The door of empathy…

I’m going to share something very important from clinical psychology for all the targeted parents, but I’m going to do it off the record.

The reason I want this off the record is because I do NOT want to imply in any way, shape, manner, or form that the targeted parent is doing anything to create the child’s attachment pathology.  Nope, nope, nope.

Nor do I want to give targeted parents advice on how to get the child to love them, which would only expose the child more fully to their psychological brutalization from their narcissistic/(borderline) parent – we must first protect the child before we can ask the child to reveal authenticity.  The child is doing what the child must do to survive.

There is a reason for psychological defenses. We do not take away a defense until there is no need for the defense.  Right now, coping with the pathology of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent requires the child to say and do things.  This is a deeply disturbing aspect of the pathology.  Deeply disturbing, and it rises to the level of a confirmed DSM-5 diagnosis of Child Psychological Abuse

This is a trauma pathogen.  Complex trauma is born in an absence of parental empathy, and it is solved through it’s antidote, the opposite, the application of abundant empathy for the child.

When we ask others to understand our pain… that’s not empathy.  When we put our pain aside and seek to understand the child’s world… that’s empathy.

But we’re afraid.

Trauma pathology is also a world of fear.  Anxiety rules in trauma, and anxiety pulls us into our self-absorption of our own experience.  Anxiety captivates us and constricts our ability to flow outward into others, into empathy.  Anxiety motivates a self-focus, how do I keep myself safe?  Anxiety stops empathy.

Empathy is available when we are in a relaxed and calm state.  For a trauma mental health team that goes in after a major mass shooting or bombing, the trauma therapists have to be calm and composed.  We’re the ones bringing the empathy to the psychological treatment of trauma.  We need to be relaxed and composed, otherwise we lose the capacity for the very empathy that heals.

It doesn’t help any of the victims of trauma if the mental health trauma team is running around flustered and overwhelmed.  In trauma, someone needs to remain grounded.

In complex family conflict surrounding divorce (“parental alienation”; AB-PA), we’re dealing with a trauma pathogen, the ripple of trauma through the generations.  Complex trauma (relationship-based trauma) is born in the absence of parental empathy for the child.

The treatment of complex trauma is abundant authentic empathy for the child.

Not empathy for the pathology.  The pathology is a delusion; a false trauma reenactment narrative being imposed on the child by the unresolved childhood attachment trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  A false reality.

Instead, treatment is a resonant empathy for the authentic child alive beneath the pathology.  An empathy that draws forth this authentic child, because we, through our empathy, we see the authentic child – and the child sees their own self-authenticity reflected in our empathy.

What I want to share with targeted parents is an important – extremely valuable – communication skill.  It’s the empathy skill.  It’s simple, oh so simple.  And it will be one of the hardest things you will ever do.

Because you have buttons that can be pushed that will trigger your anxieties, and you will act from your (unconscious) anxieties and fears, and our anxieties and fears stops our empathy.

“But, but, but…”  Wait, these are your anxieties.  See how early they come.  The mere mention of your buttons and anxieties and up they pop, “but, but, but…”  Wait, calm… listen.

If you develop this empathy communication, magic opens up. I’m a clinical psychologist, it’s a healing magic.  It is one of the most magnificent communication skills you can possibly use.  I use it whenever I have the opportunity as a clinical psychologist, always with wonderful results.

Are you ready? Okay, here it is.

Don’t become defensive.

Simple. Isn’t that simple? When something is said, don’t defend.

“Well, what if…”

I know.  I told you it would be one of the hardest things you will ever do.  Didn’t I tell you that?  And right out of the gate you start hitting me with “what if… and what if… and am I just supposed to accept it?…” anxiety.

So I’ll wait.  When your anxiety is exhausted, we’ll move on.  No worries.  Anxiety starts us spinning, we don’t push past it, that just creates more anxiety and spinning.

The antidote is the opposite. Anxiety is up-arousal, the opposite is down arousal.  Relax.  Allow.  Notice the anxiety, and just let it float on by.


Why don’t we defend?  It’s important for you to understand the why.  That’s really important, because it will help you.  Knowing why, you’ll catch yourself defending and go, “dang,” and then you’ll relax and self-correct (that’s a Dorcy term; my psychology term is “self-regulate” – I like hers better; no worries, just self-correct and move on).

