Do you find the word ‘alienation’ off-putting?
You are not alone if you struggle at first to make friends with the word ‘alienation’. Social alienation has a much longer history in academic fields than recent use in personal family relationships. For families for whom we want the best, it can seem a rather brutal blaming word. It sounds like a permanent and final state of affairs. In fact there are over fifty counter-intuitive off-putting hurdles that the newcomer has to overcome. Those unfortunate enough to be thrown in the deep end by being directly affected by Alienation have no choice but to learn about it, though they often don’t know that word for it at first.
This page is to help you get used to the word and a range of its appropriate uses more slowly. It is not to encourage using the word where there are dozens of better ones (see Footnote below). This short essay also shows a wider application of the pattern. Some of the other terminology needs a bit more chewing over too (e.g. negative terms like Narcissistic Personality Disorder that gets used for the favoured parent of an alienated child).
To begin with the obvious, generally any concern with any alienation implies that people think it is not a good thing. We would all hope to repair or prevent alienation, even to promote its opposite: befriending. Of course we cannot all expect to be friends or even friendly all the time. But we can generally hope (when we need to) to stay in a good enough relationship to sort something out. So the reluctance to use harsh terminology is reasonable given the aim to prevent or repair alienation and alienated relationships. Diplomats and therapists especially know – and we all know – that blaming or negative labels and name-calling are most likely to confirm and polarise things further – to alienate people even more. So why use these names at all?
Hard words for the hard end
The people who are keen to use the strongest words to describe these situations – situations where it seems that all efforts have failed to stop it – include those who have experienced extreme kinds of alienation in their families. For them it has been terribly real and to find a name for it is hugely helpful. Professionals too want a strong name for what they see in working with alienated children and families where one parent is rejected for no good reason and the other favoured and influential parent cannot see the awful outcomes for their children in particular. The harm amounts to serious emotional abuse so strong labels underline that something is seriously wrong and something more has to be done. So urgent awareness and intervention look to be more of a priority than kindness and understanding.
To highlight how serious things are, and to build interventions, capitalised words like Alienation have their uses. They help to make the point in publications and in court assessments where Judges have to make decisions about which parent is best to be the main carer of the children. The literature is still mostly found under the heading Parental Alienation. A valid reason for making it a psychiatric syndrome in DSM and ICD is that, unless it is in these diagnostic Bibles, at least as a relationship label (‘V’), it will not be taught to mental health and other helping professions. So professionals will remain unaware and it will continue to be dismissed as insignificant or nonexistent, especially in family courts.
Many now drop the ‘Syndrome’ tag, even in family courts, choosing more nuanced headings and thinking about the behaviour patterns in each case in terms of the child’s welfare. To those who don’t know how serious this pattern can be, strong terms can have the opposite effect: they put people off when wider awareness is also urgently needed. This website hopes to engage more people by broadening the spectrum of alienation.
If you need any convincing that there are harmful effects on children, take half an hour to view this video of adults describing their childhood experiences of alienation. Or read Pamela Roche’s raw and gripping story Broken Lives Broken Minds of having her sons internationally alienated from her – gripping means it won’t take you long to read it. The story highlights how legal and professional incompetence can ride in on ignorance and poorly qualified authority while actually this multiplies dangerous and expensive abuses on children and families. It is a case study comparison of how some countries rate concrete labels – when they suit one’s own cause – and professional help as essential signs of good care and treatment, while other countries and cases do better to avoid all that. If you want an example of the endlessly expensive and admitted failure of UK family courts to help alienation cases that shows that something better must be found, take half a minute to download and half an hour to read this (2013) Appeal Judgement of a case. Alienation is hardly mentioned but the pattern and the failures couldn’t be clearer. The family courts see but are blind to what to do – aided by the ignorance of many of the assisting agencies – so that the whole of a childhood is blighted. Actually, the girl here must in some ways know well that her father loves her because of his dedicated pursuit through courts. But this is a completely crazy way to do things. This blog is dedicated to ending the ignorance. Lastly here is Mr Justice Munby’s long and honest thinking on the courts’ failure in intractable family cases. But somehow change does not arrive – that judgement was in 2004 (for a quote, see footnote). All these are cases that even the best systems might not have prevented reaching the hard end of the scale.
