Monday, 15 July 2013

Welsh pride, passion and Parental Alienation.

The urge to write has been clawing at me incessantly now for well over a week, and I’m very much aware of my conscious efforts to suppress it, contain it, keep it at bay until I can give it the space it needs.  So much has happened over the last month – so much I want to write about, that I can’t quite yet fathom out how to structure my jumbled thoughts into a coherent piece of writing.  But I guess that is what it is like for all of us at some times in our life, uncontrollable thoughts mingling with spontaneous emotions, suppressed and contained to a greater or lesser degree as we tackle the daily task of living.

My preference is to write chronologically, as if in a journal or a diary, but events of the last few days seem key in putting all else in context.  When I first started with this blog, I made the decision not to censor myself, or categorise my writing.  It isn’t a “personal” blog; neither is it a “professional” blog – it is just “my” blog.  For many in my profession, this is a constant dilemma.  How much of our private, inner selves do we bring into our professional role?  I would argue that the mere fact that we are in that professional role, is in large part due to our inner self.  But the consideration for Counselling Psychologists is often how much of that inner self is revealed to our clients; as a researcher, how do we “bracket off” our subjective experiences.  This duality (or complexity and multiplicity) of self, was very much brought home to me this weekend.

On Saturday, I eagerly attended Dr Victoria Galbraith’s Public Lecture at the British Psychological Society Division of Counselling Psychology 2013 Conference.  It was entitled “The pride and identity of the Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch): Suit of armour or double-edged sword?”  As a self-exiled Welsh woman, my prior anticipation was naturally heightened.  I was not disappointed – yet the talk touched me in ways I had not predicted.  Yes, my Welsh pride stirred and I shed a few tears as I viewed the Welsh National Rugby team sing our rousing National Anthem.  Yes, my empathic response initiated more tears as Victoria spoke of the tragedies of Welsh mining disasters and the heartbreak of Aberfan – so many innocent lives lost.  More tears too, reminiscing, as my happy childhood unfolded before me  – tales of Llywelyn and Gelert, Phil Bennet and Eisteddfod.  But the aspects which deeply resonated with me were the affirmation of the Welsh “fire in my belly”, my passion, and the human tendency to jump to conclusions: to judge a book by its cover; to thin slice and pre-judge.  Victoria’s very clear message was that the romanticism of Wales often belies or obscures a very different reality of a people who have been faced with a history of oppression and adversity.  This duality of a Nation, also reflects the duality of the individual – what is apparent on the surface so often masks what lies beneath.  As a reflective scientist practitioner, Victoria’s metaphors on mental health and stigma, stimulated similar reflections on my research looking at the experiences of parents who live with Parental Alienation.

This public lecture stirred so many thoughts and emotions in me about recent news items, Parental Alienation and the unexpected response to my research.  I was immediately reminded of the stigma that alienated parents feel, that I have witnessed, when judged (or fearful of being judged) by “professionals” and others.  By GPs, teachers, health professionals, the judiciary, social workers, work colleagues, even sometimes friends and family.  It goes a little like this “Your child does not want to see you – what have you done to make them feel like this?”  It may not be explicitly spoken, but is often clearly communicated through facial expression, body language and behaviour.  I absolutely understand this response – because it used to be my response.  It is a response borne out of an ignorance which cannot consider any explanation other than the rational one: your child will only reject you if you have given them cause to.  Who can blame these people for their ignorance?  Who HAS heard of Parental Alienation?  Sadly, it is often a self-judgement too … “My child hates me, but I don’t know what I’ve done; I must have done something awful for my child to treat me like this.”

Images of Tim Haries and Paul Manning, recently arrested for their defacement of prominent art works, dominated: my understanding of their distress and their turmoil contrasted with responses to their arrests which I read in the press.  These comments were along the lines that these men are clearly unfit fathers, they are radical, they are law-breakers, the court was clearly justified in denying them contact with their children.  Who can blame those that commented – what do they KNOW about Parental Alienation?  What are they ALLOWED to know about Paul and Tim’s cases in the family courts, when judgements and process are routinely kept secret?  How are they to know that in many cases, parents have a contact order, but the courts fail to adequately enforce that order when it is broken by the other party? 

