The Secret Life of the Alienated Child

The Secret Life of the Alienated Child is a recent article posted by British psychotherapist Karen Woodall. It is a heartbreaking expose of what alienated children endure from this insidious form of child abuse.

Woodall, perhaps more than any other mental health professional I have read in the past 20 years in studying Parental Alienation (PA), has provided me with some of the most helpful information in dealing with this pathology. I am grateful and indebted to her for what she has done for alienated parents like myself who have been struggling with this problem with our own estranged, alienated children.

Like any subject, there are a myriad of views from experts who have their own particular viewpoint and expertise on the matter: Woodall is no exception, and as I have noted in my other posts highlighting her work, she brings a unique perspective to PA which I feel, from my viewpoint, to be more helpful than most.

One thing is clear: children who have been subjected to the alienating tactics of a parent whose goal is to separate those children from the love and influence of their other parent face tremendous challenges and pain in their emotional and psychological lives.

She writes: “An alienated child is a child with a set of defensive structures which enable them to carry on with life as normal, even whilst coping with the overwhelming trauma of being forced to regulate an unpredictable caregiver. Over the past fifteen years, I have worked with over a hundred severely alienated children and have come to know their experience both inside and out. What I now know about alienated children is that the behaviour which looks unpredictable from the outside, is understandable and predictable when its cause and effect is known. This year I will be working with formerly alienated children who are now young adults, to support them in telling their stories to the outside world so that the secret life they were forced to live whilst in the care of an unwell, unpredictable and abusive parent, is a secret no more.”

As the decades pass, PA is becoming more familiar to the world at large. Twenty years ago, when I began to lose my three children to this pathology, the information and expertise on PA was scant, not well known, and in some areas (i.e., feminist disciplines dealing in domestic violence), hotly disputed. Fast forward 20 years from when I began losing my children to PA, the evidence and science for the damage done to children from this form of child abuse is incontrovertible.

A father harbors a unique love and concern for his daughters. This affection and care does not diminish as they age. In his eyes, unlike sons, they perpetually retain a sense of vulnerability, requiring protection, love, and imparted wisdom regarding the challenging world that awaits them as they grow older.

I once strongly embraced what I now recognize–for me–as a fairy tale perspective on marriage and bringing children into the world. As a former Christian, my life centered around the notion family was the most significant institution, and being blessed with a family represented life’s ultimate satisfaction.

I loved being a dad, delighting in all three of my kids. They each brought untold amounts of joy and happiness to me and I lived for them. Was ours a perfect family and I the perfect father? Of course not, but never did I imagine I would lose all three of them to the point I have not seen my youngest in twenty years.

The fallout from this separation from my children has been monumental, transforming my life in countless ways. The most major change was my rejection of the religious faith I ardently and passionately followed for all of my adult life, beginning when I was a teen-ager.

I told all three of my daughters at one time or another: “Life is not fair.” I wanted to gently prepare them for a life I knew would, at its very best, be full of heartaches, unfairness, and disappointments. But never did I imagine I would need to heed my own advice on a level I would be forced to descend down to.

One of the worst realities of PA is that a father is excised out of the lives of his beloved children. A father is hardwired—like moms— to protect his kids. It is part of the DNA of a loving parent. But when this role as a father is suddenly removed, this main role in a father’s DNA is short-circuited and leaves him feeling as if a part of him has been amputated.

Beyond all this lies the disheartening situation of alienated children. Alienated/rejected parents instinctively recognize that while their personal pain is real and requires healing, it remains secondary to the needs of their alienated children. Woodall’s clinical practice, in my opinion, strikes a harmonious balance between these two needs, with a solid emphasis on the well-being of the alienated children.

One area of particular interest for me is the ramifications of the trauma which alienated children are forced to endure. All three of my children are either in their late twenties or late thirties. What goes on in their minds and hearts? What is the story they have to tell? Woodall addresses this as well:

“At the end of last year, two formerly alienated children told their stories in the Palace of Westminster at a small seminar for policy makers, practitioners and parents. This quiet opening of the door to the secret world that alienated children are forced to live in, was just the beginning. This year these young people, along with others who have been assisted by the Family Separation Clinic, will speak at more events and conferences, to help the world to understand the particular difficulties that children in divorce and separation face when they are in the care of a parent who is harming them. All of these young people are now fully recovered after being found to be in the care of an abusive parent who could not or would not recognise that what they were doing was harming their child. In working with each of these children and others, I have come to to recognise that the secret world of the alienated child is no different to that of all children who are suffering abuse at the hands of a parent, it is secret for a reason and in most cases, it is a secret so deeply held that even the child is unable to be aware of it.”

I am particularly intrigued by the “wake-up” phase that alienated children must undergo before they grasp one of the most surprising and counterintuitive facts of their lives: the parent they have always perceived as the good, caring, and loving parent (the alienating parent) is, in reality, the one causing the most harm and damage to their family.

Equally astonishing for these children and adults is the realization that the rejected parent— the one they have vilified, hated, scorned, and rejected— is the crucial factor in reclaiming their complete sense of self. This parent represents the doorway through which they must pass to attain the healing they desperately need. Woodall continues:

“This is the secret life of the alienated child, a life which is so secret that even the children who experience it do not know it is there until they are faced with the consequences of what they have been forced to do to themselves and to the parent they have rejected, often much later in life. For those young people who were removed from the parent causing them harm, a parent who prior to the removal had been chaotic and terrifying at times and at others had been caring and loving, the only signs of the abuse they had been suffering was in their disorganised attachment behaviours which were identified within a family court process. When removed from the abusive parent’s care to be placed in the kinship care of the parent they had been rejecting, each of these children began to experience a consistency of care which provided the platform for recovery and in recovery, each showed the impact of splitting which lies beneath the ‘going on as normal’ part of self which is identified in the psychological literature as a response to trauma.” (emphasis mine.)

I’m convinced all three of my estranged daughters are going to have this “wake up” moment. I’m not nearly as confident as to the timing, though: it will take years—decades perhaps—and I don’t believe I will be around to see their eyes opened to the harm their mother has done to them for over 20 years.

But I hope they know I believed in them and that the truth of what they have endured and why it occurred will one day be made clear to them. I love them, always have, and hope to reunite with them in the world beyond.