Gandhi said, “the antidote is the opposite.”
The child is expressing anger, hatred, and rejection. The antidote is compassion, empathy, and gentle kindness.
The authentic child is lost. The antidote is a calm and gentle assertion of a truth that guides the child’s return to authenticity, that the child is loved, and that the child wants to love in return.
Empathy is the single most important parenting quality. Children flourish with parental empathy, and they starve in its absence.
Children absorb their parents. Children experience what their parents experience. This is because of a primary relationship system in the brain called “intersubjectivity” (Fonagy, Luyten, & Strathearn, 2011; Stern, 2004); Trevarthan, 2001; Tronick, et al., 1998), and it is so central to a deep understanding of the “parental alienation” process that ALL mental health professionals involved in the assessment of parental capacity and the diagnosis and treatment of “parental alienation” need to be professionally well-versed in the nature and functioning of the intersubjective system.
The intersubjectivity system (which I refer to as “psychological connection” in my practice) is one of two primary relationship systems in the brain, the other relationship system is the attachment system.
One of the premiere researchers and theorists in child development and the intersubjective system, Daniel Stern (2004), said of this fundamental psychological connection system,
“Our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others. Our intentions are modified or born in a shifting dialogue with the felt intentions of others. Our feelings are shaped by the intentions, thoughts, and feelings of others. And our thoughts are cocreated in dialogue, even when it is only with ourselves. In short, our mental life is cocreated. This continuous cocreative dialogue with other minds is what I am calling the intersubjective matrix.” (p. 76).
At the cellular level, this intersubjective system of shared psychological states (the “interpenetration of minds”) is mediated by a set of brain cells called “mirror neurons.” There is a wonderful PBS Nova program online about mirror neurons and I highly recommend watching it:
Stern (2004) also discusses the linkage of intersubjectivity (empathy) and the mirror neuron system:
“The discovery of mirror neurons has been crucial. Mirror neurons provide possible neurobiological mechanisms for understanding the following phenomena: reading other people’s states of mind, especially intentions; resonating with another’s emotion; experiencing what someone else is experiencing; and capturing an observed action so that one can imitate it — in short, empathizing with another and establishing intersubjective contact.” (p. 78)
“Mirror neurons sit adjacent to motor neurons. They fire in an observer who is doing nothing but watching another person behave (e.g., reaching for a glass). And the pattern of firing in the observer mimics the exact pattern that the observer would use if he were reaching for the glass himself… We experience the other as if we were executing the same action, feeling the same emotion, making the same vocalization, or being touched as they are being touched.”(p. 79).
At a fundamental neurobiological and relationship level, children psychologically absorb the experience of their parents. This means that your child is absorbing the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and what the child is expressing through anger and hatred, through the rejection of love, is the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is being absorbed psychologically into and through the child.
Understanding the Pathology
The origin of the narcissistic and borderline personality is found in an immense pain and suffering. This type of personalty has its source in an intense experience of deep personal inadequacy, an abyss of inner emptiness. From within this core experience of fundamental emptiness the narcissistic/borderline personality expects and anticipates that no one will love them because of their deep, primal, fundamental inadequacy as a person. They are empty inside, unloved and unlovable.
The narcissistic personality defends against this primal inadequacy of being unloved and unlovable by adopting a superficial veneer of grandiose self-inflation. But this defensive veneer requires continual input of “narcissistic supply” from others because it is not sustained by any authentic internal source of true self-value. Inside, at their core of self-experience, is a dark void of fundamental inadequacy and an abiding belief that they are fundamentally unloved and unlovable.
If their superficial defensive veneer of narcissistic self-inflation is challenged then their fragile self-structure is threatened with collapse into the void of their self-inadequacy, the dark abyss of being fundamentally unloved and unlovable. They then protect their fragile self-structure by exploding into narcissistic rage at the source of threat, attacking with irrational accusations and haughty arrogance, striving to maintain their fragile narcissistic defense against a collapse into the void of primal emptiness of self. Holding their fragile self-structure together by the sheer cohesive force of their rage and anger.
At its core, the narcissistic personality has a borderline organization of primal self-inadequacy and an intense fear of abandonment because they experience themselves as fundamentally unloved and unlovable. The difference is that the borderline personality experiences this abyss directly and continually, which creates a chaotic self-experience of intense emotions, desperately seeking to be loved, needing to have their inner emptiness filled by the love of others (which could be called “borderline supply”), only to then collapse into their primal experience of fundamental inadequacy, unloved and unlovable, at any sign of a real or imagined rejection, producing the “borderline rage” of accusations and denigration of the formerly beloved object
“you’re not loving me well enough to hold me outside the abyss of my inner emptiness”
When eventually the borderline personality’s self-structure is able to restabilize itself after its collapse into the abyss of the borderline’s inner emptiness, they desperately reach out once again, seeking the love of the other to fill the fundamental void of their self-structure and to hold at bay the experience of their being fundamentally unloved and unlovable.
