The Regulatory Other

This post will discuss the concept of the “regulatory other,” which is an important parent-child relationship construct from early childhood mental health. The concept of the “regulatory other” will become a key construct in understanding how the “alienation” is created with the child.

A common misconception is that the “alienation” is produced by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent making disparaging criticisms of the other parent in front of the child.  This is not true.  This is not how the “alienation” occurs.  There are a variety of factors involved in creating the “alienation” of the child, but one of the primary constructs is the concept of the “regulating other.”

However, before directly addressing the construct of the “regulating other” I am going to lay some foundational context for the construct in the scientific evidence emerging from research in child development and the neuro-development of the brain during childhood.  I ask your patience with this foundational material.  I think the payoff in understanding the construct of the regulatory other will reward your patience.

Key Construct: Regulation

The constructs of “regulation” and “dysregulation” have become primary concepts regarding the organized functioning of brain systems and their expression in emotional and behavioral displays.

The concepts of “regulation” and “dysregulation” of brain systems, behavioral systems, and emotional systems can best be understood through an analogy to a thermostat that “regulates” a room’s temperature. If the room temperature becomes too warm, the thermostat registers this change and automatically turns on the air-conditioner to bring the room temperature back into a comfortable mid-range. If the room temperature becomes too cold, the thermostat picks this up and automatically turns on the heater to bring the room temperature back into a comfortable mid-range. The thermostat “regulates” the room’s temperature, keeping the temperature within the optimal range of comfort.

As an aside, thermostats regulate the room temperature around a “set-point” which is the desired room temperature around which the actual room temperature fluctuates. There is evidence of “set-points” in the regulatory systems of the brain that differ from person to person. For example, people vary in their “set-points” for social regulation. Some people are highly social and gregarious (a high-set point for regulating social interaction) while other people are reserved and shy (i.e., a low set-point for regulating social interaction).  Our regulatory systems keep our behavioral, social, emotional, and brain functioning in an integrated optimal range for adaptive functioning around various set-points.

Basic Brain Principles

1. Behavior is a symptom. The brain is the cause.

The disorganized and dysregulated functioning and integration of various brain systems produce disorganized and dysregulated behavior and emotional displays.  

Because dysregulated child behavioral and emotional displays are annoying to us, we used to call these displays “problem behaviors.”

However, as we have learned more about how the brain works we have come to recognize that these child displays of dysregulated behavior play an important role in healthy child development, and we have shifted the term we use to describe these behaviors from “problem behaviors” because they annoy us, to “protest behaviors”  that are designed to elicit the involvement of the caregiver… by annoying us so that we intervene to make these behaviors stop.

What the brain wants is for us to intervene.  It accomplishes this by making “protest behaviors” annoying.

Understanding the neuro-developmental role of child protest behavior is one of the major advancements in our understanding of child development during the past 50 years.  Unfortunately, most mental health professionals are not aware of the conceptual shift because of their ignorance regarding the scientific advances made in the neuro-developmental research regarding child development.

The qualities and patterns of the child’s disorganized and dysregulated behavior and emotions reveal what features of the underlying brain systems are not properly integrated in their functioning. This is diagnosis.

Diagnosis involves using the features of the child’s emotional and behavioral dysregulation to understand what features of the child’s underlying brain systems are problematic. In some cases the problem is inherent to the maturation of the child’s brain systems, in other cases the problem lay in the parent’s responses to the child. In some cases it’s both. The features of the child’s behavioral and emotional displays will answer the causal-origin question for us.

Mental health professionals who are knowledgeable in a neuro-social approach can become pretty good at reading the underlying state of the integrated or non-integrated functioning of brain systems based on the external behavioral and emotional displays of the child. The first step in this process is to understand what the various brain systems are, how they function, and also how they interact with each other to create regulated and organized behavior. The second step is to understand the various patterns indicating dysfunction in the separate brain systems and in their integrated organization.

Most mental health professionals, however, never learn about brain development. In my experience, this sort of advanced training only occurs in the early childhood specialty, and those mental health professionals that enter early childhood mental health usually do so because they like working with infants, so that they typically don’t return to working with older children and adolescents. They like infant mental health and they stay in early childhood mental health.  So you’ll likely not find many therapists working with older children or adolescents who understand brain development in childhood.

The mental health professionals currently working with older children and families have typically never received training on brain processes in child development, and are still using outmoded and archaic models of behaviorism from the 1940s-50s or humanistic “play therapy” models from the 1950s-60s, models that were created well before the major advances in the scientific research on brain and child development that have occurred since the mid-1980s.

The current state of “child therapy” generally is appallingly inadequate. But that’s a topic for another time.

In response to child “protest behaviors” the intervention of the parent acts as a “regulatory other” for the child by helping to restore the organized and regulated functioning and integration of the child’s brain systems, which then restores the organized and regulated behavioral and emotional displays of the child. This pattern represents a healthy parent-child relationship.

Teaching parents how to respond effectively as a “regulatory other” for their child is therapy.  Or at least this is what therapy should be. It is not what most therapists do since most therapists don’t know how the brain works and develops during childhood.  When I work with children and families, I’m actually monitoring and intervening on the underlying brain systems, whereas most mental health professionals are simply intervening on the level of behavior.

Behavior is the symptom. The brain is the cause.

If we simply seek to suppress the symptom then we continually need to engage in symptom suppression efforts since we have never resolved the underlying cause of the symptom. If, however, we use the symptom to diagnose the cause, then we treat the cause, resolve the cause, and the symptom goes away, often without our ever having to directly address the actual symptom itself.

