Traumatic Splitting in Children of Divorce and Separation – AKA Parental Alienation

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.

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14 thoughts on “Traumatic Splitting in Children of Divorce and Separation – AKA Parental Alienation

  1. The alienating tactics were certainly there after my divorce. My ex remarried a wonderful woman (a Harvard trained clinical psychologist) who really cared for my children… she divorced him after 3 years. Within 3 weeks, she was alienated, then my now husband’s family was alienated then my family then ultimately I was alienated … all within about 9 months. I guess my question is would the divorce from the ex after me cause their father to be retramatized/rejected and escalate the tactics even further? My thinking is the splitting was already there and began to “heal” while they were married


  2. I understand what you’re saying with regards to the effects of divorce on children but please remember the effect on the child of living with a mother being abused by the father. I get confused when you talk about splitting being the result of separation or divorce as I experienced both of my older children developed this while I was married. I didn’t understand it at the time as I had no idea what P.A was and I was still under the influence of coercive control myself. I simply knew that nothing I did could prevent the same thing happening to my youngest. My husband was determined to erase me. I thought my only chance was to leave. It worked for 3 years and then my youngest also fell victim. I have not seen two of my children for over two years. My youngest is 15 and middle child 26. ( the middle child first split when he was 18. It’s been on and off since) It did not start with divorce. It was the sole reason I managed to summon the strength to leave. If I understood then what I do now about P.A I would have done many things differently. I understood nothing. Everything I’ve since learnt is by reading books and the internet. Your blogs are invaluable. What I know from experience is that this doesn’t always start with separation. Where the mother is being controlled and abused the children generally are as well. My experience of PA is that it is coercive control of a child. It’s effectively grooming. Whether you groom a child to sexually, or emotionally abuse is irrelevant. Those who groom a child to erase a parent are no different to sexual abusers in my view. Abuse is abuse. ( incidentally…….. I decided to write on Facebook about my experience to help and educate others. I’m shocked at how common this is. It’s a quiet epidemic. No one speaks because it’s humiliating and shameful as a woman be a victim of abuse and also to lose your children. There is no help out there once your children become teenagers and the savvy abuser knows this) Your fight for all of us Karen brings a tiny ray of hope/light in a very dark hopeless world.


  3. Hi Karen,

    Thank you for your indepth discussion in how the application of ORT works with families. I agree that the concept that a psychologically split child is having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation fits with current trauma theories. Children with trauma backgrounds have what on the surface looks like problematic behavioural issues but their behaviour is an adaptive response to psychological stress and threat. Thus the questions to these children is not ‘What is wrong with you’ but ‘What happened to you” ( that you have created these adaptive survival behaviours”?) Mona Delahooke is one of my favourite Authors in Neuroscience and trauma in children.

    I have more burning questions! Firstly your quote “Whilst some would say that the parent to whom the child is aligned is always the cause of that, others would disagree”
    Those others who disagree, what do they think is happening?

    Secondly, researchers such as Gottlieb discuss the use of an adapted version of Familly Systems as a therapy. Can ORT and Family systems fit together?

    Thirdly, your Public Lecture, will it be videoed and available online after? would love to be able to see it..

    Thank you as always, Karen
    PS: Craig Childress blogs are bizarre rants. He should just trust in his theory rather than vilifying numerous other professionals in the area. His own projections are very obvious. It’s a shame because his theory is worthy but he undoes the power of it with his own unprofessional behaviour to other colleagues. He just looks unhinged particularly when he writes in the first person but then refers to himself as ‘Dr Childress’ its strange.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi HF,

      Those who disagree that the aligned parent is ALWAYS the cause of the pathological alignment are those who see PA as a spectrum disorder in which high conflict between parents can cause the child to split and align and reject as a projection of that split. I would say Canadian researchers such as Polak and Bala and Fidler are amongst this group.

