Reactive splitting in Rejected parents: the hidden cost of living with negative projection

In recent articles I have been talking about splitting, a defence mechanism which is used by the alienated child to cope with the intolerable situation in which they cannot love both of their parents.

Whatever the reason they are getting the message that it is not ok to love both parents, splitting is the defence which comes into play to resolve the problem.

Splitting as a defence mechanism is accompanied by denial and projection, two more defence mechanisms which come into play when someone is unable to tolerate the dynamics in the outside world around them. Johnstone and Robey (1997, P.204) suggested that the alienated child is likely to have sustained early developmental damage and indeed, in clinical work with families, it becomes apparent that alienated children are likely to be already vulnerable to the adult feelings and behaviours around them.

The splitting which occurs as a defence, occurs in the child first and is then projected outwards onto the parents. In working with children of all ages who have entered into a hyper aligned and rejecting pattern of behaviour, this is the one clear sign which denotes that their behaviour is a defence mechanism. Projection is a valuable tool in understanding the internal experience of the person suffering it, is denoted by the intensity of focus upon another and the denial in the self of what is being seen in others.

Projection is used by people who do not know themselves very well, by the undeveloped personality and those with low self esteem. Being unable to handle positive and negative feelings about the self, being placed in a position of being unable to express the self or resolve problems, projection comes into play in order to resolve the tension this creates.

A child aged between 8 and 14 is the throes of developing a knowledge of self and if this child is already vulnerable due to hidden developmental trauma for example, their ability to build the blocks of self confidence is interrupted. If the child is providing regulatory support for a parent, if the child is exposed to high levels of anxiety in the inter-psychic relationship with a parent and if the child cannot express the tensions this causes for them, splitting of the difficult feelings from the conscious mind is a distinct possibility.

When the splitting of difficult feelings takes place, the child divides their own internalised sense of self into good and bad first. This means that they divide their self identification with both of their parents into two distinct parts and deny the negative, leaving in their conscious mind, only the positive. When the projection begins, the positive is projected at a parent who is the major cause of the tensions around the child, either through active or passive influence. This parent receives that projection of positivity with gratitude, relieved that the child has ‘picked me’. The negative feelings are then projected at the parent who is being rejected.

One of the most common phrases heard in clinical work with aligned parents is ‘she/he has come to a point where he/she recognises how bad/controlling/difficult the rejected parent is. I am not going to force he/she to see that parent when he/she has just realised this.’

What is being expressed here, is the relief that the child has aligned their views and experience with the parent and that they are now fused in a defensive coalition which calms the aligned parent and keeps them feeling safe.

The onset of splitting in divorce and separation begins in the child and is projected outwards at the parents. This means that the child now identifies those elements of the self which are connected to the rejected parent, as being bad things and sees them only in that parent.

Receiving this negative projection, the parent is at first bewildered and then angry, confused and then distressed, frustrated and then anxious and eventually disorientated as they enter into a reactive splitting of the self.

This splitting of the self in rejected parents, manifests as a distinct pattern of behaviours (feeling spaced out, uncertain about memories, emotionally vulnerable and strong feelings of helplessness which some liken to feeling as if they are drowning). All of these feelings are, in my clinical experience, symptomatic of trauma in which the negative projection from the child, has triggered concentric circles of negative projections from professionals, friends and family and the wider world.

When I first began working with rejected parents I noticed a pattern of numbness and disconnecion from their own sense of self as a parent. I wondered where the parent in them had disappeared to. In the place of parent appeared to be a harmed child who was bewildered and highly anxious and in need of support and stabilisation. I understand now that this is the result of living with hidden trauma and the hidden trauma is the negative projection which rejected parents are being forced to carry every day of their lives.

Negative projection carries with it the force of all that is being denied by the person projecting it and thus it is full of toxicity and can knock you off balance. If your child is projecting that you are harmful, scary, dangerous and a thoroughly bad person, this is not about you, it is about the strength of the messaging, both covert and overt, the child has been subjected to. The stronger the projection, the stronger the messaging in my experience. The stronger the messaging the more the child has had to raise the defences in order to survive.

Negative projection is harmful to your wellbeing. Think of it as a stream of vexatious and malicious negativity which is being beamed your way, capturing in it others who have no idea that it is a projection who spend their time examining you to see what it is about you which is so wrong. Naive practitioners spend an awful lot of time working on the rejected parent to try and make them better parents because they too have fallen into the negative projection stream. Friends and family may do the same. The problem with negative projection is that the louder you scream ‘it’s not me’, the more everyone believes that your denial hides the truth.

