Diagnoses are Risky for Mothers Apart

As you can imagine, mothers who have become separated from their children through family courts processes are usually profoundly distressed. Often survivors of trauma, abuse and violence, they sometimes just exist rather than have any quality of life. Estrangements might last for for a short time, or for very many years – some mothers never see their children again. Mothers apart may exist in sad, angry, depressed, anxious and stressed states and never find a way out of the darkness. Commonly, coercive and controlling partners engineer mother-child separations that result from private children’s proceedings. The child can be lost to the mother’s abuser if his strategy to punish her for leaving, for example, is to turn her child against her. This is a double blow as a mother not only has to live apart from her child but also cannot protect the child from her abuser, especially as she has no proof of abuse, as is so often the case with coercive control. Such mothers are, naturally, grieving – and the grief is complex as there are so many losses. It can be disenfranchised when the child is not dead but estranged and the mother does not benefit from all the normal societal responses, eg., sympathy, a ceremony, etc.

Mothers apart carry their sorrow and rage for years and can find it hard to regulate their emotions. They may suffer terrible guilt and shame and drive themselves to painful psychological states by self-punishing/self-harming behaviours. Mothers who have their children wrested from them by manipulative and powerful ex-partners are often wrongfully accused by professionals and services as unsafe parents in the process. This can manifest in deep shame, self-hate and a profound sense of failure. There will be no end of people to reinforce these messages through one of society’s favourite past-times: mother-blaming.

Mothers blame themselves anyway – they don’t need others’ judgement. Post-violent and controlling relationships they also suffer survivor’s guilt. How could they escape their abusers without their children? How can they lead any kind of life knowing their precious children are still living with abuse and danger? Mothers who know nothing of being separated from a child exclaim that they would never leave their children, that they couldn’t live without their children – that they would die for their children. But mothers apart thought those things too once upon a time. They also believed that their children would never reject them, would never stop loving them, would never want to be looked after anyone else but mummy. Other mothers just don’t understand and are usually more critical, judgemental and blaming than anyone else. How could she? They say. Their disgust adds to the burden already carried by mothers without their children.

Most mothers apart try and find help and support via their GPs or from the psych professionals for their unbearable emotional and psychological symptoms. In most Western cultures,  the medical model reigns, so grieving and traumatised mothers recovering from abuse and trauma are often diagnosed with range of mental health problems: clinical depression, general anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. They can be prescribed very powerful psychiatric and anti-psychotic drugs, as is routine with perceived mentally illness – often assumed to be a chemical imbalance in the brain needing medication.

The most common diagnosis is depression, which is identified using the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM), now in its 5th edition. Written by a panel of psychiatrists, this is the bible used by GPs to identify and diagnose mental health problems. For a diagnosis of depression, the patient needs to display 5 out of 9 symptoms provided as a checklist in the DSM. For example, depressed mood, decreased interest in pleasure, or feelings of worthlessness. Because almost everyone who is grieving matches the criteria for clinical depression, the DSM used to contains what was known as the ‘grief exception’ or ‘bereavement exclusion’.  So, a mother recently suffering loss, will not be considered as having a mental health problem for the duration of a period allowed for grief. However, this period diminished over the years from a year to only 2 weeks before scrapping it all together. Now, the grief symptoms experienced by a mother apart are more likely to be recognised as any number of disorders as described above and she could receive a diagnosis for treatment with medication.

The problem with this for mothers apart is that they are often involved in protracted court cases of many years with manipulative exes over the children. A diagnosis of a mental health problem or personality disorder could affect a woman’s chances of getting her children back or having regular contact – or even seeing them at all. This will be especially true in cases of coercive control when an abuser will be seizing every opportunity to malign the mother. As a therapist, I have lost count of the number of perfectly sane mothers who are ordered by the courts to be assessed by a psychiatrist or a psychologist in order to have contact with their children. These psychs are paid thousands of pounds to listen to the mother tell her story and, very often, when she strays into details of sexual and domestic violence that’s when she’ll be pronounced either a liar or delusional if she has no evidence. And, let’s face it, it would be very difficult to gather evidence of either child sex abuse or coercive control, for the woman who is no longer with her abuser, especially if he has care of her children. She will often have only her story and her memories, which can be refuted. Either conclusion – liar or delusional –  can mean no contact. So, for the mother seeking to prove that SDVA took place ,and that she is not a liar or mentally ill, a word of warning… It can be a very risky business for mothers apart to go anywhere near those that assess and diagnose for the family courts in this regard.

