Stark Reality

To targeted parents:

I am often sought out by targeted parents who want my help to the question,

“How can I reestablish a positive and affectionate relationship with my child?”

My answer is… that’s the wrong question.

The Well-Formed Question

Do you really want me to open the child to a positive and affectionate relationship with you? Knowing full well that the child will pay a terrible price for any show of affection toward you, or even for not rejecting you sufficiently, as a result of the retaliation by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The capacity for psychological cruelty by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is immense. Just think of it for a second. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent is willing to inflict the immense cruelty on you of taking your most precious beloved child from you, so that you no longer have a child, to inflict on you such intense psychological suffering as revenge for your not sufficiently appreciating the “wonderfulness” of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Their capacity for cruelty is immense, and it is without empathy or pity.

If the child shows any affection toward you, or does not reject you with enough display, then the full force of the psychological cruelty that is capable from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will be turned on the child. The child will have to endure daily hostility, rejection, contempt, and torment. Irrational rules, irrational punishments. Anger. Rejection. Guilt.

The pathological cruelty capable from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is hard enough for a fully developed adult psyche to endure, it is devastating to the still in-formation psyche of the child.

So are you asking me how you can expose your child to this retaliation? You’re asking me how to open up your child and expose your child’s authenticity and vulnerability to the immense  psychological cruelty capable from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Is that really what you want to do?

“How can I protect my child?”

That’s a much better question.

Until we can protect the child, we cannot expose the child.

How can we ask the child to show affection toward you unless we can first protect the child from the psychological retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is sure to follow any display by the child of affectionate bonding to you, or even just the child’s insufficient display of rejection of you?

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent REQUIRES the child to reject a relationship with you. If the child shows bonding motivations toward the targeted parent, or even fails to show sufficient rejection of the targeted parent (such as insufficiently dramatic displays of protest at visitation transfers), then the child will be subjected to a withering psychological retaliation from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

So, as a therapist, my question to targeted parents is this;

“Do you want me to open the child’s bonding motivations toward you? To stop the child’s displays of rejecting you? To re-form a positive parent-child bond with you? Knowing that to do so will expose the child to an excruciating psychological torment from the retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent once the child returns to the custody and ‘care’ of the pathological parent.”

As long as the child must live in the world of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, as long as we cannot protect the child from the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child must find a way to psychologically survive in that world.

My First Exposure

My first case of “parental alienation” involved a 10 year old boy who had to reject a relationship with his mother. I had met with the father on several occasions and the dynamic was obvious. As I sat in the mother-son therapy session with the child sitting apart in a dramatic display of rejection, refusing to play a board game with his mother and me, I decided to reach out with my empathy into the child’s experience.

As I sat talking with the mother, I allowed my empathic resonance to shift over to the child, to the child’s inner experience. I didn’t share this empathic awareness with the child, I just allowed myself to feel what it was like to be him, looking for his authentic self-experience.

As I dropped my empathic awareness into the child’s authenticity, this is what I “heard” in my mind’s imagination,

Child (in my mind’s imagination): “Dr. Childress, can you help me escape from here? I’m trapped, buried deep inside. I don’t want to reject my mother. I love my mother. But I have to reject her because it’s what my dad requires me to do. He’ll torment me if I don’t. Can you rescue me? Can you help me escape from here?

Dr. C (in my mind’s imagination): I’ll see what I can do.

Child (in my mind’s imagination): “But Dr. Childress, don’t get me half the way out. Because if you only get me half the way out my dad will torment me for showing affection for my mom, for not rejecting my mom. If you can’t rescue me, if you can’t get me all the way out, then just leave me here.

Dr. C (in my mind’s imagination): Okay, I’ll see what I can do.

That’s the voice of the child in “parental alienation.”

“Help me. My authenticity is trapped deep inside here. Please, I want you to rescue me. But if you can’t get me all the way out, if you can’t rescue me, then leave me here, because otherwise the pathological parent will torment me if I try to escape but can’t get fully away.”

“At least if my authenticity is buried deep inside, hidden beyond my awareness, then it’s safe. If you expose it but cannot protect it, then the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will destroy it.”

We must first protect the child. Only then can we ask the child to expose his or her authenticity.

Protecting the Child

I am a therapist. I am not the child’s parent. I cannot do what is necessary to protect the child. You must do that.

I can support you. I can write, I can film Youtubes, I can describe what “parental alienation” is for mental health professionals and the Court. I will do everything in my power. But I cannot achieve the child’s protection. Each parent must accomplish that for each child. Every situation has its own individual characteristics, and only you can achieve your child’s protection.

Unless you can protect the child, how can you ask the child to love you? Knowing that to love you will expose the child to the abusive psychological retaliation of the hostage taker?

