1. in Kleinian analysis and Fairbairnian theory, a primitive defense mechanism used to protect oneself from conflict, in which objects provoking anxiety and ambivalence are dichotomized into extreme representations (part-objects) with either positive or negative qualities, resulting in polarized viewpoints that fluctuate in extremes of seeing the self or others as either all good or all bad. This mechanism is used not only by infants and young children, who are not yet capable of integrating these polarized viewpoints, but also by adults with dysfunctional patterns of dealing with ambivalence; it is often associated with borderline personality disorder. Also called splitting of the object.
2. in cotherapy, divisiveness that a client provokes between therapists to polarize them on treatment decisions and to undermine the therapeutic process. Also called splitting situation.APA
Children in recovery from alienation from their own selves and a loved parent after divorce and separation, show distinct markers, one of which is early developmental trauma (Johnston & Roseby 2005). The longer I do this work with alienated children, the more I understand that the children who are most vulnerable to being induced to use psychological splitting as a defence mechanism after divorce and separation, are those who grow up in families where unresolved developmental trauma is a feature. Either the child themselves grew up with unresolved early trauma or one or both of their parents did. When a family history on both sides is collated, those children who are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence after parental divorce or separation, are seen to be situated within a family where trauma has transmitted itself, as described by Salberg (2015), through the attachment bonds, to appear as alienation in the present day.
The problem we call alienation of children in divorce and separation is a well known defence mechanism which is deployed by vulnerable children who are captured in the unresolved emotional and psychological landscape of parental divorce. These children are triangulated children, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time in their lives and they are used by a parent to meet their needs instead of vice versa. These children are compliant children, they service the needs of adults before they are even aware that they have their own needs. (Jurkoviic 1997). These are the children who align with one parent and reject the other and their experience is recognised by the division of their feelings into good and bad which are projected onto parental relationshoips as a splitting of the external object relationships of mother and father, which arise from the splitting of the child’s ego.
‘The Ego is incapable of splitting the object – internal and external – without a corresponding splitting taking place within the Ego.’Melanie Klein
When it is understood in psychoanalytic terms, the reality of what we see when children divide their feelings into wholly good and wholly bad after divorce and separation, is a well known defence mechanism which we all deploy at various times in order to avoid the complete fragmentation of our sense of self. The task for those of us who work with children who are induced to use this defence, is to understand how they came to use it in the first place, which of their parents is the cause and what is the depth of the unresolved trauma in the family we are looking at.
The more we understand psychological splitting, the more we recognise its impact. A child who cannot hold two realities in mind, has to adopt the use of psychological splitting to resolve the dillema they face. If they do not, the overwhelming of the child’s own ego would cause fragmentation of the sense of self. Splitting is a defence which protects us all from that outcome, it is little wonder that children of divorce and separation are induced to use it to protect themselves.
If one parent is overwhelmed or anxious or angry or decompensated in the face of the family separation, there is no space for the child’s own feelings. If the other parent responds to the control behaviours over the child, the space around the child is squeezed tighter. A child who is receiving messages that it is not ok to love both parents, whose once unified attachment is now split into two separate parts, is a child who is vulnerable to the use of splitting. The question on my mind is not ‘why does this happen’ but ‘why does this not happen more often?’
Because it is well evidenced that not all children who are subjected to the spectrum of behaviours which induce psychological splitting, do not enter into the use of that defence. Some will use it in some circumstances and not others, some will not use it at all. Some maintain absolute and resolute, recognition of what a parent is doing and refuse to be drawn in it. Others however, collapse like a pack of cards when a parent uses those behaviours and are not only drawn into trying to resolve the adult relationship, they jump into it as if their lives depend upon it. These are the children who when examined more closely, have suffered some form of early developmental trauma. These are what I would define as truly alienated children, those suffering from the triangulation into the adult breakdown whose own vulnerabilities mean that they cannot hold two realities in mind and whose fragile ego means that they have no other form of protection.
