A comment on here this week prompted me to write this piece which is based upon my work with children in residence transfer and adults alienated as children.
I am a psychotherapist, which means that everything I do with children and families comes from an understanding of relationships and how change arrives in liminal space. Liminal space is that place between what went before and what comes next and as therapists, our work takes place in that time of waiting.
In residence transfer, this liminal space is the period between the child leaving the alienating parent and arriving into the care of the once rejected parent (now called the receiving parent in our work).
In the work that I do with families affected by a child’s rejection of a parent, understanding how a child arrives in that state of mind has taught me that the relational dynamics around the child create a defence in the child of psychological splitting. It is this which psychotherapists should be concerned about when they are treating the family because it is this defence which we have come to know is the cause of all of the behavioural manifestations of parental alienation.
It is one thing to understand parental alienation, it is entirely another to treat it. In my experience the treatment routes for this issue are in their infancy and are largely focused upon the principle of separating the child from the parent who is said to cause the problem, for a period of 90 days (common in all of the North American programmes) during which time reorganisation of the child’s perspective takes place.
In the US, the separation of the child from the influencing parent takes place away from the family home of either parent and the rejected parent is introduced to the child in a camp setting or workshop environment. This is the liminal space where reorganisation of the child’s split state of mind takes place.
In the US, the children are most often removed from the influencing parent via a ‘transportation agent’ which is a private, independent company set up to enforce the collection and delivery of resistant children to the planned reunification programme. Thus in the US, the work of reorganisation does not take place until the child arrives at the reunification location.
In the UK, the child is simply moved from the influencing parent to the rejected parent with or without a therapeutic intervention to accompany that in a process called a transfer of residence.
In the UK, children are collected, usually from school, by the rejected parent accompanied either by a state employed social worker, an independent social worker or a psychotherapist like me. The therapeutic work which takes place during that process supports the reorganisation of the power dynamic and enables the child’s defence to drop and the splitting reaction to be integrated. Thus the liminal space is entered into from the moment the child learns that they are to go and live with the parent they have been rejecting.
These two very different approaches are all based upon the principle of separating the child from the influencing parent. Prior to the decision of the court that this should happen in the UK there is a fact finding hearing and a decision made by a Judge about whether the child is being seriously harmed.
One of the problems facing previously rejected parents in the UK whose children have been moved to live with them, is that in some Courts the idea that simply moving the child to live with the rejected parent is all that is required has taken hold. I am working with several families now where children were moved to live with the rejected parent but the psychologically split state of mind suffered by the child is still in evidence. In my experience, this is due to the lack of therapeutic input during the time the child entered into liminal space, leaving the child’s mind still divided, even if the child’s body is in the care of the once rejected parent.
This is a problem on several levels. On one level because the defence of psychological splitting is very difficult to treat without the full reorganisation of the external circumstances and on another because in order to treat the child, the rejected parent (now called the receiving parent in our work), must be highly skilled in therapeutic parenting in order to be able to effectively cope and resolve the child’s continued alienated behaviours.
All of this is missing in those cases where children have been moved without therapeutic help and it is missing in some cases where children have been moved with therapeutic help but where professionals in the team around the child have pulled in different directions because of their low experience of how children are affected by induced psychological splitting.
The UK has made a great deal of progress in recent years in terms of the Court’s understanding of parental alienation but we still have a long way to go to educate all professionals in this space to understand what is happening to a child when they become alienated. Having worked in teams where all professionals understood and pulled together, I have seen the remarkable difference this makes to the swift resolution for the child. Having also worked in teams where professionals pulled in different directions, I have seen disastrous outcomes.
The reality of working with children who are experiencing induced psychological splitting is that they are using a defence mechanism which has been forced upon them by the behaviours of a parent who has power and control over them. The first task in treatment therefore is to remove that power and control and hand that over to the receiving parent (who was once the rejected parent). For a period of time during that move, the Court mediates the power and invests that in the practitioner who is doing the work with the family. The power which is invested is the decision to permanently change residence and put in place a cessation of all contact between children and the influencing parent for a period of 90 days. This creates enough liminal space for the necessary work to be undertaken.
The second task in treatment is to enable the defence in the child to drop. Defences are mechanisms employed psychologically by the unconscious self to deny or distort reality to protect the self/ego against strong feelings of anxiety and impossible or unacceptable situations. The denial of the harm that the influencing parent has done, in order to continue to love that parent upon whom the child has been dependent, is the defence called splitting which is induced by the impossible situation the child was living in.
