Housekeeping: Conference Presentations

With the publication of Foundations, interest has been expressed about my possibly presenting at a conference in various locations, both nationally and internationally. I want to take a moment to address this topic before returning to the substance of attachment-based “parental alienation” in my future posts.

I am willing to talk anywhere, anytime.

Professional Conferences

With regard to standard professional conferences, I will soon be submitting a proposal to the California Psychological Association for a 90-minute seminar at their 2016 convention (submission deadline August 31).  I will also be submitting a proposal for the 2016 national conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (submission deadline 10/2/15). And when the 2016 call for proposals comes from the American Psychological Association I will submit a proposal to them as well.

My proposal to the California Psychological Association will be for a seminar on the theoretical foundations and diagnosis of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” similar to my seminars delivered through the Masters Lecture Series of California Southern University. These Masters Lecture Series seminars are available online (search terms: California Southern University Childress parental alienation).

My proposal to the AFCC will be for a talk on the Single Case ABAB protocol and the Treatment Needs Assessment protocol as alternative assessment and remedy approaches when negative parental influence on the child is alleged.  If this seminar proposal is accepted, I’m confident it would be a powerful ground-breaking talk that would impact our approach to assessing and responding to the “parental alienation” pathology within the legal system.

We’ll see what happens.

But I’m just one lone psychologist working in obscurity in Southern California to change the world. I figure that at some point the accuracy of an attachment-based reformulation of the “parental alienation” construct will reach a tipping point in the consciousness of the professional community so that it receives some attention and can no longer be ignored. At which point, if I’m not 10 years dead, I’ll begin getting invitations to present at these professional conferences.

Speaking Tour

I have also recently submitted an application to PESI (www.pesi.com), a continuing education organization which provides speakers for professional seminars presented across the country. Mental health professionals must acquire a specified number of continuing education credits during each licensing/re-licensing period. Among the things PESI does is arrange speaker tours to various cities to provide seminars offering continuing education credits for mental health professionals.

I’m always being asked, “Do you have a referral or know someone who understands an attachment-based model of ‘parental alienation’ in <location>?”  I’m sorry but I don’t.  If I am sent on a speaking tour, however, this might be one way to train up therapists in your area who are knowledgeable in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of attachment-based “parental alienation.”  So I thought PESI might offer this opportunity and I submitted my proposal to them to become one of their stable of speakers.  We’ll see what happens here as well.

If you want to contact PESI and support them taking me into their stable of speakers, their website is www.pesi.com.

Sponsored Conference Presentation

There have also been feelers extended to me regarding my willingness to travel to various countries for talks. I’ve been contacted by people from England, Australia, France, and South Africa who have all expressed interest in bringing me to their countries for a presentation.  Works for me if it works for you.

Here’s my thoughts on inviting me to present at a special sponsored conference:

1.)  Generate the interest and focused attention of the professional psychological association and legal association in your country on my talk.  For the U.S. these would be the American Psychological Association and American Bar Association. You want them to be aware of my talk, you want their anticipation and attention on my talk, and you want them totally focused on what I’m going to say. 

My talk will not disappoint them.

2.)  Give me at least one day, I’d recommend two days, Saturday and Sunday, around the following schedule:

Day 1:

  • Theory (2 hours)
  • Diagnosis (2 hours)
  • The Pathogen (1 hour)
  • Questions

Day 2:

  • Treatment (2 hours)
  • Legal (2 hours)
  • Professional Issues (1 hour)
  • Questions (until there are no more questions remaining)

The High Road Protocol

If you really want to spark the conference into the next level, include Dorcy Pruter discussing the High Road to Family Reunification protocol. She has the treatment intervention nailed.

The High Road protocol is a four-day psycho-educational intervention that effectively resolves the child’s symptomatic presentation in a matter of days.  The High Road protocol still requires a period of the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  But in the context of a protective separation the High Road protocol will quickly recover the child’s authentic normal-range functioning.

I’m a psychologist.  In general I would be recommending therapy since that’s what I do.  However, in the case of the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” I would recommend the High Road protocol of Pruter as the initial intervention.  I have reviewed the High Road protocol, I understand how it accomplishes what it does, and if we can recover the authentic child in a matter of days rather than an extended period of three to six months of therapy, why wouldn’t we do that?  She has the intervention nailed. 

However, even after the High Road intervention protocol recovers the authentic child, this recovery will remain fragile for the first six to nine months, so the child and formerly targeted parent will need a period of follow-up relationship therapy to stabilize the child’s recovered authenticity before reintroducing the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Additional Training

If you decide to bring me over to present in your country, then I would suggest you arrange to have me provide your child protection social workers with an additional seminar in the days following the primary seminar, focused on their role in assessing the child psychological abuse of attachment-based “parental alienation” (attachment trauma reenactment pathology). The pathology of “parental alienation” is a child protection issue.

If you decide to bring Dorcy over (which I would recommend if you can), then I suggest you arrange for her to train four to six interventionists in the High Road protocol to seed this solution in your country. 

Keep in mind that mental health therapists will make especially BAD interventionists with the High Road protocol.  We can’t help ourselves, we try to do therapy.  The High Road to Family Reunification protocol is not therapy.  That’s why it can achieve in a matter of days what it takes therapy months to accomplish.  The High Road protocol is an entirely different type of intervention model.

Just follow the structured series of activities in the sequence laid out by the protocol and these psycho-educational activities will restore the normal-range functioning of the child’s brain systems.  We can explain how this happens at the conference.

I would recommend selecting interventionists who are psychologically healthy former targeted parents (who have no currently active emotional issues that would impair their ability to enact the intervention protocol).  Newly graduated therapists may be able to enact the protocol as long as they DON’T try to do therapy.  Therapy will activate the child’s grief and guilt and totally undermine the intervention protocol.  The High Road intervention is not therapy.  Just follow the structured steps of the protocol activities and it will work. Don’t try to improve it or make it “better” or add therapy. 

It is a set of catalytic interventions that require the proper intervention in the proper sequence to restore the normal-range functioning of the various brain systems.  Just follow the steps.

Reimburse My Expenses

If you want me to present somewhere, all I ask is that you cover my expenses. This will include my travel expenses of hotel and airfare as well as the time that I will need to take away from my private practice. Seeing patients in my private practice is how I pay my bills. If you’re going to take me away from my private practice I will be losing money needed to pay my bills, so you’ll need to reimburse me for my lost earned income from my private practice.

I’m not seeking to make money off of family tragedy.  But neither can I afford to lose money. I have a family to support and bills to pay.  If you take me away from my private practice I simply ask that you reimburse me for my lost earned income for the days I’m away from my private practice.

If you want to do this conference route, you may want to charge for the conference and provide continuing education credits for mental health professionals and attorneys. This could potentially offset the costs for my travel and lost earned income.  Any remaining money would belong to the sponsoring organization.

In the United States, some universities have student honor societies, such as Psi Chi for psychology and the student bar association at law schools.  I always thought it would be a nice idea if a university’s Psi Chi organization joined with the university law school’s student bar association to host a seminar presentation in an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” – The Interface of Psychology and the Law in High Conflict Divorce: Future Directions.

Presentations

I am working on developing presentations to professional organizations.  I am exploring opportunities to provide continuing education seminars around the country to educate mental health professionals through an organization such as PESI.  If someone wants to bring me someplace to present, I’d be more than happy to come and talk.  All I ask is that you reimburse for my travel expenses and lost earned income from my private practice.

If you want to bring me overseas, I would suggest that you plan for a two-day talk.  I would strongly recommend you get the focused attention of your professional mental health and legal associations on my talk.  I will not disappoint. 

If I am allowed to present on Saturday and Sunday with the focused attention of the mental health and legal communities on my talk, I am fully confident that “parental alienation” will be solved in your country by Monday morning.  Bold words.  Here’s why.

Up on my website, near the top of the Parental Alienation section, is a new checklist I developed entitled:

Attachment-Based Model of Parental Alienation Component Pathology

(Attachment Trauma Reenactment Pathology)

(Splitting Pathology in a Cross-Generational Coalition)

This checklist lists all of the component constructs of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  There is nothing new in an attachment-based model of the pathology.  All of the component elements are fully established psychological principles and constructs.  All of the component elements are amply supported in the peer-reviewed research literature.

There is NOTHING NEW in an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  It’s important that you let that sink in. 

There is NOTHING NEW in an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

The pathology of “parental alienation” is already described in the established peer-reviewed pathologies of professional psychology.  There is NOTHING NEW in an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.” 

There is nothing new in an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.” 

The only barrier to the solution is ignorance. 

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

Child Custody Evaluations

I am still reviewing the scientific literature on child custody evaluations. I’m at the third or fourth tier of research right now.  In my review of the literature to date, which is fairly extensive, I am deeply disturbed by what I’m finding, or actually NOT finding.

From what I see…

There is absolutely no scientifically based foundation to the practice of child custody evaluations. Zero. None.

Child custody evaluations are little more than exceedingly expensive guesses. As far as I can tell, the recommendations produced by child custody evaluations are no more valid that looking in a crystal ball or reading the entrails of a goat.

I have found no scientific research supporting the validity of the conclusions and recommendations produced by child custody evaluations. In fact, I’ve found no scientific research that has even TRIED to support the validity of the conclusions and recommendations of child custody evaluations.

And even the theoretical foundations from clinical and developmental psychology that might be relied on for making the guesses that occur in child custody evaluations appear to be absent or deeply flawed.

Let me be clear on this statement:

Based on my review of the research literature, there is no scientific research or scientifically derived data to support the validity of the conclusions and recommendations reached by child custody evaluations.

The Construct of Validity

The scientific construct of validity essentially means that the conclusions we reach as a result of our assessment or research are true… that they are valid.

According to a standard textbook on scientific methodology (Cozby, 2009):

“Validity refers to “truth” and the accurate representation of information” (p. 85).

The scientific construct of validity refers to the degree to which the findings of our assessment or research are true.

So, for example, the validity of an intelligence test means the degree to which the intelligence test actually measures the construct of “intelligence.”

A test of puzzle solving ability might represent a valid measure of intelligence, depending on how “intelligence” is defined, but a test of a person’s ability to count from 1 to 10 is not likely to be a valid test of intelligence (depending on how the construct of “intelligence” is operationally defined).

I don’t want to become too technical on this point, but I do want to establish that this isn’t me, this is standard scientific methodology, so again, turning to the textbook definition of validity:

“Construct validity refers to the adequacy of the operational definition of variables. To what extent does the operational definition of a variable actually reflect the true theoretical meaning of the variable?

In terms of measurement, construct validity is a question of whether the measure that is employed actually measures the construct it is intended to measure.

Applicants for some jobs are required to take a Clerical Ability Test; this measure is supposed to predict an individual’s clerical ability. The validity of such a test is determined by whether it actually does measure this ability.” (Cozby, 2009, p. 96)

Validity is a central construct in scientific research and assessment.

The scientific method contains several defined approaches of establishing validity for an assessment instrument or procedure.  Again, according to Cozby (2009) these scientifically established methods for determining validity include:

Face Validity

The content of the measure appears to reflect the construct being measured.

 Content Validity

The content of the measure is linked to the universe of content that defines the construct.

 Predictive validity

Scores on the measure predict behavior on a criterion measured at a time in the future.

Concurrent validity

Scores on the measure are related to a criterion measured at the same time (concurrently).

Convergent validity

Scores on the measure are related to other measures of the same construct.

Discriminant validity

Scores on the measure are not related to other measures that are theoretically different.

Cozby, 2009, p. 97

Again, I don’t want to get too technical in this blog post, I just want to highlight that this isn’t me.

The construct of validity is a standard scientifically defined construct regarding whether something we assert is true, and there are standard scientifically defined approaches to establishing an assessment procedure’s validity.

Regarding the validity of the conclusions and recommendations produced by child custody evaluations (i.e., are they true), no effort has even been made to establish the scientific validity of the conclusions and recommendations reached through the process of child custody evaluations. Much as I try (and I’m trying), I cannot find a single research study examining the scientific evidence for the validity of child custody evaluations.

I want to be clear on this, I’m not saying that the scientific data on the validity of child custody evaluations is weak… I’m saying it is NON-EXISTENT.

There is absolutely NO scientifically established foundation for the validity of the conclusions and recommendations produced by child custody evaluations. None. Zero. Not one study. Ever. Nothing.

There is no scientific support whatsoever for the validity of the conclusions and recommendations produced by child custody evaluations. Might as well cast tarot cards or have a monkey throw darts at a dartboard.

There is no scientifically based support for the validity of the conclusions and recommendations produced by child custody evaluations. None.

Child custody evaluations are essentially, “junk science” and “voodoo assessment.”

That’s a strong statement.

Yet I would challenge any proponent for the practice of child custody evaluations to cite for me one research study that even seeks to establish the scientific validity of the conclusions and recommendations produced by child custody evaluations. No one has even tried to establish the scientific foundation for the validity of child custody evaluations.

Even more to the point, however, I would challenge the proponents for the practice of child custody evaluations to cite me the research support demonstrating the validity for the conclusions and recommendations of child custody evaluations, the face validity, content validity, predictive validity, concurrent validity, convergent validity, and/or discriminant validity.

There is none. Zero. Nothing. There is NO scientifically established foundation for the conclusions and recommendations produced by the practice of child custody evaluations. None.

The systematic collection of data provides the APPEARANCE of scientific rigor, but the conclusions and recommendations are 100% guesswork. There is no scientific support for the validity of the conclusions and recommendations produced by child custody evaluations. None.

The conclusions and recommendations of child custody evaluations are essentially “junk science” – “voodoo assessment” – rattle some beads, perform some rituals of data collection, recite some incantations, and just make up some recommendations based on the whims and prejudices of the moment.

Despite the apparent rigor involved with the systematic collection of data, there are NO scientifically described or established criteria in any of the literature for linking the conclusions and recommendations made in child custody evaluations to the data collected. As far as I can tell, it is pure, unadulterated, guesswork that has no defined linkage to any theoretical or scientifically established foundation.

Might as well read the entrails of a goat.

Operational Definitions

As noted by Cozby, the key to establishing the scientific validity for any assessment procedure is to “operationally define” the construct being assessed.

If, for example, we are going to create an assessment for “intelligence,” we first need to “operationally define” what we mean by “intelligence.” Is it the amount of vocabulary the person knows? Is it some form of problem solving ability? Is it a combination of both? Are there different types of “intelligence?”

