Complex Trauma: Traumatic Grief

To be the targeted parent of “parental alienation” (AB-PA) is traumatic.  The type of trauma is called “Complex Trauma,” and the form of complex trauma is called “traumatic grief.”

To the targeted parents, I am a clinical psychologist.  What you are experiencing is a form of Complex Trauma called “traumatic grief.”

Wikipedia:  Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When I meet with targeted parents for consultations, I often end the consultation by providing encouragement to the targeted parent to find areas for self-nurture to address their complex trauma and traumatic grief.  The analogy I use is that if your child is in quicksand, it doesn’t help for you to jump into the quicksand after them, because then you’re both in trouble.  The targeted parent needs to stand on the solid ground of your own emotional and psychological health and to throw your child a rope that your child can use to pull himself or herself out.

Will your child grab the rope?  Probably not.  Your child has to live with the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Your child has to do what they have to do to survive in that upside-down and psychologically dangerous world of their narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Until we are able to first protect the child, we cannot ask the child to reveal their authenticity.  We must first protect the child.

It doesn’t help if you jump in the quicksand too.  Your psychological trauma is real.  It’s a form of complex trauma called “traumatic grief.”  It is a central feature of the pathogen that is creating the attachment-related pathology of “parental alienation” (AB-PA).  I’ve read the “source code” of the pathology, the information structures of the attachment system that create the pathology, and the complex trauma of traumatic grief is embedded in the source code of the pathogen.

One of the core guiding features of the information structures that create this pathology is the creation of traumatic grief in the targeted-rejected parent.  That’s what the information structures of this pathogenic agent in the attachment system are designed to do, they create the complex trauma of traumatic grief in the targeted parent.  Let me explain.

In the Wikipedia article I cite above, notice the linkage of Complex Trauma to both attachment-related pathology (disorganized attachment) and borderline personality pathology. 

The childhood origins of attachment-based “parental alienation” (AB-PA) are in the disorganized attachment – the attachment trauma – of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (“disorganized attachment” is a defined and researched category of “insecure attachment”; see for example, Main & Hesse, 1990; Lyons-Ruth, Bronfman, & Parsons, 1999).

And disorganized attachment in childhood is at the core of the later development of borderline personality pathology:

“Various studies have found that patients with BPD are characterized by disorganized attachment representations (Fonagy et al., 1996; Patrick et al, 1994).  Such attachment representations appear to be typical for persons with unresolved childhood traumas, especially when parental figures were involved, with direct, frightening behavior by the parent.  Disorganized attachment is considered to result from an unresolvable situation for the child when ‘the parent is at the same time the source of fright as well as the potential haven of safety’ (van IJzendoorn, Schuengel, & Bakermans-Kranburg, 1999, p. 226).” (Beck, et al, 2004, p. 191)

Notice that I always link the narcissistic and borderline personality of the allied pathogenic parent in AB-PA using the term “narcissistic/(borderline)” parent, embedding the term “(borderline)” in parenthesis.  This is to make the point that the narcissistic personality has a borderline core.  These personality pathology styles are simply differing outward manifestations of an identical underlying core attachment pathology.

“One subgroup of borderline patients, namely, the narcissistic personalities… seem to have a defensive organization similar to borderline conditions, and yet many of them function on a much better psychosocial level.” (Kernberg, 1975, p. xiii)

“Most of these patients [i.e., narcissistic] present an underlying borderline personality organization.” (Kernberg, 1975, p. 16)

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

There is a diagram of the attachment-related pathology of AB-PA on my website:

Diagram of AB-PA Pathology

Work your way from the bottom of this diagram to the top along two separate but interrelated lines.  The inside description is the personality disorder line of disordered mourning and the pathological processing of sadness and grief, the outside lines are the attachment related lines, that leads to the trauma reenactment narrative.

Now look again to the description of Complex Trauma in Wikipedia.  Notice the association of Complex Trauma with both disorganized attachment and borderline personality pathology (narcissistic personality pathology is less studied in the research literature because the narcissistic personality rarely if ever presents for therapy).

The childhood disorganized attachment of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent constellated during the adolescent and early adulthood developmental periods into the personality pathology of the narcissistic-borderline parent that drives the current “parental alienation” process (AB-PA).

