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Mental HealthParenting

Splitting: Mom Said I Could!

By June 27, 2013No Comments
Two proud zebras

Two proud zebras (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Psychology, Splitting refers to black and white thinking and is according to Wikipedia “the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole.” According to Dr. George Simon, PhD., it is “an unconscious ego defense mechanism by which a fairly complex entity cannot be accepted into consciousness in its entirety because it contains aspects that are both acceptable to a person as well as unacceptable.” It is a common defense mechanism in people suffering from personality disorders, whose modus operandi is endless patterns of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships.


For the purpose of this particular blog, however, I am addressing the behavioral issue of splitting we most commonly see amongst kids in relation to authority figures. I’m referring to the common use of the phrase, which is used loosely in reference to kids and teens attempting to separate their parents with the intention of getting what they want. The behavior is similar in that it is an attempt to create a “good guy/bad guy” scenario. Splitting is an often misused term, and even I am misusing it in this blog as I am not referring to its true psychological meaning. This divisionary behavior is what we refer to as “staff splitting” and is loosely used by parents and staff members in the culture of treatment environments.

“No” is difficult to hear for most of us. It evokes a sense of disappointment and perhaps even a sense of loss. If we’re being honest with ourselves, none of us really likes a “no.” It’s difficult to accept such an answer to a request, as it tends to be attached to the outcome. When we can’t accept an answer we’ve been given, then our request is, in fact, a demand. Driven by the cravings of selfishness, our perspective can become skewed and we will often search out the justification we need for indulgent and often unhealthy behavior. Here is where we begin the search for the answer or answers we want, intent on defying the one we have been given. Kids tend to do this all the time, which is what we refer to as “splitting.” It typically looks like this: “But Mom lets me,” or “Dad said it was OK.” It’s a way for kids to find control in a situation that feels unacceptable to them, or to avoid feelings of dissatisfaction.


Not all kids behave in this way, however. The more aggressive personality types are more prone to this behavior, and they lean toward bullying one parent or staff member as they attempt to get what they want. Some key things to remember are:

  • Firm boundaries
  • Clear communication
  • Clear set of rules and expectations
  • No is a complete sentence.
  • Maybe isn’t an option.
    • Remember, backing out of a “No” is far easier than backing out of a “Yes.

No one said raising kids was easy. Remember, it didn’t come with a manual! The individuation process is smelly and rude and full of adventures and testing of limits. As the adults in this scenario, we have to try and remember what it was like. We also pushed boundaries (some of us pushed harder than others –ahem), but, once we lose it, the scale tips in the wrong direction. It is our responsibility to stay grounded.


If you are dealing with a legitimate psychological situation where the truest form of splitting is an issue, I encourage you to seek the appropriate care. You can find more information on splitting here and here. If you need help with mental health issues, please contact us; we are here to help.

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