Relational trauma in divorce and separation is seen when children carry the consequences of their parents behaviours. Alienation in a child is caused by a process of events, behaviours in parents, the environment in which they occur and the child’s own resilience or lack of it. Breaking down an understanding of the issue so that psychotherapists can fully understand and work with it, is the goal of EAPAP. The online conference in September will examine the component parts of a psychoanalytical model of understanding of the problem along with its treatment.
What do we mean by Induced Psychological Splitting?
Alienation means many things, and researchers conceptualise it differently. Whilst some focus on the behaviours of one parent towards the other, others look at the behaviours of both parents. Some focus on personality disorder and encapsulated delusions, others treat the problem as a systemic issue.
At the Family Separation Clinic, we treat alienation as a defence which is seen in the child, which is caused by the environment the child is living in. We consider alienation to be an alienation of the self from the self and we see this in the child and in both of their parents. The alienating parent is already suffering from psychological splitting and the rejected parent is forced into the use of this defence in order to cope with what is happening.
We consider that induced psychological splitting means that a child’s right to an unfolding sense of self which is sovereign and unique to them, has been colonised by the influencing parent so that their needs are met at the expense of the child’s. Which means that a child who has been alienated has particular needs becausetheir own needs have not been properly met and because they have become used to meeting other people’s needs before their own.
This is a non accidental injury to the mind of the child which is caused either consciously or unconsciously but either way it is harmful to the child.
The defence mechanism of psychological splitting(Alienation)
To have a whole sense of self a child draws upon relationships from each side of its family, experiencing those as internalised ‘objects’ which they relate to in their imaginary world as well as in the outside world. We might call this our internal world and the figures which populate it are the important people from our childhood.
As the child grows into a teenager, the external and internal family relationships are replaced by external role models which offer the growing adolescent a guide to whom they may become. Sports figures and pop-stars are perfect examples of role models which replace parents in the transition to adulthood.
In ordinary circumstances, the child’s internalised sense of their mother and father is that they are one whole experience and that there is no separate mom and dad but more a joined up mom/dad experience which is, in the felt sense1the combination of the two external relational experiences internalised as one.
A child whose parents separate, has particular challenges to overcome, not least the fact that the internalised sense of mom/dad are now entirely separate in the outside world. Add into that mix new adults in the lives of each parent and things become more complex. Now the child has to work out how to relate psychologically and emotionally to these two very different external experiences whilst on the inside they have to cope with the way that the world feels fragmented and split. Add to that one parent demanding attention and allegiance or being upset and distressed and requiring the child’s care and the capacity to maintain an integrated sense of self begins to disappear.
The defence mechanism of psychological splitting appears in a child who is pressured in the internal and outside world and who can no longer hold different realities in mind. When mom and dad are two separate external experiences and the internal world is fractured, the child is vulnerable. If either mom or dad then begins a process of pressurising the child into alignment, by subtle means or otherwise, the child’s capacity to maintain an integrated sense of self is diminished.
A defence arises to protect the child from overwhelming sensations in the internal world. Think of it as a dam which is placed in the way of emotions which overcome the child’s capacity to sort out their own feelings. The defence of splitting, is an infantile defence which causes the child to regress in their emotional and psychological capacity, this is why it is harmful to the child to cause it.
Splitting is caused by overwhelming pressure which leads to the child creating a defence from which a false persona or self arises. This false self is the alienated self, the outcome of the pressure put upon the child. It is why the child who is alienated appears to be so radically different to the real child that you know. The alienated child has a false persona which has arisen via the onset of the defence of splitting. This false self is wholly aligned to the parent who has caused the splitting to occur. The child’s real or healthy self, the part of the child which loves all of their family members unconsciously, is hidden away in the unconscious world of the child, out of their sight and mind.
Understanding how your child became alienated
It is critical for all rejected parents that they understand how their child became alienated in the first place, which means understanding the point at which the defence of splitting arose in your child.
Your child may have utilised the defence of psychological splitting because of a convergence of dynamics or, they may have been subjected to simple but powerful messages designed to alienate. However the defence arose, the reality for your child is that the life they lived as an alienated child feels authentic to them even though it isn’t.
Some children who suffer alienation are more vulnerable than others and some appear completely confused and afraid of the parent they have rejected. Other alienated children have a more permeable defence which allows them to be aware of two things at once even though they are acting from the defensive part of the self.
However your child is affected by psychological splitting, it is important to get as close as possible to understanding how they experience the world.
