The more I read of British psychotherapist and writer Karen Woodall, the better informed I feel I am becoming concerning the problems with Parental Alienation (PA). Her writings concerning Psychological Splitting are deeply resonating with me and allowing a greater understanding of what is happening inside the minds of children forced to choose between their love and devotion they naturally hold toward both of their parents.
In this short article titled “Psychological Splitting,” she gives a concise overview of this pathology. She writes: “Splitting is the key behavioural presentation which gives cause for further investigation, especially when this is accompanied by levels of contempt and disdain for the parent in the rejected position (Miller, 2018). Hatred, as evidenced by contempt and disdain towards parents, does not arise naturally in children and those who reject in this way are often seen to be in an omnipotent position within the family system (Aledort, 2002)…”
I have written about this unnatural hatred before: here, here, and here. But as my knowledge of what causes PA increases and I read and study more on this topic, Woodall’s writings have put “meat on the bones” of my journey.
What is new to me is this portion of the article: “…This omnipotence demonstrates that the child is trying to manage the family system due to dynamics which feel frightening and out of control…”
Children trapped within the abusive living situation of a parent who is psychologically unsound and forcing the child or children to choose between them and the other parent is indicative of a “family system” which feels “frightening and out of control.”
Frightening and out of control. This brings chills to me because that exactly describes how I grew up as a child, especially when my other brother and sisters were forced to go live with our dad in Crystal Lake, Illinois shortly after my mom and dad divorced. My dad was a brutal pervert and I lived in constant fear of what he would next do to us. Our home was not one in which laughter, love and joy were prevalent but rather fear, anger, unpredictability, and physical abuse always tinged the atmosphere, like fog settling over the land. We lived part of our childhoods walking on eggshells for fear of setting him off in some fashion, finding respite and fun only outside, away from his presence.
In some ways, what my brothers and sisters lived through was easier to endure and deal with than what children affected by PA go through. A raving and raging violent father who is beating you is easy to recognize what he is doing is wrong. I never thought “my dad loves me” when he was beating me. Never once can I remember thinking he loved me when he wasn’t beating me.
I don’t want to give the false impression he beat me or my brothers and sisters all the time because he didn’t, but I never felt he loved me when he was simply hanging around the house. We were never close and I never felt I ever knew him; in fact, decades after his death, I still don’t know if my dad ever loved me or any of his children. Maybe he had no capacity for true love for anyone due to whatever twisted upbringing he himself went through; I simply don’t know.
The point I’m trying to make is it was obvious my dad (and mom) were messed up parents, as was my step dad. There was no “warm fuzzies” between me and them, no desire to be next to them or hang around them. As a teen-ager living in Tucson, I hung out more and more with my friends because, unconsciously I guess, I felt more love and acceptance from them than I did my own mother and stepfather.
As I have mentioned previously in my blog, I ran away from home when I was 15, never to return except to visit my mom several times years later. When I ran away, I would never sleep in her house in my old room again.
Why am I writing this? Because like I wrote above, I think I had it easier, in some respects, than what my own children are going through and went through growing up. They had to—and still do to this day—deal with psychological abuse on a scale unknown to me when I was growing up.
Instinctively I sensed, even without consciously acknowledging it, that my mom, dad, and stepdad didn’t love me – that was clear. There were no hugs, no expressions of love, and certainly no deep, intimate conversations or counseling/advice sessions. It felt akin to those initial interactions at school where you pick up on whether someone likes you or not based on the vibes they give off. Depending on those vibes, you either become friends, spending time together, or you don’t, keeping a distance and not getting to know each other.
My mom, dad, and stepdad certainly never threw off the vibes they were interested in me or loved me. This is tough to admit, but I don’t think my parents even liked me. Strange I never deeply thought about this until just now as I am writing this particular post.
However, it’s a different story with my kids or other children impacted by Parental Alienation (PA). In their case, the alienating parent puts on a facade of love – they claim to love them, emit vibes of affection and care, and assert that they have the children’s best interests at heart. These alienating parents present open arms to the children, offering a level of welcome that I could never have envisioned receiving from my own parents and stepfather. This is precisely why this form of “love” is deceptive and harmful, causing profound psychological damage.
