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