Trauma Bonding

British psychotherapist Karen Woodall writes about the “deadlocked mindset” and “trauma bonding.”

As I have written about before, the insights of Karen Woodall are different than the mainstream theories concerning Parental Alienation (PA). I believe her views and perspective are persuasive and based on solid, empirical evidence.

In the blog post linked to above, she writes:

“For a long time alignment and rejection behaviour in children of divorce and separation has been understood as if it is a simple case of brainwashing. Reunification processes which rest upon this belief have delivered outcomes which have liberated children to a certain extent but have not been able to treat the underlying attachment trauma which causes the alignment and rejection reaction. This is why, in our experience, many children who have been through reunification camps (as they are called in the USA), emerge at the age of eighteen with the underlying attachment trauma left untreated. A step in treatment has been missing for many of these children, who age out of the process still trauma bonded to the parent who abused them in the first place. These young people demonstrate this, by immediately becoming advocates for that parent’s position and often supporting that parent’s continued activism, itself evidence that a child remains enmeshed with a parental narrative.” (Emphasis mine).

What is “trauma bonding”? I asked chatGPT and here is the AI’s answer:

“Trauma bonding refers to a strong emotional connection that forms between two people as a result of undergoing intense, often traumatic experiences together. This bond can develop in various contexts, such as abusive relationships, hostage situations, or other traumatic events where individuals rely on each other for survival or support.

In abusive relationships, trauma bonding can occur when a victim feels emotionally attached to their abuser despite the abuse they endure. This bond may develop due to cycles of violence, intermittent reinforcement of affection, or feelings of dependency on the abuser for safety or validation.

Trauma bonding can be complex and difficult to break, as the bond is often reinforced by psychological and emotional manipulation, fear, and a sense of loyalty or obligation. Individuals in trauma-bonded relationships may struggle to recognize the harmful dynamics and may find it challenging to leave the relationship even when they know it’s harmful to their well-being.

Therapy and support from trusted individuals can help individuals understand and address trauma bonding, empowering them to break free from harmful relationships and heal from the effects of trauma.”

I then asked, “How does trauma bonding intersect with parental alienation?”

The AI responded:

“Trauma bonding and parental alienation are distinct concepts but can intersect in certain situations, particularly within the context of dysfunctional family dynamics or custody disputes. Here’s how they can intersect:

  1. Trauma bonding within abusive relationships: In cases where one parent is emotionally or physically abusive toward the other parent or children, trauma bonding can occur between the abuser and the victimized parent or children. Despite the abuse, the victim may feel emotionally attached to the abuser due to the trauma bonding, making it difficult to break away from the abusive relationship. This can be exacerbated if the abusive parent engages in behaviors aimed at manipulating or controlling the victim or children.
  2. Parental alienation as a form of psychological abuse: Parental alienation involves one parent (or another caregiver) attempting to manipulate a child’s relationship with the other parent, often by disparaging or undermining the other parent’s authority or relationship with the child. This behavior can lead to the child forming negative beliefs or attitudes toward the targeted parent, which may be reinforced by the alienating parent over time.
  3. Intersection of trauma bonding and parental alienation: In situations where there is parental alienation combined with abusive behavior, trauma bonding can exacerbate the effects of parental alienation. For example, a child who is subjected to both parental alienation tactics and abuse by one parent may develop a trauma bond with that parent despite the harmful behavior. This can make it challenging for the child to recognize the abuse and maintain healthy boundaries with the abusive parent.

In such cases, addressing both trauma bonding and parental alienation may require therapeutic interventions aimed at helping the child (and potentially the victimized parent) recognize and address the abusive dynamics, heal from the effects of trauma, and rebuild healthy relationships. Legal interventions, such as custody evaluations or court-ordered therapy, may also be necessary to protect the well-being of the child and facilitate healthy family dynamics.”

Children severely affected by the pathologies surrounding PA are not only suffering from a distinct form of brainwashing, they are also affected by this “trauma bond” with the alienating parent.

This information concerning trauma bonding is new to me but helps to fill in the blanks concerning some of the perplexing behaviors and attitudes of my own alienated children.

One of the most challenging issues for families dealing with PA is the lack of first hand, real time information available to the alienated parent, which, in this instance, is me. It’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve been involved in my three children’s lives, so I’m largely unaware of the dynamics of their relationship with their mother.

