It is beyond my comprehension how so many mental health professionals can entirely miss the extreme psychopathology involved in attachment-based “parental alienation.” I am truly stunned.
Let me describe just one example, the “exclusion demand” symptom made by children, in which the child demands that the targeted parent no long attends the child’s events.
The Exclusion Demand:
Child: “I don’t want you to come to my baseball games (school open house, dance recital, school awards ceremony, etc.). I get too anxious.”
This “exclusion demand” by the child is often followed with a statement that the child wants the targeted parent to show “respect” for the child’s feelings and “boundaries.”
The “exclusion demand” is among the more common symptoms of pathology displayed by the child in attachment-based “parental alienation.”
Extremely Severe Psychopathology
The “exclusion demand” is a symptom of extreme psychopathology. It floors me how mental health professionals can act like this child symptom is anywhere near normal-range. So let me explain the psychopathology inherent to this symptom.
A parent attending a child’s activity is entirely normal range and healthy. I recommend all parents everywhere attend their children’s school activities, sporting events, musical recitals, awards ceremonies, etc.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong or problematic about a parent attending a child’s event. Normal-range children are happy and excited when their parent attends an event of the child’s.
A child who becomes hyper-anxious and seeks to exclude a parent’s attendance at an event is demonstrating extremely pathological behavior of GREAT CLINICAL CONCERN.
There is no – NO – normal-range reason for this symptom display by a child. No normal-range child EVER displays this symptom. Never happens. Never.
The only thing that can produce this symptom is extreme psychopathology, either from the targeted-rejected parent or from the allied and supposedly favored parent. But under NO circumstances is this symptom EVER displayed by anything near normal-range children.
In evaluating this symptom, every mental health professional should consider a normal-range child’s response to a parent attending an event; excitement, joy, a feeling of being loved by the parent, a feeling of being special to the parent. This is normal.
So if this is normal, then when the child exhibits the “exclusion demand” symptom, this means that the child’s normal-range capacity for excitement and joy have been twisted into something unrecognizable as even remotely resembling excitement and joy. What type of pathology needs to be involved to twist a child’s normal-range capacity for excitement and joy into such a perversely distorted form?
So, if a child’s normal-range response to a parent attending the child’s event is to feel loved and wonderfully special by the parent, this means that the child’s normal-range capacity for feeling loved and special has also been twisted into a distorted and unrecognizable shape that rejects love that rejects feeling special. Let that sink in.
All children want their parents love. That’s normal. That’s healthy.
Unhealthy child development occurs when children DON’T feel that they are special and loved by their parents.
Unhealthy child development NEVER occurs because a child feels special and loved. Never.
So then how completely unhealthy is it for a child to display a symptom of REJECTING feeling special and loved? The child is displaying a symptom that, in itself, is the actual SOURCE-ORIGIN of childhood pathology. That is really twisted.
The source-origin of childhood pathology causes childhood psychopathology. But here, the child’s symptom is not an outcome of the source-origin of childhood pathology, the symptom itself IS the source-origin of childhood pathology. It’s as if the symptom is its own cause. The symptom is caused by the absence of parental love, that is the symptom itself, the child’s rejection of parental love. That is so weird and twisted.
The “exclusion demand” symptom is 180 degrees opposite of normal. It is so far away from normal-range that it is stunning to me that ANY mental health therapist can act like this symptom is even remotely understandable and acceptable.
It would be like a physician doing a medical exam and finding the child had no internal organs and responding, “Oh. Okay. So I guess this kid just doesn’t’ need internal organs.”
What? Are you kidding me? What human body doesn’t need internal organs? That is so totally weird that the child doesn’t have internal organs. How is that even possible? How is it possible to be alive and not have any internal organs? That’s just extremely weird.
ALL normal-range children want their parents’ love. All normal-range children want to feel special to their parents. All of them. Every single normal-range child on the planet. All.
Pathological child development occurs because of the ABSENCE of parental love.
So how is it that the child is presenting as if this one child, among all the children on the planet, this one child does not want a parent’s love? How is it that this one child doesn’t want to feel special to a parent? Explain it to me.
