Treating Relational Trauma in Children of Divorce and Separation

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.

Screenshot 2020-06-18 at 11.17.22

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)

  • Perfect sense of self
  • Arrogant
  • Believes self to be in charge
  • Dismissive
  • Lacks empathy
Defensive Part (maladapted part)

  • Angry
  • Vindictive
  • Challenging
  • Threatening
  • Abusive
  • Refuses to comply with instructions
  • Says no
  • Runs away
‘Bad’ Part (guilty and ashamed part)

  • Highly anxious
  • Hides this part of self from others
  • When this part emerges the child becomes overly solicitous of your attention
  • Manipulative part
Healthy Part (authentic part)

  • Playful
  • Creative
  • Childlike
  • Innocent
  • Unconscious
  • Accepting
  • Peaceful


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.

Screenshot 2020-05-29 at 17.20.13

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.

Book here

12 thoughts on “Treating Relational Trauma in Children of Divorce and Separation

  1. As I assess my alienate child’s severity of parental alienation this article clearly showed the underlying to the behavior, when the pressure from the alienating parent overtakes the conscious mind to fear the healthy part of their identity, reflecting a fear to face the healthier parent who is being rejected. As a rejected parent and a therapist I like the interpretation to seeing this as inner interference of the child’s understanding to a broken conscience and unconscious means of self. My child had all these issues where being omnipotent was clearly a behavior she had while in my presence. My other child’s view of self took hold later in life to eventually severing the healthy part from being a reality to which no longer is deemed necessary to fight to keep, making connectedness to the healthier parent unrealistic in meeting their needs. This theory no doubt occurs in aliented children who differ in severity because of the enviornment (cross cultural awareness), the age when pressure took them away from the healthy part of self (where alienation occurs in intact families – as in the case of my children prior to separation and divorce), and the amount of pressure placed upon them requiring resilience and maturity to defend the forces of the alienating parent. I thank you for this clarity to the cruel and inhuman treatment of children, to better help them recover from such trauma.


  2. HI Karen. Thanks for this further elucidation. In your diagram, you show the “the good self” as having a sense of omnipotence in allying with the alienating parent. However, in the text, you describe the “defensive part (false self) as also omnipotent. Do both of these parts carry that characteristic? Thanks Pam Dillon

    Pam Dillon, M.Ed., RMFT, Ed.D. (ABD), E-RYTGold
    Complex Trauma Specialist/Integrative Mental Health Clinician


    1. Hi Pam, yes both parts of the child which are conscious show the ominpotent self. The defensive part however is the keeper of the dynamic – so the ‘good’ self, which is projected onto the aligned parent is largely non active in terms of behaviours until someone – practitioner/rejected parent – triggers the defensive part by bringing into consciousness the split off parts, this triggers the defence which controls the omnipotent sense of self which of course is inflated in order to protect the child from conscious awareness of guilt, shame and those things which are indentified with the rejected parent. The grandiosity which is seen in the defensive self is narcissistic in nature which of course is the outcome of infantile splitting – the defensive self and good self blend when the defensive self is active so that there is hyper alignment to one parent who is perceived as wholly good, the child can be witnessed defending the parent and may escalate that with false allegations. This is a psychoanalytical approach to understanding alienation in children which has brought us a wealth of information about how to treat it successfully – which of course means reuniting the child with the parent they have been rejecting and using that proximity in protected space to integrate the ego splitting. Hope that helps – our new clinical handbook which is a psychoanalytical reformulation of parental alienation with evidence based treatement routes for therapists is underway now and will be published we hope, early next year. Kind Regards Karen


  3. I caught glimpses of this in my own children whilst co-parenting. Because we don’t communicate as parents it is difficult for the children not to see their lives as two alternatives, there is no sense of the wholeness of family life any more. There were rare occasions when me and my Ex were together and the kids present, like end of term visits to school to meet the teachers or a chance walk by in the village; a school outing of significance.

    If ever you wanted evidence of your children feeling forced to behave in a way that was against what you might expect then this was it in plain sight.

    Your own daughter who sat in the back seat of the car insulting and berating you along with her mother for the entire one-hour journey to the school play. Your son who you had previously been laughing and joking with you that very morning, now, escorted by his mother, refusing to wave back at you, blanking you out.

    Your children seem like different people, as if they are taking part in a weird drama playing the part of another character, one altogether aligned with or wilfully faithful to your Ex.