Or is that just the child’s problem? After all, if we restore the child’s positive relationship with you then you’ll be fine. You’ll have a positive, normal-range relationship with the child. Whatever happens to the child at the other parent’s house, well, that’s the child’s problem.

I know that’s not how you feel. But how, then, can we ask the child to bond to you? We can’t. Not until we achieve the child’s protection from retaliation.

Allies

You, the targeted parent, cannot protect the child unless you have allies. The principle ally is mental health.

It is the responsibility of mental health to recognize the degree of psychopathology and to voice this diagnosis in your support. You are the normal-range and healthy parent. The allied and supposedly “favored” parent is the pathology.  You know that.  I see that.  All of mental health should similarly see it.  But they don’t.

We need to solve that.

Then, once you have a strong ally in mental health, we turn to the Court system. The united voice of mental health can then provide you with the institutional power you need to enlist the power of the Court as your ally, and it is with the power of the Court that we can protect the child.

The solution to “parental alienation” is not through the legal system, it is to be found in the mental health system. When mental health speaks with a single voice, the legal system will be able to act with the decisive clarity necessary to protect the child and solve “parental alienation.”

Until mental health speaks with a single voice, no solution to “parental alienation” is possible. Not for you.  Not for the next parent.  This isn’t because we can’t fix your relationship with your child, it’s because we can fix it.  Yet how can we ask for the child’s authenticity if we are unable to first protect the child’s authenticity?

Do you really want to expose the child to the immense psychological cruelty capable from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent?  If we open the child’s affectionate bonding toward you, that’s exactly what we will be doing.

Securing the Mental Health Ally

Currently, one of the major problems in securing mental health as an ally for targeted parents is the massive level of professional incompetence in both the diagnosis and treatment of “parental alienation.” Mental health doesn’t understand what it’s dealing with, what “parental alienation” is.

The first step to securing mental health as an ally is to clear the field of professional incompetence, so that ONLY professionally knowledgeable and competent mental health professionals treat this “special population” of children and families.

Key to achieving professional competence is defining “standards of practice” to which ALL mental health professionals can be held accountable. A Gardnerian PAS model does not allow us to establish professional standards of practice because Gardner too quickly abandoned established and accepted psychological constructs to describe what he thought was a new “syndrome.” We need to return to the foundations and re-define the construct of “parental alienation” entirely from within standard and established psychological constructs, so that we can then use this definition to establish “standards of practice” for ALL mental health professionals who work with this “special population.”

That’s what I set about to do, and that’s what I have accomplished with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

I cannot enact the protection of your child. You must accomplish that. But I can give you the weapons from within professional psychology to achieve your child’s protection and the recovery of your child’s authenticity.

The Next Step

The next step in achieving mental health as your ally is to establish these “standards of practice” within mental health, so that ALL diagnosing and treating mental health professionals are knowledgeable and competent.

If you are going to rely on me for that, I would anticipate that this will take between 10 to 15 years for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” to achieve professional acceptance.

Within two years I will submit for publication. It will take about a year and a half for the article to be published. It will languish in obscurity for another two years, when my second and third articles become published. A little more interest will emerge. I’m currently 60 years old. Within the year I’m going to be shifting my focus back to my primary professional practice domain of ADHD (I’ve actually solved what “ADHD” is and how to treat and resolve it, and in order to accomplish this I had  to advance child therapy into the 21st century, so I need to get back to these areas of prime importance. Solving “parental alienation” is a side-track for me). At some point in the next decade I’ll retire. At some point I’ll pass away. Then my work will gradually be “discovered” and picked up by younger therapists and researchers, and it will gradually find its way into the professional mainstream.

My estimate is that if you leave it to me to carry the solution, it will take between 10 to 15 years to achieve mental health as an ally.

What I’ve tried to do is give you the professional weapons you need to carry the fight for your children. I’ve defined the theoretical foundations for the construct of “parental alienation” on the solid and scientifically supported bedrock of attachment theory and personality disorder dynamics. From a professional psychology standpoint, I’ve done the heavy lifting for you. You now have a theoretical foundation built on solid bedrock that you can leverage to achieve the solution. But the fight for your children must be yours.

If you take up this fight to establish an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” within mental health, to require a “standard of professional practice” with this “special population” of children and families, then you may perhaps shorten the time-frame needed to acquire mental health as an ally. Perhaps to as little as a year or two. The theoretical foundations are extremely solid. You have everything you need.

Along the way, I’m willing to do whatever I can to support your voice within mental health.

Stark Reality

Because of my understanding of what “parental alienation” is, I’m often asked by targeted parents what they can do to restore a relationship with their child.

The stark reality is, nothing.

How can we ask the child to love you, to bond with you, to expose their authenticity, if we cannot also protect them from the torment of psychological retaliation that is sure to be inflicted on them by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent?

We must first protect the child.

