Core Thinking – Induced Psychological Splitting in Children Affected by Parental Alienation

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.

References

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.


Research 

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 office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk 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.


 

14 Comments

  1. Hi Karen

    We love your wisdom and intrinsically driven insight and knowingness.

    My son has finally come back after 10 years of being under his fathers spell. He ran away from his fathers control and anger! I tell him that he’s brave! (I left home around the same time he did too!)
    He’s having many adjustment challenges – his father has now turned against him- that silence and controlling -bully behavior .so has his step mother!
    My son is 14. He is undermining, rude, tries to avoid my husband, my son tells his step father that he loves him around the time that he’s getting something that he wants and at other times treats him with resentment and awkward silences, selfish behavior my son displays.
    Even with The anger, confusion and and innate love that my son has for his father, He feels abandoned, and questions his decision to leave. I knew that my son would get a dose of the alienation behavior too.
    My son can see what has occurred over time with in regards to his fathers implementation of fear, manipulation, isolation from me (mom) and his fathers own mother too (grandma) anger jealousy and control.. but he cannot see it all at age 14. Son blames himself, son, does experience immense guilt, he’s at a cross roads
    Though it’s still confusing for him
    – me too and my husband.
    My son feels badly when he’s hurtful
    To my husband – (his stepfather)
    He’s got much guilt going on inside of him for how he treated me for 10 years
    And how he lied on my husband
    To curry favor with his father.

    We need help!
    Any suggestions on parent alienation experts in Arizona USA?
    Or do you think Skype sessions will work?
    I know the answers to these questions are not merely black and white .
    Sincerely,
    Loyal reader of your publications
    Stacey & “M” & “J”

    Like

    1. Hi Stacy, We are training a group in the USA in the fall and we already have practitioners we trained in the USA who I can put you in touch with. We do also deliver by Skype around the world and it works well. Your son is suffering psychological splitting which is affecting him in the here and now as he attempts to cope with the impact of what has happened to him. We can work with you to help him, I don’t think Skype with him will help however as children of his age need activity based interventions to assist the impact of the traumatic splitting. I can put you in touch with people who can help him though if you email me at office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk and mark it for my attention and headline it Query from the Blog. Very best Karen

      Like

  2. And also, my son wants to be kind and compassionate with consistency and learn how to process this all. He wants to end the transmogrification of this all. He’s got a beautiful spirit..

    Stacey J & M
    Again

    Like

  3. Realandraw04

    I experienced the same manipulating technique, as employed by your Ex. My son wanted to spend more time with me, which didn’t meet with my Ex’s approval, so she put all his belongings on the door step in a black plastic bag and told him if he left the house, she would disown him. After a couple of days with me I persuaded him to go back to his Mum and make up.
    I wasn’t chucking him out, just saying he needed to spend time with his Mum. During his stay with me I tried to convince him that both parents loved him, we were just different. Things settled down eventually and my son began to move freely between the two households.
    The incident seemed to reflect insecurities that my Ex was experiencing. She didn’t want to lose her son to me (his father) and could only see me as someone who might steel the child from her. I had to convince her that I had no intention of taking our son away from her (speaking to her was not an option, but I could speak to my son). That is why I convinced my son to go back.
    And so, the uneasy journey of co-parenting continued………………………I found myself having to convince my children that my Ex was okay despite her behaviour. This tactic has proved invaluable in freeing the minds of the children and enabling them to exist in two different households. It has helped stabilise the situation. Rule of thumb. Don’t denigrate the character, describe the behaviour and empathise with your child.

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  4. You may be thinking I did the wrong thing, throwing my child back into the lion’s den, to suffer more at the hands of the one who would coercively control him, the black and white thinker.
    But I was trying to help him psychologically to understand that his mother’s discontent, her ravings were a product of how she felt, not a source of the truth.
    I didn’t want him to become a “black and white” thinker and was helping him to see that what was said, charged with emotion, tainted by trauma, was a response to grievance.
    With this knowledge I hoped my son would more likely be able to live more comfortably in a controlling dictatorial environment, he would always know that the motivation for dialogue, however critical and scathing would be rooted in emotion, not necessarily truth nor fact.

