the asymmetrical power balance in families where children reject a parent

The asymmetry of power over the child, in families where children reject a parent outright, is one of the dynamics we pay close attention to in assessment, differentiation and treatment. Asymmetrical power dynamics exist, where one person holds power over another and the subordinate person cannot have access to balancing power.

In separating families, power over the child and the way in which the child relates to each parent, is either balanced by both parents acting in the best interests of their child or is asymmetrical in that one parent takes control and dictates how the other will have a relationship with the child.

In the scenario where one person takes control, this may be because there are genuine reasons for doing so. There may have been violence in the home which has caused the parent to act in this way or there may have been abuse of the child during the period prior to the family break-up. Some parents take control in order to ensure that the child has a consistent relationship with the other parent, seen for example, when the other parent decides to simply come and go as they please in the life of the child. None of these scenarios however, induce psychological splitting in a child, that problem which is seen when a child outright rejects one parent and hyper attaches to the other. Only when the parent with control is leaking feelings, manipulating the child or is otherwise emotionally and psychologically controlling, is the core sign of alienation, which is induced psychological splitting seen.

When a child displays the signs of induced psychological splitting, they become contemptuous, disdainful and dismissive towards a parent. This is not normal behaviour for a child towards a parent. Even when a parent has caused rejection, the child is more ambivalent about the parent, for example, hoping that the parent might change and hoping that someone might help that parent to do so.

Induced psychological splitting means that the child has been forced to use the defence of splitting their feelings into wholly good and wholly bad for their parents. It means that the child has developed a false persona and that the false self, is the self which is now identified with and wholly aligned to, the parent who has the power over the child and who is willing to use it.

Power over children is bestowed in family separation through several channels. In law, where parents are married, both have parental responsibility and both should, in real terms, have responsibility for the care and support of children after separation. Far from this being a given however, parental behaviours at the point of separation, are driven by cultural and gender assumptions about who is the best person to care and who is the best person to provide. Public policy is framed upon these assumptions, driving fathers into the role of provider and mothers into the role of carer.

Now before anyone starts shouting about fathers who don’t provide and mothers who don’t care, let me be clear. I am talking about gendered assumptions in public policy, not about individual situations. Of course there are exceptions to the rule and some fathers don’t do the right thing and some mothers don’t do the right thing either.

The asymetrical power balance in cases of alienation of children is clearly defined by the way that one parent becomes aligned with the child and willing to uphold that and the other is pushed the margins of the child’s life. When this is coupled with induced psychological splitting in the child, the double bind the child is in is clear. Equally, the powerless position of the rejected parent is clear. The only recourse for most parents in these circumstances, is to ask the family court to intervene.

Because these cases involve such disparity in power, one of the first interventions we ask the court to make is to mediate that power so that the child is no longer being controlled by the parent to whom they are aligned. We do this by asking that the child is made available for clinical observation with the parent they are rejecting – AFTER we have differentiated the different dynamics which have configured themselves inside and outside of the child to cause the rejection.

An alienated child shows the signs of induced psychological splitting and a false self which arises as part of the defence of splitting and projection. If the signs are there, the next step is to investigate how the the splitting came into play. This can be the result of one parent or the other, or in some cases, both. Presence and absence of alienating behaviours, underlying psychopathology and attachment disorders are part of the differentiation process. A child who has been abused by a parent and children who have been witness to domestic abuse, do not show the same signs of induced psychological splitting.

Treatment of alienation in children is undertaken using a staged process of clinical trials. This utilises the power of the Court to mediate the power that the aligned parent is holding over the child in order to release the child from the double bind. Structured programmes of work, address the underlying psychopathology which causes the alienation reaction. Power over the child is removed from the aligned parent in order to enable the child to live free from the control which is being exerted over them, containment of leakage of feeling is provided using behavioural contracts and exposure to the split off and denied ‘object relationship’ in the form of the rejected parent is supported.

Alienated children who have been living in asymmetrical power relationships with parents, are bound to the alignment and rejection dynamic as the only way of coping in an impossible coercive control situation. The parent coercively controlling the child is the aligned parent in most of these cases and the control dynamics are shown to be overt and conversant with intimate psychological terrorism or covert and conversant with threats of abandonment and fear inducing anxiety which is leaked through. However the dynamic shows itself, the child is being harmed and must be protected.

Just as in all forms of child abuse, power over children and the corruption of their right to an unconscious childhood is what lies beneath alienation. Getting the power balance right is an urgent task in treatment.

Family Separation Clinic News

The Family Separation Clinic will be presenting its model of reformulated practice in therapeutic work with families affected by alienation at the AFCC this year. Focusing upon the asymmetrical power dynamics, splitting, denial and projection defences and how therapists can reconfigure their intervention to provide successful structured programmes, this session will be pre-recorded for download throughout the conference.

EAPAP will be discussing the next conference shortly, focusing entirely upon clinical practice with families affected by alienation of children, this conference is likely to be ‘hybrid’ mixing live sessions with online delivery. More news soon.

Reconnections: Recovering Older Children – Online Seminar

Our new platform for delivery of seminars which can be purchased and streamed at times whic are convenient to you, is now ready. I will announce the next seminar shortly and how you can purchase the reconnections seminar which was delivered in December.

The next seminar is Therapeutic Parenting for Alienated Children in Recovery and is the basic training for anyone wanting to do our online Therapeutic Parenting Course, which will be available soon.

Online training

We are working hard on developing online training and certification for practitioners around the world, who are seeking to deliver a therapeutically based set of interventions for alienated children and families. Based upon our successful work with families over the past decade, this is a theoretical and practical training which enables intervention with alienated children and families.

Therapeutic work with adult children will eventually be added to this online training.

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