When child abuse looks like love: protecting children from psychological and emotional harm

Karen and Nick Woodall

The task to demonstrate that a child who is rejecting a parent outright is displaying symptoms of hyper-alignment with the parent they are clinging to, continues. This parent is often referred to by campaigners as the protective parent, when in reality they are anything but protective. The problem for many professionals and, for the outside world in general, is that until the reality of the psychological and emotional abuse which underpins alienation is properly articulated and recognised, this abuse, which looks like love, will continue.

What do we mean by abuse which looks like love? What we mean is that to the outside world, the child is strongly aligned to one parent and outright rejecting the other. This behavioural display is, in itself, the first red flag that tell us that something is wrong because children who do not have a relationship with a parent, children who are afraid of a parent and children who have been physically or otherwise abused by a parent, do not reject that parent outright. When they reject for what is called a justified reason, their rejection is more hesitant, more ambivalent, less stringent and determined. When they reject outright, particularly if that rejection is accompanied by disdain and dismissal of a parent’s feelings, the defence of psychological splitting has come into play. The child is using a coping mechanism which resolves the problem they face of being unable to hold two realities in mind.

Children who cannot hold two realities in mind are being pressured to reject one and align with the other and that occurs either because of deliberate and conscious strategies, because of unconscious leakage of feeling from adults to children, because a parent has a serious personality disorder which is impacting upon the child or the child is enmeshed and parentified or spouseified. Sometimes a mix of all of these elements of pressure are in play, sometimes it is a clear and distinct pattern of behaviours in a parent which is seen and sometimes alienation and counter alienated strategies are being deployed by parents. Whatever the combination of factors, the result is that the child is unable to tolerate the emotional and psychological pressure and defensive splitting is the result.

Defensive splitting looks like a child who says no to a relationship with a parent. It looks like the child is rejecting the parent. On closer investigation however, what the child is doing is hyper aligning with a parent who is causing them harm, the child is using denial, splitting and projection, to cope with that and is reconfiguring that harmful behaviour to mean love. Many parents have asked why, a child who has witnessed domestic abuse, will align with the abuser and reject the abused parent. The answer to that is simple. The child who is pressured through witnessing domestic abuse, knows at an unconscious level that if the abusive parent can do that to the abused, they can do it to the child. Children adapt their behaviours in such circumstances, splitting off their awareness that the abusive parent is causing harm and identifying instead with that parent, joining with them in a campaign of determined rejection in order to ensure that they do not receive the same abuse. The reconfiguration of abuse as love in the child’s mind, allows them to live with the abusive parent. The same occurs in a situation where a child is being enmeshed with a parent and who is aware that the parent requires them to confirm their allegiance. Despite knowing that they love the other parent, they will split off that feeling, make it unconscious and deny all feeling for that parent, in order to regulate and keep stable, the parent who is enmeshed with them. Both scenarios are abusive to the child, who is required to give up their right to an unconscious childhood in order to keep a parent psychologically and emotionally regulated. The first scenario is more likely to occur with abusive fathers and the second with abusive mothers. In both situations, the abusive parent will claim that they are protecting the child from the harm being caused by the rejected parent.

The red flag of alienation is the child’s defensive splitting behaviours. When a child outright rejects and that is accompanied by hyper alignment, particularly with disdain from the child about the rejected parent, alienation of the child’s own self from the self is likely. Evidence of the child’s inauthenticity can be heard in their language patterns and rigid behavioural displays. The child who is in this situation is potentially being seriously harmed because they are often beyond parental control, having been given the decision making power by the aligned parent and the other parent has been pushed to the absolute margins of the child’s life. It is being beyond parental control which takes the level of harm to the Welfare Threshold in the UK and fortunately, with more professionals in social work and the psychological therapies, becoming aware of the risk of harm to a child in this position, better outcomes for children are being seen.

The task to demonstrate the harm being done to children in situations where they are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence after divorce and separation is one which requires tenacity, particularly in the face of the toxicity surrounding these families which at times spreads out into the professionals around them and which is relentless in the ideological campaigns. These campaign groups, which often feature people whose profiles mirror the problematic behaviours seen in parents who are found to cause serious harm to children, lead to uncontained attacks on professionals. which put many off this work. Those of us who continue on despite this, do so because protecting children from harm is the primary driver in doing this work, which will not stop until the outside world is aware of the serious nature of the impact of this on children.

I received an email last week, one of many I receive every week, this one, shared with permission, describes, for me, the reality of what children who are induced to use psychological splitting suffer.

