Alienation in cases where children reject a parent after divorce and separation requires careful differentiation. In our assessment, which involves around thirty hours of time spent over twelve weeks with a family, we include a careful analysis of all of the dynamics seen in the family to differentiate those cases which are alienation and those which are not. This is to protect against false claims of a child being alienated, a scenario anyone who does this work must be aware of.
Do false claims of alienation of a child exist? Yes of course they do. Just like other false claims are made in the process of family separation, just as perspectives during this time are never more further apart, individual views on what alienation is and how it is caused are polarised. Some fathers, for example, believe that their children are alienated because they don’t have fifty/fifty shared care, some mothers believe their children are being abused simply because they have to follow a court order.
The reality of this dynamic, in which a child is seen to completely reject a parent without any evidence of wrong doing or harm by that parent, is that the alienated child displays the core symptom of psychological splitting. If psychological splitting is present in the child’s behaviour, further investigation is necessary into the relationship that the child has, not with the parent they are rejecting, but with the parent to whom they are hyper attached and aligned to.
Alienation of children in divorce and separation is not about contact, it is not about the rejected parent, it is about the dynamic which is seen when a child is terrorised into hyper alignment to one parent which leads to rejection of the other. This terrorisation is caused by overt or covert behaviours and it causes hyper attachment in a child which itself is caused by the child’s awareness of the emotional and psychological responses of a parent to scenarios which challenge that parent’s control over external circumstances.
When the case is analysed, from the child’s entry into the display of this symptom, the reality of how the dynamics are configured around the child to cause the symptom to be in play can be understood. The route the child took into the display of the symptom, shows the route that must be taken to lead the family out of the dynamics which are causing the problem. The symptom we see in such situations is the child’s use of defensive splitting.
In a clinical paper entitled ‘Denial of Ambivalence as a Hallmark of Parental Alienation, published in Cogent Psychology (2017), Forensic Clinical Psychologist, Alan Jaffe, along with colleagues Melanie J Thakker and Pascale Piron, wrote about the core symptom of psychological splitting as follows –
the purpose and diagnostic utility of the examination of this subject matter is to exemplify the need for making a fine grain clinical analysis of ambivalence in order to most accu-rately assess the existence of parental alienation in a clinical situation with children.Jaffe, Thakker and Piron (2017)
Using a set differentiation tools which enable that fine grain analysis is essential in all cases of alienation we work with regardless of how they are presented to us by parents, other professionals and the Court. This is because the process of understanding what happened in the family affected by alienation, can only really be understood by a) spending a lot of time with that family and b) working out whether the dynamics will change with intervention .
Again, this is not about the child’s contact with the rejected parent. The goal of treatment in cases of alienation is not about the contact that the child has with that parent at all, the goal is to ameliorate the hyper alignment between child and parent to the degree where the child can resolve the split state of mind. Because it is the split state of mind which is deeply damaging to the child and that is caused not by the rejected parent’s behaviours but by the parent to whom the child is hyper aligned.
Hyper or pathological alignment causes a child to use irrational behaviours in which they will make claims which are extreme and which can be shown not to have substance. The child’s claims have a rehearsed quality to them which are accompanied by strong patterns of behaviours which denote that the alignment to a parent is something which is not under the child’s psychological or emotional control. This is because the underlying dynamic in the hyper alignment is power and control over the child, which manifests either as overt inter-personal terrorism (the child is afraid of the parent with control and has entered into the identification with the aggressor dynamic which is seen in cases of coercive control), or covert abandonment threats, (the child is afraid that if they do not uphold the covert wishes of the parent they will abandon them/not be there when they return). In the overt scenario we see mostly fathers alienating their children and in the covert scenario we see mostly mothers alienating their children.
Differentiating between false and real cases of alienation, therefore begins clinically, with an examination of whether a child is using psychological splitting as a defence. If the child is using splitting and is projecting this onto parents, dividing them into idealised and demonised and joining with the idealised parent to condemn and reject a parent completely, the child is likely to be alienated and further investigation is required to build a treatment route to assist the child to integrate the split state of mind which underpins this. Children who reject a parent who has been abusive show a more ambivalent rejection and do not use the defence of splitting. (Bernet, Gregory, Reay & Rohner 2017). If the child shows an ambivalent rejection and does not show idealisation and demonisation projections, the case would therefore clinically not be considerered to be alienation, but one in which behaviours in parents have caused the child to withdraw temporarily. In the court system, where all such cases are carefully considered, decisions about whether a child is alienated or not are made by Judges after full examination of such evidence and witnesses have been heard and cross examined.
In order to reject a once loved parent outright, a child must use the defence of splitting and as Melanie Klein told us, the splitting of an object (relationship), cannot occur without a splitting of the self occurring first. (Klein 1996). A child who is alienated from a parent therefore, is alienated from their own self first (Johnstone and Roseby 1997).
