Treatment of Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation”


Barbara: Today we’re very pleased to have
Dr. Childress speak about the topic of attachment and parental alienation in a revolutionary
way. Just very briefly, according to … I was reading Helen Fisher, who is a professor
at Rutgers University, and she’s a biological anthropologist. She talks about having three
brain systems, one for lust, a system for romantic love, and a system or a drive towards
attachment. As young children, when they’re growing up, that secure bond between a parent
is correlated with emotional well-being. Doctor Childress is here today because what happens
when that is ruptured? What happens when there’s a divorce? So without further ado, let’s … I’ll
turn it over to Dr. Childress. Dr. Craig A. Childress: Thank you. Thank you
Barbara. Let me start by thanking California Southern University for the opportunity to
talk today about an issue that I believe is very important to a set of children and families
going through what’s called high conflict divorce that involves … Traditionally, it’s
been called parental alienation, and it involves a child’s rejection of a relationship with
a normal range in affectionately available parent, because of the distorting practices
of the other parent during the high conflict divorce. It’s a very tragic situation, and
it’s a situation that’s not particularly well understood at this point. This is a companion
lecture to my previous talk on the theoretical foundations for an attachment based model
of the construct of parental alienation. In this particular talk today I’m going to
be addressing diagnostic issues and treatment issues related to an attachment based model
of parental alienation, but to begin with here I’d like to just review some of the theoretical
foundations. For a more thorough discussion of that you can go back to my other previous
talk. The construct of parental alienation was first put forward by a psychiatrist Richard
Gardner back in the 1980s, who identified this process involved in family dynamic involved
in high conflict divorce that he called “Parental Alienation Syndrome”. It was a set of anecdotal
clinical indicators that he identified related to one parent inducing the child’s rejection
of the other parent. Since the time that Gardner put forth the
idea of Parental Alienation Syndrome, it’s received a lot of controversy. There are supporters
for it, but there’s also a number of detractors. It was labelled junk science, it didn’t have
a scientific foundation to it. He also put forward some ideas about false allegations
of sexual abuse that also generated considerable controversy. The construct of Parental Alienation
Syndrome from my perspective is a failed paradigm. In the thirty years since its first been introduced
it has failed to solve the problem associated with parental alienation in high conflict
divorce, and from my perspective, while Gardner was accurate in identifying a clinical construct,
he too quickly abandoned establish psychological principles and constructs in defining what
was going on. He proposed, in my view, too quickly this
idea of a new syndrome out there that was not based in any established psychological
principles, and because of that we have been unable to leverage the construct of Parental
Alienation Syndrome to solve the problem. Over thirty years we are still mired in a
lot of controversy, and a lot of difficulty for the targeted parents who are rejected
by their children. Gardner’s model for Parental Alienation Syndrome, is in my view, a failed
theoretical paradigm, because it does not establish what the processes are within established
and accepted psychological principles and constructs that we can then use to understand
what’s happening in the family. It’s a failed diagnostic paradigm, because
his anecdotal set of eight clinical indicators, things like a campaign of denigration, or
borrowed scenarios don’t have any foundation in any other theoretical principles, and so
whether or not it’s present or absence is open to debate, and often times leads to the
third problematic issues regarding Parental Alienation Syndrome is that it’s a failed
legal paradigm, because it requires that we litigate whether or not parental alienation
is occurring. That can be tremendously expensive for the targeted parents. It can involve years
of litigation trying to prove parental alienation in court, and it can only be proven in the
most egregious cases. Very insidious and subtle forms we are unable
to prove it in the legal system, and having to prove it in the legal system unduly burdens
targeted parents so that many of them cannot afford to do that, and so then lose a relationship
with their children. It’s also a failed therapeutic paradigm, because even if we accept Parental
Alienation Syndrome, it doesn’t guide us as to what it is and how to treat it. From my
perspective, when I first ran into this about a decade ago, and decided that this was an
issue that needed resolution, I went back to the foundations and began to redefine what
the construct of parental alienation is, but from within standard and accepted psychological
principles and constructs. Now my background is in Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder as well as early childhood mental health, and in that early childhood
mental health I have a background in attachment theory and the attachment system. It became,
when I first ran into this, it was pretty obvious to me that this is a distortion to
the child’s attachment system. A child rejecting an affectional bond with a normal range and
affectionally available parent is a problem in the attachment system. Then I also recognized
in the system display the … I’m a family systems therapist, so the cross generational
coalition, the child’s triangulation to spousal conflict, as well as some key personality
disorder symptoms in the child’s symptom display. Particularly, an absence of empathy and splitting,
which are both characteristic of narcissistic borderline personalities. I’m seeing those
in a child’s symptoms I’m going, “Uhoh,” and we have this enmeshed relationship with the
allied and supposedly favored parent, and so there’s personality disorder dynamics involved.
I set about understanding an attachment based model, or parental alienation from an attachment
based framework. The attachment based model, as I’ll be talking about today and in the
previous lecture, acknowledges the clinical acumen, the accuracy in Richard Gardner in
identifying something, but it goes back and reformulates what he identified as parental
alienation from within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.
An attachment based model of parental alienation returns to the theoretical foundations that
define the construct of parental alienation, and corrects the earlier limitations by redefining
the construct from within established principles and constructs. As such, it represents a new
paradigm for understanding and defining the construct of parental alienation in high conflict
divorce. Let me now talk about the paradigm shift. Here’s a model or a diagram of what
we’ll be talking about in terms of an attachment based model.
It starts with the disorganized preoccupied attachment of the alienating parent, and that’s
technical but that’s the attachment system of the alienating parent is categorized or
the category of how we would define as disorganized preoccupied, and that’s what led to the formation
of the narcissistic and borderline personality traits that we later see as the adult, but
it also involves an attachment trauma. There’s trauma networks in there as well that are
both being activated. We have two lines moving down in the dynamic, one having to do with
the personality disorder manifestations of the alienating parent, the other having to
do with the attachment trauma. What’s going to happen in the attachment trauma
is there’s going to be a reenactment in the current family relationships of that attachment
trauma. That’s going to be critical to understanding both the diagnosis and its treatment, that
we’re dealing with a trauma issue here. From the personality disorder side, we’re getting
an enactment of the narcissistic inadequacy fears and the borderline fears of abandonment.
Those are beginning to distort the family processes. In understanding this complicated
or complex psychological dynamic, it’s valuable to approach it with some degree of organization.
The way I’ve organized an understanding of it is along three levels.
There’s the surface level, which involves the family systems dynamics, and what’s happening
in the family systems. Beneath that is the underlying personality disorder issues that
are driving the family systems processes. Underneath the personality disorder level
is the attachment system dysfunctions that are driving the personality disorder that
are driving the family systems. As we discuss an attachment based model of parental alienation,
it’s helpful to get clarity as to which level we’re talking about so we don’t get all confused
all over the place. The attachment system drives the narcissistic borderline personality
processes which then drive the family dynamics. At the family systems level, the surface level,
what’s going on is the inability of the family to transition from an intact family structure
to a separated family structure. This is classic family systems work that when the family has
difficulty transitioning, for whatever challenges they face, symptoms emerge within the family
to help balance it, and maintain homeostasis within the family. I discuss this a lot of
times with my clients, just because there’s a divorce doesn’t mean the family is disappearing.
What we’re moving … We’re transitioning from an intact family structure that’s united
by the marriage, to a separated family structure that’s now united by the child, but the family
is still there because this child serves a uniting function.
The more conflict in the parents, the more conflict in the child trying to serve that
uniting function. What we would hope is that the parents can reduce their conflict, so
the child can serve that uniting function in a peaceful way, and we can move from an
intact family structure to a separated family structure. The problem that’s emerging within
this construct of parental alienation is the triangulation of the child into that spousal
conflict, through the formation of what’s called a cross generational parent-child coalition
of the child with a narcissistic borderline parent.
Here’s Salvador Minuchin talking about that cross generational coalition, “The boundary
between the parental subsystem and the child’s becomes diffuse, and the boundary around the
parent-child triad, which should be diffuse, becomes inappropriately rigid. This type of
structure is called a rigid triangle. The rigid triangle can also take the form of a
stable coalition. One of the parents joins the child in a rigidly bounded cross generational
coalition against the other parent.” That’s essential what parental alienation is. It’s
a cross generational coalition of one parent with the child against the other parent. The
little tweaking difference is that the parent who’s in the coalition has a narcissistic
borderline personality disorder, and that transmutes that coalition into a particularly
malignant and virulent form that is lethal to the other parent’s relationship with the
child, because of the severe pathology of the narcissistic borderline parent.
Jay Haley, another preeminent family systems theorist also describes this cross generational
coalition. The people responding to each other in the triangle are not peers, but one of
them is from a different generation from the other two, so the parent and the child. In
the process of their interaction together, the person of one generation forms a coalition
with the person of the other generation against his peer. By coalition is meant a process
of joint action, which is against the third person. The coalition between the two persons
is denied, that is there is a certain behavior which indicates a coalition, which when it
is queried will be denied as a coalition. In essence, so Salvador Minuchin calls it
a rigid triangle, Jay Haley calls it a perverse triangle because it’s crossing generational
boundaries, and you should never cross generational boundaries. In essence the perverse triangle,
is one in which the separation of generations is breached in a covert way. When this occurs
as a repetitive pattern the system will be pathological. Rather than Gardner’s model
that says it’s a new syndrome, no, no, it’s standard family systems kind of stuff. It’s
just a cross generational coalition with a narcissistic borderline parent. There’s a
quote, so the addition of parental narcissistic and/or borderline pathology to a cross generational
parent-child coalition transmutes the coalition into a particularly virulent and malignant
form of the family dynamic that acts to terminate the child’s relationship with the other parent.
