Dominoes Part 1: Paradigm Shift

This is the first post of a two-part series.  The second post in the series is “Dominoes Falling: The Sequence


The story is familiar.

Obvious indicators of severe “parental alienation” are evident, and may even be acknowledged by mental health professionals, but key mental health social workers, therapists, and custody evaluators fail to stand up and identify the obvious. 

They avoid acknowledging the obvious pathology by saying,

“I don’t believe in parental alienation.”

How is it that so many people, therapists, social workers, child custody evaluators, child attorneys, judges, can simply dismiss the severely distorting influence on the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent? How is that possible? Why does that happen?

The Failure of the PAS Paradigm

The reason people can simply dismiss “parental alienation” is because the Gardnerian PAS paradigm allows it. 

The PAS model described by Gardner in the mid-1980s is an abject failure.

In the 30 years since its introduction, the PAS model has failed to solve the nightmare tragedy of “parental alienation. If any pro-Gardnerian PAS supporter actually wants to argue the point with me, my initial question will be,

“Are you seriously going to look targeted parents in the eye, hear their stories, the years of lost relationships with their children with no end in sight, the utter failure and incompetence of mental heath in recognizing and solving their nightmare, the tens of thousands of dollars spent in endless litigation, and with all this tragedy that surrounds us, you’re seriously going to maintain that the PAS model is a success?”

After 30 years, if it is not a success, it is a failure.  The PAS model is a failure because the nightmare continues.

Targeted parents, and more importantly their children, need a paradigm for the construct of “parental alienation” that successfully resolves the issue now.  Today.  In all cases.

The Solution Must be Efficient

The solution paradigm needs to achieve a full resolution to the pathology of “parental alienation” in less than six months, preferably in less than three months, preferably in less than six weeks – that’s my goal, and I honestly believe this goal is achievable.

Child Developmental Periods:

The developmental periods of childhood appear to have a two-year phase cycle built into them, in which new developmental phases open up about every two years, 4-6 years old; 6-8 years old; 8-10 years old; 10-12 years old; 12-14 years old; 14-16 years old; 16-18 years old.  It is as if the brain has an internal biological clock governing maturation that’s set at a two year rhythm.

There are distinctly different developmental qualities of children during each of these periods, and each active period of brain development during childhood relies on the successful prior development of neural networks created in the preceding developmental phases. Distortions to development in earlier phases create cascading distortions in later development.

When we are faced with problematic child development, we need to restore healthy and normal-range development as quickly as possible so as to lose minimal healthy maturation.

Losing more than 6 months of a 2-year cycle of development to psychopathology is unacceptable.

The severe pathology associated with attachment-based “parental alienation” needs to be fully resolved in less than 6 months, preferably less than 3 months so that we can restore the child’s normal-range developmental trajectory with minimal loss of healthy development.

The Solution Must be Affordable

The solution paradigm must be cost effective and broadly available to all parents and families. It cannot, therefore, rely on proving “parental alienation” in Court since this can take years and is prohibitively expensive for most normal-range families. The financial cost of proving “parental alienation” in Court places any solution that requires proving “parental alienation” in Court beyond the financial reach of most families. 

Any solution that requires proving “parental alienation” in Court will mean that we will wind up abandoning the children to the pathology. This is not acceptable.

The Solution Must Provide Professional Competence

Our children’s healthy development is far too important for us to permit and accept professional incompetence.

The solution paradigm must establish clearly defined standards of professional knowledge and professional practice to which ALL mental health professionals can be held accountable, so that we entirely eliminate ALL professional incompetence in treating this “special population” of children and families.

The issues surrounding the diagnosis and treatment of this “special population” of children and families requires specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise – let me emphasize that… expertise – to appropriately, accurately, and competently diagnose and treat.

Professional ignorance and incompetence is not acceptable.

The solution paradigm MUST provide DEFINED standards for professional knowledge and competence to ensure professional expertise.

A paradigm shift is needed.

The Gardnerian paradigm for PAS meets NONE of these standards required for a successful paradigm.  An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” meets ALL of these standards for a successful paradigm.

The First Domino: The Paradigm Shift

There needs to be a foundational shift from a Gardnerian PAS definition for the construct of “parental alienation” to an attachment-based definition of “parental alienation.”

The only reason that people can say, “I don’t believe in parental alienation” is that they are allowed to reject Gardner’s proposal of a “new syndrome” in professional psychology that is based on his proposed anecdotal set of clinical signs that have no relationship to any established or validated scientifically based constructs or principles in professional psychology.

Gardner’s model of PAS allows people to believe or not believe it.