Then, and only then, does a solution become available. And in order to protect the child we MUST have the strong and steadfast support of mental health. This requires that we clear the field of professional incompetence by establishing professional “standards of practice” for ALL mental health professionals who work with this “special population” of children and families.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” provides the necessary theoretical foundations on the established bedrock of attachment theory and personality disorder dynamics.  An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” can be leveraged into standards of professional practice for ALL mental health professionals who work with this “special population” of children and families.

How long this solution takes to enact, how long before we are able to protect our children… that’s up to you.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.

Therapy: Initial Considerations (1)

I received the following question regarding therapy and I thought I’d reply through my blog.

Caveat:  Without conducting an independent assessment of family relationships, I cannot offer advice on any specific situation.  I can, however, offer general commentary regarding the issues and factors to be considered in treating an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

Here is the question I received:

I am currently in a position where our therapist is asking the courts to remove our children from the alienating parent and have them placed back in my custody.  Do you have any general suggestions for reunification for an alienated parent?  The expectation in our situation is that our 14 year old will be very resistant and our 12 year old will be receptive, based on what the therapist has learned in the last 90 days of sessions.”

An aside: The therapist needs to be careful in the phrasing of this recommendation because treatment providers are prohibited from offering child custody recommendations.  With regard to “parental alienation” this becomes more complex because the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent shifts the clinical concerns from child custody to child protection.  Yet caution still needs to be exercised by treatment providers relative to child custody considerations.

As a clinical psychologist I can discuss treatment-related issues, but I cannot offer an opinion on custody.  This becomes somewhat convoluted when the treatment issue is one of child protection, and therapy requires the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is inducing the child’s symptoms, in order to protect the child from harm associated with being turned into a “psychological battleground” by the continuing pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent who is pressuring the child to maintain the child’s symptomatic rejection of the other parent even as therapy is trying to restore this parent-child relationship.

In my view, my only option since I cannot offer recommendations for child custody considerations is for me to decline therapy until such time as the child’s protection during the active phase of treatment can be guaranteed by a protective separation of the child from the pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/borderline) parent whose distorted parenting practices are inducing the child’s symptomatic state.

However, there are currently many less-than-competent therapists who would be more that willing to pick up any cases that I decline, so that essentially those who are knowledgeable must decline to conduct therapy, leaving treatment to those therapists who have little to no idea what they’re doing.  This is unfortunate.

Initial Comments:

The stages, focal areas, and processes by which we treat and resolve the child’s symptoms that are created by the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and by which we also restore the child’s authenticity rather than simply replacing the child’s psychological domination by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent with our own psychological domination of the child, go beyond my ability to describe in a single weblog essay.

So I will begin to describe these therapeutic processes and interventions in this response, beginning with the overall structural goals of the therapeutic process, and then I will follow up on these initial considerations in future blog essays focusing on the various specific components of the therapy process.

The Symptomatic Eldest Child

It is not unusual for the eldest child to be the initial focus of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent for distortion and alliance, while the younger children are left relatively unattended to by the distorting psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. Over time, however, once the eldest child has psychologically surrendered to the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the focus of both the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and the eldest child then becomes turned toward inducing the same pathology in the younger siblings, until eventually all the children are induced into cutting off their relationships with the targeted parent.

So if the eldest child is fully symptomatic but the younger child isn’t, this means that the psychopathology of the “alienation” process has not yet achieved full completion. Under these circumstances, I would estimate that the psychopathology has achieved 3/4 to 2/3 completion, which provides us with some degree of healthy to work from. My preference would be to catch the psychopathology early, at about the 1/4 to 1/3 point, no later than 1/2 completion, but that’s not always possible (seldom possible in today’s climate relative to treating “parental alienation”).

The strategy of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is to delay therapy and buy time for the pathology to become established in the child. The longer effective therapy is delayed, the more entrenched the child’s symptomatology becomes. Time is on the side of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and the psychopathology.

When the youngest child retains some degree of healthy, then there are ways to use the youngest child’s continued healthy as a formative seed around which to reconstitute healthy parent-child and sibling relationships throughout the family, in which the remaining healthy of the youngest child can serve as a source of “social referencing” within therapy sessions for what constitutes “normal-range” and balanced.

This is particularly true if normal-range child grievances and “breach-and-repair” sequences between the targeted parent and the youngest child can be elaborated in therapy to achieve an effective and successful resolution, then this provides a model for the eldest child of how conflict and conflict resolution is handled in a healthy and productive way.

Protective Separation

Reunification therapy requires the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.

From a therapeutic perspective, the protective separation is needed in order to protect the child from being turned into a “psychological battleground” by the continuing psychological pressures applied to the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent designed to maintain the child’s symptomatic rejection of the other parent even while therapy is trying to restore the child’s affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted parent.

