Clinical practice with alienated children: What, Why and how

Karen and Nick Woodall

Alienated children are suffering from disorganised attachments and a defence which causes them to become alienated from their own self first. By alienation from the self we mean that children in these circumstances are being forced to create a false persona in order to survive intolerable dynamics.

A false persona is a defence mechanism which is created by children in order to survive the stress of developmental trauma in close relationships. Winnicott (1960), called the true self the authentic and spontaneous self and the false self a defensive facade which causes people to appear robotic and lifeless.

The false self is the person we meet when we work with a child who is alienated, the presentation in the child shows us the reality of this. Children who are suffering from psychological splitting, the defence which causes the manifestation of the false self, project that split onto their parents so that one parent is the projection of all that is good and the other is the projection of all that is bad.

Phillipa Perry, a well known psychotherapist, described the experience of being unable to hold two realities in mind well, in her excellent piece for Radio 4 last year. Featuring an adult child and a formerly alienated parent with whom I have worked, this programme brought the need for a child focused approach to this problem to the fore.

Away from the somewhat lurid polarised debates on the issue of parental alienation which are seen to be in play between the parental rights groups, child focused thinking and working with the issue brings a depth understand of the problem and how to treat it. Ignoring completely, ideologically driven rhetoric and focusing entirely upon the child’s experience in the centre of this landscape, brings clarity in thinking and success in delivery.

This is not a care and contact issue and that needs saying repeatedly. This is not about the relationship that the child has with the parent they are rejecting. This is about the way in which the child has been driven to use the defense of splitting and how that has been triggered by pressures in the relational world with the aligned or influencing parent.

Examining cases from the child’s perspective we start by finding out whether or not the child is using psychological splitting as a defence. It is worth repeating that psychological splitting as a defence in alienation cases, is accompanied by contemptuousness and disdain on the part of the child in relationship to the rejected parent and hyper attunement and attachment to the parent the child is aligned to.

Causes of the hyper alignment may be enmeshment with a parent who is using the child to meet their own needs or it may be coercive control by a parent who is terrorising the child into identification with their aggression. When we see hyper attunement and attachment to a parent we need to understand much more about that relationship in order to work out what the parent is doing to cause it.

This is a child protection approach to resolving alienation, it is an adapted form of systems therapy in which power and control dynamics play a central role in understanding. This is therapy, but not the kind of therapy that is ordinarily delivered in families. Reorganisation of the power and control dynamic in order to provide protected space for the child to reconnect to the rejected parent requires the interlocking relationship with the family court. This is the only way to properly reconfigure power dynamics in families where control over the child is held by a parent who will not or cannot recognise the harm they are causing.

In severe cases of alienation, a child is used as a conduit for the influencing parent to erase the rejected parent’s very sense of mother or fatherhood. The goal of serious and conscious manipulation of children, is to reduce the rejected parent to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. This is a grisly act of psychological murder, of one parent by the other, using the child to enact this. The child in these circumstances however is the ultimate victim, because they are being used by a parent who is unable to parent healthily, to murder the other parent psychologically. The child becomes an unconscious participant in the eradication of their own capacity to receive healthy care.

In other scenarios, children become enmeshed into the psychological bubble of belief in a parent that the other parent is damaging and dangerous. Sometimes this extends to ideologically driven beliefs that all women are good and all men are bad, a form of distorted psychological belief which itself depicts splitting as a defence mechanism. The further away I get from this ideological belief system, the more ridiculous it seems. Are all mothers good and healthy and well and all fathers bad and unhealthy and unwell? Of course not, so why would we allow such a belief system to drive the way we care for families through and beyond separation?

The way to approach differentiation of cases where a child is rejecting a parent is to carefully and systematically assess the dynamics over a period of time. We use a twelve week rolling assessmeny programme which offers the capacity to watch the family response to granular interventions which sift between estrangement and alienation, contributory dynamics from each parent and the psychological profiles which drive parental behaviours. We use relational trauma as a framework for recognising that this family has reached the outer limits of its capacity to cope alone and we understand how this child in this family at this time, came to be using the defence of splitting. And then we build the treatment route to liberate the child from the defence and re-organise the family furniture so that it does not need to return.

It sounds simple and in some ways it is. Alienation in a child is caused by trauma in close personal relationships, most often through family separation but not always. Alienation in a child is a defence mechanism which is triggered by intolerable pressure on the child in those close personal relationships and splitting brings swift relief for the child in the here and now but a host of problems in the future.

