The Bright Thing in the Sky

The pathology of “parental alienation” is NOT a defined construct in clinical psychology.

AB-PA is a defined construct. 

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” (AB-PA) – as defined in Foundations – is an explanatory application of standard and established constructs and principles from professional psychology to a set of symptoms.  That’s called diagnosis.


Q:  What is the sun?

A:  It’s that bright thing in the sky over there.

Q:  Yes, I know.  But what is it, what is the sun?

A:  I just told you.  It’s that bright thing in the sky.

“That bright thing in the sky” is NOT a professional-level definition of the sun.

Definition: The sun is a dense cloud of hydrogen gas that is so dense that the pressure exerted by the pull of its gravity is fusing the hydrogen atoms into helium (and ultimately into denser elements) and is releasing great amounts of energy in the process.

That is a professional-level definition of the sun.  “That bright thing in the sky” is not a professional-level definition of the sun.

Statement:  The child is rejecting the parent because of “parental alienation.”

Q: What is “parental alienation”?

A:  It’s when a child rejects one parent because of the influence on the child by the other parent (it’s that bright thing in the sky).

Q:  Yes, I know.  But what is it, what is “parental alienation”?

A: I just told you.  It’s when a child rejects one parent because of the influence of the other parent (it’s that bright thing in the sky).

That bright thing in the sky is NOT a professional-level definition of “parental alienation.”

AB-PA is a professional-level definition of parental alienation:

Pathological mourning (Bowlby) involving a cross-generational coalition (Haley; Minuchin) of the child with a narcissistic and/or borderline personality parent (Beck; Kernberg, Millon).

The trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma from the childhood of an allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent to the current family relationships, mediated by the personality disorder pathology of the allied parent, which is itself a product of this parent’s childhood attachment trauma.

An Attachment-Based Model of Parental Alienation: Foundations

That is a professional-level definition of the pathology.  Not “that bright thing in the sky over there.”


The Gardnerian PAS definition of “parental alienation” is that bright thing in the sky over there.

Gardner proposed a unique new form of pathology.  So unique, in fact, that this “new form of pathology” required a unique new name, “parental alienation,” and a unique new set of 8 symptom identifiers that are unrelated to any other pathology in all of mental health.

Gardner’s proposal of a unique new form of pathology drew substantial criticism from establishment psychology.  They said:

Establishment Psychology:  If there is a pathology present, then you must provide a professional-level definition for the pathology using standard and established constructs and principles of professional psychology.

Gardnerians:   It’s when a child rejects one parent because of the influence of the other parent (it’s that bright thing in the sky over there).

Establishment Psychology:  That’s not an adequate professional-level definition for a pathology.


AB-PA:  The sun is a dense cloud of hydrogen gas that is fusing into helium and releasing intense energy in the process.  And you know what?  The sun is not unique.  All of those stars we see at night are also suns, they’re just very far away.  Our sun is one of countless stars in our galaxy,  And there are other galaxies as well.

AB-PA:  The pathology of “parental alienation” is a form of “disordered mourning” (Bowlby) having to do with the distorted processing of sadness, grief, and loss, surrounding the divorce.  The “alienating parent” is the primary case of disordered mourning in the family, and this parent is passing on their own pathological mourning to the child through a cross-generational coalition with the child against the targeted parent (Haley, Minuchin).

The reason the allied parent’s mourning is pathological is because this parent has a narcissistic or borderline personality, that, at its core, fundamentally cannot process sadness, grief, and loss (Kernberg).

The reason the narcissistic and borderline personality cannot process sadness, grief, and loss is because this personality style emerges from a disorganized attachmentdisorganized attachment being a defined category of attachment. The borderline personality has disorganized attachment with anxious-ambivalent overtones, whereas the narcissist personality has disorganized attachment with anxious-avoidant overtones. At their core, the narcissist and the borderline have the same underlying disorganized attachment networks, but they manifest differently because of the overtones.

A violin and a trumpet both play middle C.  The difference in sound is not in the note itself (they are both playing middle C), the difference is in the overtones provided by the differing instruments playing the same musical note.

The “internal working models” of the narcissistic and borderline parent’s attachment system are triggered by the divorce to mediate the sadness, grief, and loss of the spousal attachment figure surrounding divorce, but since their core attachment networks are disorganized, these personality structures collapse into immensely painful disorganization surrounding the rejection and abandonment of the spousal attachment figure inherent to divorce. 

