Coping with the Trauma of Parental Alienation


Enduring the experience of attachment-based “parental alienation” represents a profound form of trauma inflicted on targeted parents.  This type of chronic psychological trauma differs from what combat veterans face when they develop PTSD, yet the experience of targeted parents who are caught in the nightmare of attachment-based “parental alienation” is a form of trauma.  The technical term for the type of emotional and psychological trauma experienced by targeted parents is “complex trauma.”

It is no coincidence that the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is born in complex trauma from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and that the current processes of attachment-based “parental alienation” are inflicting onto the targeted parent a form of complex trauma. These two features of attachment-based “parental alienation” are definitely related.

It is important for the targeted parent to find ways of coping with the complex trauma of attachment-based “parental alienation.”  This post addresses ways the targeted parent can cope with the severe emotional trauma created by the experience of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The Trauma Reenactment Narrative

The processes of attachment-based “parental alienation” represent the reenactment of the childhood attachment trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into the current family relationships. The trauma reenactment narrative of attachment-based “parental alienation” represents a false drama created by the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The trauma-related roles contained within the attachment networks of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent were created during the childhood experiences of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s own relationship trauma with his or her own parent.

The complex developmental trauma experienced by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a child was so devastating to the psychological development of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, that this childhood trauma experience led to the development of the narcissistic and borderline personality structures that now drive the distorted family processes called “parental alienation.”  The complex trauma of childhood created the narcissistic and borderline personality traits we now see evidenced in attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The attachment system of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent contains representational networks for the childhood relationship trauma experienced by this parent as a child. These internalized working models of the attachment trauma are contained in the pattern of:

“abusive parent”-“victimized child”-“protective parent” 

These trauma-related roles from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are now being reenacted in the current family relationships.

“Abusive Parent”: the targeted parent is being assigned the trauma reenactment role as the “abusive parent”

“Victimized Child”: the current child is being induced by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into accepting the trauma reenactment role as the supposedly “victimized child”

“Protective Parent”: the narcissistic/(borderline) parent adopts and conspicuously displays to the child and to others the coveted role as the supposedly “protective parent.”

The trauma reenactment narrative is initiated into the current family relationships by first inducing the child into accepting the role as the “victimized child.” This is a critical initial step in the creation of attachment-based “parental alienation.” 

The moment the child accepts and adopts the “victimized child” role in the trauma reenactment narrative, this automatically defines the targeted parent into the “abusive parent” role. The “victimized child” role automatically imposes the “abusive parent” role onto the targeted parent, independent of any actual behavior of the targeted parent. By adopting the role of the “victimized child,” this automatically defines the targeted parent as being an “abusive parent.” 

The targeted parent is immediately put on the defensive, and must continually try to prove to therapists and others that he or she is not “abusive” of the child.  It doesn’t matter that the parenting practices of the targeted parent are entirely normal-range.  The moment the child is induced by the distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into adopting the “victimized child’ role in the trauma reenactment narrative, the “abusive parent” role is immediately imposed upon the targeted parent.

The child’s acceptance of the “victimized child” role also invites and provides the context for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to adopt and conspicuously display to the child and to others the coveted role as the all-wonderful, perfect and idealized, “protective parent.” In a circular process of role-definition, the “protective parent” role being adopted and conspicuously displayed to the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent invites the child to then adopt the “victimized child” role, and the “victimized child” role invites the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to adopt the role as the “protective parent.” 

These two roles in the trauma reenactment narrative are mutually supporting.

The processes of attachment-based “parental alienation” essentially involves a false drama created by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as an echo of the childhood trauma that created this parent’s personality pathology. In the narrative of this false drama, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent authentically believes that the targeted parent represents an “abusive” threat to the child, and that the supposedly “victimized child” requires the protection of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

But none of this false drama is true. It is delusional. The parenting of the targeted parent is entirely normal range, and the child is in no danger and doesn’t need any “protection.” It is a false narrative born in the childhood relationship trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The Trauma of the Targeted Parent

In reenacting the childhood attachment trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (that produced this parent’s personality psychopathology), the themes of trauma become alive and active once again.

Abuse – Victimization – Helplessness – Suffering

These trauma themes from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are brought to life once more in the trauma reenactment narrative, and are delivered into the experience of the targeted parent.

The psychological trauma of attachment-based “parental alienation” is an abuse inflicted by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent onto the targeted parent (by means of the child). It could almost be considered a form of psychological domestic violence. Once the controversy over the construct of “parental alienation” is resolved, targeted parents should be able to find allies in domestic violence survivors.  Domestic violence and attachment-based “parental alienation” are simply different manifestations of abuse inflicted by a narcissistic personality onto the other spouse.

The trauma themes of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s childhood are being created into the experience of targeted parent. The targeted parent is being made to experience the emotional and psychological abuse, the immense suffering, and the helpless victimization, that was part of the childhood trauma experience of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  It was this childhood trauma experience of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a child that created the twisted personality pathology that is now driving the family pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The suffering of the targeted parent created by the re-initiated and transferred childhood trauma experience of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, is both deep and unending, just as it was for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a child. There is no escape. The targeted parent is helpless to make the abuse and suffering end. These are trauma themes being recreated into the experience of the targeted parent, which the targeted parent is made to endure. The childhood trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is alive once more, only this time in the emotional and psychological suffering of targeted parent.

