Understanding a Child’s Alignment and Rejection in Divorce and Separation

The work of the Family Separation Clinic is rooted in psychoanalytic understanding of the problem of a child’s alignment and rejection behaviour in divorce and separation and in structural therapeutic work with families where this is seen. This means that we are working beyond family systems, in which the relationships between family members are regarded as having impact on individuals as well as the system as whole, focusing instead on the principles of the family in its social context, in which we map the underlying dynamics in adults, which cause the problem of the child’s hyper alignment and rejection behaviour.

Behavioural Mapping in Structural Therapy

Behavioural mapping illuminates patterns of behaviours in cases of alienation of children, when we unearth those behavioural patterns, we can see more clearly what needs to be done to change the dynamics around the child.

We call the problem of children’s behavioural display of hyper alignment and rejection, ‘alienation‘ because what we are concerned with at the Family Separation Clinic, is the health and wellbeing of children of divorce and separation. Whilst we have shifted our practice away from the use of parental alienation theory, we consider the word alienation (of a child) to be the right terminology because it describes what happens to the child prior to the hyper alignment and rejection dynamic.

APA definition of self alienation

self-alienation n. estrangement from oneself, typically accompanied by significant emotional distancing. The self-alienated individual is frequently unaware of or largely unable to describe his or her own intrapsychic processes.

Primitive Defences and the Concept of Self Alienation

In our clinical experience, prior to aligning with one parent and rejecting the other, the child raises a primitive defence of denial, splitting and projection. This is often a mirror of the behaviour of the parent to whom the child is aligned and it occurs because the child is under immense psychological pressure to conform to that parent’s world view. When a child is being pressured in this way, the result is the raising of the defence, which causes the child to split their own sense of self into two parts, one which is identified as the good part of self and one which is identified as the bad part. The bad part of self is disposed of into the unconscious, it contains not only the identification with the parent who will be rejected, but the regulating feelings of guilt and shame which would normally prevent this from occurring. The child now mirrors the aligned parent’s belief system. When the parent who is pressuring the child senses the child’s alignment, they are often soothed by the belief that now the child can see (in the other parent), what they can see. The aligned parent is now calmer and regulated and upon the child receiving the message that they have done a good thing, the split sense of self is cemented. From this point on, the splitting in the child, of good self/bad self, gives rise to the false self described in psychoanalytic literature by Winnicott and others. The alignment and rejection pattern which is seen in these circumstances, is a projection from the child’s split sense of self.

Meeting The False Self of the Alienated Child

When therapists meet the alienated child they are often unaware that the part they are meeting is the false self child. This means that they are misled by the child’s projective behaviours and spend their time looking for reasons why the child is rejecting a parent. What is really necessary in therapeutic work with alienated children, is that the relationship between the child and aligned parent must be explored for the evidence of the pressures which are causing the child to split the self and use denial and projection. This will require the excavation of the evidence through behavioural mapping and a close observation of the parent/child relationships. This is forensic therapeutic work which takes many different forms but which is always focused the correct way around – ie the problem is recognised as emanating from the hyper alignment between parent and child when a child is demonstrating splitting.

Meeting the false self of the alienated child requires a particular ability to listen without commentary and a resistance to being pulled into the drama which is being enacted. When the therapist feels compelled to befriend the child or is drawn into wanting to protect the child, the ability to hold the boundary which is necessary for recovery is compromised. This is a seductive dynamic, it rests upon the heroes and villains narrative of divorce and separation and it enacts the same drama in the team around the family as the family around the child. Managing therapy in structural terms means getting boundaries right and it means noticing everything which happens in a case right from the first communications to the point where a child encounters once again, the split off part of self in the form of the rejected parent.

Power and Control Dynamics

This is not a symmetrical dynamic, it is not a he said/she said and it is not fixed by tinkering around the edges. It is addressed effectively when the therapist recognises the limitations of their power to remove the control that the influencing parent has over the child, and hands that responsibility back to the Court. When it is handed back to a judge who understands the power imbalance, there is a strengthening of the therapist’s capacity to hold the tension in the family and push for behavioural change. It is at this point that some parents will recognise the need to change and will enact a letting go of the child. For others, largely those with personality disorder and traits, there is a lack of capacity to understand what is required and the child may need to be removed.

Protect, Constrain and TreatWhy Intervention is Necessary

The intervention pathway of protect, constrain and treat should be followed in all severe cases of alienation. Protect the child, constrain parental power over the child, BEFORE treatment takes place.

Treating children who are induced to develop splitting and a false self is very necessary and preferable at the time of its occurrence. This is because it is a relational problem which occurs at a time of immense importance in neurobiological terms. As the brain develops, the critical period for development of relational networks and (through that the sense of self), is impacted when a child is forced into developing a false sense of self. Being left with a false sense of self, teenagers and young adults, struggle to make friendships work and find authenticity in peer relationships. The false self which is developed in these particular circumstances, is an infantile self which is full of grandiosity and entitlement to control outcomes. In the care of a parent who has caused that and continues to enable that into adulthood, these children struggle to develop normal peer networks and to make transitions between life stages easily. Young people who do not get help, may experience social thinning as their relational capacity is affected.

