It is our view at the Family Separation Clinic, that the signs of alienation which were noticed by Richard Gardner, are in fact all from the same source, which is that the child has been induced to employ psychological splitting, as a defence mechanism against an intolerable emotional and psychological double bind.
The double bind is that they cannot hold two realities in mind any longer because one parent’s reality has created such pressure on them, that the defence is necessary in order to enact the next part of the family drama. The next part of the family drama is that the child must find a way to physically put the other parent at such distance that they can be concurrently placed into the unconscious mind and thus be ‘disposed of.’
Each of the eight signs that Gardner speaks emanate from the defence of psychological splitting and in psychoanalytical terms can be readily recognised as the splitting or fragmentation of the ego.
The APA refers to fragmentation of the ego as as follows –
in the object relations theory of Melanie Klein and British psychoanalyst W. Ronald D. Fairbairn (1889–1964), fragmentation of the ego in which parts that are perceived as bad are split off from the main ego as a mechanism of protection.
What this means is that the child is faced with a pressure to experience in the felt sense and cognitively, a fear or dislike or anxiety about one parent and a pull to align with the parent who is causing this. Much of this takes place in the inter-psychic relationship between parent and child. Many parents who alienate, are suffering from distortions in their psychological profile or unresolved issues from their own childhood, which means that what leaks out in their belief and behavioural system, is readily absorbed by their child.
I have written previously about triangulation in our published book, in papers and on this blog. Triangulation is a key aspect of how the leakage of unresolved issues in one parent are transmitted to the child. In addition, as Jill Salburg, the lead speaker at the third EAPAP Conference in Zagreb (information on new dates to be shared soon), tells us, transmission of trauma between the generations takes place in the attachment relationship. All of this brings us to an understanding that what we see when we look at the drama of the alienated child, is a pathological alignment caused by distortion in the parent to whom the child is aligned, whilst the other parent plays a bystander role.
It is the defence of psychological splitting which matters most in our work with alienated children and families because that is the relational dynamic which has caused all of the unfolding issues seen in alienation. Coming from a perspective of actively working with alienated children and families, rather than simply assessing or researching their experience, we can readily see how the defence of splitting has occurred and the role it plays in holding the alienation dynamic in place.
In our work with children who have been induced to adopt the psychological splitting defence, we do not use therapy until after the splitting defence has been healed in the child. This is because there is no therapy in the world which is capable of resolving the splitting defence in the child and nor should we even try to develop one. Defences are there for a reason, to try and dismantle the child’s defence without changing the dynamics which have caused it would be to cause further harm to the child.
Healing the splitting defence in the child requires attention to the power dynamics between the parents first and that can only be achieved by using a stronger authority than the parents themselves. As Wilfred Von Boch Galhau tells us, when alienation is present, the family have reached the limits of their autonomy and external assistance is necessary.
External assistance available to a family where a child is showing the defence of psychological splitting comes in the form of the family court. Unfortunately, where one parent with a psychological profile of concern is controlling the child either consciously or unconsciously, this is currently the only external management tool we possess. Sadly, at present, the issue of parental alienation remains toxic and around the world, differing views in family courts persist and arguments between professionals about the issue continue.
What we call parental alienation is the defence of psychological splitting in the child and it is our view that this is where all work to understand and treat the problem should begin and end. Using psychoanalytical understanding, each of the eight signs of alienation which were noticed by Gardner can all be seen to be the result of induced psychological splitting and its related psychological causes and impacts upon the child.
The cause is the problem in the parent who is causing the child to use psychological splitting and the power that parent holds over the child.
The impact is the child’s fixed and fused alignment with that parent’s experienced reality, which is enabled via the defence of psychological splitting.
In our work in treatment of families affected by a child being forced into the defence of psychological splitting, we have consistently focused upon the child and have used psychoanalytic concepts to help us understand what is happening and how it impacts upon family members.
Over the years we have shifted from focusing upon residence transfer (removal of the child from the influencing parent) towards structured interventions which are delivered in stages, protecting the child from harm whilst resolving the dynamics causing the defence of splitting in the child. All of this work brings us into close contact with the families we help and allows us to understand at the deepest levels and in real time and space, how the splitting defence in the child, which is the impact of the pressure to align with one reality over the other, is caused and how it can be resolved in treatment.
In our understanding of the problem from the perspective of induced psychological splitting in the child each one of Gardner’s signs are all subtle manifestations of the same thing; psychological splitting.
