Understanding Teenagers: Working with Splitting and Alienation in Adolescence

Be kind to people you meet, you never know who might be raising teenagers…

Research tells us that the most likely period of time for a child to become alienated from a parent is between 8 and 14 (Fidler 2010).

Research also tells us that the developmental tasks of being a teenager are similar to those experienced in the toddler years. Growing used to the changing body  learning about the self and expression of personality, are all part of being a teenager. (Rageliene 2016).

What is also key to adolescent development is the need to pull away from parents and the drive to form relationships with peers.  This is a period of time when parents despair that their beloved child has turned into a monster.

Whilst we, as adults, can laugh about the horrors of the teenage years, it really is no joke for parents or teenagers themselves when the stable platform for parenting through the teenager years is not present due to family separation.  And it becomes even less funny when one of the parents of a teenager is either suffering from unresolved issues in their own childhood or teenage years.

This is when the risks to teenagers, of being unable to complete their developmental tasks, increase significantly.  Worryingly, in separated family situations where a teenager has entered into the psychologically split state of mind which causes hyper alignment and rejection as in alienation, there is not only a lack of a stable platform, there is also a likely entanglement with unresolved trauma in a parent, making the completion of tasks of adolescence almost impossible.  It is in this scenario that splitting, leading to alienation is also wrapped up in role reversal which is attachment disruption. When this occurs, sorting out which is normal teenage behaviour and which is a result of the entanglement with a parent’s unresolved psychological issues, becomes important.

The teenage brain requires significant remodelling in order to function as an adult brain and during this period of time this work is intensive.  The pruning of neural pathways leads to a more effective brain function whilst development of new neural pathways grows the capacity for new and more sophisticated thinking.

The reason why teenagers are more impulsive, emotional and at times aggressive is down to the reliance upon the amygdala, the part of the brain which governs fear based reactions.  Anxiety, self consciousness, anger and explosions of feelings are all down to the unregulated effects of the amygdala upon which teenagers depend the most.  It is not until late adolescence and early adulthood that the pre frontal cortex, the part responsible for decision making and reasoning, is developed.  Which is why at times teenagers will appear to swing from reasonable to irrational in seconds.  The teenage brain is not an adult brain and cannot make adult decisions.  And yet this is the time during which teenagers are often given decision making power over their relationship with a once loved parent.  This is nothing short of tragic, particularly when we understand that it is most often the healthy parent who is not enmeshed with the teenager, who is rejected.

Working with splitting and alienation in teenagers is tricky for practitioners precisely because of the over reliance upon their age and the inherent belief in the family services that this means they are capable of making informed decisions.  Just as teenagers are not allowed to smoke, drink or drive cars however, in the light of the necessity for healthy, stable parenting, teenagers should not in my view, be enabled or empowered by the court system to reject a healthy good enough parent.

The following diagram is taken from guidance to social workers on working with children, it shows just how much a child/teenager is regarded as being capable of understanding and making decisions about their own lives at a time when the neuroscience demonstrates that the teenage brain does not possess the capacity to do so.

Screenshot 2019-10-14 at 11.00.07

When I examine this kind of information and consider the plight of the teenager in a separated family, who is not only struggling across the developmental tasks of understanding their own changing self but is being engaged in executive decisions far beyond the brain’s capacity to deal with, I understand how and why so many teenagers become alienated.  It is far easier in this confusing landscape, to submit to the pressure being placed upon the self to align with one reality and reject the other, than it is to make any kind of informed choice.  In fact there is no such thing as informed choice for teenagers who are trapped in the landscape of family separation where their drive is to get away from parents anyway but their fate is to have to uphold one reality over the other.  When family services become involved therefore, it becomes almost inevitable that the alignment and rejecting behaviours which are caused by induced splitting, are further entrenched by the treatment of teenagers as if they have the capacity to make informed decisions about parents.

Teenagers need stable boundaries to push against. Just as toddlers need someone to stop them from pulling everything off the supermarket shelves, teenagers need someone to stop them from being reckless due to their feelings of invincibility.  All teenagers experience that sense of being bigger than and better than their parents, what they need are parents who are capable of putting up the boundary that lets them know that they are not.

