Healing children of divorce and separation who are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence after the divorce or separation is, in my view, the responsibility of the state, not private psychotherapists like myself. This is because when we work with children who are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence, it is as a result of psychological and emotional harm, which has been found after finding of fact and judgment has been made. The harm which has been caused, is by the parent to whom the child is aligned, a parent who has usually been found to have little or no insight into that harm and who is obstructing intervention due to distorted beliefs. Just as in physical or sexual abuse, a child who is being harmed by a parent who shows no insight, requires protection from the state and an intervention which puts that at the forefront of everything that happens next.

Whilst this work is about child protection however, the process usually begins in private family court cases due to a child refusing to see a parent. There are many reasons why a child might refuse to see a parent, some of them are entirely legitimate and include the older child’s changing focus and relationships with peers, the younger child’s reluctance to see a parent who is rigid in the face of the child’s wish for change in arrangements and all children’s need, at times for a flexible approach to provision of care. In an ideal world, all parents would separate with an innate capacity to put their children’s needs first and to keep them out of the marital disentaglement process. Sadly, too many do not or cannot achieve this. Some achieve it with assistance, but some cannot achieve it because of their own mental health difficulties which are exacerbated through the crisis of family separation. These are the cases which can be called ‘alienation’ and they are full of complexity in terms of the dynamics which surround the child, dynamics which will also surround the practitioner who intervenes, due to the transferential nature of what are often primitive defences.

The Meaning of Alienation

alienation n. (APA)

1. estrangement from others, resulting in the absence of close or friendly relationships with people in one’s social group (e.g., family, workplace, community).

2. a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction with one’s personal existence and a lack of trust in one’s social or physical environment or in oneself.

3. estrangement from one’s own customary or expected ways of functioning.

4. the experience of being separated from reality or isolated from one’s thoughts, feelings, or physical being, as in derealization and depersonalization. —alienated adj.

Alienation is a word which is hugely controversial when it is used in Parental Alienation Theory, largely due to the consistent campaigns by parental rights groups to either support it or attack it. I no longer use the label parental alienation because as a psychotherapist I am treating the problem using a relational approach, which is not about labelling or diagnosis. I do however, use the word alienation, precisely because it describes what is happening to the a child in circumstances where they are being psychologically pressured, in such circumstances, point 4 above particularly applies.

the experience of being separated from reality or isolated from one’s thoughts, feelings, or physical being, as in derealization and depersonalization. —alienated adj.

APA definition of alienation

When I work with alienated children, I recognise that they are separated from reality as other people experience it and are hyper aligned with a parent who has power and control over them and upon whom they are completely dependent. This dependency, which is inherent in the relationship between children and their parents, causes the child to find the easiest and quickest way to stabilty and safety, maladapting the self and distorting their own feelings, is the child’s route to achieving this. Self alienation, is the result of these psychological gymnastics and the underlying dynamic which causes this is, in my clinical experience, psychological splitting.

Psychological Splitting

ego-splitting n. (APA)

1. in psychoanalytic theory, the ego’s development of opposed but coexisting attitudes toward a phenomenon, whether in the normal, neurotic, or psychotic person. In the normal context, ego-splitting can be seen in the critical attitude of the self toward the self; in neuroses, contrary attitudes toward particular behaviors are fundamental; and in psychoses, ego-splitting may produce an “observing” part of the individual that sees and can report on delusional phenomena.

2. in the object relations theory of Melanie Klein and British psychoanalyst W. Ronald D. Fairbairn (1889–1964), fragmentation of the ego in which parts that are perceived as bad are split off from the main ego as a mechanism of protection. See also splitting.

When I use the phrase ‘induced psychological splitting’ I am using it to describe the child’s defence, in circumstances where they are having to cope with parental behaviours which are causing psychological pressure. Splitting is the defence which causes the splitting off of parts of self and the relationship that part has with others which are felt to be bad, it is induced in children when a parent has pushed them into a double bind which is impossible for the child to resolve – ie, I think your other parent is bad, if you love your other parent then you too must be bad or, you must think I am bad.

One such double bind which is seen repeatedly in divorce and separation, is the result of enmeshment, a condition in which a parent does not recognise the inter-psychic boundaries between self and other. The inter-psychic relationship is that which is between two minds, in enmeshment, one person dominates the inter-psychic relationship with their own anxieties and defences, leaving the person with the weaker ego (sense of self), overwhelmed by those. In a relationship which is asymetrical in power balance, as in parent/child, enmeshment can be catastrophic for a child and their relationship with self and the parent who does not hold as much power in the post separation landscape.

enmeshment n. a condition in which two or more people, typically family members, are involved in each other’s activities and personal relationships to an excessive degree, thus limiting or precluding healthy interaction and compromising individual autonomy and identity.


