Question: The Violent Child

I received this question and thought I’d reply through my blog because my response may have broader applicability to the experience of many targeted parents.

Please note, I cannot speak to any individual situation since I have not conducted an independent assessment of the situation and relationships.  I am only addressing the broader issues, not any specific situation.

Here is the question I was posed:

I have a question that no one seems to be able to answer yet.   What is a non-custodial targeted parent to do when a child (teenager) is encouraged to act violently towards the targeted parent, siblings, and even pets of the targeted parent.

Children’s protective services does not deal with child violence within it’s child protection parameters.  The police recommend that the targeted parent call them whenever the child acts violently for the health and safety of the other household members.  However, the children’s minor’s counsel and the Courts say that calling police endangers the child. They view the child’s violence as proof of the targeted parent’s incompetence to manage the child.

How should the targeted parent respond to the child’s (teenager’s) violence that is endangering family members? When the targeted parent follows the  advice of the police, the Court holds these actions against them, but failure to involve the police endangers the other family members.  So far the only definitive answer I’ve received about this situation is “I DON”T KNOW”.

A:  Situations such as the one described require the involvement and guidance of a competent mental heath practitioner, so the answer to the question “How should the targeted parent respond?” is that the targeted parent should engage the services of a competent mental health practitioner and follow the recommendations of this practitioner.

Caveat:  What if the situation actually does involve problematic parental responses from the targeted parent?  Perhaps the targeted parent IS responding in a problematic way to the teenager.  Without my conducting an independent assessment of the situation, there is no way I can provide a specific answer to the question posed.  The solution is to involve a competent mental health practitioner and follow the guidance offered by this mental health practitioner.

Caveat:  I acknowledge that there are far too many incompetent mental health practitioners out there, especially regarding the diagnosis and treatment of the “special population” of children and families experiencing attachment-based “parental alienation.”  Also, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent may prevent (through a variety of methods) the involvement of a competent mental health practitioner.

Caveat:  Therapy for attachment-based “parental alienation” requires the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.  Unless the child is protectively separated from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery, there is no solution available.

That’s the core of what professional mental health needs to comprehend in order for professional mental health to begin speaking with a single voice to the Court.  When mental health speaks with a single voice, the Court will be able to act with the decisive clarity necessary to solve the  tragedy of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

Unless the child is protectively separated from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery, no solution to “parental alienation” is available.

Qualifier:  In my response below, I am not addressing any specific situation.  What to do in any specific family situation will require an individualized assessment of the relationships within the family.  But from a general perspective regarding extremely hostile-violent child behavior as conceptualized within an attachment-based model of “parental alienation”…

Understanding Personality Disorders

Attachment-based “parental alienation” is driven by the narcissistic/(borderline) personality disorder of the alienating parent (that is formed from distorted “internal working models” of the parent’s attachment system).  So let me begin my response by providing a brief orientation to the construct of “personality disorders.”

It is increasingly recognized that personality disorders involve blends of distorted personality traits (Widiger & Trull, 2007; American Psychiatric Association, DSM-5 Chapter 3, 2013) rather than fixed categories. So when talking about personality disorders it is helpful to consider blends of traits rather than distinct categories.  To the extent that these blends organize around particular categories, such as narcissistic or borderline expressions of personality traits, then we can use these category names as a convenient label in our discussions.

In addition, the underlying “self-structure” organization of the narcissistic and borderline personality organization is the same (Kernberg, 1975), involving the person’s tremendous sense of core-self inadequacy and fears of abandonment. The difference between a narcissistic and borderline personality organization is simply that the borderline personality directly and continuously experiences this fundamental self-inadequacy and abandonment fear, which leads to tremendous ongoing disruptions to self-identity and problematic affect regulation, whereas the narcissistic personality has created a psychological defense of grandiose self-inflation against the experience of core-self inadequacy and abandonment fears, thereby allowing for greater superficial self-cohesion and superficial affect regulation (as long as the narcissistic defense holds).

