Shadowlands: The Intra-Psychic Experience of the Alienated Child

One of the manifestations of induced psychological splitting is the manner in which the child’s capacity to recall events in a normal manner is interfered with. This is due to the way in which the brain develops and the manner in which the child affected by alienation dynamics, is caused to rely upon parts of the brain which are govern fear based reactions.

In my work with alienated children I am able to see at close hand the way in which a child experiences distorted incoming information, on many occasions being convinced that the rejected is parent is angry or being unpleasant when in fact they are not and are witnessed as being the opposite of that by others.

Distortion of incoming experience in a child, is described by the father of attachment theory John Bowlby as follows –

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)

In those cases where alienated children are unable to hear, see or experience the love that the parent they have rejected is giving, the repression or suppression (the difference is repression is an unconscious and suppression is conscious) of the attachment bond is caused by the power held over the child via the actions of the alienating parent, actions which may look like love but which in fact are an act of interpersonal violence.

These acts of interpersonal violence however are difficult to detect because of the way they are covertly enacted. When the power of a parent dominates, suffocates and ultimately dislocates a child from their capacity to develop a healthy sense of self and personality, violence doesn’t look like hitting, hurting or breaking the child’s legs, it looks like care and attention and the child looks like a picture of devotion to the parent they are aligned to.

It is that picture of devotion which requires a closer look however, because what looks like devotion on the outside is, in the shadowlands inhabited by these children, something very different indeed.

Ferenczi (1933) found evidence that children who are terrified by adults who are out of control will “subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious of themselves they identify themselves with the aggressor…. The weak and undeveloped personality reacts to sudden unpleasure not by defence, but by anxiety-ridden identification and by introjection of the menacing person or aggressor” Frankel (2002)

In working with these children I see them acting out the position of both victim and aggressor. Victim in that they have been separated from their normal healthy attachment to a parent via attachment threat and aggressor in that they mimic the lack of empathic response to the rejected parent who is already devalued and dismissed in the inter-psychic (between two psyches) relational world.

Having been traumatically overwhelmed, the child becomes hypnotically transfixed by the aggressor’s wishes and behaviour, automatically identifying by mimicry rather than by a purposeful identification with the aggressor’s role.  To expand upon Fernenzi’s observations, identification with the aggressor can be understood as a two stage process. The first stage is automatic and initiated by trauma, the second is defensive and purposeful. Whilst 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 defence it has two enacted relational parts, the part of the victim and the part of the aggressor. Howell (2014)

Put simply, the child having been threatened with abandonment by the behaviours of the alienating parent in shunning, threatening, silencing, ignoring and withdrawing of love and affection, develops a defence of splitting the self in order to comply with the instruction to comply ‘or else.’  In complying, the child is a victim who then takes up the cause alongside the alienator and becomes the perpetrator via the repression of normal empathic responses to the parent they are now killing off in the inter-psychic world.

This is less narcissistic than psychopathic in terms of what the child is being forced to do  although the child is neither in my experience, the child is simply trapped and bonded traumatically to the parent causing the fear of abandonment. The impact however, in terms of the child’s brain, is to increase related fear based responding and shuffle memories due to the way in which the dependency on each of these important centres in the brain are in development. In my view it is this which leads to the strange behaviours seen in alienated children who can flip back and forth between normal and abnormal relating and who can ‘remember’ things completely upside down and back to front.

There is much to learn in the shadowlands of the world inhabited by the alienated child and we are only on the brink of understanding what is really happening when a child rejects a parent.

Fortunately, there are enough clinicians doing this work now to take us into the spaces which really need to be understood in order to bring healing and recovery to children and families affected by parental alienation.

Having spent a decade or more in the shadowlands with alienated children, I can attest to the topsy turvy nature of this world and the urgent need to understand and shine the lights much brighter upon it.



Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 3: Loss, Sadness and Depression. New York: Basic Books.

Frankel, J. (2002). Exploring Ferenczi’s Concept of Identification with the Aggressor: Its Role in Trauma, Everyday Life, and the Therapeutic Relationship. Psychoanalytic Dialogues. 

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 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.


