I recently received an email request from a family law judge overseas who asked for input on resolving “parental alienation” in the family courts. I thought my email response to this question might be more broadly of interest, so I am providing it here as well.
What has traditionally been called “parental alienation” represents an attachment-related 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 rejecting a parent following divorce is a problem in the love-and-bonding system of the brain — the attachment system.
The key to solving this attachment-related family pathology is to return to the standard and established constructs and principles of professional psychology. The problem faced by the family courts is that professional psychology is not providing the court with the necessary level of professional expertise needed to solve the pathology. The focus of my work is to help professional psychology develop the professional expertise in four areas of professional knowledge needed to successfully resolve the pathology:
The Attachment System
Personality Disorder Pathology
Family Systems Pathology
Complex Trauma Pathology
I recently completed the first AB-PA Certification seminar here in Pasadena, California training mental health professionals in these four domains, and in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of attachment-related family pathology.
So the first step is to return to standard and established professional constructs and principles in professional psychology. The next step is to establish a standard of practice for addressing attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce. This begins with assessment.
Assessment leads to diagnosis, and diagnosis guides treatment.
I have a booklet available on Amazon.com:
This booklet describes a six-session assessment of attachment-related pathology. I am recommending that in all cases of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce, that courts order this six-session assessment protocol.
The trouble that courts will currently run into is locating a mental health professional who can conduct this structured and standardized assessment protocol. I describe the assessment protocol in my booklet (The Assessment of Attachment-Related Pathology Surrounding Divorce), I have YouTube videos up that provide a professional-to-professional level description of the assessment process (Professional-to-Professional Conversation with Dr. Childress), and I directly train mental health professionals in this assessment protocol as part of my AB-PA Certification seminars.
This structured assessment protocol is built around two instruments, 1) the Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting which documents the child symptoms resulting from pathogenic parenting by a narcissistic/(borderline) personality parent, and 2) the Parenting Practices Rating Scale that documents the possible problematic parenting of the targeted-rejected parent. Both of these instruments are available on my website:
The issue of concern is called “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 attachment system (the brain system for love-and-bonding) never spontaneously dysfunctions. The attachment system ONLY becomes dysfunctional in response to pathogenic parenting. So the assessment question becomes, which parent is creating the child’s attachment-related pathology.
Is it pathogenic parenting by an allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent who has formed a cross-generational coalition with the child against the other parent? (the Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting)
Or is it pathogenic parenting by the targeted-rejected parent (child abuse) that is creating the child’s rejection of this parent? (the Parenting Practices Rating Scale).
We begin with assessment.
Assessment leads to diagnosis, and diagnosis guides treatment.
Intervention & Remedy
Now to address the intervention and remedy issues…
We first need to conduct a proper assessment of the attachment-related pathology to identify the source of pathogenic parenting. If the pathogenic parenting is coming from an allied narcissistic/(borderline) personality parent – as documented by the Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting – then we move on to treatment.
The three diagnostic indicators of AB-PA (pathogenic parenting by an allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent) are:
1) Attachment system suppression
2) Narcissistic personality traits in the child’s symptom display
3) An encapsulated persecutory delusion in the child’s symptom display
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) is 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 professional standard of practice and “duty to protect” requires the child’s protective separation from the abusive parent.
We then treat the emotional and psychological damage created in the child by the abusive parenting and we recover the normal-range and healthy development of the child.
Once we have recovered the normal-range and healthy development of the child, we then restore the child’s relationship with the formerly abusive parent with sufficient safeguards to ensure that the child abuse does not resume once the child’s relationship with the formerly abusive parent is restored.
This is the standard of practice for ALL cases of child abuse, physical child abuse, sexual child abuse, and psychological child abuse. Diagnosis guides treatment.
In cases of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce, there MAY be a treatment-oriented approach that does not require a protective separation period. It is a Strategic family systems intervention designed to alter how the child’s induced symptoms confer power within the family. Strategic family systems therapy is one of two primary schools of family therapy (the other being Structural family systems therapy). The principle theorist of Strategic family system therapy is Jay Haley
A possible Strategic family systems intervention for attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce is a Contingent Visitation Schedule that makes the child’s visitation with the abusive and pathogenic narcissistic/(borderline) parent contingent upon the child being symptom-free. If the psychologically abusive narcissistic/(borderline) parent creates significant symptoms in the child, then this parent’s time with the child is reduced and the child’s time with the targeted parent is increased. Once the child’s symptoms have been treated and the child’s normal-range and healthy development is restored (the child is symptom-free) then normal-range contact with the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is restored.
