“Whatever is rejected from the self, appears in the world as an event.”Carl Jung
Primitive defences such as denial, splitting and projection are seen in situations where children of divorce and separation reject a parent outright (Johnston, Gans Walters, & Friedlander 2001). The same defences are also at play in anti-alienation campaigners who seek to denigrate and do harm to those of us who do this work and it is clear that this is not a new phenomenon – writing about aligned or influencing parents, the same authors say –
They seek their own allies who uncritically endorse their status as victims and trump their cause.Johnston, Gans Walters & Friedlander, 2001
Anyone who ventures into this space, must have a depth working knowledge of the primitive defences in order to be able to bring about change for children who become alienated and in order to ensure their own safety. I am not the only practitioner in this space who attracts the negative transference from those with whom I am working, the risks inherent when we intervene to protect children are many, including online ad hominen attacks, lies, bullying and sometimes stalking and harassment. All of these behaviours are conversant with the primitive defences, in which denial, splitting and projection, relieves a person of the feelings they are unable to tolerate in themselves.
In many cases where children reject a parent and there are serious underlying psychopathologies which cause that, the parent concerned does not have the capacity foor insight due to the denial, splitting and projection dynamic. This process, in which someone is unable to tolerate parts of the self which they have split off and made unconscious, results in projection, in which the unwanted parts of self are seen in other people. This is a binary world of heroes and villains, in which personality disorders are a key feature and in which anyne who does not conform to the world view of the influencing parent is experienced as persecutory. This field is delicate and dangerous to work in, it requires fortitude, resilience and a determined focus upon the wellbeing of the child who is subject to the primitive defences in the same way as a parent.
It is often written that alienation of children requires a counter intuitive approach to treatment, which means that what one would normally do in therapy, has to be reversed in order to get the intervention right. Therapists, who are used to working intuitively, can find it very difficult to work counter to that approach and often want to try out their own approach for themselves, not believing the reality of risk which comes from this highly defended and very particular group of families. The reason we work counter intuitively with families affected by alienation however, is because what we are working with are projections, which emanate from the influencing parent and which are presented or expressed by the child.
A projection is a defense mechanism in which a part of self which is intolerable is disavowed and then attributed to another person. To understand a projection, one has to understand what is being said about someone else as being said about the intolerable parts of self. Thus, a parent who says that the other parent is violent, when there is no evidence of that, may be projecting their intolerable, violent feelings off from their own conscious mind and projecting them onto another person.
The child may express projections which are split off intolerable feelngs of the parent to whom they are aligned, or, they may be splitting off their awareness of a parent’s anger and rage or violence and harm, in order that they are able to maintain their love for a parent. This is Ferenci’s concept of ‘identification with the aggressor‘ in which a person holding less power, is forced into a position of identification with the aggressive person’s behaviour in order that they are able to continue to love that person. This is seen when children identify with abusive parents and reject instead the healthy parent, which is the pattern seen when children become alienated. What happens in this scenario is that the child disavows their own authentic feelings, to hyper identify with and align themselves to a person they fear. These are not expressions from the authentic part of the child but from the highly attuned part which seeks to regulate the parent in order to ensure their own security. It sounds upside down and back to front and that’s because that is what a projection is, it is something which is projected onto another person but which is emanating from the person using a primitive defence.
When you learn to read a family affected by alienation therefore, you are able to see what is being hidden, what influencing parents are themselves unable to see because they are using denial, splitting and projection as a defence.
To understand denial, splitting and projection, one has to read the story being told backwards, which means starting at the end, (which is the narrative which is visible).
Read backwards, the story of the alienated children is this – my outright rejection of a parent I have been seen to love and who has been proven not to have harmed me, is caused by my need to regulate the parent who I now idealise, because I have had to split off my fears and anxieties about this parent in order to believe that they still love me and in order to do what I know they need me to do. In regulating this parent, I have split off and denied the love I have for the other parent, in order to be able to do and say things which are harmful to them.
This is a complex field of work in which careful differentiation and analysis of parental behaviours must be the basis of all assessment. Working backwards in differentiation, from the presenting narrative to the onset of the child’s rejecting behaviours gives a route map into splitting which is the core primitive defence which is seen in alienation.
Splitting is a little understood concept, which is described by some as children splitting their parents into good/bad but which in reality is a splitting of the ego or self, a defence which is a necessary precursor to splitting external relationships.
“the ego is incapable of splitting the object—internal or external—without a corresponding splitting taking place within the ego”.Melanie Klein 1929
What this means in real terms, is that the abuse of a child who is being induced to use psychological splitting as a defence, lies in the prevention of that child’s right to live in connection to their own authentic sense of self and the causation of ego splits which will, if not treated, develop over time, interfering with normal development. This is what alienation of a child really means, it is alienation of the self from the self which, if not stopped, will cause the child to live their lives in the shadow of someone else’s trauma story, entangled and incapable of escape.
This work is not new and this knowledge is not new either but it is vehemently opposed by those who depend upon the primitive defences to survive. Those who understand what is happening to children in divorce and separation, must therefore understand first the role of primitive defences and then understand how to interpret the language which expresses them. When we do, what is projected at us, is recognised and understood, losing its power to terrorise with shame and blame via the split off unwanted aspects of self, which are powerful in the lives of those who try to hide the harm being caused to alienated children.
Johnston, J.R., Walters, M.G. and Friedlander, S. (2001), THERAPEUTIC WORK WITH ALIENATED CHILDREN AND THEIR FAMILIES. Family Court Review, 39: 316-333
Klein, M (1980). Envy and gratitude: And other works, 1946-1963. London: Hogarth Press
Holding up a Healthy Mirror – Course for Parents
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 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.
- This webinar will be held on Zoom.
- To gain access, you must provide a valid email address along with your name and PayPal order reference number (you will receive this by email from PayPal after you have made payment).
Holding up a healthy mirror: Becoming a therapeutic parent to alienated children
Reunification and recovery: Practice and theory in the treatment of alienated children
International Conference, Acre Israel – 14-16th June 2022
The International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children will hold its inaugural conference in Acre, Israel in June 2022. This hybrid event will bring together clinicians and researchers from across the world to explore psychological splitting in children whose parents have separated or divorced. More details shortly.
האקדמיה הבינלאומית לתרגול עם ילדים מנוכרים תקיים את כנס הפתיחה שלה בעכו, ישראל ביוני 2022. אירוע היברידי זה יפגיש קלינאים וחוקרים מכל העולם כדי לחקור פיצול פסיכולוגי בילדים שהוריהם נפרדו או התגרשו. פרטים נוספים בקרוב.
The need to build safety into all practice with families where alienation reactions in children are a feature, arises because of the widespread campaigns to target practitioners who do this work with threat, manipulation and deliberate misinformation. One of the workshops being held at the IAPAC conference, concerns practitioner safety whilst treating serious cases of child abuse in situations where children reject a parent after divorce or separation. More details shortly.
FULL DETAILS AND BOOKINGS FOR THE CONFERENCE OPEN MID FEBRUARY