Janina Fisher speaks of alienation from the self as follows –
That good child might be precociously mature, sweet and helpful, perfectionistic, self critical or quiet and shy, but, most importantly, he or she has a way to be acceptable and safer in an unsafe world. Splitting or fragmenting in this way is an ingenious and adaptive survival strategy – but one with a steep price. To ensure that the rejected ‘not me’ child is kept out of the way (ie out of consciousness) requires that long after traumatic events are over, individuals must rely upon dissociation, denial and or self hatred for enforcing the disconnection.Fisher (2017)
There is no doubt that for some children the experience of divorce and separation is a traumatic life event which creates dynamics which pressure them into using the defence of psychological splitting. Those dynamics, which include power and control over the child by a parent who has decompensated and who is unable to put the child’s needs first, create an intolerable double bind for the child. This is not routinely caused by high conflict as there is often no conflict at all between parents prior to the child’s entry into the defence of splitting. There is often however, a pattern of conflict behaviour in one parent who will use control over the child to maintain power over the other parent.
Splitting in children of divorce and separation has been hidden for several decades. In my experience the depiction of the problem as being about the rejected parent’s behaviours, is one reason why we, as clinicians, have been so slow to respond to it. The other reason is the gender war which rages between parental rights groups in which each seek to depict the other as being to blame. Getting in the middle of that leads clinicians into difficult places and so not many stay the course in doing this work. The only losers in this scenario have been children of divorce and separation, many of whom are only now beginning to recognise the harm that has been done to them by the lack of attention paid to their plight.
I receive many emails at the Family Separation Clinic, a recent one really brought home to me how little help children who have suffered splitting in divorce have really had over the years. This email, received this last week, which I have permission to publish, says all there is to say about why this work is so important.
” I found your blog a month ago and I have been reading it non stop ever since. I am an adult now, aged 39 and married with two children, I have always felt that there is something wrong with me but I didn’t know what it was, until I read your article about alienated children. I recognised myself immediately, after years and years of therapy, after years of trying to work out what was wrong, I know now that this feeling that I have bad blood in my veins is not a normal feeling.
My father left when I was 3 years old and my mother brought me up with my sister to believe that he was a bad man who had abandoned us. I know that I loved my father, or at least the distant memory of him which is just a fragment now, but I also grew up feeling that he was a bad man. I never questioned how I knew he was a bad man, he just was a bad man. The day that I read your article I realised that the ‘bad man’ I had rejected when he wanted to see me, was not a bad man at all, I just believed he was and I believed he was because I knew that when I said I didn’t want to see him, my mother felt happier and life felt easier.
I don’t blame my mother, I still love her and I am trying to work out a way of healing this without having to be angry and reject her for what she did. I am sure that if she had known that her teaching us to believe that our father was a bad man would harm us in this way, she would not have done it. She didn’t understand. I didn’t understand, but I do now. I used splitting as a defence, it caused me to believe that my father was a bad man and that because I was part of my father, I too must be a bad person with bad blood in my veins.
I have been waiting for that bad blood to erupt and do something terrible in my life for a very long time, ever since I was married I worried that somehow I would turn into my dad. I know now that I won’t, that the ‘bad blood’ in my veins is not bad at all, I was just taught that it was by circumstance.
Thank you for your writing, I hope that it reaches many more alienated children over the years because there is no help for us out there. You have put words to a problem which I believe many around the world have suffered and I can heal now because I understand it, my mind is at peace because I know who I am and how this happened to me. ” Dan.
This work is not about parental rights, this problem is not about rejected parents being to blame, this is about the way in which children’s right to an unconscious childhood are erased by pathological responses to relational trauma in divorce and separation and about how children are left to simply get on with that without any help at all.
Until this problem and its impact on children is widely understood and routinely treated therefore, our work to bring help to these families will not be done.
Bernet, W., Gregory, N., Reay, K. M. and Rohner, R. P. (2017). An Objective Measure of Splitting in Parental Alienation: The Parental Acceptance–Rejection Questionnaire. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 63(3):776-783.
Fisher, J. (2017) Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors. London: Routledge
Johnston, J. and Roseby, V., 1997. In The Name Of The Child. New York: Free Press.
Klein M. (1996). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. The Journal of psychotherapy practice and research,5(2), 160–179.
Seminar – November 2020
Clinical Perspectives on Working with Relational Trauma in Divorce and Separation
This online seminar will consider the issue of alienation of children from a clinical perspective and will examine relational responses to assisting children who use defensive splitting after divorce and separation.
The seminar will examine the most up to date differentiation of cases of alienation and how treatment routes are built, alongside interventions being used to create protected space for children to resolve the psychologically split state of mind. Thoughts on practice standards for all clinicians working with families affected by relational trauma will be discussed.
Featuring leading Psychotherapists –
- Dr Benny Bailey from Israel
- Dr Claire Francica from Malta
- Joan Long from the Republic of Ireland
- Kelly Baker Ph.D from the USA
- Professor Bruna Profaca from Croatia
This seminar will be chaired by Karen Woodall from the UK and will be delivered free of charge on Zoom.
Full details here shortly.