It is our view at the Family Separation Clinic that what is called Parental Alienation is a relational problem in families which creates a defence in the child of psychological splitting. This causes the child to display absolute resistance to the rejected parent when the defence is at its strongest.
In that respect, the child is displaying behaviours which cause them to align with a parent and therefore it appears that they have been brainwashed by that parent. If we look closer however, the presence of conscious and deliberate actions of a parent, whilst present sometimes, are less apparent than covert, relational, and trans-generational dynamics at play.
This is a relational problem, which means that it is caused by relationships between people. It therefore follows, that resolution of the problem can be brought about via therapeutic work on those relationships.
Using the tools of the traditional parental alienation trade, which focus upon removal of the child, from the influence of the parent seen to be the cause of the problem, occurs after parental alienation has been proved in court.
This response to what is a relational problem, however, splits the family again into good parent/bad parent but flips it the other way. Now the parent who has caused the problem is seen as the villain of the piece whilst the parent who receives the child is the hero.
Whilst this is a necessary intervention from a child protection perspective, in cases where the influencing parent is unable to change their behaviours or understand that their behaviours are harmful, it is not a helpful approach to overall resolution of the problem over the longer term.
There are many children who are moved in body from one parent to the other but not in mind. This is a problem seen on both sides of the Atlantic via our supervision of case work and in other countries such as Israel where we are also supervising cases. Working with children who have been moved but who remain using the defence of psychological splitting, is a thorny problem which we therefore have to get to grips with. When traditional tools of reunification do not work because children simply maintain the defence, we simply have to do better than what we have been doing.
Alienation in and of children of divorce and separation is not about conflict between parents and it is not about a psychiatric problem in the child either. Alienation in and of children is a relational problem and working directly with families makes this glaringly apparent.
From a clinical perspective, where alienated children are observed over long periods of time, it is very clear that the alienated child is utilising the defence of psychological splitting which comes into play unconsciously as a response to the behaviours of a parent who has power and control over the child.
The alienated child is facing a threat of abandonment by the parent with control, either overtly or covertly and in the face of this, adapts their own sense of self and their object relationship with the other parent, in order to avoid facing the loss of the love of the controlling parent.
This is not a psychiatric response in the child and it is not always an act of conscious control by the parent either. Nevertheless it is serious and it is child abuse. It is however, also treatable using adapted therapies and structured interventions.
If parental alienation were a psychiatric problem in a child, then it would never readily disappear when the power and control over the child is properly removed. This is what happens however in many cases, when the court properly intervenes and takes the power and control away from the influencing parent.
Reunification programmes depend upon the removal of the power and control to rectify the child’s internalised relational experience of the parent they have been forced to reject. Without that, the child cannot drop the defence. What occurs in permanent residence change is that the child is given a clear message that the controlling parent is no longer the only parent they can depend upon. When the child receives this message and is protected from the influencing parent’s distorted narrative for twelve weeks, the necessary reorganisation of the child’s object relationships can be undertaken.
The problem with reunification programmes is that they do not always enable the defence in the child to drop immediately. This is usually caused by the lack of uniform intervention, where the child is aware that professionals disagree and so is unable to achieve the feeling of safety which is necessary for the defence to drop. When professionals give mixed messages, or when the intervention is not properly held by the Court, children cannot obtain the relief from the anxiety that they must continue to uphold the controlling parent’s narrative. And so the upside down object relationship cannot be rectified.
A defence mechanism is protective and splitting allows the child to keep on loving a parent who has harmed them. This will continue until the child is freed completely from the risk that the parent who has been controlling them, will gain control over them again.
For some children, the too early re-introduction of contact with the parent who has been influencing them, causes the splitting to recur or remain in place. The alignment and rejection dynamic seen in such defensive presentations in children is volatile and shifts and changes depending upon the relational dynamics around them. This is why the team around an alienated child is so important in terms of its understanding of the dynamic and what the child needs in order to be relieved of the defence that has been forced upon them.
Children are extremely vulnerable to their parent’s mental health and their behaviours. Like tiny weather vanes, children will shift their allegiance back and forth depending upon their internalised experience of being threatened with abandonment. Children experience deeply that they are so dependent upon their parents that without them they would die. This is the underlying reason why some children are so vulnerable to alienation. When those same children are reconnected to parents who can convey to them their enduring healthy love and support, the fear of abandonment recedes and the defence drops.
In new structured programmes in the family courts in the UK, interventions using adapted therapies are held firmly by the Judge. In such circumstances, children’s care arrangements are adjusted so that children spend much more time with the parent they have previously rejected until the defence is seen to drop completely. Behavioural agreements and monitoring of parental responses to these, form the contract for a new family agreement moving forward. Whilst these programmes are hugely time intensive, they produce a new outcome for alienated children which is based upon the maintenance of their relationships with both parents. When this is observed to work, the significantly positive outcomes for children are starkly apparent.
Children should not be forced to choose to lose a parent after divorce and separation and they should not have to lose one in order to regain the other either. Using relational programmes which are focused upon reconfiguring dynamics around the child to address the defence of psychological splitting and educational programmes to help those children to rebuild resilience and critical thinking skills, provide a new way of thinking and working with families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting.
What we call parental alienation is a relational problem and when relational interventions are applied, resolution is achieved.
The people who really matter in this drama are children, for whom we are all responsible and for whom we all need to do better in our understanding and resolution of the problems they face in the divorce and separation of their parents. Starting and ending our work with a focus on the experience of the child and building fluid and responsive relational interventions is how we will best help children and prevent this drama from being continued through them when they become parents themselves.
Those relational resolutions we need to resolve this problem are all there in the psychoanalytical literature. When this is understood, adapting all therapies becomes possible. When applied in partnership with the legal process to manage the underlying power and control dynamics, a model of resolution becomes readily available to all therapists willing to do this work.
Works in Progess
We are currently preparing a webinar entitled ‘working with induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation‘ which offers therapists, psychologists, social workers and others working in this field, practical understanding of how to work with the splitting defence in children and their families.
This new area of our work, which we have been studying, trialling and evaluating since 2018, forms the basis of a new clinical handbook which we are writing now.
Our intention is to provide for practitioners, the model of understanding and treatment routes that assist children in these families based upon our own extensive clinical practice at the Clinic and in partnership with senior clinicians around the world.
Alongside our therapeutic parenting handbook and online course, these will provide a comprehensive route to working with families affected by this problem for all practitioners.
This combined treatment route, utilises our co-therapy model which enables rejected parents to provide the right conditions to support their child’s recovery from alienation of the self and others.
This work is in progress and is developed from our successful clinical practice combined with the research and theory which underpins this.
We will announce the webinar shortly.
The online Therapeutic Parenting Course is nearing completion.
The handbook of Therapeutic Parenting for Alienated Children is nearing completion.
The Clinical Handbook for Working with Induced Psychological Splitting in Children of Divorce and Separation (working title) is being written now.