Induced Psychological Splitting is the underlying defence seen in children who are manipulated, pressured or otherwise caused to align with one parent and reject the other after divorce or separation. When this alignment and rejection behaviour is accompanied by contempt, lack of empathy and behavioural changes in relationship to the parent being rejected, alongside idealisation of the parent to whom the child is aligned, psychological and emotional harm is likely being caused to the child. Taking the child’s alignment and rejection behaviour as the red flag of concern, the requirement is to find the cause, because this is a maladaptive behavioural display which denotes pressure upon the child in the family system.
Sometimes when we intervene in such situations and locate the source of the pressure, parents have insight and stop the behaviours which cause the problem and some don’t. When they do, it is possible to run programmes to support both parents, when they don’t, protective separation is necessary.
Ruling out Domestic Abuse
FSC does not deliver any intervention where domestic abuse is the cause of a child’s rejection and it is important to be clear that psychological splitting is not seen in children who have been witness to domestic abuse. What is seen in children who have been witness to domestic abuse, is a much less polarised alignment and rejection. It is not the role of a treating clinician to make findings of whether domestic abuse is the cause of rejection, that is properly the role of the Court to decide. When I work with families in the High Court, I work post findings in situations where it is found that there has been emotional and psycholgical harm to the child in the absence of domestic abuse by the parent being rejected.
Beyond Parental Aliention Theory
Parental Aliention Theory is not used by FSC in any treatment intervention because it provides nothing in support of therapeutic work with children and families. The reductivist approach of five factors and eight signs and seventeen strategies, offers zero in terms of helping families, outside of proving in court whether those signs and strategies are in play. In addition, the signs and strategies in PA Theory are subjective and therefore meaningless outside of deeper differential assessment, and in fact, may do great harm as a result, in the hands of inexperienced clinicians.
For example, who decides what a ‘prior good relationship’ is and whether that has been present? All children attach to their parents, some suffer attachment distortions leading to latent vulnerability to splitting in the face of difficult dynamics. PA Theory ignores this completely, forcing parents to fight in court about who is good and who is bad, which leads nowhere in terms of resolution of the underlying etiology of the problem.
When I began work in this field I utilised a wide range of clinical literature to inform my practice and since 2019, I have worked primarily with the deeper layers of problems in family systems informed by psychoanalytic understanding. As a psychotherapist, trained in psychodynamic and humanistic approaches to helping families,my understanding of PA Theory, is that it is simply a construct based upon psychiatric approaches to diagnosis. The failings within PA Theory are in my view, the claims that this is a mental condition in a child, (which is not borne out in clinical practice), that it is caused by high conflict, (again not borne out in practice) and that five factors, eight signs and seventeen strategies are all that is necessary to prove a child is being harmed. In truth, it takes far more understanding, careful differentiation and ability to build a nuanced treatement plan than PA Theory is capable of supporting. When I first encountered PA Theory I thought that it was simply a set of flags which determined the need for further differentiation and investigation. I see now that it is, in and of itself, presented and used as a diagnostic tool. As such, it is of no use at all to anyone who is trying to assist children to recover from psychological splitting.
Psychoanalysis and Primitive Defences
Psychoanalytic understanding of families in the crisis of separation, is, for me, the detailed explanation of what is happening to children who align and reject and why and it gives us a huge amount of information about how to intervene in families where primitive defences are at play.
Psychological splitting is one of the primitive defences, it occurs along with denial and projection in which parts of self and experience which are intolerable, are denied and split off from conscious awareness in order to reduce anxiety. Those split off parts are then projected at others, in the case of children of divorce and separation, the split off parts which are intolerable, are projected at mother and father. Depending on who is pressurising the child, either consciously or unconsciously, the projection onto parents look like idealisation of one and demonisation of the other. When this is accompanied by contempt, or lack of empathy and in my experience an absence of authentic fear of the parent being rejected, splitting as a defence is present in the child. If splitting is present then further investigation is necessary to locate the source of the pressure which causes this. When the source is located, a trial of intervention to test capacity to recognise the harm being caused and ability to stop the behaviours which cause it can begin.
Rejection which is accompanied by contempt, lack of empathy, omnipotence and inauthentic expressions of fear, in the absence of anything done by the parent being rejected, and when alignment with a parent shows idealisation, is a red flag for manipulation of the child’s internal and external experience of the world. What it tells us is that the child’s object relationships have become distorted by the foreshadowing of parental pressures. When the Court is satisfied that manipulation of the child through some means is at play and that this is causing harm to the child, intervention can begin. Once again, it is always the case that such interventions are delivered only in cases where there are no findings of domestic abuse.
Regardless of the campaign claims, that people who do this work remove children from protective parents to place them with abusive ones, the reverse is true. FSC does not deliver interventions in situations where domestic abuse has been found. The only interventions delivered by us are in situations where a child is found to be harmed by a parent who is manipulating their experience of relationship with self and others.
