Working in the intrapsychic world of the alienated child means working with those things which are occurring within the psyche, mind, or personality. This world is not definitive because it is the subjective experience of the child in relationship to the parent who is exerting influence over them. Thus it is essential that any practitioner who does this work with children, is able to interpret the way in which individual children relay messages from the intrapsychic world to the outer world, about the difficulties they are encountering in their experience themselves as sovereign beings with control over their own mind and psyche.
What does all of this mean?
It means that the child who is being influenced by a parent, conveys that experience from the internalised relationship they have with the parent who is influencing them, to the outside world, in particular ways. Those ways, which become obvious when practitioners are used to listening to the language an alienated (psychologically split) child uses, are not readily visible to those who do not know that the intrapsychic world of the influenced child exists. Whilst each child conveys these messages in ways which are unique to them, there are common themes which appear again and again in the language used by psychologically split children.
The mind of a child is malleable. Watch young children for long enough and you will see them absorbing the messages in the intrapsychic world from the adults and their peers. One of the most powerful ways a child is influenced intrapsychically, is through the schooling they receive and the messages which are conveyed by significant people such as teachers. The codes of behaviours and values a child comes to live by, are conveyed in the intrapsychic world of the developing child.
Freud determined the intrapsychic world as being that realm of the unconscious which is uniquely our own but which interacts with others at a level not readily visible to the outside world. Thus it is possible to understand that the internalised objects of our early lives, in the form of the influence of our mother, father and other significant people, are powerful forces which shape our childhood responses for good or bad. In the intrapsychic world of the alienated child, what is apparent is that the child is sensitive to the unspoken and sometimes unconscious messages from one parent and the responses to this from the other. Under the surface of an alienation reaction is therefore not only a return to the infantile defence mechanism of splitting, in which the child divides the world into wholly one thing and wholly the other (black/white, good/bad, positive/negative), but a response to the waves of unconscious feelings from two parents who have changed their relational response to each other.
As I work with alienated children I notice that there are similar themes which emerge from the psychologically split child, one of which is kidnap and removal, being chased or taken away. These themes can take the shape of talsimanic statements which in themselves describe trigger events which when they are properly examined, demonstrate that these are the moments in time which tripped a parent from being an anxious infuencer in the intrapsychic world to being an alienating parent.
In my experience, the other repeating themes used by alienated children to protect the infantile defence mechanism of psychological splitting (how children keep the defence of rejection in place) are of stabbings, killings, shootings, wolves, fangs and blood. Many of the children I have worked with have used these images in one way or another, some drawing pictures, others describing fairy tale scenes in which children are captured and harmed by an adult. What these themes appear to show are the way in which children make sense of the fears and anxieties of the influencing parent, which they are picking up in the intrapsychic world and making sense of as best they can in the only available language they have. Translated this means that the anxiety and fear they absorb in the unconscious relationship they have with the influencing parent, is woven into stories that their child mind understands. The trouble which occurs for children who are signalling the harm they are suffering in this way is, that most professionals working with the child do not understand the counter intuitive nature of this work and assume that the child is relaying their own fears in a straightforward manner, about the parent they are rejecting.
The world of the alienated child is the subject of my doctoral research and as I dig deeper into the narratives collected from children over the past ten years of my direct work with them, I come to understand the true nature of the double bind these children are captured in. The biological need for survival, which is triggered in the child on the dissolution of the marriage or upon the crisis of family separation, drives them to use the intrapsychic world in greater depth. This is not a conscious act but one which occurs in the unconscious and therefore inaccessible (to them) world of the child. The more sensitive the child, the more attuned they are to the parent upon whom they are most dependent. Thus the arrangement for children to live in two homes where possible, acts to offset the risk that children in this psychological crisis, will not descend into psychological splitting rapidly. Whilst living in two homes cannot protect all children, the message that they have two parents upon whom they can depend, may well protect some children from the enforced entry into biological survival mode which leads to super attunement to one parent and disconnection from the other.
Some children appear to be more at risk in the intrapsychic world. The eldest child in a family where a parent has left is at risk of being drawn into the attachment disrupted position of pseudo parent to the other children or replacement spouse to a parent. Conversely, the child who is resilient, not naturally attuned and more capable of rational thought, may be completely unaffected and may well continue to be in a good relationship with both parents regardless of their reaction and response to separation.
Each child truly is different in this regard, which is why one size most certainely does not fit every case of an alienated child and why understanding the intrapsychic world and the language of the alienated child, is a critical skill for any practitioner working in this field.
Too many practitioners who hear the narrative of the alienated child assume that is a straightforward description of the harm that has been done in the family breakdown or the evidence that the rejected parent must be fixed. Too many practitioners are themselves defended against the reality that alienation in a child can be caused both consciously and deliberately AND unconsciously in the intrapsychic world. This is a real problem for children who are signalling their distress in ways which are wrongly interpreted and which lead to the child’s ‘choice’ (which in reality is not a choice at all but a biologically and psychologically driven survival mechanism) being upheld. The tragedy for these children is that having had their ‘choice’ upheld, they are then abandoned to their fate, which is to be sealed into the dysfunctional intrapsychic capsule of their relationship with the influencing parent. A fate which we know from longer term observation of alienated children, causes signficant damage to their wellbeing later in life.
As I move on in my understanding I am gathering the evidence which will show how alienated children translate the messages in the intrapsychic world which can be interpreted by alienation aware practitioners. Richard Gardner’s eight signs of alienation were the first interpretation of the child’s signals to the outside world and much subsequent work has added to these. The work I am doing will, I hope, lead to a detailed and comprehensive understanding of how to hear the voice of the alienated child which can be used by practitioners everywhere.
So that when children in the future are speaking this language, we will not only hear what the child is really saying, we will know what to do to help them.
The world of the alienated child, a fairy tale which will one day have a happy ending, if I have anything to do with it.