Imagine if we had an infection that caused a fever.  We could treat the fever, the symptom, with Tylenol or aspirin but we would continually need to suppress the fever because we haven’t addressed the underlying cause, the infection.  Now imagine if we used the symptom of the fever to diagnose an infection so that we then treat the infection with antibiotics, cure the infection, and the fever goes away without ever having to directly address it.

Behavior is the symptom, the brain is the cause.  We need to read the symptom of the behavior for what it says about the underlying integrated or non-integrated functioning of the underlying brain systems.

However, outside of early childhood mental health, very few therapists possess the knowledge of brain systems and their integrated functioning necessary to work at an neuro-systemic level, so that very few therapists operate from this type of scientifically based neuro-social approach. This approach, however, is common in early childhood diagnosis and treatment, which has a heavy focus on relationship-based diagnosis and treatment relative to the functioning of the various brain systems involved.

The Primary Brain Systems:

There are six primary brain systems and three overarching brain systems.  The six primary brain systems are:

  1. Physical sensory-motor systems
  2. Emotion systems
  3. Language and communication systems
  4. Relationship systems (attachment and intersubjectivity)
  5. Cognitive/executive function systems
  6. Three motivational systems

Active exploratory learning: Traditionally called “play,” this motivational system is primarily embedded in the sensory-motor and emotional networks, it is an early activating motivational system during childhood that has a basic agenda of “seek pleasure and avoid pain.”

Goal-directed motivating system: Traditionally called “work,” this motivating system is embedded in the executive function networks and involves a sequencing of three phases. First, establishing an overarching goal that organizes attention and behavior; second, applying effort toward achieving the goal; and third, accomplishing the goal, at which point the brain produces a burst of positive brain chemical that tells the neural networks used in achieving the goal to keep whatever changes were made because they were successful in achieving the goal. The more effort is applied toward achieving a goal, the larger the burst of positive brain chemical released upon achieving the goal.

Relationship motivating systems: The relationship systems of attachment and intersubjectivity are primary motivational systems at the same level as the other primary motivational systems for food and reproduction. There is an inhibitory network from the two relationship systems back to the play-based and goal-directed motivational systems, so that the relationship motivating systems always take precedence. Only if the two relationship systems are satisfied and quiescent will the play-based or goal-directed motivating systems be allowed to fully organize and direct activity. If either of the two relationship motivating systems are active, then the child’s primary motivational agenda will be to satisfy the relationship needs, and the activated relationship needs will inhibit the ability of the child to achieve a full activation of either the play-based or goal-directed motivational networks.

The three (interrelated) overarching brain systems are:

  1. The Self-system
  2. Memory systems
  3. Meaning Attribution systems

2. Brain Principles: “We build what we use”

Brain systems develop interconnections based on the principle of “we build what we use.” The renowned neuroscientist, Donald Hebb, referred to this as “neurons that fire together, wire together.” In the scientific literature, this process is called the “canalization” of brain networks (like building “canals” or channels in the brain).

In explaining this to parents, I’ll often use the metaphor of raindrops falling on a dirt hillside. The first raindrop can go any direction, but whatever path it takes it will remove a little dirt with it as it glides down the hillside. Gradually, as more and more raindrops fall, channels or “canals” begin to be grooved into the hillside directing the flow of subsequent raindrops.

Whenever we use a brain pathway or system, changes take place along the neural pathway that create structural and chemical channels or “canals” in the brain that make it more likely that this neural pathway or set of brain cells will be used in the same interconnected pattern in the future. “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Two of the primary neural processes involved in the “canalization” of brain pathways (i.e., “we build what we use”) are called “long-term potentiation” and “synaptogenesis.” There is some very interesting work on the neuro-structural and chemical underpinnings of the canalization process done with sea slugs because their neural networks are simple and their neural cells are relatively large, making their study easier. The neural-structural processes of canalization actually involve triggering and altering genetic code, and are quite complex involving neuro-modulators and secondary and tertiary feedback systems (Kandel, 2007). The brain is a very interesting place.

The canalization of neural pathways is called the “use-dependent” development of the brain, and the role of the parent in facilitating the child’s use of particular neural pathways in response to different child behaviors is called “scaffolding,” like building a supportive scaffold around a structure as its being constructed.

Child development isn’t about rewards and punishments, these are mechanisms of social control. Child development is about the scaffolding support provided by parental relationship and communication qualities for the integrated functioning of the various brain systems. Current “behavioral” and “play therapy” approaches to child therapy are woefully out of touch with the scientific advances that have occurred in the past 50 years. In the domain of child therapy, the level of professional ignorance regarding child development and the development of the brain during childhood is disturbing.

The brain possesses a variety of regulatory networks that seek to maintain the brain’s integrated functioning in the optimal range for organized and adaptive functioning. When system elements begin to become too active or inactive, various regulatory systems will activate to turn up or down the levels of various brain systems seeking to keep the overall functioning of the brain in an organized and regulated state for optimal adaptive functioning.

During childhood, the immature development of the child’s brain means that the integrated functioning of the child’s various brain systems will often become dysregulated by maturation challenges that the child cannot independently master. This disorganization in the integrated functioning of the various brain systems will produce disorganized displays of behavior and emotions (behavior is a symptom, the brain is the cause). 

These displays of disorganized and dyregulated emotions and behavior are called “protest behaviors”  whose developmental purpose is to elicit the involvement of the parent (i.e., of a more mature nervous system) to act as a “regulatory other” for the child. The parent then responds to the child’s protest behavior by “scaffolding” the child’s transition back into an organized and regulated brain state reflected in organized and regulated behavior.

In the process of “scaffolding” the child’s state transition from a disorganized and dysregulated brain state (and behavior) back into an organized and regulated brain state (and behavior), all of the brain pathways that were used as part of this state-transition become “canalized” through “use-dependent” neural processes, thereby making this state-transition more likely to occur in the future.