3 years ago, when I first became challenged by the behaviours I saw before me in a young girl, I sought to gain an understanding of what was going on for her.  It was then that I first started to read about Parental Alienation.  The more I read, the more I understood, the greater my shame, guilt and sadness.  Shame that I had always taken what I saw before me at face value and not sought to look deeper.  Guilt that my ignorance had probably perpetuated such alienation.   Sadness at the growing realisation that there was very little I could do to change the situation for this young girl and her dad. 

But from somewhere, a passion stirred – a fire in my belly, well ….. a spark of an idea at least.  I couldn’t label this spark, or quite put my finger on it that time, but I became aware of changes within me.  These changes manifested themselves in a new direction in my life.  I began to retrain as a Counselling Psychologist. At first, this just seemed like a natural progression along life’s journey, but there has been a growing realisation that it is much more than that.  This is my opportunity to right some wrongs, to give people a voice and to offer some hope and support to those who may have had none. 

At this moment in time, my focus is very much on my research.  My attendance at this conference was very much an opportunity to talk about my research – to raise awareness with a profession who are likely to come across Parental Alienation in their daily work, yet may not know about it.  These conversations raised issues of duality too.  When one delegate asked what Parental Alienation was – I explained, as I did so many times over the weekend: it is the illogical or unwarranted denigration and rejection of a parent in the absence of abuse, where there had previously been a normal loving relationship, most usually occurring where high conflict relationship breakdown is a factor.  I am extremely grateful to this delegate who reminded me that such a response, by a child, was both normal and legitimate.  Of course it is.  As psychologists, we know that this behaviour may keep a child safe, in the short term.  But how do we reconcile this with the potential for long-term emotional damage and mental ill-health which can, and has been found to, result?  How do we identify the early signs?  What can we do to prevent this alienation or to enable reparation? As a parent, who has shared a mutually loving, normal relationship with their child – such a rejection is absolutely illogical and inexplicable.  With no reference point to consider, an absence of knowledge of Parental Alienation by that parent and practitioners who they come into contact with, what sense can they ever make of this situation?  How can they work through the confusion and distress?

My research too, brings up more thoughts of duality, which were further stimulated in Ruth Northway and Rachel Davies’ workshop on Participatory Research.  I am very much aware that as “a researcher”, I may be seen by my “participants” as someone remote, emotionally uninvolved with no vested interest.  Do participants feel that research is a waste of time, that it is an academic exercise, which will eventually sit and gather dust and have not one iota of impact on their lives? As a researcher who IS passionate about my research, I am very much aware of the need to keep my passion in check, lest it introduces some bias into my study at any stage.  This is particularly difficult for me.  As I started by saying – I am “me”, I do not compartmentalise myself. 

Over the last month, I have been encouraging participation in my research by asking potential participants to “add their voice” to my study.  I have had a fantastic response, and have been moved by many of the heart-wrenching stories.  Yet I am aware that many will be considering whether their voice will actually be heard – and many more will just reject the request out of hand.  I am also aware that the very clear voice of my participants is often critical of their experience with psychologists.  I just want to give some inkling of a hope to those of you who are reading this who have been impacted by Parental Alienation.   

My conference experience was a very emotional one.  I knew before I attended the conference that I had been awarded Trainee of the Year and I was to receive the award at the AGM. What I had never envisioned, was that my poster presentation would also be judged as best at the conference.  Yes, I feel some pride, but the overwhelming feeling is one of validation by my peers.  Validation that Parental Alienation is worthy of discussion and research.  Validation from the incoming Chair of the BPS Division of Counselling Psychology that the experience of parents in this situation is particularly worthy of research. 

This weekend your voices were heard.  It is a small step in the right direction.  There will be many more small steps.

