Assessment of Parental Capacity

The central parenting quality that differentiates healthy from unhealthy parenting practices is the capacity for parental empathy.

Structured and firm parenting that is enacted with parental empathy for the child will be sensitive to both the child’s developmental need for structure and parental guidance, and for the child’s emerging individuation and self-expression (consistent with the child’s developmental period, i.e., infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, early adolescence, later adolescence).

Similarly, a parenting style that is more flexible and permissive which is enacted with parental empathy for the child will balance both the child’s need for autonomy and self-expression with the child’s developmental needs for limits and parental direction (consistent with the child’s developmental period).

The central parenting issue is not whether parents are structured and firm or flexible and permissive. The central defining feature of healthy parenting is the capacity for parental empathy.

Since the absence of parental empathy is a central defining characteristic of narcissistic and borderline personality organization, this means that the assessment for parental narcissistic and borderline personality traits becomes the central feature to be assessed for in all assessments of parental capacity.

Structured and firm parenting that lacks parental empathy for the child will be overly harsh, excessively punitive, and over-controlling, and will not allow the child sufficient latitude for the child’s emerging autonomy and individuation. Structured and firm parenting that lacks parental empathy for the child’s experience represents a narcissistic parenting style in which the parenting behavior reflects the parent’s needs for domination and control rather than the child’s need for reasonable limits and structure.

Flexible and permissive parenting that lacks parental empathy for the child will be too lax and disengaged and will not provide the child with appropriate structure and parental guidance. The child will be allowed too much autonomy that is beyond the child’s maturational level.  Lax and permissive parenting that lacks parental empathy for the child’s needs reflects a narcissistic parental self-focus on the parent’s own need to avoid conflict through the self-indulgent gratification of desires.

“The patient with NPD [Narcissistic Personality Disorder] often has a low tolerance for frustration and expects not only to have wishes easily gratified but also to remain in a steady state of positive reinforcement.” (Beck et al., 2004)

Problematic Parenting is the Absence of Parental Empathy

Problematic parenting emerges from the absence of parental empathy for the child’s experience that then interferes with the parent’s ability to recognize and respond to the child’s authentic needs.  Instead of responding to the child’s emotional and psychological needs, the absence of parental empathy for the child’s authentic experience leads the problematic parent to impose his or her own needs upon the parenting interaction rather than responding to the child’s needs for structure and parental guidance or for flexible parent-child dialogue and negotiation.

The absence of parental empathy arises from a narcissistic parental stance by the parent that places primacy on the expression of the parent’s own emotional and psychological needs over responding to the child’s authentic emotional, psychological, and developmental needs. This can result in the parent projecting onto the child the parent’s imagined needs for the child that are then used to justify for the parent the expression of the parent’s own emotional and psychological needs.

For example, a parent whose own emotional regulation of anxiety requires the parent to adopt a “protective parent” role for a supposedly “vulnerable child” will induce the child to become dependent and needy in order to allow the parent to enact the parent’s own need to be the “protective parent.”

Alternatively, the parent who needs to express anger and domination of the child, perhaps as an expression of the parent’s own emotionally traumatic experiences as a child, will then induce the child into becoming the “disobedient child” which the parent then uses to justify the expression of anger and punishment toward the child.

In problematic parenting, the child is being used to regulate the parent’s own emotional needs as the result of a parental failure of empathy that is a product of a narcissistic parental orientation toward the experience of the child.  Whereas in healthy parenting, the parent empathically attunes to the child’s needs and responds in a way that serves to regulate the child’s needs, either for parental guidance and structure or for parental dialogue and flexible support.

Often, the absence of parental empathy that originates from a narcissistic self-focused stance of the parent, that then produces problematic parenting responses that are misattuned to the child’s needs, is the product of the parent’s own family of origin experiences and so represent a trans-generational replication of parent-child experiences from the parent’s own upbringing and childhood.

We tend to parent our children in ways that are based on the patterns we develop from our own childhood experiences with our parents, so that the failure of parental empathy in one generation establishes the relationship template for the failure of parental empathy toward the next generation.

At its core, problematic parenting represents the absence of parental empathy for the child’s authentic needs that involves a narcissistic stance by the parent in which the parent’s behavior is a reflection of the parent’s own emotional and psychological needs rather than an empathically attuned response to the authentic emotional and psychological needs of the child.

Assessing Parenting Capacity

The central feature of parental capacity is parental empathy for the child’s experience that allows the parent to register and respond to the child’s authentic emotional, psychological and developmental needs.