Carrying negative projections can be exhausting and it is vital that anyone in this position gets help to cope with the impac of this. One of the ways that you can help yourself in this circumstances is to stay away from online groups which mirror the heroes and villains theme which denotes that splitting is in play. The world is not about heroes and villains. It is not about good and bad. All people do good and bad things, stuff happens and in the case of alienation, it is not well understood as it should be – yet. But we are getting there.

One way of coping is to deeply understand the problem of splitting and denial and projection. As I said I would, I am going to share with you resources which can help you on this journey of recovery and resilience building so that you can provide for your child the healthy parenting they desperately need. And even if you can only signal to your child that you are still here, using this healthy approach, in which you help yourself back to health first and then stay buoyant and resilient in the face of the projections, that is enough for now.

So to begin this new journey of building resilience, much more of which is coming in the Autumn in the shape of an exciting new development for the Lighthouse Project, here is a short film about emotions. Starting from the beginning, we will examine all of those things which make for healthy relationships and build these up to support you to understand more, learn how to regulate yourself more easily, recover more strength and build a lighter, brighter, more resilient self. Because as the other half of your child’s identify, you are the person best placed to offer them health and integration in their own recovery.

Supporting Families

Coming soon, an announcement about a new support service to assist all members of families affected by relational trauma in divorce and separation.

Recovering Your Adult Child

I am already writing the therapeutic parenting course and handbook for families. This will be a new downloadable resource you can immediately use in thinking about how to set out and follow a plan to assist your adult child to come home.

I will add into this some guest posts from practitioners who are, behind the scenes, already doing the work of helping older children to come home.

In addition I will post links and host workshops online to help you to think through this process.

Recovering Younger Children

Recovery of younger children remains something which requires, in the main, the input of the Court because of the power and control that the aligned parent has over the child. The Family Separation Clinic continues its work in the Family Courts and can be instructed by following this link.

Please note however that I cannot be instructed until January 2021 as I am fully booked with cases, research and writing.

Please do not propose FSC for any in court service without obtaining permission first.

FSC Coaching Services

Our coaching service re-opens on September 7th, again, please use this link to find out more.

The Lighthouse Project

The Lighthouse project is my name for support services we deliver to families affected by relational trauma in divorce and separation. Working on the principle of the gift economy, we will make as much of this work available on a donation only basis as possible. Donations will fund the ongoing development of this work so that it becomes a gift circle, giving back what is put in to grow a resource centre which serves the needs of the parents who support it. More soon on what you can expect to see coming through the Lighthouse Project.

EAPAP Conference

The third conference of the European Association will be held on 16/7/8 September and will feature presentations such as –

  • The shadow of our ghosts: Generations of ruptures

Jill Salberg – USA

  • Leading change in a complex field: Introducing core concepts of reformulated practice

Gordana Buljan Flander -Croatia

  • Assessing and treating alienation using a psychoanalytic model

Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall

  • Family law and parental alienation in Portugal

Sandra Feitor – Portugal

  • Addressing false allegations in court

Brian Ludmer – USA

  • Lessons from Romania: What difference does it make when alienation is criminalised

Simona Vladica – Romania

  • Perspectives from Israel

Inbal Kivenson Bar-On and Benny Bailey – Israel

  • Parental alienating behaviours: An unacknowledged form of family violence

Jennifer Harman – USA

  • ‘I did not see my daughters for years:’ The impact of coercive control on post-divorce relationships between mothers and children

Sietska Dijkstra – Netherlands

Discussion groups including Kelly Baker PhD from the USA and presentation by June Venters QC from the UK are being finalised.

There are many more participants throughout a packed three days in which we discussion panels will be held live along with Q&A sessions with experts.

The programme offers a wealth of information and discussion about research and practice and the importance of both in the developing field of Relational Trauma in Divorce and Separation.  Suitable for all practitioners in mental health and legal services.

This is the third conference of the European Association and demonstrates the commitment and intent of the core participants to build a network of excellence in the relationship between research and practice in this field.

The cost  for the conference is

3 day registration fee – 203 Euro

1 Day pass for day three (open to public) 81 Euro

All prices include VAT.

Book Here


  1. Hi Karen. I am an erased dad of a wonderful 15yr old boy, for two years now.
    I live near Westerham in Kent. Is the someone I can talk to to try to help me cope with the loss of my son?
    I am struggling to keep going every day and it’s his birthday today.

