I said I would write about induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation from the perspective of the child. This is a work in progress, which is part of my research at Regents University in London, where I am examining how individuals who rejected a parent after family separation, experience and understand adult relationships.

In writing this piece for lay readers, I will refer to the following terms and their meaning.

Psychological Splitting Defence – a common ego defense mechanism. It can be defined as the division or polarization of beliefs, actions, objects, or persons into good and bad by focusing selectively on their positive or negative attributes.

Psychological Splitting in Children of Divorce and Separation – The underlying defence mechanism seen in children who are said to be alienated.

Induced – Succeeding in persuading or forcing someone to do something or something to happen.

In the circumstances where a child is using the defence of splitting, we are concerned with the following in treatment-

  • How deep and fixed is the splitting defence in the child
  • who induced the split state of mind in the child
  • how the splitting defence was first created and how it is maintained

In our assessment and treatment routes, we are concerned with changing the dynamics around the child so that the defence in the child can be dropped.

In our understanding of induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation however, it is incumbent upon us to examine the experience from the perspective of the child.  Because it is this understanding, which extends into the experience of children who are now adults, which enables us to understand the pernicious damage which is done when this defence is induced in a child.

This also gives us information about how and why we should intervene in these cases.  This is the work that I am currently focused upon and my interest in this comes from my extensive contact with alienated children over the past twelve years.

What Does Induced Splitting Look Like?

There is an ‘upside down’ presentation in children who suffer from induced psychological splitting and this is readily understood when examining cases of rejection of a parent from the perspective of  Ferenzci’s concept of ‘identification with the aggressor‘.

Children are, more than any other group of people on the planet, vulnerable to the power and control that their parents wield over them. Alice Miller told us that children whose parents have complete control over them will impose the most agonising suffering upon them.

The way we were treated as small children is the way we treat ourselves the rest of our lives: with cruelty or with tenderness and protection. We often impose our most agonizing suffering upon ourselves and, later, on our children.”

In my work with alienating parents, what I observe most of all is the way in which their own childhood experiences lead to a distortion of their relationship with their children. So much so that inducing psychological splitting in their child, is often described as being the child’s own realisation that the parent they are rejecting is a bad person.  This lack of distinction between the parent’s adult perception of the other adult parent and the child’s perception of one of their key object relationships  is a defining feature of behaviours, which induce the psychologically split state of mind in a child.  Where it is present, it denotes that the relationship that a parent has with a child, is likely to be a compensatory object relationship for something or someone who was missing in the parent’s own childhood.

There is a suffocating quality to the child’s experience of the parent who is using the child as a compensatory object relationship.  The child, whilst not being able to know in the intellectual sense that they are being used, will almost certainly feel this at times.  The child who is pulled close and then pushed away, the child whose own needs are not met and who is required to be party to every aspect of a parent’s emotional, psychological and sometimes sexual world as well is a child who is in the wrong place in the family hierarchy.  (in this respect most often not in terms of inappropriate sexual contact but in terms of inappropriate sexual knowledge – for example a child should not ever know about the parent’s sex life or be party to information and knowledge about the parent’s personal relationship with others).

Enid’s Experience of Induced Psychological Splitting

Enid was nineteen when she came to me for therapy.  Her experience of rejecting her mother at the age of thirteen persisted and she was unable to reconcile herself to a consistently repaired relationship with her.  What Enid complained about was her mother’s lack of sensitivity and her mother’s ‘entitled’ behaviours. Enid felt that her mother was not respectful enough of her boundaries and that she should be grateful for the small amounts of time that she (Enid) gave to her mother.  Enid described her mother as being constantly ‘snapping at my heels‘ for information and involvement in her life. When I enquired about how her mother demonstrated what sounded like an intrusive pattern of behaviours, she told me that her mother emailed her monthly and that she had seen her mother exactly twice in the previous twelve months.

Enid’s father on the other hand was present almost every day in her life. Although Enid was at university, she still lived at home and most of her spare time was spent with her father who took her to classes and picked her up.  It was clear that Enid tolerated a high degree of intrusive behaviour from her father who she told me often ‘comes out for drinks with me and my friends, he gets on well with everyone‘.

