overcoming the high conflict myth in working with alienation in divorce and separation

Working with relational trauma in divorce and separation means looking at the whole spectrum of dynamics between parents who are separating. Drawing upon knowledge about how coercive control is used by some parents to control the other, we are able to identify those cases in which children are withdrawing from a parent due to something they have done. Looking at the child, we are able to identify the behavioural patterns which tell us that a parent is pressuring the child into the use of the splitting defence. Recognising the signs of enmeshed and controlling relationships, allows us to differentiate the child who is alienated from the child who is temporarily withdrawn.

This work is undertaken in the midst of extraordinary dynamics between two parents in a system which is decompensated. Whilst the spectrum of human behaviours are seen in this situation, from genuinely healthy and positive intent, to malevolence which emerges from personality disorder and uncontained rage, most parents post separation, will find a way to make things work for their children. Some however, do not, some cannot. Looking closer at those who do not and cannot, it becomes clear that here is where the risks to children in divorce and separation are highest.

Not High Conflict

I feel frustrated when people talk about alienation of children as being about high conflict divorce. In my clinical experience of being embedded with families over the past thirteen years, the outside view of what is going on inside, is about as upside down as it gets. The high conflict view is in fact, a projection of what the influencing parent wants the outside world to see. What is happening internally in these family systems, is not high conflict but dysfunctional patterns of behaviour which are driving the child and the other parent’s capacity to parent, plus that parent’s responses to the injustice, frustration and fear that being in this situation produces.

If we characterise alienation of children as being about high conflict divorce, we miss the critical elements of power and control over the child, the transgenerational patterns of trauma, the personality disorders and their impact and the terrifying element of abuse of a child, which is being enacted right in front of us. Instead of being able to intervene and protect the child in such circumstances, we say this is high conflict divorce and attempt to change both parents’ behaviours, allowing the influencing parent to get away with more harmful behaviour, whilst the rejected parent is rendered further helpless by our intervention.

This approach resolves nothing at all. What it does is further injure the child, the rejected parent and the family system as a whole. It leaves the family worse off than before we arrived on the scene. Taking an approach which places alienation of a child as being about high conflict divorce is harmful in my view.

Power and Control

Alienation of a child occurs in a particular dynamic in which one parent has more control over the child than the other. That is the very basis of what is happening in these families. In that respect it is possible to see how one parent alienates, how two parents can counter alienate, how parents can be fighting over control of the child and how false allegations of alienation can be used to obtain more power over the child and through that, their parent.

If we do not understand power and control dynamics, we will not understand how a child becomes alienated from a parent. Power and control dynamics in alienation of a child are, actually, incredibly easy to understand when you understand how children’s minds work.

Remembering that to alienate a child you have to alienate them from their own sense of self first, (alignment and rejection are projections onto parents), dividing the child into distinct parts of the self, one conscious and one unconscious, can be undertaken in a heartbeat if you know how. That some parents do know how (and some have been busy alienating their children from their own sovereign sense of self since birth), it is hardly surprising that alienation in a child is one of the spectrum problems seen in families when they separate.

Transgenerational trauma

The reality of what we are dealing with in families affected by alienation of a child is that the story of the family across the generations, often contains an unresolved thread of trauma which is passed from parent to child in the attachment relationship. As Jill Salberg described in her presentation at the EAPAP Conference this year, trauma in a parent is passed to the child in the earliest formation of attachment between them. In divorce and separation, it is my view that this traumatic transmission, which has been dormant until such time as crisis occurs, emerges in the here and now as a child’s alignment and rejection reaction to an unresolvable situation (the child knows that they cannot love the other parent without causing the aligned parent anxiety and harm).

Personality Disorders

The cases of alienation of a child which are prominent in their severity, are those which involve a personality disordered parent who is unable to see that their behaviours are harmful to their children. Within this group are those with fixed and fused enmeshed relationships with their children, where the leakage of the parents feelings to the child cause problems such as parentification and spouseification, where a child is meeting the needs of the parent and is not receiving the parental care they are entitled to. Personality disordered parents make up the majority of the severest cases of alienation of a child in my experience and the markers of this are quite clear in terms of recognition.

Overcoming the High Conflict Myth

To overcome the myth that alienation of a child is about high conflict between parents, it is necessary to work with and observe the family over a period of time. Just like taking a photograph, meeting the family once or twice in an office and making an assessment of the dynamics based upon those meetings, is like taking a snapshot of an event and saying that is the whole of the story. It is not.

Families where a child is alienated require close and careful observation, they require us to spend time with them and for us to become embedded in the way that they function, so that we not only see what the family does when it is putting on its ‘best face’, we see what it does over time and under pressure to conform to our requirtements to do things that they do not want to do. Only by asking parents to do things that they do not want to do, for example, make a child attend an observation session with a parent who is being rejected, do we understand the underlying dynamics in a case. Testing for disguised compliance (where a parent appears to be co-operative but is undermining behind the scenes), requires us to be patient enough to be with that parent for long enough to understand the way in which two strands of behaviours are operating at the same time. Working with alienation demands a forensic approach to understanding families, an open mind and a depth knowledge of how such families operate. Understanding how splitting, projection and other defence mechanisms work is essential.

We do families affected by alienation of a child, a great disservice when we characterise them as being about high conflict. Whilst that is what it might look like to the outside world, internally these families are about complex dynamics which require us to tease apart the way in which the actions and counter actions between parents, have become configured around the child to mean that one parent has control over the child’s mind and the other parent is rendered helpless.

Understanding this internalised world of families where children are alienated, means that we help, rather than hinder healing and we protect against being drawn into false allegations of alienation.

If all we do is believe that alienation is about two parents in conflict, all we will do is work with that projection and find ourselves clutching at shadows and fog.

Understanding the myth of high conflict, takes us into the internal world of families affected by alienation of a child and brings us face to face with the real dynamic.

What we can do then, becomes more powerful in terms of lasting change for children.


Working with Relational Trauma in Divorce and Separation

A Clinical Seminar on Zoom

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.

Please note that this seminar is being recorded on November 10 2020 and the link to watch it will be sent to all who have registered with us shortly afterwards. If you would like to register for the link please email me at karen@karenwoodall.blog

The recording will be made available on here and a wide range of social media platforms around the world during the week of November 16th 2020.

The seminar is being delivered free of charge through the Lighthouse Project as part of our ongoing work to raise awareness of clinical work with families affected by relational trauma in divorce and separation.

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