It is additionally well evidenced that not all children are drawn into the adult relationship via uncontained material from a parent (meaning unconscious influence). Some are deliberately and consciously induced to align with one parent and reject the other. These children present differently in my clinical experience, they are more startling in their allegations about a parent and they are more omnipotent in their efforts to control the family system. When a parent and child are seen to be in an angry, fused, dyadic coalition against the other parent, the child will often be seen to escalate allegations and embellish them. The key to understanding the presentation is to look at the way the child relates to each parent, a child who idealises one parent and denigrates the other, especially when they are seen to be in fierce alignment against the other parent, is the child who is more likely to have been exposed to deliberate strategies of alienation.
I want to say something about the way that alienated children present, in closing this piece because I saw something online recently, which really concerned me. What I saw was a video, purportedly made by a young person who had been alienated in childhood. This young person was giving advice about shared parenting and suggesting that had they been brought up by two parents, they may not have become alienated. I am extremely uncomfortable with this approach to what is actually stealth campaigning. This young person was not in my view alienated, she was either an actor or she was speaking the lines which had been written for her. Whilst her words fitted the to popular narrative about parents who prevent their child from having a relationship with the other, her presentation was nothing like an alienated child, either one who is currently alienated or one recovering from the problem.
Children who are induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation are often unable to know that they are suffering from it and so will deny it. This is because splitting is a defence and the purpose of the defence is to protect a vulnerable mind. As young people grow up and the brain develops, the balance between the different parts of the brain grows and there is a greater perspective and capacity for reflection. A young person recovering from induced psychological splitting however, will shift back and forth across the teenage years and twenties, seeking to integrate the sense of self and develop a stronger ego. During this period it is highly unlikely that their perspective will allow the kind of narrative that I witnessed in this video and when they enter into campaigning for the once rejected parent’s point of view, they have most definitely not healed, what they have done is continued the use of splitting by reversing who they are aligned with and who they are rejecting.
I want people who use online groups and videos, those who seek answers in all places, to know that there is risk in doing so. Everywhere I look nowadays, there are people claiming expertise and setting up campaigns and using language they do not really understand. Alienation of a child is a serious matter, it is a mental health issue not simply about a child who doesn’t want to spend the weekend or a growing child whose friends mean more to them at the moment. Please make sure that when you are looking for guidance and seeking answers, that you are careful about who you listen to. The internet is a wonderful thing, it is also a dangerous thing if not used with discrimination.
Induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation is a serious child protection issue. It involves working with psychologically unwell people who harm their children. It is not a matter of believing everyone who claims they are alienated just because they say they are, it is about careful differentiation and most of all about detailed and nuanced assessment and intervention. Take care out there. Most of all be careful about how your children see you, expecially if you are visible online. Telling a child they are alienated will never resolve the problem. A defence is there for a purpose, spend your time more wisely by analysising how the defence in the child arose in the first place and then seek the routes which give you the most information about how to help to heal that.
Children who are induced to use psychological splitting after divorce and separation are abused children. The more we understand about the problem, the more we know about how much protection these children and their families really need.
Jurkovic, G. J. (1997). Lost childhoods: The plight of the parentified child. Brunner/Mazel.
Johnston, Janet & Roseby, Vivienne. (2005). In the Name of the Child: A Developmental Approach to Understanding and Helping Children of Conflicted and Violent Divorce. Family Court Review. 36. 317-319. 10.1111/j.174-1617.1998.tb00511.x.
Salberg, J. (2015) The Texture of Traumatic Attachment: Presence and Ghostly Absence in Transgenerational Transmission, The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 84:1, 21-46, DOI: 10.1002/j.2167-4086.2015.00002.x
Family Separation Clinic Diary of Upcoming Events
Inaugral lecture of the Conference – Together Against Parting
Recognising and Responding to the Needs of the Alienated Child
Nick Woodall & Karen Woodall – 15th June 2021