The paradigm for defining the pathology of “parental alienation” is shifting.
Gardner led everyone down the wrong path when he proposed that “parental alienation” represented a unique new form of pathology unrelated to any other form of pathology in all of mental health – a “new syndrome.”
Gardner was wrong. The pathology of “parental alienation” is NOT a unique “new syndrome.” It is a manifestation of well-established and well-defined forms of personality disorder pathology, family systems pathology, and attachment-trauma pathology.
The family pathology commonly referred to as “parental alienation” CANNOT simultaneously be an entirely unique new form of pathology – a “new syndrome” – which is unrelated to any other form of pathology in all of mental health – as Gardner proposed in PAS – and, at the same time, also be a manifestation of well-established and well-defined forms of existing pathology.
Either it is a new form of pathology or it is an existing form of pathology. It cannot simultaneously be both.
The paradigm is shifting.
And once the paradigm shifts, once the pathology of “parental alienation” is defined entirely from within standard and established psychological principles and constructs, a wealth of existing research becomes immediately available to assess, diagnose, and treat the family pathology of “parental alienation.”
Once the paradigm shifts, once the pathology of “parental alienation” is defined entirely from within standard and established psychological principles and constructs, ALL mental health professionals can be held ACCOUNTABLE for professional competence in the domains of standard and established psychological principles and constructs that comprise the pathology commonly referred to as “parental alienation.”
In clinical psychology, there is no such thing as “parental alienation” and there is no such thing as “reunification therapy.”
In clinical psychology the pathology is defined as pathogenic parenting (creating pathology in the child through aberrant and distorted parenting practices) and there is family systems therapy that disrupts the cross-generational coalition of the child with the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent.
The diagnosis of Parental Alienation Syndrome is not in the DSM-5.
Pathogenic parenting that is creating significant developmental pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 1), personality disorder pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 2), and delusional-psychiatric pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 3) represents a DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.
PAS is not in the DSM-5. Once we shift to defining the pathology of “parental alienation” from entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs, the pathology of “parental alienation” is found on page 719 of the DSM-5; a diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.
The paradigm is shifting. The era of a “new syndrome” definition of the pathology is over. The “new syndrome” model of Gardnerian PAS is a failed paradign that has produced nothing but 30 years of controversy, rampant professional incompetence, and the continued family tragedy of “parental alienation.”
The Paradigm Shift
A new era in the diagnosis and treatment of the family pathology of “parental alienation” is arriving in which the family pathology of “parental alienation” is defined entirely from within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.
You will know which paradigm the mental health professional follows by which diagnostic indicators the mental health professional uses in diagnosing the pathology; the 8 unique symptom identifiers of Gardnerian PAS or the 3 standard symptom identifiers of an attachment-based model.
Both paradigms cannot simultaneously be true.
Either the pathology is a “new syndrome” that is unique in all of mental health – representing the Gardnerian PAS model with its 8 unique symptom identifiers that are unrelated to any other form of pathology in all of mental health;
Or the family pathology is a manifestation of standard and established forms of existing pathology (parental attachment trauma mediated by the personality disorder pathology of the parent) – representing the attachment-based model with its 3 diagnostic indicators.
It is a logical impossibility for both to simultaneously be true. If one is true, then the other is false.
If the family pathology is a unique “new syndrome,” then it is not a manifestation of established forms of pathology.
If the family pathology is a manifestation of established forms of pathology, then it is not a unique “new syndrome.”
One is true. The other is false.
So which is true?
The family pathology of “parental alienation” is NOT a unique new form of pathology – it is not a “new syndrome.” Gardnerian PAS is wrong. Gardnerian PAS is untrue.
The family pathology of “parental alienation” is a manifestation of well-established and well-defined, fully accepted, existing forms of pathology. An attachment-based model is a true and correct description of the pathology.
In Foundations, I provide a comprehensive description of the pathology. The pathology traditionally called “parental alienation” represents:
- The trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma from the childhood of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent into the current family relationships;
- Mediated by the narcissistic/(borderline) personality traits of the allied parent, which are themselves a product of the parent’s childhood attachment trauma;
- Through the formation of a cross-generational coalition of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent with the child against the targeted parent.
The addition of the splitting pathology characteristic of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality transforms an already pathological cross-generational coalition (a “perverse triangle” – Haley) into a particularly virulent and malignant form that seeks to entirely terminate the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.
But there is more….
It’s now time to move deeper; to extend the definitional networks for “parental alienation” pathology even more fully into established psychological principles and constructs of professional psychology. Scientifically established constructs. Empirically grounded; evidenced-based.