Unfortunately what happens when teenagers become alienated is that they lose the parent who is likely to put the clear boundary in place that they desperately need to prevent them from entering into what Erikson calls  role confusion.  This confusion of identity can lead to many of the outcomes seen in alienated young adults who are unable to settle into a sense of agency in the world and is the result of the interference with the developmental tasks of adolescence, by the hyper alignment with a parent who is likely to have unresolved issues.

What then can a parent who is being rejected by a teenager do when the teenager is adamant, the family services around them are upholding their adapted voice rather than their true expression of self and the family courts have decided that the teen is old enough to decide for themselves to kill off a relationship with a parent?

The first task is to recognise that you are the holder of the healthy boundaries for your teenager and that you need to remain healthy and well.

The second task is to signal to the teenager that you are still there and will continue to be there regardless of the barriers put in your way.  This does not mean that you spend your time barrelling down any opposition to your relationship with your teenager, if you do that you will fall into the confirmation trap (you are who the other parent says you are). It does mean that you think smart about how to let your teen child know that you are healthy and well and available to them.  Cards, money, presents and social media presence are all ways of signalling your presence.  Send these things from a place of curious observation.

The third task is to develop the curious observation position. This is a position you should cultivate in your mind and in your outward actions.  Being curious about your teenager’s absence in your life is very different to confronting them with their withdrawal. It means maintaining the position of adult to their child and seeking to understand from their perspective what is happening in their relationship with you.

The fourth task is to ensure that you maintain a parallel living process.  Nick likens this to skiing alongside your child even without any communication between you, which means keeping up to date with their schooling, understanding what kinds of things your teenager may be doing and being ready to welcome them to ski alongside you when they are ready to rejoin you.

The fifth task is also the most important task, it is to keep the parent in you alive and well and willing to welcome your child back into your life.  Too many parents of teenagers allow the parent part of them to wither because it is too painful to keep it alive.  Finding ways of keeping it alive are essential and honouring and developing that parent part will keep you connected to the reality that you are the keeper of health for your child. If your parent part withers and dies, there will come a time when your adult child is abandoned in the world without either parent. A tragedy for the child which increases the risk that they will find history repeating itself when they become parents.

A note for those whose children are moving into teenage behaviours and pulling away but who are not completely rejecting.  If you are in this position you must now become like the strongest tree which bends in the wind rather than snapping during the first storms.  Teenagers are going to test you, they are going to pull away from you, your task is to be able to disentangle what is normal teenage behaviour from what is being inculcated and induced.  If your teenager is not rejecting you but wants to change arrangements, work with your teenager to hear what changes they want to make. Allow some but not all of those changes to happen.  For example, she wants to stay overnight at her friends house during the weekend she should be with you – one night is fine, every night is not fine. Find ways of negotiating a win/win situation so that she gets some of what she wants and you get that precious time with her.  Make sure that on the night she is going to the sleep over, you are the one taking her and collecting her. Navigate changes by using logical consequences rather than powerful authoritarian input, especially if the other parent is using a laid back anything goes approach which, when set against a strong authoritarian approach will always cause dissonance in the teenager who will always seek the easy route out (because the teenage brain is in development and rational thinking is not always possible for teenagers – hence their preference for the parent who ‘befriends’ them rather than the parent who sets boundaries).

There is much more to say about teenagers and splitting and alienation and I will write more for practitioners as well as parents as we go through the winter.  There is much to do to keep alienated children of all ages safer than they have been.

With our colleagues we are entering new phases of research and writing and production of guidance and information for families.  We are no longer focused on proving the problem, now we are focused on treating it (and in some countries in Europe, on preventing it).  Movement upstream is now a reality.


Fidler, Barbara. (2010). Children resisting postseparation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums. Family Court Review. 48. 10 – 47. 10.1111/j.1744-1617.2009.01287.x.

