Children who align strongly with a parent after divorce or separation are doing so for a reason, that reason may be temporary, such as the shifting dynamics which erupt at the point of family change, or it may be more consistently present and escalating, often seen when a child is exposed to unhealthy behaviours from a parent who is psychologically fixated upon blame projection. Sometimes the parent to whom the child is strongly aligned has a personality profile of concern, sometimes the parent is binding the child into their own belief system about the other parent. In all circumstances, it is essential to discover why the child is strongly aligned and this can only be achieved through the use of psychological assessment by a Clinical Psychologist or Psychiatrist. The assessment is of the parent in relationship to the child and properly, the parent in the rejected position is also assessed in relation to the child to provide a global understanding of the issue.
Contrary to the lurid headlines, it is not my experience that children who are strongly aligned to a parent and rejecting of the other, are routinely picked up and placed with parents who are found to be abusive. This depiction of the removal of children in such cases, comes, in my opinion, straight out of the imaginations of those who seek to hide the harm which is caused to children by a parent who is enmeshed with a child. It is a mirror of the way in which harmful parents cannot see their child’s needs as separate from their own and is part of a well organised parental rights campaign.
We no longer live in the last century however and many contemporary families, seek an egalitarian approach to post separation care and provision for their children. Therefore, when children display the behaviours of alignment and rejection, it is a signal that something is happening to the child which on closer scrutiny, may demonstrate that harm is being caused. These days, knowledge of how that affects children, triggers interventions to bring change.
Such interventions do not come quickly however. Often, the assessment of the family comes after years of efforts to shift the dynamics which cause the alignment. In such cases, it is the alignment which is problematic and not the rejection of a parent and the markers of that are in the child’s behaviour. Children who reject parents because they are abusive to them (or to the other parent), will do so in a manner which demonstrates ambivalence – ie – the child will not wholly reject the parent and will not display contempt when doing so. Children who reject parents because of the behaviours of the parent to whom they are aligned, will show a distinct pattern of behaviours which include contempt, omnipotence (believing they have the right to tell parents and professionals what to do) and splitting of parents into idealised/demonised experiences. Children who are coached, manipulated or coerced into alignment, also show a high level of anxiety in the care of the aligned parent and heightened and exaggerated fear of the parent who is in the rejected position. This is because they are trying to manage a family system which is out of control. The system is out of control because it is being controlled by the parent who is influencing the children.
There is still a way to go however, before uniform understanding of the serious harm which is caused to children when they are induced to use psychological splitting as a defence is recognised. The past three years have seen an organised campaign to distort understanding of this problem for children of divorce, with ‘protective’ mothers groups targeting fathers who wish to see their children as being abusive and enmeshing mothers as ‘protective.’ This binary split, which mirrors the thinking of those who campaign in this space, positions the issue of children’s alignment and rejection as being either a dispute about contact or a weapon in a war against mothers. It is neither of those things, it is a serious and complex issue, in which the harm of children is hidden inside what appears on the outside to be a dispute about adult relationships with children.
Children who align and reject after divorce or separation, or in any other family format for that matter, in the absence of harmful behaviours by the parent in the rejected position, are displaying the signs of regression to primitive defences of denial, splitting and projection. When this is seen, it is only the surface signal that something is wrong because underneath the child’s outward display are the attachment maladaptations which are made as a way of coping with a range of parenting practices which are harmful to children.
Treating the Problem
The Family Separation Clinic, works with the relational dynamics around the child, the behaviours in parent and how these bind the child into this alignment being our key interest. In our experience, there are a wide range of behaviours which are seen in parents who trigger this defence in children and a wide range of reactive behaviours from unaware and often terrified parents in the rejected position, which tighten the double bind the child is in. Extracting the child from this position is tricky unless there is strong judicial management of the control behaviours which lie at the foundation of this problem. This dynamic is about power over the child which is held by a parent who is using behavioural strategies to bind the child into alignment. Anyone who does this work, must do it cautiously within a strong judicial framework, in order to avoid the destruction of interventions by a parent driven by pathological rage/hatred/determination to maintain control.