How do we define the construct of “intelligence” that we are going to be assessing?  The operational definition for the construct provides the foundation for the scientific validity studies that will follow.  If we don’t have an operational definition for the construct, then we cannot collect scientific data on the validity of the construct because we haven’t defined what the construct means.

Once we define what we mean by a given construct, such as “intelligence,” other people may then disagree with our definition, and a lively debate and dialogue ensues regarding the definition of the construct. And different approaches to assessment will emerge based on different approaches to defining the construct.

However, if we don’t ever define the constructs we’re assessing, then no debate or discussion ever occurs.  Everyone just makes up their own definitions based on whatever they need the construct to mean in order to justify what it is that they want to do.

In one case, the “best interests” of the child are factors xyz. In another case, they’re factors abc. In a third case, they’re factors qrs. There is no defined standard for determining what the “best interests” of the child are.

For evaluator A, the child’s “best interests” might be x.  For evaluator B, the child’s “best interests” might be y.  Without an operational definition for the construct, the “best interests” of the child become whatever I want them to be in order to justify my decision.

The “best interests” of the child becomes a fluid and malleable construct that I can define in any way I want based on whatever it is that I want to do.  If I want to recommend xyz, I simply emphasize xyz as being in the “best interests” of the child and I minimize the importance of qrs.  If, on the other hand, I want to do qrs, then I simply define qrs as being in the “best interests” of the child, and I minimize the importance of xyz.  The construct becomes a means to justify whatever decision I want to make.

My decisions aren’t based on the best interests of the child. In fact, it’s just the reverse, the “best interests” of the child are based on my decision. Whatever I decide, I then use the construct of the “best interests” of the child to justify this decision.

Q: But aren’t your conclusions and recommendations based on the data?

A: Naw, not really. I collect a lot of data, but then I can interpret and weight the data in any way I want. I can make this thing more important than that. Or I can ignore this data and highlight that data. I can do that in any way I want, because nothing is defined, there are no operational definitions for any of this. It’s all based on however I define the constructs based on my desires, whims, and prejudices. So I just decide what I want my conclusions and recommendations to be, and then I interpret the data accordingly, weighting this and discounting that.

Q: But what about all that data collection you do? Doesn’t that mean anything?

A: That’s just show. It’s a ritual we go through to give the appearance of scientific rigor.

By putting in so much effort and collecting so much information it looks like our conclusions and recommendations must be based on the application of “scientific principles” to the thorough collection of data. But that’s just a show for the audience. If we didn’t collect all that data, no one would give our conclusions any credibility. So we have to do it to establish our credibility.

But when it comes down to it, there’s no established principles or guidelines for how we INTERPRET that data, and it’s the interpretation of data that really matters. So we can pretty much do whatever we want in terms of coming up with our conclusions and recommendations, we can reach any conclusion we want or offer any recommendation, without any restriction or limitation imposed by whether our conclusions or recommendations are accurate or correct.

Generally it’s best to stay in the mid-range with recommendations.  If you don’t take a stand, you can’t really be attacked.  Just kind of go with the way things are, maybe a little nudge here and there.  And if there’s any unresolved issues, just recommend therapy.

Oh, and here’s the best part, because child custody evaluations are kept protected by the court, no other mental health professionals ever review our work for the accuracy of our interpretations, conclusions, and recommendations.  We can pretty much do whatever we want  And let me tell you, all that time spent collecting data, and then report writing, is pretty lucrative.

Providing operational definitions for a construct allows professional psychology to discuss and debate the accuracy of this definition. New ideas emerge and the understanding for the construct deepens and improves through professional dialogue and debate, which ultimately leads to better assessment procedures and improved methodologies. 

For example, in the field of intelligence assessment, developing an operational definition for the construct of intelligence has created tremendously robust professional dialogue and disagreement. There’s Spearman’s proposal for a general intelligence factor (“g”), there’s Thurstone’s set of primary mental abilities, there’s Cattell and Horn’s proposal for fluid and crystallized intelligence, there’s Howard Gardner’s (different Gardner) proposal for eight distinctly different types of intelligence.  With each proposal regarding an operational definition for “intelligence” our understanding for and assessment of the construct improves.

Absence of Professional Discussion

Where is the corresponding robust debate and dialogue regarding the constructs used and assessed by child custody evaluations?

What do we mean by the construct “best interests” of the child? How are we operationally defining this construct of “best interests?”

As important as our operational definition for this construct, what is the scientific evidence that supports our operational definition of the “best interests” of the child as being the factors we identify?  Where is the professional dialogue and debate?

What do we mean by the construct of “parental capacity?” How are we operationally defining the construct of “parental capacity?”

As important as our operational definition for this construct, what is the scientific evidence that supports the factors we’re using in our operational definition of  “parental capacity?” Where is the professional dialogue and debate surrounding the key factors in parenting?

Where is the robust debate and dialogue within professional psychology surrounding what factors define the “best interests” of the child, or what factors define “parental capacity?” There is none. It is totally absent. Doesn’t anyone else in mental health find that spookily disturbing? That we have NO professional dialogue or debate about such central tenets of child custody assessment?

Q:  How is it we have NO discussion or debate around defining these constructs?

A:  There’s no disagreement because we just let everyone make up whatever definition they want.  No definition.  No debate.

Try as I may, I cannot find a single operational definition for either of these key and central constructs for the assessment conducted in child custody evaluations. I find general guidelines, such as for the “best interests” of the child:

  1. the child’s wishes,
  2. any history of abuse,
  3. the parents’ wishes,
  4. each parents’ ability to share the child with the other parent, and
  5. the environment that best promotes the development of physical, mental, and spiritual faculties.

Current statutes. (2003). In Handbook of forensic psychology: Resource for mental health and legal professionals. Oxford, United Kingdom: Elsevier Science & Technology.

But these general guidelines for domains of information to consider lack the specificity needed to be reliable operational definitions for the construct of “best interests” of the child.

How should we interpret the child’s expressed wishes? How much weight do we give them relative to other factors?

Debate: And if we consider the child’s expressed wishes, won’t we then be turning the child into a “prize to be won” by the parents, and won’t this lead to efforts by the parents to influence the child’s choice and preferences (“Choose me, Choose me. If you come live with me I won’t make you do homework. If you come live with me I’ll buy you a new gaming system.”). Won’t this turn the child into a battleground for the parents’ spousal dispute as a “prize to be won” by the “best parent” (by the parent who best appeases or most intimidates the child)?

How will considering the child’s wishes affect, or be affected by, the parent’s ability to share the child with the other parent? Aren’t we making it harder for the parents to “share the child” by making them competitors for the child’s affection?

And how are we operationally defining the last construct of “the environment that best promotes the development of physical, mental, and spiritual faculties” of the child? What are the criteria by which we are making this determination?

In all of my efforts to date, and they have been considerable, I have yet to find an operational definition for either of the key and central constructs of child custody evaluations; the “best interests” of the child and the “parental capacity” of the parent. I see these terms used, I just haven’t located an operational definition for what these terms mean.

Without operational definitions for either of these key and central constructs of child custody assessments, then there can be no scientifically established basis for the assessment. The child custody evaluation becomes nothing more that “making it up as we go” by defining “best interests” or “parental capacity” in whatever way we want in order to justify whatever we decide to do.

I find a whole lot of guidelines for what data to collect, and for how the data should be collected. But that’s not the same thing as operational definitions for how to INTERPRET and use the collected data to reach a conclusion and recommendations. It’s this second part, regarding the criteria by which the clinical data obtained during the custody evaluation should be interpreted, in which the professional silence is deafening.

Not my Fault

The emperor has no clothes. Sorry.  He’s naked.  That’s not my fault.

To my professional colleagues… don’t get mad at me. Somebody needs to say it. Child custody evaluations have no operational definitions for the key and central constructs they use in their assessment, and they have no scientific support for the validity of the conclusions and recommendations they make.

Child custody evaluations are scientifically naked. The emperor has no clothes. Sorry. Not my fault. I’m not the tailor, I’m only the kid standing on the parade route, watching the (naked) emperor go by.

Child on the parade route: “Look mommy, that custody evaluation has no clothes on.”

Mommy: “Shhh, don’t say that, you’ll get in trouble.”

Don’t blame me, I’m not the tailor.  I’m just the kid watching the naked emperor go by.

There is no scientifically established basis for the conclusions and recommendations reached by child custody evaluations. They are “junk science” comprised of “voodoo assessment” – rattle some beads, perform some rituals, recite some incantations, and make up some pronouncement based on whatever whim, motive, or prejudice moves you.

Secrecy of the “Insiders”

Child custody evaluations are secret reports guarded and protected by the court. Since their release is restricted, they are not subject to critical professional review and scrutiny. They represent the judgement of one person, operating alone, without consultation or review. When they are subjected to review and scrutiny, it is typically by other forensic child custody evaluators to see if the “procedures” of the child custody evaluation process were followed, not regarding the accuracy of clinical data interpretation and the validity of the recommendations.

Any critical review of the child custody report is not about the clinical interpretation of the clinical data, or the validity of recommendations that were derived from the interpretation of the clinical data.  Instead the review is about the “procedures” employed in the custody evaluation; did the custody evaluator rattle the proper beads and perform the proper rituals to appease the tutelary spirits of child custody? Were collaterals interviewed?  Were home visits made?  Were the proper test instruments employed?

And the best way to stay out of trouble is to make middle-of-the-road recommendations.  And by all means, DON’T IDENTIFY PARENTAL PATHOLOGY (even if identifying the parental pathology is in the best interests of the child).

The rare professional reviews of child custody evaluations that do occur do not typically involve a critical analysis regarding the accuracy of the clinical psychology interpretations made regarding the clinical data collected, nor do they involve a critical analysis of the appropriateness from a clinical psychology framework regarding the recommendations made based on the interpretation of the clinical data.

In my role as an expert consultant in legal cases, on multiple occasions the court has made available for my review child custody evaluations. I have had the opportunity to review the clinical data reported in the custody evaluations, as well as the professional interpretation of this clinical data and the recommendations that were made based on this interpretation of the clinical data. As a clinical psychologist, I am deeply appalled by the extraordinarily poor interpretations of the clinical data that I have found in the child custody evaluations that I have professionally reviewed.

As a clinical psychologist, it is bad. VERY bad.

Statement to the Court

I have tremendous respect for the courts and our legal system.

My father, an attorney, worked for the federal court system for 30 years. He was with the State Bar of California and served as a magistrate within the court system. He was a man of great integrity. I have a deep respect for him, and for the court system in which he served.

Out of my deep respect for the justice system and for the Court, and from my professional integrity as a clinical psychologist serving children and families, and from my professional background in CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY (not forensic psychology), my understanding of child and family psychotherapy, and my professional knowledge of child development, I wish to respectfully offer to the Court my extremely deep and troubling concern about the QUALITY of the clinical interpretations made in forensic child custody evaluations.

The secrecy in which these child custody evaluations are held prevents their professional review regarding the level of professional competency and therefore accuracy of the clinical interpretations of the clinical data collected in these forensic evaluations. These forensic evaluations do an exceptional job of collecting data, but the clinical interpretations of the clinical data is, in the cases I have reviewed, deeply flawed and deeply troubling.

I am concerned that an inherent conflict of interest exists within forensic psychology that prevents an adequate critical analysis within professional psychology regarding the practice of child custody evaluations, and that this inherent conflict of interest prevents relevant information from being made available for the Court’s consideration regarding the absence of scientifically established validity for the recommendations provided by child custody evaluations and the poor quality of clinical interpretations contained within these custody recommendations.

The field of child custody evaluations is currently within an echo chamber of like-minded forensic psychologists that prevents an appropriately critical professional oversight and review of the interpretations and recommendations made in child custody evaluations, and of the absence of scientifically established foundation for the interpretations and recommendations made by child custody evaluations.

Based on my review of the clinical interpretations made in the multiple child custody evaluations that the Court has allowed me to review as an expert consultant to my clients, I wish to respectfully offer to the Court my deep concern as a clinical psychologist regarding the level of professional accuracy contained in the CLINICAL interpretations of the clinically relevant data contained in child custody evaluations, which adversely affects the conclusions and recommendations reached in these child custody reports.

Recommendation to the Court

The recommendations I would respectfully offer to the Court are:

1.)  Consulting Psychologist:  I would recommend that the Court allow each parent (if they choose) to select a consulting psychologist in addition to the court-appointed forensic evaluator, thereby creating a panel of three psychologists surrounding the custody evaluation; one psychologist representing the court, and a psychologist representing each of the parents, much in the same way as each parent is represented by legal counsel in the courtroom.

2.)  Review and Consultation:  I would recommend that these consulting psychologists be empowered to review with the court-appointed psychologist the clinical data once it is collected by the court-appointed custody evaluator, and that they provide professional consultation to the court-appointed custody evaluator regarding the interpretation of the clinical data, and the potential conclusions and recommendations to be derived from the clinical data.

3.)  Dissenting Opinion:  I would also recommend that these consulting psychologists be allowed to write a “dissenting opinion” if they choose regarding the interpretation of the clinical data and the recommendations made by the court-appointed psychologist, which would be appended to the final report of the court-appointed custody evaluator.

This oversight and consultation by independent professionals is warranted by the tremendous importance of the decision and recommendations provided by the child custody evaluation and the complete absence of scientific foundation for the validity of the conclusions and recommendations reached by child custody assessments.

Professional Psychology

I would also call on professional psychology to critically examine and consider the theoretical and scientific foundations for the practice of child custody evaluations. My concerns are based on the following.

1.)  Absence of Scientific Foundation:  The complete absence of any research examining and supporting the scientifically established validity of the conclusions and recommendations reached by child custody assessments. There is no supporting scientific evidence for the face validity, content validity, predictive validity, concurrent validity, convergent validity, or discriminant validity of the conclusions and recommendations produced by child custody assessments. In the absence of such supportive scientific evidence, the recommendations offered by child custody assessments are little more than “junk science” and “voodoo assessment.”

2.)  Absence of Operational Definitions:  The complete absence of established operational definitions for the key and central constructs of the child’s “best interests” and the parent’s “parental capacity” that are central to the child custody assessment.  Given the incredible importance of the recommendations being rendered by child custody evaluations in influencing the Court regarding the lives of children and families, there needs to be a much more engaged and vigorous professional discussion regarding the specific factors defining the constructs of the child’s “best interests” and the parent’s “parental capacity” to meet those interests (similar to the robust discussions generated surrounding the construct of “intelligence”).

3.)  Cultural Considerations:  Any assessment of parenting and family processes is necessarily embedded in a cultural context. A robust and vigorous discussion needs to be engaged regarding the influence of culture on the process of child custody assessment and the formation of recommendations, particularly around the standard employed in assessing parenting practices and the establishment of family values.

4.)  Conflict of Interest:  The current practice of conducting child custody evaluations is financially lucrative. The ability of forensic psychology to critically evaluate itself is therefore compromised by an inherent conflict of interest. As a consequence of this inherent conflict of interest in meeting the needs of clients, it becomes even more essential to ensure that a deeply critical independent analysis be conducted regarding the scientific validity for the interpretations and recommendations reached by child custody evaluations.

5.)  Secrecy and Oversight:  Procedures need to be established to provide reasonable professional oversight regarding the validity of the clinical interpretations made by a child custody evaluator, especially given the complete absence of scientific support for the validity of child custody assessments and recommendations.

Conclusions

Based on my review of the scientific literature surrounding the conclusions and recommendations provided by child custody evaluations, I have reached the conclusion that the practice of child custody evaluations as currently structured represents little more than “junk science” and “voodoo assessment” which does not merit consideration in court proceedings.

I am certain that this conclusion will generate considerable disagreement.  My response is to request a citation to any scientific article that even assesses the face validity, content validity, predictive validity, concurrent validity, convergent validity, or discriminant validity of the conclusions and recommendations produced by child custody evaluations.

To take this incredibly low bar just a tad higher, I would request a citation to any research demonstrating the face validity, content validity, predictive validity, concurrent validity, convergent validity, or discriminant validity of the conclusions and recommendations produced by child custody evaluations.

Also, I would request a citation to any “operational definition” for the constructs of “best interests” of the child and “parental capacity” of the parent which are the central tenets of the assessment.

You don’t need to reference me to the general professional guidelines regarding what information to collect, or how to collect it.  I am asking for the reference to the actual operational definitions for what these constructs mean that can be applied to the collected data in interpreting and formulating the conclusions and recommendations of the assessment (i.e., an operational definition for what factors in the collected data indicate the “best interests” of the child or the “parental capacity” of the parent, and regarding an operational definition for what factors in the data indicate “non-best interests” and “non-parental capacity” of the parent.

Until the scientific foundation for the conclusions and recommendations of child custody evaluations is established, I must conclude that child custody evaluations are little more than “junk science” and “voodoo assessment” that do not merit court consideration. Rattle some beads and read the entrails of a goat.

Or offer me a citation for the scientifically established validity of the conclusions and recommendations derived from child custody evaluations.

Craig Childress, Psy.D
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

References:

Cozby, P. C. (2009). Methods in Behavioral Research: Tenth Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Current statutes. (2003). In Handbook of forensic psychology: Resource for mental health and legal professionals. Oxford, United Kingdom: Elsevier Science & Technology.

Remedy: Single-Case ABA Design

“Remedy:  The manner in which a right is enforced or satisfied by a court when some harm or injury, recognized by society as a wrongful act, is inflicted upon an individual.”


I am a psychologist, not an attorney. For legal advice consult an attorney and follow the advice of your attorney.

When the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present, treatment requires the protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the treatment and recovery stabilization period.

We cannot ask the child to expose his or her authenticity until we can first protect the child. 

“Parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue. The first and only consideration should be the child’s welfare. 

When the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present, the child’s welfare requires the protective separation of the child from the psychopathology and pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery stabilization.

Achieving the required protective separation requires the cooperation of the Courts.

Courts, however, are not psychologists.  Superficially, the child appears bonded to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The psychologically destructive impact of the role-reversal is not overly evident.  Courts may be reluctant to do what’s necessary, and may desire a more moderate response.

Until Courts recognize the severity of the pathology involved, we must work with the legal system as it is. Under the current conditions, providing judges with an alternative that is both balanced and temperate may help achieve a resolution. 

Toward that end, I have developed a possible remedy that may be acceptable to the Court.  It involves a scientifically grounded and evidenced-based approach to resolving “parental alienation.” This potential remedy employs a standard scientific research methodology called a single-case ABA design (actually a single-case ABAB reversal design). 

(In addition to teaching graduate-level courses in psychopathology, treatment planning, and child development, I also teach courses in research methodology.)

I have posted a description of this approach to my website, just below the Therapy article, and a direct link to the single-case ABA design article is at:

Single-Case ABA Design

If a Court wishes to employ this approach, I would be happy to consult with a psychologist in supervising the implementation of the single-case design.

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

SBS Intervention

“Remedy:  The manner in which a right is enforced or satisfied by a court when some harm or injury, recognized by society as a wrongful act, is inflicted upon an individual.”

http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/remedy

Just a reminder, I am not an attorney.  I am a psychologist.  For legal advice consult an attorney and follow the advice of the attorney.  In this post I will be discussing a possible compromise intervention that may, in some cases, be presented to the Court as a proposed remedy based on the legal strategy of the attorney in a given situation.


I am increasingly being asked by attorneys to serve as an expert consultant or witness regarding cases of “parental alienation.”

Just for the record, I am not an expert in “parental alienation.”  From a clinical psychology perspective, the term “parental alienation” is not a defined clinical term. 

The proper clinical term for the interpersonal and family processes typically called “parental alienation” is “pathogenic parenting” (patho=pathology; genic=genesis, creation).  Pathogenic parenting is the creation of significant child pathology as a result of highly distorted parenting practices.

My professional expertise is in child and family therapy, diagnosis and psychopathology, parent-child conflict, and child development.

I recently met with a targeted parent and discussed her situation.  I then spoke with her attorney regarding the case.  The attorney believes the evidence of “parental alienation” is substantial.  There is a history of unsuccessful “reunification” therapy and a child custody evaluation is pending.

From a psychological perspective, I recommended that the approach remain focused on the child’s evident pathology (i.e., on pathogenic parenting) and the child’s treatment needs rather than on trying to prove that “parental alienation” has interfered in the relationship of the targeted parent and child.

Attachment-based “parental alienation” is not just a matter of disrupting the targeted parent’s relationship with the child, it is a matter of inducing serious and severe psychopathology in the child through the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  I believe it is best to remain grounded in the child’s pathology and in the treatment needs of the child.

My concern is that if the focus shifts to proving “parental alienation,” then this invites an identification of harm or injury as being to the parental rights and parental relationship of the targeted parent, leading to a remedy directed toward satisfying the harm and injury done to the targeted parent

If, on the other hand, the focus remains on the extent and severity of the child’s pathology that is being created by the distorted pathogenic parenting of the allied and supposedly favored parent, then the remedy involves the treatment needs of the child that are necessary to restore the normal-range and healthy development of the child.

It’s not about injury to the parent, its about injury to the child.  The remedy isn’t focused toward the parent, the remedy is focused toward the child.

Attachment-based “parental alienation” isn’t a child custody issue, it’s a child protection issue.

Again, I am a psychologist not an attorney, but I would tend to recommend avoiding the construct of “parental alienation” as  I view this as chasing a rabbit down the rabbit hole.  The narcissistic/(borderline) parent responds, “prove it,” and then we’re into chasing a nearly impossible task of proving distorted parenting and we have lost the grounding afforded by a relentless focus on the nature and severity of the child’s pathology and treatment needs, and on what is necessary to restore the normal-range and healthy development of the child.

When we remain focused on the nature and severity of the child’s symptoms, we open the door to the treatment needs of the child.  The treatment needs of the child depend on the clinical diagnosis regarding the origin of the child’s pathology. I am a clinical psychologist.  That’s what I do.  I identify the origins of child pathology and I develop and implement treatment plans that will restore the child’s healthy development based on what the origins of the child’s pathology are.

Q:  Could the nature and extent of the child’s pathology be originating spontaneously from the child?  A: No.

Q:  Could the nature and extent of the child’s pathology be the product of the pathogenic parenting of the targeted-rejected parent?  A: No.

Q: If the child’s severe pathology is not originating spontaneously from the child, and is not a product of the pathogenic parenting of the targeted-rejected parent, then what could be the origins of the child’s pathology?

A:  The child’s pathology is being induced by the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored parent.

Remedy: What are the treatment needs of the child to restore normal-range and healthy development?

Again, this is not legal advice.  I am a psychologist.  This is just my opinion from my perspective as a clinical psychologist.  This is what I do for a living.  I first identify the nature and severity of the child’s pathology.  I then use features of the child’s pathology to identify the origins of the child’s pathology.  I then develop and implement a treatment plan to resolve the child’s pathology based on my assessment regarding the origins of the child’s pathology. 

I am a clinical child and family psychologist. That’s what I do.  I do this for autism-spectrum disorders, for ADHD-spectrum disorders, for child depressive and anxiety disorders, for oppositional and defiant child behavior, for school failure, for attachment disorders, for parent-child and family conflicts.

I do this across the developmental spectrum; for young children and their families, for school-age children and their families, for adolescents and their families.

1.)  Identify the nature and severity of the child’s pathology.

2.)  Use features of the child’s symptom display to identify the origins of the child’s pathology.

3.)  Develop and implement a treatment plan that will restore the child’s normal-range and healthy development based on the identified origin of the child’s pathology

Treatment Needs

The attorney and I then discussed what the treatment needs of the child are in this case based on the information I had from the targeted-rejected parent.

We discussed the child’s potential triangulation into the spousal conflict through the formation of a cross-generational coalition with the allied and supposedly favored parent against the other parent.

We discussed the child’s apparent narcissistic and borderline symptoms as described by the targeted parent, and the possible origin of these reported child symptoms in the pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored parent.

I described the hypothesis that the child was experiencing a misunderstood and misinterpreted grief response relative to the lost relationship with the beloved-but-now-rejected targeted parent, and we then discussed the treatment for that.

We discussed the means by which the child’s symptomatic rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent could be induced through a role-reversal relationship with a narcissistic-borderline parent who is using the child as a “regulatory object” to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the parent.

I discussed the importance relative to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” of a protective separation of the child from the pathology of the allied and supposedly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery as representing a necessary condition for protecting the child if we are to ask the child to expose his or her authenticity.

Treatment Plan

As we discussed the remedy the attorney could seek from the Court for the severely pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” my  recommendation was Dorcy Pruter’s “High Road to Family Reunification” protocol. I have reviewed her protocol and I completely understand how she achieves the recovery of the children’s relationship with the targeted parent. The “High Road” protocol would be my first-line recommendation for restoring the parent-child relationship, over and above any other approach to family reunification.

Her protocol requires that the Court order a 9-month period of protective separation of the children from the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  I understand why this is necessary and I entirely agree with the requirement. 

With this protective separation in place, she asserts that her protocol is capable of restoring normal-range parent-child relationships in a matter of days, and based on my review of her protocol, I would agree with this assessment of the protocol’s effectiveness..

In my view, this is the best approach for restoring  children’s affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted parent because of its effectiveness, its intensity, and its speed.  The child’s initial recovery will be fragile at first, so a continued protective separation of the child from the pathogenic pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is needed to stabilize the child’s recovery.

The attorney and I then discussed the likelihood in this case that the Court would order a protective separation of the child from the allied and supposedly favored pathogenic parent.  This will likely be dependent on the strength of the evidence that can be presented to the Court regarding the severity of the pathogenic parenting as evidenced in the child’s symptoms, and the associated treatment needs of the child necessary to restore the child’s healthy and normal-range development.

The SBS Intervention

As we discussed remedies relative to the child’s pathology and treatment, and the possible reluctance of the Court to order the necessary protective separation of the child which would be required for the child’s treatment and recovery, I remembered an old “compromise solution” for the Court that I developed back in 2011, the Strategic-Behavioral-Systems Intervention (SBS Intervention). 

The SBS Intervention is a Strategic family systems intervention that targets the power dynamic in the family. 

Strategic Family Systems Therapy

From a Strategic family systems framework, the child’s symptom confers power.  Strategic family systems therapy analyzes the power dynamics within the family and develops a prescriptive intervention which, if followed, will alter the power dynamics so that the symptom just drops away because it no longer serves its function of conferring power within the family relationships.

Strategic family systems therapy is a less common form of family systems therapy because it requires a fair degree of sophisticated skill in family systems therapy to first analyze the power dynamics within the family and then to also develop a prescriptive solution which, when implemented, will automatically alter the power dynamics within the family in a way to release the symptom.

While difficult to develop, and as a consequence rare in clinical practice, a good Strategic family systems intervention, however, can be quite elegant and powerful in its operation. The major limitation to Strategic family systems therapy is the level of clinical skill required to develop a prescriptive intervention that alters the specific power dynamics within the family in a way that will release the symptom.

The SBS Intervention

The Strategic-Behavioral-Systems Intervention for attachment-based “parental alienation” represents my effort to develop a Strategic family systems intervention for attachment-based “parental alienation.”  My goal in this is to provide the Court with a possible compromise solution to removing the child entirely from the care of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

I sent the SBS Intervention protocol to the attorney with whom I was consulting for her consideration as a possible proposed remedy.

I have also posted the Strategic-Behavioral-Systems Intervention protocol to my website, and a direct link to it is at:

Strategic-Behavioral-Systems Intervention

Note:  My recommendation as a clinical psychologist would be for a period of protective separation of the child from the pathogenic pathology of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery stabilization.

If the SBS Intervention is tried as a compromise solution to a complete protective separation, then I would recommend a six-month trial of the SBS Intervention.  If the SBS Intervention has not restored the child’s normal-range development after a six-month “Response-to-Intervention” trial, then I would recommend a complete protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent and intervention with the High Road protocol.

If the High Road protocol of Pruter’s is not possible, then I would recommend a treatment model along the lines described in my essay on Reunification Therapy available on my website.

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

Court Consideration of Adolescent Wishes

I was recently asked a question by a targeted parent about the practice in some Courts of considering the wishes of an adolescent in custody placement decisions, and I’d like to share my response.

While I will explain my response in a lengthy post, it’s actually quite simple: 

At no time should the Court ever consider the wishes expressed by the child whenever there is spousal-parental conflict.

Pretty simple.  Now let me explain why.  There are two primary reasons.

First, the authenticity of the child’s expressed wishes may likely have been compromised by a “role-reversal” relationship with the allied and supposedly favored parent (who is likely seeking the admission of the child’s wishes for Court consideration).

Second, whenever there is spousal conflict, seeking the child’s input essentially triangulates the child into the spousal-parental conflict.  This is EXACTLY the WRONG thing to do.  Bad.  Bad.  Bad.  Extremely destructive.  It not only supports the pathology in the family, it actually fosters and creates pathology in the family and it will have extremely harmful effects on the child’s underneath psychology.  We DO NOT ever want to triangulate the child into the spousal conflict.  No. No. No.  Never.  I don’t care what the age of the child is.  Never.  No.

1. The Role-Reversal Relationship

One of the central concepts in understanding “parental alienation” is the role-reversal relationship.

In healthy child development, the child uses the parent as a “regulatory other” for the child’s emotional and psychological state.  When the child faces a developmental challenge that the child cannot independently master, the child emits “protest behaviors” that elicit the involvement of the parent who helps the child regain an emotionally and psychologically organized and regulated state.

The parent acts as an external “regulatory other” (also called a “regulatory object”) for the child.  In doing so, the parent “scaffolds” the building of the child’s own internal networks for self-regulation.  With the brain, we build what we use.  Every time we use a brain system it gets a little stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient through use-dependent changes.

In healthy child development, every time the parent acts as a “regulatory other” for the child by scaffolding the child’s state transition from a disorganized and dysregulated brain state (as manifested in disorganized and dysregulated behavior) back into an organized and well-regulated brain state (as manifested by calm and cooperative behavior) all of the brain networks and brain systems that were used in this transition process become stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient.  We build what we use.

Over multiple repetitions of these state transitions, the child’s own brain networks for making these transitions become stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient so that the child develops the internalized capacity for “self-regulation” without the need for the scaffolding support of the “regulatory other” of the parent.  Overall, this development of internalized self-regulatory capacity is called the child’s development of “self-structure.”

This is a very important construct… the development of the child’s own self-structure through the repeated scaffolding support provided to the child by the “regulatory other” role of the parent.

The parent’s role as a “regulatory other” for the child is extremely important for the healthy development of the child.  In fact, it is THE central role of parenting beyond providing basic food and safety.  By acting as a “regulatory other” for the child, the parent “scaffolds” the child’s internal development of healthy “self-structures” for the child’s independent self-organization and self-regulation.

One of the leading figures in attachment research, Alan Sroufe, describes this process.

“At first, they [caregivers] are almost solely responsible for maintaining smooth regulation.  They attend to the infant’s changes in alertness or discomfort and signs of need, imbuing primitive infant behaviors with meaning  In the typical course of events, caregivers quickly learn to “read” the infant and to provide care that keeps distress and arousal within reasonable limits.  And they do more.  By effectively engaging the infant and leading him or her to ever longer bouts of emotionally charged, but organized behavior, they provide the infant with critical training in regulation.”

“The movement toward self-regulation continues throughout the childhood years, as does a vital, though changing, role for caregivers.  During the toddler period, the child acquires beginning capacities for self-control, tolerance of moderate frustration, and a widening range of emotional reactions, including shame and, ultimately, pride and guilt.  Practicing self-regulation in a supportive context is crucial.  Emerging capacities are easily overwhelmed.  The caregiver must both allow the child to master those circumstances within their capacity and yet anticipate circumstances beyond the child’s ability, and help to restore equilibrium when the child is over-taxed.  Such “guided self-regulation” is the foundation for the genuine regulation that will follow.” (Sroufe, 2000, p. 71)

However, in a role-reversal relationship the normal roles for the parent and child are reversed, so that it is the parent who uses the child as a “regulatory object” for the parent’s emotional and psychological state.  This is extremely destructive to the child’s emotional and psychological development.  The parent is essentially robbing the child’s self-structure development to support the parent’s own inadequate self-structure.

In healthy child development, the parent empathizes with the child and responds in ways that keep the child in a regulated state, i.e., acts as a “regulatory other” for the child.  This scaffolds the healthy development of the underlying neurological networks in the child’s brain that are central to healthy self-structure development.

In a role-reversal relationship, this is reversed so that it is the child who empathizes with the parent and responds in ways that keep the parent in a regulated state.  The roles are reversed.  The parent becomes the child and the child fulfills the psychological parent-role for the psychologically infantile parent.  This is extremely destructive to the child’s healthy development of self-structure.

And this unhealthy role-reversal relationship will be passed on to future generations.  The child in a role-reversal relationship will have his or her self-structure development robbed by the parent to feed the parent’s own inadequate self-structure.  When this child grow up, this child-now-adult will have inadequate self-structure organization because it was robbed in it’s healthy development in order to feed the parent’s inadequate self-structure. 

So this child, now an adult, will repeat the role-reversal use of the child with his or her own children.  The child-now-adult will use his or her own children in a role-reversal relationship to feed the inadequate self-structure of the parent which had been robbed from the parent’s development during the parent’s childhood. 

The role-reversal relationship is a pathology that is passed on trans-generationally from one generation to the next.

And so it goes, from generation to generation.  Parents using their children to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the parent, rather than healthy child development in which the parent meets the emotional and psychological needs of the child.  Instead, in the pathology of the role-reversal relationship each generation of parents rob their children of their healthy childhood development to meet the inadequate childhood development of the parent who had been robbed of self-structure development in his or her own childhood with his or her own parent.

Key Construct:

In a healthy parent-child relationship, the child uses the parent as a “regulatory other” for the child’s emotional and psychological state. 

In a pathological role-reversal relationship, the parent uses the child as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s emotional and psychological state.

So, to turn now to the question of adolescents’ “independent” judgment;

For any child no matter the age who is engaged in a role-reversal relationship with a parent, the child’s capacity for “independent” judgment has been significantly compromised by both the severity and the specific nature of the pathology of the role-reversal relationship. 

Instead of a normal and healthy childhood development that would result in normal-range and healthy self-structure, the child’s psychological development has been severely compromised by the use of the child in the parent’s psychopathology to serve as a “regulatory object” for the parent’s own emotional and psychological needs.

If a child has experienced normal-range development then we may be willing to provide some consideration to the expressed wishes of an adolescent.  However, the development of a child in a role-reversal relationship with a parent has been severely distorted by the role-reversal relationship so that their judgment is significantly compromised.  The child’s expressed wishes no longer reflect the authenticity of the child, but are instead being used in the service of meeting the needs of the pathological parent. 

When the child is in a role-reversal relationship with the pathology of the parent in which the child is meeting the needs of the psychologically infantile parent, the child’s expressed wishes are no longer authentic to the child.

The analogy would be to a hostage situation.  In the case of a role-reversal relationship the child is a “psychological hostage” as a “regulatory object” to the needs of the pathological, inadequate, and psychologically infantile parent.

Would we consider the statements made by a hostage as being authentic while the hostage is still in the custody of the hostage taker?  Absolutely not.

The child is acting under psychological duress (whether the child realizes it or not). 

Would it be sufficient to ask the hostage, “Are you being influenced by anyone in making these statements?” while the hostage was still in the custody of the hostage taker?  Absolutely not.  Of course the hostage will say, “No, I’m not being influenced” to our question.

Imagine an American hostage held by Islamic terrorists.  The American makes a televised statement critical of American policies.  Would we believe that these statements made by the hostage while the hostage was still being held by the terrorists represented the authentic beliefs of the hostage, and weren’t being coerced and influenced by his captors?  Of course not. 

What if the Islamic terrorists allowed a newspaper reporter to ask the hostage, “Are you making these statements of your own free will, or are you being told what to say by your captors?”  and the hostage said, “I am making these statements of my own free will.  No one is telling me what to say.”  Would we then say, “Well, I guess that settles it, these are the hostage’s authentic beliefs.”  That would be just plain stupid beyond imagination.

The statements made by the hostage are under duress as long as the hostage is in the custody of the captors, even if it is under psychological duress.

In a role-reversal relationship, the child is a “psychological hostage” to the pathology of the parent.  The child is being “psychologically held” in a role-reversal relationship by the pathology of the parent to act as a “regulatory object” for the parent so that the pathology of the parent can feed off of the child’s self-structure development, robbing the child of self-structure to support the inadequate self-structure formation of the parent.

But to all external appearances, the child will appear to be in a hyper-bonded relationship with the allied and supposedly favored – but actually severely pathological – parent. 

Role-reversal relationships are extremely pathological. The inadequate self-structure of the parent is feeding off of the healthy self-structure of the child to the extreme detriment of the child’s healthy development. 

The child is being robbed of a normal and healthy childhood in the service of meeting the emotional and psychological needs of a pathological parent, who was robbed in his or her own childhood of healthy development. 

Parents feeding off of their children’s self-structure to support the parent’s own inadequate self-structure development is extremely pathological.

So when evaluating the statements made by a child of any age, a prominent “moderator variable” in our consideration needs to be the possible presence of a role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used by a pathological parent as a “regulatory other” to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the parent. 

Before considering the statements of any child, the question is whether the child is being held as a psychological hostage through the child’s use as a “regulatory other” to the pathology of the parent.

To all external appearances, the child will look like he or she is in a bonded relationship with the pathological parent.  But to a trained and expert eye, the role-reversal relationship is clearly evident in a variety of features.  Only an incompetent and ignorant psychologist will miss a role-reversal relationship and believe the superficial presentation of a bonded relationship. 

Unfortunately, many mental health professionals who work with children are incompetent and ignorant.

If a role-reversal relationship exists, this is extremely destructive to the child’s healthy emotional and psychological development, and if left untreated and unresolved the role-reversal relationship represents a continuing risk not only to the current child but to the development of future generations of his or her children as well, so that treatment and resolution of the pathology becomes imperative and child protection considerations become prominent concerns.

2. Triangulation of the Child

Whenever there is spousal conflict there arises a significant risk that the child will be “triangulated” into the spousal conflict.

Triangulating the child into the spousal conflict is extremely destructive for the child’s healthy emotional and psychological development.  We NEVER want to triangulate the child into the spousal conflict.  Never, never, never.  Under any circumstances.  Never.

The spousal conflict is a two-person event.  When the child is brought into the middle of it, either the child will be torn apart by allegiances to both parents, or the child will need to take sides in the spousal conflict.  Either way, it is extremely destructive to the child to be triangulated into the spousal conflict.  We want to keep children out of the middle of their parents’ conflict.

When the child does become triangulated into the spousal conflict, the direct goal of therapy is to untriangulate the child from the spousal conflict.

Whenever there is spousal conflict, the risk of pathologically triangulating the child into the spousal conflict is extreme.

If we ask the child or adolescent what they want, WE ARE TRIANGULATING THE CHILD INTO THE SPOUSAL CONFLICT!!!!!!

No. No. No. This is exactly what we DON’T want to do.

Furthermore, any hopes for therapy will be smashed.  Abandon all hope of successful therapy for the child’s well-being.  The Court has essentially inflicted the pathology onto the child. 

Under NO circumstances do we ever want to ask the child what the child wants when there is spousal conflict.  We are essentially asking the child to choose sides in the spousal conflict, and we are opening the door directly to the role-reversal use of the child by the parent to meet the parent’s emotional and psychological needs. Pathology, pathology, pathology.

If the Court is concerned about the child’s well-being, then the Court should appoint a psychologist to serve as the voice of the child’s healthy development.  But under no circumstances should we ask the child to choose sides in the spousal conflict.

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

References:

Sroufe, L.A. (2000). Early relationships and the development of children. Infant Mental Health Journal, 21(1-2), 67-74.

The Exclusion Demand Symptom

It is beyond my comprehension how so many mental health professionals can entirely miss the extreme psychopathology involved in attachment-based “parental alienation.”  I am truly stunned.

Let me describe just one example, the “exclusion demand” symptom made by children, in which the child demands that the targeted parent no long attends the child’s events.

The Exclusion Demand:

Child: “I don’t want you to come to my baseball games (school open house, dance recital, school awards ceremony, etc.). I get too anxious.”

This “exclusion demand” by the child is often followed with a statement that the child wants the targeted parent to show “respect” for the child’s feelings and “boundaries.”

The “exclusion demand” is among the more common symptoms of pathology displayed by the child in attachment-based “parental alienation.”

Extremely Severe Psychopathology

The “exclusion demand” is a symptom of extreme psychopathology. It floors me how mental health professionals can act like this child symptom is anywhere near normal-range. So let me explain the psychopathology inherent to this symptom.

Normal-Range Children

A parent attending a child’s activity is entirely normal range and healthy. I recommend all parents everywhere attend their children’s school activities, sporting events, musical recitals, awards ceremonies, etc.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong or problematic about a parent attending a child’s event. Normal-range children are happy and excited when their parent attends an event of the child’s.

A child who becomes hyper-anxious and seeks to exclude a parent’s attendance at an event is demonstrating extremely pathological behavior of GREAT CLINICAL CONCERN.

There is no – NO – normal-range reason for this symptom display by a child. No normal-range child EVER displays this symptom. Never happens. Never.

The only thing that can produce this symptom is extreme psychopathology, either from the targeted-rejected parent or from the allied and supposedly favored parent. But under NO circumstances is this symptom EVER displayed by anything near normal-range children.

In evaluating this symptom, every mental health professional should consider a normal-range child’s response to a parent attending an event; excitement, joy, a feeling of being loved by the parent, a feeling of being special to the parent. This is normal.

So if this is normal, then when the child exhibits the “exclusion demand” symptom, this means that the child’s normal-range capacity for excitement and joy have been twisted into something unrecognizable as even remotely resembling excitement and joy. What type of pathology needs to be involved to twist a child’s normal-range capacity for excitement and joy into such a perversely distorted form?

So, if a child’s normal-range response to a parent attending the child’s event is to feel loved and wonderfully special by the parent, this means that the child’s normal-range capacity for feeling loved and special has also been twisted into a distorted and unrecognizable shape that rejects love that rejects feeling special. Let that sink in.

All children want their parents love. That’s normal. That’s healthy.

Unhealthy child development occurs when children DON’T feel that they are special and loved by their parents.

Unhealthy child development NEVER occurs because a child feels special and loved. Never.