The critics of “parental alienation” have steadfastly maintained over thirty years of argument and debate that the Gardnerian PAS model lacks sufficient theoretical foundation… and you know what… they are absolutely right.

Both sides in this unnecessary debate are correct.

Gardner was correct in identifying the existence of a valid clinical phenomenon which he called “parental alienation.”  But then he too quickly abandoned the necessary professional rigor needed to define the construct of “parental alienation” within standard and established psychological principles and constructs. Instead, he took what I would consider an intellectually lazy approach of proposing a “new syndrome” consisting of a set of anecdotal clinical features.

The critics of the PAS model are also correct. They have argued, correctly, that the PAS model lacks scientifically grounded validity. They are absolutely right. But the failure of Gardner to apply the necessary professional rigor required to define the construct of “parental alienation” within scientifically grounded principles and constructs does not mean that there isn’t a valid clinical phenomenon that he recognized, only that Gardner’s description of it lacks robust scientific accuracy.

But instead of accepting the constructive criticism offered by the critics of PAS so as to then apply the necessary professional rigor needed to define the construct of “parental alienation” within standard and established psychological principles and constructs, the Gardnerian PAS advocates have stubbornly tried to argue and prove the existence of a “new syndrome.”   Why?   Take the constructive criticism offered to you and apply the necessary professional rigor needed to define the construct of “parental alienation” within standard and established psychological principles and constructs. Don’t be lazy.

When I first came across the nightmare tragedy of “parental alienation,” I was appalled at the level of professional incompetence in general mental health from professionals who entirely missed seeing the severe degree of pathology involved.  I was also stunned by the apparent sloth displayed by the PAS advocates in steadfastly proposing a “new syndrome” rather that simply applying the professional rigor needed to describe the construct of “parental alienation” using standard and established psychological constructs and principles.

In unraveling what “parental alienation” is, the child’s rejection of a relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent is clearly a distortion to the child’s attachment system. So let’s start there.

Next, the child is displaying narcissistic/(borderline) symptoms of grandiose judgment of a parent, an absence of empathy for the targeted parent (an extremely concerning child symptom by the way), a haughty and arrogant attitude of contemptuous disdain for the targeted parent, a prominent attitude of entitlement, and splitting.

Q: How does a child acquire these narcissistic/(borderline) symptoms?

A: Through an enmeshed psychological relationship with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent. That’s the ONLY way a child acquires these symptoms.

No sooner than I blink my eyes, and I’m two steps in to unraveling “parental alienation.”

The presence of an enmeshed relationship with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent strongly suggests a role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used as a “regulatory object” to regulate the emotional and psychological state of the parent.  A role-reversal relationship is associated with the “disorganized” category of attachment.

Going deeper.

Hey, you know what… the formation of narcissistic/(borderline) personality organization has also been linked to a disorganized attachment in childhood. So the personality disorder features of the parent are also linked to the attachment system. And the child is displaying severe distortions to the attachment system, and attachment trauma has been demonstrated to be transmitted across generations…

Within a relatively short period of time I was well on the way to uncovering the nature of the pathology from entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.

I then set about researching, reading, poking around, looking up articles, reading, learning, researching, reading.  Connecting the lines of association, unpacking the material.  What does Kernberg say about narcissistic and borderline personalities?  What does Millon say?  What’s the research linking personality disorder formation and attachment? What’s the research on attachment trauma?  Forming the links. Doing the research.  Applying the professional rigor necessary to uncover what “parental alienation” is, and to define the construct of “parental alienation” from entirely within standard and established psychological constructs and principles.

Why?  Because the solution to “parental alienation” requires it.  In order to solve “parental alienation” we must first establish what it is.  The foundations for the construct must be established on the solid bedrock of scientifically valid constructs and principles.

Don’t be lazy.  Accept the criticism of establishment mental health and do the necessary work. If the criticism of PAS is that it lacks scientific foundation, then let’s set about describing what “parental alienation” is using scientifically established constructs and principles. Don’t let them reject the construct, and we do this by accepting and addressing their criticism.

That’s what I set about to do, and that’s what an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” accomplishes.  We now have a paradigm for describing the construct of “parental alienation” from entirely within the scientifically established constructs and principles of the attachment system, personality disorders, and established family systems constructs.

The attachment system isn’t a matter of belief.  It is a scientifically validated fact.

Personality disorders aren’t a matter of belief. They are established facts within the DSM diagnostic system.

Children’s triangulation into the spousal conflict and the formation of cross-generational coalitions aren’t a matter of belief.  These are core principles in a major and primary school of psychotherapy.

