For many decades now, divorce and separation have been treated as an everyday occurence, something that happens to many families and something that should be traversed as if it is part of life. Working as I do, with children affected by divorce and separation, I see that far from being a simple life transition, divorce and separation is a traumatic event which leaves lasting damage to some children in its wake.
Not all children suffer lasting damage from the separation of their parents. I am not an advocate of lifelong marriage at all costs. I am however, an advocate for children, for their right to live an unconcious experience of childhood and their right not to be triangulated into the breakdown of adult relationships. Whether mummy doesn’t love daddy or daddy doesn’t love mummy anymore, is not for a child to be conscious of. Whether mummy did something bad to daddy or daddy did something bad to mummy, is not for a child to be concerned with. Children have the right to an unconscious experience of childhood, to be concerned only with playing and developing healthily. If their parents break up or break down, that is an adult responsibility to manage. Parenting a child does not include using that child as an emotional or psychological crutch and it does not give you the right to require that your child sees the world exactly as you see it. Your burdens, your fights, your pains and your suffering as an adult, are yours and yours alone to bear. You didn’t have children in order that they carry your responsibilities, you had children so that you could give them the love, security and guidance they need to become healthy adults in their own right.
Which is why, when I work with families affected by a child’s alignment and rejection behaviours, I approach it from the perspective of how to help the child retrieve and retain their right to an unconscious experience of childhood. A child who is strongly aligned to a parent and who is showing hyper attachment accompanied by anxious outright rejection of the other parent, is a child who is using an infantile defence which, in normal times, they would have long ago left behind. Hyper attachment to one parent and outright rejection of the other, is the red flag which gives away that the child has been induced to return to the infantile defence of psychological splitting. This coping mechanism, which is triggered in a child because of the adult dynamics around them, is one which causes lasting damage if it is not addressed. Which is why, whatever is thrown my way, I will continue to do this work with and for children. Harm to the child, in the form of induced psychological splitting, is an alienation of the child from their own authentic sense of self first and from a loved parent second.
Induced psychological splitting is a denial and projection of the alienation of the child from their right live an unconscious experience of childhood. Triangulated into adult matters, the child is forced into a place where they can no longer hold the reality of each parent in mind and so they must ‘choose’ one and reject the other. In doing so, this reaction formation defence, alters the child’s internal object relationships and causes them to mistrust their own self. It also makes the child’s behave as if they are experiencing the exact opposite of what they are really feeling. This is the nature of reaction formation defences, which are designed to reduce anxiety and it is this which we are looking at when we see a child who is hyper aligned to one parent and rejecting the other.
In all respects we are looking at a mirror image of what is really going on when we see a child who is showing alignment and rejection and it is this which we must get to grips with if we are to see beyond the current mythology which has been carefully spun for us by the ideological campaign groups. This mirror image, which looks like a child who is rejecting a parent and saying that parent is harmful to them, is actually a reaction formation defence in the child, against the anxiety that they are experiencing from the parent to whom they are seen to cling to fearfully. A simple way to understand this is to look at school refusal, which is another area in which children use reaction formation defences in order to cope with an impossible situation.
In school refusal, it is widely known and accepted that the child refuses to go to school, not because of something that is happening at school (even though the child will say that it is), but because of something that is happening at home. The child cannot leave home because of their anxiety about a parent or parents, there is something happening at home which is causing the child to feel so afraid, that they must defend against that anxiety and fear and deny it and project it onto their experience of school. The fear and anxiety about what is happening at home, is so big, that the child defends against it by becoming afraid of school, which has the benefit of enabling the child to cling to the parent who is making them anxious and afraid.
In divorce and separation, the same principle applies. The child is threatened by something that the aligned parent is doing and becomes hyper anxious and afraid. This is either threat of abandonment – if you go to the other parent’s home I don’t know how I will cope or whether I will be here when you get back – or overt threats – he is a bad and dangerous man who has hurt me and you will be hurt too if you see him – or enmeshment – you and I are one person and you must feel as I feel – or parentification – you must take care of me, I am afraid and lonely and cannot cope without you …..
Many of these messages to the child are in the inter-psychic relationship (between minds) and are not explicit threats at all. The result of this pattern of behaviour however, is that the child is forced into use of the defence of splitting, in order to regulate the parent who is pressuring them and in order to defend against the anxiety that causes. When the defence is in play, the child splits the self, denies their own reality, develops a false self which is omnipotent and often grandiose in nature and then projects the split of dislike and hatred onto the rejected parent.
This complex and yet at the same time, very simple defence, is incredibly difficult to treat in the environment where there are constant running battles between campaign groups. Trying to treat school refusal amidst controversy between parents and school teachers about whether it is the parent or the school which is the source of the problem, would be the same. Only it isn’t, because in school refusal, absent of anything that is seen to be happening at school, it is accepted that this is a defence in the child which tells us that something is going on at home which needs to be addressed. In the case of children of divorce and separation who refuse contact with a parent outright and cling anxiously to the other parent, in the absence of anything that is seen in the relationship with the rejected parent which is causing this, there is something going on in the relationship with the parent to whom the child is aligned which is the cause. Our task is to find out what it is and when we know what it is, we can treat it and treating it always means, (just like school refusal), building a programme of intervention which addresses the child’s anxieties at home with the aligned parent and then supporting the child to encounter the split off and projected experience (of school or parent who is rejected).
I was reading recently, that Salvador Minuchin, father of family therapy, had to rewrite some of his work in the seventies to placate feminists who did not like his theories of family and how to heal the problems therein. It lead me to understand, how the school of structural family therapy, (the very therapy which had at its heart, all of the understanding and treatments necessary to deal with alienation of children after divorce and separation), got lost as a treatment route for this problem. It got lost because the issue of children’s hyper alignment and rejection, became a political football between campaigners for mothers and fathers rights. It got lost because the theory of parental alienation, which is treatment light, meaning there is little there to help clinicians to treat the problem, led clinical work down a blind alley.
In the five decades since then, all that has happened is that the label parental alienation, which is in reality a label which is used in legal terms but which has little of benefit in clinical treatment, has been used as that same political football, kicked one way by its advocates and the other way by its detractors. In the midst of which, children who could have been helped, have lost their right to an unconscious childhood, because everyone has been busy arguing over a label which means, in clinical terms, nothing very much at all.
Alienation of children in divorce and separation is a real psychological problem, which is caused by induced psychological splitting, a defence which causes lasting harm to a child but which, like school refusal, is treatable in the right conditions.
Behind the label lies the reality, working with the reality brings change for children and changing alienated children’s lives is what we are all about.