The most common phrase I hear when working with alienated children and their families is ‘my child is possessed.’ Parents whose children are induced to use psychological splitting in divorce and separation, can be forgiven for thinking this when the behaviours of the child are observed. It is the case however, that the ‘possessed’ child, only appears in the care of one of their parents. In the care of the parent to whom they are hyper aligned, they will appear to be compliant, content and without complaint. This poses difficulties for any practitioner who is working with the child because the structural narrative of the family system is split in two.
The structural narrative of the family system is the first listening post for any practitioner working in this space, by which I mean that what children say about their parents, is the first thing I hear when I am assessing them. When one is able to listen with an alienation aware ear, the split in the structural narrative becomes clear.
My mother is so lovely, she is cuddly and she makes me feel so safe and happy.
My father is scary, I don’t like it when I have to go and see him because he shouts at me and makes me feel little and all alone.
At face value, the child is describing their felt sense of each parent, they are telling us what it is about the parent which causes their rejection. As an alienation unaware practitioner, I am now faced with my own confirmation bias, which means that if I set about testing whether this child’s mother is cuddly and this child’s father is scary, I will go and find the evidence which proves that the child’s narrative is true.
The second listening post are the parental narratives and this is where the evidence of the split in the child becomes more apparent.
At times it feels as if my child is possessed. A dark and almost sinister self appears, angry and rejecting and incredibly difficult to handle. And then it is as if the sun comes out and my child is back with us.
My child is anxious and afraid, she does not want to see her father and I do not want her to be forced to do something she does not want to do.
Notice the split narrative, in the care of this father, this child moves in and out of the rejecting state of mind. In the care of this mother, the child displays fear and anxiety about her father. It is within the care of the parent who is designated as the one to be rejected, that the child displays the behaviours seen in psychological splitting. When the practitioner works with this child, the choices the practitioner makes will either make things worse or makes things better for the child. Making the right choices for children in this state of mind is essential because take a wrong turn and the incredibly infectious psychological reaction of splitting, will rapidly escalate. Making the right choices are about understanding the cause of splitting (which lies in the lack of boundaries within the relationship between the child and parent to whom the child is aligned) and about how to handle a situation when a child is the ‘no man’s land of alienation.
The core of the issue for practitioners working in this space is the way that we hear and respond to the child’s expression of feeling about the situation they are in. This goes to the very heart of why this work is so difficult to do in an environment in which children are increasingly seen as the decision makers in all aspects of their own lives. A child who is using psychological splitting as a defence, who is heard as if their wishes and feelings are always authentic, becomes the architecht of their own long term suffering.
The child who appears to be possessed, is signalling that their internal boundaries are breached and they have had to raise a false self as a defence against what is going on inside. That child desperately needs someone to put a boundary around what is happening to them, they need protection from the swamping of their felt sense of who they are by psychological and emotional manipulations from an often psychologically unwell parent. When an alienation aware practitioner is able to undertake the structural changes to the framework in which the work is being undertaken and can then hold the boundary with the child so that the child feels internally safe, the omnipotent defence, the false self which arises in an effort to regulate the parent who is causing the problem, disappears and the healthy child re-appears.
I say the healthy child re-appears but that is something of a misnomer because in reality, the defence of psychological splitting is, in fact, a healthy defence which is raised in very unhealthy circumstances. It is a defence which appears when the ego is under pressure and when fragmentation could lead to ego collapse. The defence appears to protect the healthy part of the child, the child who is attached to the parent who is being rejected. This is why, in the right circumstances with a rejected parent, the healthy child re-appears at times, making the parent feel as they are possessed.
Working with children who are psychologically split is a bizarre experience to say the least and it is not until one is capable of recognising the behavioural input which helps the child to hold an integrated state of mind, that a practitioner can confidently do this work successfully. In some circumstances, I have children who tell lies which are blatant and even when the evidence of the lie is right in front of us, the child will continue to tell the lie. These lies are not deliberate, they are products of the defence and in the moment the child hangs on to the belief that this is true. When the boundary is held however and the evidence of the reality is maintained, the child retracts the lie, often then switching into the other part of self and claiming not to be able to remember what they said.
Children in this state of mind will make allegations which match the narrative of the parent who is causing the pressure on the child to split. When children are in the active phase of making allegations, it is very important that these are heard without response. When a child is making allegations, they are actively experiencing ego splitting, which means that they are compartmentalising their felt sense of what is happening. The false self is aware of what they are saying and feels it to be true, the authentic part is aware and not aware, which means that the felt sense of telling lies, is being held away from the child’s super ego.
An alienated child cannot ever be held accountable for the things they say. Forced into a position where they have to identify with the person who is causing them to feel so anxious that they develop a false self which then identifies with that person, the child becomes the victim and the persecutor in a structurally devastated landscape. The child is a victim because they do not know that they have been weaponised in this way and a persecutor because they are sent out onto the family battlefield to fight on behalf of the unwell parent. A child in such circumstances needs urgent protection and the alienation aware practitioner’s first task is to provide that. The next task is to manage the case in such a way that there cannot be further damage done to the child. Conveying the role of protector to the child in the face of the hyper aligned parent’s negative projections (anyone who tries to fix the problem for the child is regarded as an enemy), is one of the most delicate tasks it is possible to undertake in therapy.
There is often the need to create a covert alliance with the child in which the child knows that the practitioner knows and the practitioner knows that the child knows that the pracitioner knows but nothing is ever said. Unravel that again. A child who is using defensive splitting, is led out of the structurally damaged landscape by a practitioner who knows that the child is not telling the truth, the child knows that the practitioner knows this and the practitioner knows that the child knows that the practitioner knows that the child is not telling the truth. This covert alliance is built through signalling to the child that one can be trusted not to tell anyone other than those who can make an immediate difference. ‘I am not sharing this with your mother and I will not ask you to reveal your healthy self in anything other than protected space,’ is what is conveyed to the child. When that alliance is built the child is covertly protected and the work can be done to reorganise the power dynamics so that the child cannot be re-traumatised by the influencing parent.