And this pattern is endlessly repeated, seducing love from the other which supports the borderline’s self-experience as “I am loved and lovable,” followed by a collapse into the abyss of core-self inadequacy and a profound experience of inner emptiness at any sign of real or imagined rejection, leading to a hostile-aggressive attack on the other person for failing to provide the needed self-supply of fundamental adequacy that the borderline person is fundamentally loved and lovable as a person (i.e., the message communicated by the real or imagined rejection is that “you are unloved and unlovable” which provokes the self-structure collapse into the dark abyss of personal inadequacy), and then a return once more to desperately seeking (seducing) once again the love of the other when the borderline self-structure eventually recovers from its collapse into the void.
The source of the narcissistic/borderline personality is in pain and suffering. They protect themselves from their immense pain and suffering by projecting into the world their core inadequacy and their fundamental unloveableness. It is the world that is inadequate, it is the world that doesn’t “deserve” to be loved by the narcissistic/borderline personality.
The dark abyss of emptiness at the inner core of the narcissistic/borderline personality is psychologically expelled from the self-structure of the narcissistic/borderline personality by projecting it, externalizing it, into the world, into us. We are unloved and unlovable. We are inadequate.
The narcissistic personality style adopts a detached haughty and arrogant contempt and disdain for the inadequacy of others, which they use to inflate their own narcissistic specialness, while the borderline personality style alternately seeks continual displays of love from others for their specialness, and then savages the formerly beloved with hostility and contempt for their inadequacy in failing to provide the borderline with the continual perfect love that their specialness deserves.
For the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, it is essential that the targeted parent is inadequate, unloved, and unlovable, because the targeted parent is the external container that holds for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent their own inner emptiness and suffering. They can avoid the abyss by projecting it, externalizing it, into us.
And they accomplish this through the child, through the beloved of the targeted parent.
You are inadequate as a parent and you are rejected because of your fundamental inadequacy. You are unloved and unlovable because of your inadequacy.
Through the child’s rejection of a loving relationship, you are made to hold the inner suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The pain you feel is measure for measure the pain of the narcissistic/borderline experience being transferred into you as the “holding container” for their inner emptiness and suffering.
As a parent rejected by your beloved child, you experience a profound inner emptiness at the core of your being. This is the dark abyss of emptiness at the core of the narcissistic/borderline personality. Your suffering is their primal suffering being transferred into you.
Your immense pain at being rejected by your child, unloved and unlovable, is measure for measure the inner suffering-of-being experienced by the narcissistic/borderline parent of being fundamentally unloved and unlovable because of their primal self-inadequacy.
What the narcissistic/borderline parent is doing in distorting the child’s love and self-experience is an abomination, yet we can nevertheless have compassion and empathy for the immense inner suffering of the narcissistic/borderline personality that is driving the abomination of twisting and distorting the child’s authentic love for a normal-range and loving parent into hatred, loss, and rejection.
The antidote is the opposite.
The child is the medium, the conduit, for this transfer of suffering from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to you.
And in this transfer process, the child absorbs the suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and gives it to you. The anger, hateful rage, absence of empathy and cruelty displayed by the child represents the distortions caused to the authentic child by the immensity of the psychological suffering passing through them in the transfer.
As the suffering moves from the core-self of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into you, the child absorbs the psychological pain of their narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and the child’s cruelty, anger, and hatred are expressions of the pain and suffering of this parent, that the other parent doesn’t experience directly but projects onto the world.
The child loves this other parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The child feels the deep emotional pain and suffering of this parent, not at a conscious level, but at a deeper level of the mirror neurons, of the shared psychological state, the intersubjective state. The child hurts for this parent and wants to heal this parent’s pain. And the child knows that this parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, needs the child more than you do.
By surrendering to the role-reversal relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent the child understands at a non-conscious but fundamental level that the child is helping to heal this parent’s immense pain and suffering. The act of the child in rejecting you is the child’s act of compassion for the suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.
It is imperative that any therapist treating attachment-based “parental alienation” understand that at the core of the child’s experience are two deep feelings, one toward the targeted-rejected parent of misunderstood and unprocessed grief at the loss of the beloved targeted parent, and one toward the narcissistic/(borderline) parent of compassion for the deep primal suffering of the narcissistic/borderline parent.