The analogy is to an infectious disease process (or more accurately, to a computer virus infecting the “files” of the child’s attachment system). The first step in treating an infectious disease is to isolate the child from the source of the pathogenic agent. If, for example, we try to treat the child with antibiotics while the child is continually re-exposed to the pathogenic agent (i.e., the germs or virus in the infection analogy; and the distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in the “alienation” process), the child will simply become continually re-infected even as we try to treat the disease process, leading to the creation of a highly treatment resistant strain of the pathogenic agent.

The first step in treating attachment-based “parental alienation” is to protectively separate the child from the source of the pathogenic parenting during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery. Once we have restored the child’s normal-range and balanced psychological functioning, then we can boost the child’s natural “immune response” to the pathogenic agent and reintroduce the child to the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Children love both parents. That is simply the way the attachment system works. We want the child to have healthy and positive relationships with both parents, and we also want to protect the child from the distorting influence of “corrupt files” contained within the attachment system of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The Goal of Therapy

If we can obtain the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of treatment, then we can initiate the restoration of healthy and balanced child authenticity. A subtle point of therapy is that the goal is not to restore the parent-child relationship, the goal of therapy is to restore a healthy and balanced authentic child. If we are able to achieve this goal, then a healthy and positive parent-child relationship with the targeted parent will also be achieved.

Children love their parents. Restore the healthy and authentic child and we will restore a healthy and balanced parent-child relationship.

Of note is that normal-range children are sometimes annoying to their parents. This is an important part of the children’s healthy development in which they are expressing their own authenticity and individuation into the parent-child relationship.  We are not seeking “perfect children,” we are seeking psychologically, emotionally, and socially healthy children. Low-level episodes of child protest behavior and minor “breach-and-repair” sequences are not only normal, they are developmentally vital to the child’s healthy development of autonomous self-structure.

In addition, parents are often annoying to their children. Parents set limits, establish and enforce household rules, and have expectations for appropriate child social behavior. All of these parenting functions are normal-range and healthy, and all of these parental functions can, at times, provoke episodes of normal-range child protest behavior. Children can sometimes be annoying to parents. Parents can sometimes be annoying to children. This is normal-range and healthy.

Correcting Child Pathology

However, in attachment-based “parental alienation,” the child is expressing pathological narcissistic and borderline personality disorder traits acquired from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. One of the primary interventions toward restoring the authentic child is to eliminate this expression of psychopathology by the child.

The treatment approach toward the psychopathology is to adopt a stance of relentless kindness, gentleness, understanding, and a relaxed-pleasant emotional tone within the simultaneous context of directly and steadfastly challenging the child’s expressions of narcissistic and borderline psychopathology (i.e., entitlement, a haughty and arrogant attitude of contempt, an absence of empathy, polarized black-and-white thinking, emotional tirades of verbal abuse, etc.).

Gandhi said, “the antidote is the opposite.” Think of the child’s hostile over-angry symptoms as a muscle spasm of the emotional system. We want to relax the spasming anger system. The emotion of relaxed pleasant-happy relaxes emotional spasms in the brain.

“No worries. It’s all good. Everything is going to be okay. I love you very much.”

At the same time, we want to provide the child with clear social feedback that the psychopathology is a distorted symptom of pathology and that it is not acceptable, not because of who the targeted parent is, but because of who the child is. We are kind and compassionate because of our values, because of our character. We expect the child to display normal-range social behavior as a reflection of the child’s healthy and positive character.

We cannot force someone to be nice, we can only force them to be submissive. Kindness is a choice. Kindness is a mater of character. Using force with another person is a violation of the other person’s autonomy. The other person has a right to be who they are. We want to try to avoid discipline responses and instead shift to guidance based strategies of dialogue and communication that seek the child’s cooperation, not merely the child’s obedience (think Gandhi, who was relentlessly challenging, but who did so with gentle kindness and a willingness to dialogue).

At the same time, we have the right to reject the child’s angry, contemptuous, disrespectful attitude and behavior. That attitude and behavior is not acceptable. However, we also approach the child with an understanding that the symptomatic expressions are not emanating from the authentic child, but from the pathogen that has infected the child. The child has been held as a psychological hostage by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent (see “The Hostage Metaphor” article on my website; http://www.cachildress.org), and in that context the child has had to completely surrender psychologically to the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in order to survive.

How would we respond to the child having a fever as a result of an pathogenic virus? The child has acquired a “computer virus” from the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is infecting the child’s emotional and relationship systems (primarily the attachment system, but also the empathy system). This pathogenic “computer virus” is crashing the child’s social and emotional functioning, which represents the symptom induced by the pathogen, the “fever” if you will.

We want to respond with calm and relaxed confidence in the healthy authenticity of the child, while also gently and relentlessly challenging the child’s current symptomatic pathology.

