Diagnostic Indicator 2: The child’s symptoms evidence five specific narcissistic personality traits:
- Grandiosity: The child displays a grandiose perception of occupying an inappropriately elevated status in the family hierarchy that is above the targeted-rejected parent, from which the child feels empowered to sit in judgment of the targeted-rejected parent as both a parent and as a person.
- Absence of Empathy: The child displays a complete absence of empathy for the emotional pain being inflicted on the targeted-rejected parent by the child’s hostility and rejection of this parent.
- Entitlement: The child displays an over-empowered sense of entitlement in which the child expects that his or her desires will be met by the targeted-rejected parent to the child’s satisfaction, and if the rejected parent fails to meet the child’s entitled expectations to the child’s satisfaction then the child feels entitled to exact a retaliatory punishment on the rejected parent for the child’s judgment of parental failures.
- Haughty and Arrogant Attitude: The child displays an attitude of haughty arrogance and contemptuous disdain for the targeted-rejected parent.
- Splitting: The child evidences polarized extremes of attitude toward the parents and a rigid inflexibility in which the supposedly “favored” parent is idealized while the rejected parent is devalued and demonized as an all-bad and entirely inadequate parent.
The child’s emotional response and behavior toward the targeted parent is dysregulated (chronically hostile, angry, and rejecting). The child is rude, defiant, and disrespectful toward the targeted parent. While the child’s behavior toward the targeted parent is oppositional and defiant, the child’s emotional and behavioral dysregulation is not Oppositional Defiant Disorder (although it will meet diagnostic criteria for Oppositional Defiant Disorder), it is instead a reflection of narcissitic personality traits of haughty arrogance and contempt for the parent. The child intentionally says hurtful things to the parent without apparent empathy or compassion for how the child’s cruelty affects the parent. The child is harshly judgemental of the parent, and feels empowered and entitled to judge the parent. The child’s harshly judgemental attitude toward the parent is rigidly fixed and uncompromising, it is not open to change.
The child, however, does not have a personality disorder. The child displays this attitude only toward the targeted-rejected parent. With teachers and the general public, the child is well-behaved and well-regulated. The child is cooperative with teachers in the classroom, presenting no behavior problems, and is reportedly well-behaved and respectful with the allied parent.
The selective display of narcissistic traits is only toward one target. Personality disorder pathology affects all relationships. This means that the child does not have a personality disorder.
Q: How does a child acquire multiple narcissistic personality traits of haughty arrogant judgement, entitlement, an absence of empathy, and splitting, directed only toward the specific target of the other parent?
A: Through the psychological control (Barber) of the child by a narcissistic-borderline personality parent, who is transferring this parent’s own narcissistic attitudes of harshly critical judgement, arrogant contempt, absence of empathy, and inflexibly negative polarized perceptions toward the other parent to the child.
It’s not the child who has these beliefs toward the other parent, it’s the allied narcissistic-borderline parent who has these attitudes toward the other spouse, and the child is acquiring these narcissistic personality traits displayed selectively toward the targeted parent through the psychological control and influence of the child by the allied narcissistic-borderline parent.
A parent cannot psychologically control and distort a child without leaving “psychological fingerprint” evidence of the control in the child’s symptom display. The five narcissistic personality traits displayed in the child’s symptoms represents the “psychological fingerprint” evidence of the child’s psychological control by an allied narcissistic-borderline parent.
The psychological control and influence of the child to hold the same attitudes as the parent is the only conceivable process that creates five selectively displayed narcissistic personality traits toward a single target, the other parent-and-spouse. The child and allied parent have formed a cross-generational coaliton against the targeted parent, and the child is acquiring the allied parent’s contemptuous, judgemental, blaming, critical, and harsh attitudes and beliefs about the targeted parent-spouse.
Narcissistic personality disorder pathology in a child is an extremely rare symptom. It is almost never seen in juveniles (only in cases of juvenile delinquency and conduct disorder, and only rarely even in these cases). Narcissistic personality pathology is just not something that’s seen in childhood disorders, and yet five specific narcissistic personality disorder features are clearly evident in the child’s symptom display. This is incredibly unusual, and this is predicted by an attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation.”
