I was recently asked a question that I thought I would share on my blog along with my response, as I suspect this is a common question of many targeted-rejected parents.
I understand that the child needs to be protected from the influence of the alienating parent during the active phase of treatment. In practice, however, this is difficult, if not impossible to achieve. In the meantime what advice would you have for how the targeted parent should approach their relationship with the child?
You have stated that the targeted parent is no longer relating with the authentic child, but rather with a child who is in a fused psychological state with the narcissistically organized alienating parent. From my experience, I feel as though whenever I interact with my daughter those interactions are set up for failure rather than success. I always feel like I am walking on eggshells which makes it very difficult to present my authentic self.
Also, it feels as though there is very little that my daughter puts out there for me to work with… e.g. if I ask a question, there is a mumbled, one-syllable answer conveyed with an air of annoyance, hostility, disdain, or disinterest. If I try to push a little further the negative emotions escalate. So often times there is just silence. Is there any advice you can give to help?
Without conducting an independent assessment of family relationships, I cannot offer advice on any specific situation. I can, however, offer general commentary regarding the issues and factors related to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” generally. This response may or may not be applicable to any specific situation.
The child in attachment-based “parental alienation” is essentially in a hostage situation (see The Hostage Metaphor essay on my website and the Stark Reality post on my blog).
There are two separate and independent reasons for initiating a protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent,
1. Child Psychological Abuse: The pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is a severe form of psychological child abuse that will have a lasting negative impact on the child’s development and future relationships.
When the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present in the child’s symptom display (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post), the issue becomes one of child protection, not child custody. The significantly distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are inducing serious developmental, personality, and psychiatric symptoms in the child.
So while I can appreciate the desire of targeted parents to restore a normal-range and affectionally bonded relationship with their children even though the child is not separated from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, I remain highly concerned regarding the emotional and psychological well-being of the child.
When the three definitive diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present, a child protection response is needed.
2. Psychological Battleground: If therapy seeks to alter the child’s distorted relationship with the normal-range and affectionally available targeted parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will apply increasing psychological pressure on the child to remain symptomatic, thereby turning the child into a psychological battleground between the balanced and normal-range meaning constructions being provided in therapy and the distorted and pathogenic meanings being provided by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.
The pressure applied on the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to remain symptomatic and rejecting of a relationship with the normal-range targeted parent will psychologically rip the child apart. In order to engage effective therapy, the child must first be protected from the pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent so that the child isn’t turned into a psychological battleground by the active resistance of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, who is applying continual pressure on the child to resist treatment efforts designed to restore the normal-range and authentic child.
We cannot ask the child to show affectional bonding to the normal-range and beloved targeted parent unless we can first protect the child from the psychological pressure and retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.
Once the three diagnostic indicators are identified in the child’s symptom display, a child protection response is indicated and becomes needed for two separate and independent rationales.
I will not accept the premise of leaving the child in the pathogenic care of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent when the child’s symptom display is evidencing significant developmental, personality, and psychiatric symptomatology as a direct consequence of the pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.
The premise of the question is similar to asking,
“If the child isn’t separated from a sexually abusing parent, what can we do to build a positive relationship with the child while leaving the child in the care of the sexually abusing parent?”
“If the child isn’t protectively separated from a physically abusing parent who regularly beats the child with fists, belts, and electrical cords, how can we develop a positive relationship with the child while abandoning the child to this parent’s abusive care?”
My answer is: first, those are the wrong questions, and second, I don’t know.
When a child is being sexually, physically, or psychologically abused, we first need to protect the child. There is no other acceptable option and I will not pretend as if there is. When the child’s symptoms display the three characteristic diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” then the presence in the child’s symptom display of these specific diagnostic indicators is definitive evidence that the severely distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are inducing significant developmental (i.e., diagnostic indicator 1), personality (i.e., diagnostic indicator 2), and psychiatric (i.e., diagnostic indicator 3) psychopathology in the child.
This requires a child protection response. For child therapists, child custody evaluators, and the Court to allow the child to remain in the pathogenic care of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent when the child’s symptoms display the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” is tantamount to acquiescing to and allowing the child’s continued psychological abuse.
Attachment-based “parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue.
Do you really want me to tell you how to go about opening your child to your love and affection, knowing that this will only expose the child to the intense psychological retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., Stark Reality)?
It’s also important to understand that if we are successful in opening the child to the child’s inherent authenticity, then we will be opening the child into the child’s immense grief and sadness, and into the child’s guilt for rejecting the beloved parent. We will be opening the child into the child’s pain and suffering before we will reach the child’s love.
