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