I have been writing about induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation, which in our experience at the Family Separation Clinical, is the core problem in which is popularly called parental alienation.
Over twelve years of being involved in this field, we have come to recognise that what we see in our clinical work with families is a defence mechanism which is described in psychoanalytical literature. In particular, when this defence is understood as a splitting of the ego, in Object Relations terms, it becomes possible to understand what treatment of this problem looks like.
The defence of psychological splitting is caused by what Sandor Ferenenczi, Hungarian psychoanalyst termed ‘identification with the aggressor‘ which is set out as follows by the APA.
identification with the aggressor
an unconscious mechanism in which an individual identifies with someone who poses a threat or with an opponent who cannot be mastered. The identification may involve adopting the aggression or emulating other characteristics of the aggressor. This has been observed in cases of hostage taking and in other extreme situations such as concentration camps. In psychoanalytic theory, it occurs on a developmental level when the child identifies with a rival, the father or mother, toward the end of the oedipal phase.
I first wrote about identification with the aggressor in 2018 when the reality of the splitting defence being core to the work we do with alienated children became crystal clear. Whilst prior to early 2018 we had been working with the concept of parental alienation as an umbrella term for the configuration of dynamics seen when a child rejects a parent after divorce and separation, since then we have been entirely focused upon the defence within the child that leads to the behavioural responses seen.
Our work is directly with children and families affected by what is popularly called parental alienation. Over twelve years I have met and worked with many children, mostly in a state of severe alienation but sometimes in the mild to moderate stages and sometimes older adult children who have recovered a relationship with the parent they rejected. What is apparent, when comparing clinical notes about all of these cases, is that the children concerned demonstrate starkly, a pattern of behaviours which are, as I wrote in my last blog, all subtle manifestations of a recognised defence of splitting of the ego.
The APA refers to splitting of the ego as follows
2. 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. See also splitting.
Understanding that what we are seeing in alienated children is a splitting of the ego (and I should be clear here once again that I am NOT talking about dissociative splitting but the splitting referred to by Object Relations Theorists which is characterised as a splitting off of unwanted parts of the self and identifications with others, in order to cope with internal conflicts. This leads to an adapted ego structure in which there is a sense of ‘knowing and not knowing‘ about the different parts which make up what Winnicott called a false self.
In my work with alienated children I spend time with them after reunification work is complete. Reunification of a child with a rejected parent is actually the external result of the internal resolution of the split state of mind in the child. Increasingly, our understanding of the defence mechanism which is at play in the child, enables us to reconfigure the dynamics around the family in ways that enable the defence to drop. This is a powerful step away from believing that only removal of the child from an influencing parent is the answer to the problem which is seen in families affected by this problem.
When a child has integrated the split state of mind, which depends upon a structural protection of the child from the power exerted over them by the influencing parent, the projection of the split onto the parents is withdrawn. What this means is that when the power to influence is removed from the parent causing the harm, it is possible for the child to be confronted with the parent they have rejected in ways that enable the child to experience the incoming care from that parent in ways that are experientially and cognitively resonant with the child’s real feelings for that parent. This is the therapeutic work which is undertaken in reunification and it should occur at the outset of any intervention because it creates the conditions for all therapeutic work to follow.
This means that the first task of a therapist working with these families is to create the correct conditions for therapeutic work. This demands that the balance of power be examined and requests to the court be made for directions which enable the power to be either properly balanced OR removed from the influencing parent for long enough for therapeutic intervention to take place. Any therapist who takes on this work without undertaking this first, is –
a) putting the child into a repeated double bind which is harmful – ie; the child is being asked to drop the defence when the defence is still needed (all defences protect us from greater harm and will only drop when the threat of greater harm is removed)
b) putting themselves at risk because of the negative transference from the alienating parent, which will be switched to anyone who tries to interfere with the alignment between parent and child.
When conditions for therapeutic work are properly in place ie; when the influencing parent is no longer in control and the Court holds the control of power, then treatment can begin.
Treatment for severe splitting in a child which is being caused by a personality disordered parent, demands that the child be removed to protected space in order for that work to be undertaken. In that scenario, a direct residence transfer can be undertaken with attendant therapeutic bridging work. In many cases of residence transfer, where the team around the child is not itself splitting into different opinions, rapid integration of the split state of mind in the child is observed. Where the team around a child is split, as in the case of Guardians and Social Workers who are not aware of how alienation needs to be treated, difficulties in residence transfer outcomes are seen. This is because the child who is using splitting as a defence requires a unified team which holds the boundary of expectation firmly in order to receive the message that it is safe to drop the defence.
Treatment for severe splitting in a child which is not being caused by personality disorder but by a combination of dynamics including, sometimes, on both sides of the child, can be delivered in situ with strong constraints in place which are held by the Court and which have consequences attached should the child regress in treatment.