All of the constructs associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” are established and scientifically supported facts, not beliefs

The foundations for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” are established on the solid bedrock of scientifically valid constructs and principles which will DISALLOW mental health professionals from saying they “don’t believe in parental alienation.” — It’s not a matter of “belief,” it’s a matter of ignorance or knowledge.

The robust scientific foundations surrounding an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” forces disbelievers to change their statement from “I don’t believe in parental alienation” to “I am ignorant and don’t know what I’m talking about.”

These are very different sentences.

None of the constructs used in an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” are a matter of “opinion.” If some ignorant critic wants to argue any of these points, I’ll simply point them to the writings of John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and Mary Mains; to Otto Kernberg, and Theodore Millon, and Aaron Beck; to Salvador Minuchin and Jay Haley. These are the people saying these things, go argue with them.  I’m just applying what these people say.

And “these people” are among the top echelon of preeminent figures in professional psychology.  In all of professional psychology, there are no more respected figures in their respective domains than the experts I just listed.  An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is grounded solidly on the bedrock of established psychological principles and constructs.

And then there are the next echelon of top-tier experts, Lyons-Ruth, Fonagy, Sroufe; Stern, Shore, Tronick, Masterson, Bowen, van der Kolk, van IJzendoorn. These too are among the preeminent recognized leaders in their respective fields. If you’re arguing with me, take it up with them. I’m simply applying their work to the construct of “parental alienation.”

“Well, Newton, I just I don’t believe in that gravity thing your proposing.”

It’s not a matter of belief, its a scientifically supported fact.

“You know, Galileo, that’s an interesting idea about the earth traveling around sun, but I just don’t believe it.”

It’s not a matter of belief, its a scientifically supported fact.

These are not matters of opinion or belief. They are recognized facts. The issue is not whether you believe them or not, its whether you are knowledgeable or ignorant.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is not an opinion.  It’s a fact.

Changing Paradigms

The Gardnerian PAS description for “parental alienation” is so incredibly poor, and just plain lazy, that it ALLOWS people to believe it or not.

Solving the family tragedy of “parental alienation” is too important to leave it to the beliefs of the ignorant.  It is our responsibility to apply the necessary professional rigor required to define the construct of “parental alienation” within established and scientifically supported constructs, so that there is no question possible that it is a fact; not a belief, not an opinion, a fact.

An attachment-based model accomplishes this. The first domino that needs to fall to achieve a solution to “parental alienation” is to achieve a foundational paradigm shift from a Gardnerian PAS model to an attachment-based model.

Gardnerian Resistance

So far, I’ve been gentle with the Gardnerian contingent of experts, allowing them to come to terms gradually with the impending change in paradigms. The Gardnerian PAS model is going away. It is going to be replaced by a scientifically grounded attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” which will provide targeted parents and their children with an immediate and actualizable solution.

But time is running out for the Gardnerians. The time for sitting on the fence is quickly passing.  The time will come when the current Gardnerians will need to choose their paradigm.

They can switch to the attachment-based paradigm that is based in established principles of professional psychology that will provide targeted parents with an immediate actualizable solution by,

Establishing clear diagnostic criteria for diagnosing attachment-based “parental alienation,”

Establishing standards of practice to which mental health professionals can be held accountable regarding required knowledge and practice standards necessary for professional competence, ,

Establishing a professional mandate for the child’s protective separation from the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery stabilization,

Or they can hold on to the Gardnerian PAS paradigm.  But why? What advantage does the Gardnerian PAS model provide?  In thirty years it has failed to provide targeted parents with an actualizable solution.  The Gardnerian PAS model requires targeted parents to prove “parental alienation” in Court.  It’s diagnostic indicators are vague and allow for dispersing responsibility between both parents.  It provides no standards of practice to which mental health professionals can be held accountable. I could go on and on about the limitations and inadequacies of the Gardnerian PAS model. 

So why would any mental health professional who cares about providing targeted parents and their children with a solution to their nightmare, a solution that can be actualized immediately, still hold on to an outdated and inadequate Gardnerian model of PAS?

The change in paradigms is coming.

I understand how hard it is to let go of a beloved attachment.  For 30 years the Gardnerians have waged a valiant fight for children and families.  They have become attached to the PAS paradigm.  It has served as a central focus of their professional lives.  And now PAS will disappear.

They have fought so hard and so valiantly for acceptance of PAS, and now, overnight, PAS will never be accepted.  Ever.  Not because it is rejected, but because it is irrelevant.  “Parental alienation” will be solved… but without the PAS model.  PAS isn’t wrong, it’s just unnecessary. Poof.