Whether the manifestation of the underlying attachment trauma assumes a more narcissistic-style or borderline-style of expression depends on how the narcissistic/(borderline) parent-as-a-child responded to and coped with the childhood attachment trauma.  A disorganized attachment with avoidant overtones leads to a more narcissistic style of personality presentation in which loving attachment relationships are devalued.  A disorganized attachment with strongly anxious-ambivalent overtones in which a child tries to maintain an attachment bond to a frightening and dangerous parent (Beck et al., 2004), leads to a more borderline-style presentation of chaotic and hyper-expressive mood swings (called “protest behavior”) and continual fears of abandonment.

At the core of both personalities is a profound inner emptiness – a vacancy of being. The borderline style personality experiences this profound emptiness nearly all the time, and much of the relationship effort by a borderline-style personality is designed to fill the core emptiness of their being. The borderline-style personalty engages in frantic efforts to continually remain the center of attention, seeking constant reassurances of being loved.  Any real or imagined slights that suggest that the borderline personality might not be loved result in excessively angry displays of vitriol and victimization directed toward the failing attachment figure.

Think of the borderline-style personalty as emerging from a child who is trying to form an attachment bond to an unstable frightening and dangerous parent, yet a parent who is nevertheless also a source of nurture.  Even when an attachment bond can be formed, it is fragile and the child is exceedingly anxious and hyper-vigilant for signs of abandonment that can signal the emergence of the frightening, dangerous, and rejecting parental attachment figure.

The narcissistic personality, on the other hand, results from a child who chooses a different approach to coping with a frightening-rejecting parent.  In the formation of the narcissistic-style personality, the child chooses safety over intimacy. The child dismisses the importance of forming an attachment bond to the frightening-rejecting parent (called an “avoidant” attachment style).  The narcissistic-style personality sacrifices intimacy for safety.

But sacrificing intimacy with the attachment figure of the parent creates a core emptiness in the self-experience of the child.  The psychological intimacy with our parents that the rest of us experienced as children established in us a core inner sense of our healthy narcissism; that we are fundamentally valued and valuable people.  This didn’t occur in the childhood of the narcissistic personality.  In avoiding intimacy with the dangerous-rejecting attachment figure, the core sense of self as being valued and valuable did not get established.  Instead an artificial pathological narcissism developed of fragile over-inflated self-grandiosity and self-importance that is not rooted in an authentic belief in one’s true core value.

Just like with the borderline personality, at the core of the narcissistic personality is a fundamental inner emptiness of being.  The difference is that by adopting a narcissistic defense of grandiose self-importance in which other people, and intimate relationships with other people, are devalued, the narcissistic personality is able to develop a slightly greater stability in functioning – as long as the person can maintain the narcissistic veneer of self-value.

However, if the narcissistic defense is penetrated by criticism or rejection – especially by rejection – which exposes the core self-inadequacy of the narcissistic personalty (called a “narcissistic injury”), then the narcissistic personality will collapse into it’s borderline core of profound inner emptiness.  When rejected, the narcissistic personality responds with rageful and demeaning attacks on the other person (called “narcissistic rage”) in order to reestablish the narcissistic defense of grandiose self-importance by devaluing the importance of the other person (“I’m not the inadequate person; YOU are.”)

AB-PA and Complex Trauma

The origin of the attachment-based pathology of “parental alienation” (AB-PA) is to be found in the childhood attachment trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, who is then transferring this childhood trauma into the current family relationships, a process mediated by the personality disorder pathology of this parent that is itself a product of this parent’s childhood attachment trauma.

In the pathology of “parental alienation” (AB-PA), the complex developmental trauma from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, that has become frozen into the pathological personality structure of this parent, is being transmitted to you, the targeted-rejected parent, in the form of “traumatic grief.”  You, the targeted-rejected parent, are being made to hold the complex trauma that was the childhood experience of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

At the core of this complex trauma is the pathological processing of sadness, grief, and loss of the attachment figure:

  • The parent in the childhood of the current narcissistic/(borderline) parent;
  • The spousal attachment figure in the divorce;
  • The beloved child of the targeted parent in “parental alienation.”

The organizing central theme of “parental alienation” (AB-PA) is pathological mourning.  The pathological processing of sadness, grief, and loss.

I’ve read the “source code” of this pathogen (I’ve read the content and process of its information structures).  I know what it is and I know how functions.  Once we’ve solved this pathology and bring this family nightmare to an end, I’ll begin to unpack the deeper levels of this pathology for my professional colleagues.  But for now, let me simply identify what is occurring for you, the parent who is being targeted for rejection by this severe and horrific form of trans-generational attachment pathology.