Narcissistic and borderline personality organizations are characterologically INCAPABLE of empathy.

To the extent that narcissistic and borderline personality organizations are characterologically incapable of empathy, THE primary and central feature in all assessments of parental capacity should be the assessment for narcissistic and borderline personality traits of the parent.  Given the primary and central importance of parental empathy for healthy child development, all other parent-child factors (except direct child safety issues) should be secondary considerations relative to an assessment of parental capacity.

All mental health professionals involved in assessing parental capacity should therefore have a high level of professional expertise in recognizing both the features and the underlying personality dynamics of narcissistic and borderline personality organizations (e.g., Beck et al. 2004; Kernberg, 1975; Linehan, 1993; Millon, 2011).  A high level of professional expertise in narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics would represent a defining feature of professional competence regarding the assessment of parenting capacity.

Several factors in the assessment of possible narcissistic and borderline parental features would represent primary areas of prominent concern:

1.  Any evidence of the splitting dynamic (see Key Concept: Splitting post).  Splitting is a very distinctive interpersonal feature of both narcissistic and borderline personality processes (note: narcissistic and borderline personality organizations are variants of the same underlying personality organization; Kernberg, 1975).  Any evidence of splitting, either with a parent or in the child’s symptom display, should be of great concern and should trigger a more focused and targeted assessment for signs of parental narcissistic or borderline dynamics.

2.  Prominent indicators of a parental attitude of entitlement as evidenced by a repeated disregard for Court orders or the rights of the other parent.

“They [narcissists] are above the rules that govern other people… Unlike the antisocial personality, they do not have a cynical view of rules that govern human conduct; they simply consider themselves exempt from them.” (Beck et al., 2004,pp. 43-44)

 “Out of their vehement certainty of judgment, boundary violations of all sorts may occur, as narcissists are quite comfortable taking control and dictating orders (“I know what’s right for them”) but quite uncomfortable accepting influence from others” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 215)

“Narcissistic individuals also use power and entitlement as evidence of superiority… As a means of demonstrating their power, narcissists may alter boundaries, make unilateral decisions, control others, and determine exceptions to rules that apply to other, ordinary people.” (Beck et al., 2004, 251)

3. The incapacity to experience empathy.

Assessing the Capacity for Empathy

In assessing parental empathy, two domains in clinical questioning of the parent can reveal the capacity of the parent for empathic resonance with another person’s experience,

1.  The parent’s capacity for empathy for the other parent’s experience.

2.  The parent’s capacity for empathy regarding children’s love for both parents and developmental need for the child to have both parents in the life of the child.

Parental Empathy for the Other Parent

The clinical interview with the parent can engage a series of questions embedded into the clinical interview designed to elicit a response of empathy and understanding for the other parent’s experience.  While anger and judgment of the other parent may be present, there should at least be the capacity to understand the other person’s perspective from the other person’s point of view.

The narcissistic/borderline parent is unable to fake having empathy because the narcissistic/borderline personality lacks the capacity for empathy and so does not know when a normal-range empathic response is called for.  The narcissistic/borderline parent is entirely engaged in justifying the legitimacy of his or her anger (and the child’s anger) toward the other parent and so will reject all invitations by the clinical interviewer for demonstrating normal-range empathy for the other parent as a person.

Instead of empathy, the narcissistic parent will adopt a judgmental stance toward the other parent by asserting that the other parent “deserves” to suffer because the other parent is inherently a bad human being (a belief that represents a manifestation of the “all-bad” polarization of the splitting dynamic).

“If others fail to satisfy the narcissist’s “needs,” including the need to look good, or be free from inconvenience, then others “deserve to be punished”… Even when punishing others out of intolerance or entitlement, the narcissist sees this as “a lesson they need, for their own good” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 252).

The borderline personality parent will similarly blame the other parent rather than show any capacity for empathy, but will do so in a slightly different style from the more narcissistically organized parent.  Instead of empathy for the other parent, the borderline personality style will turn the focus back onto themselves (i.e. a narcissistic self-focus) by adopting a victimization stance relative to the other parent.  So invitations to show empathy for the experience of the other parent will produce a response from the borderline parent of justifying the borderline’s anger toward the other parent as being warranted by the borderline parent’s supposed victimization by the other parent.

Narcissistic Style: The narcissistic style parent responds to clinical invitations to display empathy for the other parent’s experience with a harsh judgmental attitude that the other parent “deserves” his or her suffering.