This hard end of Alienation is what motivates those in the field of high conflict separations and Child and Parental Alienation. It is also what particularly motivates us here on this blog. Therapists and professionals need to be aware of this hard end of things. Even if you are not directly involved in the hard end and the courts, being unaware of the pattern will mean that you are likely to be unwittingly helping to make the Child and Parental Alienation worse.
It is clear we need to engage as many people and professionals across the board as possible to learn about this. That means we need to overcome any alienation caused by the word ‘alienation’ itself. So this Not sure about? page is to help overcome any resistance to the harder terms by exploring milder kinds of alienation across a wider spectrum of contexts. This also shows that milder versions of alienation are found in other contexts and may be helped by the idea (e.g. in other therapy or work with families).
The exercise is this: You can look at all kinds of relationship situation and ask: How far can this be called alienation? The definitions fall on a scale between common meanings and special meanings, from ‘a’ <——> ‘A’.
A dictionary definition of the ordinary word alienation is: A withdrawing or separation of a person or a person’s affections from an object or position of former attachment. The implication is that there is loss of contact and communication. This general picture makes alienation a rather passive experience – no one actively makes it happen. Contrast the specific definitions below where someone makes the process very active – so alienation can be sustained within continued close contact. There are various common meanings that we are all free to use as we like.
Note that any word that we chose to mean what alienation means will, by definition, include that it seems a rather permanent state. If alienation was just a passing phase, it wouldn’t be called alienation. The word alienation is just a messenger doing its job, so don’t shoot the messenger! Just because alienation has this quality of seeming to be permanent does not mean that we are going to let it continue. It’s apparent permanency makes it more serious, and challenges us more to do something about it. But there are different situations, contexts and severity, so that different sorts of response or intervention need to be considered. The different terms reflect this. Back to definitions:
Here is a general health orientated account of alienation. For centuries, theologians, philosophers, sociologists and psychologists have written variously about social alienation. Mostly this academic thinking is less interpersonal, more to do with the state of the individual being cut off from society than with specific personal relationships. Well known fields with more specific meanings for alienation are: Karl Marx’s theory of alienation (cut off from aspects of our human nature because of society’s class structures) and psychiatric (the experience of alienation as a symptom of major mental illness or in psychoanalysis). Nevertheless, a Google search for ‘alienation’ mostly brings up Parental Alienation.
A typical definition of specifically Child and Parental Alienation is: A family pattern most strikingly (but not only) found in the context of high conflict separations, where a child is shaped into totally rejecting the other parent and their tribe, even though the child previously had, and could still have, a safe and valued relationship with them. The chief concern is serious harm ensues for the child.
Parental Alienation is the most commonly used term – often with ‘Syndrome’ added – so we have to get used to using it with our several reservations about it. The reason why Child Alienation is a better term is that it is the child who is turned away or alienated from the once good relationship with their other parent. The rejected parent is a target and may certainly feel alienated in the more common sense of the word. But it is the alienation of the child and their welfare that is what parents, professionals and the law should make the priority. More often the high emotions of blame and defence are between adults and their – understandable but – more self-centred positions. This blog keeps the child at the centre of our thinking. In a more complex multifactorial situation, we can avoid inflaming things with labels like ‘the alienator or alienating parent’. Other phrases are possible: “favoured or aligned parent of the alienated child” and “rejected or targeted parent of the alienated child”.
The ‘relevant features’ definition below is constructed to lie between the common meanings and still close to the hard end Child and Parental Alienation definition. The definition is more specific than common meanings – e.g. three parties are involved where common meanings might apply to one or two party situations. Even slightly broadening the meaning and context like this opens our eyes to see alienation by many other names everywhere. Pick up almost any narrative – real ones in families, communities, media or therapy, or fictional ones in mythology, drama or literature – and you will find this three-person pattern, in imposed or chosen plots, of love, jealousy and secrets, triangular predicaments of divided love and loyalty, that enrich or drive the story.