    I hoped to leave him with a wry internalised grin.

    My response, if it worked would be a strengthening bond between me and my son

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nongenderbias9,

      My! Thank you!! Yes my sons father often told him- if you go back to your mother- you may never come back here again… my son felt tied!
      His dad justified it by saying – it’s not healthy for you to go back and forth- but I’m the better parent ito do the job… don’t contact your mother.. but he told our son he never kept him away.. our son sees
      The inconsistencies- I agree with you that the children end up absorbing the parents phobias and fears and owning those tendencies as their own.. his father did put a few articles of our son s clothing in two garbage bags a few days after our son fled and left the bags at our sons high school!! He’s now been away from his father who became violent with our son and horrifically verbally abusive when son came back to retrieve the rest of his belongings after calls placed to dad went unanswered..The step mother slammed the door on sons foot ultimately during sons last visit to. Dads..
      3-4 months – and no returned calls
      Or texts messages or emails has our son received.. the ability to love both parents is invaluable
      To love their own self Too is invaluable:…
      Thank you !

      Like

    2. You are wise wise wise
      – and I don’t see the decision to encourage son to go back to the mother as being cruel or ineffectual.
      I see that you know yourself
      And know your offspring!
      You are white keen on what’s going on with mom as well.
      Invaluable indeed

      Like

  5. It is tragic to hear how your son has been badly treated at the hands of his father. His father seems very insecure. You must be very upset for your son and his struggles with his father.
    Far be it for me to give advice. I can only offer you my experience.
    It seems your Ex has defined you as the inferior parent, and therefor not worthy of the job any more.

    (I met a mother once, who had three boys. She was full of energy and vitality and enthused about her parenting capabilities. Her Ex-partner lived just around the corner from her and he only got to see one of his boys, she managed to turn the others against the father. Her mantra was, “I think I am the better parent”. She seemed oblivious of the emotional damage she was doing by denying the children a relationship with their father. She would say things like, “he doesn’t want to see his father any more”, as if she knew the mind of her sons, almost as if she were them).

    In your situation, I would be relieved that your son was away from his father’s anger and discontent. Your son is developing a very poor opinion of his father, which you may be able to change, to bring him peace of mind.
    Whatever the father’s current behaviours, post-separation, you may be able to give your son a better perspective of his father by referencing some old photos or shared family activity, and whilst indulging in the memory talk about why it worked so well then……………..if he asks questions that’s good; you can then begin to unravel your disappointments being careful not to lay blame. This is an emotional journey. Descriptions and emotional responses to situations are okay but character assassinations are not good. It seems to me that your son should maintain a good perspective of his father despite his current behaviour.
    If you can touch him emotionally he will become more secure in the bolthole of emotional security that you are creating for him. (Gottman is one of my favourite authors who has written about “emotional intelligence”, “parenting” and “separation”)
    There are several books which will assist you in learning techniques that will improve your bond with your son and enable him to gain the confidence to talk more freely to you. Personally, I have had some success with pets; they are useful aids to helping children with their emotions. If you are struggling to get through to your son, you can describe the emotion you want to portray by assigning the emotion to the pet. Warshak, in his book talks about “third party techniques”, these are well worth exploring.
    ……………………………
    Although we are thousands of miles apart your words ring true as if we are talking about a common human condition, it’s very flattering of you to describe me as wise, wise, wise…. that made me smile. My Ex. described me as weak, weak, weak. (That probably won’t surprise you).

    These polarised emotional states where the alienator parent (bully) and the target (victim) are locked into predictable behaviour patterns might be described as a “game”. Eric Berne wrote a very interesting book called “Games people play” in which he described how adults sometimes unwittingly and with damaging consequence play “emotional games”. If he were alive today, I feel sure he would come up with some revealing insights into the game of Alienator V Target.

    It’s not a healthy game to play and dismantling/disarming it must be a priority.