What we see as the symptoms of “alienation” are the coping strategies of the narcissistic and borderline personality trying to stave off collapse into complete – and immensely painful – disorganization surrounding the rejection and abandonment of this parent by the attachment figure of the other spouse; the collapse of the narcissistic personality structure into an inner void of utter emptiness, and the collapse of the borderline personality into an inner void of consuming darkness (you are unloved and unlovable).

That, is a professional-level definition of pathology.


The Pathology to be Defined:  A child’s rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent following a divorce.

The attachment system is the brain system governing all aspects of love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss.

The child’s rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent is an attachment-related pathology.

Q:  How does the attachment system become turned off?

“The deactivation of attachment behavior is a key feature of certain common variants of pathological mourning” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 70)

Okay, then.  So we’re looking at a version of “pathological mourning” surrounding the divorce.

Q:  How does pathological mourning develop?

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.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 217)

Okay, so we’re looking at a “disturbance of personality.”  And we just continue to work it out from there.

Notice that in less than a minute of diagnostic inquiry, the pathology of “parental alienation” is defined as a form of disordered mourning involving personality pathology.

That’s sooooo much better than, “that bright thing in the sky over there.”

All mental health professionals – ALL of us – must stop referring to this form of attachment-related family pathology as “that bright thing in the sky over there” (“parental alienation”).  We can use the term in our general discussions I suppose – if I’m explaining to a child what the sun is, I might say, “It’s that bright thing in the sky over there.” 

But in our professional-level discussion with other mental health professionals regarding this form of attachment-related pathology, we must STOP referring to any non-defined form of pathology.  “Parental alienation” is a non-defined form of pathology.  AB-PA is a defined form of pathology.  If the Gardnerians wish to come up with some other proposed professional-level definition, fine by me.  Let’s hear it.  But no more “it’s that bright thing in the sky over there” definitions of pathology.  That’s NOT a professional-level definition of pathology.

All mental health professionals, in their professional-to-professional discourse, must stop using the non-defined construct of “parental alienation” (that bright thing in the sky over there) to describe a pathology.  Yes, I know that the sun is the bright thing in the sky over there.  And I suppose that is a sort of rudimentary definition of what the sun is.  But we need to go further.

The sun is a dense cloud of hydrogen gas that is fusing into helium and releasing great amounts of energy in the process.

Come on people.  We can do better than “that bright thing in the sky over there” – we can do better than, “a child’s rejection of one parent because of the influence of the other parent”  Yes.  I know.  But what is it?  What is the pathology?  Why is this occurring? – “Because of brainwashing” – ahhhgghhrrr – that’s like saying, “Sun hot.”  “Sun hot” is not an answer – “brainwashing” is not an answer.  Brainwashing is an equally non-defined construct.  Try substituting the construct of psychological control as defined by Barber (2002).

Standard and established constructs and principles of professional psychology.  Not brainwashing, not demon possession, not an imbalance in yellow bile.  Standard and established constructs and principles.

Pathological mourning.  Personality disorder pathology.  Splitting.  Cross-generational coalition.  Trauma reenactment narrative.  We’re professionals.  We’re experts.  We need to stop referring to this pathology as “that bright thing in the sky over there.”  That’s not a professional-level definition of a pathology.

It’s acceptable as a lay definition for the pathology.  Targeted parents, attorneys, the Court, they can all call it “that bright thing in the sky” because they are not mental health professionals.  Psychology is not their area of professional expertise.  But it is OUR area of expertise, and calling a pathology “that bright thing in the sky over there” is simply not acceptable at a professional level.

When I ask the corner grocery store clerk, “What’s the sun?” the clerk might reasonably say, “It’s that bright thing in the sky over there.”  But if I ask an astrophysicist, “What’s the sun?” I better at least get “A dense cloud of hydrogen gas fusing into helium.”  Come on people.  Professionals. 

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” (AB-PA) as defined in Foundations provides a professional-level description of the attachment-related pathology commonly called “parental alienation” in the general-culture.  Foundations sets the bar for a definition of the pathology.  No more “that bright thing in the sky over there” definitions.

Gardner took everyone down the wrong road when he proposed a unique new form of pathology that required a unique new name (“parental alienation”) and a unique new set of 8 symptom identifiers that are unrelated to any other pathology in all of mental health.  He skipped the step of diagnosis.  Diagnosis is the application of standard and established constructs and principles to a set of symptoms. 

