As a therapist of children who offers child focussed separated family psychotherapy, I meet many children who are deeply affected by the high conflict dynamics between their parents.
The subjective nature of the definition of parental conflict is typified by low, medium and high conflict. Low conflict is usually issue focussed with parents retaining the capacity to remain psychologically focussed on the best interests of the child. Medium conflict refers to patterns of interacting in relationships which have their origins in the parents own family. In this parents draw on the model for dealing with conflict their parent’s used. Medium conflict includes greater levels of blaming, emotional volatility and reactivity. In high conflict there is a chronic quality to the vilification, blaming and reactivity. ‘Winning’ the conflict becomes the primary motivator as the conflict becomes about the person and not the issues.
Because the children I see have modelled their relationships on what they have witnessed their parents engaged in, it becomes precarious to hold on to a good internalised image of one of their parents. I try to find non-threatening ways to communicate with children about their feelings help them to make them meaning of the confused unnameable feelings they have.
Parents are the most important attachment figures in the child’s life. Equally important is the meaning children attach to their first treasured objects, known as transitional objects, the toys they treasure and the books they read and identify with. Toys are often invested with magical properties in the child’s mind’s eye and the child will tell me about their treasured toy, such as a worn teddy bear who knows all their secrets. Stories in books also hold a child’s interest and attention and what is meaningful to the child at any given stage of their development. Words in are powerful because they name feelings associated with the story.
“Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on………to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quiet equals poem and story”. (Le Guin: 2016).
In my experience I find children enjoy stories they are entertained by which stimulate their imagination. A child will be curious about a story particularly one that mirrors their anxieties and hopes, recognises characters have their struggles, and simultaneously tells a tale that suggests there may be a potential solution.
In this second blog in the fairytale series, I explore how A fairy tale such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs can help a child to make sense and meaning out of their own turbulent feelings. In this fairy tale the child is taken through a time line where they see Snow White grow from a child to an adolescent to become an adult. The characters in this fairy tale have supernatural powers, feelings of anxiety and a heroine.
Deeper meaning in the fairy tale can be uncovered by a child identifying with the characters more than the truth of a situation in real life. The application of a psychoanalytic lens to the unconscious and conscious distress a child experiences caught in the middle of a war between their parents allows fairy tales to speak directly to pressures the child is under. Fairy tales begin where the child is in the here and now psychologically and emotionally.
Aisling was 9 years old when she was referred to me by her parents who had separated when she was 2 years old. They had been in a high conflict relationship since she was a baby. They were referred to me to engage in a tailored co-parenting systemic family therapy programme. Following many years of litigation and some indicators of a resist – refuse dynamic to contact and engaging in a meaningful relationship with her father, concerns were expressed by other professionals about the impact of this emotional environment on Aisling’s emotional health and wellbeing.
Following some months of systemic co-parenting family therapy work with the co-parents and some success in creating a framework for the emotionally supportive conditions to be in place for Aisling to be held in a co-parenting alliance by both her parents, I arranged to meet Aisling for therapy.
I met Aisling for the first time at school. On the day of my visit it was a school fancy dress day. I waited in the pastoral care room while the class teacher went to find Aisling. Aisling walked in wearing a Snow White fancy dress outfit. She was tall and slim with long fair hair to her waist and looked at me with bright excited blue eyes. I was struck by the first impact communication on how Aisling looked ‘as if’ she completely identified with the character Snow White. The way she carried off this character had so many of similarities to Snow White and so striking like the fairy tale image.
This communication by impact of the Snow White image proved to be confirmed in the later psychotherapy sessions with Aisling when she started bringing her most treasured toys to the clinic. She was excited to show me a collection of dolls which were fairy tale figures and told me the dolls had magical powers and were beautiful. In the sessions playing with her dolls Aisling was able to powerfully communicate something important about the unconscious and her preoccupations with created fantasy doll like figures who she described as perfect.
Throughout her childhood Aisling said she liked to be perfect. It became more apparent during the course of the psychotherapy that Aisling had survived her parent’s conflict with each other by adopting a defensive psychological organisation Winnicott called a “false self”. A child in this situation reverts to abandoning their “true self” as a result of failures of empathy or ordinary devoted parenting. The “ordinary devoted parent” who becomes overly-protective and attached to their child places emotional demands on to the child to meet their needs and the child surrenders making their needs known to the parent and adopts a “false self” to please the parent. In this the parent is unable to adequately respond to the spontaneous needs of the child. This gives rise to what Winnicott means by the “false self”. For a “false self” to develop there must be a fracturing of the child’s spontaneous emotional development.
As time went on I was often taken back to the image of Aisling dressed as the perfect Snow White. Reflecting on the impact of this first meeting with Aisling in the therapeutic relationship with her put me in mind of a poem (William Blake 1950).
“To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”.
There are many interesting parts to the story about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but for the purposes of this short blog I want to focus on the mirror. It’s looking in the mirror that caused the problem in this fairy tale because the mirror betrays the Queen’s trust by not validating her.
When the mirror stopped telling the Queen she was the fairest of them all, over and above the child, Snow White, she became angry, jealous and the lack of validation fostered a hatred of Snow White. The fairy tale suggests that the mirror is the culprit in the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The feelings which emerged in the Queen because of a lack of affirmation by the mirror led her to go on to emotionally and psychologically abuse Snow White who was left in fear of surviving.
