However parental alienation is triggered in a family, the core dynamic which causes all of the symptoms which radiate outwards from the child is induced psychological splitting.
Psychological splitting is a defence mechanism, it is quite simply the inability of the self to hold two realities in mind. This defence divides the thought process about self and others into good and bad and prevents the capacity to recognise that good people can sometimes do bad things. When a child is using splitting as a defence, the rejection of others associated with the bad elements of self which are disposed of and buried out of the child’s conscious awareness, is total. A child can move in an out of splitting prior to entry into full use of the defence, but when it is completely in place, the child will become fixed and refusing,
Whether or not psychological splitting is caused by narcissistic or borderline traits in a parent is part of the differentiation process. In my experience however, splitting in a child occurs with and without personality disorder in the influencing parent, which means that a spectrum understanding of the alienation must be carefully differentiated in order to plan and deliver a treatment route which properly responds to the problem in the family.
In treatment of families within and without the court process, it is clear that there is a rhythm to their healing which can be curated in a clearly delineated fashion. When we understand how alienation happens in a family, we can understand how a family will recover. The route out of alienation mirrors the route in and it does not always demand that the child is removed entirely from the parent seen to be causing the problem.
Working with families with aged out children (those who are over the age of 16 in the UK and 18 in the USA), it becomes evident that there are clear steps that must be taken to unravel the dynamic which has caused the problem in the first place. It also becomes apparent that whilst ‘parental alienation‘ as a label is useful as an overarching umbrella term, it is not useful in direct work with recovering children. This is because a child who is alienated does not know that they are alienated, their ‘felt sense’ is that their responses are completely normal. This is because they are using the defence of psychological splitting, which has arisen in them to keep them safe from an impossible dilemma. This defence turns everything upside down in the child’s mind and causes them to believe that the healthy parent is a threat to their wellbeing, when in fact it is the parent they are pathologically aligned to who has threatened their sense of safety and security in the world.
a mental process initiated unconsciously to avoid experiencing conflict or anxiety.
When we understand defences from a psychoanalytical perspective, the reality of what has happened to children who are alienated stands out in sharp relief. Utterly dependent upon their parents, children are unable to make a stand against a parent who is angry or upset or personality disordered or transmitting intergenerational trauma and so must succumb to the dynamic that Ferenczi called identification with the aggressor.
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)
This succumbing, which looks like alignment and rejection of parents, is the core wound from which the defence arises. When the defence is in place the child will vehemently reject one parent using a wide range of behavioural and verbal strategies to ensure that this is effective.
In response to the child’s rejection, the parent who is targeted will also, in my experience, employ defences to survive. These defences can sometimes include idealisation and demonisation of self and other parent in order to cope with the horror of what has happened. In this crucible, the alienating parent, child and the parent who is being rejected are all manifesting symptoms of splitting. Throw the label ‘parental alienation’ into this mix and suddenly there is an escalation of the dynamic and then a fixation of the fear based splitting on all sides. Healing the family from this point requires intensive focus, patience, devotion and presence. This is no ordinary therapeutic work. This is whole person, wholly present in real time, healing work. It is like no other therapeutic work that I have ever known.
I have worked within the Court system and without it. I have worked with families before during and after reunification for thirteen years. I have lived with families in their everyday world for days on end in order to bring about this healing. I have walked with rejected parents through the days prior to rejection, through the reunification process and through the days, months and years after a child has integrated the split state of mind. I know what this dynamic does, I have born witness to it, helped to heal it and lived through it with families in their own homes.
This dynamic is like no other, it poisons minds, steals lives and devastates families. It is toxic in the extreme. It infects families and the professionals who work with them. It feeds on shame, it causes blame and it forces people to relinquish their capacity for reasoned thinking. If a practitioner is going to survive in this space they are going to have to know themselves well and in addition they are going to need to know this space well too. Finally, they are going to need to understand the principles and protocols of how this problem is caused and how it can be healed.
When a practitioner has a good strong foundational therapeutic training, the principles and protocols of healing work in parental alienation are entirely within reach. When a therapist is capable of understanding the necessary structural frameworks within which the rhythm of healing must take place, they are capable of building those and will not do the work without them in place. Just as a cancer patient does not undergo treatment until their diagnosis has been carefully differentiated, the family affected by parental alienation will not be treated until the child’s route into the defence of psychological splitting is known, curated and explained. Only when the route in has been described can the route out be constructed. How that is constructed may take different forms depending upon whether the work is being done within or without of the court process (a caveat here is that all moderate to severe cases involving children in the 7-15 age group should only be treated using the court as the structural framework).
For families with aged out children however and those where alienation is mild to moderate, a structural framework can be built which is based upon the child’s presentation of the alienated state of mind but which never has to mention the words parental alienation. The avoidance of the term parental alienation is very necessary in these circumstances because the alienated child will adamantly deny that they are alienated, projecting all blame onto the rejected parent and refusing to engage unless their views are held as valid and central to the treatment.
Which is fine. Treating an alienated child does not rely upon telling them that they are alienated. In fact the child never has to hear the world alienation in treatment and I will always ensure that the rejected parent understands this. I will also ensure that a rejected parent understands that just because I don’t use the words parental alienation in treatment, doesn’t mean I dismiss the reality of the symptoms which are clustered under the term.
In our work at the Family Separation Clinic we are working towards a new integrated theory and treatment of the problem of a child’s alignment and rejection. This is based upon the induced psychological splitting seen in the child and the way in which this can be resolved through structural interventions. We are achieving success in this work within the Court process and at the same time we are working with families with aged out children to use the same principles and protocols to bring about resolution. What we are seeing in practice looks promising. What we are increasingly aware of is that the principles and protocols of practice with children and families affected by this dynamic can be readily identified and curated from psychoanalytical literature to enable all therapists who wish to do this work, to bring about replicable approaches to healing.
A new workforce is emerging from this development of understanding and practice and we are now able to identify the rhythm of recovery in families and the patterns of healing which take place. With colleagues in Croatia, Israel, UK, USA and soon Iceland and Ireland, we are developing the kind of clinical partnerships which furthers this understanding and pushes the development of treatment routes even further into view.
When clinicians who understand parental alienation combine their expertise and their drive to find new routes to recovery, the rhythm of healing increases around the world. In this respect I expect 2020 to produce the workforce of therapists who will increase the pace and develop and refine this field of work into a fully functioning scientifically supported recovery route for families affected. It will not be the only route but it is increasingly demonstrating that when clinicians co-create, the problems of this world can be readily recognised and resolved.
Frankel, J. (2002). Exploring Ferenczi’s Concept of Identification with the Aggressor: Its Role in Trauma, Everyday Life, and the Therapeutic Relationship. Psychoanalytic Dialogues.
A Conference for All Clinicians and Legal Practitioners Seeking to Understand and Work with Families Affected by Parental Alienation
Featuring International Speakers in the following subjects – full details will be launched here on Monday 16th December when early bird registration will be open.
- Parental Alienation as an ‘everyday’ traumatic life experience
- Parental Alienation Assessment and Differentiation
- Object Relations Theory and parental alienation
- Trans-generational transmission of trauma in parental alienation
- Power and control and its impact on parental alienation
- Attachment trauma and parental alienation
- The core problem of induced psychological splitting in a child and its impact in parental alienation
- The role of the legal and mental health interlocking partnership in treatment
- Towards a new integrative understanding and treatment of parental alienation