      I am not going to put myself into any group for now until my research work is complete, what I do know is that traumatic splitting in children is at the heart of this problem and resolving the problem requires us to utilise a form of family systems therapy which is combined with psycho-dynamic, trans-generational and psycho-genealogy approaches – interlocked with legal management to balance the power dynamics to resolve it.

      As for Craig Childress – who knows what I do to trigger his rage but I suspect that covert competition to be ‘the one who resolves the problem’ is part of it. I note this morning that he has returned to a wiser self and is writing about Object Relations Theory….which is interesting given I was writing about that yesterday………I don’t read his rants about me anymore because I am aware that he reveals far too much about himself when he descends to that self and it is uncomfortable to watch that happen, not because of what he writes about me which matters little to me, but because of what is revealed about his own unconscious processes.

      .it is always far more productive in my view to do this work from our wisest selves and through watching what Craig Childress does, I have learned to curb some of my own less wise parts and express less frustration and develop a longer and more collaborative and ultimately more creative vision of how to change this horrible problem for children and families.


  4. Quote: I understand what you’re saying with regards to the effects of divorce on children but please remember the effect on the child of living with a mother being abused by the father.

    Quote: I decided to write on Facebook about my experience to help and educate others.

    Thank you for your post it rang lots of bells with me. I am re reading Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men. Chapter 10 is all about the children who are forced to live with a man who abuses his wife. The whole book in fact has meant more to me now than it did a year after I left my husband and my daughter who he had been grooming since she was 15 within our long marriage of 46 years -she is now 38 and I’ve not seen or heard from her in five years. Having re read the book, although I always knew what he was like and more importantly what he made ME feel ) I am in absolutely no doubt that my husband was an abuser, though even now I can hardly believe I experienced it – doesn’t happen to people like us does it ………………. So I too fall between two camps : coercive control (abuse) and parental alienation, both within marriage.

    I wish I could find you on Facebook! (I recently joined PASG to try to understand more).
    Karen if Donna agrees maybe you could send her my email address…………………


  5. Donna and Willow,
    I also experienced my eldest daughter being alienated covertly whilst in my coercive and controlling marriage. Ike you both describe I just didn’t know there was a name for what was happening. When I called the end of the marriage after 18 months of therapy, the alienation overnight shifted into an overt operation on my eldest daughter. It’s been almost 3 years now. He wanted me to Just stop existing. He had psychologically split and called me the devil and vampire as did my daughter. My younger two girls have not been alienated . I have read Lundy Bancroft books too and Evan Starks.
    I am curious to know just how many alienated Mothers experienced domestic violence in their marriage and covert/overt alienation of children during the marriage or towards end of the marriage?

    Willow I had meant to respond to your earlier posts. The example you gave of the Christmas family gathering and you leaving the 2 bottles of spirits next to your daughters bags and the incident that occurred after is such Alice in Wonderland experiences that I can relate too. It’s all inside out and upside down and you think what the heck is happening! My ex would constantly backflip on agreements or arrangements and if I ever reacted he would say “ you acted just as I predicted that’s why I didn’t tell you, your mentally unstable etc” and then he would say to my eldest daughter “ your Mother is over reacting again” . It.s like how Donald Trump behaves and if anyone reacts to him he also calls them crazy.
    Towards the end I would send an email to my ex and ask that he agrees that this is our agreement re financial decision or going out that weekend so when he backflipped I could say “you agreed in an email” he soon came up with a response to this as well “yeah, I agreed to that because you where unhinged at the time, I just told you what you wanted to hear, but now I am doing x“.


  6. Hey Freud – Thank you

    Tried to reply a couple of days ago but didn’t get through. (probably ‘off topic!)