Ragelienė T. (2016). Links of Adolescents Identity Development and Relationship with Peers: A Systematic Literature Review. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry = Journal de l’Academie canadienne de psychiatrie de l’enfant et de l’adolescent, 25(2), 97–105.

EAPAP 2020 – Parental Separation, Alienation and Splitting: Healing Beyond Reunification  will be held on 15/16th 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 15/16EAPAP 2020 in Zagreb, Croatia.

Screenshot 2019-10-12 at 09.21.04

Summer – Reunification Training in Conjunction with Colorado University – details to be confirmed.

AutumnScreenshot 2019-10-11 at 17.43.20.png












15 thoughts on “Understanding Teenagers: Working with Splitting and Alienation in Adolescence

  1. Hi Karen
    Not only is the degree of autonomy we mistakenly give children ‘tragic,’ it is also highly abusive. Expecting young children to do physical or mental things they are not yet capable of doing would rightly be regarded as abusive. Likewise, expecting older people to do things either physical or mental that they no longer have the capacity to do would also be considered abusive. Yet, certain ideologies press relentlessly to empower developing children in ways which are immensely harmful and distressing for them.
Regarding autonomy the law is generally pragmatic. Usually, children are allowed to say yes to things which are good for them but not allowed to say no. Conversely, children are allowed to say no to things which are bad for them but not allowed to say yes. Until they achieve majority the law will generally not empower them to make mistakes. There’s a lot of caselaw to affirm this logic. However, the law makes an irrational assumption that at the stroke of midnight before their 18th birthdays children are suddenly imbued with all the wherewithal they need to be consenting adults with full autonomy.
    Yet again the law lags way behind the science and the dominant ideologies are lagging still further behind.
    It’s encouraging to see recent examples where wishes and feelings of teenage and younger children have


  2. Thank you for this article.

    I was lost from the moment my husband started saying “She has every right to her opinions about you, she’s an adult now and anyway, I agree with her”. She (my daughter) was 15 years old and had just given me a very ‘forceful’ dressing down for starting a ‘boring’ conversation at the dinner table. From then on he never failed to encourage her to have her opinions and express them..


  3. Teenagers make their own boundaries. A parent is the catalyst of those boundaries, the safety net. Teenagers make good boundaries because they trust and respect their parent. A parent who imposes a boundary will have that boundary broken by the teenager and trust issues will emerge.
    A curfew because of staying out too late will not in itself solve the problem of staying out too late. These type of orders without reason are likely to encourage rebellion and deceit.
    The relationship between parent and child requires an empathetic response, an acknowledgement of context coming from the heart of the parent.

    The alienator will have fine-tuned the art of threat and consequence commands. The child development route will be well mapped.

    I am not questioning the need for authority in the parent/child relationship but am suggesting it is the way the authority is administered that makes all the difference.

    Authoritarian parenting in its worst form is coercive control. In its best form it is a light bulb moment for the teenager; a coming of age and heartfelt experience for the parent.


    1. Ah but the teenager cannot know what a boundary is unless a parent sets it….part of what leads to role confusion is the lack of development of the brain. Just as a toddler understands that they cannot run across the road because a parent stands in the way of that, a teenager learns that risky behaviour has a limit because the parent sets the limits. Setting limits and boundaries for teenagers which can be handed over to the older teenager on a building trust basis is possible – but teenagers do not have the capacity to set their own boundaries, they have to be held and contained so that they learn how to set them. The alienator is likely NOT the one who is threatening and issuing consequences – the alienator is likely the one befriending the child and playing best friends with the child, thus enmeshing boundaries and preventing the teenager from finding the limits and testing them – the light bulb moments for teenagers are when the externally set boundaries support the development of the pre-frontal cortex and sense and reason can protect the teenager from within.


