Alienated children in divorce and separation are captured within the anxiety cycles of the influencing parent and the reaction of the rejected parent. As such they are trapped within a recycling of feelings, which leak through to their conscious awareness and they are forced into managing this on a routine basis.
This exposure to anxiety, which occurs as the child attempts to manage their own responses to family separation, creates a parentified child when it drips constantly into the child’s consciousness or, when it breaks through suddenly. I call this chronic or acute exposure to the parental anxiety which occurs in family separation. I see children affected by both of these patterns of parentification and when I am working with a parentified alienated child, I know that what I am working with primarily, is anxiety.
Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear, it causes a sense of dread and an internal restlessness which drives the sufferer to do things to reduce the feeling to a manageable level. In parentified children of divorce, the anxiety is caused by the exposure to the parental feelings about each other or exposure to one parent’s negative feelings about the other. In situations where a parent is using the child to regulate their own anxiety (adults should be able to self-regulate, not use their children to bolster their own sense of self), the child becomes the parent’s caretaker, spending much time trying to soothe and calm a parent. The fear for the child is, that if they do not do this, the parent may decompensate and be unable to cope. The child is fearful of that scenario, because of the deep anxiety about abandonment in such circumstances and so will do what is possible to regulate the parent, including mirroring back to them, their belief about the other parent.
Read Alienation in Five Easy Steps to learn how it works.
In such circumstances, the child compartmentalises their feelings for parents, sharing with the anxious parent who requires the child to take care of their needs, their ‘dislike’ of spending time with the other parent. This occurs even whilst the child is observed to be happy with the parent they profess to dislike, causing the influencing parent to become convinced that those who observe something different, are disregarding the child’s real feelings. Far from disregarding the child’s feelings, when we see compartmentalisation in a child, we know that they are not far from being induced to use the defence of psychological splitting, in which they divide their own sense of self into good/bad, split off and bury the bad into the unconscious and then project those feelings at their parents. In such circumstances, one parent becomes idealised and one becomes demonised. These projections onto parents, then become the child’s narrative about why they are rejecting a parent and the reasons for doing so, will escalate, in order to ensure that observers believe their story. Sadly for the child, the story they are trying to tell, is not of the parent they are rejecting, but the parent who is causing the pressure on the child to maladapt behaviours.
This is why, when we see a child who is compartmentalising, we know that they are experiencing leakage of anxiety and we have to find that leak and find ways to stop it. If we don’t, the end game is not that the child rejects a parent, so much as the child rejects their identification with that part of their heritage and as such buries it deep into the unconscious. The reason why an alienated child is so fierce in their rejection of a parent, is because they have to keep the defence in place in order to survive without intra-psychic collapse.
Alienated children are easily understood if you recognise how defence mechanisms work. Trapped between two loved parents, the child experiences emotional and psychological pressure in the inter-psychic relationship or receives overt messages of denigration of the other parent or a mix of both. That psychological pressure comes from leakage of feelings in an uncontained emotional environment and it causes a series of actions in the child, which are designed to protect the child from psychological disintegration.
The child recognises that the influencing/pressuring parent, requires their care/allegiance/support/parenting/presence and seeks to give that, all the while attempting (in many cases) to compartmentalise their feelings for the other parent so that they are hidden from view. This is not something that the child does consciously, it is a process of survival, of adaptation to circumstances, in order to go on with as normal a life as possible. In entering into this process, the child begins to compartmentalise their own self, segregating identification with each parent into two parts. Now there is the part ‘like mummy’ and the part ‘like daddy.’ If daddy is pressuring the child, the mummy part must be disposed of, if mummy is pressuring the child, the daddy part must go. When one of the segregated parts is disposed of into the unconscious of the child’s mind, it must be thrust there with some force in order to keep it there. If anyone comes asking about that part, it must be kept in the unconscious by escalation of the reasoning for it being absent. And all of this is accompanied by anxiety. And all of that anxiety takes the child away from an unconscious experience of childhood.
Alienation of a child is a well-recognised defence mechanism caused by and causing, immense anxiety for the child. Whilst there are many different ways of thinking about it and debates aplenty about what it is called, at its core it is a defence, caused in the child, leaving a lasting legacy of anxiety which has to be coped with, along with the other manifestations of alienation which last far longer than childhood.
I work with the alienated child’s false persona, when their behavioural presentation is all about anxiety and I work with the recovered child, who returns to an unconscious experience of childhood. I know the difference, I see the difference, the difference is the presence and absence of anxiety. Whilst it is counter intuitive to many, high nurture within firmly held boundaries, brings about relief from anxiety for the child, a condition Winnicott called the holding environment. It is this environment which is created when the alienated child enters protected space in which he/she can encounter the split-off object relationship with the rejected parent.
Reintegration of a child experiencing splitting as a defence, is treated via encountering the rejected parent in this protected space. Of course what the child is really encountering, is the split off part of the self, that which has been denied and repressed into the unconscious. It is this experience, undertaken in a secure environment, in which leakage of anxiety from the other parent is prevented, which allows the child to integrate and unblock the incoming care of the rejected parent.
Understanding how to do this is what is missing for many professionals. This is the missing piece of a jigsaw which has been put together over many years by many people. This is the piece of the puzzle we are about to embark upon completing.
And why would we not wish to complete this jigsaw puzzle? If for five decades or more, what we have been seeing in divorce and separation, are children using a well-recognised defence, why would we not want more people to know and understand what that is, how it manifests, what harm it does to children and how to treat it? Why would we not want children to suffer less anxiety and live better childhoods?
The answer to that question lies in the ideological underpinnings of those who seek to silence and prevent work with alienated children and their families.
Whether it be mothers or fathers who alienated their children however, it is the anxiety of the alienated child which concerns me the most.
This article, written by Karen Woodall, is published here with her permission.
Posted by Sinta Ebersohn (Creator of fairdivorce.co.za – Stellenbosch, South Africa)