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.