Understanding Splitting and Parts
When we talk about splitting and parts of the child we are not talking about dissociative disorder or DIDS. This is a form of splitting which is severe and which is suffered by people with histories of sexual or physical abuse. This form of splitting creates separate personalities some or all of which are not aware of the others.
When we talk about parts of the self we mean that the child has used a defence mechanism which has divided the child’s own internalised sense of self into distinct parts. Sometimes the child will be aware of those different parts of the self, sometimes not. At times a child may sense that there are other feelings that they might have about the self or other people, which are being held out of their conscious mind, at other times there is no access to that awareness.
The form of splitting and parts of the child we are talking about in parental alienation is a defence which is utilised by children and it is one which is recognisable by the way that the child presents.
Copyright: Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall 2020 – Not to be reproduced on any platform without reference to the authors.
To help you understand what we mean by this the above diagram shows the four key parts of the self that induced psychological splitting causes in an alienated child.
The ‘Good’ Part Projected Onto the Alienating Parent
This is the part of the self which the alienated child is most conscious of and which in their own felt sense of themselves, is real. This is the part which identifies with the parent who has caused the child to align and reject.
The Defensive Part (False Self)
This is the part which Winnicott called the false self. The sense of omnipotence which arises in this part is a defensive protection which keeps the other parts of the self in the unconscious and which supports the ‘good’ part of the self to remain in place.
The ‘Bad’ Part of the self which is projected onto the rejected parent
The ‘bad’ part of the self is the part which is identified with the rejected parent, it is now transformed into all aspects of the self which would, if conscious in the child, be recognised as coming from the rejected parent. This ‘bad’ part also contains the regulating feelings of guilt and shame which would ordinarily, if the child had access to them, prevent rejection of a loved parent from occurring. In a process called identification with the aggressor however the child creates a defence in which the parent who is causing pressure is replaced in their mind with the rejected parent. The belief is then that what is being done by the alienating parent is actually being done by the rejected parent. All of this is placed into the unconscious mind and the rejected parent is now demonised. If the rejected parent comes close to the child, or if someone attempts to bring the rejected parent close, the defensive part of the child kicks into operation and the omnipotent self takes over to prevent the unconscious becoming conscious. This is when things like false allegations occur, when the child is defending against the reality of what lies behind the defence mechanism.
The healthy part which is in the unconscious
The healthy part of the child which is the child’s own sovereign self which is stultified by the defence process in play, is placed into the unconscious mind as part of this process. This is why alienated children become robotic in their behaviours and sound rehearsed. They are operating from a false self not their own healthy self.
Behaviours seen in different parts
|‘Good’ Part (omnipotent part)
||Defensive Part (maladapted part)
|‘Bad’ Part (guilty and ashamed part)
||Healthy Part (authentic part)
The real child that you remember is the healthy part. This is the child who when they are not pressured becomes unconscious and integrated. This is the part of your child from which the defence arises, it is the healthy part which needed defending because to not defend the self, against the impossible pressures caused by a parent upon whom a child is utterly dependent, would be to cause the ego to fragment which would mean the child’s sense of self would be completely broken. Alienation from the healthy self, which is caused by this defensive splitting, provides the child with the opportunity to maintain an integrated sense of self which does not fragment into dissociative splitting.
If we consider the above table it is possible to see how children who suffer from induced psychological splitting can move between the internalised parts and how the defence of splitting creates those parts in the first place.
Alienated children will show the internalised parts at times by moving between healthy acceptance and defensive rejection when the alienating parent appears. Alienated children can also demonstrate the knowing and not knowing behaviours in which they can hold two contradictory beliefs at once and not see that others do not do the same.
Healing Beyond Splitting – A New Approach to Understanding and Working With Parental Alienation.
Whilst much is written around the world on understanding parental alienation and many arguments continue about its existence, there is little information about how to treat the problem using psychotherapeutic means. There is also little in the way of evidence of successful treatment routes.
The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners is developing treatment routes and monitoring and evaluating their efficacy. The online conference in September 2020 will showcase the latest thinking in psychotherapeutic work in treatment of relational trauma in children of divorce and separation. Open to all practitioners with an interest in this field, this conference brings together key clinicians in the field and opens up a new field of research and clinical practice which will drive forward thinking and treatment with families affected by parental alienation.
Over four hundred registrants have already booked a place, this online conference has capacity for more but book early as places will be limited close to the time.