The current mental health response to the attachment-related pathology commonly called “parental alienation” surrounding divorce is abysmal. The field of professional psychology is rampant with profound professional ignorance and with profound professional incompetence. Professional psychology should be ashamed of itself.
Assessment leads to diagnosis. Diagnosis guides treatment.
The first step to establishing professional competence is to obtain appropriate assessments of symptoms from ALL mental health professionals who are dealing with any form of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce.
Notice I didn’t say “parental alienation.” We must return to standard and established psychological principles and constructs in assessing and diagnosing this form of attachment-related pathology.
All mental health professionals who are involved in assessing, diagnosing, and treating any form of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce must be held professionally accountable for conducting an appropriate professional assessment of the attachment-related pathology within the family…
… including the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma from the childhood of an allied narcissistic/(borderline) personality parent to the current family relationships, mediated by the personality disorder pathology of the parent, that is itself a product of this parent’s childhood attachment trauma.
The attachment system is the brain system governing all aspects of love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss. A child’s rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent represents a distortion to the child’s attachment-bonding system in the brain. A child’s rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent is an attachment-related pathology.
The correct clinical psychology term for this attachment-related pathology is “disordered mourning” (Bowlby, 1980).
The narcissistic/(borderline) parent is the “primary case” of the pathological mourning within the family, and this parent’s own disordered mourning pathology surrounding the divorce is being transferred to the child through the aberrant and distorted parenting practices of the parent.
The source of the disordered mourning is this parent’s incapacity to process sadness and grief surrounding loss. Instead of experiencing sadness and mournful longing, the personality pathology of this parent translates sadness, grief, and loss into “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes” (Kernberg, 1977, p. 229).
An appropriate assessment of this attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce is to assess for and document the potential presence of three diagnostic indicators of pathogenic parenting by an allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent who is in a cross-generational coalition with the child against the other parent (Haley, 1977; Minuchin, 1974).
Notice I did not say “parental alienation.” We must return to standard and established psychological principles and constructs.
Pathogenic: patho=pathology; genic=genesis, creation. Pathogenic parenting is the creation of pathology in the child through aberrant and distorted parenting practices.
Pathogenic parenting is a standard construct used in both developmental and clinical psychology. The term pathogenic parenting is most often used with regard to attachment-related pathologies, since the attachment system never spontaneously dysfunctions, but ONLY dysfunctions in response to pathogenic parenting.
The three diagnostic indicators of pathogenic parenting associated with the trans-generational transmission of pathological mourning are:
Attachment system suppression of the child’s normal-range attachment bonding motivations toward a normal-range and affectionallly available parent.
Narcissistic personality traits in the child’s symptom display. These are the “psychological fingerprints” in the child’s symptoms of the psychological control of the child by a narcissistic parent.
A persecutory delusional belief regarding the child’s supposed “victimization” by the normal-range parenting practices of the targeted parent. This reflects the child’s incorporation into the false trauma reenactment narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.
All of these symptoms are standard forms of clinical psychopathology that are well within the standard scope of professional practice for assessment and diagnosis expected for all mental health professionals – attachment bonding disruptions, personality disorder traits, encapsulated persecutory delusions. These are all standard forms of clinical psychopathology.
The Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting is an assessment tool for documenting the presence these three symptoms. I also wrote a blog (which appears as Chapter 4 in my book, Essays on Attachment Based Parental Alienation: The Internet Writings of Dr. Childress) which is entitled, “Diagnosing Parental Alienation,” in which I describe each of these diagnostic indicators and the 12 Associated Clinical Signs.
Both the Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting and Chapter 4 of Essays regarding “Diagnosing Parental Alienation” are on my website.
Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting
Diagnosing Parental Alienation
If a targeted parent wants to give something to an involved mental health professional, I would recommend the Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting and the companion Chapter 4 from Essays describing the three diagnostic indicators and the 12 Associated Clinical Signs.
These two companion pieces become the drum-beat for professional competence in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of the attachment-related pathology of AB-PA.
Assessment leads to diagnosis, and diagnosis guides treatment.
Pathogenic parenting that is creating significant developmental pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 1), personality pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 2), and delusional-psychiatric pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 3) in order to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the parent represents a DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.
Assessment leads to diagnosis, and diagnosis guides treatment.