The overall attachment-related pathology is called “pathological mourning” (Bowlby, 1980).

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

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

You, the targeted parent are being locked into a FALSE trauma reenactment narrative of “abusive parent”/”victimized child”/”protective parent.” 

In locking you into this FALSE trauma reenactment narrative of the complex trauma from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, you are being made to hold the complex trauma – you have become the repository, the receptacle, holding the complex trauma.  The complex trauma from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is being created in you.  The form of the complex trauma is called, “traumatic grief.”

The core of the “parental alienation” pathology is the disordered processing of sadness, grief, and loss.  The primary case of the “pathological mourning” is the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, who is translating feeling of sadness and “mournful longing” surrounding the divorce into “anger and resentment, loaded with resentful wishes”:

“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.” (Kernberg, 1975,p. 229)

Kernberg, O.F. (1975). Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism. New York: Aronson.

The pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are then transferring this parent’s own disordered mourning onto the child, creating the pathology of the child’s rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent.

Through the child’s rejection of a loving and beloved parent, the targeted parent is made to hold the complex trauma at the core of the pathology in the form of traumatic grief surrounding the loss of their beloved child.

All targeted parents have been psychologically brutalized by the complex trauma of traumatic grief.  In surviving this trauma until the time when we obtain professional competence from professional psychology, you need to take a lot of active steps to process and metabolize the trauma.

You are not a bad parent.  You’re a good parent.  I know this.  You know this.  It is a FALSE trauma reenactment narrative being created surrounding you.

Take care of yourself physically to process the trauma.  Trauma becomes embedded in our physical structures.  Exercise.  Eat well and healthy.

It’s okay to be happy.  The traumatic grief can be consuming, and you might feel guilty if you actually achieve moments and times of happiness.  It’s okay for you to be happy.  You love your children.  Your grief is real.  So is your happiness with a new spouse or in activities you enjoy.  You need to find happiness and enjoyment in order to process the traumatic grief.  It’s okay to be happy.

If you find yourself obsessing about the trauma you’re experiencing, journal about it.  Get it out of you and onto paper.  I’ll have more to say later about the potential role of journaling in processing your trauma.

Know this, you are not alone.  There are others who are going through the same thing and who understand.  I understand.  We are working to solve this and to bring your authentic and beautiful children back to you.  You are not alone.

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

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

Lyons-Ruth, K., Bronfman, E. & 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., & 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.

19 thoughts on “Complex Trauma: Traumatic Grief”

  1. The psychologist I worked with during my divorce told me I had grieved my childrens loss (of all contact) for a year and it was time to move on. This individual missed every sign of a behavioral disorder in the ex or the children. I’m very pleased to see the awareness growing. The mental health community is a big part of the problem and the solution.

    1. The mental health community is the entirety of the problem. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent is an abused child all grown up, who is reenacting his or her childhood abuse into the current family relationships. The current child is a psychologically abused child from the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The targeted parent is an abused spouse suffering from complex trauma and traumatic grief. There is nothing but victims.

      But is is from the complete incompetence and ignorance within the mental health community who should be the exact people solving this trauma, who are instead allowing it to continue, and in many cases colluding with the pathology. Professional psychology should be ashamed of itself. And the APA should be ashamed that it allows such profound professional ignorance and incompetence.

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

  2. Thank you, Dr. Childress. I am the targeted parent and have three children. One has fully come back, one is partially back in my life and the last child is still completely a mystery to me. Your research and writings help me to put words to what has happened. I appreciate your work and hope that you will continue to enlighten the public/authorities concerning PA.

  3. I’ve been going through this horrific grief since Augast of 2016 when I was thrown out of my life by way of a restraining order that my husbnad filed with the court. He gave this order to my brother (whom I hadn’t seen in 18 years) to give to me. My husband got all of my family (flying monkeys) convincing not only my TEEN children that I am abusing them but my family as well. My children and I have gone from bi-weekly visits to 2 hr. per week proffesionally supervised. I typed a bunch more but it cut off the first part so I just erased it all. I declined the supervised visits. I’m not going to do that to myself and my children. They and I have suffered enough trauma. God help their tormented, highly abusive, and disturbed father. God help us all.

  4. Reblogged this on Parental Alienation and commented:
    The pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are then transferring this parent’s own disordered mourning onto the child, creating the pathology of the child’s rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent.