Now, at the personality disorder level of things, one of the things that’s important
to understand is the equivalency of the narcissistic borderline process. I’m going to be using
those terms together. They’re not actually separate personality dynamics, Kernberg noted
that. If you drop down to the attachment system level, we form expectations about ourselves
in relationship and others in relationship. For both the narcissistic and borderline process,
self is inadequate. I’m inadequate in the relationship, and my expectations of other
is that I’m going to be abandoned. The difference is that borderline experiences that directly,
and gets very chaotic in their emotions. The narcissist has developed a narcissistic
defense that experience, and so I’m grandiose and so they reject others. Kernberg here says,
“One subgroup of borderline patients, namely, the narcissistic personalities seem to have
a defensive organization similar to borderline conditions, and yet many of them function
on a much better psychosocial level. The defensive organization of these patients, narcissists,
is quite similar to that of the borderline personality organization in general. What
distinguishes many of the patients with narcissistic personalities from the usual borderline patient
is their relatively good social functioning, their better impulse control, and the capacity
for active consistent work in some areas which permits them to partially fulfill their ambitions
of greatness and of obtaining admiration from others.”
The under stress, both the narcissistic borderline types personalities can decompensate into
delusional belief systems. Theodore Millon, one of the preeminent experts on personality
disorders, author of the gold standard for assessing personality disorders the MCMI,
comments or discusses the decompensation of a narcissistic personality under stress into
delusional beliefs. “Under conditions of unrelieved adversity and failure, narcissists may decompensate
into paranoid disorders. Owing to their excessive use of fantasy mechanisms, they are disposed
to misinterpret events and to construct delusional beliefs. Unwilling to accept constraints on
their independence and unable to accept the viewpoints of others, narcissists may isolate
themselves from the corrective effects of shared thinking. Alone, they may ruminate
and weave their beliefs into a network of fanciful and totally invalid suspicions.”
“Among narcissists, delusions often take form after a serious challenge or setback has upset
their image of superiority and omnipotence,” that’s the divorce. “They tend to exhibit
compensatory grandiosity and jealousy delusions in which they reconstruct reality to match
the image they are unable or unwilling to give up. Delusional systems may also develop
as a result of having felt betrayed and humiliated,” again the divorce is going to absolutely trigger
that. “Here we may see the rapid unfolding of persecutory delusions and an arrogant grandiosity
character by verbal attacks and bombast.” I’m going to come back to this again when
we talk about the reenactment narrative, and so it’s important to recognize that narcissistic
borderline personalities decompensate into delusional beliefs.
A lot of people think of the psychotic domain around schizophrenia or something that’s very
flamboyant, not necessarily, this would be considered an encapsulated delusion. Aaron
Beck and his colleagues note that the diagnosis of borderline was introduced in the 1930s
to label patients with problems that seemed to fall somewhere between neurosis and psychosis.
We’re dealing with a decompensation into a false belief system that is intransigently
held, coming out of these internal working models of attachment, and we’ll talk about
that in a little bit. With the narcissistic dynamic what we have is we have three sources
of excessive anxiety being triggered for the narcissistic parent.
The first is that reactivation of the attachment trauma, and I’ll deal with that later, but
for the personality disorder level we have the activation of the narcissistic inadequacy
fears. The divorce triggers, you are inadequate spouse, you’re an inadequate person, and because
of that you’re being rejected which triggers the borderline fears of abandonment. The narcissistic
borderline parent around the divorce, has these two excessive anxieties, sources of
anxiety to cope with. The narcissistic parent misinterprets this excessive anxiety as representing
an actual threat posed by the other parent, who is the triggering source of the anxiety,
and so anxiety signals threat. They have a lot of anxiety, it must be something
about you that is threatening, and because of that narcissistic personality organization
begins to decompensate into persecutory delusional beliefs that the other parent represents a
threat to the child. Why a threat to the child? We’re going to understand that when we go
into the attachment trauma. It’s going to be funneled through … The anxiety’s going
to be funneled through the attachment patterns into a threat to the child. The narcissistic
borderline parent, at the personality disorder level, has to cope with these excessive anxieties,
and they psychologically expel through projective displacement onto the other parent the narcissistic
fear of inadequacy and the borderline fear of abandonment by means of the child’s induced
symptomatic rejection of the other parent. So that you’re the inadequate parent, not
me. You’re the abandoned parent, not me. The child is rejecting you, the child wants me.
I’m the ideal all-wonderful parent, who will never be abandoned by the child. The whole
process of what we call parental alienation, where the parent induces the child’s rejection
of the other parent, the narcissistic borderline parent is using the child in what’s called
a role reversal relationship to regulate that parent’s own anxieties. It’s not me that’s
inadequate, it’s you. It’s not me that’s abandoned, it’s you. I’m the wonderful parent who will
never be abandoned. The child’s induced rejection of the targeted parent is being used by the
narcissistic borderline parent to regulate the parent’s own excessive anxiety of activated
narcissistic inadequacy and borderline fear of abandonment that was triggered by the rejection
of the divorce. That in early childhood, the phrase is, the
child is being used as a regulating other for the parent, by projectively displacing
these inadequacy and abandonment fears on to the other parent through the child’s rejection
of the parent. Now let’s drop the third level down to the foundations, which are the attachment
system level. At the level of the attachment system, the attachment system creates internal
working models of relationship expectations during childhood. Internal working models
are Bowlby’s phrase, Beck uses the word schemas, and so they … Creates these patterns of
expectations about self and other in relationship. These internal working models then coalesce,
as we move into adulthood, into what we would call personality factors, and if its trauma
involved we’re going to get some personality disorders.
More and more we’re moving towards personality disorders, particularly narcissistic and borderline
personality. We’re beginning to understand them at the attachment system level, rather
than the personality disorder level. The attachment system and its internal working models of
relationship expectations mediate all of our future responses regarding both the formation
and the loss of close emotionally bonded relationships throughout the lifespan. We have these patterns,
they go quiet in most of our everyday life as adults, but whenever we form new relationships,
a spousal relationship or any, the attachment system will glow warm, and our patterns of
expectations will begin to mediate the formation of those relationships.
Or, whenever we lose somebody that’s close to us the attachment system will also start
to glow warm and mediate the loss, and how we deal with the loss of situations, so that
the divorce triggered the alienating parent’s attachment system to mediate that loss experience.
The formation of narcissistic and borderline processes is the product of attachment drama
during childhood. That’s just the way it is, we don’t get narcissistic and borderline personalities
unless we have attachment trauma, that’s how it’s produced. The internal working models
for attachment figures in the alienating parent’s traumatized attachment networks have three
components. There’s the victimized child, the abusive
parent, and the protective parent, and the split between abusive parent and nurturing
protective parent is called splitting, and I discussed that more in my previous talk
on this. In that psychological process of the abusive trauma, the child psychologically
splits their representational network for the parent into the abusive parent and the
protective parent, so that as a way of managing the anxiety around a parent who’s both a source
of nurture and a source of threat. In terms of the alienating parent’s attachment networks,
at the point of divorce we have the co-activation in the brain of two sets of attachment representations.
One coming out of the internal working models from childhood, that involves victimized child,
abusive parent, protective parent, and one in the current relationships which is the
current child, the other parent, and the alienating parent. Notice there’s a one to one correspondence
there, and so in the brain when you have the co-activation of two sets of brain networks,
one from the past one from the current situation, there is a psychological fusion of these two
brain networks. An equivalency between these two co-activated networks, so that the co-activation
within the attachment system of two sets of representational networks, one for the persons
in the current family relationships and one set embedded in the internal working models
of attachment system, create a psychological fusion, or psychological equivalency between
the patterns embedded in the internal working model and the current people in the current
relationships. These two sets fuse into one, and so we have
the victimized current child, the abusive targeted parent, and the protective alienating
parent. Within the distorted psychology of the narcissistic borderline mind, this becomes
reality. This is the reactivation of their trauma, and this is what they see, and this
is the decompensation into that delusional belief system. They lose track of what real
people are actually the situation, and they begin to see the world in their trauma networks.
One of the key elements of this is that victimized child scenario, because that’s the alienating
parent as a child. That’s the source of their tremendous anxiety.
They were the victimized child, and so now this current child is become symbolically
their representation of themselves as a child, which they have to then protect from the abusive
parent. They begin to act out all this nonsense, so that rather than responding to the actual
people in the current family relationship, the personality disorder alienating parent
instead reenacts past childhood trauma attachment through the current relationships, with the
victimized child being one of the key components of this. In terms of representing the importance
of this reenactment, the victimized child role is central to this whole reenactment
trauma, because it then defines the other two roles.
The moment the child is victimized, that automatically defines the targeted parent as being abusive,
and the moment the child accepts the victimized child role, that automatically allows the
alienating parent to be the protective parent, and so the critical feature in this whole
dynamic is getting the child to adopt the victimized child role, so understanding the
reenactment narrative. The divorce triggers three separate but inter-related sources of
tremendous anxiety for the narcissistic borderline parent. The narcissistic anxiety associated
with activation of primal self-inadequacy, the borderline anxiety surrounding a tremendous
fear of abandonment, and also a trauma anxiety around the internal working models of attachment
that are in the pattern of victimized child/abusive parent.
