Nothing New – No Excuse

There is nothing NEW in an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

All of the component elements for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” are established and accepted psychological principles and constructs. I am not proposing something new. I am simply connecting the dots between several constructs that EVERY mental health professional already knows as part of their professional competence.

Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorder

Personality disorders are defined within the DSM diagnostic system, and ALL mental health professionals are expected to be professionally familiar with ALL of the diagnoses within the DSM.  Narcissistic and borderline personality processes are not new or exotic constructs.

The theoretical foundations for narcissistic and borderline personality disorder processes have been extensively described and elaborated in the professional literature (e.g., Beck, et al., 2004; Kernberg, 1975; Linehan, 1993; Millon 2011) and if a mental health professional is not familiar with this literature at a professional-level of competence, then that mental health professional is not professionally competent in the domain of personality disorders and so should refer cases involving narcissistic and borderline personality disorder dynamics to professionals with the appropriate background and expertise

(not only SHOULD the mental health professional refer cases outside of the professional’s “boundaries of competence” to more expert and competent professionals, the mental health professional is actually REQUIRED to refer cases that are outside of the professional’s “boundaries of competence”
under established standards of professional practice.)

Mental health professionals are only allowed to practice within their “boundaries of professional competence.”

American Psychological Association Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct Standard 2.02:

“Psychologists provide services, teach and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study or professional experience.”

American Counseling Association Code of Ethics; Standard C.2.a

“Counselors practice only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, state and national professional credentials, and appropriate professional experience.”

If a mental health professional is not knowledgeable and experienced regarding the diagnosis and treatment of narcissistic and borderline personality disorder dynamics, then the mental health professional is professionally required to refer the client to someone who is professionally competent.  Plastic surgeons should not diagnose and treat cancer.

Cross-Generational Parent-Child Coalition

Professionally competent treatment of families requires understanding principles of family dynamics. This should be patently obvious.  Therefore, mental health professionals working with families should be professionally familiar with basic family systems constructs. 

For example, the Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation proposed by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (2006) identifies a set of “areas of expected training for all child custody evaluators” that includes “(2) family dynamics, including, but not limited to, parent-child relationships, blended families, and extended family relationships” (p. 8).

A central construct of family systems theory is the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict, and among the standard triangulation patterns is a cross-generational coalition of the child with one parent against the other parent.

Salvador Minuchin (1974), considered by many to be THE preeminent family systems theorist, identified this cross-generational coalition of the child with one parent against the other parent as a form of “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.” (p. 102)

Another preeminent family systems theorist, Jay Haley (1977) defined a cross-generational parent-child coalition as a “perverse triangle”,

“The people responding to each other in the triangle are not peers, but one of them is of a different generation from the other two…

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 certain behavior which indicates a coalition which, when it is queried, will be denied as a coalition…

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.” (p. 37)

The construct of “parental alienation” is simply a manifestation of a cross-generational parent-child coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) personality disordered parent. Nothing new. I am simply linking two established constructs that ALL mental health professionals working with children and families are responsible to know and understand within standards of professional practice.

It is the addition of narcissistic/(borderline) personality disorder traits of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that transforms the family dynamics into a particularly malignant and virulent form of the cross-generational parent-child coalition.

Narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics occur.  Cross-generational parent-child coalitions against the other parent occur.  When the two occur together, the addition of the narcissistic and borderline personality disorder traits of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent transforms the family dynamics into a particularly malignant and virulent form of the cross-generational parent-child coalition.  It is this malignant and particularly virulent form of cross-generational parent-child coalition that has traditionally been described as “parental alienation.” 

Nothing new, nothing exotic.  Personality disorders and cross-generational parent-child coalitions are simply standard psychological constructs with which all mental health professionals working with families should already be familiar as part of their existing professional competence.

No Excuse

Since the constructs of narcissistic and borderline personality disorders and cross-generational coalitions of the child with one parent against the other parent are established psychological constructs about which ALL mental health professionals working with children and families should be familiar, for ANY mental health therapist or child custody evaluator to miss making the diagnosis of the child’s cross-generational coalition involving a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is targeted against a normal-range and affectionally available parent is simply unacceptable and represents professional incompetence.

The clinical evidence for the child’s cross-generational coalition with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent is clearly evident in the child’s symptom display (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post) and the diagnostic clinical indicators are available to ANY professional who is competent in personality disorders and family systems constructs. If a mental health professional is NOT competent in personality disorders and family systems constructs, then that professional should not be diagnosing or treating family dynamics involving the presence of personality disorder dynamics, and should instead refer the client to a professionally competent child custody evaluator or therapist.