The child is being made to reject a beloved parent. For the child to be able to engage in the cruelty necessary to reject a beloved parent, the child must find a way to steel his or her heart for the act of rejecting a beloved parent, and for the cruelty involved. The child must make the beloved parent somehow bad and evil in the child’s mind, as “deserving” to be rejected. Otherwise, rejecting the beloved parent is too painful; the suffering of the child at the loss of the beloved parent is too great.
You’re asking me how to open the child to his or her authenticity, how to expose the child to his or her immense grief and suffering. I am reticent to even try this unless the proper conditions are in place to support and protect the child.
If we open the child to the child’s authentic pain at rejecting the targeted parent, and yet the child is required by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to continue the rejection, then we are tearing the child apart psychologically. We have removed the child’s psychological defenses against experiencing the immense sadness and loss yet we have not provided the child with a way through this sadness by bonding with the targeted parent, because we have not protected the child from retaliation if the child does show bonding with the targeted parent.
We must first protect the child from retaliation before we can ask the child to change.
In order for the child to enact the cruelty necessary to reject the beloved parent, the child must develop a hatred for the targeted parent, the child must maintain a chronic unrelenting anger toward the targeted parent, in order to sustain a continual inhibition on the child’s attachment bonding motivations (i.e., love) and intersubjective motivations (i.e., empathy) for the targeted-rejected parent. Without the chronic and unrelenting anger (i.e., hatred), the child would be unable to enact the cruelty toward the targeted-rejected parent that is being required and demanded by child’s relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. If we take away the child’s hatred and anger, we expose the child to the authenticity of the child’s immense sadness caused by the loss of the beloved parent, yet if the child bonds with the targeted parent then we expose the child to the retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.
We must first protect the child so that it is safe to love the beloved parent.
As I psychotherapist, I’m not sure I want to take away the child’s defenses against his or her self-authenticity until we can protect and support the child’s authentic love and empathic attunement to the targeted parent. If the child expresses love for the targeted parent then the child faces an intense psychological retaliation from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. If we open the child to the child’s inner authenticity that the child doesn’t express, then we open the child to an immense sadness, grief, loss, and guilt (for betraying the beloved targeted parent).
Yet unless we first protect the child, so that it is safe for the child to be authentic and to express love for the beloved parent, then we provide the child no with way out from the experience of immense sadness, grief, loss, and guilt. We will be ripping the child apart because we are asking for the child’s authenticity without protecting the child’s authenticity.
I am, therefore, reluctant to answer your question. If I give you tools to open your child to the child’s inner authenticity, then I am giving you tools to expose the child to his or her grief, guilt, and immense sadness. And if we are effective in opening the child to his or her authenticity, then we are exposing the child to the intense psychological retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. If these tools work, they may tear the child apart psychologically. We must first protect the child’s authenticity, only then can we ask the child to change, to expose his or her authenticity.
When we pluck the middle C string on a harp, the other two C strings one octave above and below begin to vibrate in “harmonic resonance”. That is essentially what we want to do with the child’s authenticity.
The child’s authenticity is dormant. The brain networks for the child’s own authentic experience of love and empathy are inactive. They are quiet. No neural impulses are traveling down those pathways of love and empathy. The inhibition on those neural pathways is maintained by the child’s chronic and unrelenting anger. The child must maintain this chronic anger (i.e., hatred) in order to maintain the continual inhibition on the attachment networks of loving bonding and on the networks for normal-range human empathy (i.e., “intersubjectivity”).
The brain systems for attachment bonding and “intersubjectivity” (the term for a shared psychological state) are primary motivational systems analogous to primary motivations for hunger and reproduction. Left to their own natural expressions, the child would experience a strong motivational press for bonding with a normal-range and affectionally available parent (and even for a non-normal range and affectionally unavailable parent), and the child would experience a strong motivational press to establish a shared psychological state of understanding with this parent (i.e., ““I know that you know that I know” Stern, 2004, p. 175).
We therefore have the advantage of working with the child’s authenticity. All we need to do is de-activate the inhibition created by the child’s chronic and unrelenting anger and the natural motivational systems for attachment and intersubjectivity will reactivate (with a little prompting). So therapy actually isn’t very difficult. What’s difficult is the pressure from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent on the child to maintain the child’s chronic anger and rejection, which will then turn the child into a psychological battleground between our efforts to restore the authentic child and the efforts of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to maintain the pathological child.
Our goal is to reactivate the natural pathways in the child’s brain, and we do this by turning off the child’s chronic anger. To do this, it helps to understand something about how the emotions work, but basically we will attempt to achieve this through harmonic resonance in which we maintain a chronic and unrelenting brain state of gentle kindness, empathy, compassion, humor, and emotional warmth in the face of the child’s unrelenting anger and hostility, encouraging the child to enter our brain state of gentle humor and kindness. Our brain state, and our responses to the child from this brain state, of gentle kindness, gentle humor, compassion, and gently pleasant curiosity places pressure on the child’s ability to sustain an activated state of chronic and unrelenting anger.