In all cases of child abuse, physical child abuse, sexual child abuse, and psychological child abuse, the standard mental health response is to protectively separate the child from the abusive parent, to treat the impact of the abuse on the child in order to recover and restore the child’s normal-range and healthy development, and once the child’s healthy development has been recovered and stabilized, to then reintroduce the relationship with the formerly abusive parent with sufficient safeguards to ensure that the abuse does not resume once the child is reintroduced to the formerly abusive parent. Typically, the abusive parent is also required to obtain collateral psychotherapy to develop and demonstrate insight into the causes of the prior abusive behavior.
This is the standard of practice in all cases of child abuse based on the professional obligation called the “duty to protect.”
Assessment leads to diagnosis. Diagnosis guides treatment.
All three of the diagnostic indicators of pathogenic parenting by an allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent are standard and established forms of psychopathology within mental health – attachment bonding symptoms; personality disorder traits; symptoms indicating an encapsulated persecutory delusion.
These symptoms are well within the standard of practice for ALL mental health professionals. There is absolutely NO legitimate reason that a mental health professional should not assess for these symptoms. No reason.
The only reason a mental health professional would NOT assess for these symptoms is an obstinate and intransigent insistence on remaining incompetent in the assessment of attachment-related pathology. No matter the consequences on the child and family, this mental health professional insists on remaining incompetent in the assessment of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce.
“No. You can’t make me be competent in my assessment of pathology. I absolutely refuse to assess for standard symptoms of pathology. No. I refuse. I will not be professionally competent in my assessment of pathology.”
However, mental health professionals are not allowed to be incompetent.
For psychologists, Standard 2.01a of the American Psychological Association states:
2.01 Boundaries of Competence
(a) Psychologists provide services, teach and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study or professional experience.
For marriage and family therapists, Standards 3.1 and 3.10 of the Code of Ethics for the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy states:
3.1 Maintenance of Competency
Marriage and family therapists pursue knowledge of new developments and maintain their competence in marriage and family therapy through education, training, and/or supervised experience.
3.10 Scope of Competence.
Marriage and family therapists do not diagnose, treat, or advise on problems outside the recognized boundaries of their competencies.
For Master’s level mental health counselors, Standard C.2.a. of the Code of Ethics for the American Counseling Association states:
C.2.a. Boundaries of Competence
Counselors practice only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, state and national professional credentials, and appropriate professional experience.
For social workers, the Ethics Code of the National Association of Social Workers states:
Ethical Principle: Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise. Social workers continually strive to increase their professional knowledge and skills and to apply them in practice.
(a) Social workers should provide services and represent themselves as competent only within the boundaries of their education, training, license, certification, consultation received, supervised experience, or other relevant professional experience.
In Canada, the Values Statement for Principle II, Responsible Caring, of the Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists states:
In order to carry out these steps, psychologists recognize the need for competence and self-knowledge. They consider incompetent action to be unethical per se, as it is unlikely to be of benefit and likely to be harmful. They engage only in those activities in which they have competence or for which they are receiving supervision, and they perform their activities as competently as possible. They acquire, contribute to, and use the existing knowledge most relevant to the best interests of those concerned.
II.6 Competence and self-knowledge
Offer or carry out (without supervision) only those activities for which they have established their competence to carry them out to the benefit of others.
In Australia, Standard B.1.2.a of the Australian Psychological Society Code of Ethics states:
B.1.2. Psychologists only provide psychological services within the boundaries of their professional competence. This includes, but is not restricted to: (a) working within the limits of their education, training, supervised experience and appropriate professional experience
In Great Britain, Standard 2 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct of the British Psychological Society states:
2 Ethical Principle: COMPETENCE
Statement of Values
Psychologists value the continuing development and maintenance of high standards of competence in their professional work, and the importance of preserving their ability to function optimally within the recognised limits of their knowledge, skill, training, education, and experience
In South Africa, Standard 1 of the Professional Board for Psychology, Health Professions Council of South Africa, Ethical Code of Professional Conduct (Effective from 1 April 2002) states:
1. Professional Competence
Psychologists shall develop, maintain and encourage high standards of professional competence to ensure that the public is protected from professional practice that falls short of international and national best practice standards. Psychologists shall accept that they are accountable for professional actions in all domains of their professional lives.
1.1 Competency Limits
1.1.1 Psychologists shall limit practice to areas within the boundaries of their competence based on formal education, training, supervised experience, and/or appropriate professional experience.