The Psychological Control of the Child
In his book, Intrusive Parenting: How Psychological Control Affects Children and Adolescents, published by the American Psychological Association, Brian Barber and his colleague, Elizabeth Harmon, identify and describe 40 empirically validated scientific studies demonstrating the psychological control of children by parents.
According to Barber and Harmon:
“Psychological control refers to parental behaviors that are intrusive and manipulative of children’s thoughts, feelings, and attachment to parents.” (Barber & Harmon, 2002, p. 15; emphasis added)
According to Stone, Buehler, & Barber:
“The central elements of psychological control are intrusion into the child’s psychological world and self-definition and parental attempts to manipulate the child’s thoughts and feelings through invoking guilt, shame, and anxiety. Psychological control is distinguished from behavioral control in that the parent attempts to control, through the use of criticism, dominance, and anxiety or guilt induction, the youth’s thoughts and feelings rather than the youth’s behavior.” (Stone, Buehler, and Barber, 2002, p. 57; emphasis added)
In the Journal of Emotional Abuse, Kerig describes parental psychological control of the child:
“Rather than telling the child directly what to do or think, as does the behaviorally controlling parent, the psychologically controlling parent uses indirect hints and responds with guilt induction or withdrawal of love if the child refuses to comply. In short, an intrusive parent strives to manipulate the child’s thoughts and feelings in such a way that the child’s psyche will conform to the parent’s wishes.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 12; emphasis added)
Soenens and Vansteenkiste describe the various methods used to achieve parental psychological control of the child:
“Psychological control can be expressed through a variety of parental tactics, including (a) guilt-induction, which refers to the use of guilt inducing strategies to pressure children to comply with a parental request; (b) contingent love or love withdrawal, where parents make their attention, interest, care, and love contingent upon the children’s attainment of parental standards; (c) instilling anxiety, which refers to the induction of anxiety to make children comply with parental requests; and (d) invalidation of the child’s perspective, which pertains to parental constraining of the child’s spontaneous expression of thoughts and feelings.” (Soenens & Vansteenkiste, 2010, p. 75)
Parental psychological control of the child represents a violation of the psychological integrity of the child:
“The essential impact of psychological control of the child is to violate the self-system of the child.” (Barber & Harmon: 2002, p. 24; emphasis added)
Barber and Harmon reference the established research regarding the damage that this violation of the child’s psychological integrity has on the child:
“Numerous elements of the child’s self-in-relation-to-parent have been discussed as being compromised by psychologically controlling behaviors such as…
Individuality (Goldin, 1969; Kurdek, et al., 1995; Litovsky & Dusek, 1985; Schaefer, 1965a, 1965b, Steinberg, Lamborn, Dornbusch, & Darling, 1992);
Individuation (Barber et al., 1994; Barber & Shagle, 1992; Costanzo & Woody, 1985; Goldin, 1969, Smetana, 1995; Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986; Wakschlag, Chase-Landsdale & Brooks-Gunn, 1996 1996);
Independence (Grotevant & Cooper, 1986; Hein & Lewko, 1994; Steinberg et al., 1994);
Degree of psychological distance between parents and children (Barber et al., 1994);
and threatened attachment to parents (Barber, 1996; Becker, 1964).” (Barber & Harmon, 2002, p. 25; emphasis added).
Research by Stone, Buehler, and Barber establishes the link between parental psychological control of children and marital conflict:
“This study was conducted using two different samples of youth. The first sample consisted of youth living in Knox County, Tennessee. The second sample consisted of youth living in Ogden, Utah.” (Stone, Buehler, and Barber, 2002, p. 62)
“The analyses reveal that variability in psychological control used by parents is not random but it is linked to interparental conflict, particularly covert conflict. Higher levels of covert conflict in the marital relationship heighten the likelihood that parents would use psychological control with their children. This might be because both parental psychological control and covert conflict are anxiety-driven. They share defining characteristics, particularly the qualities of intrusiveness, indirectness, and manipulation.” (Stone, Buehler, and Barber, 2002, p. 86; emphasis added)
Stone, Buehler, and Barber offer an explanation for their finding that intrusive parental psychological control of children is related to high inter-spousal conflict:
“The concept of triangles “describes the way any three people relate to each other and involve others in emotional issues between them” (Bowen, 1989, p. 306). In the anxiety-filled environment of conflict, a third person is triangulated, either temporarily or permanently, to ease the anxious feelings of the conflicting partners. By default, that third person is exposed to an anxiety-provoking and disturbing atmosphere. For example, a child might become the scapegoat or focus of attention, thereby transferring the tension from the marital dyad to the parent-child dyad. Unresolved tension in the marital relationship might spill over to the parent-child relationship through parents’ use of psychological control as a way of securing and maintaining a strong emotional alliance and level of support from the child. As a consequence, the triangulated youth might feel pressured or obliged to listen to or agree with one parents’ complaints against the other. The resulting enmeshment and cross-generational coalition would exemplify parents’ use of psychological control to coerce and maintain a parent-youth emotional alliance against the other parent (Haley, 1976; Minuchin, 1974).” (Stone, Buehler, and Barber, 2002, p. 86-87; emphasis added)
This is all from scientifically established psychological principles and constructs. There is no need for a proposal of a unique new form of pathology – a “new syndrome” – the construct of PAS is unnecessary, and to the extent that it divides mental health and allows professional incompetence to thrive unchecked, it it destructive.
