Key Concept: Splitting

Understanding Splitting

This post builds some bricks in the structure for understanding the construct of “parental alienation” which I will then be able to reference in future discussions. 

In this post I’m going to discuss a key construct, the nature of the splitting dynamic that is characteristic of both narcissistic and borderline personality organizations.  As part of this discussion, I will also elaborate on the equivalence of narcissistic and borderline personality organizations at the attachment level, and the key role of splitting in the symptom manifestation of “parental alienation” within an attachment-based framework of the construct (i.e., as the child’s cross-generational coalition with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent).


Central to the psychological processes of narcissistic and borderline personalities is the characteristic of “splitting,” which is a polarized perception of events and people into extremes of all-good, ideal, and wonderful or all-bad, entirely devalued, and demonized.  In splitting, thinking and perception are black-or-white. Modulated shades of grey, of mixed positive and negative qualities, are not possible. People are EITHER idealized as the all-wonderful source of nurture and narcissistic supply, OR they are entirely demonized as being “abusive” and as “deserving” to be punished for their inadequacy.  Splitting involves black-or-white extremes of polarized thinking and perception.

The American Psychiatric Association (2000) defines splitting as,

“Splitting. The individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by compartmentalizing opposite affect states and failing to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self or others into cohesive images. Because ambivalent affects cannot be experienced simultaneously, more balanced views and expectations of self or others are excluded from emotional awareness. Self and object images tend to alternate between polar opposites: exclusively loving, powerful, worthy, nurturant, and kind — or exclusively bad, hateful, angry, destructive, rejecting, or worthless.” (p. 813)

One of the leading figures in personality disorder dynamics, Otto Kernberg (1977), links the characteristic of splitting to the capacity for denial as a defense mechanism,

“Denial here is typically exemplified by “mutual denial” of two independent areas of consciousness (in this case, we might say, denial simply reinforces splitting). The patient is aware of the fact that at this time his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about himself or other people are completely opposite to those he has had at other times; but this memory has no emotional relevance, it cannot influence the way he feels now. At a later time, he may revert to his previous ego state and then deny the present one, again with persisting memory, but with a complete incapacity for emotional linkage of these two ego states.” (p. 31-32)

One of the leading authorities on borderline personality disorder processes, Masha Linehan, captures the characteristic inflexibility of the splitting mindset,

“They tend to see reality in polarized categories of “either-or,” rather than “all,” and within a very fixed frame of reference. For example, it is not uncommon for such individuals to believe that the smallest fault makes it impossible for the person to be “good” inside. Their rigid cognitive style further limits their abilities to entertain ideas of future change and transition, resulting in feelings of being in an interminable painful situation. Things once defined do not change. Once a person is “flawed,” for instance, that person will remain flawed forever. (p. 35)

Both the narcissistic and borderline personality display spitting as a characteristic feature of their personalities. This is because both the narcissist and borderline personality share an underlying personality organization with differing surface manifestations.

Both the narcissistic and borderline personalities have an experience of tremendous core-self inadequacy and both believe that this core-self inadequacy will result in their being rejected and abandoned by others, principally by attachment figures. These personality disorder dynamics are the product of underlying patterns in their attachment system that serve as the formative core for the development of the personality structure. Bowlby (1969; 1973; 1980), who initially described the formation and nature of the attachment system, called these underlying patterns “internal working models” of attachment. Beck et al., (2004) refer to them as organizing “schemas” that guide our perceptions of events and relationships.

The underlying internal working models of attachment, or organizing schemas, for both the borderline personality and the narcissist are the same, a fundamental experience of core-self inadequacy (belief about self-in-relationship) and a belief that he or she will be rejected and abandoned by the attachment figure because of this fundamental core-self inadequacy (belief about other-in-relationship). The difference between the borderline and narcissistic personality is the differing manner in which each personality style copes with and defends against this identical underlying core belief system.