Dear Karen,

I read what you write and I think it applies to me. I am a thirty eight year old woman and I rejected my mother when I was twelve years old. I haven’t seen her since I was thirteen, when a social worker tried to help our family but failed. That is twenty five years ago and I have spent most of that time hating my mother and staying out of her way, even though she lives just two miles from where I live now. Three months ago I found out that my mother is dying of cancer, she is only sixty three. I found out by accident from a friend of a friend and whilst my first thought was ‘good, I am glad the old bag is not going to be here for much longer’ I found myself crying uncontrollably over the following weekend. Since then I have felt incredibly low and actually very frightened, I keep thinking what if she dies before I see her, how can I see her, what can I say and then I swing back to hating her and feeling that if she dies I will feel happier. But in truth I know I won’t feel happier, I know that I will be absolutely torn apart, I can feel it sometimes, it feels like being sick with feelings and then just as suddenly, it goes away again. I feel confused about this, one moment I am panicking then next I am strangely numb and unaffected. I feel as if there are two of me sometimes and when I read what you write about splitting, I wonder if I am feeling things that I couldn’t feel then because my father was so determined that I should not see my mother. I was very frightened of my dad at some level. Not because he hit me or hurt me but because I knew that he was so hurt by my mother leaving and because I worried every day about what would happen if I went to school and something happened to him. Rejecting my mother was part of me looking after him and I suppose showing him that he had someone, that he wasn’t going to be alone. It went on for a long time, so long that I don’t know now what I can do to change how I feel. My dad is remarried now and happy, he doesn’t need me as he did for a decade after my mum left. I live on my own, I have never had a serious relationship. I see my dad and his wife regularly and they have two younger children who are my half siblings. I just wish that I could work out what I feel and how to do something about this situation. Can you help me?

This woman, like so many other adults out there, is suffering. Her mother is suffering. This loss, which is caused by the triangulation of children into adult matters after divorce and separation, continues to cause suffering all over the world.

When the outside world understands that very often in this situation, what looks like love is actually child abuse, our job will be done. Until then, I will keep doing what I do regardless.

14 thoughts on “When child abuse looks like love: protecting children from psychological and emotional harm

  1. Beyond sad. So desperately sad for her in her turmoil. So many years lost. I despair that’s what’s ahead for us. It’s been a decade of hurt and 8 years of lost relationship already. How much longer before the scales lift from the eyes and heart, and the wall(s) come down.

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  2. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    “The red flag of alienation is the child’s defensive splitting behaviours. When a child outright rejects and that is accompanied by hyper alignment, particularly with disdain from the child about the rejected parent, alienation of the child’s own self from the self is likely. Evidence of the child’s inauthenticity can be heard in their language patterns and rigid behavioural displays. The child who is in this situation is potentially being seriously harmed because they are often beyond parental control, having been given the decision making power by the aligned parent and the other parent has been pushed to the absolute margins of the child’s life. It is being beyond parental control which takes the level of harm to the Welfare Threshold in the UK and fortunately, with more professionals in social work and the psychological therapies, becoming aware of the risk of harm to a child in this position, better outcomes for children are being seen.”

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    1. “It has been said that if child abuse and neglect were to disappear today, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual would shrink to the size of a pamphlet in two generations, and the prisons would empty. Or, as Bernie Siegel, MD, puts it, quite simply, after half a century of practicing medicine, ‘I have become convinced that our number-one public health problem is our childhood’.” (Childhood Disrupted, pg.228).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. While acknowledging this is very real and very sad, it doesn’t account for children who made the brace decision to disconnect form an abusive (emotionally, psychologically) parent! To try multiple times to reconnect with boundaries only to be continuously hurt and manipulated and so to have to decide to completely shut out that parent. We can not question or discount those circumstances.

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    1. Who is discounting those circumstances Lodges? This is not about one versus the other, this is about alienated children and so I do not really see the point of your comment.

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  4. Thank you for sharing the letter (above). As an alienated mother whose daughter turned on me from age 15 (while I was still married to her alienator dad and had no idea what was really going on) and is now a 40 year old adult (with no contact since 2014 when I knew I had to leave her dad for my own sanity), I worry about what I’ll leave behind when I’m gone. Either my daughter will feel as the alienated daughter feels and expresses so well in her letter, or she’ll feel nothing. I have left many pages for my daughter telling of good times with her dad (and bad) but most of all trying to tell my daughter to live her life and be happy. The last thing I want her to feel is guilt because none of it was her fault. The bond we had is broken and I can relate to the soul searching in the letter. It goes both ways, I think the same things too. It’s beyond sad.

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  5. As a mum, closer in age to the daughter than the mum in the letter, I would say to the daughter “run to your mother and tell her you love her and look after her before is too late!”

    It will change both of their life and the daughter will benefit even more! They will restart living both of them!

    I hope the daughter reads this, I really do:
    I am sure your mum will welcome you back with open arms and that’s all her hearth desires; don’t think about what to say, words will come naturally; only two concepts to keep in mind “you love her and you are sorry” you have no confusion over these two points, your letter explains that well!

    I just hope she does it!

    I have stopped believing my boys ever will now… but I really hope to be wrong, that’s the only hope I have now.

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  6. This is so tragic! As I grow older and my now 28-year-old daughter and my 32-year-old son continue to live in the fog after 15 years (they still live with their father), I feel so many emotions. On the one hand, I don’t want them to have to go through what this person is going through and come to the realization that who they have become has been based on lies and as Willow says, “The last thing I want her to feel is guilt because none of it was her fault.” On the other hand, I want them to heal so they don’t pass this on.