The narcissistic borderline parent misinterprets the meaning of this anxiety as falsely representing
a threat posed by the other parent as a triggering origin for the anxiety. The original of the
delusional processes lay in the misattribution of causality for an authentic experience of
immense anxiety. The subsequent activity of the alienating narcissistic borderline parent
essentially represents efforts at anxiety management regarding these three tremendous
sources of anxiety, and then we see our full display of what’s going on in terms of parental
alienation. The intense anxiety of the narcissistic borderline parent is being channeled into
and through the reactivated trauma network patterns of the internal working models, the
organizing schemas of the attachment system, abusive parent, victimized child, protective
parent, and so that’s why the child, the other parent represents a risk to the child, because
it’s coming through those attachment networks. Now, the way the narcissistic borderline parent
induces a child’s symptoms is complex and subtle. There’s a lot of ideas within the
current issues surrounding parental alienation in high conflict divorce, that it has to do
with the other parent, the alienating parent bad mouthing the other parent, or saying bad
things in front of the child. Not how it happens, it’s much subtler, it’s much more complex
than that, because if it was just a matter of that the kid would go, “No, I like my mom,
she’s fine.” It’s a much subtler process that happens. The reenactment narrative of abusive
parent, victimized child, protective parent that essentially represents the symptoms features
of parental alienation is created by inducing the child to adopt the victimized child role.
That’s the critical element, if I can get the child to believe they’re a victim then
it automatically defines the other parent as abusive, and automatically defines me as
the protective parent, so that’s the critical feature. Yeah, so the key to creating the
reenactment narrative is to induce the child into adopting the victimized child role, everything
else flows from that. The way that that’s induced is you first, the alienating parent
will first elicit a criticism from the child. The narcissistic borderline parent will elicit
the criticism through motivated overanxious and directed questioning such as, “How did
everything go at your father’s house? Did everything go okay?” And you get this anxious,
“Did everything go okay?” Child will say, “Yeah, everything was fine.” “Really?” You
two got along okay? Nothing happened?” So the parent won’t accept that response.
They’ll keep probing, they’ll keep come on tell me something, give me something, give
me something. Even if it’s very mild such as, “Well it was kind of boring.” Okay, how
mild of a criticism is that, “It was kind of boring?” The next phase is where the alienating
parent distorts that and exaggerates that, so you know it was kind of boring. “Oh I can’t
believe your father didn’t have anything for you planned, planned for you to do. He only
has one weekend with you, and he can’t come up with anything for you guys to do together.
Oh gosh, he’s only thinking of himself, I can’t believe that.” Okay, so in the response
of the narcissistic borderline parent they exaggerate and distort this, and communicate
to the child that the other parent is something wrong with the other parent.
Yeah in addition, it’s supposedly it’s the child who is offering the criticism. The narcissistic
borderline parent is simply sort of … Supposedly being a supportive parent for the child, which
allows the narcissistic borderline parent to adopt that coveted role as the all wonderful,
protective, supportive parent. This presentation offered to the child, “I’m your supportive
parent. I’m the one who care about you,” is in direct contrast to the presentation of
the other parent that they’re abusively inadequate. They’re not caring enough for you. The narcissistic
borderline parent can … Acquires the proper answers from the child through subtle communication
queues, such as the loss of emotional tone if the child doesn’t give the right answer.
“So, how was everything at your mom’s house?” “It was good.” “Oh, okay,” and just that drop
in emotional tone signals that’s the wrong answer.
Or, because we’re dealing with narcissistic borderline, they may get a little angry at
the child. “So, how was everything over there?” “Fine.” “Really, okay, you need to clean your
room. You need … You need to do this,” and all of a sudden they get a little hostility
angry because they gave the wrong answer. Through that process it’s very easy to communicate
to the child what’s the right answer to give mom, what’s the wrong answer to give mom,
what’s the right answer to give dad, what’s the wrong answer to give dad. The child begins
to pay attention to what the parent wants, because it can be dangerous living with a
narcissistic borderline personality. The narcissistic range and the borderline angry is very sharp
and very intense. Then on the reverse side, the emotionally
animated responses of the parent signal you gave me the right answer. Okay, so when the
child says, “Oh, they got mad at me for not cleaning the dishwasher,” it’s like, “Oh my
goodness, oh,” and the child recognizes that the parent loves that. That’s a good answer,
because now the parent gets all upset, and oh how terrible things are, but to all external
appearances supposedly, the narcissistic borderline parent is simply being supportive of the child.
They’re not bad mouthing the other parent. They’re simply being an understanding and
wonderful parent, and that’s the communication to the child as well. If therapists or the
attorneys or the judge asks the child, “Is your parent bad mouthing?” “No, I’m the one
doing the bad mouthing. They’re not doing it it’s me.” Which is a source of that independent
thinker kind of thing regarding the child. The child is led into a belief that they are
a victim, and that they’re the ones that are making the criticism. In addition, the narcissistic
borderline parent conveys meaning to the child that the parenting practices of the other
parent are abusively inadequate to the child. The parental outrage of, “Oh, they’re treating
you so terrible,” communicates to the child that they are the victim. It’s this process,
of inducing this belief in the victimization of the child, in which the narcissistic personality
processes is grandiose entitlement are transferred to the child. Later we will see that narcissistic
grandiosity of judging the other parent, and from an top down position, and the sense of
entitlement that the targeted parent has to meet my needs to my satisfaction or else I
get to judge them. Well, all of that’s being communicated through
this, the attitudes of the narcissistic borderline parent as they convey that to the child. Finally,
a final component of conveying meaning is that the narcissistic borderline personality
conveys the appropriate themes for criticizing the other parent. You have, “Oh, I can’t believe
your father didn’t have anything for you to do. He only has the one weekend, you’d think
he could arrange to have something to do,” so there’s your sense of entitlement. “He’s
just so selfish, he only things about what he wants.” They slip in that criticism, “Oh
she has anger management problems, she was always this way,” and there’s your theme.
As the child is getting this influence that they’re supposed to criticize the other parent
along these themes. Pretty soon the child comes home from visitations parent says, “How
were things?” The child feeds right the theme, right the stuff, and it just feeds that whole
reenactment narrative so that the alienating parent the narcissistic borderline parent,
since the child is fulfilling their roles as a victimized child, the alienating parent
can then adopt the role of the supportive nurturing parent. “Oh, I so care about you.
Oh, it’s so terrible that you have to put up that,” and then they display that to all
the therapists, to all the attorneys, this coveted roles as the all wonderful, perfectly
nurturing parent. Through the continual repetitions of this
motivated and directive questioning process, the child is induced into adopting the victimized
child role. The moment the child adopts this victimized child in the reenactment narrative,
this immediately and automatically defines the targeted parent into the abusive parent
role, and so all the therapists when the child presents and says, “I’m a victimized child,”
all the therapists believe that and go, “Well, you must be an abusive parent then.” Immediately
the focus is taken off of the narcissistic borderline parent, and the distorted parenting
practices of this parents, and their inadequacy and all this, and is put on the other parent.
You’re a bad parent, now the other parent has to prove a negative.
They have to prove, I’m not an abusive parent, I’m actually a good parent. Everybody’s focused,
and they have to … And it keeps the focus off the pathology of the narcissistic parent,
which is what it’s designed to do. The narcissistic parent puts the child out front in a role
reversal relationship, and then hides behind the child, and presents as the nurturing parent,
which is the role they want as the all wonderful narcissist. That’s where the victimized child
role allows that narcissistic parent to adopt that protective parent role. The attachment
system, and the suppression of the child’s attachment system, the attachment system evolved
across millions of years of evolution involving the selected predation of children. Predators
are seeking the old, the weak, and the young. Children who bonded to parents got protection
from predators, children who didn’t were eaten by predators. It’s a very strong and resilient
system. We all live an attachment system, we all know what it’s like to love our parents
even though they were messed up, even though there were problems, we still love them. We
still love our children even though they’re annoying at times, because of the strength
of that attachment system. We understand how strong it is, but in this situation we have
a child rejecting a relationship with a normal range and affectionately available parent.
How do we get that? How do we suppress the attachment system of a child?
Well this is how it occurs. By inducing the child into adopting the victimized child role,
the other parent, the targeted parent, is immediately and automatically defined as the
abusive parent. By defining the other parent as a threat to the child, as abusively inadequate
parent, this automatically suppresses the child’s attachment bonding motivations towards
this supposedly abusive parent, because children are not motivated to bond to the threat, to
the predator. Instead, children are motivated to flee from the threat, and to bond to the
protective parent. The moment the child is induced into this belief that they’re a victim,
then his attachment system is turned off towards that predator, and they are motivated to bond
to the supposedly protective parent, which is the role of the narcissistic borderline
parent. These are exactly the symptoms of parental
alienation right there. The child is fleeing from the threat, and they will say, “Oh, they’re
horrible to me. They’re a really bad parent,” and they are hyper bonded to the narcissistic
borderline parent, they don’t separate. Now, if you know anything about the attachment
system, a secure attachment the child ventures out into the world and then comes back. A
child who is preoccupied on maintaining a relationship with the parent, that’s called
an insecure attachment. Insecure preoccupied or anxious ambivalent, because of a variably
available parent, but that’s what we see with parental alienation. The child’s hyper bonding
motivation towards the narcissistic borderline parent isn’t a symptom of health bonding,
it’s a symptom of pathological bonding. It’s an insecure attachment, the child’s not
going out and forming new relationships with the other parent. Instead, the child’s hyper
focused on the alienating parent. The child seeks to flee from the supposed threat posed
by the abusive targeted parent, and the child seeks the continual protective proximity of
the supposedly protective parent, which is the role being prominently displayed and adopted
by the narcissistic borderline parent, but none of this narrative is true. The child
is not a victim. The parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent are not abusive,
and the narcissistic borderline parent is not the ideal, wonderful, all nurturing protective
parent. It is a false narrative created by a narcissistic
borderline parent as an outward recreation of this parent’s own attachment trauma history.