Legal & Mental Health Management
By far the most powerful shift to support children affected by induced psychological splitting, would, in my view, be transparency and clarity about the role of mental health professionals and their relationship with the Court. This work cannot be done effectively if it is not held properly by the Judge in a case and it cannot be dealt with simply by legal intervention. When the Court and Mental Health Management works as it could and should however, intervention and change for the child is swift. Protecting the child from the ongoing manipulations of a parent is the role of the Court, integrating the child’s split state of mind using structural therapy is the role of the Mental Health Professional.
Post Intervention Therapeutic Care of Children
Where children have recovered from the induced split state of mind, further work must be done with the attachment distortions which led to the vulnerability to splitting in the first place. Attachment distortions cannot be treated as a route to reunification because the underlying power dynamic which is structural prevents that. Thus the correct route to treatment is structural intervention first and attachment work second. Training rejected parents to use Therapeutic Parenting over the six to twelve months post integration of the child’s mindset, enables deeper level remedial work to take place, this protects the child and builds resilience to parental manipulation in later life.
Who Can Do This Work?
In the current climate in the UK, where powerful efforts are being made to eradicate the use of parental alienation as a label and a strong current is in play to drive away anyone who does this work with families, the risks to anyone doing this work are high. In my view, when transparency about why children are removed from parents is made more widely available, the risks will decrease because the false narratives which aim to convince people that children are being removed from protective parents, to be given to abusive parents will stop. I would welcome as much transparency as possible to enable this to happen as quickly as possible.
Children of divorce and separation are, in my experience, removed from parents who harm them into the kinship care of the parent who has been forced at distance from the child. In every respect, this work is properly the duty of social workers with statutory power to undertake structural intervention, in partnership with skilled psychotherapists who understand how to treat children and families affected by primitive defences.
Whatever we call manipulation of children in divorce and separation, it is psychological and emotional abuse and when children are helped and the splitting is resolved, their life chances are vastly improved. I know this, because despite all the claims in mainstream media and elsewhere, this is the work that I do.
Children’s Experience of Residence Transfer – Evaluation of Over 18’s Looking Back at Moving from the Care of a Parent Who Harmed Them
This project is funded by private investment and will give evidence of the experience of children over the age of 18 who were moved in residence transfer with the help of FSC. Testimony in written and audio form will be available as part of the outputs which are due in 2023.
Handbook of Clinical Practice
This is now in revision in preparation for publication, this book provides a clinical model of treatment which can be used by Psychotherapists, Psychologists and Social Workers.
Listening and Learning Circle
The next Listening and Learning Circle will be held on 16th November at 19:00 – 21:00 and costs £40 per person. The subject for this circle will be helping the parentified child.
Helping the Parentified Child
Parentification of children in separated families is a serious attachment disruption which causes life long problems if it is not recognised and treated. Some signs of parentification are
Being involved in marital conflict
Being used as a subsitute for a partner
Being made to feel responsible for the wellbeing of a parent
Caring for your younger siblings
Being treated as a grown up and not being seen as a child
Feeling responsible for managing your family
Feeling socially isolated
Feeling anxious, depressed, hopeless in life
Not understanding what your own emotional and psychological needs are
The problem for alienated children who are parentified, is that they do not know that this is a distorted relationship because their parent encourages this and often praises the child for it. This entrenches the problem for the child, who grows up believing that they are powerful in the family system (and via this the world in general), because of the praise they have received.
Helping the parentified child requires particular strategies which are designed to enable the child to uncover and understand their own needs. This learning circle will be focusing upon those strategies and how to find the opportunities to use them.
Online Courses for 2023
Holding up a Healthy Mirror
This course has been attended by 180 parents in 2022 and has so far been facilitated by me in and around my other committments. This has proven to be difficult at times due to the demands on my time and so we have decided that this course will be recorded and available for download on demand in 2023. Holding up a Healthy Mirror is a Therapeutic Parenting Course, which is focused upon helping rejected parents to recognise and respond to attachment distortions and disruptions. It is also focused upon building a strong foundation for delivery of therapeutic care of children in recovery from induced psychological splitting. The course will be available for download in early 2023 and will cost £160 for eight hours of content.
Higher Level Understanding
This course is a run on course from HUAHM and is a deeper approach to therapeutic parenting which also includes information about helping parentified children, repairing attachment bonds, parenting troubled children in recovery and mentalisation based skills for longer term healing and support of children. This course will continue to be delivered online in person by me in 2023 and will run three times as follows –
Each course is six weeks x 2 hours and 25 places will be available on each course and participants will be required to demonstrate they have either attended an online HUAHM course in 2022 or have downloaded the HUAHM recorded course in order to attend.
Information and booking for the first Higher Level Understand Course will be available in two weeks time.
Listening and Learning Circles
These will continue on a fortnightly basis over the first part of 2023 and delivery beyond that will be announced later.
Resources for Practitioners
We are now recording and developing resources for practitioners to accompany our Handbook of Clinical Practice. These resources are focused upon understanding and working with relational trauma in childhood. News on how to access these vital supports for your work with children in divorce and separation will be coming soon.
Hi Karen – I just want to confirm that the next Listening & Learning Circle is on Wednesday the 16th and not Tuesday the 15th as was previously announced. Thank you!
it is Erica, thank you for raising that, I will flag it today so everyone knows. K