My Trainee Prize was awarded for a piece of work entitled  “Psychopathology and the conceptualisation of mental disorder: the debate around the inclusion of  Parental Alienation in DSM5”.  It will be published later this year.  My Poster Presentation was entitled “The lived experience of alienated parents: developing a Q sort”.  I will upload the poster once the participation phase of my research is complete.  

Alienated parents, please consider taking part in my research on your experiences here 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Reflections on Fathers’ Day

It’s been a sleepless few days for me.  Having celebrated my landmark 50th birthday this year, I still find myself hankering after one elusive …….. in my life – the “off” button.  You know, the one that switches off that constant noise in your head.  The one that raises a temporary barrier to those persistent, encroaching, challenging thoughts.  The one that allows relaxation, peace and tranquillity to soothe and wash away the tension.  Still not found it.  This being so, the run up to Fathers’ Day this year has found me somewhat overloaded and overwhelmed, culminating in this urgent need to write this blog today.  Specifically today. 

I love my dad.  He’s 70 this year – but a young 70.  He’s been married to my mum for 50 years – childhood sweethearts.  Growing up I remember him being playful, but strict.  He had high expectations of me, though I do not remember him pressuring me in any sense.  He was dependable, hard-working and honest and had a clear, moral code.  I never doubted that he loved me and would always be there for me, though sometimes I guess I wanted him to say this more, to show it more.  He had that sense of humour (!) that made everyone around him groan, and beg for mercy – “please no more!”.   I remember him being liked and respected by many – though his inability to let go of an argument and his unswerving belief that he “was right” did, on occasion, cause some friction.  As I have grown older, I’ve noticed different traits in my dad too.  He is always there for family and friends – physically caring for them, being compassionate and offering practical support too.  

Let’s be clear – my dad is great, but he isn’t perfect.  He can be irritating, stubborn and sometimes set in his opinions and views.  Recently, my dad has been given cause to consider whether he was a “good enough” father to me as a young child.  Whether he had done the best he could in protecting me and keeping me safe; to question his parenting.  For the record, dad, you were more than good enough.  I am where I am today, the best I’ve ever been, because of you.  You, and mum, my wonderful memories of a large, loving wider family have shaped me into who I am today.  It is the combination of family relationships, friendships and relationships with others, good and bad experiences which shape each of us into the adult we become – and continue to shape us as we move through adulthood.  I wouldn’t be me, now, happy, fulfilled and challenged, without ALL of the experiences in my life.

Although I’m not with my dad today, on Fathers’ Day, he is very much in my thoughts.  He told me the other day that he didn’t really understand what my research was about, and that set me thinking.  Why would he understand about Parental Alienation?  It has had no bearing on his life – it is not something he has encountered. I suppose the closest I can get to explaining to my dad, who clearly loves me and my sister is ……. “How would you have coped if mum had left you when we were young, taken us away from you, told us you were a vile, violent abusive man and we were never to see you again?  How would you have felt if you could never talk to us, to hold us.  If you never saw a photo of us, never attended our birthday parties, our graduation, our passing out parade, our weddings.  How would it be not to have a card and a telephone call from us on your birthday, or Fathers’ Day or Christmas – not to mention the standard box of Just Brazils!  What if we swore at you and vilified you and called you a paedophile?  What if you knew we were punished if we spoke of you or asked to see you? What if you were not able to protect us and keep us safe from harm?  What if you could only watch from the side-lines and not offer your enduring love and support as our lives fell apart, as our relationships disintegrated, as we struggled with our mental health?  What if you were never allowed to meet your grandchildren?”  This is the reality for many, many parents, dad, who like you love their children dearly.  They may not be perfect mums and dads – but like you, they are good enough.  Maybe this can help you understand what Parental Alienation is – at least from a parent’s point of view.  And maybe it can help you understand why I feel it is important to talk about this.  Just because we don’t experience something ourselves, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

So, returning to my over active brain.  There has been a barrage of “newsworthy” items this week which has over-excited my grey matter.  There is the Centre for Social Justice report on “man deserts”, the portrayal of fathers as feckless individuals on TV, the massive rise in Private Family Law cases for Cafcass and the debate over access to justice.   Yet the one story which stays with me most is that of Tim Haries.