It is time for the paradigm to shift. We need to apply the professional rigor necessary to define the family pathology of “parental alienation” from ENTIRELY within established and accepted psychological principles and constructs. No “new syndrome” proposal.
The “new syndrome” model of Gardnerian PAS is a dead paradigm.
The Dark Triad
You have seen how I continually define the parental personality pathology with the term “narcissistic/(borderline).” This is broadly correct, but it’s now time to begin to refine this construct of the parental personality pathology even more.
The actual personality pathology is referred to as the Dark Triad. It’s a set of three personality traits, 1) Narcissism, 2) Machiavellianism (cynical self-serving manipulation), and 3) Psychopathy. The term Dark Triad for this constellation of personality characteristics was coined in 2002 (over a decade ago) by Paulhus and Williams:
“First cited by Paulhus and Williams (2002), the Dark Triad refers to a set of three distinct but related antisocial personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Each of the Dark Triad traits is associated with feelings of superiority and privilege. This, coupled with a lack of remorse and empathy, often leads individuals high in these socially malevolent traits to exploit others for their own personal gain.” (Giammarco & Vernon, 2014, p. 23)
According to Paulhus and Williams (2002):
“Despite their diverse origins, the personalities composing this Dark Triad share a number of features. To varying degrees, all three entail a socially malevolent character with behavior tendencies toward self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity, and aggressiveness. In the clinical literature, the links among the triad have been noted for some time (e.g., Hart & Hare, 1998). The recent development of non-clinical measures of all three constructs has permitted the evaluation of empirical associations in normal populations. As a result, there is now empirical evidence for the overlap of (a) Machiavellianism with psychopathy (Fehr, Samsom, & Paulhus, 1992; McHoskey, Worzel, & Szyarto, 1998), (b) narcissism with psychopathy (Gustafson & Ritzer, 1995), and (c) Machiavellianism with narcissism (McHoskey, 1995).” (Paulhus & Williams, 2002, p. 557; emphasis added)
There is even a variation of the Dark Triad that has also been identified, called the Vulnerable Dark Triad (Miller, Dir, Gentile, Wilson, Pryor, & Campbell, 2010), comprised of
1) Vulnerable rather than grandiose narcissism,
2) Manipulative psychopathy,
3) Borderline personality traits.
“In the current study, we posit the existence of a second related triad – one that includes personality styles composed of both dark and emotionally vulnerable traits… The members of this putative vulnerable dark triad (VDT) would include (a) Factor 2 psychopathy, (b) vulnerable narcissism, and (c) borderline PD (BPD).” (Miller, Dir, Gentile, Wilson, Pryor, & Campbell, 2010, p. 1530)
“We believe that the current evidence supports the existence of a second ‘‘dark’’ triad, one that is characterized by an antagonistic interpersonal style and emotional vulnerability… All VDT [Vulnerable Dark Triad] members manifested significant relations with similar etiological factors, such as retrospective reports of childhood abuse and colder, more invalidating parenting styles.” (Miller, Dir, Gentile, Wilson, Pryor, & Campbell, 2010, p. 1554)
Self-report personality assessment measures have also been developed to assess for the component personality traits, such as:
Narcissism: Narcissistic Personality Inventory (Raskin & Hall, 1979)
Machiavellianism: MACH-IV (Christie & Geis, 1970)
Subclinical Psychopathy: Self-Report Psychopathy Scale-III (Williams, Paulhus, & Hare, 2009).
