Response to Jean Mercer

This post is a response to Jean Mercer’s analysis of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” on her blog:

Craig Childress Tries to Drag Attachment Theory Into the Parental Alienation Swamp

I had originally intended to post this response to Dr. Mercer in the Comment section of her blog, but unfortunately the Comment section too severely restricts the number of characters so that my response becomes impractical in that format.

So I instead decided to turn to my blog to respond, and then simply note on Dr. Mercer’s blog that I had responded over here.  Dueling blogs, if you will.  I have posted to the Comment section of Dr. Mercer’s blog the following:

Dr. Mercer, thank you for taking the time to review my work and offer your opinions. I was going to post my response in the Comment section of your blog, but the character limitations of that format are simply too restrictive to allow me a proper response to the issues you raise. So instead, I decided to respond on my blog at drcraigchildressblog.org. Hopefully this will lead to a productive professional dialogue that does justice to the complex issues and family struggles of the children and families we treat. Best wishes, Craig Childress, Psy.D.

So the following is my initial response to Dr. Mercer’s blog which she entitled “Craig Childress Tries to Drag Attachment Theory Into the Parental Alienation Swamp.”


First, Dr. Mercer, thank you for your time in reviewing my work, although, based on your analysis of my work, I’m not certain that you’ve read my book, Foundations, yet, which offers a more complete elaboration of the attachment-based foundations to the pathology of “parental alienation” than is provided in my various online writings (although I prefer the more accurate clinical term for the pathology of attachment-trauma reenactment pathology).

Thank you also for crediting me with these ideas. Unfortunately, I cannot take credit for the ideas contained in an attachment-based model as they all represent ideas and constructs derived from the foremost figures in professional psychology, including Theodore Millon, Aaron Beck, John Bowlby, Murray Bowen, Otto Kernberg, Bessel van der Kolk, Salvador Minuchin, Marsha Linehan, Alan Sroufe, Mary Mains, Jay Haley, and Peter Fonagy, among others, and from the established research literature.

In your analysis of my work, you requested a list of references for an attachment-based reformulation for the pathology of “parental alienation,” which leads me to believe that you have not yet read Foundations since I include this list of references in Chapter 11 of Foundations when I discuss the domains of required knowledge necessary for professional competence in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of this pathology. So in response to your request, I am including a list of references that I cite in Chapter 11.

I would imagine that since you have decided to critique my work, you have read Foundations in order to offer an informed opinion, and so you have likewise read the material I cited in Chapter 11 and are knowledgeable in the relevant areas of developmental pathology involved in an attachment-based formulation for the pathology traditionally called “parental alienation.” If you have not yet had the opportunity to read the relevant material I cite below, then when you do I would welcome the opportunity to engage in a well-informed discussion of the pathology.

But before turning to the references you requested, let me correct two misrepresentations of me in your analysis, first I am not on faculty at California Southern University. My online lectures for them were part of an invited Master’s Lecture Series that they invited me to present because of my professional knowledge in this area of pathology. Second, your characterization of my treatment recommendations were somewhat distorted, not so much as to be outright misrepresentations, just enough however to be mischaracterizations. I don’t want to distract from the present issue of providing you with the references you requested, so we can address the treatment related issues in future professional dialogue.

In our future discussions of treatment, my hope is that we can engage in a serious professional dialogue rather than relying on rhetorical devices such as setting up a straw-man line of argument.  The nature of the pathology and the family tragedy that is created by a narcissistic and borderline personality parent is too serious for anything but the most sober and reasoned of professional dialogues.

Essentially, the pathology we are treating is a reenactment of childhood attachment-trauma from the childhood of the allied and supposedly favored narcissistic/borderline parent into the current family relationships.  This reenactment of childhood attachment trauma is mediated by the narcissistic and borderline personality pathology of the allied parent, which is itself a product of the childhood trauma.

I am confident that you are not going to deny the existence of narcissistic and borderline personality pathology, as these are both well-established pathologies in both the DSM-5 diagnostic system and the professional literature.

The pathology of both the narcissistic and borderline personality involves a characteristic psychological process called “splitting.” Hopefully, you are not going to deny the pathology of spitting since this pathology was explicitly defined by the American Psychiatric Association in the DSM-IV TR.

The pathology traditionally called “parental alienation” simply represents the addition of the splitting pathology of a narcissistic/borderline personality parent to a cross-generational coalition (as independently defined by the preeminent family systems theorists Salvador Minuchin and Jay Haley) of the child with the narcissistic/borderline parent against the other parent. Hopefully, you are not going to deny a central and well-established tenet of family systems therapy of the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict.

(I discuss all of this in detail in Foundations.)

So while you graciously attributed the ideas of an attachment-based model to me, I must decline the attribution since the constructs of an attachment-based model of the pathology traditionally called “parental alienation” are actually derived from the most preeminent figures in professional psychology. So here is the reference list you requested, please refer to the following list of references for the original source material for an attachment-based formulation of the pathology

Following this reference list, I provide direct quotes regarding the reenactment of trauma, direct quotes regarding the psychological decompensation of the narcissisistic personality structure into delusional beliefs, direct quotes regarding the triangulation of the child into the spousal conflict through a cross-generational coalition with one parent against the other parent, the definition of the splitting pathology from the American Psychiatric Association, and direct quotes regarding the “invalidating environment.”

