Love our children
The evolution of culture is ultimately determined by the amount of love, understanding and freedom experienced by its children, because only love produces the self integration and individuation needed for cultural innovation. Every abandonment, every betrayal, every hateful act towards children returns tenfold a few decades later upon the historical stage.
Lloyd de Mause
Somewhere in the midst of the current campaign narratives on parental alienation, is the reality of what is happening to children who are induced to use the defence of psychological splitting.
Children of divorce do not have a separate advocacy service from those which speak for their parents. Their needs have been wrapped up in the he said/she said fight for so long that we have become used to thinking about their experience in terms of how it affects their parents.
It is the child who carries the biggest impact of the dynamics which cause alienation. Whilst the rejected parent suffers immensely, the child’s right to an unconscious experience of childhood is taken from them completely and the impact lasts a lifetime.
The impact on the rejected parent is rejection, which leads to a defensive splitting in itself. For the parent however, the capacity to reflect, understand and recover from splitting is possible, for the child, growing up with splitting, the recovery process is far more complex.
Children are incredibly vulnerable in divorce and separation, that is quite simply a fact. We may not like to hear about that fact but it is reality. When children experience their parent’s separation, it causes them to have to adjust their understanding of the world both inside and out. Many parents recognise this and work hard to protect their children from the worst of the impact. Some struggle but do their best and do a good enough job. Some are simply unable to do anything at all because they are faced with decompensation and destruction.
If the voice of the child is the determining factor in what happens in care arrangements in the midst of a situation where a parent is decompensated, then the child is going to be the battle ground through which allegiance and rejection dynamics are achieved.
The voice of the child in situations where a parent is decompensated, is a mirror of the parental distress and the child becomes a conduit for the underlying psychological difficulties of their parent.
When the child is using the defence of splitting (and all cases of a child’s rejection are differentiated for splitting behaviours), the essential task is to compare the child’s narrative to that of each parent. A child who is being influenced into an alignment with a parent’s beliefs and views of the other parent, will echo the words and phrases and mirror that parent’s beliefs. Sometimes this is a subtle mirroring but often it is starkly apparent that the child is not speaking about their own feelings but those which are understood by the child to be the right thing to say and feel.
I tell this story in our training to demonstrate what is seen in children who are using splitting as a defence in situations where they fear a parent’s decompensation.
Three children aged 11 and 9 and 7, were assessed after rejecting their mother for twelve months. During the assessment the children drew pictures of themselves and their father and stepmother who had joined the family two years previously, as well as pictures of their mother.
The eldest two children then coloured in the pictures to show how much love they felt for their father and mother. They coloured their father in completely, telling me as they did so that they loved him ‘to the moon and back’. They refused to colour their mother in at all but determinedly and somewhat showily, coloured in their stepmother fully too, as if to make a point.
I asked them to show me where the love for their mother had gone, why was there no love there for their mother? The middle child coloured in the feet on his drawing of himself. I expressed curiosity. What was his love for his mother doing in his feet?
He told me, ‘I have to keep my love for my mum in my feet so that I can put my shoes on and my dad won’t see it. That way, if I have to go and see her, I can pretend I don’t want to because I don’t love her.
This little boy, aged only 9, had learned how to manage his feelings so that they did not show. He had utilised the defence of psychological splitting but managed, somehow, to hang on to his love for his mother and keep it where it could not be seen by anyone. That way, he could conform to the expected narrative in the family home. The exaggeration of his professed love for his father and step mother was the over inflation of the defended self, brought into being unconsciously to protect him from the fear he felt of displeasing his father. He had however, found a way to protect his love for his mother and keep it in his conscious mind whereas most children have to split off and deny those feelings to themselves as well as to other.
At the Clinic and within EAPAP, we think of alienation as non accidental psychological and emotional injury to the mind of a child, caused by boundary violations which involve the child in the breakdown of the adult relationship and featuring coercive control dynamics along with enmeshment and triangulation.