Structural therapy is about shifting the underlying dynamics in the family system and in this respect the Court’s capacity to shift the power balance between parents is the starting point for any intervention. When the Court holds the power, preventing a parent from continuing the pattern of behaviours which have caused the problem, therapeutic intervention which is focused upon freeing the child from the pathological alignment with an abusive parent is the goal. Whilst the negative transferential chatter on the internet is always focused upon the child’s rejection, the real focus of therapeutic work is about the liberation of the child from the inter-psychic enmeshment in the relationship with the aligned parent. As such, the transfer of a child to live in kinship care with the parent in the rejected position, is about placing the child with a loving parent who is found to have the capacity to provide healthy care. This is about child protection and removal of a child, which is always the decision of the Court, is about ensuring that a child is protected from the longer term harms which are seen in situations where children have been prevented from receiving the help that they need.
Treating this problem requires understanding and committment to giving children the voice which belongs to their true self, not the false self which arises because of primitive defences which are caused by adults who are out of psychological and emotional control. Children who are aligned with a parent and rejecting of the other are, in my clinical experience, brutalised by the experience of being enmeshed, forced to reject a parent and left to cope with their experience alone. The silencing of this experience, which has gone on for five decades now, is in my view unforgiveable and those who seek to once again render these children invisible by fusing their wellbeing with the rights of a parent are, in my clinical experience, causing serious harm by trying to hide it.
The reiteration of the position of the Family Court in relation to this issue is welcome, as are new levels of transparency which open up the Courts to scrutiny. In my view, the lurid headlines and chatter which surrounds the issue of children’s alignment and rejection of parents will quieten down significantly when the reality of what lies beneath the harm which is done to children who align and reject is properly seen and understood.
For now, it is the responsibility of all who understand what lies beneath a child’s alignment and rejection after divorce and separation, to say what we see and keep saying it. For if we are silenced, there will be no-one left to speak for children whose plight, has been unseen and unrecognised for far too long.
Family Separation Clinic News
The Family Separation Clinic delivers structural interventions to families where children have been found to align and reject due to the behaviours of a parent. Structural interventions include a Clinical Trial, in which the alignment between harming parent and child is observed and monitored over time. During the trial, the child is re-introduced to the parent in the rejected position in a process which is protected from the aligned parent’s capacity to cause further harm or undermine the therapeutic work. In some cases, this produces a positive re-introduction, in others it is necessary for the Court to determine whether the aligned parent’s behaviour is causing harm which meets the welfare threshold. In such circumstances, the Clinic now only works in cases of residence transfer in situations where the case is in public law, meaning that it is the responsibility of social workers to undertaken removal, in the same way they would if the child was being physically or sexually abused. This is because the underlying emotional and psychological harms which are being caused to children, are no less serious than any other form of abuse. When social workers understand this, intervention to create the necessary conditions for freeing a child from that abuse are possible.I
Instructing the Family Separation Clinic
FSC can deliver Clinical Trials in cases where there are judgments of emotional and psychological harm due to the behaviours of a parent, a Clinical Trial involves a team working around the family for a period of 12-26 weeks.
FSC currently, however, only accepts instructions in the High Court of England and Wales, Republic of Ireland and Hong Kong. Regrettably We cannot accept any instructions in the lower courts in any jurisdication, this is due to the need for the strongest judicial control of treatment of cases post judgment.
Holding up a Healthy Mirror – Therapeutic Parenting Training for Parents in the Rejected Position
The final live delivery of this course begins on March 14th at 8am-10am to enable Australia and New Zealand parents to join us. Currently we now have only three places left on this course which is incredibly popular and which delivers intensive learning and skills building over four weeks.
Working with the principle that children who align and reject are suffering from underlying attachment maladaptations which cause harm over the longer term without the right support, this is a stepwise course which enables you to
understand what is happening to your child
stabilise and anchor your own experience in relation to that,
operationalise a therapeutic parenting approach and
build skills to use over time to help your child.
Cost £180 over four weeks (4 x 2 hour sessions).