These are NOT new or exotic constructs. There is NO EXCUSE.

To the extent that professional incompetence in diagnosing narcissistic and borderline personality processes involved in a cross-generational parent-child coalition causes developmental, emotional, and psychological harm to the child client through the loss of an affectionally bonded attachment relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent (i.e., the parent who is rejected by the child as a result of the undiagnosed and so untreated psychopathology and pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) allied and supposedly “favored” parent within the parent-child coalition), this may represent negligent professional practice that is directly responsible for causing harm to the client.

To the extent that professional incompetence in diagnosing evident narcissistic and borderline personality processes involved in a cross-generational parent-child coalition causes harm to the targeted-rejected parent through the loss of an affectionally bonded attachment relationship with their child as a result of the undiagnosed and untreated psychopathology and pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) allied and supposedly “favored” parent within the parent-child coalition, this may represent negligent professional practice that is directly responsible for causing harm to the client.

Nothing New

No component of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is new or exotic.

Personality disorders are NOT new constructs. There is extensive literature regarding the dynamics of narcissistic and borderline personality disorder processes.

The triangulation of the child into the spousal conflict through a cross-generational coalition of the child with one parent that is against the other parent is not a new construct. It is a professionally established construct of family dynamics with extensive support in the family systems literature.

The attachment system and its characteristic functioning and dysfunctioning is not a new construct. There exists extensive professional research and literature regarding the nature, functioning, and dysfunctioning of the attachment system. There is also extensive literature linking narcissistic and borderline personality disorders to patterns of dysfunction in the attachment system, and regarding the transmission of dysfunctional attachment patterns from parents to children.

The psychological decompensation of narcissistic and borderline personality disorder processes into persecutory delusional belief systems is not new. One of the preeminent researchers and theorists in personality disorders, Theodore Millon (2011), explicitly links the decompensation of narcissistic personality processes under stress into persecutory 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. 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. Here we may see the rapid unfolding of persecutory delusions and an arrogant grandiosity characterized by verbal attacks and bombast.” (p. 407)

Delusional beliefs are a well defined construct in the DSM diagnostic system, and ALL mental health professionals are professionally required to be familiar will ALL diagnoses within the DSM diagnostic system.  Nothing new.

And the very term “borderline” as a descriptive label was derived from these personality organizations being on the “borderline” of neurosis and psychosis.

“The diagnosis of “borderline” was introduced in the 1930s to label patients with problems that seemed to fall somewhere in between neurosis and psychosis. (Beck et al, 2004, p. 189)

Nor is the reenactment of past trauma in current relationships new. A “repetition compulsion” was initially proposed by Freud, and there is significant research evidence supporting the reenactment of past trauma (see for example, Trippany, Helm, & Simpson, 2006; van der Kolk, 1989), and the reenactment of relationship patterns is a foundational component of Bowlby’s theoretical formulation for the functioning of the attachment system. We replicate our attachment patterns in future relationships.

Nothing about an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is new.  All of the component elements are standard and established psychological principles and constructs.  The construct traditionally described as “parental alienation” represents the triangulation of the child into the spousal conflict through the formation of a cross-generational parent-child coalition between the child and a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The addition of parental narcissistic/(borderline) psychopathology transforms the cross-generational coalition into a particularly malignant and virulent form of family pathology.

The cross-generational coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent can be reliably recognized by a definitive set of diagnostic indicators and an associated set of predicted clinical signs (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post).

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

Personality Disorders

Beck, A.T., Freeman, A., Davis, D.D., & Associates (2004). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders. (2nd edition). New York: Guilford.

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford

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

Millon. T. (2011). Disorders of personality: introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal. Hoboken: Wiley.

Family Systems

Haley, J. (1977). Toward a theory of pathological systems. In P. Watzlawick & J. Weakland (Eds.), The interactional view (pp. 31-48). New York: Norton.

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and Family Therapy. Harvard University Press.

Trauma Reenactment

Freud, S. (1922). Beyond the Pleasure Principle (The Standard Edition). Trans. James Strachey. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Trippany, R.L., Helm, H.M. and Simpson, L. (2006). Trauma reenactment: Rethinking borderline personality disorder when diagnosing sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 28, 95-110.

van der Kolk, B.A. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma: Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 389-411

Standards of Practice

Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. (2006) Model standards of practice for child custody evaluation. Madison, WI: Author.

American Psychological Association (2002). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060-1073.

American Counseling Association. (2005) ACA code of ethics. Alexaandria, VA: Author.

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