  4. Thank you (again) Karen for your comment above in reply to nongenderbias9 :
    QUOTE: ” The alienator is likely NOT the one who is threatening and issuing consequences – the alienator is likely the one befriending the child and playing best friends with the child, thus enmeshing boundaries and preventing the teenager from finding the limits and testing them”

    IMHO parents who are working together for the good of the family or the child/ren (whether they like one another or not!) somehow manage to sing from the same hymn sheet so that the child is not able to play one off against the other. For example, my niece has four children, the two eldest are girls. When I first left my husband these girls were 14 and 15 and on a couple of occasions I was invited to join them on a family outing, together with my sister their grandmother. On two of these occasions I have seen and heard each of these girls – who are lovely girls and very well adjusted – be so rude and cheeky to their mum it made me cringe. Mum forcefully put them in their place and dad backed her up equally forcefully and told each that they were NOT to talk to their mother like that. Therein lies the difference.

    If one parent is hell bent (as my husband was) in capitalising on such situations and instead of putting the girls in their place by setting boundaries for the future, -actively encourages them to be downright disrespectful to the other parent and then encourages them – in front of the other parent – to carry on doing so, then all boundaries are shot to pieces for the parent who is being alienated.

    My daughter experienced just that. Until she became interesting to him as a teenager he was a fair weather parent (we were together in the same family home and still married). Yes I was the one who set boundaries but until my husband encouraged her, my daughter was not such a difficult child and we had a very good relationship. I tried very hard to involve her dad in family decisions but he wasn’t interested. He was too busy with his hobby and his motor bike. When aged 15, she shoplifted pots of lip balm from Boots while out with a friend who soon afterwards became a drug addict, I told her off and threatened to march her to the shop if she ever did anything like that again. Later, when her dad got home from one of his many jaunts out on his motor bike, I told him, in front of her what she’d done. I expected him to tell her off so that she knew what would happen should she do it again. What did he say? As he turned his back and went out to his workshop to carry on his hobby he said – to me – “You’ve dealt with it” . He never ever told her off for anything but used to boast to me “She doesn’t want to get in my bad books”.

    Other than that, and turning into her dad’s clone while I constantly switched the way I responded in an attempt to avoid utter contempt, she turned into a very respectable older teenager and adult. As she said years on “I’m not like this with anyone else, only you”.

    There are many times when I wished my husband’s racing hobby had been fishing or cricket instead! The glamour of his racing, together with the way he drew her in, made me appear as boring and superfluous as he told her I was …….. while she massaged his ego and he flaunted it.

    I often ask my myself how on earth I ended up with such a narcissist as a husband.


  5. I needed this. I have zero contact with any of my 4 daughters. The youngest is now 17, 18 next month. All 4 of them have birthdays September through December and I made a decision to only call them this year, rather than send cards that will likely be thrown out or ignored. I have the responsibility to keep the parent in me alive…and keep me alive to all of them, should they ever decide and make the break from their alienating mother, I am tired of the hurt associated with being ignored. They stopped answering my calls over 2 years ago…one of them over 4 years ago. 3 of them went through alienation as teens and I know nothing about alienation as a concept, but 2 years ago, I discovered this blog and I’ve been better able to manage the pain because if it. Any communication I have received is abusive and mocking. These aren’t the precious daughters I helped to raise, but they are similar to my ex-wife and her relationship with her father. yes, this one is generational and the enmeshment is severe. I will send the belated card to Courtney and get one in the mail to all three of the others. Thanks for this blog, Dr Woodall.