For the targeted parent, attachment-based “parental alienation” represents a “complex trauma” of profound magnitude. Suffering without end – trapped, and helpless.

Coping with the Trauma

The targeted parent must find a way to process and cope with the trauma experience.

In your suffering, you must strive to achieve the triumph of light over the darkness of trauma.  You must find your way out of the trauma experience being inflicted upon you, and into a recovery of your authentic psychological health and balance.

As much as you may want to save your child, you cannot rescue your child from the quicksand by jumping into the quicksand with them. If, in trying to rescue your child from quicksand you jump into the quicksand as well, you will simply both perish.

In order to rescue your child from the quicksand of “parental alienation,” you must have your feet firmly planted on the shore, steady in your own emotional and psychological health, and then extend your hand to retrieve your child.

Even then, your child may not grasp your hand. You will need the support of mental health and the courts, and we’re working on that. For your part, you must strive to find your freedom from the imposed trauma experience. You must strive to find and keep your own emotional and psychological health within the immense emotional trauma of your grief and loss.

The trauma experience captivates the psychology of the targeted parent. The world of the targeted parent revolves entirely around the trauma experience of the family’s pathology. The difficult and challenging relationship with the hostile-rejecting child; the chaos of trying to work with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to schedule visitations; the blatant and repeated disregard of court orders by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent; and the continual intrusions and disruptions by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into the relationship of the targeted parent with the child, continually consume the focus of the targeted parent.

Repeated court dates, lawyers, therapists, custody evaluations, that all occur in the context of continuing parent-child conflict, act to fully captivate the complete psychological involvement of the targeted parent.

And in this upside-down world, the targeted parent is continually being blamed for the child’s rejection, even though the targeted parent did nothing wrong.

“You must have done something wrong if your child doesn’t want to be with you.”

Your beloved child is being taken from you, and no one understands. No one helps.

The emotional and psychological trauma and profound grief of attachment-based “parental alienation” consumes the life and psychology of the targeted parent.

You must find your freedom from this trauma.

The emotional trauma inflicted on the targeted parent is severe, and the grief of the targeted parent is deep. The challenge of the targeted parent is to once more find the light of their joy amidst the darkness of their grief and loss.

We are working to solve mental health, so that mental health will understand and will help you.

Once mental health becomes your ally, we will work to solve the courts, so that the courts too will understand and will help you.

In this process, you can help by taking up the challenge to once more find your emotional health and balance within the trauma of your loss and grief. Your child needs you to have your feet firmly planted on the shore of your own emotional and psychological health and balance in order to help them escape the quicksand of their experience.

That is your challenge.

Finding Happiness

Here are nine ways that targeted parents who are caught in the trauma of attachment-based “parental alienation” can recover and restore their emotional health and balance. The basic ideas for this list are drawn from an article by Belle Beth Cooper in which she cites the various scientifically supported methods for increasing happiness.

1.  Practice Smiling

The physical and emotional systems in the brain are  interconnected. We can create a small dose of any emotion by acting as if we had that emotion. That’s what actors do. They act as if they felt a certain way, and this creates a small dose of that feeling. Then the actor expands this small seed of the emotion into a full experience of the desired emotion.

We smile when we’re happy. But it also works in reverse. We become happier when we smile.

When we smile, we create a small dose of the happy feeling. The physical act of smiling fools the brain:

The brain says, “Why am I smiling? Hmm, I must be happy. Hey emotions, stop slaking off down there and produce some of that happy that you’re supposed to be feeling.”

When we smile we fool the brain into thinking it must be happy, so it then releases a small amount of the brain chemicals for the feeling of happy. It’s not much, maybe just a single point on a 10-point scale. But it’s a start. The more we practice smiling, the easier it becomes to produce the happy, and we begin to create a little more happy each time.

With the brain, “we build what we use.”

When we use a brain network we create structural and chemical changes along the pathways that were used and these changes make the connections in the used networks stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient. This process is called the “canalization” of brain networks (like building “canals” or channels in the brain).

The more we smile, the more we canalize the brain systems for being happy. We essentially groove the happy channel more deeply into our neural networks. Its just like practicing the piano. At first it feels awkward and we’re only able to play “twinkle-twinkle little star,” and even then our playing is slow and halting. Yet as we practice, our playing gradually improves. Soon we’re playing simple songs, and it actually begins to sound like music, sort of. Eventually we’re playing ragtime and Mozart concertos.

Practice smiling. It’s extremely simple to do. Just smile.

Smile often. For no particular reason, just smile. Smile in the car. Smile when you’re alone. Smile at your spouse (but not a creepy smile; a warm and relaxed smile). See if you can get your eyes to smile too.

The more you practice smiling, the easier it becomes to bring forth a feeling of relaxed low-level happy, and the longer it remains.