The very fundamental core of children thrives on parental love. Children’s psychological development starves in the absence of parental love. Parental love is the very essence of healthy child development. And here we have a child REJECTING parental love. That is extraordinarily pathological and simply weird.
Yet many, many mental health professionals simply accept this extremely pathological symptom display by children as if it’s somehow understandable. It is bizarre.
No even remotely normal-range child rejects parental love. Ever. The child’s rejection of parental love is extremely weird and requires explanation. A therapist response of, “Okay, well I guess that’s just the way it is for this child” is not an explanation. A therapist response of “What? Are you kidding me? You don’t want your mom to watch you play baseball. Wow, that’s really weird.” is a healthy therapist response reflecting an accurate understanding for child psychology and child development.
If child and family therapists are not completely stunned by this symptom then they need to re-set their understanding for what represents normal and what is abnormal child behavior.
Grumpy-angry kids, relatively normal.
Very active and annoying kids, relatively normal.
Shy and quiet kids, relatively normal.
Irresponsible kids who resist doing homework, relatively normal.
Kids who reject parental love, extremely weird.
Kids who are made hyper-anxious by their parents, extremely weird.
How can child and family therapists be so ignorant regarding normal and abnormal child development to accept as reasonable child symptoms of such extreme pathology? I am aghast at the level of professional ignorance.
Let me be clear on this to all mental health professionals, it is NOWHERE NEAR normal-range child behavior to reject a parent’s love. Not even close. It is extremely abnormal and pathological and requires an explanation.
Targeted Parent Pathology
A child symptom of such extreme pathology requires an explanation.
Maybe it’s a history of profound domestic violence by the targeted-rejected parent. Maybe the targeted-rejected parent sexually abused the child. Maybe the targeted rejected parent physically beats the child, screaming curses and insults at the child.
Okay, this is an explanation. This level of parental psychopathology by the targeted-rejected parent could account for the degree of pathology displayed by a child who makes an “exclusion demand” of a parent, “I don’t want you to attend my games (my awards ceremony, my play, my music recital, etc.).
So immediately these possibilities all become relevant domains for diagnostic consideration.
So the moment the therapist hears an “exclusion demand” the immediate thought of the therapist should be, “Uh-oh, this is very serious. We may be looking at severe child abuse here” not, “Hmm, okay, I guess that’s just the way this child is.”
If I hear this symptom from a child my seriousness alert response immediately maxes out at a 10 on a 10-point scale. There is no symptom I could hear that would give me more concern. An “exclusion demand” symptom is consistent with severe domestic violence exposure, incestuous sexual abuse of the child, or severe physical and emotional abuse of the child.
But wait… if the child is actually afraid of the parent’s violence then the child would likely be very reluctant to displease the parent because then the child would face retaliation from the hostile-aggressive parent. But with the “exclusion demand” the child is assertively demanding that the hostile-aggressive parent not attend events, thereby overtly displeasing the extremely hostile-aggressive parent. Yet if the targeted-rejected parent is actually extremely hostile and aggressive (the domestic violence and physical violence categories) then the child’s behavior would INCREASE the child’s exposure to possible hostile-aggressive retaliation by the targeted-rejected parent.
Making an “exclusion demand” toward a parent instead suggests that the child feels safe enough to be willing to displease the rejected parent without fearing retaliation. So an “exclusion demand” suggests that the targeted-rejected parent does not make the child anxious. But wait, the child is saying the reason for the “exclusion demand” is that the parent makes the child feel anxious. This is a very odd symptom that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. This symptom keeps getting curiouser and curiouser the more I look at it.
What if the child actually feels excited by the presence of the targeted parent at the child’s events, consistent with the normal response of every normal-range child on the planet, but the child is then misinterpreting the feeling of “excitement” as “anxiety.” That would make sense.
The child actually isn’t afraid of the targeted parent, so the child feels safe enough to displease the targeted parent without fear of retaliation. But the child is misinterpreting excitement as anxiety. This explanation makes sense of what otherwise is a very odd constellation of features.
