Finding Empowerment

I recently received the following offer from a targeted parent, and I wish to respond on my blog because I believe my response may be of interest to other targeted parents,

“I would like to volunteer myself and my son to assist you in any way we can.”  Shawn

That’s very kind, thank you. I appreciate your offer.  Here’s what I would suggest…

This is important to understand:  There needs to be a paradigm shift within mental health The moment an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” becomes accepted within establishment mental health, the solution to the nightmare of “parental alienation” becomes available immediately.

The attachment-based model of “parental alienation” offers,

  • Clear diagnostic criteria (the three diagnostic indicators) immediately become available to allow the consistent diagnosis of attachment-based “parental alienation” in EVERY case, for ALL therapists and ALL child custody evaluators. The nature and degree of the psychopathology becomes immediately identified the moment it enters any aspect of the mental health system.
  • The pathology of “parental alienation” immediately becomes defined as “pathogenic parenting” (i.e., severely distorted parenting practices that are inducing significant developmental, personality, and psychiatric psychopathology in the child) that requires a child protection response.  

The child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery immediately becomes the professionally responsible and required treatment response to the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

  • Children and families evidencing the three diagnostic indicators for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” become defined as a “special population” requiring specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise to competently diagnose and treat.  Immediately, all child custody evaluators and all therapists working with this group of children and families must possess an advanced level of knowledge related to,

1.  Narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics, their characteristic presentation and their impact on family relationships,

2.  Family systems dynamics involving children’s triangulation into spousal conflicts through cross-generational parent-child coalitions,

3.  The characteristic functioning and dysfunctioning of the attachment systems during childhood,

4.  The nature and features of parent-child role-reversal relationships, and

5.  The formation of delusional belief systems as a product of decompensating narcissistic and borderline personality processes.

This immediately prohibits diagnosis and treatment by unqualified mental health professionals under standard of practice guidelines laid out in the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, Standard 2.01a. 

“2.01 Boundaries of Competence
(a) Psychologists provide services, teach and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study or professional experience.”

Since ONLY knowledgeable and competent mental health professionals will be able to diagnose and treat this “special population” of children and families, and, since professionally responsible treatment REQUIRES the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of treatment, no therapist, anywhere, will treat without first acquiring a protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

This will provide a clear and consistent directive from professional mental health to the Court that the issue is NOT one of child custody and visitation but is one of child protection, and that the child’s protective separation from the allied and supposedly “favored” parent is required during the active phase of treatment.

  • Since the appropriate DSM-5 diagnosis for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” includes the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs), and since ONLY trained and competent mental health professionals will be diagnosing and treating this “special population” of children and families, then all mental health professionals involved in the diagnosis and treatment of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” will be aware of this DSM-5 diagnosis and will have the decision as legally mandated child abuse reporters to file a child abuse report with the appropriate child protection service agency (note: reporting psychological and emotional abuse is an optional not a mandated report). 

If (when) child protective service agencies begin to receive an influx of these child psychological abuse reports related to the diagnostic indicators for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” these agencies won’t know how to investigate and resolve these reports. They will seemingly have two options,

1.  To accept the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed from the licensed and specially trained and competent mental health professional, which will then necessitate removing the child from the custody of the psychologically abusive narcissistic/(borderline) parent, thereby enacting the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/borderline parent, or

2. To train their investigators in the three diagnostic indicators and associated clinical signs of attachment-based “parental alienation,” so that ALL investigators at ALL child protection service agencies are trained to professional competence in the recognition of pathogenic parenting by a narcissistic/borderline parent that is inducing significant developmental, personality, and psychiatric psychopathology in a child.  I suspect this will be the option chosen by child protective service agencies once an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” becomes accepted within establishment mental health and these agencies begin to receive child abuse reports resulting from clinical diagnoses of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed

If (when) ALL investigators at ALL child protection service agencies are trained to professional competence in the recognition of the pathogenic parenting associated with attachment-based “parental alienation,” then this will help to resolve issues surrounding the reporting of false allegations of child abuse by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, because a child abuse report now becomes a double-edged sword.  Not only will the investigator be investigating the reported abuse, but also the potential for child psychological abuse from the pathogenic parenting of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  If evidence for the reported abuse is insubstantial but the child’s symptoms display the definitive three diagnostic indicators of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” then the child protection services may initiate a child protection response of removing the child from the custody of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent due to a confirmed DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse made by the investigator.