Harmonic Resonance: When we pluck the middle C string on a harp, the other two C strings an octave above and below also begin to vibrate in “harmonic resonance.” We want to do the same thing. We want to respond to the child’s authentic self, that is buried within the child, underneath the child’s symptomatic psychopathology, to reawaken the authenticity of the child through our “harmonic resonance” with it, through our fundamental confidence in the child’s inherent goodness of character.

The therapist can play an important role is this by offering the child a balanced third perspective on the child’s self-authenticity. The child has received one perspective of truth from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, another perspective of truth from the targeted parent (which the child has been induced to reject). The therapist is in a position to offer a balancing and normal-range third perspective that calls forth and validates the child’s inherent goodness of character.

The Misattribution of Grief

This is a critical component of therapy (see “Reunification Therapy” article on my website; http://www.drcachildress.org). The child authentically feels hurt and pain as a product of the child’s relationship with the targeted parent. The origins of the child’s authentic hurt and pain is initially the result of the child’s grief response at the loss of the intact family structure that occurred with the divorce. But once the child is induced by the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to reject the other parent, who is actually deeply loved by the child, the child experiences a second and more profound grief response over the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved but now rejected targeted parent.

However, under the distorting influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is led into a misinterpretation of this authentic experience of sadness and hurt as falsely representing an emotional signal that something the targeted-rejected parent is doing, or something about the mere personhood of the targeted parent, is so bad, so “abusive” of the child, that it is this quality of the targeted-rejected parent that is creating the child’s authentic experience of immense sadness and suffering associated with the targeted-rejected parent.

This attribution of meaning by the child, created under the distorting influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, is not true, but in the absence of an accurate attribution of meaning the child comes to accept and believe the distorted meaning construction of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent for the child’s authentic experience of sadness and suffering associated with the targeted-rejected parent.

The accurate attribution of meaning is that the child actually loves the targeted parent very much, and very much wants and misses having an affectionally bonded relationship with this parent, but the child’s inability to establish this affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted-rejected parent is producing a tremendous grief response of sadness and suffering. It is as if the child’s beloved parent has died.

This is vitally important for the therapy process to understand. The child authentically experiences a deep sadness and hurt associated with the targeted-rejected parent, which the child is falsely attributing to the “abusive” parenting or personhood of the targeted-rejected parent (under the distorting pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent).

Therapy needs to reorient the child to the child’s authentic grief response, and provide a balanced and accurate attribution to the child’s authentic experience. Once the child receives and recognizes an accurate attribution of meaning for the child’s sadness and pain, i.e., that the child actually loves the targeted parent and wants an affectionate bond with this parent, then the “computer virus” will be cleansed from the child’s emotional and relationship systems and the child can fulfill and complete the normal-range functioning of these brain systems.

However, while the child is in the parental care of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is in a psychological hostage situation and does not have permission from the hostage taker to form an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved but rejected targeted parent, and the child is instead required by the hostage taker to actively reject the beloved other parent (see “The Hostage Metaphor” article on my website; http://www.cachildress.org). If the child shows any bonding motivations with the targeted parent, or even fails to adequately display overt rejection of the targeted parent, then the child faces a withering psychological retaliation from the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Unless we can first protect the child from psychological retaliation from the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent for any child display of affectionate bonding or failure to display adequate rejection of the other parent, we cannot ask the child to bond with the targeted parent because to do so will only expose the child to psychological retaliation from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

We must first secure the child’s protection. Only then can we proceed with therapy.

(end Part I of Therapy)

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

Question: The Violent Child

I received this question and thought I’d reply through my blog because my response may have broader applicability to the experience of many targeted parents.

Please note, I cannot speak to any individual situation since I have not conducted an independent assessment of the situation and relationships.  I am only addressing the broader issues, not any specific situation.

Here is the question I was posed:


I have a question that no one seems to be able to answer yet.   What is a non-custodial targeted parent to do when a child (teenager) is encouraged to act violently towards the targeted parent, siblings, and even pets of the targeted parent.

Children’s protective services does not deal with child violence within it’s child protection parameters.  The police recommend that the targeted parent call them whenever the child acts violently for the health and safety of the other household members.  However, the children’s minor’s counsel and the Courts say that calling police endangers the child. They view the child’s violence as proof of the targeted parent’s incompetence to manage the child.

How should the targeted parent respond to the child’s (teenager’s) violence that is endangering family members? When the targeted parent follows the  advice of the police, the Court holds these actions against them, but failure to involve the police endangers the other family members.  So far the only definitive answer I’ve received about this situation is “I DON”T KNOW”.


A:  Situations such as the one described require the involvement and guidance of a competent mental heath practitioner, so the answer to the question “How should the targeted parent respond?” is that the targeted parent should engage the services of a competent mental health practitioner and follow the recommendations of this practitioner.

Caveat:  What if the situation actually does involve problematic parental responses from the targeted parent?  Perhaps the targeted parent IS responding in a problematic way to the teenager.  Without my conducting an independent assessment of the situation, there is no way I can provide a specific answer to the question posed.  The solution is to involve a competent mental health practitioner and follow the guidance offered by this mental health practitioner.