I look forward to a sober and professional dialogue that will best serve the children and families we treat.

Best wishes,

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

References for an Attachment-Based Model of “Parental Alienation”

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. NY: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 2. Separation: Anxiety and Anger. NY: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 3. Loss: Sadness and Depression. NY: Basic Books.

Millon. T. (2011). Disorders of personality: introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal. Hoboken: Wiley.

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

Kernberg, O.F. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. New York: Aronson.

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. Harvard University Press.

Fonagy, P., Target, M., Gergely, G., Allen, J.G., and Bateman, A. W. (2003). The developmental roots of Borderline Personality Disorder in early attachment relationships: A theory and some evidence. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 412-459.

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

Fonagy, P., Luyten, P., and Strathearn, L. (2011). Borderline personality disorder, mentalization, and the neurobiology of attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal, 32, 47-69.

Lyons-Ruth, K., Bronfman, E. and 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).

Main, M. and Hesse, E. (1990). Parents’ unresolved traumatic experiences are related to infant disorganized attachment status: Is frightened and/or frightening parental behavior the linking mechanism? In M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti, & E.M. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research, and intervention (pp. 161–182). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

van IJzendoorn, M.H., Schuengel, C., and Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (1999). Disorganized attachment in early childhood: Meta-analysis of precursors, concomitants, and sequelae. Development and Psychopathology, 11, 225–249.

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

Macfie, J. Fitzpatrick, K.L., Rivas, E.M. and Cox, M.J. (2008). Independent influences upon mother-toddler role-reversal: Infant-mother attachment disorganization and role reversal in mother’s childhood. Attachment and Human Development, 10, 29-39.

Macfie, J., McElwain, N.L., Houts, R.M., and Cox, M.J. (2005) Intergenerational transmission of role reversal between parent and child: Dyadic and family systems internal working models. Attachment & Human Development, 7, 51-65.

Pearlman, C.A. and Courtois, C.A. (2005). Clinical applications of the attachment framework: Relational treatment of complex trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 449-459.

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

Shaffer, A., and 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.

Sroufe, L. A. (2005). Attachment and development:  A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood, Attachment and Human Development, 7, 349-367.

Bacciagaluppi, M. (1985). Inversion of parent-child relationships: A contribution to attachment theory. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 58, 369-373.

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

Brennan, K.A. and Shaver, P.R. (1998). Attachment styles and personality disorders: Their connections to each other and to parental divorce, parental death, and perceptions of parental caregiving. Journal of Personality 66, 835-878.

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

Sable, P. (1997). Attachment, detachment and borderline personality disorder. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 34(2), 171-181.

Cassidy, J., and Berlin, L. J. (1994). The insecure/ambivalent pattern of attachment: Theory and research. Child Development, 65, 971991.

Mikulincer, M., Gillath, O., and Shaver, P.R. (2002). Activation of the attachment system in adulthood: Threat-related primes increase the accessibility of mental representations of attachment figures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 881-895.

Tronick, E.Z. (2003). Of course all relationships are unique: How co-creative processes generate unique mother-infant and patient-therapist relationships and change other relationships. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 473-491.

van der Kolk, B.A. (1987). The separation cry and the trauma response: Developmental issues in the psychobiology of attachment and separation. In B.A. van der Kolk (Ed.) Psychological Trauma (31-62). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, Inc.

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

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

Holmes, J. (2004). Disorganized attachment and borderline personality disorder: a clinical perspective. Attachment & Human Development, 6(2), 181-190.

Lopez, F. G., Fuendeling, J., Thomas, K., and Sagula, D. (1997). An attachment-theoretical perspective on the use of splitting defenses. Counseling Psychology Quarterly, 10, 461-472.

Raineki, C., Moriceau, S., and Sullivan, R.M. (2010). Developing a neurobehavioral animal model of infant attachment to an abusive caregiver. Biological Psychiatry, 67, 1137-1145.

Cozolino, L. (2006): The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain. WW Norton & Company, New York.

Siegel, D. (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience (New York: Guilford Press, 1999).

Iacoboni, M., Molnar-Szakacs, I., Gallese, V., Buccino, G., Mazziotta, J., and Rizzolatti, G. (2005). Grasping the intentions of others with one’s own mirror neuron system. Plos Biology, 3(3), e79.

Kaplan, J. T., and Iacoboni, M. (2006). Getting a grip on other minds: Mirror neurons, intention understanding, and cognitive empathy. Social Neuroscience, 1(3/4), 175-183.

Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E., and Shapiro, V. (1975). Ghosts in the nursery. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 14, 387–421.

Moor, A. and Silvern, L. (2006). Identifying pathways linking child abuse to psychological outcome: The mediating role of perceived parental failure of empathy. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6, 91-112.

