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.
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.