When we defend we make the child absorb us, the child must understand us.  The empathy is flowing the wrong direction.  I don’t care what the content is, I’m talking the flow of empathy; which direction?  In severe family pathology like this, we shouldn’t put the burden of solution on the child.  That’s not what the child needs. The child needs empathy FROM us.  The child needs us to understand them.  But when we defend, we’re asking them to understand US.

See?   Does that make sense about the direction for the flow of empathy, from the parent to the child?

So to help the child, to rescue the child from the quicksand, we stand on the bank and we extend a branch of understanding – of our empathy – and say, “Here, take this empathy and hold on, I’ll pull you out.”

We don’t need the parent jumping into the quicksand with the lost and confused child, that’s not going to help.  Nor do we need the parent asking the child to understand the parent’s world, that’s like throwing the child a boulder and saying, “Here, grab hold of this rock” as they sink under its weight.

Yeah, okay, you threw them something, but not something they can use to get out of the quicksand that they’re stuck in.

We need a parent.  That other parent isn’t such a good parent.  With that parent, the child gets all twisted up and confused.  The child needs a parent to help the child get un-twisted and un-confused.  That’s you.

How do you do that?  Off the record… Don’t respond defensively.

The child says, “You’re a bad parent” and you say, “No I’m not” – ahhhh, see.  You’re defensive.  You just got defensive.

“But what am I’m supposed to do? Am I supposed to agree with the child?”

I know. That’s your anxiety again.  I told you, it’s really simple… and oh so hard.  We’ll wait while your anxiety clears.  It’ll spin you for a while, just relax, don’t fight against anxiety – that’s just adding more tense.  Anxiety goes away when we relax and accept, notice the experience, and let it go by.

Dorcy calls it spinning.  I like that term.  In my psychology-speak I’d call it anxiety or self-regulation.  I think she has better terms for this stuff; self-correct, spinning. They’re good ways of describing the process.

So, have you calmed down from your anxiety and regained self-regulation?  Yuch, ugly word… Has the spinning stopped?  Okay.

So you don’t want to defend.  The child is full of the other parent’s nonsense (Dorcy calls it garbage; again, a better term).  The child does NOT need you adding your stuff by asking the child to understand you and your world.  So do we have that clearly understood?  No defending.

Anxiety all gone, ready to listen?

So then how do we respond with empathy and without defending?

Yay!  Woo hoo.  You’ve done it.  You’ve broken through to an amazing opportunity for solution… simply by asking the right question.

There’s probably half a dozen ways to respond with empathy and without defending, but you will NEVER find them or use them unless you first ask the question… unless you want to know.

Whew.  So we’re through the first important step – don’t defend, and have made it through your first round of anxiety (“but, but, but…”).  So if there’s six to eight things we can do, let me share a couple…

First, the one I use most often is, “Tell me more about that.”

Did I agree with what the child said?  No.  Did I defend?  No.  What did I do?  I cared about the child’s experience. I asked to learn more about the child.

As I learn about the child, I am bringing something valuable to the child… it’s called the “eyes-of-the-other” – the eyes-of-the-other is like the lantern that old man in the tarot cards holds, or on that Led Zeppelin album, you know that guy?  The eyes-of-the-other is like bringing that lantern into the darkness of the child’s self-experience.

Hmmm, I wonder what’s over here?  What’s this?  I’m learning about the child, and so is the child.  I’m not pushing, or going, or teaching, or doing anything at all.  I’m just following, curious.  I wonder, because I care.  What’s it like to be you?  I want to understand.

That’s empathy.

The child’s experience is all twisted up in some way.  What’s up with that?  I want to find out more.  That’s called caring and empathy for the child’s world.

From the degree of the child’s emotionality, that must be a very painful place to live in, the child.  What is the pain, and what can we do about it?  Let’s find out.

Oh, but then you know what’s going to happen if I ask the child to tell me more?  The child is going to say all this untrue and foul stuff.  I know.  That’s all the garbage from the other parent, isn’t it.  Boy oh boy, that must feel awful in the child to be holding onto all that garbage.

I bet the child needs to get that garbage out of them.  But where can it go?… to you.

Yep.  We need a parent.  The child is all full of this emotional garbage, and is all hurt and confused.  Yep, the child needs a parent to help sort this out.  And it’s not going to be the other parent, they’re the one that’s twisting up the child in the first place. It’s going to have to be you.