    Initially you are angry, stunned, perplexed but in a way it’s what you might have expected, their lives would have been made Hell if they had shown any sort of allegiance to you, they knew only too well how their mother despised you or was made to feel insecure by events beyond her control.

    You don’t want this to happen to your kids, so what do you do?

    Complain to the authorities?

    Probably not, you know that may very well exacerbate the situation; your Ex being given more reason to make out that you are the bad guy. I feel threatened is a very powerful statement in law.

    You attempt a kidnap?

    A sort of grab the kids and run like Hell leaving Interpol to search, you can run but you cannot hide.

    After some deliberation you decide the thing that would make the most difference is if your Ex were to calm down and start to build on the strengths of the new situation. This isn’t happening and she won’t talk because you are the bad guy. And this is what you feared, you examine her background, her parentage, and as if you didn’t know this before she was destined to behave the way she did. And then to be fair, perhaps retrospectively you examine your own experience of life and those of your parents and realise that your behaviours and her behaviours are instinctively governed by something that has gone before.

    So what does this mean, are you fated?

    I would say not. Just because you have a predisposition to act like a print out of your genome it doesn’t mean to say that you can’t get your head around this one. You have your own identity, you are autonomous and you can see as plain as the light of day what needs to happen.

    The fact that the kids can’t acknowledge you in your Ex’s presence is raising alarm bells, but the significance of it is that Dandlebear bridge is under threat, that’s the meaningful attachment you have with your kids at crisis point. Your strategy is to keep this open at all costs. Your kids need to feel comfortable and settled in both homes and you are going to accept everything and just deal with the kids from now on. Responses to situations will be less factual and more emotional. As stories emerge from your children these will be listened to empathetically. You will feel empathy for your Ex. You will learn to help your children emote, as if you didn’t know already, this is not an opportunity to criticise your Ex, it is a chance to explore feelings. You know why your Ex is acting maliciously and you are not going to confront her.

    If you can help stabilise your child’s feelings you will be helping your Ex calm down, it may take time.

    And years later when they are all grown up, and still one of them does something that your Ex did that really annoyed you and you go into fear mode, just remind yourself that this is okay, its part of them and you can only appreciate, accept and acknowledge and admire the work you have done enabling the children to have two different parents but at the same time never lose site of their heritage on both sides of the family.



    I was wondering if you know of any zoom meetings being set up between adults reunited with their parents post-alienation and parents who are still alienated from their children. I imagine a group of up to ten might work, perhaps with a therapist or two to reflect on themes and feelings that emerge from conversations as they develop.


  4. Does it always have to be that the child has been alienated? Can they have just made up their mind that they really don’t want to see the other parent? They may not have liked the parent that much before the divorce began and they are quite happy to bob along without that parent? Must it really be that deep?


    1. That question is often asked but the reality is that children who ‘didn’t like’ a parent before the divorce do not show splitting – they generally show ambivalence which is not mirroring of the aligned parent’s behaviours. Some are very happy to bob along as you put it, they are not alienated children though. When I talk about alienated children I am talking about those who are pathologically aligned with a parent. The idea that some kids just ‘bob along’ is lovely but a bit whimsical in real terms. There are some kids whose parent are determined they must spend time with them who at particular ages will want to do something else, there are some who are adamantly rejecting from the word go. What I am talking about when I talk about alienated children are those who show intense pathological alignment with one parent and disdainful and contemptuous rejection of the other, that is the dynamic of alienation which is the defence of psychological splitting, which causes life long impacts if it is not dealt with.


  5. Onestepbeyond and Karen

    Thank you for these two posts. I wondered and agonised over for a very long time, years and years – from when my daughter was 15 – about the very question asked by onestepbeyond, and it has always been at the back of my mind even though I knew the part my husband had been playing in it all for many years. Karen’s “What I am talking about when I talk about alienated children are those who show intense pathological alignment with one parent and disdainful and contemptuous rejection of the other, that is the dynamic of alienation which is the defence of psychological splitting, which causes life long impacts if it is not dealt with” says everything to me.

    My mother was a very difficult woman. It was impossible for her to show any affection for me or my sister. We were well fed and the house shone but she fell out with every neighbour she ever lived next door to because they were beneath her. She had no time for us and didn’t even come to my wedding. She had no objections to it or to him (oh boy if I’d known what I was sleep walking into at the age of 18 …….). She simply didn’t want to go and have to meet his family (ever). I had never felt so rejected in all my life and begged my parents to be there for me. The answer from my mother was ‘no’ and the subject was closed, no discussion was allowed. My dad always went along with whatever she wanted. They were not there on my wedding day. I wanted to cut them off and leave them in my past but my dad kept writing and I kept writing back. We went down to see them at Xmas times but I never felt the same about either of them. I didn’t completely cut them off, I made an effort to be ‘normal’ with them but deep down the scars were always there. In truth when each died it was as though I was set free of the ‘guilt’ I always felt. Guilt was the only word I could ever use to describe how I felt around them. I swore I would never be like that with my children and I wasn’t.

