I was recently asked a question by a targeted parent about the practice in some Courts of considering the wishes of an adolescent in custody placement decisions, and I’d like to share my response.
While I will explain my response in a lengthy post, it’s actually quite simple:
At no time should the Court ever consider the wishes expressed by the child whenever there is spousal-parental conflict.
Pretty simple. Now let me explain why. There are two primary reasons.
First, the authenticity of the child’s expressed wishes may likely have been compromised by a “role-reversal” relationship with the allied and supposedly favored parent (who is likely seeking the admission of the child’s wishes for Court consideration).
Second, whenever there is spousal conflict, seeking the child’s input essentially triangulates the child into the spousal-parental conflict. This is EXACTLY the WRONG thing to do. Bad. Bad. Bad. Extremely destructive. It not only supports the pathology in the family, it actually fosters and creates pathology in the family and it will have extremely harmful effects on the child’s underneath psychology. We DO NOT ever want to triangulate the child into the spousal conflict. No. No. No. Never. I don’t care what the age of the child is. Never. No.
1. The Role-Reversal Relationship
One of the central concepts in understanding “parental alienation” is the role-reversal relationship.
In healthy child development, the child uses the parent as a “regulatory other” for the child’s emotional and psychological state. When the child faces a developmental challenge that the child cannot independently master, the child emits “protest behaviors” that elicit the involvement of the parent who helps the child regain an emotionally and psychologically organized and regulated state.
The parent acts as an external “regulatory other” (also called a “regulatory object”) for the child. In doing so, the parent “scaffolds” the building of the child’s own internal networks for self-regulation. With the brain, we build what we use. Every time we use a brain system it gets a little stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient through use-dependent changes.
In healthy child development, every time the parent acts as a “regulatory other” for the child by scaffolding the child’s state transition from a disorganized and dysregulated brain state (as manifested in disorganized and dysregulated behavior) back into an organized and well-regulated brain state (as manifested by calm and cooperative behavior) all of the brain networks and brain systems that were used in this transition process become stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient. We build what we use.
Over multiple repetitions of these state transitions, the child’s own brain networks for making these transitions become stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient so that the child develops the internalized capacity for “self-regulation” without the need for the scaffolding support of the “regulatory other” of the parent. Overall, this development of internalized self-regulatory capacity is called the child’s development of “self-structure.”
This is a very important construct… the development of the child’s own self-structure through the repeated scaffolding support provided to the child by the “regulatory other” role of the parent.
The parent’s role as a “regulatory other” for the child is extremely important for the healthy development of the child. In fact, it is THE central role of parenting beyond providing basic food and safety. By acting as a “regulatory other” for the child, the parent “scaffolds” the child’s internal development of healthy “self-structures” for the child’s independent self-organization and self-regulation.
One of the leading figures in attachment research, Alan Sroufe, describes this process.
“At first, they [caregivers] are almost solely responsible for maintaining smooth regulation. They attend to the infant’s changes in alertness or discomfort and signs of need, imbuing primitive infant behaviors with meaning 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. 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)
However, in a role-reversal relationship the normal roles for the parent and child are reversed, so that it is the parent who uses the child as a “regulatory object” for the parent’s emotional and psychological state. This is extremely destructive to the child’s emotional and psychological development. The parent is essentially robbing the child’s self-structure development to support the parent’s own inadequate self-structure.
In healthy child development, the parent empathizes with the child and responds in ways that keep the child in a regulated state, i.e., acts as a “regulatory other” for the child. This scaffolds the healthy development of the underlying neurological networks in the child’s brain that are central to healthy self-structure development.
In a role-reversal relationship, this is reversed so that it is the child who empathizes with the parent and responds in ways that keep the parent in a regulated state. The roles are reversed. The parent becomes the child and the child fulfills the psychological parent-role for the psychologically infantile parent. This is extremely destructive to the child’s healthy development of self-structure.
And this unhealthy role-reversal relationship will be passed on to future generations. The child in a role-reversal relationship will have his or her self-structure development robbed by the parent to feed the parent’s own inadequate self-structure. When this child grow up, this child-now-adult will have inadequate self-structure organization because it was robbed in it’s healthy development in order to feed the parent’s inadequate self-structure.
So this child, now an adult, will repeat the role-reversal use of the child with his or her own children. The child-now-adult will use his or her own children in a role-reversal relationship to feed the inadequate self-structure of the parent which had been robbed from the parent’s development during the parent’s childhood.
The role-reversal relationship is a pathology that is passed on trans-generationally from one generation to the next.
And so it goes, from generation to generation. Parents using their children to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the parent, rather than healthy child development in which the parent meets the emotional and psychological needs of the child. Instead, in the pathology of the role-reversal relationship each generation of parents rob their children of their healthy childhood development to meet the inadequate childhood development of the parent who had been robbed of self-structure development in his or her own childhood with his or her own parent.
In a healthy parent-child relationship, the child uses the parent as a “regulatory other” for the child’s emotional and psychological state.
In a pathological role-reversal relationship, the parent uses the child as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s emotional and psychological state.
So, to turn now to the question of adolescents’ “independent” judgment;
For any child no matter the age who is engaged in a role-reversal relationship with a parent, the child’s capacity for “independent” judgment has been significantly compromised by both the severity and the specific nature of the pathology of the role-reversal relationship.
Instead of a normal and healthy childhood development that would result in normal-range and healthy self-structure, the child’s psychological development has been severely compromised by the use of the child in the parent’s psychopathology to serve as a “regulatory object” for the parent’s own emotional and psychological needs.