In addition, the construct of “personality disorders” developed across the period from the 1930s to 1980s, with a more formal entry into the DSM-3 diagnostic system in 1980. Parallel to this process, however, was the work of John Bowlby in attachment theory, which was formalized in the 1970s across three seminal volumes (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980). Since the 1980s, increasing research has linked the two constructs (Brennan & Shaver, 1998), particularly around the formation of borderline personality organization (Fonagy, et al., 2003; Holmes, 2004; Levy, 2005; Lyddon & Sherry, 2001).

From Brennan & Shaver (1998):
“In the clinical literature, there is increasing support for conceptualizing personality disorders as disorders of attachment (e.g., Heard & Lake, 1986; Shaver & Clark, 1994; West & Sheldon, 1988; West & Sheldon-Keller, 1994). There is growing empirical evidence connecting borderline personality disorder with patterns of insecure attachment reflected in representations of childhood relationships with parents (Patrick, Hobson, Castle, Howard, & Maughan, 1994; Sack et al., 1996; Stalker & Davies, 1995; West et al., 1994).

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” the primary personality disorder driving the distorted family process is a narcissistic/(borderline) organization, with some “alienating parents” expressing a stronger narcissistic personality organization while others display a more pronounced borderline presentation.

In addition, other personality disorder traits can be evident, which lends additional textures to the symptom presentation within the family. I have encountered blends that include antisocial personality traits, histrionic personality traits, paranoid personality traits, and obsessive-compulsive personality traits. Each of these complex blends presents a different symptomatic feel to the “parental alienation” dynamics.  These additional personality disorder traits arise from within the unique “internal working models” of each unique person’s attachment system, which then coalesce in later development into the characteristic patterns reflected in the “personality disorders” types.

The reason I describe this as prelude to addressing the general question of an excessively violent and hostile child that occurs within the context of attachment-based “parental alienation” is that I’ve seen the presentation of the excessively hostile child (teenager) clinically to be generally associated with a narcissistic/(borderline)/antisocial personality blend. From my anecdotal clinical experience, the addition of antisocial personality traits in the alienating parent appears to create a particularly aggressive variant of “parental alienation” with strong domestic violence overtones.

I have generally seen this pattern with males as the alienating parent (perhaps because of the higher prevalence for males to display narcissistic and antisocial personality traits), with mothers then being the recipient of the child’s (teenager’s) excessive violence and threats (as a vehicle in expressing the father’s narcissistic and antisocial violence toward the mother). This pattern may also be associated with a history of pre-divorce domestic violence qualities within the family involving control, dominance, and verbal/emotional abuse from the narcissistic/(borderline)/antisocial parent (husband) toward the other parent (wife).

While these gender-related factors are likely typical, they are not absolute, and there is no reason why women cannot also be the perpetrators of this hyper-aggressive variant.

The Child’s Behavior

Children are a product of the parenting they receive.

If the child is aggressive, mean, rude, and disrespectful, this is the product of the parenting the child is receiving from the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.

The child and the supposedly “favored” parent will contend that the child’s atrocious behavior is the product of the fundamental human inadequacy of the targeted parent, who “deserves” the child’s hostility and contempt because of this parent’s inherently awful nature as a human being.

First, this effort at excusing and justifying the child’s atrocious behavior and the extremely poor parenting by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that is reflected in the child’s behavior, is absurd on its face,

Second, the effort to excuse and justify the child’s atrocious behavior is a direct and evident symptom of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality processes and attitudes of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that are being transferred to the child through the aberrant and distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

1.  Absurd on its Face: The assertion that the targeted parent deserves the child’s contempt and cruelty is absurd.  We do not treat other people with kindness or cruelty based on our judgments of what they “deserve.” We treat others with kindness or cruelty based on our value systems, based on who WE ARE as a person, based on how we define ourselves. We treat others with kindness, and respect, and consideration, not because of who they are, but because of who we are.

It doesn’t matter if the child doesn’t like his or her teacher.  The child is still expected to display socially organized and cooperative behavior, and especially non-aggressive behavior.  It doesn’t matter if the child believes the store clerk was rude, the child is nevertheless expected to display socially organized and non-aggressive behavior.  The child may not agree with or like the discipline meted out by the soccer coach, but the child is NOT allowed to vent cruelty or aggression toward the soccer coach.  And if this is our expectation for the child’s responses to teachers, store clerks, and coaches, then the same applies to the child’s response to his or her parents.

