Personality Pathology and Disorganized Attachment

This post is directed toward mental heath professionals and contains a technical discussion of attachment pathology, although targeted parents may find the discussion enlightening as well.

The likely attachment organizations of family members in attachment-based “parental alienation” are:

Narcissistic style parent: Disorganized (unresolved trauma) with anxious-avoidant overtones

Borderline stye parent: Disorganized (unresolved trauma) with anxious-ambivalent overtones

Targeted parent: Variable, most likely secure

Child: Anxious-ambivalent (preoccupied) with narcissistic/borderline parent; Secure with targeted parent (suppressed)

Narcissistic and borderline personalities have the same underlying core dynamics within the attachment system. The attachment system forms expectations for self- and other-in-relationship. For both the narcissistic and borderline personality organizations the expectations are

Self-in-relationship:  “I am fundamentally inadequate”

Other-in-relationship: “The other person will reject and abandon me because of my fundamental inadequacy. “

The difference between the narcissistic and borderline personalities is merely in how these core beliefs are manifested.

The Borderline Style Personality Organization

The borderline personality has no internal structural defense against the continual experience of these core vulnerabilities, so that the borderline personality seeks an external “regulatory other” who will provide the borderline personality organization with “perfect” idealized love to fill the inadequacy void of self-experience and provide the idealized perfect security of never abandoning the borderline personality. Any empathic failure by the “regulatory other,” results in a collapse of the borderline personality into rages (the emotion of anger provides cohesion to fragmented self-structure) and intense fears of abandonment.

In these borderline rages the person will accuse their partner in the relationship of insufficient and inadequate perfect love of complete devotion to the borderline personality (i.e. the complete dedication of the other person to their role as the external “regulatory other” for the stabilization of the borderline personality organization), mixed with collapses into the alternate pole of self-devaluation as being horrible and unlovable, followed by attacks once more on the failure and inadequacy of the other person to provide the perfect love that would stave off the borderline’s experience of inadequacy. These swings reflect the anxious-ambivalent overtones to the underlying disorganized attachment in which the person swings between devaluation of the other and devaluation of self regarding the source of inadequacy.

The underlying disorganized attachment of the borderline personality structure means that the person has developed no organized approach to restoring relationships once breached. The anxious-ambivalent overtones to the disorganized attachment patterns of the borderline personality organization mean that the person will display a variety of conflicting approach and avoidance motivations, resulting in the characteristic display of forever swirling “drama” surrounding the borderline personality organization, in which the person alternately seeks an intense bonding of “perfect love” followed by a collapse into perceived rejections, real or imagined.

In initial presentations, the borderline style personality presents as emotionally seductive and charming, and often contains a prominent “victimization” presentation to elicit a caretaking response from others.

The Narcissistic Style Personality Organization

The narcissistic personality has developed a fragile internal structural defense of narcissistic self-inflation against the continual experience of core self-inadequacy and fears of rejection/abandonment by the attachment figure. This fragile narcissistic defense provides relief from the intense emotional pain of inadequacy and abandonment fears.

The narcissistic defense psychologically expels the core self-inadequacy through projecting it onto others, it is the other person who is inadequate; while the narcissist remains ideal and perfect. This projection of inadequacy onto others in order to maintain the self-image of ideal narcissistic perfection results in the externalization of blame and responsibility characteristic of the narcissistic personality. The fears of rejection/abandonment are avoided (attachment overtones of anxious-avoidant) by minimizing the importance of others to the narcissistic personality. Relationships are shallow and superficial and people are easily discarded when they stop providing “narcissistic supply.” 

Attachments to people are expendable once they no longer provide gratification (narcissistic supply).

The fragile structural stability provided by the narcissistic defense keeps the underlying borderline organization of “I am inadequate”/”I’m going to be abandoned” at bay, allowing for more organized and functional behavior than is displayed by the more overtly borderline personality which is continually being exposed to collapse into disorganized fragmentation. The generally maintained initial presentation of the narcissistic personality is of calmly confident self-assurance that can be charming and engaging.

However, if the narcissistic veneer is punctured by the other person through criticism or rejection of the idealized narcissistic self-image (inflicting a “narcissistic injury”), then the narcissistic defense collapses into its borderline core organization, resulting in intense displays of anger (the emotion of anger provides cohesion to fragmented self-structure) in which the narcissist degrades and devalues the other person in the relationship in order to reestablish the narcissistic defense of grandiose perfection by diminishing the value of the other person.

In general, the narcissistic defense is maintained through devaluing the importance of others (the anxious-avoidant overtones to the underlying disorganized attachment). The foundationally disorganized attachment means that the narcissistic person has no organized strategy for restoring relationships once they are breached. In response to relationship breaches, the primitive narcissistic defense simply tries to dominate the other person through onslaughts of degradation back into a submissive role as the external “regulatory other” for the narcissistic personality organization, whose role as the “regulatory other” is to provide continual “narcissistic supply” of adoration to support the narcissistic defense against the experience of primal self-inadequacy.