Equivalence of Narcissistic and Borderline Organizational Structure

Kernberg (1975), one of the leading figures in understanding narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics, equates the two types of personalities as essentially representing differing external manifestations of an underlying borderline personality organization,

“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.” (Kernberg, p. xiii)

“Most of these patients [i.e., narcissists] present an underlying borderline personality organization.” (p. 16)

For mental health professionals reading this post, let me extend Kernberg’s discussion a little deeper,

“Underneath the feelings of insecurity, self-criticism, and inferiority that patients with borderline personality organization present, one can frequently find grandiose and omnipotent trends. These very often take the form of a strong unconscious conviction that they have the right to expect gratification and homage from others, to be treated as privileged, special persons. If an external object can provide no further gratification or protection, it is dropped and dismissed because there was no real capacity for love of this object in the first place.” (p. 33)

Childress Comment: it is interesting to note that when the targeted parent supposedly “provides no further gratification” for the child (according to the child’s report), the relationship with this parent is “dropped and dismissed” as if “there was no real capacity for love” in the child in the first place.  This child presentation is classically characteristic of narcissistic/borderline personality processes, and it is entirely inconsistent with the authentic functioning of the attachment system.

“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.” (Ainsworth, 1989, p. 711)

“The difference between narcissistic personality structure and borderline personality organization is that in the narcissistic personality there is an integrated, although highly pathological grandiose self… The integration of this pathological, grandiose self compensates for the lack of integration of the normal self-concept which is part of the underlying borderline personality organization: it explains the paradox of relatively good ego functioning and surface adaptation in the presence of a predominance of splitting mechanisms, a related constellation of primitive defenses, and the lack of integration of object representations in these patients.” (p. 265-266)

“The pathological grandiose self compensates for the general “ego-weakening” effects of the primitive defensive organization, a common characteristic of narcissistic personalities and patients with borderline personality organization, and explains the fact that narcissistic personalities may present an overt functioning that ranges from the borderline level to that of better integrated types of character pathology.” (p. 269)

Both the narcissistic and borderline personalities experience a primal core-self inadequacy that, at the attachment system level, represents the internal working models in the attachment system for self-in-relationship.

Both the narcissistic and borderline personalities also have a corresponding belief that they will be rejected and abandoned by the primary attachment figure, which represents at the attachment system level their internal working model for other-in-relationship.

Bowlby refers to these basic internalized belief systems that comprise the attachment system as “internal working models,” while Beck et al., (2004) refer to them as “schemas,”

Bowlby: Internal Working Models

“No variables, it is held, have more far-reaching effects on personality development than have a child’s experiences within his family: for, starting during the first months of his relations with his mother figure, and extending through the years of childhood and adolescence in his relations with both parents, he builds up working models of how attachment figures are likely to behave towards him in any of a variety of situations; and on those models are based all his expectations, and therefore all his plans for the rest of his life.” (Bowlby, 1973, p. 369).

“Every situation we meet within life is construed in terms of the representational models we have of the world about us and of ourselves. Information reaching our sense organs is selected and interpreted in terms of those models, its significance for us and for those we care for is evaluated in terms of them, and plans of action conceived and executed with those models in mind.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 229)

Beck: Schemas

“How a situation is evaluated depends in part, at least, on the relevant underlying beliefs. These beliefs are embedded in more or less stable structures, labeled “schemas,” that select and synthesize incoming data.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 17)

“The content of the schemas may deal with personal relationships, such as attitudes toward the self or others, or impersonal categories… When schemas are latent, they are not participating in information processing; when activated they channel cognitive processing from the earliest to the final stages.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 27)

“In personality disorders, the schemas are part of normal, everyday processing of information… When hypervalent, these idiosyncratic schemas displace and probably inhibit other schemas that may be more adaptive or more appropriate for a given situation. They consequently introduce a systematic bias into information processing.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 27)

”Some subsystems composed of cognitive schemas are concerned with self-evaluation, others are concerned with evaluation of other people.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 28)

These distorted internal working models of attachment (or organizing schemas) guide and direct the interpretation of relationships and the responses made to these distorted interpretations of reality by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. Some “alienating” parents will present with stronger narcissistic personality styles while other “alienating” parents will present with stronger borderline personality styles. Note in this regard, Kernberg’s analysis of the narcissistic personality that,

“…narcissistic personalities may present an overt functioning that ranges from the borderline level to that of better integrated types of character pathology.” (Kernberg, 1977, p. 269)

It is this wide variability in the overt presentation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in “parental alienation,” combined with the absence of personality disorder expertise in the mental health professionals who are diagnosing and treating general child and family problems, that may have contributed to the seeming non-recognition of the narcissistic/(borderline) pathology associated with “parental alienation.”