Caveat:  I acknowledge that there are far too many incompetent mental health practitioners out there, especially regarding the diagnosis and treatment of the “special population” of children and families experiencing attachment-based “parental alienation.”  Also, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent may prevent (through a variety of methods) the involvement of a competent mental health practitioner.

Caveat:  Therapy for attachment-based “parental alienation” requires the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.  Unless the child is protectively separated from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery, there is no solution available.

That’s the core of what professional mental health needs to comprehend in order for professional mental health to begin speaking with a single voice to the Court.  When mental health speaks with a single voice, the Court will be able to act with the decisive clarity necessary to solve the  tragedy of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

Unless the child is protectively separated from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery, no solution to “parental alienation” is available.


Qualifier:  In my response below, I am not addressing any specific situation.  What to do in any specific family situation will require an individualized assessment of the relationships within the family.  But from a general perspective regarding extremely hostile-violent child behavior as conceptualized within an attachment-based model of “parental alienation”…


Understanding Personality Disorders

Attachment-based “parental alienation” is driven by the narcissistic/(borderline) personality disorder of the alienating parent (that is formed from distorted “internal working models” of the parent’s attachment system).  So let me begin my response by providing a brief orientation to the construct of “personality disorders.”

It is increasingly recognized that personality disorders involve blends of distorted personality traits (Widiger & Trull, 2007; American Psychiatric Association, DSM-5 Chapter 3, 2013) rather than fixed categories. So when talking about personality disorders it is helpful to consider blends of traits rather than distinct categories.  To the extent that these blends organize around particular categories, such as narcissistic or borderline expressions of personality traits, then we can use these category names as a convenient label in our discussions.

In addition, the underlying “self-structure” organization of the narcissistic and borderline personality organization is the same (Kernberg, 1975), involving the person’s tremendous sense of core-self inadequacy and fears of abandonment. The difference between a narcissistic and borderline personality organization is simply that the borderline personality directly and continuously experiences this fundamental self-inadequacy and abandonment fear, which leads to tremendous ongoing disruptions to self-identity and problematic affect regulation, whereas the narcissistic personality has created a psychological defense of grandiose self-inflation against the experience of core-self inadequacy and abandonment fears, thereby allowing for greater superficial self-cohesion and superficial affect regulation (as long as the narcissistic defense holds).

In addition, the construct of “personality disorders” developed across the period from the 1930s to 1980s, with a more formal entry into the DSM-3 diagnostic system in 1980. Parallel to this process, however, was the work of John Bowlby in attachment theory, which was formalized in the 1970s across three seminal volumes (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980). Since the 1980s, increasing research has linked the two constructs (Brennan & Shaver, 1998), particularly around the formation of borderline personality organization (Fonagy, et al., 2003; Holmes, 2004; Levy, 2005; Lyddon & Sherry, 2001).

From Brennan & Shaver (1998):
“In the clinical literature, there is increasing support for conceptualizing personality disorders as disorders of attachment (e.g., Heard & Lake, 1986; Shaver & Clark, 1994; West & Sheldon, 1988; West & Sheldon-Keller, 1994). There is growing empirical evidence connecting borderline personality disorder with patterns of insecure attachment reflected in representations of childhood relationships with parents (Patrick, Hobson, Castle, Howard, & Maughan, 1994; Sack et al., 1996; Stalker & Davies, 1995; West et al., 1994).

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” the primary personality disorder driving the distorted family process is a narcissistic/(borderline) organization, with some “alienating parents” expressing a stronger narcissistic personality organization while others display a more pronounced borderline presentation.

In addition, other personality disorder traits can be evident, which lends additional textures to the symptom presentation within the family. I have encountered blends that include antisocial personality traits, histrionic personality traits, paranoid personality traits, and obsessive-compulsive personality traits. Each of these complex blends presents a different symptomatic feel to the “parental alienation” dynamics.  These additional personality disorder traits arise from within the unique “internal working models” of each unique person’s attachment system, which then coalesce in later development into the characteristic patterns reflected in the “personality disorders” types.

The reason I describe this as prelude to addressing the general question of an excessively violent and hostile child that occurs within the context of attachment-based “parental alienation” is that I’ve seen the presentation of the excessively hostile child (teenager) clinically to be generally associated with a narcissistic/(borderline)/antisocial personality blend. From my anecdotal clinical experience, the addition of antisocial personality traits in the alienating parent appears to create a particularly aggressive variant of “parental alienation” with strong domestic violence overtones.

