Fractured Minds: Kaleidoscopic Thinking in Parental Alienation

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.


Conference News

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.

Screenshot 2019-07-04 at 08.54.45.png


  1. Excellent, astute, experiential and evidence based synopsis presented in clear understandable terms.
    Demonstrates a thinking and a context and shows that there are zero excuses for Cafcass and other practitioners to remain in damaging ignorance. No justification for the state’s failings to perpetuate inadequate dangerous services as they do.
    Well done Karen – all the split and damaged children have hope invested in you for a healthier future.


  2. Excellent, astute evidence based synopsis.

    Shows a valid and reliable thinking in context which will only expand in time across the field.

    Shows that the state has no justification as it remains in its damaging ignorance and wilful neglect of children it interacts with.
    Cafcass have no excuse for it’s ongoing methods; it is by contrast to this article not fit to practice.

    Given this practice you outline is now accepted by the world wide health organisation the UK state are dangerously lagging behind.

    Well done Karen et al. millions of pressured children have so much hope invested in you for a healthier future – of their own . A hope for the joy of love and care from those that they love and need.
    We all hope that huge changes ensue so that these children’s basic human rights become respected and they are allowed to recover – in the manner you describe – avoiding further splitting – avoiding breakdown with the alienating parent – and ultimately all the love from all their family from every direction to submerge them in to make up for the raw and hurtful desert they had to occupy but never wanted to and certainly did not need.
    Thank you for persevering in a trying environment. You deserve recognition and widespread applaud.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much for all your work in parent alienation. reading all the information and your analysis of the alienated child, is in some strange way a comfort to us in that we now understand the reason for rejection. my son is 5 years in court system, after 2 years was eventually given “Fact Finding” hearing where all abuse allegations were proven to be false, describing mother as deceitful dishonest malicious , causing severe emotional damage and ordered a section 37 report. child was happy to have his father back, but when supervision of children’s services seized , problem started again . child refusing to go to contact again and now because he is older, they say he can choose not to. psychologist reported on family having seeing parents and child, advises only indirect contact, she was supplied with the judgement and a transcript of a recording of mother and her partner actually reenacting a portrayal of a “Jeremy Kyle show”roll play on a then 7 year old as a way of getting the message that father/son type rough play was failed the lie detector test then jeering that he had failed heard on the recording actually saying ” I can’t look after at dad’s how about we move far away from dad” she saw all the evidence but reported it was not parent alienation and child sees his father as not meeting his needs and puts him in danger still believed a very plausible intelligent who told her what was necessary for her to hear. child now denies all the positive comments he made about dad during the section report. cafcass agrees with psychologist that there should be no direct contact. This is a child that enjoyed a
      wonderful relationship. we just cannot understand why, with all that evidence they would make such a decision We are just devastated
      Thank again for all you hard work Karen, somebody cares


  3. “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.”

    From a lay person who’s read a bit on this subject, and maybe somewhat simplistic, but that seems remarkably like what would describe the birth of either narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, ie a false self to protect the real self, or a narcissistic mask if you like, split thinking, fear of abandonment, cognitive distortions etc. With the propensity of parental alienation to involve at least one parent with a personality disorder together with the transgenerational patterns of pathogenic parenting, it would appear then that the signs of Parental Alienation in the child is effectively the evidence of the handing down of the Cluster B baton into the next generation.


    1. “With the propensity of parental alienation to involve at least one parent with a personality disorder together with the transgenerational patterns of pathogenic parenting, it would appear then that the signs of Parental Alienation in the child is effectively the evidence of the handing down of the Cluster B baton into the next generation.”

      Oh yes. To watch the handing down of the baton is a fascinating honor (sic) that so many of us have had. To watch your spouse assume the role, and then for your children to be trained in it. Damn.

      Happy 4th of July…


    2. Our work in this field tells us that whilst there is a marked number of cases which involve personality disordered parents (on both sides), the defence of splitting in the child is not just caused by a personality disordered parent. Furthermore, the narcissistic split which we refer to is not necessarily the birth of a personality disorder in the child although untreated, this can contribute to the development of personality disorder in some situations.

      The issue about psychological splitting is that is not as formulaic as A plus B always equals C. Neither is it treated as easily as remove the child = immediate healing although that does happen in many cases.

      The psychologically split state of mind in the child ENABLES a false self to appear, this false self is omnipotent in nature and takes control of the family system by displaying all of the signs of alienation and using the power that this gives to keep the rejected parent at bay.

      The rejection of the parent is simply a by-product of what has happened to the child, it is the defence in the child which is the problem at the root of everything else which is seen.

      As in all work in psychotherapy with defences, we treat the defence as having arrived for a purpose. We seek to understand from the child’s perspective what that purpose is. What is the child having to defend themselves against?

      In some cases it may be pressure from a psychologically unwell parent.

      In others it may be pressure from an unresolved trauma which has lain dormant until the crisis of separation triggered it to the surface causing the parent who is suffering it to enter into a delusional state of mind.

      In other cases it may be that two parents are suffering unresolved trauma.

      In other cases it may be that there is a competition between the parents over the child.

      In another category it may be that a badly handled event has forced the child into a position where they can no longer hold two different realities in mind.