    One of the most uplifting moments for a target parent is when they realise, they have the power to make a positive difference. They feel ostracised, controlled, disempowered, but in fact they are still part of a familial unit, and perhaps stunned by psychological attack, only temporarily frozen out. They are influential even though the keys to success can be so hard to find.
    Just one more thing, these behaviours you are combating don’t always go away, you become more competent at managing them, and more confident in your approach with every little success. As time passes you become less of a target parent and more of an astute parent.

    Like

  6. It is truly tragic the way his father treated him. Quite the emotional, spiritual and psychological journey is ever unfolding. My son seems bemused, dismayed, and saddened when I pull out photos and tell the story behind the picture of before he was born with his father and me, And when I present Albums that contain all
    Three of us, My son, most often cannot look for long. It’s as if he is peering at two strangers of his father and me. I can absolutely imagine that he feels raw and I bet he wishes he knew those two strangers and that the two strangers were still
    Together and were no longer strangers unto him. My son can look at images that just contain singular images of himself!! That’s great! He likes the infant to toddler images of he and I.. there are breastfeeding images that he absolutely adores.
    My son, also at times
    Struggles with the fact that I speak of his father objectively and with Compassion- because “how could you be so kind to him mommy when he’s treated you so badly.”
    I explain that one can separate behavior from who a person is. We go into gossip and dishonorable speech is harmful not only to all three of us – but to his father and to our own internal bodies..
    no surprise at all that you ex referenced you as the antithesis of wise wise wise.
    I recall when my ex told me even after our son ran away and the ex was asking form me
    To “encourage”’our son to stay with him, after years of non contact with me or very scant and sorry contact at other times- how in the same breath his father told me that he is the better parent to do the job! I’m
    Trained as an NLP Practitioner- I heard his fathers utter fear and control and how he truly cannot help
    His behavior.. cannot see himself. . could hear his spite ..

    I’m
    Relieved that my son is a way from that poison, and ill conditioning. You are correct that it’s quite empowering to see that I haven’t ultimately been erased
    But put on some type of pause or suspended animation in my sons life and he in mine.. I’m
    So thankful that he has a good heart, that he is open and sensitive.. he cries sometimes when he feels a flood of emotions. He does miss his father and he’s confused about why he’d miss his father and I help him get in touch with the answers within.. no road map to healing and recapitulation it all. Sorting through the ruins to find the treasures.

    Thank you!!
    Insightful and well put together message that you’ve written to me..

    (Sorry for any typos-typing from a phone)

    Just need a parent alienation expert/counseling/ therapy- to give him a boost.
    I’ll look into the authors that you’ve referenced here… the 3rd party technique feels extremely effective.

    We have two dogs
    Whom my son loves. One passed when he was away.

    Like

  7. You seem like an emotionally savvy parent to me, sensitive to feelings and behaviours.

    Apologies in advance for the following comment, which when I read back to myself seemed to be preachy. Don’t be offended by the bits you don’t like, or think are mis-guided or irrelevant. What I say here reflects my personal journey, one of ten years or so, one that is often contradictory, even at times inflammatory. In some ways it is the story I tell that has become my therapy.

    Things to be wary of might be your son feeling he is the reason for his parents splitting up. If he has seen the photos of you and his father looking happy together, he may conclude that he is responsible for his parents split; It is obviously not his fault, he need not feel guilty. Perhaps you could sensitively talk around this subject, alleviating any sense of responsibility he may have incurred.

    You describe his father as authoritarian. If that is his style of parenting, then your son either feels he must join him and become almost like a clone of his father or he must break away and find his true self. Adolescence is a difficult time for children, finding their identity, becoming autonomous. Irrespective of whether parents are together or apart the child will be struggling with the life changes of moving haphazardly from child to adult. The best style of parenting to aim for is the “coach” described by Gottman and his colleagues.

    You might feel like tackling your Ex, telling him to grow up, or back off, but I can’t see an authoritarian parent taking any notice of that kind of talk. However, we all have weaknesses and he may not be an exception. We are all susceptible to flattery, it makes us feel good about ourselves. When we get our way or feel that we have won, had our egos stroked we are much more likely to be cooperative or amenable. Our heads expand with self-righteous confidence. You may think this is morally wrong and not something you want your son to be part of, “what good parent is counter-manipulative”. This may seem absurd but if you did agree that his father was the better parent (but without compromising your parenting skills in any way) what affect would that have on the familial dynamics; would it ease some of the tension or just create confusion?

