions were welcomed by mum. The report noted that mum had even shown our son the CAFCASS website and it concluded that “often non residential parents have difficulty in adjusting to children’s changing needs and a need for flexibility”. At this stage I had the children one overnight a week. It was 18 months since we had separated. My relationship which hinged on time rather than the quality of that time was slipping away.

I was asked about a reference to mum undermining contact. I produced a contact schedule hand written by mum which had been handed to me six weeks after we split by my then ten year old. It was full of social work speak. “wishes and feelings” “best interests etc. it allowed for one overnight a month for the eldest boy and daytime contact mid week and Saturday. The children had been asked how often they wanted to see their father. During the court process my 12 year old told me that he hated me. He told me that he was going to tell the court that I had put a fathers rights leaflet in his school bag. It was surreal..

 The judge dismissed the CAFCASS report and said “we don’t want A getting involved do we? “. He had seen it before no doubt. He knew what was going on and sent us out to negotiate a weekend over night contact which began as a monthly

Schedule and now translates into a single overnight at weekends on a fortnightly basis 

At the end of it the judge looked at her and said what we now have is “a shared care regime. 

Its meaningless jargon of course but in some way it made me feel good.

Vindicated I suppose. I now have three overnights a fortnight, an afternoon at the alternate weekend and sports training mid week.

I had them for a few hours on Christmas Day for the first time last year.

It’s a rotten system though. Archaic and cumbersome. My greatest disdain is for the legal profession. I have heard more than one dad say that they were advised to “put it on plastic” as they fought to parent their children. Come the revolucion they will be driving mini buses for inner city community charities. On the minimum wage of course. 

To find yourself in conflict is a weary place to be. Negative energy I think you would call it for all concerned.

One thing I have learnt is that the process of releasing yourself from it is liberating. You cannot control what the other parent does but you can control what you do. For you and your children. The art of disengagement is not easy especially when it is not reciprocated. It’s a process and in many ways a power shift.

I sought help where I could get it. I contacted the Centre for Separated Families and had the good fortune to speak to Karen about hand overs. At the time mum could not “bear to see my face” and the children would appear out of the house shell shocked as we all were I suppose. I learnt from such advice a pathway through the minefield that is transition.

For a long time my then eight year old would refuse to come. He would stand on the doorstep crying as if he was terrified of me. The adults within (including extended family) would stay out of sight. I would sometimes pull over on the way home and howl like a wounded animal. There is no other way I could describe it. It was like something almost Neanderthal. Outside through the glass I could see the world turning as it always had. My world was falling apart.

Slowly though the strategies I had learnt began to give me a semblance of control back. I became more confident. I attended a workshop delivered by the CSF and I realised that there are things you can do. Having time is important but what you do with that time is equally so. You are not a helpless observer. Understanding what you are facing, the process, the psychological mindset of the other parent and indeed your own are crucial. I learnt that generational parenting patterns are important on both sides. Knowledge is a key.

The landscape can change and will continue to change. You must always remember that. Your children are not frozen in time. New partners will appear. Most will be divorced and have children too. For a long time the children would not take stuff to mums. Anything they cooked would by all accounts grow mould or end up in the dogs dish.. Last week the cookies they made were “delicious” when brought home. 

Remember ladies that for most men PA is not an aphrodisiac.

On the night before their first overnight stay I put up a framed picture of them in their bed room. They sit next to their mum.

My lifeboat? I have found my solace in rum, in singing (a choir), in the faith that I cannot shake off for all its contradictions, in other faiths (I am a Catholic boy flirting now with Buddhism)

In the revolucion. (I often join Che and Fidel in the mountains and such grand delusions are fine), I love walking. I spread myself with friends. At times it’s a defence.

You still carry what was once a heavy bolder. It is now a small stone in your pocket. At times even you forget it is there. You reach for it at times and feel its jagged edge knowing that it will always be there. That small stone in your pocket that no one else can see.

I am less materialistic. I like my lease car but I love too the sunset over the rooftops of the houses I can see from my window. There are times when I relapse and look for the duvet but there are more times when I feel like its good to be alive,

My prayers hold those adults who have walked the same path. Who have lifted me when I fell and who will always do so when I stumble as surely I will Most of all my whispers hold the children .I talk here of my hurt but it is the hurt to the children that we must try and comprehend. 

I will finish here with a true story. A story that is not unique in its occurrence nor in its outcome. All journeys have an ending. I am not complacent and who knows where this journey will end? I hope that mine ends with many things but most of all with forgiveness. And that I too will be forgiven. Our children love their mother just as she loves them. We can be prisoners of our own childhood and our parents can be too. This dance we embrace needs more than one. There is no Panto villain in my story.

I have a good friend from my home city who lost his children. Court orders broken and hostility never ending led him to give up. I understand that place.

He immigrated to Australia and then moved to England.

A few tentative contacts on facebook. A meeting that his son withdrew from at the last minute. 

Then a few months ago a reconnection. A meeting. His daughter first and then his now early twenties son. Its on facebook.

Their picture?

A father and his 20 year old son look at the camera. They have guitars in front of them. Their arms are around each other. They look like they do not have a care in the world. Like all the world could fall and they could sit there. Like CAFCASS, Gingerbread, Trinder and all the judges and politicians’ and the circus that we and our children are offered could fall away.

What struck me most were their faces and their eyes. They are relaxed. They are happy and their eyes are full of love. It’s a special love. I know it too. I had it as a child and adult.

It reminds me of my old man embracing me in the kitchen. I could smell the tobacco on him and feel on his neck the pock mark scars from shrapnel that laced his then nineteen year old frame in a ditch in Normandy.

” One day you will be too old to hug your auld fella” he whispered

I can feel it now. Like the entire world could fall. Me and the old man there.

In each others arms.. Those few seconds. Like the earth could split in two and we would not care. Like the oceans could rise and sweep us all away and we would not care. 

That warm Easter sun today brought it back.  


This is the first in a series of stories from mothers and fathers who have survived children’s withdrawal and rejection of them after separation.  Not all of these stories are about alienation in its severe form, but most of them would be, without intervention.  Arresting alienation in its tracks is the key way of avoiding it.  How to do that is about understanding your own unique story.  By reading other people’s stories of how they did it, I hope we can build case histories that allow us to understand more about the alienation reaction, how to avoid it and how to treat it.  D’s story is typical and yet not typical.  He survived serious transition difficulties experienced by his children and it changed not only who he is but how he parents and what he expects from being a separated parent.  That is a task for everyone experiencing family separation.  How to achieve it is different in each family and yet all who face this phenomenon have similar roads to travel.  Building support strategies that work is what we do at the Family Separation Clinic.  Thank you to D for sharing his story.

Reuniting with your alienated child – a spring message of hope

This week has been something of a milestone in my work with alienated children and their parents and, whilst it has been a somewhat exhausting week, I wanted to pick up my pen and write a few lines of hope for all parents coping with living apart from their children.

My working week began with sessions between older children and their dads, children who are now on the cusp of adulthood and who have reconnected with their fathers after seeking them out.

Thank goodness for Facebook is all I can say.  This social media, unknown to us only a decade ago, appears to be responsible for an increasing number of what are called ‘spontaneous reunifications.’ Spontaneous reunification is when a child comes out of the alienated state of their own volition and actively seeks to restore the relationship with a lost parent.  And Facebook appears to be playing a huge role in that process.  In all three of the families that I worked with early in the week, Facebook played a big role in leading children to their once rejected parent.  I cannot say it enough times, if you are a rejected parent and you are not on Facebook, sign up now and get your profile out there.  Children are nosy, curious, hungry for information about the parent that they have rejected.  Just as they eavesdrop without adults knowing, they will go looking for you, make sure you are there for them to find when they do.

As I work with families where children are reuniting, I notice how much a child’s experience of emerging from the alienation state is almost in reverse to the process of becoming alienated.  It is as if a film is being played out backwards.  What comes first often is the anger and confusion, the split thinking and the determination that everything was the rejected parent’s fault.  It can be hard, after years of suffering rejection, to be in a room with a child, however old, who retains such a skewed version of the past. The urge is always to shout ‘but that isn’t how it happened’ and on many occasions I have to make sure that the process is not interrrupted by such outbursts from parents.  Because if a parent can be patient in the early days of the alienation lifting and can sit with a child’s anger and distorted beliefs, what comes next are the tears of bewilderment and confusion as the buried layers of twisted thinking start to unravel.  When the tears come I know that we are onto the home stretch and the therapeutic work of readjusting the relationship to the past can be done.  Whilst we are by no means finished in our work, when children are able to let go of the anger which has kept them in their alienated position, that’s when the healing begins.

And healing has begun for several families this week, which I am honoured to have been part of and which I wanted to share with you, parents who may be coping with alienation, practitioners who may be working with families where alienation is present.  Whilst I cannot, of course, give you details of these families, I can tell you that they have, collectively, been alienated for an average of 8 years, their children range from 11 to 27 and they have, each and every one of them, demonstrated what I know to be true.  Alienated children do, in time, come home to you.  Which is why I spend so much of my time telling rejected parents to stay well, stay healthy and when they do come looking for you, make sure you are there to welcome them.

Its always a welcome shift in my work to spend time with families who are reuniting, somehow it replenishes me, rejuvinates me and reminds me that the theory that underpins our work is based not upon some kind of magic but sound and tested evidence.  During the harder times, when I am walking with the severely alienated parents, the deeply troubled children and the determined and resistant aligned parent, when all around me people are disbelieving or dismissive of the phenomenon of alienation, it is hard to keep believing.  Even when I know theoretically, that interventions lead to particular outcomes, when the differential diagnosis and treatment route is correct.  During the process of treatment it is hard to keep on hoping when children can remain deeply resistant.

Successful reunifications therefore restore hope and they restore my knowledge that children who are alienated, even those who are the most severely resistant, phobic, angry and tearful, do, in the fullness of time or as the result of an intervention, come home.  And when they do come home, they are once again the children that they were. When alienation lifts, it is as if the years in between disappear and families pick up where they left off as the frozen dance begins to move again.  Just as in winter, there are moments we believe that spring will never come again, it does.  For alienated parents out there do not despair, spring will come again.

For practitioners the experience of working with children who were once alienated from a parent can help us to learn much more about what we need to do when we are faced with adamant resistance in a child.   Never one to miss a chance, I will, with colleagues, be starting new research around this element of the work of the Family Separation Clinic shortly, so that we can bring new evidence to shape new practice for children in the future.

In this strange era of illusion, as the government tells us it is supporting collaboration, whilst funding work which is merely replicating the same approaches that have lead to poor outcomes for these children for decades, we who work with complex family separation must keep a clear head.  Changes to the Children Act, (lauded by some as being the gateway to a new, mythical land where all will be well), are not going to bring respite or change to parents suffering rejection.

A cautionary note for me this week was a telephone call with a dad in a conflicted case, who told me that he may wait until the Children Act has changed in order to go back to court.  His thinking, (presumably encouraged by those believers in the new world of Child Arrangement orders), was that by doing so he was ‘bound to get shared care, because the Judge would have to follow the flow chart and in the absence of issues to prevent it, shared care would be granted.  I could have laid my head on my desk and wept at the thought of this man, full of hope, exiting court with his shared parenting order.  I know that some who read this will want to keep on believing, but please, before anyone tells dads in difficult and intractable cases that the change to the Children Act will bring balance and equilirium, have a heart.

Those cases which are difficult, those in which parenting time is blocked, those in which children are captured in loyalty conflicts will never be resolved by the change in the children act, even if it does get past the indomintable spirit of Hunt, Trinder et al. Without enforcement, shared parenting orders in these circumstances are unworkable and untenable and I shudder to think of the hope that is being engendered and the despair that will be caused when that becomes clear.  As an extremely wise and deeply valued mentor of mine said to me yesterday, ‘without the most robust court management and the strong arm of the law these (alienated) children are simply being abandoned to their fate’.   Whilst the message currently is pessimistic in terms of the state however, new approaches to working with children in these circumstances are being quietly developed, tested and evaluated. And there will come a time when what works will be more widely available.

And so my working week will close tomorrow with another workshop for alienated parents in London.  As I write up my notes from the week’s work and reflect upon the tears, the smiles, the faces of those children I have witnessed coming home this week, I am calibrating that knowledge, that awareness, with the journey we are about to embark upon with a new group of parents.  As we set off together we are readying for the journey underground, excavating the past, digging up the secrets, illuminating the way and supporting parents as they discover the route that lead to their experience of rejection and start building strategies for the future.

As we do so, we will be keeping hope alive and sharing stories of how other people survived and how other children returned.  I sometimes wonder, in my darkest moments of doing this work whether this is false hope.  This week has reminded me ten fold that it is not.

(In the coming weeks I will be sharing with you stories from parents with whom we have worked who have rebuilt their relationship with their children after alienation.  These stories are direct from parents themselves, told in their own words.  I want to be able to share with everyone who reads this blog, the reality of the lives that alienated families live and their roads home to reunification.  We start next week with D’s Story).

Rediscovering the Lost Ones; Transgenerational Haunting and Alienation

Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable and immortal elements of life, which, having once been, can never die, though they blend and change and change again for ever.

–H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines

This week I have been concentrating on thinking about the area of my work with families that is truly the most fascinating, the most tragic and the most compelling in terms of developing therapeutic responses.  The issue is transgenerational haunting and the way in which alienation in children is so often, in my experience, linked to this phenomenon.

Transgenerational haunting is a psychoanalytic concept which was first advanced by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok and is best described as unresolved trauma which becomes passed down through generations.  These ‘encrypted secrets’, can cause children to ‘act out’ areas of their parent’s unresolved griefs, often exactly at the age that a parent experienced them.  A good example is that of a child whose father dies at the age of 11 and who grows up to become a parent, only to find that when their own child is 11, their relationship with that child is lost in some way.  It is as if there is some compulsion to repeat the past, perhaps in order to try and resolve the original wound, but in doing so, the next child is affected and the next and so the original trauma ‘haunts’ the family system.

Transgenerational haunting passes trauma through the family narrative in the form of secrets and lies and half truths.  It consists of knowing and unknowing and of unspoken things which are seen and heard but half forgotten or buried, like treasure, or ghosts, in the unconscious.  Haunting of this nature can control a family system and can cause children to carry burdens which are not theirs and it can put at risk the next generation if trauma is carried through without resolution.

For many families affected by the loss of a child through separation, one or both of the parents will, themselves have been affected by divorce and separation in their own childhood.  We are now four generations from the 1973 change to the divorce laws and the same distance from the way in which our social policy was changed forever by the Finer Report in 1974.  Two distinct but interlinked policy changes that created a dynamic that changed family life forever.

From the early seventies onwards, men and women who entered into marriage, (then the framework into which children were born), were free to leave it and women, who had been unable to take their children with them up to that point, were now free to do so without having to depend financially upon the father of their children.  During the seventies, the first wave of children affected by divorce grew up and scant regard was paid to the impact of that experience upon them.  Organisations such as the National Council For One Parent Families (now known as Gingerbread) began to grow their services and the stigma, which had faced unmarried women previously, began to be rolled up with the issues facing women generally.  As new cultural norms were established, so were new political and legislative frameworks and soon, the idea of marriage as the precursor to family life was eradicated and made unfashionable.  As Harriet Harman said, in her paper ‘The Family Way

“it cannot be assumed that men are bound to be an asset to family life or that the presence of fathers in families is necessarily a means to social cohesion”

And whilst the erosion of fatherhood began to be an accepted part of our social and cultural experience, the impact on children of this loss remained largely ignored.

The world of alienated children is a strange one to inhabit but it is one that I walk in most days of my working life.  As I meet children affected by this phenomenon, I wonder what their lives would have been like had the legislation been different.  In short, I am always aware, always alive to the fact that in a different time and place the issues that face alienated children would simply not have existed, or, alternatively, would exist in a different way. This is because the alienation of children has only really become a problem since the divorce rate rocketed.  Now, the issues facing families through generations, that are linked to divorce and separation, are simply dismissed or overlooked.  There are not many therapists who are willing to step into the difficult spaces and name the problems that are wrapped up with generational family separation.  Perhaps this is because of the powerful demands, made by organisations such as Gingerbread, not to look too closely, the accusation being that in doing so we stigmatise single mothers.  Confronted by this dilemma, in which the adult choices are said to outweigh the consequences for children, many therapists may back away.  And yet it is in this arena that the therapist must be brave enough to work, if change is to be brought about and transgenerational haunting is to be addressed.

When I work with families affected by alienation one of the first assessment tasks I undertake is a comparative family tree and an analysis of the family narrative.  What I am looking for in doing this work are the ‘encrypted secrets’ that cause the alienation, the unresolved trauma that lead to compulsion repetition.

It is often not long before I find these secrets, in fact they are often shouting off the page before I even get beyond one generation prior to the family I am working with.  Most of these traumas are to do with the loss of a parent through divorce and separation.  Most of the parents that I work with have, themselves, as children, lost a parent or experience themselves the withdrawal from a parent.  I have lost count now of the number of times, in one of our parental alienation workshops, a parent will say, with utter disbelief upon their faces, ‘I have just realised that I was alienated from my own mother/father.’  That this could remain unknown on a deep feelings level, even when it is consciously known, is something of a mystery.  But it is clear to me that this is to do with the way in which we do not, as a society, yet pay enough attention to the damage that divorce and separation does, not only to our children as children, but to the parents that our children will one day become.  Unravelling this narrative, digging up these encrypted secrets and sitting with an alienated parent as witness, is one of the key elements of the work that I do.  And when it is done, it is astounding how swiftly resolution can take place, even to the point of spontaneous reunification with a lost child, seemingly unrelated to the resolved trauma but too coincidental to ignore.