Trippany, R.L., Helm, H.M. and Simpson, L. (2006). Trauma reenactment: Rethinking borderline personality disorder when diagnosing sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 28, 95-110.

Rappoport, A. (2005). Co-narcissism: How we accommodate to narcissistic parents. The Therapist.

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.

Juni, S. (1995). Triangulation as splitting in the service of ambivalence. Current Psychology: Research and Reviews, 14, 91-111.

Barnow, S. Aldinger, M., Arens, E.A., Ulrich, I., Spitzer, C., Grabe, H., Stopsack, M. (2013). Maternal transmission of borderline personality disorder symptoms in the community-based Griefswald Family Study. Journal of Personality Disorders, 27, 806-819.

Dutton, D. G., Denny-Keys, M. K., and Sells, J. R. (2011). Parental personality disorder and its effects on children: A review of current literature. Journal of Child Custody, 8, 268-283.

Fruzzetti, A.E., Shenk, C. and Hoffman, P. (2005). Family interaction and the development of borderline personality disorder: A transactional model. Development and Psychopathology, 17, 1007-1030.

Garety, P. A. and Freeman D. (1999) Cognitive approaches to delusions: A critical review of theories and evidence. The British Journal of Clinical Psychology; 38, 113-154.

Hodges, S. (2003). Borderline personality disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder: Time for integration? Journal of Counseling and Development, 81, 409-417.

Levy, K.N. (2005). The implications of attachment theory and research for understanding borderline personality disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 17, p. 959-986.

Stepp, S. D., Whalen, D. J., Pilkonis, P. A., Hipwell, A. E., and 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.

Svrakic, D.M. (1990). Functional dynamics of the narcissistic personality. American Journal of Psychiatry. 44, 189-203.

Widiger, T.A. and Trull, T.J. (2007). Plate tectonics in the classification of personality disorder: Shifting to a dimensional model. American Psychologist, 62, 71-83.

Direct Quotes Regarding Trauma Renactment:

“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.

“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.

“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 stages… When 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.

“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.” (Pearlman & Courtois, 2005, 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.

“The conceptualization of the core pathology of BPD [borderline personality disorder] as stemming from a highly frightened, abused child who is left alone in a malevolent world, longing for safety and help but distrustful because of fear of further abuse and abandonment, is highly related to the model developed by Young (McGinn & Young, 1996)… Young elaborated on an idea, in the 1980s introduced by Aaron Beck in clinical workshops (D.M. Clark, personal communication), that some pathological states of patients with BPD are a sort of regression into intense emotional states experienced as a child. Young conceptualized such states as schema modes…” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 199)

“Young hypothesized that four schema modes are central to BPD: the abandoned child mode (the present author suggests to label it the abused and abandoned child); the angry/impulsive child mode; the punitive parent mode, and the detached protector mode… The abused and abandoned child mode denotes the desperate state the patient may be in related to (threatened) abandonment and abuse the patient has experienced as a child. Typical core beliefs are that other people are malevolent, cannot be trusted, and will abandon or punish you, especially when you become intimate with them.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 199)

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

“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.” (Prager, 2003, 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. (Prager, 2003, p. 176)

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

Direct Quotes Regarding the Decompensation of the Narcissistic Personality into Delusional Beliefs

“Under conditions of unrelieved adversity and failure, narcissists may decompensate into paranoid disorders. Owing to their excessive use of fantasy mechanisms, they are disposed to misinterpret events and to construct delusional beliefs. Unwilling to accept constraints on their independence and unable to accept the viewpoints of others, narcissists may isolate themselves from the corrective effects of shared thinking. Alone, they may ruminate and weave their beliefs into a network of fanciful and totally invalid suspicions. Among narcissists, delusions often take form after a serious challenge or setback has upset their image of superiority and omnipotence. They tend to exhibit compensatory grandiosity and jealousy delusions in which they reconstruct reality to match the image they are unable or unwilling to give up. Delusional systems may also develop as a result of having felt betrayed and humiliated. Here we may see the rapid unfolding of persecutory delusions and an arrogant grandiosity characterized by verbal attacks and bombast. Rarely physically abusive, anger among narcissists usually takes the form of oral vituperation and argumentativeness. This may be seen in a flow of irrational and caustic comments in which others are upbraided and denounced as stupid and beneath contempt. These onslaughts usually have little objective justification, are often colored by delusions, and may be directed in a wild, hit-or-miss fashion in which the narcissist lashes out at those who have failed to acknowledge the exalted status in which he or she demands to be seen.” (Millon, 2011, p. 407-408; emphasis added)

“Deficient in social controls and self-discipline, the tendency of CEN narcissists to fantasize and distort may speed up. The air of grandiosity may become more flagrant. They may find hidden and deprecatory meanings in the incidental behavior of others, becoming convinced of others malicious motives, claims upon them, and attempts to undo them. As their behaviors and thoughts transgress the line of reality, their alienation will mount, and they may seek to protect their phantom image of superiority more vigorously and vigilantly than ever. Trapped by the consequences of their own actions, they may become bewildered and frightened as the downward spiral progresses through its inexorable course. No longer in touch with reality, they begin to accuse others and hold them responsible for their own shame and failures. They may build a “logic” based on the irrelevant and entirely circumstantial evidence and ultimately construct a delusion system to protect themselves from unbearable reality.” (Millon, 2011, p. 415; emphasis added)

Millon. T. (2011). Disorders of personality: introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal. Hoboken: Wiley.