A features definition of the alienation pattern
Here’s a list of the relevant features chosen to give a slightly broader description of an alienation pattern – but one that is still accurate for hard end Alienation too. This definition is just for this exercise; it is not an authoritative or absolute definition.
- The pattern involves at least three parties who had all been close beforehand
- One person turns a second against a third in a lasting way without good reason
- Previously there had been a close and good enough set of relationships (usually culturally valued, family and longstanding)
- The alienation is created through recurring patterns kept up over a longer period, not just one or two passing instances.
- Once created, the alienation is also long lasting. If something can be done to prevent it or repair it fairly quickly or easily, then it is not alienation.
- There is no good reason shown for the estrangement. If real risk exists and is proven, that is a good reason for estrangement. Sorting out true allegations from false ones can be a big headache.
- Intentionally or unconsciously, a range of powerful coercive, emotional or strategic methods is used by the first person
- Typically just one overwhelmingly strong and needy person does this, usually a parent (even though their tribe may soon join in to support them too)
- The first person operates within a framework that “it’s for the second person’s own good” but actually it can be seen to be more to do with the first person’s own inner needs and fears.
- In effect the second person responds mostly for the first person’s sake. If the second person is a child, this is a role reversal with the parent who should be the carer of the child.
- The second person has by definition relatively less power and is in a more dependent or vulnerable or needy or sensitive position (e.g. they’re still a dependent attached child)
- The second person seems fully persuaded at the time … they express their full loyalty and agreement to the first, often professing that it’s also their own choice in turning against the third person
- At a later time, the second person may realise and talk of how they were coerced into both the loyalty with the one and the rejection of the other.
To warm you up, here’s a handful of scenarios where a person turns another away from a third, situations with better descriptions than alienation.
- Parents bring their children up to play in non-sexist non-violent ways with similarly minded family friends but other friends – with the help of TV and advertising – turn them away to join the majority’s values.
- Maisie is picked up by soft-hearted Grandpa from school and she uses the opportunity to try to persuade him to only take her out to play later without her little brother joining them as had been planned.
- An attractive workmate befriends and has an affair with a married colleague. Eventually they move in together.
- The leader of a cult or of an exclusive religious or political sect gets someone to join up, requiring them to reject their former family and friends. Later they need skilled help to get back out and recover.
1 A family with teenagers.
The parents of their teenager don’t approve of their new peer group of friends (“They’re a bad influence”). Maybe they disapprove of the new boy or girlfriend and their family too (“Everyone knows what the Smiths are like!”). The parents cannot help show their feelings to their teenager. They move from talking it through to more coercive persuasion. Finally they put their foot down with ultimatums to their child to not have any more to do with those friends.
So: How far is this example a kind of alienation? The teenager sees the new friends and boy/girlfriend as important and desirable company. The friends are positive, interesting and safe, the teen will argue, against the parents’ campaign to stop them. The parents increasingly coerce their child to the point of using all their position and methods to achieve it. They say it’s very much for the teenager’s own good.
However, this doesn’t really fit into the ‘features definition’ of alienation: If the new friends are so new, then they are not previously close or part of a family friendship. So there has not been a previous close three-way relationship with them from which the parents’ alienation turns them. And – and this is the hard to resolve core of the dispute of course – if the new friends are in fact a real risk to the teenager (think street-grooming gangs here), then there may indeed be a good reason for parents to try to stop the relationship. This would not be alienation but good parenting or ‘justified estrangement’. Of course, the teenager may be right about the friends, and – in a more ordinary meaning of the word – feel s/he has indeed been alienated from them.
Then we can point to a more healthy, straightforward disagreement or argument going on. Most parents will use open forms of influence with their growing teenager (“Let’s keep talking about this please”), not twisted kinds of coercion (“You don’t know how upset you’ve made me!”). If the teenager complies with the parents’ constraints, the teen will be grumpy and honest about their actual views, not genuinely professing active loyalty to the parents. That is, the teenager has been persuaded to obey behaviourally, not to truly agree their parents’ rationale. Finally we note – in contrast to typical hard end Alienation – this example shows a pair of parents operating constructively together not one powerful rather disturbed individual. However, given that tribal unity does gather, it is entirely possible that one strong personality can recruit their partner onto their alienating side.