It is IMPERATIVE that ALL mental health professionals, all child custody evaluators and all therapists, who are involved in diagnosing and treating this “special population” of children and families have a professional level of expertise regarding the nature, dynamics, and presentation of personality disorder processes, particularly narcissistic and borderline personality development and characteristics.

I would strongly urge and strongly recommend that ALL mental health professionals involved in diagnosing and treating this special population of children and families, which means all child custody evaluators and treating therapists, read the following set of literature to establish professional competence in the requisite domain of personality disorder components for this special population:

Core Texts:

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

Readings of Special Note:

Moor, A. and Silvern, L. (2006). Identifying pathways linking child abuse to psychological outcome: The mediating role of perceived parental failure of empathy. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6, 91-112.

Childress Comment: Highly recommended regarding parental empathic failure as a form of psychological child abuse and developmental trauma. Failure of parental empathy is a characterological feature of both narcissistic and borderline personalities.

Kerig, P.K. (2005). Revisiting the construct of boundary dissolution: A multidimensional perspective. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5, 5-42.

Childress Comment: Highly recommended regarding the nature of role-reversal parent-child relationships.  Role-reversal relationships are an extremely common feature of narcissistic and borderline parenting.

Dutton, D. G., Denny-Keys, M. K., & Sells, J. R. (2011). Parental personality disorder and Its effects on children: A review of current literature. Journal Of Child Custody, 8, 268-283.

Childress Comment: Recommended review of the impact of narcissistic parenting

Rappoport, A. (2005). Co-narcissism: How we accommodate to narcissistic parents. The Therapist.

Childress Comment: Recommended discussion of children’s presentation when living with a narcissistic parent.

There is no excuse or justification for professional ignorance.  If a mental health professional is going to be involved in the diagnosis and/or treatment of families that involve narcissistic and/or borderline personality dynamics, then the mental health professional MUST be professionally knowledgeable and competent in personality disorder dynamics.

There is NO EXCUSE for professional ignorance.

The Neurological Origins of Splitting

Spitting is not an actual physical splitting of areas in the brain. It involves the excessive “cross-inhibition” of two brain areas, so if one area is active (the area containing positive representations, for example) then this active area of the brain triggers inhibitory connections that entirely suppress the activity of another area of the brain (the area containing negative representations), so that only one or the other area of the brain can be active at any one time.

So, as noted earlier by Kernberg regarding denial and splitting, the person will continue to have a memory that he or she previously didn’t feel this way, “but this memory has no emotional relevance” for the person because that area of the brain that was previously active is now entirely turned off (entirely inhibited by the activity of the other brain area).

For the rest of us, living in a normal-range brain, we can have both brain areas on simultaneously. Our brain area containing positive representations can be on AT THE SAME TIME as our brain area containing negative representations, so that we can have a complex blend of both positive and negative features about an event or person. Yet even in our normal-range brains we still have a little bit of cross-inhibition occurring. If we like someone, we tend to see more positive things about that person, and we’ll tend to overlook their negative qualities (this is called a “positive halo” effect), whereas if we don’t like someone we will tend to interpret what they do in a more negative and critical way (this is called a “negative halo” effect).

But our cross-inhibition is relatively mild (hopefully), which allows us a more balanced perception of events and people. For the narcissistic and borderline personalities, however, the cross-inhibition of the two brain areas is complete and totalEITHER the positive representation area is active, in which case the negative representation area is entirely turned off (i.e., creating the all-good, perfectly nurturing, and idealized extreme), OR the negative representation area is active, in which case the positive representation area is entirely turned off (i.e., creating the all-bad, entirely devalued, and demonized extreme).

