In an attachment-based framework for understanding “parental alienation,” the child appears to present an emotionally bonded relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent while rejecting a relationship with the other parent, allegedly because of problematic parenting practices by this other parent.
However, the display of an emotionally bonded relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent actually represents a false presentation. A professional level of understanding for how the attachment system works reveals that this apparent display of a bonded relationship actually represents the expected pattern associated with an insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment bond to the supposedly favored and allied parent.
Patterns of Attachment
Many people unfamiliar with the attachment system, including a great many mental health professionals who are ignorant of how the attachment system functions, believe that attachment is only relevant to early childhood bonding. This belief is entirely wrong. The basic patterns of attachment expectations (called “internal working models” by Bowlby and “schemas” by Beck) form during early childhood, but these patterns are used throughout the lifespan.
“Attachment behavior is in no way confined to children. Although usually less readily aroused, we see it also in adolescents and adults of both sexes whenever they are anxious or under stress.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 4)
The analogy would be to the language system. The basic grammar of language is acquired during early childhood, but language is then used throughout the lifespan to mediate social relationships.
Similarly, the basic “grammar” of the attachment system, the “internal working models” of attachment relationships, forms during early childhood, but then this “grammar” of the attachment system is used throughout the lifespan to mediate closely bonded relationships, including the marital relationship (Feeney & Noller, 1990; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Roisman, Madsen, Hennighousen, Sroufe, & Collins, 2001; Simpson, 1990) and the child’s future relationships with his or her own children (Benoit & Parker, 1994; Bretherton, 1990; Fonagy, Steele, & Steele, 1991; Fonagy & Target, 2005; Jacobvitz, Morgan, Kretchmar & Morgan, 1991; Macfie, McElwain, Houts, and Cox, 2005; van Ijzendoorn, 1992).
The child’s bonding with parents is directly mediated by the attachment system. Any display or disruption of the child’s bonding with parents, such as the overly close emotional bond the child has with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent and the child’s rejection of a relationship with the other parent, the targeted parent, are mediated by the child’s attachment system. Therefore, any professional assessment of the family dynamics involving these attachment-mediated relationships REQUIRES a professional level of understanding for how the attachment system functions and for its characteristic patterns of dysfunctioning in response to problematic parenting.
Failure to possess a professional level of understanding for how the attachment system functions and its characteristic patterns of dysfunctioning when diagnosing and treating such clearly evident disruptions to the child’s attachment system as are reflected in the child’s rejection of a relationship with one parent while seeking primary bonding to an allied and supposedly “favored” parent would be analogous to a physician diagnosing and treating cancer without possessing a professional level of knowledge of what cancer is and what the various forms of cancer are.
Physicians who don’t know what cancer is shouldn’t diagnose and treat cancer. Psychologists who don’t understand the attachment system, including the characteristic features of its functioning and the characteristic patterns of its dysfunctioning, should NOT be diagnosing and treating disruptions to the child’s attachment bonding motivations.
This would seem self-evident, and it is REQUIRED by professional practice standards,
Standard 2.01a of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct addresses Boundaries of Competence and states, “Psychologists provide services, teach and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study or professional experience.”
Diagnosing and treating disruptions to the child’s attachment bonding motivations without possessing a professional level of understanding for what the attachment system is, how it functions, and its characteristic patterns of dysfunctioning would seem to represent practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence in violation of professional practice standards.
Secure Attachment Pattern
In a secure attachment, the child engages in relaxed exploratory behavior of venturing away from the parent to whom the child is securely attached. Periodically, the child will psychologically check back in with the parent to whom the child is securely attached, which is called “emotional recharging,” before once again engaging in exploratory behavior away from this parent.
In a pattern of secure attachment with a favored parent following the divorce, the child would enjoy the care and comfort of the favored parent but would also feel comfortable in engaging in the exploratory behavior of establishing an independent relationship with the other parent as well.
This is important to understand: A SECURE attachment to a bonded parent would be evidenced in the child’s comfort in separating from the bonded parent to form a relationship with the other parent as well.
Insecure (Anxious-Ambivalent) Attachment
In an insecure attachment to a parent, the child is preoccupied with bonding to the parent and expresses a high degree of reluctance to separate from the parent with whom the child is insecurely attached.
