Much is written about alienation of children in divorce and separation but not much is written about how exactly how this abuse of a child causes harm and what is needed to repair that harm. I am a psychotherapist and for the past fifteen years I have been working with alienated children and their families. As I have done so, I have documented the ways in which I have treated children and what has worked. As I have worked through the past few years, I have been able to record the different elements which are seen in the psychological and emotional landscape inhabited by alienated children, this has allowed me to begin to build a therapeutic model which fits their needs. This model, which I am constantly developing in my direct work with children, responds to the internal incoherence experienced by alienated children. It works with the splitting defences which underpin this and it provides a framework in which the split off parts of self, which are experienced as persecutory projections, can be contained and through that containment, can be healed. This is a model of work which is successful with children of all ages, including adults alienated as children and it works inside and outside of the court system (outside of the court system particular conditions are necessary for it to be completely successful). The success of this model of work rests not upon an external diagnostic framework, which is imposed upon a child, but upon the internalised felt sense of the world which is experienced by alienated children. It is this understanding, delivered by close inter-psychic mirroring, which creates the conditions which allows the healing of the internalised splits which cause the alienated state of mind.
I have come to understand this issue as being about emotional and psychological boundaries and the way in which they are absent and/or distorted in families affected by this issue. This means that the child who has become alienated, (denoted by their hyper alignment to one parent and complete rejection of the other), has had to maladapt psychologically through their developmental years, in order to maintain their attachment bonds. This maladaptive development, creates a child who is vulnerable to the primitive defences of denial, splitting and projection as ways of resolving inter-familial conflicts. What is often seen on the outside, around the child, are chaotic patterns of parental behaviours or a pattern of compensatory demands, in which a child is used to bolster or fulfil parental need. On the inside, this translates into an intra-psychic sense of living in a psychological rabbit warren, in which some doorways are open and others are closed. What this means is that these children are exposed to things they shouldn’t be exposed to and denied access to things they should have access to. They are witness to a parent’s negative feelings about the other parent and as such they are prevented from experiencing the security of being protected from adult experiences. On the one hand the door to information is too open and on the other, the door to receiving adult protection is closed. Because the child does not know at one level that this is harmful, they are freely exposed to it and because at another level they are aware that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time in their lives, they maladapt by splitting off their awareness.
In this respect, a child of divorce and separation suffers in the same way as a child who is sexually abused. Both of these children are being used to meet dysfunctional adult needs, both of these children maladapt in the face of that and both of these children become alienated from their own authentic self, developing a false defensive self which protects them from ego fragmentation. For the sexually abused child, the defence can be a strong splitting with a dissociative element, for the psychologically and emotionally abused child, the splitting is more permeable in that it is often not rigidly fixed and can be present and not present depending upon the external circumstances.
Treating the psychologically and emotionally abused child therefore requires attending to the internalised incoherent sense of self and demands that the therapist has the capacity to manage external as well as internal boundaries. Holding the external framework of the family steady and protecting the child from the harm which has been caused by the influencing parent is the first goal. Securing proximity with the split off part of self which resides within the rejected parent, is the second goal and then treatment of the internalised splitting can begin.
Treating splitting in alienated children requires that the parentified defences of the false or alienated self are respected, whilst the work to secure the contract with the harmed child within is achieved. This requires the therapist to recognise that the child has used a strategy which is developed in trauma situations, of knowing and not knowing and in the one to one work with the child, response to this particular set of strategies is a core requirement. In securing the therapeutic contract with an alienated child, the therapist has to be able to work counter-intuitively, allowing the foundation of the work to be built upon the premise that the child knows that the therapist knows the truth, the therapist knows that the child knows that they know the truth but the therapist is willing to work on the basis that the truth is not necessarily something which the child is required to acknowledge openly.
Because a child cannot be asked to acknowledge that a parent upon whom they have been entirely dependent, in whose care they have been entirely captive and who is half of the child’s internalised sense of self, is the root cause of the problem in the therapeutic process. To do so is to ask the child to betray that parent AND the part of the self they have projected onto the parent. The reality is that if we demonise that parent, thinking that this will free the child, we simply switch the splitting around and we do not heal the child inside. When we recognise that healing the splitting means moving the child back to the ambivalent position in relation to each parent (my parents love me and are people who do good things and sometimes bad things too), our therapeutic work becomes effective at containing and healing the child.
Currently the outside world around this issue resembles a parental fight after divorce and separation as the arguments over binary diagnostics continue. This is an emanation of the split approach to thinking about this issue and as such it is a distraction from the real issue which is that children of divorce and separation are being abused and that that abuse is long lasting and very difficult to treat. We therefore, need to step aside from the battle and look with a critical eye at the way in which the internal world is a reflection of the external and vice versa. Those with the power to help these children must disengage from the constant back and forth around a label and focus upon the experience of the alienated child. For it is there, in the mind of the child, that the harm done is seen and the evidence of how to heal it is found.
About the Work of the Family Separation Clinic
Conceptualisation of alienation
We conceptualise alienation in children, first and foremost, as an alienation from the self as a consequence of defensive splitting in the child.
Primacy of the child
Whilst we seek to re-establish the psychological health of the whole family, the primary focus of all clinical work is the psychological health of the child.
We never regard the child as an object of a parental dispute but always as a subject of their own lived experience and it is the child’s lived experience that will be focus of all work.
The primary focus of all clinical work should be the resolution of the splitting defence in the child
Alienation is a relational problem
We do not regard alienation to be a problem in the child but recognise it as an induced splitting defence in response to the inter and intra-psychological pressures experienced by the child in an attempt to maintain attachment unity after family separation.
Whilst acknowledging the common clinical markers of alienation in children, we do not support simple diagnostic approaches to cases of children’s rejection of a parent. We do not utilise or support quasi-diagnostic approaches such as ‘eight signs’ and ‘the five factor model’.
All cases of children’s rejection of a parent are examined through an assessment process and clinical trial in which the internal dynamics of the family system are carefully observed and recorded. A process of eliminating all possible causes of the child’s presentation, is undertaken prior to a case being treated as alienation.
Restoration of integration
Any intervention that restores the child’s relationship with the previously rejected parent but does not honour and attend to the child’s attachment relationship to the previously favoured parent may be considered to be a failed intervention.Whilst a child may need to be protected from the harmful behaviours of a parent, a successful intervention allows and supports a child to retain a positive relationship with their internalised object relationship to that parent.
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.