Families: Finding Clear Narratives and Rewriting Endings
The following is written by Dr Eia Asen, Consultant Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families.
This fictionalised story explores how a child’s view can be influenced by a resident parent when couples separate acrimoniously. It illustrates how the Anna Freud National Centre team in contact and residence dispute work can work with the child to enable contact with both parents to be maintained.
Gloria*, age 9, had not seen her father for more than 2 years. She was only 4 years old when her parents’ relationship reached an all time low, with endless arguments and physical confrontations on a daily basis. Eventually Gloria’s father moved out and she began to see him at weekends in his new home. This went well for a brief time but then Gloria’s mother started making allegations against the father, claiming that he was physically and sexually abusing Gloria. Social Services became involved, the case eventually came to court and the judge found that the mother’s allegations were false and malicious. At that point Gloria, now 5-years-old, had not seen her father for 6 months. Contact was reinstated and Gloria went to stay with her father every other weekend. However, after only a few months, Gloria’s mother made new allegations against the father and she refused to allow the child to see him. The case returned to court and, 4 months later, contact between Gloria and her father was reinstated. The subsequent 2 years saw another 8 court hearings, with continuous disruptions of the contact between child and father. By the time Gloria was 7 years of age, she refused to attend any further contacts with her father, claiming he was ‘evil’ and ‘cruel’. The High Court eventually ordered an assessment of Gloria and her parents to advise on a way forward. When first seen by our team, Gloria had nothing good to say about her father and she repeated, word for word, the historic allegations the mother had made.
Our team specialises in entrenched contact and residence disputes work, where children are caught up in their parents’ ‘chronic’ acrimonious relationship. By the time we work with these post-separation, high conflict families, the family courts have usually been involved for years. The affected children tend to side with the parent they live with and refuse to have any form of direct or indirect contact with the other parent. Sometimes the children’s response to the prospect of resuming contact with the ‘alienated’ parent is so extreme that it can resemble what one might call a severe ‘parent phobia’. The main characteristic of these post-separation families is ‘implacable hostility’, with high levels of inter-parental conflicts and a string of unsubstantiated allegations being made against the non-resident parent, resulting in repeated temporary suspension of contact. In the wake of the inter-parental battles, the parental focus is rarely on the children and their welfare but on past and present inter-parental relationship issues and a strong desire of each party to ‘win’ their case, irrespective of the ‘collateral damage’ they may inflict on their child in the process. The resident parent acts as a ‘gatekeeper’, with the power to permit, restrict or exclude the other parent’s access to the child. The more the resident parent levels allegations of maltreatment or ‘abuse’ against the other parent, the more the non-resident parent accuses the other parent of deliberately ‘alienating’ their child(ren).
The approach we have developed is based on the assumption that some form of contact with the non-resident parent is almost always in the child’s best interest. We create an open approach, embracing different parenting forms free from discrimination against age, gender, sexuality and race. Children exposed to highly acrimonious parental relationships develop strong loyalty bonds to the resident parent, the mother in this case, and they learn to keep hidden from her any positive feelings and memories of the other parent. When children are recruited to the resident parent’s ‘script’, they may eventually themselves believe the spurious ‘allegations’ made against the non-resident parent and begin to demonise him. As the child grows up, there is a significantly increased risk of behavioural and mental health problems and long-term relationship difficulties emerging.
The overall aim of our work is to help both parents to enable their child(ren) to have a positive experience of spending time with the non-resident parent and developing balanced and trusting relationships with both parents. However, re-establishing contact tends to challenge the very polarised view a child holds about the non-resident parent. Our work starts with seeing each parent separately and hearing their respective ‘stories’. At this early stage it is often the case that the resident parent will outwardly agree that establishing contact with the other parent is in the child’s best interest and appear to understand the rationale behind this, but find it hard to hold onto this position once they leave the meeting, and then deliberately or inadvertently sabotage agreed contacts. We work with both parents – on their own – to put themselves in their child’s ‘shoes’ and imagine her open and hidden thoughts and feelings and loyalty conflicts. When seeing the child on her own, we try to revive any positive memories. Then, in subsequent meetings involving both mother and child, we invite the mother or resident parent to remind her child of ‘better times’ and provide specific examples. Children may be very surprised to hear the resident parent suddenly focusing on positives of the other parent. The child is likely to challenge the resident parent’s new ‘script’, rehearsals and mini-role plays in which they take both the position of child and parent, A coherent narrative needs to be constructed to help the child to comprehend their parents’ seeming change of mind. This process can be started with parents individually but benefits from being endorsed by both parents together – and this is best achieved in joint parental couple sessions.
One innovative technique we employ is the non-resident parent’s video message to the child. The father, in the above case example, is invited to make a brief video - lasting no longer than two minutes – as a first ‘contact’ with their child after a long time. He has to imagine what it might be that the child would want – and not want - to hear and see. It is not only the actual content of the message but also its delivery; the tone of voice, choice of words, use of props such as old photos or toys, which the parent is asked to consider. Producing such a video message may take some weeks as the parent struggles with keeping the child’s needs in mind and not giving overt or covert messages to or about their ex-partner to the child. Once a final version has been agreed, the video message is viewed and ‘approved’ by the resident parent. The clinician meets with the resident parent, the mother in this case example, who is asked to view the video from the child’s perspective and to make suggestions for improving the message if needed. Children are not always willing to view such a video message, but with the encouragement of the resident parent, will eventually agree. This is followed by a ‘desensitisation in vivo approach’, the slow and increasingly prolonged ‘live’ exposure to the feared object, the father in Gloria’s case.
So what happened to Gloria? Over a period of 4 months, she gradually established contact with her father, first in our clinic and with our intensive assistance. Their relationship began to blossom and this was supported by joint work with both parents together, helping them to ‘move on’. 6 months later, Gloria started spending time with her father every other weekend, supported by her mother. Both parents now meet on their own every month to discuss parenting issues and this arrangement has now been in place for 2 years – without court involvement.
Gloria has told us that she is “happy to have a Mum and a Dad”.
*Name not representative of actual individual support by the work of the Anna Freud National Centre’s team
Dr Eia Asen is a Consultant Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families and Visiting Professor at University College London. Until September 2013 he held the position of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Marlborough Family Service (CNWL NHS Foundation Trust) where he was the clinical lead for many years. He qualified as a medical practitioner in Berlin, Germany, in 1971 and subsequently trained as a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in London (1974-1978). Over the past thirty years he has been involved in the assessment and treatment of more than one thousand abused and neglected children and their families.