Today we have been working with colleagues at the Child Protection Centre in Zagreb on traumatic splitting in children of divorce and separation. Tomorrow Nick and I will give a public lecture to an audience of two hundred people including members of the Croatian Judiciary, Police, Mental Health Services and Legal specialists. With our colleagues in Croatia, we are raising the issue of the emotional abuse of children in divorce and separation to consciousness, alongside developing new approaches to intervention in cases of parental alienation.
In our most recent work with families we have been examining more closely the role of traumatic splitting in cases of parental alienation and how this splitting originates first in the child and then extends across the family system. In doing so, I am most concerned with how to develop responses to the way in which this traumatic splitting creates a fossilisation of feelings, beliefs and attitudes in the family system, which holds the family fast in the traumatic response to the child’s original utilisation of the split state of mind as a defence.
What I have known for a long time is that when we come to these families to do this work what we encounter is a fossilised presentation in which everyone has part of the jigsaw puzzle of what has happened but no-one has the whole picture.
On closer examination of the child however, it becomes apparent that the once whole introjected relational experience of the family has fractured, leaving the child coping with intra-psychic splits which trigger the symptoms of parental alienation.
Let me unpack that a bit more.
Object Relations Theory (ORT) tells us that our earliest experience of relationships are introjected, meaning in psychoanalytic terms that we unconsciously adopt the ideas and values of others.
In Object Relations Theory, our psyche (meaning our soul or self or spirit) is developed in the relationship we have with others. Whilst much of original ORT suggests that the primary relationship we have in forming our psyche is with our mother, later developments recognise the equally essential role of the father in forming our sense of who we are.
ORT also tells us that we have a relationship with key people both externally, with the physical person and internally with the ‘introjected object’ person who resides in our intra-psychic world (intra-psychic meaning occurring within our mind or personality or psyche).
When we are thinking about children in divorce and separation therefore, we are not only considering their experience in the outer world, we are considering their experience in the inner world too. Thus we are concerned with the external and internal changes and challenges the child must navigate when facing the divorce and separation of the parents who once lived both externally and internally as a unified whole.
Johnson and Kelly (2001) told us in their reformulation of parental alienation syndrome that the focus of this work is the child and that the core of the problem is splitting, which is infantile and regressive in nature, producing a division of feelings about parents into wholly good and wholly bad.
Using the child as the central figure in a family narrative in which the presenting story is the child’s rejection of a parent, it is possible to unravel the how and why this happens. In doing so we are not looking first at what the parents are doing but at what has happened to the child and it is that scrutiny which gives us the evidence we need to make the necessary interventions which assist.
And core of the alienated child’s experience is traumatic splitting which is defined as a defence mechanism which is brought into play to protect the child from the impossible pain of the circumstance they find themselves in.
A simple way of explaining that is that when we are faced with trauma which is overwhelming to us, we have do several things, we can either become overwhelmed and die, we can lose our minds to mental disorder or we can split our personality in order to survive. A healthy person will usually handle stress in abnormal circumstances by splitting the self to create another self (some might say false self) which can then manage in the world without disturbance from the part of the self which is traumatised and split off.
In this respect, the child’s use of splitting as a normal healthy defence against an abnormal situation (the internalised and externalised relationships they have are fractured due to the separation of their parents, which they are powerless to prevent and completely subjected to without choice).
I have long said it. Family separation harms children and in extreme situations, where one parent is very unwell or not coping, or where a child is subjected to pressure from two different realities or where one parent is determined to drive out the other, the already abnormal experience is escalated. In these circumstances, the child uses splitting as a healthy defence and in doing so, a particular set of responses is seen which leads to the symptoms we have come to know as parental alienation.
What has been especially exciting this week is the way in which our discussion of parental alienation as the symptoms of traumatic splitting in children of divorce and separation, has led to discussions with colleagues at the Child Protection Centre in Zagreb, about how already existing skills in working with traumatised children can be adapted for this group of children and families whose needs have been overlooked for decades.
Reformulating parental alienation and conceptualising it as traumatic splitting in children of divorce and separation, liberates those of us who work relationally with families to develop and adapt already existing models to fit the needs of this special population. Whilst we know that in doing so we must retain the core principles which have been developed in working with this group of families, rethinking therapeutic approaches to treatment of traumatic splitting enables us to address the core wound these families face.
And the core wound which is then exaggerated by the external assumptions made about the child’s behaviour (the child is rejecting a parent therefore that parent must have done something wrong), leads to entrenchment of the problem. And the problem is that the traumatic splitting causes the child to defensively pathologically align with a parent which entraps them in the intra-psychic conflicts of that parent. And in that respect, the rejection of a parent is always the by-product of the problem, not the cause or the even the focus.
Whilst some would say that the parent to whom the child is aligned is always the cause of that, others would disagree. We experience the problem of pathological alignment as being something which has over arching structural similarities, with individual variables requiring tailored intervention. In all circumstances however, because the issue of power over the child must be addressed in order to release them from the defensive position they have been forced to adopt, the combination of legal and mental health intervention is currently necessary to create the route to healing.
In Croatia, as in Romania last week and Poland last month, the interest in helping emotionally and psychologically abused children of divorce and separation is increasing, bringing opportunities to help families and resolve even the most seemingly complex cases.
Reformulating the reformulation of parental alienation to refocus upon traumatic splitting in children of divorce and separation takes us another step on in our understanding and response to the problem.
With Croatia already working ahead of the curve in development of checklists for risk behaviours in parents that cause traumatic splitting in children, working here feels as if we are collaborating with true pioneers in this rapidly evolving field.
We are honoured to work with Prof. Dr. Sc. Gordana Buljan Flander and her team in both development of new and innovative practice with children of divorce and separation and in delivery of this public lecture on July 10 2019 in Zagreb, Croatia.