In any event, the child’s “exclusion demand” symptom is NOT fully consistent with exposure to severe domestic violence or physical abuse. It’s possible, but not likely. I would need to look for corroborating signs of exposure to domestic violence or physical child abuse. These could be a wide array of signs, among which might be:
- A documented history of domestic violence or child abuse (not merely allegations by the allied and supposedly favored parent, although I wouldn’t dismiss these allegations outright, I’d just need ADDITIONAL evidence besides the allegations of the allied and supposedly favored parent)
- A child display of over-anxiousness generally, such as toward me in our discussions, or with teachers, or in public generally.
- Or perhaps the child may be evidencing an increased anger response to the child’s exposure to parental violence. Is the child getting in trouble at school for aggressive acts? Does the child assault siblings?
- The age of the child. Younger children are more vulnerable, so child anxiety in response to the child’s exposure to domestic violence and physical child abuse would be more consistent with a 6-10 year old child than with a 12-16 year old adolescent. Not impossible, but less likely.
- Especially for older children, I’d want to explore what the child fears the parent would do at the event. Assault the child? Really? The child fears that the targeted parent is going to assault the child at the child’s music recital or school awards ceremony? Normal-range children NEVER fear parental violence at a school awards ceremony or dance recital. That would be a really odd belief system. How did the child acquire such a peculiar belief system? Has the targeted parent ever become violent at a child’s activity before? Perhaps assaulting opposing coaches at the child’s soccer game? Perhaps the targeted parent is a chronic alcoholic, and the child is afraid the parent will be overtly drunk at the event (but then the child’s reason will be expressed as “embarrassment” not “anxiety”). Anything like that? Or is the child asserting that the child’s anxiety is a PTSD response to the child’s prior exposure to violence. Okay, what violence? Tell me what you’ve seen from this parent in the past? Beating and kicking the mother in drunken rages? Hitting and kicking the child? What’s the trauma the child has been exposed to that is producing a very serious PTSD response? It must be pretty severe if it has produced a PTSD response, so my seriousness alert response remains maxed out at a 10.
I’ll keep an ear open for other indicators of severe domestic violence and physical child abuse, but these two possibilities of domestic violence exposure and physical child abuse will fall slightly lower in my differential diagnosis considerations.
On the other hand, an “exclusion demand” would be consistent with incestuous sexual abuse of the child by the targeted-rejected parent. That’s a possibility. I am extremely concerned by this child symptom.
The incestuous sexual abuse of the child would account for the extreme level of distortion and pathology displayed by this extremely weird child symptom. Sexual abuse would also account for the absence of the child’s fear of retaliation because the parent is disgusting, NOT hostile-aggressive, and sexual abuse of the child would account for the strange combination of the child being anxious about being in the presence of the parent and yet also not fearful of retaliation from the parent for the child’s making an “exclusion demand.”
Sexual abuse of the child by the targeted rejected parent would account for the level and pattern of the extreme pathology.
The parental pathology that is creating the child’s extremely strange and highly concerning symptom is to be found in the parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored parent.
In this case, the parental psychopathology would be a role-reversal relationship with the child in which the child is being used as a “regulatory other” by the pathology of the parent to regulate the parent’s own emotional and psychological state.
Uh-oh. This too is an extremely damaging psychopathology to the child’s healthy development. My seriousness alert response to a role-reversal relationship is in the 8-10 range.
In normal and healthy child development, the child uses the parent as a “regulatory other” to regulate the child’s emotional and psychological state. This is healthy and this is entirely normal. At a neuro-biological level, this is what’s suppose to happen to wire up the child’s brain systems.
In a role-reversal relationship the parent uses the child as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s emotional and psychological state. This type of role-reversal is extremely pathological and will have a variety of extremely destructive impacts on the emotional and psychological development of the child.
If the “exclusion demand” symptom is the product of a role-reversal relationship with the allied and supposedly favored parent, then I am very concerned.
In the case of a role-reversal relationship, the child is emitting the “exclusion demand” in the child’s role as a “regulatory other” for the allied and supposedly favored parent, so that the origin of the child’s “exclusion demand” is the desire of the allied and supposedly favored parent for the child to reject the other parent, and the child is simply emitting the parentally desired child behavior as a means to keep the pathology of the parent in an organized and regulated state.
And if the child is emitting this highly pathological symptom involving a highly twisted distortion to the child’s expression of joy, and excitement, and feelings of being loved and special, then the child is likely emitting other rejection-type symptoms toward the targeted parent as a product of the child’s role of being used by the allied and supposedly favored parent as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s own emotional and psychological state.
Role-reversal relationships and parental use of the child as an external “regulatory object” for the emotional and psychological state of the parent are associated with a disorganized attachment classification. Yikes. This is getting very serious. Is there other evidence for the presence of a disorganized attachment within the family, such as a high degree of chaos and disorganization in family relationships following a divorce?
Disorganized attachment is associated with the development of narcissistic and borderline personality traits, so if the allied and supposedly favored parent has a disorganized attachment pattern, then they might also have borderline and narcissistic personality traits. Are there any signs of borderline or narcissistic traits with the allied and supposedly favored parent?
How is the targeted parent describing the marital history with the other parent, the parent who is supposedly favored by the child. Are these descriptions consistent with possible narcissistic or borderline traits with the allied and supposedly favored parent? The descriptions by the targeted parent are not definitive, but they might help to disconfirm the hypothesis if there is no reported description consistent with narcissistic or borderline traits in the allied and supposedly favored parent, and yet if there are descriptions by the targeted parent regarding the marital history with the other parent that are consistent with the other parent possibly having narcissistic or borderline personality traits then these parental descriptions by the targeted parent might contribute to an overall preponderance of clinical evidence supporting the role-reversal hypothesis.
Splitting. Splitting is a highly characteristic symptom of disorganized attachment and for narcissistic or borderline personality. Is there evidence of splitting? Does the child evidence polarized thinking of all-good and all-bad? Does the child believe that once a person is defined as being all-bad, as being fundamentally flawed, then that person will stay that way forever?
According to Marsha Linehan in describing the splitting dynamic evidenced by borderline personalities:
“They tend to see reality in polarized categories of “either-or,” rather than “all,” and within a very fixed frame of reference. For example, it is not uncommon for such individuals to believe that the smallest fault makes it impossible for the person to be “good” inside. Their rigid cognitive style further limits their abilities to entertain ideas of future change and transition, resulting in feelings of being in an interminable painful situation. Things once defined do not change. Once a person is “flawed,” for instance, that person will remain flawed forever.” (Linehan, 1993, p. 35)
Does the child or allied and supposedly favored parent see the targeted parent as “abusive” without substantiating evidence for the allegation? The use of the term “abusive” is characteristic of a borderline personality organization. The term “abusive” is rarely used by normal-range people (sometimes it is, typically in cases of authentic abuse). Normal range people use words like mean, or insensitive, or rude. Rarely “abusive.” But borderline personalities often use the term “abusive” to describe other people. It’s not definitive, but it’s suggestive.
How does the allied and supposedly favored parent describe the targeted parent? Are there indications of splitting into the all-bad characterization of the targeted parent in the descriptions of the targeted parent by the allied and supposedly favored parent?
If there is a narcissistic or borderline parent, then my seriousness alert response maxes out at a 10. Only sexual abuse of the child would cause me more clinical concern for the child’s emotional and psychological development than would parental narcissistic or borderline pathology.
Very Serious Pathology
One way or the other, the child’s symptom display of an “exclusion demand” is of extraordinarily serious clinical concern.
It may be evidence of the child’s sexual abuse victimization, of the child’s traumatic exposure to severe parental domestic violence, to prior severely traumatic physical and emotional abuse of the child, or of a highly pathological role-reversal relationship with a narcissistic/borderline parent that is producing severe psychopathology in the child.
My two primary differential diagnoses would be sexual abuse of the child by the targeted parent OR a role-reversal relationship with the allied and supposedly favored parent in which the child is being used by a narcissistic/borderline parent as an external “regulatory other” for the emotional and psychological state of the parent.
An “exclusion demand” symptom is NOWHERE NEAR normal range. It is highly pathological and REQUIRES an explanation.
That child and family therapists would act like this child symptom is anywhere near to being an understandable or reasonable child symptom is stunning to me.
When I hear the “exclusion demand” symptom, my level of clinical concern is immediately at a 10. An “exclusion demand” is among the most concerning symptoms I could possibly hear. If you are a child and family therapist and you are not equally as concerned by a child’s presentation of an “exclusion demand” symptom as I am, then I would question your competence to be working with children.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford