What Does Psychological Splitting Mean in Children of Divorce and Separation?
This week, I was pleased to see that the underlying problem seen in children who reject a parent outright after divorce and separation, is being increasingly recognised in case law. In the case below, where a non resident father is found to have alienated the children against the mother, the judge records this underlying defence along with the behaviours in the father which caused it.
Dr S told me that the children are identifying strongly with the negative feelings the father holds towards the mother and that this had led them to experience a ‘split’ (by which I took Dr S to mean polarised) reality where they identify their father with ‘good’ and their mother with ‘bad’.A AND B (CHILD ARRANGEMENTS: PARENTAL ALIENATION)  EWFC B11 (26 JANUARY 2022)
Now that the primitive defences and the way in which they cause children to reject a parent are being recognised by the family court system, it is important to highlight how to treat the problem of psychological splitting and why it is essential to do so. In doing this, we need to ensure that the underlying dynamics which cause psychological splitting are also properly understood, because whilst we can say that a parent uses ‘alienating strategies’ that does not explain what the psychological underpinning of those strategies actually is.
Similarly, when we are treating psychological splitting in families we cannot use terms like alienating strategies or parental alienation, because those terms polarise the family further and they do not make any sense to children themselves. Worse than that, try telling an alienated child that they are alienated and watch how the defence hardens as the child declares that their split sense of self has been reached independently of anyone else in the family.
Psychological splitting is the defence in the child which causes an ego split (how the child identifies their own internal sense of who they are) which is then projected outwards at the parent. What causes this are the behaviours in a parent who influences or pressures a child either consciously or unconsciously. What underpins those behaviours are power and control dynamics over the child.
Alienation of a child therefore, is the causation of psychological splitting using power and control dynamics. The rejection of a parent is a by product of this configuration of dynamics around the child and not the cause of it.
The outward manifestation of power and control over the child is never better described than in a situation where a non resident father (a parent who has less time with the child), causes a child to reject their mother (as in the case above). This demonstrates perfectly that the key variable which causes a child to reject is not gender, is not being the primary carer, it is being the parent willing to exercise coercive control over the child.
A child by virtue of their utter dependence upon a parent, can be caused to raise the defence of splitting in a nano-second, simply because their dependence renders it impossible for them to do anything else. In this case the father has removed the children from the country, meaning that he has all of the power and control over them. In these circumstances, if the father wishes the children to reject the mother, they will do so in a heartbeat because to not do so, would be to face his wrath or abandonment or both. Power over children is a very much misunderstood dynamic in this field, where the voice of the child can become the ultimate driver in outcomes for families after divorce and separation.
Treating psychological splitting is necessary in the here and now, to prevent more serious problems from arising in the later lives of children who experience it but what many practitioners do not understand, is that treating the problem begins with the management of the power and control over the child. Who has the power in the family system and who is using it to control the child, is the first assessment undertaken in this work when a child is seen to be using psychological splitting. Managing the power and control is the role of the Court, but guiding and advising on how to balance that power is our first responsibility.
Without management of power and control, all interventions are built on weak foundations and it is imperative that a practitioner understands whether a judge is willing and able to balance the power and hold the new framework in place before beginning work. To risk working in a system where the power and control dynamic is not being properly held by the Court, is to risk difficult outcomes. Working with splitting, denial and projection is difficult enough in adult relationships, but when children are involved and the wider world does not yet properly understand what is happening to those children, the risk to practitioners of being caught in the crossfire and ultimately blamed by someone in the system (family or professional), is high.
Children in divorce and separation are suffering from psychological splitting, a recognised defence which can be treated with a step wise approach by practitioners who understand the projection dynamics and who are skilled in managing power and control. The UK family courts are alive to the problem of psychological splitting, now is the time to demonstrate clearly how the courts and those with statutory power such as social workers, can turn this from a little understood problem to an easily resolved and ultimately a preventable one.
Reunification and recovery: Practice and theory in the treatment of alienated children
International Conference, Acre Israel – 14-16th June 2022
Barbara Jo Fidler, Ph.D., C.Psych., Acc.FM.
Dr Fidler is a clinical developmental psychologist. She has worked with high conflict separating/divorcing families conducting assessments, professional consultations, expert testimony, mediation, arbitration, therapy and parenting coordination for over 30 years. Dr. Fidler provides training to judges, lawyers and mental health professionals and has presented at numerous conferences. She is co-author of four books: Child Custody Assessments (2008), Challenging Issues in Child Custody Disputes (2008), Best Practice Guide: Responding to Emotional Harm & Parent-Child Contact Problems in High Conflict Separation (2013), and Children Who Resist Post-Separation Parental Contact: A Differential Approach for Legal and Mental Health Professionals (2012).
Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D.
Dr. Garber is a New Hampshire licensed psychologist, parenting coordinator, expert consultant to family law matters across North America, speaker and author. He is also a former Guardian ad litem. Dr. Garber has advanced degrees in psycholinguistics, developmental and clinical child psychology from the University of Michigan and The Pennsylvania State University. He completed an internship in clinical child and family psychology at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. He is co-founder of the Parenting Coordination Association of New Hampshire, winner of the March of Dimes “Distinction in Media Excellence” award, and an acclaimed educator and author in numerous areas of child and family development and family law
Further headline speakers from Israel, UK, USA, Malta, The Republic of Ireland, Croatia, Holland and Sweden will be announced shortly.
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