As a psychotherapist, I have worked with alienated children for many years and accumulated a lot of experience as well as knowledge of what works across the spectrum of reactions seen in children of divorce and separation. In doing so I am aware that the therapy we deliver is unlike generic therapy and it is important that anyone doing this work or being offered this is aware of that.
The therapist in treatment of parental alienation is not someone who delivers their services in an office. The therapist working with parental alienation must take the position of both forensic practitioner, digging deep into the family dynamic and understanding at its core, what brought the child to the use of induced psychological splitting. At the same time the therapist must act as parenting co-ordinator, family guide, teacher and enforcer of new behavioural expectations.
This is not a role for people who are uncomfortable with imposing these things upon a family, it is not a role for anyone who is afraid to work with open confidentiality agreements within the family and extremely tight boundaries around it. This is the role of leader, guide, educator and advocate for the child at the centre of the trauma story which has unfolded in the family. It is a challenging but rewarding role, it requires courage and determination. It also requires a teflon coat in terms of the personal and professional attacks it brings, much of which is borne of other people’s personal views and unresolved issues. It is not for the faint hearted.
This approach, of the practitioner in charge of the family, is at the core of what we do at the Family Separation Clinic, where we will work alone with severely alienated children and families, or as team leader in a multidiscipline intervention which is based upon the work of Friedlander & Walters (2010) and Walters & Friedlander (2016). In configuring interventions in this way, we always seek the swiftest route to reunification between the child and the rejected parent, using this as the external structure to encourage the integration of the child’s internal split state of mind. The state of psychological splitting, which is that which is seen in parental alienation, is what gives rise to the child’s expression of the signs of alienation. Splitting means that a child has utilized an defense of dividing their feelings into wholly good for one parent and wholly bad for the other. This defense, which in objects relations theory is considered infantile, in that it relates to the inability to hold ambivalent feelings, allows the child to make the “choice” to reject one parent completely.
Route in and route out
It is our observation that the route the child took into alienation provides the evidence of what is needed to bring the child out of the rejecting stance. For this reason, we use a differentiation route to map the child’s pathway into the psychological splitting defense and we match that with the most appropriate treatment route.
Differentiation of a case means separating out those things that have pressured the child into the defense of splitting and understanding how these things have become configured to hold the child in a state of rejection. When we understand how this happened, we can begin to build the intervention that will create dynamic change.
Our model of differentiation identifies a “pure” case of alienation, in which the child is alienated through a combination of coercive control and emotionally harmful behaviors resulting from personality disorder in the alienating parent. This requires the separation of the child from the parent to restore the integrated state of mind. Whereas the child who is alienated through a combination of factors which do not include personality disorder is likely to require a structured intervention over time to bring about release. Structured interventions set behavioral expectations and focus upon the immediate restoration of the relationship between child and parent and then monitoring the ongoing movement of the child between parents over time.
In differentiation, an understanding of structural family therapy, for example Minuchin (1974), objects relations theory (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983), and disrupted attachment in families of divorce and separation (Solomon & George, 2006; Woodall & Woodall, 2007).
In our treatment routes, we have combined this research knowledge with the practical work of therapeutic parenting, particularly drawing upon the work of intensive short-term psychotherapy (Davanloo, 1994). With this approach, we build dynamic focused interventions which have at their heart the capacity to shift the balance of power which is held over the child by the alienating parent. This alleviates the pressure upon the child, and provides challenge and support, to change the behavioral responses from parents.
In evaluating the child’s route into alienation, we understand the following dynamics to be at play:
- Actions of the aligned parent
- Responses of the rejected parent
- Vulnerability versus resilience of the child
Assessment is always accompanied by intervention. We do not believe that the two things are separate (Woodall, 2017) and we do not believe that static assessment is particularly useful in alienation cases. Additionally, an assessment is not complete until we have seen the rejected parent with the child and so our intervention begins as part of the assessment process.