Smiling is especially useful when something makes us angry. Adding happy to angry softens our anger.  Instead of becoming caught up in anger and frustration, when you smile at the same time as you’re angry, you’ll begin to laugh at the absurdity of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s all-too-predictable crazy. As soon as you see that email from them in your inbox, smile. Instead of the painful wince of “Oh dear God, not again.” you will begin to experience a relaxed and bemused, “Really? Again?”

Practice smiling. A lot. Whenever. For no particular reason. Just smile.

2.  Meditate

Meditation is wonderful. Meditation is the surest way of bringing emotional peace and balance.

There are a wide variety of meditative practices. Try out different types. There are sitting meditations of inner thought. There are moving meditations of integrated flow. There are breathing meditations of relaxation. Try out different ones. Some won’t fit for you, but others might. See if one fits for you.

One of the most common forms of meditation is to simply sit in a quiet area and let go of each thought as it comes. Mind will continually offer sentences, our thoughts, that capture us. This type of meditation is simply the active letting go of being captivated by the thought.

Let the thoughts come… and let them go. Don’t follow them. Just let them go. The next one comes… let it go. The next one come comes… let it go.  Ooops, thoughts can be so tricky, so captivating, and you find you’ve been caught by one and have wound up following a line of thought. That’s okay. When you become aware of it, simply let it go. Then let go of the next thought. The next thought will come, and let it go too. Soon, mind will quiet. Peace arrives.

Another form of meditative practice is to repeat in your mind or out loud certain sounds, called “mantras.’ These sounds quiet the mind.

A particularly wonderful and relaxing form of meditation is to focus on developing a rhythmic flow of breath. The inhales and exhales of your breath become deep and circular. Mind turns off as we flow into our breathing.

There are also physically active forms of meditation, such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong. These forms of meditation are especially wonderful. They achieve a profound peace through the active integration of personal being with movement and the body.

Sometimes a calming meditative background music helps, and sometimes people prefer quiet. Up to you. Try out different approaches to meditation and see if one works for you. You’ve been through a lot, you deserve to nurture yourself. Valuing yourself enough to give to your “self” the gift of time is tremendously healing.

3.  Spend Time with Friends and Family

The trauma of “parental alienation” can justifiably consume the life focus of targeted parents. The beloved child is being distorted or has been lost entirely. What could be more important than that?

Yet being consumed into the trauma is not healthy. You cannot rescue the child by jumping into the quicksand as well. You must stand on the shore of your own emotional and psychological health so that, when the time comes, you can reach out your hand to rescue the child.

We are working on solving the problems in mental health so that they become your ally. Once mental health becomes your ally, then we can solve the courts so that they too understand and become an ally. Once we have solved the current “bleeding out” of actively occurring “parental alienation,” then we will turn our attention to the adult survivors of childhood “alienation” to see if we can recover these now adult children of “alienation” as well. We’re working on it.

Your challenge is to live into your emotional and psychological health, and not allow yourself to be consumed by the trauma, so that when the time comes you can reach out your hand to recover your child.

We belong in community. We thrive in community. Share your life with friends and family. Arrange dinner parties. Go to movies and plays with friends and family. Join groups, join a church, join an organization. Browse the course catalog of the local college extension program and sign up for a class or activity where you meet other people who share similar interests. Join an adult softball or bowling league. Take salsa dancing, square dancing, line dancing, ballroom dancing, tango. Go on dates. Be with people.

In my professional experience with targeted parents, I have met a number of targeted parents who are successfully remarried to wonderful new life-partners. Maybe it’s something about having made such a horrendous choice in partners the first time that allows the targeted parent to then make a wonderful choice the second time. But for whatever reason, I seem to have met many targeted parents who are now remarried to truly wonderful partners.

However, living in the throes of “parental alienation” can be very hard on these new spouses. These new partners often become so incredibly angry at the destructive maliciousness of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, who is willing to destroy the children of the targeted parent if this will create suffering in the targeted parent. The new spouse loves the kindness and love available from the targeted parent, and it is so very hard on them to watch helplessly as immense pain is inflicted on the person they love.

If you are a targeted parent who has been fortunate enough to find a new and wonderful life partner, recognize and nurture the joy and love that is available in this new relationship. It’s okay to let go of the pain and trauma of the “parental alienation” and to love and laugh with the new life partner. You are not letting go of the child, you are embracing your emotional and psychological health; you are embracing love.

When the time for solutions arrives, you will have created a wonderful nest of a loving homelife that the child will be able to join.

You are always available for your child. We know that. You also have a right to your life.

There is a lot we must do to fix so many things that are wrong in mental health and the legal system. You are doing all you can. It’s okay to also embrace your life while we work to recover your children.

4. Sleep

Make sure you get enough sleep.                                   

Sleep is a basic rhythm of our lives. Disruptions to our sleep create imbalances in the brain chemistry that can lead to increased stress and emotional exhaustion.

One of the most important aspects of achieving balanced sleep is establishing a routine surrounding our sleep. This is called our sleep hygiene.