The potential of having the child removed from the custody of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent when false allegations of child abuse are made may cause the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to reconsider before making false allegations of child abuse, and so may have a deterrent effect on the filing of false allegations of child abuse by narcissistic/(borderline) parents.  Of note is that in cases of good faith but erroneous child abuse reports by parents, the child’s symptoms will not display the three diagnostic indicators associated with attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The cooperation of the Court will be necessary to obtain the required protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of treatment. To gain the cooperation of the Court, the targeted parent will need the strong support of mental health, and mental health must speak with a single voice to the Court, so that all mental health professionals will make exactly the same diagnosis when the child’s symptoms display the three characteristic diagnostic indicators of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” – and all therapists who treat this “special population” are trained and expert in the attachment-based model of “parental alienation” so that no therapist, anywhere, will treat “parental alienation” without first obtaining the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

When professional mental health speaks to the Court with a single voice, the Court can act with the decisive clarity necessary to solve “parental alienation.”

Note: We do not need to litigate the parental psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The issue is pathogenic parenting and the diagnosis can be made solely based on the child’s symptom display of the three definitive diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The solution to “parental alienation” is not through the legal system. Any solution that relies on extended litigation to prove “parental alienation” in the legal system will fail. The legal system is far to expensive, takes far too long, and is far too easily manipulated by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Family relationship problems, particularly parent-child relationship problems, need to be resolved within the mental health system.  The legal system needs to be able to rely on a single clear voice from ALL of mental health as to what is needed to resolve the family problems. The attachment-based model of “parental alienation” provides the solid bedrock of accepted and established psychological constructs and principles that can unite mental health into that single voice.

Paradigm Shift

A paradigm shift is needed in mental health, away from the failed paradigm of Gardnerian PAS to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” that is based entirely within accepted and established psychological principles and constructs.

Note: I’m not saying Gardner’s model is wrong, it’s just inadequate to the task of solving “parental alienation.” In proposing the existence of a new “syndrome” defined by a set of anecdotal clinical indicators, Gardner too quickly abandoned the professional rigor imposed by standard and established clinical constructs and principles.  The attachment-based model of “parental alienation” returns to the basic clinical construct first identified by Gardner and applies the theoretical rigor necessary to define the construct entirely within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, thereby correcting the flaw in his approach that led to his construct of PAS being labeled as “junk science.”

There can be no such criticism of an attachment-based model since it meets the standards set by the critics of Gardner’s PAS model.  The attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is defined entirely within standard and established psychological constructs and principles.

A foundational paradigm shift is needed to a theoretical framework that is grounded on the solid bedrock of established psychological constructs and principles.  An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” accomplishes this.

The necessary paradigm shift in mental health is not an evolutionary progression from Gardnerian PAS into a new model, it is a revolutionary change in the foundational framework for conceptualizing “parental alienation.”  The Gardnerian model of PAS becomes irrelevant.

We used to think that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun and all the planets circled the earth.  As we gathered knowledge, our scientific evidence then clearly indicated that the sun was the actual center of our solar system, and that the earth and the other planets circled the sun. Our paradigm for understanding the solar system shifted.  

Yet it took many years for the Catholic church to accept the change in paradigms. Once it emerges, a paradigm shift can nevertheless take a long time to actualize.  Thomas Kuhn, who described the model of paradigm shifts within science, said that the completion of the paradigm shift is accomplished when all the adherents to the old paradigm die. 

The next generation of young psychology and law students will likely be the ones who will carry the paradigm shift in “parental alienation” into professional psychology and the legal system.  The current experts in Gardnerian PAS will likely hold to their favored and familiar model, and the inertia within establishment mental health will simply ignore the attachment-based model for decades, until the current graduate students enter establishment psychology and law.

The solution to “parental alienation” is not to be found in the Gardnerian PAS paradigm. The Gardnerian model of PAS represents a failed paradigm.  In the thirty years since Gardner first proposed PAS we have achieved the current abysmal situation of failed solution.  For a variety of reasons, the solution to “parental alienation” cannot be found in the Gardnerian model of PAS.  It is a failed paradigm. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m saying it is inadequate to the task of actualizing a solution.

The solution to “parental alienation is located in a paradigm shift within professional psychology to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  My estimate is that this paradigm shift will take about 10 to 15 years to enact.  The empowered activism of targeted parents may be able to reduce this time frame to a year or two, depending on how actively targeted parents advocate for the paradigm shift.

All of the constructs within an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” are established and accepted psychological constructs and principles, so the only barrier to the acceptance of this paradigm by establishment mental health is awareness.  The traditional approach to bringing this information into establishment mental health is through publication of professional papers in peer-reviewed journals.  If I were younger in my career, just starting out and wanting to build my professional reputation, and if the need for a solution weren’t so pressing, I might take this more gradual approach to building the information regarding an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” into the professional literature of establishment mental health.

But I’m not a young psychologist trying to establish my professional career, and the need for a solution is dire.  As for me, I’m 60 years old and I have already had one stroke.  I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be around.  Probably at most another 10 or 12 years before I leave or simply start winding down.  So if I were you, the community of targeted parents, I’d try to get this information into establishment mental health as quickly as possible in order to make as much use of me as you can while I’m still here. 

