The Challenges in treatment of children who are induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation

Working with children who suffer from induced psychological splitting after the divorce or separation of one of their parents, is a challenge in many ways. The issue of a child’s rejection of a parent is still one which is being hotly contested in campaign terms around the world and the use of ‘parental alienation theory’, has recently been challenged in some European countries.

Even within teams working with children who reject a parent there are challenges to overcome before conditions can be created which promote the resolution of the split state of mind in a child. This field is criss crossed with the signs of split thinking, which in reality is the defence of denial and projection. Helping children in this fractured landscape is extremely difficult indeed.

I work with alienated children and their families. In doing so I work from the perspective of understanding how splitting is induced in children and how to assess where the pressures are arising in a family system where a child is rejecting a parent. Understanding how and why a child is using induced psychological splitting as a defence is not rocket science in my view, the question is not why does this happen, but why does it not happen more often. As I wrote in my last blog, the reason why it doesn’t happen more often is, in my clinical experience, down to the presence or absence of developmental trauma in the child who goes on to use splitting as a defence.

When the step approach to understanding how a child came to use psychological splitting as a defence is used, the practitioner gaze is drawn not to the parent who is being rejected but to the parent to whom the child is strongly aligned. Whilst the naive practitioner will spend their time reasoning why a child would reject a parent, examining that parent for the behavioural patterns which hook into their confirmation bias, the alienation aware practitioner looks at the parent to whom the child is aligned. In doing so, we examine this relationship for the signs of a fused coaltion between parent and child, enmeshment of the relationship and the identification with the aggressor dynamic in which the child is aligned to a parent who is terrorising them with an abandonment threat. The step approach begins with ascertaining whether the child is using psychological splitting as a defence (the child divides their feelings for parents into good and bad) and leads on from there to examine how the child was forced into a position where they cannot hold their feelings for their parents in mind in an integrated way.

This is a rolling programme of assessment, it is not snapshot view, it determines how the family system operates under scrutiny and it delivers intervention where it is possible over the period of time it is being delivered. Held within the Court system (this programme is currently used in the High Court in England and Wales) this intervention is interlocked with the legal framework to provide a detailed excavation of what is causing the problem, how deep the psychological splitting is present and whether it is responsive to practitioner input. Where it is, therapeutic work can be undertaken in situ, where it is not, the Court may need to make changes to the care arrangements for the child in order to provide protection from the harm that the child is suffering in the care of the parent to whom they are aligned.

As such this is a child protection approach to treatment of induced psychological splitting which is no different to the approaches used when a child is being abused in other ways. The difference in the case of induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation, is that the harm caused by the actions of the parent causing it, is not yet universally understood very well. When it is, just like a parent who causes a child to believe that being hit or sexually abused is a normal part of life, the parent who causes a child to feel afraid, dismissive, contemptuous or disdainful towards the other and who attempts to normalise that or who fails to recognise that the child is an individual with sovereign rights to their own feelings, will be recognised as the abusive parent.

One of the challenges to doing this work currently is the organised campaign to mischaracterise alienation of children as something which is only used by abusive fathers to escape domestic abuse allegations. Once again, the naive person in this field, when listening to these campaigners, will be drawn to hearing the lurid stories being passed around about how children are being ‘handed to their abusers’ via a court system which is systemically biased against protective mothers. Alienation aware people however, will be drawn to examine the narratives of these campaigns and their underlying intent. In doing so, the recognition that the split state of mind, which is seen in families affected by alienation, is being displayed within these campaigns, explains the vehemence within which these campaigns are operated. Denial of all wrong doing and projection of blame are the twin dynamics which are clearly articulated. When that is understood, the work which is being done by these campaigns, which is to obfuscate the reality of what happens to children who are induced to use psychological splitting, is clear.

Working with alienated children and families in concentric circles of influence, the aware practitoner must ensure that the counter – intuitive grasp of the psychological dynamics within these families, is held firmly. This work is not for the practitioner who is drawn to alignment with ideological views on either side of the campaign fence. Nor is it for those who think they know better than the established research on working with denial and projection and splitting. Anyone who attempts to do this work by shoe horning the alienated child and family into undapted therapeutic approaches will fall foul of the confirmation bias which blinds them to the reality of what is really going on. This work is about smoke and mirrors, denial and projection, absorption of fractured psychological material and reflection of expected behavioural changes. This work takes its toll on the practitioner, which is why working with alienation aware colleagues is absolutely necessary for longer term survival.

When outcomes for children who are in this state of mind are achieved rapidly, it is because the team around the family held the boundary tightly so that the children could integrate the split state of mind. When that occurs, from the Judge to the social worker and all in between, resolution is swift for the child. The task then is to deliver the longer term therapy which determines whether the influencing parent who was strongly aligned to the child, can change. Once again this is a combined assessment and treatment programme which evaluates the potential for the influencing parent to change and sustain that change.

