Broken Mirrors: The underlying harms in alienation of children

Continuing on with the theme of underlying harms, this week I have been working with families affected by alienation of children, in which the core reason for removal from a parent is serious attachment disorder.

Attachment disorder is one of the reasons why children are moved in residence transfer and it is worth explaining what that means and why it leads to removal from harm.

Attachment is often considered to be about a relationship between people but it is so much more than that.

‘Attachment theory emphasizes (…) the primary status and biological function of intimate emotional bonds between individuals, the making and maintaining of which are postulated to be controlled by a cybernetic system situated within the central nervous system, utilizing working models of self and attachment figure in relationship with each other.’

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theory. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Attachment is a relational system which is embedded into our central nervous system, we are attached to our primary caregivers in early childhood in a neuro-biological compulsion to survive. This is not about a relationship which can be decided upon in a rational and disconnected way, this is about the deepest emotional, psychological and biological bonds within us. Attachment becomes disordered because a child will adapt and maladapt in as many ways as is necessary to protect the primary attachment bonds. It is the child who maladapts, not the parent. This is because the child is utterly dependent upon caregivers who hold the unimaginable power of life or death over the child. When children present with attachment disorder, it is because something has gone wrong in the parent/child relationship and that is the responsibility of the parent, not the child.

Attachment disorder is recognised in psychological evaluation. When it is recognised, it is evaluated for its impact upon the child, to determine whether or not it can be treated via whole family interventions. The goal of whole family interventions, is to provide the framework, guidance and therapeutic work, which will restructure the caregiving and treat the underlying harms. Because cases of serious attachment disorder often involve parents with psychological profiles of concern, removal of the child from the full time care of the parent who is causing the problem, is one of the possible outcomes.

Attachment disorder is not just about separation anxiety or maladaptive responses to caregiving. Attachment disorder causes a child an immense sense of isolation and a pattern of behaviour which is recognised as dissociative. Children who suffer attachment disorder are often parentified, a condition in which they take responsibility for the care of a parent at the deepest psychological level.

when parent-child boundaries are violated, the implications for developmental psychopathology are significant. Poor boundaries interfere with the child’s capacity to progress through development which (…) is the defining feature of childhood psychopathology.’

Kerig, P. K. (2005). Implications of parent-child boundary dissolution for developmental psychopathology: Who is the parent and who is the child? New York: Haworth Press.

The parent child boundary violations which cause attachment disorder are seen when a child compulsively takes care of a parent’s needs. When such a child is induced to use psychological splitting because they are aware that a parent needs them to put the other parent at distance, the child is seen to participate further in their own isolation from incoming caregiving. The child is already without a healthy mirror when they are in a parentified relationship, pushing the other parent to the margins of their life, the child eradicates the only source of healthy care which remains available to them. In such circumstances, the child becomes bound in the unhealthy parent’s fragmented sense of self. Put simply, the only mirror the child now has to look in, is broken.

The impact of such an experience produces a bleak outlook for a child. In working with children and young people who have suffered such harm, the patterns of compulsive self reliance and absence of trust of other people are clear.

I have to be ready at any time to react to what is coming, what you don’t understand is that I need to be ready to escape, be ready to do what is necessary to get through. I can’t trust you, I won’t trust you because if I do and you let me down, what then? I can’t let myself go where you want me to go, it is not possible.

Annaliesa – aged 17

Children who grow up looking in broken mirrors, suffer attachment disorder amongst a range of other associated problems. Attachment disorder means that the ego is weak but the adapted behaviours caused by the disorder are defensive, which means that a child or young person can appear to be super competent on the outside, when inside their sense of self is fragile and often fragmented. Broken mirrors produce a fragmented ego and the child who suffers this way is often confused about who they are. Some children speak of this in ways that give the truth of what has happened to them.

I don’t know what you mean by sense of self, I don’t have a self, I have a series of selves that I use to get by. I know that these selves are all part of me, I am not talking about multiple personalities, but if you see me with this person, you will think I am this and if you see me with that person, you will see me as that. I don’t know how to hold all those selves together.

Jack, aged 14

Working with children who have been induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation, reveals the reality of the underlying harms which are caused when a child is said to be alienated. This is far away from the efforts to portray alienation of children as a litigation strategy which is currently being popularised amongst ideological campaigners and far away from simplistic signs and factors which are used in parental alienation theory.

Underlying harms in cases of induced psychological splitting are serious and systemic. Such cases require a framework of assessment, differentiation and treatment which is configured to relieve the child of the burden of harm they are carrying. Most of all they require a healthy mirror to help the child to integrate the fragmented sense of self which is the internal experience of the harm which has been done. Treating harm done by alienation is like treating a psychological cancer, it requires a nuanced, detailed and consistent intervention and it often requires repeated doses.

Holding together treatment routes in an environment which is surrounded by mischaracterisation requires a strong team which is capable of withstanding the splitting projections which emanate from parents who cause these harms. Parents who are often these days joined with ideological campaigners, parents who act in unboundaried and uncontained ways, terrorising practitioners and causing them harm too. If you ever want to understand how hard it is to do this work, read this recent judgment to see what practitioners in this space are up against.

What such parents do to their children, they will often do to practitioners who intervene, drawing the transference is a very big risk for all of us who do this work. Therefore, when you see parents and campaigners acting in uncontained ways online, sharing information about their case and ganging up with others to bully and harass people, bear in mind this is likely to be a furthering of how they have lived their lives and brought up their children.

Underlying harms in alienation of children are serious and it is essential that light is shone upon those harms in a sustained way so that hiding child abuse in the shadows of negative projections, is no longer condoned.

Children need healthy mirrors, they will only get them if the truth of what is happening is known.