structural and systemic Treatment of induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation

The core of what we are working with when children are induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation is, the alienation of the self from the self which begins with the child. This is a splitting pathology, in which the child is forced back into the paranoid/schizoid position identified by Klein as a result of lack of healthy boundaries in the child’s primary relationship(s).

It is also a power and control pathology, with the most serious causal factor being the influence of one parent over the child and the willingness of that parent to hold and maintain power over the child. That power can be enacted in several ways, it can be the power held by a father, it can the power held by a mother, sometimes it can be the power held by grandparents. The willingness of the person holding the power and control over the child, to use it to obtain outcomes is the key factor in whether the child begins to use splitting as a defence.

According to Johnston, Roseby, and Kuehnle (1997), the resilience (or lack of it) in the child, to conscious or unconscious manipulative strategies, using power and control, by the parent who has the power, is the determining factor in whether the child resorts to using defensive splitting to protect a fragile ego. Further ego fragmentation is one of the possible outcomes of the child being induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation.

When a child is induced to use psychological splitting as a defence in divorce and separation, it is highly likely that the use of splitting, is already in play in one of the parents. Reactive splitting often occurs in the other as the splitting dynamic takes hold of the child.

The triangle of splitting, power and control over the child and the resilience or lack of it in the child, defines the dynamic regression in the child to the paranoid/schizoid position described by Klein, in which the world is split into several experiences in order to cope with overwhelming incoming pressures. This point is often identified via a ‘trigger event’, in which the child who was once able to hold two realities in mind, splits those realities into good and bad via a process of denial and projection. This denotes that the child has split the self into at least two parts, the good self and the bad self. These parts of self, which are those which are identified with parents, are then projected at the parents.

When we approach the understanding of this problem from a psychoanalytic perspective, the clinical treatments which are necessary become clear. We do not treat splitting via psychoanalytic methods, we treat it through systemic and structural methods, setting the splitting in the child at the heart of what we do.

When we approach this problem from its heart and stand in the shoes of the child so affected, the treatment routes are obvious. The problems in families affected by splitting are –

  • lack of healthy boundaries
  • lack of healthy mirrors to reflect integration of self
  • lack of capacity to hold in mind other people’s experiences
  • lack of emotional and psychological regulation

From this lack comes a swathe of pathological problems for the child and it is not just the lack in the family which causes these. A child who is induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation, has not been helped in any uniform way for decades, because the systems which have governed divorce and separation, have not understood that the problem in front of them is psychological splitting.

Social policy has, for the best part of five decades, been governed by the splitting narrative that fathers are abusive and mothers are abused.

Social policy has been infused with the split narrative of mother = good/abused and father = bad/abusive ever since the change in the divorce laws in the early seventies. This has led to a constant battle of the sexes, with mothers pitched against fathers and children’s needs lost in the middle.

I see splitting in extreme measures on social media around the topic of parental alienation, which has been dragged back into the gender war by those for whom splitting is a way of life. So much so that I see social media around the issue as being a toxic place with little benefit to anyone and as such I advise all parents to stay right away from it.

In structural terms, the outer ring of influence around the child who suffers induced psychological splitting, also contains the splitting pathology with professionals lining up for the battle between each other instead of forming a circle around the child. Little wonder so many children suffer induced psychological splitting and do not have the capacity to heal, the lack of healthy mirrors in the systems around divorcing and separating families is itself a gross lack of boundary.

The practitioner who works successfully with families affected by induced psychological splitting is the person who is capable of working within this chaotic and often terrorising space. When the concentric circles around the child are infected with splitting, that person is always at risk of personal and professional attack. Anyone who does this work has to be capable of withstanding the negative projections and remain capable of holding up a healthy mirror, even in the face of terrorisation which comes from all sides.

This is not the job for someone who needs to be liked. This is a job for someone who understands that inducing psychological splitting is abusive to the child and that structuring interventions which lift off the pressures from the child’s shoulders is the first goal. Recognising that being successful in doing that requires constancy, transparency, ego strength and the capacity to understand that if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks, you will never reach your destination.

Working with induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation also requires that the mirror being held up to the whole family is consistently healthy. This means that whilst we recognise that the phases of work to restore the relationship of self to self in the child are clearly delineated, meaning that we confront the child with the split off object relationship first – ie;we bring the rejected parent back into relationship with the child from the outset, the goal overall is to integrate the family dynamic towards the separated parenting system that is necessary. This cannot be achieved by using broken mirror dynamics – which means we don’t just swap over the control from one parent to the other as a treatment goal. Integrated mirroring means we are required as practitioners to achieve integration in the underlying dynamics of the family system.

Working with induced psychological splitting requires systemic and structural interventions. Using a psychoanalytic framework of understanding, those interventions become clear and treatment routes are easily developed. This is an integrated model of practice to resolve complex cases where children hyper align and reject in divorce and separation.


The International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children

The fourth conference of this group of senior practitioners from Israel, Croatia, Republic of Ireland, UK, USA, Romania, Holland and Germany, will be held in Israel in 2022. More news shortly.

Evaluation of the Work of the Family Separation Clinic

The evaluation of the services of the Family Separation Clinic, including the outcomes of residence transfers carried out over the past twelve years, is ongoing, Results will be available in 2022.

Clinical Handbook and Training for Practitioners

An accredited and evidence based training for practitioners will be available as a result of the evaluation above. A handbook of clinical practice will accompany the training.