The Legal Context: Control the Language

Caveat: Dr. Childress is not an attorney. Nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice. For legal advice consult an attorney and follow the recommendations of the attorney.  Dr. Childress is a clinical psychologist.

Choosing the Battlefield

Language defines the conceptual battleground.  In taking control of the language we fight on a battlefield of our choosing.

The dynamic of “parental alienation” immediately acts to define the targeted parent as “abusive” thorough the child’s symptomatic display of supposed “anxiety” and by the child’s expressed hostility and rejection toward the targeted parent.

Once the distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent induce the child into adopting the “victimized child” role relative to the targeted parent, immediately the child’s symptoms accuse the targeted parent of “abusive” parenting, so that the targeted parent is immediately placed on the defensive of proving a negative, of proving that he or she is not abusive despite the symptomatic allegations from the child’s anxious, fearful, and hostile rejection, and despite the support these child symptomatic allegations receive from the verbal reports of the supposedly all-wonderful allied and seemingly “favored” parent.

The allegations from the child’s symptoms immediately place the targeted parent on the defensive of trying to prove a negative, that the targeted parent is NOT abusive. The targeted parent is being forced to fight on the battlefield chosen by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, of trying to prove a negative.

The Battlefield of “Parental Alienation”

When the targeted parent tries to fight back by alleging that the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is “alienating” the child, the response from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is essentially “prove it.”  The trap is set for the targeted parent who then begins chasing the narcissistic/(borderline) parent down a rabbit hole of trying to prove to others the insidious and hidden parental influence on the child of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Meanwhile, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent remains hidden behind the child, and any effort to penetrate this protective shield to reach the underlying pathology of the parent is redirected by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent back onto the child,

“We should listen to the child.  We should listen to what the child wants.”

“The child should be allowed to choose whether or not to go on visitations with the other parent.”

“What can I do, I can’t make the child go on visitations with the other parent. Am I supposed to drag the child from my car?”

And in response to the targeted parent’s allegations that the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is actually the bad parent who is distorting the child’s feelings toward the targeted parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent presents for public display and public consumption the child’s (symptomatic) display of hyper-bonding toward the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a means to counter the targeted parent’s accusations against the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

“I’m the wonderful parent.  The child is well-behaved with me.  The child loves me.”

“I only want what’s best or the child” (which is to not be with the “abusive” other parent).  See how wonderful I am.  I’m just listening to what the child wants.”

Against the allegation of “parental alienation,” the response of “prove it” becomes the entrance to the rabbit hole, inviting the targeted parent to fight on the battlefield selected by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

And the child’s display of “victimization” draws sympathy and support from others. We have a natural inclination to protect children, and the child’s (induced) allegations that the targeted parent is abusive, allegations made through the child’s displays of supposed “anxiety” and expressions of supposed fearfulness toward the targeted parent, elicit a reflexive response from others of protection that further places the targeted parent on the defensive of having to prove a negative, of having to prove that he or she is NOT abusive, and that the child’s displays of supposed anxiety are unwarranted and false.

The targeted parent is fighting on the battlefield chosen by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The focus remains on the targeted parent and on the allegation that the targeted parent is “abusive,” and the focus is kept off of the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, who is instead allowed to continually present in the coveted role as the all-wonderful, perfect, and ideal parent.

This is the perfect world for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent: the other parent is suffering relentlessly for having the audacity to divorce the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent continually has the opportunity to present to others as the all-wonderful, perfect and ideal parent.  What could be better?

Meanwhile, the targeted parent is kept on the defensive, having to prove to each new therapist, to child protection workers, to the child’s attorney, to the Court, to everyone, that the targeted parent is NOT abusive, always having to prove a negative.

And this uphill continual battle swirls through years of legal litigation that financially bankrupt the targeted parent. “Prove it” outlasts. Delay favors the pathology. With each passing month the alienation becomes more entrenched. The targeted parent’s relationship with the child continues to deteriorate. Therapy is delayed by legal tactics, by noncompliance with Court orders, by changes in therapists, and to each new therapist the targeted parent must again prove the negative.

And when therapy does take place, the therapists who are supposed to restore the parent-child relationship meet only with the child, they side with the child in the pathology, and nothing changes.  Years pass.  The alienation is effective.

The allegation of “parental alienation” is fighting on the battlefield chosen by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

And during this battle, whenever the targeted parent tries to fight back by trying to educate therapists, custody evaluators, and the Court about what is occurring by alleging “parental alienation,” providing them with reading material, trying to convince them that the allegation of “alienation” is authentic, this only seems to provoke skepticism and backlash from the therapists, custody evaluators, and the Court, who allege that “parental alienation” doesn’t exist and who question whether the targeted parent’s allegation of “parental alienation” against the apparently “favored” parent is simply an effort by the targeted parent to avoid responsibility for his or her own bad parenting that has resulted in the child not liking this parent.  Allies are few.

The allegation of “parental alienation” is fighting on the battlefield chosen by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Step 1: Take control of the language. Choose the battlefield.

Using the term “parental alienation” is problematic.  It is the battlefield chosen by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent who will respond, “prove it.”  Instead, I would recommend using the more clinically accurate phrase of “pathogenic parenting” by the other parent.