I’m sorry.

But the paradigm needs to change.  The solution is in an attachment-based model not in the continuation of the PAS paradigm.

I’m hoping that the Gardnerian contingent can come to terms with the changing paradigms, so that they can let go and adapt to the coming changes.  And I invite them to join in changing the paradigm, to bring their fully voiced support to the paradigm shift.  We could use your help.  The new paradigm may seem disorienting at first, but it is rich in possibilities.  Linking “parental alienation” to the attachment system opens up broad and deep vistas for understanding.

Solving “Parental Alienation”

My advice is often sought by targeted parents concerning what they can do to solve the “parental alienation” in their family. But unless we solve “parental alienation” for all families, we cannot solve it for any specific family.

The solution to “parental alienation” requires a paradigm shift to a new model for describing the construct of “parental alienation.”  A model that is based entirely within scientifically valid and established psychological principles and constructs. An attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” provides this model.   Once the paradigm shifts, the first domino will fall.

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

4 thoughts on “Dominoes Part 1: Paradigm Shift”

  1. I really like what Dr. Childress is sharing. It really makes a lot of sense and can be extremely useful to helping courts realize what they are hearing in these cases. There needs to be more professionals hearing this message and sharing it with attorneys, judges and parents. Once courts understand the scientific basis for “parental alienation” their judgments will be very supportive to the rejected parents but more importantly to the emotionally abused children. This “disease” needs to be stopped and treated appropriately. Too many times traditional therapies applied under the label of “reunification therapy” has made bad situations a disaster and tragedy for families.

  2. Dr. Childress,
    In great effort to refer to ‘parental alienation’ by it’s correct name, what in your professional opinion should we calling it. Although Garner coined this phrase in court rooms the tone of the word Parental Alienation presents the appearance of one parent degrading the other parent. That within itself adds more problems to the target parent such as “see, I told you how mean x is to meeeeeee”
    Thank you

    1. The term “parental alienation” is problematic at several levels.

      First, it is not a defined term in clinical psychology. The correct term in clinical psychology for the processes traditionally called “parental alienation” is “pathogenic parenting” (patho=pathology; genic=genesis, creation). Pathogenic parenting is the creation of significant pathology in the child as a result of highly distorted and problematic parenting practices.

      The term pathogenic parenting is primarily used in discussing distortions to the child’s attachment system, since the attachment system never spontaneously or independently dysfunctions. Distortions to the child’s attachment system are ALWAYS the product of pathogenic parenting.

      The second problem with the term “parental alienation” is it tends to shift to focus to the spousal-marital conflict of accusations and counter-accusations, whereas the more clinically precise term of “pathogenic parenting” keeps the focus on the child’s symptom display.

      The attachment-system functions and dsysfunctions in characteristic ways. Because the attachment system is a “goal-corrected” motivational system it will distort in characteristic ways to different types of problematic parenting. We can actually tell the type of problematic parenting the child received from the particular pattern of distortions reflected in the child’s attachment system.

      This takes a fairly sophisticated understanding for the functioning and dysfunctioning patterns of the attachment system, but that’s what those of us who are expert clinical psychologists in attachment-related disorders can do. In “parental alienation” the child’s attachment system display is actually inauthentic. The attachment system never functions or dysfunctions in the way it displays in “parental alienation,” but it takes a fairly sophisticated understanding for the attachment system to recognize the inauthentic display.

      Unfortunately, most mental health professionals who work with “parental alienation” have only a minimal to no understanding of the attachment system. This needs to change.

      For anyone wanting to learn more about the attachment system, there is a professional article online that provides a broad overview of the attachment system, it’s at

      http://www.psychology.sunysb.edu/attachment/online/inge_origins.pdf

      Despite the term “parental alienation” having no defined meaning in clinical psychology, the term “parental alienation” is so broadly used in the general popular culture that it is likely to remain the common-use term for this genre of pathology. It is my hope, however, that within mental health the professional term for the pathology typically called “parental alienation” will gradually begin to the more clinically precise term, “pathogenic parenting.”

      The pathology, by the way, is a “role-reversal” relationship in which the child is used as a “regulatory object” by the parent to regulate the parent’s emotional and psychological state. This is an extremely severe and concerning type of parent-child pathology. But unless one is expert in the attachment system and the neuro-development of the brain during childhood, the extreme severity of this form of parent-child pathology may go entirely unrecognized because it is not comprehended.

      We must achieve standards of practice regarding required domains of professional knowledge in treating attachment-based “parental alienation.”

      The type of parent-child pathology displayed in attachment-based “parental alienation” is extremely bad.

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

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