Self Defence and the Shut Down Reaction in Alienated Children and Rejected Parents

I am currently working with a group of young people who suffered the pathological splitting reaction in their early teens and who have reunited with their parent in their early twenties.  This work provides a rich seam of information about how young people recover from the defence of psychological splitting and what happens in their relationship with a parent when they reunite with them.

The defence of psychological splitting is a very difficult defence to work with in young people, largely because having suffered it they have lost out on the opportunity to develop certain emotional and psychological skills for life.  One could say that these young people truly do not know their own mind, because whilst they present in therapy as being extremely emotionally articulate, the language they use gives clues to the problem they suffer inside.

A defence happens when intolerable things happen to us.  This is how it is described in a psychodynamic sense, (psychodynamic means how early experiences are related to psychological behaviours in the here and now).

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For young people who have suffered the defence of psychological splitting, the way in which this affects their behaviours demonstrates the manner in which they tried in the past to avoid feelings which arise from the divorce or separation of their parents.  It is with this hidden language of the mind and body that we must work to help the damaged children inside the young adult.

In reunification work, where we are assisting parent and children to reconnect, we must work with the maladaptive and defences behaviours of the parent as well and the child. Because it is a reality that the alienation reaction in the child, causes the shutting down of the empathic responses in the parent to the child.  When you think about this, it makes sense.  A child who is dearly loved begins to behave as if the parent is harmful and begins to give off the kind of body language which signals that they are afraid.  The child may have made allegations about the parent, which causes fear and dread in the parent in response and which triggers the start of mistrust of the child.  As these mirroring behaviours being to escalate, the defence of psychological splitting begins.  The child divides the world into one parent good/one parent bad and the rejected parent similarly divides the world into good/bad as they watch what is happening to the child.  The end result of this is the complete shut down of the relational system and the placing of all feelings that the rejected parent has for the child into deep freeze as they attempt to survive the horror of what has happened.

Working with the relational system is what those of us who do this work are about.  We are not cold assessors ticking boxes and making snap shot observations, we are people who get involved in the family system, oiling the wheels and clearing out the relational channels.  At the Family Separation Clinic we work with a combined assessment and therapy model, one which is very close to that which was presented by Brian Ludmer at the EAPAP Conference in London.  This model of work offers a rolling assessment of the family system and an immediate intervention in which the alienated child is always seen in clinical observation with the rejected parent at the start  of our assessment.  As Dr Hamish Cameron told us in August, an assessment for parental alienation is not complete until the child has been observed with the rejected parent and it is this essential ingredient in our work which leads to the repeated successful outcomes we achieve in our reunification programmes.

Within the relational system lie all the clues of what pathological splitting does to the alienated child and the family on both sides.  When one is involved with such a family there is no point in spending the whole time sitting in a room and talking, this work is about doing things, it is about the felt sense of the child and rejected parent and the manner in which the pathological splitting reaction has created an inability to feel the warmth and connectedness of the relationship prior to the defence taking shape.

Working with young people who have recovered their relationship with a parent I find out just how much the defence of splitting distorts their felt senses and just how much it both prevents them from developing the rich inner life of the imagination which they clearly have the capacity for.  The defence of splitting appears to make young people in recovery of their relationship with a parent intellectual diplomats, in that in order to reconnect they appear to intellectualise their feelings, splitting the hurt child from the parentified adult they have become.  Thus they can once again tolerate a relationship with the parent they rejected, but they cannot fully feel the feelings that they once had for that parent.  Instead what they appear to do is relate to the once rejected parent from an intellectual standpoint, sympathising somewhat with the rejected parent’s plight in the past and recognising the harm that the alienating parent did to them.  This is the result of parentification which is often described as role reversal, boundary distortion, and inverted hierarchy between parents and other family members in which children or adolescents assume developmentally inappropriate levels of responsibility in the family. In this parentified position the recovering child feels sympathy but not empathy and tolerance of the relationship with a rejected parent.  What they do not appear to be able to do without help, is to move into the realm of the felt senses in relation to the once rejected parent, in which they can once again relax and become the unconscious child in the right place in the family hierarchy.

