I work with families affected by the infantile defence of psychological splitting, this is the core wound experienced in parental alienation. As I continue on my journey, I understand that the splitting which is seen in the child who becomes pathologically aligned to one parent and rejecting of the other, is also seen throughout the family – on both sides. On one side is the originating split which causes the pressure upon the child to use splitting as a defence and on the other is the reactive defensive split which is caused by the child’s rejection of a parent leading that parent to have to live with the projection of a divided self which in time causes a splitting as a response.
Thus rejected parents will also use the ego defence of splitting as a way of managing an impossible situation (a healthy parent/child relationship has been rejected in favour of one which has caused demonstrable pathology in the child). And therefore treatment of the family as a whole, has to take a defined route which begins with the resolution of the split state of mind in the child alongside any splitting defences in the once rejected (now receiving parent). Only when this work is complete can attention be paid to the source of the splitting which resides in the parent from whom it originated. The core of all of this work is protection of the child from harm.
It is the case that unless the use of the infantile defence of splitting can be treated in the child as a first step, all efforts to intervene in such cases will inevitably fail. Whilst in the UK we have some services which use the desensitisation techniques which are contraindicated by research evidence (Warshak 2015), the increasing use of residence transfer, with and without therapeutic bridging support, means that there is an increased understanding amongst the Judiciary as well as some social workers and guardians, that the first step which must be taken to rectify the problem seen in children affected by parental alienation, is protective separation of the child from the parent who is causing the harm.
Whilst some believe that a child who is rejecting a parent is doing so because of a lack of attachment, in fact the reverse is true. A child without an attachment to a parent would not need to use the ego defence of psychological splitting because the child would simply not have a relationship with that parent and therefore would not need to create a defence in rejection.
I embolden the sentences above because they articulate the truth of the problem of severe parental alienation which has been evidenced in the research and in my work over ten years. The split state of mind in the child is the result of serious emotional and psychological harm and the first step to recovery for the child is to remove them from the person who has caused (and is likely to continue causing) that harm.
To cause psychological splitting in a child is an act of child abuse and when we see child abuse we remove the child from the person who is perpetrating it. To make it easier for alienation unaware professionals to understand this concept I often portray it like this –
If the child’s arms and legs were being broken would you remove that child from the parent who is doing that damage?
Or as Linda Gottlieb puts it –
If the child’s genitals were being fondled by a parent would you remove the child from that parent?
If the answer is yes to both of the above, then understanding psychological splitting and the long term damage it does to children will help in recognition of the fact that inducing the split state of mind in a child and upholding it, is an act of child abuse equal to that of the examples above. And therefore, acting to protect the child first provides the child with the safety they need in order to recover from the harm which is being done.
The problem for many professionals is that their view of psychological splitting is skewed by their personal feelings and the fact that they cannot see the damage which has been done to the child because the child’s extreme proclamations of love for the parent they are aligned to masks the underlying damage which has been done to the child by that parent.
It shouldn’t be too difficult however, for people who experience serious concern if a child tells them that they are in love with the parent who is sexually abusing them, to understand that a child who is pathologically aligned to a parent is showing the same splitting defence as the child who is being sexually abused.
Physical harm and sexual abuse which is perpetrated and covered up by a parent’s inducement of terror in the child (you will be taken away/ I will leave you if you tell) is exactly the same in terms of the harm it causes as a parent who induces the child to use psychological splitting in order to conform to that parent’s overt or covert command to align with their reality and reject others. What induced psychological splitting does however is cause the child to produce a love/hate split which is projected onto their parents in which it looks to the outside world as if it is simply a demonstration of the child’s real feelings. Unaware professionals who look at the situation and see profound love being expressed for one parent and profound hatred for the other, are mislead in their lack of awareness into trying to work out why the child is behaving this way. This can lead to professionals asking children questions and using empathic responding and trying to buddy up with children so that they will tell the truth. The reality is that for alienated children the truth is what the defensive splitting has created and presented to them as reality. And of course this reality is already distorted.
The child’s feelings have been distorted by the defence of psychological splitting which has been induced, causing the child to lose the capacity to feel empathy, shame and guilt (all regulatory feelings) in favour of rigid self righteousness and entitlement to control others through manipulative means.