So then, how do we respond to this next round of assault from the child, all that garbage that’s being spewed at you and into your home?  Well, we know one thing… non-defensive.  So how do we respond non-defensively and empathically to nonsense garbage?

Well, sometimes no response is needed (another Dorcy construct that is wonderful; to disengage), and we allow the child to recognize the nonsense and self-correct.  No need to escalate the nonsense by us getting all wrapped up in it.

Sometimes, allowing the self-correct is all that’s needed.  The garbage is out, you allow the child to self-correct, “You done?” “Yeah.”  Then you move on – you take the garbage out of the kid and you dispose of it.  Don’t you hold on to it too.  No, no, no.  That’s garbage from the other parent, take it outside and get rid of it.

It was in the child.  The child gives it to you.  You take it from the child (through your empathy and caring) and now it’s out of the child.  Don’t escalate, don’t hold onto it yourself.  Allow the child to self-correct and then return to normal.

But there’s more you can do than just no-response-necessary.  But the good stuff is changing your buttons.  Once we change your buttons, well… good stuff starts to happen.  Dorcy refers to this is as changing how you show up.  Nice words for the constructs… changing how you show up, you show up differently.  Interesting.

But this is where it’s going to get hard.  It’s not really, but it’s going to seem that way until you stop making it hard.  You thought non-defensive was hard… this buttons place is where all the trauma anxiety marbles are.

So here it is… You need to not spin (not become dysregulated) in response to the trauma-triggers that the child is going to throw at you.  You’ve got buttons.  They’re not bad.  In any other situation, no worries whatsoever.  We all have our buttons.

They come from our childhood experiences.  I call them micro-traumas; totally normal.  They form us psychologically.  They form our unconscious beliefs and expectations about ourselves and others.  They’re unconscious, so we don’t know about them.  But other people can see them.  And we project them all the time.  No worries, totally normal.  The problem is…

Your ex- knows your buttons.bruce lee quote

The narcissistic and borderline personality seeks vulnerability.  Your buttons make you vulnerable. See what Bruce Lee says.  He’s right.  You know he’s right.  He’s talking about your buttons.

The other parent is implanting button-pushing pathology into your child, and sure enough, guess what happens – the child pushes your buttons and off you go, responding defensively instead of empathically.  Whenever you’re asking the child to understand you, you’re responding from the trauma-triggers, which keeps the garbage in the child.

If you’re a clinical psychologist following along, notice the structure of the pathogen in the role-reversal relationship; a child being used to meet the needs of a parent.  On the one side is the child being used by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (the pathogen), and this then sets up the other parent to SEEK the child’s nurture (the child’s love and affection); the child meeting the parent’s needs.  On both sides, the child is being asked to meet the emotional needs of the parent.  That’s the pathogen.

Once you see that this is a trauma pathogen and its structure, every detail becomes crystal clear and the pathology is clearly evident.

The solution is empathy for the child.

We have to get the garbage out of the child and straighten out the twisty.  We need a parent to respond non-defensively and guide the child in the child’s self-awareness back into the child’s self-authenticity – NOT into understanding what the pathology is (the child already knows that), that just puts the child smack dab in the middle of the loyalty conflict and the child’s emotional suffering.  Don’t make the child “understand.”

Help the child find self-awareness, and through self-awareness to find self-authenticity.  We need a parent.  We need a guide.  A calm and confident guide for the child’s emotional twisty.

The other parent is not a good parent.  We need you to be a parent to the child.  I know the child is mean to you, and says untrue and hurtful things.  That’s all the garbage from the other parent, trapped in the child.

In my therapy with normal everyday sorts of family conflicts, the child will sometimes tell the parent, “You’re not listening to me” and the parent says, “Yes I am.”

I stop it right there and say, “No you’re not.”  If you had said, “Tell me more about that” you would be listening to the child and what the child just said would then actually be wrong.  You do listen to the child because you just demonstrated it.  Instead, what you said discounted what the child said as being untrue.

This is important… we dispute the child NOT with our words, but through our actions, through what we do.  The child is wrong not because of what we say, but because of what we do.

“I do, I do, I do, I say this, I tell the child that…”  The anxiety again.  That’s the only thing that makes it difficult.  But it does and there’s no way around that.  Trauma solutions are always going to bring anxiety.  That’s just the way of it.  Once you learn anxiety release skills though, it becomes a whole lot easier to just allow and relax and stop spinning.


See, communication is not the words we say.  In the series: You don’t listen – Yes I do – that’s not listening… that’s disagreeing.  Listening is, “Tell me more about that.”  That’s listening.

You’re a bad parent — No I’m not — Yes you are, you do x and y and z that’s bad — I don’t do those things, you’re exaggerating and making things up. — No, that’s what happened, and you’re a bad parent. — That’s not what happened, I’m not a bad parent, I love you. — You’re a liar, that’s so fake. — That’s not fake, I do love you…

Do you hear any listening?  I don’t.

So, for communication, we need someone listening.  Who shall we ask to do that first? Somebody is going to have to start listening, who’s it going to be?  Shall we ask the child to listen to the parent, or the parent to listen to the child?

Shall we ask that the child listen to the parent?  Is that the directional flow of empathy we want, from the child to the parent?  The child taking care of the parent?  Is that where we should start?

No.  We never start with the child.  Parents are bigger, stronger, and more mature, we need an adult, we need a parent, we start with having the parent understand the child.  I don’t care what the content is, we start with the parent giving empathy to the child.

Is the child’s reality true?  No.  Do we agree with a false reality?  No.  So how do we disagree without becoming defensive?  Yay, wonderful question.  See how, as you relax your anxieties, you find really productive questions.

We solve this with empathy.  What appears to be locked by the trauma pathology, is unlocked by empathy.  We don’t have to convince the child of anything.  We lead with a lamp into their own authenticity.  Awareness brought from our honest and sincere desire to understand the child’s world from the child’s experience.

Do we agree with delusions?  No.  Do we know where they come from?  Yes.  Does the child need to know?  No.  The child simply needs to become re-anchored in reality.  So we need you in reality, not spinning in the trauma pathology of your ex- like the child is.  Your ex- is trapped, the child is trapped.  Don’t you be trapped too.  We need someone who is grounded.

First though, we have to ask the right questions that will lead us through the right door; the door of empathy for the child.  Then we have to get over the anxiety of our own stuff.  Anxiety is the remnant stuff of trauma world, the ripple of trauma.

Next… and here’s where we arrive, we have to identify our own buttons so we can remove them, move them to a different location, disconnect their wires, whatever we have to do so that your ex- can’t find and push your buttons anymore (through the child; your ex is pushing your buttons by manipulating the child to do it).

Yes, I entirely agree, your ex- is manipulating the child in awful ways.  Bad parent.  Stop it.  And… you’re the one with the buttons.  It’d be helpful if you hid those or got rid of them somehow so your ex- can’t find them all the time using the kid.  That we have buttons is normal, that your ex- is manipulating the child to push those buttons… it would be helpful if we altered those buttons so your ex- can’t do that anymore.  That will free you from the trauma pathogen, and then you can free the child.

It doesn’t help the child in quicksand if you jump in too.  Then we just have two people in the quicksand.  Stand on solid ground and hold out your empathy for the child to grab on to.  Use the light from your empathy (your “eyes-of-the-other”) to help bring self-awareness into the discovery of self-authenticity.

Remember, the child is doing what the child must do to survive with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The child didn’t choose this parent.  You chose this parent for the child.  It’s not the child’s fault the child has to cope with this parent.  The child is in a difficult position having to cope with the pathology of their parent surrounding divorce.  Empathy for the child.  We must be able to protect the child before we can ask the child to reveal their self-authenticity.

The kid’s not the kid, you know that.  That’s your ex- pushing your buttons.  Bad ex-, bad parent.  Stop it.  And… they’re your buttons.  If you can remove them, move them, or disconnect them then you can short-circuit the pathology.  Once you’re out of the loop of crazy; Yay, one’s free.  And you can then guide the child out of crazy.

Let me be clear, none of this attachment pathology surrounding divorce is being caused by the targeted parent.  The targeted parent is a target of domestic violence – emotional spousal abuse using the child as a weapon.

Furthermore, in weaponizing the child the allied parent is creating such severe psychopathology in the child that it rises to the level of a confirmed DSM-5 diagnosis of child psychological abuse (V995.51; p. 719).

The family pathology in complex family conflict surrounding divorce is a cross-generational coalition of the child with a narcissistic-borderline parent who is using the child as a weapon against the other spouse-and-parent.  It is the responsibility of professional psychology to fully assess, accurately diagnose, and effectively treat this pathology

It is a trauma pathology.  The trans-generational transmission of trauma.  The ripple of trauma across the generations.