Borderline Style: The borderline style parent responds to clinical invitations to display empathy for the other parent’s experience by entirely disregarding the experience of the other parent and returning the focus back onto the borderline parent’s own self-experience of supposed victimization by the other parent.

Normal-Range: Normal-range parents display balance. Normal-range parents will at least display a capacity for empathy by acknowledging and understanding the legitimacy of the other parent’s experience from the other person’s perspective, although this may then be followed by their offering a complementary context of the situation from their own perspective.

Parental Empathy for the Child’s Bond to the Other Parent

Children love their parents. Both parents. Even bad parents.

Children love their parents and children want their parents’ love in return.

When children do not receive the love of their parents, children become sad. Children may also become frustrated when they cannot achieve their parents’ love, so sometimes children become sad AND angry when they cannot get the love of their parents. But children always WANT the love of their parents.

And children always love their parents. Even bad parents. That’s just the way the attachment system works.

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

“I define an “affectional bond” as a relatively long-enduring tie in which the partner is important as a unique individual and is interchangeable with none other. In an affectional bond, there is a desire to maintain closeness to the partner. In older children and adults, that closeness may to some extent be sustained over time and distance and during absences, but nevertheless there is at least an intermittent desire to reestablish proximity and interaction, and pleasure – often joy – upon reunion. Inexplicable separation tends to cause distress, and permanent loss would cause grief.

“An “attachment” is an affectional bond, and hence an attachment figure is never wholly interchangeable with or replaceable by another, even though there may be others to whom one is also attached. 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.” (p. 711)

The attachment system is a primary motivational system similar to other primary motivational systems for eating and reproduction.  It developed over millions of years of evolution involving the selective predation of children.  Predators are seeking the old, the weak, and the young. 

Children are prey animals.

Children who bonded to parents, i.e., to specific individual people, received parental protection from predators.  Children who bonded less strongly to parents fell prey to predators (and other environmental dangers).  Over millions of years of the increased survival advantage provided to children from bonding to their parents, a very strong and resilient primary motivational system developed that strongly motivates children’s bonding to parents.

Children love their parents. Both parents. Even bad parents.

Bad parents expose the child to predation and to other environmental dangers. Children who rejected bad parents died. Children who were MORE STRONGLY motivated to bond to bad parents had a better chance of survival than children who rejected bad parents. Over millions of years of evolution involving the selective survival advantage provided to children from an INCREASED motivation to bond to bad parents, the attachment system expresses an INCREASED child motivation toward bonding to bad parents.

Children love their parents. Both parents. Even bad parents.

Furthermore, except in a limited number of extraordinary circumstances, children benefit from relationships with both parents.

Those exceptional circumstances are:

1.  Child sexual abuse by a parent

2.  Parental physical violence as expressed in physical abuse of the child that endangers the child’s safety

3.  Parental emotional and psychological violence as expressed in psychological abuse of the child that endangers the child’s healthy emotional and psychological development

4.  Parental neglect that endangers the child’s safety

5.  Current parental alcohol or substance abuse that could reasonably expose the child to neglect or parenting behaviors that endanger the child’s safety or emotional and psychological development.

Except in these extraordinary circumstances, children benefit from relationships with both parents.

Children love both parents. Children want the love of both parents.

Every possible effort should be made to allow children to love both parents and to provide the child with the opportunity to be loved by both parents.

The Father-Son Relationship: A boy’s relationship with his father provides important gender-identity self-esteem, and the boy’s relationship with his father provides the son with gender related role modeling that is important for the son’s healthy maturation.

The Father-Daughter Relationship: A daughter’s relationship with her father provides her with important cross-gender self-esteem, every daughter should be her father’s princess, which will become an important self-esteem template for her in her choice of a marital partner.

The Mother-Son Relationship: The boy’s mother provides him with an invaluable source of nurturing love, and the mother-son relationship template will become important to the boy’s later choice of a marital partner.

The Mother-Daughter Relationship: A daughter’s relationship with her mother is one of the most wonderful and complex. It provides the daughter with important gender-identity self-esteem and gender role modeling that is vital for her healthy development.  The mother-daughter relationship becomes particularly impactful at the birth of the daughter’s first child, when she transitions from being a daughter in one relationship to being a mother herself in another relationship.

The understanding that children love their parents, both parents, and that they want to be loved by both parents is self-evident to everyone with normal-range empathy, because we all have an attachment system and we have all lived up close and personal with our own attachment system.  We all recognize from our own personal experience how the attachment system works relative children’s love for parents.

Children love their parents, both parents, even bad parents, and children want to be loved BY their parents.

And a child’s relationship with both parents is valuable and important for the child’s healthy development.

However, when the narcissistic and borderline personality parent is invited to demonstrate empathy for the child’s needs relative to the other parent, the narcissistic/borderline parent evidences a complete vacancy of empathic capacity.  For the narcissistic/borderline parent, relationships are superficial… and disposable.  And the psychological consistency demanded by the splitting dynamic (see Key Concept: Splitting post) requires that the ex-spouse also becomes an ex-parent.

Invitations to the narcissistic/borderline parent to show empathy for the other parent and for the child’s love for the other parent will be met with a profound vacancy of empathic capacity, and the capacity for empathy is THE central and primary feature of parental capacity.

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

References

Personality Disorder

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

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

Attachment

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

8 thoughts on “Assessment of Parental Capacity”

  1. Interesting, as always. Thank you.

    I wanted to bring to your attention (and apologies if you were already aware), an article written by Dr Kirk Weir, a UK based medical practitioner. Dr Weir trained and then specialised as a child, adolescent and family psychiatrist and worked as a consultant in the National Health Service in England. Alongside his clinical work he developed a role as an expert witness to the family courts in England and Wales. He has provided opinions to the (UK) courts in many hundreds of cases over the years, latterly taking a special interest in high-conflict parental disputes over children.

    This article was originally entitled, ‘High conflict contact dispute: Evidence of the extreme unreliability of some children’s ascertainable wishes and feelings’. It was published in the ‘Family Court Review – Vol. 49, No. 4, October 2011 p.788 – 800’. I can’t attach a link to the full article here, but it can be found by an internet search.

    Dr Weir conducted a retrospective case analysis of cases he had been involved in that were high conflict contact disputes (HCCD’s). He selected cases where children involved:
    – were reported to be opposed to contact with the non-resident parent and/or so distressed that visits (with the NRP) could not take place.
    – had not expressed any wish to have contact with the NRP
    – had subsequently attended a contact session with the NRP (either by a court order or by agreement) which was supervised by Dr Weir.

    There were 58 children in this case review.

    The article in its entirety is very interesting, and makes depressing reading. Two points especially, in my opinion, stand out as quoted below.

    in the ‘discussion’ section Dr Weir writes:
    The most striking outcome of the retrospective analysis of this case sample of children who consistently expressed resistance to contact was that their ascertainable wishes and feelings were extremely unreliable. There was a more than a 50:50 chance that what the child or young person originally said was unrelated to their wish for a relationship with the NRP once it was insisted that a contact visit take place. When it was possible to ensure that a contact visit took place (48 cases saw the NRP and 10 refused to be taken) two thirds of the children (30 out of 48) overcame their resistance and enjoyed the visit with the NRP. Despite many prolonged separations the children and NRPs seemed able to resume an apparently natural and affectionate relationship within an hour or two. Many children spontaneously asked when the next visit would be.

    Most damning though (and in my opinion reinforced by your comments around narcissistic behaviours patterns in alienating parents) is that in the ‘conclusion’ section Dr Weir writes:
    Of considerable concern was the reaction of those resident parents who claimed that their only reason for opposing contact was their child’s resistance to contact, but who continued to oppose contact after a successful visit had been achieved. Many seemed only too aware of the court’s duty to consider the child’s views and may have tried to exploit this.

    Thank you for your work. I only wish it were required reading for any professional with a duty of care for young people in ‘conflict/custody’ situations.

    1. Thank you for the citation. I have retrieved it and it is very interesting. The findings are not a surprise, and I will consider its implications.

      I recently had the opportunity to dialogue with Ms. Dorcey Pruter (http://www.consciouscoparentinginstitute.com), a co-parenting reunification coach, regarding her work. Ms. Pruter said she had a very high success rate in restoring children’s relationship with the targeted-rejected parent in a very short period of time (days). Of note is that her reunification work begins with and requires a Court-ordered separation of the child from the influence of the allied parent during the active phase of the reunification process with the targeted-rejected parent.

      In briefly reviewing her protocol for reestablishing the child’s relationship with the targeted-rejected parent in an impressively short period of time (consistent with Weir’s findings), I see no reason why her approach cannot achieve the impressive results she claims. Under the right circumstances, restoration of the child’s relationship with the formerly targeted-rejected parent may be relatively simple and easy to accomplish… under the right circumstances and with the proper approach (that includes a skilled and knowledgeable interventionist).

      In my view, the right circumstances requires an initial protective separation of the child from the distorting influence of the pathogenic parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery, followed by active therapeutic intervention designed to reactivate the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system and resolution of the child’s grief response at the loss of the child’s relationship with the formerly targeted-rejected parent. Once the child’s psychological functioning is balanced, we can provide the child with coping strategies for interpreting and managing the distorting influence of the pathogenic parent and then reintroduce the child to a relationship with the pathogenic parent. Children love their parents, both parents, and children benefit from relationships with both parents as long as the relationship does not significantly impair the child’s healthy development.

      Establishment mental health (as represented by the American Psychological Association and DSM) needs to recognize and acknowledge the existence of “parental alienation” (an attachment-based model) involving the child’s cross-generational coalition with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent, so that the Courts can act with the decisive clarity necessary to solve attachment-based “parental alienation.” We can then turn our focus to developing and documenting established treatment models. Under the proper circumstances, restoring the child’s relationship with the currently targeted-rejected parent and restoring the authentic and balanced child may be relatively easy… under the proper circumstances… because we are working with the natural and authentic functioning of the child’s attachment system that SEEKS bonding to the currently targeted-rejected parent.

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

  2. I could not understand why the counselors involved in my custody case thought it acceptable and not suspicious that my ex-husband would drop my 14 year old daughter off downtown at night by herself and allow strangers to drive her home after 11pm, when he or his 5th wife could have picked her up. Others in the community did not think it appropriate, but these “professionals” ignored this form of making me the bad guy and bribing my daughter in order to get child support from me (I was already the only one covering the health insurance). My daughter was allowed to watch “Faces of Death”, dress risqué, etc., etc. in the hands of her father. She shows symptoms of depression, anxiety, and more, but the system does not seem to care. Her father has turned her against me and she even acts indifferent towards her grandmothers and her brother now.

  3. dr childress would you agree that parental alienation is the biggest cause to attachment issues in care proceedings?
    and in your opinion if the said child/children where extremely attached to the alianated parent prior to proceedings what kind of damage would it do to the child

    1. I don’t have any information on the type of issues surrounding “care proceedings.” I do know that estimates for the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder are about 5% and for borderline personality disorder it’s about 5%. That means that around five to ten percent of all divorce cases might become high-conflict. However, the 90% of normal-range family divorces probably have minimal court involvement. So of the high-conflict divorces that overburden our family courts, my (off the top of my head) estimate is that 95% of them involve at least one narcissistic or borderline personality parent.

      The reason my estimate is so high is that normal-range parents DO NOT subject their children to a high conflict divorce. ONLY a narcissisticly self-absorbed parent would create the high degree of conflict that destroys the child.

      The pathology of AB-PA is highly damaging to the child. The attachment system is primary motivational system of the brain – like the primary motivational systems for eating and reproduction. The pathology of AB-PA that so severely distorts the child’s attachment system would be analogous to anorexia with the eating system – so AB-PA is like anorexia of the attachment system.

      In anorexia of the eating system – the patient can die. In “anorexic” distortion to the attachment system, the child won’t physically die, but the authenticity of the child can be entirely lost. In some cases of the borderline personality variant of the pathology, the child can also develop borderline personality pathology. I’d also be concerned about later depression and alcohol abuse, and I would be highly concerned about the future marital and family stability for the child-as-an-adult.

      Children need to learn that when there are problems in relationships, we fix them, and children need to learn the skills to fix relationships. The pathology of AB-PA teaches kids that we cutoff relationship when there are problems. That’s not healthy for future marriage and future family.

      My rank order of the worst possible parents are:

      1. Sexual abuse (incest)
      2. Narcissistic and borderline personality parents
      3. Physically aggressive-abusive parents
      4. Profound neglect (meth addicted parents), severe parental depression and parental suicidality
      5. Untreated schizophrenic parents
      6. Untreated bipolar parents

      Narcissistic and borderline parents are number 2 on my list because of the “self-structure” damage these parents can cause to the child. Other mental health professionals can quibble with me about the exact order of “extremely bad parenting” – but the fundamental issue is that the narcissistic and borderline personality parent is among the WORST parents possible.

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

      1. Thank you for such a detailed answer. What would the effects be to the children of male narcisstic parent being the co-ordinator of parental alienation toward the mother who has adulthood diagnosed adhd and emotionally unstable bpd symptomology due to the carr proceedings, however there being no clear found evidence that the alienated mother had been of any risk or harm to children at all

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