DENIAL is a defence mechanisms in which unpleasant thoughts, feelings, wishes, or events are ignored or excluded from conscious awareness. It may take such forms as refusal to acknowledge the reality of a terminal illness, a financial problem, an addiction, or a partner’s infidelity. Denial is an unconscious process that functions to resolve emotional conflict or reduce anxiety. Also called disavowal. APA

1.SPLITTING – a primitive defence used to protect oneself from conflict, in which objects provoking anxiety and ambivalence are dichotomized into extreme representations with either positive or negative qualities, resulting in polarized viewpoints that fluctuate in extremes of seeing the self or others as either all good or all bad. This mechanism is used not only by infants and young children, who are not yet capable of integrating these polarized viewpoints, but also by adults with dysfunctional patterns of dealing with ambivalence; Also called splitting of the object.

2. in teams or groups divisiveness that a client provokes between therapists to polarize them on treatment decisions and to undermine the therapeutic process. Also called splitting situation. APA

PROJECTION. in psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories, the process by which one attributes one’s own individual positive or negative characteristics, affects, and impulses to another person or group. This is often a defence in which unpleasant or unacceptable impulses, stressors, ideas, affects, or responsibilities are attributed to others. For example, the defense mechanism of projection enables a person conflicted over expressing anger to change “I hate him” to “He hates me.” Such defensive patterns are often used to justify prejudice or evade responsibility; in more severe cases, they may develop into paranoid delusions in which, for example, an individual who blames others for his or her problems may come to believe that those others are plotting against him or her. In classical psychoanalytic theory, projection permits the individual to avoid seeing his or her own faults, but modern usage has largely abandoned the requirement that the projected trait remain unknown in the self. APA

In my clinical experience, what is popularly called parental alienation is actually a pattern of primitive defences, which arise first in the child who is being pressured to the degree where they are unable to hold the two realities they are being exposed to, (their mother’s experience and their father’s experience), in mind. The origin of the onset of this being triggered in the child, is likely to be a parent who already uses these defences.

The signs and factors which are said to be ‘parental alienation’ are in fact, the onset of well recognised psychological defences operating within a family system. The reason the vulnerable child becomes susceptible to the use of these same psychological defences, is in the way that the child is exposed to a parent’s power and control over them. When a parent using the defences has this power and control, the vulnerable child’s capacity to hold two separate realities in mind is breached. This is when the child enters the reality which is experienced by the influencing parent and joins with them in using denial, splitting and projection, to expel the other parent’s reality from their psychological awareness. This is the root cause of the child’s rejecting behaviour.

Parental alienation theory is a much disputed field, with proponents of Gardner’s signs using a five factor model, which when present is said to denote the presence of alienation as a mental disorder in the child. As a psychotherapist, with a background in treating alienated children and their families successfully, this is not conversant with my clinical experience, which more closely matches that of Johnston and Roseby. In my experience, the problem for the child is a relational dynamic, which is configured around the child. This relational dynamic includes denial, splitting, projection and sometimes entry into a delusional disordered state of mind. When the relational dynamics are recongifured, to relieve the child of the need to utilise the splitting defence, the alignment and rejection reaction known as alienation, integrates and disappears.

The Family Separation Clinic moved away from working with parental alienation theory some years ago and since then we have focused primarily upon understanding alienation of children as a relational problem, which can be understood through a psychoanalytic lens. With this understanding, comes a deeper seam of learning, in which the defences which are present in families affected by alienation can be worked with.

We do not however, treat alienation of children using psychoanalysis. These defences are primitive and are utilised by children and parents who have, or who are at risk of developing, personality disorders. This means that the capacity to analyse and reflect, to be self aware to the degree where insight can occur, is compromised. Psychoanalysis in these circumstances is ineffective. What is necessary to treat the problem of alienation in children and families, is a structural intervention which relies heavily upon boundaries and which enables the children to be protected, from the uncontained psychological material, which is leaked through the generations, to trigger the onset of the primitive defences in the child.

I have worked with many alienated children and their families over the years and I am very clear, that the most powerful determiner of success in treatment is a strong and unified framework of treatment around the family, which is interlocked with the legal management of the case. When this interlock is strong and resolute, the boundaries which have hitherto not been present in the family, are put in place. With a first clear boundary in place, the structural work to rebuild a generational hierarchy can be undertaken.

Alienated children do not have a coherent internal sense of what being parented in a hierarchy feels like. This is because the relational responsibilities are tangled up in the family system, with alliances formed between children and parents and children and grandparents. In addition, behavioural attitudes which cut relationships off rather than resolve problems, and lack of capacity to resolve conflict are normalised. The first job of any practitioner working with such a family therefore, is to enable the children to experience what being parented healthily feels like. As one parent may lack capacity to understand the need for this and may continuously act to undermine the work which is being done, a trial of therapeutic intervention which is designed to restructure the children’s internalised sense of hierarchy is necessary.

Alienated children cannot internalise a new generational hierarchy unless their experience of the external hierarchy changes. Therefore, therapeutic work at the trial stage, has to be upon assessing whether a parent can respond to structural interventions which require behavioural change. An example of how this is achieved is through the imposition upon the family, of a new routine for care of the children. This commences with the immediate re-introduction of the child to the parent who has been placed at distance by the splitting and projection defence. How parents respond to this imposition of new care routines, is observed in the trial phase, which gives clear evidence of what therapeutic work may be necessary to rebuild the family system in ways that develop and maintain behavioural change. If the trial phase fails because a parent cannot or will not comply with the programme, the Court, which holds the power and control over the family system, is advised on the range of interventions necessary to protect the child from the harm being caused by the intransigent behaviour of a parent.

Working with the primitive defences is a high risk area for practitioners. This is because the defence of projection, in which the denied aspects of self are seen in others, leads to a pattern of someone making false allegations . These allegations, which have often been levelled at a parent, will be levelled at practitioners who intervene if they are not properly protected by the Court management of the case. A judge who understands this, holds the framework of the intervention firmly and in doing so prevents the primitive defences of splitting and projection from infecting the team around the family. When the framework is held firmly, the attempts by the parent who has hitherto held power over the children, to destabilise the intervention, are prevented. Thus the children can experience proximity to the healthy parent and the work of restructuring the internalised experience of being parented can be achieved.

The FSC model of understanding and treating alienation of children is used in the High Court of England and Wales successfully. As we continue on with the evaluation of our work over ten years and the development of accredited, evidence based training, we are building a way of working with families affected by alienation which can be used safely by therapists and social workers. As we do so we are raising awareness of this pattern of behaviours which is seen in some families, which is readily treatable with the right models of understanding and intervention.

Away from the battles over a label, all of which are underpinned by the same primitive defence mechanisms seen in these families, children are getting the help that they need. Our goal now is to make that available routinely at as low a cost as possible because, for example, when social workers, who hold statutory power to intervene, recognise this problem, prevention in some cases may also be possible.

Alienation of children in divorce and separation is a trans-generational relationship trauma which is readily recognised in the psychoanalytical literature and which is treatable. We know this because this is what we do.

Online Workshop for Practitioners

With Karen Woodall

28 October 2021 (16:00 BST)

5 Hours

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.

Your trainer:

Karen Woodall - Family Separation Clinic

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.

Book a place: CLICK HERE

Working with alienated children and their families: A structural therapy, evidence-based approach