Constrain, protect and then treat: Child protection in intervention with alienated children and families

Working with other clinicians allows me to formulate new way of educating others about how to approach cases of a child being induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation. Lately we have been discussing how to help social workers, people we often work with in teams, to understand the concept of alienation using the idea of non accidental injury to the mind of a child.

Constrain, protect and treat is an easy way to think about the formula we are using in alienation.  It is the same formula as that used in non accidental injury cases by social workers and by people working with survivors of domestic abuse.

This formula translates well for those who are working in this field therapeutically, it helps to clarify how such interventions should be made and why they should be made in this order.  Let’s begin with the formula and its use in non accidental injury and domestic abuse.

In times of crisis we do not offer therapy.  Crisis prevents people from being able to reflect upon their experience and is ineffective and at times harmful to them as it expects them to have the capacity to do something they are incapable of (no-one can reflect upon their world when they are dysregulated).

Constrain

When a child has suffered non accidental injury, our first action is to constrain the person who has caused this.  When someone is suffering domestic abuse, our first action is to find ways to constrain the perpetrator (whilst supporting the person to find practical ways out of the situation).  In alienation of a child, we do not expect a child to enter into therapy without constraining the person who is causing the problem.

Step 1 – Constrain – Ensure that the influencing parent is prevented from controlling the child.

Protect

When a child has suffered non accidental injury, we build a protective space for the child to live in. When someone has experienced domestic abuse we build a route to a protected space for them to feel safe in. When a child has been alienated, we focus upon ensuring that a protected space is made for them which is away from the parent who has caused the problem.

Step 2 – Protect – Ensure that the child is enabled to spend time in protected space, away from the parent who is causing the problem.

Apply Therapy

When a child has suffered non accidental injury, we utilise the protected space to apply therapeutic work. When a domestic abuse survivor is in protected space, we offer therapeutic support to review and rebuild life.  When a child is in protected space, we offer proximity to the parent they have rejected and utilise that proximity to apply therapeutic input.

Step 3 – Apply therapy – Ensure that the child is enabled to be in close proximity to the parent they have rejected and apply therapeutic input alongside this.

Differentiating Alienation

A child’s rejecting behaviour in divorce and separation is differentiated by the use of psychological splitting.

If a child is not utilising psychological splitting, is able to see the good and bad in their parents, is able to move between them, they are not alienated.  They may be suffering from switching behaviours, compartmentalisation behaviours, maladaptive behaviours, but they are not alienated.

If the child divides parents into idealised and demonised and if the child’s demonisation of a parent echoes the influencing parent’s beliefs and if the rejected parent is evidenced as not having done anything which could cause such strong division of feeling, then alienation is possible.

The Court is the place where alienation of a child is decided upon after hearing the evidence.  Recent UK High Court Court judgments have made it clear that the issue of alienation is a child protection issue, regardless of whether that is done consciously or unconsciously.

The mental health intervention is held in place by the court system.

Delivering therapeutic work outside of that, is contraindicated by the research evidence and potentially causes further harm.

Importance of correct formula in treatment

Why must we treat alienation as we would non accidental injury and domestic abuse when we are working as therapists?  Because the child is in the same position as all abused children/people, they are identifying with the aggressor.  To place the child into that double bind, is, as Dr Steve Miller* explains, to re-injure the child.

 In non accidental injury the child will forgive the parent and seek to blame the self for the harm done to them.


In alienation the child will split off and deny their experience in order to avoid the threat of abandonment.

Abandonment threat is wrapped up in what looks like love in many cases of alienation but in some cases it is starkly present and easy to detect.  Being able to differentiate this identification with the aggressor dynamic in children’s rejection of a parent, is critical in helping the outside world to understand the threat to the child.

As we continue in our work to educate other practitioners, being able to clearly articulate the problem of induced psychological splitting in children and how to treat it,  is an essential task.

Parent and Practitioner Training with the Family Separation Clinic

Parents

A series of seminars for parents are in preparation which can be watched online. Our first seminar was Reconnections: Recovering Older Alienated Children, this will be available to purchase and watch online shortly. Our next seminar, Therapeutic Parenting for Alienated Children, will be launched shortly, please check back for details.

Practitioners

The Clinic is preparing for evaluation of its services, in partnership with a UK University, to provide an evidence based and accredited training in its model of assessment, differentiation and treatment of alienated children and their families. This training will be made available online as well as face to face in 2022.

