In our work with families affected by a child’s outright rejection of a parent, we look at the deep layers of maladapted behaviours in the family which cause this phenomenon to occur. In my experience, a child is induced to use psychological splitting in an environment in which they are left with no other option but to enter into this defence, the alternative being psychological disintegration. The defence of psychological splitting, is an infantile defence, meaning that the child who is induced to use it, suffers disruption to developmental processes. A child who regresses to a world in which everything is either good or bad, black or white, is a child who has lost perspective and who cannot do the work of normal development. Induced psychological splitting is the outcome of what can be a long process (chronic onset) or it can be an instantaneous outcome (acute onset). The difference in onset is, in my clinical experience, concerned with the capacity of the child to withstand the psychological pressure caused by a parent’s anxiety leakage, (covert) or direct instruction such as bad mouthing (overt). For some children, the pressure to align with a parent’s viewpoint is continuous but resisted until an event (what we call a trigger event) occurs. When the trigger event occurs (and this can be a seemingly innocuous event on the outside), the child enters into the defence of splitting which leads to complete rejection of a parent. This is the underlying pattern of behaviour which is seen when a child is experienced as being happy up to the point at which they leave a parent’s home, never to return.
Defensive splitting is the visible sign of underlying patterns of relationships in families which are themselves harmful to the child. These underlying patterns, like undercurrents in a river, are often present from birth and are the maladapted behaviours which are normalised in families. Children who suffer induced psychological splitting are often seen to have suffered early developmental trauma such as a prolonged absence from a parent in the first five years of life. Other scenarios which cause vulnerability to induced splitting are patterns of behaviours in families which corrupt the roles that parents play in their children’s lives.
Parentification is a behavioural pattern in families which was first noticed by Boszormenyi-Nagy, in which the child serves as a caregiver to a parent. This pattern of behaviour is one which is seen in many families where alienation of a child is present and it is vital that when we see it, we understand it and treat it. This is because parentification causes the chlid to eschew their own capacity to receive care from a parent in favour of hyper attentiveness to the needs of a parent. It is worth explaining just how damaging this is over the lifetime through examining parentification via a case study from work done by the Clinic with a parentified child over a period of 12 years.
Alyce is a twenty two year woman with a younger sister who is now aged eighteen. Alyce’s parents separated when she was eight years old, her sister at the time was four. Prior to the family separating, Alyce had been in the care of her maternal grandmother for eighteen months after her sister was born, when her mother suffered from post natal depression. Alyce returned to her mother and father’s care when she was five and half and from that point on, she appeared to be a highly competent child who did not make any demands upon her parents and who helped her mother to care for her sister as much as she could.
When her parents separated, Alyce became hyper vigilent and increased in her competence in caring for her mother and her sister. Alyce’s father would visit at first but very quickly after the separation, Alyce began to show signs of resisting his incoming care. Whilst at first she would interact with him when he visited at home, she soon refused to spend time with him and when it was suggested that she should go for trips out with him, she became at first angry and then extremely distressed. Her sister on the other hand, went off for day trips and then overnight trips with her father without complaint and was soon spending half of her holidays with her father. There were no obvious reasons why Alyce could not do the same, she had shown a strong bond with her father up until the family separated but she now increasingly resisted even being in the same room as him. Whilst she could tolerate her sister on a day to day basis, she avoided her on the days that she returned from her time with her father. Alyce’s mother could not understand why Alyce was reacting this way to her father and began to wonder whether he had done something to her to cause this.
On entry into working with this family, assessment showed the potential for early developmental trauma in Alyce with the separation from the care of her mother and father and her mother’s emotional absence after the birth of her sister. Whilst Alyce had enjoyed her time with her grandmother and spoke of feeling safe and happy in her care, she had very little memory of the period when she returned home to the care of her mother and father, other than an overwhelming sense that something might go wrong and that she must, at all times, take care of her sister and as much as she could, be good for her mother. Reports from her family about Alyce during this period were that she was a very good girl with a ‘wisdom beyond her years.’ She was reported to help her mother with housework and to keep her mother company during the times when she felt vulnerable, her mother said that Alyce was ‘a tower of strength’ who kept her going through difficult days.