No balanced blend of perception is possible in the brain circuitry of the narcissistic borderline parent. Black-or-white extremes. This is called “splitting.”

How does a situation like this develop?

Spitting occurs in the attachment system, and it is a response to a parent who is simultaneously a source of fear and a source of nurture.

“Various studies have found that patients with BPD are characterized by disorganized attachment representations… Disorganized attachment is considered to result from an unresolvable situation for the child when “the parent is at the same time the source of fright as well as the potential haven of safety” (van IJzendoorn, Schuengel, & Bakermans-Kranburg, 1999, p. 226).” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 191)

The positive representation area of the brain is the area containing attachment bonding motivations, and the negative representation area of the brain is the area containing avoidance motivations. The parent, as a source of nurture for the child, naturally triggers the child’s attachment bonding motivations. However, when this parent is simultaneously a source of threat who provokes an intense fear in the child, the child’s avoidance motivations also become active, and the child becomes strongly motivated to flee from the source of threat and danger (the hostile-abusive parent) and seek nurture and protection from… the parent… who is… the source of threat and danger and who is triggering the child’s avoidance motivation.

This creates a state of intolerable inner conflict, where both the attachment bonding and avoidance motivation systems are simultaneously active at high intensities. If this becomes a chronic experience, the brain begins to resolve this conflict by excessively cross-inhibiting these networks, so that if one network is active, say the attachment bonding network, then the other network, the avoidance network, is entirely inhibited and becomes completely inactive. Or, if the avoidance motivation system is active, then this entirely inhibits the attachment bonding motivation system. So that ONLY one or the other motivating system is on at any given time.

So unlike our normal-range brains that can simultaneously experience both attachment bonding and avoidance motivations, with only minimal cross-inhibition (i.e., the halo effect), the brain of the narcissistic/borderline personality experiences EITHER one OR the other motivation (an intense bonding motivation or an intense avoidance motivation), but never both simultaneously (i.e., never a complex blend of good and bad).

This is what “splitting” is. It is a distinctive and characteristic feature of both narcissistic and borderline psychopathology. It is easily recognized by a competent mental health professional.

Splitting and “Parental Alienation”

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent is neurologically unable to simultaneously experience both positive and negative perceptions of a person. Either the other person is seen as an idealized source of nurture and narcissistic supply, or the other person becomes a devalued object of complete contempt and scorn. No middle ground is possible. Ambiguity is neurologically impossible for the narcissistic/(borderline) personality.

When the divorce occurs, the targeted parent becomes an ex-husband or an ex-wife.

In the black-and-white polarized brain pathways of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the “bad husband” MUST also become the “bad father” and the “bad wife” MUST also become the “bad mother.”  There is no other possibility.  This is an imperative imposed by the neurological networks of the narcissistic/(borderline) brain, i.e., by the splitting dynamic characteristic of both narcissistic and borderline personalities.

What’s more, since the narcissistic/(borderline) brain cannot experience (fundamentally cannot experience) ambiguity, the ex-husband must also become an ex-father; the ex-wife must become an ex-mother. To the mind of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent this seems self-evident and obvious. Remember Kernberg’s discussion of denial,

“The patient is aware of the fact that at this time his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about himself or other people are completely opposite to those he has had at other times; but this memory has no emotional relevance, it cannot influence the way he feels now… [There is] a complete incapacity for emotional linkage of these two ego states.” (p. 31-32)

All memories held by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent of the positive relationship the targeted parent may have had with the children are lost to relevance. The bad spouse has now become a bad parent, and the ex-husband must become an ex-father, the ex-wife must become the ex-mother, and there is a “complete incapacity for emotional linkage” to any prior experiences of the targeted parent as a good spouse or good parent. These memories have “no emotional relevance.”

And, since the child is in a shared psychological state with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (variously called an “intersubjective” state (Stern, 2004; Trevarthan, 2001), a “dyadic state of consciousness” (Tronick, 2003), or “enmeshment” (Minuchin, 1974), the child is acquiring the orientation and belief systems of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, hence the presence of narcissistic and borderline traits in the child’s symptom display (i.e., diagnostic indicator 2).