What I understand is that with every passing day the tragic nightmare of “parental alienation” continues.  A solution is already too long overdue.  Targeted parents and their children don’t have time to wait 10 or 15 years for establishment psychology to gradually accommodate to and adopt a new paradigm.  You need a solution today.

So when I began my journey to define the clinical phenomena of “parental alienation” entirely from within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, I decided to post material to my website as soon as it became available in my work, rather than delay it by writing for publication, and I’ve decided to write for this blog to make the information as broadly available as I possibly can as quickly as I possibly can, because I fully appreciate that the solution is needed yesterday.  With each day that passes the nightmare tragedy continues for targeted parents and their children.

Once I get this information up and out in the public domain, then I’ll return to write for publication.  But not now.  The solution is needed as soon as possible.

But ultimately, this is not my fight.  It’s your fight.  I can give you the tools and weapons, but you must enact the solution.  It is time to act into your power.  The foundational paradigm in mental health needs to change to allow the solution, which means we need to bring the awareness of establishment mental health to the attachment-based model for “parental alienation.” 

I have done my part.  The theoretical foundations are solid and accurate.  I have provided you with articles and essays, with a publicly available online seminar through the Masters Lecture Series of California Southern University, and with all of these blog posts.  There are no conceptual barriers to professional acceptance of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,”  the theoretical foundations are strong. It is just a matter of awareness within the broader mental health and legal fields.

But an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” has no allies within establishment mental health.  I am a solitary voice.  Current Gardnerian experts in parental alienation will ignore an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” because it’s foreign to them and, ultimately, it will replace the Gardnerian model with which they have grown comfortable.  They’ve spent decades arguing in favor of the Gardnerian model of PAS.  They are experts in the Gardnerian model of PAS.  It is known, familiar, and comfortable.

And in a blink of an eye, the Gardnerian model of PAS will be replaced and will become irrelevant, and it will be replaced by something foreign and unknown to them.  It’s not an evolution of their favored Gardnerian model, it is a revolution that overthrows their favored, known, and familiar Gardnerian model of PAS. Where a moment before they were experts in “parental alienation,” now they become like everyone else, needing to learn a new model, a new paradigm.

But there are no arguments against the attachment-based model, because it’s accurate; it’s what “parental alienation” is.  So Gardnerians will simply ignore the attachment-based model of “parental alienation” and continue talking about how the sun circles the stationary earth, until they are eventually replaced by the next generation in professional psychology.

Nor does an attachment-based model of parental alienation have allies within establishment mental health. For the most part, establishment mental health simply doesn’t care about “parental alienation.”  In establishment mental health, “parental alienation” is simply a small pocket of limited professional interest surrounding child custody evaluations and high-conflict divorce.  The only people interested in “parental alienation” are those who advocate for Gardner’s PAS model, and they’re going to hold onto their PAS model and ignore the attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” and a pocket of opponents to PAS who question the scientific validity of Gardner’s paradigm.  If you’re not in one of these two pockets of professional interest, then the construct of “parental alienation” isn’t really much of a consideration.

Establishment mental health will simply lump an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” in with the Gardnerian PAS group without taking the time to understand the paradigm shift.  So an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” will generally be ignored by establishment mental health simply because they don’t care all that much.  That’s why the paradigm shift that will bring a solution to “parental alienation” will take between 10 to 15 years to achieve, because the attachment-based model of “parental alienation” that contains the solution will simply languish in obscurity because it has no allies to advocate for its acceptance.

So, you ask what you can do to be helpful?  I am a lone voice.  It would be helpful to have allies within the targeted parent community who will bring the awareness of establishment mental health to the existence of this new paradigm for understanding the construct of “parental alienation.”  The sooner it becomes accepted within establishment mental health, the sooner the solution to “parental alienation” becomes available.

Possible Suggestions

I might suggest the following:

1. Organize advocacy groups of targeted parents who are willing to contact leadership in professional mental health to increase awareness of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  Send emails to the identified leadership in establishment mental health suggesting that they, 1) watch the online seminar available through the Masters Lecture Series of California Southern University, 2) read my blog posts, and 3) read the articles and essays on my website.  You might want to also attach an article or essay from my website, such as the Professional-to-Professional letter, or The Hostage Metaphor article, or the Reunification Therapy article.  Be gentle, be kind, but be relentless.  You’re fighting for your child and you’ve tolerated the professional incompetence of mental health far too long.  It is time that you demand professional competence from professional psychology.  Be kind, but be relentless.  Things must change within professional psychology.

2. Identify and create a list of leadership in professional mental health.

If I were to approach this task, I might look around the homepages of the American Psychological Association, along with various relevant divisions, such as Division 41: American Psychology-Law Society, Division 43: Society for Family Psychology, Division 53: Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Division 12: Society of Clinical Psychology, looking to identify the leadership of these groups and organizations.

