Getting the core of the problem of parental alienation has been my goal since I began work with families affected by a child’s pathological splitting and rejection behaviours some thirteen years ago.
Despite a wealth of opposition from those who would have it otherwise, we are closer than we have ever been to understanding what is happening when a child rejects a parent.
I have no problem with any other view of parental alienation, all views inform the work we are doing at the Clinic and with partners around the world and we are stronger together as we move towards finding new ways to resolve induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation.
I have however, been writing about splitting in recent blogs and it is splitting which is, in my experience, at the core of the problem of parental alienation.
Dissociative splitting, which is the core of what we are working with in alienated children is described by Janina Fisher, former instructor and supervisor at Bessel Van Der Kolk’s Trauma Centre, as follows – (page 2)
Through that neurobiological lens, what appears clinically as stuckness and resistance, untreatable diagnosis or character disorder behaviour,simply represent how an individuals mind and body adapted to a dangerous world, in which the only protection was the very same person who endangered him or her.
In my experience, that which we are dealing with when we are working with alienated children is traumatic or dissociative splitting. We see it in alienated children in the here and now and in adults who were alienated in childhood.
Janina Fisher goes on to tell us
In the face of abuse and neglect, especially at the hands of those they love, children need enough psychological distance from what is happening to avoid being overwhelmed and survive psychologically intact. Providing some modicum of self esteem and hope for the future, requires children to doubt or disremember their experience and to disown the bad (victim) child to whom this has happened as ‘not me’.
The abuse that alienated children suffer is the pressure to align with a parent in a period of time when they are most vulnerable to the use of dividing the world into good and bad anyway to such a degree at times that they become subjected not only to alignment but to the intra-psychic conflicts of that parent.
” children who are terrified by adults who are out of control will subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious of themselves they identify themselves with the aggressor…. The weak and undeveloped personality reacts to sudden unpleasure not by defence, but by anxiety-ridden identification and by introjection of the menacing person or aggressor” (Ferenczi 1933)
It is my view that in doing so, alienated children are suffering from dissociative splitting due to the horrific experience of having to reject a parent they deeply love. This split, which is in the child first, creating a false self or persona which can live with what has happened and continue to function in the world, is then projected at the parents as a splitting OF the parents into wholly good and wholly bad as set out in Johnson and Kelley’s reformulation of parental alienation syndrome.
Our experience at the Family Separation Clinic in working with children of all ages who have experienced alienation is that there is a continuation of the impact of dissociative splitting sometimes long after a relationship has been re-established with a parent.
Janina Fisher speaks of alienation from the self as follows –
That good child might be precociously mature, sweet and helpful, perfectionistic, self critical or quiet and shy, but, most importantly, he or she has a way to be acceptable and safer in an unsafe world. Splitting or fragmenting in this way is an ingenious and adaptive survival strategy – but one with a steep price. To ensure that the rejected ‘not me’ child is kept out of the way (ie out of consciousness) requires that long after traumatic events are over, individuals must rely upon dissociation, denial and or self hatred for enforcing the disconnection. (Fisher 2017)
The closer we get to the core of the problem for the alienated child, the more we can see that what has happened to the child is a normal response of defence against an abnormal event in childhood (pathological pressure via the divorce and separation of parents).
Pathological alignment causes childhood psychopathology which is created in the weak and permeable boundaries between the child and the parent to whom they are aligned. In these circumstances, the use of defensive splitting, to ‘disremember’ the parts of the self which have engaged in the murder of the relationship with the rejected parent both internally and externally, in my view creates dissociative splitting which requires treatment in therapeutic terms.
In summary, when parent-child boundaries are violated, the implications for developmental psychopathology are significant. Poor boundaries interfere with the child’s capacity to progress through development which (…) is the defining feature of childhood psychopathology.’ Kerig (2005)
This is a child abuse issue which has lain dormant for decades. It is a defensive response to the struggle of a family system to move from together to apart where a child has been induced to use psychological splitting as a defence and regardless of how we diagnose that, the lasting legacy for the child is, in my view, traumatic splitting which leads to dissociation and fragmentation of the self as described by the former instructor and supervisor of the Bessel Van Der Kolk Trauma Centre.
Our next phase of work is to demonstrate this evidence in order to build the responses which will properly treat the problem of alienation in children across all ages. In this we are assisted in our collaboration with leading practitioners from around Europe as we move closer to the core of what is happening to alienated children everywhere.
Frankel, J. (2002). Exploring Ferenczi’s Concept of Identification with the Aggressor: Its Role in Trauma, Everyday Life, and the Therapeutic Relationship. Psychoanalytic Dialogues.
Fisher, J. (2017) Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors. New York: Routledge
Kerig, P. K. (2005). Implications of parent-child boundary dissolution for developmental psychopathology: Who is the parent and who is the child? New York: Haworth Press.
I am about to begin research into the experience of adults who were alienated as children. If you experienced alienation from a parent during childhood and you have since reunited with a parent but still experience ongoing psychological difficulties, I would like to hear from you.
I am seeking to undertake depth interviews in a therapeutic setting with adults who were alienated as children and currently alienated parents who were also alienated children.
The interviews will take place face to face or on Skype and will be recorded.
The interviews will be analysed as part of my research. I will however, work with all those I interview over a period of time to ensure that the work done is beneficial to you.
If you are interested in participating in this study please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you details of it along with the statement of ethics which accompanies it.
European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners
The EAPAP Board meets in Switzerland July 31 to August 3rd to consider the practice standards for work in this field and the next international conference of practitioners in this field to be held in Central Europe in 2020. More details here shortly.