At its core, the very processes of what we would traditionally describe as parental alienation
represent an outward manifestation of psychotic delusional processes of a narcissistic borderline
parent arising from the distorted internal working models of attachment, in which past
childhood trauma is being recreated and reenacted in current relationships. This is very serious
psychopathology. Not only is it personality disordered psychopathology, the reenactment
out of childhood of these trauma shifts it over into a delusional psychotic process within
the family. Now I will remind you of what Theodore Millon
said about the decompensation of a narcissistic personality into delusional beliefs, into
persecutory delusional beliefs. That’s exactly what’s going on, is we have this psychotic
process within this family, and what astounds me is that mental health therapists are entirely
missing the extent of the psychopathology within this family. Holy cow, this is really
serious, and they just think it’s normal range parent-child stuff, and they don’t recognize
it, they don’t see it. The schematic diagrams for describing this process, first you have
the three levels at the attachment system level, personality disorder level, the family
systems level. Then this particular schematic shows how the
disorganized preoccupied attachment of the alienating parent moves into both attachment
trauma and the personality disorder processes, that are then reactivated in the divorce as
a borderline fear of abandonment, and the narcissistic inadequacy. The borderline fear
of abandonment leads to what’s called the invalidating environment, discussed by Marsha
Linehan, and the narcissist decompensants into persecutory delusions that are also being
fed by the attachment trauma that then create the suppression of the child’s attachment
system, and the projection of the narcissistic inadequacy and borderline abandonment fears
onto the other parent. Complicated, complex, because the inner world
of a narcissistic borderline parent is a complicated, complex place. With trauma histories and all
this kind of stuff, but while it may seem complicated on first blush, it stays the same.
This will be the same tomorrow as it was yesterday, it’ll be the same next week, six months from
now, this is very structured, it’s very continual, this is what it is. It will always stay this
way, so as you become more and more familiar with it you go, “Okay, I get it.” The clarity
begins to move through, because it’s not something that’s highly variable or changing all the
time. Now, understanding what is going on, then allows us to identify where should we
look to diagnose this. What features stand out in this that we can
diagnose this reliably and in every case? There’s a set of three diagnostic indicators
by which we can reliably diagnose this every time it occurs, and deferentially diagnose
it when it’s not occurring. The presence in the child’s symptom display, so I’m not worried
about how these two are interacting. I don’t need to diagnose a narcissistic personality,
that’s going down a rabbit hole if I try to diagnose a parent. I’m looking at the child’s
symptom display, because I’m looking at the influence of that onto the child. The presence
in the child’s symptom display of three specific diagnostic indicators represents definitive
clinical evidence for the presence of pathogenic parenting.
Now, the word parental alienation is not a clinical term. As a clinical psychologist
I don’t know what that means. The correct clinical term is pathogenic parenting. Patho
is pathology, genic genesis the creation, it’s parenting practices that are creating
a pathology in the child. The word pathogenic parenting is used a lot in attachment work,
because that’s what messes up the kid’s attachment system is pathogenic parenting, so that’s
the correct clinical term. The three diagnostic indicators are definitive clinical evidence
of pathogenic parenting practices by the allied and supposedly favored parent that are directly
responsible for the child’s symptomatic cut-off of a relationship with the other parent.
Cut-off is a term out of Bowen family systems work. Notice that definition there never uses
the word parental alienation, we don’t need it okay, we can define this entirely within
standard psychological constructs. The three diagnostic indicators are, the attachment
system suppression, which you don’t see, that’s an aberrant display of the child’s attachment
system, you will also see a set of personality disorder symptoms in the child symptom display
that are being acquired from the influence of the narcissistic personality, and then
you will see this delusional belief that the child is a victim, that represents the trauma
reenactment. So, criterion one, the attachment system suppression,
the child symptom display evidences a selective and targeted suppression of the normal range
functioning of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward one parent, in which the
child seeks to entirely cut-off a relationship with this parent. That doesn’t happen, children
who cut-off a relationship with a parent were eaten by predators. The attachment system
motivates children’s bonding to parents, even bad parents. In fact, especially bad parents,
because if I have a bad parent that puts me at risk of predation, so I develop an insecure
attachment where I’m more strongly motivated to bond to the bad parent.
Cutting off the relationship is indicative that there’s a narcissistic parent somewhere.
It’s either that parent, you’re a narcissistic and so you’re abusive to me, a sexual predation,
or physical violence or something, and so now it’s authentic. Or, if you’re not the
problematic parent it’s the other one that’s a narcissistic. One way or the other that’s
how we see cut-offs in relationships. The additional criteria is that we have the absence
of severely dysfunctional parenting by the targeted-rejected parent. A clinical assessment
of the parenting behavior of the rejected parent provides no evidence for severely dysfunctional
parenting, such as chronic parental substance abuse, parental violence, or parental sexual
abuse of the child that would account for the child’s complete rejection of the parent.
So if I got a child rejecting a parent, I’m going to look at the parent and say, “Are
you physically abusive? Was there a history of domestic violence? Is there a methamphetamine
addict? Is there something that would account for that level of distortion to the child’s
attachment system? In the absence of that if you’re roughly normal range, well then
that doesn’t account for it. The third element is that roughly normal range. That the parenting
practices of the targeted-rejected parent are assessed to be broadly normal range, with
due consideration given to the broad spectrum of acceptable parenting practices typically
displayed in normal range families. We need to get away from micro-analyzing parenting
of the targeted-rejected parent. It’s respect for what represents broadly normal range practices,
and to the legitimate exercise of parental authority and parental prerogatives in establishing
family values, and the exercise of normal range parental authority, leadership, and
discipline within the parent-child relationship. One of the ways I conceptualize this is if
you put parenting practices on a scale from zero to a hundred, with zero into the spectrum
being lax and permissive parenting, and the higher end being firm and structured parenting,
normal range parenting practices would somewhere be between twenty and eighty is normal range.
The abnormal range is zero to twenty and eighty to a hundred.
Now, as mental health people, we like balanced parenting. We like parents to use some degree
of dialog on the permissive side of things, but also to be firm and structured, and provide
guidance to the child. We think the best parenting practices are in the middle, and combine a
blend of those two qualities, listening to the child is also providing structure. We
like parenting between the forty to sixty range, okay that combines some sort of blend,
but that doesn’t mean that the twenty to forty and sixty to eighty are not normal range.
The more you start to move towards those extremes, you’re going to get more problems, but we
shouldn’t be micro analyzing and telling parents what they should do.
Some parents like firm structure, that’s their prerogative in establishing family values.
Some people like a little bit more lax and … That’s their right in establishing their
family values according to their culture, belief systems, according to who they are.
We shouldn’t get in, if the parenting practices are broadly normal range then we should see
an attachment system bond. It’s only those very extreme ones that we’re concerned about.
The second set of symptoms, or symptom diagnostic indicator are narcissistic personality symptoms
in the child’s symptom display. The child’s symptom display toward the targeted-rejected
parent evidences a specific set of five narcissistic and borderline personality disorder symptoms
that are diagnostically indicative of parental influence on the child of a narcissistic borderline
personality. So, five a priority predicted symptoms, those
symptoms are the grandiosity, that the child will display a grandiosity where they’re elevated
in the family hierarchy above the targeted parent to where the child feels entitled to
judge that parent, and judge that parent as both a parent and as a person. There’s an
absence of empathy, the child will say and do very cruel things to the targeted-rejected
parent without any sense of caring or compassion or empathy for the parent. A sense of entitlement,
that the child expects a targeted parent to meet their every need to the child’s satisfaction,
or else the child feels entitled to exact a retaliatory revenge upon the parent.
The child will display a haughty and arrogant attitude towards the parent, of contemptuous
disdain for who that parent is as a person, and then the splitting. The child will see
the targeted parent as the all bad parent, and the narcissistic parent as the all wonderful
parent. These are what I refer to as the psychological fingerprints of control on the child by a
narcissistic borderline parent. The only way the child acquires narcissistic personality
disorder symptoms is from the influence of a narcissistic parent. They do not arise endogenously
to a child, never occur, and a lot of therapists who don’t get it, who don’t understand this
look at this set of symptoms and think they’re oppositional defiant symptoms, or normal range
conflict stuff. They’re not aware of personality disorder dynamics.
One of the key areas that should provoke a look at this is this child’s absence of empathy.
That’s a very unique symptom. You don’t see absence of empathy except in autism, narcissistic
personality, or antisocial personality. Any other kids, I deal with angry grumpy kids
all the time, ADHD, oppositional defiant, throwing chairs through walls, big argument,
the child still has empathy once they calm down from their angry. This kid, no empathy.
No compassion for the targeted parent, and the splitting dynamic, all good, all bad.
Things once defined don’t change. Okay, that splitting should trigger any mental health
professional to begin to look for the narcissistic borderline personality.
