Alienation of Children in divorce and separation: A legacy of Transgenerational trauma

“Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood.”

― Alice Miller

Working with alienated children and their families teaches me that what is popularly called parental alienation, is in fact, most often, a transgenerational trauma pattern which is passed in the attachment relationships to appear in the here and now as an alienation reaction in a child.

What this means is that when a case of a child’s outright rejection of a parent is analysed, the roots of the behavioural patterns seen, lie in the family tree on one (sometimes but not often both) side of the child’s family. The child’s hyper alignment with one parent and rejection of the other, accompanied by contempt and disdain for the rejected parent, is a result of a trauma, long buried, which has erupted in the present day. The child’s manifestation of disdain and contempt, is the confirmation of the presence of what Winnicott (1960) called the false persona. When the issue of alienation of a child in divorce and separation, is understood through a psychoanalytic lens therefore, the reality of what we are working with is unresolved trauma in the family line.

‘Postmemory’ . . . the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before–to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, andbehaviours among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. Post memory’s connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection,and creation. To grow up with overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness, is to risk having one’s own life stories displaced, even evacuated, by our ancestors.

HIrsch 2012

My work is largely with the group of children who are the most seriously alienated, those who make false allegations and those who display extreme behavioural patterns. Within this group of families, the issue of factitious illness, personality disorder and encapsulated delusions feature strongly. There is a quality about this group which separates it from others in the spectrum of alienation. That quality is, in my experience, the behavioural patterns which are seen to emanate from one parent, overshadowing the children and eventually, as in an encapsulated delusion, causing the child to enter into the belief that what is being said about the other parent is reality, even when it is demonstrable that it is not.

When an encapsulated delusion is in play, the person who suffers it will become fixated upon the belief that they know the truth that others do not. In their efforts to persuade others that theirs is the true version of what is going on, they will escalate their stories about the target of their delusional belief. When a child is being influenced by this kind of behaviour, they are vulnerable to persuasion, that what they feel and believe is untrue. The families where this kind of behavioural pattern emerges, are inward looking and closed to the outside world. Children who live within this environment do not have words for their experiences because they are living a life which is prescribed by the generation before.

Abrahams and Torok (1994) called this experience ‘nescience’ and articulated it as a family secret which was passed silently through the generations. Neuroscience gives us the evidence of how this happens in the description of the limbic system in human beings and how this creates neural networks between people who are emotionally close. A neural network is how a toddler makes sense of how to feel for example, if a parent reflects that falling over in the park is no big deal, the toddler will learn that it is no big deal and will cope with the experience. If a parent is anxious and afraid of the toddler falling over, the toddler will learn that running in the park is a potentially harmful thing to do. ( Lewis, Amini & Lannon 2000). The child is dependent upon its caregivers first in learning how to make sense of experience, if the caregiver overshadows the child with their own, unresolved material, the child, in relational space, which is actually the neural network between the child and parent, will learn the lessons which are conveyed by anxiety and fear.

My own clinical observations of alienated children demonstrate that many have no words to describe what they are experiencing when a parent is overshadowing them with an unresolved trauma. Many children repeat a mantra along the lines of ‘he knows that he has done‘ but cannot articulate it any further than that. Other children will repeat descriptions of parents which have echoes heard in the family to whom the child is aligned. ‘She was never really good at being a mum‘ being one of the commonest phrases in cases where fathers are overshadowing a child’s experience. This is often echoed by the paternal grandmother and when it is, it is there where the investigation into trauma would normally begin because the narrative of failed motherhood, is often one which has been repressed. Ghosts of unresolved traumas, passed through the attachment relationship (Salberg 2015), are given voice in the here and now and by listening carefully to what is being said in the present, the past can and does reveal itself.

In my view, what is popularly called parental alienation, is the manifestation of such a secret in the form of the child’s hyper alignment and rejection behaviours, which are often caused by unresolved trauma.

When those unresolved traumas are excavated and understood, treatment routes are clearly delineated. Whilst much work has been done to curate different ways of describing what we are looking at, not much has been done to develop and describe how to treat it. Through a psychoanalytic lens, treatment of this problem becomes clear and the unusual aspects of treatment, for example the counter-intuitive approach which is necessary (a child who is rejecting a parent needs more time with that parent not less and there is no point in waiting for the child to say yes to seeing a parent because they cannot do so), are readily explained. The child’s rejection of a parent is a denial and projection defence, which arises from the overshadowing of the child by the influencing parent/grandparent’s unresolved trauma. The child is not afraid of the parent they are rejecting, (they are afraid of the consequences of not acting afraid). The child is not experiencing their own phobia about a parent who is being rejected, they are reacting to the anxiety and fear in the neural network with the parent/grandparent who is anxious and afraid.

