Parental alienation & estrangement: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Part 1 in a series exploring how fairytales can help explain the factors behind and impact of the damaging of the relationship between parents and children.

In 1837 Hans Christian Anderson tells the story of a king who was hoodwinked by weavers who told him the suit of clothes he was wearing could only be seen by people who were clever and competent. The king decided to instruct the weavers to make him such a suit so he could test who was unsuitable for office. When he was presented with the suit he didn’t want to appear stupid so he said he could see the new clothes as did his courtiers.  The king paraded out in the fine textile suit he couldn’t see through the streets and the people who saw him didn’t want to appear stupid so admired his suit. A small child who didn’t understand pretence suddenly breaks the spell and says,  “but he has nothing on”. The reality that has been created and played with that the Emperor has a fine suit but didn’t have anything on at all swept across the people. The king attempted to retain his dignity by carrying on with the illusion he created as if nothing has happened.

The meaning of this fairy tale questions the beliefs of what other people have created as having any value. An essential part of this is the willingness of people, parents and children to engage in unspoken ways to wilfully come to believe what they know to be untrue. The fairy tale is a story about the psychology of the ‘mob’, and no one wanting to be the lone voice in the wilderness to be seen to puncturing the bubble of illusion.

When I am instructed as an expert witness I am often tasked with reading a lot of documentation prior to my assessment. During the assessment process the bubble of illusions created by each member in the family system in difficulty is often burst.

During the process of such expert witness assessments I seek to discover more about the parent’s own relational blueprints as often these can signify an emotional and psychological investment of energy into a past unacknowledged parental or intergenerational relational trauma. It’s important to remain open to recognising there may be other pistons of unconscious motivations at work.

The blueprint each parent carries into their intimate relationship is made up of the needs in the here and now for a relationship and the past unmet parental or intergenerational needs inherited needs. Sometimes the satisfaction of past unmet parental needs or unresolved unmet intergenerational needs can unconsciously lead to one partner/parent being scapegoated for not fully meeting all of these needs. Of course it isn’t possible for a partner/parent to meet all of these unmet needs. Delusional or magical thinking on the part of the other partner/parent may lead to them being unable to tolerate such devastating disappointment and they become vehemently opposed to accepting the painful psychic reality of this.

I bear this in mind before I meet each parent and the child or children. I approach my task through my learning about Bion’s approach (influential British psychoanalyst, president of the British Psychoanalytical Society 1962 – 1965). When I meet each parent and each child I meet with them ‘without memory or desire’. In order to retain my independence and to use myself as an instrument of assessment and research this approach allows me the opportunity to be open to understanding the meaning of why the family are where they are.

In returning to the fairy tale and the idea of the psychology of the ‘mob’ self-deception is necessary to understand the psychology of the ‘mob’ in scapegoating. Owing to what it means to be human a tipping point can be reached by the parent whose unrealistic unmet needs have not been fulfilled. Order and reason can again prevail by singling out a partner/parent as the ‘sink’ for all the bad feelings which exist in the family system.  

Once the scapegoat is identified that parent is dehumanised and castigated as dangerous, untrustworthy, abandoning and unloving. Over time the scapegoated parent becomes demonised in order to stem the tide of ‘madness’ in the past parental or intergenerational family system of origin of the parent projecting all this badness into the scapegoated rejected parent. In this the illusionary creation of a ‘villain’ necessarily implies a ‘hero’ even if both are a fiction of the imagination. A rejected parent who opposes the scapegoating or resists the belief foisted on them often becomes a martyr to the family system.

Ogden (2010) in his paper on three forms of thinking: magical thinking, dream thinking and transformative thinking, in my view, illumines something important about these forms of thinking in children who are estranged or alienated from a once loved parent by a parent who possesses magical thinking. Magical thinking is a form of thinking that arrests genuine engagement in thinking and psychological growth by substituting a created reality as an psychic armour against disturbing external here and now relational reality. The most profound form of thinking is dream thinking as this involves emotional experiences from a multiplicity of different perspectives simultaneously and includes primary and secondary processes. In transformative thinking a person creates different undiscovered ordering of emotional experience that liberates other feelings, relationships and reactivates a quality of aliveness that was unimaginable previously.

In the process of assessments there is a need for evaluative and normative considerations and understanding what is health and what is pathology in terms of the family system. Psychiatry and psychology are methodologies connected and concerned with pathology. It seems important to fill the gap with evidenced based bio-psycho-social theories and clinical evidence from the narcissistic links between generations of unresolved trauma.

The concept of fairness and unfairness, justice and injustice and the right to a fair hearing are important considerations in the development of a more comprehensive framework and the concerns of all people, parents and grandparents regarding their most cherished relationships.

In my experience and following much clinical peer group reflection there are a some clinical challenges in and between the differing disciplines and therapeutic modalities who hold a fidelity to their own theoretical bases. There is a need for the community of professionals from whatever discipline or theoretical allegiance to move forward with the application of a systemic framework.  There needs to a reconsideration of the pervasively significant relational imbalances that occur in children affected by parentification as a result of the unresolved emotional trauma, unmet needs or pain of one the parents own unmet needs in their parenting and or the intergenerational trauma unconsciously carried into the third generation of children.

In the specialised systemic co-parenting family therapy what is offered is a therapy of parents who unconsciously use projective identification or projective blaming which is based on both individual parent and systemic relational strategies. It’s a most difficult and painful process for anyone who is a parent to come to terms with their own parenting. They may be aware of the parenting their own parents received and the invisible loyalties in their own family system which may had been held onto. The depth of feeling in relation to sustaining the loyalty to the ‘idealised’ parent of origin can serve to unconsciously justify liberating that parent from the resentment they have about the injuries they have suffered and the need to exonerate their parent can often be exercised at the expense of their partner who is now a parent to their child/children.

Over time and in the end the child/children will often come to realise that the presentation of the illusion of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ the parent insisted the other parent wore were nothing more than their agreement to go along with what the parent who psychologically ‘mobbed’ them to believe was the case.

Once a child/adolescent/adult child/ realises this, there is a domino effect, emotional reaction of shame, guilt, sorrow, fear, loss and anger against the parent they trusted and believed in at the time. And this impact, if unresolved, can ruin generations.

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