March 14th, 21st, 28th and April 4th
8am- 10am UK time (please note there is a time change between weeks 2 and 3 of 1 hour due to BST).
Learning and Listening Circles
March 7 – 19:00 -21:00 GMT
Introduction to Therapeutic Parenting Skills
This is an introductory session for parents who are new to therapeutic parenting. Using basic skills as a starter, we will explore how understanding the self as a therapeutic parent, changes the way that you signal your position to your child. Whilst this is an introductory session, all parents are encouraged to join this circle to build up shared momentum for knowledge and skills amongst rejected parents. This develops the capacity of the rejected parent community to assist other parents who are new to this experience.
Cost £40 – Family and friends can attend for the cost of one place.
March 21 – 19:00-21:00
Helping the Parentified Child
Parentification is one of the key problems facing children who are manipulated in divorce and separation, it is a covert manipulation which can be difficult to spot, precisely because, as Dr Steve Miller always pointed out, it looks like a close and loving relationship.
There is no need to be helpless in the face of the parentified child however and, because the relational networks in the brain are constantly open to change, learning how to help the parentified child is a powerful tool to have at the ready for any parent who has been forced into the rejected position.
This circle will focus upon understanding how parentified children behave and how to operationalise strategies to help them.
Cost £40 – Family and friends can attend for the cost of one place.
April 4 – 19:00-21:00
What is really happening when a child rejects a parent outright
The evidence is clear that a child who rejects a parent outright after divorce and separation, is not doing so because that parent is abusive. Instead, it is the parent to whom the child is aligned who is causing harm and it is the alignment we should be looking at because it is this which is abusive to the child. It is abusive because, even though it looks like love, it is a fear based response which is underpinned by the biological imperative to survive. In the framework of latent vulnerability, what we are seeing when a child aligns in this way, is a child who is already vulnerable in the parental relationship, succumbing to underlying disorganised attachments. This circle will explore the reality of what happens when a child rejects a parent and will focus on how therapeutic parenting can assist the child to recover.
Cost £40 – Family and friends can attend for the cost of one place.
THERAPEUTIC PARENTING FOR CHILDREN OF DIVORCE AND SEPARATION – HIGHER LEVEL DEVELOPMENT GROUP
Anyone who has completed Holding up a Healthy Mirror can join the Higher Level Development Group which will run weekly from Mid May 2023 through to Christmas 2023 (with breaks for holiday periods).
This group will be focused upon developing the skills of therapeutic parenting for children of divorce and separation to a level which will enable you to assist others.
The purpose of running this higher level development group is to ensure that the skills set which are helpful for children with attachment maladaptations due to trauma in divorce and separation, are made widely available. Those working in the development group will have early access to the new resources currently being developed, including the new handbook of Therapeutic Parenting for Children of Divorce and Separation which is almost complete.
Weekly attendance will cost £30 per person and can be paid weekly, monthly or in three monthly packages which attract a lower fee. We are aiming to keep these costs as low as possible to enable as many parents who wish to join to do so.
This course is the updated version of Higher Level Understanding so if you have already put your name down for that you do not need to do so again. If you have completed Holding up a Healthy Mirror and you would like to join the group in May, please email me at Karen@karenwoodall.blog to do so.
If you are a therapist who would like to join this development group to add therapeutic parenting skills to your work with families affected by divorce and separation you may do so without completing HUAHM, this is because you already possess the stabilising and anchoring skills which are necessary to deliver therapeutic parenting effectively. If you are a therapist, you will be asked to acknowledge that at the start of the group so that dynamics between participants are transparent. Working in this way will enable mutual learning and reciprocity between parents and therapists on the basis that the co-therapy model of work with families experiencing children’s maladaptations is based upon mutuality and respect for the expertise possessed by parents in the rejected position.