Those who do this work successfully, understand the step approach necessary to establish, evaluate, differentiate, assess and treat the problem. The challenges in treatment of children, are to get that step approach right and have it held in place by the expectation of the court in a landscape in which practitioners are being constantly bombarded by incoming attacks from the campaign world.

When the world understands the harm that induced psychological splitting does to children, the work will get easier. In so many ways it already is, but there is much work yet to be done to make prevention, intervention and cure, routinely possible.


Family Separation Clinic Evaluation

The work of the Clinic is being evaluated by a UK University team to provide an evidence base for accredited training for professionals who work with children affected by induced psychological splitting in divorce and separation. Building upon our existing training provision, online training courses for social workers, psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, using the step approach to differention/assessment and treatment of families developed by the Clinic will be made available. Developing our existing training for social workers and the Judiciary, the evidence based outcomes from over a decade of work, will be articulated and explained within the training programmes. The new programmes will be ready in 2022 alongside outputs from the evaluation of our work.

International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children (Formerly EAPAP)

The fourth conference of this senior group of clinicians in this field, will take place in Israel in 2022. Renamed as the International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children, this group will produce practice standards for practitoners who wish to work in a psychoanalytic model of understanding and differentiation and a trauma informed model of prevention and intervention with children and families affected by induced psychological splitting after divorce and separation.

Membership of this group is by invitation. The conference programme for Israel 2022 will be available later this year.

Nick Woodall and Karen Woodall – Lecture to the Conference Together Against Parting – June 15th 2021 – Poland

The together against parting conference is organized by Komitet Ochrony Praw Dziecka as part of the project of standardisation. pl from the Program Aktywni Obywatele-Fundusz Krajowy Programme Financed by the EEA Fund grant.

4 comments

  1. Hi Karen,

    Could the presence of developmental trauma in children be something along the lines of poor attachment bonds?

    To set the scene…
    As a serving soldier I worked away from home a lot when my eldest daughter was born (2001) and to make ends meet I undertook a lot of additional HGV driving outside my regular working hours so I was not home very much.

    In 2003, I had go to the Gulf just a few short weeks after my second daughter was born and was away for several months. Working away from home as well as dodgy hours was the norm throughout my both my daughters and my Son’s lives until 2013.

    My boy was born 2009 but in 2010 until I was discharged (2013) I was pretty much a weekend dad working in Tidworth (Wiltshire) whilst my ex wife and the kids lived in our own home in Nottinghamshire, I only saw my family at weekends and on leave periods.

    My lose understanding is that attachment bonds are formed during the early stages of a babies development, therefore to my mind, in my absence during this period of brain development – as well as up to adolescence- will have likely led to a weak attachment bonds being formed. I was never the ‘go to parent’ if you will. Effectively I was unreliable, here one minute & gone the next.

    Could this be a trauma – In terms of babies/child development, manifesting itself in the present as rejection? (With a little help from adult influence).

    My experience is both girls severed our relationship just two weeks after separation. My son being 6 at the time really didn’t have a say.

    Best wishes.

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    1. Yes Rob, this is the kind of scenario which is seen. The scenario is – one parent very close, one parent at distance or close and then distant and a child who is vulnerable because of attachment trauma. It is not because attachmenr is weak however, it is because it is disrupted and not consistent, causing a child to maladapt the attachment which is then distorted further by the influencing parent. K

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      1. Thank you Karen, Would you believe not one ‘professional’ in my own experience has ever given this any consideration. I wonder how many servicemen and women are effected? Arguably ‘the ultimate sacrifice’ takes on a whole new and equally painful meaning for some families.

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  2. Re: June 7 Blog post “terrorizing (the children) with an abandonment threat” Brilliant wording/phraseology. As a person well-versed in this area (I’ve heard you and Nick speak at PASG, etc, read your books and all cutting-edge research, and been on the front-lines of a family with court-ordered intervention/extensive orders designed to protect the threatened parent/child bonds – and those bonds were, ultimately, *successfully protected* albeit at tremendous financial/psychic cost to the parent whose bond was threatened) I am in awe/appreciation of how your work continues to evolve. I witnessed (and the now adult children have subsequently confirmed) kids constantly being threatened with the loss of the manipulating parent – often thru non-stop calls and texts that would alarm the child that there would be imminent injury, even death if the child did not promptly end the visit and return. As Amy Baker’s work points out, this is terrorizing. But I find its a key cause of splitting that is so poorly understood (by judges/psychologists). Your latest posts are excellent on many levels – as you must now. However, when I see a phrase that simply conveys this counter-intuitive situation with any easy-to-understand phrase – its simply brilliant. One parent terrorizes the child by abandonment threats (from I get-sick-with-worry-when-you-are-gone, to I-get-so-sick-with-worry-and-am-now-throwing-up-and-may-die, to if-you-don’t-tell-the-other-parent-that-you-want-to-come-back-with-me-immediately-you-are-dead-to-me: don’t ever come back). Keep up the great work – and I love that you are working with rescuing parent/child bonds with older children. That also appears to be a key to advancing greater understanding and success rates! Cheers – J.J.

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