I’d then google the names of the leadership to find email addresses, and I’d send them a brief and polite email suggesting that they watch the online seminar of Dr. Childress regarding a new attachment-based model for describing “parental alienation.”  It’s not Gardner.  It’s new.  It describes a model for understanding “parental alienation” from the perspective of the attachment system.  And attached is an article by Dr. Childress from his website, and you might want to follow up by checking out his blog, he has some very interesting pieces on “parental alienation” from an attachment system perspective on his blog.

I might also google State Psychological Associations, such as the Texas Psychological Association, the New York Psychological Association, the Ohio Psychological Association, the California Psychological Association, etc. and do the same thing, identify and google the leadership of these organizations to find email addresses, and then send them brief and polite emails promoting their awareness for the attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

I might explore other professional associations, such as the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.  Psi Chi is an International Honor Society in Psychology for undergraduate and graduate students in psychology. They might be interested in a new attachment-based model of “parental alienation.  Identify and google the leadership to find email addresses, and send them a brief and polite email.

Google APA journals, such as Law and Human Behavior;  Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice;  Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment;  Professional Psychology: Research and Practice;  Journal of Personality Disorders;  Child Maltreatment;  Journal of Family Studies;  Family Relations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies;  Journal of Child and Family Studies;  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.  Identify and google the editors to find email addresses and send them a brief and polite email suggesting they watch the online seminar of Dr. Childress regarding an attachment-based model for “parental alienation.”

3. Begin a campaign of emailing the identified leadership in establishment psychology.  Not all at once, but pinging them regularly from time to time. Different people, pinging them now and then.  You have tolerated professional incompetence within mental health for far to long.  Things need to change.  But be kind and gentle, but also be relentless.

4. Email editors for various law reviews at university law schools, suggesting that they watch the online seminar on an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.” The hook for an article in a law school review is how changing the paradigm affects the presentation of “parental alienation” in court.  Instead of “parental alienation” the issue becomes “pathogenic parenting” and instead of a child custody issue the issue becomes one of child protection.  Students will be the ones who will most likely actualize the paradigm shift.

I think it would be interesting for a student bar association at a university law school to join with the Psi Chi honor society at the same university, or at another university, to host an online seminar or panel discussion on “The Changing Paradigm in Defining Parental Alienation in Family Law” or some such topic.  I suspect you might be able to find interest and energy in graduate student organizations.

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

Dealing with the Alienating Parent

I was recently asked the following question from a targeted parent:

“What advice would you have for how the targeted parent should approach their relationship with the alienating parent?   It feels like another “can’t win” situation, so perhaps the goal is to focus on limiting the amount of damage that can occur.”

Caveat:  I cannot address the specifics of any individual situation since I have not conducted an assessment specific to the situation.  I can only offer general thoughts from an attachment-based model for “parental alienation.”  Whether or not these thoughts apply to any individual situation is dependent on the specific features of that particular situation.

Baseline Advice

Coping with the narcissistic/(borderline) personality is challenging.  In general, I would abandon all hope of changing the behavior and distorted responses of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The goal of intervention would be to heal the damaging effects that the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent has on the child and restore the authentic child.

Our primary goal should be,

1. To protect the child from the distorting influence of the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and

2.  To alleviate the distortions to the child’s emotional and psychological development that result from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Possible Interventions with the Alienating Parent

I have had several cases where intervention with the narcissistic/(borderline) has been productive.  The central feature of successful therapy with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is to understand how and why the narcissistic and borderline processes of the “alienating” parent become activated, and then work to resolve these triggering activations in order to reduce the psychological needs of the narcissistic and borderline processes that are distorting the family’s relationships.

The primary issue within the family is an inability to successfully transition from an intact family structure to a separated family structure.  The difficulty in making this transition is due to several factors in the personality structure of the the narcissistic/(borderline) parent,

1.  Processing Sadness: the fundamental characterologcal inability of the the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to experience and process the emotion of sadness.

2.  Splitting: the splitting dynamic that is inherent to the the narcissistic/(borderline) personality that views all interpersonal relationships in polarized extremes of entirely-good or entirely-bad, with no ambiguity possible, that allows for no shades of blended good and bad.

Inability to Process Sadness

The narcissistic personality is characterologically unable to experience and process the emotion of sadness.

Kernberg (1975), one of the leading figures in personality disorder processes, describes this difficulty,

“They [narcissists] are especially deficient in genuine feelings of sadness and mournful longing; their incapacity for experiencing depressive reactions is a basic feature of their personalities. When abandoned or disappointed by other people they may show what on the surface looks like depression, but which on further examination emerges as anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes, rather than real sadness for the loss of a person whom they appreciated.” (p. 229)

The loss of the intact family triggers sadness for everyone involved.  The emotion of sadness is activated by the loss of something that is valued.  In addition, the attachment system will trigger a grief response when an attachment mediated relationship bond is severed.  So sadness will be be triggered in the brain circuitry of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent at the divorce and loss of the intact family structure.  That’s just the way the brain works.