Tim was arrested for defacing a portrait of the Queen in Westminster Abbey.  He allegedly spray-painted the word “Help” on the painting to draw attention to his legal battle to have contact with his children.  Now, me being me, always the researcher – I naturally googled Tim.  I could find very little about him, other than a report from his friend and legal adviser which stated that he has two daughters and has spent more than three years and had almost 30 hearings in the family court fighting for contact with them.  Tim’s friend also states that Tim has no police record, and has never been considered a risk to either his children or his ex-wife by the authorities.  The last time he attended court he was ordered to have no contact with his daughters, and further, he is forbidden for applying for contact for a further two years.  I find myself asking …. why?  What possible reasons are there to legally prohibit a relationship between a parent and a child?  After all, article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights affirms the right for everyone’s family life to be respected, and under European legislation “a child and his or her parents shall have the right to obtain and maintain regular contact with each other”(Council of Europe, 2003 Chapter 2 Article 4 (1)).  

So what has Tim Haries done that is so heinous, that his children are denied the benefit of him in their lives?  The answer is – we do not know.  We are not allowed to know.  In this democratic nation of ours, we are unable to ponder a legal judgement and draw our own conclusions about Tim.  We are denied the opportunity to consider whether our legal system is just and fair, whether a particular judge is applying precedent and principles in an objective and judicious manner.  We are not allowed to know why Tim is considered not be a “good enough” parent.  Furthermore – Tim is legally prohibited from telling anyone details of his case or the judgment either.  Disclosing details of Family Law cases is contempt and carries a risk of prosecution and imprisonment.

Now that Tim has entered the criminal arena, we are all free to ponder his actions.  There are, of course, no restrictions on the reporting of criminal proceedings.  Many already seem to have taken this opportunity to suggest that a man who has resorted to this criminal activity is clearly unfit to be a father.  How quick we are to judge on such limited information.  

My heart today goes out to Tim, and all those other dads and mums, who have been judged by the courts as “not good enough”.  Those who have no criminal record, have never been considered a risk to their child, who have been systematically removed from their child’s life, and for some, who continue to feel judged on a daily basis by those with no understanding of their plight.  Today I will be doing my utmost to ensure that one of these dads is distracted with a “fun-filled” day.   A dear friend, who has just said to me – “it is just another day”.  Yet I know that his words belie the truth for him, and are little more than a mask, a dampener, to push the hurt he feels should he contemplate, amongst other things, the 12 Fathers’ Days he has not spent with his daughter. 

On Fathers’ Day, whilst you are enjoying the love of those close to you, spare a thought for those children and fathers who are denied this opportunity – today, tomorrow, and the next ….

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Parental Alienation Awareness day - a personal reflection

April 25th is Parental Alienation Awareness day. It isn’t something we “do” here in the UK; maybe we need to.  Few people have heard of it or understand what it is.  Parental alienation is the unwarranted or illogical rejection of a parent, by a child, where there was previously a normal, warm, loving relationship.  It most often occurs in highly conflicted relationship break-ups.  I would contend however, that many a parent slips into potentially alienating behaviour and reflecting on our actions and understanding the processes involved can prevent potentially damaging outcomes for our children.

April 25th is also my daughter’s 20th Birthday.   Reflection is at the essence of who I am as a person – as a mum, a colleague, a friend, a practitioner, a researcher, and events such as a child’s birthday naturally initiate even more reflection.  But I have to admit, this year I seem to have succumbed to reflection overload – undoubtedly due to very fact that the anniversary of my daughter’s birth coincides with Parental Alienation Awareness day.