I was never sexually abused by my parents or stepdad. But my sisters were by at least my real dad (I have no proof or evidence of any sexual abuse by either my mom or stepdad towards them). But even the sexual molestation by my dad toward his own daughters, as sick, twisted, and criminal as it was, at least it was not done with the added perversion of him pretending he loved them and telling them such while he molested them.
In other words, my sisters, I guess, knew our dad was a sick and unloving father. His sexual abuse of them was part of his overall abusive nature. I don’t believe my dad said to my sisters while he was abusing them or after he abused them that he “loved them” and he was showing that love by abusing them. He was an unloving, sadistic and violent man whose sexual abuse was part and parcel of his overall nature.
When my dad beat us, there was never a question or cognitive dissonance on my part where I wondered, “Why is he beating us if he loves us?” In fact, I don’t think I even thought this way because if was obvious he didn’t love us to be treating us this way. No, he beat us because he obviously didn’t love us or care enough about us because you don’t abuse people you love.
It would have been worse—far worse—if my dad showed true loving feelings toward us, said he loved us, treated us lovingly, and then turned around and abused us. See the difference?
This is why I feel my own children and other children in the grips of PA are suffering on a scale one can’t easily imagine. For them, they are being abused by an alienating parent who claims they love them. How in the world can they navigate and understand this level of cognitive dissonance? They do so, I imagine, by psychologically splitting or employing, perhaps, some other psychological coping mechanism.
Typical parents prioritize the well-being of their children. A normal and affectionate parent is willing to forgo personal comfort for the sake of their children. Mothers, as the carriers of children and harboring the beginnings of life within their wombs, undoubtedly share a distinctive, special, and intimate bond with their children, a connection fathers cannot entirely replicate or fully comprehend.
Yet, when parents, especially mothers, declare their love to their children, reciprocated by the children, only to then carry out unloving actions under the pretense that these acts are for the children’s benefit, a profound disturbance surely must occur in the psyche of these children.
An alienating parent forcing a child, who loves both parents, to choose between them is detrimental to the child’s best interests. A loving parent, always concerned for their child’s well-being, should never coerce the child into going against the other parent.
As Woodall notes, this situation qualifies as “frightening and out of control” for the children involved. They find themselves compelled to act against their nature by rejecting and harboring hatred for a parent they genuinely love and desire a relationship with. This abusive behavior, in which the child is coerced into making a morally wrong choice, contradicts the alienating parent’s claim of acting out of love and for the child’s best interests. It delves into truly psychologically damaging territory.
How can a parent inflict such harm on a child they profess to love and cherish? It goes beyond comprehension and serves as evidence such a parent has severe psychological maladaptations to reality—both in understanding their own reality and the reality of the abused child they claim to love and care for. The astonishing lack of self-awareness these parents demonstrate regarding the lifelong pain and suffering they cause in the hearts and minds of their children is both remarkable and reprehensible.
Finally, this sentence is even more telling: “Contrary to the claim that children can and do reject parents who are abusive, research evidence demonstrates that a child is more likely to try and placate an abusive parent than reject them with contempt.”
I have addressed this phenomenon in other posts on my blog. A significant indicator of Parental Alienation (PA) is observed in children who unfoundedly reject and harbor hatred towards a “good enough parent.” Research indicates that many children, even those who have experienced actual abuse from a parent, still desire, at least to some extent, to maintain some form of a loving connection with them.
For me, I can’t quite wrap my head around this, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse. Though I was never sexually abused by my parents, if I had been, I could not imagine wanting to have anything to do with them ever again. Evidently, though, research suggests otherwise: even children sexually abused by a parent wants connection with such an abusive parent.
Once more, a sign for children affected by Parental Alienation (PA), who haven’t experienced severe physical or sexual abuse from the rejected parent but have been unduly influenced against them by the other parent, is the presence of intense contempt and hatred towards the rejected parent.
Put another way, a clear indication that children have been unduly influenced by a parent to reject their other parent through an alienation strategy is when the child displays complete contempt for him or her in the absence of severe abuse.