Complex Relational Trauma is caused by the type of psycho-pathology which is seen in cases where children reject a parent.  But it is not seen in the child, it is seen in the backdrop to the family, in the narratives which surround the child and in the ways in which these hook together to create the double bind the alienated child is found in.

Whilst the child shows behaviours which appear confusing and responses to the parent who is being rejected which can change swiftly like the wind (more of that later), this is not a psychiatric problem which resides in the child, it is the child’s response to a trauma story which does not belong to them, but which is causing them to act out the behavioural pattern we have come to call parental alienation.

The behavioural pattern we call parental alienation is the child’s use of defensive splitting in a landscape which is controlling their behaviours, emotions and psychological stability.  There is, in essence, one clear sign that this behavioural pattern is in play and that is the child’s division of feelings about parents into wholly good and wholly bad and an accompanying disdain or contempt for the parent they deem to be wholly bad.

When children are using this defence, their unconscious aim is to resolve the double bind they are placed in, which is that they are aware that they cannot love both parents at the same time.  The reasons why they cannot love both parents at the same time may vary depending on the trauma story which is transmitting the signals to the child but the outcome is always the same. The child idealises one parent and rejects the other.

In psychoanalytic terms, the child splits their own ego, identifies with the more powerful parent, splits off and denies their positive feelings for the parent they perceive as weaker and then does everything possible to keep that split off and denied object relationship out of their own conscious mind.

In laypersons terms, the child develops a false self which is identified wholly with the parent who is causing fear of abandonment (appearing to the child as the strongest possible threat and therefore emanating from the parent with the most power).  To survive the double bind and retain the love of the threatening parent, the child rejects the other parent completely.

This is the drama of the alienated child. Pushed to the limit of their psychological safety, the child splits their own self identity in order to survive.  This is the reason why alienated children sound so brittle and rehearsed in their narratives. This is why they are so difficult to work with and why so many therapists end up simply making things worse by trying to ‘buddy up’ to an alienated child. What therapists do when they try to befriend the alienated child in this way is inflate the false self and deepen the splitting, leaving the child psychologically more harmed than they were previously.

The first thing that anyone working in this space must understand is that whilst we are looking at the drama of an alienated child on the surface, what we are really looking at is someone else’s trauma story and that someone else may not even be alive anymore.

Not all children who do not want to see a parent are alienated and that cannot be said often enough.  Alienated children show distinct clinical markers in their behaviours and the family system they are living in also show clinical markers. Families who are truly affected by this problem, by which I mean those who have been properly differentiated and identified as having the clinical markers of the problem, are a distinct group.

For the truly alienated child, the deeper layers of the problem lie in relational trauma. Uncovered, alienation of children is about violations of their interpersonal boundaries and about enmeshment into an unwell parent’s felt sense of who they are. The reality of relational trauma in divorce and separation is that the crisis of the breakdown of the family allows unresolved traumas to emerge, which are displaced into the wrong place in the generational line.  There is trauma in this story alright, but whose trauma is the question that we should be asking all of the time.

This is forensic work, it is about entering into the inter and intra-psychic world of the family affected and finding the paths through the forest which lead to ground zero.  When an unresolved trauma is emitting signals from the past, there are many ways in which the here and now can be affected. Alienation of a child in the post divorce and separation landscape is just one of them.

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 The EAPAP Conference will feature presentations on trans-generational trauma and relational trauma in divorce and separation and looks forward to welcoming Jill Salberg PhD  as our headline speaker.   This conference will be of interest to all clinicians interested in working with relational trauma in divorce and separation.



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.