Make sure your bed is comfortable and use it only for sleeping, not for reading, or watching television, or working on the computer or tablet. Disconnect yourself from television and the computer at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Allow your brain time to relax and get ready for sleep. Brush your teeth, change into your bedclothes, read a book or a magazine in a nice comfortable chair or sofa. Nurture yourself by getting ready for the beautiful relaxation of sleep. Allow yourself to rest before you ask yourself to sleep.

If you find yourself going to bed and then lying awake for a long time, go to bed later. If your desired bedtime is 10:00 but you wind up falling asleep at 11:30, go to bed at 11:15 for two weeks. Once you’re falling asleep relatively quickly after you go to bed, shift your bedtime back fifteen minutes to 11:00 for a couple of weeks. Once you begin to fall asleep relatively quickly at that bedtime for a while, shift your bedtime back another fifteen minutes to 10:45. Gradually… gradually… begin moving your bedtime back to the desired time. Don’t let yourself lay awake in bed.

Also, don’t watch the clock. Think about pleasant things. Develop fantasies of desired vacations and things you’ll do when your ship comes in. Develop visualizations of mountain pastures, calming ocean vistas, streams and forests. Find a “happy place” in your mind’s world and allow this to be your companion at bedtime.

5. Help Others

In his book “The Art of Happiness,” the Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

When we help others, we find our own happiness.

We are designed to live and thrive in community. We become happy when we turn outside of our own selfish needs and give of ourselves to something larger than ourselves. The trauma of “parental alienation” draws you inward into your pain and suffering. Giving to others expands you into life and returns you to the human community.

Live into compassion.  Give to others.  And you will find your happiness.

Two hours a week, give to others. You will be happier.

6. Practice Gratitude

My son is away at college on the East Coast. I am on the West Coast. I see him only rarely and I interact with him infrequently. But I still share in his joy and happiness, even if I don’t know exactly what these joys are, because I know he is living into his life. Even if I am not specifically aware of his day-to-day studies, his friendships, his struggles, and his triumphs, I know he is living into his young adulthood, and I am happy with him.

Even though you may be excluded from the day-to-day knowledge of your child’s experiences, your child is still living into his or her life, and you can still take joy with them in this knowledge, even if you don’t know the specifics.

Your child is bright, and beautiful, and healthy. He or she has a life to live, struggles and triumphs to experience and master. You may not know specifically what they are, but your love shares them as surely as if they were your own. Foster your gratitude for your child’s magnificence, even if the pathology of the other parent seeks to inflict suffering on you through your love for your child. Your child is still wonderful.

Find the thousand things in your life for which you are grateful. Break free from the trauma and reenter the magnificent world that surrounds you. The darkness seeks to injure you, to crush you in the trauma of abuse. Don’t let it. Find the expansive light of life’s riches. Your suffering is real, but it does not need to define you.

Practice gratitude.

7.  Plan a Trip

When we plan a trip, we become happy. Taking the trip can be nice, but we are happiest when we are planning the trip. Planning a trip draws us into life. It gives us something to look forward to with eager anticipation.

The grief and frustration of “parental alienation” traps you into the trauma reenactment. You cannot escape, you are helpless, you must simply endure the emotional and psychological abuse of “parental alienation.” In your helplessness, the trauma themes from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are being transferred into you. You cannot escape the abuse. You are trapped. You are being abused. This is the trauma.

Fight back. Escape. Get away. Until we achieve the help of mental health there is no solution to the tragedy of attachment-based “parental alienation.  But don’t allow yourself to be trapped by the trauma.  Plan a trip.  Where are you going to go? What are you going to do there? What will you see? What adventures will you have? Get away.

Look forward. Escape from the continual focus on the tragedy. In planning a trip, reawaken joyful anticipation. Get away. With all you’ve been through, you deserve it.

Actually taking the trip can also be fun. But the happiness is actually found in the planning of the trip. Where will you go? What will you do? Escape the trauma.

8.  Go Outside

Nature is healing. Feel the sun on your face. Stare up at the stars in wonder. Surround yourself with trees. Hike in the mountains. Listen to the ocean waves crashing on the shore. Take a nap on a Sunday afternoon by the banks of river or stream. Nature is healing.

Pack a picnic and go to the local park. Take a morning walk or an evening stroll. Sit on your porch and watch the world go by. Be outside.

Isn’t it marvelous how absolutely blue the sky is? And those clouds are so wispy, so puffy, like cotton. Look how many shades of green are in those trees, and the many colors in the fields; the browns, and golds, and blues, and pinks.

Smell the freshness of the trees. The sound of the birds chirping that invites us into the world that surrounds us. In the smell of the ocean and the crashing of the waves we are at peace. Under the night sky and the stars we are home.

9.  Exercise

The emotional and psychological stress of attachment-based “parental alienation” is profound. The type of psychological trauma in attachment-based “parental alienation” is called “complex trauma.” It’s different from the PTSD type of trauma experienced by combat veterans. The PTSD type of trauma involves intense periods of hyper-arousal that cannot be processed by the brain. Complex trauma is not as intense but we are exposed to it for longer.  Complex trauma is an unrelenting stress for days, months, years; exhausting the brain chemistry until there is no psychological coping capacity left.

