The concept of relational trauma in children of divorce and separation offers a new window into understanding what is happening to children who reject a parent after family separation.
Having worked with many children and families in which this phenomenon occurs over the past fifteen years, I am increasingly of the view that what we are seeing when we work with alienated children, is relational trauma.
Relational trauma is caused in the relationship with caregivers in which the child’s sense of self is violated either by harmful parenting practices which are overt such as neglect, sexual or physical abuse or by exposing the child to abuse of others in the home, or by covert parenting practices such as enmeshment, abandonment threat, boundary violations. All of these practices cause children to become alienated from their sovereign self and cause them to develop a false self.
Parental alienation has been defined by some as a mental condition in a child, a point of view I disagree with. It is also conceptualised as being about high conflict, another view I disagree with. In my experience, as a clinician working successfully with families both inside and outside of the family courts, it is increasingly clear to me that what we are working with is relational trauma in children of divorce and separation.
If alienation in a child were a mental condition in the child, we would not see it disappear when the dynamics around the child are reconfigured. If it were about high conflict, then all children in high conflict families would become alienated. This is not, in my clinical experience, what we see in our work in this field. What we see are behaviours in a parent which are distinct and which can be linked back to the clinical literature (enmeshment, boundary violation, triangulation etc) and a child who is suffering from the identification with the aggressor dynamic. When this combination of factors is triggered in a family which has separated, the only recourse that the bystander (rejected parent) has, is the family court.
This is not to say that these children are not alienated, they are, very much so. Alienation is a good word to use in describing these children because they are alienated from their own sense of self first and then from a normal way of relating to their caregivers. What these children are suffering from however, is a complex relational trauma which is caused by the inability of one of their parents (rarely both but this does occur), to provide the parenting which enables them to live their own sovereign lives.
For many years now the approach to resolving these cases has been based upon the removal of the child from the relationship with the parent who has caused the identification with the aggressor dynamic in the child. This, largely North American based approach, relies upon proving a case of parental alienation in court. In the UK, where case law is establishing the need to act before alienation is entrenched, it appears increasingly possible that understanding of what is happening in families where a child is experiencing relational trauma, can lead to the development of more nuanced treatments.
I am currently working outside of the court arena with adult children who were alienated as children. This work, more than anything else, has shown me that relational trauma in adult children of divorce and separation is readily recognised and treated using existing therapies, especially those which are rooted in repair of ego splitting.
Translating this work with adults who were alienated as children into direct work with children who are experiencing alienation in the here and now, it is clear to me that utilising an understanding of relational trauma in combination with therapies which address this problem, brings about significant change. When this work is held in the framework of the Court, with the judge acting as super parent to the family, great strides towards rebalancing the power dynamics and easing the pressure upon the child can be made. When this is observed, release from the defence of splitting occurs and the child is freed to relate more normally to the self and to others.
As a psychotherapist I am always working with the relational changes which occur in families during intervention. As someone who has undertaken many residence transfers with many children over the past twelve years, I see that whilst this is absolutely necessary in some cases, (where encapsulated delusional disorder is seen for example, something that was being written about when I first came into this field), it must be undertaken in a particular way if the underlying problem of psychological splitting is to be treated.
Residence transfers undertaken without accompanying therapeutic work, can result in the child’s continued rejection due to the ongoing problem of splitting, whilst residence transfers undertaken without the correct external framework in place, will not provide the conditions in which therapeutic work can succeed. Thus the combination of correctly held framework and therapeutic intervention is the key to successful treatment where residence transfer is undertaken.
Residence transfers continue to be used in the UK in cases where a parent cannot recognise that they are causing harm to their child. No longer seen as the last resort, transferring the care of a child suffering from relational trauma into the care of a parent who can provide a healthy environment, is often undertaken by social workers in public law proceedings as well as independent practitioners in private law.
I no longer carry out residence transfers as my core focus is upon the treatment of splitting in children of all ages as well as bringing more practitioners into this field. What I am concerned about most in my work these days, is how children who suffer from relational trauma have been had their needs for help ignored in favour of a focus and enmeshment into narratives about parental rights.
In my view the concept of parental alienation itself has been part of this problem, with relational trauma in children of divorce and separation being subsumed into a meta narrative about parental behaviours. This has created a handy diversion from the reality of what is happening to children in divorce and separation as it creates the illusion of a he said/she said fight at a meta level. When the problem is conceptualised as being caused by high conflict, the meta narrative about parental behaviours is further fed, which distances us again, from understanding the reality of what is happening to children.
Pulling apart the threads of the arguments being seen in the campaign space around the issue, that reality can be more readily seen. Caught in the relationship breakdown, some children of divorce and separation are suffering severe symptoms of relational trauma, which appears as a hyper alignment and strong rejection dynamic in the post separation landscape.
Treating these families successfully brings a much clearer focus on what is really going on in these families. It also assists in differentiating what is required for successful treatment. The two core foundational elements are, in my experience, a clear judicial framework to deal with the power imbalance between parents and practitioner teams with a heightened understanding of relational trauma in children.
Treatment frameworks which skill rejected parents in understanding relational trauma are essential and protective spaces in which the treatment can take place in a structured way are necessary.