  1. Dear Karen,
    Thank you so much – reading this is like shining a light on our own intuitive understanding of my grandson’s behavior towards his rejected Mum.
    I see the trauma and suffering of the child, and I also see the two-fold suffering of my daughter, the targeted parent, who must endure the onslaught of personal abuse and denigration, from both the alienating parent and the child; together with the unbearable realization that her son is also being psychologically and emotionally abused!
    In my efforts to raise awareness of PA in Australia, I am realizing that one needs to have a narrow target – and it seems that the people who are most likely to effect change within the mental health and legal professionals are not yet listening……..

    Kind regards
    Sam Harvey


  2. Hi Karen,
    this particular blog mirrors my situation and my empathy for my eldest child is high as when I was in the marriage I experienced both coercion disguised as love plus outbursts from my ex-husband about my proving my loyalty to him. He was obsessed with this idea but in most part it was concealed under a veil of ‘Its because I love you”.
    “It’s because I love you that I want you to not visit your Mother while she is having cancer treatment because the emotional stress would be too much for you, I know you better than you do, trust me, I know you will get distressed seeing your Mother so ill, and while you are pregnant I wonder if that stress is good for the baby?’, I am just thinking of you and the baby”. Once the baby is born I promise I will fly all of us over.” (coercion veiled in love and concern) ” I think you are being selfish visiting your mother while you are pregnant, your stress hormones will harm the baby, I am the babies Father I have rights too, why are you acting like this it’s not like you?”……………. (guilt and shame) “You need to prove your loyalty to me if you go over there when I don’t advise it, we are done and we will never return interstate, I will keep the baby and you can do what you want, I will give you a week to think about it and this Friday you can tell me what your decision is, you need to cut your apron strings with your family, its unhealthy”. (abandonment, fear, guilt and shame). I was an adult and I caved every time, teaching him that these tactics worked. How could a ‘child’, ‘my child’ ever be able to withstand that type of coercion? and of course the rewards you receive for declaring your loyalty, how can a child resist, special treatment, individual work trips with Daddy, being the only one privileged to Daddy’s work world and pledge to inherit it all!, privilege to information that her siblings are not, privileged to surprises for her siblings, own phone when her siblings don’t. I have watched as her own self has been fully consumed by a “mini-me”, I would never have believed that a girl could morph so much into a male. I was the wife with the invisible chains too trauma bonded to scared and under a trance. I had to reject my family for him to feel loved and safe and she has had to do the same. I watch her in the same position with empathy, pain and love. I know just how very hard it is to break those invisible chains, and I can’t do anything but just keep showing up. What crumbs I get and no matter how harsh she can be. I am there for her. As always Karen your blogs keep this fresh in my mind, keep me from going under when she yells ‘I hate you, go away’ as I know first hand what and why. Coercion and control veiled in Love, is a scene from Alice in Wonderland. No child can escape that on their own.


  3. Speechless because you Karen and especially you, Hey Freud!?, have said it all.

    Thank you Hey Freud!? for telling your story.

    I recognise my own, and my daughter’s, destruction in your words and you are right……………. I couldn’t break the chains my husband created and neither could my daughter – at least I couldn’t break my chains until I gave up and left them both after more than twenty years of trying to live on his planet. There was fundamentally something wrong with my husband from childhood, something that came back and bit me. But not only bit me, bit my daughter as well and as Hey Freud!? describes (and I quote her)…………. “I have watched as her own self has been fully consumed by a “mini-me”, I would never have believed that a girl could morph so much into a male. I was the wife with the invisible chains too trauma bonded to scared and under a trance.”

    “Coercion and control veiled in Love, is a scene from Alice in Wonderland. ” that, is indeed true. I too lived in a totally different universe, nothing made sense.

    Coercion and control veiled in hate (a hate that he then turned on me with the help of the daughter he professed to love so much) is utterly destructive. He denies it all and professes his love for her and she blames me for ‘the horrible way’ I treated her poor, innocent daddy. A daddy she has been forced to protect since she was 15 years old.


  4. Hi Karen,

    I haven’t commented in a while but have been reading your posts. This one is very helpful. As others have said in regard to their situations, what you describe in the Shadowlands blog very closely reflects the experience I well know my two younger daughters are being put through. It’s hugely helpful to me to be reminded that they are suffering just as much as me if not more, even if they don’t necessarily recognise that. The greater worry remains for me though that if one day they do better understand what they have been put through, how are they to then cope with the additional trauma of asking: Why did our Mum do this to us ? I will always be there for them and I have absolutely no wish that they should “turn against” their mother, as that won’t help, but i do fear they are potentially going to face a lifetime of angst and emotional trauma….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “The greater worry remains for me though that if one day they do better understand what they have been put through, how are they to then cope with the additional trauma of asking: Why did our Mum do this to us ?”