The child’s narcissistic personality traits are not endogenous to the child, because they are displayed selectively only toward a specific target, the other parent. The a priori prediction of five specific narcissistic personality traits in the child’s symptoms, which are then evidenced in the child’s symptom display, represents extremely strong confirmatory evidence for the diagnostic model that predicts these symptoms.
The narcissistic personality traits displayed by the child toward the targeted parent represent the “psychological fingerprint” evidence of the psychological control of the child by a narcissistic-borderline parent who has formed a cross-generational coalition with the child against the other parent.
Psychological Control of the Child
The manipulative psychological control of the child by a parent is a scientifically established family relationship pattern in dysfunctional family systems.
In his book regarding parental psychological control of children, Intrusive Parenting: How Psychological Control Affects Children and Adolescents, published by the American Psychological Association, Brian Barber and his colleague, Elizabeth Harmon, identify over 30 empirically validated scientific studies that have established the construct of parental psychological control of children (studies referenced by Barber and Harmon). In Chapter 2 of Intrusive Parenting: How Psychological Control Affects Children and Adolescents, Barber and Harmon define the construct of parental psychological control of the child:
“Psychological control refers to parental behaviors that are intrusive and manipulative of children’s thoughts, feelings, and attachment to parents. These behaviors appear to be associated with disturbances in the psychoemotional boundaries between the child and parent, and hence with the development of an independent sense of self and identity.” (Barber & Harmon, 2002, p. 15)
According to Stone, Bueler, and Barber:
“The central elements of psychological control are intrusion into the child’s psychological world and self-definition and parental attempts to manipulate the child’s thoughts and feelings through invoking guilt, shame, and anxiety. Psychological control is distinguished from behavioral control in that the parent attempts to control, through the use of criticism, dominance, and anxiety or guilt induction, the youth’s thoughts and feelings rather than the youth’s behavior.” (Stone, Buehler, & Barber, 2002, p. 57)
Soenens and Vansteenkiste (2010) describe the various methods used to achieve parental psychological control of the child:
“Psychological control can be expressed through a variety of parental tactics, including (a) guilt-induction, which refers to the use of guilt inducing strategies to pressure children to comply with a parental request; (b) contingent love or love withdrawal, where parents make their attention, interest, care, and love contingent upon the children’s attainment of parental standards; (c) instilling anxiety, which refers to the induction of anxiety to make children comply with parental requests; and (d) invalidation of the child’s perspective, which pertains to parental constraining of the child’s spontaneous expression of thoughts and feelings.” (Soenens & Vansteenkiste, 2010, p. 75)
Research by Stone, Buehler, and Barber establishes the link between parental psychological control of children and marital conflict:
“This study was conducted using two different samples of youth. The first sample consisted of youth living in Knox County, Tennessee. The second sample consisted of youth living in Ogden, Utah.” (Stone, Buehler, & Barber, 2002, p. 62)
“The analyses reveal that variability in psychological control used by parents is not random but it is linked to interparental conflict, particularly covert conflict. Higher levels of covert conflict in the marital relationship heighten the likelihood that parents would use psychological control with their children.” (Stone, Buehler, & Barber, 2002, p. 86)
Stone, Buehler, and Barber offer an explanation for their finding that intrusive parental psychological control of children is related to high inter-spousal conflict:
“The concept of triangles “describes the way any three people relate to each other and involve others in emotional issues between them” (Bowen, 1989, p. 306). In the anxiety-filled environment of conflict, a third person is triangulated, either temporarily or permanently, to ease the anxious feelings of the conflicting partners. By default, that third person is exposed to an anxiety-provoking and disturbing atmosphere. For example, a child might become the scapegoat or focus of attention, thereby transferring the tension from the marital dyad to the parent-child dyad. Unresolved tension in the marital relationship might spill over to the parent-child relationship through parents’ use of psychological control as a way of securing and maintaining a strong emotional alliance and level of support from the child. As a consequence, the triangulated youth might feel pressured or obliged to listen to or agree with one parents’ complaints against the other. The resulting enmeshment and cross-generational coalition would exemplify parents’ use of psychological control to coerce and maintain a parent-youth emotional alliance against the other parent (Haley, 1976; Minuchin, 1974).” (Stone, Buehler, & Barber, 2002, p. 86-87)