Now there is an anxiety variant of this, and especially occurs in younger children, typically
children around four, five, six years old, where the child displays an excessive anxiety
towards the targeted-rejected parent. It’s not this grandiose judgment of them, they’re
terrified of being with that parent, and the source of that is because the narcissistic
alienating parent is communicating the other parent’s a threat to you. The little four
year old goes, “Oh really, they’re that bad a threat to me,” and so they’re terrified.
Recognizing this particular symptom is as you go down the child’s anxiety, it will meet
DSM criteria, DSM-5 criteria for a phobic anxiety.
You just walk it down, you look and say, I have a child with a phobia, but the type of
phobia will be this bizarre and unrealistic mother type or father type. The child has
a phobia towards their father, that’s just weird. That just doesn’t happen. The attachment
system would prevent that from happening. You don’t have a phobia towards your parent,
because predator’s going to eat you, you’re going to fall off a cliff, bad things are
going to happen. It is an induced phobia coming from the emotional signaling of the narcissistic
borderline parent. The third symptom criteria, the diagnostic criteria is the existence of
a persecutory delusional belief. The child’s symptoms will display an intransigently
held, fixed and false belief I.e., a delusion, call it an encapsulated delusion, regarding
the fundamental parental inadequacy of the targeted-rejected parent in which the child
characterizes a relationship with the targeted-rejected parent in which the child characterizes a
relationship with the targeted-rejected parent as being emotionally or psychologically abusive
of the child. The child may use this fixed and false belief regarding the supposedly
abusive inadequacy of the targeted parent to then justify the child’s rejection of the
targeted parent. That the targeted parent deserves to be rejected because of the supposedly
abusive parenting practices of this parent. Very characteristic, if you hear that theme
coming forward, that the parent deserves to be rejected, deserves to be punished, think
attachment based parental alienation. It almost so characteristic that it becomes a diagnostic
sign. I didn’t include it as part of it, because you may not always display, but boy that attitude
is just prevalent, the parent deserves it. Now, let me make a comment at this point,
which is that the actual underlying psychotic process supporting the delusional belief system
is the reenactment narrative originating in the traumatized attachment networks of the
narcissistic borderline parent’s attachment system, in which there is a psychological
equivalency of past internal working models of attachment and, and the current family
relationships. The narcissistic borderline parent is reenacting
past trauma in current relationships by inducing the child into adopting the victimized child
role. That’s the psychotic process, that’s the source of the delusion, that’s the iceberg.
What we see on the surface is the child has acquired that belief system, and that abusive
inadequacy, but if you’re diagnosing this you can look for the actual psychotic process
in the family. Look for that reenactment narrative, and all the themes of that reenactment narrative,
and then you just have the cherry on the top of the kid’s actual belief system. The presence
of all three of symptoms in the child’s symptom display represents definitive diagnostic evidence
for the presence of pathogenic parenting emanating from the allied and supposedly favored parent
as being the direct causal agent for the cut-off of the child’s attachment bonding motivations
toward the other parent. There is no other explanation possible for
the presence in the child’s symptom display of all three of these symptoms together, other
than pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment based model of parental alienation.
If you see this, it’s the only way you get to these symptoms. It’s a very clear dichotomous
diagnosis. You see this set, that’s what we’re looking at. If you don’t see this set, then
something else is going on. The DSM-5 diagnosis, if we see this set of symptoms in the child’s
symptom display, the appropriate DSM diagnosis, and I have an essay article on my website
that goes into this in more detail, it’s essentially an adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance
of emotions and conduct. This requires a stressor, the stressor is
not the divorce. The stressor is living with a narcissistic borderline parent. It’s a chronic
stressor of living with a narcissistic borderline parent that’s producing an adjustment disorder
to adjusting to the family’s transition. Then we have some V codes, a parent-child relationship
problem with both parents. A child affected by relationships distress, and child psychological
abuse confirmed. Let me talk about that for a second.
The process of parental alienation represents pathogenic parenting by a narcissistic borderline
parent that is inducing significant developmental pathology, the suppression of the attachment
system, personality pathology, narcissistic and borderline personality traits in the child,
and psychiatric pathology, a delusional belief in the child that’s resulting in their loss
of a relationship with the parent in the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with
a normal range and affectionately available parent. That when you have parenting practices
that are inducing that degree of pathology in the child, that attachment based parental
alienation ceases to be a child custody issue, and becomes a child protection issue.
That we have personality disorder symptoms beginning to emerge in the child, a delusional
belief system where they’re losing a relationship with a normal range and affectionally available
parent, and the suppression of their attachment system that’s going to mess up not only their
life, but potentially the lives of their child and their spouse, and the attachment system’s
going to mess up a number of different relationships in their life, that’s a child protection issue.
Moving to therapy, that therapy requires that we know what we’re treating, and that’s one
of the major problems out there right now, is people don’t know what they’re treating
with this. They don’t know it’s a psychotic disorder. They don’t know it’s a personality
process, or that it’s a trans generational transmission of attachment trauma.
That children and families evidencing the diagnostic indicators of attachment based
parental alienation represent a special population requiring specialized professional knowledge,
training, and expertise to competently diagnose and treat. That mental health therapists and
evaluators working with this special population of children and families should possess a
professional level of competence in the following areas, the attachment system. It’s characteristic
patterns of function and dysfunctioning. Personality disorder dynamics, with a particular focus
on narcissistic and borderline personality processes. Delusional belief systems, particularly
surrounding narcissistic and borderline personality disorder processes and trauma reenactment,
and family system theory, focused on recognizing cross-generational parent-child coalitions.
Let me take that a little bit deeper. With the attachment theory, to be professionally
competent working with this special population, the therapists and child custody evaluators,
anybody working with this group of kids and families, should have the professionally competent
assessment and treatment to the child’s attachment system requires a knowledge of the developmental
origins of the attachment system, the interpersonal and psychological functions served by the
attachment system across the lifespan. People tend to think of attachments only relevant
to childhood, no it’s not. It mediates relationships across the lifespan.
Characteristics features of the attachment system and the characteristic patterns of
dysfunctioning, so that child’s bonding to the supposedly favored parent is not a sign
of secure attachment, that’s actually a sign of insecure attachment. We need to understand
these sort of things if you’re going to work with the attachment system, and the attachment
system expression in parent-child relationships, particularly with regard to the neurodevelopmental
role of protest behavior. Protest behavior is designed to elicit greater parental involvement,
and there’s reasons for that. The child acting up is designed to elicit parental involvement.
Here we have a child acting out to detach, to sever parental involvement, that’s not
normal, that’s not how the brain works. With regard to personality disorder dynamics,
professional familiarity with the clinical display of narcissistic and personality dynamics.
Such as Beck and his colleagues, Kernberg, Linehan, Millon, including the expression
of these personality dynamics in family relationships, and the features of co-narcissistic behavioral
displays in children. Rappoport has an article about that, the co-narcissistic and what that
child looks like. The decompensation of narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics into delusional
beliefs systems under stress, and the invalidating environment, as discussed by Linehan, relative
to the borderline process. At the delusional level, competent professional
practice with this special population requires a professional understanding for the formation
of delusional belief systems, particularly those associated with the psychological decompensation
of narcissistic and borderline personality organization. Including the interpersonal
relationship and communication processes by which these false beliefs can be transferred
to a child within a parent-child relationship. Things like parent-child enmeshment, parental
emotional signaling, selective and differential parental attunement and misattunement to the
children’s behavior and to their inner experience, as well as children’s previous position to
socially reference parents for meaning, particularly in ambivalent situations, or in situations
where there’s a parent signaling there’s a threat or a danger.
Understanding child development, and how the children work in that parent-child relationship
works is critical. Now, on this issue of attunement and misattunement, let me just explain those
words for a second, comes out of early childhood stuff. If a child is hungry, and the parent
feeds the child, that’s an attuned response. If the child has a messy diaper, and the parent
comes changes the diaper, that’s an attuned response. If the child is hungry, and the
parent changes the diaper, that’s a misattuned response. If the child has a messy diaper,
and the parent feeds the child, that’s a misattuned response. It’s not a behavior per say, it’s
how synchronous and aligned that parental behavior is with the child’s experience.
It’s like if you think of wave forms, if the parent is attuned to the child that amplifies
the wave, because their troughing and peaking on the same rhythm. If the child and parent
are misattuned, that dampens the child’s inner experience, because the parents peaking and
the child’s troughing, or the child’s peaking and the parents … and so the child’s misattuned
responses suppress the child’s inner experience, attuned responses amplify it. That’s how the
alienating parent, when the child says, “How was the time with your dad?” And the kids
says, “Oh great, wonderful,” and the parent goes, “Oh,” and gets all dejected, that’s
a misattuned response to the child’s happiness, which will then suppress the child’s experience
of happiness. When the child says, “Oh, it was kind of boring,”
and they go, “Really, it was so boring,” that’s attuned response to the child’s criticism,
which will amplify the child’s criticism. That’s how this process is transmitted. It’s
not through just overtly bad mouthing the other parent, and if you’re going to work
with this special population, you have to understand how this stuff works. Family systems
theory, that professionally competent assessment and treatment of this special population requires
a knowledge of family systems theory, because you’re dealing with family systems. Structural
and strategic family systems are highly recommended, and particularly focused on this issue of
the cross generational coalition. The child’s triangulation and cross generational coalition.