The immediate problem for the child however, is that they then have to find a way to explain the rejection to their parents and to the outside world. Put simply, the narrative of my dad is bad and my mum is good (or vice versa), is the child’s only way of justifying what they have done. It is a ghastly place to put a child because the false persona is a life long problem and very difficult for the child to resolve alone, simply because the nature of the false persona is to protect the child from the unresolved trauma, Thus they have no idea that it exists until either the trauma itself begins to push up into consciousness or the effort to keep the defence in place and emotional and psychological experiences repressed, begins to tell.

Children whose ‘decisions’ to reject a parent were upheld and supported in the past, find themselves in the current day, trying to work out what is wrong with them. Looking back at the fragmented memories, the uncertainties about self and the anxiety about being able to make decisions, the split self and the internalised fractured landscape, comes sharply into vision in the therapy room. The reason we do this work at the point the child uses splitting therefore, is not to reconnect the child to the rejected parent but to reconnect the child to the whole of their own selves. Doing that can only be achieved by confronting the child with the split off and denied aspect of self which is contained in the rejected parent. This is not about forcing children to be with abusive parents, it is not about forcing the child to be with the parent at all, it is about helping children to resolve the split state of mind so that they do not suffer the long term impact of the problem.

This is why the rejected parent is so vital in the life of the alienated child, without that parent, the child cannot reconnect to their own sovereign self. It is through that relationship, previously split off and denied, that integration and wholeness is achieved. The rejected parent contains the projected and denied part of the self that the child cannot tolerate because of the impossible position they have been placed in. When the child is able to tolerate the projection in the shape of the parent, they are able to tolerate the whole of their own self and the splitting defence recedes. This leaves the child free of the false persona and connected to the whole of who they are.

The route we use to reconnect the alienated child to the integrated self is to build protected space for the child and rejected parent which is away from the influence of the aligned parent. This is the role of therapists and psychologists in this space, to differentiate alienation, as the Court to constrain the influencing parent, create protected space to work in, educate and prepare the rejected parent and then bring parent and child together so that the child can recover the whole of their own sense of self through that relationship.

Alienation of children is no longer the invisible everyday occurence it once was, and rejected parents no longer need to suffer being routinely abused by ideological campaigners, who seek to mischaracterise the problem using false divisions of good mother/bad father. Working well beyond that binary split, practice with alienated children and families is moving into a realm of holistic work to keep both parents engaged through and beyond integration of the split state of mind in the child.

Understanding and working with relational trauma and the alienated child opens the door wider for many more clinicians to walk through.


Winnicott, D. W. (1960). “Ego distortion in terms of true and false self”. The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International Universities Press, Inc: 140–57.

Working with Relational Trauma in Divorce and Separation

A Clinical Seminar on Zoom

November 10 2020 at 16:00 London time

What does working with a child who rejects a parent actually look like? What are the clinical issues which are seen and how do psychotherapists understand the issue of alienation of a child? Amidst the arguments about what alienation is and how it is differentiated from estrangement, leading psychotherapists from six countries will join together to discuss the issues which arise in doing this work. Topics such as recognising attachment disruption, the impact of early developmental trauma on a child, the experience of divorce and separation for children and identification of relational trauma in parents, will be explored in this two hour seminar.

Reunification work will be discussed within the context of understanding alienation of a child as significant emotional and psychological harm and the concept of non accidental injury to the mind will be considered within an exploration of alienation as an act of child abuse.

Setting this discussion within the landscape of six different cultures, means that the differences in legal frameworks can be explored as we examine the Court as ‘super parent’ in these cases. Looking at the ways in which families have reached the outer edges of their capacity to manage the problems alone, considerations of the mental health interventions necessary to protect children will be central to this seminar.

Finally the practice standards necessary to deliver this work successfully and the need for practitioner protection from efforts to do harm to the reputation of those who do this work, will provide a road map for future work in this evolving field.

Featuring Psychotherapists from Six CountriesBenny Bailey from Israel, Joan Long from the Republic of Ireland, Claire Francica from Malta, Mia Roje from Croatia, Kelley Baker from the USA and Karen Woodall from the UK.

Chaired by Karen Woodall from the Family Separation Clinic in London, this seminar is free of charge.

Book by emailing

The seminar will be recorded and made widely available here and on all social media platforms after the event.

11 thoughts on “Clinical practice with alienated children: What, Why and how

  1. Hi Karen Is it possible for me to attend the conference. Kind regards Pauline

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Karen
    The description above of the estranged child v the alienated child is spot on. I can so relate to this:

    “A child who is estranged shows anticipatory dread, will talk about the parent with some ambivalence and will not show the contempt or disdain.”