However, the pathways along which this sadness then gets processed become immensely twisted and gnarled within the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  So that, instead of experiencing sadness, the emotion is translated into “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes.”

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent then influences the child into interpreting the child’s own sadness and grief response at the loss of the intact family (and later, at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved-but-rejected targeted parent) in the same way as narcissistic/(borderline) parent does, as representing anger and resentment loaded with revengeful wishes.  This then produces the characteristic child symptoms associated with “parental alienation” in which the child is excessively (and irrationally) angry at the targeted parent and rejects a relationship with the targeted parent as a supposedly justified and righteous revenge for some supposed injury allegedly inflicted on the child by the targeted parent.

This is the “victimized child/abusive parent” narrative offered by the child, which is approved of and supported by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

None of this “victimized child/abusive parent” narrative is true, but the child believes it is true because the child authentically hurts (i.e., an authentic sadness and grief response, initially at the loss of the intact family and later at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved-but-now-rejected targeted parent). 

One of the primary driving dynamics in “parental alienation” is the child’s misattribution of sadness and the grief response as being “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes.”

So, based on this understanding, one potential intervention involving the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is to help this parent process the unexpressed (and unacknowledged) sadness and grief at the loss of the intact family structure (and marital bond).  On the surface, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will not display and will deny any feelings of sadness or loss.  If the narcissistic/(borderline) parent displays sadness it will be superficial and it will readily dissolve when probed by a therapist into a sense of entitlement and anger toward the other spouse.

And yet, deep beneath the surface, in the deep unconscious recesses of the brain circuits of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, there is authentic sadness and loss, but it becomes so greatly twisted and distorted as it makes its way along the brain pathways of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality that it becomes absent from view and essentially vacant.

So, despite the apparent absence of sadness, loss, and grief with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the intervention must nevertheless act with the certainty that the sadness, loss, and grief are present.  In this, we must treat the sadness and loss experience and so thereby relieve the pressures that are driving the alienating parent’s manifestation of “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes” which is creating the distortion to the child’s feelings of sadness, loss, and grief.

Intervention

One intervention approach is to de-emphasize the inherent rejection associated with the divorce and dissolution of the intact family structure. 

In my work along these lines with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent I meet with both the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and the targeted parent together.  During these joint sessions I review the history of the marriage and its dissolution, carefully co-constructing a narrative that acknowledges the problems but that does not blame the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  In co-constructing this new narrative, I emphasize that the “family spousal-bonds” remain even after the dissolution of the direct marital bonds through divorce, because of the children.  Because there are children, the family will always be there.  It is just changing from an intact family structure to a separated family structure.

In this, I try to use the continuing parental bonds with the children to reactivate, and overtly keep alive, the continuing “family spousal bonds”  (I’ll explain more about this when I discuss the effects of the splitting dynamic below).

The goal is to minimize the loss experience for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in order to minimize triggering the (buried) feelings of sadness and loss.  The communication is that narcissistic/(borderline) parent is not being abandoned by the other spouse.  The family remains.  The other spouse remains as a bonded resource. The spousal relationship is changing, but it is not being lost.  The family structure is changing, but it is not being lost. 

The goal is to minimize the extent of the loss, thereby minimizing the intensity of the sadness, thereby minimizing the intensity of the “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes” that is being triggered in the narcissistic/(borderline) parent by the buried feelings of sadness and loss.

This requires careful navigation by the therapist for the construction of the “marital narrative.”  The narcissistic/(borderline) parent will seek to construct the narrative to blame the targeted parent.  The therapist must carefully weave this narrative theme of blame offered by the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse into an overall narrative construction that blames neither spouse, thereby absorbing the narrative construction of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., defusing it through understanding) and gradually moving the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse toward a non-blame narrative construction regarding the marriage and the divorce.

The narrative construction for the marriage and divorce must allow the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse to save face (i.e., limit the narcissistic injury), and yet must also not concede to a narrative construction of blaming the targeted parent as a means to do this.  This is accomplished in joint sessions with the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse and the targeted parent in which the blame narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse is drawn out in therapy, is allowed expression (hopefully triggering an understanding “I’m sorry” from the targeted parent), but that is not fully validated by the therapist. 

Instead, the therapist transforms this blame narrative into a more constructive narrative of transformation.

Having the targeted parent available in session to (initially) absorb the blame narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent allows for the deactivation of the intensity of the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse’s hidden hurt and sadness through the resonant appreciation and understanding these feelings receive from the therapist and targeted parent, but the validity of the blame narrative must not be allowed to remain as the accepted narrative, as this will simply provoke and drive a righteous justification for continuing to punish the targeted parent. 

