Underlying Harm: What really happens when children are alienated in divorce and separation

Karen and Nick Woodall

I presented a webinar for a group of parents in the USA this weekend on induced psychological splitting and the harm it causes to children of divorce and separation. In my introduction, I explained that the label parental alienation is not useful when working therapeutically with families affected by a child’s outright rejection. This is because, what is seen in children who reject a parent outright after family separation, is a defence mechanism. And you do not treat a defence by telling someone they have a defence. To do so is to miss the point of defences, which are to protect from intolerable psychological pressure and to prevent psychological disintegration.

Children who reject a parent in circumstances where, upon investigation, there is no evidence to justify that happening, are suffering from induced psychological splitting. Psychological splitting is a defence mechanism which is infantile in nature, which means that we all used psychological splitting to cope with the world in our earliest years. When psychological splitting is induced to return as a defence mechanism, it is because a child or young person cannot hold two realities in mind. Which means that they are struggling to cope with relationships with both parents because of psychological pressure from somewhere. The job of those who do this work, is to find out where that pressure is coming from and to seek to lift it away from the shoulders of the child so that the defence can drop and the child can integrate their own sense of self. When they can integrate a sense of self again, the projection of idealisation and demonisation onto their parents falls away and the child no longer clings and rejects.

When a child rejects a parent outright, it is often because they have suffered early developmental trauma and are vulnerable to returning to this defence in order to cope with difficult circumstances. Outright rejection usually happens to children of divorce and separation between the ages of 8-15, the reason for this is likely to be that during this phase of development, personality formation is underway and there are particular developments in the brain which sensitise a vulnerable child to defending against psychological pressure. Watch this video to understand how trauma sensitises the brain.

Behind the presenting narratives in cases where children align and reject, are stories of early childhood developmental trauma, where children have become sensitised to the environment they are living in. This if often because a child is living in an environment where uncontained psychological material from a parent is being leaked through to them, or because the child is being triangulated into the adult issues which are unresolved. What happens when children reject however, is that their narrative, which is often infantile in nature (meaning that there are odd reasonings given as the child tries to make sense to the outside world of why a parent has suddenly become a demon in their eyes), becomes entangled with the ruminations of the parent they are idealising. This leads to a feedback loop in which the aligned parent picks up the child’s complaints as the absolute truth and upholds them as evidence of the danger posed by the other parent. As this feedback loop increases, new elements are added by what is now a fused dyadic echo, the child and aligned parent become ever more convinced that this is the truth of the child’s rejection. As this process escalates, the child’s psychologically split state of mind is mirrored back by the aligned parent who becomes increasingly vehement in defence of the child.

A broken reflection of reality is now substituted for the healthy mirror the child needs. On the outside, what this looks like is hyper alignment and rejection. On the inside, what it is, is the strenthening of a defence via the escalation and entrenchment of the very dynamics which caused it in the first place. This is why intervening correctly in such cases is necessary, because the lifelong harms which are caused for children who become trapped in this situation are clear.

Healing a defence however, can only be achieved by changing the dynamics which cause the defence. If what we do is abandon the child to the defence or worse still, uphold the child and aligned parent’s distorted beliefs, then we are complicit in doing further harm. Which is why, sometimes, the only recourse to changing those defences, is to move the child away from the parent who is unable or unwilling to change, in order that the child is relieved of the pressure causing the defence.

Children who are hyper or strongly aligned to one parent and rejecting the other in divorce and separation are in psychological trouble and it is incumbent upon us as a society to understand and address that. Amidst the lurid campaign headlines, the label parental alienation becomes unhelpful because it does not help us in working therapeutically but also because it has attracted the toxicity of the negative projections of those who want to obfuscate the reality of what is happening to children. Which is why I am writing about the underlying harms which cause children to be removed from unsafe parents and not about parental aliention.

Removal from harm to protect children who are being psychologically and emotionally abused in divorce and separation is set down in law in England and Wales and that law is clear.

From Re (S) Neutral Citation Number: [2020] EWCA Civ 568

13. In summary, in a situation of parental alienation the obligation on the court is to respond with exceptional diligence and take whatever effective measures are available. The situation calls for judicial resolve because the line of least resistance is likely to be less
stressful for the child and for the court in the short term. But it does not represent a
solution to the problem. Inaction will probably reinforce the position of the stronger
party at the expense of the weaker party and the bar will be raised for the next attempt
at intervention. Above all, the obligation on the court is to keep the child’s medium to
long term welfare at the forefront of its mind and wherever possible to uphold the child
and parent’s right to respect for family life before it is breached. In making its overall
welfare decision the court must therefore be alert to early signs of alienation. What will
amount to effective action will be a matter of judgement, but it is emphatically not
necessary to wait for serious, worse still irreparable, harm to be done before appropriate
action is taken. It is easier to conclude that decisive action was needed after it has
become too late to take it.