The child’s chronic and unrelenting anger is like a “muscle spasm” of the emotional system. The child’s anger is spasming like an emotional cramp. We want to soothe the emotional cramping of the child’s anger system by applying the relaxing balm of gentle kindness mixed with a gentle sense of humor, and add a touch of gently authentic curiosity about the child’s world from the child’s perspective (i.e., intersubjectivity).
Gandhi said, “the antidote is the opposite.”
The antidote for the force of the child’s anger is our gentleness. The antidote for the child’s hostility is our kindness and compassion. The antidote for the child’s cruelty is our gentle sense of humor. Shared smiles are healing.
When we do this, it will naturally pull for the child’s authentic love and kindness in return, which will put tremendous pressure on the child’s guilt for maintaining the cruelty. The kinder and more compassionate and more loving we are, the more the child experiences his or her authenticity beneath the anger, and so the more it hurts for the child to maintain the rejection of a beloved parent. The kinder and more compassionate the targeted parent is, the more guilt the child feels for acting cruelly and for rejecting the beloved parent.
This is a key point: the kinder and more compassionate the targeted parent is, the more the child hurts at the loss of a bonded relationship with the beloved-but-now-lost parent, and so the angrier and more hostile the child must then become in order to maintain the continual suppression (inhibition) on the child’s primary motivations for attachment bonding (shared love) and primary intersubjective motivations (shared understanding; shared empathy).
Understanding the Emotion System
There are four basic emotions, angry, sad, afraid, and happy. Each emotion provides a different type of information about the world, each emotion has a differing social function when we communicate it into the social field, and each emotion has a different effect on brain functioning.
Anger is power, assertion, and voice, and anger seeks to make the world be the way we want it to be. There are three levels to anger; “you hurt me, so I hurt you” are the top two levels, with anger being the “I hurt you” part. The third level down is the most interesting, “the reason you hurt me is because I care about you… but you don’t care about me.” At its core, we become angry when the other person doesn’t care about us.
Anxiety is concerned, it takes things seriously. Anxiety turns all systems of the brain on. Anxiety communicates the presence of a threat or danger. Anxiety has an “override” on all other brain systems.
Sad communicates that there is the loss of something important. The social function of sadness is to draw nurture from others, and sadness turns all brain systems off, we’re no longer motivated, our energy drops, we don’t want to go places or be with people.
Happy is the social bonding emotion. Happy is contagious, it spreads from brain to brain to brain. If we start laughing in a social group, everybody starts smiling and laughing, and they may not even know why they’re laughing. Happy is contagious.
And happy is the “let-go” emotion; it’s the “no worries” – “everything is going to be okay” emotion. Happy communicates there is no threat, that everything is okay.
Happy relaxes emotional spasms.
Using Background Emotional Signaling
When our child is locked up in an emotional spasm of angry, we want to bring the relaxing effect of a low-level pleasant and happy; no worries; everything is going to be okay. As an emotion, the pleasant-relaxed-happy channel is contagious. If we’re in a low-level background state of pleasant and relaxed, this will spread to the child’s brain as well, helping to relax the child’s emotional spasm.Anger wants to make the world be a certain way. We want to avoid responding to the child’s anger with our own desire to change or alter the child because then we’re responding from a background state of low-level angry (i.e., power, assertion, and voice). The child has a right to be who he or she is, and if that is angry and grumpy, well then let’s find out what is hurting the child (“you hurt me, so I hurt you”) or about why the child doesn’t feel we care about them (“the reason you hurt me is because I care about you, but you don’t care about me”). We should generally avoid trying to make the child be different, either by discipline or direct persuasion, since “making the world be the way I want it to be” comes from the power, assertion, and voice of the angry channel, which won’t be productive. We want to relax the child’s anger-spasm, not fuel it (i.e., “I don’t care what’s hurting you, I want you to be the way I want you to be; nice and kind and loving with me.”).
And we want to avoid the “this is serious” over-concern of anxiety. This just makes emotional spasms worse. A calm and confident tone of relaxed self-assurance soothes. Anxiety, on the other hand, makes things tense.
