Cats Are Not Dogs

Cats and dogs are similar.  Both have fur, four legs, and a tail, and both live with us.

But cats are not dogs.  They are different species of animal.

Furthermore not all animals are a dog. Neither are all animals cats. There are both cats and dogs. They both exist as separate species of animals. While they are similar to each other, they are distinctly different species of animals.

And we can tell the difference between cats and dogs. Even though both have fur, four legs, and a tail, it’s actually pretty easy to tell if the animal we’re looking at is a cat or a dog.  Try it if you don’t believe me… See, it’s pretty easy.  Cats and dogs look fundamentally different.

I recently received the following critical Comment to my blog post regarding my Online Seminar on Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation” (it seems the pathogen has located me, which is a good thing).

“You think you’re pretty smart eh?  Have you been physically and psychologically beaten on before?  Interrogated?  Your parenthood been fabricated?  Shame on you for dismissing women abuse!”

This is a common type of argument levied against the existence of the “parental alienation” pathology.  The argument is that to identify the pathology of “parental alienation” is to somehow deny the legitimacy of authentic domestic violence and child abuse. We can even see the remnants of this argument in the Position Statement on Parental Alienation of the American Psychological Association, which begins with a cautionary statement that all allegations of domestic violence need to be taken seriously.

But this is a spurious argument offered up by the allies of the pathogen. Cats are not dogs.  They are different animals.

Just because cats exist (i.e., the delusional reenactment of childhood attachment trauma into current family relationships) does not in any way discount or nullify the existence of dogs (authentic domestic violence and child abuse).  Dogs exist… and cats exist.  Dogs are not cats, and cats are not dogs.

And we can actually tell the difference between cats and dogs.

Authentic violence against women and children exists. The trans-generational transmission of childhood trauma into current family relationships through the personality disorder pathology of the parent, that is itself a product of the childhood trauma, also exists.  Dogs exist and cats exist.

They are two different species of similar types of animal (trauma). Actual violence against women and children is the enactment of trauma in this generation of children and families. The pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” is the enactment of similar pathology, just one generation removed. The trauma was enacted in the childhood of the current narcissistic/borderline parent and is now being reenacted in the current family relationships in the delusional attachment-trauma pattern of “abusive parent”/”victimized child”/”protective parent.”

But just because cats exist (trauma reenactment) doesn’t mean that dogs don’t also exist (authentic domestic violence and child abuse).  Both types of animal exist.  Both dogs AND cats exist.

And it’s actually pretty easy to tell the difference between dogs and cats once you know what to look for.

The folks who are concerned about domestic violence and child abuse are worried that if we identify the pathology of “parental alienation” as existing (cats) then all animals will become cats and we will no longer identify authentic cases of domestic violence and child abuse (dogs). That’s a valid concern, but it’s also ridiculous.

It’s incredibly easy to tell what’s a cat and what’s a dog. First off, cats have retractable claws and climb trees, dogs don’t. Dogs bark, cats don’t (cats purr). And cats look fundamentally different than dogs. I doubt if anyone over the age of three actually gets confused if the animal in question is a dog or a cat.

Similarly, the pathology of a delusional reenactment of childhood trauma has distinctly different characteristic indicators from authentic violence against women and children. Authentic violence against women and children presents with one set of characteristic indicators while the delusional reenactment of childhood attachment trauma presents with an entirely different set of characteristic indicators. It’s actually pretty easy to tell the difference between cats and dogs once you know what to look for.

The three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” (Foundations) can reliably and consistently differentiate the delusional trauma reenactment pathology of “parental alienation” from authentic incidents of domestic violence and child abuse (cats have retractable claws – dogs don’t, etc.). Plus, with all of the associated clinical signs, the two forms of pathology look fundamentally different (cats don’t look like dogs).

Not everything is a cat.  Authentic domestic violence and child abuse exists.

Not everything is a dog.  The reenactment of childhood attachment trauma into current family relationships also exists.

The renowned expert in trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, describes the reenactment of childhood trauma into current relationships:

“When the trauma fails to be integrated into the totality of a person’s life experiences, the victim remains fixated on the trauma. Despite avoidance of emotional involvement, traumatic memories cannot be avoided: even when pushed out of waking consciousness, they come back in the form of reenactments, nightmares, or feelings related to the trauma… Recurrences may continue throughout life during periods of stress.” (van der Kolk, 1987, p. 5)

van der Kolk, B.A. (1987). The psychological consequences of overwhelming life experiences. In B.A. van der Kolk (Ed.) Psychological Trauma (1-30). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, Inc.

“Victims of trauma respond to contemporary stimuli as if the trauma had returned, without conscious awareness that past injury rather than current stress is the basis of their physiologic emergency responses. The hyperarousal interferes with their ability to make calm and rational assessments and prevents resolution and integration of the trauma.” (van der Kolk, 1989, p. 226)

“People who have been exposed to highly stressful stimuli develop long-term potentiation of memory tracts that are reactivated at times of subsequent arousal. This activation explains how current stress is experienced as a return of the trauma; it causes a return to earlier behavior patterns.” (van der Kolk, 1989, p.226)

Van der Kolk, B.A. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma: Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 389-411.

Sigmund Freud called this reenactment of childhood trauma “transference” (the patient would “transfer” childhood patterns of relationship onto the analyst).

