In my podcast for Family Access I discussed the route that a child takes into psychological splitting when trans-generational trauma repetition is at play. This is one scenario seen when a child suffers induced splitting in divorce and separation, there are several others.
What is clear from our work with families is that parental alienation is not one homogeneous experience because although the end result is the same (the child splits the self and then projects that split outwards) the route to the child’s use of the defence is unique to the dynamics in that family.
In this respect, our concern is two-fold, the first is the impact on the child of the induced split and the second is the dynamics which cause the child to utilise that defence.
Unfortunately, by the time we who do this work are brought in to assist a family, the child’s use of the defence of splitting is already well established, meaning that what we encounter in our engagement with the family are the after effects of the splitting reaction. This can cause enormous confusion in practitioners who, confronted by the child’s induced split in the self, are distracted by the behaviours seen in the child and drawn to trying to understand them.
Unfortunately, because most practitioners do not understand the way in which splitting presents, their efforts to understand rely upon listening to the child as if the child is speaking the truth. Hearing the alienated child’s voice however, is about understanding how splitting causes the child to speak the truth of the parent they have become aligned to. Thus, when we listen to the alienated child we hear the echoes of the parent they are aligned to and how their wishes and feelings are being channelled through the child.
Splitting causes alignment and rejection in alienated children, the rejection being a by-product of the drive to align which is underpinned by a hyper-attachment to a parent caused by fear of abandonment. When this occurs, the child cannot speak about their own experience, they can only voice that of the parent who has induced the split state of mind. Listening to alienated children and relying upon their expressed wishes and feelings is therefore the same as relying upon the narrative that the rejected parent is the cause of the problem. In this scenario the parent causing the induced splitting avoids scrutiny and it is one of the fundamental failures of practitioners to enable this scenario to occur because it further harms the child and entrenches the belief that the distorted reality of the aligned parent is the truth of the matter. It is not.
Understanding a child who is using traumatic splitting as a defence is relatively easy when we understand the pressures upon children in divorce and separation.
We know that children in divorce and separation are likely to use a spectrum of behaviours to manage relationships with two parents who are no longer living together and who are perhaps also not communicating at all.
The spectrum of behaviours seen in children of divorce and separation are as follows –
FSC Training – Behavioural Patterns of Children in Divorce and Separation (2009-2019)
All of the behaviours seen in the diagram above are versions of traumatic splitting and are clearly described in the literature on psychological trauma. The key to understanding this is to recognise that divorce and separation, whilst normalised by most western societies, are taking place in children’s lives during a time when their brain development is underway and therefore their psychological capacity to cope with change, is much more limited than that of adults.
In addition, the needs of children, for access to consistent healthy parenting and uninterrupted attachment experiences, are placed at risk when parents separate due to the impact upon parents of the divorce and separation process itself.
In times of high anxiety therefore, when parents may become emotionally and psychologically unavailable to children and the world around children is changing rapidly in ways which may be unpredictable, children utilise adaptive behaviours to manage a frightening experience in which their needs for stability are not met.
Furthermore, in the crisis of divorce and separation, hidden dysfunction in the family is likely to become active. As children are the people with the least power in the family and as representatives of the investments made by two parents, they can become targets for the psychologically maladapted behaviours in one parent acting against the other.
The spectrum of behaviours seen in children who are attempting to move between two parents after divorce, where one parent is perhaps placing pressure upon them or, at times, when two parents are engaged in that behaviour, are readily found in the literature on childhood trauma.
Writing about our tendency to compartmentalise under stress, Janina Fisher, former supervisor at the Van Der Kolk Institute tells us that –
When attachment figures are abusive, the child’s only source of safety and protection becomes simultaneously the source of immediate danger, leaving the child caught between two conflicting sets of instincts. On the one hand they are driven by attachment instincts to seek proximity, comfort and protection, on the other they are driven by equally strong animal defence instincts to freeze, fight, flee or submit, or dissociate before they get too close to the frightening parent. Fisher (2017)
The issue we are dealing with in the scenario of alienation however is that the abuse which is being suffered looks to the outside world like love when it is anything but. As Kerig suggests –
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)
Imagine the scenario of the child whose parent is dependent upon them to keep them stable after divorce and separation. A child whose parent is keen to surround them with love and devotion but at the same time conveys the message that unless the child takes care of their emotional needs they may abandon the child. The messages in this situation need not be even verbalised, the abandonment threat is there in the intention conveyed in the intra-psychic, the silent but powerful communications which occur between parent and child.
The message which is given to the child is ‘I depend upon you to keep me stable, don’t leave me, don’t betray me.’ To which the child can only respond in one way, which is to seek proximity and to submit to the parent, at the same time having to compartmentalise any feelings of anger and frustration at having to split off parts of themselves in order to conform to the demands.
Compartmentalisation is a trauma based response to a situation which looks like love but which is anything but. Switching is a further development of that behaviour in which the child moves into displaying two different selves when with each of their parents. Often, when working with two parents whose child is using switching behaviour, neither parent can recognise the description of the child being given by the other. This is because the child who switches their behaviours will seek to become the child they believe each parent wishes them to be, separating out the parts which identify with each parent and becoming that part as fully as possible when in the care of that parent. This is another form of trauma based splitting which is common in children of divorce but which has not been recognised as trauma based behaviour.
Splitting is the end result of the child’s efforts to adapt to family separation and occurs when the child can no longer tolerate the pressure to align with a parent. Splitting causes the child to split their own self first, projecting outwards that internal split so that parents become identified as wholly good and wholly bad.
It is essential then for anyone who works with alienated children and their families, to understand the way that traumatic splitting presents in children and how the pressures faced by children of divorce and separation render them vulnerable to these behavioural patterns.
Working with adult children who were alienated and who did not resolve the psychological splitting, offers a great deal of information about how to adapt existing therapies to fit the needs of this group of people.
Routes to recovery for all families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting can be developed via this understanding, this is the work that the Clinic is currently developing in conjunction with partners across Europe.
This work takes the understanding of parental alienation into the deeper psychological experience of families affected by it and enables those of us who work with dynamic change to do the work of adapting existing approaches and developing new therapies for children and families across the whole spectrum.
New routes to recovery for families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting are already being delivered and research outputs will be produced alongside this.
With strong partnerships around Europe featuring practitioners who are skilled, aware and resilient to the constant attacks on anyone who does this work, there is powerful progress being made in this field leading to better outcomes for children and families everywhere.
The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners Third Conference will be held in Zagreb, Croatia in 2020. Featuring practice with families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting after divorce and separation, this conference will bring together significant evidence from practitioners in this field.
More details here shortly.
USA Training Group
FSC training to practitioners in the USA takes place on 9/10 September in Philadelphia. We have two places in a group of twelve practitioners left after last minute cancellations, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to join us.
This training is based upon the Family Separation Clinic model of assessment, differentiation and intervention which has recently been upheld by a Court in the USA as being in the best interest of the child.
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.