“patho” = pathology; “genic” = genesis, creation.

The term “pathogenic parenting” refers to parenting practices that are so aberrant and deviant that they are inducing significant psychopathology in the child, which is exactly the case in attachment-based “parental alienation.”

Pathogenic parenting is an established clinical construct in psychology.  It is typically used in reference to distorted attachment bonding patterns of the child as a result of “pathogenic parenting.”  Many less-than-competent therapists may not recognize the term, but any mental health professional familiar with the attachment system will understand the meaning of the phrase.

The term “parental alienation” has an inexact meaning in clinical psychology, and it places the focus on the parenting behavior of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent who then replies, “prove it,” which is exactly the battlefield desired by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The allegation of “pathogenic parenting,” on the other hand, is a defined construct in clinical psychology and it places the focus on the child’s symptoms rather than on the parenting behavior per se, and, as importantly, it makes an explicit counter-accusation THROUGH THE CHILD’S SYMPTOMS that it is the parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is abusive because it is inducing serious child “pathology.”

With the phrase “pathogenic parenting,” the focus of “prove it” shifts to documenting the nature and severity of the child’s symptom display, symptoms that are now as accusatory of the parenting practices of the allied and “supposedly” favored parent as they are of the targeted parent.  Through the term “pathogenic parenting” we are choosing the conceptual battlefield.

With the concept of “pathogenic parenting,” the child’s symptoms become the focus, and the child’s symptoms become accusatory of BOTH parents, instead of just one parent.

With the construct of “parental alienation” the argument is whether the child’s behavior toward the targeted parent is justified and authentic or whether the child’s behavior is induced by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.  With the construct of “pathogenic parenting,” however, the child’s behavior is identified as severely pathological, and the question is not whether the child’s symptomatic behavior is being induced, just who is inducing it; the targeted-rejected parent (in which case the child’s symptomatic behavior is an authentic response to the pathogenic parenting of the targeted parent), or the allied and supposedly “favored” parent (in which case it represents “parental alienation”).

The task for clinical psychology becomes to determine which parent is “abusive,” because the severity of the child’s pathology requires that the parenting practices of either one or the other parent is abusive of the child.  One or the other parent is inducing the child’s symptomatic pathology. 

EITHER, the parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent can be documented as sufficiently outside of normal-range parenting practices as to represent emotionally, psychologically, or physically abusive parenting (or sexually abusive when this allegation is made), OR – the child’s symptoms are the product of pathogenic parenting by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent who is triangulating the child into the spousal conflict through the formation of a cross-generational parent-child coalition against the other parent.

Based on the documented severity of the child’s symptom display, one or the other of these alternatives must be true.

Child Protection

The allegations being made through the child’s symptom display are very serious, and they must be taken very seriously by mental health professionals. The parenting practices of the targeted parent must be fully assessed.

I would recommend that, if possible, a formal report be generated from a mental health professional documenting a professional assessment of the parenting practices of the targeted parent.  This report can then be provided to future therapists and to the Court so that the targeted parent does not have to repeatedly prove a negative, that their parenting practices are not abusive of the child.

The allegations against the targeted parent being made through the child’s symptoms are very serious, and if these allegations are found to be false, that the parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent are not abusive of the child, then the allegations of abusive parenting made through the child’s symptoms should turn back on the parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as being psychologically and developmentally abusive of the child by inducing the child’s false symptom display toward the targeted parent.

Children’s behavior is the product of the parenting they receive.

If the parenting practices of the targeted parent are documented to be sufficiently outside of normal-range parenting practices, with due consideration given to the broad spectrum of normal-range parenting present in the general population and with due deference for parental prerogatives in establishing family values through culturally acceptable parental discipline and guidance practices, then we need to engage a child protection response that includes therapy to alter the identified aberrant and distorted parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent.

If, however, the parenting practices of the targeted parent are documented to be broadly normal-range, with due consideration given to the broad spectrum of normal-range parenting practices evident in the general population and with due deference for parental prerogatives in establishing family values through culturally acceptable parental discipline and guidance practices, then the child’s symptoms become an indictment of the psychologically and developmentally abusive parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that requires a child protection response of separating the child from the abusive parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.

Attachment-based “parental alienation” is NOT a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue.

The seriousness of the allegations made through the child’s symptomatic pathology create a high degree of clinical and development concern and lead to only two possible interpretations, either 1) the child’s pathology is the product of pathogenic parenting by the targeted-rejected parent that is inducing the child’s symptomatic behavior, or 2) the child’s pathology is the product of pathogenic parenting by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that is inducing the child’s symptomatic behavior.

The evidence in the child’s symptom display of severe  psychopathology requires one or the other interpretation.

Step 2:  Documenting the Child’s Symptoms

Obtaining professional documentation of the child’s symptoms is necessary for a clinical determination of “pathogenic parenting,” but obtaining this professional documentation may prove difficult.

Child Custody Evaluations:  If a child custody evaluation is conducted, then the professional report generated from the custody evaluation will usually provide an adequate documentation of the child’s symptoms. The clinical interpretation of these symptoms may be flawed, but the documentation of what the symptoms are is usually adequate.