John Bowlby calls these internalized patterns of relationship expectations “internal working models,” and he describes how we reenact these childhood patterns throughout our lifespan,

“No variables, it is held, have more far-reaching effects on personality development than have a child’s experiences within his family: for, starting during the first months of his relations with his mother figure, and extending through the years of childhood and adolescence in his relations with both parents, he builds up working models of how attachment figures are likely to behave towards him in any of a variety of situations; and on those models are based all his expectations, and therefore all his plans for the rest of his life.” (Bowlby, 1973, p. 369).

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol. 2. Separation: Anxiety and anger. NY: Basic.

The renowned psychiatrist, Aaron Beck, refers to these patterns as “schemas.”  Beck and his colleagues describe how these schemas influence our interpretation of events and relationships,

Evaluation of the particular demands of a situation precedes and triggers an adaptive (or maladaptive) strategy. How a situation is evaluated depends in part, at least, on the relevant underlying beliefs. These beliefs are embedded in more or less stable structures, labeled “schemas,” that select and synthesize incoming data.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 17)

“When schemas are latent, they are not participating in information processing; when activated they channel cognitive processing from the earliest to the final stagesWhen hypervalent, these idiosyncratic schemas displace and probably inhibit other schemas that may be more adaptive or more appropriate for a given situation. They consequently introduce a systematic bias into information processing… In personality disorders, the schemas are part of normal, everyday processing of information.”  (Beck et al., 2004, p. 27)

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

Pearlman and Courtois (2005) describe the pattern of the trauma reenactment narrative.

Reenactments of the traumatic past are common in the treatment of this population and frequently represent either explicit or coded repetitions of the unprocessed trauma in an attempt at mastery. Reenactments can be expressed psychologically, relationally, and somatically and may occur with conscious intent or with little awareness. One primary transference-countertransference dynamic involves reenactment of familiar roles of victim-perpetrator-rescuer-bystander in the therapy relationship. Therapist and client play out these roles, often in complementary fashion with one another, as they relive various aspects of the client’s early attachment relationships. (p. 455)

Pearlman, C.A., Courtois, C.A. (2005). Clinical Applications of the Attachment Framework: Relational Treatment of Complex Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 449-459.

Prager (2003) also describes the pathology of trauma reenactment,

“Freud suggests that overwhelming experience is taken up into what passes as normal ego and as permanent trends within it; and, in this manner, passes trauma from one generation to the next. In this way, trauma expresses itself as time standing still. Traumatic guilt – for a time buried except through the character formation of one generation after the next – finds expression in an unconscious reenactment of the past in the present. (p. 176)

Trauma, as a wound that never heals, succeeds in transforming the subsequent world into its own image, secure in its capacity to re-create the experience for time immemorial. It succeeds in passing the experience from one generation to the next. The present is lived as if it were the past. The result is that the next generation is deprived of its sense of social location and its capacity to creatively define itself autonomously from the former… when time becomes distorted as a result of overwhelming events, the natural distance between generations, demarcated by the passing of time and changing experience, becomes obscured. (p. 176)

Prager, J. (2003). Lost childhood, lost generations: the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Journal of Human Rights, 2, 173-181.

The trauma-reenactment pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” exists.  Cats exist.

This is not to deny that dogs ALSO exist.  Both cats and dogs exist.

To equate the existence of cats (trauma reenactment pathology) with the denial of dogs (authentic domestic violence and child abuse) is stupid.  We are NOT saying that dogs don’t exist.  We are simply saying that cats are NOT dogs.  These are two different animals.

It is the critics of the construct of “parental alienation” who are saying that EVERYTHING is a dog, and that cats don’t exist (“parental alienation” doesn’t exist).

All we are trying to do is get establishment mental health to acknowledge what Freud, van der Kolk, Bowlby, Beck, and others ALREADY acknowledge, that BOTH cats AND dogs exist. They are different animals. Not everything is a dog.

And once we recognize that BOTH cats and dogs exist, it actually becomes pretty easy to tell them apart. But we first need to recognize that there are two different types of animal. Each has fur, four legs, and a tail. But they are different.  Cats are not dogs.

So as we run into this type of distorted argument, in which the person we’re talking to refuses to acknowledge that cats exist because they’re afraid that this denies the existence of dogs, just reassure them that’s not the case, that there are two different types of animal, both with fur, both with four legs, and both with a tail, but that they are entirely different species of animals, and that it’s actually really easy to tell them apart (i.e., the three diagnostic indicators and associated clinical signs of attachment-based “parental alienation”).

Both cats and dogs exist. Both the pathology of trauma reenactment and the pathology of family violence exist. One does not exclude the existence of the other.

All that we are asking for is a change to the APA Position Statement on “parental alienation” to

1.)  Acknowledge that the pathology exists (cats exist)

2.)  Recognize the children and families evidencing the signs of this pathology as representing a “special population” of children and families who require specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat.

(Since both cats and dogs have fur, four legs, and a tail, we want to make sure we don’t misidentify a cat as being a dog, or a dog as being a cat. So we want to require that only experts in cats and dogs identify the animal in question using advanced DNA tests that will determine whether the animal is a cat or a dog).

Once you know what to look for, the difference between cats and dogs is pretty distinctive.

So if anyone runs into this argument that “parental alienation” misidentifies authentic child abuse and domestic violence, just politely reassure the other person that we are talking about different animals. Cats are not dogs.

We’d be happy to talk about the many species of dogs, but that is not addressing the point we are raising that not all animals are dogs. Some animals are cats. We would like to discuss cats, and we need to talk about cats (i.e., the reenactment of childhood attachment trauma into the current family relationships, mediated by the narcissistic and borderline personality pathology of the allied parent that is itself a result of the childhood attachment trauma).

We can discuss dogs at some other time.  Right now we’re discussing cats.

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

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