Don’t worry, just because the child is angry and complaining, the world isn’t going to come to an end. We care, but our caring comes from compassion for the child’s hurt (anger communicates hurt; “you hurt me, so I hurt you”). We don’t want the child to hurt, and we’re gently curious from our compassion for why the child hurts. But we don’t necessarily want the child to stop hurting (i.e., the power, assertion, and voice of low-level angry), nor are we worried because the child is hurting (i.e., the “this is serious” of anxiety). We simply care,
“Oh my goodness. I’m sorry sweetie. What’s hurting you so much? Really? You don’t think I care about you, about what you want? Oh, I’m sorry, honey. I do care. How can I show you I care? Really? Is that the only way? How about a hug. I’ll bet a hug would help right about now. No? Why not, I love you and it seems like you could use a hug right about now. Really?…”
A gentle kindness. Compassion. A gentle curiosity to understand the child’s world from the child’s point of view. We don’t have to agree with the initial explanations of the child, because the child is all mixed up and confused. The child thinks the targeted parent is a bad parent who “deserves to be punished.” This is all mixed up. The child feels a grief response at the loss of the intact family and the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved-but-now-rejected parent. The child is all mixed up. So we don’t have to believe the child’s initial explanations, because the child is all confused and mixed up about what’s going on inside. But we care. We want to understand. A gentle curiosity that helps the child begin to unravel the confusion.
As we remain in a background-emotional state of low-level pleasant-relaxed-happy, of gentle compassion and kindness, the child’s own authenticity begins to “vibrate” in harmonic resonance. We awaken in the child the gentle feelings of kindness, compassion, and love through the child’s emotional harmonic resonance with our gentle feelings of kindness, compassion, and love. We awaken the child’s intersubjective bonding (empathy and the shared bond of being understood) by our understanding for the child’s inner experience, even if we don’t agree with it, even if we realize it’s mixed up and confused. Still we understand that this is what the child feels right now. It’s mixed up, but that’s okay, no worries, we’ll unravel it over time, no pressure.
We’re using a low-level relaxed-pleasant-happy background emotion to relax the child’s anger-spasm. It’s not a high-level happy-pleasant response that is too far out of synchrony with the child’s anger. Instead, it’s simply a background brain state of gentleness, of kindness, of compassion and of concern that is born from our kindness – not from our anxiety or from our desire to change things and make them be the way we want things to be. We simply care. And we have a gentle curiosity about what is hurting the child.
“Oh my goodness, what’s hurting sweetie?”
Understanding the Child
Our kindness and compassion are born from our understanding that people, even the child, have an existential right to be who they are.
This understanding, in turn, has its roots in understanding why the child must do what he or she is doing.
It’s not just the influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, it’s also because we cannot protect the child from the psychological retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent; it’s also because the child is being psychologically compelled by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to cruelly reject the beloved targeted parent, and this is creating immense sadness and guilt which the child avoids through maintaining a chronic state of anger and hostility toward the targeted parent; through making the targeted parent somehow “deserve” the rejection and cruelty of the child, because then it doesn’t hurt so much.
As our gentle kindness moves deeper into activating through harmonic resonance the child’s own kindness and loving affection, we will open up the child’s immense sadness and hurt. With sensitive timing we can facilitate the child’s self-awareness of this reservoir of pain.
“I’m sorry you’re hurting, honey. This has all been very hard on you hasn’t it?”
“I’m not hurting! I hate you. I don’t want to be with you!”
“No, sweetie. That’s hurting. You think it’s anger. But that’s where anger comes from. When we’re hurting.”
“Shut up. Just shut up. You’re so full of s#@.”
“When we’re sad, a hug helps. I’d like to help, but I’ll leave you alone now. Your anger is because you’re sad. You’re hurting. We can make it stop, if you’d like. I know how to make it stop hurting so much. Let me know if you’d like to make it stop, okay?”
“Just go away and leave me alone. That’s what would help.”
“I know, sweetie. It does help you hurt less when I’m not around. But that’s because you actually love me, and I love you. But we’re not able to find that shared love, that’s what’s hurting you. Once we find that shared love, the hurting will go away – poof – just like that. You’ll see.”
“Shut up. I don’t love you. I hate you.”
That’s the anger. That’s the hurt. It’s okay, I’ll leave you alone now.”
Gentle, persistent, kindness. Calm and confident. Activating through harmonic resonance the child’s kindness and compassion, the child’s love, all of which will activate immense sadness expressed as anger. In essence, we want to communicate “It’s okay. I understand. No worries. Take my hand and I can lead you out of Wonderland, out of your pain and confusion, I can lead you back home. There are no worries… no pressure”.
Smiles are good. Not crazy, psychotic, you’re freaking me out smiles. But gentle smiles of kindness. A twinkle in the eye.
Rub-pat-pats on the shoulder and back are good. The child may pull away… for now… but that’s okay. The rub-pat-pat is a self-expression from the giver, the other person can accept or decline… but it always feels better to accept.
The child must maintain the chronic and unrelenting anger, the hatred, at all times, in order to maintain the inhibition on the attachment and intersubjective systems. The moment the anger begins to fade, the authentic child begins to emerge. And the authentic child hurts.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857
Stern, D. (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: