Induced psychological splitting is the core problem seen when a child hyper aligns with one parent and rejects the other outright after divorce and separation, expecially when the child shows contempt and lack of empathy for the parent who is being rejected. It is sometimes seen in situations where a family is distorted by boundary violations, which means that the hierarchy of the generations is not stable. In my clinical experience, the level of contempt which is demonstrated for the rejected parent in this situation, is accompanied by an equal measure of idealisation of the aligned parent. The stronger the idealisation, the stronger the contemptuous rejection, this is because what we are looking at is not the child’s own expression of feeling, it is a projection onto the parents of the split off positive/negative material which is caused by the defence of psychological spliting. The damage which is done to a child who is induced into this state of mind is long lasting and deeply harmful as it removes from the child, the capacity to feel their own feelings, have healthy relationships with important adults and prevents the development of the capacity to hold ambivalent feelings, which is an important part of being able to manage conflict in life.
Induced psychological splitting is what I work with when I am helping alienated children to shift away from the paranoid/schizoid position and back into development of an integrated sense of self. In our work at the Family Separation Clinic, we use psychoanalytic theory, particularly that of Object Relations Theory, to inform our understanding of what is happening to a child who aligns and rejects, the paranoid/schizoid position being what the child is being pushed back into psychologically, due to exposure to parental anxieties and defences.
As psychotherapists, our interest is in how to help children to heal from the split state of mind in divorce and separation and in particular in situations where they have been induced (forced) into the defence of splitting via the influence of a psychologically unwell parent. Alternatively, a parent has induced the state of mind in the child deliberately via coervice control strategies, although these too are associated with narcissistic psychology in a parent. When we work with children in these circumstances it is after fact finding and when the Court has recognised that the child is in the impossible double bind position of having to echo parental beliefs and feelings about the other parent. In such circumstances, the child is stuck in the paranoid/schizoid position unless they are freed from it structurally, which is why the Court is required. Unless the power over the child is removed from a parent causing the problem, the child cannot shift back into an ambivalent position in which projections are withdrawn and the false self disappears.
Our work is focused in these circumstances, on assisting the child to move from the paranoid/schizoid position of being entangled in parental anxieties and defences, back to ambivalence. Ambivalence in this respect meaning that the child can experience being parented without having to split the self and without having to align and reject. We achieve this using a structural therapeutic approach in which the external reorganisation of dynamics, provides the opportunity for the child to withdraw the projection of good/bad onto parents. When this has occurred, we are able to undertake any longer term therapeutic work which is necessary due to the attachment ruptures and distortions the child has been subjected to.
This approach is different to that used in Parental Alienation Theory and whilst the differentiation part is closer to the way that the AFCC conceptualises what they call ‘resist/refuse’ dynamics, the focus on induced psychological splitting as the core dynamic, places the work of the Clinic in the same vein as that of Johnston and Roseby (1997), in their book entitled ‘In the Name of the Child.‘ Our combining of Structural Therapy with Psychoanalytic understanding of the problem is set out in our forthcoming handbook for psychotherapists and social workers who work with alienated children. Our concern about the problem of children’s alignment and rejection is entirely focused upon the experience of the child in this model, whilst the rejected parent is recognised as being the person who can provide healthy therapeutic care for the child.
Parental Alienation Theory has been developed by Bernet, Baker et al who are the core members of the Parental Alienation Study Group based in the USA. I used to be a member of PASG, but left in 2019 when I realised that the clinical work we are involved in at the Family Separation Clinic is at odds with the way that this group views the problem. An example of this is the conceptualisation by Parental Alienation Theorists of the problem as a mental disorder in the child, which is not my experience in clinical practice, in which direct work with alienated children demonstrates that the core issue is psychological splitting, which is a defence mechanism caused by relational dynamics around the child. Further, the claim by PASG that the problem is caused by high conflict, is at odds with our clinical experience because what might look like high conflict from the outside, is very often the anxious and angry response of a rejected parent to the experience of seeing their children forced into an alignment against them. Finally, parental alienation as a theory is far more focused as a litigation strategy in the USA, in which proving a case of alienation in court, leads to a reunification camp intervention rather than therapeutic structural reorganisation of the family hierarchy to liberate the child. Whilst I am not arguing that reunification of children with rejected parents is wrong, I am concerned that reunification without addressing the underlying problem for the child of induced psychological splitting, often leaves the child waiting it out in the care of the rejected parent, until they are old enough to return to the abusive parent, at which time the delusional belief that a child has held captive by the rejected parent is amplified.
