As I continue my journey to develop a new approach to therapy for families affected by parental alienation I am reminded of how fractured thinking abounds within those families.
Psychological splitting is at the very heart of the alienation reaction in the child and as researchers Johnson and Kelly told us in their reformulation of parental alienation syndrome (2001), this splitting is infantile in nature and regressive.
As I continue to study families affected by psychological splitting it becomes more and more apparent that the split originates in the child who is being pressured. And the split, which I used to think was a splitting of feelings for parents, actually appears to be a split in the child themselves in which there arises an omnipotent self and it is this which gives rise to all of the symptoms noted by Gardner as being evidence of parental alienation..
Defensive splitting is something we all use, when it is used by a child in the post separation landscape, parental alienation symptoms are what we get.
Defensive splitting causes the child to split the self into good and bad self and to dispose of the bad self into the unconscious so that only the good self remains which is then elevated to an omnipotent controller of all circumstances. Because family court practitioners know so little about defensive splitting in children, the symptoms seen in the child, in which all negativity is directed at the rejected parent and all positive feelings are for the aligned parent, causes the focus to be upon the parent who has been rejected. In fact, the harm being done is by the parent who has induced the psychologically split state of mind in the child and it is there where the investigation and need to protect the child should be focused.
Whilst we have known for some time that defensive splitting is at play in parental alienation, the root of the splitting in the child is something I have only really become aware of in recent months as I work with families affected by it. What is apparent in this work is that the original split leads to fractures within the family, including in the mind of the rejected parent as well as the alienating parent AND this splitting leads to other splitting in teams around the family and indeed anyone who comes into contact with the original split in the child.
Good/bad splitting is seen to be at play in the field of parental alienation too, with people lining up to argue one way good/the other ways bad and tribal defences being dug deeply to maintain that position. Working in this landscape makes me aware that splitting, which we are all vulnerable to, is a powerful cause of what I have come to call kaleidoscopic thinking.
Not to be confused with the business model of Kaleidoscopic thinking in which moving thoughts around produces new innovative strategies, in parental alienation families, kaleidoscopic thinking produces patterns of behaviours which change according to incoming information which is always fractured. Thus in this form of kaleidoscopic thinking, the family member can perceive through the lens of their experience, a picture of the past but it can only ever be a mixed up jigsaw puzzle in which parts of the scene are in the wrong place.
And this kaleidoscope of information, in which the past is always a jumble sale of unresolved fractures, means that families (and professionals who work with them) can become trapped in recycling individual pieces of the past as a way of trying to make sense of what has happened. With each family member often dug deeply into a trench of their own experience, holding only one part of the picture, a holistic view of what happened and why it happened is how these families move on in life.
Meaning that even when a child is an adult and reunited with a parent physically, their mind maintains the kaleidoscopic thinking caused by the original split. Which means that many of the families we work with who have reunited, continue to struggle with the fractured internal dynamics which leave them still walking on egg shells around each other.
An adult child said to me recently that he was ‘the unwanted child of two parents who were more interested in hating each other than they were in loving him.’ The background to this being that his father had severely alienated him from his mother and whilst he was reconnected to his mother, his feelings for his father and mother remained extremely split. Working with the notion that the original split was inside of this young man, we dug out the self he had buried as a child, the needy self, the vulnerable self, the child who had cried for his mother secretly in the night. When this part of himself appeared, I watched as the omnipotent self who looked down upon his parents as being engaged in a war of hatred, disappeared and in its stead arrived perspective. Now able to view the past from an integrated self, this young man finally understood the whole of what had happened to him and how he had split his own self in order to survive.
And in doing so he was able to receive fully his mother’s love and recognise his father’s behavioural patterns as being defensive in their own right. As he said to me three months further into his therapy, ‘it was as if dad was so hurt that he wanted me to defend him and to protect him from what was happening. So he wasn’t a bad man, although the harm he caused me was a bad act.’
In working with psychological splitting as therapists, we have to be aware of the way in which the fracture lines run all around us, threatening at times to swallow us into the good/bad splitting of others. Anyone who reads here regularly will know that good/bad splitting is rife amongst the field of parental alienation, I myself being regularly targeted as the baddie in other people’s fractured views of what I do and how and why.
Recognising that we all hold pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which brought together forms a fuller picture is one way to protect against that splitting. Developing new ways to treat kaleidoscopic thinking in parental alienation is the way that I am contributing to bringing my piece of the puzzle to the table.
Nick and I will be presenting at the PASG 2019 Conference in Philadelphia in September. I will be discussing transgenerational psychotherapy for adults affected by induced psychological splitting as a child and Nick will be discussing european developments in practice with children affected by induced psychological splitting.
As British Psychotherapists we are increasingly approaching parental alienation from the perspective of Object Relations Theory and training others to use this in their own delivery with families.
As well as presenting at the Conference, we are looking forward to training a group of twelve US psychologists and psychotherapists in our differentiation and intervention with families. This is part of our commitment to development of new practitioners to assist families affected by parental alienation.