The narrative construction for the marriage and divorce must become one of non-blame and transformation through the active efforts of the therapist to redefine and co-construct with both marital partners a more productive meaning of their marriage and divorce.

This requires a skillful therapist, and it is not always possible.  Sometimes, the need to impose the blame narrative is a central driving imperative of the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse, and no other alternative narrative construction is allowed.  If this is the case, then therapy to deactivate the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will be unproductive.

When productive therapy is possible, the goal with the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse is to process the meaning of the marriage and divorce in a way that minimizes the loss, abandonment, and narcissistic injury, which provides the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse with an indirect way of expressing his or her sadness (i.e., anger and blame) while being understood by the targeted parent, and yet also provides an alternative narrative construction to the anger and blame that allows the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse to save face without needing to blame the other parent/spouse.

Splitting

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent sees relationships in polarized extremes of all-good or all-bad.  No middle ground exists.  There is no ambiguity.  Everything is black-or-white.

So when the targeted parent become an ex-husband or an ex-wife, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent cannot simultaneously experience the other spouse as remaining a good father or a good mother.  In the polarized black-or-white world of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the bad spouse must be a bad parent, the ex-husband MUST become an ex-father; the ex-wife MUST become an ex-mother. 

This is an imperative imposed by the splitting dynamic contained in the neurological networks of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. Black-or-white. The ex-huband is also an ex-father; the ex-wife is also an ex-mother.  The bad spouse is also a bad parent. Consistency. No ambiguity is possible. Black-or-white. This is a fundamental neuro-biological feature of the splitting dynamic. 

As long as the targeted parent is an ex-spouse, then the targeted parent must also become an ex-parent. So any sort of therapy with the psychology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent must deactivate this splitting dynamic. We must achieve a change in meaning so that the targeted parent is not an ex-spouse, even though the targeted parent and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are divorced.

The influence of the splitting dynamic is why, in some cases, the alienation process does not take off in earnest until after the targeted parent remarries.  In some cases, as long as the targeted parent remains single after the divorce the fantasy-psychology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent can maintain the illusion of the targeted parent as a spouse.  In the mind of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the targeted parent still “belongs” to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. But when the targeted parent remarries this illusion is shattered.  The targeted parent is now an ex-husband, an ex-wife, and so must also become an ex-parent… (or else give up the new spouse).

In these cases, the child’s symptoms typically reflect a more distinct feature of rejecting the new spouse of the targeted parent rather than rejecting the targeted parent per se. In these cases, the rationale offered by the child for rejecting the targeted parent is often that the targeted parent “spends too much time with the new spouse” and not enough one-on-one “special time” with the child, and the child’s acting out is meant to drive a wedge in the targeted parent’s new spousal relationship. In these cases, the targeted parent is placed in a position of choosing between a relationship with the new spouse or a relationship with the child (black-or-white).

In the splitting dynamic of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the ex-spouse MUST become an ex-parent. Black-or-white. No ambiguity. No grey.

But the divorce means that the targeted parent is, in truth, an ex-husband or ex-wife.  So therein lies the challenge.

Therapy with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent needs to include reassurances from the targeted parent offered to the narcissistic/(borderline) ex-spouse that the targeted parent remains connected to the narcissistic/(borderline) ex-spouse.

During the alienation process this continuation of the “spousal connection” is sometimes expressed symbolically through alimony and child support payments to the dependent narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  In these cases, the continuing “spousal connection” is symbolically expressed through money.  As long as the money from the spousal and child support payments provided by the targeted parent reassures the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse of the continuing “spousal connection” then the active alienation of the child is held in abeyance.  If the money flow is interrupted or falls below the desired symbolic strength, then the narcissistic/(borderline) parent increases the intensity of the alienation process.

In other cases, the continuing “spousal connection” is expressed though ongoing and never-ending visitation and custody drama.  As long as the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse has “possession of the child” then the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse has something the targeted parent wants and the targeted parent can never be free from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The targeted parent cannot un-marry the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse (i.e., become an ex-spouse) because the narcissistic/(borderline) parent has what the targeted parent wants; the child.  The targeted parent must continually be involved with the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse because of the continual drama created surrounding custody and visitation. 

Years of never-ending drama keeps the targeted parent attached to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The marriage never ends, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent never becomes an ex-spouse because the targeted parent is forever linked in the “spousal connection” to the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse as long as the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse possesses the child who is desired by the targeted parent.

Conclusion

So therapy (or independent efforts by the targeted parent) to deactivate the narcissistic/(borderline) parent must address two issues,

1.  The narcissistic/(borderline) parent must be provided with an avenue to express the sadness, grief, and loss – expressed as blaming the targeted parent – which is then absorbed by the targeted parent (“I’m sorry I failed you”) while, at the same time this blame narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse must not be allowed to remain as the “official narrative” and must instead be transformed into a non-blame narrative regarding the meaning of the marriage and divorce.