Which is why, when children suffering induced psychological splitting are given the message that the power and control that a parent has had over them has been removed and when they are supported with the input of therapists or social workers who can convey to the child that it is safe to drop the defence because the receiving parent is there to take care of them, sudden and immediate integration of the splitting occurs and the child is free to receive again the love that the rejected parent has to give them.
The key to the immediate dropping of the defence is the correct configuration of the power dynamics around the child and the capacity to convey that to the child, holding the resistance for long enough for the integration to occur. Put simply this means that when the child is told that the move is permanent and they will not be expected to encounter the influencing parent for a lengthy period of time, the psychological impact of this allows the child to relax and drop the defence. When the receiving parent is skilled in therapeutic parenting, can understand the ways in which the child’s disorganised attachment displays itself and is able to manage that over time, integration of the split state of mind in the child occurs as the defence drops.
Without that initial input from someone who can hold the split dynamic in the child, there is often an inability in the child to integrate that state of mind. Which is why so many children in residence transfer who did not receive that therapeutic bridging input remain so vulnerable to the influencing parent. In the UK, where residence change is not always accompanied by the protective separation of 90 days used in the USA programmes, reintroduction to the influencing parent can occur rapidly after residence transfer. This means that the same dynamic which caused the problem of splitting in the child, remains unchanged. When the child is expected to continue in the same dynamic which caused the problem in the first place, the defence of splitting which has been induced cannot be resolved for the child. Thus the child’s body is moved but the child’s mind remains aligned with the parent who has caused the problem in the child in the first place.
A further problem occurs in residence transfer when covert communication between the child and the influencing parent continues. In fact this covert continuation of communication, which in these days of mobile phones is so difficult to prevent, is what causes many children to maintain the split state of mind. Working in such situations is problematic, which is why it is far preferable to get the work of integration of splitting and dropping of the defence done during the residence transfer. When a child has undergone the step change to integration, the risk of the return to splitting decreases. When the receiving parent is highly skilled in therapeutic parenting, the risk diminishes further.
But the risk never truly goes away because the alienating parent is often unable to change their behaviours or gain insight into why their child was moved from them. This means that the child must be helped to do three key things in order to protect them going forward –
A) they must be able to understand the dynamic of splitting and how it was caused and
B) they must be able to recognise that the alienating parent has harmed them but that this does not make that parent wholly bad.
C) they must be able to allow the receiving parent to parent them holistically, which means that they must come to a place where they accept normal parenting input without resistance or splitting the parent into wholly bad again.
Helping previously alienated children to maintain ambivalence is a treatment goal, knowing that people do good and bad things but that this does not make them wholly bad or wholly good is one way that we help children to do this. Using a combination of therapies which enable the communication within the intra and inter-psychic relationship between the child and receiving parent, it is possible to build up the resilience of alienated children and ensure that the split state of mind is integrated and remains that way.
All of this work takes place in the period between residence transfer being ordered and carried out and in the days beyond that. In structured programmes of work, testing of the child’s resilience to contact with the alienating parent takes place in order to observe the child’s capacity to maintain the integration of the split state of mind when exposed to the dynamics which caused it. It is rare that an alienating parent will change their behaviours or seek help, when they do remarkable change can take place for the child, most often however they do not and so protection of the child is necessary for as long as it takes to develop resilience. The key to long term protection of the child is the receiving parent and their capacity to put in place the strong and clear boundaries which provide that.
At the Family Separation Clinic we recognise that a child who has been alienated is vulnerable to use of splitting in a wide range of situations and so the resolution of this is the focus of treatment. We also know that the best therapist for the child is the rejected parent who is now the receiving or therapeutic parent in our programme. Supporting this parent to know how to therapeutically re-parent their child, through understanding splitting and disorganised attachment and how to meet the changing needs of their child in recovery is a core family treatment goal.
Treatment of induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation is a task that most therapists can undertake and most receiving parents can achieve if they are aware of the principles of protocols which underpin this. Curating these and making them widely available is our upcoming task for 2020.
Therapeutic Parenting for Rejected Parents is a programme based upon the work that we do with parents in residence transfer in the UK. In response to the request made earlier this week I will arrange a one day workshop on this programme for rejected parents in the UK in conjunction with the parent who made the request. Please check back here for details in December.