Currently, the Clinic is involved in practitioner training on a bespoke basis, delivering training online to individuals and groups of practitioners, in partnership with Family Mediation Association and other local mediation and psychotherapy groups. for details of training currently available, or to book bespoke training online, please email us at office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk

8 comments

  1. You are certainly doing ground-breaking work in recognising painful realities and creating much-needed conceptual categories to understand the harm done to the child by the alienating parent. Thank you, it’s provided me with such much needed clarity.
    If I may add a point that highlights the concept of ‘family’, as understood in the majority world, (ie beyond Euro-American historically recent formulations of the family as the parents plus children entity and relatives playing a largely minor if non existent role), I would request that you perhaps include using terms such as alienating adult because in my experience with my adult sisters, (we are of North Indian origin) they have played a complicated role, accepting the extended family definition that is the norm, when they have needed help and support in divorcing the father and taking care of their children, but when they saw the children were becoming very loving to their Auntie, they have spent much time and energy, alienating the children from me. This process began from when the children were around 8/9 years old and I realised the confusion and fear in the messages they were mostly covertly receiving from their mother, which contradicted their experience of their Auntie as loving, playful, supportive etc.
    So what I’m wanting to get across is the coercive control and exploitative behaviour and deliver isolating of children from other sources of love and support , treating the children as a resource and aster possession, is done not only between parents but also can be done between a parent and other relationships.
    Thank you hope your analyses can incorporate that feature of children’s reality – their need for stable, nurturing relationships beyond the parent figures, particularly when the parents are both behaving in acrimonious ways.

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  2. Forgive me, but isn’t part of the problem that, in reality, some of the professionals surrounding the child(ren) in cases of suspected (and actual) alienation; do not apply critical thinking and analysis? I wondered if it might be the case that those professionals might tend to be used to using ‘system 1’ or so-called ‘fast’ or ‘automatic’ type thinking; and – where doing so – they use intuitive efforts (rather than deliberate, effortful and orderly aka ‘system 2’ thinking), and they can sometimes make cognitive ‘decision-making’ errors? (I’m thinking of the Muller-Lyer illusion here)

    I also wonder what the Court’s view might be.

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    1. I think the problem is that aliention is difficult to understand if you use intuitive thinking. That is because it is a dynamic which involves denial and projection which means that the defence of induced psychological splitting in the child causes the rejection of a parent as a defensive projection of the denial of the influencing behaviours of the parent to whom the child becomes hyper aligned.

      Cognitive decision making errors are easy to avoid if one begins with the child and whether or not the child is using the defence of psychological splitting – if yes then find out what is causing that by a systemic analysis of the family dynamics, if no, find out what the dynamic is which is causing the rejection.

      The court’s view is essential because the court has an overview of all of the evidence, that is why any psychological evidence must be tested in court.

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  3. Isn’t it incredible that I confronted the psycholigist who was involved in the court case with the fact that she enabled the father to induced splitting for his children, with new insights. She still thinks she did the best thing because you can never, as she sad force a child in to contact. She was still blind to see that she didn’t trigger onto the fact that my daughter said to her, that she didn’t want to see her mom any more. Keeping up her own truth not to feel her own pain due to a mistake of judgement.

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  4. Using Gardner’s classification of Mild/ Moderate/ Severe Alienation, does Constrain, Protect, and Treat only apply to children who are Severely Alienated? What about Moderately alienated? Should they also be removed temporarily?

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    1. We don’t use Gardner’s reference points Beth, we have done enough work to understand how mild and moderate cases are different to severe without needing to classify using his eight signs. Constrain, protect and treat applies to all forms of alienation of children, constrain doesn’t necessarily mean residence transfer, it can mean for example, constraining of behaviours via behavioural agreements in the court process. The reality is that there is a clear route to differentiation which is utilised when a parent is required to make a child available for clinical observation, the question is, can the parent do it or can’t they – will they or won’t they. Of course we ensure that this route is used after fact finding, it is not a fact finding in itself – so the court has already found on the facts of the case prior to our intervention. My view of alienation of children is that much of what is said to be alienation is not alienation at all, it is compartmentalisation, switching and early splitting – those mild to moderate cases can be treated with structured interventions – we do this a lot at the Clinic and it is an early inervention route which has good outcomes. Residence transfer is only for the serious cases where a parent has been found to be influencing the child, has mental health issues, is obstructing the child’s mental health and wellbeing and where there are often, serious underlying issues of abuse in the parent to whom the child is aligned. What the anti pa campaigners don’t want you to know is that underneath the serious cases, is serious abuse of children by the parent to whom the child is aligned, that is why the child is removed – the attempt to hide that reality is powerful at the moment but it is not hidden in the Court process.

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      1. This is very helpful, thank you! What sort of underlying serious abuse are you referring to? Emotional abuse ?

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      2. I have worked in many serious cases Beth, an example of what is seen are that children who allege sexual abuse have been found to be sexually abused by the parent they are aligned to or family members associated with that person, psychologically abused in that they have been enmeshed and parentified (made to take care of a parent’s emotional and psychological needs), physically abused – hit, threatened with violence, locked in rooms, subjected to mental and emotional pressure to align as well as being subjected to alienating strategies…..This is a splitting pathology with denial and projection as key reactions, the child is being threatened in the inter-psychic relationship and therefore what we are looking at is often (not always) the projection by the child of what is happening in the relationship with the aligned parent. These cases have a particular quality and I understand that some research into this is currently underway. What we see, when allegations against the rejected parent are shown to be unfounded, is that they emanate from somewhere and in the serious cases I have worked in, that has been from the aligned parent and/or family. That is what the anti-pa groups are, in my view, trying to obfuscate, in a similar approach of denial and projection. That is why this campaigning is so vicious, there is an awful lot to hide in my experience.

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