Gradually, over repeated “scaffolding” by the “regulatory other” of the parent for the child’s state transitions from disorganized and dysregulated brain states to organized and regulated brain states, the child’s brain develops (“canalizes”) the neural pathways for this state transition through use-dependent structural and chemical processes, so that eventually the child is able to make this transition from an impending dysregulated brain state/behavior into a regulated brain state/behavior independently of the need for scaffolding support from the “regulatory other” of the parent. This is called the child’s development of “self-regulation.”

One type of this self-regulation development that the general public may be familiar with is called “frustration tolerance” which occurs through the repeated exposure and successful processing of minor and gradually increasing frustration experiences.

All brain systems are subject to this use-dependent development of self-regulation capacities. This is the current science on child development.

Shore (1997), for example, identifies the shift from the behaviorist paradigm to a neuro-developmental paradigm,

“The basic unit of analysis of the process of human development is not changes in behavior, cognition, or even affect, but rather the ontogenetic appearance of more and more complex psychobiological states that underlie these state-dependent emergent functions.” (Shore, 1997, p. 595).

Shore, A.N. (1997). Early organization of the nonlinear right brain and development of a predisposition to psychiatric disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 595-631.

Sroufe (2000) describes the development of self-regulation through parental scaffolding,

“In the typical course of events, caregivers quickly learn to “read” the infant and to provide care that keeps distress and arousal within reasonable limits.” (Childress comment: the parent is acting as a “regulatory other.”)

“And they do more. By effectively engaging the infant and leading him or her to ever longer bouts of emotionally charged, but organized behavior, they provide the infant with critical training in regulation.”

“The movement toward self-regulation continues throughout the childhood years, as does a vital, though changing, role for caregivers. During the toddler period, the child acquires beginning capacities for self-control, tolerance of moderate frustration, and a widening range of emotional reactions, including shame and, ultimately, pride and guilt. Practicing self-regulation in a supportive context is crucial. Emerging capacities are easily overwhelmed. The caregiver must both allow the child to master those circumstances within their capacity and yet anticipate circumstances beyond the child’s ability, and help to restore equilibrium when the child is over-taxed. Such “guided self-regulation” is the foundation for the genuine regulation that will follow.” (Sroufe, 2000, p. 71)

3. Brain Principles: Protest Behavior

The following principles regarding the developmental role of “protest behavior” are important for understanding the child’s anger and rejection that is being expressed toward the targeted parent in attachment-based “parental alienation.”  Children’s authentic protest behavior is designed to elicit greater involvement from the parent who acts as a “regulatory other” for the child’s protest behavior, helping the child transition from a dsyregulated state (evidenced by the protest behavior) back into an organized and regulated state (evidenced by a pleasant attitude of cooperation).

Authentic protest behavior is never designed to sever the parent-child relationship. From the perspective of evolution, severing of the parent-child relationship exposed children to predation and other environmental dangers. Genes allowing the severing of the parent-child bond were selectively removed from the gene pool throughout millions of years of evolution.

Furthermore, regarding the authentic functioning of the brain, when children are dealing with parental behaviors that are unresponsive and problematic, this problematic parental behavior dysregulates the integrated functioning of the child’s brain systems so that the child produces disregulated emotional and behavioral displays (i.e., protest behavior) designed to elicit the involvement of the parent to serve as a “regulating other” for the child in providing scaffolding support for the child’s transition back into a regulated state, thereby building all of the neural networks associated with the developmental challenge that the child had difficulty independently mastering.

That’s how the brain works.

Sometimes the child may seek to limit involvement with a problematic parent, but this is always a regulatory strategy arising from the disorganized functioning and integration of the underlying brain systems. It is not the product of a motivated desire to sever the parent-child bond.

One of the often prominent features of the child’s anger and hostility toward the targeted parent in attachment-based “parental alienation” is that the child’s anger emerges from an organized and well-regulated child brain state. When this occurs, it means that the anger and hostility directed toward the targeted parent is not authentic to the parent-child interaction but represents a conscious choice by the child.

Authentic protest behavior is a product of a disorganized/dysregulated brain.  Behavior is a symptom, the brain is the cause.

Dysregulated behavior and a regulated brain are incompatible, and so are not authentic. Dysregulated behavior is caused by a dysregulated brain.

A regulated brain means that the child is making a conscious choice to display the apparently dsyregulated behavior of engaging in the parent-child conflict with the targeted parent, which is very different from an authentic parent-child conflict that results from an underlying disorganized and dysregulated integration of brain systems.

Important Concept:

Authentic problematic parenting dysregulates the child’s brain systems, thereby producing dysregulated child behavior, i.e., the child’s protest behavior.

If the child’s brain state is well-regulated as the child is emitting protest behavior, then the emitted protest behavior is NOT being caused by problematic parenting.

Behavior is a symptom. The brain is the cause.

The more that mental health professionals understand about the neurodevelopment of the brain during childhood, the easier it becomes to differentiate authentic from inauthentic parent-child conflict.

With my background in early childhood mental health and the neurodevelopment of the brain during childhood, spotting inauthentic displays of parent-child conflict associated with attachment-based “parental alienation” is extraordinarily easy. Might as well put up a neon sign saying, “Parental Alienation Here.”

This also means that I am able to spot with equal clarity false allegations of “parental alienation” in which the child’s conflicts with the targeted parent represent authentic responses to the problematic parenting behavior of the targeted parent.

Not everything is “parental alienation,” and the goal of all mental health professionals should be to follow the clinical data into an accurate diagnosis, not to promote an agenda or confirm pre-existing ideas.

My client is the child.  The child is displaying symptoms.  My job is to read the symptoms to accurately identify their causal origin so that we can intervene to restore the healthy development of the child.