There are at least four generations now of lost children and lost parents, all of whom have been affected by divorce and separation, the trauma impact of which is missing from our cultural narrative.  It is this lack of attention in our culture which is, in my view, the cause of those ‘encrypted secrets’ and generational trauma.  It is as if, without speaking of the impact of the separation on children, we hope to expunge ourselves of the guilt and shame that can be caused when one looks closer.  But our lack of words, our lack of attention to the impact has, instead, driven the trauma underground.  Only to have it  erupt again and again in our children’s lives when they become parents and then our grandchildren’s lives as generation after generation struggles with divorce and separation.

Our lost generations of children,  are scarred by divorce and separation from a loved parent and those scars  are, in my view, our responsibility.  We may not be able to put the genie back in the bottle and return to the times when marriage was a lifetime’s commitment, but we can (and in my opinion should) take responsibility for recognising and understanding the ways in which our adult freedoms have impacted upon our children’s life chances.  And most of all we should be big enough and wise enough to carry our own burdens, so that our children do not have to.

Learning to take responsibility for the way in which our own decisions to separate affect our children and protecting them from the loss of a parent after divorce requires us to understand and accept the impact that such actions have.  And in accepting that we take responsibility for it and in doing so we give voice to the reality for children instead of scarring them by driving their experience underground. Unspoken wounds fester and unresolved loss and trauma returns, generation after generation until it is resolved.

Until our legislation is changed so that those who govern our lands accept the state sanctified damage that has been done and makes reparations, it is incumbent upon those therapists who work with transgenerational trauma to speak up and speak out.

For children who have no words, our voices may be the only hope they have.

Crossing no man’s land; supporting children in transition

Having listened to Woman’s Hour this week on the issue of shared parenting, I was struck by the ways in which two very different shared care arrangements were portrayed by the parents concerned.  Working as I do, with families experiencing separation, I know that one of the greatest difficulties facing parents can be how to make arrangements that really work for children.  Given the range of ways that post separation parenting can be configured, it can sometimes be difficult for parents to decide which approach is the right one for their child.  Should children live mostly in one home and visit the other, should children live in two homes or should children be able to choose when and how they pick up their things and make their home with one or the other parent?

One of the determining factors is how well children cope with the arrangements that are made, especially when, in the early days at least, parents may still be struggling to resolve some of the issues that caused the separation in the first place.  In my work with families, where conflict is often high and ongoing, children are faced with having to cross a ‘no man’s land’ of emotional warfare on a regular basis.  These are the children who are most at risk of rejection of one parent and alignment with the other, the impact upon them of having to make that crossing becomes, quite simply, intolerable.  But whatever the emotional landscape around children, the fact that it is they and not the adults who do the moving between parents and between homes, means that it is they and only they who are witness to the whole of the fractured landscape around them.  Whilst parents cope with the impact of the separation on their adult selves, an impact which can feel incredibly difficult at times, at least they only have to cope with their own side of things.  Children on the other hand have to cope with both sides and they have to bear witness to the pain, the sorrow and sometimes the anger of two parents not just one.  Not only that, but they must achieve a huge psychological task on a regular basis, which is negotiating their way between enemy lines in order to find their way into the other side’s camp (aka home).  Little wonder that too many children end up being withdrawing and refusing to undertake that task by rejecting one of their parents.

Parenting a child in transition is not the same as parenting a child full stop.  Skills for supporting a child in transition start with the ability to understand the whole of their experience of life and how they and only they are witness to the fractured family landscape in the round.  When a parent can come to terms with this fact, it releases the child from the expectation that they will carry on as normal and the parent can adapt their expectations and behaviour to support the child instead of making demands upon them.  It can also prevent an escalation of the alienation reaction in a child which can be created and escalated by locating the problem in the child and not in the landscape of the dynamics between the two parents and two homes that a child lives in.

When a child is in transition nothing is as consistent as it was when the family lived together.  Whilst children can and do adapt amazingly well to transitional life, they do need support in order to do so.  Imagine that you, as a parent, wake up on a regular basis knowing that the bed that you sleep in tonight is not the one that you are currently lying in.  Imagine that you must carve out, on a weekly basis, the time to think about packing the things that you need to take with you. Imagine that you are taking your leave of your loved one regularly.  Think about your holidays and how you psychologically carve up that time into beginning (exciting, everything is new and you have been looking forward to it), middle (you are lost in the experience of the moment and the past and the future are nowhere in sight) and ending (the future looms and the change to a different pace, a different place and a different way of life is coming).  Now imagine doing that on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.  That is what the life of a child in transition feels like inside.  The carving up of time, the marking of beginning, middle and ending, the accompanying emotional reactions and the physical tasks of remembering everything that needs to go with you.

I am not saying, by outlining all of the above, that children in shared parenting situations do not do well.  They do.  The research evidence shows that they do well in the right shared care conditions and my own personal and professional experience tells me that children in do incredibly well moving between homes.  But the common factor in children doing well in shared parenting situations is the way in which parents are skilled to manage children in transition.  The level of understanding that parents have about the needs of children in transition and the way in which these children cope with the psychological task of change is a critical factor and it seems to me, that what is needed is more, much more information for parents about this, if shared parenting is to successful on a much wider basis.

One the Woman’s Hour programme two parents talked about their experience of shared care.  One parent said that she lived close to her children’s dad and that their arrangement had been voluntary and born out of necessity as they both worked freelance.  The other parent had struggled through the court process and arrived at a shared care arrangement in which his daughter spent weekends with him and some days in the week.

Both of these parents considered that they were sharing the care of their children and I would agree, shared care looks like many different things and it does not have to be one set pattern. But for a child, life in two homes, with two separated parents can be made easier or much harder by the skills that their parents possess in supporting their ability to make the transition from one place to the other.  And when children struggle with the transition, stepping up with higher level skills and higher level awareness of what is happening to children is an essential part of successful shared care for every parent.

A couple of years ago I worked with a family in which the child concerned was aged 14.  This teenager had transitioned almost all of her life as her parents separated when she was under three years old.  For the subsequent years of her life, she had lived with her father for half of the week and her mother the other half, moving on a Wednesday evening and a Sunday morning.  Transitions had been easy for much of this time, a matter of making sure that she remembered her swimming things when she moved and that she knew what clothes she might need to take with her.  When she was a child, she had left one home and arrived at the other in a consistently chirpy and happy mood and had seemingly adapted well to life with two homes.

As she approached the age of 14 however she began to struggle with transitions, not wanting to pick up her things and go and becoming angry with her mother and her father at the way in which her life felt ‘split in two.’  Although she lived in homes only five miles apart, the friends with which she went to school lived near to her father’s home and not her mothers and so she came to want to spend more time with her dad, not because she wanted to be with her dad more, but because it was convenient for her to be there, it suited her growing social life.

Eventually, over a period of six months, this teenager had become so difficult for her mother to handle that there was a complete breakdown in the shared care arrangement and the mother came to the Centre for Separated Families saying that her daughter had been ‘alienated’ against her by her father.  What else could it be, this mother told us, when her daughter had been so happy, so compliant, so much settled in the shared care arrangement.

By the time we arrived to support this family the mother and daughter were completely estranged and the mother and father were at loggerheads.  Court action was being discussed and angry letters were being exchanged.  Without intervention, that family would have been a war zone and the daughter plunged into the middle of a battle that threatened to alienate her from both of her parents, never mind one.

There was a very simple solution to the problems that this separated family faced.  That solution was a short parenting support programme for parents of children in transition.  It didn’t take more than an hour into a six hour workshop for the penny to drop for these parents.  When children in transition enter into psychological change themselves, the arrangements around them must change to meet those changing needs.  This was not a case of alienation, it was a case of parents lacking the skills to parent a child in transition.  Give them those skills and everything changes again, ruffled feathers are smoothed, old jealousies are laid to rest and anxieties about relationships are calmed.  Had this girl gone to school close to her mother’s home, that is where she would have preferred to be and mum would have been the ‘chosen’ one for a time.  When these parents understood that, it was possible for them to begin to configure arrangements that suited their daughter’s needs and the conflict between mum and daughter reduced, daughter was encouraged to spend some quality time with mum on a regular basis and dad could stop feel guilty and anxious that he was somehow influencing his daughter’s difficult behaviour.