    Any recommendations at all would help.

    Thank you in advance.



  2. Karen, I appreciate this continued elaboration of the psychological defenses operating in an alienated child. First, the emphasis on defensive splitting and now an inclusion of two of the other co-existing yet predictable defenses given the depth of the emotional wounding that a severely alienated child has had inflicted upon him or herself..

    I also notice that for the first time (at least in my personal reading of your blogs, Karen), you make reference to the actual “damage” these symptoms are alluding to rather than keep merely focused on the symptom (ie. splitting) itself. As we all know, symptoms are not the problem.

    In the case of defensive splitting, denial and projection, these are actual indicators of severe psychological dysfunction in an individual. You reference: “Johnstone and Robey (1997, P.204) suggested that the alienated child is likely to have sustained early developmental damage.” This seems gravely understated and therefore misleading, in my opinion. It would be closer to the truth to write that a severely alienated child has suffered severe and long lasting emotional damage owing to the trauma they have suffered at the hands of their own (alienating) parent.

    My point is that, this “damage” (trauma) sustained by the child in early developmental periods predictably leads to
    recognizable patterns of personality disorder later in life. In other words, we are not simply dealing with a defense, we are dealing with a fully disordered personality built of highly dysfunctional and distorted working models of Self, Other and the World.(See Bowlby, 1969)

    Karen, I have worked for near 35 years now with individuals (adults) with personality disorders. The road to recovery is long and arduous. Narcissism furthermore tends to be a personality characteristic that by definition blocks the individual from even reaching out for the help they so desperately need given that their core fear is one of displaying vulnerability. . The entire world currently has a glaring example of what I am describing here.

    While there may be individuals whose personality issues allow them to seek out help for the sequelae of severe alienation during childhood, it is simply reality that barring a devastating loss or crisis, those adults falling within the narcissistic spectrum of injury owing to childhood trauma simply do not ask for support. This latter population is alluded to, in my opinion, in Amy J. L. Baker’s book; “Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome.” From her research data, she concludes that boys alienated by custodial fathers tend not to reunite with their targeted mothers. As a long time clinician, I would extrapolate that she is referring here to a population of alienated boys raised by narcissistic fathers with whom they both strongly identify and share narcissistic personality traits.

    Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

    Pam Dillon, M.Ed., RMFT, Ed.D. (ABD), E-RYTGold
    Integrative Treatment Specialist C-PTSD


    1. I think the emphasis I am working with here is the impact on the parent Pam and the child vulnerable to alienation – I’m trying to keep the focus on what parents can do to assist their child without replicating the heroes and villains motif. If we focus on the villain of the piece who often can’t change we prolong reactive splitting and helping parents avoid reactive splitting is what this piece is about. K


      1. I think I would add that not all alienated children grow up with personality disorder – many recover from the splitting quickly on intervention and show no real ongoing impact. K


  3. Hi Karen, the last two articles were particularly interesting. Your comment that the child may already be developmentally vulnerable pricked my ears. So many other alienated parents I know off, who had only one child fully alienated out of a a sibling group, that one child had pre-existing symptoms, often along the lines of Autism spectrum, or issues with the theory of mind, empathy, recognising own and others emotions and so on. I wonder though for some, as Jill Salburg discussed, had been born with hereditary traits born out of intergeneration trauma. In addition to this those parents, my self included worked hard on gaining parent skills to help our vulnerable child only to find that the ‘alienator’ parent would be the parent who kept undermining these efforts often stating ‘there is nothing wrong with this child, just your poor parenting’. My ex admitted in last-ditch marital therapy that he didn’t want to admit to the issues our child had because he knew I would soon connect the dots and see that he had similar issues. I believe there are many rejected Mothers in this boat.


  4. Always so informative and thought provoking reading your posts Karen. We are 3 years in to complete alienation of the whole of my partners family. I can completely see the splitting in them to. Iv always tried to suggest how it might look from the other side and that it might not be conscious or malicious. But now we have another great hurdle, we are expecting a baby and have no way to communicate this to the children, and if we could how do we do that. The backlash from the aligned parent will be enormous, but it will be the children who never hear the end of it. It will be them who are told they are unloved and being replaced. But the other option to not say anything and then find out in an unplanned way would be painful to. How do we do our best for the children in this situation? They are 14 and 13. Any advice appreciated


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