    My daughter is a completely different kettle of fish. She knows how much I loved her and will acknowledge that freely. She knows she had a childhood that was if anything ‘indulged’ But from 15 onwards she followed my husband’s lead and could barely tolerate me. She went from a loving girl to a girl full of distaste and then hate for me while my husband encouraged and fanned the flames. I have not seen or heard from her in six years and was not told about her wedding.

    There is a huge difference.


    1. there is a huge difference Willow and you have articulated it really well here. It is that behaviour which makes children appear that they can barely tolerate the sight or sound of you which denotes alienation – this is so very different to the passing phase of rejection seen in teenagers or the disinterest in parents that teenagers show at times. It is interesting that you speak about your parents, that rejection of you from your mother is a distinct marker of splitting in your mother. The experience in childhood which I see in rejected parents give us clear markers of why this happens – which is not to say that you caused it but is to say that what you experienced in childhood made you vulnerable to his controlling behaviours and his pathology which is ultimately what caused your daughter’s alienation. Alienation is always about three things – the controlling alienator (men) the enmeshing and sometimes controlling alienator (women), a parent with some vulnerabilities in their background and a susceptible child. It is so important that we keep this message clear and clean to let the outside world know what the problems facing families suffering this really are.


      1. Karen, I appreciate you delineating the inter-generational process at work here in what Willow shared.

        I also wanted to thank you Willow for your transparency!

        What I’m curious to hear you weigh in on though Karen is where does the motivation come from for an adult child to take up the long hard work of healing from relational trauma and changing those faulty working models? I can only imagine that any suggestion by the rejected parent would only fuel more blame and further reason for more rejection by the adult child forced to rely on the primitive defense of splitting.



      2. adults alienated as children come to the Clinic at points in their lives when they recognise something is wrong and look for evidence of what that is and seek assistance in doing so. Some come with the argument that they have ‘not been alienated’ and tell me ‘this is not parental alienation’ and of course I simply allow what they need to say to be said. Starting from there, where the harmed adult is, we unfold the timeline that brought them into therapy. Using psycho-genealogy, trans personal and transgenerational psychotherapy, trauma treatments and patience, these adults unfold the reality of their split state of mind, examining schisms and splits and exploring how that has led to their current state of mind. Sharing with these adults, at the rights times in their lives, the theories of how this may have arisen, using curiosity and again, patience, the catacombs of the minds of these adult children are explored. We never use the words parental alienation – we use the language of ego splitting and parts and we edge closer to the original trauma that caused the problem. It is a work in progress in terms of building the therapeutic theory and practice but the results are very promising. K


  6. Hello Pam/stoppingthemaddnessblog
    You are welcome to my transparency, glad it helped in some small way (I am very transparent!)
    I reckon the only way a child will find a way back is through life experience and being able to view ‘this’ in a different way. I can’t actually see how that might happen in my daughter who remains very much entwined with her dad. She has for a very long time said that she doesn’t want children (I’m 100% sure my husband helped in that view) so having her own children won’t help change anything as there won’t be any. Maybe when she looks back on her life aged 50 (isn’t that when we start to get curious about our family trees….) things might happen, by then I’ll be 80!

    My attempts to connect or reconnect with her have all failed and my husband guards his secrets (her). In the beginning when I left. I wrote a long email telling her how much I loved her, how none of it was her fault and how very much I regretted that she had been drawn in by what was going on between my husband and myself. It resulted in a hate filled email full of accusations of how badly I’d treated her dad and thrown away 46 years of marriage without a second thought. The hate practically steamed off the page and left me reeling. Having tried to connect with her every year since, everything has been ignored. I decided in the end to write a very sanitised version of my life with her dad from the moment we met to the moment I left, all the good times and the bad but not holding back on the latter years. I like to think it isn’t vindictive, just bare facts. It tells how I loved him with all my heart once and how I have always loved and been proud of her. It will be left with a solicitor to give to her after my death. In the meantime, I will live my live as best I can and hope that maybe it won’t come to that.


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