Myrna Gower: A Thousand Tiny Poisonous Needles

MyrnaGower Myrna’s presentation was mainly to share a client’s voice through his emails to her about his enduring experience of contact with his children while they remained actively alienated in all their interactions with him. Myrna described her work, drawing on Linda Gottleib’s ideas of repositioning the alienated parent from victim to “reprogrammer” of his or her children. The very personal material can only be shared partly here.  Click here for Myrna’s trimmed down paper. Myrna Gower is a systemic family psychotherapist with many years of experience in clinical practice, teaching and consultancy. After completion of her Doctoral Research on Parenting Adult Children, Nick Child introduced her to Amy Baker’s research with adult children and parental alienation. This led to her close participation in SSoPA using the group for ongoing consultation on clinical cases. In her position as an honorary research fellow at Royal Holloway University of London and on being invited by Anna Gupta to begin formative research and writing on parental alienation, a larger study is now anticipated.

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5 comments

  1. Thanks Myrna – and Rob – for this sharing of your work at the conference and here. Rob’s words as your title accurately describe the experience. It seems to me an important task – here on a public blog even more than the conference – to receive and respect such a challenging personal experience for you both, as client / parent and as therapist. But also to be able to follow lines of discussion that may be valid generally but not helpful to you and Rob in particular.

    I’ve just been reading Pamela Roche’s, Broken Lives Broken Minds, her nightmare account of having her two sons alienated from her, Your paper shows how alienation can continue in force even when a rejected parent has a fair amount of care and contact with them. We often talk as if preventing a child being isolated from their other parent is the end of the story. Rob’s children sound like they get actively ganged up when they are all together, with some signs of how, on their own, at least some of them can show more normal feelings. I guess having less of a gang coming to stay has been thought about.

    Despite my campaigning interest in alienation, I feel ill-equipped to know how to help clients faced with direct rejection like this. I wonder about more ordinary things like which nightmare would be worse – absent and distant rejection, or constant face-to-face rejection? The touch-stone – of thinking of the children’s welfare above all else – gives some answers: It’s not primarily about the parent’s experience however terrible that may be. And: it must be better for the children’s welfare in the long term to sustain the contact with the rejected parent even as the children continue to demolish that parent. As you describe, Rob’s time with the children is the opportunity to be himself with them, and do something about how they are. Others have written about this challenge; has Rob found resources that work best for him? Apart from Linda Gottlieb, where do you and Rob recommend I turn to learn how to help clients like him?

    Taking ‘systemic’ to include the possibility of doing even more active interventions and advice than talking (and emailing) as you have, I was thinking about all the ways across the world that professionals may play a part in other places (than their therapy room). Have you thought of meeting Rob with his children? Not all at once, I reckon! In principle if not in reality, who might do what to influence the wider systems who also spend time with the children (and their mother), or who have shorter but key opportunities to influence things (e.g. teachers, GP, even the legal system)? OK, a therapist might have a primary responsibility to support their client. But how might we / you take the established responsibility for the others in the system who we hear about and who may be at risk of harm? Might there be socially and clinically responsible ways to provide or recruit more concrete communications and reports with ideas or recommendations around the family system? Whether the children are distantly or directly rejecting their parent, we work to ensure the parent is in a good state for when the children think for themselves and come back to their rejected parent, and we work to find appropriate ways that might help the children begin that process earlier. Warshak’s Family Bridges programme in the USA is used to enable the final step of changing residential parent. Amy Baker has publications and runs school-based programmes to coach children in “not having to choose” one parent over another. Might these provide material for extra more or less general projects around children like Rob’s so that it is not so painfully all on his shoulders?

    I hope that others can provide some answers to these questions for all of us to use.

    Nick

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  2. Gangs of Alienated Children: Some Guest Comments

    We are privileged to have links with leading thinkers in this field. They could not have been more supportive and friendly. We asked for their general advice on situations where two or more alienated children “gang up” against their rejected parent. Their comments are general. They may not be appropriate or fit for any particular family.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    Professor Bill Bernet, MD, Nashville, Tennessee wrote:

    I’m sure we have all seen this phenomenon. Usually it is the oldest child who is the gang leader and influences the siblings.

    Generally the rejected parent would benefit by seeing the children in smaller groups, perhaps the older ones some of the time and the younger ones at other times. Recovery from parental alienation involves some time for the children apart from the alienating parent or whoever else is contributing to the alienation. It makes sense to have younger children see their rejected parent without the influence of the older siblings who may be most contributing to the alienation.

    If possible, the eldest or most alienating child could always see the rejected parent by him or herself. Not only might it improve the visits of the other less actively alienated children, but it also might improve the relationship with the eldest child. If seen alone, the most alienated child would no longer have an audience to perform for. Without the younger children, he or she would no longer feel the obligation of keeping up the aligned parent’s agenda. Also, he or she would be alone and might actually come to enjoy the undivided attention from the rejected parent after a period of time.

