The counter-intuitive nature of parental alienation is caused by the child being induced to use psychological splitting as a defence.
Many researchers have identified psychological splitting the core defence in parental alienation, some are listed at the end of this article. At the Family Separation Clinic, it is our view that all of Gardner’s eight signs of alienation in a child arise from the use of psychological splitting as a defence. In that respect, the manifestations are simply the child’s behavioural display as a result of psychological splitting. It is therefore splitting, its impact and its treatment that we are concerned with when we are working with parental alienation.
Psychological splitting causes distinct behavioural challenges for children. In particular, the splitting reaction, which in my experience occurs first in the child who is being alienated, causing them to develop what Winnicott refers to as a ‘false self’. This false self is the part of the alienated child which seeks to take control of the family system by creating a heroes and villains narrative which is based upon the split state of mind.
I am a psychotherapist. All of my work is based upon relationships between people in the outer world and relationships between internal parts of the self in the inner world. The more I work with alienated children, the more I understand that the language they speak is that of the child suffering traumatic splitting. The more I understand that, the more I learn how to work with that. I also learn about how to work with adults who are affected by a child’s traumatic splitting, because it is this impact, which in my view, causes case of parental alienation to enter a dynamic in which reality itself is upended.
Projection is a defence mechanism in which parts which are intolerable to the self are denied and projected onto other people. Parental alienation, which is caused by splitting, involves a lot of projection of split off and denied parts being projected at the rejected parent. That is because the child who has utilised splitting of the self as a defence, must place those denied and split off parts somewhere. The easiest place to cope with those parts is to see them in the parent who is being rejected. Tragically for alienated children, seeing those parts of the self which are identified with the rejected parent as being bad/evil/wrong/to blame, means that they are essentially hating their own selves.
The lived experience of alienated children therefore, is that of self hatred which is induced, split off and denied and projected at others. The rejected parent is thus simply a bystander in a drama which requires a villain to hold the projections of the child.
And of course the child’s induced psychological splitting is caused by the relational dynamics with the parent to whom they are pathologically bound. It is this person who creates the conditions in which the child must develop a false self.
That false self, which is often a mirror image of the parent causing the problem, will feel inauthentic to the child and untreated will lead to what Janina Fisher terms ‘self alienation’
We know that some children in divorce and separation suffer from compartmentalisation, a way of keeping two sides of their lives separate from each other. It is my view that for some children, particularly those who have a parent who is disordered or unable to contain their emotional selves, compartmentalisation, in which the two sides of their experience in divorce are kept very separate, eventually leads to the need to split the self in order to resolve the impossible dilemma they are facing. This is a form of childhood attachment trauma in which disorganised attachment leads to the development of the false self described by Winnicott. When we add the dynamic of coercive control to this picture, the reality of what the alienated child is facing becomes even more grave.
Helpless to resist a parent’s control of their internal and external world, children will identify with the parent they most fear in order to regulate that parent and remain safe in the world. As Ferenezi describes it, the child will identify with the parent who is abusing them.
Ferenczi introduced the concept and term, identification with the aggressor in his seminal “Confusion of Tongues” paper, in which he described how the abused child becomes transfixed and robbed of his senses. Having been traumatically overwhelmed, the child becomes hypnotically transfixed by the aggressor’s wishes and behavior, automatically identifying by mimicry rather than by a purposeful identification with the aggressor’s role. To expand upon Ferenczi’s observations, identification with the aggressor can be understood as a two-stage process. The first stage is automatic and initiated by trauma, but the second stage is defensive and purposeful. While identification with the aggressor begins as an automatic organismic process, with repeated activation and use, gradually it becomes a defensive process. Broadly, as a dissociative defense, it has two enacted relational parts, the part of the victim and the part of the aggressor.
Ferenczi’s concept of identification with the aggressor: understanding dissociative structure with interacting victim and abuser self-states. Howell EF. Am J Psychoanal. 2014 Mar;74(1):48-59.
In recognising that alienated children are suffering from traumatic splitting, we open the door to a new world of understanding, not only of what is happening to the child but how to effectively intervene and treat the underlying conditions of mind. The language that the alienated child is speaking is in fact NOT one which simply arises from the behaviours of parents in the post separation landscape but from the vulnerability of a child to the dynamics those behaviours cause. Whilst we may consider that the alienated child is speaking with the voice of the alienating parent, in reality the alienated child is speaking with the voice of the false self, a mirror image of the alienating parent yes, but in fact a wound in the child, not simply the child being a conduit for parental trauma.
I am now working with adults alienated as children, some of whom are reunited with parent but who still speak of feeling inauthentic and who still feel that the parent they rejected was somehow to blame for the dislocation of their relationship in the past. Using the language of parts, it is possible to assist these adults to resolve the splitting which remains. Not just the projection of the split which is the division of the parents into good and bad, but the splitting of the self which has left a disconnection between parts which causes numbness of feeling and in some cases lack of memory and connectedness to the whole of the self.
This focus is opening the door to the next phase of work with children of divorce and separation and by learning to name the trees which make up the wood into which the alienated child disappears, a new understanding of what has happened to alienated children emerges.
Finding the path through this wood to create a new therapeutic understanding and approach to treatment is the next step on my journey in the world of the alienated child.
Psychological Splitting in Parental Alienation
Specifically, the expressed lack of ambivalence as manifested by the alienated child serves as an observable defining characteristic of the presence of parental alienation
Alan M. Jaffe, Melanie J. Thakkar & Pascale Piron | Peter Walla (Reviewing Editor) (2017) Denial of ambivalence as a hallmark of parental alienation, Cogent Psychology, 4:1, DOI: 10.1080/23311908.2017.1327144
Children who experience severe parental alienation almost always manifest splitting, such that they idealize the alienatingparent and devalue the target parent
Bernet W,1M.D.; Gregory N, Ph.D.; Reay K, Ph.D.; and Rohner R, Ph.D. An Objective Measure of Splitting in ParentalAlienation: The Parental Acceptance–RejectionQuestionnaire. J Forensic Sci, May 2018, Vol. 63, No. 3doi: 10.1111/1556- 4029.13625
Results confirmed that alienated children engaged in splitting, idealising their preferred parent and demonising their target parent without legitimate justification. Conversely, neglected/emotionally abused children presented with greater ambivalence, sending both positive and negative messages to their mothers and fathers; although overall in this study, they displayed a tendency to idealise their parents despite the maltreatment that they had suffered. The results highlight the importance of not taking children’s expressed wishes at face value and the need for in‐depth multimodal psychological assessments to establish children’s ascertainable rather than expressed wishes.Blagg, N.; Godfrey, E. Exploring Parent–Child Relationships in Alienated versus Neglected/Emotionall AbusedChildren using the Bene‐Anthony Family Relations Test. Volume27, Issue ^November/December 201 Pages 486-496
The use of defensive splitting distinguishes parental alienation.
Lee SM, Oleson NW. Assessing for alienation in child custody and access evaluations, Fam Court Review 2001;39(3):282-298
Therapy for Adults Alienated as Children
It was a surprise to me that alienated children read this blog as I believed as others do that alienated children do not know they are alienated. It seems that in fact many adults who were rejecting of a parent in childhood are aware of the lasting impact of that upon them. Many are now reaching out to ask for help.
I consider that the experience of alienation from a parent in childhood is a childhood trauma which requires treatment using interventions based upon resolution of traumatic splitting. I am currently developing and testing such a route to treatment.
If you are an adult child who rejected a parent after divorce or separation and you would like to participate in research please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.