False Allegations of Parental Alienation

 Not everything is “parental alienation.”

Sometimes a child’s desire to avoid a relationship with one parent is justified by the parenting practice of that parent.

In about 25% of the cases that come to me because of my expertise in “parental alienation” the narcissistic parent turns out to be the targeted parent who is seeking my help in fostering the child’s relationship with this narcissistic parent because this parent feels entitled to possess the narcissistic object of the child.

This parent’s absence of empathic resonance for the child’s inner experience becomes clearly evident in the first few sessions with this narcissistic parent.  The child’s experience isn’t relevant to this parent, only the experience of the narcissistic parent is relevant in this parent’s perception.

Since the narcissistic parent has a fixed belief in his or her own perfection and wonderfulness, in their view there can be no other reason for the child’s reluctance to provide them with the narcissistic supply of adoration other than “parental alienation.”

In these cases, the child does NOT display the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” (Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs), and when I meet with the favored parent, this favored parent is entirely normal-range and does not display any narcissistic or borderline traits. 

Only the targeted parent displays narcissistic/(borderline) traits, and the child’s complaints about the absence of empathy of this parent makes total sense to me as a psychologist.  I see this narcissistic parent’s absence of empathy displayed in our sessions.  I know exactly what the child is saying.

Not everything is “parental alienation.”  Sometimes it is the targeted parent who is narcissistic.

Living with a Narcissistic Parent

In these false “parental alienation” cases, the profound absence of parental empathy of the narcissistic parent is experienced by the child as emotionally and psychologically painful.

There is interesting research by Moor and Silvern (2006) on the association of child abuse to parental empathic failure which found that parental empathic failure actually represents a form of psychological trauma for the child.

“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)

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 absence of parental empathy is painful, and severe failures of parental empathy, such as those associated with a narcissistic parent, are traumatic for the child.

When a child is exposed to chronic and severe failures of parental empathy, such as from a narcissistic parent, the child will seek to avoid the psychologically painful relationship with this parent. The child’s efforts to avoid a relationship with a narcissistic parent represent a normal-range and healthy protective response to the chronic and severe failure of parental empathy associated with narcissistic parenting practices.

A child seeking to avoid a relationship with a narcissistic parent represents an authentic response of the child to severe and chronic failures of parental empathy.

A narcissistic parent is incapable of empathy. For the narcissistic parent, the child is an object; a possession. The narcissistic parent cannot resonate with the child’s inner needs and experiences. For the narcissistic parent only the narcissistic supply that the child offers the narcissistic parent is important.

In their relationship, only one person exists, the narcissistic parent. The child’s authenticity is not acknowledged, the child’s authenticity is nullified and obliterated so that the child can serve as a narcissistic reflection of the parent’s own self-experience.

In these cases of false allegations of “parental alienation,” the child experiences a relationship with the narcissistic parent as being painful and tries to communicate this to the narcissistic parent. However, the narcissistic parent is unable to self-reflect and deflects the authentic criticism of the child as being invalid. The narcissistic parent is entirely unable to comprehend why the child wouldn’t want to adore and become the narcissistic possession of the magnificent wonderfulness of the narcissistic parent.

Over time, the child becomes discouraged that the narcissistic parent will ever be able to show empathic care and responsiveness for the child’s authenticity, so that the child begins to withdraw from a relationship with the narcissistic parent because the relationship is too painful, the relationship with the narcissistic parent is experienced as being psychologically traumatic for the child.

The narcissistic parent, however, cannot abide criticism –

“I’m not at fault. I’m perfect. You’re the problem, not me. I’m wonderful.”

So then why is the child critical of the “wonderful” narcissistic parent? Why does the child seek to avoid a relationship with the “perfect” narcissistic parent? The only answer the narcissistic parent can come up with is that it must be “parental alienation” by the other parent. What else could account for the child’s criticisms and rejection of the perfection and wonderfulness of the narcissistic parent?

Not everything is “parental alienation.”

Sometimes the narcissistic parent is the targeted parent and the child’s avoidance of a relationship with this parent is an authentic child response to the profound failure of parental empathy associated with a narcissistic parent. So that in these cases, the allegation of “parental alienation” made by one parent toward the other is actually a false allegation.

Differentiating True “Parental Alienation” from False Allegations of “Parental Alienation”

How can we differentiate true “parental alienation” from false allegations of “parental alienation?”

