There is an undercurrent in campaign terms at present which seeks not to deny that children can be alienated in divorce and separation but to say that this is a rare thing. Having worked in this field for almost fifteen years now, my clinical experience tells me it is not rare at all and in fact, the dynamics which cause the defence of psychological splitting in a child, are common.
The question in my mind is therefore, if the conditions for what Fonagy calls the alien self are present in most divorce situations, why are some children vulnerable to the onset of the defence of splitting, whilst others are not? The answer perhaps, lies in the triangular dynamic of alienation itself, in which three components must be present for the problem to be seen.
Component parts of alienation of children in divorce and separation.
a) a parent who is themselves psychological and emotionally overwhelmed by the process of separation,
b) a parent who has less presence and therefore control in the post separation landscape
c) a child with latent vulnerabilities.
Considering these component parts and focusing upon part C only, we see that the children who are vulnerable to suffering from the behavioural display of induced psychological splitting, are those with already present attachment difficulties, caused by difficulties in early caregiving relationships. As such, the onset of induced psychological splitting can be said to mirror those attachment problems, which is why a thorough investigation of the early relationships between the child and parents is so necessary.
Working with Parts
When children are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence it is because of harm being caused in the relationship between the child and aligned parent. In such circumstances, children are seen to display particular behaviours, which denote that their internal sense of self is fragmented. As such, this inner fragmentation, which Janina Fisher calls self alienation, is triggered by external events which are located in an asymetrical power balance around the child. The primitive defences which govern this response, cause splitting and projection by the child, onto their parents, of the original split, which then leads on to further fragmentation as everyone around the child struggles to understand what is happening.
Working from an Object Relations perspective, where external relationships are experienced internally as objects, and understanding Melanie Klein’s view that the object cannot be split without the ego first being split, we can recognise that a child who is splitting their external relationships into good and bad, has already experienced ego splitting.
Ego Splitting (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.
What this means in easy to understand terms, is that before the child displays the alignment and rejection behaviour towards parents, a split in the sense of self has occurred in the child. This is not a mental condition (as claimed by Parental Alienation Theorists) but a relational defence which is caused by pressure upon the child in the family system.
Working with parts of self means understanding how ego splits present and how they are experienced by the child. It means recognising that children suffering from this defence require attuned responses to their predicament which do not replicate the dynamic which caused it in the first place. This means that anyone doing this work must not place the child into a situation where the therapeutic work to address the deeper attachment issues, is attempted as a route to restoration of the relatonship with the rejected parent. This is simply not possible for the child when one parent is holding them in the grasp of their own internal conflicts and the child’s defensive behaviours are there to protect them from the double bind they are captured in.
Formula for treatment of alienated children
Protect (the child)
Constrain (the influencing parent)
Treat (the underlying attachment distortions0.
Family Separation Clinic – Clinical Management of Emotional and Psychological Harm of Children of Divorce and Separation
Understanding Behavioural Displays in Children
Children suffering from induced psychological splitting display maladaptive behaviours over time and will, in treatment, shift those behaviours along a continuum. Working with the co-therapy model which is used at the Family Separation Clinic, a rejected parent who has been evaluated for good enough parent, in the absence of findings that this parent has contributed to rejection, is taught the skills of therapeutic parenting to assist the child in recovery. In this respect, helping the parent to understand the parts of self which are most commonly seen in alienated children, is useful as a way of a) decreasing anxiety in that parent (if the child’s behaviours are understood in context, there is less likelihood of reactive splitting) and b) empowering the parent to respond to the child’s changing behaviours in ways which are congruent to the recovery journey. The table below gives examples of how a child moves along the continuum of behaviours into the onset of splitting and how they behave in recovery (when the defence is no longer present or necessary.
The above is an excerpt from the handbook of clinical practice which is in revision now. The handbook is also the basis for our social work training pathway which is being delivered in England and Wales with two local authorities. The materials shown also form part of the Clinic’s Holding up a Healthy Mirror Course which is based upon the principles of Therapeutic Parenting and which utilises a wide range of skills which are used in the co-therapy model pioneered by the Family Separation Clinic. In 2023, all of these resources will be made widely available alongside evalution results of our work with residence transfer children over ten years.