This approach is far away from the concept of deliberate and malicious alienation of a child, although even where those behaviours are seen, I would argue, unresolved trauma is the foundation of it. Anger, anxiety and fear do not arise in a vaccum, they are products of a life lived with adults who can give children reassurance and resilience, or suspicion and mistrust. When families where children are severely alienated are examined, suspicion and mistrust are the predominant feedback loops present in the system.

In the current environment, where we have campaigns being run by people who claim that parental alienation is only a tool used by abusive fathers, I find myself wondering what the meta narrative of trauma which caused this is. When one understands neural networks, the way in which fear and anxiety in one person, will cause the same feeling in another, makes sense of the the lurid stories currently being passed around on the internet. Drawing attention to unresolved trauma, causes a denial and projection defence, in which to avoid the reality of what is being unearthed, defensive action is taken. One of the best ways of fending off scrutiny in such circumstances, is to project what is being denied and shout loudly that you can see it in other people.

The closer we get to exposing the reality of what is happening to some children in divorce and separation, the more fierce the projections become. That should not mean that we are stopped in our efforts to assist children, it should mean that we tread carefully because when a child says no and shows disdain and contempt, the legacy of family trauma, is not far away.


Hirsch, M. (2012),The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Lewis, T. Amina, F & Lannon, R. (2000) A General Theory of Love. NY: Vintage Books.

Miller, A. (1984). Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child. NY: Meridan Printing.

Salberg, J. (2015), The Texture of Traumatic Attachment:Presence and ghostly absence in transgenerational transmission. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 84: 21-46.

Winnicott, D. W. (1960). “Ego distortion in terms of true and false self“. The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International Universities Press, Inc: 140–57.

Family Separation Clinic Case Studies

The Evaluation which is currently being undertaken of the services delivered by the Family Separation Clinic over a decade, will include case studies of families where children were moved in residence transfer. These cases studies, which give depth information about the family background, will include the experience of children who are over the age of eighteen now. Reflecting upon the experience of being moved to a parent they said they hated and against whom some of the most serious allegations were made, these now adult children, will give testimony on the way that the intervention changed their lives.

3 thoughts on “Alienation of Children in divorce and separation: A legacy of Transgenerational trauma”

  1. While living with my ex husband I was aware that he tried to teach us all to fear everything. Fear failure, fear the neighbours, fear that man walking along the street, fear, fear, fear. Be angry, be fearful and be resentful. I suffered years of anxiety, depression and persistent bullying. I thought of ending my own life many times. I finally left 8 years ago. It terrified me to leave as I was afraid of him. I left because I realised I would never be allowed or able to have a normal relationship with my children if I stayed. My older two were already lost and I didn’t want to lose my youngest. Although we were very loving and close I still lost him 3 years later. I haven’t seen him in nearly 5 years. My ex has caused so much harm to so many people. My middle son, who is alienated, has developed serious mental health issues. My youngest lost his childhood and mother whom he loved. I do accept that David is ill however I also know that if this were illegal and punishable David wouldn’t have done this to the degree he has. He has done this because he can and he knows he can get away with it. Just as men used to know they could get away physical abuse, now they know they can get away with this. If mothers and fathers knew they risked prison or having their parental rights removed most would not do this. I believe this to be a mix of past childhood trauma and learnt behaviour but in many cases abuse is also part of the mix. If a person coercively controls their partners they will inevitably do the same to their children. The coercive control of a child (or adult) should be illegal. How is it that courts don’t understand that you cannot assess whether a child or adult is suffering from coercive control by asking them!


  2. This article is everything I have ever said about my ex husband’s mother, who has not only pushed my ex husband to alienate me from our youngest son, but she was also pivotal in causing the alienation between me and my first son (not her grandchild). My ex husbands father left his mother when my ex husband was 14, and set about alienating them from each other. There was sporadic contact, but it was tainted by the denigration of the father by the mother. Therein lies my ex husband’s unresolved trauma. I now wear the allegations of what happened between those two parents as the reasons why my ex husband has alienated our son, along with some good, old fashioned vindictiveness and bruised ego. My ex husband shows the exact same narcissistic traits that are obvious in his mother, and the two have “ganged up” against the common enemy; me.
    It is obviously far more complicated than that, but in a nutshell, our sone believes, or acts as if he believes, everything that is said about me, has rejected me 100%, is passing on the narrative that I am a bad mother and was abusive to his father for our 18 year relationship and that he is better off without me.


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