 

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Escaping a loop of unwanted thoughts

I am writing this post to help a client who has been experiencing overwhelming, unwanted and seemingly uncontrollable frightening and distressing thoughts. I hope that it might be helpful to whoever reads it. I have a great deal of personal and professional experience of escaping this continual negative loop by using a number of tactics based on powerful affirmations, loving self-care and self-acceptance, calming meditation, supportive networks, empowering journalling and knowledge-building bibliotherapy.

Affirmations

In my experience, affirmations can be an incredibly powerful tool to counter painful feelings and negative thoughts when you have to try and put them to one side to get on with your day or, indeed, your life. I learned of the power of affirmations through the work of Louise L. Hay and I have many of her recordings, which I, and the clients who I recommend them to, have found helpful.

Examples of affirmations:

This will pass.

I can handle it.

am dealing with this.

All is well in my world.

I am in control of my life.

I am loving, lovable and loved.

I am confident and competent woman/man.

Every day, in every way, I get stronger and stronger.

It is important to remember that these are affirmations and not truths. If you have a bad day, it doesn’t mean they are not true and not working, and that you really are not any of the things you started believing in. The point is that you are acting as if they are true in order to condition yourself to believe them. But we all have bad days and it is helpful to have some acceptance of this fact and concentrate on loving and caring for ourselves instead.

Loving self-care and self-acceptance

Be active in loving yourself and looking after yourself. Put yourself first. We need to love and accept ourselves and have self-empathy before we can truly love, accept and empathise with others. Avoid self-criticism, self-blame, self-reproach – don’t put yourself down – there are plenty of others who will do that for you so work hard to build yourself up instead. There are lots of ways to increase self-confidence and self-esteem – beginning with those affirmations. One effective method of self-care to help look after yourself when you’ve been having a rough time of it and you are in a dark place is to parent yourself. Imagine being both child and parent and the parent in you is charged with looking after the child in you. I find this an extremely loving way to nurture the self by being kind and gentle, by asking what the child inside needs and attending to those needs in a loving and caring way. I work with clients using this type of inner child work, which I learned through training in the Penny Parks method.

Calming meditation

There are a wealth of free and high quality meditations available via the Internet through resources such as YouTube and iTunes. Listening to a meditation can really help calm the stress and anxiety when you get stuck in a negative thought loop and I highly recommend finding out which ones work for you so that you can access one quickly if you are feeling panicky or frightened, and get to know the ones that you really enjoy so that you can plan to spend time in the evening after work meditating and relaxing when you recognise the need for calm and relaxation. There are different types of meditations either with guided (talking), or just music with nature sounds and pictures. I have recently discovered that Tina Turner has now devoted herself to Buddhism and meditation and she has provided many YouTube videos for us to enjoy – quite a few of them with children singing, which seem to have their own healing qualities.

Supportive networks

It is very hard to deal with life’s problems all alone – some problems are impossible to manage all by oneself. Building a good support network can be key to looking after ourselves and knowing how to ask for help and who to talk to when we recognise this could help are healthy coping skills. When we get stuck in a negative thought loop, talking can help so it is very useful to have some numbers of appropriate people or agencies to call in an emergency. There are many helplines for general distress such as the Samaritans, which is a wonderful resource for anybody feeling alone and desperate in the small hours when everyone else is asleep.

Empowering journalling

Writing a journal morning and night can really keep us on track when trying to cope through difficult times when we might be faced with many challenges throughout the day.

In the morning you may ask yourself the following questions:

How do I feel this morning?

What challenges do I anticipate today?

What coping methods will I use today to help me manage stress and build resilience?

By asking yourself such questions you may anticipate difficulties and pre-empt unhealthy coping methods by actively engaging in loving self-care, affirmations and meditation. You may recognise the need to talk to someone about your feelings, ask for help or even cancel an engagement if you recognise it as possibly too overwhelming for you. In these ways, you can keep yourself safe.

In the evening, you could ask yourself these questions:

How do I feel this evening?

What did I learn today and how can I put this into practise?

What would I have liked to have done differently?

Drawing on Kolb’s experiential learning cycle to think about how we can learn from our experiences we can being to identify what helps or harms us so that we know better how to deal with future situations. This is an effective method of increasing self-awareness, which is fundamental to growth and change. Again, we need to be loving, caring and kind towards ourselves and reflect in an honest but compassionate and forgiving way.