Shared parenting is not rocket science but neither is it the breeze that some would have us believe that it is.  Whilst the argument about whether we should start from a point of presuming that a child will live equally with both parents or not rages on, don’t be fooled into thinking that winning or losing this argument is all that is needed to make shared care work.  Those who speak of presumption being the magical answer to all of our prayers are not the children who have to cross the no man’s land of anger, blame and confrontation and they are not the children who have to find a way to cope with the whole of the fractured landscape of a family separation.  Presumption or not is not the issue, making shared care work effectively for children is and doing that requires an ongoing and sustained commitment to learning the skills of parenting a child in transition.  When parents get that right, then things begin to fall into place. And when parents learn how to do that over a child’s lifetime, then children get that ongoing emotional conduit that gets them safely across no man’s land in the good times as well as the bad times.

As shared parenting continues its way through the social and political scrutiny towards a wider acceptance and practice, it is time to focus our attention on the needs of the children who will live these shared care lives, the only ones who will live not just one side of it, but the whole of it.  For the success or failure of the shared care project over their lifetime, will set the sails for the fate of their own children.  Teaching parents how to share care now could bring change for many more generations of children.

Suffer the little children; and as adults, they still do

Having just completed a ten day round training trip, during which we have had the pleasure of meeting parents as well as practitioners, I am focused at the moment upon the stories that we have heard along the way. Stories that are sad, stories that are difficult to listen to and stories that are uplifting and full of hope. All of the stories are about one thing, relationships between parents and children and the ways in which this country of ours gets it so badly wrong when it comes to supporting families after separation.

I have borrowed the title of this blog from one of the participants on our recent London workshop about children’s transition difficulties. I have done so because it seems to me that this sentence describes eloquently, the scandal of what we are doing to children in some separated families this country. In short, we are standing by and watching the institutionalised abuse of these children and we are doing nothing about it. Worse still, we are, through  the continued existence of organisations like CAFCASS, enabling the state to inflict appalling injury to our children. Children who are suffering now and, as this man attests, as adults, they continue to do so.

I am grateful to this man, who told us the story of reuniting with his daughter after she had suffered from alienation from him for 21 years. This man’s story, so calmly told, moved those of us listening to it to tears. 21 years of being prevented from seeing his children. Aided and abetted by the state system, his children’s mother removed him from their lives without a concern for all those years of lost dreams, hopes and potential happy memories.

This story is the story that so many of the parents that we work with are all too familiar with. That this man was reunited with his daughter after 21 years was down to his courage, his strength and his ability to keep on surviving the ghastly things that had been done to him and to his children by the system that operates around family separation in this country. Interestingly, It was also down to the compassionate, sophisticated and human approach to the issue of children’s alienation from parents that operates in another country in Europe, one not so far from our own shores.

The difference between the way in which the state in that country interacts with separated families could not be further from our own. The key to this being the way that social services, the police and the mental health system in that country, understand that children who are alienated from their parents are being abused. In that country, the abuse is recognised and acted upon whereas in this country, it is all too often dismissed, excused or simply waved away as being non existent.

Never more so than by CAFCASS. Set up to supposedly support parents experiencing family separation, CAFCASS has, for too many families become the terror that stalks them. Day after day on this training tour we heard the same story, of the lack of knowledge amongst CAFCASS staff, of their crass dismissal of a parent’s concerns about a child’s behaviour and of the ways in which the arrival of CAFCASS in the case caused problems to escalate and the child’s reactions to worsen.

Now there is something rotten in our system of supporting separated families and whilst one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole basket, one good apple amongst a basket of bad is going to have a hard time convincing the outside world that its not CAFCASS that causes the biggest problems.  I am not, however, going to fall foul of stereotyping and say that all CAFCASS officers are the same. I work with a couple of CAFCASS officers who absolutely ‘get’ the issue of the alienation of a child and the serious damage it can do over a lifetime. Sadly however, these fantastic people are like gold dust, because the overwhelming experience that I have of CAFCASS’ knowledge of children and family separation mirrors that of the parents we met over the course of the past few days. It is basic, it is based upon foundation level social work theory and it is a bit like bringing in the auxiliary nurse when what you really need is the surgeon.

In other countries, where family separation is considered to be a social problem that affects children, services to support the family are properly funded, evidenced based and delivered to mothers and fathers as well as to children. Take Norway for example, where parents must complete a course1 on working together for the sake of their children after family separation. Much more detailed and sophisticated than the Parenting Information Programmes that are delivered around the UK, the Norwegian course offers a fully rounded exploration of how separation impacts upon a child as well as what can go wrong in the process of caring for a child afterwards.

In the UK, you would be forgiven for thinking that all that matters in terms of children and separation is conflict and  poverty, such is the influence of the lone parent model that has driven our support to separating families over the past four decades. The idea that separation itself can be the cause of children’s behavioural difficulties is ridden over rough shod, mostly encouraged by the efforts of the single parent lobby, who consider that the idea that separation can affect children is somehow stigmatising parents.

Far from stigmatising them, an interest in how children adapt to family separation seems to me to be an utterly sensible way to support families who are separating. One of the practitioners I met last week said that in her view, children themselves also want more attention to be paid to their experience of their parents separating. This is not about giving children more of a ‘voice’ in family separation, (a phrase that makes me shudder with horror because I know that what it means in practice is to heap more anxiety upon little heads that are already filled with fear and confusion), it is about helping children to express the feelings that they struggle with when their parents are living separately. We can only do this if we are alive to the fact that it is not just poverty or conflict that has an impact on children, it is the experience of the physical separation of two parents that were once internalised as a whole and the ways in which children’s lives change when they are making transitions between those two parents.

Amy Baker’s study of adults who experienced alienation as a child2tells us that children whose parents separate are at risk of being affected over their life time, unless two parents can deal with the difficulties that children struggle with in relating to them separately. Baker’s study of 40 adults who were affected by alienation as children, shows us that the impact can be severe in terms of self esteem, self confidence, integration of personality, feelings of guilt and shame and more. The study tells us that many of these adults, when they were children, were given the responsibility for choosing what they wanted to happen after separation, something that CAFCASS increasingly do through their reliance upon children’s wishes and feelings reports. These adults tell us now that they secretly wished that someone would remove that ‘choice’ and responsibility from them because it was too great a burden for them to bear. Contrast that with the Children’s Commissioner for England, who, in response to the family justice review recently   said something along the lines of children’s relationships with their parents after separation should only continue if the child wants it to. For shame.

The lack of understanding in this country, of what happens to children during and beyond family separation both saddens and angers me at the same time. Sometimes I see alienated children whose faces are frozen with fear, in similar ways to those children who are being physically or sexually abused. These children are often those that CAFCASS throw up their hands in horror over, when I suggest that they are suffering abuse. The notion that a mother could be abusing her child by enmeshing her with her own hatred/dislike of the child’s other parent or acting out her own childhood upbringing, is not a palatable explanation to too many of these practitioners. Easier for them to tolerate it seems, is the idea that a child is refusing to see a father because that parent has done something bad. As one officer stated to me recently, ‘culturally this child is expected to respect his father and do as he says, that he will not even see him is a measure of how badly this father has behaved towards this child.’ I resisted the urge to slap this person and attempted to explain (yet again) that children who reject a parent in this way are not doing so because of the badness of a parent, but because they are being placed in a double bind by the parent they are aligned with, often their mother but also, in some cases their father. And it is this parent, the aligned parent, with whom we should be concentrating our efforts to understand what is happening and why, because it is this parent who is often the one who is responsible for the child being trapped by intolerable emotional pressure.

Children’s reactions to family separation and to relating to two parents who are no longer living together are myriad and diverse. Not all children will struggle, some will adapt well, others will find the transition from one to the other problematic and some will go on to be unable to tolerate the pressures that are being placed upon them by either a parent who sets out to alienate or one who is unconsciously attempting to align the child to their world view. In this country, we are unfortunate that we surround these families with practitioners who have only basic training and scant knowledge of the ways in which children’s reactions can escalate to become seriously dysfunctional. As one parent said to me recently, if his dad and his step mum were breaking his arms and legs on a regular basis something would be done about it. That they are breaking his mind and his perspective and his ability to relate to other people is just disregarded.

Which brings us back to the man who was alienated from his daughter for 21 years, who, when he finally reunited with her again, had to collect her from a mental health hospital in another country, such was the suffering she had continued to experience. Suffering, it turned out, at the hands of her mother, the very same suffering that had been blamed, during the court process on his determination to stay close to his daughter. Suffering that continued to be inflicted upon her for the years after the court process had ended, by a mother hell bent on making her captive of her own mind.

After ten days of travelling this country, I have met so many parents for whom this nightmare is a reality. Parents who have been labelled and judged and rendered impotent in their efforts to help their children by the appalling, incompetent and uncaring services that surround our family justice system. Parents who know that their child’s behavior is abnormal, parents who know that their child is being harmed, parents who can only stand by and watch helplessly as they are blamed, shamed and terrorised by a brutal process which slowly but surely eradicates them from any kind of ability to protect their children.

