Healing children and families affected by alienation after divorce and separation

The reason why parents mistreat their children has less to do with character and temperament that with the fact that they were mistreated themselves and not permitted to defend themselves.

Alice Miller

Whatever we call it, children who hyper align with one parent and reject the other after divorce and separation need our help. As children, they are powerless in the face of their dependency upon their parents and will do anything possible to adapt and cope with the circumstances they find themselves in. In clinical practice with families, helping children to integrate the split self is the first goal of intervention, in doing this, we encounter many splits within the family itself which radiate outwards from the original defensive splitting the child has utilised in order to cope with the pressures of adult dynamics around them.

Integrating the split state of mind in a child cannot be achieved by telling the child that they are alienated. In this respect, the label parental alienation is not useful in clinical practice. Whilst the label is in popular use, we do not subscribe to the idea that parental alienation is a mental condition in a child, rather it is a relational dynamic which arises when the configuration of unresolved issues triangulates the child into adult issues.

Relational trauma occurs because every part of us, from the moment we are born, is designed to be in relationship to others. We are driven to interpret and respond to interpersonal signals and we suffer psychological and emotional trauma when that neurobiological need is blocked. When our home environment hurts us, we develop defences and adapt our behaviours to survive. One of the survival mechanisms which has been used by generations of children in divorce and separation, is defensive splitting, which causes hyper alignment with one parent and outright rejection of the other. The tragedy for all of these children, is that the defence is well known and it is treatable but it has been hidden for too long behind denial and projection, two other defences which come into play when splitting occurs.

Divorce and separation causes relational trauma for children, some of whom do not recover and instead make significant adaptations to their behaviours. All around these children, a war rages between advocates for parents, the argument about parental alienation being something made up which is used by abusive fathers to harm protective mothers vs parental alienation being a real thing, is simply the arms war which obscures the reality of what is happening to the child.

Away from the war, the alienated child shows the reality of what this has done and the alienated adult children, show the lasting harm that all of this causes. Healing the child demands our focus is placed right there, where the original alienation occurred. Alienation of the child is an alienation of self from the self. It is the creation of the false self in order to defend against the adult dynamics. It is a primary wound from which many do not recover. On this day of awareness, my thoughts are first with the alienated child and those adults who as children were harmed and who did not, because they could not, recover.

“Part of what makes having a child such a morally transformative experience is the fact that my child’s well-being can genuinely be more important to me than my own. It may sound melodramatic to say that I would give my life for my children, but, of course, that’s exactly what every parent does all the time, in ways both large and small. Once I commit myself to a child, I’m literally not the same person I was before. My ego has expanded to include another person even though—especially though—that person is utterly helpless and unable to reciprocate. And even though—especially though—that person’s desires and goals may be very different from mine. That’s at the heart of the paradox of dependence and independence.”

― Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children

Those children whose lives are lived in a state of alienation of the self from the self, are those who did not have parents who could expand their ego to include their child, the tragedy being that the parent with most power and influence over the child, is the parent who uses the child to meet their own unmet childhood needs, pushing the parent with the capacity to put the child first, to the margins.

For decades this dynamic has been plain for all to see but we have failed to recognise what we are looking at and instead have spent our time fighting a war which is manufactured to keep children in the care of one parent and at distance from the other. What we are looking at is family trauma, unhealed splits and scars from divorce and separation which are caused by unwell parents who lack the capacity to parent effectively. We have enabled those parents to keep control of their children and push the healthy parent out of the childs life. In doing so we have failed generations of children. We must step out of this warzone and into a place of healing and health.

Alienation of children in divorce and separation is readily understood now, it is treatable and it does not need to leave a legacy of suffering and unresolved trauma. We know what the problem is, the task now is to get help to children, so that on April 25th in years to come, the world will know that their suffering is over.