It is common wisdom, of course, given that teenagers may be healthily set on independence and rebellion against parents, that the parents may find that biting their tongue is the best policy, allowing their child to grow up in their own way and find out for themselves if their choice of friends or partner is a good one. Of course, the conflict may well reappear later in the very familiar tension around “the in-laws”. But meanwhile, this kind of love and respect in judging what is best despite conflict and rebellion, is a hallmark of healthy relationships that contrast with the more troubling aspects of cutting off and alienation. That is, the tongue-biting parents are not ‘pathologically’ coercive; they promote independence, positive separation and growing up while their relationships survive, adapt and move on in a positive and even loving way.
2 An enforced abortion
A young woman gets pregnant. Unplanned maybe, but she is very keen to have the baby. She has a powerful, troubled and troubling mother, ever enthusiastic for drink rather than getting help for herself. Her mother is also the potential grandmother of the unborn baby. This grand/mother is powerfully keen the young woman has the pregnancy terminated. She exerts every emotional trick in the book to coerce her daughter. Her daughter is, in the end, persuaded and she gets the abortion. Later, she changes her view, sees how her mother coerced her, and regrets her choice. She later sees that her first bout of clinical depression and her serious drug abuse followed the termination forced on her by her mother.
OK, a pregnancy is for sure a very new kind of three-way relationship. But there is no doubting that it is generally a close and potentially enduring life long relationship for this family group of three. Grand/mother and daughter are in conflict about whether there are or are not good reasons for this irreversible alienating abortion. But there are widely accepted good reasons to have the baby – large numbers of unplanned babies are born, and born to single mothers too. The daughter was only reluctantly persuaded, but at the time she was agreeable enough.
Overall, this situation seems close enough to count as alienation. It mostly fits the list of features above.
3 An aborted family home
The same actual family as in 2 (above) but some years later. The daughter is not so young and now does have two thriving and loved young children to short-lived relationships with their fathers. She has a promising relationship with a man who has his troubles but is basically loving and loved by her and her children. He doesn’t communicate with his mother much. They slowly build careful plans ahead to move in together to a completely new home. On the morning they move in, both her mother and his mother turn up and create a double whammy of a scene that ends up with her and her kids out of what was about to become their house and home, out onto the street with their property left inside. He enters a withdrawn, disturbed, drugged and uncommunicative state for a very long time after. He seems rather more than ‘alienated’. The woman still has dreams of her lost love. The children ask for him. The couple have (after more than a year) not been able to communicate or repair the breach despite efforts on her side. He remains off-putting to her. There are stories of his mother’s coercive and controlling pattern with his brother as well.
Here both the grown up partners had failed, when planning to move in properly, to take into account the extraordinary disturbed and coercive alienating powers of their mothers. What happened, it seems, was a double coincidence of instant alienation of the couple from each other. The grand/mothers were not in a previous close relationship with their adult children’s respective partners. But they certainly knew that this was a significant relationship that threatened their own. They showed a determined focused and effective intention to destroy the couple’s future plan together. Again the adult children were in surprise and disarray rather than expressing any great loyalty to their mothers’ intervention – neither seemed happy to be knocked sideways like this. But they had no clue of how to withstand them. The incident itself seems more of a strangely coincidental one-off, not to do with an established four-cornered family relationship. But, on both sides in retrospect, the separated partners could reflect on life long patterns of alienation before and since, and become more aware of their mothers’ overwhelmingly strong and needy personalities (perhaps even use the term Narcissistic Personalities). With that new awareness, they might be better prepared in future at similar points of making significant life plans.
[The client in 2 and 3 gives her permission to share the stories]
4. Nobbling the witness
Awake in the early hours, a neighbour sees a couple of burglars break into a nearby old friend’s house and leave with bags of loot too quickly for the police to catch them. Her evidence helps bring the case to court. But before that she gets several anonymous phone messages making threats if she doesn’t withdraw as the key witness. Frightened off, the case falls through and the burglars are not brought to justice. The neighbours are not able to stay friends.