Those who have colluded with this process, who have ignored what is being done and ridden roughshod over those children’s lives will ultimately have to be held to account for it. And perhaps as more children reach their majority and find the parent they were prevented from being with again, we will, finally, begin the kind of class actions that will prevent this abuse from continuing through another generation.

Until then, suffer those little children, and, as this man testifies, as adults they still do.

1The program Continued Parents – GOOD NOK cooperation after divorce, developed by Modum Bad – Relationship Centre in Norway is now a permanent programme under the Children, Youth and Family Affairs.

2Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind (Norton Professional Book)


Why gender matters: balancing support for mothers and fathers after family separation

In the midst of what is actually a momentous time of change in family separation politics I thought it might be useful to revisit the things that we have been saying at the Centre for Separated Families for the past decade or more.  The kind of things that we have long ago grown tired of saying but the kind of things that are, actually, the nuts and bolts of the changes that will bring better outcomes for children living in separated family situations.  I was reminded of the need to say these things again by a post on Pink Tape about a young parents project in Bristol and a discussion about whether or not dads were being left out of the loop.  Being pedantic, as I often am, I could not help but post that it takes more than a picture of a dad and a mention of a contact centre to make young dads feel included and as if the door to services is open to them.  The response was that a page on the website is now being dedicated to dads, its not everything that they could be doing to make dad feel at home, but its a darned sight more than was going on before.

I too often forget that the roots of our work at the Centre for Separated Families lie in gender analysis and our understanding of the ways in which use of this and other gender mainstreaming tools can and do deliver the most astonishing outcomes.  In the early days of our use of these tools, we increased the use, by dads, of one of our drop in services by a whopping 19% in one year.  These days the use of our services are more or less balanced with around 49% use by dads and 51% use by mums.  Our specialist services are even more evenly balanced, with engagement with 52% dads and 48% mums and our advice and information services come out at around 54% dads and 46% mums.

Our aim, in using gender mainstreaming tools to plan and deliver our services is to ensure that mothers and fathers are enabled to access the services that they need to carry out their ongoing responsibilities for their children.  In the culture that we are currently working in, this means that we have to plan for delivery of more specialist services for fathers, because it is father that currently face the highest barriers to carrying out those responsibilities.  I have written on many occasion about the barriers that fathers face, written as they are into the legislation that governs family separation in this country.  Thankfully, the government are, now, in the process of unpicking that legislation and in doing so it is possible to see just how gender biased this has been in the past.

Take child maintenance for instance.  The Child Support Agency, brought into being in the early nineties, was an agency that was created in order to alleviate the burden on the state, of the financial responsibility for supporting single mothers.  Those single mothers, were enabled to make choices about their parenthood outside of a financially supportive relationship, because of the legislation that divorced them from having to depend upon the father of their children.  The feminist academics of this world, who created that legislation, deliberately stitched gender bias into it, the whole basis of which was to enable women to live free of dependency upon men.  When Mrs Thatcher and her government identified that the burden on the state was too great, the Child Support Agency was the remedy of choice and punishment of fathers, for being reckless and feckless enough to impregnate and then leave the mother of their children, was the media hype that brought the CSA into being.

These days the Child Maintenance Commission looks like a very different organisation.  From the reforms that were identified by David Henshaw’s review in 2006 to current day commitments by government to invest in services that support parents to collaborate and make their own agreements, the responsibility is being transferred back from the state to parents themselves.  And despite all of the resistance from the organisations concerned with mothers’  rights, this government has never wavered from the objective of shifting the focus from punishing one parent on behalf of the other to supporting parents to collaborate.  Gender balance, in reform of child maintenance is, from our perspective, absolutely right and when analysed through a gender lens, demonstrates that balance is being brought back into play through ensuring that the different needs of mothers and fathers are recognised and met.

An area where gender analysis would be really useful is the family courts.  Long heralded as delivering gender biased outcomes by fathers groups, the family courts are a fine example of gender blind service delivery.  CAFCASS, responsible as they are for frontline services, should, in our view, be routinely collecting gender disagreggated statistics about the numbers of mothers and fathers that they work with and the outcomes that their services deliver for those parents.  This is not about ensuring that decisions about children’s relationships with their mother and father are equal in some way or even that mothers and fathers get the same treatment. It is about ensuring that all frontline workers understand that the legislation, cultural expectations and service delivery to fathers is different to that experienced by mothers.  A gender analysis of family court outcomes would collect the statistical evidence that is often argued over by the parental rights organisations and would allow us to see how the decisions that are made, reflect the realities of the lives that separated families live in this country.  Gender budgeting would ensure that CAFCASS can match the needs of the families that they work with to their staffing levels and it would also ensure that the kind of discrimination faced by too many dads in our country would end tomorrow. The kind of discrimination faced by Gareth, one of the dads we have been working with recently.

Gareth and his partner Shannon separated two years ago, they have two children aged seven and three. Gareth works in local government, Shannon is a Library Manager, both are educated and they are home owners in a reasonable income bracket.

Prior to the separation, Shannon had repeatedly threatened Gareth with physical violence and told him that if he moved out of the house, he would never see his children again.  When Gareth walked through our door it was clear that he was a) terrified of Shannon and b) terrified he would not see his children again.  Despite that however, he was determined that he would leave Shannon because in the very recent past she had burned his hand with an iron in an argument over money.

We worked with Gareth throughout his journey and prepared him for the difficult road ahead.  What we didn’t know was that Gareth was about to undergo the stereotypical journey, an almost identikit journey to that of so many fathers that we hear from.

Gareth and Shannon agreed that they would separate after a long and difficult weekend in which he managed to tell her that he wanted their relationship to end before he was seriously hurt.  Shannon laughed off his fear of her as being ridiculous and taunted him with threats to call the police and accuse him of domestic violence.  At the end of a tortuous weekend however, it was Shannon who moved out to her mother’s house, taking the children with her.  Before she did so however, she did call the police and she told them that Gareth was throwing her out of the house.

Six weeks later and Shannon has reported Gareth to the police on fourteen different occasions and has also managed to blacken his eye, break one of his fingers and attack him with a garden spade.  On each occasion, it was Gareth who was arrested and Gareth who was labelled the domestic violence perpetrator.  Shannon now has a collection of domestic violence workers visiting her on a regular basis and has already applied for a non molestation order on an ex parte basis, this eventually being thrown out of court by a Judge who appeared to see right through her.

Twenty weeks later and Social Services are involved with a full Child Protection Conference being convened.  Shannon has alleged sexual abuse of the children, Gareth’s time with his children is stopped, further investigations show that no such abuse has taken place.

Fifty weeks later Shannon shows up at Gareth’s house whilst the children are in his care, she is drunk and trying to get the children to go back to her home with her.  She accuses Gareth of being domestically violent towards her because he has persisted in court in his application for parenting time with the children.  The Freedom Programme is mentioned as evidence that he is abusing Shannon by taking her control over the children away from her.  Gareth calls the police when Shannon launches a roof tile at his car window, the police arrive and once again it is Gareth who is arrested.

Two and a half years later CAFCASS are involved and Shannon is asking for the parenting time arrangements to be changed yet again.  Gareth is hanging on to his health and well being by the skin of his teeth now, if it was not for the support that we have offered him things would be over and done with by now.  He remarks on several occasions that he is unsurprised by the oft quoted figure of 40% of fathers losing touch with their children after separation, how could they stay the course he wonders, we wonder how he has managed to survive this far and how much more he has the strength to cope with.

Gareth is one of the statistics that Liz Trinder, that very useful academic, wheels out on occasions where change in the family courts is being discussed.  Gareth is one of the 10% oft quoted as ending up in court and more than that, he is in the 1% involved in ongoing litigation.  Liz, as F4J have recently been pointing out, is convinced that these cases are absolutely those where dad is dangerous.

Far from being dangerous, Gareth has sustained several injuries to his person and several years of emotional, mental and psychological battering.  His experience however is unrecorded and remains invisible.  Where gender awareness should be, Gareth has been faced with gender bias, from the police who arrive at a ‘domestic’ and assume that the man is the perpetrator, to the social worker who assumes that Gareth’s desire to care for his children half of each week is evidence that he is a ‘dominator’.  Finally, CAFCASS arrive on the scene and instead of careful analysis and attention, a wishes and feelings report is commissioned which tells them all they need to know, the children want to live with their mum and time with dad is not really working for them.

The government have recently announced their consultation on the issue of changing the children act and this has lead to disappointment amongst father’s groups who will, I imagine, recognise Gareth’s journey as their own.  The disappointment seems to lie in the fact that the government have not, in the case of care for children, acted with the same degree of determination that has been shown in the reform of financial support for children.  In this arena too however, there is an opportunity for gender mainstreaming to be brought into play in ways that could immediately rectify the gender bias inherent in our service delivery and the appalling discrimination that is being meted out on a daily basis to dads like Gareth.