The Atmosphere of the Alienation Case
A case of alienation has a particular ‘atmosphere’ and any practitioner who does this work will recognise the distinct feelings that arise in the counter transference. Sensations of mistrust, feelings that there are things not being said and things being done behind the scenes are all part of the experience of working with families affected by alienation. I call this feeling ‘the house of creeping dread‘ and if, as a practitioner, you are not comfortable with people talking about you behind your back, ganging up on you and triangulating others into dramas which feature you, then you should not be doing this work. There is a reason not many of us are willing to do this work or remain long in this field and that is because of the risk of blame and shame projection. This is, of course, made all the more dreadful by the adversarial nature of the legal management of such cases, which is necessary but unfortunately also terrifying and at times terrorising to the practitioner.
The Relational Nature of This Work
This is a problem with a human face and it cannot be resolved by diagnosis and assessment alone. Both of these things are essential but it is the relational space in which treatment takes place which is the most critical element which enables children to recover from psychological splitting. The practitioner doing this work has to be present and have presence too. These are not a cases for the blank screen approach to therapy. Working in this space requires focus, presence and willingness to see things all the way through from beginning to end. Knowing when to be present and when to step back and how to enable the family to unlock its own potential for healing is essential.
Stepwise Approach to Resolution
The stepwise approach to resolution is an essential formula to follow because it brings about the dynamic shift required to allow the defence in the child to drop. If the defence doesn’t drop, the body of the child may well be reunited with the rejected parent but the mind remains captured. I have seen many children who, although their body has been transferred to the care of the rejected parent, have maintained the split state of mind. This is not a successful intervention at all and so following the step wise approach is an essential part of any treatment route.
- Reconfigure the power dynamic – remove the power over the child held by the influencing parent – this will usually require a higher authority intervention.
- Support the rejected parent with training in therapeutic parenting.
- Expose the child in clinical conditions to the split off and denied ‘object relationship’ with the rejected parent.
- Manage the influencing parent, observe their responses.
When this phase is complete
- Structure behavioural agreements for care of the child
- Rapidly escalate the protected space that the child has to spend with the rejected parent
- Observe the influencing parent, hold behavioural agreements in place
- Review over time
When this phase is complete
- Apply adapted therapies to enable the reconfiguration of dynamics in individuals and in the family group as a whole.
When understanding, assessment and treatment routes are available, replicable success in these cases becomes possible. The handbook for clinicians is our next task to make this theoretical model widely available around the world.
When protection for practitioners is in place, more therapists will be enabled to do this work. EAPAP will make this possible.
In many ways the court system mirrors what has happened with the parents – it is an adversarial system as you point out. This adversarial system is exactly what is required in the political system and in the criminal courts – that is, it works as well as can be expected in an imperfect world.
However, when you have what should be a loving bond from both parents towards their children, I’m not sure that an adversarial system serves the children well.
Into the void to act on behalf of the children are CAFCASS et al. and that is the law’s answer to the obvious flaw of the adversarial system.
It hasn’t worked.
The question is – what is the optimal system? I certainly don’t know, but I’m sure that you, Karen, would have some idea.
I think the issue should be treated as an inquisitorial system with the judge as super parent holding an expectation that parents will do the right thing for their childre . All allegations should be heard within seven days of them being made and anyone found to be making false allegations should be considered as a risk of harm to a child. Decisions about caring for children should be made by professionals with depth training and understanding of children’s behavioural responses to family separation and the judge should also have such training. Pa should be treated like non accidental injury in public law (it is non accidental injury to the child’s mind) and healthy and unhealthy parents should be evaluated via psychological screenings. Good enough parents should be enabled to get on and manage their own arrangements and triage evaluation should isolate those cases which are in need of specialist help. Cafcass should be scrapped and all children should have a guardian ad litem in cases of pa. social workers should undergo mandatory training in working with alienated children. Specialist social workers should be assigned to pa cases so that statutory duties can be undertaken without destroying work to heal the split state of mind in a child.
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Thanks for that, Karen. I couldn’t agree more with the judge acting as super-parent & 7 days from complaint to hearing. I wonder if, at that point, a presumed default of 50%/50% shared parenting would serve as a deterent – in other words, try to nip it in the bud, in the early stages before PA gets a foothold.
The route you suggest thereafter, and I absolutely defer to your much greater knowledge, is somewhat cumbersome in terms of time and the loss of carp diem.
I can’t help but feel that the knowledge, both within the solicitor system & amongst separated parents, of the dragging on of child contact cases and the de facto default of parent with custody being the ‘main’ parent where custody should rest, is one of the main ingredients of parents with custody keeping up their onslaught, their effective damage to their children being rewarded by continuing custody all whilst the targeted parent is punished (in most cases to the delight of the alienating parent).
A simple rule of judges defaulting to 50/50, especially when enacted in the early stages of contact problems, would shock a conscious or unconscious alienator into thinking more carefully about the need to maintain a reasonable atitude towards the other parent’s relationship with their children.
I know it’s complicated!
This is an extremely valuable contribution, which I will do my utmost to get the Belgian authorities to adopt now they have acknowledged their failings in the case of my daughters and myself.
This is exactly what happened with my children years ago when they were reunited with me as a rejected parent: “If the defence doesn’t drop, the body of the child may well be reunited with the rejected parent but the mind remains captured.” Years after our reunification I had to step away from my children to be safe again as a parent. I was aware of the strong dynamics of parential alienation but not of the underlying splitting of the ego at my children.