The construct of a cross-generational coalition within the family is described by both Salvador Minuchin and Jay Haley, preeminent theorists in family systems therapy. Jay Haley provides a definition the cross-generational coalition:
“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.” (Haley, 1977, p. 37)
Salvador Minuchin, provides a clinical description of the impact of a cross-generational coalition on family relationships following divorce:
“An inappropriately rigid cross-generational subsystem of mother and son versus father appears, and the boundary around this coalition of mother and son excludes the father. A cross-generational dysfunctional transactional pattern has developed… The parents were divorced six months earlier and the father is now living alone… Two of the children who were very attached to their father, now refuse any contact with him. The younger children visit their father but express great unhappiness with the situation.” (Minuchin, 1974, p. 61-62; 101)
On page 42 of their book, Family Healing, Salvador Minuchin and his co-author Michael Nichols provide a structural family diagram for the inverted family hierarchy created by an over-involved (enmeshed) relationship of a father and the child that excludes the mother. The three lines between the father and child in this diagram indicate an enmeshed relationship of psychological over-involvement, and the child has replaced the mother atop the hierarchy with the father, holding an elevated position with him in which they are entitled to judge the mother.
The structural family systems diagram provided by Minuchin and Nichols graphically illustrates that the cross-generational coalition of the child with the father creates both an inverted family hierarchy in which the child is elevated into a position of judgement above the mother, from which the child feels entitled to judge the adequacy of the mother as a parent, and also creates an emotional cutoff in which the mother is rejected by the alliance of the father and child (emotional cutoff: Murray Bowen; Titelman).
Diagnostic Indicator 2: Personality Disorder Pathology is the result of the child acquiring the narcissistic attitudes of contempt, absence of empathy, harsh and critical judgement, and inflexible polarized attitudes of demonization toward the targeted parent from the pathogenic parenting of the allied narcissistic-borderline parent through processes of psychological control and the formation of a cross-generational coalition against the targeted-rejected parent-and-spouse.
The presence in the child’s symptom display of five a priori predicted narcissistic personality disorder traits represents definitive diagnostic evidence for the child’s cross-generational coalition with an allied narcissistic-borderline parent against the targeted parent-spouse.
However, in the diagnostic identification of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” (AB-PA), the presence of five narcissistic personality traits in the child’s symptom display is only one of three diagnostic indicators that must all be present; attachment system suppression toward a normal range parent (Diagnostic Indicator 1), five specific narcissistic personality traits in the child’s symptom display (Diagnostic indicator 2), and an encapsulated persucutory delusion displayed by the child regarding the child’s supposed “victimization” by the normal-range parenting of the targeted parent (Diagnostic Indicator 3).
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857
Barber, B. K. (Ed.) (2002). Intrusive parenting: How psychological control affects children and adolescents. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Barber, B. K. and Harmon, E. L. (2002). Violating the self: Parenting psychological control of children and adolescents. In B. K. Barber (Ed.), Intrusive parenting (pp. 15-52). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Stone, G., Buehler, C., & Barber, B. K.. (2002) Interparental conflict, parental psychological control, and youth problem behaviors. In B. K. Barber (Ed.), Intrusive parenting: How psychological control affects children and adolescents. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Soenens, B., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2010). A theoretical upgrade of the concept of parental psychological control: Proposing new insights on the basis of self-determination theory. Developmental Review, 30, 74–99.
Haley, J. (1977). Toward a theory of pathological systems. In P. Watzlawick & J. Weakland (Eds.), The interactional view (pp. 31-48). New York: Norton.
Minuchin. S. & Nichols, M.P. (1993). Family healing: Strategies for hope and understanding. New York: Touchstone.
Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Jason Aronson.
Titelman, P. (2003). Emotional cutoff in Bowen family systems theory: An Overview. In Emotional cutoff: Bowen family systems theory perspectives, P. Titelman (ed). New York: Haworth Press.