Last week I gave the John Cornwell Lecture to the Family Mediators Association Annual Conference. Introduced by Lord Justice Mostyn, I spoke for an hour about the harm that induced psychological splitting causes to children and why we must intervene to help the child when it occurs.
I also spoke about the ways in which a child enters into the state of mind seen in parental alienation and the importance of all team members working in a case of alienation, understand that the child’s presentation is caused not by the behaviours of the rejected parent, but by the pathological alignment with the preferred parent.
Family Mediators are well placed to recognise the asymmetry of the power dynamics in cases where children are alienated and can play an important role in the early identification and triage of such cases to specialist help.
But what becomes of that specialist help in cases where children are alienated and the team members are not educated? What becomes of that help when those who have statutory power pull not in the same direction as the specialist help which is available, but in a different direction. What happens when statutory institutionalised power meets specialised bespoke help?
Dr Hamish Cameron presented at the EAPAP conference chaired by Sir Paul Coleridge in London in 2018. The presentation he gave was a warning to all practitioners in this space to take care in doing this work due to the risk of failure of interventions when the team around the family does not work together effectively. As Dr Cameron told us, ‘the team around the family is only as strong as the weakest link.’ Which effectively means that the person in the team who holds the most power, had better be the person with strength, knowledge and understanding of parental alienation when we are acting to intervene.
In cases of parental alienation, specialist services such as those delivered by the Family Separation Clinic, are often delivered in teams with Guardians and Social Workers. Where those interventions are underpinned by knowledge and awareness of alienation, intervention is rapid and successful. Where those interventions however, involve team members who have no knowledge of how alienated children behave and where this is combined with an attitude which leads to changing minds and inconsistency of opinion, problems often arise.
The problem with statutory services in the UK is that they are trained to work with the voice of the child agenda, which for too many, literally means, believing everything a child says and working slavishly to that agenda. The other problem is the lack of understanding of parental alienation and the counter intuitive approaches needed to both understand and intervene in families where it is present.
As Dr Steve Miller tells us, unaware professionals, not only get it wrong, they get it 180 degrees wrong. And that, in assessment and treatment can lead to it being more difficult to intervene, not less.
The other issue that unaware professionals get wrong 180 degrees is an understanding of attachment. This is one of the most difficult areas to educate social workers and Guardians about because to their untrained eye, attachment means the child wants to have a relationship with a parent. Which in cases of parental alienation of course, is the evidence which is very much missing when it comes to how the child supposedly feels about the rejected parent.
Attachment is worth thinking about in all cases of parental alienation because without attachment between a rejected parent and child, the induced psychological splitting behaviours which are seen (what Gardner called the eight signs of alienation), would not be present.
Following on from Dr Miller’s evidence that professionals not only get it wrong, they get it 180 degrees wrong, attachment between a child and a rejected parent is not absent and it is not weakened, it is suppressed. Indeed attachment, once present, cannot be weakened, it can only either be active or suppressed. Indeed Bowlby himself, the father of attachment theory, tells us that this is the case.
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. This form of exclusion I refer to — for obvious reasons — as defensive exclusion, which is, of course, only another way of describing repression. (Bowlby 1980).
Treating a case of parental alienation as if the attachment has been weakened therefore, is to get it 180 degrees wrong. This leads to the idea that the relationship between the child and rejected parent needs to be built up or repaired, when in fact protected space for the child to be in proximity to a parent is what is actually required. This is because the reason the attachment relationship between the child and rejected parent is not visible, is because of the behaviours of the alienating parent have exploited the mental structures responsible for routine selective exclusion for a special and potentially pathological purpose. As Bowlby tells us, this is just another way of describing repression due to the development of what Winnicott calls a ‘false self‘ and which Kohut describes as ‘narcissistic.