    1. Willow – I’m not not posting your posts other than that one with that man on it…. I’ll have a look for other posts now x


  7. This Attachment Trauma Pathology is NOT a new pathology, which PAS self-proclaimed “experts” claim to be discovering. God sacrificed his only son over 2,000 years ago to teach us about the lies, manipulation, and EVIL of this Attachment Trauma Pathogen by send his only son to speak truth, LOVE, expose lies and manipulation, and provoke change, as Dr. Craig Childress is doing. The Pharisees feared the truth, HATED Jesus spreading LOVE, lied, manipulated, and psychologically controlled the Jewish and Roman people to persecute Jesus Christ. Dr. Craig Childress is spreading truth, exposing lies and manipulation, and provoking the required changes our desperate children and families. Just as Jesus was attacked and persecuted for exposing the truth, the PAS self-proclaimed “experts” are repeating the patterns of this Attachment Trauma Pathology against Dr. Craig Childress. Dr. Craig Childress is exposing the truth and provoking change and the PAS self-proclaimed “experts” are doing exactly as the Pharisees did against Jesus Christ, lie, manipulate, and project their hatred onto Dr. Craig Childress. You will attack me for writing the truth or deny these words tobe posted, which will be rooted in your own Attachment Trauma, which the National Institute of Health published may compromise our Western culture. This same Attachment Trauma Pathogen drove Adolf Hitler to fear the Jewish people, which led to HATE, which led him to lie and manipulate the German people to persecute the Jewish people. This same Attachment Trauma Pathogen creates the Racists to fear based on race, which leads to HATE, which leads Racists to lie and manipulate their children to fear, hate, and persecute based on race.

    This is NOT a new human behavior, which the PAS self-proclaimed “experts” claim to be discovering. God sent is a very clear message of the Attachment Trauma Pathogen or EVIL over 2,000 years ago.

    I will copy this to Dr. Craig Childress’ Facebook Group, Alliance to Solve Parental Alienation, as I suspect Karen will attempt to keep it hidden and twist reality to continue to maintain the delusion of “parental alienation”, “estrangement”, and “bad-mouthing”.


    1. You can post all further comments anywhere you wish to Dwayne, I am not allowing them through. I have taken down my previous response to you and I will be making no further responses to anyone about this matter which will be dealt with through the correct channels.


  8. Reading your blogs recently I have become aware, as target parents tell their stories, how they suffer from a loss of autonomy. As the alienator takes control with their cunning manipulative games the target parent wanes and despairs.
    Perhaps because the pain of losing their children is so great they increasingly appeal to the good nature of their assailant to relinquish their control over them and behave in a fair more reasonable manner. (Like a mouse may be caught and toyed with by the cat who would devour it)
    Because the alienator revels in this “game” soaking up the boost received to their ego from this power trip, the behaviours continue with the alienator dominant and the target parent recessive. The target parent is clinging to the hope that the alienator will become cooperative, reasonable, normal, sensible, kind.
    As in other familial settings, where a traumatised and often silenced client may seek a voice, one that nobody hears, the search for lost autonomy goes on.
    It is not an easy task to shift concentration away from the other parent and become a renewed and repaired self, the emotional wound runs deep…. but talk we must, to regenerate self-worth, self-esteem, confidence.
    When we perceive ourselves to be target parents we need to psychologically extract ourselves from the power games that we may have been unwittingly drawn into, and build on our own strengths.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nongenderbias9

      As the alienator takes control with their cunning manipulative games the target parent wanes and despairs.
      Perhaps because the pain of losing their children is so great they increasingly appeal to the good nature of their assailant to relinquish their control over them and behave in a fair more reasonable manner.

      I reckon you’ve hit the nail on the head with regard to my family triangle.
      I stayed with my abuse husband because I knew that if I left him I would never see my daughter again.
      I wanted us to be a FAMILY, a proper family.
      I thought if I could fix him our daughter might miraculously fall in line and treat me as her mum.
      He saw me as nothing, no one, at best a surrogate.
      He was never going to give up abusing me, he enjoyed the drama, the power and the control – and he knew how much I loved my daughter so that was the best way to set about destroying me.


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