In an insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment style, also called a “preoccupied” attachment pattern, the child is hyper-focused on the child’s relationship with the insecurely attached parent and the child is reluctant to engage in normal-range exploratory behavior away from the parent.
Origins of these Patterns
This set of patterns becomes clear when we consider the origins of these attachment patterns.
The evolutionary origins of the attachment system is in the selective predation of children. The attachment system strongly motivates children’s bonding to parents in order to obtain parental protection from predators.
“The biological function of this behavior [i.e., attachment] is postulated to be protection, especially protection from predators.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 3)
Children who are secure in their attachment bond to the parent feel sufficiently safe and protected to be comfortable engaging in exploratory behavior away from the parent, secure in their relationship with the parent.
Children who are insecure in their attachment bond to their parent become vulnerable to predation, so that the child’s attachment system motivates the child to become preoccupied on maintaining proximity to the parent to whom the child is insecurely attached, so that the child does NOT display normal-range exploratory behavior away from the parent.
Anxious-Ambivalent (Preoccupied) Attachment
In an insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment pattern the child may evidence a hyper-bonding motivation of seeking continual parental involvement through the child’s dependent and clingy behavior. To those unfamiliar with the characteristic displays of secure and insecure attachment, the child’s dependent preoccupation on the parent may appear to represent a bonded parent-child relationship, when in actuality the child’s hyper-bonding focus on the parent represents a symptom of pathology in the parent-child relationship.
The formation of an insecure anxious-ambivalent (preoccupied) attachment is associated with inconsistent parental availability.
In attachment-based “parental alienation” this inconsistent parental availability stems from the (hostile) rejection of the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent whenever the child evidences bonding motivations toward the other parent, and corresponding indulgent parental involvement whenever the child seeks to avoid the other parent.
The inconsistency of the conditional love offered by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is contingent on the child’s rejection of the other parent creates an insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment bond to the narcissistic/borderline parent that produces both the child’s preoccupied focus on maintaining the child’s relationship with the inconsistently available narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and the child’s expressed reluctance to separate from this parent to engage in normal-range exploratory behavior of forming an independent relationship with the other parent for fear of losing the insecurely attached relationship bond with the narcissistic/borderline parent.
What on the surface may appear to be a bonded relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent actually represents a symptomatic expression of an INSECURE attachment bond to this parent.
Bonding to a Problematic Parent
The attachment system is a “goal corrected” motivational system, which means that when parenting is problematic and does not allow the child to form a secure attachment bond, the child nevertheless maintains the goal of forming an attachment bond to the problematic parent so that the child’s behaviors become distorted in an effort to achieve the goal of establishing an attachment bond in the context of the problematic parenting behavior.
“All seven of these MM monkeys [i.e., monkeys raised without mothers] were totally inadequate mothers… Initially, the MM monkeys tended to ignore or withdraw from their babies even when the infants were disengaged and screaming… Later the motherless monkeys ignored, rejected, and were physically abusive to their infants. A surprising phenomena was the universally persisting attempts by the infants to attach to the mother’s body regardless of neglect or physical punishment. When the infants failed to attach to the ventral surface of the mother, they would cling to the dorsal surface and attempt to move to the mother’s ventral surface. (Seay, Alexander, & Harlow, 1964, p. 353)
The distortions to the child’s behavior that result from the child’s ongoing efforts to achieve the goal of establishing an attached relationship with the parent in the context of the parent’s problematic parenting practices result in characteristic patterns of child behavior reflecting insecure attachment to the parent.
Children do NOT seek to sever a relationship with a problematic parent.
Problematic parenting exposes the child to increased survival risk from predation and other environmental dangers. Problematic parenting produces an INSECURE attachment, and the child actually becomes MORE STRONGLY motivated to bond to the problematic parent, producing the characteristic patterns of insecure attachment bonding.
Children who severed their relationship to problematic parents were exposed to increased predation and other environmental dangers. These children died.
Children who became MORE STRONGLY motivated to bond to problematic parents had a higher likelihood of continuing to receive parental protection from predators. These children survived.