The aggressive and hostile cruelty of the child is NOT because of who the targeted parent is, the child’s aggression and cruelty is the result of who the child is.  Knowing this is the bedrock foundation of good parenting.

For anyone, including the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, to in any way attempt to excuse or justify the child’s aggressively hostile attitudes and cruelty reflects distorted beliefs and parenting that support the child’s development of distorted values and character traits. Even IF the targeted parent was a bad person and parent, the child should nevertheless respond with kindness, compassion, and consideration, not because of who the parent is, but because of who the child is.

Those are the values we teach our children.

In some cases, the excusing argument may be offered that the child “only acts this way with the targeted parent.” Then this excuse becomes EVEN MORE REASON to indict the parenting of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, because this argument offered by others (or by the behavioral evidence provided by the child), means that the child inherently possesses the ability to regulate his or her affect but is CHOOSING not to do so in a specific case because the child believes that this person, this parent, “deserves” the child’s cruel treatment.

The child’s regulated behavior in every other situation reveals the lie in the assertion that the child is being “provoked” into dsyregulated anger, because the child has clearly displayed the demonstrated capacity to regulate his or her anger in other situations. Instead, the child is CHOOSING to be cruel, hostile, and mean to this select person whom the child believes “deserves it.”

2.  A Reflection of Narcissistic/(Borderline) Parenting: The attitude that we are somehow allowed to judge others and mete out cruelty to others we judge as deserving of our contempt is a reflection of a narcissistic/(borderline) personality process.

The narcissistic personality maintains a grandiose self-perception that judges others as inferior, and with an air of haughty arrogance feels justified (entitled) in the contemptuous treatment of others who the narcissist judges to be unworthy, so that the fundamental inadequacy of the other person justifies the contempt and cruelty delivered by the narcissist. The other person “deserves” the contempt and abuse because of the other person’s inadequacy.

This highly distorted narcissistic attitude represents a fragile defense against the narcissist’s own internal experience of fundamental inadequacy (and fear of abandonment because of this inadequacy). It is the narcissist who feels immensely inadequate and completely unworthy of being loved, and who then responds to these deep and profound feelings of inadequacy and unlovability by creating a narcissistic defense of grandiose over-inflation of self importance and devaluation of others (“I’m not inadequate, you are. I’m wonderful; I’m ideal. It’s you who are inadequate. And if you don’t recognize and acknowledge my wonderfulness, then you ‘deserve’ to be punished.”).

“If others fail to satisfy the narcissist’s “needs,” including the need to look good, or be free from inconvenience, then others “deserve to be punished”… Even when punishing others out of intolerance or entitlement, the narcissist sees this as “a lesson they need, for their own good.” (Beck, et al., 2006, p. 252).

The borderline personality organization also feels entitled to vent unbridled anger on others who “deserve” the borderline’s anger because they failed to adequately love the borderline. The narcissistic and borderline personalities are simply superficial variations in the manifestations of the inner core experiences of fundamental self-inadequacy and fear of rejection and abandonment by others. The core driving experience for both types of personality organizations is the same, with variations in the the overt manifestation of these underlying core beliefs.

Extremely Poor Parenting

A child’s behavior of aggressive violence is NEVER appropriate and is NEVER justified. ANY attempt by a parent to justify IN ANY WAY a child’s aggressive violence toward anyone (including and especially the other parent) reflects highly distorted parenting practices and a narcissistic/(borderline) personality organization of the parent who believes that venting of contemptuous anger can be “justified” when the other person “deserves” it.

If the minor’s counsel for the child or the Court concur with the child’s permission to become violent and cruel, then this is absolutely and fundamentally wrong.  There is NO valid excuse or justification for a child’s display of cruelty and violence toward anyone.  NONE.

That doesn’t mean that other people aren’t problematic. They are and can be.  But we teach our children to maintain their emotional and behavioral composure, to self-regulate their emotional and behavioral responses, and to exercise appropriate values and character in their response.  This is called “parenting.”