The double bind position forces the child into echoing the dominant parent’s feelings about the other, through enmeshment or coercive control (the child is aware of the parental power over them and that they are required to reflect parental feelings back), or through abandonment threat or other dynamics which cause the child to be aware of the inter-psychic requirement to conform. When the child enters the double bind position, they are then completely stuck in terms of how to manage the relationship with the other parent. If they try, they find themselves entering into a tighter double bind where they have to find ways of explaining to the pressuring parent, why they are still in relationship with the rejected parent. Eventually, or sometimes suddenly, often as a result of having had a nice time with the other parent which gives away their lack of alignment with the pressuring parent, (which is why these child hate having their photographs taken, they do not want the evidence of their ‘betrayal’ of the pressuring parent to exist), the child is pushed back into what is called the Paraniod/Schizoid position in Object Relations Theory, from where splitting of the ego (self) and object (parents) takes place.

When the splitting of the ego (self) takes place, the child splits off all parts of self which are associated with the rejected parent and projects them onto the object (rejected parent). What is now left in the conscious mind are the over emphasised ‘good’ parts of self which are identified with the pressuring parent. These ‘good’ parts of self are idealised and it is this which gives away the presence of splitting as a defence. In these children there is no ambivalence, just an escalating story of how bad the rejected parent is and how perfect the aligned parent is.

In treatment these children remain in the double bind position until they are released from it using structural methods. There are no therapeutic methods in existence which remove a child from the double bind position whilst still under the control of the influencing parent. This is because the control of the pressuring parent is at an inter-psychic level, it is an unconscious (often) process and where it is conscious it is often taking place in an environment where the controlling parent assumes a position of absolute righteousness. Parents who enmesh or control children lack insight, they do this because they are themselves dependent upon primitive defences. This is why the righteousness which is seen in such circumstances is mirrored by the campaign groups who protray alienation as something only alleged by abusive fathers. The lack of insight into how mothers abuse their children, means that everything must be placed ‘out there’ and blamed on the split off demonised part of self, which is represented by fathers. In this scenario, the capacity to accept that some mothers are the cause of a child’s hyper alignment is not possible and the parent in these circumstances, is comforted by the child’s hyper alignment which is experienced as confirmation that the other parent is unloved, abusive and harmful.

Releasing the child from the double bind requires the intervention of the Court so that the power is ameliorated and the child is protected. When this occurs, treatment can begin. Treatment is focused upon assisting the child to find and maintain and integrated sense of self, to bring back to the child’s consciousness, the split off parts of self which reside in the relationship with the rejected parent. This is why reconnecting the child to the rejected parent as early as possible in the process is necessary, the rejected parent holds the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle for the child and it is the parent’s responsibility, not the child’s to enable that retrieval.

Often on confrontation with the split off part of self (rejected parent), the child is, (if they are safely protected from the pressuring parent), able to integrate strongly with the parent and with their own sense of self. This is when alienated children are seen to shift from the paranoid/schizoid position, in which primitive defences make them appear to be angry and vicious, to the integrated sense of self in which they reappear as their normal selves. Anyone who has seen a viciously rejecting child make this switch, is left in no doubt that there is false/authentic self split in play. When the child is in this position, they are likely to continue to shift back and forth across this split, showing different parts of self, until they are able to fully integrate and remain in that position. Sometimes it is necessary to protect children long term from the pressuring parent because the child is so influenced that they cannot maintain the integrated position whilst in the presence of the pressuring parent.

If this were a physically abusive parent we would understand the child who moves from authentic to a presentation of trying to ingratiate themselves with an abusive parent and we would act to protect the child. What we are watching when the child moves from authentic self back to trying to ingratiate themselves with an emotionally or psychologically abusive parent, is the hyper alignment or desire to prove allegiance, which is the same dynamic as seen with physically abusive parents, only this time caused by emotional and psychological harm. This is no less of a serious harm to the child than if the pressuring parent were breaking the child’s arms and legs. Limbs heal, the mind is vulnerable and fragile in childhood and easily manipulated, the child suffering this harm has a right and urgent need for protection.

Longer term work with alienated children is all about working with parts of self and enabling each part to feel, express and finally speak the experience they have been through. his is a child protection approach to helping psychologically and emotionally abused children in divorce and separation which follows the social work principles of protection from harm prior to therapeutic intervention.

As a therapist, my work with children in this state of mind would ideally commence AFTER the structural work has been done by the state, in recognition of the need to protect. Right now, in this early stage of global awareness of what is really happening to alienated children, I am involved all the way through the process of structural building of the framework for treatment as well as treatment itself, in serious cases of emotional and psychological harm to children.

As we increase our education and training however, I look forward to the time when the structural work of protection from harm, is routinely done by social workers, in preparation for the therapeutic work which can be done by any psychotherapist interested in protecting abused children in divorce and separation, from long term harm.

Handbook of Clinical Treatment for Alienated Children

This handbook for psychotherapists, describes the theoretical model used by the Family Separation Clinic, the Structural approach to building the framework for treatment and the clinical treatment model which assists alienated children to integrate after psychological splitting. This book is for all psychotherapists who wish to treat this relational problem in children of divorce and separation, it will be published in 2023.

Listening and Learning Circle – 4th October 2022

The first online listening and learning circle will take place at 19:00-21:00 UK time on 4th October, the first topic will be ‘Understanding Attachment Disruption in the Alienated Child’ and the cost is £40 per person inc VAT. You can book a place on this drop in course here