Working with Alyce was difficult at first because of her defensive intellectual analysis of everything that was happening. Unfailingly polite in communication, it became apparent quite quickly that Alyce lived two lives, the life which was on display and the internal life which caused her to do unexpected things, like stealing small items and making things up which could not possibly be true. Observation of Alyce in her interactions with her family showed that she was very much in charge on a day to day basis and that her mother and her sister relied upon her to organise their lives in ways that kept the household running smoothly. At the age of almost nine, Alyce made breakfast for her sister and took her mother a cup of tea in the morning. She walked her sister to school and waited for her to come out of class to walk her home again. She made her sister’s packed lunch in the morning and helped her to get dressed. Alyce was always up early and always organised. Her mother said that she did not know how she would have managed without her when the family separated.
The plight of this parentified child was soon apparent. Alyce was the mother to her mother and sister, her need to care for them, instilled by separation anxiety during the period she was cared for by her grandmother at the age of four, was a defense against the fear of abandonment. As such, her parentification, demonstrated by her pseudo competence on the outside, disguising the emotionally immature self who signalled her presence by stealing (children who steal are showing that they do not have enough of something) and make up of stories (children who make things up are showing that they have a need to create an alternative reality that fits their internal felt sense of who they are). Alyce was rejecting her father because the relationship with him demanded that she leave her mother and leaving her mother to cope alone was not something that the parentified child could do. Just like when children suffer from school refusal, where the issue is not school but the relationship with the parent they have to leave behind to go to school, Alyce could not leave her mother for fear that she would not cope and/or, would not be there when she returned. Her separation anxiety, coupled with the maladapted attachment strategies, developed so that she could cope with the loss of her mother at a critical time in her life, led to the defence of parentification and the combination of this led to alienation from her father when the family separated.
Treating parentification is very difficult because the defence itself is designed to prevent adults from taking charge of the child’s internal world. The child who is parentified has experienced a sense that there is no-one else in the world to depend upon and so they must take charge of their own lives. Emerging from this experience is a super competence, in which the false persona appears to be capable of just about anything. Underlying this is a hyper analytical approach in which the child is constantly seeking to try and make sense of what other people are doing and why. This is in order that the child can predict the possibility of abandonment and the point at which they may have to rely completely upon their own selves for survival.
Alyce had pushed her father to the margins in her quest to keep herself safe by care taking her mother and her sister and she had also pushed her own self, her own needs and her own childhood to the outer reaches of her awareness in order to survive. Treating this child, meant enabling her to allow her father back into her life and helping her to allow his incoming care. It also meant assisting her mother to understand that Alyce’s super competence was a disguise for an emotionally and psychologically immature self who desperately needed nurture and protection.
Alyce eventually allowed her father back into her life and her mother and father worked hard together to provide for Alyce the high nurture she needed to drop the parentified self. Just as in school refusal, treatment of this problem did not involve allowing Alyce to continue to split off and deny her father, it created opportunities for a persistent and consistent pattern of supported engagement with him. When Alyce could experience her father consistently and return to her mother and know that her mother was still there and coping, she began to integrate the pseudo competent and emotionally immature child. The stealing and the make believe stopped and throughout her teenage years she became much more unconsciously engaged with her peers.
In her early twenties, Alyce is still competent and still at times, intellectually defended. She remains analytical in relationships, something she is working on in therapy so that she can experience relational space more unconsciously. Her need to predict the future however remains and one of the fantasies that she brings to therapy consistently, is that if necessary, she could create a home for herself in minutes, so long as she has a place to put her precious belongings (which are few and talismanic, meaning that they are bestowed with special meaning), she will feel safe. When I hear this I know, that Alyce’s trust in the world as a benign place, is still not fully repaired, I know that she suffers from that need for survival that only those whose trust is broken in childhood can experience.
The plight of the parentified child underpins many cases of alienation of children in divorce and separation and as such is another one of those dynamics which demands our attention in assessment and treatment.
Alienation of children in divorce and separation is a complex psychological issue which requires capacity to perform that finely attuned analysis which leads to the correct treatment route. Whilst it comes to light in the post divorce and separation landscape, it is the signal that something deeper is going on in the family system which requires attuned differention and naunced treatment routes.
Performing the archeological dig that Freud spoke of, in families affected by a child’s outright rejection of a parent in divorce and separation, brings help to children like Alyce whose needs have been long overlooked.
“I arrived at a procedure which I later developed into a regular method and employed deliberately. This procedure was one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a buried city.”Sigmund Freud – Studies in Hysteria
Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., & Spark, G. (1973). Invisible loyalties: Reciprocity in intergenerational family therapy. Hagerstown, MD: Harper & Row.