In cases of attachment-based “parental alienation” the child’s symptoms are sometimes (usually) misinterpreted as oppositional-defiant behavior or as authentic anxiety, when in actuality the child’s hostile-rejecting symptoms reflect narcissistic and borderline personality disorder traits in the child’s symptom display or, in the case of excessive anxiety symptoms, the child’s symptoms represent an absurd and unrealistic Specific Phobia, father type or mother type.

Of note in correctly recognizing the nature of the child’s symptom display are two distinctive features of a narcissistic personalty that differ from oppositional-defiant behavior, 1) the absence of empathy associated with a narcissistic personality, and 2) the splitting dynamic associated with both borderline and narcissistic personalities.

The presence in the child’s symptom display of either of these two symptoms should trigger a more complete assessment of the child’s symptoms from a personality disorder perspective. 

Within attachment-based “parental alienation” the child’s acquisition and selective display of narcissistic and borderline personality disorder traits represents the “psychological fingerprints” of the child’s influence and control by a parent who possesses narcissistic and borderline personality traits.

Once the child’s symptoms are adequately documented, obtaining an accurate clinical interpretation of the data becomes possible.

Therapist Reports:  If a professional report from a child custody evaluation is not available, then the targeted parent may be able to obtain a written report from a treating therapist documenting the child’s symptoms.  Again, the clinical interpretation of these symptoms by the treating therapist may be flawed, but as long as the child’s symptoms are professionally documented then obtaining a more accurate clinical interpretation of the symptoms becomes possible.

The three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based parental alienation are,

1. Attachment System Suppression

A suppression of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent. 

Due consideration should be given to the broad spectrum of normal-range parenting typically evidenced in the general population, and due consideration should be allowed for legitimate parental prerogatives in establishing family values and for the the normal-range exercise of legitimate parental authority and discipline within the family.

2. Personality Disorder Traits

The child’s symptom display evidences five specific narcissistic and borderline personality disorder traits toward the targeted parent that include grandiosity, entitlement, an absence of empathy, a haughty and arrogant attitude, and splitting.  These narcissistic and borderline personality disorder traits are displayed selectively and specifically toward the targeted parent and may not be evident with other people or relationships, such as with therapists and teachers.

3.  Delusional Belief

The child’s symptoms display an intransigently held, fixed and false belief regarding the fundamental inadequacy of the targeted parent that is characterized by the child as being “abusive” of the child.  The child’s delusional belief is offered as justification for the child’s expressed desire to terminate the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.

The presence in the child’s symptom display of this specific set of characteristic diagnostic indicators represents definitive clinical evidence for the presence of pathogenic parenting by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent as being the sole cause of the symptomatic child-initiated cut-off in the child’s relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent.

Anxiety Variant

In the anxiety variant, typically evident with younger children or in association with the hostile-rejecting pattern, the child’s symptoms of unwarranted extreme and excessive anxiety toward the targeted parent meet DSM-5 criteria for a Specific Phobia, but the type of phobia will be a bizarre and unrealistic “father type” or “mother type.”

The presence in the child’s symptoms of a bizarre and unrealistic “mother type” or “father type” of Specific Phobia represents definitive clinical evidence for the presence of pathogenic parenting by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent as representing the sole cause of the symptomatic child-initiated cut-off in the child’s relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent.

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

2 thoughts on “The Legal Context: Control the Language”

  1. This new terminology sounds brilliant! So how should one go about applying this? In my case for ex. I have no contact w.my child unless she contacts me 1st. Which of course wont happen! Her school counselor has had her in her family group, we’ve had failed reunification therapy, etc. Idk where 2 turn w.this new info from u, 2 try 2 apply it 2 my case?

    1. As I noted in this post, to apply the reframing of the issues as “pathogenic parenting” will require professional identification of the symptoms, either by a therapist or through a child custody evaluation. This child symptom identification then needs to be presented in Court by an attorney to obtain the Court’s cooperation with establishing the necessary framework needed for effective treatment and resolution of the child’s symptoms (i.e., the protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the allied and supposedly “favored parent” during the active phase of treatment – it is a child protection issue and we cannot ask the child to change unless we can protect the child from retaliation by the pathological parent).

      To enact this solution requires establishing standards of professional practice in mental health so that unknowledgeable and incompetent mental health providers cease their involvement with this “special population” of children and families. Gardner’s model of PAS does not provide a theoretical framework necessary to establish the needed standards of professional practice. An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” does.

      Until an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is accepted within establishment mental health, no solution will be available. The moment an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” becomes accepted in professional psychology, the solution becomes available immediately. If you’re waiting for me to get an attachment-based model accepted in establishment psychology, I estimate it will take me about a decade before a solution becomes available. There is only so much I can do on my own. If targeted parents begin actively advocating for professional acceptance of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” then this time period for enacting a solution may be reduced. How long this takes is up to you. Until an attachment-based model is accepted by professional psychology, no solution is available. The moment an attachment-based model is accepted by professional psychology, the solution becomes available immediately. Craig Childress, Psy.D.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s