So then how completely unhealthy is it for a child to display a symptom of REJECTING feeling special and loved? The child is displaying a symptom that, in itself, is the actual SOURCE-ORIGIN of childhood pathology. That is really twisted.

The source-origin of childhood pathology causes childhood psychopathology. But here, the child’s symptom is not an outcome of the source-origin of childhood pathology, the symptom itself IS the source-origin of childhood pathology. It’s as if the symptom is its own cause.  The symptom is caused by the absence of parental love, that is the symptom itself, the child’s rejection of parental love.  That is so weird and twisted.

The “exclusion demand” symptom is 180 degrees opposite of normal. It is so far away from normal-range that it is stunning to me that ANY mental health therapist can act like this symptom is even remotely understandable and acceptable.

It would be like a physician doing a medical exam and finding the child had no internal organs and responding, “Oh. Okay. So I guess this kid just doesn’t’ need internal organs.”

What?  Are you kidding me?   What human body doesn’t need internal organs?  That is so totally weird that the child doesn’t have internal organs. How is that even possible?  How is it possible to be alive and not have any internal organs?  That’s just extremely weird.

ALL normal-range children want their parents’ love.  All normal-range children want to feel special to their parents. All of them. Every single normal-range child on the planet.  All.

Pathological child development occurs because of the ABSENCE of parental love.

So how is it that the child is presenting as if this one child, among all the children on the planet, this one child does not want a parent’s love?  How is it that this one child doesn’t want to feel special to a parent?  Explain it to me.

The very fundamental core of children thrives on parental love. Children’s psychological development starves in the absence of parental love. Parental love is the very essence of healthy child development. And here we have a child REJECTING parental love. That is extraordinarily pathological and simply weird.

Yet many, many mental health professionals simply accept this extremely pathological symptom display by children as if it’s somehow understandable. It is bizarre.

No even remotely normal-range child rejects parental love. Ever. The child’s rejection of parental love is extremely weird and requires explanation. A therapist response of, “Okay, well I guess that’s just the way it is for this child” is not an explanation.  A therapist response of “What? Are you kidding me? You don’t want your mom to watch you play baseball. Wow, that’s really weird.” is a healthy therapist response reflecting an accurate understanding for child psychology and child development.

If child and family therapists are not completely stunned by this symptom then they need to re-set their understanding for what represents normal and what is abnormal child behavior.

Grumpy-angry kids, relatively normal.

Very active and annoying kids, relatively normal.

Shy and quiet kids, relatively normal.

Irresponsible kids who resist doing homework, relatively normal.

Kids who reject parental love, extremely weird.

Kids who are made hyper-anxious by their parents, extremely weird.

How can child and family therapists be so ignorant regarding normal and abnormal child development to accept as reasonable child symptoms of such extreme pathology? I am aghast at the level of professional ignorance.

Let me be clear on this to all mental health professionals, it is NOWHERE NEAR normal-range child behavior to reject a parent’s love. Not even close. It is extremely abnormal and pathological and requires an explanation.

Targeted Parent Pathology

A child symptom of such extreme pathology requires an explanation.

Maybe it’s a history of profound domestic violence by the targeted-rejected parent. Maybe the targeted-rejected parent sexually abused the child. Maybe the targeted rejected parent physically beats the child, screaming curses and insults at the child.

Okay, this is an explanation. This level of parental psychopathology by the targeted-rejected parent could account for the degree of pathology displayed by a child who makes an “exclusion demand” of a parent, “I don’t want you to attend my games (my awards ceremony, my play, my music recital, etc.).

So immediately these possibilities all become relevant domains for diagnostic consideration.

So the moment the therapist hears an “exclusion demand” the immediate thought of the therapist should be, “Uh-oh, this is very serious. We may be looking at severe child abuse here” not, “Hmm, okay, I guess that’s just the way this child is.”

If I hear this symptom from a child my seriousness alert response immediately maxes out at a 10 on a 10-point scale. There is no symptom I could hear that would give me more concern. An “exclusion demand” symptom is consistent with severe domestic violence exposure, incestuous sexual abuse of the child, or severe physical and emotional abuse of the child.

But wait… if the child is actually afraid of the parent’s violence then the child would likely be very reluctant to displease the parent because then the child would face retaliation from the hostile-aggressive parent. But with the “exclusion demand” the child is assertively demanding that the hostile-aggressive parent not attend events, thereby overtly displeasing the extremely hostile-aggressive parent. Yet if the targeted-rejected parent is actually extremely hostile and aggressive (the domestic violence and physical violence categories) then the child’s behavior would INCREASE the child’s exposure to possible hostile-aggressive retaliation by the targeted-rejected parent.

Making an “exclusion demand” toward a parent instead suggests that the child feels safe enough to be willing to displease the rejected parent without fearing retaliation. So an “exclusion demand” suggests that the targeted-rejected parent does not make the child anxious. But wait, the child is saying the reason for the “exclusion demand” is that the parent makes the child feel anxious. This is a very odd symptom that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. This symptom keeps getting curiouser and curiouser the more I look at it.

What if the child actually feels excited by the presence of the targeted parent at the child’s events, consistent with the normal response of every normal-range child on the planet, but the child is then misinterpreting the feeling of “excitement” as “anxiety.”  That would make sense.

The child actually isn’t afraid of the targeted parent, so the child feels safe enough to displease the targeted parent without fear of retaliation. But the child is misinterpreting excitement as anxiety.  This explanation makes sense of what otherwise is a very odd constellation of features.

In any event, the child’s “exclusion demand” symptom is NOT fully consistent with exposure to severe domestic violence or physical abuse. It’s possible, but not likely. I would need to look for corroborating signs of exposure to domestic violence or physical child abuse. These could be a wide array of signs, among which might be:

  • A documented history of domestic violence or child abuse (not merely allegations by the allied and supposedly favored parent, although I wouldn’t dismiss these allegations outright, I’d just need ADDITIONAL evidence besides the allegations of the allied and supposedly favored parent)
  • A child display of over-anxiousness generally, such as toward me in our discussions, or with teachers, or in public generally.
  • Or perhaps the child may be evidencing an increased anger response to the child’s exposure to parental violence. Is the child getting in trouble at school for aggressive acts? Does the child assault siblings?
  • The age of the child. Younger children are more vulnerable, so child anxiety in response to the child’s exposure to domestic violence and physical child abuse would be more consistent with a 6-10 year old child than with a 12-16 year old adolescent. Not impossible, but less likely.
  • Especially for older children, I’d want to explore what the child fears the parent would do at the event.  Assault the child?  Really?  The child fears that the targeted parent is going to assault the child at the child’s music recital or school awards ceremony? Normal-range children NEVER fear parental violence at a school awards ceremony or dance recital. That would be a really odd belief system. How did the child acquire such a peculiar belief system? Has the targeted parent ever become violent at a child’s activity before? Perhaps assaulting opposing coaches at the child’s soccer game? Perhaps the targeted parent is a chronic alcoholic, and the child is afraid the parent will be overtly drunk at the event (but then the child’s reason will be expressed as “embarrassment” not “anxiety”).  Anything like that? Or is the child asserting that the child’s anxiety is a PTSD response to the child’s prior exposure to violence. Okay, what violence? Tell me what you’ve seen from this parent in the past? Beating and kicking the mother in drunken rages? Hitting and kicking the child? What’s the trauma the child has been exposed to that is producing a very serious PTSD response? It must be pretty severe if it has produced a PTSD response, so my seriousness alert response remains maxed out at a 10.

I’ll keep an ear open for other indicators of severe domestic violence and physical child abuse, but these two possibilities of domestic violence exposure and physical child abuse will fall slightly lower in my differential diagnosis considerations.

On the other hand, an “exclusion demand” would be consistent with incestuous sexual abuse of the child by the targeted-rejected parent. That’s a possibility. I am extremely concerned by this child symptom.

The incestuous sexual abuse of the child would account for the extreme level of distortion and pathology displayed by this extremely weird child symptom. Sexual abuse would also account for the absence of the child’s fear of retaliation because the parent is disgusting, NOT hostile-aggressive, and sexual abuse of the child would account for the strange combination of the child being anxious about being in the presence of the parent and yet also not fearful of retaliation from the parent for the child’s making an “exclusion demand.”

Sexual abuse of the child by the targeted rejected parent would account for the level and pattern of the extreme pathology.

Or…

The parental pathology that is creating the child’s extremely strange and highly concerning symptom is to be found in the parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored parent.

In this case, the parental psychopathology would be a role-reversal relationship with the child in which the child is being used as a “regulatory other” by the pathology of the parent to regulate the parent’s own emotional and psychological state.

Uh-oh. This too is an extremely damaging psychopathology to the child’s healthy development. My seriousness alert response to a role-reversal relationship is in the 8-10 range.

In normal and healthy child development, the child uses the parent as a “regulatory other” to regulate the child’s emotional and psychological state.  This is healthy and this is entirely normal. At a neuro-biological level, this is what’s suppose to happen to wire up the child’s brain systems.

In a role-reversal relationship the parent uses the child as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s emotional and psychological state. This type of role-reversal is extremely pathological and will have a variety of extremely destructive impacts on the emotional and psychological development of the child.

If the “exclusion demand” symptom is the product of a role-reversal relationship with the allied and supposedly favored parent, then I am very concerned.

In the case of a role-reversal relationship, the child is emitting the “exclusion demand” in the child’s role as a “regulatory other” for the allied and supposedly favored parent, so that the origin of the child’s “exclusion demand” is the desire of the allied and supposedly favored parent for the child to reject the other parent, and the child is simply emitting the parentally desired child behavior as a means to keep the pathology of the parent in an organized and regulated state.

And if the child is emitting this highly pathological symptom involving a highly twisted distortion to the child’s expression of joy, and excitement, and feelings of being loved and special, then the child is likely emitting other rejection-type symptoms toward the targeted parent as a product of the child’s role of being used by the allied and supposedly favored parent as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s own emotional and psychological state.

Role-reversal relationships and parental use of the child as an external “regulatory object” for the emotional and psychological state of the parent are associated with a disorganized attachment classification.  Yikes.  This is getting very serious. Is there other evidence for the presence of a disorganized attachment within the family, such as a high degree of chaos and disorganization in family relationships following a divorce?

Disorganized attachment is associated with the development of narcissistic and borderline personality traits, so if the allied and supposedly favored parent has a disorganized attachment pattern, then they might also have borderline and narcissistic personality traits. Are there any signs of borderline or narcissistic traits with the allied and supposedly favored parent?

How is the targeted parent describing the marital history with the other parent, the parent who is supposedly favored by the child. Are these descriptions consistent with possible narcissistic or borderline traits with the allied and supposedly favored parent? The descriptions by the targeted parent are not definitive, but they might help to disconfirm the hypothesis if there is no reported description consistent with narcissistic or borderline traits in the allied and supposedly favored parent, and yet if there are descriptions by the targeted parent regarding the marital history with the other parent that are consistent with the other parent possibly having narcissistic or borderline personality traits then these parental descriptions by the targeted parent might contribute to an overall preponderance of clinical evidence supporting the role-reversal hypothesis.

Splitting. Splitting is a highly characteristic symptom of disorganized attachment and for narcissistic or borderline personality. Is there evidence of splitting? Does the child evidence polarized thinking of all-good and all-bad? Does the child believe that once a person is defined as being all-bad, as being fundamentally flawed, then that person will stay that way forever?

According to Marsha Linehan in describing the splitting dynamic evidenced by borderline personalities:

“They tend to see reality in polarized categories of “either-or,” rather than “all,” and within a very fixed frame of reference. For example, it is not uncommon for such individuals to believe that the smallest fault makes it impossible for the person to be “good” inside. Their rigid cognitive style further limits their abilities to entertain ideas of future change and transition, resulting in feelings of being in an interminable painful situation. Things once defined do not change. Once a person is “flawed,” for instance, that person will remain flawed forever.” (Linehan, 1993, p. 35)

Does the child or allied and supposedly favored parent see the targeted parent as “abusive” without substantiating evidence for the allegation? The use of the term “abusive” is characteristic of a borderline personality organization.  The term “abusive” is rarely used by normal-range people (sometimes it is, typically in cases of authentic abuse).  Normal range people use words like mean, or insensitive, or rude.  Rarely “abusive.”  But borderline personalities often use the term “abusive” to describe other people.  It’s not definitive, but it’s suggestive.

How does the allied and supposedly favored parent describe the targeted parent? Are there indications of splitting into the all-bad characterization of the targeted parent in the descriptions of the targeted parent by the allied and supposedly favored parent?

If there is a narcissistic or borderline parent, then my seriousness alert response maxes out at a 10. Only sexual abuse of the child would cause me more clinical concern for the child’s emotional and psychological development than would parental narcissistic or borderline pathology.

Very Serious Pathology

One way or the other, the child’s symptom display of an “exclusion demand” is of extraordinarily serious clinical concern.

It may be evidence of the child’s sexual abuse victimization, of the child’s traumatic exposure to severe parental domestic violence, to prior severely traumatic physical and emotional abuse of the child, or of a highly pathological role-reversal relationship with a narcissistic/borderline parent that is producing severe psychopathology in the child.

My two primary differential diagnoses would be sexual abuse of the child by the targeted parent OR a role-reversal relationship with the allied and supposedly favored parent in which the child is being used by a narcissistic/borderline parent as an external “regulatory other” for the emotional and psychological state of the parent.

An “exclusion demand” symptom is NOWHERE NEAR normal range. It is highly pathological and REQUIRES an explanation.

That child and family therapists would act like this child symptom is anywhere near to being an understandable or reasonable child symptom is stunning to me.

When I hear the “exclusion demand” symptom, my level of clinical concern is immediately at a 10. An “exclusion demand” is among the most concerning symptoms I could possibly hear. If you are a child and family therapist and you are not equally as concerned by a child’s presentation of an “exclusion demand” symptom as I am, then I would question your competence to be working with children.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

References:

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford

The Regulatory Other

This post will discuss the concept of the “regulatory other,” which is an important parent-child relationship construct from early childhood mental health. The concept of the “regulatory other” will become a key construct in understanding how the “alienation” is created with the child.

A common misconception is that the “alienation” is produced by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent making disparaging criticisms of the other parent in front of the child.  This is not true.  This is not how the “alienation” occurs.  There are a variety of factors involved in creating the “alienation” of the child, but one of the primary constructs is the concept of the “regulating other.”

