Definition: Non accidental injury (NAI) is defined as any abuse inflicted on a person or knowingly not prevented by a care giver. The injury is not consistent with the account of its occurrence.

BMJ: Child Protection Special Interest Group

Since the early seventies, when divorce laws changed in the UK and USA, the number of children who have been subjected to non accidental psychological and emotional injury (NAI) has remained unquantified. There are no methods for collecting data on the number of children who suffer emotional and psychological NAI in the process of parental divorce and separation and therefore no way of conceptualising how this has impacted upon subsequent generations of children. What we do know, is that the serious harm to the psychological and emotional wellbeing of children of divorce and separation, is hidden by waves of parental rights campaigns so that the focus continues to be upon the wellbeing of parents rather than children. Campaigners for women’s rights enmesh the needs of children with the rights of their mothers and campaigners for men’s rights see parental alienation theory as the explainer for why children reject them. In the midst of this, I would argue, the individual needs of children, for healthy parenting through and beyond the break up of their parents, are overlooked.

There is a current worldwide campaign which is focused upon depicting parental alienation theory as a litigation tactic used by abusive fathers. The corresponding rebuttal of this campaign is now underway with the aim of establishing that the attacks on PA theory are unjustified. This is, unfortunately however, simply a game of theoretical tennis, a distraction from reality which bears no relationship to what working with alienated children and their families looks and feels like.

Working in this space, with children who have been found to be emotionally and psychologically harmed by a parent, is about working with non accidental injury to the mind and in that respect, it is about child protection first. Just as in physical NAI, the protection of the child and constraint of the abusive behaviours of a parent, are the first steps we take, the next steps being to reunite the child with the parent who has been prevented from protecting them from the harm that they have suffered. In doing so, we use an approach from structural therapy, in which we recognise that the child’s rejection has occurred because of the defence which has been induced and that to enable the defence to drop in the child, we must correct the power dynamics which have held the child in thrall to the abusing parent. In doing so, we may have to take some difficult decisions, such as preventing the abusing parent from seeing the child for a time, so that the child becomes conscious that the power dynamics have changed.

Some campaigners have corrupted this reality, via claims that many children are being placed with abusive parents due to harmful practices in the family courts. Their message, that parental alienation theory is a litigation tactic, has sought to hide the reality that what is happening, which is that children are being removed from abusive parents due to psychological and emotional abuse. In truth, what happens when a child is moved in residence transfer due to emotional and psychological abuse, is exactly the same as what happens when a child is moved away from a parent who has caused physical non accidental injury.

If a child’s legs and arms are broken, we would have no problem at all in seeing that child removed from the abusive parent, even more so if that parent claimed that they were not the cause of the injury and the child wanted to remain with them. We would feel entirely justified in removing a child who was suffering sexual abuse from a parent, especially if that child said that they wanted to remain with that parent.

Karen Woodall 2022

The reason that there is discomfort when a child is removed because of emotional or psychological abuse is because, I would argue,

a) there is not enough understanding of the harm that is caused to a child in these circumstances and because,

b) the red herring of campaign allegations and denial, have led to a distraction from the task of raising consciousness of this pernicious form of child abuse.

Hiding the harm done to children is enabled when the focus is upon the rights of parents and not upon the needs of children. Shifting the focus to where it belongs, on the experiences of children and how to treat this problem, is what we are doing in the International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children. Thinking about the problem as a non accidental injury to the mind of the child, helps us to orientate our practice and interventions to where the problem arises, which is within the child’s relational self and the maladaptive defences which are raised when they are pressured into the alignment and rejection dynamic. This is a readily recognised defence in the psychoanalytic literature and it is readily treated when the correct intervention is configured around the child. Spelling this out, to those with the power to effect immediate change, such as social workers and court involved practitioners, is the most pressing task for the months and years ahead.

IAPAC Conference 2022

Learning Outcomes for Court Involved Practitioners and Social Workers

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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