This is challenging and may not be possible in most circumstances with a narcissistic/(borderline) spouse.

2. The extent of the loss must be minimized and the extent of the continuing “spousal connection” must be emphasized in order to reduce, to the extent possible, any (deeply) buried feelings of sadness and loss that are the driving force for “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes,” and to minimize the ex-husband/ex-wife status of the targeted parent to reduce the pressure of the splitting dynamic that requires the ex-husband to also become an ex-father, and the ex-wife to become the ex-mother.

This is also exceedingly challenging.

However, the primary focus of therapy should be on repairing the injury to the child created by the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  To the extent that treatment with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent can be productive, this would be helpful.  But I wouldn’t count on it and I would not make it a central focus of the treatment.

Treatment involves four phases,

1. Protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of treatment,

2. Recovery of the authentic child,

3. Restoration of an affectionally bonded relationship of the child with the targeted parent, and

4. Reunification of the child with the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent once the restoration of an authentic and affectionally bonded relationship between the child and the targeted parent is achieved.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

References

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

Finding Authenticity

I was recently asked a question that I thought I would share on my blog along with my response, as I suspect this is a common question of many targeted-rejected parents.

Question:

I understand that the child needs to be protected from the influence of the alienating parent during the active phase of treatment. In practice, however, this is difficult, if not impossible to achieve.  In the meantime what advice would you have for how the targeted parent should approach their relationship with the child?

You have stated that the targeted parent is no longer relating with the authentic child, but rather with a child who is in a fused psychological state with the narcissistically organized alienating parent.  From my experience, I feel as though whenever I interact with my daughter those interactions are set up for failure rather than success.  I always feel like I am walking on eggshells which makes it very difficult to present my authentic self.

Also, it feels as though there is very little that my daughter puts out there for me to work with… e.g. if I ask a question, there is a mumbled, one-syllable answer conveyed with an air of annoyance, hostility, disdain, or disinterest.  If I try to push a little further the negative emotions escalate.  So often times there is just silence.  Is there any advice you can give to help?

Caveat 1

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 related to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” generally. This response may or may not be applicable to any specific situation.

Caveat 2

The child in attachment-based “parental alienation” is essentially in a hostage situation (see The Hostage Metaphor essay on my website and the Stark Reality post on my blog).

There are two separate and independent reasons for initiating a protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent,

1. Child Psychological Abuse: The pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is a severe form of psychological child abuse that will have a lasting negative impact on the child’s development and future relationships.

When the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present in the child’s symptom display (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post), the issue becomes one of child protection, not child custody. The significantly distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are inducing serious developmental, personality, and psychiatric symptoms in the child.

So while I can appreciate the desire of targeted parents to restore a normal-range and affectionally bonded relationship with their children even though the child is not separated from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, I remain highly concerned regarding the emotional and psychological well-being of the child.

When the three definitive diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present, a child protection response is needed.

2. Psychological Battleground: If therapy seeks to alter the child’s distorted relationship with the normal-range and affectionally available targeted parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will apply increasing psychological pressure on the child to remain symptomatic, thereby turning the child into a psychological battleground between the balanced and normal-range meaning constructions being provided in therapy and the distorted and pathogenic meanings being provided by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The pressure applied on the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to remain symptomatic and rejecting of a relationship with the normal-range targeted parent will psychologically rip the child apart. In order to engage effective therapy, the child must first be protected from the pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent so that the child isn’t turned into a psychological battleground by the active resistance of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, who is applying continual pressure on the child to resist treatment efforts designed to restore the normal-range and authentic child.

We cannot ask the child to show affectional bonding to the normal-range and beloved targeted parent unless we can first protect the child from the psychological pressure and retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Once the three diagnostic indicators are identified in the child’s symptom display, a child protection response is indicated and becomes needed for two separate and independent rationales.

I will not accept the premise of leaving the child in the pathogenic care of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent when the child’s symptom display is evidencing significant developmental, personality, and psychiatric symptomatology as a direct consequence of the pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The premise of the question is similar to asking,

“If the child isn’t separated from a sexually abusing parent, what can we do to build a positive relationship with the child while leaving the child in the care of the sexually abusing parent?”

Or, similarly

“If the child isn’t protectively separated from a physically abusing parent who regularly beats the child with fists, belts, and electrical cords, how can we develop a positive relationship with the child while abandoning the child to this parent’s abusive care?”

My answer is: first, those are the wrong questions, and second, I don’t know.

When a child is being sexually, physically, or psychologically abused, we first need to protect the child. There is no other acceptable option and I will not pretend as if there is. When the child’s symptoms display the three characteristic diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” then the presence in the child’s symptom display of these specific diagnostic indicators is definitive evidence that the severely distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are inducing significant developmental (i.e., diagnostic indicator 1), personality (i.e., diagnostic indicator 2), and psychiatric (i.e., diagnostic indicator 3) psychopathology in the child.