TOWARD DEVELOPING A SCALE TO EMPIRICALLY MEASURE PSYCHOTIC DEFENSE MECHANISMS
Prometheas Constantinides / Stephen M. Beck 58/6
This state of “deadness” is analogous to Margaret Mahler’s concepts of deanimation/devivification and fusion/defusion (1970), which she referred to as “maintenance mechanisms.” She described them as primitive defense mechanisms mobilized to restore homeostasis. According to Mahler, the child familiarizes himself with the outside world through the process of separation-individuation, by experiencing his mother, or symbiotic partner, as separate from his “self.” Psychosis may result if the child is unable to use his mother to provide him a sense of stability in his attempt to relate to the outside world. If this occurs, the child may rely on two basic mechanisms for his psychic survival: deanimation (or devivification) and fusion/defusion.
Deanimation is a mechanism by which the child renders live objects inanimate. Its main function is to dedifferentiate and deanimate both inner and outer reality on the basis of the child’s feeling that living objects are changeable, vulnerable, and unpredictable, and hence more threatening to his ego.
The psychotic child may also animate less threatening inanimate objects and invest them libidinally. Generally, massive denial is used to “hallucinate away” the complex stimuli of both inner processes and external sensory perceptions, which demand social and emotional responses. The prepsychotic or psychotic child will perceive what is alive as dead and will himself become death-like while retreating into an autistic state. Inner percepts, libidinally charged and saturated with aggression, ascend inevitably and reach the sensorium. If deanimation succeeds, the child will present with apathy and unresponsiveness.
If it fails, states of extreme aggression interspersed with feelings of panic prevail. Mahler described a patient of Sechehaye’s, Renée, who initially perceived her mother as cold, aloof, and distant, much like a statue. Concomitantly, inanimate objects, such as a chair and a jar, suddenly were brought to life and experienced as persecutory.
The second “maintenance mechanism” deployed in the psychotic child’s attempt to defend against proprioceptive and enteroceptive percepts is fusion/defusion. Failing to obtain comfort from the mother, the child will fuse representations of both self and mother into a single delusional “all mighty” unit. The child then relates to the mother as a self or part object, and her body becomes an extension of his own, in harmony with his needs and wishes. This fusional state will ultimately engender fears of engulfment and self-annihilation against which the child defends by defusing or pushing the mother away, both internally and externally.
On the basis of Occam’s razor (the law of parsimony), which recommends selecting the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question, one might think that Mahler’s maintenance mechanisms encompass the range of psychotic defenses described previously.
To achieve the state of deanimation, psychotic denial must be deployed effectively to repel the animate characteristics of the object, as well as the internal percepts. This reclusion into the self, also seen in defusion, may be viewed as a variant of autistic withdrawal. The process of concretization follows and is applied to emotional content and self-representations, which are then externalized and assigned to external inanimate objects by virtue of delusional projection. Psychotic distortion would be more prominent in the process of fusion/defusion.
Mahler’s notion of maintenance mechanisms may be useful in attempts to clearly differentiate psychotic defense mechanisms from their neurotic counterparts. The modifier “maintenance” alludes to the child’s attempt to suppress external percepts and internal feelings in the interest of psychic survival.
Thus, these mechanisms substitute for “object relations,” as well as for defense mechanisms per se, which are directed at instinctual drives and their internal representations. The maintenance mechanisms, by contrast, operate against an undifferentiated drive-object, which implies that instinctual drives, object, subject, and ego are undifferentiated, in addition to object relations being massively denied or deanimated. Mahler’s notion of maintenance mechanisms provides insight into the metapsychology of psychotic defensive functioning.
so much in there of what we see in these children. Am mailing you now with times to talk. K
Patterns of Attachment A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation Classic Edition
Mary D. Salter Ainsworth, Mary C. Blehar, Everett Waters, and Sally N. Wall
Classic edition published 2015 by Psychology Press © 2015 Taylor & Francis
[587/653] Some outwardly accepting mothers are more rejecting than those, described above, who can give brief, healthy, situation-specific vent to annoyance. The pseudo-accepting mothers comply with the infant’s demands, but in a way which is in itself
inappropriate. They comply masochistically, and in a pseudo-patient, long-suffering way, and usually underneath this type of compliance lies much-repressed aggression —which is usually deep-seated and of long-standing, and which has little to do with the infant except as his behavior may serve to activate this repressed aggression and threaten the defenses against it. Such a mother cannot give healthy vent to the anger occasioned by the infants behavior. She smothers it, and tries to be patient. Her very defenses against expressing her anger make it impossible for her to be truly responsive to the infant, and hence he tends to find her compliance unsatisfying. Both this and the often inappropriate outbursts of irritation which inevitably break through the defenses add up to rejection.