In the fairy tale the mirror represents a created bubble of illusion, a false reality that is often created in the mind of a parent to help them believe nothing is going to change in the face of a breakdown of their relationship with their now ex-partner. This bubble of false reality can allow a parent to feel superior to their ex-partner as the parent believes they have status in society, have the authority to make the best decisions about the children and an absolute belief the children will support them no matter what.
Sometimes a parent who constantly looks into the mirror for validation is likely to have been a victim of parental narcissism and emotional abuse from which there was no possible escape. The child of the parent who suffered parental narcissism themselves suffers the same type of emotional abuse as their parent. These are the children who come to psychotherapy, and are often from chronic high conflict parents.
The child who is referred for psychotherapy has very often been emotionally and psychologically neglected and abused due to the preoccupations of their parents involved in high conflict and end up being emotionally neglected. The child may not have had the experience of been “seen” and been “mirrored” back through the look of love in the eyes of the parent and acceptance for who they were in their own right. Eventually the child psychologically splits to be like the parent they have more of an affinity towards. In this the child feels under such intense emotional pressure that they surrender and align with a parent and flee into a “false self”to enable them to identify with the most vulnerable parent.
A parent who relies on validation of the mirror in their intimate adult relationships because they did not experience this in their parenting in their childhood comes to parenthood with a lack of a sense of substance and identity in their own right, through no fault of their own.
At the heart of narcissism there is a piston of energy propelled towards hiding the vulnerability of ongoing feelings of pain leading to the need to excel and perform in order to be reflected back by the many sided mirror in intimate relationships and society for recognition. Parents from these childhood backgrounds experience vulnerability as associated with shame and will revert to anything that helps them avoid any hint of humiliation and dissociate from engaging with real feelings. These extremely difficult feelings are often projected into the therapist to make sense of. While as therapist these feelings can be tolerated and though about and reflected in clinical supervision to make sense of, it’s impossible for a child to be expected to make sense of how they have essentially become an aligned part of that parent.
Over time what emerged was Aisling had retreated into narcissism as an effective strategy to protect her from the shame and humiliation of not having her own emotional needs met. This led to low self-esteem, a lack of real self-confidence, a damaged self-image and created internal splits between conscious beliefs and unconscious motivations. This caused immense suffering in Aisling’s relationships.
Aisling had repressed and denied the development of her “true self” in service of parenting her own parent’s unmet needs.
Retreating into narcissism serves to support a fragile ego and led Aisling to have assumptions of her own infallibility and superiority. Aisling found it very difficult to form and sustain meaningful peer relationships as she what she offered in her friendships was superficial and inauthentic .
Aisling as Snow White communicated very clearly in the first hour I met her what might lay ahead in the psychotherapy work with her. Aisling’s identification with the character in the fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was instructive as a symbolic communication in terms of what she did not understand consciously but had an unconscious knowledge of. Over time this was revealed in the therapy sessions. Aisling exhibited traits of pathological narcissism.
Frequently a child can present with a variety of complaints over a number of years and this diagnosis is not made. In truth it’s the child’s experience of their life and relationships that does not live up to the child’s overinflated expectations which is a common theme. A child will have no insight into their difficulties and instead of struggling with these will externalise the cause of their unhappiness on to others such as a parent, peers and teachers. Unable to see faults in themselves they blame and criticise others for treating them badly and criticise the faults and failings they see in others but deny in themselves. In time the psychotherapy revealed that Aisling found vulnerability intolerable and defended against this by projecting grandiosity and omnipotence into the psychotherapist. This was in the unconscious hope that words might be found to reveal her ‘unthought known’ biographical family narrative.
The parents provide the mirror of the child’s self and the child feels they exist and are real because of their parent’s mirroring back to the child. When this is consistently not offered the child learns to hide their “true self” in order to please one of their parents. The child learns to show only what that parent wants to see.
The purpose of this is for the child to be able to function in a relational world that has been experienced as unreliable and unpredictable. Winnicott proposed that a child with a ‘false self” directs themselves towards intellectualization of reality. A child turns something that can be reasoned with but without emotions or affection or creativity. In such cases a child may be highly academic and achieve outstandingly in sport but they are unable to feel truly valued even when other people around them value them. The child becomes compliant with the parent’s wishes and adjusts their behaviour to protect themselves from feelings of inadequacy and disappointment. This basic sense of self has to develop within the context of a relationship the earliest relationships with parents, it cannot be fostered on its own. Aisling asked me to see her, to listen, to hear, to read her. Aisling needed to be provided with the empathic mirroring and holding she did not have. She needed to test the boundaries of the reliability and predictability and safety of the therapeutic alliance. Aisling unconsciously needed to experience the psychotherapist survive her rejection because empathy was too painful to bear. As the psychotherapist I continued to hold the boundary which painfully challenged the internal working model of relationship Aisling had acquired.
“What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom, and to listen to them. Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence. Reading is a means of listening”. (Le Guin: 2016).
Bettelheim, Bruno (1976) The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Random House.
Blake, W. (1950) Auguries of Innocence.
Le Guin, Ursula K. (2016) Words are my Matter: Writing about Life and Books, 2000 – 2016. Small Beer Books, Easthampton, MA.
Simmonds, J. (2018) The Relational World of Contact. Seen and Heard. Nagalro: The Professional Association for Children’s Guardian’s, Family Court Advisors and Independent Social Workers. Volume 28 | Issue 3 | 2018 | p. 44 – 53.
Winnicott, D. W. (1965)The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in Emotional Development. Karnac Books: London.