If a child has experienced normal-range development then we may be willing to provide some consideration to the expressed wishes of an adolescent. However, the development of a child in a role-reversal relationship with a parent has been severely distorted by the role-reversal relationship so that their judgment is significantly compromised. The child’s expressed wishes no longer reflect the authenticity of the child, but are instead being used in the service of meeting the needs of the pathological parent.
When the child is in a role-reversal relationship with the pathology of the parent in which the child is meeting the needs of the psychologically infantile parent, the child’s expressed wishes are no longer authentic to the child.
The analogy would be to a hostage situation. In the case of a role-reversal relationship the child is a “psychological hostage” as a “regulatory object” to the needs of the pathological, inadequate, and psychologically infantile parent.
Would we consider the statements made by a hostage as being authentic while the hostage is still in the custody of the hostage taker? Absolutely not.
The child is acting under psychological duress (whether the child realizes it or not).
Would it be sufficient to ask the hostage, “Are you being influenced by anyone in making these statements?” while the hostage was still in the custody of the hostage taker? Absolutely not. Of course the hostage will say, “No, I’m not being influenced” to our question.
Imagine an American hostage held by Islamic terrorists. The American makes a televised statement critical of American policies. Would we believe that these statements made by the hostage while the hostage was still being held by the terrorists represented the authentic beliefs of the hostage, and weren’t being coerced and influenced by his captors? Of course not.
What if the Islamic terrorists allowed a newspaper reporter to ask the hostage, “Are you making these statements of your own free will, or are you being told what to say by your captors?” and the hostage said, “I am making these statements of my own free will. No one is telling me what to say.” Would we then say, “Well, I guess that settles it, these are the hostage’s authentic beliefs.” That would be just plain stupid beyond imagination.
The statements made by the hostage are under duress as long as the hostage is in the custody of the captors, even if it is under psychological duress.
In a role-reversal relationship, the child is a “psychological hostage” to the pathology of the parent. The child is being “psychologically held” in a role-reversal relationship by the pathology of the parent to act as a “regulatory object” for the parent so that the pathology of the parent can feed off of the child’s self-structure development, robbing the child of self-structure to support the inadequate self-structure formation of the parent.
But to all external appearances, the child will appear to be in a hyper-bonded relationship with the allied and supposedly favored – but actually severely pathological – parent.
Role-reversal relationships are extremely pathological. The inadequate self-structure of the parent is feeding off of the healthy self-structure of the child to the extreme detriment of the child’s healthy development.
The child is being robbed of a normal and healthy childhood in the service of meeting the emotional and psychological needs of a pathological parent, who was robbed in his or her own childhood of healthy development.
Parents feeding off of their children’s self-structure to support the parent’s own inadequate self-structure development is extremely pathological.
So when evaluating the statements made by a child of any age, a prominent “moderator variable” in our consideration needs to be the possible presence of a role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used by a pathological parent as a “regulatory other” to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the parent.
Before considering the statements of any child, the question is whether the child is being held as a psychological hostage through the child’s use as a “regulatory other” to the pathology of the parent.
To all external appearances, the child will look like he or she is in a bonded relationship with the pathological parent. But to a trained and expert eye, the role-reversal relationship is clearly evident in a variety of features. Only an incompetent and ignorant psychologist will miss a role-reversal relationship and believe the superficial presentation of a bonded relationship.
Unfortunately, many mental health professionals who work with children are incompetent and ignorant.
If a role-reversal relationship exists, this is extremely destructive to the child’s healthy emotional and psychological development, and if left untreated and unresolved the role-reversal relationship represents a continuing risk not only to the current child but to the development of future generations of his or her children as well, so that treatment and resolution of the pathology becomes imperative and child protection considerations become prominent concerns.
2. Triangulation of the Child
Whenever there is spousal conflict there arises a significant risk that the child will be “triangulated” into the spousal conflict.
Triangulating the child into the spousal conflict is extremely destructive for the child’s healthy emotional and psychological development. We NEVER want to triangulate the child into the spousal conflict. Never, never, never. Under any circumstances. Never.
The spousal conflict is a two-person event. When the child is brought into the middle of it, either the child will be torn apart by allegiances to both parents, or the child will need to take sides in the spousal conflict. Either way, it is extremely destructive to the child to be triangulated into the spousal conflict. We want to keep children out of the middle of their parents’ conflict.
When the child does become triangulated into the spousal conflict, the direct goal of therapy is to un–triangulate the child from the spousal conflict.
Whenever there is spousal conflict, the risk of pathologically triangulating the child into the spousal conflict is extreme.
If we ask the child or adolescent what they want, WE ARE TRIANGULATING THE CHILD INTO THE SPOUSAL CONFLICT!!!!!!
No. No. No. This is exactly what we DON’T want to do.
Furthermore, any hopes for therapy will be smashed. Abandon all hope of successful therapy for the child’s well-being. The Court has essentially inflicted the pathology onto the child.
Under NO circumstances do we ever want to ask the child what the child wants when there is spousal conflict. We are essentially asking the child to choose sides in the spousal conflict, and we are opening the door directly to the role-reversal use of the child by the parent to meet the parent’s emotional and psychological needs. Pathology, pathology, pathology.
If the Court is concerned about the child’s well-being, then the Court should appoint a psychologist to serve as the voice of the child’s healthy development. But under no circumstances should we ask the child to choose sides in the spousal conflict.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857
Sroufe, L.A. (2000). Early relationships and the development of children. Infant Mental Health Journal, 21(1-2), 67-74.