The answer is that the full set of the three diagnostic indicators for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” will NOT be evident in false allegations of “parental alienation,” and the full set of three diagnostic indicators will always be present in true allegations of “parental alienation.”

Attachment System Suppression

The differentiation of the attachment system differences in authentic parent-child conflict from cases of “parental alienation” is subtle but distinctive.

False Allegations of “Parental Alienation” – In authentic parent-child conflict, the child’s “protest behavior” (e.g, angry-oppositional behavior) remains an “attachment-behavior” designed to elicit GREATER parental involvement.

In authentic parent-child conflict, the child still WANTS to form a relationship with the targeted parent but is frustrated and discouraged by some element of the targeted parent’s behavior, such as the chronic failure of parental empathy associated with narcissistic parenting practices. In authentic parent-child conflict the child’s withdrawal from a relationship with the targeted parent reflects the child’s discouragement in achieving an affectionally bonded relationship rather than a rejection of a relationship with the targeted parent.

In cases of authentic parent-child conflict, since the child’s protest behavior and withdrawal from the targeted parent reflect the child’s discouragement in achieving a positive relationship rather than rejection of a relationship, if the behavior of the targeted parent is changed to allow for child bonding then the child’s motivation toward bonding with the parent will achieve completion and the parent-child conflict will resolve.

In authentic parent-child conflict the child’s protest behavior reflects an “attachment behavior” designed to elicit GREATER parental involvement, and the child’s withdrawal from a relationship with the parent reflects DISCOURAGEMENT in forming an affectional bond to the parent, so that if the parenting behaviors are changed to allow an affectional bond to be established, the parent-child conflict will resolve.

True Allegations of “Parental Alienation” – Whereas when the parent-child conflict with the targeted parent is the product of attachment-based “parental alienation,” the child’s protest behavior will represent an inauthentic display as a “detachment behavior” designed to sever the child’s relationship with the parent. The authentic functioning of the attachment system DOES NOT ALLOW child detachment behaviors.

From an evolutionary perspective, children who detached in their bonding to parents fell prey to predators and other environmental dangers, so that genes allowing child detachment behaviors were selectively removed from the collective gene pool. Whereas children who bonded MORE strongly to problematic parents were more likely to acquire parental protection from predators, so that genes motivating INCREASED CHILD BONDING motivation to problematic parents were selectively increased in the gene pool because of the survival advantage that increased child bonding to the problematic parent provided..

This is important to understand about the authentic functioning of the attachment system, children are MORE STRONGLY motivated to bond to problematic parents. Children do NOT reject parents. Children who rejected parents were eaten by predators.

Authentic parent-child conflict is a product of the child’s desire TO FORM an affectional bond to the parent that is being frustrated in some way. When the barrier to the parent-child bonding is removed, the child completes his or her desire to form an affectional bond to the parent and the parent-child conflict is resolved.

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” on the other hand, the child is SEEKING TO SEVER the parent-child bond, so that the child’s protest behavior represents a “detachment behavior.” Child “detachment behaviors” represent an inauthentic display of the attachment system.

There are only a limited number of highly pathogenic circumstances that can override the survival advantage conferred by the parent-child bond so that a termination of the parent-child bond is sought.

  1. Sexual abuse/incest
  2. Prolonged and severe physical abuse of the child (years)
  3. Prolonged and severe domestic violence (years)
  4. Sometimes: chronic prolonged parental alcoholism or severe substance abuse (decades). More often, however, parental alcoholism and substance abuse produces a “parentified child” who adopts a caretaking role toward the parent

In the absence of these specific circumstances in the parent-child relationship, problematic parenting produces an INCREASED child motivation toward bonding with the problematic parent. Authentic child withdrawal from a relationship with a parent represents discouragement, NOT rejection.

Stimulus Control

The clearest way to differentiate authentic from inauthentic parent-child conflict is through the construct of “stimulus control.”

All behavior is elicited by stimuli, or cues. Our driving behavior, for example, is under the “stimulus control” of traffic lights. If the traffic light is red, we stop. If it is green, we go. Yellow is a transitional warning. In addition, our driving behavior is under the stimulus control of painted lines on the road, traffic signs, and our internalized rules for driving. All of these various stimuli control our driving behavior.

Children’s behavior in authentic parent-child conflict is under the “stimulus control” of the parent’s behavior, so that changes in the parent’s behavior will produce corresponding changes in the child’s behavior.

