I continue my work with families affected by a child’s induced psychological splitting. Regular readers will recognise that I no longer use the term parental alienation very often when I am writing, this is because as a psychotherapist, working in clinical settings, the reality of what I am working with requires the correct labelling of the problem.
It requires the correct clinical label because to use the phrase parental alienation in therapy is to entrench the defence not release it. In my work with families I have not often used the label parental alienation but I have in my writing in the past. I no longer do so because I recognise that it is unhelpful in practice with families and it is unhelpful in discussions about the issue.
There is a worldwide drive at the moment to push the work done in this field back into the shadows and to project upon it the negative transference from ideologues who want everyone to believe that induced psychological splitting in a child of divorce and separation is not real.
This ideological stance, which holds that only abusive fathers claim that their child is alienated, is an organised industry, which is focused upon returning the power over children after divorce and separation, to the hands of their mothers.
Whatever we call it, alienation of a child in divorce and separation is a real thing. In assessment, all of these children show the same signs of induced psychological splitting, in which they experience the world in black and white terms. Most, if not all, show signs of identification with the aggressor, a psychological defence which enables a child who is afraid of abandonment or other such threats, to split off and deny the anxieties which come with that and project them at the parent they are rejecting. It does not matter whether those children are being influenced to do that by a mother or a father, the clinical markers are exactly the same. Leaving the claim that parental alienation is only used as a tool by abusive men, wide open to dismissal.
Mothers who are rejected by their children experience the same thing as fathers, their children behave in more or less the same ways, although the narrative is slightly different around the family. In rejection of mothers, children and their fathers will describe mothers as cold, detached, never interested in the children, mentally unstable and harmful to their children. In rejection of fathers, children and their mothers will describe fathers as dangerous, abusive, never interested in their children, narcissistic and harmful to their children. However we want to describe this to the outside world, the markers are the same and when alienation is being used as a tool by abusive parents (and it sometimes is), the reality is that the clinical markers seen in children, which all emanate from the use of defensive splitting, are simply not present.
Keeping the focus on children who suffer from defensive splitting means ensuring that their experience is articulated carefully and repeatedly. If we look away from the core of this issue for too long, the ideological belief that children’s needs are indivisible from those of their mothers takes hold again. Children’s needs are not intrinsically linked with the rights of their mothers, they are individual and sovereign and they require our separate attention. Neither are children’s needs intrinsically linked with the rights of their fathers, they are individual and sovereign and require our attention.
The reality of what happens to children who reject a parent outright after family separation, when the clinical markers of induced psychological splitting are present, is that they are suffering an alienation of the self from the self. Amy J L Baker wrote this in 2007 in her book ‘Breaking the Ties that Bind’ (page 107) and it is that one simple sentence which, in my view as a psychotherapist, working with children in recovery from alienation, sets out the whole of the problem for the child.
Induced psychological splitting in a child of divorce and separation causes alienation of the self from the self, which means that what we are working with clinically is what Winnicott (1965) called the false self. This self arises via distorted parenting practices and the projection of parental anxieties onto the child who creates a defensive split in response. This defensive split causes the child to mirror behaviours back to the parent who is causing the problem, confirming for them that their anxieties are with foundation. In reality, this is how alienation in a family begins.
In my work over the past decade, I have understood that the behaviours in children who are said to be alienated are indeed the result of this false self. This has enabled an understanding of why children who suffer it are so determined that they are not being influenced by a parent and it has helped us to develop an approach to structured interventions which does not entrench the problem but relieves it. What I have also come to understand, is that untreated, this false self in a child, continues into adulthood, which is why it is so very difficult for those who were alienated in childhood to understand what has happened to them.
The false self is the adapted self. In therapeutic work it presents as an organised self which is often well structured and capable. The false self is often a people pleasing self, keen to ensure that others are kept stable and happy. In this respect, it is easy to see that the child of divorce and separation, who aligns with the anxious parent who is wounded and angry, has learned to regulate that parent by providing them with the perfect helper in their time of need.
The false self however is a sign that the child’s right to a sovereign self has been taken from them. It is a sign that the child has been co-opted into a coalition with another or others who have imposed their beliefs upon the child. As Alice Miller told us, in her book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (1981)
Only when we acknowledge the trauma involved can we being to understand how childhood repression poisons all subsequent relationships for its victims.
The work that we are now doing at the Family Separation Clinic is focused upon the development of theory and practice with children of divorce and separation which enables all psychotherapists to work with children who are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence. Putting together the psychoanalytical evidence with the interventions which are focused upon resolving trauma is the basis of this work.
With skilled clinicians from around the world, we aim to help children of divorce and separation who suffer alienation of the self from the self, to find the help that they need to return to their true sense of self.
A right which has been repeatedly removed from too many children for too many decades because of ideologically driven focus upon the rights of parents over the needs of children.
A tragedy which has been overlooked for far too long.
Baker, A., 2007. Adult Children Of Parental Alienation Syndrome. New York, NY [u.a.]: Norton.
Miller, A., 1981. Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. London: Pluto Press.
Winnicott., 1965. The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.