Primitive Defences in Divorce and Separation: A Failure to Protect.

Karen Woodall

Writer, Trainer, Researcher

Date: 11 Apr 2022,

reblogged by Lena Hellblom Sjögren, PhD, Licensed psychologist April 11, 2022

Author: karenwoodall0 Comments

A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbor.”
– Carl Jung

I believe that we are at the point at which the harm which is caused to children who suffer induced psychological splitting after divorce or family separation, is beginning to be universally recognised. In our work in the courts, with social workers and with adults who were alienated as children all around the world, I see the evidence, that the dynamics which cause children harm, are increasingly recognised. The campaign ‘noise’ around this issue, which is created in a deliberate attempt to normalise behaviours which are harming children, is silenced when we understand that the racket which is being made about the label parental alienation, emanates from those who use primitive defences in everyday life. When we understand that noise as a projection, we understand the intent and the underlying motives and by not engaging with that, we see it fall away.

The problem of children hyper aligning with one parent and rejecting the other after divorce and separation is called variously called Parental Alienation Theory (Bernet, 2021), Resist/Refuse dynamics (Walters & Friedlander, 2016), Attachment Based Parental Alienation (Childress, 2015) and Induced Psychological Splitting, (Woodall & Woodall, 2019). The difference in labels and underlying conceptualisation matters because in clinical work with families this problem is about primitive defences in families of divorce and separation, psychological splitting in children only being one part of the overall problem. Primitive defences were identified by Johnston and Roseby (1997), as being the core dynamic which causes children to reject and before that, Wallerstein and Kelley (1980), wrote about an unholy alliance between child and parent which put the other parent at distance. The knowledge is there in the psychoanalytic literature and in my view, when we look at the problem through the lens of understanding primitive defences and their impact on families, the kaleidoscope of fragmented understanding, comes together in an integrated view of what the problem is and how to treat it.

Understanding the problem in families from a clinical perspective, makes sense of the drama which erupts around the child who has been induced to use psychological splitting. This is a primitive defence, which means that it is infantile in nature, which means that the child and those around the child, are driven back into experiencing the world in simplistic terms of good/bad, black/white, heroes and villains. Having worked in a number of cases where the family system was split in this way, I have observed how the primtive defence of denial and projection is infectious and how legal and mental health teams can begin to split into good/bad factions, projecting their own unresolved material onto their opponents until the whole case resembles a war zone. Primitive defences also give rise to other phenonmena like social contagion, in which emotional responses to an issue spread amongst adherents to a cause, overturning normal capacity to rationalise and triggering conspiracy theories and other behaviours related to splitting, denial and projection. One doesn’t have to go very far on social media to see how this plays out around this issue, the online world being a perfect platform for primitive defences to be displayed.

Away from all of this noise however, the reality of what we are working with, which is the harm which is caused to children when they are bound into adult feelings post divorce and separation, is crystal clear. With greater clarity comes greater understanding and with greater understanding comes willingness to intervene and protect abused children. Thus the task to conceptualise the clinical issues continues and this week I have been working with colleagues to further develop the resources which will support a greater global understanding of the problem we are working with and how to treat it.

In our training to social workers and other family court professionals we use this video to explain what we mean by children’s inate vulnerability to influence by adults.

When you watch this video, it becomes possible to understand the concepts of the biological imperative to attach which are explained by the psychoanalytic literature. When you understand the biological imperative to attach and how this causes children to adapt their behaviours to please and placate adults, it becomes possible to understand the way in which children must be protected from adult feelings during times of significant change like family separation. Building understanding of children’s alignment and rejecting behaviour from this knowledge base, it is then possible for practitioners to recognise why the primitive defences in divorce and separation, are so harmful to children. Skilling the workforce to understand the harm done to children and then to treat it, is our ongoing task, doing this amidst the noise of those using primitive defences to try and frighten people away from this work, becomes easier when the projections are recognised.

Watch the toddler’s face on the video when the woman with the beads invites her to put the beads in the cup. Look at the way that the child experiences the double bind. Everything in her is programmed to mirror, to reflect back understanding and copy putting the beads in the cup. Competing with that is the anxiety based awareness that the other woman doesn’t like the beads going into the cup. What is the child to do? She sits and looks at the beads. She looks at the first woman and shows her confusion, she looks at the second woman and shows her anxiety. Ultimately, it is the anxiety about displeasing the second woman which wins the day and she doesn’t put the beads in the cup.

An alienated child is like this toddler. It is the parent the child is most afraid of displeasing, the parent causing the most anxiety in the child who wins the day, when the child defends against the authentic drive to attach and stay attached. This double bind, in which the child is caught in the mirror of an unhealthy parent’s use of primitive defences, is the problem we are treating when we work with families affected by psychological splitting, causing this, allowing and enabling it and ultimately, failing to protect children from it, is child abuse.


Bernet w. (2021) Recurrent Misinformation Regarding Parental Alienation Theory, The American Journal of Family Therapy.

Childress, C.A. (2015). An atttachment-based model of parental alienation: Foundations. Claremont, CA: Oaksong Press.

Johnston, J. &Roseby, V. (1997). In The Name Of The Child. New York: Free Press.

Walters, M. G., & Friedlander, S. (2016). When a child rejects a parent: Working with the intractable resist/refuse dynamic. Family Court Review, 54(3), 424–445.

Wallerstein, J. S. & Kelly. J. B. Surviving the breakup: How children and parents cope with divorce New York: Basic Books, 1980.

Woodall N Woodall K (2019) When the child says no Understanding and responding to the needs of the alienated child

IAPAC Conference 2022

IAPAC will open its conference in Israel on 14/15 June 2022 with a close look at children’s rights in the realm of parental divorce and separation. In doing so, we will open up this space to scrutiny in terms of what is happening psychologically and systemically, in families where children display alignments and rejecting behaviours and what harm is being done to children when the alienation dynamic is denied or misunderstood by practitioners. Examining children’s rights in the round, their right to a voice, their right to live free from adult concerns and their right to be parented healthily after divorce and separation, we will consider and balance the child’s holistic long term needs with their individual rights, in order to understand why interventions are necessary to assist them. Following on from that will be a packed two day conference looking at evidence based interventions with children and families and seminars will therefore be of interest to social workers, psychotherapists and other mental health professionals working with children in divorce and separation.

Examples of the Seminars and Learning Outcomes

Balancing Children’s Rights and Practitioner Responsibilities – understanding the need to intervene when children reject a parent.

Identification with the Aggressor – recognising coercive control of children who reject a parent.

Understanding and assisting the alienated child – evidence based interventions for reunification and recovery.

Integrating polarised thinking in the family where children align and reject – therapy with alienated children and families.

Therapeutic Parenting for Alienated Children – supporting parents to cope, helping children to heal.