  6. I read and know of so many accounts of Parental Alienation. It is a ‘pandemic’ not an epidemic and once society accepts that;then it will no longer be the embedded ‘norm’ – so therefore depriving children of their freedom of liberty is a basic human right of every child (that is our future society of adults and decision makers/influencers) and a right to a family life , invariably the child becomes disillusioned and brainwashed to actually believing it is ‘normal’ to be the victim of P.A. The ‘covert narcissist’ resident parent’ is far more dangerous than one can ever imagine. Especially when ‘Sturger and Glacer’ state without ‘C’ (empathy) that no contact ; whatsoever, is recommended by the dual victims of the covert narcissistic resident parent (which include Guardian ad litems and CAFCASS Officers.). Parental Alienation techniques that have been finely tuned to an artform over decades mean that the non-resident parent and professionals fall victim too. How bizarre that society is accepting that!
    I have not seen or been allowed to have any contact with my children for 14 years ( I still have absolutely no idea of “WHY?”) as I had no legal aid, no representations and was taken off the list of parties in court. I studied law , critical thinking and went through limited documents as the bundle was half-missing, until eventually I realised that the correlation between attempting contact correlated with my ex abusing our children; (physically and emotionally) .FOR THE SAKE OF OUR CHILDREN that we brought into the world together. I PUT THEIR NEEDS FIRST. in order to protect them so young and vulnerable .My ex was rich and powerful and did not operate alone. I had to appear to stop fighting, whilst being simultaneously annihilated from everyone I ever knew; as my ex also made false allegations to the Police and my ‘own mother’ that I had been ‘sectioned’. Of course this was NOT true and I still have the evidence medical notes, but as it was all covert then; as the lies only came out recently. If I knew this was the allegation I could of provided evidence as hearsay and many tears of frustration was falling on deaf ears.
    I was so shocked to learn that the research papers on Richard Gardner and P.AS were so well constructed by me and submitted to the courts by me with no legal aid in place that countertransference happened and they used MY papers and my papers were passed off as THEIRS to present a case for no contact. I merely made an effort to ‘educate’ all present, my truths were not believed. All these years later I sent my daughter an 18th Birthday card and the resident parent falsely accused me of sending’ letters with intent to cause distress’. Although I was actually one step ahead as ‘only I’ knew of the ‘patterns of behaviours and lies ( I got a solicitor to witness and send the 18th Birthday card by solicitors registered post and actually witness the content within it and to seal it themselves) . So the parental alienation continues……… even though I cross examined and proved my ex perjury (under oath) and ( without leave) about my ex’s Swingers Dating Site. I still feel strong (but traumatised and locked in timeless time warp of grieving) to fight and campaign to educate the public and professionals on the ways ‘covert narcissistic resident parents’ can easily fool everyone. Afterall, they must get off from getting away with one lie and therefore simply continue with endless more and more lies to the point of brainwashing like ‘Pavlovs Dog’ to a 3 yr old and everyone involved in the child’s life eg (Childminder – Judge). Is the Parental Alienation a form of psychosis? to be added to the DSM scale of personality disorders. Why why do so many parents accept their fate of being excluded. Trauma of the non-resident parent is complex when coping with homelessness, impoverished, csa payments and social stigma alongside personal grief of a living child.

    Times are changing. Changes to the law are welcome and not too late, to resident parents who must be accountable now and also accountable in the criminal courts as they have used their own children as shields and barriers to justice. (They think that possession is nine tenths of the law, then they are the archaic fools and thus, not so clever after all).So even though it is decades too late for our children that we brought into the world together; it is never, never too late to continue in fighting diligently.
    In ‘change management terms’ , surely the ‘barefoot principle’ applies whereby the non-resident parent (service user/ lay person) is the additional element in current judicial reform to give insight and inform the public and professionals of the consequences of Parental Alienation upon society. This could potentially be in the form of creating a ‘Non-resident’s Journey in Parental Alienation’ to create a new specific targeted case law to set a precedence and pave the way in judicial and social reforms ( I volunteer myself). Afterall ,if we, the non-resident parents have a ‘lived-in experience’ then we can actually ‘add value’ to progress and contribute in real life terms in changing behaviours within society ; to contribute to professional discussions, in order to change the law and have a widening participation theme going on. In light of improved technology (the internet) ,social media platforms and media coverage, there is no excuse for progress to be so slow when we have all these tools to do an outstanding job of reform.

    In Sir James Munby’s ( Former President of Family Division) the long standing campaign to reform the family courts and throw away the red books and have findings of facts much earlier in the due process is much welcomed. However, it has to be strong and surely to make it ‘against the law for resident parents to make false accusations under oath’. Unfortunately; decisions in family courts are made on the basis of ‘balance of probabilities’ of perceived and false facts. Coercive , narcissistic and PA behaviours affect lives far beyond the child and parent. Let not PA become the ‘norm of our society’ but please, please contribute your voices and influences to protect children’s rights. JED .(Law Student) x


  7. John had a trenchcoat with more pockets than you might imagine.

    There was a pocket of sighs and disappointment, pockets of laughter and liberation of ideas and imagination, a pocket of parallel skiing through powder, chutes strapped to the back ready for the big drop.

