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.


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.


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. 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


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


quote-there-is-no-greater-warrior-than-a-mother-protecting-her-child-n-k-jemisin-240587I have to get this off my chest. In fact, this is a decade of frustration over my family law case. While I am out of Family Law as are my children, I have had shall we say, a few years to reflect on the mistakes I made back in 2003 in expecting a court would resolve the difficulties within my home environment.

A decade on – Action for Children are working on an alternative offence for the neglect of children. Details of which can be found in the link.

I am passionate about justice and child welfare. Having failed as a mother to protect my children from the damage two warring parents subject any child to, I have found peace within myself to be able to look at situations with a degree of balance.

I opened proceedings in Family Court back in 2004 in order to secure the residency…

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Picking apart the mother-blaming that takes place with abused mothers

I’ve been working on a theme that is to do with unhelpful/punitive/harmful responses to mothers who have become, or are at risk of becoming, separated from their children in a context of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) (mothers apart for short). I am arguing that these responses stem from mother-blaming and involve attitudes, beliefs, values and perceptions that are influenced by culture, society, theories and the media. I also argue that blaming mothers apart can lead to secondary abuse/coercion, re-victimisation and re-traumatisation, and relates to the dearth of support for this at-risk population of mothers apart who are largely a marginalised and stigmatised vulnerable group of women with complex needs that are currently not being met by services/interventions.

These are arguments that I have made before (although not so developed) in the Mothers Apart Project (MAP) Workshop that I created (with collaboration from MATCH Mothers), and piloted last year in Coventry, and at a recent practice development seminar that I gave at King’s College London to a group of practitioners as part of the Making Research Count partnership between KCL and University of Bedfordshire. These were both invaluable experiences for my research project as both were attended by a range of practitioners, especially social workers, from whom I learned much. Their responses and feedback to my work has helped me to appreciate the nature of mother-blaming that leads to unhelpful/punitive/harmful responses to mothers apart, in much greater detail than I previously understood it.

I have observed that mother-blaming (related to mothers apart) involves a way of thinking about women victims/survivors of DVA, who are abused mothers, as follows:

  • A rigid belief that women freely choose to stay with their abuser when they are, in fact, easily able to leave safely. This belief does not take into account the complexity of why women stay, or don’t leave, which is not at all black and white.
  • This belief co-occurs with another belief that abused mothers freely choose their abusers over their own children when they are given an ultimatum by the state. Again, this belief is highly simplistic and fails to consider a range of reasons why women may make such a decision.
  • A perception of motherhood as a totally selfless, all-giving occupation where a woman’s needs must always come second to her child’s needs, which is largely based on Eurocentric, middle-class beliefs about an ideal childhood rather than the reality of the child’s life or actual needs (usually to be with its mother when she is the primary carer).
  • A biased attitude towards scrutinising mothers’ behaviour from a critical position that judges from an impossibly high standard of mothering, which the average mother in the UK is not able to achieve (because it relates to the point above, that this standard is idealistic rather than realistic).
  • A valuing of attachment theory to blame development problems on the type of secure or insecure bond that the abused mother has cultivated with her baby/child. The use of this theory does not apportion blame to the DVA perpetrator who negatively impacts the mother’s parenting and, in fact, the DVA perpetrator who is the child’s father may even be given primary care of the child if the state decides that the mother’s parenting is not good enough when she has ‘failed to protect’. (This is because violent/abusive men can still considered to be good enough fathers in the UK family courts).
  • A judgemental attitude towards abused mothers where a deficit model of mothering draws upon attachment theory to blame, rather than a strengths-based model using attachment theory to highlight the numerous and creative ways that mothers are able to protect their children from DVA. So, although attachment theory is likely to be used to support the removal of a woman’s children, it might not be used to support and preserve the mother-child relationship when there is DVA.
  • A belief that women commonly make up allegations of DVA and child sexual abuse (CSA) during family court proceedings and that this is due to ‘parental alienation (PA)/parental alienation syndrome (PAS). This belief stems from ignorance about how PA/PAS has become a tool used by DVA perpetrators to conceal their violence, and continue their control and abuse through the weaponisation (Evan Stark’s term) of children in the family courts. This belief has almost become an article of faith in the family courts to the extent that women are now being warned not to report DVA and CSA in case they are accused of PA/PAS, when the outcome is likely to be that the child will be placed in the care of the father even when he is a DVA perpetrator (see above).
  • A perception of abused mothers as ‘unfit mothers’ who are also likely to have a range of stereotypes conferred upon them, that fit with the ‘toxic trio’ (DVA, substance misuse, mental health problems) opinion. With this perception, comes a failure to recognise the effects of DVA that can be misdiagnosed as mental health problems or personality disorders, or the fact that substance use might be a way of coping with DVA or that the woman may be coerced into using substances in order to entrap or blame her. This perception can be fixed without acknowledging that abused mothers’ parenting usually improves when the DVA perpetrator is removed from the situation.
  • A valuing of the individualised approach to health and social care that omits to consider the social/cultural factors of DVA, which leads to blaming women for the DVA that is perpetrated towards them and pathologising them (see above).
  • An attitude that is biased towards removal of care from the mother as an effective form of early intervention (sometimes as a form of defensive practice). This attitude fails to recognise the importance of the mother-child relationship for the protection of, and recovery from, DVA for both mother and child (see Emma Katz’s work), or that mother protection is often the best form of child protection, which many key figures in DVA scholarship keep telling us (e.g. Liz Kelly, Evan Stark and Anne Flitcraft, to name a few).

During my research project, I have observed and learned of these attitudes, values, beliefs and perceptions held by a wide range of professionals at the intersection of DVA services, health and social care, and the family courts (private and public). I argue for the need for DVA training that includes an understanding of how violence and abuse is a risk factor for mother-child separation. I have identified mother-child separation due to coercive control based DVA using children as a serious problem right now that is largely not recognised by professionals/services/organisations, and that specialised training is required in order to use the new coercive control legislation to combat this problem. I also argue for the need for specialised support for mothers apart who have experienced mother-child separation due to coercive control based DVA using children. Currently, I only know of the charity, MATCH Mothers, which provides emotional support to mothers apart, and WomenCentre in Calderdale and Kirklees, which is an exemplary service offering support that is specific to mothers apart.

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