Moving the Furniture: Reorganising the Hierarchy in the Inter-Psychic Life of the Family Affected by Parental Alienation

interpsychic in British

(ˌɪntəˈsaɪkɪk) adjective. psychology. occurring between two or more minds.

When working therapeutically with families affected by parental alienation, what we are doing is assisting all family members to recover from the impact of a child’s induced psychological splitting.

Induced psychological splitting is the core wound in parental alienation and it causes a child to create the defensive of dividing feelings into good and bad which are projected at parents as a way of resolving an impossible dilemma.

The inducement and maintenance of the child’s split state of mind is an act of child abuse which is caused by the following series of actions and reactions.

  1. The child suffers threat of abandonment in the inter-psychic, which means that the child believes that they will be abandoned if they do not do as the parent with most control over them is signalling they must do.
  2. The child’s anxiety about abandonment is raised to such a degree that a defence mechanism is triggered which allows the child to re-interpret the behaviours as loving signals in order to retain the bond with the threatening parent.
  3. This reorganisation of the child’s felt sense about the threats they are receiving (interpreting them as loving instead of frightening), leads to the child developing the defensive splitting in which the bad parts of themselves are repressed and projected and experienced as coming from the rejected parent.
  4. In the external world the child is now hyper attached to the threatening parent and rejecting of the other parent.

This process 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 short, the child shuts down the capacity to receive incoming love from the rejected parent seeing only intent to frighten and harm. This in fact is a 180 degree switch around of what is really happening, which is that the child is frightened of the abandonment threats signalled by the alienating parent and is clinging to that parent in a belief that doing so is about love.

It goes without saying that to witness this happening to your child has to be one of the most frightening experiences possible. As rejected parents stand by helplessly, their children demonstrate that they are aware at some level that unless they conform to the abandonment threat, their lives will be intolerably painful and full of fear.  One parent recently likened this to watching their child sacrifice their own sovereign right to a complete sense of self in the future in order to save a much reduced version of this self in the here and now. I liken this to children being terrorised into clipping their own wings.  However we describe it, it is abusive to the child.

For the rejected parent it is a horror story which unfolds at a rapid rate and when a child descends into the split state of mind it is clear that much fracturing of the inter-psychic world of the child and the rejected parent takes place. The alienating parent on the other hand, having induced the child to use the splitting defence, now enters into a state of mind which is calmed and regulated. Now there is no further need to cause chaos because the child’s mind has been broken into compliance with the alienator’s own mindset.  Now the alienating parent no longer has to TRY to control the child, the child and the alienator  in the inter-psychic are acting as if they are one mind.

One of the first results of the child’s entry into the alienated state of mind is the breaking of the family hierarchy.  As the child utilises the defensive splitting they are moved in the inter-psychic to a place of being equal to the alienator and are now regarded as being conspiritors in keeping the rejected parent at bay.  Now the rejected parent is placed at distance and a process of moving the furniture around the inter-psychic familial relationships begins.

Out goes the rejected parent (like the chintz we were urged to chuck out in the Ikea ads) and in comes the people who are supporters of the alienating parent.  Out goes the rest of the rejected parent’s family and in comes anyone who will uphold the new family narrative that the rejected parent is mad/bad/to blame for their own rejection.  If the rejected parent at this point shows any kind of response to this in the external world they are then seen as being the arbiter of their own alienation.  At this point the alienation dynamic is more or less complete.

Circled around the child are now pieces of family furniture which have been moved up against the doors so that no-one can get in.  Within the child’s mind a defensive split has occurred which will lead them to escalate allegations, draw other people’s focus to the rejected parent and cause risk to anyone who tries to intervene.

Visualise the child surrounded by forests of thick briars and then zoom in and look at the child’s brain function including the over reliance on the amygdala (fight/flight/freeze/ submit) and the hippocampus which juggles the memory function under the impact of traumatic splitting (remember the split is caused by abandonment threat) and what you have is a perfect picture of abduction of a child’s mind undertaken in plain sight (and often aided and abetted by unaware professionals).

Entering into this dynamic is a bit like being the hero in a fairy story who has to hack through the thicket to get to the child and who then has to undo the spell which has been cast upon the child’s mind. It is a fact that one person cannot do this alone and should never try to. Only in teams with legal and mental health professionals acting together can release be achieved.

Don’t be a hero in this space because it will end up with you being the villain was a word of warning given to me ten years ago.  It remains true to this day.

However, there are strong signs now that the days of that risk are coming to a close, at least in the UK where increasingly the fact finding hearings which provide the first hacking through of the briars around the child, allow interventions to be built which have the power to make a real change.

When a finding of fact establishes parental alienation, swift interventions which move the furniture back to the place where the internal family hierarchy can be restored. When these are delivered, rapid change for children who are using the defence of psychological splitting is possible.

Even those alienated children who are now adults can be helped with this reorganising of the inter-psychic furniture, particularly when this is combined with the knowledge of therapy for traumatic splitting.

In the UK and Europe  we are entering into a whole new phase of work in which the treatments for induced psychological splitting (parental alienation) are becoming refined through research combined with delivery, leading to successful outcomes with children of all ages.  Partnership work with others focused upon traumatic splitting is underway and we expect new outcomes to emerge via these over the years to come.

We know how it happens, we know why it happens, now we are focused on prevention and cure.


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

Iceland – January 29/30/31st for Practitioners.  February 1st Workshop for Parents, news here shortly.

Republic of Ireland March – Cork, Ireland.  details here shortly.

Germany in conjunction with German practitioners – details here shortly.

Croatia. EAPAP2020 Conference

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

Durham. N.C. USA

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3 Comments

  1. “Don’t be a hero in this space because it will end up with you being the villain”
    Karen this is so true, and yet as an alienated parent when the legal and mental health world failed due to an ignorant Judge, I feel as the alienated parent that now all responsibility lies on me to help my child escape and yet, the financial cost and the emotional cost is so high. The sadder thing is that my eldest daughters alienation has caused her younger two siblings to align together away from her. They see and experience the preferential treatment that she receives from their Father and the power she has been given over the whole family and they are rejecting her bit by bit. The sibling bond has been damaged. Watching all of this happening is heartbreaking beyond belief. The whole family has been shattered and split.

    Like

  2. Dear mrs Woodall,
    I am going to court for this and I would like to hand out your latest blog to the judge. Can you provide me with a written statement of your qualities to show the worth if this blog? Who you are and what you do?
    Thank you!
    And thank you of your work!

    Like

  3. This depicts exactly the situation we are in. What is really difficult (for a rejected parent, layperson as Litigant) is finding & then having any influence over who that “team of heroes” is going to be, so they are all-PA-aware and able to work collaboratively. We tried for 3yrs (this so-called critical time of ‘early intervention’) for the Court to instruct an expert, we were refused 3 times as ‘not necessary’. Finally a (non-PA-aware) Cafcass Guardian appointed and then they persuade Court to instruct their choice of psychologist. Who, whilst a great psychologist, is new to PA & with that comes more challenges, which shouldn’t be necessary.

    In the future I hope each region (in the UK) can have teams of lawyers, social workers, psychologists/psychiatrists, mental help therapists etc all ready to ‘swoop’ into that forest – and who are used to working together. A database/list of such teams would be amazing for all to see, Courts & parents alike.

    Like

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