To bring these young people to that place of relaxation it is important in therapeutic work to being the rejected parent  back over the line which they have retreated beyond.  Because it is the rejected parent who is the only person who can ultimately give the recovering young person access to this rightful place in the hierarchy.  Whilst therapists doing this work can assist the young person to drop the defence by working with the language and revealing and confronting the neurosis which has arisen from the defence, the only way in which the young person can retrieve the felt sense of warmth and safety in relationship with the rejected parent is for the rejected parent to step forward and invite them to receive it.  I have written this in bold because I want to be  very clear that as in reunification work with younger children, anyone who calls themselves a parental alienation expert who is not working in a co-therapy role with the rejected parent, is not an expert in this field but is doing something else instead which they are trying to pass off as being expertise. Please remember when you are seeking help that you as the rejected parent are the key to your child’s long term wellbeing at whatever age they reconnect with you.  Thus in any kind of assessment or therapeutic work you are the most valuable resource a therapist can work with and helping you to get ready to step forward to help your child back into healthy relationship with you is what all therapists should be doing from the outset of any work they are doing.

As a way of helping you to understand how effective structured therapeutic interventions can work with young people in recovery, here is a case study to illustrate what happens.

Shane comes into therapy at the age of 28, he is seeking help because he cannot find a way to sustain relationships with women and he is concerned that there is something wrong with him.  In therapy he presents as thoughtful and considered and is able to articulate very clearly those things which concern him.  Shane was alienated from his father for eight years, the rejection began at eleven and he reunited with his father when he went to university.   He speaks respectfully of his father but at times in therapy he falls to analysing him and his faults.  When he speaks of his mother he laughs a lot when he describes how she is critical of him for his poor choices in women, he uses laughter as a defence in therapy a lot.

Working with the defence of splitting, Shane is able to recognise that he doesn’t feel the same about his father as he did when he was a little boy.  He describes disappointment and the sense of abandonment he felt when his mother and father split up. The quality of his description however demonstrates that he has intellectualised his feelings, he speaks as if from a distance, watching his younger self, he is unable to connect with any of the feelings he once had.  

In therapy we use a range of tools to enable Shane to connect to the young self and in doing so we discover that this younger self is frozen in time and unable to speak.  We connect with this younger self through metaphor and play using stones and building blocks, leaves and shells and things which appeal to Shane visually but which I hope will, once handled and played with, draw out the younger frozen self so that the feelings can flow.

During this phase of work I contact Shane’s father (with Shane’s permission) and ask him if he will come into therapeutic work with Shane for a couple of sessions.  I hold an introductory session with Shane’s dad first in which I explain to him that I think Shane needs to regress in his relationship with him for a while in order to recover the felt sense  of his father’s love which will place him back in the right place in the hierarchy.  Shane’s dad is game for this and understands well what I am seeking to do.  He understands that when Shane breaks through the wall of the splitting defence it must be his father he finds on the other side and not me.  If he finds me, the process is much much longer because we then have to work with the transferential material which arises when Shane recovers feelings but projects them onto me.  If he finds his father, he can immediately use his recovered felt sense to deeply reconnect with the feelings of being his father’s son.  This is why rejected parents are the most valuable resource in this work, because when they are ready and prepared and the breakthrough comes, the child/parent bond resets itself immediately and the integration of the split state of mind is immediate and sustained.

As we move closer to the breakthrough point I put Shane and his father together in the playroom and give them a series of things to do together.  From collaborative play to challenging puzzles, from building towns out of blocks to painting and making things, Shane and his dad share the process of drawing out Shane’s younger self to let him speak.  

One day, three sessions in, Shane and his dad are building a meccano crane when Shane looks panicked.  I ask him to tell us what is going on and he spoke of a sense of overwhelming guilt and an image of his mother watching him.  Whilst this experience passed over quickly, it gave us a clue to the experience of the younger child who had entered into splitting.  Later in the same session Shane hugged his dad tight telling him that he had always loved him and that he was sorry for all of the lost years.

As our work progressed, Shane’s defence of laughter was noticeably slowing down and he no longer spoke about his mother’s criticism of him as being something that was inevitable and acceptable.  Shane still saw his mother regularly and still spoke of her with warmth and affection but he also spoke of the time he was spending with his father with a greater degree of interest and warmth.  Shane grew more vital in our talking sessions and more playful in his sessions with his father.  In our exploration of Shane’s relationships with others, he spoke of feeling that he could trust himself more and believe in his own feelings.

