We are back in Zagreb after a tour of Europe for holiday and rest time as well as work. Returning to the Child Protection Centre in Zagreb to work with Professor Bhuljan Flander and her team, we find ourselves back in the same location, but in a different time and space.
This time we are working with the recovery journey of the alienated child and sharing with the team here the stages that a child in recovery goes through. In doing so we are focused upon the underlying harm which is caused to a child who becomes alienated, which is caused by the psychologically split state of mind.
The psychologically split state of mind is a regression to an infantile defence mechanism, it is the child’s use of a coping mechanism to escape from the intolerable pressure being placed upon them by one or sometimes the behaviours of both parents. Children who become psychologically split, do so over time or in a second depending upon the dynamics which are configured around them. Some children seem absolutely fine with a parent, only to leave and never return. Others struggle with transitions back and forth until they too cross what we call the ‘tipping point’ which denotes that psychological shift which the child utilises to resolve the impossible dilemma they face. The question for the child is, ‘if I cannot love both, then which one must I love most.’ And the resolution of that leads to the psychologically split state of mind in which one parent becomes the idealised and adored one and the other becomes the demonised and rejected one.
The recovery journey of the alienated child is one which I am very familiar with as I am largely involved with the reunification of children with their rejected parent. As a psychotherapist, this is what I spend my time doing. In addition, I also work with post reunification therapeutic programmes with children, which gives me the opportunity to observe, record and analyse the longer term needs of children who suffer this problem.
Psychological splitting was recognised by Melanie Klein and the British Object Relations Theorists and is a defence mechanism which the child employs to prevent the bad feelings from contaminating the good feelings. In a situation where a child is being pressured to feel bad feelings about their other parent for example, the splitting allows the child to defend themselves against the horror of being made to hate and do hateful things to a parent they really love. Thus the child splits off the good from the bad feelings and projects the bad ‘out there’ onto one parent (usually the parent with least power or least time with the child) and the good feelings inside remain for the parent the child is either spending most time with (usually the parent with more power over the child).
A child in recovery from psychological splitting requires several things to happen to be able to resolve the divided state of mind –
a) the external circumstances which control their lives must be controlled by someone other than the parent they are aligned with.
b) whoever does the work of reuniting the child with the parent they are rejecting (splitting off and projecting bad things onto), must be able to hold the split state of mind AND the dynamic around the child, for long enough for the split to resolve itself.
When this occurs (as in reunification work), the child switches out of the split state of mind and resolves their divided feelings and is once again able to feel and show the integrated feelings they have for both of their parents.
In the UK, getting to this point requires the mental health and legal interlock, it is not resolved by therapy alone (much as some would have you believe it can be). Additionally, because the split state of mind causes children to be highly attuned to the adults around them, any practitioner who does not have a robust understanding of how alienation in a child manifests itself, is at risk of preventing the resolution of the split through the child’s utilisation of the unconscious resistances. As such, in any reunification programme the team is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain around the child. And that is shown many times in efforts to reunite children which fail, because of the interruptions by people who simply do not understand how reunification of an alienated child works.
The split state of mind is upheld in a child by the dependence by adults upon the alienated child’s spoken feelings. Because in the UK there is an over dependence by social workers and other ancillary services such as family court welfare officers, upon the UNRC article 12 (the right of the child to be heard in matters affecting them), it is often the case that an alienated child will be left in the split state of mind or even have that state of mind reinforced by the lack of understanding in professionals of the difference between the child’s spoken wishes and their underlying and split off and denied feelings. This is where I often despair in my work, because this dependency on what alienated children say, effectively ensures that reunification is impossible. A psychologically split child is not in a position to do anything other than speak the words which convey the truth of the dilemma they are in. They have regressed to an infantile defence mechanism and the people who are supposed to help them keep asking them what they would like to happen. The defence mechanism itself is actually the true voice of the child, the action of psychological splitting is the reality of the harm which is being done. The words the child speaks, are the parroted and robotic repetitions of what they have been forced to say and do to survive. Pity the alienated child who is surrounded by people who know nothing of the harm which has been done, it must feel like being in Groundhog Day being relied upon for directions in life by adults who should be taking responsibility, not conferring it upon the child.
Reunification work requires that the child’s split state of mind is healed and this is done by overriding the dynamics which have caused the use of the defence mechanism and confronting the child with the split off and denied parent. How this occurs is different around the world but in the UK, being able to do this requires a court order in the main and a Judge who truly understands the difference between children’s expressed wishes and their real, underlying and buried feelings. Only when this configuration of the legal compulsion plus the knowledge, skill and determined courage is combined, can children be helped to heal the split and mend the division in their mind. What is becoming increasingly common in the UK in recent times however is the use of the transfer of residence as a way of enforcing the confrontation between child and split off and denied parent. I have undertaken a number of these again this year, where they have been successful it has been with a team of alienation aware practitioners or simply carried out by me alone. Where it has failed it has been with unaware practitioners who have not understood either the harm the child has suffered or the way in which the child’s real feelings about a parent are signalled in ways other than their spoken wishes. In all cases what has been apparent is the child’s need for assistance AFTER reunification and the way in which therapeutic intervention works best post transfer. This is the work we are focused on in Zagreb this week, so that children whose primary residence is changed, are helped through the whole of the recovery journey from first healing of the psychologically split state of mind to resilience to the actions of the influencing parent.
So much to do and share and learn. Different legislative structures, different cultural imperatives. Different judicial system, more aware social services in Croatia than in the UK. Same problem in the children and families however, signalled by the signs of alienation in the child and then evidenced in the excavations undertaken via assessment. Same need for education programmes, same need for sharing skills and knowledge. One uniform goal in front of us, to prevent, reduce and repair the damage which is done to children when they become psychologically split and alienated from a parent as a result.
I read somewhere recently that rejected parents are vulnerable to splitting in the same way as their children. They are indeed. We are witness to the splitting in the world we work in right now where groups of parents are being drawn into dividing people who work in this field into all good and all bad. Let me tell you this too, the people who do this work are equally vulnerable to splitting, be they lawyers, psychotherapists, psychologists and even the judiciary itself in various countries. There is no subject on earth more prone to causing splitting than the psychologically split child in the midst of a separated family. Keeping one’s wits about one is critical for anyone who does this work over the longer term.
Keeping my wits about me is easier when I am collaborating with skilled, warm, compassionate colleagues who truly understand the problems we are working with. Colleagues in Zagreb are the inspiration for the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners which has grown apace to connect through fourteen different countries. Doing this work becomes easier in this kind of setting because we draw strength from each other and wisdom and shared determination. This is how the broken hearts and broken minds of children get mended, when determined people work together. This is how splitting is healed. This is how the children of tomorrow are prevented from having to encounter the defence mechanism of splitting in the first place.
Mutual respect, care and compassion. Mutual interest in what works and how to keep the child at the heart of everything we do whilst protecting the child’s right to an unconscious experience of childhood. Being big enough to take responsibility so they do not have to.
This is the future for this work with alienated children and their families.
It starts here.