The world of parental alienation is a world which is divided in a binary manner. There are no shades of grey. Everything about parental alienation is good/bad, right/wrong, black/white and so on.
This way of thinking in the world is infectious as the split mind of the child causes others to think in the same way. I have worked in many cases for example, where not only were the children and their parents suffering from psychological splitting, everyone around them including the legal team were suffering it too.
Understanding the binary world of parental alienation enables us to avoid being triangulated into it and in doing so becoming compromised in our perspective. Understanding the shapes in the minds of the people we encounter in doing this work is an essential route to survival in it.
I have worked with many cases of alienation and have seen the way in which children integrate the split state of mind in a matter of moments. I have also seen children struggling to integrate and moving back and forth across the splitting defence when the external conditions were not fully in place to enable them to heal. When the movement back and forth across the splitting defence is observed, it is a signal that the child is still influenced either by some kind of contact with the influencing parent or by too much fear of the consequences of reunification in their relationship with that parent. When we work with alienated children we must first of all understand the defensive mechanisms they have employed in order to survive in a world which on the surface (conscious mind) feels like love but in the deeper levels of awareness (unconscious) feels like a threat of abandonment. And when children are threatened with abandonment, they will do anything at all to avoid that.
In alienation the child projects onto the parents a good/bad split. This is the very core of what alienation is, which in the trauma literature, is considered to arise from a split in the self and the development of a false self or persona.
In the emotionally detached children described earlier and also, I believe, in adults who have developed the kind of personality that Winnicott ( 1960) describes as ‘false self’ and Kohut ( 1977) as ‘narcissistic’, the information being blocked off is of a very special type. So far from its being the routine exclusion of irrelevant and potentially distracting information that we engage in all the time and that is readily reversible, what are being excluded in these pathological conditions are the signals, arising from both inside and outside the person, that would activate their attachment behaviour and that would enable them both to love and to experience being loved. In other words, the mental structures responsible for routine selective exclusion are being employed — one might say exploited — for a special and potentially pathological purpose.
- Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.
The false self described by Winnicott, is described by Kohut as narcissistic and in this respect links back to Klein and her thinking on infantile splitting, a condition which is the result of the induced splitting defence and it is this false self which acts out all of the behaviours listed by Gardner as the eight signs of alienation. In this respect the signs of alienation as curated by Gardner are the red flags that lead us to understand that splitting is in play and when we recognise that we must next investigate how the child came to utilise the defence in the first place. Understanding who is inducing splitting in the child is the first task, reorganising the dynamic around the child is the intervention that addresses the problem.
In a binary world of good/bad, where children are operating from a false self however, the risk of triangulation into the family drama is extremely high for all professionals who venture near. Triangulation, in which a third person is used to strengthen the hand of the alienator, is a common risk factor and to avoid it practitioners must recognise the dangers that alienating parents pose both to their children and to anyone who comes too close.
When children are operating from a false self and that false self has taken control of the family system, being the person who attempts to shift that dynamic can be dangerous, especially in an environment where people do not understand how psychological splitting presents in a child. The witch trial atmosphere of the parental alienation case can be alarming, this is because the world created by the alienating parent is a good/bad binary world in which one must be placed on one side or the other. Keeping perspective and recognising that there are no sides, only the focus upon helping alienated children to resolve the split state of mind, is a key part of survival in this working world.
Triangulation is an enormous risk in the binary world of alienation and many find themselves almost hypnotised by the opportunities that this dynamic creates. Feeling that one is important, that one holds a key to the problem, that one must rescue the child from the harm they are facing are all signs of being triangulated. Becoming the hero in a story full of villains is a seductive storyline and many practitioners both legal and mental health find themselves falling into that drama triangle.
At the very core of the alienation drama are triangles, splits and parts of the self and the wider family which are separated from each other. Information flow in the alienation drama is controlled by the person from whom the dynamic originates and that someone has often themselves been subjected to controlled information flow as a child.
Growing up in a world where secrets are kept between two people and others are kept in the dark or given information on a need to know basis, develops internal family systems dynamics which can be conceptualised as individual silos. In the internal lives of families affected by this dynamic, knowledge is managed carefully by people in control of what they want others to know. Thus, anyone venturing into this distorted world must be able to recognise the shapes which govern these families on the inside – triangles, individual information silos and binary thinking all give clues to the dysfunctional world we are working in.
This is a dark and difficult dynamic to work with and it causes significant damage to the unaware professional. For parents who find themselves rejected, it is bewildering but when explained it is often not surprising to them. Clues in the shape of manipulation of information, recruitment of children into a hostile coalition and a history of wider family members being carefully erased prior to the alienation taking hold are all often well recognised by many rejected parents. For others, their vulnerability in the form of a history of childhood abuse, estrangement or alienation from one of their own parents, pre-conditioned them to accept as normal, many behaviours which are well recognised as alienating.
As a psychotherapist, understanding the shapes that govern the world of parental alienation is an essential task which enables us to keep perspective and understand from a wider angle how to assist families. Keeping our wits about us means understanding that anyone and everyone involved with a case of parental alienation is vulnerable to the distortion of vision that comes with being seduced into the drama. When we approach our work with this perspective, safe conduct is maintained and stress levels are reduced.
For anyone involved in a case of parental alienation, the essential task is to care for the self first in order to do the best for the children and families we are seeking to help.
Shaping up, recognising risk and deeply understanding the internalised world of the families we work with is the best protection.
The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners will hold its third conference in Zagreb in 2020.
Hosted by the Child and Youth Protection Centre in Zagreb, this conference will focus upon practice with families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting and will launch internationally recognised standards of assessment and intervention for all practitioners wishing to work with EAPAP.
Featuring a combination of leading Judiciary, Legal and Mental Health Practitioners from at least ten countries in Europe, this conference will be for practitioners only and will offer workshops, lectures and CPD for up to 500 delegates.
Parents will be able to access parts of the conference via live streaming.
Following on from the lecture we gave in Zagreb to 250 delegates, this conference brings together best practice in the field in Europe and creates a unique opportunity to further develop the scientific field of parental alienation into deeper understanding of the relational space in which the dynamic occurs.
More news here soon.