Gender mainstreaming in the arena of care for children would focus upon the services that support separated families and would ensure that the different experiences of mothers and fathers are recognised and met. It wouldn’t take a great deal of time, effort or cost to implement the same kind of gender mainstreaming that has underpinned the reform of the child maintenance system. And it would eradicate the kind of practice that leads to a male victim of domestic violence being arrested for reporting it and the kind of practice that assumes that dads are perpetrators simply for wanting to care for their children as well as provide for them after separation.

At the Centre for Separated Families we have been saying the same thing for the past twelve years.  Gender neutral services deliver gender biased outcomes.  Equality is not about treating mothers and fathers the same, it is about acknowledging and meeting their different needs, enabling them to overcome different barriers and about helping them to stay engaged with all of their parenting responsibilities after separation.

Whilst some fathers groups remain disappointed, there is in fact a real opportunity now to reform our family courts and our family services to ensure that whatever the change to the children act, the cultural change that is required to prevent other dads going on Gareth’s journey is brought into being.  Our contact with men and boys organisations show us that it is clear that much is going on to ensure that gender equality is being fought for  and it is vital now that we keep the pressure on for continued reform.

In other countries gender mainstreaming is a part of life and, in the UK, we should be utilising these tools on a routine basis to ensure that mothers and fathers can continue to remain engaged with their children before and after separation.  With that kind of work going on, Gareth might just survive and hang on to his relationship with his children.  Gender matters in family separation and it takes more than a picture of dad and a contact centre to ensure that dads like Gareth, who is absolutely not a Liz Trinder version of dad, but an ordinary, everyday kind of dad, can keep on keeping on despite being invisible, despite being frightened, bullied and silenced.

This is not about fathers’ rights and its not about mothers’ rights either, it is about gender equality and the different things that men and women need in order to keep on being the best parents that they can be.  When we get that right, we will get the balance right for mothers and for fathers like Gareth and most of all, for the children they are responsible for.

Parental alienation: part two – treatment routes

Parental Alienation, as a story of our time, is most often encountered in families where litigation is high and ongoing. Cases in the UK courts, which have dragged on for years, often end up intractable and at a complete stand still because no-one knows what to do.

When a child is alienated and the family is stuck in the court process, it is as if no-one dare to move.  The family ‘dance’, already broken by the separation process, has become frozen in time.  CAFCASS, ill equipped as they often are to understand or deal with the issue, can exacerbate the problem when it reaches this point, by pointing out the obvious, there doesn’t seem to be very much that anyone can do.  The child is in complete refusal, often accompanied by expressions of terror and high levels of anxiety about any prospect of seeing the rejected parent, the aligned parent is upholding the child’s position, sometimes deliberately, sometimes out of fear about what will happen next and the rejected parent is on the outside of the family dynamic, scapegoated, powerless and often angry.

The problem is that when the family dance has frozen in time in this way it is because the efforts that the family system has been making to adapt to the changes brought about by separation, have failed.  This is a family system in deep trouble and the child’s actions speak volumes.  If a rejecting child could say it in words it would go something like this –

the people I once loved and depended upon, the people who make up the whole of who I am, are angry with each other.  I seem to be the focus of that anger and it has fractured my sense of wholeness and wellbeing in the world.  I no longer know who I am and I am very very frightened.  For a while I tried to cope by switching my allegiance from one parent to the other and back again, now I can’t do that anymore because instead of making it better, it has made it much much worse. I cannot cope with going back and forth anymore and feeling the pull of the two separate parts of who I am.  Either one parent demands that I love them more or both parents demand that I love them individually more than the other.  One way or another, my health and well being are under too much pressure, I cannot cope anymore and so I am going to do what all human beings do when they are in this position, I am going to psychologically split and project all of the bad feelings onto one person and the good feelings onto the other.  When I do so I will feel much much better on the surface and my school performance will be excellent.  I will seek refuge in learning and behaving as well as I possibly can, so that the feelings of guilt, shame and horror, that I have buried deep inside me after making the agonising decision to choose one parent over the other is far removed from my consciousness.  I will deny that I feel anything other than fear of that parent and I will invent stories eventually to ensure that I am able to keep my strategy for staying safe in place.  If anyone tries to challenge me, I may invent more stories to explain my rejection and I may reveal these to the parent I have ‘chosen’ to be the good parent, because when I do, I get the feeling that this is welcomed.  Don’t push me back to that place where I could not cope with the feelings of being torn in two, don’t ask me to think about it, don’t even speak about it and all will be well.  Keep things just as they are, no-one move.

When I come to work with a family system that has been affected by alienation, the dance is almost always frozen in this way.  The freezing has also extended to many of the professionals who have been involved, who have also succumbed to the child’s desperate need to keep everything in its place.  Some professionals consider that therapy for the parents is the way to unfreeze the dance, others that the child should be given time to grow up a little bit. My take on it is that if we always do what we have always done in these situations, we will always get what we have always got, my first action is to do something different.

That something different is to take control and responsibility away from the child.  A child who has ‘managed’ the family system into this frozen state is a child in emotional and psychological danger.  Professionals who interview the child and support his ‘decision’ are not acting in the best interests of the child in my opinion, they are further burdening the child with a responsibility that he is unable to deal with.  The first action that I take, when working with children and families in these situations is to help the child to understand that from now on, I will be the responsible adult in the family system and as such, I will make the decisions and cope with the consequences of those.  In doing this for the child, I am enabling him to know that I understand, at a very deep level, that he has had to manage the adults and that from now on he doesn’t have to.  The next thing I do is to restart the relationship between the child and the rejected parent and continue this throughout all of the therapeutic work that I do thereafter.

This re-starting of the relationship can be remarkably straightforward when the child understands that there is an adult in the system who will carry the burden of coping with loyalty conflict for them.  Even the most terrified children, those who have acted as if they have a phobia of their rejected parent will, given the right kind of support, find that those terrors melt away and that the parent that they once loved is still there, still waiting for them.  Getting to that point of reunification however can be quite difficult, particularly if there serious issues to deal with such as personality disorders in a parent.  That is when it takes a court managed process to bring about change.

Understanding what kind of alienation is present in the family is my key task in any work that I do.  Whilst alienation of a child presents itself in a uniform way, the reasons for the presenting issues must be clearly understood before any remedy can be applied.  A case of alienation can be understood in several ways, the way that I understand it is as follows.

The case is ‘pure’ alienation if the child is severely rejecting, is exhibiting all of the signs of alienation and the aligned parent cannot work with me on changing behaviours because of a personality disorder.

The case is ‘hybrid’ if the child is severely rejecting, is exhibiting all of the signs of alienation and both parents have acted in ways that have caused the child to withdraw.

The case is ‘justified rejection’ if the parent who is rejected has caused the child to withdraw because of poor parenting, over demanding approaches or continued demands for loyalty.

This differentiation of alienation is taken from the work of Canadian therapists and researchers, all of whom have been significant in reformulating the work of Richard Gardener who originally gave the problem of rejection the name Parental Alienation Syndrome.

Whilst much work has gone on in the world to understand and deal with the problem of parental alienation, treatment routes in the UK are hard to find.  In fact it is difficult to find any therapists across the UK who are actively working in the field although there are many psychologists and psychiatrists who understand and recognise the problem.  In my most recent work with families, I have come to understand that, whilst my input is crucial to get relationships restarted, the most effective family ‘therapists’ are the parents themselves.  This is particularly true in hybrid cases, where the inability of the parents to adapt well to the changing family dance, has caused the problem in the first place.  Working with education, parenting co-ordination, therapy and facilitation of time spent between child and parent, in these cases it is possible to restore a functioning separated family system that frees the child to love both sides of their identity.

In cases where deliberate and malicious efforts on the part of one parent to eradicate the other have caused the rejection, strong and determined court intervention is the only way to liberate the child.

In my work I depend upon psychologists and psychiatrists to undertake an assessment in cases where I suspect that an aligned parent cannot work with me because of psychological barriers.  This formal assessment allows me to determine whether the aligned parent is capable of change with my help or whether they are in need of more long term therapeutic input. In cases where personality disorders are present, it is unlikely that the child will be released from their predicament without being released from the care of that parent.  This is when a change of residence can be most beneficial for a child.

In hybrid cases, those in which the behaviours of both parents have contributed to the frozen stance, a change of residence is not the first choice of treatment.  In these cases, it is necessary to enable both parents to change their behaviour and to move the family dance into a more functional adaptation from where it is possible to support the restarting of relationships.  In these cases, parenting co-ordination can often support a longer term, sustainable behavioural change that frees the child from the grasp of conflicted loyalties.