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  7. A good, informative article. …

    A psychologically and emotionally sound (as well as a physically healthy) future should be all children’s foremost right — especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter.

    Trauma from unchecked child abuse/neglect typically results in the helpless child’s brain improperly developing. If allowed to continue for a prolonged period, it acts as his/her starting point into an adolescence and (in particular) an adulthood in which its brain uncontrollably releases potentially damaging levels of inflammation-promoting stress hormones and chemicals, even in non-stressful daily routines. In short, it can make every day an emotional/psychological ordeal, unless the mental turmoil is doused with some form of self-medicating.

    Meanwhile, general society perceives thus treats human procreative rights as though we’ll somehow, in blind anticipation, be innately inclined to sufficiently understand and appropriately nurture our children’s naturally developing minds and needs. I find that mentality — however widely practiced — wrong and needing re-evaluation, however unlikely that will ever happen.

    Proactive measures may be needed to avoid later having to reactively treat (often with tranquilizing medication) potentially serious and life-long symptoms caused by a dysfunctional environment, neglect and/or abuse. And if we’re to avoid the dreadedly invasive conventional reactive means of intervention—that of governmental forced removal of children from dysfunctional/abusive home environments—maybe we then should be willing to try an unconventional proactive means of preventing some future dysfunctional/abusive family situations. Child development science curriculum might be one way. Furthermore, mental health-care needs to generate as much societal concern — and government funding — as does physical health, even though psychological illness/dysfunction typically is not immediately visually observable.

    I can’t help wondering, how many instances there have been wherein immense long-term suffering by children of dysfunctional rearing might have been prevented had the parent(s) received, as high school students, some crucial child development science education by way of mandatory curriculum? (After all, dysfunctional and/or abusive parents, for example, may not have had the chance to be anything else due to their lack of such education and their own dysfunctional/abusive rearing as children.)

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  8. Hi Karen, I hope you are well.

    I have an issue which feels like this.

    My l/o is 4 now & has lived with me since 2018. Since that time l/o has only stayed with me. Before the change of residence, mother alleged I was an abuser. L/o was presented at doctors countless times with “symptoms” caused by me which were all resulted in ‘nil found’ They were false, unseen or exaggerated illnesses (i.e teething is physical trauma – nappy rash is sexual abuse etc)

    Serious findings were made in 2020 in regards to the nature of these appointments as well as emotional & psychological side of coaching a child to believe the father is to be feared. I suppose it was identified that it was child abuse disguised as love . Lots of false & malicious allegations against me too to muptile services.

    Nowadays, FoF has concluded and we await a DRA & Psychological assessment of the mother.

    Fully supervised contact in a centre is resuming in the interim but in the first two sessions my l/o has received all of her wrapped Xmas and birthday gifts (in April – some she brought home and some were withheld) & today the supervisor mentioned at the end that my l/o seemed “tired & under the weather” and she “lay down for a while” although contact was at midday. Her presentation after and before the session was well and as lively as can be! She has another 4 sessions coming up & I just wonder if mother is laying the foundations to make the case that child is unwell, with negative connotations about l/o in my care. The supervisor may not understand the significance of this or that they are being influenced by mother’s behaviour. Mother comes across quite well to new people.

    My l/o goes to school & after school club and only has positive reviews about how she gets on. She is perfectly fine in every sense.

    In previous contact sessions in 2019 my daughter has complained of tummy aches & toothaches (one supervisor even inspected her teeth and recorded possible decay) resulting in me organising a dentist appointment in which the dentist said they were all perfect and wrote a strongly worded letter for me to hand to the supervisor!

    Perhaps this behaviour is unable to be controlled by the mother and forms her condition but it is concerning. I am quite aware of this now but when a new supervisor takes charge of contact, the mother appears very caring & considerate – despite the behaviours having more of a significant meaning. I just wondered what you may think about this in your professional opinion.

    Thanks again for reading.

    CT

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    1. CT, you must seek permission to disclose the judgment to any supervisor, school, GP or any person who will have responsibility for protecting your child. If mother has something like factitious illness, your child will be susceptible to mother’s intra-psychic influence and must be proected from her. You have the respnsiblity now, to ensure that you protect your child and you are sufficiently aware of the risk so do not hold back from ensuring that the risks are raised in order to provide maximum protection. I agree,mother may not be able to understand hr own behaviours and so you protect first, supervise second and keep exposure limited until there is the right kind of psychological supprt to help mother to change. K

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  9. Hi Karen

    I am serialising an abridged version of my novel Road of Legends in a weekly paper. It is about parental alienation, and the presence of the dad is revealed in chapter 11. It’s also about how stories and storytelling can possibly help heal. if you had any time would value your thoughts. here is the link to chapter 11. following chapters out each week till end of June. https://www.eastlothiancourier.com/news/19251248.tims-book-road-legends-chapter-11-macfarlanes-lantern/

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