“Contempt is the weapon of the weak and a defense against one’s own despised and unwanted feelings.”

Alice Miller

Children who live with a parent who harms the other, either through violence, threat of violence or controlling behaviours, absorb the messages that this relational dynamic causes. (McLeod & Flood 2018). When such a relationship ends, the perpetuation of this control dynamic is often enacted through children, who are triangulated into the adult relationship. (Buehler, Franck, & Cook, 2009). What we see when mothers who have been coercively controlled and who then become alienated after they have escaped from this, is that the child rejects her outright with contempt and claims allegiance to their father. What is seen in the child’s behavioural display in such circumstances, is exactly the same as is seen when the child rejects father after the end of a relationship and a mother is the parent to whom the child is claiming allegiance. The key display is that the child claims a powerful allegiance and a contemptuous rejection.

Understanding Children’s Contempt

Contempt is not a behaviour which is seen naturally in childhood and when it is seen, it is a sign that something is wrong. Treating someone with contempt means that we treat someone as though they are beneath us – not worthy of our consideration or kindness, any parent who has been rejected by their child will confirm that this is the dominant behaviour which is seen when the child becomes alienated.

Taking the child’s behavioural display of contempt as the common denominator and looking at children’s alignment and rejection through a psychoanalytic lens, what we are looking at is clearly understood –

  1. The child is triangulated into the adult relationship and has become conscious of the need to align with a parent.
  2. The child is vulnerable and experiencing abandonment threat or fear of the aligned parent in a dynamic called identification with the aggressor.
  3. The contempt shown by the child has been enabled, encouraged, permitted to go unchallenged and it is a defence against the child’s sense of helplessness in the face of the onset of the defence of psychological splitting.

In such circumstances, when a child is seen to be displaying these symptoms, further investigation is necessary to understand who is controlling the child and how that has caused a double bind, in which the child is not free to experience their own feelings but must echo the feelings of the parent with control over them.

Coercive Control of Children

Understanding how coercive control affects children in divorce and separation, helps rejected parents to build strategies to support children as well as articulate their plight to others who may also be able to assist.

This listen and learn circle will focus upon coercive control in circumstances where children align and reject parents and will examine the range of issues which are seen in families where this occurs. Looking at the way in which coercive control is commonly understood, the behavioural patterns of alienating fathers will be discussed, looking at how children are controlled by inter-psychic or covert strategies such as abandonment threat, will be reviewed in the context of how mothers alienate children.

Coercive control and the removal of children’s independent sense of self, forcing the child into the defence of splitting and thereby preventing a child from experiencing authenticity will be explored along with therapeutic parenting strategies to help the child to recover.

*Dijkstra, S. (2022). ‘I see a wall… then I cannot reach my son.’ Coercive control tactics by one parent alienate the child from the other, Journal of Gender-Based Violence (published online ahead of print 2022). Retrieved Oct 8, 2022, from https://bristoluniversitypressdigital.com/view/journals/jgbv/aop/article-10.1332-239868021X16481299024267/article-10.1332-239868021X16481299024267.xml

This is a bi monthly drop in group which can be attended regularly or just as a one-off. The circles will be facilitated by psychotherapist Karen Woodall until the Christmas period 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 and to share and receive knowledge. The basic requirement is simply curiosity about helping alienated children.

The cost of each session is £40.00 (including sales tax).

Please note:

A link to the event will be emailed to you, separately. This may not be sent until a few hours before the session is due to begin. If you have not received the link, please check your spam folders. If you are still unable to find the email, please contact parenting@familyseparationclinic.co.uk