We are family – Oh no you’re not!

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Parental Alienation patterns are serious but not weird. They’re extremes of normal relationship spectrums. We know the inalienable experience of ‘being family’. We’ve had the unpleasant experience when that is shaken. This helps us understand the extremes of the alienation experience.

Being family means your love, loyalty and commitment are unconditional. Nothing can shake being family. Yes, there may be all kinds of imperfection and fall out. Even if you don’t really like each other, you still know this family love will keep going. When you’re family, at the end of the day you know you’ll be there for each other. And, if not at the end of a day, you can all be sure you will want to work something out eventually. You would do anything to keep it alive. You will work exhausting overtime for survival of your family relationships. This is inalienable family life.

Then something happens to shake up your undying loyalty. It feels life-threatening. You cannot believe it. It just isn’t going to happen. It cannot. It must not. It feels like a matter of life and death.


Being family, put like that, is the ancient pre-programmed attachment of parent and baby to each other. This deep trusting attachment repeats in our adult intimate relationships. Other life-long loyalties may be just as unshakeable. We find that same kind of loyalty to friends, work, football clubs, political parties and religious faiths, and other personal causes, places and things. Even when our team keeps losing – if we feel it’s like family – we grieve hugely but could never move our support to another club.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 15.08.13 Without going into private detail, I’ve seen this kind of undying attachment being shaken up in several places recently. Of course I feel a bit shaken up as a result. These examples are nowhere near as lasting or as bad as Alienation, but they help us understand it.

  • A close family relationship knocked back by friction with a newer partner – hurtful because everyone was trying so hard to make things right. And the fall out is testing the original family members to hold the old loyalties together.
  • In the general election, Scotland – but not loyal old me – has cruelly killed off its old loyalties in favour of the new kid on the block who promises so much.
  • A committed professional who deeply shared the same concerns as me, somehow find ourselves on different tracks … At least we now have some work to do to find the same tracks again.
  • And, by way of  a contrast to make the same point, our more distant family got together for once. A cousin had died. The distance means that some of us blood-relatives had not done a tiny fraction of the hard caring work through long years to support our difficult needy cousin as her (brother and his) non-blood-related spouse had. Here the outsider, his wife gave more unstinting undying loyalty and care than some of us family insiders did.

My description so far has been of a universal experience of being family, of an abiding secure set of relationships to be a home base you can rely on and return to – a safe base. I’ve said nothing about the infinite circumstantial and emotional variations there are. Being family means you take your family’s unique variations on board and just as much for granted too. Their family and community values become yours, their history of oppression and achievement, their social and economic class, your family’s particular way of functioning, of freeing support or of controlling power. All these come as part of your lot as children or your choice as partner. They become yours too.

These variations in being family are what make for very different outcomes … for example, when parents separate.

The most unexpected attachment loss

The point is to highlight the connection and contrast with that specific pattern that most profoundly shakes up the undying loyalty of being family: the extreme pattern we call Alienation. My recent experiences mean I have a degree more emotional understanding of it. My broader examples of attachment that gets shaken are on a spectrum. If these feel awful, they help us to see how much more awful the sudden living loss of your closest attachment must be for Alienated children and their parents. Assuming the Alienation is not complicated in advance by other alleged or real risks, here’s how it goes for the parents. What this hands out to the children is even more important, but I’m not going into that this time.

There’s the parent again with their utterly natural and undying love and loyal family commitment to their partner but especially to their own child. Yes, there are those stresses and strains that being family means that we put up with. This is that primordial version of complete ‘being family’ attachment between parents and with children.

Next, there’s the common but still terrible grief of couple relationship break down. Most separating couples make sure their child loses neither of their parents and wider families. But sometimes instead, a parent realises you face that entirely unexpected and shocking loss, or fear of loss, of your total undying relationship with your child. Being family with them can no longer be taken for granted.

I think that description so far is what BOTH parents in an Alienated separated family experience. What they do about that dreadful fear is then different and completes the division that makes separation become Alienation. One parent does everything to hold on to their child and to get the other parent out of their lives. The other parent didn’t see that coming and is left wondering what on earth has happened. Turning to find help may leave them no further forward. The nightmare doesn’t stop.

Remember that, however awful this is for parents, it is more complicated and damaging for the children. We have not covered that angle here. The term Child Alienation better reminds us of that priority.

Oh no you’re not!

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“Oh no you’re not!”

So for one parent and child their attachment goes into a weird melodramatic parody of extreme loyalty and attachment. For the other parent, their previously solid ‘We are family’ feeling shockingly evaporates. ‘Oh no you’re not’ the pantomime audience now shouts. The undying loyalty shakes and faces its demise. As the desperate struggle develops to hold onto your child, and as legal and other agencies join in, then polarised views and allegations tend to grow not lessen. Bewilderingly, life does go on and, so it seems, could ‘being family’. If only.

If only … what? That’s what we are here to keep finding out.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

One comment

  1. Alienated Parent

    “It’s funny how sometimes the people you’d take the bullet for, are the ones behind the trigger.”


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