Family Separation Clinic News

Evaluation and Training

The work of the Family Separation Clinic over the past decade is being evaluated by a UK University to give an evidence base for clinical practice with alienated children and their families. This will provide an evidence based, accredited training, in clinical work with alienated children and families from 2022. This training will include; evidence based differentiation of cases of alignment and rejection behaviours in children, focusing upon identification of the child’s route into the use of psychological splitting to offer a clear formulation of the necessary intervention. Interventions which interlock with the legal framework to provide rapid resolution of splitting in children and a therapeutic model of practice for adults alienated as children. The training is for those qualified in the helping therapies who seek to work in clinical practice with children and families.

EAPAP Conference 2022

EAPAP will change its name shortly to widen its scope to international clinical practice with alienated children and families. The fourth conference of this group of senior clinicians, will be held in Israel in 2022 and will be a hybrid of face to face and online delivery. Headline speakers will include those working in psychological and relational trauma, psychoanalysis, family therapy attachment plus specialists in family violence and coercive control. A new resource for clinicians in this field will be announced shortly. More news here soon.

4 thoughts on “Healing children and families affected by alienation after divorce and separation

  1. Thank you Karen. Insightful as always.

    I pray everyday for funds to have my daughter and I coached back into our lovely bond.



    1. I am working hard to finish the training for therapists which will enable anyone who wants to work with alienation to do so in the steps which bring about integration of the split state of mind Colleen. In the meantime you should look at therapeutic parenting resources, it is there where you will find how to do the work of bringing your daughter back into a healthy bond. I will also do some more low cost webinars soon. K


  2. Hi Karen
    This article could not be better timed. Today, many parents and grandparents are walking to raise awareness of alienation.
    In what appears to possibly be an orchestrated effort, I’ve seen some parents / grandparents posting and ignoring your advice that, “Integrating the split state of mind in a child cannot be achieved by telling the child that they are alienated. ”
    It is awful that parents and families may be getting advice which harms their prospects of seeing their children. Accordingly, we are sharing this post far and wide. This is what we have added:

    ‘ In her latest article, ‘HEALING CHILDREN AND FAMILIES AFFECTED BY ALIENATION AFTER DIVORCE AND SEPARATION,’ Karen Woodall gives advice which is clear and unambiguous.
    She states:

    ’Integrating the split state of mind in a child cannot be achieved by telling the child that they are alienated.’

    I’ve seen a number of parents ignore this advice and it has ended in disaster every single time.
    I fully comprehend why parents and grandparents feel that if a child understands, what has been going on and how they’ve been manipulated, the deadlock will be unlocked, the children will automatically come to their senses and everything will return to the way things were.
    If only this were true and things were that easy!
    In reality, telling a child they are / have been alienated is most likely to backfire and have the opposite effect to the outcome you long for.
    In reality, you will probably succeed in providing evidence to support the things an alienator has been saying about you.
    Furthermore, if ever you go to court, a judge would be highly unlikely to look favourably upon this.
    It is far more likely to at best delay and at worst ruin any prospects of contact.
    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE avoid any temptation to ignore Karen’s sound advice.


  3. We will have the fruits of ten years worth of work ready next year PS for parents to access and use with their children. There is one singular truth which those who understand alienation know – you cannot take down a defence by telling someone they have a defence – the defence is there for a reason, you have to find it and clear the dynamics which cause the defence. Equally, you cannot force, punish, persuade or educate a child out of splitting, you can only enable them to experience their way out of it. It is a defence, it is there because of an experience, change the experience and the defence will drop. When people know this they will know how to treat it, until then sadly, too many will cause their own alienation. Still, we must work with the parallel process, we can’t force, punish, educate or persuade people out of ignoring advice , that is their defence. We can only show people, allow them to experience their way out of the problem. The problem for too many is that they forget that the people they are listening to are also alienated from their children or have nothing to show for the advice that they give in terms of outcomes. Would you go to a doctor who told you to smoke and drink because it won’t affect your health? Would you pay a dentist who said she could fix your teeth but instead drilled holes in them and didn’t know what to do next? Alienated parents are amongst the most vulernable patients in the world and they need protecting but there is only so much protection can be given in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

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