The world which is inhabited by children of divorce and separation is surrounded by the metaphor of splitting. From the phrase ‘splitting up’ to the ways that children themselves speak about their experience, splitting is a reality in children’s lives after divorce and separation.

Psychological splitting is a primitive defence mechanism, the term originates from Ronald Fairbairn in his development of object relations theory and it describes a state of mind in which division of experience into good and bad is used defensively. Splitting is an infantile defence, a stage we all pass through and it is something which is used in adolescence although it is regarded as a transitory developmental phase in that respect.

When splitting is induced in a child however, which is seen when the child is forced into the use of it because of pressures upon them in the family system, especially in post divorce and separation situations, it is harmful. Where splitting is induced and this interferes with the child’s capacity to relate to the people they love, and the person causing it cannot or will not stop, it is child abuse. This is the underlying pathology which is seen when a child rejects a parent outright after family separation in the absence of anything which could be said to justify that.

Inducing psychological splitting in a child of divorce and separation, is the action of causing them to defensively split their feelings for their own self first into good and bad. Johnstone & Roseby 1997. What follows is a denial of the part of self which is felt to be bad, a splitting off of that and projection onto one of their parents. The part of self which is felt to be good, is projected onto the other parent. As Melanie Klein said, it is not possible to split the object (relationships with important people in our lives) without splitting the subject (our own sense of self).

Anxiety causes psychological splitting and in divorce and separation, there is a lot of anxiety in the family system. Most families going through divorce and separation, do so within two years of the event, most make the crossing from together to apart in ways which are good enough at protecting children. But some do not and these are the families where children are often overwhelmed by anxiety and in becoming overwhelmed are induced to use the defence of psychological splitting.

The reason a child is said to be alienated in these circumstances is precisely because they have developed what Winnicott called a false self. This self is one which is adapted to the conscious and unconscious wishes of early caretakers in situations where a child’s needs are not met or where a parent requires a child to meet their needs first. The word alienation is well suited to this state of mind and looking at psychological splitting, being the underlying dynamic which leads to this, takes us away from the he said/she said battle about parental rights and into the world of the child whose very development is being shaped by the pressures around them.

There are many reasons why anxiety can become overwhelming in a family system. A parent may be afraid of losing a child and may influence the child through their anxious need for reassurance that the child is not going to leave them. A parent may be anxious that a child is being influenced and may increase in rigidity around arrangements in order to try and protect their time with that child. Two parents may be going through a powerful fight for control over the life that they want to live post divorce and that may include disagreements about how arrangements are made, a parent may be making allegations of alienation or domestic abuse and counter allegations may be being made in the face of that. Polarisation in the family system after divorce and separation causes anxiety and splitting in the child, in response to that can occur as the child seeks to find a way to stabilise the system and resolve the impossible. A child knows that they cannot split themselves into two pieces on the outside and so splits the self on the inside, entering into denial of love and positive feelings for one parent and projecting all of the negative aspects of self and others onto a parent they then reject. One of the saddest things I have ever heard from a child who had done this and who was shifting in and out of conscious awareness of it was –

I suppose it was all my fault for being born, I have cost them all this money and they both suffer and if I was not here none of this would be happening would it.

Lucy – aged 12

Working with psychological splitting in children of divorce and separation is about being aware of the splitting of the self and the projection of that onto parents. In the absence of parents having done anything to cause the child’s rejection, this becomes entirely possible when the internalised mechanism is understood and the family system is being held firmly in the court process. In working with cases of serious alienation in children, I am working post fact finding, where allegations of the case have been heard and decided upon and where a decision has been made by the Court that restoration of the relationship between child and rejected parent is a necessary protective measure. In doing so I am working with a system which is being stabilised by an external framework, enabling the lifting of the pressure upon the child to maintain that stabilisation by their own actions. Where parents can understand the benefit of this and can participate, which means they have the capacity to show insight and understanding and therefore respond to intervention, rapid relief is obtained and the child’s rejecting and hyper attachmen behaviours disappear. Where a parent cannot respond, further intervention is necessary to protect the child.

A child in a stabilised family system, where the anxiety levels are reduced and permission is restored for relationships with everyone who is loved in the family, shows a swift shift back into the ambivalent position, which is when a child recognises that ech parent does good and bad things. When that point is reached, the projection of good/bad is withdrawn and the child holds an integrated position again, recognising that whilst mum and dad hold two separate realities, they as a child do not have to align with either one but can enjoy them both. That is where a child should be, that is where a child can be free to be their authentic self without having to employ a false adapted self to cope with external pressures and internal anxieties.

This a child protection issue when it is in its most serious form. Children who use psychological splitting as a defence in the age group 8-15 are in an important phase of personality development and should they be induced to use psychological splitting and be enabled to cut off good enough parents because of this, have to live with the impact of what they have done for a very long time. Living life in an either/or, black/white way, without learning how to resolve conflicts or accept ambiguities, causes a child to grow up in a world without the necessary skills for healthy relationships. When the facts are found and a child is seen to be in the split state of mind because of anxiety coming from somewhere in the system, we must to act to protect them from this outcome.

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.