Understanding the impact of divorce and separation on children takes us down new pathways of understanding of induced psychological splitting, its manifestation in families and the every trauma it causes which has been hidden in plain sight for decades.
Ever since the early seventies, when divorce laws changed in the western world, the issue of a child’s alignment with one parent and rejection of the other has been a prominent but overlooked part of our understanding of trans-generational trauma.
It is my view, that just like the trans-generational trauma of domestic violence, (which is not about patriarchy but about inter-generational patterns of behaviour learned in the crucible of the traumatised dysfunctioning family), induced psychological splitting in children (aka parental alienation), has been wrongly characterised as only something one parent does to the other.
In my experience as a practitioner in this field, parental alienation is a spectrum problem in families which is manifested as a psychological defence in children and which is caused by a wide range of factors all of which can be traced back to trauma related reactions in one or more family members. The event of the divorce or separation may or may not be the trigger that causes or releases the trauma which is often present in the family via the background of one or more family members.
The task of the practitioner in this space is to discover, through careful assessment and differentiation, where the cause of the child’s induced psychological splitting comes from and then to reconfigure the power dynamics over the child to release them from having to use the psychological defence which is causing the alignment and rejection reaction.
This is an assessment and differentiation process which uses multiple assessment tools to understand how the child arrived at the point at which induced psychological splitting was the only route they could take to survive. Once the route into splitting has been identified, the rearrangement of the power and control dynamics (identifying who has the power and neutralising it), is the next step.
Which is why interventions with families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting should always be undertaken in partnership with legal teams. Mental health professionals, whilst holding the tools to create the necessary psychological changes in the family, do not hold the power to compel parents to change their behaviours. Only when a Judge is holding the line and compelling change, can mental health practitioners confidently utilise the power devolved to them through this route. Only then can compulsion to change be held as a goal in treatment. Understanding how power and control dynamics work in a family affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting, leads to effective assessment, differentiation and management of such cases.
Parental alienation is a family dynamic which is infused with trauma. From the trans-generational transmission of trauma which comes to light in the divorce and separation landscape, to the trauma experienced by children using the defence of psychological splitting, to the trauma of the rejected parent (who in my experience suffers induced psychological splitting in response to the helplessness of their experience), this is everyday trauma which is hiding in plain sight.
Five decades and more of this everyday trauma has been experienced by families in the western world and whilst we have called it parental alienation and we have labelled it with signs and strategies, we have not, in my view, even begun to understand how it has become so normalised and so routinely accepted.
How come, for example, in the years that I have been writing this blog, so many children have effectively had their psychological trauma response to the divorce and separation, upheld by statutory services in the UK and indeed around the world? How come, so many children who have been forced into the psychological defence of alignment and rejection, itself a trauma response to psychological aggression have simply been left to fester with the impact of that? How come we have looked the other way and worse, have allowed whole movements to grow up which deny the harm being done and which deflect from the reality that we are allowing trans-generational trauma to simply repeat itself through generation after generation?
Those who read regularly will know that my view is that the feminist agenda has distracted us from what is family trauma into believing that this is a battle of the sexes with men as inherent beasts and women as innocent victims of their beastly ways.
Just as violence in the home is a trans-generational traumatic pattern, (which, if one reads the literature can readily be traced back in the UK to the deep trauma suffered by generations who experienced the violence of wars), so in my practitioner experience, is parental alienation. Even where a parent is consciously and deliberately causing a child to align and reject there is trauma. This is not about feminist ideology, this is not about simple matters of conflict, this is about the eruption of everyday trauma around the child which is causing significant harm in the here and now but which has its roots in the past.
Those who read here regularly will notice that we are moving away from parental alienation as an issue which can be reduced down to a formula and towards a recognition of the deeper layers of everyday trauma which can be identified and treated using the many therapies which are useful with families. Whilst we retain the understanding that to treat a child’s induced psychological splitting we need to work counter-intuitively, the deeper investigative routes we are taking are to understand why this might be.
Combining neuro-science with psychoanalytic understanding and a recognition of the power and control dynamic, we are opening up new channels which allow us as practitioners to work with the reality of what is happening to the child and resolve it. Not only are we able to resolve the problem for the child in this approach, we are able to treat the problem for the rejected parent and, most recently with colleages, we have begun to look at how we might also treat the problem at source (ie: the parent who is causing the problem).
Using the child’s reaction as a starting point for understanding we can identify who is the cause of the reaction and how we need to change the power dynamic to release the child. Repair of the relationship with the rejected parent first and then carefully managing the child’s relationship with the parent who is the source of the problem is the treatment route. Adapted therapies then become useful within this treatment framework.
Treating everyday trauma which has been hiding in plain sight is a focus of our work from now on. This is a move into developing the principles and protocols of therapeutic treatment of this problem at the deepest level of the family experience.
Now we understand it we can treat it and not only that but we can also begin the process of preventing it. As our esteemed colleagues at the Child Protection Centre in Zagreb have demonstrated, when trauma is understood it can be addressed in many ways.
Preventative measures which come out of a region which has experienced and recovered from the impact of trans-generational trauma are to be taken very seriously indeed. In this crucible our work with a child’s induced psychological splitting continues.
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.