I have generally seen this pattern with males as the alienating parent (perhaps because of the higher prevalence for males to display narcissistic and antisocial personality traits), with mothers then being the recipient of the child’s (teenager’s) excessive violence and threats (as a vehicle in expressing the father’s narcissistic and antisocial violence toward the mother). This pattern may also be associated with a history of pre-divorce domestic violence qualities within the family involving control, dominance, and verbal/emotional abuse from the narcissistic/(borderline)/antisocial parent (husband) toward the other parent (wife).

While these gender-related factors are likely typical, they are not absolute, and there is no reason why women cannot also be the perpetrators of this hyper-aggressive variant.

The Child’s Behavior

Children are a product of the parenting they receive.

If the child is aggressive, mean, rude, and disrespectful, this is the product of the parenting the child is receiving from the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.

The child and the supposedly “favored” parent will contend that the child’s atrocious behavior is the product of the fundamental human inadequacy of the targeted parent, who “deserves” the child’s hostility and contempt because of this parent’s inherently awful nature as a human being.

First, this effort at excusing and justifying the child’s atrocious behavior and the extremely poor parenting by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that is reflected in the child’s behavior, is absurd on its face,

Second, the effort to excuse and justify the child’s atrocious behavior is a direct and evident symptom of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality processes and attitudes of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that are being transferred to the child through the aberrant and distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

1.  Absurd on its Face: The assertion that the targeted parent deserves the child’s contempt and cruelty is absurd.  We do not treat other people with kindness or cruelty based on our judgments of what they “deserve.” We treat others with kindness or cruelty based on our value systems, based on who WE ARE as a person, based on how we define ourselves. We treat others with kindness, and respect, and consideration, not because of who they are, but because of who we are.

It doesn’t matter if the child doesn’t like his or her teacher.  The child is still expected to display socially organized and cooperative behavior, and especially non-aggressive behavior.  It doesn’t matter if the child believes the store clerk was rude, the child is nevertheless expected to display socially organized and non-aggressive behavior.  The child may not agree with or like the discipline meted out by the soccer coach, but the child is NOT allowed to vent cruelty or aggression toward the soccer coach.  And if this is our expectation for the child’s responses to teachers, store clerks, and coaches, then the same applies to the child’s response to his or her parents.

The aggressive and hostile cruelty of the child is NOT because of who the targeted parent is, the child’s aggression and cruelty is the result of who the child is.  Knowing this is the bedrock foundation of good parenting.

For anyone, including the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, to in any way attempt to excuse or justify the child’s aggressively hostile attitudes and cruelty reflects distorted beliefs and parenting that support the child’s development of distorted values and character traits. Even IF the targeted parent was a bad person and parent, the child should nevertheless respond with kindness, compassion, and consideration, not because of who the parent is, but because of who the child is.

Those are the values we teach our children.

In some cases, the excusing argument may be offered that the child “only acts this way with the targeted parent.” Then this excuse becomes EVEN MORE REASON to indict the parenting of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, because this argument offered by others (or by the behavioral evidence provided by the child), means that the child inherently possesses the ability to regulate his or her affect but is CHOOSING not to do so in a specific case because the child believes that this person, this parent, “deserves” the child’s cruel treatment.

The child’s regulated behavior in every other situation reveals the lie in the assertion that the child is being “provoked” into dsyregulated anger, because the child has clearly displayed the demonstrated capacity to regulate his or her anger in other situations. Instead, the child is CHOOSING to be cruel, hostile, and mean to this select person whom the child believes “deserves it.”

2.  A Reflection of Narcissistic/(Borderline) Parenting: The attitude that we are somehow allowed to judge others and mete out cruelty to others we judge as deserving of our contempt is a reflection of a narcissistic/(borderline) personality process.

The narcissistic personality maintains a grandiose self-perception that judges others as inferior, and with an air of haughty arrogance feels justified (entitled) in the contemptuous treatment of others who the narcissist judges to be unworthy, so that the fundamental inadequacy of the other person justifies the contempt and cruelty delivered by the narcissist. The other person “deserves” the contempt and abuse because of the other person’s inadequacy.

This highly distorted narcissistic attitude represents a fragile defense against the narcissist’s own internal experience of fundamental inadequacy (and fear of abandonment because of this inadequacy). It is the narcissist who feels immensely inadequate and completely unworthy of being loved, and who then responds to these deep and profound feelings of inadequacy and unlovability by creating a narcissistic defense of grandiose over-inflation of self importance and devaluation of others (“I’m not inadequate, you are. I’m wonderful; I’m ideal. It’s you who are inadequate. And if you don’t recognize and acknowledge my wonderfulness, then you ‘deserve’ to be punished.”).

“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., 2006, p. 252).

The borderline personality organization also feels entitled to vent unbridled anger on others who “deserve” the borderline’s anger because they failed to adequately love the borderline. The narcissistic and borderline personalities are simply superficial variations in the manifestations of the inner core experiences of fundamental self-inadequacy and fear of rejection and abandonment by others. The core driving experience for both types of personality organizations is the same, with variations in the the overt manifestation of these underlying core beliefs.