Direct Quotes on the Cross-Generational Coalition

“The people responding to each other in the triangle are not peers, but one of them is of a different generation from the other two… In the process of their interaction together, the person of one generation forms a coalition with the person of the other generation against his peer. By ‘coalition’ is meant a process of joint action which is against the third person… The coalition between the two persons is denied. That is, there is certain behavior which indicates a coalition which, when it is queried, will be denied as a coalition… In essence, the perverse triangle is one in which the separation of generations is breached in a covert way. When this occurs as a repetitive pattern, the system will be pathological.” (Haley, 1977, p. 37)

Haley, J. (1977). Toward a theory of pathological systems. In P. Watzlawick & J. Weakland (Eds.), The interactional view (pp. 31-48). New York: Norton.

“The rigid triangle can also take the form of a stable coalition. One of the parents joins the child in a rigidly bounded cross-generational coalition against the other parent.” (Minuchin, 1974, p. 102)

“An inappropriately rigid cross-generational subsystem of mother and son versus father appears, and the boundary around this coalition of mother and son excludes the father. A cross-generational dysfunctional transactional pattern has developed.” (Minuchin, 1974, p. 61-62)

“The parents were divorced six months earlier and the father is now living alone… Two of the children who were very attached to their father, now refuse any contact with him. The younger children visit their father but express great unhappiness with the situation.” (Minuchin, 1974, p. 101)

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and Family Therapy. Harvard University Press.

Definition of Splitting Pathology

“Splitting. The individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by compartmentalizing opposite affect states and failing to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self or others into cohesive images. Because ambivalent affects cannot be experienced simultaneously, more balanced views and expectations of self or others are excluded from emotional awareness. Self and object images tend to alternate between polar opposites: exclusively loving, powerful, worthy, nuturant, and kind — or exclusively bad, hateful, angry, destructive, rejecting, or worthless.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 813)

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

“They tend to see reality in polarized categories of “either-or,” rather than “all,” and within a very fixed frame of reference. For example, it is not uncommon for such individuals to believe that the smallest fault makes it impossible the person to be “good” inside. Their rigid cognitive style further limits their abilities to entertain ideas of future change and transition, resulting in feelings of being in an interminable painful situation. Things once defined do not change. Once a person is “flawed,” for instance, that person will remain flawed forever.” (p. 35)

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford

Direct Quotes Regarding the Invalidating Environment

“A defining characteristic of the invalidating environment is the tendency of the family to respond erratically or inappropriately to private experience and, in particular, to be insensitive (i.e., nonresponsive) to private experience… Invalidating environments contribute to emotional dysregulation by: 1) failing to teach the child to label and modulate arousal, 2) failing to teach the child to tolerate stress, 3) failing to teach the child to trust his or her own emotional responses as valid interpretations of events, and 4) actively teaching the child to invalidate his or her own experiences by making it necessary for the child to scan the environment for cues about how to act and feel.” (Linehan & Koerner, 1993, p. 111-112)

Linehan, M. M. & Koerner, K. (1993). Behavioral theory of borderline personality disorder. In J. Paris (Ed.), Borderline Personality Disorder: Etiology and Treatment. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 103-121.

“In extremely invalidating environments, parents or caregivers do not teach children to discriminate effectively between what they feel and what the caregivers feel, what the child wants and what the caregiver wants (or wants the child to want), what the child thinks and what the caregiver thinks.” (Fruzzetti, Shenk, & Hoffman, 2005, p. 1021)

Fruzzetti, A.E., Shenk, C. and Hoffman, P. (2005). Family interaction and the development of borderline personality disorder: A transactional model. Development and Psychopathology, 17, 1007-1030.

Dr. Childress Comment: Far more important than these direct quotes from the works of preeminent mental health professionals, is the surrounding context of information in which these quotes are embedded.  If we are to properly assess, diagnose, and treat the pathologies that affect children and families, it is vital to have a substantial base of information regarding the nature of these pathologies.

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

25 thoughts on “Response to Jean Mercer”

  1. I always appreciate your expertise and in sharing so much in these on-line forums. Your web site has so much material that is well organized and makes sense! I am a parent with no experience in psychology but experience in this parental alienation dynamic. It is amazing how many of the experts involved in ‘helping’ our family during our crisis (Child protection Services, Children’s Assessor, Lawyer, Counsellors) negatively affected our family dynamics and catapulted us into the family court system without protection for our children (despite the concrete evidence provided on the alienating behaviours). Our children are far worse off then we were before following their recommendations and my relationship with my ex-husband has only got worse (as he was enabled by these professionals).