    I wasn’t estranged as such from my mother; I kept on trying, but she was a very difficult woman and for years and years I travelled to see her only when other family members were around (safety in numbers). There was so much ‘anticipatory dread’ whenever I heard her voice; on the phone I’d be all upbeat and cheery (two faced according to my husband and daughter) but the dread in my stomach was all there and, even when my mother told me (more than once) only a year or two after my first child died age five “You don’t know how lucky you are to have only one child, the sacrifices we had to make for you three…….”, I STILL couldn’t say anything to her, I just remained dumb and numb. My husband knew all that and he knew what it did to me but he used it and continued to use it when he ‘discovered’ our only surviving daughter, aged 15 and began excluding me……. even though we remained married until she was an adult and married.

    Caroline Molendijk, I suspect there was nothing you did that wasn’t normal parenting and certainly nothing that any other parent wouldn’t do when faced with a determined alienator.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks to the time and effort you have put into explaining and educating Karen I now understand what has happened to my children. As they are now adults (youngest nearly 17) the court system is not open to me. Could you give any advice on where I go from here? Do you have any conferences you think would be beneficial to me? I am painfully aware that if my children where ever to make contact I have no idea how to best handle that situation in order to help them.


    1. Hi Donna, I will do a seminar soon on this subject via the lighthouse project, watch this space. We offer guidance on reconnection via the FSC and I wil write something on the blog for you too. K


  4. Hi Karen Two things: 1) I would like to be on the Nov 10 Zoom conference, please (if you could add my name) and 2) I have been reading your work, and seen you at conferences for 5+ years now, and your latest writings, particularly the Oct 19th post above are spot on. The way you explain the dynamic is closest to anyone really “getting it” and, more importantly, deconstructing it that I have seen. And your explanation of the remedy as not taking the child away from anyone but *restoring* the child (authentic child) to the child itself if brilliant. just brilliant. Sign me up! thx:)


  5. I am interested to know the difference between an estranged parent and an alienated one.

    Although we see parents who have apparently abandoned their children and no longer appear to care I believe abandonment from someone who has formed an attachment to be impossible. The attachment is always their, it is simply intentionally deeply buried in the sub-conscious of the parent.

    This is tragic for the child who when grown up comes looking for the alienated/estranged parent they have lost at perhaps a very young age, many years previously. All those stories they have been fed over the years kept apart from their absent parent, appear to be true.

    It just isn’t that simple.

    The parent who to all intent and purpose appears to be rejecting their child, despite what they say, will have various defence mechanisms that have internalised their hurt, and in their eyes, justified their behaviour. The feeling, the attachment, is still there, it’s just been buried deep in the sub-conscious.

    Caught off-guard this parent may let you into their deeper thoughts by telling you that they have a compartment in their mind where memories of their abandoned child are kept.

    They may be a proud self-righteous parent who will only have their child back into their lives when certain conditions are satisfied, or confessions of wrong-doing are made by the child. In effect, they want the alienated child who is trying to connect to them, to ease their hurt by re-writing history.

    The detached parent in this case is still deeply traumatised by what has happened to them but fails to recognise this, they haven’t resolved or come to terms with their past trauma.

    They may very well have moved on and had another more successful adult relationship with a good attachment to subsequent children, but their dandlebridge to the past is still broken, their previous relations remain broken. It is safer for them perhaps to be in a state of denial.

    Other long-term alienated parents find it difficult to re-connect or offer up hope to their alienated child of re-connection. There may be an element of fear in re-connection. They may see their child across a crowded room and yet turn away for fear of what their child might do or say. They may be telling the world on a public platform how badly the world is treating his or her gender or kind/type. They may bury their sorrows in drink or drugs and the complexities of ill-fated court cases. They may emphasise the evil nature or possessiveness or uncontrolled aggression of the alienating parent etc.

    There is an element of truth in all this, but nevertheless irrelevant to the job in hand. They are avoidance strategies, coping mechanisms that hide or dismiss the healing of healthy attachment that needs to be made. The attachment that will free the child and relieve the parent.

    I can’t help feeling that re-entrance strategy to severed attachment should involve focussing on the parent/child relationship, that’s what was lost and although the child may now be a fully grown mature adult it is their inner-child which is hurt and posing all the questions. Their inner-child does not need factual advice, it needs heartfelt parental nurturing, affirmation, support.

    An alienated child cannot re-unite with an alienated parent who is on their soapbox proclaiming truths and untruths hardships and rights, because that would mean a leap across the psychological wall that separates one parent from the other (ie. the alienator from the target).

    An alienated parent needs to be ready, aware and focussed.


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