Around the world we have become used to social distancing. This practice, which took us only a short while to internalise, protects us from catching or passing on Covid 19.  Now that lockdown is starting to lift, the impact of social distancing on children’s brain development is being examined.

This is to be welcomed. Never before, in living memory, have children and young people around the world, suffered from this level of systemic separation from their peer groups.  Whilst the second world war visited separation anxiety and attachment disruption on children of the world and the wars around the world continue to visit appalling trauma upon children,  Covid 19 brings a unique challenge to children. The complete severance of contact with the outside world is bound to have an impact on the developing brain because relationships build the brain. Devoid of contact with peers, the loss of relational space within which to do the work of developing neural pathways and pruning synapses, will inevitably impact upon a young person’s sense of self.

Whilst we are now entering the age of the social bubble, a way of gradually becoming exposed to more normal life, the impact of social distancing and especially of lockdown will be seen in children not in the here and now, but further down the line.  Whilst trauma causes responses in the brain which in turn create the need for defenses, behavioural impacts are seen not in the here and now but later, during developmental stages, which become challenging for children. This is where trauma shows.

The impact on children of the Covid 19 age will be important to understand because it will show us what happens when a child is suddenly removed from the relational world previously inhabited. Some parallels with divorce and separation are obvious here and I will be interested to see how the neuroscientists lead us to a greater understanding of disruption of attachments in relational space.

Divorce and separation interrupts a child’s felt sense of the world as well as the child’s external relational space. No longer able to communicate with mum and dad within the same day (as is possible when parents live together), a child must learn to navigate the world as if they are living in two emotional and psychological as well as physical bubbles.

Moving between those two bubbles, each of which has its own atmosphere, expectations, beliefs and spoken and unspoken views of the world outside, the child must navigate the significant task of managing their own attachment relationship with each parent as they make the crossing.  If one of those bubbles is hostile to the other, the entry into the atmosphere of that bubble will require a child to adapt their feelings, behaviours and create a ‘silo’ within the mind in which to keep their authentic feelings safe.  This is called compartmentalisation, a process of putting something into a mental bubble, on a shelf in the mind, where it can be forgotten until it is necessary to retrieve it.

Compartmentalisation is like a bubble in the mind which is used by children to cope with the atmosphere within the bubbles they reside in.  It is my view that compartmentalisation is a precursor to self alienation, in which ego splitting occurs and the child develops what Winnicott called thefalse self.  When self alienation has occurred, usually when the child is confronted with the impossible dilemma of being able to live within the bubble of a hostile parent and love the other at the same time, the projection of this split upon the parents begins.  This is what is seen in parental alienation.  This is what causes the child to align with the atmosphere of one bubble and refuse to have any contact with the rejected parent’s bubble.

It seems to me therefore, that what we are seeing in the research around children of the Covid 19 age, is that the same risks to brain development are likely to be present in children who have already been socially isolated via the compartmentalisation and alienation process in divorce and separation.  The same sudden attachment disruption, the same withdrawal from a whole part of hitherto lived life and the same parental and societal support for this process.

In my work with adults who rejected a parent in childhood after divorce and separation, it is apparent that the process of splitting continues as an impact, even after reconnection with parent has occurred.   With the evidence of how attachment disruption and changed relational space impacts upon the pruning of neural pathways and synapses, it is entirely possible to think about how lack of intervention in cases of alienation of children, leaves them with life long challenges to overcome.

Now that we are all impacted by having to compartmentalise our lives, perhaps the time has arrived when the impact of the drastic changes that divorce and separation inflict upon the life chances of children, will be better understood.


To understand the impact of splitting on children of divorce and separation and to hear the most up to date thinking in treatment routes for children affected by alienation, the EAPAP Online Conference is open for registration here.

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