But according to PA theory and “trauma bonding,” my ex-wife would have to fit the profile of an abuser for the missing pieces of the puzzle of my family history to fit together and make sense.

She undeniably meets the criteria for an abuser by actively preventing our three daughters from maintaining a relationship with me. If this were the only form of interference in our family dynamic, it would readily fulfill the threshold for evidence of PA. However, my concern is her abuse may extend beyond this, potentially reaching into more severe, sinister, and damaging areas.

But I can’t prove these suspicions and am wary of accusing anyone—even my ex—of crimes which cannot be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Though she has falsely accused me of such crimes, I cannot bring myself to sink to her unconscionable level by accusing her of such actions without the accompanying necessary evidence.

Nonetheless, my suspicions of such behaviors remain, and my concern is for my children who have been adversely affected by her pathological behaviors.

I want to highlight a point previously mentioned above, which is: “…a child who is subjected to both parental alienation tactics and abuse by one parent may develop a trauma bond with that parent despite the harmful behavior. This can make it challenging for the child to recognize the abuse and maintain healthy boundaries with the abusive parent.”

These “trauma bonds” are particularly troubling. In essence, these bonds are created between the child and alienating parent through and because of harm. They are not bonds created through love, affection and true love, but from some type of violence, whether physical or psychological inflicted upon the helpless, vulnerable child.

I am forced to ask myself: “Has my ex engaged in abusive behaviors against our daughters, the very same acts she has falsely accused me of committed against them?”

Woodall then writes:

“In a world which is terrifyingly unstable, where interventions have removed a child from the abusive parent but failed to help the child understand why, the child remains trauma bonded. This is one of the biggest problems for children who have a parent who cannot understand that their behaviour is abusive to overcome, because if they do not, they continue to be deadlocked into a trauma bonded mindset, believing that in order to keep that parent’s love and affection they must mirror back to that parent their beliefs about the world. The impact of that on these young people’s relationships in their older lives is potentially devastating as they have grown to believe that being abused feels like love.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is not only heart breaking but chilling: alienated children believe “that being abused feels like love.”

It cannot be overstated how psychologically damaging this would be on the psyches of alienated children. To have come to a point in one’s life where abuse is perceived as love is to come to a place where the lines of psychological health or harm have become blurred; the intersection of these two realities would undoubtably lead to confusion, angst, and an inability to perceive things, events, and people as they truly are.

For myself, if this is in fact the twisted reality my children have been forced to live in, it would help to answer many of my unanswered questions of why they behave and acts towards me as they have done for the past two decades.

Again, since I do not posses any definitive answers which can be proven by facts, I’m forced onto the always doubtful and shaky ground of guesswork and conjecture. Thus, I have to be continually on the alert I could be 100% wrong in how I am perceiving things.

Millions of alienated parents have endured years—even decades—in a topsy-turvy world where nothing seems to add up. During these trying times, it’s helpful to consider the perspective of our children who have been manipulated to reject us. While we grapple with confusion and anguish at our very core, imagine the turmoil our children face, ensnared by the coercive grasp of the other parent. Their reality is just as bewildering, navigating through a world where little makes sense to them. Compounding their distress is the requirement to spurn and harbor animosity toward the parent they once cherished, forced to sever ties with someone who contributed half of their genetic makeup.

Parents who find themselves in the position of being rejected must make a concerted effort to distinguish their own pain from the hurt inflicted by their children’s behavior and the tumultuous world their children inhabit. It’s crucial to empathize with their perspective, recognizing the painful and stressful circumstances they endure.

And as much as we deal with our pain, I believe our children are suffering in a much greater capacity. While many severely alienated children may never “wake up” and pierce through the deceptive fog their alienating parent has shrouded them in, some will, one day, see the light. Though the statistics for these type of awakenings are grim, they do occur, and as the education of this topic increases month by month, more children, especially adult children, will also wake up.

When they do, they’ll encounter another crisis, realizing they were unwitting pawns manipulated by their alienating parent in a twisted vendetta against their other parent. As they grasp the depth of the lies and manipulation they were coerced into believing, they’ll grapple with overwhelming guilt and anguish for their complicity in the abuse of their other parent.