I never went through the court system. By the time I realised what was going on and that I was powerless to stop it, I had lost my daughter. So, I have no court experience, but ……….
I wonder if you (Karen) are familiar with the Book Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children by Stanley S Clawar & Brynne V Rivlin – Section of family law, American Bar Association. I bought a used copy of this book (published in 1991 by The American Bar Association) shortly after I left my successfully alienating husband five years ago. Until recently I’d forgotten all about this book but I’m now reading it again. Mine is an old copy but apparently it was updated only a couple of years ago and now uses the terms ‘Parental Alienation’. What struck me was….. if the American Bar can publish a book that (in my opinion) is spot on and so obviously helpful, why on earth are so many family courts STILL getting it so wrong!
Blurb about the book: In Children Held Hostage, Stanley Clawar and Brynne Rivlin use important new research involving over 1,000 families to demonstrate that children can and are being used by parents in the divorce battle. Their research shows how negative actions by parents toward their children show up in court proceedings where children testify or are questioned by mental health professionals. The major issue in confronting this problem of programmed and brainwashed children has been identification of a child alienated by one parent against the other; proving it in court; and then finding a solution that not only works, but that a court will buy into. The updated edition of Children Held Hostage explains these issues in detail, with practice-focused explanations on every step in the process. The authors offer further insights into gender issues and differences. Other new material includes a social-psychological profile of programmers and brainwashers; identification of the most commonly asked questions by judges, target parents, lawyers and children; an expanded social explanation to the causes, impact, and interventions; development of an abductor profile; charts to visualize key findings and processes; and much more.
HI willow, yes I am aware of Clawar and Rivlin’s work. Whilst their approach is to prove alienation in court and use a solution such as Family Bridges, we have been working with approaches that can be used by therapists around the world to bring greater resolution without having to remove children. We focus not on the programming behaviours of the parent but on the defence in the child to find ways to reconfigure the dynamics so that the child can drop the defence. This is useful in terms of in court and out of court work. Clawar and Rivlin are very helpful in understanding the American system of approaching these cases from one particular angle though.
I had a nine month wait to get to a directions hearing before a circuit judge, Karen. (you know a lot of this as you helped and supported me through the few months of phone contact- (still hugely grateful for that, Karen, as it stopped me from going over the edge) I ended up with a truly poisonous Guardian who concluded that my daughter’s “rejection of me was an appropriate response to my controlling behaviour”
Quite what I was controlling wasn’t stated. I had a cabal of feminist lawyers and an even worse guardian in cahoots with them. Can you imagine if there were seven men in the court and one female applicant? I have been left with no option but to withdraw my application. How can we ever get to a stage where this cannot happen. This blatant discrimination and child abuse is going on in plain view – or it would be if there was any scrutiny of the courts. The only scrutiny is by way of an appeal and that is made as expensive and prohibitive as possible.
I am now trying to write a final letter to my daughter. My behaviour is so “controlling” that I do not even have a phone number or email address for her.
Without proper scrutiny of the courts, how do we prevent matters ever getting to this stage? Everything you say say makes perfect sense, Karen, but how do we even get there when even a suggestion of therapeutic intervention is seen as a further attempt to control the mother?
Welcome to the club! I was also labled “controlling”, over and over and over again. To this day I still ponder what in the world I was able to control, since everything was systematically taken from me. Controlling… it is clearly code – perhaps like when a 4 year old rails about you controlling them by keeping them out of danger.
Thanks for the comment, Peter.
I hate the misuse of language and that is precisely what their use of the word ‘controlling’ is. On top of mangling the lives of children and their fathers (and in some cases their mother), they have also mangled the English language.
The thought that ran through my head today (lots of time to think in these times..) was regarding the seeming two tiers of splitting. First, we have the cognitive dissonance caused by the disordered parental influence that leads to the splitting we know as PA. This gets “resolved” by cutting off a parent to stop the dissonance. But that external splitting creates an internal split within the child, the conscious vs unconscious. I would think this would result in round two of cognitive dissonance – and another round of struggle for internal peace where the child can not sever/discard a part of themselves.
What I am getting at – you see so many of these children, in all phases of torment. Do you see any of them who are actually “happy” or “at peace”? In particular, how do “recovered” children describe their alienated phase? It must be brutal.
YOu have got it absolutely right Peter, the split on the outside is a projection of the split on the inside of the child – the child is the origin of all that follows because the child has had to create a defence to survive what is being done to them. I have not in my time, seen an alienated child who is truly at peace. There is what I liken to Balint’s ‘basic fault’ behaviour in all of them children, teenagers and adults. All of them suffer and all of them need help in my experience. I will write a piece for you about how children describe their alienated phase, I will write it from my process notes from working with children – disguised of course. I will do that over the weekend. K
I would love to read that too, Karen. The one time I have seen my daughter in the past year, she did not look happy or content at all: She looked haunted.
Dear Karen. Please write about how children describe their alienated phase and post it on your blog. We need to hear a child’s perspective. Warmest wishes from Trine