Looking at the experience of alienation from the eye of the child, the myth that this is caused by high conflict is very much exposed.
Up close and personal, in day to day work with families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting, alienation is not about high conflict, it is about the inter-psychic world of the family and predominantly it is about the intra-psychic world of one parent and the dynamics this causes, which ripple outwards from the child to the concentric circles of adults involved. What underpins this is the holding of power over the child and the rejected parent.
Alienation in families, begins as a splitting defence in the child which is caused by the behaviours of one parent and the responses of the other. Before anyone messes with that statement let me make it clear that when I say ‘responses of the other‘ that does not mean that the rejected parent is to blame, they are not to blame.
What they are however, is the third part of a triangle in which alienation is always seen. This is because alienation cannot take place between two people because the mechanism is not present to cause it.
It requires three or more people to bring about a state of alienation.
1. One who has the most power
2. Two who has less power
3. Three who has the least power of all
Alienation turns that hierarchy of power on its head, promoting the one who has the least power of all to the top of the hierarchy, placing the person who has hitherto had most power in the position of upholder of that and the person who has always had least power, now has no power at all.
A straightforward child’s eye view of their experience of rejecting a parent would read something like this –
I cannot, because it is simply not possible for me to do so, contemplate trying to have a relationship with both of my parents any longer. This is because it is clear to me that my mother does not like me to feel good things about my father. When I do so she becomes upset and it is obvious to me that she cannot cope without me. I have therefore decided that I will not have a relationship with my father because it is too upsetting and far too difficult to deal with when I go home to my mother. If you try to make me have a relationship with him, I will have to make up reasons why I cannot do so. I hope you will understand and just leave me alone because everything is much better when you do so.
Most children however, cannot say this in a straightforward way, this is because of the ego splits they have had to undergo in order to remain stable in an unstable world. Most children who are alienated, are first of all alienated from their own sense of self, displaying what Winnicott called a false self. When this occurs, the projection of that false self onto the parents emerges, meaning that the child begins to describe their parents in terms of wholly good and wholly bad. Working with this problem clinically requires an understanding of the split state of mind and a capacity to recognise that this is not a he said/she said issue and that resolving perceived conflict between parents is not what will heal the child’s relationship with the rejected parent.
What will heal the child’s relationship with the rejected parent is the healing of the split state of mind in the child. This is achieved by exposure to the split off and denied and projected part of the self in the form of the rejected parent. This must be undertaken in protected space, far away from the eyes of the parent who has caused the pressure on the child to split. When the child can ‘play out’ with the rejected parent in protected space and the therapist can enable and support that without drawing attention to the incongruence in the child’s behaviours, allowing the child to compartmentalise the experience before returning to the influencing parent, the reality of the child’s splitting is observed and healing can then begin.
Healing is brought about by increasing exposure to the rejected parent rapidly and holding that protected space for the child’s healthy self to emerge. When the therapist can convey to the child the covert message that this emergence will not be flagged to the influencing parent and the influencing parent is held at bay for a period long enough, the splitting in the child begins to heal and ambivalence is seen again.
What looks like conflict from the outside is actually the rejected parent’s desperate responses to the power that the influencing parent holds over the child. The reality of alienation is that it is a defence in the child which has come into play as a normal response to a very abnormal situation. From the inside, the child is doing their very best to stay integrated but is using ego splitting as a way of defending from the internal dynamics of the family. Ego splits do not cause a child to dissociate but to adapt their behaviours and conscious and unconscious responses to parents in order to survive the unsurvivable.
The high conflict myth damages families when therapists and other practitioners fall into the habit of thinking about alienation as being about two parents fighting. It seriously damages families when practioners treat the issue as if it is about two parents fighting. When this occurs, the health of the rejected parent is harmed and the reality of the situation faced by the child is completely missed. From a child’s eye view, alienation is about having to choose to lose one parent in order to keep the other, who holds all the power and is not afraid to use it.
A child’s induced psychological splitting has many different causative factors and many different dynamics which must be assessed, drawn into the light and then worked through. Using the Court to hold the power dynamic in place, therapists can help children to drop the defence of splitting and retain relationships with both parents. The parent with power must be relieved of that first and the parent without power must be brought back into the child’s conscious and physical awareness, when this has been done, the longer term therapeutic work to adjust the interplay in the inter-psychic world of the separate family can be undertaken.
Formerly alienated children tell us of their experience of their parents and in the telling, the reality of the high conflict myth is exposed. Erin, who is in therapy afte suffering induced psychological splitting at the age of twelve tells us –
My parents didn’t argue, in fact my parents just didn’t speak at all. Neither of them said a word about each other, my mother didn’t need to, I could see and feel what she was thinking and feeling. Look, I knew all along what was happening but I was twelve years old and I wasn’t going to be able to stop it was I. I mean, what do you expect kids to do in that kind of situation? I couldn’t exactly tell my mother that she was wrong and to stop it. I was completely dependent on her and she was just so unpredictable, my father couldn’t even get through the front door so how was he supposed to help me? When the door was closed, my mother was happy, when the door opened and he was there to collect me, I could feel her falling apart, I mean really falling apart. I had no idea, each time I stepped out of that door, whether or not she would be alive when I got back. I wasn’t old enough to know about suicide back then, but I knew for sure that I wasn’t going to risk her not being there when I got back so I just said no, I said no, I am not going with you to my dad, I stood my ground and told him no. At the time I didn’t feel anything at all, even when he was really sad, I was just focused on making sure that I didn’t go so that she would be ok and there when I got back. Now. Well now I am paying for that aren’t I. I am paying for that every single day of my life. I gave up my childhood to look after my mum. Look where that got me.
A child’s eye view of alienation comes from the inter and intra-psychic world of the post separation family. It comes from the knowing of who has power over who and how that affects the child. It is a living, breathing experience and one which the child must adapt to in order to survive. It is a life. A childhood. It is a defence against the unsurvivable.
When we work from the child’s eye view we see what needs to happen to release the child from the terrible dilemma they are captured in.
Alienation is a non accidental injury to the mind and the psyche of the child. It may cause conflict but it is rarely caused by it.