If the problem is the parenting practices of the targeted parent (i.e., authentic parent-child conflict), that’s pretty easy to solve. We simply instruct the targeted parent in the appropriate parental responses that will act as a “regulatory other” for the child’s dysregulated behavior and emotional displays (the child’s protest behavior).  As soon as the parental responses are appropriate to the parental role as a “regulatory other” for the child’s displays of dysregulated brain states, the child’s protest behavior resolves.

Differentiating authentic versus inauthentic parent-child conflict is not about identifying specific child behaviors, although the differences are evident in certain features of behavior, it’s more about identifying the underlying brain states producing those behaviors. To do this, however, requires a professional level understanding for the socially-mediated neurodevelopment of the brain during childhood. Most mental health professionals do not possess this knowledge. They should. But they don’t.

Knowing what I know about the socially mediated neurodevelopment of the brain during childhood and its implications for child and family therapy, I am strongly of the opinion that we should require that all mental health professionals who are diagnosing and treating children possess the current scientific knowledge regarding child development and the development of the brain during childhood.

It is deeply disturbing to me that we don’t require more advanced knowledge from child and family therapists, and that we accept professional ignorance when it comes to diagnosing and treating our children. Our children and their healthy development are too important and should be paramount in determining the educational curriculum and training of therapists. Our child and family therapists should be the most exceptional of professionals in mental health. It’s too important.

The Regulatory Other in “Parental Alienation”

One of the central concepts in the neurodevelopment of self-regulatory abilities in childhood is the role of the parent as a “regulatory other” for the child. When the child begins to enter a disorganized and dsyregulated state, the parent responds in a way that restores the child’s regulated functioning. The child is using the parent as a “regulatory other” for the child’s own internal state.

Shore (1997) describes the specific relationship features of the parental “regulatory other” role function,

“The mother must monitor the infant’s state as well as her own and then resonate not with the child’s overt behavior but with certain qualities of its internal state, such as contour, intensity, and temporal features.” (Shore, 1997, p. 600)

Tronick (2003) also describes the relationship features of the “regulatory other” parent-child relationship,

“In response to their partner’s relational moves each individual attempts to adjust their behavior to maintain a coordinated dyadic state or to repair a mismatch (Tronick & Cohn, 1989). When mutual regulation is particularly successful, that is when the age-appropriate forms of meaning (e.g., affects, relational intentions, representations; see Tronick 2002c, d) from one individual’s state of consciousness are coordinated with the meanings of another’s state of consciousness — I have hypothesized that a dyadic state of consciousness emerges.” (Tronick, 2003, p. 475)

“A dyadic state of consciousness has dynamic effects. It increases the coherence of the infant’s state of consciousness and expands the infant’s (and the partner’s) state of consciousness (Tronick et al., 1998; Tronick 2002b, c.)” (Tronick, 2003,p. 475)

“Thus, dyadic states of consciousness are critical, perhaps even necessary for development” (Tronick and Wienberg, 1997),” (Tronick, 2003, p. 475)

In severely pathological parent-child relationships, however, this role-relationship of the parent and child is reversed, so that it is the parent who uses the child as a “regulatory other” to regulate the parent’s own pathology.

This is called a “role-reversal” relationship in which the child is being used as a “regulatory other” for the parent, instead of a healthy and developmentally vital parent-child relationship in which the child is using the parent as “regulatory other.”

In the Journal of Emotional Abuse, Kerig discusses the problematic development created by role-reversal relationships involving parent-child boundary violations such as the parent using the child as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s emotional state,

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

“In the throes of their own insecurity, troubled parents may rely on the child to meet the parent’s emotional needs, turning to the child to provide the parent with support, nurturance, or comforting (Zeanah & Klitzke, 1991).” (Kerig, 2005, p. 6)

(Childress comment: the parent is using the child as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s emotional state.)

Ultimately, preoccupation with the parents’ needs threatens to interfere with the child’s ability to develop autonomy, initiative, self-reliance, and a secure internal working model of the self and others (Carlson & Sroufe, 1995; Leon & Rudy, this volume).” (Kerig, 2005, p. 6)

“When parent-child boundaries are violated, the implications for developmental psychopathology are significant (Cicchetti & Howes, 1991). Poor boundaries interfere with the child’s capacity to progress through development which, as Anna Freud (1965) suggested, is the defining feature of childhood psychopathology.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 7)

“Examination of the theoretical and empirical literatures suggests that there are four distinguishable dimensions to the phenomenon of boundary dissolution: role reversal, intrusiveness, enmeshment, and spousification. (Kerig, 2005, p. 8)

Enmeshment in one parent-child relationship is often counterbalanced by disengagement between the child and the other parent (Cowan & Cowan, 1990; Jacobvitz, Riggs, & Johnson, 1999). (Kerig, 2005, p. 10)

“However, an emotionally needy parent who is threatened by the child’s emergent sense of individuality may act in ways so as to prolong this sense of parent-infant oneness (Masterson & Rinsley, 1975). By binding the child in an overly close and dependent relationship, the enmeshed parent creates a psychologically unhealthy childrearing environment that interferes with the child’s development of an autonomous self.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 10)

“Barber (2002) defines psychological control as comprising “parental behaviors that are intrusive and manipulative of children’s thoughts, feelings, and attachments to parents, and are associated with disturbances in the boundaries between the child and the parent” (p. 15) (see also Bradford & Barber, this issue).” (Kerig, 2005, p. 12)

“As Ogden (1979) phrased it, “It is as if the parent says to the child, if you are not what I need you to be, you do not exist for me” (p. 16).” (Kerig, 2005, p. 12)