We further differentiate between the ways that fathers alienate their children from the way that mothers alienate their children. Fathers are more likely to alienate using coercive control in the manner we are used to being told about and mothers are more likely to enmesh their children in their own feelings about the other parent. Both fathers and mothers who alienate their children, are likely to be experiencing transmission of unresolved inter-generation relational trauma.
The problem for these children, whose parents suffer decompensation in the post divorce and separation landscape, is that there is no real understanding of what is happening to them.
Which is why advocating for children is so important and why understanding that the voice of the child in cases of complete rejection, is a sign that something is wrong in the alignment relationship between child and parent, not in the relationship the child is rejecting.
A simple reality is that children who use psychological splitting as a defence, are suffering from alienation from their own sovereign self first, alienation from their own feelings and emotions as well as their unconscious right to childhood. The second alienation is from a normal and healthy relationship to each of their parents. In its place they have a formed a pathological alignment with a parent who is causing them to feel fear either intra-psychically (meaning in their internal world) or externally, via threats and coercion.
In this situation, the rejection of a parent is a by-product of the anxiety and fear the child feels. The reason that children are most susceptible to this between the ages of 8 and 14 is likely to be the over dependency on the fear regulating part of the brain (which is called the amygdala,) during this developmental stage.
The argument that children reject parents outright after divorce because that parent has been abusive is contradicted by the evidence from attachment studies which demonstrate that a child will continue to love a parent who is abusive because of a biological imperative which is hard wired into the brain. In reality, working with children who have been abused by a parent, demonstrates the way in which children have to be protected from that parent because they continue to love them and want to be with them.
In such circumstances, whilst children will show anticipatory dread ahead of seeing a parent, they will also show happiness in being with them and want more time with that parent. This is in stark contrast to the child who is using defensive splitting to cope with the leakage of feelings or deliberate influence from a parent, where splitting is observed as a defence and the narrative is of one parent being wholly good and the other being wholly bad. These children show nothing other than an over inflated and exaggerated alignment to one parent and a cold, disdainful and contemptuous rejection of the other.
What we are seeing in such circumstances, is a child who is forced into using a defence to cope with intolerable pressure. A child who is hyper aligned with one parent’s views and rejecting the other parent, is regulating the decompensation in a parent which has terrified and terrorised them. They are parenting their parent, in order to keep themselves safe, an attachment disruption which is harmful to their long term wellbeing.
Remember, children who are abused by a parent will often want to be with that parent, they are biologically hard wired to love their parents even if their parents are abusive. Which is why, when children feel threatened by a parent’s decompensation, they do not reject them but become hyper attached to them. It is the abusing parent to whom the child becomes pathologically aligned, not the rejected parent.
Far from alienated children being handed to abusive parents in the family courts, what we are really seeing is that children who have suffered non accidental injury to their minds are being removed from the parent who has caused this particular type of abuse. The family courts increasingly recognise it and do not require it to be labelled parental alienation, nor do they require the problem to become entrenched before action. The recognition that hyper alignment and rejection is a problem that must be dealt with quickly is established in case law in the UK.
In the shadow of this, whilst I no longer carry out residence transfers as others are doing the work now, (meaning that I can concentrate on research and therapeutic work with adults alienated as children), the necessity for that intervention is clear. If a child was being physically harmed would we consider removal from the abusive parent harmful? No we would not, we would support that happening even if the child protests love for that parent. We would support that because we are supporting the child’s wellbeing. When non accidental injury to the mind of a child is in play, removing them from the parent causing it is no less important to protect the child’s right to wellbeing.
Remember the boy whose love for his mother was hidden in his feet? He loved his mother and wanted to be with her but was not allowed to show that or experience it freely. His love for his father was exaggerated and inflated, it was a defence which hid the harm that his father was doing to him.
The same goes for children whose mothers cause hyper alignment, the child is afraid of their mother’s decompensation, not an abusive father.
This is the reality for children who suffer induced psychological splitting. An abuse of children which is increasingly visible to the outside world.
The voices of children have been drowned out by the adults clamouring for control of the divorce and separation landscape for a very long time.
Increasingly, we can hear them.