  5. Dr. Childress, once again you have put words to my experience. I first sought out a therapist seven years ago – at that point to try and understand what was happening with my disordered spouse. I have seen this therapist regularly for years now, moving through the onset and “maturation” of alienation, and only recently to focus on me, and my feelings of trauma and an inability to “just move on”. My efforts to explain my feelings have focused on what seems to have been a transference of the misery and emptiness that xW exhibited for so many years. It seems to have been graciously shared with me…

    This article now not only gives the trauma a definition, but also explains the process of transmission. I have already shared it with my therapist, it will be next session’s topic.

    Thank you. Again.

  6. I am glad that you are finally talking about complex trauma. The National Alliance for Targeted Parents started blogging about interpersonal or complex trauma about a year ago and it has helped many of us. In particular it helped me understand why it has been so hard to unify targeted parents. Trauma is caused from chronic toxic levels of stress hormones and cortisol which causes havoc on our ability to think clearly and constructively. Targeted parents stuck in unrelenting trauma “firehose” (cannot stop talking about or reliving our situations). The problem is that when we are traumatized, we also can’t tell the difference between relevant and irrelevant information, because certain communication centers in our brains shut down. These biological and physiological responses to toxic stress is how the narcissistic (borderline) parent frames us as unstable and/or unfit in family court. Family court is one of the last courts to become trauma informed even though the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) has been pushing them for years. To learn everything you ever wanted to know about trauma, goggle Adverse Childhood Experiences; ACEs Connection and ACEs Too High.

    1. There are many levels and facets to the attachment-related pathology of “parental alienation.” In unpacking these many levels I don’t want to get too far ahead because of the multi-faceted complexity. I’m trying to gradually introduce the constructs into the discussion within professional psychology.

      I am appalled by the degree of professional ignorance and incompetence in professional psychology surrounding the attachment-related pathology of “parental alienation.” I’m trying to move the solution forward as fast as possible while still recognizing the profound degree of ignorance and incompetence in mental health persons. The first step is to help mental health professionals simply recognize the pathology. Then recognize the false trauma reenactment narrative. Then the assessment and recognition of the symptoms – the three diagnostic indicators. Then we can begin to expand into the complex trauma core of the pathology. There’s a couple of levels deeper still that I haven’t gone into yet. The world of the narcissistic/borderline mind is a twisty place indeed.

      You are absolutely correct regarding the impact of complex trauma on stress hormones and organizational centers of the brain. The sorting through of relevant and irrelevant for the targeted parent is made even more difficult by the near constant lies and distortions to truth that are the product of narcissistic and borderline personalty structures (N/(B) Parent: “Truth and reality are whatever I assert them to be”).

      Then, on top of that, no one seems to see the manipulation of the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. It’s like being Alice in Wonderland for the targeted parent, a crazy mixed up, upside-down world where truth and realty are irrelevant. So the targeted parents tries to document truth and reality in this ever shifting world of hookah smoking caterpillars and mad hatters. What’s relevant and what’s not in trying to communicate with the Hatter and March Hare at the tea party court proceedings?

      It is the 100% responsibility of the involved mental health professional to recognize what the pathology is, to understand it’s nature and complexity, and to be the guiding force in resolving the attachment-related, trauma-related, family pathology. But right now, the degree of professional ignorance and incompetence is astounding.

      The first step to the solution is to fix the broken mental health system. We must get back onto the path of established psychological constructs and principles so that we can hold all mental health professional accountable to a standard of practice and a standard of professional knowledge and expertise. Step 1.

      Complex trauma. Pathological mourning. Traumatic grief. The trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma. Personality disorder pathology. Cross-generational coalition. Manipulation and exploitation. Splitting pathology.

      It’s like turning a battleship in the ocean… it… gradually… starts… to… turn…

      But I feel the first winds of change happening in professional psychology. And once the ship turns, this is absolutely 100% solvable. We know exactly what this pathology is. We can absolutely identify it and we can absolutely stop it. We just need to turn the battleship from it’s current course of professional ignorance and incompetence onto the course of professional knowledge and expertise.

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

      1. No doubt the winds are changing, but the ignorance remains even more so in family law. A few parents have gotten the court to order psych evals for the parents from competent private practitioners. When the court found out that the other parent had narcissistic (borderline) personality disorder, I thought that would be the end of it. Wrong. I’m watching family court treat the NPD diagnosis as if it were a hangnail. Even the lawyer for the targeted parent. And yes, they have your work. The obstacles never cease to amaze me.