Our clinical understanding of the problem of induced psychlogical splitting therefore, has led us to focus upon ways of working with children to address that core problem of splitting, as part of the overall intervention within the Family Court. Recognising that children are subjects of their own lived experience rather than objects in a contested divorce case, means that we spend much longer in therapeutic treatment with children, than is often seen in the USA. Shifting our focus from assisting rejected parents to win a court battle to seeing rejected parents as the key to the child’s long term mental health, means that we are working with the child’s attachment rupture in the same way as we would with children who are physically abused and removed from a parent. These shifts are important because they embody the principles and protocols of an approach which is focused upon child protection, not the outcome of a court battle. This makes it more possible for the underlying harms which are caused to children in family separation, to be recognised by the Courts and the workforce concerned with protecting children from harm.
I read recently, an article which suggested that parental alienation is an amorphous concept which is ever changing. In my experience, this is simply an observation of the way in which some in the field are pursuing the idea that the problem is a psychiatric one which can be diagnosed from the DSM and others are pursuing the idea that it is a problem which is well recognised in psychological literature. Thus the paths to understanding diverge and what we are seeing in the field as a result, is, in my view, the difference between clinical practice and academic research. This distinction is important because in clinical practice the aim is to find routes to healing children from the harm they have suffered, whilst academic research seeks to build an evidence base for a theory.
In the UK, a targeted campaign against parent alienation as a theory has been running for two years, the aim is clearly to erase the use of it completely. This campaign denies in its entirety the idea that children can be harmed by parental influence, but what remains absolutely steadfast in the law in the UK, is that children are emotionally and psychologically harmed when they are triangulated into parental divorce and separation. Psychological and emotional harm, is the basis upon which children are recognised as being abused by a parent who cannot or will not change their harmful behaviours in such circumstances and It is the reason why children are removed from the care of such an abusive parent in residence transfer in the UK. Thus, whilst the campaign continues to target PA as a theory, focusing on anyone who is considered to be involved in this work, the reality is that it is emotional and psychological abuse of children which is recognised has harmful regardless of the label.
It is the treatment of this psychological and emotional harm of children which I have been involved with over many years, it is this which I continue to work with in court and it is this which is our focus at the Family Separation Clinic. Over the years of doing this work, I have come to recognise that the emotional and psychological harm that we are working with, is caused by the defence of psychological splitting in children which is induced by their fear and anxiety of a parent who is pressuring them in some way to align with them. This is the fundamental problem which underpins the child’s behaviours of alignment and rejection and the recognition of that does not require a label of parental aliention at all. What it does require when the pattern of behaviours which tell us that psychological splitting is in play, is a careful, global assessment of the familial dynamics around the child. It also requires that any allegations are fully and properly tested in court and that findings of fact are available before treatment of the problem begins. Any personality or behavioural patterns which impact upon the child must be investigated and where possible, a clinical trial of structural therapeutic intervention will give a longitudinal view of the capacity of parents to change the behaviours which cause the problem. This is a relational approach to addressing the problem of children’s alignment and rejection, it does not require a diagnosis and, when it is properly understood (away from all the campaign noise), it will be treated readily and routinely for what it is, a non accidental injury to the mind of a child.
The problems we are working with in cases of children’s hyper alignment and rejection are not about post separation contact relationships, they are about parental mental health and how that impacts upon the child. Sometimes it is about the power a parent holds over a child and sometimes it is about covert behavioural problems such as enmeshment, all of which are recognised in the clinical literature, all of which have been widely written about for many decades. When I first began work in this field I worked with a child/adolescent psychiatrist who always approached assessment from the perspective of psychiatric diagnosis of parental pathology. Working with concepts such as encapsulated delusion and munchausen’s by proxy (as it was then), very serious cases of children being harmed by a parent’s beliefs about the other parent, were diagnosed using clinical concepts rather than the label parental alienation. Whilst I was in favour of the label parental alienation for a time, recognising that this is not a mental disorder in the child but a relational problem has meant that I have focused my work on understanding how to treat the problem rather than how to diagnose it. When it is diagnosed by psychiatrists and psychologists, it is still, in the UK, more often articulated in clinical terms rather than using the label parental alienation.