Whether we say an alienated child is suppressing or repressing the attachment relationship really depends upon how conscious we feel the child is of the feelings they are attempting to deny. Remembering that many children who use induced defensive splitting remain conscious of their real feelings whilst denying them strongly to anyone who intervenes, for others all positive feelings about a parent become unconscious and therefore repressed. In my work with alienated children, I have, at stages post reunification, asked each of them whether they were conscious of what they were doing when they were rejecting a parent, almost all said yes they were but that they could not do anything other than what they were being made or encouraged to do by the parent to whom they were aligned. A small number however said that they were not conscious at the time although afterwards they became aware that what they had said and done was wrong.
Much of what happens to alienated children is in the inter and intra psychic world, a world they are used to inhabiting by virtue of the fact that they are children and used to being subjected to the positive and negative signals from adults. This is why interventions must be delivered by teams of alienation aware practitioners who understand the ways in which children in these circumstances behave. If the weakest link in a treatment team is ambivalent about the intervention or does not understand that the focus is protection of the child from the behaviours of the alienating parent and provision of protected space in proximity to the rejected parent, the child concerned will immediately attempt to use that person to thwart the work being done.
Because the reality of what is happening to children who are alienated is that they are trapped in the fused dyadic prison of the alienating parent’s behaviours, behaviours which have threatened them into hyper attachment due to fear of being abandoned. And a child will do anything to avoid abandonment.
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. Howell (2014)
This is why alienated children are both victim and aggressor in their rejection of a parent. Having been terrorised into submission, the child employs a defence mechanism which leads to a) the psychologically split state of mind which is seen in alienation (the child has split their own self first and projected that at their parents and b) a lack of empathy for the parent rejected which leads to cruelty without shame or guilt.
When this has occurred all that the alienating parent needs to do is sit back and allow the child to enact the defence. Which is why so many alienating parents say that they want the child to have a relationship with a parent if only that parent would stop causing the child to reject them.
This is child abuse in action and it is happening to children all over the world. Terrorised into hyper-attachment, caused to enact a defence which ensures the loss of a healthy parent and left to fester without help from statutory services which have the power to intervene but which in too many cases do not, the future for these children would be bleak indeed if the knowledge of what is happening had remained suppressed and repressed by mental health practitioners.
Fortunately it is not because all over the world, the awareness of the plight of alienated children is increasing and the knowledge of how to intervene is well established.
As EAPAP increases its influence and builds a strong practitioner base in Europe, work with colleagues in the USA will provide a similar resource. In 2020, training and development of practitioners around the world will continue with partnerships being developed and principles and protocols clarified.
Whilst there may be bumps and bends on the path to internationally recognised standards of practice, in general the direction of travel is clear.
As the EAPAP statement on practice makes clear, no more generic therapy, no more lack of awareness amongst practitioners, no more blame of rejected parents.
Parental alienation is child abuse, looking the other way is no longer an option.
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 3: Loss, Sadness and Depression. New York: Basic Books.
Howell EF. Ferenczi’s concept of identification with the aggressor: understanding dissociative structure with interacting victim and abuser self-states. Am J Psychoanal. 2014 Mar;74(1):48-59. doi: 10.1057/ajp.2013.40.
EAPAP 2020 – Parental Separation, Alienation and Splitting: Healing Beyond Reunification will be held on 4/5 June 2020 in Zagreb, Croatia.
This conference will bring together practitioners in the field of child abuse, trauma and attachment to explore the ways in which existing therapies and models of understanding of abuse and trauma can be translated into work with abused children of divorce and separation. Taking place over two days, the conference will deliver intensives in different aspects of parental alienation to present a cohesive set of standards for international assessment, differentiation and intervention.
This is a practitioner only conference, streaming of parts of the conference will be available for parents and a parents Q&A session will be co-ordinated on day two.
Family Separation Clinic Training Schedule 2020
We will be delivering the following training and conference presentations in 2020
February – Republic of Ireland in conjunction with Irish Practitioners – details here shortly.
February – Germany in conjunction with German practitioners – details here shortly.
June – EAPAP 2020 in Zagreb, Croatia.
Summer – Reunification Training in Conjunction with Colorado University – details to be confirmed.
Autumn – For Family Access – NC. USA 4/5