In our work, therapy always comes after the restoration of the relationship, not before. The split state of mind in the child cannot be relieved by therapeutic means alone but must be accompanied by the encounter with the split-off object, which is the rejected parent.
We use legal management and seek direction from the court to ensure that the child can be observed with the parent they are rejecting. We do this even in severe cases of alienation, using the legal imperatives to trigger dynamic change. In this respect we are using the approach recommended by Davanloo, which is to provoke the hidden dynamic – the child’s split state of mind which results in refusal and the aligned parent’s upholding of this – onto the surface, from the outset of our work.
Legal/mental health interlock
My overall experience of doing the work in this way is that the legal and mental health interlock – which is the way in which the mental health intervention is held within the legal management of the case – is essential to bringing about change for alienated children. We draw upon the widest range of expertise in the field of family therapy, attachment and object relations theory in our assessments and we are increasingly combining the protocols of practice in working with psychological splitting in treatment.
Assisting the resolution of the split state of mind in the child should always come first in treatment. There are no known therapies which have been shown to assist a child to resolve this defence and persuasion should be avoided as it places the child back into the impossible double bind which caused the problem in the first place.
When the principles and protocols of working with induced psychological splitting are held firmly within the framework of the court, enabling power and control dynamics to be managed externally rather than by the influencing parent, change in children is seen to be swift.
When the child resolves the split state of mind, parenting co-ordination and therapy can then be delivered to the family to build sustainable change within a new stable framework.
Davanloo, H. (1994). Basic methodology and technique of short-term dynamic psychotherapy. In H. Davanloo (Ed.), Basic principles and techniques in short-term dynamic psychotherapy (pp. 343-388). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.
Friedlander, S. & Walters, M. G. (2010). When a child rejects a parent: Tailoring the intervention to fit the problem. Family Court Review, 48:1, 98–111.
Gardner, R. A. (1985). Recent trends in divorce and custody litigation. Academy Forum, 29(2), 3–7.
Gardner, R.A. (1999). Family therapy of the moderate type of parental alienation syndrome. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 27, 195-212.
Greenberg, J. R. & Mitchell, S. A. (1983). Object relations in psychoanalytic theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Minuchin, S. (1974). Family and Family Therapy. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press Solomon, J. & George, C. (1999). The development of attachment in separated and divorced
families. Attachment & Human Development, 1:1, 2-33
Walters M, G. & Friedlander, S. (2016). When a child rejects a parent: Working with the
intractable resist/refuse dynamic. Family Court Review, 54, 424–445.
Woodall, N. (2017, October). Educational needs identified during reunification training. Paper
presented at the conference of the Parental Alienation Studies Group, Washington, DC. Woodall, K. & Woodall, N. (2017). Understanding parental alienation: Learning to cope,
helping to heal. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
Reformulating Practice With Families Affected by a Child’s Induced Psychological Splitting – EAPAP 2020
Parental Separation, Alienation and Splitting: Healing Beyond Reunification
The theme of this conference is the reformulation of practice with families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting.
Over two days the conference will unpack and unpick thinking around cases of parental alienation to shift the focus to the core defence seen in the child and how the principles and protocols of practice with families affected by this can be configured in ways that bring rapid resolutions.
Featuring detailed master classes in each of the areas known to contribute to the onset of induced psychological splitting in a child, practitioners will be enabled to understand the stepwise approach required to reformulate their own practice effectively.
Power and Control
Psychiatric impact of induced psychological splitting in childhood
Legal and Mental Health Interlocking Relationship for Case Management
Adapted Therapies for Successful Treatment of Parental Alienation
Please note that due to extremely high demand for places on this practitioner only conference, only limited tickets are left. If you plan to attend, please do not delay booking in case of disappointment.
Standard fee. – 169,00 EUR / February 01 – March 15, 2020
Late registration fee – 203,00 EUR / from March 16, 2020
All prices include VAT.