Restoring the child’s authenticity requires that we understand the complexity of the child’s authenticity.
If the therapist is able to work with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to lessen the psychological pain and fear of this parent, then this will potentially free the child from the role of taking care of this parent. However, the strongly entrenched defensive structure of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality that externalizes their pain through its projection into the world restricts our ability to help with this pain because they never acknowledge it as their own, but instead attribute it to the failures and inadequacy of others.
The child’s rejection of the targeted parent emerges from an act of the child’s compassion for the immense psychological suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. But the “splitting” dynamic within the family created by the presence of narcissistic and borderline personality processes (see Key Concept: Splitting post) splits the child’s empathy and compassion into polarized extremes of complete compassion and empathy for the psychological suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., the 100% attachment bonding motivation) and a complete absence of empathy and compassion for the suffering of the targeted parent (i.e., the 100% avoidance motivation), rather than a more balanced and integrated blend of healthy compassion and empathy.
The antidote is the opposite.
In responding to the child’s distorted anger, cruelty, and lack of empathy it is helpful to remain grounded in our own empathy and compassion for the child’s experience as a conduit for an immense suffering born in the core personality suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent whom the child loves. While we cannot condone the child’s hostility and irrational cruelty, we can nevertheless respond from our own place of compassion and empathy for the amount of pain the child is channeling.
In the response of therapists and targeted parents, it will be helpful to remain in a gentle place of calm and simple assertion; that the child’s hostility toward the targeted parent comes from a misunderstood and misattributed experience of sadness and grief at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted parent. Children absorb their parents. If we are calmly confident in our assertion that the child actually loves us and is sad at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with us, then the child absorbs this belief through the resonance of their mirror neurons and intersubjectivity.
When we pluck the middle “C” string on a harp, the other two “C” strings an octave above and below begin to vibrate in harmonic resonance. If we respond from a calm confidence that our child loves us, the child’s inner experience will begin to vibrate in neural resonance to our psychological state. Gentle smiles help. Kindness helps.
Recognize that as we show greater love and kindness we will activate the child’s attachment bonding motivations which will produce a larger sadness and grief at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with us. So as we become kinder and more loving, the child might become angrier and more hostile.
Overtly, the child will actively deny that the targeted parent is loved. But the therapist and targeted parent can simply remain calm in their certainty of this attribution. The child loves the targeted parent, and the actual source of the child’s pain associated with the targeted parent is not what this parent does or doesn’t do, it’s that the child is not expressing and receiving the love and affection available from this beloved parent.
The child’s pain originating from the targeted parent is real and authentic. The child thinks the pain is caused by some fundamental inadequacy in the parenting of the targeted parent. The true cause of the child’s pain is the grief and sadness at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted parent. Once affectional bonds with the targeted parent are restored the child’s pain will vanish.
The child will deny any grief and sadness, which has been distorted under the pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into “anger and resentment loaded with revengeful wishes” (Kernberg, 1975, p. 229), but the therapist and targeted parent can gently encourage the child to test whether it’s true,
“Try it out, see if what I’m saying is true. See if giving hugs, and smiles, and sharing laughter together, see if that doesn’t make your inner pain go away.”
The pain being channeled by the child is that we are unloved and unlovable. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent as the source, the other parent as the target, and the child as the conduit are all, in their own way, unloved and unlovable. But this is not true. The child and the targeted parent are both loved and lovable. And the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is loved by the child. Once the affectional bond is restored with the targeted parent, then this love can be taken back through the channel by the child to the source of the pain to heal the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to the extent possible, because this parent too is loved and is lovable for the child.
I might also suggest that targeted parents consider whether they too can bring compassion, empathy… and love… to the suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, even within the context of the family tragedy of “parental alienation.” The core dynamic within the family is one of being unloved and unlovable. That is an extremely painful experience for anyone, to feel unloved and unlovable, and it is a self-experience that lies at the very core of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality.
The antidote is the opposite. Empathy, compassion, affection, and shared love will heal the pain that is too widely distributed within the family.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857
Fonagy, P., Luyten, P., and Strathearn, L. (2011). Borderline personality disorder, mentalization, and the neurobiology of attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal, 32, 47-69.
Kernberg, O.F. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism.. New York: Aronson.
Stern, D. (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
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
Tronick E.Z., Brushweller-Stern N., Harrison A.M., Lyons-Ruth K., Morgan A.C., Nahum J.P., Sander L., Stern D.N. (1998). Dyadically expanded states of consciousness and the process of therapeutic change. Infant Mental Health Journal, 19, 290-299.