    Two things I can say with complete confidence is that the identifying children in these PA dynamics as “special population” is extremely important as is having “Child Protection” to protect our children from a parent that shows alienating behaviours and refuses therapy or mediation or some kind of consistent 3rd party professional to assist along the way.

    My expectations of Child Protection Services and those involved in our case were WAY to high. I am still stunned to this day on the unethical process used. As ‘child advocates’ NOBODY cared enough to follow up with our family or reply to concerns about their roles or notes. The only way to speak is through a lengthy complaint process or legal action. Without feedback, how could anyone improve?

    As Dr. Childress says “Cats are not Dogs”….I get that! Acknowledging that this dynamic exists is not to say that abusive parents won’t still get away with false accusations and inappropriate custody but that EDUCATION on this matter for the people that are court ordered to provide input must be mandatory. NO Professional should PROVIDE RECOMMENDATIONS ON A CASE without the professional competence needed for the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of the “Special Population” children dealing with attachment-trauma reenactment pathology. That includes Child Protection Services, Counsellors, Children’s Assessor, Lawyers and Judges.

    Anyway, thank you to all those contributing to the efforts of correcting this very common and serious issue, including the critics. An extra thank you to those that offer FREE literature for Parents and even professionals to get some education. Taking time to respond to critics using valid and historical references is also educational for other critics that are truly open to helping families.

  2. Actually, I am very familiar with the attachment literature (see, e.g., my book “Understanding attachment” , Praeger, 2006), and I don’t believe I attributed attachment concepts to you. It is certainly appealing to many people to cherry-pick from Bowlby and to use his authority to bolster an otherwise weak theoretical framework, and I think you have done this. Where you have gone wrong theoretically, to my mind, is in your connection with van der Kolk, that emissary of what Isaiah Berlin called the counter-enlightenment.

    But be all that as it may, you can make me re-think my concerns about the theory here by demonstrating the effectiveness of the treatment you propose. I must say that what you have described about the treatment seems to hinge on the establishment of authority rather than any ordinary transactional process between parent and child, but if you can show that it’s effective, I won’t be able to argue.

    Incidentally, I had never heard of you, but your name came up when I was invited to dinner by some PA advocates during APA a month ago. However, don’t think I’m representing them in some way– I wasn’t at all sure they knew what they were talking about.

    My interest is primarily in making sure that attachment theory is not misrepresented as a way of supporting poorly-evidentiated treatments. I’m also interested in and concerned about the issue of endogeneity, which I think is a problem for reports that children who have rejected a parent are troubled in adulthood.

    Jean Mercer

  3. Dont listen to a word of negativity Dr. Childress, you are amazing!! You have single handedly saved me & my children from this nightmare by writing the book Foundations. If i didnt have that information, i would have lost my children to the pathogen. You deserve a medal for your outstanding work, you are a clinical Genius!!! I know the theories weren’t all yours, but you brought all the pieces of the puzzle together and created a masterpiece!! You’re my Hero! 😊

    ________________________________

    1. Dear C. Elwood: Good scholars welcome critiques rather than turn a deaf ear.

      For my part I am concerned that the notion of PA rests even in part on the beliefs of the likes of Haley and Bessel can see Kolk. That is a big red flag in my opinion.

  4. Pathogen has infected many mental health professionals and other people. It will take some time for them to be able to read anything except what supports their long held beliefs. Thank you for your efforts in educating us and – them.

  5. So easy to see why mental health is not much of a help in this situation. I have lived this, as have so many others. Just what are we debating in this? My PhD is better than yours? Dr Childress has connected the dots in a way that provides the framework to put broken families back together. To help the kids figure how to become healthy in a toxic situation few people have had the unfortunate circumstance of actually experiencing first hand. Good grief.

  6. Dr Mercer. The title of your article is “Craig Childress Tries to Drag Attachment Theory Into the Parental Alienation Swamp”.

    “The Parental Alienation Swamp…”

    My family is stuck in that “swamp”.

    Thousands of families are stuck in that “swamp”.

    We *need* “Attachment Theory”. We need *all* the theories that hold water so we can use that water to clean the muck off of us enough to keep trudging through our “swamp”.

    Your title makes it clear that you do not want your precious Attachment Theory to be soiled by the filth that covers us, but it is going to happen. It *is* happening, because we so desperately need the water that it contains. Anyone or anything that tries to help us is going to get dirty somehow, that’s just how it is down here.

    The fact that Dr Childress was the *only* professional willing to dive head-first into our “swamp”, sit at the bottom for seven years, and come up with a $25 book that could help us not only get out of the swamp, but drain it once and for all… I don’t even have words for how that feels.

    It’s awful in here. It’s confusing, frustrating, maddening… the “swamp” is a mess, and we are filthy because of it. We did nothing wrong to deserve this. On the contrary, we have done our best to keep our children from getting sucked into the “swamp”. Meanwhile the other parent is teaching our own children how to throw mud on us and on our loved ones in hopes that we will succumb and disappear beneath the surface.

