The alienated child is defined as one who is seen to be hyper aligned with one parent and completely rejecting of the other, where the child is demonstrating contempt for the rejected parent and entitlement to control outcomes. Such a child may, on being challenged about their rejection in clinical observation, shift from a brittle omnipotent belief that they are in control of the family system, to a presentation of uncontrolled anxiety, in which they may make allegations about the person challenging their narrative. This is why careful management of the Court process, in assessment of such children is essential and why recording clinical observations are necessary. In an environment where there is little professional understanding of the primitive defences at play in families where a child displays these symptoms, knowing how to protect the practitioner self from negative transference is essential.

Transference is the behaviour seen in therapeutic work when clients behave as if the therapist is someone from their past. You can see more about transference in this simple video.

Understanding Transference

The problem for practitioners who are working with alienated children, is that the child is using primitive defences of splitting, denial and projection and is in the care of a parent who is doing the same. Primitive defences are used by people who suffer from personality disorders and traits, they are infantile in nature and are organised in such a way as to ensure that the person using them is defended against an overwhelming sense of shame or other deeply discomforting emotion. People who use primitive defences, do not see that their behaviour is problematic, seeing the traits they cannot bear in themselves, in other people and often blaming and shaming other people as a method of controlling them. Alienation of children in divorce and separation, features the use of primitive defences, which often erupt in the family at the point of separation, causing a parent to believe that the other parent is trying to harm the child. The reason why false allegations feature in alienation cases, is because the child becomes enmeshed with a parent’s encapsulated delusional belief that the other parent’s desire to have a relationship with the child, is harmful.

The voice of the alienated child, coming from a split sense of self and the presence of a defended or false self cannot be ascertained in the same way as children who have not been seen to align and reject parents after family separation. This is because to treat what children are saying in these circumstances as if it were the truth, is to entrench the problem of splitting in the child and uphold a false narrative. Children who are expressing their wishes and feelings from a non split sense of self, are ambivalent in their expression, they do not split their feelings about their parents into good/bad, black/white, right/wrong. Children who are speaking from the split self, are unambiguous, they divide their views into binary opposites and attribute the good to the aligned parent and the bad to the rejected parent. They are often arrogant and contemptuous about the rejected parent and overly dramatic and sentimental about the parent to whom they are aligned. The presentation of these children has a surreal quality to it, they are grandiose in some respects, overly dramatic and shift their moods quickly. Working with them can feel treacherous, the practitioner can feel pulled into placating or colluding with the child.

Understanding alienated children however, makes it easier to work with them and to listen for the unspoken split off part of self which will appear and disappear and which will try to build a covert alliance if the pracitioner is sufficiently aware. When working with such children, their initial words should be listened to without comment and engagement, learning to sit and wait for the authentic child to appear in therapy, is a key skill for any practitioner in this field. When the structural shifts which are necessary to protect the child are present, (the aligned parent is sufficiently under the control of a third party such as the Court), the authentic part of the child can come forward. Making this space available for that to happen is the task of the practitioner doing the reunification work. Sitting and waiting for the authentic child to make use of that space, is the second stage in successful practice.

Enabling the authentic voice of the child, which comes from the split off and denied part of self which is identified with the rejected parent, is about boundaries and practitioner willingness to hold them. Being able to set the scene, tell the child what is going to happen, bring the split off object relationship to mind (bring in the rejected parent) and then hold the space as the child moves through the recovery of regulating feelings, is a particular skill. Developing that skills comes from knowing that when the split off and denied relationship with the rejected parent is back in the conscious mind of the child, the split sense of self will disappear, having the courage to wait for long enough for that to occur requires knowing how to pace the work of reunification.

This is not easy work but it is necessary for alienated children’s mental health and articulating this is very necessary in the drive to bring others to do this work successfully. The Conference of the International Academy of Practice, will hear from clinicians with powerful records in working with alienated children and hearing their authentic voices.

Reunification and recovery: Theory and practice in the treatment of alienated children

International Conference, Acre Israel – 14-15th 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.

Teodora Minčić, from the Belgrade Institute of Mental Health, will present a paper on practitioner safety and working with negative transference in alienation cases.

Karen Woodall from the Family Separation Clinic in London, will present a paper on Structural Interventions with Alienated Children and Working wi the Language of Parts.

Barbara Fidler from Canada, will present on understanding children’s voices in families where children resist or reject relationships with parents after divorce and separation.

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