Hyper alignment between children and parents after divorce and separation, is seen when a child is hyper (meaning excessively, as in hyper sensitive), aligned (meaning lined up with) one parent against the other. Hyper alignment which is accompanied by the child showing disdain and contempt for a parent, especially when that echoes the parent to whom they are aligned, is the real problem we are dealing with when we are working with what is popularly called parental alienation.
In my work with families where hyper alignment and rejection occurs, I have come to recognise that one of the problems we face, in helping others to understand what is happening to the child, is that what we are looking at when the child rejects, is a projection of the adult material which is emanating from the parent to whom the child is aligned. Therefore, whilst everyone is busy looking at the rejected parent, trying to find out what is needed to fix that parent, the parent causing the problem is not recognised as the cause. We need to shift our gaze and look not at the rejection but the hyper alignment, because it is in that dynamic, that the truth of what is happening to the child, can be found.
Being aligned to one parent’s narrative of the breakdown of the adult relationship is something that many children experience. It is not possible to entirely remove children from the end of the adult relationship, they, like the adults, have to live through an often messy and painful process. Life is ambivalent however, it is not clear cut and children do not, unless they are encouraged, permitted, persuaded or otherwise, become permanently triangulated into parental matters easily.
Many children in divorce and separation, also do not become advocates for their parent, even in circumstances where they have witnessed harm done by one or both parents. Most children who witness abuse of a parent, become either submissive in the face of the abusive parent or anxious about provoking the kind of behaviours towards them, which they have witnessed. Some children who witness abuse, align not with the abused parent but with the abuser, a dynamic which is explained by the defence of Ferenzi’s identification with the aggressor in which the child fears that if they do not align with the abuser, they will be next in line for that treatment. This explains why, some children who have witnessed the abuse of their mother, align not with her but with their abusive father.
When we call this issue parental alienation, our gaze is drawn to the parent who is being alienated. When we call this issue hyper parental alignment, our gaze is drawn to the parent to whom the child aligns. When we understand that hyper parental alignment, coupled with the child’s disdain and contempt for the parent they are rejecting, is evidence that something is wrong in the aligned relationship, we can stop wasting time trying to fix the rejected parent or find out what is wrong there and start to assess the real underlying dynamics.
Hyper parental alignment is caused by a range of behaviours which triangulate the child into adult matters –
- Enmeshment between the child and parent
- Identification with the aggressor dynamic
- Weak or leaky emotional and psychological boundaries
- Denial and projection
- Psychological splitting
Some or all of the above are seen in cases where a child is hyper aligned and rejecting in divorce and separation and as such, all should be investigated and assessed for the role they play in the hyper alignment because this is the evidence that a child has been induced to use psychological splitting as a defence.
Psychological splitting is an infantile defence and causing a child to return to the use of it is emotionally and psychologically harmful. To explain why it is harmful, watch this short video.
Parents who enable their child to enter into the belief that a good enough parent should be treated with contempt and disdain and who, on being shown the damage inducing that causes, are unable or unwilling to stop their behaviours or change them, are causing serious emotional and psychological harm to children.
The age group most likely to reject a good enough parent outright according to Fidler (2010) is 9-15 years, although I would argue from my own clinical experience that children as young as 8 can also be affected. The use of rejection as a coping mechanism in these children, is due to the fact that this is the period during which they are organising the personality (Munley 1975), which is why causing a child to reject, or upholding rejection as a tool with which to manage relationships, is so harmful to them. Children do not reject good enough parents and when they do (and there is clear evidence that the rejected parent has not done anything to warrant this), close examination of the hyper alignment to the other parent is necessary.
It is necessary because hyper alignment is caused by a number of pathological behaviours in the relationship between child and parent. Those pathological behaviours, which include hyper sensitivity in the parent (coupled often with complete lack of insight into the feelings of others), cause a pattern of coercive control of the child in its truest sense. A child is completely dependent upon a parent and even more so upon a parent who is enmeshing the child into their experience of the world. The abandonment threat that is conveyed by parents whose children are hyper aligned with them after divorce or separation, causes children fear and anxiety which in turn translates into the use of psychological splitting as a defence.
In my clinical case load, I see many parents in a hyper aligned relationship with a child, who suffer from personality disorders. Referrals to the Clinic for treatment, demonstrate that the most common PD present in parents, which is diagnosed by psychologists or psychiatrists when children are hyper aligned after divorce or separation is emotionally unstable personality disorder which is also known as borderline personality disorder. EUPD is difficult to treat and one of the strongest symptoms seen is the use of the defence of psychological splitting. When a child is in the care of a parent who has EUPD, the child becomes susceptible to seeing the world in a psychologically split way too. EUPD parents lack strong clear boundaries and their sense of self is fragmented and not integrated, for these parents, everything is personal and everyone who does not see them as perfect, is persecutory. When a parent like this has all of the power over the child, to the point where they have overwhelmed the child with their own anxieties and lack of regulation and where they lack insight and cannot change, protecting the child is the most urgent intervention necessary. EUPD is not the only personality disorder seen in this group of parents, but it is a common one. Signs of EUPD are lack of insight, personalising everything, seeing others as the problem and the self as perfect/imperfect, idealising and demonising others, lack of emotional and psychological containment, needing to denigrate others to make the self feel stable.
Children’s hyper alignment with a parent in divorce and separation, when accompanied by disdain and contempt from the child to the parent being rejected and where the rejected parent is good enough and the parent to whom the child is aligned is unable to change, requires inervention. How we intervene depends upon what is seen when the child’s relationship with the parent to whom they are hyper aligned is assessed. At the Clinic, we now work primarily with cases after fact finding and after psychological assessment has been undertaken, meaning that we have the maximum amount of information needed to provide interventions which protect the child and stabilise the care they are being given. In addition, we are working with an increasing number of social workers, in cases which have passed the welfare threshold, using structured clinical trials to test whether behavioural change is possible in situ. As such, recognition of this as as a child protection issue, is strengthening.
Protecting children during the formation of personality and enabling them to live free of the risk of induced psychological splitting is a core goal of this work. Finding ways to help other practitioners understand, assess and treat the problem is the outcome of over a decade of work with these families. With the evaluation of our services and accredited training in development, this issue is gradually being brought to light in ways that enable more children to be protected from this hidden harm.
Fidler, B. (2010). Children resisting postseparation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums. Family Court Review. 48. 10 – 47. 10.1111/j.1744-1617.2009.01287.x.
Munley, P. H. (1975). Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development and vocational behavior. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 22(4), 314–319
The Family Separation Clinic is currently only accepting cases for treatment which are in the High Court of England and Wales and the Central Family Court or cases which have already undergone fact finding and psychological or psychiatric assessment. We do not accept referrals without prior agreement. Enquiries about referrals or instructions should be made here
The Evaluation of the Clinic’s model of work and the impact of twelve years work in this field, will provide an evidence based accredited training for practitioners in this field from 2022. Training for Social Workers, Psychotherapists, Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Mediators and Parenting Co-ordinators, will be available. Judicial training, is a separate training pathway, which will also be accredited and which will become more widely available around the world in 2022.