Stress finds a home in our bodies. Exercise cleanses us of the stress chemicals created by sadness and anger. Not only does exercise cleanse us of the toxic stress chemicals, exercise also releases brain chemicals that feel good. We feel stronger, healthier, and happier when we exercise… and we sleep better.

Exercise is one of the most powerful ways to alleviate stress and feel better.

 Escaping Trauma

 Attachment-based “parental alienation” represents a form of complex trauma inflicted on the targeted parent.  In coping with all of the issues surrounding the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation,” look to find your emotional and psychological health once more. 

Your challenge is to free yourself from the trauma themes being imposed upon you.  Don’t allow yourself to enter a victim mentality.  Don’t allow yourself to be abused.  Rediscover and live into your life and happiness.  Be with friends.  Love again.  Find activities.  Give to others.  Nurture your emotional health.  Escape the trauma.

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

36 thoughts on “Coping with the Trauma of Parental Alienation”

  1. Thank you so much! Even when we may know these things, it can be overwhelming so it makes a big difference to have you validate, remind, and give us permission for self-care. Unfortunately, the entire family is often not very supportive, and the grief is too much for friends — the few friends who don’t judge (at least out loud). Conversations are often about kids or almost always things connected to kids in some way. Memories sneak in that trigger tears at inappropriate places and times. Celebrations and events others are talking about SHOULD include our alienated child, but didn’t and won’t. But you reminded me that I still have to try my best. Thank you for all you do. By the way, I spent a year in Iraq in the army, and the trauma from that did not come close to the trauma of Parental Alienation. I can tell by what the triggers are that cause a PTSD reaction.

    1. The solution is not learning to cope with the trauma of attachment-based “parental alienation” – the solution is eliminating the tragedy of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

      The mental health profession MUST step-up; must respond with professional competence, and must become an ally of the targeted parent and children to resolve the family trauma of attachment-based “parental alienation.

      The appropriate DSM-5 diagnosis for the child in attachment-based “parental alienation” is:

      DSM-5 Diagnosis

      309.4 Adjustment Disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct
      V61.20 Parent-Child Relational Problem
      V61.29 Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress
      V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed

      The diagnosis of an Adjustment Disorder is in the “Trauma and Stress Related Disorders” section of the DSM-5 diagnostic system.

      Attachment-based “parental alienation” is, at its core, a trauma disorder. When we achieve the solution – and we will achieve the solution – to attachment-based “parental alienation” we will be turning next to incorporating a diagnosis of attachment-based “parental alienation” into the DSM-5 revisions (DSM 5.1). Yet this will not involve including the use of the words “parental alienation” in the DSM.

      Instead, we are going to advocate for the return to the DSM-5 of the DSM-IV TR diagnosis of “Shared Delusional Disorder.” This is the appropriate diagnosis regarding the trauma reenactment narrative at the core of attachment-based parental alienation. The false drama created by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent of “abusive parent”/”victimized child”/”protective parent” is DELUSIONAL. The targeted parent is not abusive, the child is not being victimized, and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is NOT a protective parent. This is a false drama. It is a delusion.

      That the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and child share this delusion of the parent, makes it a “Shared Delusional Disorder.”

      HOWEVER, unlike the DSM-IV TR where this diagnosis was in the Psychotic and Schizophrenic Disorders section of the DSM-IV TR; for attachment-based “parental alienation” the diagnosis of a Shared Delusional Disorder will be in the Trauma and Stress Related section of the DSM-5.1 revision.

      The source of the shared delusional belief is a false trauma reenactment narrative created primarily by the misattribution of affect. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent is grossly misattributing the meaning of reactivated trauma-anxiety as representing an authentic threat posed by the targeted parent, and the child is being led by the distorted parenting practices of a psychologically decompensating narcissistic/(borderline) parent into a misattribution of an authentic grief and sadness (“mournful longing”) as instead representing “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes” (Kernberg, 1977).

      But we DO NOT need this DSM component to be enacted in order to achieve the solution. We can achieve a solution to attachment-based “parental alienation” just as the DSM-5 stands now. The key is in achieving professional competence. We do this by establishing standards of practice for professional competence in working with this “special population” of children and families.

      The expectations for professional standards of practice in diagnosing and treating attachment-based “parental alienation” are advanced expertise in the attachment system, in narcissistic and borderline personality disorders (and the formation of delusional belief systems in these personality disorders), in developmental trauma (and trauma reenactment), and in family systems constructs.

      The key DSM-5 diagnosis is V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed. Attachment-based “parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue.

      We can achieve a solution to attachment-based “parental alienation” with the DSM-5 just the way it is right now.