The child’s contact with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is made contingent on the child remaining symptom-free. It’s like small-scale protective separation periods of a few days or weeks based on the emergence of documented child symptoms and their recovery.
The Contingent Visitation Schedule is a pre-defined and structured approach to potentially addressing the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality parent. I describe the Contingent Visitation Schedule in a booklet available from Amazon.com:
However, without the Contingent Visitation Schedule the standard-of-practice treatment would be a six to nine month protective separation period from the psychologically abusive parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent based on a confirmed DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse identified in the assessment phase.
A possible treatment alternative is a Strategic family systems intervention of the Contingent Visitation Schedule.
The Contingent Visitation Schedule will require an organizing family therapist to run and implement the Strategic family system intervention, and a current problem that the court is likely to run into is the absence of mental health professionals who are skilled in family systems therapy and who can run a Contingent Visitation Schedule intervention. I describe how to run a Contingent Visitation Schedule in my booklet, and as part of my three-day AB-PA Certification seminars I train mental health professionals in both the six-session assessment protocol for AB-PA (attachment-based “parental alienation”) and in structuring and running a Contingent Visitation Schedule.
My current efforts are directed toward training and Certification of mental health professionals in AB-PA, including how to conduct a six-session assessment protocol and run a Contingent Visitation Schedule. The goal is to provide the courts with the necessary level of professional expertise needed to solve the attachment-related family pathology of “parental alienation” (AB-PA). Until we achieve that goal, however, achieving the solution may remain challenging for the courts.
Pilot Program for the Family Courts:
I am currently working with an organization in Houston, Texas (Children4Tommorrow: Dwilene Lindsey) to create a pilot program for the courts for addressing all cases of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce. This involves teaming an AB-PA Certified mental health professional with an AB-PA knowledgeable amicus attorney. To establish this AB-PA Key Solution pilot program for the family court, I would conduct a two-day Certification seminar for 15 to 20 mental health professionals in the Houston area and then a one-day AB-PA seminar for 5 to 10 amicus attorneys tailored to explaining the pathology to legal professionals. This would provide the courts in the Houston area with the necessary level of professional knowledge and expertise needed to solve the attachment-related pathology of “parental alienation.”
Then, in all cases of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce, the court would order a treatment-focused assessment by an AB-PA Certified mental health professional using the structured and standardized six-session assessment protocol. If the pathology of AB-PA is identified by the assessment (attachment-based “parental alienation”), then the court would team a new AB-PA Certified mental health professional with an AB-PA Knowledgeable amicus attorney. This team could then establish and monitor a Contingent Visitation Schedule and guide the family’s stabilization into a successful post-divorce separated family structure of cooperative co-parenting and shared bonds of affection between the child and both parents.
I describe this AB-PA Key Solution pilot program in a booklet available on Amazon.com:
Brief Intensive Interventions
There are models for brief-intensive interventions that are available that will quickly and gently restore the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system. The two primary brief-intensive interventions are:
Family Bridges: Richard Warshak
High Road to Family Reunification: Dorcy Pruter
My understanding is that they use similar approaches. I have not reviewed the Family Bridges protocol but I have reviewed and observed the High Road protocol of Dorcy Pruter, so I can speak directly to the High Road protocol.
The High Road protocol of Dorcy Pruter will gently and effectively restore the child’s normal-range attachment bonding motivations within a matter of days. I have provided the High Road protocol with my endorsement;
Ms. Pruter and I recently presented at the annual convention of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) in Boston where we described specifically how the High Road protocol achieves its success.
I have no financial interests in either the Family Bridges program or the High Road protocol. My understanding is that they use similar approaches. The only differences from my perspective is that I have reviewed the specific protocol for the High Road workshop and I have personally observed it in operation. I therefore know exactly how it works and exactly how it achieves its success.
If a brief-intensive protocol is needed to gently and effectively restore the child’s attachment bonding motivations within a matter of days, these protocols exist. However, they still require a post-intervention protective separation period of between six to nine months from the psychologically abusive narcissistic/(borderline) parent to stabilize the child’s recovery before reintroducing the psychologically abusive parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.
When the child is reintroduced to the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child’s recovery can be further stabilized by the use of the Contingent Visitation Schedule at that time. The Contingent Visitation Schedule and the High Road protocol are both tools that are available to the Court. The key to the long-term stabilization of the family, however, lay in a significant improvement in the level of professional knowledge and expertise surrounding attachment-related pathology following divorce.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857