What we are doing in this work is assisting the split state of mind to heal and at the same time we are reconnecting the parent/child bond with the child in the right place in the family hierarchy.  Whilst we are always seeking to ensure that the splitting in the child is not flipped over so that the alignment/rejection behaviour continues but in the other direction, we are also attending to the damage which is done to the child in the pathological alignment with the alienating parent.  We are stripping back the defence and waking up the shut down responses in both parent and child so that the normal healthy bonding processes can do the work they have always done and restore the child to health.

At the same time the rejected parent is restored to health and belief in themselves once again as the healthy parent they always were.

These families are not ‘entrenched’, they are not ‘high conflict’ and they are not really ‘problem’ families.  What they are are families affected by a recognisable defence which is caused when the family is left to work its way through the minefield of separation without any help or recognition of the harm that family separation does to children.  The children who are affected are highly intelligent, often sensitive and extremely wounded in the process of the family separating.  The defence is a difficult one to work with but approached correctly, it is not impossible to resolve.

I will say it again.

Approached correctly this defence is not impossible to resolve.  What gets in the way of resolving it however is ignorance, arrogance and the fogging of opposition to understanding.  I could also add vested interests of those wannabe experts who set themselves up as self appointed alienation Tzars who spend their time trying to convince the world that treating parental alienation can be shoe horned into existing therapeutic models of work.

Working with parental alienation cannot be shoe horned into anything which already exists other than the internationally recognised standards of practice which are already set down in the research literature.  Therapeutic standards set by EAPAP and delivered by the Family Separation Clinic in the UK and Turning Points for Families in the USA as well as others around the world which we are currently curating now.

The tide has turned and the shut down reaction in the legal and mental health response to parental alienation has awoken in the UK and Europe.

Change for alienated children and rejected parents is here.


Please note that we have had a recent family bereavement at the Family Separation Clinic which has delayed our post conference work.

We will be returning to the development of EAPAP and the post conference posting of information and materials next week.

We are also working on several filmed pieces from the conference which will be available for download.

Please check at the EAPAP website for updates.

4 Comments

  1. My stepson (18) reappeared after 3.5 years alienated, and this is exactly how it seems – he can tolerate a relationship with my husband again, but it’s superficial and not father-son like at all. I don’t think it will change any time soon, still living with his mother and not having any therapy.

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  2. Firstly Karen may I pass on my condolences to those in the Family Separation Clinic on your recent loss. Those of us this side of the system can forget that those of you who work so hard to help us with our lives, do have lives of your own!!

    Thank you for this piece……it has been of more use to me than any other through my years with you! I have gotten to the adult stage with my son and if truth be known was beginning to feel a little irked that I had gotten no further with him now he had reached the grand old age of 18! I forgot that I was going on 46 before I had the courage to stand up to an abusive husband, so why on earth would I expect a boy of 18 to have the same strength now?

    I have read over your piece several times and it was will be my guide through the next few years. I know you can’t cover every aspect of PA every time you write a blog but I do so appreciate that you take us on the complete journey….. I hope I am on the final leg of mine even if it takes me a few years yet! I will not give up because I was an alienated parent, but I’m not an alienating mum!

    Thanks again
    Frankie

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  3. “The child may have made allegations about the parent, which causes fear and dread in the parent in response and which triggers the start of mistrust of the child.”

    Oh, Karen, how you perfectly describe my thoughts and feelings. “Mistrust” – well, it was blind trust that led me into this situation, never seeing the danger from within. And now, having dedicated myself to never falling victim (sic) to trust, how will I ever reclaim this? Admitting to myself that the years have hardened me to the point that I would not trust my daughters under my roof – how is there any way forward? But how for me to violate my protection of myself? To trust again?

    To be unable to trust your own children – oh the damage that has been done.

    My condolences on the loss on your side, we are all only here for a brief time.

    Thank you.

    Peter

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  4. I recognise that picture, a beautiful coastal walk just north of Scarborough on a Jurassic coastline. Just inland there are more buildings, relics of the second world war and stories about the radio operators who were part of an early warning system that alerted the defence forces of imminent danger from invasion.

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