In Their Footsteps: Trans-generational Trauma in Divorce and Separation

This week I continue my work with adults who suffered induced psychological splitting in childhood.  These adults who ‘chose’ to reject a parent after separation, struggle today with the impact of that and are in need of therapeutic help to correct psychological distortions and restore balanced vision.  In my work, which is focused upon developing a therapeutic path to assisting children who are alienated, I have come to understand that the phenomenon we call parental alienation is complex and simple all at the same time, a paradox which is easy to understand via deeper investigation.

You will notice that I am moving away from the term ‘parental alienation’ in my writing here. This is because the deeper we go into understand the issue as it is lived by children and adults who suffer it, the more we recognise that the signs that Gardner curated are all coming from one place. That place is defensive splitting which has been induced by a caregiver who is terrorising the child in the inter-psychic relationship into a pathological alignment.

In this respect the rejection of a parent is a simple by-product of what is going on in the relationship between the parent to whom the child is aligned, although that is not to say that the parent who is rejected has not also played a role on the road to the alignment becoming fixed and fused.

This is the complexity of the dynamic, which encircles the child like a slow gathering fog and which causes the unaware rejected parent to flounder around looking for footholds in an increasingly opaque existence.  If that parent slips into the traps set by the influencing parent, the entry into psychological splitting can be inadvertently speeded up. This is not to say that the rejected parent is to blame, it is to say that the risks to them in this landscape are also immense.

Induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation causes them to be unable to hold two realities in mind. This simply means that the child can no longer tolerate the way in which their lives are divided into two different experiences in the external and internal world.  In order to resolve the impossible dilemma of being unable to hold those two different realities in mind, the child uses a defence mechanism which is well known in psychoanalytical work, this defence is called splitting and it occurs when the child is not able to hold positive and negative images of self and others in mind.

Splitting occurs when the mind is overwhelmed by pressure.  It happens when children are sexually abused and it happens when they are  physically abused.  In our experience as psychotherapists, it also happens when they are psychologically and emotionally abused by parents who breach boundaries and promote their children in the family hierarchy to people who have executive decision making powers.  In this respect, it is our view that all of the signs observed by Gardner, arise from the one defence mechanism of splitting and that it is the induced psychological splitting defence in a child which is the cause of all of the drama which happens when a child is said to be alienated.

In this respect, reformulating our understanding of parental alienation to think of it as induced psychological splitting, enables us to begin the process of treatment, because when we know that a child is using the splitting defence, our next task is to find out why. This is why our assessment and differentiation process requires a 360 degree evaluation of the whole family.  Building effective treatment routes for this problem requires us to understand, at the deepest level possible, the route the family took to the child taking up the defence of psychological splitting. When we understand the route in, the route out becomes possible to define.

This work requires us to set this problem in context and in doing so we are not simply looking at the horizontal context the issue arises in, we are looking at the vertical context.

The horizontal context is the here and now.  The vertical context is the past.  When we examine the past (on both sides of the family), a startling observation becomes apparent. The behaviours seen in families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting do not arise mysteriously from nothing, they are seen repeatedly throughout the generations in the psycho-genealogical family tree.  These behaviours are seen as normal in these families and they are, as a result, well hidden.

The behaviours we are seeing in the vertical lives of families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting are so common that in some cultures they are normalised.   In the UK, particularly through two world wars, the loss of fathers meant that the eldest boy became the man of the house – a parentified role which took away the child’s right to an unconscious childhood and put him in the wrong place in the family hierarchy.  In other families, girls became spouseified or psychologically married to their fathers, a position which steals from the girl the right to her own independent sense of self and which creates a covert incestuous relationship which must be defended against psychologically.  These dynamics, normalised in so many families all over the world, are, in our experience,  key contributors to induced psychological splitting in children of divorce.

Another contributing dynamic to the problem is the way in which the family hierarchy is regularly collapsed during divorce and separation placing children into an overly close relationship with one parent and a distant relationship with the other. This collapse creates fertile ground for the attachment problems of parentification in which a child takes care of a parent’s emotional and psychological needs, disavowing their own needs and eventually rendering themselves unable to even know that they have those needs.

Treating a child’s splitting reaction in the midst of this is about restructuring hierarchy through the implementation of treatment routes which compel behavioural change. Protecting the child from the inter-psychic pressures, enables the restoration of the normal capacity to hold two realities in mind and prevents the defence of dividing the self and others into good and bad from recurring.  Doing this requires us to understand that the problem lies in the pathological alignment between the child and one parent and to recognise that the rejection of the other parent is simply a by-product of that dynamic.

In context, the parents who induce psychological splitting in a child are simply following in their family footsteps, doing what has always been done and expecting children to conform to that.  The pathological behaviours seen are what I have begun to think of as ‘everyday trauma’ because it has become so normalised for these families that it is regarded as inconsequential.

Just like divorce, which has long been disregarded as a traumatic experience for children and which has been passed off as being something that children will simply ‘get over.’

Far from simply ‘getting over it’ generations of children have struggled with both the everyday trauma of their parents separation and the normalised pathological family behaviours which they are left to navigate alone in the post separation landscape.

In context, these children have been abandoned to this fate for five decades whilst the parent they were forced to reject has been thrust aside, disregarded, accused, shamed and blamed throughout.

A drama caused by a defence mechanism which is induced by the following of footsteps from inter-generational unresolved trauma.

To see it is to know how to stop it and to know how to stop it is to prevent it.

It didn’t start with us but we can end it.


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.

The speaker list for the EAPAP 2020 conference will be announced shortly at http://www.eapap.eu

4 Comments

  1. This is amazing Karen! it makes all the sense in the world to me now. This happens also with children whose parents are divorced in their minds and behave like divorced people, because I can identify with all of this . My parents and my ex husbands parents behaved like they were divorced… forcing psychological splitting in myself and him, thus keeping the cycle going.

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  2. Fascinated in this work you are doing with alienated children as adults. Can you give me an idea of how they came to realise they had been alienated/split? Did there need to be a traumatic event for them to realise what had happened to them or did some just come to understand their history more gradually as they got older?

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