If, however, changes to the parent’s behavior do not produce corresponding changes to the child’s behavior, then the child’s behavior is NOT under the “stimulus control” of the parent’s behavior, meaning that the parent-child conflict is inauthentic.

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” the child’s behavior toward the targeted parent is not under the “stimulus control” of the targeted parent’s behavior.  It doesn’t matter what the targeted parent does or doesn’t do, the child rejects a relationship with this parent. 

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” the locus of “stimulus control” for the child’s behavior toward the targeted-rejected parent is to be found in the cross-generational coalition of the child with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and is contained in internalized “rules” the child has acquired through the distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent regarding the child’s relationship with the targeted parent, much in the same way that our internalized rules regarding driving act to control our driving behavior.

Differentiating Authentic Versus Inauthentic Conflict

One means of differentiating authentic versus inauthentic parent-child conflict is whether the child’s protest behavior represents an “attachment behavior” designed to increase parental involvement in response to barriers to the child’s ability to form an affectionally bonded relationship with the parent, or whether the child’s protest behavior represents an inauthentic display of “detachment behavior” designed to sever the parent-child relationship.

A second means of differentiating authentic versus inauthentic parent-child conflict is through the construct of “stimulus control.” The child’s behavior in authentic parent-child conflict is under the stimulus control of the parent’s behavior, so that changes in the parent’s behavior produce corresponding changes in the child’s behavior. Whereas in inauthentic parent-child conflict the child’s behavior toward the targeted parent is NOT under the stimulus control of the targeted parent, so that changes to the behavior of the targeted parent DO NOT produce corresponding changes to the child’s behavior.

Personality Disorder Symptoms

This is the clearest set of symptoms for differentiating true allegations of attachment-based “parental alienation” from false allegations of “parental alienation.”

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” the child’s symptomatic rejection of a relationship with the targeted parent is the product of pathogenic parental influence on the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. In influencing the child to reject a relationship with the other parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent leaves telltale evidence of his or her pathogenic influence on the child through the narcissistic/borderline features of the child’s attitude toward the targeted-rejected parent.

Children to not spontaneously develop narcissistic and borderline personality traits. The development of narcissistic and borderline personality traits in children can ONLY be produced by the pathogenic parenting practices of a narcissistic or borderline parent. The psychological influence on a child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent will leave “psychological fingerprint” evidence of this pathogenic influence in the child’s symptom display toward the targeted parent.

The “psychological fingerprint” evidence of distorting pathogenic influence on the child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent is the presence in the child’s symptom display of five specific narcissistic and borderline features.

In authentic parent-child conflict in which a false allegation of “parental alienation” is made, the child’s symptom display toward the targeted parent WILL NOT display narcissistic and borderline personality features. In particular, the child will not evidence a sense of entitlement relative to the targeted-rejected parent, nor will the child evidence an attitude of haughty and arrogant contempt for the targeted-rejected parent.

In authentic parent-child conflict the child will also typically continue to evidence normal-range empathy for the emotional experience of the targeted parent, although this capacity for empathy may periodically disappear during periods of open anger toward the targeted parent. In authentic parent-child conflict, the child’s capacity for normal-range empathy for the targeted parent will typically be evident during inter-episode periods that occur between openly angry exchanges the child has with the targeted parent.

Also, in authentic parent-child conflicts the psychological dynamic of splitting will not be evident in the child’s symptom display. Spitting is the characteristic tendency for polarized black-and-white thinking in which people and relationships are seen as entirely good and wonderful, or as entirely bad and evil. In authentic parent-child conflict the child will express anger and frustration with the targeted parent, but will not characterize the targeted parent as a polarized extreme of all bad. Instead, during periods when the parent and child are not openly fighting, the child will be able to maintain a nuanced, shades-of-gray, perception of both positive and negative qualities possessed by the targeted parent, even though the child may find some parental qualities frustrating and provoking.

In order for attachment-based “parental alienation” to be diagnosed as being present, ALL FIVE narcissistic and borderline traits MUST be present in the child’s symptom display. The presence of all five narcissistic and borderline traits in the child’s symptom display represents the “psychological fingerprint” evidence for the distorting pathogenic influence on the child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Since the child is rejecting a relationship with the targeted parent, the psychological influence on the child that is evidenced in the child’s display of narcissistic and borderline personality traits CANNOT be emanating from the targeted parent, since the child is rejecting the influence of this parent. Since narcissistic and borderline personality traits can ONLY emerge as a result of distorting pathogenic parenting practices by a narcissistic/borderline parent, the only possible source for the child’s symptom display of narcissistic and borderline personality traits is the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored parent.