Clear-cut, overt rejection is unmistakable. Some highly rejecting mothers are quite open in their rejection. Such a mother may say that she wishes that the child had never been born, or she may be less open but nevertheless say what a nuisance he is and how he interferes with her life.
Child Abuse and Neglect: Attachment, Development and Intervention by David Howe
Defensive Processes, Attachment and Maltreatment
Children whose carers are the cause of their fearful states, and children who do not have access to a sensitively attuned carer at times of distress, are left acutely and chronically dysregulated. In these situations, the brain feels overwhelmed. It therefore copes defensively. But there are psychological (and developmental) consequences when defensive strategies are over-used. In their attempt to reduce anxiety, defences distort reality and lay down partial, incomplete memories and dysfunctional behavioural sequences which become reactivated whenever similar situations are met. ‘The neural connections that result in defenses shape our lives by selecting what we approach and avoid, where our attention is drawn, and the assumptions we use to organize our experiences’ (Cozolino 2002: 32).
As we have seen, the defining characteristic of a disorganized attachment is the inability to find a behavioural strategy that leads to a place of safety and feelings of emotional calm. Because the attachment figure is the cause of the distress, approaching him or her only makes matters worse. The attachment system remains activated, and in this situation where both approach and avoidance responses increase fear, levels of arousal can rise to the point where the child feels overwhelmed. The whole experience of being cared for by an attachment figure who repeatedly frightens the child because of what he or she does (abuse), what he or she will not do (rejection and abandonment), or what he or she cannot do (neglect), adds up in Schore’s words to an experience of ‘relational trauma’. Such attachment traumas make individuals fear closeness to others; even activation of the attachment system itself engenders feelings of fear. Thus, as Allen (2001: 22) points out, ‘attachment trauma damages the safety-regulating system and undermines the traumatized person’s capacity to use relationships to establish feeling of security’.
Maltreating carers do not help their children recognize, understand or regulate their emotions. They fail on three counts.
• They fail to provide the child with any information about what is happening to them emotionally.
• There is no attempt to help children make sense of what is happening to them at the cognitive and behavioural level.
• And there is certainly no inclination or capacity to help children feel safe and soothed, regulated and contained. They fail to terminate children’s activated attachment system, leaving them in a highly aroused and distressed condition.
So overwhelming and frightening is the experience of relational trauma, young minds have to employ a variety of defensive strategies to try to keep out of consciousness the painful thought that the attachment figure does not care, does not protect, but hurts and frightens. The type of psychological defence used depends on the particular character of the caregiving. For example, the psychological problem posed by parents who deactivate their caregiving whenever their children appear needy or vulnerable is very different from that presented by carers who sexually and violently abuse their children.
However, these psychological defences tend to be fragile and can easily break down under the stress of actual or perceived neglect, verbal abuse, rejection and aggression by the attachment figure. In other words, any significant arousal of the attachment system becomes associated with, and seems to be a precursor of, fear, intimations of danger, and the collapse into a disorganized state. In time, any activation of the attachment system can lead to a breach of the psychological defence, leaving the child being overwhelmed by feelings of alarm and panic, rage and anger, despair and helplessness.
Maltreated children therefore tend to be in one or other of two mental states:
• a controlling, defensive mode (compulsive compliance, compulsive caregiving, compulsive self-reliance) with the outline of a fragile, organized but very insecure attachment strategy, or under stress
• an out-of-control, helpless/hostile mode in which organized attachment behaviour completely breaks down.
Unless disorganized and controlling children enjoy relationships later on in life that help them develop a more trusting, reflective and less defended state of mind, they are likely to carry these mental states (controlling/out of control) with respect to attachment into all future relationships. In particular, these two states are likely to be most easily roused and activated when the adult is in relationship with a sexual partner, a young care-seeking child, or indeed a childcare professional whose very involvement might imply attachment-related issues of control, vulnerability, criticism, failure, anxiety, power, fear and danger.
