The first case of “parental alienation” I treated involved a narcissistic husband/father and a targeted parent mother. The father was clearly using the child’s induced rejection of the mother as a weapon to inflict suffering on his ex-wife for having rejected his self-perceived “magnificence,” and the child was in fear of the father’s narcissistic retaliation if the child failed to show sufficient rejection of his mother.
Soon after, I treated another case with a narcissistic/antisocial father and targeted parent mother. In this case the hostility of the adolescent son toward his mother was excessive and required her to call the police for self-protection on several occasions. The domestic violence themes of power, control, and domination which were being enacted by the narcissistic/antisocial father through the child’s open contempt, hostility, and disrespect for his mother were clearly evident.
I have since been involved in several other cases of “parental alienation” involving a narcissistic father who displayed obsessive-compulsive personality overtones (i.e., highly moralistic judgement of the ex-wife from fundamentalist religious beliefs), in which the domestic violence themes of power, control, and domination were again evident.
I am not a domestic violence expert, but as a clinical psychologist I know enough to recognize the pathology of domestic violence.
There are several related variants of “parental alienation” involving a narcissistic/(antisocial), narcissistic/(obsessive-compulsive), and narcissistic/(paranoid) personality husband-father and a targeted parent mother that essentially represent domestic violence by proxy. The verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse by the narcissistic father of the mother during and following the marriage in this variant of the “parental alienation” pathology clearly evidence the themes of power, control, and domination characteristic of domestic violence.
In some cases the loss of the mother’s beloved children is used as the weapon to inflict suffering,
“Aren’t you sorry now that you left me. I’ve killed your children. You don’t have your children anymore. They’re mine.”
In other cases, the children’s open contempt and hostility toward the targeted parent mother are used as violence-by-proxy weapons by the narcissistic (or narcissistic/antisocial or narcissistic/obsessive-compulsive or narcissistic/paranoid) ex-husband to continue the emotional and psychological abuse of his ex-wife following divorce.
So as I was researching why the mental health system response to this pathology was so broken, imagine my surprise in learning that the National Organization of Women (NOW) was one of the staunchest opponents of the “parental alienation” construct. Are you kidding me? They should be one of our staunchest allies. But instead, they are active opponents to recognizing the pathology of “parental alienation.” Why?
They are afraid that the poorly structured symptom descriptions of Gardnerian PAS will discount the reports by children of authentic domestic violence based on false allegations of “parental alienation” made by the abusive narcissistic spouse. They are afraid that children exposed to authentic domestic violence, who are authentically afraid of their violent and abusive narcissistic father, and who are authentically being protected by their normal-range mother, will have their fears discounted based on false allegations of “parental alienation.”
So I looked at that concern. I imagined scenarios of authentic domestic violence and applied the Gardnerian eight symptom identifiers to these hypothetical cases. Is it possible that a poor application of the Gardnerian eight symptom identifiers could result in an authentically abused child potentially being returned to and re-exposed to an abusive narcissistic father based on a false allegation of “parental alienation”?
And you know what? Using the Gardnerian eight symptom identifiers… it’s possible.
That’s why you see the opening statement of the APA’s Position Statement on Parental Alienation Syndrome address the issue of discounting allegations of domestic violence. They have a legitimate concern and this legitimate concern is officially recognized by the American Psychological Association.
So one of my main goals in working out an alternative model and alternative set of diagnostic indicators has been to address this concern of NOW and other domestic violence mental health professionals to ensure the protection of children from authentic child abuse by a narcissistic ex-husband/father.
A child who has been authentically abused will not meet the three diagnostic criteria of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”
The primary diagnostic indicator that will not be met by authentically abused children who are afraid of their abusive parent is Diagnostic Indicator 2: five specific personality disorder traits evidenced in the child’s symptom display. Authentically abused children will not evidence a haughty and arrogant attitude toward the abusive parent, and authentically abused children will not evidence an attitude of entitlement toward the abusive parent.