Not a Mental Disorder in the Child but A Relational Trauma

Therapeutic work with children who are alienated, demonstrates that this is not a mental disorder in the child, but a relational trauma which impacts the development of the sense of self and personality. Work with children who have recovered from alienation through the intervention of the Family Separation Clinic, demonstrates that the recovery pathway is supported by therapeutic parenting in which rejected parents are taught the skills of attuned therapeutic support to manage attachment trauma. This evidence based approach, which is adapted from fostering and adoption support, matches the underlying dynamics which are seen in children who are affected by alienation. The behavioural patterns which are seen when the child is the false self, it is not a mental condition but an adaptive defence of splitting, which on intervention which is correctly matched to the aetiology of the problem in the family, is no longer necessary, allowing the child to integrate the split state of mind and unblock the incoming care of the therapist and rejected parent. This is when treatment is most effective.

International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children Conference 2022

The conference will hear about the model which is used by the Family Separation Clinic for assessment and treatment of this problem.

On Day One

Nick Woodall will discuss the psychoanalytic roots of understanding and the defences in children who align and reject parents.

Karen Woodall will discuss the structural approach to treatment which engages the rejected parent in therapeutic strategies for assisting the child to recover.

Joan Long from the Republic of Ireland will discuss the structural approach in practice in the legal system in Ireland.

Claire Francica from Malta will discuss the structural approach and how it manifests in practice in the Maltese legal system.

On Day Two

Nick Woodall will discuss the core defence of projective identification in alienation of children

Karen Woodall will discuss the co-coaching and co-therapy model which is used successfully in treatment of moderate to severe cases in the UK, Republic of Ireland and Hong Kong.

Avner Ha’Cohen will discuss the paranoid schizoid position seen in influencing parents.

Tirza Joels will discuss the role of attachment trauma in cases of alienation.

IAPAC Conference – Acre, Israel June 14/15, Streaming Live & Recorded

A child’s vehement rejection of a parent after divorce or separation can present professionals and the courts with a number of challenges. These can be exacerbated when children or parents make allegations of harm or abuse against the parent who is being rejected.

The International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children recognises alienation as a relational problem in which a child unconsciously utilises the maladaptive defence of psychological splitting in response to a relational landscape that has become frightening and overwhelming.

This conference brings together practitioners and researchers from around the world to share perspectives on theory and practice in the treatment of alienated children and, in doing so, recognising children, not as objects of a parental dispute, but as a subject of their own lived experience.

Book Here

Family Separation Clinic Training News

The next Holding up a Healthy Mirror Course will run on July 5,12,19 & 26 at 16:00 – 18:00 GMT Bookings are open now and 25 places are available. Book Here

Therapeutic Parent Support Course

This course is only for those who have already completed HUAHM and Higher Level Understanding. It begins in September and runs for ten weeks through to Christmas. This course will lead into the development of listening circles for rejected parents which I will develop from 2023. This training will enable you to assist others using therapeutic parenting and to facilitate listening circles. The cost is £500 or £50 per week and can be paid weekly, monthly or in two parts. You can pre-register for this course by sending your name to Karen@karenwoodall.blog

The Power of the Rejected Parent to Help and Heal – A Two Hour Online Seminar with Karen Woodall – May 26th at 17:00-19:00

Please note that if you have donated to this fundraiser in aid of the Salvation Army, you MUST follow the instructions below carefully, particularly point 3 so that you get your link.

3. email info[at]familyseparationclinic.co.uk with details of your name (or alias) and the amount you donated.

There is still time to donate and join the seminar which will be recorded and available until Nick has climbed Mount Toubkal in August.

What you will learn

How alienation happens to children and why

Why parents are rejected when children use psychological splitting as a defence

What happens when children resolve the psychologically split state of mind

How therapeutic parenting can help alienated children

What happens to alienated children when they reunite with the rejected parent

26 May 2022, 17:00 – 19:00 UK time
Find your local time here (just enter your home city in the blue box): https://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/converter.html?iso=20220526T160000&p1=136

Attendance by minimum donation of £15.00.

Fundraising Details

The Power of the Rejected Parent to Help and Heal seminar will contribute to Nick’s fundraising efforts and help raise money for the Salvation Army’s vital work with homeless people and the victims of human trafficking. You can find out more about the Salvation Army’s work, and Nick’s climb of Mount Toubkal, here: https://express.adobe.com/page/FQ0qvk0UaW701/

To access this workshop, please use the link below –

1. make a minimum donation of £15.00 (please consider donating more, if you are able)

2. ensure that you include your name (or alias, if you would rather remain anonymous) alongside your donation

3. email info[at]familyseparationclinic.co.uk with details of your name (or alias) and the amount you donated.

We will then send you a link for the seminar (please remember to check your junk folders).

Please note: 100% of your donation will go directly to the Salvation Army. However, donations are made through the JustGiving website. JustGiving offer this service free to charities but ask donors for a contribution to their running costs; this defaults to 15%. You do not need to accept this amount and, if you prefer, can change to a lower contribution or even £0.00.

Please consider adding Gift Aid. Donating through Gift Aid means the Salvation Army can claim an extra 25p for every £1 you give and it will not cost you a penny extra.

Thank you so much for your support!