I look at my daughter, and my other children, with immense pride.  I couldn’t always do that.  For many years, I just felt “lucky” and “grateful”.  I felt fortunate that some ethereal being or mystical fortune had endowed me with these bright, intelligent, diligent, inquisitive, considerate, caring, loving tiny packages, which blossomed of their own accord into adolescents and adults with all of these qualities intact.  Through my self-reflection, personal therapy and grappling with the challenges life has presented me, I can now acknowledge that this is not the case.  My children are the wonderful, unique individuals they are because of me – and because of their dad and their grandparents, and other family members; because of their friends and their teachers; because of all the interpersonal experiences in their lives to date.  

Each of us is the product of our lifetime of interpersonal experiences – and each time I meet someone who is separated from their child due to parental alienation, I become more acutely aware of this.  I try to understand their experiences, to be compassionate and to empathise with their pain, the hurt and the loss; but I cannot truly feel what they feel.  Lately, I have found myself considering the immense courage and strengths that these individuals have.  I know it is a struggle, a nightmare, a devastation that brings many to the edge and pushes some over.  Yet the majority learn, or manage, to function, to live their life as they fight for their child’s right to a relationship with them, or come to terms with the loss, hopefully temporary, of that relationship.  I am far from convinced that I would have the resilience to cope in similar circumstances.  

I think about those children who are victims of their circumstances – those who are explicitly alienated by one parent against the other.  I ponder those who are lied to, manipulated and physically prevented from contact.  I consider those youngsters who have to supress or deny their love and affection, who must hide their thoughts and emotions, who are prohibited from speaking to, communicating or being with someone they love.  I wonder about those children who subliminally acknowledge the risk of losing a second parent if they do not succumb to the alienating tactics.  I contemplate how children learn the benefits of compliance and complicity in the alienation – greater “love and affection”, or at least a more safe home environment and less likelihood of punishment or disregard.  

I consider too, those children who are subtly, maybe unconsciously, manipulated to gradually withdraw from one parent in favour of another.  Some children never hear a bad word about the absent parent – but they never hear a good word either.  When they excitedly report an enjoyable visit, it goes unacknowledged or is instantly dismissed.  Conversely, reports of minor disagreements are dissected, commiserated with and alleviated with a special treat.  The excessive sadness expressed by mum or dad before a contact visit is matched by equally excessive joy on return “home”.  There is a failure to share important, or even routine, information about school events, social activities, illnesses – or to communicate at all.  

I reflect too on the alienating parent – whether or not they are conscious of their actions.  I try to understand their shame and damage and the hate that they may hold for their former partner.  How they may believe that this individual is so hateful, such a despicable human being that they need to protect their child from him/her at all costs.  I try and understand the lengths they go to – moving to opposite ends of the country; creating a web of lies, misinformation and half-truths; breaking court orders.  I try to put myself in their shoes and wonder whether I would behave in that same way given the same circumstances.  I can absolutely appreciate the feeling of loss and emptiness, of handing over care, relinquishing “control” that can accompany periods away from a child – knowing that you are missing out on a part of their life, and desperately not wanting that.

My life has changed because of the people I have met who have been impacted by parental alienation.  However, it is not just my life that has changed, my parenting has changed too.   As a consequence, my children are who they are because of my awareness of parental alienation.  At times I have been tempted to put my needs before theirs.  There have been occasions when I have been tempted to seduce one or more of my children with more attractive opportunities than those offered by their dad, just to keep them close.  On reflection, there have been times where I inappropriately shared adult information – about finances or relationship issues – with one of my children.  I have so wanted to “rescue”, and make everything better, when one has telephoned me in tears – because dad has done this or that or won’t listen or doesn’t understand. Good parenting is about supporting our children in the many relationships that they will have in their lives, encouraging them to develop communication, negotiation and problem solving skills, and fostering respect for others.  We do not serve our children well if we continue to rescue them and prevent them from developing those important skills.  

Awareness of parental alienation isn’t just important for conflicted parents.  I believe all separating and separated parents would benefit hugely from an understanding of the behaviour and psychological processes in play when there is family break-up.  Divorce, separation and break-up are difficult for all involved, but good outcomes are possible if we stand back and reflect on our own role in this process.  Failure to reflect and to put our children’s needs and rights at the centre can lead to alienation, and the devastation and enduring emotional damage that results.  Our children have a right to a relationship with both parents and their wider family. 