    The title you chose for your article describes Dr Childress as “dragging” Attachment Theory into the “swamp”, but what about us, the families that are trapped in that “swamp”? Up until now, nobody has succeeded in bringing us anything that holds water.

    Attachment Theory holds water.

    Peronality Disorders hold water.

    Family Systems Theory holds water.

    We *need* that water, and Dr Childress is determined to bring it to us without spilling a drop. We are going to turn this “swamp” into a big, beautiful lake.

      1. For obvious reasons, Arthur Becker-Widman would have nothing good to say about Advocates for Children in Therapy, a nonprofit organization that opposes unvalidated and abusive psychotherapy. Note that he refers people to “Psychology.wikia,” not the actual Wikipedia, but a site renown for its relaxed attitude about content.

        Wikipedia demands higher standards:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advocates_for_Children_in_Therapy

  7. So, Craig, if we’re going to discuss, I have a question for you. What would you say is the earliest age for a child to show the various problems you describe? What is the youngest child you’ve treated? I’m asking these questions because of your references to attachment theory and the fact of changing expressions of attachment in the course of childhood. I’d also be curious as to how you would approach parental rejection etc. in a child with cognitive or language delays, if you would be good enough to give me a brief answer.

    Thanks,
    Jean

    1. Hello Dr. Mercer. I’m going to defer my response regarding the issue of incorporating cognitive and language delays into our discussion since that exceedingly complicates a discussion that does not yet have sufficient grounding in the mere acceptance of the trauma reenactment pathology mediated by the narcissistic/borderline personality pathology of the parent. Once we have consensus on the nature of the pathology, then we can begin to consider the multiple variations created by an introduction of other types of additional pathologies. Cognitive and language delays, particularly in young children, also opens the door to sensory-motor integration and processing deficits and autistic-spectrum issues that would then expand our discussion to astronomical proportions and divert from the more focused discussion of the sequelae of narcissistic and borderline personality pathology surrounding a divorce and parenting.

      Regarding how young the influence of a narcissistic/borderline parent can distort the child, I would refer you to the work of Peter Fonagy. In particular, I find his article:

      Fonagy, P., Luyten, P., and Strathearn, L. (2011). Borderline personality disorder, mentalization, and the neurobiology of attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal, 32, 47-69.

      to be particularly strong in understanding the psychological impact on the child of a borderline personality parent. If we’re going to the early childhood mental health pathology, then we’re in the domain of a new set of researchers, Stern, Trevarthan, Tronick, Bebee, Fonagy. But the primary focus of our discussion is with older children, principally in the ages from seven to adulthood, although I’m aware of instances where the influence of a narcissistic/borderline parent has distorted a younger child’s response to a normal-range and affectionally available parent. For the moment, however, I would like to confine discussion to the older-range of children, ages 7 and above, until we have consensus agreement on the nature of the pathology, and then we can expand this consensus understanding into the lower age ranges.

      But I think we may be getting ahead of ourselves, here, because I have not heard from you an acknowledgement that you accept the formulation of the pathology that I describe in Foundations. In fact, (and my apologies if I’m wrong) I’m not sure you’ve actually read Foundations yet. Again, if you have read Foundations, my apologies. But if you haven’t, then I’m at a bit of a loss as to how you would want to engage me in discussion about something that you do not yet understand? It would typically be a professional courtesy to read the book of the professional with whom you wish to engage in discussion about the contents of the book. Again, if you have read Foundations, I apologize, but your questions seem to suggest an inadequate understanding of what I am discussing. Best wishes, Craig Childress, Psy.D.

      1. But my question is still, what is the earliest age at which you would be able to identify the problems you address? And what is the youngest child you have treated? Once again, I am asking this because of the implications of the development of attachment for behavior and personality– but I would also like to know the answer because of a case I am aware of in which children aged 2 and 4 were removed from the mother pursuant to a claim of PA. BTW, during my dinner with the PA gang, which I mentioned before, I put this question to a fellow diner, who responded that the child could be as young as three years. Your opinion?

        I have some other questions too. First, what do you do to ascertain that a child’s rejection of a parent is not due to abusive or otherwise frightening or distressing treatment on the part of the rejected parent? In your experience, what proportion of cases brought to you involve reasonable fears on the child’s part and should not be addressed as if the custodial parent was manipulating the child’s feelings?

        These seem to me to be simple questions, and I would appreciate some simple answers.

      2. Hello Dr. Mercer,

        So you want a brief answer to complicated clinical questions which you think are simple.

        I think the important issue in our discussion of family relationship processes is to break free of the construct of “parental alienation” and return to standard and established psychological principles and constructs. When assessing the reasons for a child’s symptom display, a wide variety of potential issues need to be considered, the specific issues depend on the specific nature of the child’s symptom display. Issues internal to the child need to be considered. Issues of parental relationship qualities need to be considered. We then work through each of these possibilities in a process called “differential diagnosis” – systematically ruling out some possibilities and ruling in others, based on the clinical evidence.

