The harm done to children when they are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence after the divorce or separation of their parents, lies in the way that the defence of splitting interrupts a key developmental phase. Children aged between 8 and 14, are those most likely to be affected (Bala, Fidler and Saini 2012), with higher risk in children who have suffered early developmental trauma (Johnston and Roseby, 1997). Psychological splitting, during this phase of development, is a reaction to psychological and emotional pressure and it prevents relational development, for example by triangulating the child into adult matters. (Minuchin, 1996).
Psychological splitting, is a well recognised infantile defence mechanism and is the core dynamic seen when children are said to be alienated from a parent. What we mean when we use the term alienation, is the onset of a defence called ‘identification with the aggressor’ (Ferenzi, 1937). Identification with the aggressor, is the core dynamic in abusive relationships, when, for example, the abused person cannot leave the abuser. This defence, causes the abused person to split off their awareness of the harm they are suffering, along with their natural anger at being abused, in order to remain in the relationship.
When people ask why an abused woman cannot leave an abusive relationship and she professes to be unable to because of her love for him, what we are observing in her is the identification with the aggressor defence. Such is the fear and anxiety provoked by the control that the abuser has over the abused, that the defence enables a splitting off of the awareness of that, in order to either regulate the abuser and prevent escalation, or enable the abused to remain in the relationshp despite the abuse.
The same dynamic is at play in situations where children reject a parent outright, especially when this is accompanied by denigration of the parent who is being rejected. In this situation however, the child is identifying with an aggressive parent, whose behaviours have caused them to split off their fear and anxiety about that aggression in order to protect themselves. It is worth explaining that carefully because it is within this trauma response, that the reality of what ideological campaigners are doing, in their efforts to deny that alienation of children exists, is seen.
Ideological campaigners proclaim that children only reject parents because that parent is abusive. When this is seen in the light of children’s rejection of their mother, the claim is that those children are rejecting because their mother is abusive. And yet, when the experience of rejected mothers is examined, it becomes apparent that they are victims of abusive men who have terrorised their children into alignment with them, often with accompanying false allegations that the mother has abused the children. These are truly victim mothers and their children are held captive by abusive fathers, which makes the claim that these women are rejected by their children because they are abusive, all the more concerning.
This harm of mothers whose children reject them, is part of a widespread campaign to convince the outside world that alienation of children does not exist and that children only reject an abusive parent. In real terms, when examined closely, what is being promoted by this message, are the rights of parents who use abusive behaviours to control and enmesh their children. What is being hidden, are the pathological behaviours which harm children, behaviours which these groups are attempting to normalise.
Alienation in a child, causes a pattern of behaviour in which a child is forced into a psychological maladaptation in order to cope with intolerable emotional pressure which is caused by inter-personal terrorism. This series of maladaptive strategies, causes emotionally and psychologically vulnerable children, to use the primitive defence of denial, splitting and projection, which in turn prevents them from being able to develop relational skills such as conflict resolution, empathy and the ability to recognise that people can do good and bad things. The outcome for children who do not receive assistance to resolve this , is a developing split off part of self, which is felt to be loathsome and problematic. In later years, when embarking on relationships, this split off part of self breaks through into the conscious mind, leading to many young adults suffering from a range of difficulties related to self hatred.
‘The alien self is present in all of us, because transient neglect is part of ordinary caregiving; it is pernicious when later experiences of trauma in the family or the peer group force the child to dissociate from pain by using the alien self to identify with the aggressor. Hence, the vacuous self comes to be colonized by the image of the aggressor, and the child comes to experience himself as evil and monstrous.’Peter Fonagy
The International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children, aims to highlight this dynamic and raise awareness of the harm done to children who cannot escape from abusive relationships with parents, because of coercive control and other problematic behaviours. Shifting the focus from the rights of parents, to the wellbeing of children, IAPAC clinicians work with a child centred model in which the harms which are caused to children by induced psychological splitting, are the core focus.
Sándor Ferenczi (1988) Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 24:2, 196-206,
Fidler, B. J., Bala, N. & Saini. M. A (2013). Children who resist post separation parental contact: A differential approach for legal and mental health professionals. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Johnston, J. & Roseby, V. (1997). In The Name Of The Child. New York: Free Press.
Minuchin, S. (1996). Family Kaleidoscope. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
IAPAC Conference 2022
IAPAC will open its conference in Israel on 14/15 June 2022 with a close look at children’s rights in the realm of parental divorce and separation. In doing so, we will open up this space to scrutiny in terms of what is happening psychologically and systemically, in families where children display alignments and rejecting behaviours and what harm is being done to children when the alienation dynamic is denied or misunderstood by practitioners. Examining children’s rights in the round, their right to a voice, their right to live free from adult concerns and their right to be parented healthily after divorce and separation, we will consider and balance the child’s holistic long term needs with their individual rights, in order to understand why interventions are necessary to assist them. Following on from that will be a packed two day conference looking at evidence based interventions with children and families and seminars will therefore be of interest to social workers, psychotherapists and other mental health professionals working with children in divorce and separation.
Examples of the Seminars and Learning Outcomes
Balancing Children’s Rights and Practitioner Responsibilities – understanding the need to intervene when children reject a parent.
Identification with the Aggressor – recognising coercive control of children who reject a parent.
Understanding and assisting the alienated child – evidence based interventions for reunification and recovery.
Integrating polarised thinking in the family where children align and reject – therapy with alienated children and families.
Therapeutic Parenting for Alienated Children – supporting parents to cope, helping children to heal.
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