So, my hope today, on Parental Alienation Awareness day, on my daughter’s 20th Birthday, is that just one parent, somewhere, stops, stands back and reflects on the possible consequences of their actions and enables the loving relationship between their child and the other parent to flourish.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Let’s talk about it - bringing Parental Alienation to a wider audience

I’ve been immersing myself in the literature around Parental Alienation for over 2 years now – hungrily devouring every journal article, magazine posting, book chapter, seminar and blog that deals with the issue from one perspective or another.  I have met with so many people who have lived with Parental Alienation on a daily basis – who deal with pain, loss, shame, guilt, anger, rejection, disbelief, depression, sadness, ignorance and judgement.  I have met so many more people, professionals such as counsellors, psychologists, academics, teachers, social workers and lawyers, who have never heard of Parental Alienation.  And then there are those people that happenstance dictates I bump into.  In polite conversation, they ask – “why are you going to a conference?” or “what are you researching?”  After checking out – “do you really want to know?”, I explain to them what Parental Alienation is, and what my research is about.  It never ceases to surprise, and dismay, me the number of times I hear “that happened to my son/partner/daughter/friend/colleague”.

I guess many may see me as a passionate bore.  My research is extremely important to me.  But it is driven by seeing the traumatic effect it has on the lives of the people I love and care about.  And it is this personal encounter with Parental Alienation which drives me on.  I feel driven to raise awareness of Parental Alienation in those professionals who work with people on a daily basis whose lives are damaged by this tragedy.  I feel driven to raise awareness in the general public – so that Parental Alienation can no longer be denied or swept under the carpet in the same way as childhood sex abuse used to be. 

I guess it is this passion and drive which took me to the recent conference of the BPS History and Philosophy of Psychology section. My passion and drive and one of my all too frequent moments of madness that is!!  History and Philosophy of Psychology?  Me?  I am no theoretical academic.  I am firmly rooted in applied psychology.  I am very clear that I am here to help people – not to theorise or speculate.  What drove me was the topic of the conference  “DSM: The History, Theory, and Politics of Diagnosis”.  In devouring all those journal articles I had become aware of the debate around the inclusion of Parental Alienation in the upcoming latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM5.  The debate around whether we label a child with a mental disorder; the debate around the symptoms and behaviour manifested in a child due to the alienation process; the debate surrounding the alienation behaviours of the parent; the debate around prevention and intervention – and whether a “label” is a pre-requisite for resources to be made available.

So, I submitted an abstract, which was accepted.  I arrived at the conference on 26th March, and immediately felt that I had made an error of judgement.  This was NOT the place for my presentation. It was the WRONG audience. I felt like a fish out of water, in need of a parachute to bail out – and probably many other mixed metaphors and similies too.  Oh well, I was here now, and thankfully there was a colleague here who was very re-assuring and supportive.  It was with some angst and apprehension that I delivered my “paper”.  I had never been to a conference where a “paper” meant an actual written paper which was delivered verbatim.  I had prepared my usual PowerPoint presentation backed up by a few scribbled notes – though I have to admit that nerves took over and I didn’t “engage” with the audience as much as I would have liked.  I ran a little over the allocated time, not allowing time for questions and felt I had rushed things, hadn’t been clear enough or got my points across.  I was relieved when it was over.  With some surprise, my relief quickly turned to satisfaction, a sense of fulfilment, and I can say I even felt a wee bit proud when 2 of the delegates rushed up to me at the end.  One of them was very excited, and felt that my paper validated her own theoretical research and she would like to use it as an example when she presented her paper the following day.  The second was a young woman, who put her arm on mine and said  “Thank you.  That happened to me as a child, and now I know it has a name.  Now I know it was real.”  

I want to give my personal thanks to that delegate.   Thank you for validating my decision to present in this strange arena.  Thank you for re-enthusing my drive and commitment to raise awareness of Parental Alienation.  And thank you for sharing your experience with me.