Childhood Relational Trauma: When Children Align and Reject After Divorce or Separation

Date: 28 Jan 2023

Author: karenwoodall /Forwarded by Lena Hellblom Sjögren 28 Jan 2023/


When I write about the issue of children’s alignment and rejection after divorce and separation rather than parental alienation, it is because as a psychotherapist working with children who display this behavioural pattern, I am working with the underlying psychological dynamics which are present in the family affected. As a psychotherapist, I need to understand those dynamics in their entirety, because in order to treat them, I have to be able to understand how they appear in the family system. I also have to understand how treatment must be delivered in the correct manner at the correct time. If I do not understand this, then what I am doing is experimenting and experimenting with this problem, is never a good thing to do.

This problem is, in my clinical experience, a childhood relational trauma which is caused by the primitive defences of denial, splitting and projection, in children who are vulnerable because they are triangulated into the dissolution of the parental relationship. Whilst the presenting problem appears to be the rejection of a parent, the actual clinical problem is the child’s alignment with a parent which is pathological. The pathological nature of the alignment is rooted in the attachment maladaptations that the child has been forced to make due to the parental demands in the inter-psychic relationship. This is reinforced by the parental power and control over a child which enables the fusion of the relationship to take hold. Enmeshment and abandonment threat are the two key dynamics which are seen when working with alienated children and it is this which makes this a childhood relational trauma.

Childhood Relational Trauma

Relational trauma is a term used to describe the aftermath of abuse, neglect, maltreatment, or abandonment within a relationship. Experiencing childhood relational trauma, can affect how a person sees themselves and the type of relationship they believe they “deserve. Whilst the word ‘trauma’ is often used to describe the type of abuse we are familiar with, physical or sexual abuse being the most commonly recognised forms of childhood harm, emotional and psychological abuse is also a childhood relational trauma. In fact emotional and psychological abuse, especially that which feels to the child as if it is a loving bond, is a particularly insidious form of abuse, prescisely because to the child it feels so good. Being an adult’s ‘special child’ because the adult needs the child to regulate their feelings, places an impossible burden upon a child which creates a sense of omnipotency AND deep discomfort. The child at once likes the feeling of being the special child, whilst struggling against the inverted bond which they are aware of. An inverted bond in this regard meaning that the child is aware that the parent is looking to them to have their needs met. Childhood relational trauma leaves a lasting legacy, this video explains more about why.

What Lies Beneath Alignment in Divorce and Separation?

When we examine the alignment between the child and parent we can see varying levels of interpersonal threat which cause the child to respond in ways which reassure the parent that they are in control. This is a feedback loop which begins with parental signals to the child that it is not acceptable to love the other parent, discomfort which is leaked to the child when it is time for the child to spend time away, projection onto the other parent of the split off anxiety in a parent, which is shared with the child either verbally or unconsciously and which ends with the child conforming to the will of the parent by aligning strongly with them.

Parentification is one of the biggest problems that I see in my work with adult children of divorce and separation and this goes for those who were not alienated from one parent as well as those who were. Parentification is a boundary violation, in which children are used to meet the needs of a parent. In divorce and separation, many children are pulled into this position for a time but as the family rights itself and parents move on in life, they return to being the parent. This next video explains that transitional period very well.

For other children, the role of parenting a parent continues long after the divorce and separation and the child can be bound into an alignment with a parent which becomes a hostile coalition against the other parent. In the psychological literature, this is articulated especially well by structural family therapist such as Salvador Minuchin.

There are particular features of families affected by hostile coalitions between children and parents, I wrote about this in a blog some years ago. Working with these families requires a particular approach, a skill set which includes a deep knowledge of how such families present and how that is different to the internal world experienced by its members. In such families, the hierarchy of relationships is inverted, with children often seen as having more power than the adults, parenting is not an actual process in these families, which operate more like a cult, where loyalty to the system comes before experiencing of one’s own emotional and psychological needs. In such circumstances, children cannot develop a sense of self but instead coexist in the inter-psychic world of the family within diffuse boundaries which lack the definition between self and other.

There is much more to say about Childhood Relational Trauma in divorce and separation and over the coming months we will be exploring all those things which lie beneath, as part of our project to curate a body of knowledge which is rooted in the psychological literature, for parents and practitioners to use in healing and treating families affected by a child’s alignment and rejection behaviour.