Complex trauma is created by the absence of parental empathy for the child.  It is solved by parental empathy for the child – not for the delusion – empathy for the child.

For therapists, start with some basic human empathy for the targeted parent, the victim of the intimate partner violence.

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


9 thoughts on “The door of empathy…”

  1. Dr Childress,
    This article shook me to my bone! The most compelling , helpful and enlightening blog post yet!
    I truly don’t know how to thank you for your devotion to this cause. I will someday be able to look in my son’s eyes and say to him ” Tell me more. “I don’t see him or have contact with him these days but when that day comes when we are together I will LISTEN AND BE EMPATHETIC TO HIS NEEDS AND LEARN WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE HIM! I have reflected and I realize I made mistakes with how I reacted and let the crisis I found myself in take control and further relinquished my freedom from my ex and most importantly , further traumatize my son.
    You are a constant source of self care , self improvement by helping us stay centered and focused on the safety and wellbeing of our child not harboring anger.

    God Bless!

  2. Wow, Dr.Childress this is one of your best and that’s a very high bar to have jumped. As prepared as I was to defend myself against any suggestion that I could do better, you got me. I think I can do this if I ever get the chance.
    I am not an alienated parent in the usual sense, but I am the parent of an adult child who has estranged me and cut me off from himself and my grandchildren for almost five years now but the third party involvement and all other elements are identical.
    Although my alienated child is 42 years old, he probably feels trapped, confused and traumatized too. I hope I get a chance to listen to him your way some day.

  3. Thank you so very much for the valuable and generous advice and therapy. It landed just in time as I am experiencing great anxiety, fear and all kinds of thoughts, around my grown-up child (21 years old) that is rejecting me. She is applying the silence punishment and I keep writing to her that I love her, just what you wrote in another post. Thank you again…

  4. Dear Dr Childress
    to say thank you for writing this – even after 6 years of no direct contact, and the level of rejection being just as high today as it has previously been, reading this has been immensely helpful, in its powerful distillation of the reality from the perspective of the child/young adult/person.

    I’ve forwarded this on to three contacts with my best wishes, and I presume in turn they will share as and where is appropriate.

    I have found this to be the most human and touching thing I’ve read for some while.

    As parents and step parents all we want to do is understand, and break through. I pray one day the chance occurs.

    Thank you

  5. Thank you Dr Childress – I’d love more examples of effective empathetic responding to use – because i feel if I only say’tell me more about that’ most of the time, my son might end up mocking that?

    1. Louise,
      I know Dr. Childress will continue to enlighten us with his wisdom. I will add something I learned from one of the earliest therapist involved in my case. She understood exactly what was happening and that frightened my ex so the attack parent obstructed her care for my son.
      She said something similar to Dr. Childress. She told me when my son comes to me and smarts off or becomes verbally aggressive that I should set the parameters for his needing to let it all out.
      Something like ” Alex, you seem angry and I see you are feeling angry at me, so I will let you get it out now and you can say what you need to say and then it is done and we move forward. Nothing more needs to be said , I will know how you feel.
      This way you are being empathetic, they can unload their poison but you also set safe boundaries for their anger.
      I am not sure if this fits your situation but it did mine. It would be remarkable, he would do this and five minutes later he was telling me what he wants to do that day or something that happened to him at school that he thought was funny.
      These poor children!

      Dr. C , if there is something you don’t agree with please correct this for others. I just know it did help me a lot.

      Good luck,

  6. Reblogged this on Parental Alienation and commented:
    Empathy is available when we are in a relaxed and calm state. For a trauma mental health team that goes in after a major mass shooting or bombing, the trauma therapists have to be calm and composed. We’re the ones bringing the empathy to the psychological treatment of trauma. We need to be relaxed and composed, otherwise we lose the capacity for the very empathy that heals.

  7. Good morning from France Dr Childress. Brilliant and honest article, I have just been reconciled with my daughter after 25 years of alienation. What you say rings so true, the alienator continues to try to manipulate in the background but the love and empathy for my once alienated child shines throuhg the lies and manipulation. One thing I have learned through this ordeal is not to speak about the past, just to move forward with love and positivity. We cannot change the pathogenic behaviour of the alienator but we can change our own behaviour!!!! Still waiting in hope for my son after 27 years?……..

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