People who ask me how to help their children to come home are often surprised when I tell them that half of the work they need to do to make that happen has already been done. This is because when a parent is able to ask the question ‘how do I help them come home?’ they have recognised two very important things. 1. Their child needs help to come home 2. They, as the healthy parent, have immense power to assist them to do so. This can sound obtuse to those whose children seem rigidly distanced and fixed in their rejection and so I am going to unpack it for you in this piece in order to help you understand the power of what is a very simple mindshift.
As a rejected parent you have been the recipient of your child’s negative projections since the point at which they entered into the splitting reaction and began to reject you as a result. Splitting is an unconscious act, it is defence mechanism which occurs when a child can no longer hold two realities in mind and it causes the child to split off part of their own self which is identified with you and make that part unconscious. Think of it like putting the part of self which is identified with you in the dustbin of the mind, it is an action which then allows the child to treat you as if you are dirt/rubbish/disposable. This is because the child is now unable to consciously feel the loving feelings they had for you, those feelings are now disposed of along with the part of self which identifies with you. Instead of being able to feel those feelings, what happens is the child projects them (sees them in other people rather than experiencing them in their own internal landscape). The positive loving feelings are projected at one parent and the negative feelings of hatred and anger are projected at the other. The parent who receives the negative projection, is the parent who the child believes is the parent they hate and the parent who receives the positive projections, is the parent the child believes they love. This is the child’s lived experience, the child feels this inside which means that to some extent that feeling is real to the child. What this feeling really is however, is a maladaptation of the chld’s attachment relationships, it is an imposed maladaptation and it is caused by traumatic impact on the child by pressure from somewhere in the family system.
We know that children adapt their behaviours to avoid being abandoned. Bowlby told us clearly in his research that the child’s primary goal is to maintain attachment relationships at all costs.
Bowlby (1958) proposed that attachment can be understood within an evolutionary context in that the caregiver provides safety and security for the infant. Attachment is adaptive as it enhances the infant’s chance of survival.Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the childs tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.
We also know that splitting is an infantile defence mechanism which was recognised by object relations clinician Donald Winnicott in his work with children
Central to object relations theory is the notion of splitting, which can be described as the mental separation of objects into “good” and “bad” parts and the subsequent repression of the “bad,” or anxiety-provoking, aspects.Winnicott, D. W (1989). The Concept of Trauma. In C. Winnicott, R. Shepard, and M. David (eds.), Psycho-Analytic Explorations, pp 130-148, MA; Harvard University Press.
Therefore, the child who has rejected a parent and aligned with the other, who has been seen to split feelings into wholly good and wholly bad and who has had a period of time in life where they have rejected you, is a child who has suffered two things 1. Attachment disruption (and potentially disorder) and 2. psychological splitting during a time of significant physical, emotional, mental and psychological development. This means that your older or adult child is not going to find their way easily back to you and when they do, they are going to behave in particular ways that you must understand in order to help them to integrate the split parts of self.
Trauma experts such as Janina Fisher, speak of trauma as causing split off parts of self, some of which try to go on as normal (think of the child who has rejected you and who appears to be relieved and living life normally after that has occurred) and parts which are arrested in developmental delays and difficulties. This is certainly my experience of treating children of all ages who have rejected a parent, their presention of different parts of self, some of which are over compensated in competence and some of which are very much under compensated, can be confusing. Often children using splitting will appear pseudo mature, hiding younger and less confident parts of self who can breakthrough at times and cause chaos. Adult children who appear and then disappear are confusing to you when they start to come back into your life, and can cause you to feel angry and afraid that they are returning to old behaviours when they are not, they are trying to work out how to hold an integrated sense of self. When you understand what alienation really is and you learn how to adapt your own behaviours to help your child of any age to come home, the power of being a parent returns and the negative projections, which are psychologically sticky and cause you to question your own sense of self, begin to fade.
Clearing a path to your door means understanding your child’s internal experience, learning how to respond to your child or lay a trail which leads them back to you and being able to provide consistent healthy responding in the early, often turbulent days of reconnection. Recognising that your child has internalised difficulties which they have to overcome in order to return to you, means that you can put your energies where you know they will be most useful. Think of your child as the child of adoption who finds the adoption papers which trigger their need for biological connection. At some point in the adult child’s life, they are propelled to integration by their life stage, they yearn for and set out on a quest for psychological wholeness and you have the missing piece of the jigsaw. When they set out to find it, your path must be clean and neatly swept with clear signage which says ‘welcome home’. When they knock on the door, your arms must be open and you must be able to step forward and usher them in. They are propelled by a need to find that part of themselves which was split off and projected, the secret to splitting and projection being, that not only did they project the negative aspects of their own self at you, they split off and denied in themselves their feelings of love for you. When they walk up the path and knock on the door, those feelings they once knew are present again and conscious and so is the guilt and the shame for what they were forced to do. When you open the door and usher them in, you show them that their child to your parent is safe at last, you provide predictable and unconditional love, which restarts the attachment system and provides the glue which enables your ongoing care and presence to take effect.