The Child’s Attachment Display

In attachment-based “parental alienation” the child’s attachment display differs between the two parents.

Secure Attachment:  In a secure attachment the child feels safe (i.e., secure in parental protection from predators) which allows the child to explore AWAY from the parent. Secure attachment results in increased exploratory behavior away from the parent, mixed with occasional “emotional recharging” reunions with the parent.

Insecure Attachment:  In an insecure attachment the child is uncertain in the bond to the parent, so the child becomes preoccupied with the parent and will seek continual protective proximity of the parent (i.e., proximity provides protection from predators). In an insecure attachment there is a suppression of the child’s exploratory behavior away from the insecurely attached parent because of the increased risk of predation created by an insecure attachment to the parent.

Child – Narcissistic/(Borderline) Parent

The child’s attachment behaviors toward the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in attachment-based “parental alienation” reflect an anxious-insecure attachment style of preoccupation on the parent and seeking continual (protective) proximity to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The child also evidences a suppression of normal-range “exploratory” behavior away from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to form an independent relationship with the other parent, the targeted parent.

People, including therapists and custody evaluators, who are unknowledgeable about how the attachment system functions, misinterpret the child’s display of hyper-bonding motivation toward the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as evidence of a secure attachment bond to this parent. This represents an ENTIRELY INACCURATE interpretation of the child’s behavior. The superficial display of the child’s hyper-bonding motivation toward the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent actually represents definitive clinical evidence for an INSECURE ATTACHMENT to this parent, which then has important implications for the type of parenting the child is receiving from this parent that is creating the child’s insecure attachment (I will address the diagnostic differences between child avoidance behavior relative to problematic parenting and child “detachment” behavior displayed in “parental alienation” a future post).

It is ESSENTIAL that all mental health professionals diagnosing and treating a distortion to the child’s attachment bonding motivations be expert in understanding the nature and functioning of the attachment system, including its characteristic patterns of dysfunctioning and their meaning for the type of parenting practices that produce these characteristic patterns of dysfunctioning in the attachment system.

The clearly evident display by the child of an insecure attachment bond to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is the reason I always put the word “supposedly” ahead of the term “favored” when describing this relationship. The child’s hyper-bonding motivation toward this parent is NOT a sign of a healthy parent-child bond that could be characterized as positive, but instead is clear and definitive clinical evidence of a pathological parent-child bond creating an INSECURE child attachment to this parent, and is actually evidence of an extremely pathological role-reversal relationship in which the parent is feeding off of the child’s healthy self-structure development to support the inadequate self-structure of the parent.

I would identify the sub-category of insecure attachment displayed by the child toward the supposedly “favored” parent as insecure anxious-preoccupied, which is a variant description of anxious-ambivalent.

The child does not feel certain (secure) in the availability of the attachment bond to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent since this bond is predicated on the child’s display of the parentally desired behaviors. In general parlance this type of parental love would be called “conditional love” that is based on the child pleasing the parent, and this “conditional love” provided by the parent is what leads to the child’s insecure attachment and preoccupation on keeping the parent in a pleased (i.e., regulated) state.

Child – Targeted Parent

The child’s normal-range attachment behavior toward the targeted parent is being artificially distorted and suppressed by the pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent so it is sometimes impossible to get a clear read on the child’s authentic attachment status to the targeted parent, however there are suggestive clinical indicators of a secure attachment.

1. The child demonstrates a willingness to engage in exploratory behavior AWAY from the targeted parent to develop an independent relationship with the other parent.

2. The child feels safe (secure) enough to display hostile-rejecting behavior toward the targeted parent (I’ll have more to say on this in future posts).

3. In some cases, when the child is allowed sufficient separation periods from the distorting pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child’s displayed attachment behavior toward the targeted parent returns to a normal-range expression of secure attachment.

Targeted Parent

The attachment display by the targeted parent will be specific to each individual case, but in general I’ve found the targeted parent to display a broadly secure attachment pattern.

This statement is with the caveat that in approximately 20% of the cases that come to me because of my expertise in attachment-based “parental alienation,” it is the targeted parent who is the narcissistic parent and who feels “entitled” to possession of the child, and is externalizing blame onto the other parent for the narcissistic targeted parent’s own profound empathic failures relative to the child that are creating child avoidance behaviors.

Note:  Child avoidance behaviors have very different characteristics than the detachment behaviors displayed by the child in “parental alienation.”