“Rather than telling the child directly what to do or think, as does the behaviorally controlling parent, the psychologically controlling parent uses indirect hints and responds with guilt induction or withdrawal of love if the child refuses to comply. In short, an intrusive parent strives to manipulate the child’s thoughts and feelings in such a way that the child’s psyche will conform to the parent’s wishes.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 12)

“In order to carve out an island of safety and responsivity in an unpredictable, harsh, and depriving parent-child relationship, children of highly maladaptive parents may become precocious caretakers who are adept at reading the cues and meeting the needs of those around them. The ensuing preoccupied attachment with the parent interferes with the child’s development of important ego functions, such as self organization, affect regulation, and emotional object constancy.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 14)

“There is evidence for the intergenerational transmission of boundary dissolution within the family. Adults who experienced boundary dissolution in their relationships with their own parents are more likely to violate boundaries with their children (Hazen, Jacobvitz, & McFarland, this volume; Shaffer & Sroufe, this volume).” (Kerig, 2005, p. 22)

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

The seduction of the child into the role as a “regulatory other” for the pathological parent is a result of the disorganized and intense emotional displays by the pathological parent. In response to the parent’s unpredictable displays of intense anxiety, sadness, or anger, the child learns to become hyper-vigilant regarding the parent’s internal state so that the child can respond in ways that prevent the parent from collapsing into a disorganized emotional state of excessive anxiety, sadness, or anger.

The child becomes the “regulatory other” for the parent, so that the child becomes adept at responding to the pathological parent in ways that keep the pathological parent in an organized and regulated state. Once the child becomes the “regulatory other” for the pathological parent, the parent simply needs to provide the child with subtle emotional and communicative cues as to how to maintain the parent’s regulated emotional state and the child will actively become what the parent needs the child to be.

In healthy parent-child relationships, the parent acts as the “regulatory other” for the child.

In the psychopathology of the “role-reversal” relationship, the child acts as the “regulatory other” for the parent.

A role-reversal relationship is extremely destructive to the healthy emotional and psychological development of the child.

Role-reversal relationships are associated with the “disorganized” category of attachment (Lyons-Ruth, Bronfman, & Parsons, 1999), which is considered to be the most severely pathological attachment category, and disorganized attachment, in turn, is associated with the development of borderline personality processes (Beck, 2004).

In attachment-based “parental alienation” the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment classification is likely to be “disorganized,” which in adults is called “unresolved trauma.” As a manifestation of the internal working models of relationship contained within the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment networks, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent forms a role-reversal relationship with the child, using the child as a “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s own emotional regulation.

Parental Anxiety Regulation

For the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the interpersonal rejection inherent to the divorce represents a “narcissistic injury” that threatens to collapse the narcissistic defense against the experience of primal self-inadequacy.  

The interpersonal rejection of the divorce also activates an intense fear of abandonment associated with borderline personality processes.

At the attachment system level, the attachment system forms “internal working models,” also called “schemas,” for expectations of self-in-relationship and other-in-relationship. For the “disorganized” category of attachment, the self-in-relationship expectation is that “I’m inadequate,” while the expectation of the other-in-relationship is that “I will be abandoned by the other because I’m inadequate.”

These “internal working models” within the attachment system coalesce during later childhood and adolescence into stable personality structures, with the “I’m inadequate” self-in-relationship schema reflected in narcissistic personality processes, while the abandoning other-in relationship expectation becomes reflected in borderline personality processes of an intense fear of abandonment.

Both the narcissistic and the borderline personality processes have the same underlying attachment schemas of “I’m inadequate” and “I will be abandoned because of my inadequacy.” The difference between the borderline and narcissistic personality processes is that the borderline personality experiences these internal core attachment beliefs directly, which leads to overtly disorganized behavior, emotions, and relationships, whereas the narcissistic personality has adopted a defensive veneer of narcissistic self-inflation against the direct experience of these internal core attachment schemas. However, if the narcissistic defensive veneer is threatened, the narcissistic personality responds with a disorganized tirade of intense anger consistent with the underlying borderline personality organization.

“Most of these [narcissistic] patients present an underlying borderline personality organization.” (Kernberg, 1975, p. 16)

In response to the interpersonal rejection inherent to the divorce (i.e., narcissistic injury and abandonment), the narcissistic/(borderline) parent engages the child in a role-reversal relationship as a “regulatory other” in order to regulate the intense anxiety experienced by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent associated with the threatened collapse of the narcissistic defense against the experience of primal inadequacy and a tremendous fear of abandonment.

As the child adopts the role as the “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s pathology in order to avoid the emotional collapse of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into chaotic and unpredictable displays of intense parental anxiety, sadness, or anger it becomes relatively easy for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to then communicate to the child through clear but subtle “emotional signals” and “relational moves” that the parent’s emotional regulation is dependent on the child adopting the “victimized child” role in the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s trauma reenactment narrative.

In the role as a “regulating other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child readily adopts the parentally-desired role as the “victimized child” of the other “abusive parent” in order to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent from collapsing into intense emotional states of anxiety, sadness, or anger.

The induction of child symptoms is NOT accomplished by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent overtly “alienating” the child by saying derogatory things about the other parent. The induction process is much more insidious and complex.

The child is induced into becoming the “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in order to avoid parental displays of anger and rejection (or in some cases parental displays of intense sadness or anxiety), and the child is seduced into psychologically surrendering to the influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent through parental displays of affection and narcissistic indulgence provided to the child for cooperating as the “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

In response to the intense and unpredictable emotional displays by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child becomes hyper-vigilant regarding the emotional and psychological state of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in order to prevent the parent’s collapse into intense, dysregulated emotional displays of anxiety, sadness, or anger, and the child becomes what the parent needs (i.e., the “regulatory other” for the parent) in order to keep the parent in a regulated emotional state.

