Induced psychological splitting causes a child to use a primitive defence after divorce and separation, during a time in their lives when they are focused upon personality organisation. The age group 9-15, is recognised as the period when most children enter into the alignement and rejection dynamic, (Bala, Fidler and Saini, 2013), which is when the brain is focused upon development of the major centres concerned with emotion and personality (Tronick, 2007). The onset of psychological splitting, which is a primitive defence mechanism, seen in Borderline or Unstable Personality Disorder, (Johnston & Roseby, 1997), is seen in children who hyper align with one parent and reject the other without cause.

On investigation of the relationship between the child and parent they are hyper aligned to, there will be an observable relational pathology which may include enmeshment, identification with aggressive behaviours in the aligned parent, rigid and fused dyadic beliefs about the rejected parent and often a pattern of sharing information with the child which is inappropriate and abusive. The impact of this upon the child is to induce the primitive defence of psychological splitting, in which the child undergoes an intra-psychic shift in order to cope with intolerable pressure. The result is that the child becomes alienated from their own unconscious sense of self, raising a defensive or false self which can appear aggressive and grandiose. This part of the alienated self of the child, then begins the process of explaining to others why the parent they are rejecting is the cause of that rejection. The purpose of this is to stabilise the family system and regulate the parent placing pressure on the child, (Fishman, 1993), it is an unconscious shift and when it is seen, it describes a child who is suffering psychological and emotional injury. If this is drawn to the attention of the aligned parent who in turn cannot or will not recognise this, it is regarded as non accidental. As in non accidental physical injury to a child, there is a social work pathway to deal with non accidental psychological injury.

Non accidental physical injury to a child is described as follows –

Non-Accidental Injury is a term that is used to describe a number of different physical injuries or abuse to a child. The term describes any injury that is said to have been inflicted. This means that it cannot simply be an injury that occurred unintentionally or unexpectedly.

In non accidental psychological and emotional harm, injury is being inflicted and in the case of alienation of a child, if a parent cannot or will not stop what they are doing, the level of harm can be said to have met the Welfare Threshold.

In England and Wales, the Threshold Stage means that there must be sufficient reasons to justify making a care or supervision Order. This can only be passed if the Court agrees that:

  • Things have happened which have already caused significant harm to a child
  • There is a serious risk that significant harm will be suffered in the future
  • The child is beyond parental control

Alienation of a child, in which the behavioural aspects of the parent/child relationships meet the differentiation criteria for induced psychological splitting, is regarded as harmful in the High Court of England and Wales and case law sets out this out clearly. The range of behaviours which are seen in such cases, include deliberate influence of a child alongside psychological issues which lead to that. Preventing significant harm and recognising that a child has gone beyond parental control, are the other two elements which lead to the threshold criteria being met. Causing a child to hate a parent, make false allegations against a parent and enabling and allowing a child in such circumstances to believe that they are in control of the family system, is recognised as being significantly harmful.

This is not a situation where a child is rejecting a parent because of something the parent has done. There is a clear and distinct difference between rejection in circumstances where a parent has caused harm, for example in coercive control, where the relationship with the child is secondary to the continued drive to control a parent, or in situations where a child has been witness to violence against a parent. In such circumstances, a child may display anxiety based responses but they are not seen to be hyper aligned with a parent and echoing of their views about the other parent, neither do they display the contempt and lack of empathy towards the parent they are rejecting, both of which are indicators that the child is being encouraged and enabled in those views.

The reason why such dynamics are harmful is because the child is being induced to use a defensive behaviour at a time in their lives when their personality organisation is underway. Causing a child in this important developmental stage, to regress to the position of infantile splitting, prevents the child from being able to resolve conflicted relationships and causes the child to suffer relational trauma. A child in such a position, is being induced to reject a parent who is loved by the child, through psychological manipulation of their understanding of reality. This is the parental agenda being imposed upon the child, although it is often experienced by the influencing parent as the child confirming the parental agenda.

The Social Work Treatment Pathway

Intervention in cases where children suffer psychological and emotional harm after divorce and separation, are increasingly being managed by social workers in situations where the case has met the welfare threshold. This, in my view, is the right route for treatment because this is about protecting children and managing parents who abuse their children is a social work responsibility. In my experience, when social workers understand the problem in the correct context, they are able to construct the correct treatment routes rapidly. The correct treatment routes follow the same principles of protect the child, constrain the abusing parent and treat the problem, seen in all child abuse situations.

Using social work principles, the structural intervention focuses upon the influencing parent and identification of the alienating behaviours which induce the child to use psychological splitting. Those behaviours are made explicit and the parent using them is invited to reflect and change their approach. At the same time, the parent who is being rejected, is evaluated for their capacity to provide healthy kinship care in case the influencing parent is unable to change their stance or if they show disguised compliance, in which they say they want the child to reconnect with the other parent whilst doing nothing to support that.

Disguised compliance is a well recognised strategy in social work terms. It is defined as follows –

1. The NSPCC define disguised compliance as ‘a parent or carer giving the appearance of co-operating with child welfare agencies to avoid raising suspicions, to allay professional concerns and ultimately to diffuse professional intervention.’

2.Disguised compliance can lead to a focus on parental engagement with services rather than on achieving safer outcomes for children.

3. Practitioners can be drawn into the complex needs of the parent or carer, but these needs may be used to deliberately block the practitioner from discovering the risks to the child.

4. Practitioners can become over optimistic about progress being achieved, again delaying timely interventions.

5. Parents or carers may engage selectively and do ‘just enough’ to keep practitioners at bay

6. Parents or carers may split the professional network by engaging well with one set of professionals,to deflect attention from their lack of engagement with other services.

Nottingham City Safeguarding Children Partnership

In circumstances where an influencing parent continues to psychologically manipulate a child even when they are shown the behaviours which cause this, the Court may decide to place the child into foster care or in the care of the rejected parent. As in all cases of child abuse, this is about moving the child from the abusive parent into the care of the healthy parent.

When social workers are engaged with the impact on the child of psychological manipulation, rather than the manufactured argument that alienation of a child is always a false allegation made by a domestic abuser, the need to protect the child remains central. Helping social workers to understand the psychological and emotional harm which is caused by the asymmetrical power dynamic, in which the abusive parent controls the child’s experience of the other parent negatively, shifts the focus from that parent’s potentially complex needs (see above at point 3) to the needs and wellbeing of the child.

This is a child protection issue and is increasingly being approached by social workers in the way which assists the child swiftly. Structural interventions, informed by social work principles, bring about successful outcomes when understood and applied correctly.

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 in the care of a controlling and psychologically manipulative parent. You can understand social thinning more here.

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.

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Fidler, B. J., Bala, N., & Saini, M. A. (2013). Children who resist postseparation parental contact: A differential approach for legal and mental health professionals. Oxford University Press.

Fishman, H. C. (1993). Intensive structural therapy: Treating families in their social context. Basic Books.

Johnston, J. &Roseby, V. (1997). In The Name Of The Child. New York: Free Press

Tronick, E (2007). The Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology.The neurobehavioral and social-emotional development of infants and children. W W Norton & Co.