It was clear during our early exchanges, that Enid’s sense of her mother being too close, despite the contact she had with her being highly controlled and regulated by Enid, and that her father’s intrusive behaviours, in which he had inserted himself into her everyday life as if he were her partner or her friend, was experienced by Enid as normal.

Further investigation demonstrated that Enid tolerated much more than her father’s inveigling of himself into her everyday teenage life and that he actually considered himself to be the friend of her friends.  Enid’s internal object relationships were distorted, with one parent being suffocatingly close, enmeshing and controlling and the other, kept at distance and controlled by Enid, being experienced as if she were the suffocating parent.

The problem with defences is that they are there for a reason and so it is not the goal of therapeutic work to simply tear them down.  Enid at first, could not tolerate any kind of movement in therapeutic work which was focused on nudging her to see things differently.  And so, like with many borderline patients, I spent the first months with her simply learning to see the world as she experienced it.

Walking beside Enid I could see that the terrifying fault line that had opened up at the point at which her defence came into play, was focused upon the fact that her father had threatened to kill himself.  Whilst he had not attempted to do so, the threat, made at a time when Enid was coping alone with her father because her mother had left the home, exposed her to the horror of her dependency upon a man who might take his own life.  Enid was twelve at this time and her dependency upon her father was total.  When she was with her mother, she spent her time worrying about her father. When she was with her father, she spent her time feeling responsible for keeping him healthy and well.

Enid’s father had a distorted relationship with his own mother.  His father had died when he was four years old and he had become the ‘man of the house’ and companion to his mother, until he was eighteen years old when his mother remarried.  Angry at being pushed out of his mother’s primary affection, Enid’s father had left the country his mother was living in and had never spoken to her again.  It became clear that Enid played a compensatory role for this loss of a primary object relationship in her father’s life.

But whilst it was clear to me that Enid had become this compensatory object relationship and that as a result her father had terrorised her into an ‘identification with the aggressor’ dynamic, sharing my interpretation of what had happened to her was not possible.

In ordinary psychoanalytical or psychodynamic therapeutic work, sharing interpretations of the dynamics causing problems is how a patient progresses towards self knowledge and awareness that allows a defence to drop.  For Enid however, the internalised object relationships were upside down and the parent causing her problems (she could not easily make decisions and found adult relationships very difficult to manage beyond the first few dates), was experienced in the felt sense as the protective parent whilst the healthy parent was experienced as persecutory.  Interpretations in this scenario were futile and I therefore had to search for another way to assist Enid to understand that the problems she experienced stemmed from a dysfunction of the family hierarchy.

The upside down quality of the object relationships suffered by alienated children, come from the way that the defence operates in them and is all caused by the identification with the aggressor dynamic.  This dynamic,  is caused when a child who is completely dependent upon a parent is threatened with abandonment (this is usually but not always a covert threat – for example, the parent decompensates psychologically and appears to the child as if they have abandoned the normal parent/child relationship).

What the child is unaware of, is that their whole concept of relationships with adults, both on the outer and on the inner, have been upturned, often from their earliest days. This means that they are unaware that children do not usually feel that they must take care of a parent and that most children do not have parents who consider themselves to be friends with their friends.

There is a righting of the upside down nature of the child’s object relationships via the relationship with the therapist.  This can also be achieved via the relationship with the healthy parent. The most powerful combination of support for an alienated child however, is that of a therapist who is skilled in this field working alongside the rejected parent who has some contact with a child.  This co-therapy model enables the parent who is appropriately positioned to be as close to the child as is possible, the step by step intervention which leads the child to a more balanced experience of parental care in the felt senses.  Whilst the therapist holds the road map, the parent holds the keys which unlock the child’s upside down view of the world.  Working together, parent and therapist can assist the child to come to a place where understanding of what has happened to them is possible.

The methodology applicable here is similar to Dialectical Behaviour Therapy in which the therapist acts ‘as if’ the child’s upside down thinking is normal and considers with the child how it is working for them.  This is initially dyadic work and does not include the consideration of object relationships.  In preparation for the correction of introjected upside down object relationships, the rejected parent works with the therapist to understand how to take the early steps into the child’s felt senses and how to tolerate the experience of being seen to be the one who is intrusive.