However, before directly addressing the construct of the “regulating other” I am going to lay some foundational context for the construct in the scientific evidence emerging from research in child development and the neuro-development of the brain during childhood.  I ask your patience with this foundational material.  I think the payoff in understanding the construct of the regulatory other will reward your patience.

Key Construct: Regulation

The constructs of “regulation” and “dysregulation” have become primary concepts regarding the organized functioning of brain systems and their expression in emotional and behavioral displays.

The concepts of “regulation” and “dysregulation” of brain systems, behavioral systems, and emotional systems can best be understood through an analogy to a thermostat that “regulates” a room’s temperature. If the room temperature becomes too warm, the thermostat registers this change and automatically turns on the air-conditioner to bring the room temperature back into a comfortable mid-range. If the room temperature becomes too cold, the thermostat picks this up and automatically turns on the heater to bring the room temperature back into a comfortable mid-range. The thermostat “regulates” the room’s temperature, keeping the temperature within the optimal range of comfort.

As an aside, thermostats regulate the room temperature around a “set-point” which is the desired room temperature around which the actual room temperature fluctuates. There is evidence of “set-points” in the regulatory systems of the brain that differ from person to person. For example, people vary in their “set-points” for social regulation. Some people are highly social and gregarious (a high-set point for regulating social interaction) while other people are reserved and shy (i.e., a low set-point for regulating social interaction).  Our regulatory systems keep our behavioral, social, emotional, and brain functioning in an integrated optimal range for adaptive functioning around various set-points.

Basic Brain Principles

1. Behavior is a symptom. The brain is the cause.

The disorganized and dysregulated functioning and integration of various brain systems produce disorganized and dysregulated behavior and emotional displays.  

Because dysregulated child behavioral and emotional displays are annoying to us, we used to call these displays “problem behaviors.”

However, as we have learned more about how the brain works we have come to recognize that these child displays of dysregulated behavior play an important role in healthy child development, and we have shifted the term we use to describe these behaviors from “problem behaviors” because they annoy us, to “protest behaviors”  that are designed to elicit the involvement of the caregiver… by annoying us so that we intervene to make these behaviors stop.

What the brain wants is for us to intervene.  It accomplishes this by making “protest behaviors” annoying.

Understanding the neuro-developmental role of child protest behavior is one of the major advancements in our understanding of child development during the past 50 years.  Unfortunately, most mental health professionals are not aware of the conceptual shift because of their ignorance regarding the scientific advances made in the neuro-developmental research regarding child development.

The qualities and patterns of the child’s disorganized and dysregulated behavior and emotions reveal what features of the underlying brain systems are not properly integrated in their functioning. This is diagnosis.

Diagnosis involves using the features of the child’s emotional and behavioral dysregulation to understand what features of the child’s underlying brain systems are problematic. In some cases the problem is inherent to the maturation of the child’s brain systems, in other cases the problem lay in the parent’s responses to the child. In some cases it’s both. The features of the child’s behavioral and emotional displays will answer the causal-origin question for us.

Mental health professionals who are knowledgeable in a neuro-social approach can become pretty good at reading the underlying state of the integrated or non-integrated functioning of brain systems based on the external behavioral and emotional displays of the child. The first step in this process is to understand what the various brain systems are, how they function, and also how they interact with each other to create regulated and organized behavior. The second step is to understand the various patterns indicating dysfunction in the separate brain systems and in their integrated organization.

Most mental health professionals, however, never learn about brain development. In my experience, this sort of advanced training only occurs in the early childhood specialty, and those mental health professionals that enter early childhood mental health usually do so because they like working with infants, so that they typically don’t return to working with older children and adolescents. They like infant mental health and they stay in early childhood mental health.  So you’ll likely not find many therapists working with older children or adolescents who understand brain development in childhood.

The mental health professionals currently working with older children and families have typically never received training on brain processes in child development, and are still using outmoded and archaic models of behaviorism from the 1940s-50s or humanistic “play therapy” models from the 1950s-60s, models that were created well before the major advances in the scientific research on brain and child development that have occurred since the mid-1980s.

The current state of “child therapy” generally is appallingly inadequate. But that’s a topic for another time.

In response to child “protest behaviors” the intervention of the parent acts as a “regulatory other” for the child by helping to restore the organized and regulated functioning and integration of the child’s brain systems, which then restores the organized and regulated behavioral and emotional displays of the child. This pattern represents a healthy parent-child relationship.

Teaching parents how to respond effectively as a “regulatory other” for their child is therapy.  Or at least this is what therapy should be. It is not what most therapists do since most therapists don’t know how the brain works and develops during childhood.  When I work with children and families, I’m actually monitoring and intervening on the underlying brain systems, whereas most mental health professionals are simply intervening on the level of behavior.

Behavior is the symptom. The brain is the cause.

If we simply seek to suppress the symptom then we continually need to engage in symptom suppression efforts since we have never resolved the underlying cause of the symptom. If, however, we use the symptom to diagnose the cause, then we treat the cause, resolve the cause, and the symptom goes away, often without our ever having to directly address the actual symptom itself.

Imagine if we had an infection that caused a fever.  We could treat the fever, the symptom, with Tylenol or aspirin but we would continually need to suppress the fever because we haven’t addressed the underlying cause, the infection.  Now imagine if we used the symptom of the fever to diagnose an infection so that we then treat the infection with antibiotics, cure the infection, and the fever goes away without ever having to directly address it.

Behavior is the symptom, the brain is the cause.  We need to read the symptom of the behavior for what it says about the underlying integrated or non-integrated functioning of the underlying brain systems.

However, outside of early childhood mental health, very few therapists possess the knowledge of brain systems and their integrated functioning necessary to work at an neuro-systemic level, so that very few therapists operate from this type of scientifically based neuro-social approach. This approach, however, is common in early childhood diagnosis and treatment, which has a heavy focus on relationship-based diagnosis and treatment relative to the functioning of the various brain systems involved.

The Primary Brain Systems:

There are six primary brain systems and three overarching brain systems.  The six primary brain systems are:

  1. Physical sensory-motor systems
  2. Emotion systems
  3. Language and communication systems
  4. Relationship systems (attachment and intersubjectivity)
  5. Cognitive/executive function systems
  6. Three motivational systems

Active exploratory learning: Traditionally called “play,” this motivational system is primarily embedded in the sensory-motor and emotional networks, it is an early activating motivational system during childhood that has a basic agenda of “seek pleasure and avoid pain.”

Goal-directed motivating system: Traditionally called “work,” this motivating system is embedded in the executive function networks and involves a sequencing of three phases. First, establishing an overarching goal that organizes attention and behavior; second, applying effort toward achieving the goal; and third, accomplishing the goal, at which point the brain produces a burst of positive brain chemical that tells the neural networks used in achieving the goal to keep whatever changes were made because they were successful in achieving the goal. The more effort is applied toward achieving a goal, the larger the burst of positive brain chemical released upon achieving the goal.

Relationship motivating systems: The relationship systems of attachment and intersubjectivity are primary motivational systems at the same level as the other primary motivational systems for food and reproduction. There is an inhibitory network from the two relationship systems back to the play-based and goal-directed motivational systems, so that the relationship motivating systems always take precedence. Only if the two relationship systems are satisfied and quiescent will the play-based or goal-directed motivating systems be allowed to fully organize and direct activity. If either of the two relationship motivating systems are active, then the child’s primary motivational agenda will be to satisfy the relationship needs, and the activated relationship needs will inhibit the ability of the child to achieve a full activation of either the play-based or goal-directed motivational networks.

The three (interrelated) overarching brain systems are:

  1. The Self-system
  2. Memory systems
  3. Meaning Attribution systems

2. Brain Principles: “We build what we use”

Brain systems develop interconnections based on the principle of “we build what we use.” The renowned neuroscientist, Donald Hebb, referred to this as “neurons that fire together, wire together.” In the scientific literature, this process is called the “canalization” of brain networks (like building “canals” or channels in the brain).

In explaining this to parents, I’ll often use the metaphor of raindrops falling on a dirt hillside. The first raindrop can go any direction, but whatever path it takes it will remove a little dirt with it as it glides down the hillside. Gradually, as more and more raindrops fall, channels or “canals” begin to be grooved into the hillside directing the flow of subsequent raindrops.

Whenever we use a brain pathway or system, changes take place along the neural pathway that create structural and chemical channels or “canals” in the brain that make it more likely that this neural pathway or set of brain cells will be used in the same interconnected pattern in the future. “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Two of the primary neural processes involved in the “canalization” of brain pathways (i.e., “we build what we use”) are called “long-term potentiation” and “synaptogenesis.” There is some very interesting work on the neuro-structural and chemical underpinnings of the canalization process done with sea slugs because their neural networks are simple and their neural cells are relatively large, making their study easier. The neural-structural processes of canalization actually involve triggering and altering genetic code, and are quite complex involving neuro-modulators and secondary and tertiary feedback systems (Kandel, 2007). The brain is a very interesting place.

The canalization of neural pathways is called the “use-dependent” development of the brain, and the role of the parent in facilitating the child’s use of particular neural pathways in response to different child behaviors is called “scaffolding,” like building a supportive scaffold around a structure as its being constructed.

Child development isn’t about rewards and punishments, these are mechanisms of social control. Child development is about the scaffolding support provided by parental relationship and communication qualities for the integrated functioning of the various brain systems. Current “behavioral” and “play therapy” approaches to child therapy are woefully out of touch with the scientific advances that have occurred in the past 50 years. In the domain of child therapy, the level of professional ignorance regarding child development and the development of the brain during childhood is disturbing.

The brain possesses a variety of regulatory networks that seek to maintain the brain’s integrated functioning in the optimal range for organized and adaptive functioning. When system elements begin to become too active or inactive, various regulatory systems will activate to turn up or down the levels of various brain systems seeking to keep the overall functioning of the brain in an organized and regulated state for optimal adaptive functioning.

During childhood, the immature development of the child’s brain means that the integrated functioning of the child’s various brain systems will often become dysregulated by maturation challenges that the child cannot independently master. This disorganization in the integrated functioning of the various brain systems will produce disorganized displays of behavior and emotions (behavior is a symptom, the brain is the cause). 

These displays of disorganized and dyregulated emotions and behavior are called “protest behaviors”  whose developmental purpose is to elicit the involvement of the parent (i.e., of a more mature nervous system) to act as a “regulatory other” for the child. The parent then responds to the child’s protest behavior by “scaffolding” the child’s transition back into an organized and regulated brain state reflected in organized and regulated behavior.

In the process of “scaffolding” the child’s state transition from a disorganized and dysregulated brain state (and behavior) back into an organized and regulated brain state (and behavior), all of the brain pathways that were used as part of this state-transition become “canalized” through “use-dependent” neural processes, thereby making this state-transition more likely to occur in the future.

Gradually, over repeated “scaffolding” by the “regulatory other” of the parent for the child’s state transitions from disorganized and dysregulated brain states to organized and regulated brain states, the child’s brain develops (“canalizes”) the neural pathways for this state transition through use-dependent structural and chemical processes, so that eventually the child is able to make this transition from an impending dysregulated brain state/behavior into a regulated brain state/behavior independently of the need for scaffolding support from the “regulatory other” of the parent. This is called the child’s development of “self-regulation.”

One type of this self-regulation development that the general public may be familiar with is called “frustration tolerance” which occurs through the repeated exposure and successful processing of minor and gradually increasing frustration experiences.

All brain systems are subject to this use-dependent development of self-regulation capacities. This is the current science on child development.

Shore (1997), for example, identifies the shift from the behaviorist paradigm to a neuro-developmental paradigm,

“The basic unit of analysis of the process of human development is not changes in behavior, cognition, or even affect, but rather the ontogenetic appearance of more and more complex psychobiological states that underlie these state-dependent emergent functions.” (Shore, 1997, p. 595).

Shore, A.N. (1997). Early organization of the nonlinear right brain and development of a predisposition to psychiatric disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 595-631.

Sroufe (2000) describes the development of self-regulation through parental scaffolding,

“In the typical course of events, caregivers quickly learn to “read” the infant and to provide care that keeps distress and arousal within reasonable limits.” (Childress comment: the parent is acting as a “regulatory other.”)

“And they do more. By effectively engaging the infant and leading him or her to ever longer bouts of emotionally charged, but organized behavior, they provide the infant with critical training in regulation.”

“The movement toward self-regulation continues throughout the childhood years, as does a vital, though changing, role for caregivers. During the toddler period, the child acquires beginning capacities for self-control, tolerance of moderate frustration, and a widening range of emotional reactions, including shame and, ultimately, pride and guilt. Practicing self-regulation in a supportive context is crucial. Emerging capacities are easily overwhelmed. The caregiver must both allow the child to master those circumstances within their capacity and yet anticipate circumstances beyond the child’s ability, and help to restore equilibrium when the child is over-taxed. Such “guided self-regulation” is the foundation for the genuine regulation that will follow.” (Sroufe, 2000, p. 71)

3. Brain Principles: Protest Behavior

The following principles regarding the developmental role of “protest behavior” are important for understanding the child’s anger and rejection that is being expressed toward the targeted parent in attachment-based “parental alienation.”  Children’s authentic protest behavior is designed to elicit greater involvement from the parent who acts as a “regulatory other” for the child’s protest behavior, helping the child transition from a dsyregulated state (evidenced by the protest behavior) back into an organized and regulated state (evidenced by a pleasant attitude of cooperation).

Authentic protest behavior is never designed to sever the parent-child relationship. From the perspective of evolution, severing of the parent-child relationship exposed children to predation and other environmental dangers. Genes allowing the severing of the parent-child bond were selectively removed from the gene pool throughout millions of years of evolution.

Furthermore, regarding the authentic functioning of the brain, when children are dealing with parental behaviors that are unresponsive and problematic, this problematic parental behavior dysregulates the integrated functioning of the child’s brain systems so that the child produces disregulated emotional and behavioral displays (i.e., protest behavior) designed to elicit the involvement of the parent to serve as a “regulating other” for the child in providing scaffolding support for the child’s transition back into a regulated state, thereby building all of the neural networks associated with the developmental challenge that the child had difficulty independently mastering.

That’s how the brain works.

