Psychotherapist, Writer, Trainer, Researcher
The Heart of the Matter
The concept of alienation of children is not controversial when the harm which is being done to a child who is alienated, is properly understood. Whilst parental alienation as a label continues to attract much negative projection from campaigners who want the outside world to believe that children only ever reject parents who are abusive, the reality of the dynamics which cause a child to reject a parent are serious and sustain lasting damage if they are not stopped. The noise from the campaigners seeking to convince the world that only abusive fathers claim parental alienation, is, in my view, a deliberate ploy to distract from the reality of what happens to children who are alienated. Children who, at the heart of the matter, are alienated from their own selves first before projecting that psychologically split sense of self outwards onto parents and the wider family. When the reality of the quality of the child’s rejection is properly understood, in combination with the underlying dynamics seen in the relationship between the child and parent who is idealised, the full extent of the harm at the heart of this pernicious problem is laid bare. Educating the world at large about the reality of the impact of alienation on children of divorce and separation and orientating those who have the power to intervene is our task for 2022.
One of the problems we have in doing this work is the lack of a model of intervention which treats the internal working models of alienated children which has been fully evaluated. Whilst in the USA, reunification programmes such as Turning Points for Families have recently been evaluated, this model rests upon parental alienation theory and holds that the child can be restored to a relationship with a parent via four-day intervention. Aftercare in such a model is focused upon carefully controlling the children’s relationship with the influencing parent which is not always easy or indeed possible in this digital age. This means that children who are alienated can be reunited with a parent, often successfully, but it also means that the need to manage the family dynamics remains high and that parents must remain vigilent against the other parent if they continue to influence the children.
Alienated children have many psychological challenges to cope with, not least the fact that they are unconscious of the mental shift which takes place when the psychological splitting defence is triggered. The psychological splitting defence is the core dynamic seen in children who are alienated and it is flagged by the child’s idealisation and demonisation of parents. True alienation is, in my experience, indicated when a child shows an idealised experience of one parent and a demonised experience of the other which is combined with lack of conscience, remorse and empathy for the demonised parent. Children who display these behavioural signs are, in my experience, suffering from underlying developmental trauma which has led to attachment disorder, and it is this which is the most damaging aspect of the experience of alienation in children. Articulating this damage, as well as demonstrating that the alienated child can be brought to a place of ambivalence in relationship to their parents (they can recognise the good and bad things in each parent), is what we are now focused upon at the Family Separation Clinic. Developing training for schools, social workers and other family court involved practitioners, which is based upon the outcome of evaluation of over a decade of work with alienated children, is our current project.
The mental shift which takes place in alienated children, occurs when the pressure to hold two realities in mind becomes too great and the child must find a way to resolve what is an impossible dilemma. Being aware that they cannot love both parents, the child undertakes an unconscious shift in their sense of self, splitting off the positive feelings and identification with one parent and making this unconscious. Denial of these feelings is now present along with projection of the negative conscious feelings and awareness about that parent, which are the only feelings which are now available in the mind of the child. When this process is complete, the child will idealise, mirror and channel, the feelings of the parent to whom they are aligned, finding reasons to describe why they are rejecting the other parent which are rooted in the historical overt and covert narratives of the aligned parent.
In every respect the child who is suffering this problem has experienced something normal in a very abnormal situation. Defences are normal, we all experience them, splitting off parts of our experience in order not to be overwhelmed by impossible situations is what we all do at times. The problem for alienated children is that when they enter this little understood defensive position and when services designed to help use the opposite approach of what is necessary to help such a child, the child is entrenched in this defensive position and has no way out of it. Additionally, when aligned parents feel that their child is confirming their own felt sense of what is wrong with the other parent and move to support the child’s split stance, a rigid dyadic coalition is formed. That rigid belief in a parent, that the child is expressing the truth of the matter and that anyone who disbelieves them is wrong, harmful or somehow invested in the other parent’s narrative, can continue for a very long time. This is one of the problems with treatment of alienated children, the original split in the child is experienced as validating an influencing parent’s belief. This is when the escalation of campaigns against anyone who tries to intervene begins, this is where conspiracy theories, so popular amongst the anti-alienation campaigners are rooted.
Sometimes I wonder why anyone would intervene in such situations, when aligned parents become obsessed and persecutory and children are so difficult to treat, why should we intervene? After all, it would be so much easier to join with others and say that the child is doing well, they will find their parent when they are ready. It would be easy to say that these families are very difficult, that parents of children who are alienated all contribute something to the problem and so better to leave the child with the parent they are ‘happy’ with and allow matters to resolve themselves in the future. And if it were so, that an alienated child could resolve these issues in adulthood, I would have no problem in doing just that. Unfortunately, what we see in alienated children is that they cannot resolve the issue easily because a) they have an unconscious defence which they are not aware of and b) by the time they come to have the brain capacity to resolve such behaviours, they have often contributed to harm to the parent they have rejected through false allegations and they have been affected in their capacity to relate to others healthily due to having their cutting off behaviour normalised. Which is why intervening as early as possible to prevent the self alienation which precedes the alignment and rejection is so important and why treatment in the here and now when the problem arises is essential.
At the heart of this matter is a child who has been induced to use psychological splitting as a defence. This child needs treatment, not because of the parental rejection but because of the self alienation which occurs prior to the rejection. In treatment, the re-introduction of the child to the parent they have rejected is undertaken in order that the child encounters the split off part of self which has been denied, this is less about the relationship with the rejected parent and more about the child’s own relationship to self in order that relational skills for resolution of conflict and treatment of attachment disorders can be undertaken. Whilst the relationship with the rejected parent is an essential part of this treatment, it is not that per se which is being addressed at the core of this work but the child’s own access to a sense of authenticity in awareness and expression of self. How that treatment is provided depends upon how the child can be protected from the ongoing pressures to split, deny and project their experience and that requires understanding in all who work with the alienated child towards resolution.
In 2022, we will be doing more to educate and raise awareness of the plight of the alienated child and the need for treatment of these child victims of divorce and separation. Seeing their needs as separate and individual from the rights of their parents, is an important part of this process, disentangling the distorted narratives about the harm which is done to children of divorce and separation will be an ongoing project.