Far from ‘bonding children to their abuser’ which is the projected narrative of those who support alienating parents (often called protective in an attempt to skew the meta narrative), this work is about liberating children from abusive relationships which are often normalised by a society which is founded upon split narratives of good/bad. Watching alienated children integrate the split state of mind and develop a strong ego health, is all the evidence necessary to ensure that a practitioner who works successfully has the impetus to continue.
Working with ‘possessed’ children in an alien landscape has been my life’s work and the more I have come to understand them, the more I have become determined that their plight and what is necessary to help them, will be widely known in my lifetime. I often meet with children I have helped, to hear from them how their lives are progressing, here is one note, (shared with permission) from a young woman, now in her mid twenties, who was one of the first children I worked with well over a decade ago.
I look back now and wonder how I could have said those things, I remember the horrible things I said and I sometimes ask my mum why she never seemed angry with me. She always tells me that she knew that it wasn’t the real me and that I was doing it because I had to. I think she is brilliant for being able to cope with it and not confuse me further by saying horrible things about my dad. It was so hard when I first met you, I hated you. Do you remember how I used to say you were ugly and had a really stupid voice. I am so glad that you stayed with me so that I could say sorry when it was all over. I needed to say sorry, to you, to my mum and to my grandfather. As soon as I was able to do that I felt so much better. You told me I would and I did. I remember you used to say to me that it was important to feed the question marks in my mind because they were like flowers and that I should ignore the nasty things that my dad said because that was like pulling up weeds. You said that my mind is for my own thoughts and feelings and that anyone who tried to plant things in it was trespassing. I remembered that always, it has done me a lot of good as I have grown up. I still see my dad, he is still really negative but now I know how to handle that and it doesn’t affect me anymore.
Maise (aged 25) alienated from her mother for three years aged 11 to 14
Induced psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation is the underlying psychological harm which is seen when children are said to be alienated. My child is possessed is a common narrative we hear when encountering these children. With a strong skill set and the confidence to work with an extremely counter intuive approach, these children’s needs are being met.
Online Workshop for Practitioners
With Karen Woodall
28 October 2021 (16:00 BST)
Suitable for psychotherapists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists.
About this workshop:
Treating alienated children requires a deep knowledge of how to differentiate and tailor treatment routes to suit the unique needs of the child and family affected by the defence which causes alienation. It also requires that the practitioner delivering treatment, is capable of providing the structural intervention within the concentric circles of the courts, the welfare system in which the family is located and the family system itself.
Successful treatment of alienated children, is seen when they are able to integrate the split off parts of self and withdraw projections so that their capacity to relate to both parents is restored. Being able to deliver the treatment to the child as well as the family system and educate the court on what is required to maintain health, is a necessary skill for any practitioner in this space.
The Family Separation Clinic, in London, has pioneered the delivery of successful structural therapeutic interventions which provide full assessment, differentiation and treatment protocols for this group of families. The Clinic’s work is currently undergoing full evaluation by a UK university research team in preparation for the delivery of an accredited, evidence based training in the clinical model developed by the Clinic. This model combines psychoanalytic evaluation of the underlying defence mechanisms which cause alienation, with adapted structural family therapy and therapeutic parenting, combined to offer successful treatment routes. A practitioners handbook for the model is currently in preparation.
This online training is for practitioners who wish to prepare for working with the evidence based, accredited clinical model used by the Family Separation Clinic. Whilst this is an introductory level workshop rather than certified training, the content is clinical and technical in nature, providing a firm foundation for developing existing skills for this group of families.
What you will learn:
- understanding of alienation of children in psychoanalytical terms and grounding of this in the psychoanalytical literature.
- understanding of the alienated child and family in structural systemic terms
- understanding of alienated children, their clinical presentations and the underlying reasons for this as well as how to respond to the alienated child
- introduction to assessment protocols
- introduction to differentiation protocols
- introduction to building structural therapeutic interventions
- introduction to the co-therapy model of practice
- introduction to therapeutic parenting skills
As part of this workshop, we will evidence successful treatment of cases via the input of parents who have received their children in residence transfer and the input of previously alienated children who are now over the age of eighteen, who were helped by the Clinic’s intervention. The purpose of this is to assist practitioners to understand the co-therapy model used by the Clinic and its impact on treatment of alienated children.
This workshop is intended to provide entry level content for those wishing to develop their practice via the 2022 trainings.
There are 25 places available and practitioners from all countries are welcome to attend. We have set the start time at 16:00 UK time to enable US practitioners to join us.*
The workshop will be delivered by Zoom.
This is a clinical training, it is only for those who have achieved qualifications in one or more of the following disciplines (evidence of qualification is required on booking):
Psychotherapy – post graduate and above
Psychology – post graduate and above (clinical, forensic, developmental)
Psychiatry – doctoral level
Social work – graduate level
* Please note that if there is interest from practitioners from Australia and New Zealand we will set up a separate course, please email us to express interest.
This training is delivered by Karen Woodall. Karen is a highly experienced psychotherapist who has worked with separated families since 1991. She is currently studying for a PhD. Using established therapeutic theory and practice, Karen has developed new ways of working with alienated children and is widely regarded as one of the foremost Part 25 Experts in the courts of England & Wales. She is the co-author of Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to cope, helping to heal (Charles C Thomas, 2017) and her influential blog has a worldwide readership.