Bibliotherapy

Learning and understanding through reading different types of self-help or other types of relevant books can be hugely therapeutic. I particularly recommend audible books when stuck in a negative thought loop as listening to someone read to us can really take our minds off unwanted thoughts. Audible.co.uk is a great way to download books onto your iPhone or tablet so that you have books to hand when struggling with painful thoughts or challenging situations. Some of my favourites and some titles that others have recommended to me include:

Anything by Louise L. Hay

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers

Awakening Compassion by Pema Chodron

A Course in Miracles by The Foundation for Inner Peace

The Empathy Instinct by Peter Bazalgette

Humble Enquiry by Edgar H. Schein

It Didn’t Start with You by Mark Wolynn

Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Anything by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

Any of the Sleep Learning audible books by Anna Thompson

Do comment below if you have a suggestion!

 

I would like to end with this prayer by Julian of Norwich. Although I am not a religious person, I find her prayer immensely soothing and grounding when sung as a little ditty.

All shall be well, and all shall be well.

All manner of thing shall be well.

 

Warm wishes, Laura

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Practice

Source: My Practice

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Winnicott’s ‘good-enough’ mother

The concept of the ‘good-enough’ mother, introduced by Winnicott (1965), is still in common use today in family law, and in health and social services. However, it is often misused to blame women for falling below expected standards of parenting rather using it in its intended context. It is often not understood that the concept of the good-enough mother was embedded in another concept: that of ‘the nursing triad’. Winnicott acknowledged that support for mothers is necessary to mothering. The author did not have an expectation that mothers could be ‘good-enough’ without the support of either the child’s father, or another supportive adult. On the contrary, Winnicott acknowledged that mothering would be very difficult without support: this was a concept that he applied to all mothers.

Mothering without support becomes even more problematic when mothers have to manage alone in a context of domestic violence and abuse. Women who are mothering through DVA need help and support more than most. Furthermore, when the mother-child relationship is actively being interfered with and sabotaged by an abusive man using coercive control tactics mothers need specialised support from experts who understand this type of abuse.  To expect women to overcome difficulties on their own is unrealistic, and to accuse women of not being ‘good-enough’ mothers because they are in a DVA relationship is to ignore the difficulties in escaping abusers and how they need help to do this. To blame women for abuse perpetrated towards them (and their children) is simply to shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim and needs challenging. Furthermore, mother-blaming of this type supports perpetrator strategies to undermine mothering roles, abuse woman as mothers, and target mother-child relationships. Professionals can be unwittingly co-opted into such perpetrator strategies when they allow themselves to be manipulated by abusive men who are exploiting mother-blaming systems to their own advantage, e.g. by accusing mothers of being ‘unfit mothers’, ‘bad mothers’ – not ‘good-enough’ mothers.

This deficit model of the mother who is not ‘good-enough’ fails to acknowledge the many ways that women care for and protect their children in DVA situations. A strengths-based model of mothering recognises women as experts in their children’s lives. A mother-centred approach enables professionals to listen to women and believe them so that they know what they need to support and protect their children from their partner’s abuse. Mothers experiencing DVA need to be supported and protected, not blamed, threatened or punished. Winnicott’s ‘good-enough’ mother needed support. Women trying to escape DVA need more support and this is often in the form of protection. As many researchers have said, mother protection is often the best form of child protection….

The best way to prevent child abuse is through ‘female empowerment’” Stark and Flitcraft (1998: 97)
“The best form of child protection is frequently mother protection” Kelly (1997)

Supporting the non-abusing parent is likely to improve the safety and well-being of children and should always be fully explored (Women’s Aid 2015)
“The most effective way of creating safety for the child is usually to increase the safety of their mother” (Laing and Humphreys 2013)

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Use the law to address coercive control involving interference in the mother-child relationship

I have had a number of emails in the last week from women whose ex-partners are turning their children against them. These emails are in response to a presentation that I gave at the WMSDAC conference in Birmingham last week on coercive control through the use of children and the ways that abusive men target the mother-child relationship.

What I recommend to anyone in this situation is to understand how strategies involving children, directly or indirectly, particularly those that target women as mothers, and interfere or seek to destroy the mother-child relationship are part of a pattern of coercive control. We now have a law in the UK to address coercive control and I urge anyone experiencing this range of tactics to pursue their abuser using this law.

Understand what coercive control is. There is much information on the internet, e.g. Rights Of Women have a good info page:

Rights of Women

It is vital that you visit your local DVA services asap to explain that you are experiencing post-separation abuse and that your ex-partner is continuing to control, abuse, threaten, intimidate, frighten and punish you through your children. Women’s Aid have a wealth of information about where to find help and support.