Children who are hyper aligned and rejecting of parents require particular approaches to treatment which begin with the reconfiguration of the dynamics around them in order that the alienation of the child’s self from the self is addressed. When this split is integrated, the projection of the split self onto the parents is resolved. To achieve this, the rejected parent must be highly aware of the dynamic causing the problem and must shift their responses as required by the therapist and the aligned parent must be constrained in their behaviours.
Protect the child first, constrain the influencing parent and then deliver treatment are the three steps to successful intervention. In my experience, the capacity of the aligned parent to understand the way in which their behaviours and beliefs are influencing their child, is part of the triage process in assessment. If the parent can understand and can change their behaviours, treatment in situ is possible, if they cannot then further psychological evaluation may be necessary to determine whether understanding is possible. If it is not, then just like treatment for physical non accidental injury, interventions require removal of the child from the abusing parent.
Protecting children suffering from relational trauma in divorce and separation starts by building understanding amongst therapists and other practitioners about the problem they are seeing and the treatment routes which produce successful outcomes.
What we call this problem legally doesn’t really matter because it exists and is recognised. In the UK it is increasingly being addressed legally. What we call it in treatment however does matter because a) the label parental alienation gets in the way of therapeutic work and b) the label provides a continued battle ground for the dynamics to persist.
No longer seen as a North American issue, around the world, clinicians are coming together to find new ways of understanding and treating this problem. And when the combination of the key elements in resolution interlock, the outcomes for children suffering relational trauma in divorce and separation, look increasingly bright.
Parental Separation, Alienation and Splitting: Healing Beyond Reunification
This is an online conference, all practitioners working with children and families are welcome to attend. We welcome those who work in the field as well as those with an interest in the subjects covered. Whilst this is a practitioner conference, those with an interest in the subject are also welcome. Booking details here
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Special guest speaker
Jill Salberg, PhD
‘When trauma revisits a person transgenerationally through dysregulated and disrupted attachment patterns, it is within the child’s empathic attunement and search for a parental bond that the mode of transmission can be found.’
Salberg, J, (2015). The texture of traumatic attachment: Presence and ghostly absence in transgenerational transmission. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly. 84(1), 21-46.
Parental alienation is typically described as a child’s rejection of a parent. However, whilst the problem appears to be the child’s rejection of one of their parents, in reality, the rejection is not the cause of the problem but is, rather, a symptom of the child’s pathological alignment to the other parent. Similarly, many papers on the subject refer to the alienating ‘strategies’ of aligned parents.
Whilst it is true that some cases are driven by the deliberate and conscious actions of a one parent seeking to remove the other, many more feature dysfunction in the inter-psychic relationship between the aligned parent and the child. Such cases feature high levels of psychopathology and maladaptive defences which are often rooted in the transgenerational transmission of unresolved trauma of the aligned parent.
We are, therefore, delighted to able to welcome Jill Salberg, PhD, as our special guest speaker at the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioner’s 2020 online conference hosted by the Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb (Poliklinika za zaštitu djece i mladih Grada Zagreba). Dr Salberg is a world leading expert in transgenerational trauma and the effect that it has on children’s relational self.
Dr Salberg argues that children of parents who have unresolved trauma inherit altered biochemistry that can leave them more vulnerable to registering fearful and anxious situations and to being more fearful and anxious themselves. She writes that the legacy of transgenerational transmission of traumatic forms of attachment is an alteration in both the biology and the attachment systems and suggests that, whilst some of these parents will be able to transmit safety and provide for consistent attachment, others will transmit a confusing mix of messages of fearfulness and safety.
For clinicians working with post divorce splitting in children, the patterns and disruptions of attachment are of vital importance as what often appears, on the surface, to be warm and attentive parenting can be charged with the projection of unresolved trauma, enmeshment and the child’s unconscious, existential terror of abandonment. This area of research is one that is opening up new ways of understanding children’s experiences and new approaches to treatment. The work of Dr Salberg is, therefore, something that will be of great interest to anyone working in this field.
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Jill Salberg, PhD, ABPP is a clinical adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology, faculty member and clinical consultant/supervisor at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, faculty and a supervisor at the Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies and the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. She has written on reformulating concepts of termination, trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma, gender, Freud, and the intersection of psychoanalysis and Jewish studies.
Her papers have been published in Psychoanalytic Dialogues, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Studies in Gender and Sexuality and American Imago and she has chapters in Relational Traditions, Vol. 5; The Jewish World of Sigmund Freud; and Answering a Question with a Question. She is a contributor to and the editor of the book Good Enough Endings: Breaks, Interruptions and Terminations from Contemporary Relational Perspectives (Routledge, 2010). She has co-edited two books with Sue Grand, The Wounds of History: Repair and Resilience in the Trans-generational Transmission of Trauma and Trans-generational Trauma and Dialogues Across History and Difference (Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group 2017). She has conceived of and co-edits a new book series Psyche and Soul: Psychoanalysis, Spirituality and Religion in Dialogue (Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group). She has co-edited two books with Sue Grand, The Wounds of History: Repair and Resilience in the Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma and Haunted Dialogues: Conversing Across History and Difference (Routledge, 2016). She is in private practice in Manhattan.