This week I continue my focus on children in recovery from alienation. This is a different aspect of the work that I do and one which I have recently been immersed in having helped a number of children to move from living with one parent to living with the other.  This means that I have been able to focus upon the ways in which children recover from alienation as well as actively help to bring about the emergence from the alienated state of mind.

Children who are alienated live with only one parent inside of themselves. This is an odd statement so let me explain what I mean.  As a psychotherapist I am focused always upon understanding the felt sense of the lives that  that children live. The felt sense being that intrapsychic and internalised world of feelings which children are submerged within.  Children are not adults.  Therefore there is a vast difference between the felt sense of children and the felt sense of adults.  (When I talk about adults here, I am talking about adults who have achieved a sense of independence and a sense of individuated self which they can experience as being their own personality.  There are some adults who cannot experience themselves as separate individuals, these people experience their internalised world as being submerged with or indistinct from the world of their children or other people or somethings things or places or feelings which they cannot understand. These people are those we would say have a psychological issue or a personality disorder).

Generally speaking then, children experience world in a vast and unboundaried way when they are young and as they grow older they learn to differentiate between ‘me and you’, ‘here and there’,  ‘before and after’ and so on. Gradually, the edges of their felt sense begin to sharpen and children begin to be able to define and experience inside of themselves, the difference between what I feel and what you feel.  Gradually children learn that the world of feelings can be managed and shaped and differentiated. As they grow, children no longer become overwhelmed by their feelings and no longer spend their time using their feelings to manage the world around them. They become used to translating their feelings into words instead and communicating with other, separate individuals, who may have feelings similar to or different to their own.

All of this however, occurs in the relationship with people around them and if the child is in good healthy relationships, with adults who are differentiated and aware of their own sense of self, they will begin the process of shaping their own sense of self within their own personal boundaries. If they are not in relationship with healthy adults however, or, if one emotionally unhealthy adult gains power and influence over them, their capacity for differentiation of their own sovereign sense of self is lost. These are the children who float in a soundless, boundless sea of emotional reaction. These are the children who become easily alienated. These are the children who do not ever gain the capacity to define and shape the internalised world which brings the developing self to the fore.

When we work with alienated children we experience the internal splitting off and externalisation of negativity onto the rejected parent. At once the child shuts the image of the parent they are splitting off into a box in the mind whilst simultaneously projecting hatred onto the thought of that person in the external world. And I say thought of that person for a purpose, because severely alienated children will project so much hatred onto their thoughts of the rejected parent that they will seek to silence anyone who even brings the thought into their conscious mind.  When the alienation is complete, the child has therefore accomplished two extremely difficult psychological tasks, they have split off an internalised object (the relationship they once had with a loved parent) and denied it to the degree where it is repressed into the unconscious and they have projected so much hatred and negativity onto it that they can no longer bear it being brought out of the box in their minds to be examined.  Using objects relations theory we would say that they have created a defence mechanism against the impossible position they are in when they are being pressured by a parent’s negativity about the other parent (both internalised objects in the child’s felt sense of the world).  By splitting off one object and putting it into a box in the mind, piling on a whole lot more negativity and hatred and then shutting the box tight for good, the child hopes to resolve the dilemma of not being able to love two parents in one body.  When this psychological work is complete, the child then experiences only the one parent in the one body in the form of that parent as an internalised object in their felt sense of the world.  Think of the child as one of those dolls which have smaller and smaller dolls inside them. In a healthy child the two dolls inside will be representative of the two parents, they will each bear the felt sense or feelings the child has about the parent or the feelings which the parent evokes in the child. In alienation, the child puts one of these dolls into a black box and shuts the lid. If they are left without help, the black box with the shut tight lid, lives in the unconscious world of the child until the psychological development of the child disturbs the box and it opens. When it does, out come the butterflies and moths, the feelings both good and bad that the child has shut away.  The child who has grown older without help to open the box, can become overwhelmed by the guilt and the shame of the knowledge that they took part in the wilful attempt at murder and repression of one of the two parents which lived in their psyche.

Children who have one parent introjected (experienced inside) which they are conscious of and which they project all good things upon and the other which is denied, split off and repressed,  do not know that they have two parents inside one body and do not know as a result that they have two sides to their selves. This is a difficult scenario for a child who then encounters the reality that there are two parents in the one body, two objects they must relate to in the internalised (felt sense) world.  This is why resolving the split off state of mind, the body in the box dilemma as I think of it, is so important.  Confronting the body in the box (who is thankfully still alive) is an enormous task if it is found spontaneously (which happens when young people’s brains grow to be able to hold perspective). Suddenly the splitting off of a parent seems faintly ridiculous or surprising or just plain weird. Conversely it feels overwhelmingly shameful and impossible to ever put right.  When the mind swings into trying to find perspective, living with two parents internalised in one body becomes an incredible struggle as children try to find out which one was right all along and which one was wrong.

And therein lies the absolute nub of the problem that faces children who have been alienated, they have not learned that both parents can be people who do good things sometimes and bad things sometimes.  Arrested in their development (or more realistically speaking regressed in their development), these children live in  good/ bad worlds. Finding out that they have two internalised objects internalised not one, can be a terrifying thing for these children who often spend a lot of time trying to externalise one of the objects in order to put it into a box again.  This is the scenario of children counter rejecting, if one parent caused them to hate the parent who has just reappeared then that parent, not the previously repressed and split off parent must be bad.  The peculiar task for alienated children is that of learning to relate to two people outside of themselves when they have only been used relating to one inside.  Finding the second parent is still intact when they spring out of the box is a relief to a child but preventing them from putting the other into the same box is a delicate task which requires focused attention and time.

Which is why alienating a child is abusive. Not because this is a contact problem in which the child is not seeing a parent but because it is a mental health problem which can take some time to rectify.  Whilst it is relatively easy to spring open the box for the child either by confrontation with the split off object (rejected parent) by force or by stealth, stopping the child from shovelling the other parent into the box instead is a real therapeutic task which requires patience and skill.  Helping the child with the peculiar task of relating to two parents inside the one body is about knowing about how a child’s mind works, how it recovers and what it needs in order to find and maintain balance over time.

The more I know about what it takes for children to recover from what has been done to them the more I know that alienation cannot continue to be ignored.

One day children will not be asked to murder one parent and put them in a box and hide them away in their minds in order to survive. One day, more of us will know how damaging that is and prevention rather than cure will be what we are really interested in.

Until then,  we press on.