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

      1. My ex husband was alienated from his mother (& still is abusive toward her as is his younger sister, who refuses any kind words to her or about her). I heard the father alienate myself (my former father in law). I didn’t have any education about alienation then, but I knew enough to know it was inappropriate for the three of them to bash her and make fun of her at my dinner table and I firmly asked them to stop. When I told the counselor, Dr. Rosemary Snodgrass, the head of the counseling story about how the same story my ex was giving her was the same story his dad had given — when I pointed out what I had learned — the secrets of his past — his child porn, the fact that he was now with his 5th wife, an older woman — the psychologist not only bullied me but kept information (cards, notes, photos) from the other counselors involved in our case. She refused to speak to my mom or son after saying she would. My ex took my daughter to and from these visits with her and was either in the same room or just outside while I would have no knowledge or no involvement in these appointments. They made an issue because I said I had pinched my daughter in church when other things would not work. They ignored my daughter’s troubling behavior that including self-harm & pointed to molestation. They ignored every flag that anyone with any common sense should have been alarmed about. I say “they”, but I don’t think the others were convinced of my ex’s narrative — I think they were all coerced by her and went along with the recommendation and the report that only served to degrade me in my daughter’s eyes and make it look like her father was perfect and thought she was perfect. I have been too traumatized by the whole ordeal to sit down and write out all that transpired to the Alabama board. When I pointed out how everything my ex was doing showed alienating behavior (blocking my phone from my daughter’s, for example and cutting her off from other family members), she told me to not spend so much time reading things on the Internet — yet she never recommended what I should read.

      2. After reading this article last week, i felt really emotional as finally i could put a name to the not just years, decades of psychological & emotional abuse we have been going through. Everything fell into place, Saturday when i was reading the recent blogs in each & everyone of them i could relate to as though i had written them my self, it was a releif to know i was not on my own & I’m definatly not crazy. I took my girls (dogs) to a big field & sat there for over 2hrs as i felt a weight had lifted off my shoulders & i could breath for the 1st time in a very long time.
        THANK YOU DR. Craig for your article is the TRUTH.
        People walk round with rose tinted glasses on.

        Then my train of thought is WHAT NOW!! how do i combat this!
        As you are all very aware it is so difficult in fighting something you just can’t see. Well we the targeted parent see’s exactly, its other ppl & the officials that don’t & presume that we are the unhinged parent & that plays right into the borderline narc parents hands.

        The infastructure of the system in society is an absolute joke. Its not just the legal system & social services its the educational system which can involve child psychologist that don’t pick up on anything & the lack of communication between departments is diabolical. There is also no support in the aftermath of yours & your childrens’ lives being turned upside down by the legal system. These departments need to come together & recognise & look at the bigger picture to help family pull through these severe difficult times as i feel they have a hand in the psychological & emotional abuse of the children involved. My GP picked up in 2010 when the court battle began that my ex partner had a split personality disorder so i have been researching into not quite the right places until now & everything makes sense.

        I now want to tell my story, & in doing so is going to be harrowing & intense. To rescue my children & repair the damage that has been done, i have to get in a better place physically & mentally which i know i can thanks to this article.

        I am a mother who loves her children very much & wants the best for them in life, ITS NOT IN MY MAKEUP TO GIVE UP! even though i have felt on too many occasions that i am fighting a losing battle, not no more, & nor should anyone who is going through this.

        ITS TIME TO MAKE A STAND & HAVE OUR VOICES HEARD. don’t know how or where to start but leave it with me.

  2. Thank you so much for this beautiful and compassionate article. I have endured parental alienation and it is a pain like nothing else…I have a relationship with my sons now, but it still has a long way to go, and working through the grief and rage is an ongoing process. Just to read this and feel validation that this is an excruciating process is such a relief, I have many supportive friends and family but I don’t think anyone can possibly understand unless they have lived it. There is no doubt that our relationship is better when I am in my best mental and emotional health, as you pointed out. However, sometimes the feelings still overwhelm me and I am swept away, which helps nobody. My prayers go out to anyone who has endured this agony, I understand and I am with you. Please lets continue to talk about this and support each other so that we may all come out the other side.

  3. Dr Childress, Thank you for your work I find explanation, acceptance, knowing and comfort here. I am 2 years without my son because of parental alienation. With the help of many I am pulling myself from the quicksand. I now have a different more positive reality and can live without my child. The most difficult time for me is at night I am haunted by my dreams.

  4. This is a must read wish i had this to read 15yrs ago when I lost my child to her drunk and drug fueled.mother /never saw again /gone/it was a long time before I accepted the facts. Looking at the wall.depression. 10yrs of it

  5. Once again. Thank you
    Dr. Childress.
    We all have stories and they sound kind of similar at this point. Mine is extreme like so many others.
    Is there any way of tracking the suicides that result from attachment based PA? I am sure those numbers are astronomical.
    Thank you.

  6. Thank you for the validation and the steps to help combat the ill effects of PAS. If you know of any groups that meet for discussion in Utah, Let me know. Thanks so much!

  7. Great article! I have been in and out of court with a narc parent that alienated me against my son. Unfortunately narcs do not want to lose at all costs, and will stop at nothing until they take everything. They also know their way around a court room, and they know that the courts will not do a damn thing about alienation. It amazes me that the court counselors not once looked into the fact that I was being alienated from my son. My son is now 15 and can decide who he wants to live with. I know too many people that have lived through the same experience I had, and there was nothing they could do about it. The courts need to get their act together. I have zero faith in the system. How can someone who was a stay at home mom, and who raised her children all day long lose her child to someone that worked 24/7? How is this benefiting our children? And he isn’t even raising my son, his now wife is. A step mom with no kids of her own is now raising my son. Unbelievable. Never in a million years did I ever think this would happen to me. So I really hope someone will do something to open the courts eyes. It seems all they really care about is making money and waisting people’s time.