Self-report measures have also been developed to specifically assess for the Dark Triad personality constellation,
Dark Triad: Short Dark Triad (SD3) scale (Jones & Paulhus, 2014)
These are all self-report scales, meaning that they are all vulnerable to innacuracy in a clinical setting due to reporting bias, but these measures give us a starting direction for developing a measure that would be useful in a clinical setting.
In addition, research on the core personality characteristics uniting the three “dark” personality traits comprising the Dark Triad has associated the Dark Triad with low scores on Scale H (Honesty-Humility) on a prominent personality assessment, the HEXACO (Book, Visser, & Volk, 2015; Lee, & Ashton, 2012). As a start, the HEXACO should therefore be included in all child custody evaluations, with a specific focus on interpreting the H Scale (Honesty-Humility).
Research has further linked the Dark Triad personality constellation with the absence of empathy:
Jonason, P. K. and Krause, L. (2013). The emotional deficits associated with the Dark Triad traits: Cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences, 55, 532–537
Wai, M. and Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 794–799
To vengefulness in romantic relationships:
Giammarco, E.A. and Vernon, P.A. (2014). Vengeance and the Dark Triad: The role of empathy and perspective taking in trait forgivingness. Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 23–29
Rasmussen, K.R. and Boon, S.D. (2014). Romantic revenge and the Dark Triad: A model of impellance and inhibition. Personality and Individual Differences, 56, 51–56
To lying, manipulative fabrication, and deception:
Jonason, P.K., Lyons, M. Baughman, H.M., and Vernon, P.A. (2014). What a tangled web we weave: The Dark Triad traits and deception. Personality and Individual Differences, 70, 117–119
Baughman, H.M., Jonason, P.K., Lyons, M., and Vernon, P.A. (2014). Liar liar pants on fire: Cheater strategies linked to the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 71, 35–38
To attachment-related pathology:
Jonason, P.K., Lyons, M., and Bethell, E. (2014). The making of Darth Vader: Parent–child care and the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 30–34
And to high-conflict patterns of communication:
Horan, S.M., Guinn, T.D., and Banghart, S. (2015). Understanding relationships among the Dark Triad personality profile and romantic partners’ conflict communication. Communication Quarterly, 63, 156-170.
This last article on the association of the Dark Triad to high-conflict communication style is particularly important. This study examined the association of the Dark Triad personality with a set of high-conflict communication patterns previously identified in the communication literature. According to Horan, Guinn, and Banghart:
“How individuals communicate during conflict is important, and the previously reviewed studies reinforce that personality is important in understanding this process. Four conflict messages that have received academic attention are contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness.
“Contempt involves “statements that come from a relative position of superiority…‘You’re an idiot’”;
“Criticism entails “stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality…‘You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish’”;
“Stonewalling describes “the listener’s withdrawal from interaction;”
“and defensiveness describes self-protection in the form of “righteous indignation or innocent victimhood.” (Gottman, 1993, p. 62).
“Such behaviors can work together, wherein there is “process cascade in which criticism leads to contempt, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to stonewalling” (Gottman, 1993, p. 62). Collectively, these conflict messages are known as The Four Horsemen (Gottman, 1993).” (Horan, Guinn, & Banghart. 2015, 159; emphasis added)
“Recently, Fowler and Dillow (2011) examined how attachment orientations predicted the enactment of Four Horsemen. They found that attachment anxiety predicted an increased use of the Four Horsemen and attachment avoidance predicted the use of stonewalling. Their findings underscore the importance of studying individual personality traits, or predispositions, in conjunction with the Four Horsemen; a similar approach was adopted here by studying the Dark Triad.” (Horan, Guinn, & Banghart. 2015, p. 160)
The study by Horan, Guinn, and Banghart tested a set of hypotheses:
“Hypotheses 1a–1c examined the relationships among the Dark Triad personality structure and general nature of romantic partner conflict. Results demonstrated that individuals reporting higher levels of Machiavellianism, subclinical psychopathy, and subclinical narcissism tended to have higher levels of romantic partner disagreement and that such conflict discussions were both intense and hostile.” (Horan, Guinn, & Banghart. 2015, p. 165)
“Hypothesis 2 explored the relationships among the Dark Triad personality structure and use of the Four Horsemen during romantic partner conflict. Correlations revealed that individuals reporting higher levels Machiavellianism and subclinical psychopathy also reported greater use of contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness. A similar picture was painted for narcissism, with the exception of stonewalling.”
Given the research literature:
ALL mental health professionals involved in assessing, diagnosing, and treating families evidencing high-conflict divorce need to possess the requisite professional knowledge and expertise needed to assess for the Dark Triad and the Vulnerable Dark Triad personality constellations.