Women’s Aid

If your abuser is one who threatened you with loss of contact with your children (as is very common), explain that your children don’t want to see you because he has carried out this threat, and this is the consequence of the coercive control that you experienced during your relationship. It is important that you engage with your local DVA services to build a paper trail of how you have reported the abuse over a period of time. You will be asked to keep a detailed diary of all the ways in which your partner is coercively controlling you. I advise that you record in as much detail as possible how this started before your children were turned against you or stopped seeing you, describing the grooming and alienating strategies that led to your separation from each other. This paper trail is important in order for you to apply for legal aid. You might be able to get legal aid if you have evidence that you or your children have been victims of domestic abuse or violence and you can’t afford to pay legal costs.

Legal aid

Many abusive men have engineered a situation through the family courts where women have lost contact with their children when the abuser has used the concept of parental alienation syndrome to claim that reports of DVA and CSA are fabricated and are really attempts by ‘malicious mothers’ to prevent contact between loving fathers and their children. This is often a very successful strategy of abusive men who use the family courts to continue abuse and control because this narrative has become embedded in the national psyche through decades of promulgation by fathers’ rights activists. It is virtually an article of faith now in the family courts that reports of DVA and CSA are likely to be false allegations. So much so that women who make such reports at the time of divorce and separation are often advised by their solicitors to keep quiet about these because they are likely to be disbelieved and their abusers even more likely to be awarded greater contact.

In contrast, family courts rarely recognise the abuse that women  and children experience when abusive men use alienating strategies themselves; when they target the mother-child relationship. This is because these tactics form part of a continuum of violence against women that are denied, minimised or ignored by courts – largely because of the parental alienation syndrome concept. This concept, therefore, has become a powerful tool for abusive men to simultaneously deny their abuse and commit further abuse through using alienating strategies, refuting alienating strategies and accusing women of alienating strategies. All of which are more likely to be believed by professionals in family courts then women’s own accounts of abuse perpetrated towards them and their children.

It is important to understand how abusive men co-opt professionals into abusive strategies using children by overwhelming services with their versions of events, claiming that they are the real victims. They use the same tactics with professionals as they do with their victims – either to charm or elicit sympathy, or to threaten and intimidate. They manipulate workers and exploit systems, by capitalising on victim/mother-blaming discourses that are embedded in patriarchal institutions. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ mothers, mothers who ‘fail to protect’, the ‘unfit’ mother are all examples of such myths that perpetrators use to their advantage. Many women who are victims and survivors of abuse find that when they seek help through the normal channels the gaze of services focuses on them as mothers, scrutinises their behaviour and blames them. Simultaneously, men’s abuse becomes invisible when the abuse is denied and reframed as lies by ‘implacably hostile’ mothers. These same men are then viewed as ‘good fathers’ and ‘caring dads’ when they ‘symbolise family values’ within the paradigm of ‘shared parenting’.

Seek out professionals who understand coercive control and ask them to help you challenge it. Find support from other women in similar situations so that you don’t feel so alone in what you are going through. MATCH mothers is such an organisation. Many of their members are unfortunately very attached to the concept of parental alienation syndrome and spend time promoting it through awareness-raising and activism and this is unhelpful. That aside, most members understand the pain and suffering of being separated from their children by their abuser and can help with that feeling of universality – that you are not the only woman in the world to experience the anguish, isolation, humiliation, blame and self-blame of being a mother apart from her children.

Good luck and stay strong.

 

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Mechanisms of Maternal Alienation

My model showing the mechanisms of maternal alienation

mec_ma_chartii


A designer friend of mine funked up my model of the mechanisms of maternal alienation that I developed during my psychology master’s in 2013. I planned on using it in a presentation for the West Midlands Specialist Domestic Abuse conference on coercive control March 14th 2017. However, I have it on good advice that this is not an ideal Powerpoint slide for a conference presentation as the audience might not be able to see it properly. So, I thought I’d file it here for all those interested in my work to see. I’ll use it in the training that I have developed for professionals to learn about the coercive control of women using their children that leads to mother-child separation.

As always, the findings of my study do not in any way apply generally to men but, specifically, to abusive men who use children to control and abuse their partners or ex-partners by targeting the mother-child relationship.

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Why are there more Fathers Rights’ Organisations than Mothers?

Tracey McMahon from the She Project – a Mother Apart

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