“the brain’s innate physical structure and two separate, specialized hemispheres facilitate left brain-right brain disconnection under conditions of threat. Capitalizing on the tendency of the left brain to remain positive, task-oriented, and logical under stress, these writers hypothesized that the disconnected left brain side of the personality stays focused on the tasks of daily living, while the other hemisphere fosters an implicit right brain self that remains in survival mode, braced for danger, ready to run, frozen in fear, praying for rescue, or too ashamed to do anything but submit.”
― Janina Fisher, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation
Watching the recent return of the struggle to raise awareness of the needs of alienated children and their families, to a public battle over whether the phenomenon exists or not, is dispiriting to say the least. It is however, predictable and it is a good example of how the needs of children of divorce and separation become conflated with the needs and rights of their parents. It is the meta narrative which traps children in a broken psychological mirror and prevents them from having their sovereign needs understood and met.
Working solely from the perspective of the alienated child, removes one from the he said/she said battle and allows for a single minded focus upon the harms which are done to children of divorce and separation. This is the space, in my experience, which will ultimately support the paradigm shift which is necessary to move the debate on from whether alienation of children exists or not. Because it is beyond that binary argument that the work to understand the issue and build effective treatment routes takes place. This is the space where I am currently working with colleagues from all around the world, this is the space which brings forth the widespread understanding and tools for treatment which are necessary. When those two pieces of this particular jigsaw are finally in place, the paradigm shift becomes possible and the binary fight will be where it belongs, which is in the past.
Understanding alienation of children at the deepest level is the first essential tool of anyone who works in this space. In understanding alienated children one has to understand the defence which is raised in a child when a parent with power over them, fails in their duty to parent healthily. Failure to parent healthily, becomes child abuse when a parent is unable to unwilling to recognise that their child is a sovereign individual with rights and needs which are separate from their own.
Induced psychogical splitting is the defence we are working with when we work with alienated children. This defence presents in ways that are difficult to recognise unless you are used to working with denial and projection dynamics. What happens to the vulnerable child who is being pressured via emotional or psychological manipulation, leakage of feeling or projection of false beliefs, is that they enter into a process of denial of that in order to keep the parent causing this regulated and via that, themselves safe. It is a survival mechanism in a situation of extreme terrorisation of the child. The behavioural responses in the child suffering this are recognisable because they are projections caused by looking in a broken mirror. To the lay person they appear to be bizarre claims and allegations, to the experienced, they make sense of the child’s internalised fragmented world.
In my clinical experience, alienated children suffer from ego fragmentation, which is itself a defence against complete dissociative collapse of the sense of self. This ego fragmentation is evidenced when a child is shown to utilise several different versions of self and when a child is unable to maintain an integrated sense of who they are, maladapting their behaviours, compartmentalising feelings and where their words and behaviours do not match. These children are extremely vulnerable and they require a treatment route which is properly matched to the internalised psychological state of mind. Self alienation, which is the loss of the authenticity and sense of sovereign self, replaced by maladapted feelings and behaviours can (and is) compounded by unaware therapists and those who believe that children of divorce and separation should simply be listened to.
Children of divorce are trapped in the broken mirror when a parent binds them into their own psychological mindset, imposing upon them false beliefs and demands for allegiance. When a parent cannot tell the difference between their own feelings and those of the child, when boundaries are dissolved and reflections are fragmented, children cannot build a strong ego, they cannot properly develop and their individuation process is interrupted.
Treating children of divorce and separation demands that the boundaries around a child and the mirrors the child looks into, are cohesive and framed around their needs not parental needs or demands. Far from the argument about whether alienation is real or not, development of replicable treatment routes and proper protocols for intervention are the necessary tasks ahead of us. We are well along that road now. Despite it all, the paradigm is shifting.
Autumn Training and Parent Workshop Schedule
Next week I will have news about the next parent workshops and an update on the evidence based training which will be available from 2022. I will also post our updated autumn training schedule for professionals in the UK, USA and Europe.
I sit and reflect on every work Karen Woodall writes because I knows she gets it!
Every time I read one of her posts, I deeply wish my 24 year old alienated daughter could have worked with her.
Thank you so much!
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Dear Casey, thank you for your thanks, it means a lot to me. I am working with recovering adult children at the moment and will write more in the coming months about this. In the meantime, know that adult children are finding and reading my blog and recognising themselves in it. I will gradually, over the coming years, as I finalise my research work, write more for them so that there is a place where they can get the help they desperately need. Keep safe and well, you are her only chance of living an integrated life, live it for her and despite what has been done so that she has a chance, I know you will. Sending my best to you. Karen
Here in Australia, separated by distance, but still ‘connected’ – I too read Karen’s every word. It helps to understand what my 14-year-old grandson has experienced since family separation 3 years ago – and the challenges for my daughter in parenting him now that he is home with her again. An Australian treasure, Maggie Dent writes about parenting children. Her book “From Boys to Men” is a huge help, when faced with the double-whammy of a teen who has been alienated !
Thank you Karen for your wisdom and loving kindness, which feels a lot like ‘compassion’ to me
I can’ tell you how much it means to hear that what I write helps. In this area of work I am attacked by both sides of the binary fence, people who are anti AND pro the concept of alienation seem to like projecting their negative projections onto me. So to receive two comments from two parts of the world which are positive and welcoming of what I write is so heartening, thank you for taking the time to let me know. I am sorry to hear about your boy, fourteen is such a tricky age anyway, keep going, when they get to sixteen and the brain has completed this particular developmental phase, things change very quickly and they regain perspective. Sending my best to you. Kind Regards Karen
Reading “Alienated children suffer from ego fragmentation, which is itself a defence against complete dissociative collapse of the sense of self” hits a deep nail on the head for me as a recovering adult child of divorce. Having read Janina Fishers work on fragmentation last year (following a link from your blog Karen) I began a frightening but also therapeutic process of discovering that I was indeed fragmented. The fear I felt stemmed from the feeling that I was near a state of disintegration, that I was on the brink of falling into a looming abyss. I was uncovering core fears, hidden away in my unconsciousness during psychological splitting and alienation of self during my parents acrimonious divorce. Once I realised that these emerging feelings did indeed represent my feelings of childhood, that the “abyss” representing my emotional childhood wasteland and my fear of disintegration within it was what had spurred me to survive, I was able to start to understand myself with compassion and start to heal.
I can’t say enough how grateful I am to you for all your hard work and perseverance on this subject, looking from a ‘child’s’ point of view, except to say that you saved my life from the inner torment carried for so many decades. Heartfelt thanks to you Karen.