Lord Justice McCombe, Lady Justice King, Lord Justice Peter Jackson (2020)

We must be clear in what we understand about what happens to children in divorce and separation when they are induced to use psychological splitting, because it is their mental health which is at risk in the long term. Having failed generations of children of divorce and separation, it is vital that the reality is not lost amidst the manufactured fight around a label.

Children who are removed from parents who cannot or will not, shift their mindset to enable their child to resolve the induced defence of psychological splitting, are children who are being moved because of the harm that has been done to them. Removal from harm occurs after thorough investigation and often many years of hearings involving all of the checks and balances which are applied in the court process.

It is protection from that underlying harm, which is the truth of what is really happening when the state intervenes on behalf of children are alienated in divorce and separation.

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Family Separation Clinic Evaluation

Given the degree to which the debate around this issue is driven by personal experiences and, some may argue, political agenda, it is particularly important that more objective evidence is obtained.

We hope that the year-long, independent evaluation of the Clinic’s services, which is being carried out by researcher’s from a UK university, will contribute to that. For example, it is frequently argued that the term ’parental alienation’ is used by men to obscure allegations of domestic abuse that are levelled by mothers. And yet, the latest gender diseggregated statistics from parents seeking the Clinic’s support around rejection by a child after divorce and separation, reveals that, in the period 1 April to 30 June 2021, 75.4% of clinical work was with rejected mothers and 24.6% was with rejected fathers.

The study will utilise both quantitive and qualitative methodologies to, independently, explore and understand the experiences of those accessing the Clinic’s services. It is only through such objective approaches that we can shift the discussion about alienation reactions in children away from sensationalisation on both sides of this sensitive topic and towards a more nuanced, clinical and empirical understanding of the problem.

5 thoughts on “Underlying Harm: What really happens when children are alienated in divorce and separation

  1. Reading your words has confirmed what I and my daughter have been subjected to and enduring for the past 9 years of our lives.. the problem here in the US is to establish the change needed in our Judicial system to create the same law regarding this psychological splitting that is not only is harming/ destroying our children, but ‘society’ in whole; Today 7/26 on my birthday I do declare.

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  2. Delores, I agree with your comments regarding the effects on our ‘society’. In Australia, we are seeing rising levels of mental health illness in young people. The trauma related to psychological splitting is very likely a contributing factor. After my daughter’s case to settle parenting arrangements, finally went to trial ($100,000 later) – the residing judge ordered a transfer of residence for my grandson (13 yrs) to his mother’s care, siting “emotion abuse” by his father. However, she also ordered significant and regular contact with his father; which in my mind actually defies common sense!! And of course, the abuse and manipulation of both mother and child continued. It is only after three charges of a breech of ‘protection order’, that there has been a short lull. We have no idea what the future holds…..

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    1. Sadly,I agree; we don’t know what the future holds except that we are witnessing its fate.

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  3. Reading this reintroduced the unbearable pain I have now lived with for over 5 years. I have moved away now from the old family home and am trying incredibly hard to make my life work, but it’s not easy. What you detail here so precisely reflects what happened to my girls, but no one in authority even considered these things when my Ex forced me into a Court process (6 years after divorce) because she could not accept the fact that our daughters loved their Dad. That Court process was riven with prejudice and it’s only intent, from day 1, was to dispose of me from the girls lives. Next week Bethan will be 18. I have brought her a beautiful gift which I will wrap, add a note to and place in the cabinet I have bought for this purpose. I hope we might one day be able to sit down and celebrate, but I see no prospect of that as yet. Their mother told her second husband (whom she also disposed off once she was sufficiently financially stable not to need him any more) that she will NEVER allow me to see my daughters. Her madness (for that is truly what it is, brought on by rampaging jealousy and spite),has infected our children, just as you describe it here. I can only pray they find a way back to the life of deep, deep joy that we once shared.

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    1. Robert,

      ” I have moved away now from the old family home and am trying incredibly hard to make my life work, but it’s not easy.”

      I am sharing space in exactly the same boat. I left the home and so many reminders behind – put 700 miles between them. And life now is peaceful in a beautiful place. But try as I might, not a day goes by without wondering – when?

      Daughters are now 22 and 25 – interesting to see stated above the “vulnerable” ages of “…between the ages of 8-15” – they were 11-14 when the full-court press was applied. Wow. – a decade gone in a flash of agony. I did miss the 5 year anniversary of last seeing them, or hearing their voices. I wish I could miss more.

      Adults now. College graduates (thanks for the $, Dad…). Oh – this poison runs deep.

      I’m easy to find, it could be tomorrow…

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