      2. The problem is that we’re trying to simultaneously build the plane while it’s flying. The mental health system is massively broken. The legal system is massively broken.

        The first step is to fix the broken mental health system. The issue is to get all mental health professionals to provide an accurate DSM-5 diagnosis to the court of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed. Statements about narcissistic or borderline parents still give the court too much latitude to be incompetent in it’s response. This isn’t about bad parenting, it’s about child abuse. We need to leave the court no option other than leaving a child with a psychologically abusive parent – as formally diagnosed by a mental health professional.

        A Treatment-Focused Assessment. Three diagnostic indicators of AB-PA equals a formal DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed. That’s what the targeted parent needs to take to court. A formal diagnosis by a mental health professional of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed. Otherwise, we are giving the broken legal system too much latitude to remain broken.

        On June 1 Dorcy and I are presenting to the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) in Boston. That’s going to be an important presentation. First the mental health system in order to get the formal DSM-5 diagnosis of Child Psychological Abuse. Then the legal system. Step-by-step.

        But until we get the solution in place, we’re trying to fly the plane while at the same time we’re fixing it. The mental health system is massively broken. The legal system is massively broken. The solution starts with fixing the broken mental health system so that professional psychology becomes a steadfast ally of targeted parents.

        There is also a second line of influence on the court system if they remain blind to the formal DSM-5 diagnosis of Child Psychological Abuse. You’ll notice I’ve woven into my writing the need for all mental health professionals NOT to treat without first obtaining a protective separation from the abusive narcissistic/(borderline) parent. Once we obtain professional competence in mental health, the court will be getting a clear message from ALL mental health professionals that the pathology is child abuse and that there will be NO treatment until the court orders a protective separation period. I don’t think we’ll need this hard line approach, and I strongly suspect that the courts will begin to respond to the formal DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed. But I’m leaving nothing to discretion when it comes to protecting the children. I fully understand the profound degree of professional ignorance and incompetence that’s out there. It is absolutely appalling, the degree of professional ignorance and incompetence.


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

  7. This makes it so clear to me now. And it is also valuable that I read this entry after reading the first half of your book, “Foundations.” Absolutely an eye-opener.
    My loss of my son and grandchildren remains as it has been for the past two years: complete cutoff after a traumatic smear-campaign that stunned the whole family. And yet, by understanding what is going on in that family, much of the wrenching confusion is relieved. The situation remains the same, but as the confusion falls away, I feel less devastated.

  8. I am currently completing a masters degree in law (NZ) on parental alienation. I have practiced law for 20 years and for the last 8 also regularly been appointed as counsel for child/ren by the Ministry of Justice. I have been involved with alienation cases professionally over the course of my practice but am also no stranger to it personally. My thesis will focus on how the NZ courts have dealt with the issue and I’ve done all that part of the research. The research I’m doing at present is focusing on the socio legal (psych) part. My goal is to address what the justice system can do to address alienation currently it seems it’s failing.

    I have formed the view (prior to embarking on any of this research) that personality disorders are closely linked to alienation but there seems so much controversy around this. I would be very interested in hearing the grounds on which you make this assertion and what qualitative research you have done or are aware of. I would also be very interested to hear your thoughts on how to “fix” this issue. I believe, and the research I’ve read to date supports this, that alienation is more damaging to children than many forms of abuse and yet it’s the most difficult issue to deal with in parenting law and it seems to me children are failed by the system.

    I would be very grateful if you would share your thoughts with me.

    1. Your questions are too extensive to answer in a short space. As for the research on personality disorders associated with this attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce, I’ll refer you to my book Foundations. In Foundations I describe the pathology within three levels of analysis, the family systems level, the personality disorder level, and the attachment system level, and I also describe the pathology across all three levels, with the attachment system level creating the personality disorder pathology, and the personality disorder pathology creating the family systems pathology. No description of a pathology could possibly provide such a complete and integrated analysis both within and across three distinct levels of analysis unless it was accurate.

      The vulnerability of narcissistic personality pathology is to rejection, the vulnerability of borderline personality pathology is to abandonment. These are exactly the vulnerabilities triggered by divorce. We should 100% expect to see the full manifestation of narcissistic and borderline personality disorder pathology of a parent surrounding divorce. Central elements of both the narcissistic and borderline personality are manipulation and exploitation. We should completely expect to see these features.