In Enid’s case we did not include her mother until the end of the first year of therapy when Enid had explored and could tolerate the idea that her parent’s divorce might have some causative link with her current day problems.  Her father was not included in the therapeutic work and in fact it transpired that Enid’s father did not know that she was having therapy.  When I asked Enid why she decided to come to see me for therapeutic work and why she had not told her father this, she told me –

I came to you because I wanted to prove to myself that I was not alienated as my mother had told me I was and that she was the cause of my problems. I wanted to show her once and for all that I know my own mind.  I didn’t tell my father about coming to see you because I knew that if I did he would want to come too and I wanted to see what it was like to do something for myself. 

So many alienated children tell me that the biggest thing they hate is being told that they are alienated, and that if there is one thing guaranteed to make them determined to resist the rejected parent, it is the idea that they do not know their own mind.

Enid, like so many others before her, showed me that the concept of parental alienation, whilst useful as a label to describe a pattern of behaviours, works counter to the resolution of the problem in the child in therapy.

This is why in our work with rejected parents we do not encourage the use of the label and why we educate and develop new ways of thinking about what has happened to the child.

Focusing on the other parent brainwashing or otherwise harming the child does not help the child.  We can know what has caused it without ever having to name it with the child.  When we do, we act from the place of wise adults and we enable the child to explore the experience without having to deepen or strengthen the defence.

We must learn to think of induced psychological splitting as a non accidental injury to the mind of a child. When we do this we understand that the harm which is being done is serious and we enable the child to freely explore the internal object relationships they have with each parent.  When we as therapists can do this, the potential for the child being able to rectify the upside down thinking processes becomes potent.  When the rejected parent can maintain a steady presence, neither close nor far alongside this work, readiness for insight is increased.

For Enid the trigger point for insight came when I asked her one day what her friends thought of her father’s constant presence in her life.  I asked the question because she had been complaining about not being able to go out for drinks with a man who had shown interest in her.  Her father had been booking theatre trips and events on nights she could have gone out with this man and she had grown weary of this.  I took the chance during one exchange to ask her the question.  It was as if a light came on in her eyes and she sat for a very long time before she responded.  In doing so she didn’t mention her father at all but simply said, ‘I think I might move into halls next term.’

Later that week her mother called me to say that Enid had asked her for financial help as she wanted to move into a flat with some friends. She asked me whether she should give it and I said yes.  Enid moved out of the home she had shared with her father for eight years at the age of twenty and never went back.  From her new home with friends, she continued to see me and eventually her mother came for joint sessions.  Together Enid and her mother worked through the events which led to her mother leaving the family home and Enid was able to go back in time and in her behaviours and her dependency and work through the events which triggered the defence of splitting.  Her father was barely mentioned in all of this work and Enid continued to maintain a tense but present relationship with him.  Her father sent Enid letters in which he invoked the life they had lived together before Enid was able to find her way out of the suffocation of her relationship with him.  Symbolically she took to putting them away in a box which she kept in her car.

Enid still struggles to articulate her understanding of what happened to her but she is more able to make decisions now and less likely to blame herself or put herself into situations where she is regulating others.  Her mother is experienced as her mother, not too close and not too far.  Enid is twenty eight now and has married and is expecting her first child.

The splitting defence in children is pernicious. It is a non accidental injury to the child’s mind and it has long lasting impacts which require intervention.  Children experience it in varying degrees of depth and permanence but the ego splits it causes damages their sense of themselves as a whole person and they require assistance to recover equilibrium and mastery over their own internalised selves and their object relationships.

One thing is abundantly clear. The recovery of the child depends upon the availability of the parent who is rejected, to assist in completion of the task of restoring healthy internalised object relationships. When the external person is available, the introjection of the internalised object can be tested and corrected.

We are well on the way now to a theory of understanding, assessment and treatment which can be used with children of all ages. When it is used by therapists with skill and awareness of psychoanalytical and psychodynamic approaches, who also recognise the essential value of the rejected parent, protection of these children from the effects of non accidental injury to the mind is entirely possible.