Our present interest lies in what happens to young developing minds when they find themselves in relationship with primary selective attachment figures whose mental states with respect to attachment shift between defence on the one hand, and fearful, chaotic disorganization on the other. It is in these parent–child relationships we find minds that maltreat, and minds that are maltreated. More subtly, each defensive strategy and the direction of its breakdown leads to different types and combinations of maltreatment, ranging from physical abuse to depressed neglect.
238 Interventions, Treatment and Support
Parents are helped to understand that the smooth running of the parent–child relationship inevitably breaks down from time to time – parents unavoidably let children down, upset them or fail to be immediately available.
However, secure carers are quick to spot and acknowledge the damage and are able to ‘repair’ the disruption. From this, the child learns that the carer is in principle available and responsive, and can help the child make sense of the feelings that arise at moments of upset and distress. In order for these ‘repairs’ to be successful, both parent(s) and child must feel able to communicate and be confident in the regulatory value of their exchanges. Parent(s) and child must send out clear, undistorted signals and clues about what they are thinking and feeling.
Signals become distorted and disturbed when the child’s needs (attachment signals) trigger anxiety in the parent, which he or she deals with defensively. For example, a dismissing carer might reduce the distress she feels whenever her child makes a demand on her availability by defensively encouraging the child to be independent, not make a fuss, carry on playing, and not be always bothering ‘mummy’. If the child learns not to make demands at times of need, the parent need not activate her caregiving behaviour. In effect, under stress, both parent and child learn to miscue each other about their actual needs and mental states. The avoidant child downplays his distress, continues to play at a distance, and at such times avoids physical and emotional proximity with his parent. The dismissing mother signals that she is not available when most needed.
In contrast, preoccupied, ambivalent mothers discourage their child’s independence and exploratory behaviour because it increases their anxiety and feelings of abandonment. They encourage dependence in their children, and promote anxiety whenever the child becomes too distant and exploratory.
Ambivalent children begin to feel anxious and unsafe whenever they are at a distance, socially disengaged, and not involved with their carer.
Disorganized/controlling children and their parents have major problems at all points in the ‘circle of security’, with confused messages about who is in control, whether to approach or not at times of need, and who should care for whom (with controlling, role-reversed children either taking aggressive charge of their own safety or even worrying more about their carer’s distress than their own).
Parents are helped to recognize how their own feeling states affect children’s attempt to balance their need to explore on the one hand, and the appropriateness of displaying attachment behaviour and sending out distress signals at times of need on the other. Through observation, the therapists work out the particular character of each parent–child attachment relationship in the group.
Intervention goals are constructed depending on the parent-child attachment classification For example:
Dismissing caregivers are usually assigned the following treatment goals: increased appreciation of how much their children need them; increased skill at reading and registering their children’s subtle distress signals; and decreased miscuing under circumstances in which a child’s attachment behavior is activated.
(Marvin et al. 2002: 115)
This would be a great theme song for all parents in the rejected position.
I don’t think letters are going to work for my child so I’m going to try getting through with music
Deborah Cutter, Psy.D. Executive Director Creative Behavioral Consultants, Inc. email@example.com
The Neurobiology of Attachment-Focused Therapy: Enhancing Connection and Trust in the Treatment of Children and Adolescents by Jonathan Baylin and Daniel Hughes
Blocked Care: The Parenting Brain and the Role of the Caregiver
Children who experience early adversity, such as neglect, abuse, exposure to domestic violence, and separations from caregivers, are at increased risk for developing disorganized attachments. These children’s caregivers need to provide nurturing, sensitive care, indeed even therapeutic care, if such children are to develop organized attachments. —Bernard et al. (2012, p. 623)
Young children are at the mercy of their caregivers’ states of mind toward them and have to adapt accordingly to survive. The ability of a parent to develop and sustain a compassionate state of mind or attitude toward the child—embracing the whole child—is, in our clinical experience, the most important factor contributing to a child’s recovery from blocked trust. Parents who can resist the natural tendency to respond defensively to a child’s defensiveness and can recover effectively from inevitable moments of losing empathy with a mistrusting child are the trust builders these children need to have.