I would characterize these cases of the targeted parent being the narcissistic parent as “false allegations of parental alienation.” The application of the three Diagnostic Indicators can accurately and consistently differentiate (100%) actual attachment-based “parental alienation” from false allegations of “parental alienation” made by a narcissistic targeted parent (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post), so clinically and diagnostically I’m not worried about these false allegations of “parental alienation.”  They’re easy to detect.

In some cases I’ve noted a slight overtone of avoidant attachment in a few of the targeted parents, and I’ve seen slight overtones of ambivalent attachment in a couple of cases, but this has been more rare.  And even in these circumstances, the avoidant and ambivalent overtones are still embedded in a generally secure attachment superstructure.

But unlike the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and the child’s characteristic pattern of symptoms created by the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, there is more potential variability in the targeted parent that would make the targeted parent’s presentation more variable in each individual case.

The Pathology of Disorganized Attachment

The underlying formative core of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment system is a “disorganized attachment,” which is one of the three primary categories of insecure attachment (the other two being anxious-ambivalent, also called “preoccupied,” and anxious-avoidant).

I want to make a clarifying comment on the use of the term “avoidant” relative to attachment and its application to “parental alienation.” In attachment literature the term “avoidant attachment” does not mean a child who is angry or hostilely rejecting a parent. It refers to a child who avoids attachment bonding by being low demand and low needy. An avoidant attachment style develops in a child who’s parent is overwhelmed, so that if the child places demands on the parent the parent withdraws even further away from the child, so that the child adopts an attachment strategy of placing minimal demands on the parent so as to maximize the availability of this parent.

The avoidant attachment overtones to the underlying disorganized attachment of the narcissistic personality parent refers to the superficial presentation of the narcissist as not needing other people, in which other people are seen by the narcissistic personality as being expendable and replaceable.

An ambivalent style of attachment is reflected in a child being highly demanding and needy, either through presenting a great deal of “protest behavior” (anger, defiance, inflexible demands, tantrums, etc.) or through a high frequency of demands for or displays of affectional bonding and reassurances with the parent. The ambivalent attachment style has also been called “preoccupied.” So the high frequency of phone calls and contacts made by the child to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (and vice versa) while the child is in the care of the targeted parent are CLEAR diagnostic indicators of an insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment between the child and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Anxious ambivalent (preoccupied) attachment develops in response to inconsistent parental availability, which, in the case of attachment-based “parental alienation,” is the “conditional love” offered by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is provided only if the child surrenders to the will and desires of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to act as a “regulatory object” for this parent’s emotional and psychological state.

A disorganized attachment is the underlying attachment organization that creates narcissistic and borderline personality organizations, and it is considered the most pathological of the three types of insecure attachments.

“Individuals with BPD [borderline personality disorder] tend to have attachment styles classified as disorganized and unresolved.” (Stepp, et al., 2011, p. 3)

“Various studies have found that patients with BPD are characterized by disorganized attachment representations (Fonagy et al., 1996; Patrick et al, 1994). Such attachment representations appear to be typical for persons with unresolved childhood traumas, especially when parental figures were involved, with direct, frightening behavior by the parent. Disorganized attachment is considered to result from an unresolvable situation for the child when “the parent is at the same time the source of fright as well as the potential haven of safety” (van IJzendoorn, Schuengel, & Bakermans-Kranburg, 1999, p. 226). (Beck et al., 2004, p. 191)

“Some traumatic experiences may have taken place at a very early age, notably the kind of punishing, abandoning, rejecting responses of the caretaker that led to disorganized attachment. (Beck et al., 2004, . 191)

Role reversals observed among children with disorganized attachment histories, which may include both controlling/punitive and caregiving behavior patterns, may be attempts at fear mastery and self-protection.” (Shaffer & Stroufe, 2005, p. 72)

A variety of pathogenic parenting patterns can produce disorganized attachment in children (i.e., in the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent with his or her own parent). These different parenting practices that produced the disorganized attachment of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are relevant to attachment-based “parental alienation” because these attachment behaviors are replicated trans-generationally with the next generation of children (Benoit & Parker, 1994; Bretherton, 1990; Fonagy & Target, 2005; Jacobvitz, Morgan, Kretchmar, & Morgan, 1991; Prager, 2003; van Ijzendoorn, 1992).

A list of parenting behaviors that result in disorganized attachment (i.e., the disorganized attachment of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent who may then display these same types of parenting behaviors with the current child) is provided by Lyons-Ruth, Bronfman, and Parsons (1999)

Maternal behaviors that result in disorganized attachment:

  •  Affective Errors
  • Contradictory cues
  • Nonresponse or inappropriate responses
  • Disorientation
  • Confused or frightened by the child
  • Disorganized or disoriented
  • Negative-Intrusive Behavior
  • Verbal negative-intrusive behavior
  • Physical negative-intrusive behavior
  • Role Confusion
  • Role-reversal
  • Sexualization
  • Withdrawal
  • Creates physical distance
  • Creates verbal distance

Of particular note is the inclusion of “role-reversal” in the creation of disorganized attachment.  The central pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” is the role-reversal use of the child as a “regulatory other” for the emotional and psychological needs of the parent.  