Failure to possess this specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise to appropriately
diagnose and treat this special population of children and family processes represents
practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence in possible violation of professional
practice standards. Ethical standards for psychologists Standard 2.02, “Psychologists
provide services, teach and conduct research with populations and in areas only within
their boundaries of competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience,
consultation, study or professional experience.” Humanistic child therapy that focuses on validating
the child’s feelings is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
The family processes of parental alienation represent a shared delusional belief in which
the child is being induced into adopting and accepting the false role as a victim within
the trauma reenactment narrative of the narcissistic borderline parent. Validating a patient’s
delusional beliefs as a result of professional ignorance regarding the necessary areas of
professional expertise required for treatment is colluding with the pathology and represents
incompetent therapy. Professionally incompetent therapy as a product of professional ignorance,
and from practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence, in violation of professional
practice standards, that results in harm to the client, the unresolved developmental,
personality, and psychiatric pathology and the loss for the child of a relationship with
a normal range and affectionally available parent, would likely represent irresponsible
and negligent practice that could expose the therapist to a malpractice lawsuit from the
targeted parent. You’re not allowed to treat stuff that you
don’t know what you’re doing. If a patient has cancer, and a podiatrist diagnoses and
begins treating the cancer with blood pressure medication, and the patient dies, that would
be considered malpractice. We need to begin to develop professional competence in treating
this domain of parent and family issues. Therapy requires knowing what we’re treating. Children
and families evidencing the clinical and diagnostic indicators of attachment based parental alienation
represent a special population requiring specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently
diagnose and treat. Let’s talk about therapy from an attachment based model.
An attachment based model of parental alienation provides a coherent description of what we’re
treating at the family systems level, at the personality disorder level, and the attachment
level. At the family systems level we’re treating the child’s triangulation into a cross generational
coalition with a narcissistic borderline parent that is against the other parent, and the
two impediments to the transition are an unprocessed grief response, and the splitting dynamic
of the narcissistic borderline parent, and I discussed those in the previous series,
in previous lecture. At the personality disorder level, we’re treating anxiety management efforts
of a narcissistic borderline parent through the projective displacement of the narcissistic
fears of inadequacy and borderline fears of fears of abandonment onto the other parent
by means of the child’s induced rejection of the other parent.
The narcissistic borderline parent is decompensating under the rejection of the divorce into delusional
beliefs regarding the supposed abusiveness of the other parent. At the level of the attachment
system, it represents the trans generational transmission of attachment trauma from the
childhood of the narcissistic borderline parent to the current family relationships. The transmission
process involves creating a reenactment in current family relationships of the childhood
trauma embedded in the internal working models of the alienating parent’s attachment system.
Pathogenic parenting practices by a narcissistic borderline parent that are inducing significant
developmental, personality, and psychiatric pathology in the child, in order for the parent
to use the child in a role reversal relationship as a regulatory object, to regulate the parent’s
own anxieties, and in which results in the loss for the child of a relationship with
a normal range, loving, and affectionally available parent, represents the psychological
abuse of the child. Therapy, central to the understanding therapy
is the misattribution of grief. The central feature of the child’s experience in attachment
based parental alienation is the misattribution by the child of an authentic grief response.
Initially this grief is triggered by the loss of the intact family, but then this grief
and loss experience for the child is increased exponentially once the child begins rejecting
an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved but now rejected targeted parent.
The attachment system, described by Mary Ainsworth here, “I define an affectional bond as a relatively
long enduring tie in which the partner is important as a unique individual, and is interchangeable
with none other. In an affectional bond, there is a desire to maintain closeness to the partner.
In older children and adults,” notice she talks older children and adults. The attachment
system is relevant across the lifespan. “In older children and adults, that closeness
may come to some extent or may to some extent be sustained over time and distance and during
absences, but nevertheless there is at least an intermittent desire to establish proximity
and interaction, and pleasure often joy upon reunion. Inexplicable separation tends to
cause distress, and permanent loss would cause grief.” An attachment is an affectional bond,
and hence an attachment figure is never wholly interchangeable with or replaceable by another,
even though there may be others to whom one is also attached.
“In attachments, as in other affectional bonds, there is a need to maintain proximity, distress
upon inexplicable separation, pleasure and joy upon reunion, and grief at loss.” In parental
alienation where’s the child’s grief response at losing the targeted parent? It’s not there.
The child shows no grief response, but the attachment system is going to produce a grief
response. The attachment system’s like the hunger system, it’s a primary motivational
system. If you don’t eat you’re going to get hungry. If you break a parent-child bond,
you’re going to have grief. Where’s the child’s grief response? That’s the critical question,
and that’s where therapy needs to focus, because once we get that grief response everything’s
going to be resolved. Kernberg talks about narcissistic processing
of sadness. “They, narcissists, are especially deficient in genuine feelings of sadness and
mournful longing. Their incapacity for experiencing depressive reactions is a basic feature of
their personalities.” Narcissistic borderline personalities don’t experience that sadness.
“When abandoned or disappointed by other people they may show what on the surface looks like
depression, but which on further examination emerges as anger and resentment, loaded with
revengeful wishes, rather than real sadness for the loss of a person whom they appreciated.”
Under the distorting influence of the narcissistic borderline parent, who interprets sadness
as anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes, the child is led into a similar misinterpretation
as the narcissistic borderline parent, regarding the child’s authentic feelings of sadness,
loss and grief, as being anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes against the
other parent. That the child misinterprets an authentic grief response as something bad
the targeted parent is doing to cause the child’s sadness, because we hurt when people
do bad things to us. When the child is with the targeted parent, the child’s attachment
system motivates them to bond to the parent, but they’re not bonding to the parent so
they feel a greater grief response, and they hurt more.
When the child is away from the targeted parent, over with the alienating parent, the targeted
parent isn’t there, their attachment system quiets down for bonding, so they have less
grief response, they hurt less. I’m with the parent, I hurt more. I’m away from the parent,
I hurt less. It must be something about that parent that’s bad, because I can feel it for
myself. I can feel, and under the influence of the narcissistic parent who’s telling the
child there’s something bad about that parent, the child comes to believe that. No, it’s
not true, that’s not true. The reason you hurt with this parent is because you love
them. You want a hug, you want to bond with them, that’s why … and you’re not allowing
yourself to do that, that’s why it hurts. The child has acquired a misattribution of
the grief response under the distorting influence. All therapy is is helping the child recognize
what’s going on. No, that parent’s fine, you just need to love the … and the moment the
child bonds to the parent their sadness and grief goes away, and the child goes, “Oh is
that what it was? Oh, silly me, okay.” Now we got a healthy family. It’s not all that
complicated to treat, we just need to rebalance the child out of the distortions of the narcissistic
borderline parent. Under the distorting influence of the narcissistic borderline parent, the
child interprets this rise and fall in hurting as evidence that it’s actually the other parent,
because I hurt more with you, and I hurt less without you.
Now this is the origins of what Gardner called the independent thinker phenomenon. That the
child actually believes that no it’s me, I know it’s not my dad who’s influencing me,
I actually believe this, because the child has authentic, what the child believes is
evidence of the bad parenting. No, no, no, it’s actually because of the misattributed
grief response. Once we understand this within established psychological principles, I can
then explain the independent thinker phenomenon as what it actually is, a misattributed grief
response, and then we know how to treat it and what to do about it.
The central feature in therapy is helping the child acquire an accurate attribution
for their feelings of hurt relative to the targeted-rejected parent. Phases of therapy,
what we would call reunification therapy, there’s basically four different phases that
we want to go through. The first is the rescue of the child, a protective separation from
the pathology of a narcissistic borderline parent during the active phase of treatment.
Once we get treatment resolved we reestablish that. Then we recover the child’s authenticity,
we recover the parent-child relationship, and then we reintroduce the pathology of a
narcissistic borderline parent. The protective separation, professional responsibilities
require that the child be protectively separated from the pathogenic parenting practices of
the narcissistic borderline parent during the active phase of treatment. First, because
it’s an appropriate professional response to the existence of psychological developmental
child abuse, in which we should take a protective response. Second, it’s to protect the child
from emotional, psychological, and developmental harm during the active phase of therapy of
the child’s treatment and recovery. Initiating therapy with children in this special population
without first acquiring the child’s protective separation from the ongoing pathogenic parenting
of the narcissistic borderline parent, places the child at risk of harm from two sources.
First, from the ongoing psychological abuse of the narcissistic borderline parent that’s
inducing these symptoms in the child, but also during therapy, if I’m trying to restore
the child’s normal range balanced functioning, and the narcissistic borderline parent is
trying to keep the child pathological, we’re going to be forcing the child, and we’re going
to rip the child apart psychologically. In order to change the child, I need to remove
the pathogenic influence of the parent. That will then allow me to restore the child’s
balanced functioning, and then I restore the parent.