Developing and sustaining this kind of resilient compassion is no easy task—far from a no-brainer. One parent described it as “hugging a cactus.” Indeed, parenting a chronically defensive child takes all of the brain power an adult can muster, demanding the use of instinctual aspects of caregiving we share with other mammalian parents and the highest executive powers we access by turning on our most uniquely human brain regions in our prefrontal cortex. To make it even more challenging, these higher brain regions are the very ones most likely to shut down when a parent is experiencing great stress.
In brain terms, the ability to be a nurturing parent over time depends heavily on the social engagement system (that smart vagal circuit we described in Chapter 1) (Porges, 2012), the brain–body system that enables people to stay open and engaged with each other even when there is tension or misattunement in the relationship. Parents who stay open, mindful, and engaged with their children over time in spite of the stresses and strains of parenthood are relying on their good vagal tone to stay parental in an enriched way that supports a child’s healthy brain development. Parents with good vagal tone can keep defensive reactions at bay and recover more quickly from lapses into defensiveness than can parents with poor vagal tone. Fortunately, a growing body of research shows that parents can strengthen their capacity to be open and engaged in their relationships with their children (Tang et al., 2010). (We discuss this in Chapters 8 and 11.)
As we discussed in our previous book, Brain-Based Parenting (Hughes & Baylin, 2012), parenting well actually calls on at least five different brain systems that enable us to (1) feel safe being very close to our children; (2) derive pleasure and joy from taking care of and interacting with our kids; (3) attune to our kids’ inner lives using our powers of empathy and “mindsight”; (4) construct positive, affirming stories or narratives about being parents; and (5) control our negative, uncaring reactions sufficiently to stay parental most of the time, to be the adult in the room. We call these systems the Approach, Reward, Child Reading, Meaning Making, and Executive Systems. When a parent can access all five systems and keep them up and running over time, a child gets to interact with an open-minded, empathic, attuning other in ways that we now know enhance a child’s brain development and build strong bonds of trust between parent and child. A parent’s ability to access and sustain this open state of engagement depends on the parent’s visceral sense of safety, physically and emotionally, in the relationship with the child.
Having supportive, secure relationships with other adults and freedom from chronic stress over issues of daily survival are also essential for a parent to interact in an open, engaged way. Normally, when parents go through the experience of pregnancy and then are present to be trust builders in a child’s first year of life, there is a mix of joy and stress in which the joy outweighs the stress, enabling the parents to hold on to their loving feelings and compassion for their child and gain the child’s deep trust in their care. The hormonal changes during pregnancy, especially the rise in oxytocin and prolactin levels around the time of birth, prime the caregiving system in the mother, while expectations of fatherhood may have similar priming effects on the father-to-be, including the suppression of testosterone and other hormones that would normally inhibit a dad’s more nurturing, empathic potential (Bridges, 2008). With the birth of the child and the beginnings of face-to-face, voice-to-voice, touch-to-touch interactions, oxytocin and dopamine are triggered in parents and children, helping create strong emotional bonds that pave the way toward secure attachment and sustained caregiving (Fleming & Li, 2002).
This emotional bonding process helps build a strong foundation of trust that enables parents and children to weather the inevitable tensions that accompany the next stage of development when the child is mobile and the parents have to engage in more socializing functions, including saying “no” and helping the child learn to accept limits and rules. Once children deeply trust their parents’ intentions in setting limits and directing behaviors, the children are free to turn their attention to what is really important to them—play, discovery, delight, adventure, learning interesting things. The parents can do the heavy lifting regarding basic issues of safety and the child is free to be a child.+
Mutual Defense Societies: When Blocked Trust Meets Blocked Care\
Having to be a socializer without the benefit of first being a comforter and trust builder has much to do with why foster and adoptive parents of older children experience great challenges as they try to combine trust-building with socialization, “connection with correction.” Under the inevitable stress of parenting hurt children, parents are at risk for blocked care (Hughes and Baylin, 2012). The concept of blocked care refers to a scenario in which too much stress suppresses the higher brain functions needed for caregiving, engendering a self-defensive stance toward a child. In blocked care, the parent’s nurturing capacities are suppressed, temporarily out of commission. Caregiving is supported by the social engagement system, not the defense system; defensive states of mind inhibit the caring process. When a parent gets stuck in a defensive state of mind, this puts the parent–child relationship in jeopardy because, in effect, there is no caring mind “in the room.”