AB-PA puts us back on the solid ground of professionally anchored constructs and principles.  Disordered mourning, personality disorder pathology, cross-generational coalitions, trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma, splitting pathology, trauma reenactment schema.

Foundations sets the bar.  I’m expecting all mental health professionals to be professional.  No non-defined constructs in professional-to-professional discourse.  If you’re going to use a construct, define it at a professional level.  No primitive “that bright thing in the sky” definitions.  Professional-level definitions using standard and established constructs and principles of professional psychology.

The remarkable thing is that once we define what the sun is, a whole new realm emerges of white dwarfs and red giants, neutron stars, supernovas and black holes, galaxies and quasars.  But as long as we remain with “that bright thing in the sky” definitions, this whole world of phenomena remains beyond our reach.  I guarantee you, once we switch to an attachment-based definition of the pathology, a whole new world of wondrous knowledge will open up to us.

Mental health professionals, read this 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.

We should be talking about the “mentalization” of the child’s psychological state by the pathological parent.  And there is so much more once we move beyond “that bright thing in the sky” definitions of the pathology.

The attachment system is the brain system that governs 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 is foundationally an attachment-related pathology. 

That’s the road to the realm of answers.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

Barber, B. K. (Ed.) (2002). Intrusive parenting: How psychological control affects children and adolescents. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

6 thoughts on “The Bright Thing in the Sky”

  1. YES, YES, YES! From my own experience and working with hundreds of targeted parents, this has always been our biggest obstacle. When we go to court or CPS or even the APA and fight to “prove” parental alienation, we are fighting an invisible foe. We can’t expect others to help us fight something they do not see. We can’t explain the pathology using language that is so widely misunderstood and often alarming. The scientific literature is clear, reasonable, and EVIDENCE BASED. The trauma informed movement relies ONLY on scientific information. Narcissistic and borderline parents are dangerous. Why? They seriously abuse and neglect their children. Internationally respected neurobiologist, Martin H. Teicher, M.D., Ph.D. puts the focus on abuse and neglect (maltreatment).

    “Why focus on maltreatment? Because it is maltreatment rather than exposure to other stressors, such as natural disasters, that consistently presents as the antecedent to psychopathology (24, 25). This makes sense. Children are dependent on the adults around them for their survival, and can endure great hardship if they feel protected and cared for. But, when the hardship is the product of their caretakers, and when it is the caretaker who must be protected against, it creates a stressor with far reaching ramifications.”
    2013.12070957 oct 1, Am. Journal of Psychiatry

    1. Pathogenic parenting practices (and other forms of maltreatment) are by no means the exclusive prerogative of the custodial parent. A non-custodial parent seeking revenge for a perceived injustice is just as likely to plant the seeds of distrust in his vulnerable children, systematically and covertly, setting the stage for Harvest Time.
      Nor are pathogenic parenting practices predominant only during disputes around the dissolution of a marriage. Any wounded parent with power and control issues will seek to dismantle the children’s relationship with the other parent long before the marriage ends and long after it is over.
      For the obsessive alienator, love is a zero sum game where the love a child reposes in the other parent is regarded as a theft of magnanimous proportions. The only way possible to avenge the perceived injustice is the extinguishment of the child’s love for the other parent by the alienator.

  2. Reblogged this on Parental Alienation and commented:
    A child’s rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent following a divorce.

    The attachment system is the brain system governing all aspects of love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss.

    The child”s rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent is an attachment-related pathology.

    Q: How does the attachment system become turned off?

    “The deactivation of attachment behavior is a key feature of certain common variants of pathological mourning” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 70)

    Okay, then. So we’re looking at a version of “pathological mourning” surrounding the divorce.

    Q: How does pathological mourning develop?

    “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.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 217)

    Okay, so we’re looking at a “disturbance of personality.” And we just continue to work it out from there.

    Notice that in less than a minute of diagnostic inquiry, the pathology of “parental alienation” is defined as a form of disordered mourning involving personality pathology.

  3. Ms Gottlieb mentioned triangulation as a “50-50-process” among traditional therapists she used that to distinguish it from alienation where “the alienating parent is judged to be the primary and dominant contributor”. She further explores the larger social system (ex. family court system) that allows for such imbalances.

  4. My children are adults now. Any thoughts on helping the relationship? I feel better informed but not sure they are ready to hear info. Ironically, I reached out in a professional manner via email to counselor that treated us and he told me that if I sent him anything else he would file harassment charge. Peace rick

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