    This is all for Toby? queried Rajit. Where are the pockets of order and boundaries?

    He gets those at school and elsewhere said John glibly.

    So how does Toby get his boundaries?

    He watches said John and he experiences

    Sheila said it just wasn’t safe and she would be constantly fretting in case something terrible might happen.

    Andrew thought it doubtful that anyone could ski dressed in a trenchcoat.

    Sharon, entering the spirit of the conversation said she had needle and thread and was more than willing to mend pockets and to come along for the ride.


    1. No – John gets his boundaries by someone setting them – risky behaviours are part of teenage development – stopping them and limiting them is the responsibility of a healthy parent.


  8. Consider this, said John

    You come home to find your wife has eaten all the ice cream, and is up for a fight and is obviously mentally tormented by something.

    Do you, put boundaries in place, send her to her room, laugh at her, ridicule her behaviour, discipline, educate?
    Of course not said Phil. I would try to find out what the problem was, something must have happened to make her unhappy.
    Then why do you think it is okay to treat your teenage son so differently?

    Because he’s a teenager and needs discipline

    What do you think is the best way to arrive at that discipline, through some kind of dialogical process or a boundary setting routine that ensures you remain the controlling one?

    Look, said John you have done all that work on empathy, ambivalence, respect, why don’t you try and implement it into your parenting technique?

    I’m frightened said Phil, I think what you say is okay, it’s just that my son is used to conforming to the worst control mechanisms and I feel that he might respond better to some kind of routine, notwithstanding a sensitive emotional approach


    1. I am not really getting this trail of stories NGB, I don’t understand the point you are making. The point I am making is this – teenagers require their parents to instil boundaries so that they can internalise them, boundaries do not arise naturally from a teenager whose very developmental process REQUIRES that they challenge boundaries as part of their brain development. No-one is saying a parent should be an ogre but teenagers NEED boundaries, they need the adults to hold those boundaries and if they are not held then the teenager cannot internalise them and ends up with the role confusion Erikson speaks of. Setting boundaries is absolutely NOT about being controlling and I am really unsure why you think it is. Controlling behaviour is about enmeshing, befriending, blending and breaking boundaries in order that the teenager aligns – I’m truly not getting the point of these stories, I don’t know if anyone else is and can help enlighten us.


  9. There are good boundaries and bad boundaries. Although you say the alienator does not have boundaries (e.g. they instead weaponise the child giving them the power beyond there years), they are the ones using the child’s mind to create a “boundary” which prevents the child crossing Dandlebear bridge. In the case where the child is cast out by the alienator, bags on the doorstep. The child is told, if you leave this house you will be shunned and never wanted…………….this makes the child feel guilty. This is the alienator blocking Dandlebear bridge, erecting a boundary in the child’s mind.
    The motive in the alienator’s mind may simply be one of fear that if the child crosses the bridge they may never return. It is a kind of emotional blackmail. The insecurities that the alienator feels justifies their action


  10. The parent side of me is indeed dying and withering away and I feel like I’m going down a drain really fast..it’s dizzying and I feel so numb and depleted and literally and figuratively dead. I don’t know what to do anymore. I have had my own personal therapy from being narcissistic ally abused by the alienating parent and have been in family therapy with my kids for over a year with no healing or change. I’m crippled to the point where I just want to move away, change my name, and start a brand new life. I’m so tired of being heartbroken.


    1. I am writing a short handbook for alienated parents right now Nikki, I hope it will be ready to download in mid February, hang on in there because your children need you to stay alive and healthy. sending my best support to you K x


  11. Can a teen decide to kill his relationship with one parent even without the other parent being alienating , are there factors that can play the role of “alienating parent” ?


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