Making Harm Visible: Alienation of Children in Divorce and Separation
30 October 2021, forwarded by Lena Hellblom Sjögren November 1 2021
The current polarized debate around the issue of alienation of children after divorce and separation has led to an upsurge in the story that parental alienation is only used by abusive fathers to maintain control of women and children. Whilst I have no doubt that the allegation of parental alienation is used on occasion, to achieve such outcomes, the idea that this is routinely used as a counter allegation to domestic abuse is not something I see in my work in this field. Therefore, as the family courts move towards greater transparency, I am hopeful that this will expose the reality of what is really happening in this arena, because behind closed doors, those who are really being harmed, are children. In terms of making that harm visible, I welcome the opening up of the family courts, because when the outside world can see what is happening to children of divorce and separation, real change will come.
The debate around the label parental alienation is vicious in the UK at the moment, with a widespread and concerted campaign being waged, on the one hand, on the premise that the family courts are misogynist and biased towards fathers and the other that they are misandrist and biased towards mothers. The focused attempt to demolish the credibility of the concept of parental alienation by one group, has led to a reactive campaign by the other which argues that parental alienation is a real thing. In the middle of this, the experience of alienated children is silenced and I find myself wondering, as this game of political tennis continues, where the recognition, of the harm which is done to children in these circumstances, has gone.
The issue of alienation of children in divorce and separation is serious, not from a parental rights perspective but because the child’s outright rejection is often a clear signal that something is very wrong in the family system. Behind the smoke and mirrors of the competing campaigns, the reality is that a child’s outright rejection of a parent is often the only visible symptom of the harm that the child is suffering. In my experience, that harm is not about the contact that the child has with a parent, it is about the relationship that the child has with the parent to whom they are aligned, a relationship which, when investigated, is seen to be causing the child harm. The severity of the harm being caused and the structural interventions necessary to prevent it, are the issues which the family court must grapple with –
In summary, in a situation of parental alienation the obligation on the court is to respond with exceptional diligence and take whatever effective measures are available. The situation calls for judicial resolve because the line of least resistance is likely to be less stressful for the child and for the court in the short term. But it does not represent a solution to the problem. Inaction will probably reinforce the position of the stronger party at the expense of the weaker party and the bar will be raised for the next attempt at intervention. Above all, the obligation on the court is to keep the child’s medium to long term welfare at the forefront of its mind and wherever possible to uphold the child and parent’s right to respect for family life before it is breached. In making its overall welfare decision the court must therefore be alert to early signs of alienation. What will amount to effective action will be a matter of judgement, but it is emphatically not necessary to wait for serious, worse still irreparable, harm to be done before appropriate action is taken. It is easier to conclude that decisive action was needed after it has become too late to take it.
The rejection of parent is a red flag of concern, as such it is the first symptom which alerts us to problems within the family system, which signifies that the child has come under immense pressure from somewhere. In ordinary circumstances, children do not divide their feelings into wholly good for one parent and wholly bad for the other and even when parents are highly conflicted, many children continue to be able to relate to both. The child who enters into the defence of psychological splitting therefore, in which their feelings for parents are divided into wholly good and wholly bad, is a child who is vulnerable and a child whose needs are not being supported by one or both parents. The task for anyone working with such families is to find out where the pressure comes from and what is hidden behind the need to pressure the child.
Hidden harmful parental behaviors which are seen to cause alienation of children range from subtle and intra-psychic enmeshing and intrusive parenting to coercive control and overt manipulation. Hidden harms which are caused to children by these behaviors range from mild attachment problems to shared encapsulated delusional disorders. What this means is that some children of divorce and separation, are suffering from serious emotional and psychological disorders, at the hands of their parents, and the red flag which alerts the outside world to this is the rejection and alignment behavior in the child who becomes alienated.
The campaign to reframe understanding of alienation of children and drag it back into the parental rights fight, is one which has a long history. Over the decades since divorce became more common place, campaigners have been notoriously simplifiying research and using it to bolster their campaign stance (Smart, Neale & Wade, 2001). This constant fight between men and women, does not support children and it does nothing to further our understanding of the long term harms that are caused when children become alienated, from their own authentic self first and then from a parent.(Johnston and Roseby, 1997). Whilst there is no doubt that some will claim parental alienation and some will claim domestic abuse, it is the role of the family courts to decide upon that and ensure that the focus is where it should be, which is on the needs of the child.
The current manufactured campaign in the UK, which seeks to reframe alienation as an abusive tool, is focused upon the rights of parents over the needs of children. As such it leaves a silent space where understanding of the needs of children should be. When the doors of the family courts are opened wider, I hope that the hidden harms of this pernicious form of child abuse, are made visible for all to see.
Johnston, J. &Roseby, V. (1997). In The Name Of The Child. New York: Free Press.
Smart, C., Neale, B., & Wade, A. (2001). The changing experience of childhood: Families and divorce. London: Polity Press