Sub-Threshold Display

If the child’s symptoms display some but not all of the five narcissistic and borderline personality traits predicted by an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” then the diagnosis of attachment-based “parental alienation” cannot be made.

In sub-threshold cases in which some but not all of the diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present, a 6-month “Response-to-Intervention” (RTI) trial can be initiated, treating the parent-child conflict as if it was authentic. This 6-month RTI trial can clarify diagnostic features in one or the other direction.

If the parent-child conflict is authentic, then six months of treatment should produce substantial improvements in the relationship. If the parent-child conflict is the result of attachment-based “parental alienation,” then six months of treatment will produce no gains, and during the six month RTI trial the additional confirmatory diagnostic indicators should become evident during the course of treatment.

The presence of additional clinical signs (Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs) indicative of attachment-based “parental alienation” may also help confirm diagnostic impressions.

Delusional Beliefs

The third diagnostic indicator of attachment-based “parental alienation,” an intransigently held, fixed and false belief (i.e., a delusion) regarding the supposedly abusive parental inadequacy of the targeted rejected parent, will not be present in authentic parent-child conflicts.

The foundational source of this delusional belief is the reenactment narrative involving attachment trauma networks in the “internal working models,” or “schemas,” of the alienating parent’s attachment system. This process is explained more fully in my online Master Lecture Series seminars on theory and treatment (7/18/14: Theoretical Foundations11/21/14: Diagnosis and Treatment) through California Southern University. The child’s delusional belief represents the child’s adopting the “victimized child” role within the trauma reenactment narrative.

This type of trauma reenactment is familiar within the treatment literature related to trauma,

“Reenactments of the traumatic past are common in the treatment of this population and frequently represent either explicit or coded repetitions of the unprocessed trauma in an attempt at mastery. Reenactments can be expressed psychologically, relationally, and somatically and may occur with conscious intent or with little awareness.” (Perlman & Courtois, 2005, p. 455)

“One primary transference-countertransference dynamic involves reenactment of familiar roles of victim, perpetratorrescuer-bystander in the therapy relationship. Therapist and client play out these roles, often in complementary fashion with one another, as they relive various aspects of the client’s early attachment relationships. (Perlman & Courtois, 2005, p. 455)

Pearlman, C.A., Courtois, C.A. (2005). Clinical Applications of the Attachment Framework: Relational Treatment of Complex Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 449-459.

In the case of attachment-based “parental alienation” it is the family members who are enacting the various roles of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment trauma history, in which the child is enacting the role as the “victimized child,” the targeted parent is enacting the role as the “abusive parent,” and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is adopting and enacting the coveted role as the “rescuing/protective parent.”

But none of this trauma reenactment narrative is true. The child is not a victim, the targeted parent is not abusive, and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is not protective. It is a false drama created in the trauma contained in the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment system.

The child’s delusional belief represented by Diagnostic Indicator 3 is a manifestation of the child having been induced through the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into adopting the “victimized child” role within the false trauma reenactment narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment trauma.

So that expert clinical diagnosticians, which should be a requirement for all mental health professionals working with this “special population” of children and families, should look beyond the mere surface features of the child’s delusional beliefs into the surrounding context for signs of the trauma reenactment narrative of which the child’s false belief in the “victimization role” is but one feature.

In authentic parent-child conflict involving false allegations of “parental alienation,” the child’s beliefs regarding the parenting practices of the targeted parent are not delusional. If, for example, the child asserts that the parent is physically abusive, the evidence presented by the child for this belief will be consistent with the child’s expressed belief. So that a child who asserts that the targeted parent is physically abusive should report that this belief is based on repeated incidents of being hit with a belt, or with a fist, or with an electrical cord.

Whether or not these child reports can be substantiated is another matter, but the reports of the child regarding the parenting practices of the parent should be consistent with the child’s beliefs that the parent is physically abusive (in the case of allegations of physically abusive parenting).