So the child will exhibit the SAME splitting process (diagnostic indicator 2.5). The child’s memories of formerly positive experiences with the targeted parent will also lose relevance for the child. The child may remain “aware of the fact that at this time his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about [the targeted parent] are completely opposite to those he has had at other times; but this memory has no emotional relevance, it cannot influence the way he feels now… [There is] a complete incapacity for emotional linkage of these two ego states.”

This explains what otherwise is a very puzzling feature of “parental alienation.”

Why doesn’t the child remember all the good times with the targeted parent? Their love and affection, their laughter and warmth? What happened to all those positive memories?

“In this case, we might say, denial simply reinforces splitting” (Kernberg, 1977, p. 31)

Now Kernberg wasn’t talking about “parental alienation.” Kernberg was describing the narcissistic/borderline personality. Which highlights an important point, the moment we ground our definition of “parental alienation” in established psychological constructs and principles, a wealth of relevant information immediately becomes available to us, and explanations are revealed.

Understanding the role of splitting in “parental alienation” is just one more brick in a comprehensive and accurate explanation of what “parental alienation” is from within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.

Parallel Process

Whenever multiple mental health professionals work with borderline personality processes (and narcissistic processes have an underlying borderline organization), there always exists the potential that the splitting dynamic of the borderline process will be transferred and expressed among the involved mental health professionals, variously called “parallel process” and “staff splitting.”

Linehan, one of the premiere experts in borderline personality processes, describes this potential for the transfer of splitting into the professional team working with borderline personality dynamics in patients,

“Staff splitting,” as mentioned earlier, is a much-discussed phenomenon in which professionals treating borderline patients begin arguing and fighting about a patient, the treatment plan, or the behavior of the other professionals with the patient… arguments among staff members and differences in points of view, traditionally associated with staff splitting, are seen as failures in synthesis and interpersonal process among the staff rather than as a patient’s problem… Therapist disagreements over a patient are treated as potentially equally valid poles of a dialectic. Thus, the starting point for dialogue is the recognition that a polarity has arisen, together with an implicit (if not explicit) assumption that resolution will require working toward synthesis.” (p. 432)

This very much sounds to me like the professional discussion surrounding “parental alienation” that has occurred over the past 30 years, in which each side (pole in the dialectic) is advocating for their position without finding synthesis with the other side (the other pole in the dialectic).  Establishment mental health (symbolized by the DSM committees) have discounted Gardnerian PAS as “junk science” and have withheld granting legitimacy to the construct of PAS, and a separate partisan divide has swirled around the construct of false allegations of child abuse, with each side taking staunchly polarized positions. 

For their part, the Gardnerian PAS advocates have failed to grasp and appreciate the legitimate criticism of PAS as being founded on a set of loose anecdotal indicators that have no connection to established psychological constructs or principles. Rather than take this criticism to heart and employ the professional rigor necessary to define “parental alienation” within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, the Gardnerian PAS supporters have simply tried to storm the gates of the DSM with the same continual argument of “it exists.”

From the perspective of “staff splitting,” Marsha Linehan provides us the way out of this unproductive professional squabbling.  First, we must recognize that a polarity has arisen, and that both sides represent equally valid poles of a dialectic.  Second, we must come together to work toward synthesis.

The criticism of Gardner’s model of PAS as not being sufficiently grounded in scientifically established psychological principles and constructs is a valid criticism.  An attachment-based reconceptualization of the construct of “parental alienation” addresses this criticism levied by establishment mental health against Gardner’s model of PAS.  And, in applying the professional rigor necessary to describe the construct of “parental alienation” entirely from within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, a wealth of explanatory information is made available to guide both diagnosis and treatment.

Equally, establishment mental health needs to similarly work toward synthesis by recognizing the legitimacy of a clinical phenomenon associated with what has traditionally been called “parental alienation.”  It doesn’t matter what it’s called, but it represents severe distortions to family processes as a result of a cross-generational coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is creating serious developmental (diagnostic indicator 1), personality (diagnostic indicator 2), and psychiatric (diagnostic indicator 3) pathology in the child, which defines it as “pathogenic parenting.”