This phase of work is funded by private investment for which we are extremely grateful as it allows us to develop the model we use and expand this widely with supporting resources.
Holding up a Healthy Mirror – Australia and New Zealand – Live Delivery
The course will be delivered on Zoom at 8am GMT which is 7pm in Sydney, 6pm in Brisbane and 4pm in Perth Australia and 9pm in Christchurch New Zealand.
The course will be delivered on the following dates 17, 24, 31st January and 7th February 2023 at 8am – 10am GMT.
Cost £180 – partners, family members and friends can pay for one place and attend together.
About this course:
Children who hyper align with a parent and reject the other in divorce and separation are usually in the age group 8-14 years. This is because this age group is in a stage in which their sense of self and personality is under development and the ego is not strong enough to regulate the anxieties which are generated by the experience of attachment disruption in family separation.
What we know about children who experience these difficulties, is that they can be helped when one of their parents is able to understand their experience and in response, hold up a healthy mirror. When the holding of this mirror is consistent, the child who has suffered from induced psychological splitting which is demonstrated by aligning themselves with one parent and rejecting the other, can experience an integrated sense of self which assists in recovery.
In order to hold up a healthy mirror, the parent in the rejected position must first address the reactive splitting that they are likely to have suffered. Reactive splitting, which occurs when the child rejects, (often accompanied by false allegations), can cause a parent to feel natural reactions such as anger, bewilderment and shame. These feelings, which are normal in the circumstances, can become blocks and barriers to the child’s recovery as the parent refutes the allegations and shows the child their reactive feelings. In these circumstances, the child withdraws further, struggling with their own guilt and shame and begins to split off their feelings further.
Restoring health to rejected parents begins with an understanding of what has happened internally and how that has become entangled with the child’s own splitting reactions. When parents are able to map this splitting across the family system, their own reactive splitting can integrate and they can begin the work of developing the healthy mirror needed by the child.
Parents who have healed reactive splitting can then learn to apply the skills of therapeutic parenting. This is an approach to parenting children who are suffering from attachment disorder due to being emotionally and psychologically harmed. Alienated children with therapeutic parents, are shown in evaluation, to be able to recover quickly from the underlying harms which have caused their rejecting behaviours.
On this course you will learn:
- What psychological splitting is, how it occurs and why
- How to identify your own reactive splitting
- How to integrate split thinking in a fractured landscape
- How to build integrated thinking strategies
- What to embrace and what to avoid when rebuilding health in the face of alienation
- How to build the healthy mirror your child needs
- Mentalisation strategies for mirroring health
- The power and importance of consistent mirroring
- How other parents have used integrated mirroring to bring their children back to health
- Therapeutic parenting – an integrated skills set
- Building a consistent communications strategy for recovering your children
- Working with the counter intuitive approach necessary to enable alienated children to withdraw their projections
- Staying healthy amidst the chaos caused by psychological splitting
Based upon successful work with many families around the world, Karen Woodall will share with you the deep knowledge of how to recover children from the nightmare landscape of psychological splitting. Karen has helped families to rebuild health and wellbeing with children of all ages and has developed a structural approach to working with alienation which is easily translated into strategies which can be used by parents.
‘I have worked with Karen Woodall for two years now and both of my children are back in our lives and thriving. One of my children was alienated from me for ten years and she is clearly suffering the impact of that. With Karen’s guidance, I am working to address her attachment difficulties, which I now understand and recognise. Karen’s guidance works, it helps children to come home and then heal. It has been invaluable to me to do this work and understand and feel skilled as parent again.’
Emma, Mum to two children aged 16 and 19.
‘My children are both in their thirties and I despaired of ever seeing them again. I have worked with Karen for six months and am delighted to say that I seeing them both regularly now. Working with therapeutic parenting skills, I have begun to understand how they have been affected and I can help them with confidence and see the difference it makes. I am recovering a sense that I can do something about this nightmare and that makes all the difference in my life’
Jack. Dad to two adult children aged 32 and 37.