      In yet other cases involving older children, the split can occur because children are shocked by their parent’s angry behaviours and they develop the defence as a way of coping with the shock placing themselves as morally superior to their parents and then dispensing of their need for parenting from parents they now look down upon.

      When we understand how this child has arrived at psychological splitting we understand what we must do to change the landscape against which the child is being forced to defend themselves.

      When we change that landscape – using the court to shift the power dynamics, we can enter in and restructure the family to bring about change which allows the child to drop the defence and integrate the splitting.

      When the splitting integrates the child is no longer at risk of personality disorder.

      Differentiation is how we prepare for the intervention, getting that right enables a swift recovery for the child.

      We are busy right now writing our next book which is for practitioners so that the differentiation route and intervention can be replicated.

      Of course the differentiation route and intervention could be so easily replicated by social workers and Guardians in the UK because they have statutory power and it is power which is necessary to change the dynamic around the child.

      Although we are now training many people including mediators and some social workers, as yet there is no uniform understanding or appetite in the UK for CAFCASS to know more than the basics of this work.

      We are however, pressing on with EAPAP which has already developed standards of practice which are replicable. This is the first step in a process of standardising this emerging field of work and one which is very necessary.

      I am examining psychological splitting at the core of alienated children’s experience and will be writing a lot more about it in the coming weeks and months, although not in the manner of firm conclusions which cannot be clearly stated without proper evidence and peer review, both of which I will be working towards in the coming year.


  4. Karen, I appreciate very much you sharing your learning as it develops. As parents and step-parents, we are walking alongside you as you tread your way through the maze.

    “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.”
    So it’s a kind of Pavlovian response? – as the signals, explicit or implicit about what behaviour is acceptable to the influencing parent, and therefore ‘good’ behaviour , are absorbed by the child, so the bad/unacceptable behaviour is punished by expulsion. So the ‘bad’ behaviour, which may be signs of being happy or loving to/with the ‘bad’ parent get interpreted and mixed up with the message that the parent (to be rejected) is ‘bad’ and must be removed. My dad/mum isn’t good for me, and so the bits of me that link me to that parent (traits/looks/mannerisms) also mustn’t be good for me, and must be removed/hidden at all costs.

    I used to think it was a conscious protective reflexive behaviour to cut off contact and be unempathetic and hurtful, which was backed up by the odd comment like “it’s easier not to see you” etc, whereas this reframes it as an unconscious defensive behaviour?

    Does the child therefore completely bury any known/felt notion that this is wrong?


    1. Hi CG,

      The defence arises because the child is pressured in some way. Finding out how the child is pressured is the key to differentiation which leads to intervention.

      However, it is the defence itself which we must be concerned with because it is that which causes the profound idealisation and devaluation seen in alienation. The defence means that the child can no longer experience the needy parts of themselves, the parts which require loving parenting, the parts which need healthy care. Those parts are disposed of into the unconscious and in its place an omnipotent false self arrives.

      In that regard how the defence arrives is about how the child is forced into holding only one reality. When we understand the route the child took into the split state of mind (how the child came to realise that only one reality was possible in the post separation landscape), we understand what we need to do to help the child to integrate the split.

      What is very frustrating is that teenagers use splitting as part of a developmental process and they are very much in need of moving through that towards integration so that they arrive as a young adult being able to hold ambivalent thoughts and feelings. And yet teenagers are exactly the people the courts refuse to help because the older they get the more weight is given to their wishes and feelings – which in alienation means the more weight is given to the wishes and feelings of the false persona. In truth we are entrenching teenagers into the split state of mind routinely by refusing to intervene.

      The symptoms of alienation are simply the red flags that the child has developed a false persona. Sadly, for too many children waving those red flags, help fails to arrive.

      My work with adults alienated as children shows me the depth of the damage splitting does to the mind, hopefully before too much longer, the tested therapeutic route to recovery I am working on, will be available for use by therapists with this group of abused children of divorce and separation.


    2. To describe the alienators or alienated as suffering a personality disorder is a mistake, children placed in impossible situations will react in a natural way to the circumstances in which they find themselves.
      Karen describes a multitude of situations in which the child, under parental guidance suffers as a result of the behaviours of the adults of whom the child is dependant, and quite possibly sibling and other familial personalities too.
      It is the unravelling of the storyline which is important in revealing how an individual might be behaving now.
      “Personality disorders” are not real, there is no biological evidence for such things. They came about when groups of psychiatrists decided to link together symptoms they evidenced in their patients and then gave them a label.
      Narcissism isn’t an illness any more than parental alienation is. Certain behaviours are reactions to influences and experiences over time.


  5. Thank you Karen for another breakthrough of knowledge you share with us all.
    Can you explain how you would use your approach to taking “a holistic view of what happened and why it happened is how these families move on in life” with a teenager?
    I am familiar with the holistic framework of examining one’s circumstances according to their physical environment, mental emotional environment, their connections with others and their spiritual well-being.
    Is it simply allowing the child to look back at the time of separation and describe these facets for the child to achieve a deeper self reflection?


  6. Thank you so very much. I think the only thing besides God. Is that I. dont understand. alienters but then I tell myself if I did I would be like him. I don’t even know if I would son to really know because i don’t want him to hurt. I feel like I can handle all this better than he could. He’s been taught to hat me while being so decieved by his father. Enough but thank you for what your doing


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s