    1. I thought that I was alone with being alienated from my daughter. We had a wonderful relationship, and I worked part-time for 16 years in order to be there for my kids. The step mother has managed to undermine, manipulate, and lie to my daughters, and therapists as well. Luckily, my oldest daughter’s therapist stayed ethical and neutral, and kept her in “reality”. My younger daughter’s therapist; however, didn’t stay neutral, and shifted that on to my daughter. As I read “Torn to Pieces’s” blog above, I was speechless, for I could’ve written that! Our stories are almost exact!
      The step mother and my ex have managed to alienate my younger daughter from me, my family, and to a great extent, her older sister. We’re fighting in the courts; it’s a long, expensive, emotional/exhausting process. It’s been almost a year of grieving from the alienation, and I’m hoping that the courts recognize the behaviors/lies of the narc/alienating parent/step parent.
      They need to be held accountable for this abuse-emotional child abuse.

  8. Thank you. This article brought me peace and comforted me after a particularly difficult day. I struggle with the loss of my children every day and night. I’m constantly trying to understand how such a close and loving bond could be gone and I often feel I somehow have done something wrong even though I know with all that I am that I am a loving parent. I’m so sad that my children must feel the loss too. This article calmed me and brought me back to logic. I feel I can cope now. Bless you.

  9. I tailspun for almost a year. The thing I was going through did not even have a name. But it was too familiar, even years post-divorce, with sole custody.

    Three months ago I found out what this is. And studying ever since….especially the hardest part, the heart-study. My loved ones don’t know how to help. They suffer in not knowing, and in being shell-shocked as well.

    I want to thank you, Dr. Childress. Your posts are right on time, time and again. The biggest “what now” of late has been for ME.

    I’m ready.

    *13+ months no contact

    1. So good to hear you found this information Donna. I feel for people who continue to not yet know what is happening. I hope you’ll still do whatever you can. As someone who recognized my mother’s attempts at alienating me from my father (she wasn’t as good as my ex but it still had an effect) in adulthood- it was amazing that it really only took a moment for everything to get clear and for me to suddenly see what was going on.
      I hope you never give up.

  10. Really good advice. My ex, my daughter have all been ordered to see therapists. The one I’m seeing is very chilled, which is good. She said she feels like I am not presenting any issues that she is concerned about in terms of parenting my child, although I have been showing symptoms of stress, similar to PTSD. I have been doing EMDR with her lately and getting some good results. I am not going into life or death panic responses as easily and honestly recognizing and shifting beliefs about myself that aren’t helpful.

  11. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between the stages of internal response. All 9 ways help. It also helps to pre-launch positive impacts when going through exhausting cycles. Erasing and rememorizing by multiple positive impacts is and was the most powerful tool.

  12. TRUTH

    after 8 years of marriage to a BORDERLINE. And 10 years of divorce and the insanity of coping with a Borderline parent , the abuse and parental alienation. I fought and fought to be in my children’s life and to protect them for the abusing non parenting – parent. I find myself , totally damaged to the core of my soul

    Heart is broken and beond repair
    And the years of insanity and abuse have left me Totally Mentally ill I will never be that superstar kid and successful humble adult I once was.


    MILLIONARE TO NOW HOMELESS and ,BROKE , waiting on disability








    1. hi Scott,
      you are right, i class my self as strong driven individual & nothing can train or prepare you for this sort of emotional torture & mental abuse. no help or support from the authoritys & after a very long period of time family & friends start thinking your crazy too, then you start isolating your self (doing exactly what the borderline parent wants!!) luckly enough my mother & sister seen for themselves last week was a relief to me, then coming across this article was a relief, to know i wasn’t alone & nor are you.

      to help your children you need to repair yourself & i know its difficult, believe in your self & get you back to the person you still are. now you know what it is you are dealing with! the question is how to tackle it & where to start. this is the advice i am giving my self.

      Good luck & never give up hope

    2. iv’e been at this 32 yrs. the abuser died 7 yrs ago and my adult children’s disrespect toward me got worse. iv’e been told that i’m ahead of the game in that my son and daughter still talk to me.
      my son, the doctor, just called me to tell me they are back from Berlin and his daughter is an international traveler. that’s it. he just called me to brag. i didn’t know they left.
      he excludes me from his great and wonderful life in every way.
      i don’t like braggards. i find most people don’t. i’m sorry for him that he is one.
      my daughter dated a man for 5 yrs. she would not introduce me to. her abusive father met him on several occasions.
      i don’t know that i would say this kind of communication could be considered being “ahead of the game”. so, here’s what i decided: i should have booted them to the curb 15 years ago at the first sign of serious disrespect. why didn’t i? because i believed in us. i believed we would land on our feet. well, we didn’t. individually, we are all doing okay. as a family? barely a whisper of our former unity.
      i have decided that i am being bullied by my kids. for the first time i believe i actually need counseling but, after all i’ve been through, i don’t want the kind of counseling that could end up on my medical history.
      i don’t know what can be salvaged. but bullying me is off the table. i can’t suffer bullies nor should i. they are still trying to figure out what’s “wrong” with me. they will have to do it without my presence. they are adults now. the hardest thing you will ever do is walk away from your kids.
      but, if the alternative is to continue relationships that have the stink of the abuser all over them then it’s time for me to run-not walk.
      part of the process of getting healthy is to know when to fold ’em.
      i already “have them” i just don’t like them. their disrespect of me knows no bounds.
      i should have given myself this freedom a lot sooner. it took 32 years.