This is not the child’s fault, it is a false persona which has appeared as a result of the defence of the ego and in my experience, it is this original split which is induced in the child which leads to all of the other splits that occur in parental alienation.
Induced psychological splitting which impacts upon the personality development of the child, are all in the same category of child abuse. Protective separation from the abusive parent is therefore the first step anyone concerned with helping vulnerable children should take.
I recognise that as more social workers and Guardians understand this, more children of divorce and separation who are being harmed by a parent who has induced psychological splitting will be helped. It is certainly the case in the UK for example, that more and more Judges are recognising the harm and acting upon it.
But there are still pockets of extreme resistance to the reality of psychological splitting and the harm that it does to the child and the way in which it affects a child’s behaviours.
Psychological splitting is extremely infectious, it travels from influencing parent to the child and then outwards via the child’s behavioural presentations to anyone who attempts to intervene. The protestations of the psychologically split child are particularly powerful and can, at times, create an almost Salem Witch Trial atmosphere in a case of severe parental alienation, as people seek to find the root cause of the child’s dysfunctional presentation.
Understanding psychological splitting and how and why it causes alienated children to behave as they do, is an essential skill for anyone concerned with parental alienation. Going to the heart of the problem helps us to unravel the rest of the mystery.
The infantile defence of splitting is a powerful one, it is one of the first ego defences we use to make sense of an overwhelming world. Splitting causes the division of experiences into good and bad and occurs when the ability to hold ambivalent feelings is overwhelmed. For children of divorce and separation, holding the realities of two parents in mind when one parent is engaged in the spectrum of behaviours which induce splitting, can become impossible.
The American Psychiatric Association describes splitting as follows –
“The individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by compartmentalizing opposite affect states and failing to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self or others into cohesive images.”
In my work, what I observe with children who are alienated, is that it is the positive and negative qualities of the self which are the root of the defence of psychological splitting seen in parental alienation. Which means that whilst it looks to others outside as if the child has divided their parents into one good and one bad, this is in fact a result of the initial ego defensive split which has happened internally. Put simply, in order to be able to reject a parent, a child must first split their internal experience of self into good and bad and dispose of the bad self into the unconscious. Thus the child has defended against their own vulnerability in an impossible situation, by building a false persona of the strong, justified, wholly good self who has the right to judge their parents and decide which one is good and which one is bad.
It is my view that it is from that original ego defensive split that the signs of alienation curated by Gardner and distilled by Miller (2018) emerge. And therefore, should the original split not be treated first all other efforts are cosmetic because they are dealing only with the results of the original harm done and not the root cause.
Freud and Splitting
Freud’s view of splitting was that it created a false persona and that it stems from the inability to reconcile opposing views of the self. Once splitting has occurred the good part and bad part of the self can only be held in mind at separate times, thus reality is distorted because we are all made up of good and bad parts and a healthy self can be conscious of that all at the same time whilst the split self cannot be.
Alienated Children and Splitting
When I work with alienated children what I am first aware of is their entitlement to judge their parents. I have long been curious about this and aware that this entitled presentation is one which is extremely narcissistic in nature, leading if not corrected, to the belief in one’s own omnipotence. My deep concern about children who are in this position is that this the result of an ego defensive splitting and as such it is a false persona. When unaware social workers and guardians act as if this false persona is real by upholding a child’s wishes and feelings for example or by further empowering the child to make decisions about their care arrangements, the false persona is inflated and supported. As the false persona is one which is originating from the ego defence of splitting, the more it is encouraged and supported, the more the child must rely upon it in order to maintain a sense of control in the world. Anyone who intervenes with a child who is acting from this false self, is therefore in danger of becoming drawn into the child’s narcissistic sense of omnipotence, which means that false allegations are a likely result against anyone who does not uphold the child’s distorted reality.
This is where the Salem witch trial atmosphere of the severe alienation case originates from in my view. The child at the centre of such a case has suffered a defensive splitting of the self which has created a false self or persona in which the good and bad feelings and aspects of self can no longer be held in mind. This is how a child who was seen to love a parent dearly can switch to hatred and rejection. In this respect when we see a child idealising one parent and demonising the other, we should be aware that they are psychologically split in relationship to their own self and it is this which we must seek to treat first in order to restore normal health to child and the family as a whole.