The child enters a role-reversal relationship to become a “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s emotional state.

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent then communicates non-verbally to the child that what the parent needs from the child in order for the parent to remain emotionally regulated is that the child adopt the role of the “victimized child” relative to the other “abusive parent.”

The moment the child adopts the “victimized child” role within the trauma reenactment narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (see Trauma Reenactment in Parental Alienation post), this immediately imposes on the targeted parent the trauma reenactment role as the “abusive parent,” and allows the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to adopt and prominently display the coveted role as the all-wonderful “protective parent” within the trauma reenactment narrative.

Inducing the child into accepting the “victimized child” role is relatively easy. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent simply seeks a child criticism of the other parent through motivated and directive questioning by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and the child will readily comply in offering this parentally-desired criticism of the other parent in the child’s role as a “regulating other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s emotional state.

Once the narcissistic/(borderline) parent has elicited a child criticism of the other parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent then distorts, exaggerates, and inflames this elicited child criticism of the other parent into supposed evidence of the “abusive” parenting of the other parent. In the process the narcissistic/(borderline) parent supplies to the “regulating other” of the child the appropriate themes for denigrating the other parent.

Narcissistic/(borderline) parent: “How were things at your mother’s house?”

Child: Pretty good, we had pizza.” <The child responds authentically>

N/(b) parent: “Oh, I guess you like the food better better over there. Does she have better food over there than we have? <The father’s sharply hostile tone signals to the child that the child provided the wrong answer, and that the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is threatening to dysregulate into anger and rejection.>

Child: “No, I actually didn’t like it. It had pepperoni on it and I hate pepperoni.” <The child reads the parental cues and quickly corrects the response to one of criticism of the other parent to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in an emotionally regulated state. The child actually likes pepperoni and liked the pizza he had at his mom’s house, but truth and accuracy are sacrificed in the service of keeping the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in a regulated emotional state.>

N/(b) parent: “Yeah, that’s just like her. She never considers what other people want, it’s always what she wants. She’s so selfish and inconsiderate. Hey, how about a snack. If she didn’t feed you well over there why don’t you grab some chips from the pantry and have a snack.” <The father’s return to a normal emotional tone signals to the child that the criticism was the correct response to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent emotionally regulated. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent then provides the child with the acceptable theme to use in criticizing the other parent (i.e., that his mom is selfish and self-centered) and the father provides the child with a narcissistic indulgence for providing the proper response of criticizing the mother.  All the while it APPEARS as if it is the child who is criticizing the other parent and that the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is simply being the “wonderfully nurturing and understanding” parent, i.e., the coveted “protective parent” role in the trauma reenactment narrative.)

N/(b) parent: “Did you and your mom do anything?” <The father isn’t satisfied, he’s seeking another criticism from the child. Perhaps the father wants to more firmly establish the interaction pattern since the child initially said everything was okay with his mom>

Child: “Yeah, she took me over to her parents’ house, but I didn’t have any fun over there.” <The child actually likes going to his grandparents’ house. He loves his grandparents and they dote on him.  But as a “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent the child is hyper-vigilant for cues regarding how to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in a regulated emotional state. The child recognizes that the parent wants the child to criticize the mother, so the child provides the father with the parentally-desired response that he didn’t have fun going to his grandparents house, So that while the child actually likes seeing his grandparents and actually had a good time over at their house, truth and accuracy are sacrificed at the moment in order to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent regulated. The only relevant consideration for the child is how to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent out of an angry retaliatory state that the father earlier signaled was imminent if the child did not provide the correct responses.>

N/(b) parent: “Oh God, I’m so sorry she dragged you over there. Her parents are just awful. They just drone on and on. It’s so boring. I’m sorry you had to endure that. Hey, why don’t we go buy you a new video game.” <The father inflames the child’s elicited criticism and in doing so he provides the theme for criticizing the grandparents in the future, so that later the child will report to the therapist, “I hate going over to my grandparents, it’s awful, they just talk on and on about stuff, I hate going over there.” And the therapist will never suspect that this criticism and theme were co-created with the allied and seemingly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The father provides the child with another narcissistic indulgence for the child’s cooperation in psychologically surrendering to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent by adopting the “victimized child” role.>

N/(b) parent: “So, did you and you mom get along okay?  Did you have any arguments about anything?” <The father is still not satisfied.  He wants a more direct criticism of the mother so he asks the child directly for this criticism, first in general terms but then provides a specific prompt for the child.  The criticism of the other parent is elicited by directive and motivated questioning.  The child, as a regulatory other feels obligated to provide the father with the sought-for response, and the child realizes from previous interactions with the father that if he doesn’t get the desired criticism of the mother then he will be in an angry, hostile, and punitive mood. The child wants to avoid his father’s dysregulation into anger so the child needs to provide the parentally-desired response.  The problem is that the child and his mother had a good time together.  There were no arguments.  But the child needs to come up with something.>

Child:She got upset at me for leaving my stuff in the living room.” <Actually, the mother was simply annoyed that the child left his shoes and jacket in the living room and asked him to take his stuff to his room. But truth and accuracy are sacrificed in order to provide the narcissistic/(borderline) parent with the desired response to avoid the intense and unpredictable emotional displays that can result from a frustrated narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