“The paradoxical finding that the more punishment a juvenile receives the stronger becomes its attachment to the punishing figure, very difficult to explain in any other theory, is compatible with the view that the function of attachment behavior is protection from predators (Bowlby, 1969, pp. 226-227)
Over millions of years of evolution involving the selective predation of children, the attachment system developed a motivational response to problematic parenting that is “goal corrected” in which children become MORE STRONGLY motivated to bond to problematic parents.
“A potential evolutionary explanation suggests selection pressures supported infants that remained attached because it increased the probability of survival. From an adaptive point of view, perhaps it is better for an altricial animal to remain attached to an abusive caregiver than receive no care. (Raineki, Moriceau, & Sullivan, 2010, p. 1143)
Children do NOT seek to sever the attachment bond in response to problematic parenting.
Instead, children become MORE highly motivated to form an attachment bond to the problematic parent.
In attachment-based “parental alienation” the child is expressing a hyper-bonding motivation toward the allied and supposedly “favored” parent. This, in itself, suggests that it is the parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that are problematic and so are provoking the child’s hyper-bonding motivation from an insecure attachment created by the problematic parenting of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.
Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation”
The behavioral display in attachment-based “parental alienation” is that the child is preoccupied with maintaining continual proximity (i.e., full custody) to the allied and supposedly “favored” parent while rejecting normal-range exploratory behavior of establishing an independent relationship with the other parent.
This is the expected child behavioral display associated with an INSECURE anxious-ambivalent (preoccupied) attachment to the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.
So while it may superficially appear that the child is in a bonded relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, this relationship is actually a symptomatic expression of pathology.
All that glitters…
It is crucial that mental health professionals who are diagnosing and treating disruptions to children’s attachment bonding motivations, including and especially child custody evaluators, have a professional level of knowledge and expertise in the attachment system, its nature, its features, and its characteristic patterns of functioning and dysfunctioning.
Failure to possess a professional level of knowledge and expertise regarding the attachment system when diagnosing and treating a disruption to the child’s attachment system very likely represents practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence in violation of professional practice standards.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1, Attachment. NY: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Loss: Sadness and depression. NY: Basic Books.
Raineki, C., Moriceau, S., Sullivan, R.M. (2010). Developing a neurobehavioral animal model of infant attachment to an abusive caregiver. Biological Psychiatry, 67, 1137-1145.
Seay, B. Alexander, B.K., and Harlow, H.F. (1964). Maternal behavior of socially deprived rhesus monkeys. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 69, 345-354
Attachment & the Marital Relationship
Feeney, J.A. and Noller, P. (1990). Attachment style as a predictor of adult romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 281-291.
Hazan, C, and Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
Roisman, G.I., Madsen, K.H., Hennighousen, L. Sroufe, L.A., and Collins, W.A. (2001). The coherence of dyadic behavior across parent-child and romantic relationships as mediated by the internalized representation of experience. Attachment and Human Behavior, 3, 156-172.
Simpson, J.A. (1990). Influence of attachment styles on romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 971-980.
Trans-Generational Transmission of Attachment
Benoit, D. and Parker, K.C.H. (1994). Stability and transmission of attachment across three generations. Child Development, 65, 1444-1456
Bretherton, I. (1990). Communication patterns, internal working models, and the intergenerational transmission of attachment relationships. Infant Mental Health Journal, 11, 237-252.
Fonagy, P., Steele, M. and Steele, H. (1991). Intergenerational patterns of attachment: Maternal representations during pregnancy and subsequent infant-mother attachments. Child Development, 62, 891-905.
Fonagy P. and Target M. (2005). Bridging the transmission gap: An end to an important mystery in attachment research? Attachment and Human Development, 7, 333-343.
Jacobvitz, D.B., Morgan, E., Kretchmar, M.D., and Morgan, Y. (1991). The transmission of mother-child boundary disturbances across three generations. Development and Psychopathology, 3, 513-527.
Macfie, J., McElwain, N.L., Houts, R.M., and Cox, M.J. (2005) Intergenerational transmission of role reversal between parent and child: Dyadic and family systems internal working models. Attachment & Human Development, 7, 51-65
van Ijzendoorn, M.H. (1992) Intergenerational transmission of parenting: A review of studies in nonclinical populations. Developmental Review, 12, 76-99