      I think this also regarding my two daughters (now 20 and 23). But what I worry about even more is how they will view their “role” in this situation. Such a good job (sic) has been done so that they “own” their choices and actions (The Independent Thinker?). How will they come to terms with this? By blaming themselves for what they were coerced to do/be? It seems the pain has been layered like a cake – there is no easy way out…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I understand completely that NO child should ever be in the traumatic position of trusting and coerhersley believing the alienator for years and then spend the rest of their adult life in the ‘moment of realisation’ that any adult human should psychologically abuse their own child – without immediate intervention and help.
      Afterall; it was the system that let them down because not one adult took action – ENOUGH conferences, enough discussion, the pandemic of the last 30 years must END now. Instead of every lay man and professional ‘campaigning for change’ ( because let’s face it; nothing has worked so far) why not hold a MASSIVE NATIONAL ACTION PLAN to put onto EVERY risk assessment, schools, child SEN, social services, CAFCASS the simple question ” Is there any sign of parental alienation? – It won’t cost anything to add that question to any professional risk assessment or family courts- Of course it won’t. .. Your responses please?….ACTIONS speak louder than words get that question onto every professional assessment!!!


      1. I understand your frustration but it is not quite so simple as you set it out (if only it were).

        In Croatia this year that preventative action you refer to has happened. In the UK I am afraid there is still some way to go to overcome the ignorance and the resistance.

        I would love routine training of all social workers and front line staff, sadly there is massive resistance to this although it is not the case that it won’t be overcome eventually. But this is a very big fight and the conferences and discussions you refer to move the arguments forward and open up the field to acceptance by others.

        It isn’t true that not one adult took action, there are many of us taking action all the time and risking our wellbeing and reputation for this issue to be brought to consciousness.

        If a national action plan were possible at this point it would have been done, we are only just into the place in the UK where we can argue for standardised treatments for the problem, prevention is next.

        You must recognise that the UK social policy around the family is driven by the feminist agenda, it is extremely powerful and very well funded. Changing things here requires strength and unity on the part of those who work with families, fortunately there are more and more people who are working in a true equalities based way which will, over time, lead to the change we are seeking.



      2. Hi Karen,

        It is good to know that Croatia’s model of prevention is happening. Please can you give me more details on how Croatia has done that. what is their practice now.? Maybe UK could copy their model. ?
        My query remains of the pandemic; is that if other countries have DONE it already then why does the UK not apply these principles as it is not a feminist society who dictates for the good of all. Afterall it i ignorance of decision makers who have simply backed up the wrongdoers (alienators) for far too long that they find shame in backtracking. Surely if we could copy other countries and name and shame the judges and professionals who are antiquated. Ignorance in their lack of duty of care is NOT a defence for their illegal actions. Omissions and failing to be aware of facts when dealing with cases amounts to criminal liability. I completely understand that not everyone is as passionate as the few; like your good self, who put masses of time and energy into PA. So I conclude that many OTHER individuals simply don’t have the TIME on their side and so ACTION OF MANY is required to make an impact and headway to positive outcomes. IF MASSES took time to act by’ behaviour change management models’ coming ‘via society rather than governments and legislative due process’; then changes would happen almost immediately. As we are all now (decades later) well equipped with social media and globalization in this modern age then we should adopt modern best practice and marketing within society to generate the necessary changes!
        Next Summer 2020 I shall be using social media and giving myself as a case example to show the UK via all social and media channels of how judicial reforms are far too late for generations of alienated children who are now adults. I shall be inviting others to join and support me., to add value to their campaigns and their years of incredulously hard dedicated work. I have studied law, child development, behaviour change management and it is using a holistic approach that professionals and lay people can UNITE and combine to have the biggest impact. Sorry but many have trusted the system and it takes the ‘barefoot principle’ ( former service users) to assist in formulating changes.

        I appreciate everyone’s work and the work that you do is fantastic as it collaborates and communicates excellently. However, many professionals exclude the lay man ( former service user) is not a holistic approach.


