Yesterday I ran our Zoom Seminar entitled Understanding the Alienated Child, which was attended by people from seven countries around the world. Eighty percent of the attendees were women.
Working through a two hour programme (which ran over to two and a half hours because as usual there is so much to say), we looked at a reconfiguration of parental alienation which moves away from the good/bad split inherent in the narratives around this issue and towards the reality of this issue as relational trauma in divorce and separation.
The issue of alienation of a child is, in my experience, ridden with splitting because it is a problem which arises from hidden psychological instability in families. Whilst on each side of the issue campaigners try to characterise the problem as being the fault of someone else, the reality is that alienation of a child is a problem which arises in families where splitting behaviours are already in play.
If this were not the case then every divorce and separation would result in a child being alienated and that simply doesn’t happen. When alienation arises, there is usually a parent who is displaying splitting behaviours and another who is being forced to react to those. In the middle is a child who is triangulated into the relationship breakdown.
Alienation in a child is alienation from the self first, the development of what Winnicott called the False Persona. This original split, which is projected outwards onto the parents, is a good child/bad child split in which the identification with the parent who is putting most pressure on the child and who is perceived to have the most power, causes the child to split off and deny, those aspects of self which they perceive to be like the parent who is to be rejected. These parts are pushed into the unconscious and then as part of the denial process, are projected at that parent. This original split in the child is a serious problem if it is not resolved and leads to later life experiences which are all focused upon the problems caused by the lack of an integrated healthy self.
This is not an easy defence mechanism to work with because on the outside the child professes immense love for the parent to whom they have become hyper aligned. The reconfiguration of understanding of alienation however, helps to unlock the conundrum and illuminates the problem so that it can be understood. The question is not, why is this child rejecting this parent but why is this child hyper aligned?
Hyper alignment or hyper attachment is triggered by threat of abandonment and/or the identification with the aggressor dynamic. Whilst much is said in the campaign world about the issue of alienation being gender neutral (which is used to mean it happens to mothers and fathers), in fact alienation in clinical practice is very much seen to be gendered (which means that mothers and fathers cause alienation of a child differently).
Fathers are seen to alienate their children using overt control strategies of threat towards the children’s mother and a campaign of denigration of her capacity to care for children. Fathers will often partner with their own mother to parent their children in these circumstances which in itself is a disruption of the family hierarchy.
Mothers are seen to alienated their children using covert strategies which enmesh their children into their psychological and emotional experience, often displaying inter-psychic relationships with their children which have no boundaries. This is often the result of trauma in the mother which belongs not to the relationship in the here and now but in the past, in childhood. Differentiating between trauma caused by relationship breakdown and risks from a parent in the here and now and that which is emanating from the past, is part of the assessment process.
The current effort to portray alienation of a child as being something which is used to give children to abusive fathers is contradicted by the number of cases of mothers who are alienated from their children. Over the past ten years, I have worked with just as many alienated mothers who received their children in residence transfer as I have fathers and yesterday’s Zoom Seminar proved again that this is an issue which affects mothers and fathers.
Unpacking the experience of alienation of a child by a father against a mother demonstrates clearly that whilst the behaviours in alienating parents are gendered, (fathers and mothers behave differently), the impact on the child is exactly the same. A child who is alienated from the self will produce a false persona and will hyper align with one parent and reject the other. In situations where a child is rejecting because of something a parent has actually done, will show an ambivalent rejection and will not display the signs of contempt and disdain that are seen when induced psychological splitting causes alienation.
This landscape is ridden with splitting. In the concentric circles around alienated children are people who receive the negative projections which emanate from those who use psychological splitting as a defence. From the rejected parent to the unaware professional to the angry armchair psychologist to the vociferous and often viperous campaigners, splitting cuts like a knife to divide people into powerful, sometimes delusional beliefs that they are on the side of the just and the righteous and the rest are demons in disguise. When we see that dynamic, when anyone is busy dividing the world into absolute good and absolute bad, splitting is in play and balanced outcomes will not be found.
Which is why, working with parents and practitioners in safe spaces is so important. Away from the he said/she said, the naysayers and those who metaphorically adorn sandwich boards proclaiming they are the holders of the truth, much work is being done in education, training and support of practitioners and parents who want to work with an integrated model which helps families affected by relational trauma after divorce and separation.
Just as alienated children need protected space from splitting behaviours in order to restore an integrated state of mind, work with practitioners and parents also takes place in calm, protected space.
I enjoyed working with so many people from around the world yesterday, it was two and a half hours well spent with people who were interested in finding new routes to resolution for this pernicious and painful problem in families. We will do more seminars as the year progresses, alongside developing tools to assist parents and practitioners who work with them to work in a new, holistic approach to healing relational trauma in divorce and separation.
Understanding the Alienated Child – A Zoom Seminar
The recording from yesterday’s seminar will shortly be available for download from the Family Separation Clinic Website. If you attended yesterday you will receive a link to this recording as soon as it is available. Anyone who paid but was unable to attend or who was locked out of the session after leaving temporarily, we will also receive the recording.
News from the Family Separation Clinic
Instructing the Clinic
The Clinic will close for vacation in August and re-open on September 7th. Our coaching, part 25 and consultancy services will be available for instruction from September 7th but please be aware that I am fully booked to January 2021 and cannot take new instructions until then.
I am currently supervising cases in the USA, Republic of Ireland, Israel, Sweden and Hong Kong as well as the UK. Enquiries about supervision of cases should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
Training to Family Mediation Association
I have been delivering online training via Zoom to the Family Mediation Association throughout this year. This training will hopefully resume face to face in the Autumn.
The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners Conference – September 2020
Building the Path Back Home – A Workshop For Parents
A workshop for parents will be held as part of the EAPAP Conference 2020. Focused on healthy strategies for recovering alienated children, this workshop will be run by Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall and will be based upon the work which is done at the Family Separation Clinic where treatment of children suffering from induced psychological splitting is the core focus.
Based upon the successful services of the Clinic, which are delivered using a psychoanalytic model of understanding and trauma informed interventions, this workshop is for all rejected parents who want to build a healthy future for their children.