Structural therapy strategies, alongside psychoanalytic understanding, is key to empowering parents to take control of the dynamics which cause so much pain and suffering when children are aliented in divorce and separation. This is a rich and deep seam of knowledge and experience which all rejected parents can learn and which brings peace of mind a sense of power and integration in a landscape scissored with splitting. We are increasingly focused upon this way of working both in and out of the family courts in order to create ways of healing families affected by this cruel and deeply damaging form of child abuse. This is a way of life, a committment to children from parents who ask that question, ‘what can I do to help my child to come home’ and it produces change in family relationships which last far beyond that first longed for knock on the door.
An online development course for alienated parents and their families with Karen Woodall
Please note change of dates
Thursday 2nd December 2021
Thursday 9 December 2021
Thursday 16 December 2021
Each session runs for two hours from
16:00 to 18:00 GMT
£180 Inclusive of Tax
Four Places Left
You can check your local start time here (just click the link and enter your city in the blue box):
About this course:
Children who hyper align with a parent and reject the other in divorce and separation are usually in the age group 8-14 years. This is because this age group is in a stage in which their sense of self and personality is under development and the ego is not strong enough to regulate the anxieties which are generated by the experience of attachment disruption in family separation.
What we know about children who experience these difficulties, is that they can be helped when one of their parents is able to understand their experience and in response, hold up a healthy mirror. When the holding of this mirror is consistent, the child who has suffered from induced psychological splitting which is demonstrated by aligning themselves with one parent and rejecting the other, can experience an integrated sense of self which assists in recovery.
In order to hold up a healthy mirror, the parent in the rejected position must first address the reactive splitting that they are likely to have suffered. Reactive splitting, which occurs when the child rejects, (often accompanied by false allegations), can cause a parent to feel natural reactions such as anger, bewilderment and shame. These feelings, which are normal in the circumstances, can become blocks and barriers to the child’s recovery as the parent refutes the allegations and shows the child their reactive feelings. In these circumstances, the child withdraws further, struggling with their own guilt and shame and begins to split off their feelings further.
Restoring health to rejected parents begins with an understanding of what has happened internally and how that has become entangled with the child’s own splitting reactions. When parents are able to map this splitting across the family system, their own reactive splitting can integrate and they can begin the work of developing the healthy mirror needed by the child.
Parents who have healed reactive splitting can then learn to apply the skills of therapeutic parenting. This is an approach to parenting children who are suffering from attachment disorder due to being emotionally and psychologically harmed. Alienated children with therapeutic parents, are shown in evaluation, to be able to recover quickly from the underlying harms which have caused their rejecting behaviours.
On this course you will learn:
- What psychological splitting is, how it occurs and why
- How to identify your own reactive splitting
- How to integrate split thinking in a fractured landscape
- How to build integrated thinking strategies
- What to embrace and what to avoid when rebuilding health in the face of alienation
- How to build the healthy mirror your child needs
- Mentalisation strategies for mirroring health
- The power and importance of consistent mirroring
- How other parents have used integrated mirroring to bring their children back to health
- Therapeutic parenting – an integrated skills set
- Building a consistent communications strategy for recovering your children
- Working with the counter intuitive approach necessary to enable alienated children to withdraw their projections
- Staying healthy amidst the chaos caused by psychological splitting
Based upon successful work with many families around the world, Karen Woodall will share with you the deep knowledge of how to recover children from the nightmare landscape of psychological splitting. Karen has helped families to rebuild health and wellbeing with children of all ages and has developed a structural approach to working with alienation which is easily translated into strategies which can be used by parents.
‘I have worked with Karen Woodall for two years now and both of my children are back in our lives and thriving. One of my children was alienated from me for ten years and she is clearly suffering the impact of that. With Karen’s guidance, I am working to address her attachment difficulties, which I now understand and recognise. Karen’s guidance works, it helps children to come home and then heal. It has been invaluable to me to do this work and understand and feel skilled as parent again.’
Emma, Mum to two children aged 16 and 19.
‘My children are both in their thirties and I despaired of ever seeing them again. I have worked with Karen for six months and am delighted to say that I seeing them both regularly now. Working with therapeutic parenting skills, I have begun to understand how they have been affected and I can help them with confidence and see the difference it makes. I am recovering a sense that I can do something about this nightmare and that makes all the difference in my life’
Jack. Dad to two adult children aged 32 and 37.
This course will be recorded and can be purchased without the interactive element from December by parents and family members in Australia and New Zealand.
Purchase of tickets to this course offers access to the recordings by all participants for up to one month.
Live discussion sessions will be held on each date, these will not be recorded.