I work daily with children, young people and adults who are affected by parental alienation. In doing so I come to notice those things which are similar as well as different in their presentation. My research work is focused upon the ways in which the split state of mind which causes parental alienation, can be treated in children and young people. As part of that research I develop therapeutic tools to assist alienated children and young people to understand what has happened to them.
The split state of mind is a defence mechanism which is unconsciously deployed by the child who is in an intolerable position. My experience of this intolerable position faced by the child is that it is caused by a number of things – all of which point to parental alienation being the spectrum experience it is described as in the International research.
The point at which the child deploys the defence of psychological splitting – dividing their feelings into wholly good for one parent and wholly bad for the other is called at the Family Separation Clinic – the ‘Tipping Point.’ This is when the splitting takes hold and the child enters the recognisable state of alienation which is described by the eight signs which were curated by Gardner.
The eight signs are the red flag of alienation which those of us who do this work, understand as meaning that the child has become psychologically split. Those eight signs signify that the child is displaying behaviours which show that the attachment hierarchy in the family has collapsed and the child is being given permission to make decisions which are not theirs to make. When we examine the relationship between parents and children in a case where a child is showing the signs of alienation, we are looking for issues such as spouseification and parentification, which I have written about many times over the years. Many of the residence transfers of children I have worked with, have been on the basis that they were being emotionally and psychologically abused because a parent was forcing them to take care of parental needs rather than the parent taking care of theirs.
It is however, the state of psychological splitting which is of greatest concern in our work because it is that which leaves a lasting legacy, it is that which is so abusive to the child. Whilst we can restore an attachment hierarchy by assisting parents, psychological splitting which underpins the alienation reaction in the child, leaves a lasting toxic legacy which must be treated in order to fully heal the child.
In dealing with the root cause of psychological splitting therefore, we examine how the child was pushed to the tipping point, our first investigation being to understand how this child came to use the defence of splitting. In doing so we excavate the history of the route to splitting by interviewing each parent and then observing them with the child who is psychologically split. This gives an immense amount of information about the reality of how, when and why this child came to use this defence mechanism. When we understand how, when and why, we are able to build the intervention which assists the child.
Anyone who works with alienated children and families knows that the defence of psychological splitting can happen to a child whether or not an aligned parent has a personality disorder. Thus we work on a spectrum and we work to understand the route to splitting in the child. Regardless of what one believes about parental alienation, a child using a defence of psychological splitting is an alienated child and an alienated child uses the defence of psychological splitting, regardless of whether a parent has personality disorder or not. It is simply impossible therefore, to assume that a child who is alienated will always have a personality disordered parent because in working with such children this is simply not proven When we evaluate the parents of some alienated children, we see in black and white the fact that the aligned parent does not have any personality issues. And yet the child is still alienated, still displaying the signs of alienation and still, underneath, psychologically split. Thus the use of a spectrum understanding of the problem of alienation, with the severe and pure cases involving parents with personality disorder and the rest not is the way we categorise and differentiate cases for treatment.
We categorise and differentiate because we work as closely to the child’s entry into psychological splitting as possible in order to get a rapid resolution. What we are seeking to do in repairing the split state of mind, is help the child to avoid the worst of what can be done to them if the splitting is maintained. This requires not only the building of treatment routes for the family but the education and support of the rejected parent and in cases where personality disorder is not present or is not presenting in such a way as to prevent engagement with us, with the alienating parent as well.
Splitting is an infantile defence mechanism which is described by Object Relations Theory as being the separation of ‘objects’ in the psychological self into good and bad parts. The good parts remain conscious and the bad parts are pushed into the unconscious and as such are split off from the conscious awareness. When a child reaches the intolerable ‘tipping point’ at which the pressures around them have forced this split to happen, the conscious awareness has divided the experience of the parents into good parent/bad parent. It then becomes a defensive drive in the child to push the bad parent ‘object’ into the unconscious and ‘forget’ about them.
When this split has occurred the child will deny all positive feelings, memories and thoughts about the parent they have split off and pushed into the unconscious. They will additionally find ways of explaining this using fabrications, flimsy reasoning and reasons they have heard from other people to justify their ‘decision.’ When working with recovering alienated children, I hear from them again and again that their awareness of what they are doing remains but that it in itself is split. As one young woman who rejected her mother by saying her mother had physically abused her told me recently –
When I was telling these lies about my mum, one part of me was watching me say it, absolutely horrified that I could do it so easily, whilst the other part of me gave me absolute permission to do this and sort of egged me on by making me remember all the bad things she had ever done to me. Like telling me off for wearing make up or making me go to bed at 10pm instead of letting me stay up late – and those things made sense to me, they gave me permission to be horrible to her, even though they seem ridiculous to me now.
Splitting therefore is the core wound which we must treat in our work with alienated children and splitting occurs with and without personality disorder in the alienating or aligned parent. This reality is one which is recognised around the world and it is absolutely essential to observe because if we ignore it then any child who is psychologically split but whose parent is not personality disordered, would be regarded as not being alienated and would be left without help.
And psychologically split children need help. Ideally they need to be prevented from having to adopt the psychologically split state of mind in the first place, which requires getting the earliest support possible to separating families. Sadly, when we look at policy around Europe, early intervention is disregarded in favour of expecting families to simply get on with things, which leaves us currently, dragging the bodies out of the water downstream to rescue them.
Along with so many others around the world who are dedicated and focused on finding the swiftest possible route to prevention and cure of the split state of mind, we keep our minds on the reality for alienated children everywhere. We keep those children always in mind as we work with them and as we discuss, research, review, evaluate, test, learn and build resolutions for them.
We do so despite the splitting which goes on in the professional community and despite the splitting which goes on in the work around individual families as we work to bring about restoration of the integrated state of mind for children. We do so because we know that splitting harms children. It harms them now and it harms them in the future. It harms them whether it is caused by personality disorder in a parent or by intense conflict or by the professionals who work with the family taking sides.
Splitting builds walls in a child’s mind which the child is unaware of. In my work with recovering children I am now working with graphics which show the child the wall they have built. And I see how readily the child recognises it. And how in recognising it, the child is enabled to break the wall down. And how with the support of a parent who is able to receive the child without creating a counter rejecting reaction of good/bad splitting, the child is enabled to find a firm footing from where they are able to heal and gain perspective.
Treating the split state of mind is where I am at right now. Working with legal colleagues to build legal interventions which get us to the child’s split state of mind quickly, is what we are focused upon. This is the core of the legal and mental health interlock we will explore at the conference next week. This is the partnership which is necessary to treat parental alienation.
At the coal face is where we are.
Every day until the walls come tumbling down.