Removing the child using the defensive of splitting from the parent who is inducing this behaviour is the first step to protection and it is my experience that it is this step which is the most profound of all in triggering integration in the child’s experience of self.
I have worked with children who have been removed from a parent and I have witnessed the immediate triggering of integration of the split state of mind which enables the child to once again receive the love of the parent they have been rejecting. I have also worked with children for whom the integration is a slow thawing of the splitting which takes place over days and weeks and months. What I know about the integration of the way in which the child has split their parents into two distinct parts, one good and one bad, is that it is preceded by the integration of the child’s internally split self. When the internal split integrates, the external projection of splitting also integrates. From there the ripple outwards of the integration of splitting follows the route it took from onset but in reverse.
Which means this –
The child’s internally split self integrates leading to the child’s projection of splitting onto the parents being withdrawn and integrated. When this occurs the rejected parent, no longer rejected and free to be the whole of who they are, can also heal the defensive split they have had to undergo in order to survive. When this split heals, all of the other splits in the wider family heal, leading to the return of the underlying familial health which was present in the child’s relationships prior to the onset of splitting.
What remains then is the core split in the parent from whom the pressure on the child originates. Whether that split is treatable depends upon the personality profile of the parent. Protecting the child from the person who has induced splitting is therefore the task which is left when the child protection work is done.
Protective separation is something which is used in child abuse models of work all over the world and it is my view that it should also be a routine method of intervening in cases of severe parental alienation which is an act of child abuse.
In all such interventions however, it is key to understand that it is the removal of the child from the source of influence which triggers the conditions for integration of psychological splitting. Methods of supporting the protective separation which have been developed to accompany the removal (in the UK we call it residence transfer, in the USA specific programmes have been created as interventions) are not actually what creates the dynamic change in the child from rejecting to acceptance. To say otherwise is misleading.
The reality is that the child’s integration of the split self will occur on removal from the source of the pressure if the child is able to know that the pressure will not return. Which simply means that when the underlying power dynamic changes, preventing the influencing parent from being able to further influence and the child is sufficiently persuaded of that in the internal landscape, the integration of the split state of mind can occur and the child withdraws the projection of good/bad parent.
I have observed 45 children in residence transfer who have been able to integrate the split state of mind and a tiny handful who have not. The difference between those who did and those who did not was not attachment or lack of it or problems in the rejected parent or the failure of the support which was given, it was the premature re-exposure to the influencing parent and/or the upholding of the child’s psychologically split state of mind by unaware professionals who contributed to the continued inflation of the false persona in the child.
And therein lies a significant problem left to resolve in the work we are doing in this arena. When people with disproportionate power to their skill set in this field are working with children who are suffering the problem of infantile splitting in the post separation landscape, there is a heightened risk that the child will be prevented from resolving the split state of mind. And when this occurs instead of recovery, the splitting begins to run through the wider family and professionals around the child until everyone becomes lost in a delusional mindset hellbent on finding the reason why a child is behaving this way.
Which is why at the Family Separation Clinic we will not work with social workers or guardians who do not understand parental alienation and why we are training people to learn how to do this work effectively.
A child who is alienated is using the infantile ego defence of splitting in which the first split which occurs is the division of the self into good and bad and the disposal of the bad self into the unconscious allowing a false persona to take the place of the integrated self.
The power of protective separation from the source of the pressure upon the child which is inducing the splitting is that it releases the child from the requirement to hold two realities in mind for long enough for healing to occur.
With support, children who use defensive splitting can heal and when that split heals the other defensive splits heal leading to resolution in the relationship between rejected parent and child. Using this model the child has the best chance of having at least one healthy parent in their relational world.
Teaching the child how to deal with the splitting in the parent who caused the harm in the first place is what we do when the child is protected and healed.
Induced psychological splitting is an act of child abuse.
Protect first. The rest comes later.
Warshak, R. A. (2015). Ten parental alienation fallacies that compromise decisions in court and in therapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46(4), 235-249.