In healthy parent-child development, the child uses the parent as a “regulatory other” to regulate the child’s emotional and psychological state

In a pathological role-reversal relationship, these parent and child roles are reversed, so that it is the parent who uses the child as a “regulatory other” to regulate the parent’s emotional and psychological state.

Another factor associated with the development of disorganized attachment are psychological boundary violations. Role-reversal relationships are a form of “boundary violation.”

“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)

Parenting practices that involve boundary violations are transmitted trans-generationally to the next generation of the parent-child relationship (Jacobvitz, Morgan, Kretchmar, & Morgan, 1991).

A variety of researchers have discussed the pathology associated with boundary violations in the parent-child relationship:

Borderline personality symptoms were significantly related to early relational experiences previously reported in retrospective studies. These included attachment disorganization (12–18 months) and maltreatment (12–18 months), maternal hostility and boundary dissolution (42 months)” (Carlson, Edgeland, & Sroufe, 2009, p. 1328)

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

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

“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… 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.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 22)

“Parent-initiated boundary dissolution in early childhood instantiates a pattern of relationship disturbance in the child. Role reversal is apparent by early adolescence and the available data suggest links to psychopathology in later adolescence.” (Shaffer & Sroufe, 2005)

It is important to note that NONE of the above cited references were concerning the construct of “parental alienation.”  ALL of these statements were from child development literature.

“Parental alienation” is not a new or unestablished concept.  It is a well defined and well understood parent-child pathology in the child development literature, particularly the research regarding the attachment system. It’s just not called “parental alienation.” 

The distorted parent-child processes of “parental alienation” are well defined and well-described processes in child development literature. All an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” does is apply this scientifically established child development knowledge base to the family relationship pathology typically described as “parental alienation.”

“Parental alienation” is not something new or controversial, we know EXACTLY what it is.  We just use different terms for it.

We will have the solution to “parental alienation” the moment the paradigm shifts to an attachment-based model. 

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


Disorganized Attachment

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).

 Personality Disorder and Disorganized Attachment

Stepp, S. D., Whalen, D. J., Pilkonis, P. A., Hipwell, A. E., & Levine, M. D. (2011). Children of mothers with Borderline Personality Disorder: Identifying parenting behaviors as potential targets for intervention. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. 1-16.

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

Boundary Violations

Carlson, E.A., Edgeland, B., and Sroufe, L.A. (2009). A prospective investigation of the development of borderline personality symptoms. Development and Psychopathology, 21, 1311-1334

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

Shaffer, A., & Sroufe, L. A. (2005). The Developmental and adaptational implications of generational boundary dissolution: Findings from a prospective, longitudinal study. Journal of Emotional Abuse. 5(2/3), 67-84.

.Trans-Generational Transmission

Benoit, D. and Parker, K.C.H. (1994). Stability and transmission of attachment across three generations. Child Development, 65, 1444-1456

Bretherton, I. (1990). Communication patterns, internal working models, and the intergenerational transmission of attachment relationships. Infant Mental Health Journal, 11, 237-252.

Fonagy P. & Target M. (2005). Bridging the transmission gap: An end to an important mystery in attachment research? Attachment and Human Development, 7, 333-343.

Jacobvitz, D.B., Morgan, E., Kretchmar, M.D., and Morgan, Y. (1991). The transmission of mother-child boundary disturbances across three generations. Development and Psychopathology, 3, 513-527.

van Ijzendoorn, M.H. (1992) Intergenerational transmission of parenting: A review of studies in nonclinical populations. Developmental Review, 12, 76-99

One thought on “Personality Pathology and Disorganized Attachment”

  1. Dr. Childress,
    Thank you so much for all your work. Reading your posts has enlightened me tremendously. As a targeted parent the pain and emptiness is still there but I now have an understanding why this is happening. This has helped me to deal with the guilt.
    In earlier posts you stated,
    “The capacity for psychological cruelty by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is immense…..
    and it is without empathy or pity.”
    The alienating parent (father) was critical of son (eldest) from very young, his love was very conditional. He rejected his son when he was 19 and hasn’t seen him since. He is now 24.
    The alienating parent (father) chose his daughter early on as his “golden” child (she is now 20). He encouraged her to reject her brother as well.
    Father and daughter haven’t seen our son for 41/2 years and I have had no contact with my daughter for 1 year.
    Could you please comment on the alienating parent’s effect on the relationship of the children with each other and with each parent when one child aligns with the alienating parent and the other aligns with the targeted parent. Is there any realistic hope of reconciliation between the children?

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