The issue of power and control is one which underpins the dynamic between parents in parental alienation and it is coercive control in its varying guises, which causes a child to enter into the infantile defence mechanism which is called psychological splitting. When a child has entered into this state of mind, it is impossible to cajole, persuade or use generic therapy to persuade them out of it. This is because what lies beneath the use of the defence mechanism is primal fear. When a child has entered this state of mind it is because the biological imperative to survive has become dominant. This is only ever seen in situations where children are, at depth, afraid. This fear can derive from those things which a parent is doing to the child to ensure that the child is aligned to them strongly and it can derive from the fear of deep rooted beliefs that the rejected parent is not capable of keeping them safe. This is usually seen in situations where a child has witnessed sustained control of the rejected parent by the alienating parent. Whichever route the child took into such a situation, it is not the case that generic therapy will resolve the issue. Such a situation requires strong and swift intervention. When it is applied it must be continuous and uninterrupted.
When we analyse a case of a child rejecting a parent, we look at all of the different elements involved from a psycho-relational perspective, including coercive control. We do not however use the Duluth model or any politically influenced model of analysis to do so. The dangers of analysing a case of a child’s resistance to a relationship with a parent using any of these models based upon a belief in patriarchal power, is that they enable the practitioner to miss the reality of what is happening underneath the presenting dynamic. Through the use of the Duluth model for example, the eye is drawn not to the child’s experience but to the mother’s experience. Only when the analysis begins with the child’s experience, can the multilayered analysis give the truth of what is happening to the child.
The model below is one of the tools used by the Clinic to analyse the child’s route into the psychologically split state of mind.
In each of the sections, a series of assessments are undertaken of both parents, in order to determine the conditions in which the child entered into splitting. Each parent, aligned and rejected, is assessed and the result gives a picture of the dynamic which caused the problem in the first place, allowing treatment routes to be developed to assist the child to change. In pure cases, where a parent has a personality disorder for example and where this results in a number of issues in each of the other sections, whilst the other parent has stronger, healthier results, the outcome is likely to be a recommendation for a change of residence (which is the UK’s preferred route to dealing with severe alienation). In other cases, where there is no personality disorder in the aligned parent but a number of other issues arising and the rejected parent has a good enough parenting style with fewer issues in each of the sections, an intervention for hybrid is developed. This is likely to be a multi modal, court ordered and robustly managed programme which has as its core focus, the immediate restoration of the relationship between child and rejected parent.
The core feature of working in this way is that it is responsive to the spectrum of parental alienation and it offers education and support for families to improve health and wellbeing over the longer term.
Children entering into the split state of mind is caused not just by the presence of personality disorder and this model of work allows for intervention across a wide range of such cases. Considering the problem from the perspective of relationships between parents and their influence on children, ensures that each child’s unique response to the dynamics around them is properly understood and responded to. Children are at the heart of this work and the power and control exerted over them in a case of parental alienation is considered in this model to be child abuse.
I will write more from this perspective over the coming months as I am focused upon children’s experiences of recovery from alienation and the way in which their relational capacity is changed by the experience of being controlled by a parent’s influence. As I continue to work with children in recovery, it is clear that their needs for relational support are strong and that their capacity for improving understanding of the relational space is too. With the right kind of intervention even the most severely alienated children can and do recover well. Largely due to the healthy interpersonal relational dynamic with the formerly rejected parent and the plasticity of the brain. This is the reason why we say so often to rejected parents that they must keep healthy and well. It becomes ever clearer in working with children in recovery that this is indeed, their route to a healthy future.
The above diagram is taken from Woodall, K. & Woodall, N. (2017). Understanding parental alienation: Learning to cope, helping to heal. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
See extracts here