Given the research literature:
ALL child custody evaluations should include the HEXACO personality inventory to assess for low Scale H (Honesty-Humility).
Evil and the Dark Triad
An article by Book, Visser, and Volk proposes that the core of the Dark Triad represents the essence of evil:
“Evil is a concept familiar to many, but one that has proven difficult to define and study… As psychologists, our goal is to translate this linguistic concept of evil into a measurable aspect of individual differences in traits and/or behaviors (e.g., psychopathy; Hare, 2003). Recently, Paulhus and Williams (2002) attempted to elucidate ‘‘evil’’ under the umbrella of the ‘‘Dark Triad’’ (Book, Visser, and Volk, 2015, p. 29)
“Understanding the nature of ‘‘evil’’ has been challenging for a number of reasons. A productive psychological approach to this problem has been to study antisocial traits associated with negative outcomes. One such approach has grouped together three antisocial personalities known as the ‘‘Dark Triad’’: Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy. Researchers have proposed various models to account for the common core of these antisocial personalities – a core that might well be considered the psychological equivalent of the core of ‘‘evil.’’ (Book, Visser, and Volk, 2015, p. 29)
“Our two studies represent the first empirical comparison of all the major theories explaining the core of the Dark Triad, a cluster of traits that fits the English definition of evil.” (Book, Visser, and Volk, 2015, p. 36)
“Taken together, these explanations offer a complete adaptive, developmental, and ecological framework for explaining the presence of ‘‘evil’’ in some individuals’ traits and behaviors. Individuals are born with different predispositions towards certain levels of HEXACO traits (Lewis & Bates, 2014). These predispositions are modified by environmental cues and events (James & Ellis, 2013), resulting in an adult set of personality traits (i.e., the Dark Triad) that is expressed as antisocial behavior in an effort to maximize an individual’s evolutionary fitness within a given environmental context (Jonason et al., 2010).” (Book, Visser, and Volk, 2015, p. 36)
“We therefore feel confident in recommending the HEXACO as the measurement tool of choice for understanding the core of the Dark Triad in particular, and the psychological concept of ‘‘evil’’ in general.” (Book, Visser, and Volk, 2015, p. 36)
Once we shift paradigms for defining the pathology of “parental alienation” away from the incorrect model of a “new syndrome” proposed by Gardernian PAS with its 8 unique symptom identifiers over to defining the pathology of “parental alienation” from entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs, the solution to the pathology of “parental alienation” becomes available immediately; three diagnostic indicators, a DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.
Pathogenic parenting is not a child custody issue; it is a child protection issue.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857
Barber, B. K. (Ed.) (2002). Intrusive parenting: How psychological control affects children and adolescents. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Barber, B. K. and Harmon, E. L. (2002). Violating the self: Parenting psychological control of children and adolescents. In B. K. Barber (Ed.), Intrusive parenting (pp. 15-52). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Book, A., Visser, B.A., and Volk, A.A. (2015). Unpacking ‘‘evil’’: Claiming the core of the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences 73 (2015) 29–38
Christie, R. C., & Geis, F. L. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press.
Jones, D.N. and Paulhus, D.L. (2014). Introducing the Short Dark Triad (SD3): A Brief measure of dark personality traits. Assessment, 21, 28-41.
Kerig, P.K. (2005). Revisiting the construct of boundary dissolution: A multidimensional perspective. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5, 5-42.
Miller, J.D., Dir, A., Gentile, B., Wilson, L., Pryor, L.R., and Campbell, W.K. (2010). Searching for a Vulnerable Dark Triad: Comparing Factor 2 psychopathy, vulnerable narcissism, and borderline personality disorder. Journal of Personality, 78, 1529-1564.
Lee, K., and Ashton, M. C. (2012). The H factor of personality: Why some people are manipulative, self-entitled, materialistic, and exploitative —and why it matters for everyone. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556–563.
Raskin, R. N. and Hall, C. S. (1981). The narcissistic personality inventory: alternative form reliability and further evidence of construct validity. Journal of Personality Assessment, 45, 159–162.
Soenens, B., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2010). A theoretical upgrade of the concept of parental psychological control: Proposing new insights on the basis of self-determination theory. Developmental Review, 30, 74–99.
Stone, G., Buehler, C., & Barber, B. K.. (2002) Interparental conflict, parental psychological control, and youth problem behaviors. In B. K. Barber (Ed.), Intrusive parenting: How psychological control affects children and adolescents. Washington, DC.: American Psychological Association.