The title is a precis of a Steinbeck quote that was included in Trish’s Father’s Day presentation following an invitation to speak as part of a specialist panel hosted by the Save Indian Family Foundation. They are just one of a growing number of support groups around the world doing what they can to support child focussed shared parenting.
The premise of the event was to explore the challenges facing fathers, ostensibly, when seeking to co-parent their children after the breakdown of the relationship between the parents. As ever, however, Trish’s presentation was child focussed and gender neutral, referencing the resident parent and non-resident and favoured versus rejected parent, where necessary.
Storytelling – the natural way for children to learn about their feelings.
Trish shared a number of anonymous cases, from her therapeutic work, in which storytelling and the use of toys, clothes and other totemic objects took on huge significance.
She used the first of these stories, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams to explore the notion of what “real” means, for the child. How they often focus on a particular toy or what becomes a treasured object which they are presented with and make their own, becomes important for appearance, texture, feel and smell and which comes to represent a part of them and a part of others. First blankets or treasured soft toys are often representations of a child’s inner and outer world and their association with each of their parents when their parents were together. Many children from separated and divorced families bring these treasured comfort toys when they move between their parent’s homes.
The story of the Velveteen Rabbit is both a hunt for identity and the moral of the tale. It is about the value of appearance when the child’s relationship to each parent has been damaged. It is used to explore how treasured childhood objects can be used as repositories of the child’s inner feelings about the self. And it is often by exploring the connection between these objects, the child and where they are being positioned during conflict between the parents, that the therapist can start to unpack the difference between how the child presents and their surrender of their true self in the face of trying to keep both parents happy. For children often share secrets with their treasured toys that provide a wellspring of knowledge about what they have unconsciously internalised. This can become a barrier to their emotional health and wellbeing and true growth and development.
Trish explained that play therapy can be extremely effective with pre-teen children especially when exploring the difference between the outer (presented) and inner child, the “unconscious link where reality is”. She explained that issues repressed at this age so often present in behavioural disorders. Sometimes parents focus on the behaviour rather than the meaning of the behaviour as a form of distress in the child. Left unresolved the emerging child moving into adolescence and adulthood has no other relational model to draw on. These children, can often survive by separating or splitting parents into the good protector and the flawed or bad parent, when the reality is that parents are humans, often make mistakes and we need to accept that we all have flaws.
Trish went on to suggest that there’s much more education needed within schools to spot underlying signs of splitting and other symptoms that could drive the alienation of a parent or the eventual rejection of both. Primarily because this is a child-welfare issue first and foremost. Quite often the most academically gifted A* star pupils conceal hidden emotional distress that will eventualy undermine their own relationship-building skills if not noticed, acknowledged and addressed.
It’s illusory for the “preferred” parent to think they are the most loved parent of the child. In fact, it can often be that parent’s need for this type of adoration that signals an inherent psychological problem rooted in that parent. Where the other parent is alienated because of the child’s psychological splitting and the development of a false compliant self the relationship each parent has with the child is actually equally flawed and not a real relationship.
She also believes that the adversarial nature of family law systems inadvertently does much to reinforce this splitting and that a more effective alternative would be to ensure early therapeutic support for separating couples, to support them to develop a co-parenting alliance in the best interests of their children.
To further illustrate the point about emblematic toys, loaded with meaning, the second story was about Joey, his train set and bag of trains.
Joey lost his father to suicide and depression when he was nine. Upon first meeting Trish he explained how he and his father both enjoyed time together with trains and built a whole train set together which took over most of the attic.
Part of the reason why the family brought Joey to see Trish was because of his insistence to understand more about what had happened to his father. The family believed that they were simultaneously protecting him and were conflicted about whether to tell him about the way his father died.
True to the principles that secrets restrict development and a belief that the child has a right to own their legacy, after a suitable period of play therapy, Trish told Joey, eventually, the manner of his father’s death. That he had been struck by a train.
She then learned that this little boy had had to develop mechanisms for avoiding talking about his sadness in order to protect the rest of the family from their grief. Child and therapist then worked together to help him to move on with her support, to come to terms with a potentially debilitating truth, to free himself of guit and mis-placed responsibility and to get back to just being a little boy again.
The last story concerned Alice in Wonderland as this was exactly how young Emma presented when she first met Trish.
Virtually the whole of Emma’s life, from the age of 1, had been spent at the centre of parental acrimony and litigation.
Eventually, as is relatively common in an increasing number of cases, Emma adopted split perspectives in order to make sense of her chaotic and painfulworld. In tune with the prevailing narrative of the resident parent, who exerted the most influence over her, she had come to idealise and idolise her mother and demonise and demean her father. This type of polemic in a child’s mind is one of the most powerful ways that parental alienation presents itself, if we listen. Eventually leading to rejection of the target parent. Yet too many untrained ears are taken in by the same stereotypical tropes.
Alice in Wonderland is a chaotic tale about identity, finding yourself and growing up. However, this little girl had created a false, artificial, self and identified with this fairy tale figure of Alice who the girl projected a belief onto that she was perfect. This emotional harm created unrealistic expectations of her peers and was preventing her from forming attachments, trusting people or forging healthy relationships as people couldn’t live up to her ideals and inner narrative of perfection.
Emma excelled in so many ways, superficially, but inside was depleted of an internalised imago of her mother and her father as reassuring images she could draw on to comfort her. So she created more manageable alternatives. Emma was a lonely child likely to develop into a very unhappy, lonely young adult due to later depression, anxiety and a lack of self-esteem and confidence in herself in her own right.
The talk was captivating for the international audience and sparked some interesting debate and reflections. It was clear, throughout, that although the event was ostensibly to discuss the vital role of fathers in co-parenting structures, the focus was on the important role of family in raising children. There was nothing fundamentally gendered about the examples and the people cast in any of the roles could just as readily have been the opposite gender. The over-riding point was the power of a child focussed approach to help first recognise and acknowledge and then address parenting challenges whether in married, separated or other co-parenting scenarios.
You can watch the whole of the international on live event and discussion by following this link. or clicking on the image. Do watch the other talks by the other core contributors but for reference, Trish’s talk is about 70% of the way through.