Nor will authentically abused children meet Diagnostic Indicator 3 of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” regarding a delusional belief in the supposedly “abusive” parenting of the normal-range and affectionally available targeted parent, because in authentic abuse the child’s beliefs regarding the abusive parenting of the feared parent have a reality basis. They are not delusional. They are real and authentic concerns that can be supported by the evidence.
The child will actually not meet Diagnostic Indicator 1 of attachment system suppression either, but recognizing that symptom feature is more subtle and requires expertise in the attachment system display of children and the attachment system display in response to trauma.
In my former role as the Clinical Director for an early childhood assessment and treatment center, one of our primary client groups were children in the foster care system (we had a contract with the Department of Children and Family Services – our child protective services agency). I have seen all of the various forms of severe child neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Meth addicted parents whose children had no food in the house for days as the meth parent slept off a multiple-day drug binge. Children of meth addicted parents who were sexually abused by other meth addict friends of the parent while high. Children who were beaten with electrical cords leaving raised welts across their backs, or who had burns from where the parent put cigarettes out on the child’s arm as a form of discipline. I’ve seen authentic child abuse up close and personal.
And the attachment system response of these authentically abused children does not display the same pattern of distortion as it does in the pathology of “parental alienation.” If you know the attachment system and if you know how it responds to authentic trauma, it’s actually quite easy to differentiate the authentic trauma of child abuse from the induced pathology of “parental alienation.”
Our goal is to protect 100% of children 100% of the time from all forms of child abuse, physical, sexual, and psychological.
Interestingly, just the other day I took on two new cases involving “parental alienation.” One is a treatment-related case involving a clearly borderline personality mother who has a narcissistic personality veneer, who is seeking to make the ex-husband an ex-father in order to establish her “dream family” with the new spouse (with mountains of substantiated false and delusional allegations by the mother of supposed “abuse” by the clearly normal-range and affectionally available father), and the other case I accepted is a legal case working as a consultant and possible expert witness for an attorney involving a false allegation of “parental alienation” in which a clearly narcissistic, emotionally and psychologically abusive ex-husband and father is seeking to discount the child’s authentic fear by making false allegations that the child’s authentic fears are the product of “parental alienation” by the mother. In the legal case, I’ll be applying an attachment-based model to the child’s symptom display, along with the prior evidence of substantiated abuse, and I will be using this model to highlight how the child’s symptom display is actually consistent with authentic anxiety associated with chld abuse rather than induced pathology.
False allegations of “parental alienation” are a legitimate concern. Not everything is a dog. But neither is everything a cat.
Domestic Violence “Parental Alienation”
We need to recognize the legitimate concerns of mental health professionals and women’s rights groups regarding authentic domestic violence and child abuse relative to problematic aspects of the Gardnerian eight symptom identifiers. We should be allies with domestic violence mental health professionals and women’s rights groups, not adversaries. An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” with its three diagnostic indicators can achieve this reunification with our domestic violence allies in mental health.
There are a group of variants within the “parental alienation” pathology that essentially represent domestic violence by proxy.
The domestic violence variants of “parental alienation” typically involve a narcissistic husband-father (although not always) who may have additional antisocial, obsessive-compulsive (i.e., rigid moralistic beliefs), or paranoid overtones to the personality disorder pathology. In these cases, the targeted parent mother was typically attracted initially to the narcissistic/(antisocial) charm of the husband, and she believed that their emotional intimacy would develop over time during their marriage.
However, once married, the narcissistic emotional and psychological abuse by the husband became increasingly more evident. Eventually, the wife could no longer tolerate the emotional coldness and distance of the narcissistic husband and his continual openly displayed contempt and hostility toward her. In some cases, the children may have been so exposed to the father’s openly contemptuous and demeaning treatment of the mother that they are primed to evidence the same attitude toward the mother, in other cases the narcissistic father’s incapacity for emotional intimacy has allowed the children to form an emotionally close bond with the mother during the period of the marriage and intact family.