Sometimes the child may seek to limit involvement with a problematic parent, but this is always a regulatory strategy arising from the disorganized functioning and integration of the underlying brain systems. It is not the product of a motivated desire to sever the parent-child bond.

One of the often prominent features of the child’s anger and hostility toward the targeted parent in attachment-based “parental alienation” is that the child’s anger emerges from an organized and well-regulated child brain state. When this occurs, it means that the anger and hostility directed toward the targeted parent is not authentic to the parent-child interaction but represents a conscious choice by the child.

Authentic protest behavior is a product of a disorganized/dysregulated brain.  Behavior is a symptom, the brain is the cause.

Dysregulated behavior and a regulated brain are incompatible, and so are not authentic. Dysregulated behavior is caused by a dysregulated brain.

A regulated brain means that the child is making a conscious choice to display the apparently dsyregulated behavior of engaging in the parent-child conflict with the targeted parent, which is very different from an authentic parent-child conflict that results from an underlying disorganized and dysregulated integration of brain systems.

Important Concept:

Authentic problematic parenting dysregulates the child’s brain systems, thereby producing dysregulated child behavior, i.e., the child’s protest behavior.

If the child’s brain state is well-regulated as the child is emitting protest behavior, then the emitted protest behavior is NOT being caused by problematic parenting.

Behavior is a symptom. The brain is the cause.

The more that mental health professionals understand about the neurodevelopment of the brain during childhood, the easier it becomes to differentiate authentic from inauthentic parent-child conflict.

With my background in early childhood mental health and the neurodevelopment of the brain during childhood, spotting inauthentic displays of parent-child conflict associated with attachment-based “parental alienation” is extraordinarily easy. Might as well put up a neon sign saying, “Parental Alienation Here.”

This also means that I am able to spot with equal clarity false allegations of “parental alienation” in which the child’s conflicts with the targeted parent represent authentic responses to the problematic parenting behavior of the targeted parent.

Not everything is “parental alienation,” and the goal of all mental health professionals should be to follow the clinical data into an accurate diagnosis, not to promote an agenda or confirm pre-existing ideas.

My client is the child.  The child is displaying symptoms.  My job is to read the symptoms to accurately identify their causal origin so that we can intervene to restore the healthy development of the child.

If the problem is the parenting practices of the targeted parent (i.e., authentic parent-child conflict), that’s pretty easy to solve. We simply instruct the targeted parent in the appropriate parental responses that will act as a “regulatory other” for the child’s dysregulated behavior and emotional displays (the child’s protest behavior).  As soon as the parental responses are appropriate to the parental role as a “regulatory other” for the child’s displays of dysregulated brain states, the child’s protest behavior resolves.

Differentiating authentic versus inauthentic parent-child conflict is not about identifying specific child behaviors, although the differences are evident in certain features of behavior, it’s more about identifying the underlying brain states producing those behaviors. To do this, however, requires a professional level understanding for the socially-mediated neurodevelopment of the brain during childhood. Most mental health professionals do not possess this knowledge. They should. But they don’t.

Knowing what I know about the socially mediated neurodevelopment of the brain during childhood and its implications for child and family therapy, I am strongly of the opinion that we should require that all mental health professionals who are diagnosing and treating children possess the current scientific knowledge regarding child development and the development of the brain during childhood.

It is deeply disturbing to me that we don’t require more advanced knowledge from child and family therapists, and that we accept professional ignorance when it comes to diagnosing and treating our children. Our children and their healthy development are too important and should be paramount in determining the educational curriculum and training of therapists. Our child and family therapists should be the most exceptional of professionals in mental health. It’s too important.

The Regulatory Other in “Parental Alienation”

One of the central concepts in the neurodevelopment of self-regulatory abilities in childhood is the role of the parent as a “regulatory other” for the child. When the child begins to enter a disorganized and dsyregulated state, the parent responds in a way that restores the child’s regulated functioning. The child is using the parent as a “regulatory other” for the child’s own internal state.

Shore (1997) describes the specific relationship features of the parental “regulatory other” role function,

“The mother must monitor the infant’s state as well as her own and then resonate not with the child’s overt behavior but with certain qualities of its internal state, such as contour, intensity, and temporal features.” (Shore, 1997, p. 600)

Tronick (2003) also describes the relationship features of the “regulatory other” parent-child relationship,

“In response to their partner’s relational moves each individual attempts to adjust their behavior to maintain a coordinated dyadic state or to repair a mismatch (Tronick & Cohn, 1989). When mutual regulation is particularly successful, that is when the age-appropriate forms of meaning (e.g., affects, relational intentions, representations; see Tronick 2002c, d) from one individual’s state of consciousness are coordinated with the meanings of another’s state of consciousness — I have hypothesized that a dyadic state of consciousness emerges.” (Tronick, 2003, p. 475)

“A dyadic state of consciousness has dynamic effects. It increases the coherence of the infant’s state of consciousness and expands the infant’s (and the partner’s) state of consciousness (Tronick et al., 1998; Tronick 2002b, c.)” (Tronick, 2003,p. 475)

“Thus, dyadic states of consciousness are critical, perhaps even necessary for development” (Tronick and Wienberg, 1997),” (Tronick, 2003, p. 475)

In severely pathological parent-child relationships, however, this role-relationship of the parent and child is reversed, so that it is the parent who uses the child as a “regulatory other” to regulate the parent’s own pathology.

This is called a “role-reversal” relationship in which the child is being used as a “regulatory other” for the parent, instead of a healthy and developmentally vital parent-child relationship in which the child is using the parent as “regulatory other.”

In the Journal of Emotional Abuse, Kerig discusses the problematic development created by role-reversal relationships involving parent-child boundary violations such as the parent using the child as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s emotional state,

“The breakdown of appropriate generational boundaries between parents and children significantly increases the risk for emotional abuse.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 6)

“In the throes of their own insecurity, troubled parents may rely on the child to meet the parent’s emotional needs, turning to the child to provide the parent with support, nurturance, or comforting (Zeanah & Klitzke, 1991).” (Kerig, 2005, p. 6)

(Childress comment: the parent is using the child as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s emotional state.)

Ultimately, preoccupation with the parents’ needs threatens to interfere with the child’s ability to develop autonomy, initiative, self-reliance, and a secure internal working model of the self and others (Carlson & Sroufe, 1995; Leon & Rudy, this volume).” (Kerig, 2005, p. 6)

“When parent-child boundaries are violated, the implications for developmental psychopathology are significant (Cicchetti & Howes, 1991). Poor boundaries interfere with the child’s capacity to progress through development which, as Anna Freud (1965) suggested, is the defining feature of childhood psychopathology.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 7)

“Examination of the theoretical and empirical literatures suggests that there are four distinguishable dimensions to the phenomenon of boundary dissolution: role reversal, intrusiveness, enmeshment, and spousification. (Kerig, 2005, p. 8)

Enmeshment in one parent-child relationship is often counterbalanced by disengagement between the child and the other parent (Cowan & Cowan, 1990; Jacobvitz, Riggs, & Johnson, 1999). (Kerig, 2005, p. 10)

“However, an emotionally needy parent who is threatened by the child’s emergent sense of individuality may act in ways so as to prolong this sense of parent-infant oneness (Masterson & Rinsley, 1975). By binding the child in an overly close and dependent relationship, the enmeshed parent creates a psychologically unhealthy childrearing environment that interferes with the child’s development of an autonomous self.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 10)

“Barber (2002) defines psychological control as comprising “parental behaviors that are intrusive and manipulative of children’s thoughts, feelings, and attachments to parents, and are associated with disturbances in the boundaries between the child and the parent” (p. 15) (see also Bradford & Barber, this issue).” (Kerig, 2005, p. 12)

“As Ogden (1979) phrased it, “It is as if the parent says to the child, if you are not what I need you to be, you do not exist for me” (p. 16).” (Kerig, 2005, p. 12)

“Rather than telling the child directly what to do or think, as does the behaviorally controlling parent, the psychologically controlling parent uses indirect hints and responds with guilt induction or withdrawal of love if the child refuses to comply. In short, an intrusive parent strives to manipulate the child’s thoughts and feelings in such a way that the child’s psyche will conform to the parent’s wishes.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 12)

“In order to carve out an island of safety and responsivity in an unpredictable, harsh, and depriving parent-child relationship, children of highly maladaptive parents may become precocious caretakers who are adept at reading the cues and meeting the needs of those around them. The ensuing preoccupied attachment with the parent interferes with the child’s development of important ego functions, such as self organization, affect regulation, and emotional object constancy.” (Kerig, 2005, p. 14)

“There is evidence for the intergenerational transmission of boundary dissolution within the family. Adults who experienced boundary dissolution in their relationships with their own parents are more likely to violate boundaries with their children (Hazen, Jacobvitz, & McFarland, this volume; Shaffer & Sroufe, this volume).” (Kerig, 2005, p. 22)

Kerig, P.K. (2005). Revisiting the construct of boundary dissolution: A multidimensional perspective. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5, 5-42.

The seduction of the child into the role as a “regulatory other” for the pathological parent is a result of the disorganized and intense emotional displays by the pathological parent. In response to the parent’s unpredictable displays of intense anxiety, sadness, or anger, the child learns to become hyper-vigilant regarding the parent’s internal state so that the child can respond in ways that prevent the parent from collapsing into a disorganized emotional state of excessive anxiety, sadness, or anger.

The child becomes the “regulatory other” for the parent, so that the child becomes adept at responding to the pathological parent in ways that keep the pathological parent in an organized and regulated state. Once the child becomes the “regulatory other” for the pathological parent, the parent simply needs to provide the child with subtle emotional and communicative cues as to how to maintain the parent’s regulated emotional state and the child will actively become what the parent needs the child to be.

In healthy parent-child relationships, the parent acts as the “regulatory other” for the child.

In the psychopathology of the “role-reversal” relationship, the child acts as the “regulatory other” for the parent.

A role-reversal relationship is extremely destructive to the healthy emotional and psychological development of the child.

Role-reversal relationships are associated with the “disorganized” category of attachment (Lyons-Ruth, Bronfman, & Parsons, 1999), which is considered to be the most severely pathological attachment category, and disorganized attachment, in turn, is associated with the development of borderline personality processes (Beck, 2004).

In attachment-based “parental alienation” the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment classification is likely to be “disorganized,” which in adults is called “unresolved trauma.” As a manifestation of the internal working models of relationship contained within the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment networks, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent forms a role-reversal relationship with the child, using the child as a “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s own emotional regulation.

Parental Anxiety Regulation

For the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the interpersonal rejection inherent to the divorce represents a “narcissistic injury” that threatens to collapse the narcissistic defense against the experience of primal self-inadequacy.  

The interpersonal rejection of the divorce also activates an intense fear of abandonment associated with borderline personality processes.

At the attachment system level, the attachment system forms “internal working models,” also called “schemas,” for expectations of self-in-relationship and other-in-relationship. For the “disorganized” category of attachment, the self-in-relationship expectation is that “I’m inadequate,” while the expectation of the other-in-relationship is that “I will be abandoned by the other because I’m inadequate.”

These “internal working models” within the attachment system coalesce during later childhood and adolescence into stable personality structures, with the “I’m inadequate” self-in-relationship schema reflected in narcissistic personality processes, while the abandoning other-in relationship expectation becomes reflected in borderline personality processes of an intense fear of abandonment.

Both the narcissistic and the borderline personality processes have the same underlying attachment schemas of “I’m inadequate” and “I will be abandoned because of my inadequacy.” The difference between the borderline and narcissistic personality processes is that the borderline personality experiences these internal core attachment beliefs directly, which leads to overtly disorganized behavior, emotions, and relationships, whereas the narcissistic personality has adopted a defensive veneer of narcissistic self-inflation against the direct experience of these internal core attachment schemas. However, if the narcissistic defensive veneer is threatened, the narcissistic personality responds with a disorganized tirade of intense anger consistent with the underlying borderline personality organization.

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

In response to the interpersonal rejection inherent to the divorce (i.e., narcissistic injury and abandonment), the narcissistic/(borderline) parent engages the child in a role-reversal relationship as a “regulatory other” in order to regulate the intense anxiety experienced by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent associated with the threatened collapse of the narcissistic defense against the experience of primal inadequacy and a tremendous fear of abandonment.

As the child adopts the role as the “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s pathology in order to avoid the emotional collapse of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into chaotic and unpredictable displays of intense parental anxiety, sadness, or anger it becomes relatively easy for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to then communicate to the child through clear but subtle “emotional signals” and “relational moves” that the parent’s emotional regulation is dependent on the child adopting the “victimized child” role in the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s trauma reenactment narrative.

In the role as a “regulating other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child readily adopts the parentally-desired role as the “victimized child” of the other “abusive parent” in order to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent from collapsing into intense emotional states of anxiety, sadness, or anger.

The induction of child symptoms is NOT accomplished by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent overtly “alienating” the child by saying derogatory things about the other parent. The induction process is much more insidious and complex.

The child is induced into becoming the “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in order to avoid parental displays of anger and rejection (or in some cases parental displays of intense sadness or anxiety), and the child is seduced into psychologically surrendering to the influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent through parental displays of affection and narcissistic indulgence provided to the child for cooperating as the “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

In response to the intense and unpredictable emotional displays by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child becomes hyper-vigilant regarding the emotional and psychological state of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in order to prevent the parent’s collapse into intense, dysregulated emotional displays of anxiety, sadness, or anger, and the child becomes what the parent needs (i.e., the “regulatory other” for the parent) in order to keep the parent in a regulated emotional state.

The child enters a role-reversal relationship to become a “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s emotional state.

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent then communicates non-verbally to the child that what the parent needs from the child in order for the parent to remain emotionally regulated is that the child adopt the role of the “victimized child” relative to the other “abusive parent.”

The moment the child adopts the “victimized child” role within the trauma reenactment narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (see Trauma Reenactment in Parental Alienation post), this immediately imposes on the targeted parent the trauma reenactment role as the “abusive parent,” and allows the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to adopt and prominently display the coveted role as the all-wonderful “protective parent” within the trauma reenactment narrative.

Inducing the child into accepting the “victimized child” role is relatively easy. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent simply seeks a child criticism of the other parent through motivated and directive questioning by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and the child will readily comply in offering this parentally-desired criticism of the other parent in the child’s role as a “regulating other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s emotional state.

