International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children Conference 2022
The IAPAC Conference will examine the impact on children of psychological splitting through the lens of trauma. Considering the onset of an alienation reaction in a child as a red flag, IAPAC conceptualises this as a non accidental injury to the mind of the child.
In physical non accidental injury, red flags are physical harm and the parental lack of concern or recognition or minimising of harm being done to the child. In psychological non accidental injury, the red flag of psychological splitting is seen as the evidence that the child is under psychological and emotional pressure. Hiding that harm, minimising it and trying to attribute that harm to something or someone else, are also red flags of lack of parental responsibility. Differentiating how pressure is applied to the child and the capacity to recognise the harm this causes, is the purpose of assessment, the purpose of treatment is to address the structural causes of the pressure.
Non accidental injury to the mind is a child protection issue, the IAPAC conference will explore this in full along with the elements which are seen to be at play in these situations.
Children of divorce and separation who reject a parent outright where there is no evidence that a parent has caused this, and where one parent is idealised and the other parent is demonised are likely to be suffering from psychological splitting. Psychological splitting is a primitive defence mechanism, which for these children, comes into play when they are no longer able to hold two realities in mind. For many children, the pressure to live in two households, where parents are not able to co-parent effectively, can cause the onset of this problem. For others, a difference in parenting styles during a significant developmental stage, may cause the onset. Some children are exposed to behaviours from their parents which cause them to suffer in ways which cause psychological splitting. Harmful behaviours such as aggression and control, enmeshment, triangulating the child into adult matters and minimising the bond between a child and parent, can all trigger the onset of psychological splitting.
Psychological splitting is a serious issue when it arises after divorce and separation because it causes a developing child to adapt their behaviours which in turn affects the way in which the brain wires itself during developmental stages. The impact of divorce and separation on children can, in itself, cause developmental trauma, by triggering anxiety and over reliance upon the amygdala, which is the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain. When a child enters into a position where they reject a parent outright as a coping mechanism because they cannot work out how to have a relationship with both parents after family separation, they are at risk of what is called ‘social thinning’ due to the way in which the parts of the brain are impacted.
What is Social Thinning?
(From the UK Trauma Council)
We know that the brain adapts to threatening and unpredictable environments in childhood. For example, there can be changes to how the brain processes threat, reward and everyday memories. These changes in response to trauma may be helpful for the child in the short-term but may increase vulnerability to psychological and behavioural difficulties later on. But HOW does this happen?
Everyday challenges – such as taking an exam, moving to a new school, or even making new friends – can be stressful. However, a child who experienced emotional and psychological harm whilst growing up, may find these situations even more difficult to manage than most children – we call this stress susceptibility. This means that everyday life can take a greater toll.
Let’s take the example of threat. Children who have experienced maltreatment can show greater brain reactivity to threat cues – like facial expressions of anger. This can lead to heightened stress responses in the body that over time take up a child’s energy and attention. Such hyper-vigilance may help stay safe in an anxiety provoking home environment, but may not be so helpful at school. Adults and peers – even those who are friendly – may be perceived as untrustworthy. Looking out for danger can be tiring. If a child expects rejection and harm from others, even ordinary everyday tasks such as spending time with a group of friends or joining a new sport club can create real anxiety.
We can also think about changes to how a child processes reward. Children who have experienced maltreatment show reduced brain reactivity to reward cues. This may influence how they respond to positive social cues, like praise or even a friendly smile. Reduced response to reward may have made sense in a home environment characterised by neglect, where positive responses from adults were rare or inconsistent. Later, when a child is at school, a child may become less receptive to encouragement and praise from adults and peers . It is also possible that reduced response to reward may reduce a child’s motivation to expend effort. We all need positive reinforcement from others to help us stay motivated and engaged. For children who have experienced maltreatment, these positive ‘hits’ may be less effective – making ordinary tasks like homework and household chores more of an effort.
Finally, studies of autobiographical memory suggests that children who have experienced maltreatment may prioritise negative memories over positive ones. Over time, this may lead to a negative bias which can increase the risk of depression.
We know that supportive relationships are key to our wellbeing. They help us regulate our emotions and think through our everyday worries and problems. Adults also have a key role to play in creating opportunities for learning and growth for children.