Pathogenic Parenting

Transferring a highly distorted belief system to the child, i.e., that the child is allowed to judge others and to deliver tirades of abusive anger if the child judges that the other person “deserves” it, represents extremely bad parenting. It is the beginning formation of narcissistic entitlement and borderline emotional dysregulation in the child as a product of distorted parenting practices by a narcissistic/(borderline) personality, who holds the distorted beliefs that the child is acquiring.

Children are a reflection of the parenting they receive. The distorted attitudes and behavior expressed by the child are NOT the product of the parenting from the targeted-rejected parent, as this parent has little to no influence on the child. The child’s highly distorted belief system and behavioral license are the product of the extremely bad parenting the child is receiving from the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.

When the child’s expressed attitudes and behavior are severe, such as would appear to be the case if the police need to be called to intervene, then the degree of severely poor parenting reflected in the child’s behavior raise child protection concerns. The allied and supposedly “favored” parent is doing such an extremely poor job of parenting that strong consideration should be given to switching primary parental care to the targeted parent, who can then strive to provide the child with better parenting and guidance that can restore the child’s balanced personality formation and undo the obvious damage to the child’s character development caused by the extremely bad parenting of the allied and supposedly “favored,” narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Conclusions of Dr. Childress

Children are a reflection of the parenting they receive.

Hostile aggressive behavior by the child is a reflection of extremely bad parenting. To propose that the child’s hostile-aggressive behavior is the product of the targeted parent is absurd on its face and should be rejected without consideration.

We will welcome consideration of the child’s grievances when these are expressed in appropriately socialized ways.  We talk, we dialogue, we discuss.  Violence, threats, and cruelty are NEVER acceptable, are NEVER excusable, and are NEVER justified.  Child grievances expressed as violence, threats, and cruelty will not be considered until such time as these are expressed in socially acceptable ways.

Even IF the parenting of the targeted parent is problematic (which it isn’t), the child should still be expected to maintain appropriate self-regulation.

An attempt by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, to excuse the child’s atrocious behavior as somehow being understandable and justified because the targeted parent somehow “deserves” or provokes the child’s behavior is direct evidence of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality structure of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent who is supporting the child’s development of highly problematic affect regulation and attitudes of contemptuous disrespect for others.

If the child displays aggressive, threatening, or cruel behavior, then this is an indictment of the parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, and, if the child’s aggression, threats, and cruelty are severe, then child protection considerations may be warranted regarding the pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent as evidenced in the child’s attitudes and behavior, so that a change in primary parental care may be indicated.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857


Spectrum of Personality Disorder Traits

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Widiger, T.A. and Trull, T.J. (2007). Plate tectonics in the classification of personality disorder: Shifting to a dimensional model. American Psychologist, 62, 71-83.

Attachment and Personality Disorder Formation

Brennan, K.A. and Shaver, P.R. (1998). Attachment Styles and Personality Disorders: Their Connections to Each Other and to Parental Divorce, Parental Death, and Perceptions of Parental Caregiving. Journal of Personality 66, 835-878.

Fonagy, P., Target, M., Gergely, G., Allen, J.G., and Bateman, A. W. (2003). The developmental roots of Borderline Personality Disorder in early attachment relationships: A theory and some evidence. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 412-459.

Holmes, J. (2004). Disorganized attachment and borderline personality disorder: a clinical perspective. Attachment & Human Development, 6(2), 181-190.

Levy, K.N. (2005). The implications of attachment theory and research for understanding borderline personality disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 17, p. 959-986

Lyddon, W.J. and Sherry, A. (2001). Developmental personality styles: An attachment theory conceptualization of personality disorders. Journal of Counseling and Development, 79, 405-417

Attachment Theory

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Attachment, Volume 1. NY: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Volume 2. Separation: Anxiety and anger. NY: Basic.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Volume 3. Loss: Sadness and depression. NY: Basic.

Association of Narcissistic and Borderline Personality

Kernberg, O.F. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism.. New York: Aronson.



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