The core sign that the child has entered into defensive splitting is that they display a lack of ambivalence. This is because the mechanism of splitting causes the child to split their own self into distinct parts and split off the internalised awareness of the part which is felt to be linked to the parent who is to be rejected.
When the child begins to denigrate the parent who is to be rejected, this is the outward manifestation of the influencing parent’s pressure upon the child and the child’s identification with the aggressor which is an unconscious process entered into when the child senses in the intra-psychic an abandonment threat. In order to avoid abandonment, the child adapts their internal objects via the splitting defence, meaning that one part of themselves is split off and made unconscious. In entering into this phase, the child offers confirmatory reflections to the aligned parent that the other parent is harmful. A fixed and fused dyadic relationship is now underway.
At this stage children will often give weak reasons about why they are rejecting one parent and these will be demonstrably without foundation. Nevertheless the child clings to these as evidence. This is because the child is unaware of the splitting defence and feels that their position is authentic and is unaware that their reasoning is weak because it seems real to them. What is noticeable, however, is that if the reasons are not accepted by adults, a child will often, as the splitting reaction deepens, escalate their allegations and reasons for rejection.
A part of the child remains aware that their position is unexplainable and aware that the parent they are aligned to is being seen as the cause. Children who claim that no-one made them do this, that they did it themselves, are acting from the psychologically split state of mind (ego fragmentation) in which the parts of the self remain permeable (not dissociated) and thus a part of the child is aware of how this is perceived in the outside world and wishes to defend the parent who has caused it to happen. This causes a powerful alignments and defence of the parent who has caused it.
A child in this state of mind is acting from different split off parts of themselves. I repeat that we are not talking about dissociative splitting here we are talking about defensive splitting of the ego which can be readily understood in psychoanalytical terms and in trauma literature.
The outward manifestation of the splitting defence is that the bad parts of the child which are identified with the parent who is rejected, are denied and then defensively projected at that parent. In doing this the child does not show any guilt or remorse, this is because what we deny and project must be defended against. Contempt shown towards parents by children in this state of mind, is a defensive mechanism to prevent the normal regulating feelings of guilt and shame, from bringing the real feelings of the child into conscious awareness.
At this point the child is likely to be heard channelling the things they have heard about the parent they are rejecting. These words and attitudes and scenarios are often conveyed in the inter-psychic relationship between the child and the influencing parent.
A child in this state of mind will begin to reject anyone who tries to counter the narratives the child is using and will additionally, as a part of the defence, sometimes make allegations against those people too.
Splitting of the ego is a defence which protects the child. It is described as follows by Robin Shapiro (2016)as non dissociative dysfunctional ego states and in our experience as clinicians, this is the critical element of what happens to alienated children.
In this respect, the drama of the alienated child begins with the splitting of the ego as a defence and radiates outwards towards parents in denial and projection dynamics. When this defence is used by children of divorce and separation, splitting triggers dynamics which lead to significant eruption of trauma for all concerned.
I have long wondered how children who have utilised the split state of mind can so quickly recover the relationship with the parent they have rejected when the dynamics around them are properly configured. The splitting defence makes sense of this. Splitting is a defence which is necessary only when the dynamic causing it is in play when it is not, the defence is no longer necessary and so it disappears or integrates.
I have also long wondered whether children who are showing the signs of severe alienation, know what they are doing when they are doing it. In my follow up work with children in residence transfer I have asked this question as part of my understanding of how they are recovering. Most children tell me that yes, they did know that what they were doing was wrong and they did know that one parent was causing it. They also tell me that there was nothing else that they could do in the circumstances.
Understanding that Gardner’s eight signs are actually all emanating from a recognised defence mechanism has enabled us to develop a psychoanalytically informed response to the problem of induced psychological splitting which is effective and which can be replicated in a step wise approach.
When it is put into the hands of the Judiciary who manage the power and control dynamics in these cases, it provides understanding of how these cases can be successfully managed on a replicable basis.
When this is put into the hands of therapists, it offers the potential for resolution of the problem of a child’s induced psychological splitting on a wider scale.
When it is put into the hands of rejected parent, it potentiates their capacity for providing therapeutic parenting and healing of the split state of mind in the child.
What we call parental alienation is caused by the child being induced to use defensive splitting in the post divorce and separation landscape.
Understanding that opens a whole new chapter in our capacity to evidence and treat this problem. All existing therapies can be adapted for use when the splitting defence is understood and the need to argue about whether parental alienation exists or not or is valid is simply void.
When that is understood, it changes, quite simply, everything.