There are three ways that childhood trauma can lead to brain changes which increase a child’s risk of later mental health problems:
- Stress susceptibility: Brain changes can alter how a child processes the world, so that everyday experiences become more stressful.
- Stress generation: Brain changes can influence a child’s behaviour leading to interactions with peers and adults that ultimately generate new experiences of stress.
- Social thinning: Brain changes may make it harder to cultivate and maintain relationships, so that children over time can lose important sources of social support.
The impact of splitting
The infantile state of splitting is a defensive behaviour which causes the child or young person to feel shame and guilt for their rejection of a loved parent. The rejection is not one which they would ordinarily be able to tolerate, because all children are attached to parents, even those who are actually abusive or harmful to a child. Attachment is the way in which children and young people navigate the world and to reject a parent who was once loved, creates another impossible dilemma for the child, the reality of having to live with a ‘decision’ which is forced upon them by circumstance. Children who recover from the split state of mind which is also known as alienation, display a deep sense of shame and guilt for their behaviours, this is because when children utilise psychological splitting, they are doing so in order to rationalise a behaviour which is without any foundation.
Psychological Splitting, Social Thinning and Divorce and Separation
At the Family Separation Clinic we are concerned with the impacts on the brain, of children who rejected a parent outright after divorce and separation. We know that the psycho-analytic explanation for this is that a child does not reject a parent in this way without there being underlying problems in the family system which leads the child to try and resolve matters on their own. Without going into any need to blame parents for how a child enters into this state of mind, we know that treating it is vital because psychological splitting, in which the child rejects a parent and aligns with the other, causes the child to begin to limit their relationships with one side of their family. As these relationships become limited and parents begin to blame each other for the problem, the child’s capacity for healthy relationships is eroded due to the lack of healthy interactions which stimulate the development of a healthy brain. In addition, children who do not learn to resolve issues within relationships, learn to cut off from them and thereby begin to lose the capacity to relate effectively. Psychological splitting is the display of this problematic maladaptation after divorce or separation but social thinning is the longer term problem faced by many children who do not receive help.
Psychological splitting is the most regularly treated problem at the Clinic and we undertake treatment precisely because we know that a child who has been forced into a situation where they have had to reject a relationship with a parent in order to be able to cope with complex dynamics, is at risk in later teens and throughout the twenties of ‘social thinning.’
Social thinning leads young people to withdraw from the world because they are unable to cope with normal relationships. What looks like a simple thing to most young people, may be impossible to navigate for young people suffering from social thinning.
The stressful events that can arise as a result of stress generation can also lead to outcomes that fracture relationships – being excluded from a friendship group after an argument, being removed from a sports team after a fight, being moved from a foster placement after sustained behavioural challenges.
Over time, these difficulties in social interactions can increase the likelihood that a child loses friends and relationships with supportive adults . We call this ‘social thinning‘ . This is the gradual erosion of social networks, friendship groups and bonds with family members. As the network of people who can provide support becomes weaker, a child has less support when they experience future stressful events – making them more vulnerable to mental health problems.
Changes in the brain following (complex difficulties in families), do not mean that vulnerability is located solely within the child. Instead, vulnerability plays out in a relational context – that is, through the child’s relationships. Stress susceptibility, stress generation and social thinning are not inevitable processes. We need to remain curious and open about the reasons behind the child’s behaviour and their inner world. This can help a child to process and regulate their emotions by promoting understanding and trust. We also need to respond in ways that do not inadvertently increase the likelihood of future stressors. Instead, we should facilitate and create opportunities for learning and exploration as well as building a child’s social connections.
Typical Onset of Social Thinning in Children of Divorce and Separation
The typical route into social thinning for children and young people of divorce and separation is that they are seen to reject a parent outright and align themselves very strongly with the other. This may look like the child is very comfortable with one parent and afraid of (sometimes almost to the point of phobia) the other. In addition, children may be contemptuous of the parent who is being rejected, speaking in harsh terms without empathy about them. When this is seen, in the absence of anything a parent has actually done, the child is seen to be using psychological splitting as a defence.
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
Psychological Splitting and Social Thinning – Understanding relational trauma
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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