Because the construct has a history of being labeled as “parental alienation,” I would recommend we keep this descriptive label, but I have added the prefix “attachment-based” to the label to differentiate this scientifically grounded model for the clinical phenomenon from the earlier Gardnerian PAS model.

Fundamentally, however, within mental health we must show enlightened professionalism and bring this parallel process of “staff splitting” to an end for the benefit of our client children and families.  Both sides are right, both sides represent equally valid poles in a dialectic.  It is time we engage in professional dialogue that recognizes this truth so that we can maintain our professional focus on serving the needs of our client families by coming together to work toward synthesis

This is ALSO true surrounding the divisive issue of false allegations of abuse.  We need to protect children from child abuse and a healthy trust for children’s reporting of abuse is warranted.  One of the absolutely worst things we can do in a case of authentic child abuse is allow the child to report the abuse, and then not believe the child and not do anything to stop the abuse.  That is psychologically devastating to the child.  The skeptics of false allegations of child abuse, who are advocating for providing greater credibility to child reporting of abuse have an extremely legitimate and important point.  They are right.


In some cases, particularly when there is parental narcissistic and borderline processes and a cross-generational role-reversal relationship in which the child has been induced/seduced into meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the narcissistic/borderline parent, there are occurrences of the narcissistic/borderline parent inducing/seducing false and distorted allegations of abuse from the allied child directed toward the other parent in order that the narcissistic/borderline parent can exploit the allegations to achieve power over the situation and the targeted parent.  Furthermore, borderline personality parents may have been abused themselves and so have a pre-potentiated schema of fearfulness in which they see abuse where none exists (the term “borderline” refers to being on the “border” of neurosis and psychosis).

“Young’s schema model… patients with BPD were characterized by higher self-reports of beliefs, emotions, and behaviors related to the four pathogenic BPD modes (detached protector, abandoned/abused child, angry child, and punitive parent model.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 193)

“Patients with BPD are characterized by hypervigilance (being vulnerable in a dangerous world where nobody can be trusted) and dichotomous thinking.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 193)

“The conceptualization of the core pathology of BPD as stemming from a highly frightened, abused child who is left alone in a malevolent world, longing for safety and help but distrustful because of fear of further abuse and abandonment, is highly related to the model developed by Young (McGinn & Young, 1996)… Young elaborated on an idea, in the 1980s introduced by Aaron Beck in clinical workshops (D.M. Clark, personal communication), that some pathological states of patients with BPD are a sort of regression into intense emotional states experienced as a child. Young conceptualized such states as schema modes…” (p. 199)

Young hypothesized that four schema modes are central to BPD: the abandoned child mode (the present author suggests to label it the abused and abandoned child); the angry/impulsive child mode; the punitive parent mode, and the detached protector mode… The abused and abandoned child mode denotes the desperate state the patient may be in related to (threatened) abandonment and abuse the patient has experienced as a child. Typical core beliefs are that other people are malevolent, cannot be trusted, and will abandon or punish you, especially when you become intimate with them. (p. 199)

Narcissistic personalities can also decompensate into paranoid and persecutory delusional beliefs (Millon, 2011). 

“Owing to their excessive use of fantasy mechanisms, they [narcissists] are disposed to misinterpret events and to construct delusional beliefs… Among narcissists, delusions often take form after a serious challenge or setback has upset their image of superiority and omnipotence… Delusional systems may also develop as a result of having felt betrayed and humiliated. Here we may see the rapid unfolding of persecutory delusions…” (Millon, 2011, p. 407)

The presence of parental narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics realistically elevates the risk of false allegations of abuse directed toward a normal-range targeted parent as a consequence of the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, especially when the child has been induced/seduced into a cross-generational coalition with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent against the other parent that involves a role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

We need to protect children from ALL forms of child abuse.