    In any case, larger numbers of children are a whole lot of kids for one parent to parent all at the same time. In an intact home, the two parents are likely to divide the kids up on any given day. It seems more like a normal household to just have some of the large group of kids at any one time and not all of them.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    Dr Hamish Cameron, Child Psychiatrist, London

    Aligned children in a family can “gang up” and behave in a hostile manner when first reintroduced to their other parent. Expert professional family & child guidance helps the rejected parent through those difficult weeks and months until the children are emotionally reunited with him or her. The following points are worth remembering:

    – It’s a ‘normalising’ triumph, for the children, when frequent and regular contact is re-established with their rejected other parent.
    – The rejected parent should be encouraged to behave cheerfully & positively as if he or she does not notice anything at all untoward about their children’s grumpy behaviour towards them.
    – A whole family experience from other members of the family helps soften the alienated children’s resolve to follow the ‘hatefulness-doctrine’ they’ve been taught. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the children’s cousins on the other parent’s side, provide a wider family group when the alienated children are staying. The rejected parent should ask the adult members of their family for this type of support.
    – Divide and rule. In a large family group, it is natural (within the family home) for one child to go off with the grandmother, another with the grandfather, the third with an aunt or uncle and cousins, giving the rejected parent an opportunity to get to know each of their several children in turn without the others watching (and reporting back to the resident parent!).
    – Remembering how the children used to be in the past, and being aware of their interests now from feedback from their schools, the rejected parent should organise activities and outings (such as going to watch a Christmas play or a rugby or football match) so that each child, in turn, knows that it’s an occasion chosen with that particular son or daughter in mind. However, never rub it in that that’s what you’re doing!

    The gang of children sullenly challenge their parent saying “Now you’ve got us here, what are you going to do with us?” That sullen question needs answering by deeds that absorb the children within their extended other family. No mention of their life with their favoured parent should ever cross the rejected parent’s lips while the children are with him or her.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    Richard A. Warshak, PhD
    Building Family Bridges
    http://www.warshak.com
    http://www.warshak.com/blog

    I address the issue of siblings who are alienated from a parent in my book, Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing. Although each case must be decided on its own merits, in general I recommend that rejected parents in this situation consider the option of seeing their children on an individual basis rather than as a group.

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  3. Nick, you have raised so many important questions in your earlier commentary. I reflect on many and choose just one for the moment to discuss.

    Thank you for acknowledging the almost unimaginable experience of direct rejection by Rob’s children and the relentless barrage that seems to offer little respite.
    Absent and distant rejection or constant face-to-face rejection is indeed Hobson’s choice. If we asked targeted parents which situation they thought to be the more difficult, my guess would be that they would all agree that what was unbearable was the situation that they were in.

    We centre the welfare of the children. We know how much hard work has to take place in order to establish contact between children and their alienated parent. On this account I see this as on a continuum with ‘absent and distant rejection’ (no contact) at one end of the continuum and ‘reunification’ at the other. I would venture to say that constant face-to-face rejection is a step forward from absent rejection and so would be further along on that continuum moving towards reunification.

    With this idea in mind, I argue that all targeted parents and their children will experience absent and distant rejection as well as face-to-face rejection albeit at different levels of intensity and for shorter or longer periods in attempts to attain reunification.

    As Rob begins to experience small moments of success (incidents to which most parents would pay no attention) he is recognising his movement forwards (small as it is) and says that he realises that he is ‘luckier’ than parents he reads about who have no contact with their children. He feels he is further ahead than they are. He says that at least he has some leverage in spite of wanting to ‘chuck it in’ so many times. I am reminded though that he has of course that unimaginable struggle ahead as he has to face the ongoing poisonous needles to which he has to try and pay no attention.

    Myrna

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  4. Both Dr Hamish Cameron and Professor Bill Bernet both make the case for the beneficial importance of seeing the children in smaller groups or individually. Professor Bernet is clear that recovery from parental alienation involves time for the children to be apart from the alienating parents or whoever else is contributing to the situation.

    The dilemma facing work with this case is that the mother will not allow the children to be separated. She believes that the children are at risk if not protected by each other with the eldest boys taking particular charge. When with Rob they are in constant touch with their mother on their mobile phones often asking to counter Robs instructions.

    It is this dilemma of their mutual loyalty that has led to thoughts of gang-like behaviour as a way to bring meaning to the father’s powerful rejecting experiences.

    In sharing this idea with Rob he was in no doubt that his former wife was part of the gang, in fact the leader, with each of the children appropriately accountable to the hierarchy in the ‘gang’ that has become age organised. There was little doubt for either Rob or myself that his eldest son resembled ‘a gangster’ although for me the jury is still out on who belongs to the gang and who is leading.
    This metaphor will be pursued in search of ways to dissipate the gang. In the mean time I guess I have to expect ongoing warfare.

    Myrna

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  5. Pingback: The quick and the slow | the alienation experience

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