“The breakdown of appropriate generational boundaries between parents and children significantly
increases the risk for emotional abuse,” this is Kerig. “When parent-child boundaries are
violated, the implications for developmental psychopathology are significant. Poor boundaries
interfere with the child’s capacity for progress through development which Anna Freud suggested,
is the defining feature of child psychopathology.” Only Moor and Silvern talk about narcissistic
use of the child. “Only insofar as parents fail in their capacity for empathic attunement
in responsiveness can they objectify their children, consider them narcissistic extensions
of themselves, and abuse them. It is the parents’ view of their children
as vehicles for satisfaction of their own needs, accompanied by the simultaneously disregard
for those of the child, that makes the victimization possible.” The issues, parental alienation
are not child custody and visitation, they’re child protection. The pathogenic parenting
that’s inducing sever distortions to the child’s attachment system, personality formation,
and a delusional belief system, where the child is losing a relationship with a loving
and affectionate parent, represents a form of psychological development child abuse that
warrants a child protection response. That, and so the presence in the child symptom display
of the three diagnostic indicators shifts it from child custody and visitation over
to a child protection issue. We want to protect the child from being turned
into a psychological battleground. Between our efforts to restore the child, and the
efforts of the narcissistic parents to continue the child’s pathology. The narcissistic parent
will actively resist therapy, because the child is serving as a regulatory object for
them, and so it’s not us who’s turning the child into a battleground, it’s the efforts
of the narcissistic borderline parent to keep the parent pathological that is resulting
in the destruction of the child. Turning the child into a psychological battleground runs
a considerable risk of harming the child emotionally, psychologically, and developmentally.
Standard 3.04 of the American Psychological Association Ethics Code says, “Psychologists
take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients and patients, and to minimize harm
where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.” Standard 10.10 on terminating therapy, “Psychologists
terminate therapy when it becomes reasonable clear that the child client patient no longer
needs the service, is not likely to benefit, or is being harmed by continued service.”
Requiring protective separation of the child from the ongoing pathogenic parenting practices
of the narcissistic borderline parent during the active phase of treatment meets the professional
obligation to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.
Without protectively separating the child first, and trying to conduct therapy, will
either expose the child to psychological, emotional, and developmental harm by turning
the child into a psychological battleground as a result of the continuing pathogenic influence
of a narcissistic borderline parent, in possible violation of Standards 3.04 and 10.10. Or,
avoid turning the child into a psychological battleground by remaining ineffective, which
would then require termination of therapy under Standard 10.10a. The therapy itself,
once we get the protective separation, we recover the child’s authenticity. This involves
processing that grief and sadness. Helping the child re-bond to the parent, and
learn that, oh that’s what it was, it was grief and sadness. I would attune to the child’s
expressions of bonding, and I would misattune to all the narcissistic symptoms, all the
pathology that the parent’s a bad parent. No, they’re not, they’re fine. We want to
restore the child’s empathy okay. That’s a critical feature, that’s a very concerning
symptom. The absence of empathy has been associated with the capacity for human cruelty, and so
it’s critical to the child’s healthy development that we restore that child’s empathy for the
targeted-rejected parent. In my own therapy I talked about issues of values, issues of
compassion, those sorts of things. As you talk about those things, or you bring
up issues about compassion and empathy, I’ll sometimes use quotes from the Dalai Lama or
from other people, what I’m doing is I’m bringing this emotions through cognitive mediation.
I’m decreasing the emotional intensity of their angry, and bringing up the cognitive
mediation, and talking to the child about who do you want to be as a person. You don’t
want to be this angry and hostile, no you want to be a kind person, and so helping them
recover that empathy. Challenge their psychopathology, so when they’re judging of the parent from
this top down position, or a sense of entitlement, or the haughty and arrogant attitude, all
those narcissistic symptoms I want to misattune to those, and when I get normal kid, I attune
to that. Which leads to the final point here, which
is supporting the child’s authenticity. Normal kids are annoying sometimes. Normal kids don’t
pick up their rooms. Normal kids don’t follow parental instructions. I don’t want simply
to recover a child who’s obedient to the narcissistic parent, and now they’re obedient to us. I
don’t want to replace one overlord with the other. I want a healthy kid, and so when I
hear normal range healthy parent-child conflict, I’m going to take the kid’s voice and say,
“You know what, kid doesn’t want to clean their room.” As long as the child is talking
up to the parent, rather than talking down to the parent, I will take the voice and bring
it to the parent, because that’s appropriate. It’s an adult talking to an adult. I don’t
have a child judging a parent, and then the child can hear me bring their issues to their
parent in a mature and responsible way, and then the parent responds, and I dialog with
them, and then I’ll turn back to the child and talk about what the parent brought up.
I’ll begin to help this family develop normal range conflict resolution that doesn’t involve
all this pathological judging, and rejecting, and all this other stuff. It’s restoring the
authenticity of the family relationships that have been distorted by the narcissistic borderline
parent. Restoring the relationship with the targeted
parent, in this I want to revalidate the targeted-rejected parent as a nurturing protective parent. When
the child says they’re abusive, I say, “No they’re not, no that’s normal range parent.”
“They took my iPhone away.” “Well, you were being a little jerk. You were giving them
attitude. Parents do that all the time, that’s not abusive parenting,” and in doing that,
in misattuning with their haughty and arrogant judgments that they deserve to be … All
those distortions are coming from the narcissistic parent, I misattune to those and I say, “No,
they’re normal range. They love you very much. They just care about you,” and I highlight
that. The moment I revalidate them as a protective
parent the child’s attachment system turns on again, because they’re no longer the predator,
they’re no longer the threat. The moment I say they’re normal range parent, the attachment
system goes on, and then all I have to do is just give a little boost to say, “Love
them,” boom, “Love them,” the child’s grief response goes away, and the child goes, “Oh,
is that what this was all about?” I go, “Yeah,” okay, and then we move into the final phase
once that takes place, which is to reintroduce the pathogenic parent. Kids love both parents,
even the narcissistic borderline parent, kids love them. In fact, the kid loves them so
much they’re willing to almost sacrifice themselves because they realize that parent needs them.
They’re willing to submit to being a role reversal, a narcissistic object to that parent,
because they love them so much, so we introduce that parent. Now, I do need to make a few
adjustments to make sure the other parent doesn’t distort them back into their pathology,
but a few little tweaks and stuff about how to cope with that parent’s stuff. What do
you do when the parent wants you to criticize the targeted parent, and how do you manage
that. A little coping skills on that. I think of it this way, is the attachment system,
the brain is like a computer, and the attachment system is like a software program like Microsoft
Word that’s being downloaded from the more mature nervous system of the parent to the
child’s nervous system. We have a computer download of a software
program, the attachment system. The problem is that in the parent’s attachment system
there are some corrupt files with some bad code in them, that are crashing the child’s
attachment system when they get downloaded. Essentially with therapy is we’re like Norton
Antivirus or McAfee, we’re going in to those corrupt files of the child’s attachment system,
doing a little cleansing, taking out a few of the corrupt codes, and then the child’s
attachment system starts to operate again, and now we’re going to reintroduce the virus.
Oh we just need to put in the little virus scans and some stuff on the surface so that
it doesn’t re-infect the computer. There we go, that’s the therapeutic process.
My references at the end, that’s me on the slides. If you want more information I have
it on my website. There’s information on my blog, and my email’s there. Now, I don’t want
to scare you away from saying, “Oh, this is professional boundaries of competence, and
issues, and all these sorts of things,” if you have watched this seminar and the other
seminar, you are more knowledgeable than any other therapist out there. I don’t want to
… We just simply know what we’re treating, and this framework gives you the support to
know what you’re treating, so then you can do it well. If you have any questions, if
you want consultation there’s my email address. Drop me an email, put in your title professional
consultation so it pops up on my thing. I will consult with you free of charge, for
an initial consultation. You want to consult about a diagnosis or a treatment or something,
just pop me an email, we’ll talk a little bit. If you want to set up something longer,
we’ll talk about that, but initial consultation I will just absolutely be happy to consult
with you on this sort of stuff. I don’t want to scare people away from treating, who know
what they’re doing, but people who don’t know what they’re doing, yeah stay away. This is
very serious psychopathology, and it’s hurting kids if we don’t take care of them.
That’s me, open it up for questions here. Speaker 3: Great, thank you so much that was
fantastic. We’ve got probably more questions than I’ve ever fielded. I’ll start with a
few from the … As I normally do, from the online audience, and I’ll give you a chance
to gather your thoughts here in person. The first question, when there are multiple children
in the family, does the narcissistic borderline parent typically target one or more than one
of the children, and as a follow up what are some of the factors that lead the parent to
target that particular child or children amongst the others?
Dr. Craig A. Childress: They will typically target one, because you notice the reenactment
has three characters. Okay, and so they will fill the three characters, abusive parent,
victimized child, protective parent. Typically they start with the oldest child. Now that’s
not always the case, and it may be variable on different families, and a mother may have
issues around the male child, or father or whatever it is, and so you may see variations
of that, but typically you see the older child is the one that’s targeted for rejection first.