We readily understand how an adult is likely to begin to experience “blocked care” when an adult partner does not respond to expressions of interest and care for a period of time. Rejection by our child is likely to trigger the same social pain system activated by adult rejection. Although we may be able to see the difference between our child’s and our partner’s hurtful actions, it is still challenging to manage feelings of rejection and sustain caring feelings for our child. The risk that our care will weaken and may even become blocked, is still present.
Common Characteristics of Blocked Care
Shifting between states of social engagement and self-defense is normal in the give-and-take of parent-child relationships. Blocked care sets in when the parent gets stuck in defensiveness and cannot shift out of this negative state of mind towards the child. In this scenario, the parent’s brain is using the defense system to protect the parent from the pain of perceived rejection.
Blindsided by a Child’s Blocked Trust
Adults who are used to being trusted and to making people feel safe in their presence may experience being deeply mistrusted for the first time when they try to get close to a child with blocked trust. If these caregivers don’t see this coming, if they are blindsided by the child’s intensely negative reactions to their offerings of love, they may experience the intense pain of perceived rejection and recoil to protect themselves from this awful feeling. This can be the beginnings of a process in which a caregiver takes the child’s defensiveness personally, not understanding that this habitual defensiveness is really not at all personal but an overgeneralized, nondiscriminating response that lumps this adult together with all past adults who have mistreated the child.
When a child’s blocked trust meets a parent’s blocked care, the parent–child relationship becomes a mutual defense society that keeps reinforcing defensiveness in both parent and child. In blocked care, the parent tends to be in survival mode, parenting reactively rather than proactively. In brain terms, survival-based, defensive parenting is generated from the more primitive limbic and self-defense circuitry, without much use of higher brain functions that support the processes of reflection, mentalization, flexibility, and self-regulation. When the parent is in a “narrow-minded” self-protective state, the child and the relationship are at risk for chronic misattunement. Parents in this stressed-out state of mind do not respond empathically to the child’s distress, do not engage in repair operations, and do not reflect on their parenting to make changes and do a better job. Parents who enter parenthood with high levels of stress are more at risk for developing blocked care than are parents who embark on parenthood with emotional resilience, a secure adult attachment style, and a well-developed capacity for self-regulation and self-reflection.
Preventing blocked care, whenever possible, is a primary task in attachment-focused treatment. Addressing blocked care when it has already set in is also an essential component of treatment, because there is little possibility of helping a mistrusting child learn to trust if the adults trying to care for him are not able to approach him nondefensively, indeed, with compassion. Helping caregivers recover from blocked care and then strengthen their capacity for sustaining a compassionate state of mind toward their mistrustful child is a major part of the therapeutic process in attachment-focused treatment.
It behooves therapists to understand the dynamics of parental rejection sensitivity and to be prepared to work empathically with parents like Carol who are experiencing this distressing conflict between their personal reaction to their child’s mistrust and their goal of being a loving parent.
Karen, immeasurable thanks for your work. I cannot describe the pain of the last 4 yrs since divorcing. My 13yo daughter has psychological splitting it appears to me after reading your blog for days. So much anguish has gone into trying ro figure out what is happening and how to help her. I live in Acworth Ga which is just NW of Atlanta GA USA. I am trying to find a therapist in my area that subscribes to your theories and methods. I would like to know if you have any names of therapists that you could share.
Hi Laura, I am currently preparing a list of therapists working in this way, I will have that available shortly if you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you, I will.