1.1.2 Psychologists shall ensure their work is based on established scientific and professional knowledge of the discipline of psychology.
1.2. Maintaining Competency
Psychologists shall maintain current competency in their areas of practice through continuing professional development, consultation, and/or other procedures in conformance with current standards of scientific or professional knowledge.
In the Netherlands, Standard 3.4b; Article 100 states:
3.4b Professional competence
Article 100 Maintenance and development of professional expertise
Psychologists must maintain and develop their professional expertise in accordance with recent developments in psychology. They must keep informed of the relevant professional literature and participate in relevant additional and refresher courses
Mental health professionals are not allowed to be incompetent.
Professional incompetence is a violation of ethical standards of practice for all mental health professionals everywhere.
This means that if a mental health professional is assessing and diagnosing an attachment-related pathology in a family, then that mental health professional MUST BE COMPETENT in the assessment and diagnosis of the attachment-related pathology as it manifests in the family relationships (notice I did not say “parental alienation” pathology).
The symptoms to be assessed are all STANDARD forms of pathology in mental health:
Attachment bonding symptoms in the child’s symptom display (diagnostic indicator 1)
Personality disorder symptoms in the child’s symptom display (diagnostic indicator 2)
An encapsulated persecutory delusion in the child’s symptom display (diagnostic indicator 3)
These are all STANDARD and established forms of pathology within professional psychology that are entirely within the scope of professional practice for assessment and diagnosis by ALL mental health professionals everywhere. All we’re asking for is standard professional competence in the assessment and documentation of the child’s symptoms.
The only – the ONLY – reason a mental health professional would not assess for these symptoms of a trans-generational transmission of attachment-trauma relative to an attachment-related pathology in the family is a completely obstinate refusal on the part of the mental health professional to be competent in their job.
That is astounding to me. Yet I know it is occurring even now. That mental health professionals would insist – absolutely insist – on being incompetent in their assessment of pathology is a professional disgrace.
ALL professionally competent mental health professionals WILL ASSESS for and document the presence of the three diagnostic indicators of pathogenic parenting associated with the trans-generational transmission of “pathological mourning” (Bowlby, 1980) within the family; an attachment-related disorder which is being mediated by the personality pathology of the allied parent (Giammarco & Vernon; 2014; Kernberg, 1975; Millon, 2011) who is in a cross-generational coalition with the child against the other parent (a “perverse triangle”; Haley, 1977).
It stands now with the professional organizations. Will they back up their standards for professional competence with enforcement? Or are their standards requiring professional competence just words without meaning or substance? Platitudes to appease but not to be taken seriously.
Will professional organizations allow – and by allowing, will they collude with – such rampant disregard by so many mental health professionals for basic standards of professional competence in the assessment of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce?
That’s the question now before ALL professional organizations. Do they mean what they say in establishing standards requiring professional competence?
Attachment-related symptoms are a standard form of pathology within mental health.
Personality disorder traits are a standard form of pathology within mental health.
Delusional pathology is a standard form of pathology within mental health.
All we are asking is that all mental health professionals who are assessing, diagnosing, and treating any form of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce ASSESS for and document these symptoms in the child’s symptom display.
That all. Just assess for the symptoms. That’s all we’re asking.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Loss: Sadness and depression. NY: Basic Books.
“The deactivation of attachment behavior is a key feature of certain common variants of pathological mourning.” (p. 70)
“Disturbances of personality, which include a bias to respond to loss with disordered mourning, are seen as the outcome of one or more deviations in development that can originate or grow worse during any of the years of infancy, childhood and adolescence.” (p. 217)
Kernberg, O.F. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism.. New York: Aronson.
“They [narcissists] are especially deficient in genuine feelings of sadness and mournful longing; their incapacity for experiencing depressive reactions is a basic feature of their personalities. When abandoned or disappointed by other people they may show what on the surface looks like depression, but which on further examination emerges as anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes, rather than real sadness for the loss of a person whom they appreciated.” (p. 229; emphasis added)
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 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.” (p. 37; emphasis added)
Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and Family Therapy. Harvard University Press.
“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.” (p. 102; emphasis added)
Millon. T. (2011). Disorders of personality: introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal. Hoboken: Wiley.
“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.” (p. 407-408; emphasis added).
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
“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.” (p. 23)