    3. Thank you for your post Scott. I’m in the beginning of this hell and i don’t see a way out. The suffering is completely insane – a living hell and I can’t escape. I will spare everyone the details of the suffering because it is so ugly to hear it would make people think of insane asylums at midnight on a full moon. If there was a way to talk to you I’d like that. God bless you my friend.

  13. Thank you for your article it was very helpful. My partner is going through this, it has been 3 years now, we are both exhausted.

  14. I have been the targeted parent for two long years now, with absolutely no contact with my babies for one year. I have been a teacher for 12 years, but I have recently resigned bc of my stress. I have depleted my retirement funds and taken out loans to fight this. I tried to go back to work but I just couldn’t. I am curious about any type of disability that I can draw until I get back on my feet. If I applied what would I label myself as? And who could help me with this process? Thank you

  15. Totally brilliant article.
    However,my question to the judicial system is ,with all these studies undertaken by highly educated people which are being proven to be totally correct why are judges not taking a totally different approach to the family court system.?
    Perhaps they are too scared of losing too much of their ridiculous salaries because common sense would shorten the process up.
    I still think all Ailienated children should sue judges for ruining their childhood.

  16. I am happy to have found this, it does help to know there are some professionals who “get it”, and to hear others share their stories. The trauma IS horrible. I was married to a narcissist, and after our divorce, he became so much worse. My parental alienation has just begun, but I do not see an end in sight. I went away for a week, and when I returned, my daughter told me that her father “helped” her to “understand clearly” that I have been abusive to her and that I am the cause of all of her problems. (She has mental health issues that she has been struggling with for a few years). I found out this morning that she has blocked my phone number and has not been getting any of my texts/phone calls. No one really understands it – friends can listen, but no one knows what to say. Throughout the entire day, I constantly am replaying things in my mind, whether it’s good memories, or trying to figure out how this could have happened. I have already spoken to an attorney, which I cannot afford. But I know nothing will come of it. I cannot force a 14 year old into the car to come visit with me, and especially with an ex telling her she does not have to go with me, it will end up just causing even more trauma for her. The attorney said that I would have to show up at his door with the police and tell them he has to hand my daughter over to me. Seriously? As if that is a solution.

  17. Suffering through what so many others also know so well. The court system failed me, and it is clear I am not alone. I am now trying to pull my life back together, and work my way through the shame, disappointment, guilt, and all the other emotions that go with being a targeted parent. I send out to all the rest who are enduring the same a hope for the peace I find so elusive. Please take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone.

  18. Kandarp Jain India-

    Fabulous !!! A master piece truly. Well written and so comforting to get a validation of what one is practicing and I have saved this to refer back to for moments of despair… for everything is impermanent and emotions do rise up from time to time… This needs to be shared and circulated more for better reach to those who actually need it.

    Completely agree with the Meditation bit…tried Vipassana and found awesome results and managed to survive and come out of the trauma in a very scientific manner and a few questions that were lingering in my mind this article has now put them to rest and given enough reasons to pull off and carry on….

    May you stay blessed and so full of gratitude to found you on internet…hail technology and hail Google …Heartfelt thanks for this article Dr….if you visit India do let me know….I do nice egg less date and walnut cakes ( Learnt it from my Ex- 🙂 )))) would love to bake you one to express my gratitude and Joy

  19. Good article
    Funny thing is that I’m a trained child care provider, ( teaching assistant) nursery nurse, so basically I’m good to care a provide for other children but not safe around my daughter?
    My case have been going on for 8 years, I cope?? I live a life, but the grief never leaves, also in starting to stress about seeing her again, as I know I will because she has contact with older children.
    Thank you for article
    I only hope that the courts open their eyes, listen for future families

  20. The mother if my child is a Doctor of Psychology. A Child Physcology too.

    This scares the shit out of me.

    Great article.

  21. I wish I would’ve seen this years ago, this whole mess have literally left me disabled, homebound for years. I can’t even let myself think about it or I fear loosing control. Recently lost both my parents, within 4 months of each other, this gives me some sort of hope, my kids are beyond reaching, and helped by the very family that raised me. I’m in a tornado that never stops. I have no feeling in my back because I’m so hyper vigilant all day, for years. I absolutely at all costs avoid anything that has to do with my children, the memory, my parents, or any pain..

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