      What’s more, the child is evidencing five a-priori predicted narcissistic personality disorder traits. How does a child acquire narcissistic personality traits selectively displayed toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent? — A: from an enmeshed cross-generational coalition (Minuchin, Haley) with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent who holds these attitudes and beliefs toward the other spouse following the divorce. These narcissistic personality symptoms in the child (diagnostic indicator 2) represent the “psychological fingerprint” evidence of the psychological manipulation and control of the child by a narcissistic parent.

      But diagnostic indicator 2 of the personality disorder traits is only one of the three diagnostic indicators that must all be present. When all three diagnostic indicators are present, there is no other pathology in all of mental health that will produce that set of symptoms indicators other than the attachment-related, personality disorder related, and family systems pathology I describe in Foundations.

      AB-PA is diagnosis. Diagnosis is the application of standard and established psychological principles and constructs to a set of symptoms. The child is exhibiting a suppression of normal-range attachment bonding toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent. AND the child is exhibiting five specific narcissistic personality traits displayed selectively toward this parent. AND the child is displaying an encapsulated persecutory delusion that the child is supposedly being “victimized” by the normal-range parenting of the targeted parent. Those are the symptoms being displayed by the child. I challenge anyone to describe how all three of these very serious child symptoms of severe pathology – developmental pathology, personality disorder pathology, delusional-psychiatric pathology – are being created in the child… other than what I describe in detail in Foundations.

      Gardner took everyone off the path of established professional psychology when he proposed a “new form of pathology” – a “new syndrome” – unique in all of mental health. Gardner skipped the step of diagnosis; the application of standard and established psychological principles and constructs to a set of symptoms. AB-PA returns us back to the path of established psychological constructs and principles.

      Notice I always put the term “parental alienation” in quotes. There is no such thing as “parental alienation” in clinical psychology (The Diagnosis of Unicorns). The correct clinical psychology term for the pathology is pathogenic parenting (patho=pathology; genic=genesis, creation). Pathogenic parenting is the creation of significant psychopathology in the child through aberrant and distorted parenting practices. The construct of pathogenic parenting is an established construct in both developmental and clinical psychology and is most often used in relation to attachment-related pathology, since the attachment system NEVER spontaneously dysfunctions, but only becomes dysfunctional in response to pathogenic parenting.

      We need to leave the overgrowth and swamps of the “parental alienation” construct into which Gardner led us, and return to the path of standard and established professional constructs and principles. Diagnosis: the application of standard and established constructs and principles to a set of symptoms. A child’s rejection of a normal-range parent is fundamentally an attachment-related pathology – called “pathological mourning” (Bowlby, 1980). Disordered mourning is associated with personality pathology (Bowlby, 1980). Narcissistic personality pathology cannot process sadness, grief, and loss, and instead translates sadness into “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes” (Kernberg, 1975). Diagnosis. The application of standard and established psychological constructs and principles to a set of symptoms.

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

  9. This is an excellent explanation of a very difficult subject. I see this all too often in divorced families in my own practice. Kudo’s on educating parents and professionals alike on this subject.

  10. Mary Ellen Cole, MFT Intern
    I am seeing a divorced family with four children and you have explained what is happening precisely. Along with the AB-PA I am also dealing with a religuous narcissism that gives strength to the abusive parent and encourages the children to see the normal parent as demonized and sinful. Is it possible to help the exW grieve the loss of her husband in an effort to replace her rage with grief,

    1. Once we move away from the construct of “parental alienation” over to standard and established constructs and principles a lot becomes clear.

      When viewed through a personality disorder lens, what you describe is a narcissistic personality parent with obsessive-compulsive personality overtones. I have run across several cases like this. The narcissistic/(obsessive-compulsive) “alienation” pathology takes on moralistic religious overtones of judgement, in which the child is encouraged to judge the targeted parent as “sinful” for creating the divorce. The narcissistic/(obsessive-compulsive) parent will sometimes “pray with the children” for the soul of the targeted-rejected parent.

      In the DSM diagnostic system, a Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (p. 678) is different than an Obsessive Compulsive Anxiety Disorder (p. 235). I know, confusing.