        Differential diagnosis is like putting together a puzzle. At first it’s just a box of mixed together pieces. But as the pieces begin to fit together, a picture begins to emerge. Hey, I think these are flowers over here… and this blue piece fits with these blue flowers. And that’s a butterfly’s wing. There should be another wing… yep, here it is. Gradually, the pieces come together to form the picture. Okay, this is the puzzle “cats in the garden” or this is the puzzle “boats on a lake.” As the picture begins to come together, we can actually begin to look for specific pieces, and when we find them we can be more confident that we’re looking at the picture we think it is. If I look in the box of mixed up puzzle pieces for a specifically shaped piece with a specific image, and I find it… the puzzle is most likely what I think it is. But still, I’ll put all the puzzle pieces together. The puzzle isn’t “cats in the garden” or “boats on a lake” because of a few pieces, it “cats in the garden” or “boats on a lake” because that’s what the actual picture is. We can see the picture. All the puzzle pieces fit together.

        As to the lower age of parental influence on the child:

        The attachment system evolved within the context of the selective predation of children. From this evolutionary origin, the attachment system is highly sensitized to parental signals of anxiety (since parental anxiety signals the presence of a threat or danger – i.e., of a predator). Parental signals of anxiety terminate the child’s normal-range motivations for exploratory behavior away from the parent and trigger a response of seeking to remain in the continually close protective proximity of the “protective parent.” If you’re asking me at what age this response can be initiated, it’s about the time the child becomes ambulatory, around 10 months to a year, mostly by 18 months, give or take.

        There is also the issue of social referencing. I would refer you to the “visual cliff” study in the child development literature in which the young child (around 9 months old) was being asked by the mother (as part of the experiment) to crawl across a gap covered by a pane of glass. As the child approached the “visual cliff” of the drop which was covered by the pane of glass, the child looked to the mother’s face for information on how to interpret the situation, the child “socially referenced” the mother. If the mother showed distress and concern, then the child backed off and didn’t cross. If the mother remained calm and encouraging, then the child crossed over the pane of glass to be with the mother. It’s a classic study regarding “social referencing.” So if you are asking me at what age children begin to socially reference their parents for the construction of meaning, it’s very young, perhaps as early as six months in some capacities, mostly by the time the child becomes ambulatory away from the parent.

        You also ask me what I do to ascertain if the child’s rejection of a parent is due to abusive or otherwise frightening or distressing treatment on the part of the rejected parent? Again, Dr. Mercer, you are asking me to describe the complex process of differential diagnosis.

        I conduct clinical interviews with the child and with the parents. I collect information. I follow up on leads and I put together the puzzle pieces. What are the child’s symptoms? What are the causal attributions for the child’s symptoms offered by the child? What are the causal attributions offered by the parents? I collect family history. I collect history on parenting. I collect relevant social, cognitive, and developmental history. I collect relevant medical history. Sometimes I’ll use response-to-intervention probes. As I go through the process of differential diagnosis, I apply the established knowledge base of professional psychology, child development, models of psychopathology, and neuro-development to the clinical information, and I put together the puzzle pieces.

        Are you asking me to describe the knowledge base of professional psychology, child development, models of psychopathology, and neuro-development on which I rely?

        With families, I primarily work from a family systems model, primarily Structural family systems described by Salvador Minuchin, but I also have a knowledge base in Strategic family systems theory of Jay Haley and Cloe Madanes. Because of my secondary professional expertise in early childhood mental health, I also have a fairly substantial background in attachment theory and intersubjectivity (Bowlby, Ainsworth, Mains, Fonagy, Sroufe, Stern, Tronick, Trevarthan, Shore – popularized by Siegel). Having worked with children in the foster care system I have a professional level of knowledge regarding the trauma-related work of van der Kolk and Perry. From my professional background in ADHD I have a professional knowledge base regarding emotional and behavioral dysregulation and behavioral therapy. Since a differential diagnosis of ADHD is autism-spectrum disorders, I have a fair degree of experience with this type of pathology. Since focusing on the issue of “parental alienation” (which I consider an amalgam of attachment related, family systems, and personality disorder pathology) I have acquired a professional knowledge base in personality disorders (Kernberg, Beck, Millon, Linehan).

        So to answer your question, I collect information from the child and parents and apply the knowledge of professional psychology to this information through a process of differential diagnosis.

        So, now let me return the favor and ask you a question… I’m still looking forward to your answer to my earlier question regarding your suggested treatment for the pathology of a cross-generational coalition of the child with a narcissistic/borderline parent subsequent to a divorce? Best wishes, Craig Childress, Psy.D.

      3. Can you tell me what was the age of the youngest child you have ever treated? Can you tell me how you ascertain whether or not there is a “good reason” for the child’s rejection? Can you tell me how often you find that you must tell a rejected parent that there seems to have been a reason for the child’s rejection, so you cannot use your treatment to address the problem?

        I don’t have a treatment to suggest, and if I did that fact would be irrelevant to the empirical questions I’m asking. As I said to one of your advocates, the burden of proof is on you, not on me. But right now I’m not asking for proof, I’m just asking for a couple of details that I would think would be easy for you to supply. If you prefer not to answer, please just say so and save time for both of us.