N/(b) parent: “Oh my god! Really? She got angry at you for that?  She’s so controlling.  Everything has to be her way or she flies off into her rages.  I swear, she has anger management issues.  It was just like that in our marriage.  I know exactly what you’re talking about.  I can’t believe how controlling she is.  I’m sorry you have to put up with that  I wish she wouldn’t get so angry about the littlest thing. Come here and give me a hug.  I’m sorry she does that.” <It doesn’t take much of a criticism, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will take even the smallest of criticism as the seed for distortion and exaggeration into supposed evidence of the other parent’s “abusive” parenting.  Notice how the child’s characterization of the mother as being “upset” is distorted and inflamed by the father into “angry” and ultimately into “rages.” The father also provides the child with the desired and acceptable themes for criticizing the mother, that she is “controlling” and has “anger management issues.” Notice too, the loss of boundaries, “I know exactly what you’re talking about,” as the father brings the marital relationship into the discussion, “she was just like that in our marriage.”  Finally, the father signals his approval of the child for criticizing his mother..>

As these parent-child interactions are continually repeated, the child comes to understand his role in the drama, to provide a criticism of the mother, the more extreme the criticism the better, until eventually when the child returns from a visitation with the mother and receives the father’s invitation for the criticism, the child responds with a full measure of antagonism for his mother,

N/(b) parent: “How were things at your mom’s house?” <the parental invitation for the criticism>

Child: “Horrible, I hate it over there. She’s so controlling. It always has to be what she wants or she gets so angry.  She gets angry over the littlest things. I hate it over there.”

N/(b) parent: “I’m so sorry she’s like that. Come here and give me a hug. I hate when she gets like that.  I wish she cared more about how you feel instead of her own stuff.  I’m sorry your mom is like that.  Well you’re home now, so you can relax.  How about a bowl of ice cream to help to get over being with your mom.”

And if anyone asks the child, does your dad say bad things about your mother in front of you, the child says, “No” because from the child’s immature perspective it appears as if it is the child who is offering the criticism of the mother, and that the father is just being “supportive” and “understanding” of the child. 

Also note how truth and accuracy are left behind in the “regulatory other” role of the child. In the psychological world of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, “Truth and reality are what I assert them to be,” This is a hallmark of the narcissistic and borderline thinking process that the child is acquiring. 

In the moment, while the child is interacting with the unpredictable and emotionally dangerous narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the primary motivation of the child is to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in a regulated emotional state and so avoid the parent’s collapse into hostile-angry-rejecting, overly sad and depressed, or hyper-anxious emotional displays.  If truth is bent or distorted, that’s a small price to pay. 

Gradually through repeated distorting interactions with the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in which the child psychologically surrenders to the role as the “regulating other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child acquires the same psychological characteristics of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that the child is reflecting for the regulation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. 

The child’s acquisition of these parental narcissistic and borderline characteristics through the child’s role as the “regulatory other” for a narcissistic/(borderline) parent represent Diagnostic Indicator 2 for an attachment based model of “parental alienation” (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post). 

These acquired characteristics include the narcissistic/(borderline) characteristic that “truth and reality are what I assert them to be.”  The presence in the child’s symptom display of this characteristic thought process, that “truth and reality are what I assert them to be,” is a particularly distinctive sign of attachment-based “parental alienation” that evidences the influence of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent on the child’s psychological processes.

In the vignette described above, the authentic child hurts at having criticized his mother. The authentic child feels like he betrayed his mother by cooperating in the “mom-bashing” exchange with his father. The child feels guilty. While the child had to criticize the mother in order to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent emotionally regulated, the child doesn’t realize this. The role as the “regulatory other” is too subtle and complicated a role-relationship for the immaturity of the child to recognize.

So the child just knows something hurts (i.e., guilt at betraying his mother), but he doesn’t know why he hurts.  All he knows is that his hurt has something to do with his mother.

As this dynamic progresses, the child will come to misinterpret this hurt surrounding his mother (i.e., his guilt at betraying her and his grief at losing a relationship with his beloved mother once the rejection is underway), as being something “bad” about his mother.  In trying to understand what hurts about his mother, the child comes to misinterpret an authentic hurt as meaning that there must be something bad about who his mother is as a person.

Since she’s not actually doing anything bad that he can specifically identify, it must be her very “personhood” that’s bad.   And his father is more than willing to support this misinterpretation that the very personhood of the mother is bad, malicious, and inadequate (i.e., a manifestation of the “splitting” dynamic of the father’s psychopathology; (see Key Concept: Splitting post), so that the mother “deserves” to be rejected by the child.

“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 child’s presentation of a “deserves to be rejected” theme regarding the targeted-rejected parent is another very distinctive and characteristic diagnostic feature of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

Over time, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will provide the child with an array of “acceptable” themes for why the child hurts relative to the other parent, e.g., the other parent is self-centered and selfish, is insensitive to the child’s needs, that the other parent broke up the family by seeking the divorce, or has a really irritating way of saying things, etc.

Regulating the Psychopathology

This whole process is controlled and directed by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a means to regulate the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

In the vignette described above, once the trauma reenactment narrative is in place, the father is no longer the inadequate parent (person), the mother is. The father’s threatened exposure of core-self inadequacy is protected by projectively displacing it onto the mother by means of the child’s induced symptomatic rejection of her.she’s the inadequate parent (person), not me.

The father on the other hand, becomes the “all-wonderful” parent, and the father is allowed to display the “wonderfulness” of his “nurturing and protective parenting” to the “bystanders” in the trauma reenactment who are represented by the array of therapists, parent coordinators, teachers, and attorneys who become involved.

“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. One primary transference-countertransference dynamic involves reenactment of familiar roles of victim, perpetrator-rescuer-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)

This narcissistically based “wonderfully perfect nurturing and protective parent” presentation to the “bystanders” in the trauma reenactment is sometimes explicitly expressed by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in the sentence, “I only want what’s best for the child.” What a wonderful parent, right? Totally unlike the other parent who only cares about his or her selfish desire to have a relationship with the child.  If the other parent really cared about the child they would let the child reject them and never see the child again.  What a selfish parent.