This is in contrast to a child who alleges the targeted parent is “emotionally abusive” because the parent took the child’s iphone away as punishment for the child’s hostile and negative attitude and display of disrespect. This is not considered “abusive” parenting, this is considered “discipline” and is entirely within normal-range parenting practices.

In this case, if the child maintains the position that the parent taking the child’s iphone away for a period of time as discipline for inappropriate child behavior represents “emotional abuse” rather than normal-range parenting practice (i.e., “discipline”), then this would suggest the presence of an intransigently held, fixed and false belief in the supposedly abusive parenting practices of a normal range and affectionally available parent, which would be consistent with the child adopting a “victimized child” role.

In authentic parent-child conflicts, such as when the targeted parent is the parent with the narcissistic personality, or in cases of authentically abusive parenting, the child’s beliefs regarding the parenting practices of the targeted parent are not delusional, they are accurate.

Furthermore, in cases where it is the targeted parent who has the narcissistic personality and is making a false allegation of “parental alienation” from an inability to self-reflect and from a charcterological propensity to externalize blame and responsibility, professional clinical interviews with the targeted parent should reveal the presence of narcissistic personality traits.

Prominent among the distinctive clinical indicators of narcissistic personality is the absence of empathy. So in cases of authentic parent-child conflict in which the narcissistic parent is the targeted parent, clinical interviews with the narcissistic targeted parent should be able to reveal this parent’s profound absence of empathy, which then supports the beliefs of the child regarding the problematic parenting practices of the narcissistic targeted parent, so the child’s beliefs again are not delusional but are supported by direct clinical observation.

Diagnosis of Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation”

Not everything is “parental alienation.”

Sometimes the targeted parent is the narcissistic parent and the child’s withdrawal from a relationship with this narcissistic parent is an understandable and reasonable response to the profound absence of parental empathy emanating from the narcissistic parent. Sometimes the allegation of “parental alienation” by a narcissistic parent represents the inability of the narcissistic parent to self-reflect and the narcissistic tendency to externalize blame and responsibility.

Sometimes the child’s withdrawal from a relationship with a parent is the product of actual physical or sexual abuse of the child, or is the product of prolonged and severe domestic violence. In these cases the child’s belief in the abusive parenting practices of the physically or sexually abusive parent are not delusional, they’re true.

However, in these circumstances the child will not display narcissistic personality traits toward the abusive parent. In particular, the child will not display an attitude of haughty and arrogant disrespect and contemptuous disdain toward the physically or sexually abusive parent, nor will the child display a sense of entitlement relative to the abusive parent, in which the child feels entitled to have every desire immediately met by the physically or sexually abusive parent.

Instead, physically and sexually abused children tend to present as timid and submissive in their relationship with the abusive parent, and they may display as angry and aggressive in other settings, such as in peer relationships at school.

Sometimes, however, a narcissistic/(borderline) parent has formed a cross-generational coalition with the child against the other parent, in which the child has been induced into adopting the “victimized child” role in the trauma reenactment narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, so that the child is induced through the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into rejecting a relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent so that the child can be used by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a “regulatory object” for this parent’s own emotional and psychological needs.

This process is explained more fully in my online Master Lecture Series seminars on theory and treatment (7/18/14: Theoretical Foundations11/21/14: Diagnosis and Treatment) through California Southern University.

So that sometimes the child’s rejection of a relationship with a parent is the product of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

When ALL THREE diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present in the child’s symptom display, then a clinical diagnosis of attachment-based “parental alienation” is warranted since NO OTHER PROCESS can produce THIS SPECIFIC SET of child symptoms other than an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

Authentic parent-child conflict will not produce this specific symptom set. Authentic child abuse will not produce this specific symptom set. ONLY the processes of an attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” will produce this specific symptom set of three diagnostic indicators (Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs)

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

References

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.

Pearlman, C.A., Courtois, C.A. (2005). Clinical Applications of the Attachment Framework: Relational Treatment of Complex Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 449-459.

One thought on “False Allegations of Parental Alienation”

  1. I would have to disagree with your statement “” since NO OTHER PROCESS can produce THIS SPECIFIC SET of child symptoms other than an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

    My 19 year old daughter has been diagnosed as having a “narcissistic personality disorder “ has completely cut off all relations with me , the father , and I firmly believe she has inherited this trait from my father. Genetics have been linked to this condition. Both parents gave her love and a good childhood. My son 16 is normal.

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