Having suffered years of emotional and psychological abuse from her narcissistic husband, the wife eventually decides to divorce her abusive narcissistic husband. It is at this point that the “parental alienation” pathology takes off into over-drive. This rejection of the abusive narcissistic husband creates a narcissistic injury of exposing his core self-inadequacy to public display. The narcissistic ex-husband is being publicly exposed by the divorce and by the wife’s rejection of him as being an inadequate husband and person.
This narcissistic injury provokes a narcissistic rage and an intense desire for retaliatory revenge against the ex-wife. However, because she is no longer physically present in the home to be emotionally and psychologically degraded and abused by the narcissistic ex-husband, he turns to his only remaining weapon, the children who are beloved by the mother, as the means to exact his retaliatory revenge and continue his emotional and psychological abuse of her.
By divorcing the narcissistic (antisocial, moralistic obsessive-compulsive, paranoid) ex-husband, the mother has escaped his direct emotional and psychological abuse and degradation. But because they still share children, she has not escaped him entirely, and he can continue his abuse of her indirectly through his use of the children as his proxy weapons of continuing emotional and psychological domestic violence.
With the mother’s decision to divorce, the narcissistic husband begins to poison the children against their mother by blaming her for the divorce and for her supposedly breaking up “our family” because “she doesn’t love us anymore.” The interpersonal power of narcissistic confidence and his open contempt for the children’s mother models for them what their attitude toward her should be. The father elicits criticisms from the children of their mother through his directive and motivated questioning and their role-reversal relationships with him as external “regulatory objects” to stabilize his emotional and psychological state. The narcissistic ex-husband and father then inflames and exploits these elicited child criticisms to create a culture of denigrating the mother for her supposed inadequacies and failures as a parent (as a person), all the while hiding his continuing psychological and emotional abuse of the mother behind the children’s induced hostility and rejection:
“I’m just listening to the children. Just ask them. I’m telling them that they need to love their mother no matter how bad she is. But what can I do, she’s just a bad parent. Just ask the children.”
This is not some “new form of pathology.” This is a all a manifestation of standard personality disorder pathology triggered by the rejection inherent to divorce. Once we stop thinking “parental alienation” and start thinking narcissistic personality disorder pathology (in the domestic violence variants with possible antisocial, moralistic obsessive-compulsive, and paranoid overtones, in other variants with possible borderline and histrionic overtones), the pathology becomes evident and easily diagnosable by professionals who are competent in assessing and diagnosing personality disorder pathology.
There is no “new syndrome.” Richard Gardner was simply a poor diagnostician.
It’s all standard and well-established forms of pathology fully accepted within the established domain of clinical psychology. We need to stop thinking “new form of pathology” and simply do an adequate job of diagnosing pathology.
The personality disorder pathology of the psychologically controlling parent will be evident in the child’s symptom display. Since the child’s symptoms are being induced by the personality disordered parent, the child’s symptoms act as a lens into exposing the exact personality disorder pathology of the narcissistic parent – with borderline overtones, with antisocial overtones, with histrionic overtones, with paranoid overtones, with moralistic obsessive-compulsive overtones.
Dr. Childress’ “new theory.” Nonsense. Personality disorder pathology. The only reason it seems “new” to some people is because personality disorder pathology is new to them. This is nothing new. Standard mental health constructs and pathology.
Letter of Support
I was recently asked for consultation regarding the domestic violence variant of “parental alienation” by a mental health professional who is seeking to get this component domestic violence by proxy pathology incorporated into the domestic violence response of the mental health system in her state. In response to her request for consultation, I wrote a letter of support for recognizing variants of “parental alienation” pathology as a form of domestic violence. I have posted this letter of support to my website in case this letter might be helpful to targeted parents who are going through this type of domestic violence by proxy form of the “parental alienation” pathology.
Mental health professionals concerned about domestic violence and women’s rights groups, such as the National Organization of Women, should NOT be our adversaries, they are actually are natural allies. They have legitimate concerns. We need to address their legitimate concerns. An attachment-based model of the pathology of “parental alienation” that defines the pathology from the perspective of standard and established personality disorder pathology provides a road to reuniting with our allies in domestic violence prevention and treatment.
Let’s take that road.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857