Extremely Poor Parenting

A child’s behavior of aggressive violence is NEVER appropriate and is NEVER justified. ANY attempt by a parent to justify IN ANY WAY a child’s aggressive violence toward anyone (including and especially the other parent) reflects highly distorted parenting practices and a narcissistic/(borderline) personality organization of the parent who believes that venting of contemptuous anger can be “justified” when the other person “deserves” it.

If the minor’s counsel for the child or the Court concur with the child’s permission to become violent and cruel, then this is absolutely and fundamentally wrong.  There is NO valid excuse or justification for a child’s display of cruelty and violence toward anyone.  NONE.

That doesn’t mean that other people aren’t problematic. They are and can be.  But we teach our children to maintain their emotional and behavioral composure, to self-regulate their emotional and behavioral responses, and to exercise appropriate values and character in their response.  This is called “parenting.”

Pathogenic Parenting

Transferring a highly distorted belief system to the child, i.e., that the child is allowed to judge others and to deliver tirades of abusive anger if the child judges that the other person “deserves” it, represents extremely bad parenting. It is the beginning formation of narcissistic entitlement and borderline emotional dysregulation in the child as a product of distorted parenting practices by a narcissistic/(borderline) personality, who holds the distorted beliefs that the child is acquiring.

Children are a reflection of the parenting they receive. The distorted attitudes and behavior expressed by the child are NOT the product of the parenting from the targeted-rejected parent, as this parent has little to no influence on the child. The child’s highly distorted belief system and behavioral license are the product of the extremely bad parenting the child is receiving from the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.

When the child’s expressed attitudes and behavior are severe, such as would appear to be the case if the police need to be called to intervene, then the degree of severely poor parenting reflected in the child’s behavior raise child protection concerns. The allied and supposedly “favored” parent is doing such an extremely poor job of parenting that strong consideration should be given to switching primary parental care to the targeted parent, who can then strive to provide the child with better parenting and guidance that can restore the child’s balanced personality formation and undo the obvious damage to the child’s character development caused by the extremely bad parenting of the allied and supposedly “favored,” narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Conclusions of Dr. Childress

Children are a reflection of the parenting they receive.

Hostile aggressive behavior by the child is a reflection of extremely bad parenting. To propose that the child’s hostile-aggressive behavior is the product of the targeted parent is absurd on its face and should be rejected without consideration.

We will welcome consideration of the child’s grievances when these are expressed in appropriately socialized ways.  We talk, we dialogue, we discuss.  Violence, threats, and cruelty are NEVER acceptable, are NEVER excusable, and are NEVER justified.  Child grievances expressed as violence, threats, and cruelty will not be considered until such time as these are expressed in socially acceptable ways.

Even IF the parenting of the targeted parent is problematic (which it isn’t), the child should still be expected to maintain appropriate self-regulation.

An attempt by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, to excuse the child’s atrocious behavior as somehow being understandable and justified because the targeted parent somehow “deserves” or provokes the child’s behavior is direct evidence of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality structure of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent who is supporting the child’s development of highly problematic affect regulation and attitudes of contemptuous disrespect for others.

If the child displays aggressive, threatening, or cruel behavior, then this is an indictment of the parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, and, if the child’s aggression, threats, and cruelty are severe, then child protection considerations may be warranted regarding the pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent as evidenced in the child’s attitudes and behavior, so that a change in primary parental care may be indicated.

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

References

Spectrum of Personality Disorder Traits

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Widiger, T.A. and Trull, T.J. (2007). Plate tectonics in the classification of personality disorder: Shifting to a dimensional model. American Psychologist, 62, 71-83.

Attachment and Personality Disorder Formation

Brennan, K.A. and Shaver, P.R. (1998). Attachment Styles and Personality Disorders: Their Connections to Each Other and to Parental Divorce, Parental Death, and Perceptions of Parental Caregiving. Journal of Personality 66, 835-878.

Fonagy, P., Target, M., Gergely, G., Allen, J.G., and Bateman, A. W. (2003). The developmental roots of Borderline Personality Disorder in early attachment relationships: A theory and some evidence. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 412-459.

Holmes, J. (2004). Disorganized attachment and borderline personality disorder: a clinical perspective. Attachment & Human Development, 6(2), 181-190.

Levy, K.N. (2005). The implications of attachment theory and research for understanding borderline personality disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 17, p. 959-986

Lyddon, W.J. and Sherry, A. (2001). Developmental personality styles: An attachment theory conceptualization of personality disorders. Journal of Counseling and Development, 79, 405-417

Attachment Theory

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Attachment, Volume 1. NY: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Volume 2. Separation: Anxiety and anger. NY: Basic.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Volume 3. Loss: Sadness and depression. NY: Basic.

Association of Narcissistic and Borderline Personality

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