    Authoritarian parents are usually proficient at creating order out of chaos, leadership and organisation, efficiency of time and materials etc. They have useful traits and many of our leaders in society today are reared in this fashion. Teachers need authority to organise the class, parents need authority to teach safety and personal care etc.
    However, what some may lack is empathy, sensitivity, an understanding of human emotions and their link to behaviours. Simply being authoritarian on its’ own isn’t enough. The strict ones may have rule books, punishment regimes, coercive techniques that make you shudder, their control/leadership habits split families/societies by making life a choice between following them or not following them.

    Because you are the emotionally savvy parent, able to have meaningful, two-way conversations with your son, I feel you will find ways of putting all this in context, helping him to accept why people are like they are. Untangling life stories is an important therapy, the “process” of doing this is quite often the thing which brings us most relief.
    I really don’t know the best answers to suit your situation. As an emotionally savvy parent you will be the catalyst of helping your son to solve his biggest problems for himself. You are his rock. A therapist might be good for your son, as you say, but I feel you are best equipped to help him, take the time to get counselling for yourself, study and continue to expand your skills and knowledge as you are doing with the NLP. My favourite parenting books are by Faber & Mazlish, easy to read and great for freeing up any mis-understandings, communication blockages between parent and child.
    Much as we would like our Ex’s to change, deal with their faults, we cannot persuade them to act for themselves. We must work on ourselves, communicating better with our children, creating an emotional map for them (and for ourselves) that is understandable and logical

    Like

    1. I’ve read your post again-
      What I feel- and know is that what you’ve imparted rings true to me. Every word. Every suggestion. Every inference, idea and notion..

      I’m
      Thankful
      And a few AHaHa
      Moments

      Very thankful indeed

      Like

  8. I’ll reply as soon as I get to a desktop!!

    This is very meaningful!!

    Rings true to me…

    Much respect and respect!
    Talk soon!!

    Like

  9. This is not something specific to alienation, but it is something that will equip a child to handle their problems better, to feel more confident in themselves, to be more at ease emotionally and develop a strong bond with the parent administering the teachings.
    The big problem for your son is his relationship with his father and the hurt he feels when his father is prepared to completely reject him, blank him out, for not adhering to his rules. “If you don’t do as I say you can go and live with your mother”

    The way to tackle this is to put the big problem to one side, for a moment.

    What you need to do is equip your son with the skills of “problem solving”.

    You start with the small stuff first.

    For example, your son may have violated the school dress code because he wanted to show off his new sneakers to his friends at school. He has been deeply offended when the teacher, confiscated them, deducted house points or embarrassed him in front of the class. As a parent you need to empathise with your son, listen to his story, acknowledge, affirm that you understand what has happened, be prepared to troubleshoot the problem without rushing in with your own solution. When you have developed some trust on this issue you can tentatively signpost, help him to empathise with the teacher, put the whole situation into a perspective that includes the projected opinions of all participants in the scenario.
    For most parents including myself this is not an easy task; we instinctively want to give our children in immediate response based on our own opinions, we are not prepared to spend the time it takes to sit down with our child and help them learn the methodology of “problem solving”. We are inclined to upset them further by instantly chastising the child or siding with the teacher.
    The “problem solving” method of parenting is strengthening your son’s ability to tackle the thorny issues which we all face in life. It is helping him develop his emotional intelligence. Conversely, in the house of the authoritarian parent the scenario might be totally different. The child is punished, physically and/or emotionally, they are belittled, ridiculed, shamed, told to man-up, emotions ignored or trampled on. Another scenario might be the authoritarian parent goes to the school to malign and attack the teachers for upsetting their son. Either way the son is learning a very poor and inconsiderate response to solving the issue of wearing his favourite sneakers to school.
    My message is to do as much as you can to skill up on parenting. This will give your son self-confidence and emotional stability. The more you can help him develop into a confident adult the better chance he has of finding a solution to the bigger problems he will encounter in his life.

    Like

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