Finally, in cases where children are justified in their rejection of a parent, either through poor parenting or determined actions on the part of that parent, education, instruction and then a programme of supervised parenting time can enable a parent to change the behaviours that have caused the rejection in the first place.

In all of the treatment routes above, the parents are the key players and the court, where it is involved, becomes the super parent, holding the tension and the control over the family, whilst new behaviours are learned and put into practice.

The wild card of course in this is CAFCASS and the power it holds for good or bad to help the family to begin to unfreeze the dance and move on.  In too many cases CAFCASS cause not the liberation of the family system but the deep freezing of the dance so that no-one can move for many many years.  This is possibly not something that is done deliberately but it is definitely something that is done out of ignorance and the inability to understand the deeper dynamics of family change. With such a critical role to play in family separation, particularly in high conflict cases, CAFCASS should, in my opinion, be required to undertake the training that would enable them to identify very quickly where the family dance has frozen because of the phenomenon called alienation.

Treatment routes for parental alienation are not easy to find and where they can be found they are (as in our own case at the Centre for Separated Families), overstretched and limited by the lack of therapists who have the skill and the knowledge to work confidently with such families.  Richard Gardener said that therapists who do this work need to have the grit and determination to work against the prevailing family culture and the system in which it is located.  This is often, in my experience the hardest element to deal with, the fear and the frozen belief amongst professionals that to do something is worse than doing nothing.  What we know about children who are affected by alienation, however that alienation was arrived at, is that they do face difficulties as they grow older.  For children whose parents are  unable ever to address the difficulties that cause the family dance to freeze, this difficulty can last a lifetime, eroding relationships with both parents eventually and leaving them feeling like orphans. For that reason alone, doing something is most certainly better than doing nothing.

As the UK wakes up to the problem, we may find that treatment routes expand and that it becomes more possible to tackle the issue systemically in society as well as in the family itself.  I hope so and at CSF, we continue to work hard to develop the kind of training that can enable more therapists to understand and work with the issue so that we are increasing the treatment routes as well as providing them.

I firmly believe that one day, we will look back at the way in which we failed so miserably to provide the support to families as they go through separation in bewilderment and shame.  Someone said to me recently that the lack of support and the mess that it has caused families will be a similar national shame as sending children to Australia has become and I agree.  Family separation is one of the most distressing things that can happen in our society, that families freeze in their efforts to overcome the terror and uncertainty is no surprise.  As we move on, with a government who is, at least listening, I hope that we can begin to repair the generational damage and free families up so that they can dance again.

(This series of posts are based upon excerpts from a forthcoming book entitled ‘Understanding and Coping with Parental Alienation – a handbook for separated parents’  by Karen Woodall)

Next week – Helping yourself, helping your children, coping and managing rejection and healing the family system

Understanding parental alienation – part one

Parents who are afraid to put their foot down, usually have children who step on their toes… chinese proverb

Parental Alienation is a story of our time. It is a story of divorce and separation and of the lack of support that families suffer as they go through one of the most devastating life changes it is possible to face. It is also a story of a childhood gone wrong and of years stolen either by the deliberate and malicious actions of one parent against the other or of the inability of two parents to cope with change. Parental Alienation is an increasing phenomenon affecting many families and their children. Parental Alienation causes suffering, loss, grief and sorrow. However it happens, Parental Alienation blights the lives of those it touches.

The anguish of a parent experiencing estrangement from a child is akin to a living bereavement. Our expectations of parenthood, on the day that our children are born, is that our love and our care will suffice throughout the lifetime of our little ones and that as older people, we will see them fully functioning and happy in their own parenthood.

The parent whose child has become separated from them, not by geography or even through the divorce or separation from the other parent, but seemingly by the child’s own psychology, suffers greatly. Until the late seventies, the phenomenon of the alienated child or as Richard Gardener termed it in 1983, ‘The Parental Alienation Syndrome’, was largely unknown in psychological terms, although many parents were already likely to have experienced it by the time it was given a name. Today, the terms Parental Alienation and the Alienated Child have, as one High Court Judge said recently, ‘entered into the mainstream consciousness’ and can be recognised as a bona fide problem that must be addressed.

Parental Alienation is most often described as a deliberate effort to undermine and destroy a relationship between a child and a parent and is most often often carried out by ex partners who are hell bent on revenge. In the UK, where it is estimated that around 20% of the population are affected in some way by family separation, Parental Alienation is one of the biggest issues that can face separated families.

Badmouthing and brainwashing are, it would seem, behaviours that are common place amongst parents who are separated but it is usually the case that dads are the ones suffering the most from it. Statistically, more than 1.9 million dads are separated from the mother of their children and out of this number only 9 percent are the main carer for their child. For the rest, part-time relationships which are under the control of the other parent are more usual and with this comes the frustration and fear that this second best parent status may, in itself, erode the relationship that was once present between parent and child.

But this is not an issue which is wholly described by bad mouthing mums evicting dads from their children’s lives. Dads too can be the parent who influences a child to reject their other parent and the living bereavement that is suffered by dads is also the fate of some mothers. The Charity MATCH supports mothers who are living apart from their children and they are witness to the way in which mothers are not only suffering a living bereavement but are coping with feelings of shame and guilt at being rejected by their children.

Parental alienation is a spectrum experience in which children range from being mildly affected and struggling to cope with seeing both parents after separation to being severely and irrevocably alienated. Some children who reject a parent whilst very young, may take years to seek out that parent and reconnect. Others will find that when they do seek out the parent that they were alienated from, that parent has already died. In these cases the child, now usually a young adult, is the one to carry a sense of shame and unresolved guilt throughout their lives.

The issue at the heart of all of these experiences is that alienation in whatever form it takes, causes pain and suffering for parents and children alike. It is also something that can be intergenerational as patterns of upbringing are repeated when children become parents themselves. When parental alienation strikes a family therefore, it is necessary to put it right, to do something active rather than sit back and expect it to go away. In previous decades, divorcing parents were told that children would not be affected by the separation unless there was conflict involved and were exhorted to be on friendly terms for the sake of their children.

These days, with developments in neuroscience and our understanding of the way that the brain works, it is clear that children are affected by divorce and separation from one of their primary care givers and that what happens between parents after a separation is key to ensuring the well being of children over the longer term.

Our understanding of the child, living in a relational world has also increased alongside the need for both parents to possess a range of skills and tools to help children to cope and adapt to change.

It is, therefore, a curious paradox that whilst our understanding has increased, the incidence of problematic reactions to divorce and separation amongst children have also risen. Some of this is due to the social changes that have happened in recent decades, with fathers seeking a greater role in their children’s lives and wanting to continue that beyond a family separation. The days when it was considered normal for children to live with their mother and see their father for weekend ‘access visits’ are, it seems, long gone and more fathers than ever are seeking to have more time with their children and be more involved in every aspect of their lives.

This desire, for sharing of parenthood and continued involvement has lead to struggles between separating mothers and fathers over who is the dominant parent and who is not. Because of the gender roles that are still heavily proscribed for men and women in our society, mothers still assume that their major role is to care for children and many find it difficult to share this with fathers after separation. This refusal, leading to struggles between the parents inside and outside of the court arena leads to children being caught in the grasp of competing parental loyalty.

The belief that If I cannot love both then I must love one more than the other is the common undercurrent when working with children affected in this way.

This leads children to believe that –

the one that I love the most will be the one that I am with the most, or, conversely, the one that I am most dependent upon or most afraid of losing.

Wilf’s story

Wilf is ten years old, his mother and father separated when he was seven. Since that time, Wilf has spent two years living with his father during the week and his mother during each weekend, arriving at his mother’s home after school on Fridays and returning to his father’s home after school on Mondays. When Wilf turned nine, he began to find it difficult to leave his mother’s home and he would return there after school on Mondays for a couple of hours before his father collected him. Gradually, he began to ask his mother if he could stay with her on Monday nights too and his father, when asked agreed that he could. Both parents noticed during this period of time that Wilf was very quiet each time he arrived at their home. He would stay quiet and withdrawn for a couple of hours or more until gradually he would start to come around and be himself again. Over the summer holidays however, Wilf refused to return to his father on several occasions and kicked up such a fuss that his father decided that it would be better to leave him. His father was worried that Wilf’s mother was influencing him although she said that she was not. Things deteriorated until the end of the holidays when Wilf simply refused point blank to leave his mother’s home saying that he preferred living there and that his father was always angry with him.

One year on and several court hearings later and Wilf is still refusing to go back to his father. In fact now, he refuses to see his father at all. As the months have passed by, Wilf’s father has tried everything possible to persuade Wilf to see him, promising him trips away, presents and even a new pet. Wilf’s mother is equally worried, but for different reasons. Now Wilf is telling her that his father used to leave him at home on his own for hours on end and that his father would shout at him and become very angry. Wilf tells his mother that this is the real reason he will not see his father. The court hearings go on. No-one knows what to do. Wilf says he is terrified of his father and that if he has to go to see him, terrible things will happen. His father is heartbroken and powerless to do anything, his mother says she wants Wilf to see his dad but she cannot do anything when he is so terrified.