Once the narcissistic/(borderline) parent has elicited a child criticism of the other parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent then distorts, exaggerates, and inflames this elicited child criticism of the other parent into supposed evidence of the “abusive” parenting of the other parent. In the process the narcissistic/(borderline) parent supplies to the “regulating other” of the child the appropriate themes for denigrating the other parent.

Narcissistic/(borderline) parent: “How were things at your mother’s house?”

Child: Pretty good, we had pizza.” <The child responds authentically>

N/(b) parent: “Oh, I guess you like the food better better over there. Does she have better food over there than we have? <The father’s sharply hostile tone signals to the child that the child provided the wrong answer, and that the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is threatening to dysregulate into anger and rejection.>

Child: “No, I actually didn’t like it. It had pepperoni on it and I hate pepperoni.” <The child reads the parental cues and quickly corrects the response to one of criticism of the other parent to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in an emotionally regulated state. The child actually likes pepperoni and liked the pizza he had at his mom’s house, but truth and accuracy are sacrificed in the service of keeping the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in a regulated emotional state.>

N/(b) parent: “Yeah, that’s just like her. She never considers what other people want, it’s always what she wants. She’s so selfish and inconsiderate. Hey, how about a snack. If she didn’t feed you well over there why don’t you grab some chips from the pantry and have a snack.” <The father’s return to a normal emotional tone signals to the child that the criticism was the correct response to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent emotionally regulated. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent then provides the child with the acceptable theme to use in criticizing the other parent (i.e., that his mom is selfish and self-centered) and the father provides the child with a narcissistic indulgence for providing the proper response of criticizing the mother.  All the while it APPEARS as if it is the child who is criticizing the other parent and that the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is simply being the “wonderfully nurturing and understanding” parent, i.e., the coveted “protective parent” role in the trauma reenactment narrative.)

N/(b) parent: “Did you and your mom do anything?” <The father isn’t satisfied, he’s seeking another criticism from the child. Perhaps the father wants to more firmly establish the interaction pattern since the child initially said everything was okay with his mom>

Child: “Yeah, she took me over to her parents’ house, but I didn’t have any fun over there.” <The child actually likes going to his grandparents’ house. He loves his grandparents and they dote on him.  But as a “regulatory other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent the child is hyper-vigilant for cues regarding how to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in a regulated emotional state. The child recognizes that the parent wants the child to criticize the mother, so the child provides the father with the parentally-desired response that he didn’t have fun going to his grandparents house, So that while the child actually likes seeing his grandparents and actually had a good time over at their house, truth and accuracy are sacrificed at the moment in order to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent regulated. The only relevant consideration for the child is how to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent out of an angry retaliatory state that the father earlier signaled was imminent if the child did not provide the correct responses.>

N/(b) parent: “Oh God, I’m so sorry she dragged you over there. Her parents are just awful. They just drone on and on. It’s so boring. I’m sorry you had to endure that. Hey, why don’t we go buy you a new video game.” <The father inflames the child’s elicited criticism and in doing so he provides the theme for criticizing the grandparents in the future, so that later the child will report to the therapist, “I hate going over to my grandparents, it’s awful, they just talk on and on about stuff, I hate going over there.” And the therapist will never suspect that this criticism and theme were co-created with the allied and seemingly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The father provides the child with another narcissistic indulgence for the child’s cooperation in psychologically surrendering to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent by adopting the “victimized child” role.>

N/(b) parent: “So, did you and you mom get along okay?  Did you have any arguments about anything?” <The father is still not satisfied.  He wants a more direct criticism of the mother so he asks the child directly for this criticism, first in general terms but then provides a specific prompt for the child.  The criticism of the other parent is elicited by directive and motivated questioning.  The child, as a regulatory other feels obligated to provide the father with the sought-for response, and the child realizes from previous interactions with the father that if he doesn’t get the desired criticism of the mother then he will be in an angry, hostile, and punitive mood. The child wants to avoid his father’s dysregulation into anger so the child needs to provide the parentally-desired response.  The problem is that the child and his mother had a good time together.  There were no arguments.  But the child needs to come up with something.>

Child:She got upset at me for leaving my stuff in the living room.” <Actually, the mother was simply annoyed that the child left his shoes and jacket in the living room and asked him to take his stuff to his room. But truth and accuracy are sacrificed in order to provide the narcissistic/(borderline) parent with the desired response to avoid the intense and unpredictable emotional displays that can result from a frustrated narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

N/(b) parent: “Oh my god! Really? She got angry at you for that?  She’s so controlling.  Everything has to be her way or she flies off into her rages.  I swear, she has anger management issues.  It was just like that in our marriage.  I know exactly what you’re talking about.  I can’t believe how controlling she is.  I’m sorry you have to put up with that  I wish she wouldn’t get so angry about the littlest thing. Come here and give me a hug.  I’m sorry she does that.” <It doesn’t take much of a criticism, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will take even the smallest of criticism as the seed for distortion and exaggeration into supposed evidence of the other parent’s “abusive” parenting.  Notice how the child’s characterization of the mother as being “upset” is distorted and inflamed by the father into “angry” and ultimately into “rages.” The father also provides the child with the desired and acceptable themes for criticizing the mother, that she is “controlling” and has “anger management issues.” Notice too, the loss of boundaries, “I know exactly what you’re talking about,” as the father brings the marital relationship into the discussion, “she was just like that in our marriage.”  Finally, the father signals his approval of the child for criticizing his mother..>

As these parent-child interactions are continually repeated, the child comes to understand his role in the drama, to provide a criticism of the mother, the more extreme the criticism the better, until eventually when the child returns from a visitation with the mother and receives the father’s invitation for the criticism, the child responds with a full measure of antagonism for his mother,

N/(b) parent: “How were things at your mom’s house?” <the parental invitation for the criticism>

Child: “Horrible, I hate it over there. She’s so controlling. It always has to be what she wants or she gets so angry.  She gets angry over the littlest things. I hate it over there.”

N/(b) parent: “I’m so sorry she’s like that. Come here and give me a hug. I hate when she gets like that.  I wish she cared more about how you feel instead of her own stuff.  I’m sorry your mom is like that.  Well you’re home now, so you can relax.  How about a bowl of ice cream to help to get over being with your mom.”

And if anyone asks the child, does your dad say bad things about your mother in front of you, the child says, “No” because from the child’s immature perspective it appears as if it is the child who is offering the criticism of the mother, and that the father is just being “supportive” and “understanding” of the child. 

Also note how truth and accuracy are left behind in the “regulatory other” role of the child. In the psychological world of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, “Truth and reality are what I assert them to be,” This is a hallmark of the narcissistic and borderline thinking process that the child is acquiring. 

In the moment, while the child is interacting with the unpredictable and emotionally dangerous narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the primary motivation of the child is to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in a regulated emotional state and so avoid the parent’s collapse into hostile-angry-rejecting, overly sad and depressed, or hyper-anxious emotional displays.  If truth is bent or distorted, that’s a small price to pay. 

Gradually through repeated distorting interactions with the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in which the child psychologically surrenders to the role as the “regulating other” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child acquires the same psychological characteristics of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that the child is reflecting for the regulation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. 

The child’s acquisition of these parental narcissistic and borderline characteristics through the child’s role as the “regulatory other” for a narcissistic/(borderline) parent represent Diagnostic Indicator 2 for an attachment based model of “parental alienation” (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post). 

These acquired characteristics include the narcissistic/(borderline) characteristic that “truth and reality are what I assert them to be.”  The presence in the child’s symptom display of this characteristic thought process, that “truth and reality are what I assert them to be,” is a particularly distinctive sign of attachment-based “parental alienation” that evidences the influence of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent on the child’s psychological processes.

In the vignette described above, the authentic child hurts at having criticized his mother. The authentic child feels like he betrayed his mother by cooperating in the “mom-bashing” exchange with his father. The child feels guilty. While the child had to criticize the mother in order to keep the narcissistic/(borderline) parent emotionally regulated, the child doesn’t realize this. The role as the “regulatory other” is too subtle and complicated a role-relationship for the immaturity of the child to recognize.

So the child just knows something hurts (i.e., guilt at betraying his mother), but he doesn’t know why he hurts.  All he knows is that his hurt has something to do with his mother.

As this dynamic progresses, the child will come to misinterpret this hurt surrounding his mother (i.e., his guilt at betraying her and his grief at losing a relationship with his beloved mother once the rejection is underway), as being something “bad” about his mother.  In trying to understand what hurts about his mother, the child comes to misinterpret an authentic hurt as meaning that there must be something bad about who his mother is as a person.

Since she’s not actually doing anything bad that he can specifically identify, it must be her very “personhood” that’s bad.   And his father is more than willing to support this misinterpretation that the very personhood of the mother is bad, malicious, and inadequate (i.e., a manifestation of the “splitting” dynamic of the father’s psychopathology; (see Key Concept: Splitting post), so that the mother “deserves” to be rejected by the child.

“If others fail to satisfy the narcissist’s “needs,” including the need to look good, or be free from inconvenience, then others “deserve to be punished”… Even when punishing others out of intolerance or entitlement, the narcissist sees this as “a lesson they need, for their own good” (Beck, et al., 2004, p. 252).

The child’s presentation of a “deserves to be rejected” theme regarding the targeted-rejected parent is another very distinctive and characteristic diagnostic feature of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

Over time, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will provide the child with an array of “acceptable” themes for why the child hurts relative to the other parent, e.g., the other parent is self-centered and selfish, is insensitive to the child’s needs, that the other parent broke up the family by seeking the divorce, or has a really irritating way of saying things, etc.

Regulating the Psychopathology

This whole process is controlled and directed by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a means to regulate the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

In the vignette described above, once the trauma reenactment narrative is in place, the father is no longer the inadequate parent (person), the mother is. The father’s threatened exposure of core-self inadequacy is protected by projectively displacing it onto the mother by means of the child’s induced symptomatic rejection of her.she’s the inadequate parent (person), not me.

The father on the other hand, becomes the “all-wonderful” parent, and the father is allowed to display the “wonderfulness” of his “nurturing and protective parenting” to the “bystanders” in the trauma reenactment who are represented by the array of therapists, parent coordinators, teachers, and attorneys who become involved.

“Reenactments of the traumatic past are common in the treatment of this population and frequently represent either explicit or coded repetitions of the unprocessed trauma in an attempt at mastery. Reenactments can be expressed psychologically, relationally, and somatically and may occur with conscious intent or with little awareness. One primary transference-countertransference dynamic involves reenactment of familiar roles of victim, perpetrator-rescuer-bystander in the therapy relationship. Therapist and client play out these roles, often in complementary fashion with one another, as they relive various aspects of the client’s early attachment relationships. (Perlman & Courtois, 2005, p. 455)

This narcissistically based “wonderfully perfect nurturing and protective parent” presentation to the “bystanders” in the trauma reenactment is sometimes explicitly expressed by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in the sentence, “I only want what’s best for the child.” What a wonderful parent, right? Totally unlike the other parent who only cares about his or her selfish desire to have a relationship with the child.  If the other parent really cared about the child they would let the child reject them and never see the child again.  What a selfish parent.

Therapist radar should always be alerted whenever a parent says, “I only want what’s best for the child.”  We all want what’s best for the child.  Normal-range parents almost never make this statement because it is so self-evident.  But the narcissistic/(borderline) parent doesn’t recognize this statement as being self-evident for normal-range parents, and thinks it represents a “wonderful parent” presentation.  It’s not a definitive sign, but it should raise therapist alertness for the presence of the all-wonderful “protective parent” role.

The child’s rejection of the mother also allows the father to psychologically expel his abandonment fears onto the mother – she becomes the entirely abandoned parent (person) – whereas the father becomes the ideal and perfect never-to-be-abandoned parent.

The narcissistic/(borderline) father also gains possession of “the prize,” the child, who represents a “narcissistic object” symbolizing the father’s victory over the mother, and validating the father as being the “good parent.”

“[For the narcissistic personality] instead of learning to accept and master normal and transient feelings of inferiority, these experiences are cast as threats to be defeated, primarily by acquiring external symbols or validation.” (Beck et al., 2006, p. 247)

“[For the narcissistic personality] the need to control the idealized objects, to use them in attempts to manipulate and exploit the environment and to “destroy potential enemies,” is linked with inordinate pride in the “possession” of these perfect objects totally dedicated to the patient. (Kernberg, 1975, p. 33)

Childress commment: “totally dedicated to the patient” represents the “regulating other” role of the child for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

And through the child’s rejection of the mother, the father is able to exact revenge on the the mother for the narcissistic injury she inflicted upon him by not recognizing his “wonderfulness.” How dare she not recognize his narcissistic wonderfulness. Well, she’s paying for it now.

“If others fail to satisfy the narcissist’s “needs,” including the need to look good, or be free from inconvenience, then others “deserve to be punished”… Even when punishing others out of intolerance or entitlement, the narcissist sees this as “a lesson they need, for their own good” (Beck, et al., 2004, p. 252).

Court orders and therapist directives for parents to “not talk badly about the other parent in front of the child” are totally irrelevant. Talking badly about the other parent is NOT how the child’s symptomatic rejection of the other parent occurs.

The child is first induced into being a “regulatory other” for the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

From there, the child is induced into adopting the “victimized child” role in the trauma reenactment narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, which immediately creates and defines the other two trauma reenactment roles of “abusive parent” and “protective parent.”

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

* Regarding the vignette, I used the father as representing the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and the mother as the targeted parent, but these genders could easily be reversed.  There is no gender bias in attachment-based “parental alienation.”  It affects males and females in roughly equal proportions.

References

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

Kandel, E. R. (2007), In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Kerig, P.K. (2005). Revisiting the construct of boundary dissolution: A multidimensional perspective. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5, 5-42.

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

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).

Pearlman, C.A., Courtois, C.A. (2005). Clinical Applications of the Attachment Framework: Relational Treatment of Complex Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 449-459.

Shore, A.N. (1997). Early organization of the nonlinear right brain and development of a predisposition to psychiatric disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 595-631.

Sroufe, L.A. (2000). Early relationships and the development of children. Infant Mental Health Journal, 21(1-2), 67-74.

Tronick, E.Z. (2003). Of course all relationships are unique: How co-creative processes generate unique mother-infant and patient-therapist relationships and change other relationships. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 473-491.