Not that this will stop campaigners who are now revealing the underlying intent of all of this anti PA campaigning, which is ultimately to erase the idea that children can be manipulated by their mothers to reject their fathers or that children can be made to make false allegations. I notice in recent weeks that the commentary is that some children will be turned against their parent but that is a rare thing, is emerging from this campaign. This acceptance but with qualification, is another attempt to manage the narrative about the problem of children’s rejection. In the shadow of this, comes commentary which attempts to normalise harmful parenting and the idea that a Judge sending an abused child back to the abusive parent, is somehow respecting the child’s autonomy and wishes.
When I read the article linked above, entitled ‘choosing the course which is less stressful for the child’ I have to question whether this author might say the same if the child had been physically or sexually abused. The author appears to be celebrating the fact that a Judge has decided that the child’s wishes and feelings should be upheld, even though that wish is to return to the parent who has been abusing them. This would not happen if a child had been sexually or physically abused because in child protection terms, a child who is physically harmed by a parent, has their wishes and feelings heard in the context of that harm. As children are seriously harmed in serious cases of induced psychological splitting (alienation), it is no less important that we do the same when the child is emotionally and psychologically harmed. What the campaigners against the concept of alienation of children are now shifting into however, is the normalisation of behaviours which cause such harm. This is a subtle shift, which is accompanied by claims that anyone who sees harm in a child being enmeshed with a parent or being unable to feel their own feelings rather than being foreshadowed by parental experiences, is somehow misogynist. This is the ideological position, in which children’s needs are seen as secondary to the rights of their mothers.
Which is where the need to demonstrate the harm that is caused by the core dynamic which is seen in cases where a child hyper aligns and rejects a parent becomes urgent. I would argue that we will not reach that point if all we do is focus on parental alienation theory because all that will happen if we continue that way is a political football match with the PA label as the ball. Having been in this field for a long time now, I see how the concept of parental alienation is a red herring which prevents full articulation of the harm caused to children and allows the focus to be shifted back to a parental rights fight. I recognise how this must be resisted in order that the harm that children are suffering is properly undertod and addressed.
As a psychotherapist I am interested in helping children to heal from the harm which is caused to them when they are induced into psychological splitting and in my view, getting that help to them will be better advanced by articulating the underlying clinical picture rather than relying on a litigation strategy. Parental alienation theory provides so little to support clinical treatment, whilst working with the recognised and clearly evidenced concept of psychological splitting and structural therapy, offers a way of understanding the child and what needs to be done in the psychotherapeutic relationship to heal the harm which has been caused.
In this next phase of work at the Family Separation Clinic therefore, we will be producing our clinical handbook along with downloadable resources and video explainers on what Induced Psychological Splitting is, the harm it causes to children and how to assist in healing the child within the structural framework provided by the Court. Alongside this we will be producing evaluation of residence transfers supported by the Clinic over the past decade which contain the testimonies of children over the age of eighteen who were moved in residence transfer and who have healed from the psychologically split state of mind with our therapeutic support.
This is the path we have set out on, these are the clinical contributions we will make to advancing the treatment of children abused in divorce and separation. With investment funding to support this phase, we look forward to making all of this available to help children and their families and the professionals who work with them in the coming weeks and months.
Family Separation Clinic News
Family Court Instructions
I can be instructed in the High Court of England and Wales, Hong Kong, Republic of Ireland and Sweden for post findings/judgment treatment programmes. Please enquire at firstname.lastname@example.org for relevant documentation, please do not propose the Clinic without our permission being given beforehand.
Courses for Parents
We are now preparing courses for on demand purchase after our first year of delivery of Holding up a Healthy Mirror which has been attended by over one hundred parents. Feedback has been extremely positive and we have therefore decided to put this material into watch at home formats with in person courses for higher level understanding. The last HUAHM face to face online group for this year, begins on 26th September and is now full. I will post here when watch on demand course is ready.
Therapeutic Parenting Listen and Learning Online Circle – Begins October 4th at 19:00 UK time
This is a bi monthly drop in group which can be attended regularly or just a one off. The circles will be facilitated by me until Christmas of this year. Each session will focus on a particular element of therapeutic parenting for children with attachment difficulties due to divorce and separation and will comprise of 45 minute input and then an hour and 15 minutes of group discussion. Participants can attend to listen and learn, to share and receive knowledge and the basic requirement is simply curiosity about helping alienated children. The cost is £30 per session, payment and booking details will be on here and the Clinic website soon.
International Academy of Practice with Alienated Children
IAPAC Conference 2023
The provisional location for the IAPAC Conference 2023 is Sweden with more details being firmed up very soon.
IAPAC Conference 2022
The second day videos will be shortly available.
We aim to complete revisions of this over the coming weeks for publication in 2023.