When you are in a room with a severely alienated child it is impossible not to know it. That is because the behaviours of the child are so out of keeping with what is really going on that it is clear that their reality has been distorted. Severely alienated children tell fantastic stories about the parent that they are refusing to see, from how that parent conspired to kill them when they were a baby, (which somehow they managed to remember), to how a parent is so evil that even god could not forgive them for what they will do. Severely alienated children can only see absolute badness in the parent that they are rejecting, whilst their other parent, the one that I call the aligned parent, is the very embodiment of goodness. No matter how often therapists or others try to help children in this state to gain some perspective, asking incredulous questions to challenge their certainty that the rejected parent is evil, they will stick to their story and repeat it mantra like over and over again.

One of the eight symptoms of severe or ‘pure’ alienation, is the telling of fantastical scenarios to support the rejection of a parent. I have heard many such tales, each carefully detailed and nurtured in the telling and retelling, all equally impossible and unbelievable and easy to disprove. No matter, when a child is in the severe stage of parental alienation, facts are irrelevant and the stories, if challenged will only escalate, clearly these children are trying to say something about their lives and their experience of their relationship with a parent.

The reality is that Parental Alienation in this form is quite rare and there are factors that are present that can help to determine whether the child is indeed being deliberately ‘poisoned’ by a parent. Parental Alienation is akin to a spectrum disorder, with a range of behaviours present in parents and their children that range from the mild and unconscious, to the extreme and conscious actions on the part of one parent against the other. In between these two polarities, lie a number of behavioural themes and actions that occur between parents and between children and their parents that can lead to the phenomenon called Parental Alienation.

The work of deepening an understanding Parental Alienation has been taken on by researchers across the world, most notably in Canada where Kelly and Johnson (citation) have done much to explore the nuances of children’s rejection and Fidler, Bala and Friedlander and Walters have all contributed to the development of a consistent approach to differentiating between the pure cases of alienation and those which have mixed or hybrid reasons behind it.

Elsewhere, in the United States, Warshak has continued to develop a strategic approach to reunification of alienated children with their parents through his Famiy Bridges Programme (citation) and Amy Baker Phd, has published her study of adults who were alienated as children, which has contributed to the understanding of the impact of alienation on children over their lifetime. In the United States, the debate rages on around whether Parental Alienation is a Syndrome that should be included in the DSM V, which is the Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders compiled by the American Psychiatric Association and as such the ‘bible’ for mental health professionals. Parental Alienation, however you define it or understand it, is something that is a live issue for many people experiencing family separation, for children whose families are changing and for those practitioners and professionals who work with them.

Wilf’s story therefore is not unusual and, whilst he remains trapped in his current refusal to see his father, the prognosis for future reconciliation with his father is quite good. If his father can step back and understand what has happened to Wilf and his mother can be helped to understand that Wilf is reacting to having to make the transition back and forth to his father, Wilf can, with collaboration between parents, be reunited with his father.

The problem is, that when two parents have separated, collaboration is the very last thing on their agenda. Instead of being able to sit down together, as they may have done when they were married, Wilf’s mothers and father only have their son to link them together. Wilf’s mother listens to him tell her that when he is at his father’s house he is left alone a lot of the time and this makes her very angry and worried about his wellbeing. Wilf’s father can only see that Wilf is rejecting him and refusing to see him. He assumes that this is because Wilf’s mother is deliberately preventing Wilf from being able to live with his father as he used to. Each parent consults a solicitor and soon, instead of sitting down together to talk, letters are flying back and forth making allegations and counter allegations of an increasingly hostile nature.

Time goes by, Wilf’s refusal to see his father deepens, no-one knows what to do about it. Each time Wilf is asked about seeing his father his resistance increases. Eventually his father gives up. Wilf will not see his father again until he is 27 years old.

Amy Baker, a Psychologist in the US writes about adults who, as children, rejected a parent after divorce and separation in her book called ‘breaking the ties that bind.’ The stories that are told in this book are heartbreaking. As adults, children who rejected a parent tell how they wished that someone had made them see the parent that they were rejecting, that they didn’t know why they were doing it and in some cases, once they had started they did not know how to stop. Others spoke of the deliberate campaign by one parent against the other that eventually forced them to reject a parent. Some talked of being told by one parent that the other no longer loved them, others said that they had hoped that their parent would come and rescue them. Some of the adults in Amy’s book, never saw their parent again. The average age of those who did reunite with a parent was 26.

Parental Alienation then, is a reaction in children that arrives after divorce and separation and causes the child to withdraw or reject a parent. The period leading up to the withdrawal is often the time when parents have the chance to put things right, unfortunately, because of the lack of communication between hostile parents, what happens is that things go very wrong and the alienation reaction escalates until the child is completely rejecting of a parent. Whether this happens because of the deliberate and malicious actions of a parent, or because of the conflict that continues between parents, the result is the same. A child refuses to see a parent.

A child who is withdrawn from one parent and aligned completely with the other, seeing the rejected parent as wholly bad and the other as wholly good is in a precarious place emotionally and psychologically. This is because the splitting in thinking, which is caused by such a withdrawal can remain in place for many years, causing not only the loss of a parent but of their wider family and friends and also, the loss of half of the child’s own identity. A child who splits off half of their identity and projects fear and hatred towards it, is a child who is storing up emotional and psychological problems for the future. As Amy Baker’s study of adults who rejected a parent as a child shows, lack of self esteem, guilt, shame and anxiety are only a few of the problems that have to be faced. The others are located in the the interpersonal relationships that the child will seek in the future. These can be catastrophic for the adult who was an alienated child, in terms of the way in which their expectations of other people remain split into wholly good or wholly bad. The rigidity of thought that comes with this kind of splitting, means that relationships are difficult because of the lack of understanding that other people are both good and bad and that people can do bad things without it meaning they are bad people. Intolerance in relationships is a common thing for alienated children as adults, as is the tendency to put people up on pedestals until they disappoint and are knocked down only to be rejected. Life as an adult, after being an child affected by alienation, can be incredibly difficult and it is therefore imperative, that, however the alienation is caused, treatment is found to remedy the problem. 

Next week – treatment routes and where to get them

(This series of posts are based upon excerpts from a forthcoming book entitled ‘Understanding and Coping with Parental Alienation – a handbook for separated parents’  by Karen Woodall)

Mother’s Day can be a painful reminder

When the daffodil trumpets start to open up, it’s time to think about Mother’s Day again. For many families, this is a day when children make cards and dads remember to take them shopping for presents.

For separated families, it can be a day that is as complicated as Christmas or birthdays. A special day that requires all the planning of a military campaign. For separated mothers who live apart from their children, Mother’s Day can be another painful reminder of what has been taken away, of what has been lost, of time passing by.

Mothers who do not live with their children after divorce or separation all share something in common; the trauma of loss and the silence surrounding their status. Some of that silence comes from mothers themselves, unable to talk about their situation for fear of judgement, but most of it comes from the society in which we all live. A society that conspires to believe that a mother who is not the main carer for her children is somehow not really a mother at all.

Just like non resident fathers, non resident mothers feel isolation, a lack of status and a deep unhappiness at the erosion of their relationship with their children. Unlike non resident fathers, however, mothers face the further pain of society’s disapproval, the unspoken question that hangs in the air. For, if a mother is not living with her children, she must have done something to cause that, mustn’t she?

But mothers who do not have any contact with their children, are just as deserving of their children’s cards, presents and love on Mothering Sunday – perhaps even more so. Mothers living apart from their children are often doing so because of incredibly difficult circumstances in which their choices about relationships with their children were taken away from them. Just like fathers who are alienated from their children after family separation, mothers living apart from their children are living with the dual grief of their loss and the knowledge that their children are unlikely to want to see them even if it were possible.

As we approach another Mothering Sunday, I would like to wish every separated mother a happy day. If you are lucky enough to be a separated mother with care of your children, spend a minute on Sunday to think about those mums and dads who are deprived of that role.

If you are a separated dad and it’s your time to be with your children, give up an hour or two of that precious time and help your children make their mother’s day. You may not love her anymore, but your children certainly do and will love you all the more for making it easy for them to show her that. Hopefully, when it comes to Fathers Day, she will remember and respect your efforts and help your children to do the same for you.

And if you are a mum who does not live with her children or who will not see her children on Mother’s Day for whatever reason, remember that there are people in our society who do not immediately assume the worst, people who understand the complexities of situations like yours, people who will be celebrating your motherhood with you.

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