This story fits some of the features of alienation including the coercive control. While there are other ways to describe it, there are noteworthy similarities with Child and Parental Alienation which also comes to court:
- The role of the child’s voice in family courts – even though it is not meant to – makes the child into a key witness (like the neighbourhood watcher).
- The child is subject to much more subtle but enduring and profound pressures (than the neighbour was) about what they should loyally say in or for the court.
- Lastly, the anonymous callers, the burglars or their mates, are not charged or convicted. But. even so, we don’t work too hard to find sympathetic names for them. We don’t say: “You mustn’t call them ‘burglars’. They’re society’s victims making a living”. In other words, when we are sure enough that something bad is happening, negative labels are normal even though someone also needs to legally represent the burglars, to understand them and help them find better lives. So too, when we are sure something bad is happening in Alienated families, some negative labelling may be permitted if not necessary.
There is no rulebook on what gets called alienation. This is an exercise too, not a rulebook. But hopefully this definition and these examples of thinking it through show the value of the concept in other contexts than the usual seriously hard end of high conflict separations, family courts and Child and Parental Alienation.
These examples help differentiate the elements that go to make up that fullest version of alienation: Child and Parental Alienation. All four examples more than fit the common meanings of alienation. They don’t fully fit the usual definition of hard end Alienation. The two real case examples do seem to fit the ‘features’ definition.
Perhaps this exercise highlights that the key distinguishing feature is in the degree to which the second person, i.e. the Parentally Alienated child, so completely owns and professes their loyalty and rejection, often to the point where they insist that they thought it up for themselves. In the four examples, the second person behaves loyally, but they do not reach that extreme degree of professed loyalty shown by a fully Alienated child. However, later on an Alienated child typically will say: “But I had to do it for my [favoured parent], and [the rejected one] should have known I didn’t mean it.” The examples all fit this key point, but they differ in the degree or timescale of the underlying true feelings showing up.
If this little essay has helped you become more gently familiar with the idea of alienation etc, hopefully you will be readier for the hard end of it too.
Footnote – Please don’t over-use ‘alienation’
This blog is not about promoting the over-use of the term ‘alienation’. There are dozens of good words to describe situations that are part of ordinary life. These do not need to be called alienation. For example: feeling lonely, friendless, bereft, changing your mind, persuasion, disagreeing, being in conflict, not seeing eye to eye, being offended by, at odds with, not liking someone’s views or lifestyle, falling out with, falling out of love, falling in love with someone else, losing touch, living at a distance, finding someone to be weird or strange, can’t bear being with, being nervous or scared of, being too busy with other things, forgetting about someone, moving on in your life, growing up, losing interest in, give up trying to get through to, missing someone or something, realising you’ve stopped thinking about, developing new hobbies and relationships, and so on. We should use these kinds of phrases if possible rather than ‘alienation’.
Remember again the whole point of anyone’s concern about alienation: We want to try to prevent it or repair it. To illustrate that point, note the opposite of alienation in the story of the film ET. In that film, a card-carrying alien is befriended by a self-possessed young child and this – through the film – then leads the whole world to befriend ET. In the end though, ET itself decides it wants to go home to its own kind. (… I hadn’t realised that ET has no gender!)
By Nick Child, Nov 2014
Footnote: Quote from Mr Justice Munby  EWHC 727 (Fam)
… Those who are critical of our family justice system may well see this case as exemplifying everything that is wrong with the system. I can understand such a view. The melancholy truth is that this case illustrates all too uncomfortably the failings of the system. There is much wrong with our system and the time has come for us to recognise that fact and to face up to it honestly. If we do not we risk forfeiting public confidence. The newspapers – and I mean newspapers generally, for this is a theme taken up with increasing emphasis by all sectors of the press – make uncomfortable reading for us. They suggest that confidence is already ebbing away. We ignore the media at our peril. We delude ourselves if we dismiss the views of journalists as unrepresentative of public opinion or as representative only of sectors of public opinion we think we can ignore. Responsible voices are raised in condemnation of our system. We need to take note. We need to act. And we need to act now. [Written a decade ago].