Both sides represent “equally valid poles in a dialectic.”  For the well-being of our clients, professional psychology must demonstrate sufficient self-reflective insight to avoid the parallel process dynamic of staff splitting associated with treating borderline personality processes (i.e., “parental alienation”) and must work together, NOT as adversaries, toward a synthesis of understanding that recognizes the legitimacy of both poles in the dialectic.

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


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.


Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44, 709-716.

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

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

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

Personality Disorders

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

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

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

Moor, A. and Silvern, L. (2006). Identifying pathways linking child abuse to psychological outcome: The mediating role of perceived parental failure of empathy. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6, 91-112.

“The indication that posttraumatic symptoms were no longer associated with child abuse, across all categories, after statistically controlling for the effect of perceived parental empathy might appear surprising at first, as trauma symptoms are commonly conceived of as connected to specifically terrorizing aspects of maltreatment (e.g., Wind & Silvern, 1994). However, this finding is, in fact, entirely consistent with both Kohut’s (1977) and Winnicott’s (1988) conception of the traumatic nature of parental empathic failure. In this view, parental failure of empathy is predicted to amount to a traumatic experience in itself over time, and subsequently to result in trauma-related stress. Interestingly, even though this theoretical conceptualization of trauma differs in substantial ways from the modern use of the term, it was still nonetheless captured by the present measures.” (Moor & Silvern, 2006, p. 197)

Kerig, P.K. (2005). Revisiting the construct of boundary dissolution: A multidimensional perspective. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5, 5-42.

“The breakdown of appropriate generational boundaries between parents and children significantly increases the risk for emotional abuse. (Kerig, 2005, p. 6)

Rather than telling the child directly what to do or think, as does the behaviorally controlling parent, the psychologically controlling parent uses indirect hints and responds with guilt induction or withdrawal of love if the child refuses to comply. In short, an intrusive parent strives to manipulate the child’s thoughts and feelings in such a way that the child’s psyche will conform to the parent’s wishes. (p. 12)

Dutton, D. G., Denny-Keys, M. K., & Sells, J. R. (2011). Parental personality disorder and Its effects on children: A review of current literature. Journal Of Child Custody, 8, 268-283.

“One of the most impactful consequences brought about as a result of growing up with parental PD is the way in which a child is raised with emotionally unavailable, unpredictable, or hostileabusive parenting and the consequences of this upbringing on attachment issues.” (p. 271)

“The results [of Horne’s study] indicated mothers’ narcissism rates correlated significantly and positively with their sons’ narcissism and negatively with their sons’ expressions of empathy.”

Rappoport, A. (2005). Co-narcissism: How we accommodate to narcissistic parents. The Therapist.

“To the extent that parents are narcissistic, they are controlling, blaming, self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ views, unaware of their children’s needs and of the effects of their behavior on their children, and require that the children see them as the parents wish to be seen. They may also demand certain behavior from their children because they see the children as extensions of themselves, and need the children to represent them in the world in ways that meet the parents’ emotional needs. (Rappoport, 2005, p. 2)

In a narcissistic encounter, there is, psychologically, only one person present. The co-narcissist disappears for both people, and only the narcissistic person’s experience is important. Children raised by narcissistic parents come to believe that all other people are narcissistic to some extent. As a result, they orient themselves around the other person in their relationships, lose a clear sense of themselves, and cannot express themselves easily nor participate fully in their lives. (Rappoport, 2005, p. 3)

“Often, the same person displays both narcissistic and co-narcissistic behaviors, depending on circumstances. A person who was raised by a narcissistic or a co-narcissistic parent tends to assume that, in any interpersonal interaction, one person is narcissistic and the other co-narcissistic, and often can play either part. Commonly, one parent was primarily narcissistic and the other parent primarily co-narcissistic, and so both orientations have been modeled for the child. (Rappoport, 2005, p. 2)

 Intersubjectivity & Enmeshment

Stern, D. (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York:

Trevarthen, C. (2001). The neurobiology of early communication: Intersubjective regulations in human brain development. In Kalverboer, A.F. and Gramsbergen, A. (Eds) Handbook of Brain and Behaviour in Human Development. London: Kluwer Academic Publishers

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