They’re the child that’s a victimized child. The other younger sibs are spared for the
time being. Once this pathology is locked into place, then the parent and the alienating
parent will grab the other kids and draw them in to this, because it has to do with the
splitting dynamic. For the narcissistic borderline parent ambiguity
is impossible. It’s either all good or all bad, so if you are the ex-husband, you must
also become the ex-father. If you are the ex-wife, you must become the ex-mother. There’s
no ambiguity, and so eventually all the children will move into that role. Tom: This question just popped up as I was
going down my list here, I thought it was interesting. During protective separation
does the child go with the targeted parent? Where does the child typically go? Dr. Craig A. Childress: There’s no problem
with the targeted parent, of course. There’s no problem with that parent, [inaudible 01:35:13]
fine. The child will display all sorts of protest, but that’s only indicative of how
severe the pathology was. All that protest was under the surface, and then once we do
something the child will display their grandiosity. They will defy court orders, and run away
from the parent. Court orders say you have to be over there, but I don’t have to listen
to court orders, that’s your narcissism. I don’t have to do … and they will get very
angry and display all of this, but it’ll calm down. As it calms down we then open up the
grief response upon to the child, everything’s fine. As long as everything’s fine, everything’s
fine. Speaker 3: Is there potentially a risk physical,
psychological, to the parent if they do not reject the targeted parent to the satisfaction
of the narcissistic borderline parent? Dr. Craig A. Childress: Is there a risk to
the child if they don’t reject the targeted parent to the … Yes, it’s a hostage situation,
and the narcissistic angry is referred to as narcissistic rage. It’s angry combined
with disgust, and for a child to get that signal from a parent of disgust mixed with
angry, it’s very disturbing, and borderline range is just very hostile and very chaotic,
and so the child living with a narcissistic borderline parent learns to read that parent,
and keep that parent regulated, because it’s survival living with that parent. If that
parent needs me to make displays at visitation transfers, “No, no. Don’t make me go with
that parent, I don’t want to,” that’s what I’m doing, because I have to live with this
narcissistic borderline parent, and it’s very dangerous.
That’s why, unless we can protect the child, how can I ask that child to show love for
that person, unless I can protect him from the retaliation of a narcissistic borderline
parent who is absolutely tied into using that child as a regulatory object? I have to be
able to protect the child before I can ask the child to bond. Protective separation is
essential to treatment that is in the best interest, and doesn’t harm the child. Speaker 3: Another question I thought was
really interesting. Have you seen cases where both parents display narcissistic borderline
behavior, and are almost simultaneously trying to establish a coalition with the child? Dr. Craig A. Childress: I have not seen that,
because very rarely do two narcissists marry each other. Okay, but I have seen distorted
family processes where both parents are trying to get the child in the coalition and stuff,
but you don’t see the three diagnostic indicators in the child. You’ll see a child who’s messing
up at school, a child who’s acting out, a child who’s using drugs, all these other stuff,
but you don’t see the three diagnostic indicators under that case. The other thing I have seen
in about twenty-five to thirty percent of people who come to me, because of my background
in parental alienation, is it turns out the supposedly targeted parent is the narcissist
who says, “I can’t understand why the child would reject me I’m wonderful,” but the parent
has no empathy for the child. The child is going, “Ow, it hurts to be in
a relationship with you, because you have no empathy.” “I’m the wonderful parent, what
do you mean? It must be the other parent who’s turning you against me because I’m so wonderful.”
But again, in those cases you do not see the three diagnostic indicators. You don’t see
the personality disorder traits in the child’s symptom display. You don’t see a suppression
of the attachment system. The child still wants to bond with that parent, but they can’t
because that parent’s a narcissist. If you know what you’re looking for you see it in
the targeted parent, that oh you’re the narcissist aren’t you? That’s where it’s so helpful to
move away from Gardner, and move into standard psychological processes. Speaker 3: Okay, we have a student who has
an adult client that is the product … Comes from a high conflict divorce, but significantly
in the past, years and years ago, displays all the indicators of having been the victim
of pathogenic parenting. How might … What might be some strategies for working with
this adult client years after the fact regarding this dysfunctional system and his maladaptive
beliefs? Dr. Craig A. Childress: The critical issue
on that goes back to that grief response. That they have an un-metabolized, unprocessed
grief, and what happens in parental alienation is … What happens in normal range grief,
a parent dies the child grieves. In parental alienation the child grieves, and so must
psychologically kill the parent in order to resolve their grief. It’s reversed, the problem
is that parent’s not dead, the parent’s available, but they can never restore a relationship
with that parent, because then they have to overcome that … Open up that grief and get
through it. They just want to seal it over, and keep it down. The early cut-off is likely
to remain a lifelong cut-off because the person doesn’t want to process it, but then they
have this sadness buried in them, and so that depression or substance abuse or other issues
will coalesce around that unprocessed and un-metabolized grief.
Helping them process that grief response, and recognize what it is, and the reach out
and resolve to that parent that was in the past. Okay, so it’s not wonderful, it’s not
great, but at least you’ve opened up the ties and bonds, and you can move on and resolve. Speaker 4: Aloha.
Dr. Craig A. Childress: Hi. Speaker 4: I’m William, I just retired from
the Air Force, and one of the things in my training, I’ve been taught to treat the family
as a system, which you’re [inaudible 01:41:02], system oriented, and in this case what I’m
hearing is that you treat the child. What is happening to the parents while the child’s
being treated? Are they under also therapy as well? Dr. Craig A. Childress: Yeah, in terms of
the child, I treat the child and targeted-rejected parents. I’m working in the relationships.
I’m always doing family sessions between the two. Sometimes I might have a little individual
session here and there, but for the most part I’m dealing with their relationship, but I
think it’s also important, and I do … Am mindful of incorporating the narcissistic
parent, because the fundamentally issue from the family systems perspective is the inability
of the family to process grief, and therefore make a transition from an intact family to
a … And it’s the narcissistic parent who’s having that problem processing the grief and
sadness about the loss of the intact family, and what it means for their self-esteem and
this all other, abandon. If possible, I like to meet with that parent,
and see if I can relax their stuff. In some cases, I’ve been actually been able to work
with the two parents, and work with the couple to help them process the meaning of their
divorce and marriage, so that we can metabolize that sadness without blame, and so move this
family over into the separated family structure that’s bonded by the child. That’s the best
approach, if I can work that and help everybody then it frees the child, and [inaudible 01:42:35]
having to do that. Issues come up though, sometimes with the narcissistic borderline
parent who’s in this delusional belief system that the child is being abused, and they filed
three different child protective service cases, all of them unfounded, and you say, “All of
these have been unfounded,” and they say, “Well they might become abusive.”
Well, there’s not much I can do with that parent. It depends on how flexible or workable
that parent is, the narcissistic borderline parent to resolve things, but fundamentally
my client is the kid. I need to make sure my kid’s back on a normal developmental line.
The other feature that’s important on this in terms of taking care of my kid, is that
maturation processes go in phases of about every two years. So, eight to ten, ten to
twelve, twelve to fourteen, if we spend too long treating this, kids are losing whole
maturational periods with a bonded, loving, affectionate parent, that are just messing
up their later … We need to get a jump on this and get this done pretty fast. I’d prefer
within six months of getting everything solved, and then we can bring the other parent back
in, and move forward on things. Speaker 4: Yeah, especially when the child
is a symptom bearer of the … Of what’s been happening in [inaudible 01:43:49] in the family.
Appreciate your guidance. Dr. Craig A. Childress: Thank you, thank you. Speaker 5: I have a question about protective
separation. How easy is that to achieve given the court system and … Dr. Craig A. Childress: It’s right now, it’s
impossible to achieve through the court system. Okay, and that needs to change, but it won’t
change until mental health begins to realize the nature and degree of the pathology, and
can speak with a single voice to the courts, and say this is what we need for treatment.
Now, for me right now in terms of my practice, ethical practice, I will not treat a case
of this without a protective separation, and I would recommend that to all therapists out
there, because we’re putting the child at risk of harm. Problem is, we’re going to have
a lot of incompetent therapists who will. Until we get the incompetent therapists to
also stop treating, to recognize what the pathology …
Then if mental health therapists go to the court and say, “You know what, I’m looking
at these three diagnostic indicators, attachment based parental alienation, treatment needs
a protective separation, nobody’s treating. The court will say, oh, okay. Then we need
a protective separation with … That would be really easy to achieve. Right now though,
we got to spend five, six years in litigation, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on
attorneys to try to get the court to … and then custody evaluations and say, well you
know it’s going on, but what do we do about this, and so right now it’s a failed paradigm.
Gardner’s model is a failed paradigm. Once we switch over an attachment based paradigm
the solutions begin to emerge. Speaker 6: Hi, my name is [inaudible 01:45:26],
my question is what if the targeted-rejected parent really does have a problem like substance
abuse, and the child really is a victim, how would this affect their diagnosis? Dr. Craig A. Childress: The child would probably
not show narcissistic borderline symptoms. They’re not going to show an absence of empathy,
they’re not going to show a sense of entitlement. The child won’t show a suppression to their
attachment system. They’ll say, “I want to have a relationship with dad, but it’s hard
because he’s an alcoholic,” or “It’s hard, because he’s …” One of my questions sometimes
is, “Let’s say I’m a pretty good therapist, and I’m able to fix your dad, would you then
be okay with having a …” The kid [inaudible 01:46:07], “Well you can’t,” and I say, “Well
let’s say I’m really good and I can,” and the kid says, “Well if you can fix him yeah.”
Okay, and it makes sense to me. I’m seeing an alcoholic dad, I’m seeing a substance abuse,
I’m seeing some sort of … It makes sense to me. It’s not normal range
parenting, this is problematic, and so I’m working for my client, my kid, and I say,
“I see what you’re talking about, okay I got it.” I don’t see, and it’s not delusional,
because the kid is a victim. That’s not … So I don’t see my three diagnostic indicators,
and so now we’re just dealing with normal range family stuff that we see every day,
abusive parent [inaudible 01:46:40], and it moves out of this domain. Speaker 3: Well unfortunately, we’re up against
the clock, but before we go a couple of quick items. First, and most important, on behalf
of the entire university I’d like to thank Doctor Childress for another fascinating and
informative lecture. Dr. Craig A. Childress: Thank you. Speaker 3: Thanks so much for returning today. Dr. Craig A. Childress: Thank you.