      4. Jean, how can you possibly be sitting there acting all ignorant while at the same time demanding answers that are irrelevant to the big picture? You are nothing more than an internet TROLL. If you want to learn about parental alienation, you need to read Dr. Childress’ Foundations book. Then, if you still don’t get it, we will all understand that you are either just plain stupid (I’m leaning toward this) OR you are on the side of the pathogen. Either way, you are part of the problem at this point. Dr. Childress has more than answered all of your questions. Thanks for participating and giving him a chance to defeat this pathogen, one small victory at a time. Better come with more ammo next time, because this one wasn’t even close.

      5. Or, as a “Pogo” character used to say, “don’t say ‘ain’t’ when I say ‘is'”.

        What is remarkable to me is the way you Childress advocates sound just like the supporters of the “Primal Wound” and of “Attachment Therapy” who often have tantrums on my blog. I won’t be back here, so have fun with the personal attacks that you seem to mistake for rational argument.

      6. Well, a lot of us are in pain. And it hurts when someone who has the credentials and the capability to understand chooses not to. So I would expect that some of us might lash out. But that’s one of the most important aspects of psychology. To help us look past the behavior and see the genuine person that is in there. The Internet (and especially the comment section of a blog) is the absolute worst format for rational debate. (Maybe using smoke signals might be worse, I don’t know.) So you really can’t expect too much. The point is, we aren’t perfect. Heck, just ask our children, they’d be glad to tell you.

      7. Thank you, Jason, that was kindly put, and I’m sure that when it comes to discussing anyone’s imperfections, my own children would not be far behind! But all the same, when I say what I think, it makes people mad here, and I cannot in all honesty do otherwise, so I will go back to childmyths.blogspot.com.

  8. Jean, as you crawl away in defeat, just know that we are not Childress advocates. We are advocates for children. We are advocates against pathogenic parenting that causes parental alienation. We will stand up to those like you who question its validity or support the pathogen. We will not back down or be victims to you. If you can’t debate with knowledge, as Dr. Childress does, then you are more than ignorant. Don’t take it as a personal attack. Take it as a fact. Peace out.

      1. There is (was) a proposed form of treatment called “Attachment Therapy” that was highly problematic. This form of therapy should NOT be confused with well-established forms of attachment-related therapy in early childhood, such as Watch, Wait, and Wonder and the Circle of Security. These latter two forms of early childhood therapy are fully accepted and scientifically valid approaches to addressing children’s attachment-related issues in infancy and early childhood.

        The “Attachment Therapy” of probable concern to the Advocates for Children in Therapy is problematic and conceptually ill-conceived from the perspective of attachment theory (Bowlby). But simply because someone misuses the construct of attachment theory does not nullify the construct of the attachment system (Bowlby) or standard forms of treating attachment-related problems (such as processing sadness, grief, and loss in “disordered mourning” – Bowlby, 1985).

        What I am discussing with attachment-based “parental alienation” (AB-PA) is a form of attachment-related, trauma-related, personality disorder-related, and family systems-related pathology involving the brain system for love and bonding (the attachment system), and the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to the current family relationships, mediated by the personality pathology of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent, which is itself a product of this parent’s childhood attachment trauma. Diagnosis guides treatment.

  9. What I observe is that Dr. Mercer seems to be caught in a belief system that will not accept new information. I don’t think she’s being a Troll, I think more like a radio that’s fixed on one station and can’t pick up what’s coming in from another one. I read the entirety of Dr. Childress’s response and observed this:

    She wants a simplistic answer to what is not a simple question. He answered it in great detail the question about ascertaining if the rejected parent might actually be exhibiting behaviors yet she did not seem to acknowledge it in her response other than with the question “which percentage”?
    I am unsure what an answer to that question would accomplish. What’s an acceptable answer to Dr. Mercer? I think she is trying to determine if Dr. Childress is applying a bias and not acknowledging the possibility that anyone might in fact be “deserving” of the rejection. But I go back to the detail he went into about differential diagnosis. He is looking for external evidence to put a whole picture together.

    I suspect that it is Dr. Mercer who has a bias she is unwilling or perhaps even unable to see—She filters all the information in such a way that comes back to the conclusion of “Well, it’s complicated and I don’t have an answer but yours is suspect.” I have seen her respond that she doesn’t have to come up with an answer but that the burden of proof is on Dr. Childress. He has come up with tomes of it (Dr. Childress is not a good read if you are looking for a soundbyte 😉 )-decades of standard, accepted psychological research and evidence. I see Dr. Mercer try and take what Dr. Childress is saying and try and put it into a simliar realm of “new syndrome” like Gardner does with PAS, but Dr. Childress has said- repeatedly-that this is not what he is interested in doing- that as new syndrome – it is not valid or effective. I am not confident he could ever come up with enough “proof” to convince her.

    If Dr. Mercer has clear criterion where the goalpost won’t be moved once it’s been met doesn’t move I’d like to hear it.

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