The past few weeks in family politics in the UK, has demonstrated the way in which uncontainable emotional and psychological material, dominates the space in which children become alienated from a parent. Watching this, I am reminded that what we are doing when we are working with children who have been induced to use psychological splitting as a defence in divorce and separation, is containing the uncontainable.

The eruption of intra-psychic material, which in some situations may have lain dormant until the crisis of separation, can be sudden and explosive in terms of the impact upon children. When one parent cannot cope with the prospect of a changing landscape and, particularly, where there are unresolved mental health issues in the background, children can become overwhelmed by a tsunami of adult emotion, causing an immediate threat to the child of either abandonment or aggression, both of which can induce the use of psychological splitting as a defence.

Inducing psychological splitting in a child is an act of child abuse. It is a non accidental injury to the mind of a child and that is true whether the inducement is done consciously or unconsciously. We do not leave children in the care of parents who abuse them physically or sexually, when the seriousness of induced psychological splitting and the harm it does to children is properly understood, neither will we routinely leave behind, children who experience the emotional and psychological harm caused by induced psychological splitting.

Induced psychological splitting is a forcing of the child back into the use of an infantile defence mechanism. It is caused by the child not being able to hold two realities in mind anymore. Whilst some children suffer this mildly, others suffer it seriously and in a prolonged manner and when they do, it is often intertwined with other harm such as encapsulated delusional disorder or fabricated illness.

Alienation of children has recently been mischaracterised as a defence against allegations of domestic abuse. It is absolutely nothing of the sort and whilst part of me has always admired the collective determination of ideological campaigners, I utterly abhor their disregard for the children and families who suffer this terrible problem. Frankly, the idea that alienation of children is only something which is used to defend men against allegations of domestic abuse, is one of those psychological manipulations which are seen in the plethora of alienating strategies employed by parents who induce psychological splitting in their children. It is a deliberate skewing of the core reality, which is that alienation of children in divorce and separation, is a deeply damaging form of child abuse.

I work with alienated children and their families. I spend a great deal of time with them recording their struggle to recover from induced psychological splitting and assisting them to understand that the person they have been taught to fear, is not harmful to them. I watch children who believe that a loving parent is dangerous, move from a place of feeling fear to feeling relief. I watch them let down the blockages to a parent’s incoming care and then I watch them blossom into the child they always were as the defence drops and the reality of the parent’s love becomes real again for them.

Children who are induced to use psychological splitting show behaviours which demonstrate the abuse they are suffering. They look afraid, their faces are robotic and there is little presence ine relational sense. This is because they have been terrorised, not by the parent they are rejecting, but by the parent they are being forced to take care of, obey, align fearfully to in order to defend against abandonment threats. What the child is being taught, is that love is about being coerced into alignment, love is about feeling afraid that someone is going to leave, love is something that has conditions set upon it. The child learns that the world feels safe when they are doing what makes the alienating parent feel safe and so they do what is necessary to create those conditions and if that is rejecting a loved parent and splitting that off into the unconscious mind, projecting the feelings of fear and anxiety caused by the alienating parent onto the rejected parent, that is what they will do. Threaten a child enough with fear of abandonment and they will, as Ferenzi told us, submit themselves to the aggressor, seeking to divine their needs at all times.

identification with the aggressor can be understood as a two-stage process. The first stage is automatic and initiated by trauma, but the second stage is defensive and purposeful. While identification with the aggressor begins as an automatic organismic process, with repeated activation and use, gradually it becomes a defensive process. Broadly, as a dissociative defense, it has two enacted relational parts, the part of the victim and the part of the aggressor.

Ferenczi’s concept of identification with the aggressor: understanding dissociative structure with interacting victim and abuser self-states

Elizabeth Howell

When a child is removed from the control that the aggressor/alienating parent has over them, their intra-psychic world is cleared of the fear and anxiety and the lights come back in their faces. Holding them in protected space, whilst reconnecting them with the parent they have rejected, demonstrates again and again that when proximity is held in place, the child stops blocking the rejected parent’s incoming care and health and wellbeing returns. It is the holding of the boundary and the protecting of the child from the uncontainable psychological material which enables this process to occur. This is delicate and sometimes tricky work, especially in teams of professionals where there are low levels of understanding of how induced psychological splitting occurs and how to reverse it. But with a strong Judge holding the line and a knowledgeable team around the family, recovery from induced psychological splitting, even at its most serious, is demonstrated as possible within a short time frame.

The work which is done with children induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation continues in the UK and around the world. It continues despite the efforts to mischaracterise it and despite the personal and professional attacks upon those of us who do it. Working in a world of uncontained psychological projections is not easy but it is necessary to protect children in divorce and separation who are being abused. Children whose experiences are being hidden by campaigners who seek to make this a fight between men and women, when in reality it is about child protection.

Domestic abuse must be dealt with properly and so must psychological and emotional abuse of children in divorce and separation. The two are not pitched against each other, they both demand that we contain the uncontainable material in divorce and separation which harms families and children.

FSC Services to be Independently Evaluated

Family Separation Clinic services will be independently evalauted between April 2021 and March 2022 by a UK University research team. This will include evaluation of the outcomes of residence transfers undertaken in the past decade and depth analysis of the voices of children now over the age of eighteen, who were moved in residence transfers. This work is funded independently of the Family Separation Clinic. Full details of this research will be available over the coming months.