Therapist radar should always be alerted whenever a parent says, “I only want what’s best for the child.”  We all want what’s best for the child.  Normal-range parents almost never make this statement because it is so self-evident.  But the narcissistic/(borderline) parent doesn’t recognize this statement as being self-evident for normal-range parents, and thinks it represents a “wonderful parent” presentation.  It’s not a definitive sign, but it should raise therapist alertness for the presence of the all-wonderful “protective parent” role.

The child’s rejection of the mother also allows the father to psychologically expel his abandonment fears onto the mother – she becomes the entirely abandoned parent (person) – whereas the father becomes the ideal and perfect never-to-be-abandoned parent.

The narcissistic/(borderline) father also gains possession of “the prize,” the child, who represents a “narcissistic object” symbolizing the father’s victory over the mother, and validating the father as being the “good parent.”

“[For the narcissistic personality] instead of learning to accept and master normal and transient feelings of inferiority, these experiences are cast as threats to be defeated, primarily by acquiring external symbols or validation.” (Beck et al., 2006, p. 247)

“[For the narcissistic personality] the need to control the idealized objects, to use them in attempts to manipulate and exploit the environment and to “destroy potential enemies,” is linked with inordinate pride in the “possession” of these perfect objects totally dedicated to the patient. (Kernberg, 1975, p. 33)

Childress commment: “totally dedicated to the patient” represents the “regulating other” role of the child for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

And through the child’s rejection of the mother, the father is able to exact revenge on the the mother for the narcissistic injury she inflicted upon him by not recognizing his “wonderfulness.” How dare she not recognize his narcissistic wonderfulness. Well, she’s paying for it now.

“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).

Court orders and therapist directives for parents to “not talk badly about the other parent in front of the child” are totally irrelevant. Talking badly about the other parent is NOT how the child’s symptomatic rejection of the other parent occurs.

The child is first induced into being a “regulatory other” for the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

From there, the child is induced into adopting the “victimized child” role in the trauma reenactment narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, which immediately creates and defines the other two trauma reenactment roles of “abusive parent” and “protective parent.”

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

* Regarding the vignette, I used the father as representing the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and the mother as the targeted parent, but these genders could easily be reversed.  There is no gender bias in attachment-based “parental alienation.”  It affects males and females in roughly equal proportions.

References

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

Kandel, E. R. (2007), In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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

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

Lyons-Ruth, K., Bronfman, E. & Parsons, E. (1999). Maternal frightened, frightening, or atypical behavior and disorganized infant attachment patterns. In J. Vondra & D. Barnett (Eds.) Atypical patterns of infant attachment: Theory, research, and current directions. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 64, (3, Serial No. 258).

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.

Shore, A.N. (1997). Early organization of the nonlinear right brain and development of a predisposition to psychiatric disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 595-631.

Sroufe, L.A. (2000). Early relationships and the development of children. Infant Mental Health Journal, 21(1-2), 67-74.

Tronick, E.Z. (2003). Of course all relationships are unique: How co-creative processes generate unique mother-infant and patient-therapist relationships and change other relationships. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 473-491.

5 thoughts on “The Regulatory Other”

  1. All of this rings true for me. I was totally alienated from my mother after my parents’ divorce when I was four years old. My father was able to present as the ‘good parent who was taking custody of the children’, while he was able to bully my mother right out of my life. I am currently blogging my memoir in hopes that my story sheds light on Parent Alienation. I appreciate your work.

  2. I’ve read a number of books and articles on the subject of “parental alienation” and none comes close to unpacking the dynamics the way you do. I had always thought that bashing and bad mouthing alone were sufficient to effect the alienation, but I now see that there is much more to the problem. It explains why most children are not alienated during a divorce despite bad mouthing being fairly common. You really need the underlying personality disorder in order for the enmeshment to take place. It reminds me of the excellent example of the monkeys and snakes you gave in one of your video lectures.

    Thank you so much for your work. That you are providing all of your materials free to the public is amazing. You are leaving a legacy that will impact generations.

    I know you provide expert consultation, answering general questions about pathogenic parenting, but do you ever perform forensic exams outside of California?

  3. I think the weak link in this line of argumentation is that parent as regulating other is usually associated with that of the primary care giver, and so is not necessarily shared.

    Thereby the child rejecting a particular parent need not mean that the child is rejecting the regulating other, but rejecting parent is some other kind of function.

    1. In the case of “parental alienation” the child is serving as the “regulatory other” for the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent, not for the rejected parent. The child is the “regulatory other” – or “regulatory object” – for the pathology of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent to keep that parent in an organized and regulated state.

      1. I was not specific as to which line of argument I was referring to. I will re-elaborate and embellish.

        Point 3. Protest behaviour, authentic (neurologically caused, in which the adult functions as a regulating other) vs inauthentic ( coached conscious choice, the child is the regulating other). You state: “Authentic protest behavior is never designed to sever the parent-child relationship.”

        I claim: That inauthentic protest behaviour, in some circumstances, can be “natural” (scare quotes!). This is because:

        a) The child as the regulating other, does not necessarily mean that the abusing adult fails to function as a regulating other.

        b) Rather, the status of the adult as a regulating other is conditional upon the child rejecting the targeted parent.

        c) The inauthentic protest behaviour is designed to secure the abusing adult as a regulating other.

        c) The child victim strategy is thus: “If I regulate the adult’s needs (I reject the targeted adult), the adult will be available to me as a regulating other”.

        Hence the difficulty for the professional assessing the status of the “protest behaviour”, conscious choice and neurobiology are two sides of the same coin.

        There is more profit for the professional to screen for signs that parental love is limited and conditional.

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