      3. Hi all,

        Further to my earlier comment on this post, I’ve been following and reading the replies and other comments.

        I’m most interested Karen that you so specifically identify the “feminist agenda” as the obstacle that needs to be overcome and I fully understand that. However, I’d like to add a note of caution here and also identify some positives. I’ve always supported the fundamental principles of feminism, understanding those to be a right to be treated equally, given the same opportunities in life and in work as men and not ever relegated to or treated as a subservient sex in any way: all that is right and good and with all my three children being girls I very much hope that those principles will continue to grow to be realised more fully in the years to come.

        That said, there is no doubt that a radical feminism has come to dominate issues surrounding the Family and I’ve personally felt this in two very specific ways. Every time I’ve attended any talks or meetings dealing with Parental Alienation the most ardent complaint from fathers deprived of a life and relationship with their children is that no one is even listening to them. I do think that this failing on the part of authority – especially the Courts – is the thing to really address, without any specific need to be butting heads with feminism per say. That said, there is no question whatsoever that the Cafcass officer who dealt with my Court case in 2016 was a radical feminist, determined from the outset to remove me from my children’s life and who began and carried out her entire investigation and the preparation of her report with a premeditated gender bias in favour of my children’s mother. I was the petitioner in the case but, even given the extreme bias with which it was conducted, no one was prepared to listen to me and I was given no opportunity at any time to question Cafcass findings.

        It isn’t feminism itself we should be attacking it’s the gross gender bias that the Courts and other officials simply allow to go on unhindered ad unquestioned.

        I’d also like to add this; the vast majority of support I have had since 2016 has come from women – be they friends, counsellors , contributors and respondents on Social Media , Karen of course…and others in a more official capacity who have given their time to me on a professional basis without charging me – all female and all prepared to help me enormously.

        Two of these wonderful women have been helping me try to overturn a blatant abuse of the maintenance system by the CMS. Today I heard we have finally won and I cannot describe the relief this has brought me, after years of protesting and incredible stress.

        So, lets be careful about attacking feminism: it’s not feminism we should oppose, but those who, under that banner, abuse that movement to hurt others and, in tandem with that we need to address and challenge the fact that no-one seems to care that that abuse is happening.

        In my experience most women are just as horrified as you all are at what is being done to Dads in this country and many are more than willing to give their support. I am massively grateful.


      4. I won’t go into the feminist arguments again right now Robert – you can read back in this blog to understand how much we have grappled with the idea of feminism as a benign or positive thing so I don’t think we need to go back there. In addition, the fact that I am not a fan of feminism any longer has won me a serious stalker who is currently being investigated by the metropolitan police for her somewhat unhinged story of my life which she has spent what seems like years constructing and which is all a conspiracy theory based it seems on my disavowed feminism. Fortunately this nut job no longer knows where I live – though she will no doubt be avidly tracking this blog and all social media and writing to my family to see if she can find out where I have gone. Erin Pizzey suffered this kind of insanity from feminists because she dared to speak up, sadly I have the same experience which has been going on for at least two years, but at least for me, the police are taking it seriously (and yes, I write this partially so that she can understand that her feminist obsession and absolute insanity is recognised, we now know where she lives and have all of her details and this will be strongly dealt with on all fronts). However, just as you have women who help you and they are not representative of the whole of feminism, so this nut job is not either. We must remember that each person holds the banner of feminism and that as such feminism can be poison or it can be used with more positive intent. K


  5. Alberni37
    Hi Karen, like Robert Lang, I too have been following your posts and share his concerns, this last post is very helpful. The pain and concern is intense for all of the family. We are aware that our little ones are in limbo and not able to receive all of the love and support from their Dad and their family but sharing their lives in the toxic environment of a mother and maternal grandmother, who are unable to give them normal mothering.
    With the knowledge already available surely there is an urgent need for an emergency helpline to be set up so that children who it is suspected are being abused in this way can be identified, and the appropriate interventions applied without delay. This abuse is carrying on in plain sight and children cannot make a stand themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We should be pro-active as well as reactive – Get onto every child welfare check/assessment and family courts/solicitors and judges OUTLINE CASE the basic question of “Is there any sign of parental alienation?” This will educate, raise the profile of PAS, inform and empower the child and everyone involved . It will also act as a deterrent to the abusive alienator – sending a clear message to all that it is not acceptable!


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