      Among the criteria for an Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder is:

      4. Is overconscientious, scrupulous, and inflexible about matters of morality, ethics, or values.

      The high degree of overlap among personality disorder categories is one of the criticisms of the personalty disorder nosology. According to the DSM-5, “the typical patient meeting criteria for a specific personality disorder frequently also meets criteria for other personality disorders” (p. 761). The narcissistic obsessive compulsive blend of highly moralizing judgement appears to be common. Also of clinical concern is a narcissistic psychopathic blend of personality pathology that carries strongly domestic violence overtones. Once we solve the general issues of “parental alienation” I’ll be describing more about the sub-type variants.

      Is is possible to treat the personality pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent? Very difficult. I would look into schema therapy (Young) as a foundational approach.

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

  11. As an adult alienated child, I am very willing and eager to completely regain my authenticity and I believe that this entails reconnecting with my targeted parent. But what do I do when she has been so hurt and wounded from this early trauma, had no support, and in fact is in relationship w/ yet another abusive man? She is unavailable to me, although I know she really wants to be. I think her heart has closed from all of the trauma. Add to that great geographical distance, and very few means of communicating (she has no texting, no email).

    As for my borderline parent (father).the most gentle message to him of my desire to communicate with my mother leads to “subtle” signs of his rejecting me- still- after four and a half decades of this alienation from my mother! It makes it very hard to forgive him when his borderline responses can still be brought to the surface, sending me the message that I must be loyal to him, the ‘victim’. (My stepmother and sisters echo his attitude). Yet I believe in forgiveness wholeheartedly.

    My solution has been to continue to make my love and known to my mother, give and receive love and nurturing w/ in my own family (husband and grown children) , self-care and helping others through writing/speaking about “PA”. In addition, I accept a limited relationship w/ my father, avoiding “the topic” , while simultaneously feeling like I am betraying myself for not forcing the impossible conversation.

    What else can I do? I want my mother back. She is a shell of the person she was before the trauma. I want to stand up to AND forgive my father. But him + me + this topic = his volatile reactions + my anxiety reignited. I’ve chosen to avoid the topic. Maybe he reads my writing, more likely he does not.

    Thank you for reading!

  12. Dear Dr. Childress,

    Wow, I just discovered your work tonight, and now that I have finished bawling my eyes out, I want to express my thanks to you. I have been trying to navigate this growing trauma with my wife and daughter for 14 years. Seven years ago things blew up when I pushed for a divorce. I decided then that there was more I could do to “work on myself” and have stuck it out for another 7 years. Now that I am exhausted and have expressed my desire for a divorce, things are blowing up again, just as you would expect, complete with delusional accusations and abusive behaviors from my wife, and my daughter rejecting and blaming me more than ever. I had already pieced together a solid understanding of the intergenerational dynamics in my wife’s family, but with your synthesis I have greater clarity. If you ever need a case study, mine is a text book example of what you describe.

    Yet still I am left with the question: will it be better for my 14Y old daughter if I get a divorce and try to break up the “perverse triangle”, or is my (relatively) solid presence in the house preventing her from bearing the full brunt of my wife’s pathology? My daughter’s alienation from me is so advanced that she appears to have little respect or love for me, and will barely speak to me. It seems very likely that if I go through with the divorce she will cut off all contact. But if I thought it would help her make it through her teen years in a better way, I would drop the divorce for now to diminish my wife’s terror of losing her anchor and provider.

    I wonder if there is a way to heal this, especially for my daughter’s sake. She is intelligent and beautiful, and is her mother’s protector, care-taker, and best friend. How can this cycle be healed?

    I appreciate all the other commenters as well, and send some empathy to those who are suffering.


    1. I don’t know what is best in your family without talking to everyone involved.

      In general – in general… children develop best in an intact family. If a decision is made to maintain the marriage in order to provide the children with a stable home during their development, it is also important to limit, to the extent possible, the amount of anger between the spouses-parents. Anger is not a good thing in the family.

      Couples therapy may help, depending on the capability and knowledge of the couples therapist. It would be wonderful if we had therapists knowledgeable in AB-PA because these therapists would be able to help the spousal couple prior to the divorce and perhaps prevent the dissolution of the marriage, or if that’s not possible, to help the family transition to a healthy intact family structure. Unfortunately, we don’t have these therapists available yet.

      A promising avenue for exploration might be: Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors by Susan Johnson. Once we reach the phase of the solution in which we begin to discuss treatment for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the work of Dr. Johnson is one of the directions I will be proposing (Schema Therapy by Dr. Young is another).

      So while I cannot comment on your particular situation, in general I would seek to maintain the intact family if at all possible. Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors is a very insightful book.

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