This requires a child protection response. For child therapists, child custody evaluators, and the Court to allow the child to remain in the pathogenic care of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent when the child’s symptoms display the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” is tantamount to acquiescing to and allowing the child’s continued psychological abuse.

Attachment-based “parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue.

Caveat 3

Do you really want me to tell you how to go about opening your child to your love and affection, knowing that this will only expose the child to the intense psychological retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., Stark Reality)?

It’s also important to understand that if we are successful in opening the child to the child’s inherent authenticity, then we will be opening the child into the child’s immense grief and sadness, and into the child’s guilt for rejecting the beloved parent. We will be opening the child into the child’s pain and suffering before we will reach the child’s love.

The child is being made to reject a beloved parent. For the child to be able to engage in the cruelty necessary to reject a beloved parent, the child must find a way to steel his or her heart for the act of rejecting a beloved parent, and for the cruelty involved. The child must make the beloved parent somehow bad and evil in the child’s mind, as “deserving” to be rejected. Otherwise, rejecting the beloved parent is too painful; the suffering of the child at the loss of the beloved parent is too great.

You’re asking me how to open the child to his or her authenticity, how to expose the child to his or her immense grief and suffering. I am reticent to even try this unless the proper conditions are in place to support and protect the child.

If we open the child to the child’s authentic pain at rejecting the targeted parent, and yet the child is required by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to continue the rejection, then we are tearing the child apart psychologically. We have removed the child’s psychological defenses against experiencing the immense sadness and loss yet we have not provided the child with a way through this sadness by bonding with the targeted parent, because we have not protected the child from retaliation if the child does show bonding with the targeted parent.

We must first protect the child from retaliation before we can ask the child to change.

In order for the child to enact the cruelty necessary to reject the beloved parent, the child must develop a hatred for the targeted parent, the child must maintain a chronic unrelenting anger toward the targeted parent, in order to sustain a continual inhibition on the child’s attachment bonding motivations (i.e., love) and intersubjective motivations (i.e., empathy) for the targeted-rejected parent. Without the chronic and unrelenting anger (i.e., hatred), the child would be unable to enact the cruelty toward the targeted-rejected parent that is being required and demanded by child’s relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. If we take away the child’s hatred and anger, we expose the child to the authenticity of the child’s immense sadness caused by the loss of the beloved parent, yet if the child bonds with the targeted parent then we expose the child to the retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

We must first protect the child so that it is safe to love the beloved parent.

As I psychotherapist, I’m not sure I want to take away the child’s defenses against his or her self-authenticity until we can protect and support the child’s authentic love and empathic attunement to the targeted parent. If the child expresses love for the targeted parent then the child faces an intense psychological retaliation from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. If we open the child to the child’s inner authenticity that the child doesn’t express, then we open the child to an immense sadness, grief, loss, and guilt (for betraying the beloved targeted parent).

Yet unless we first protect the child, so that it is safe for the child to be authentic and to express love for the beloved parent, then we provide the child no with way out from the experience of immense sadness, grief, loss, and guilt. We will be ripping the child apart because we are asking for the child’s authenticity without protecting the child’s authenticity.

My Answer:

I am, therefore, reluctant to answer your question. If I give you tools to open your child to the child’s inner authenticity, then I am giving you tools to expose the child to his or her grief, guilt, and immense sadness. And if we are effective in opening the child to his or her authenticity, then we are exposing the child to the intense psychological retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. If these tools work, they may tear the child apart psychologically. We must first protect the child’s authenticity, only then can we ask the child to change, to expose his or her authenticity.

Harmonic Resonance

When we pluck the middle C string on a harp, the other two C strings one octave above and below begin to vibrate in “harmonic resonance”. That is essentially what we want to do with the child’s authenticity.

The child’s authenticity is dormant. The brain networks for the child’s own authentic experience of love and empathy are inactive. They are quiet. No neural impulses are traveling down those pathways of love and empathy. The inhibition on those neural pathways is maintained by the child’s chronic and unrelenting anger. The child must maintain this chronic anger (i.e., hatred) in order to maintain the continual inhibition on the attachment networks of loving bonding and on the networks for normal-range human empathy (i.e., “intersubjectivity”).

The brain systems for attachment bonding and “intersubjectivity” (the term for a shared psychological state) are primary motivational systems analogous to primary motivations for hunger and reproduction. Left to their own natural expressions, the child would experience a strong motivational press for bonding with a normal-range and affectionally available parent (and even for a non-normal range and affectionally unavailable parent), and the child would experience a strong motivational press to establish a shared psychological state of understanding with this parent (i.e., ““I know that you know that I know” Stern, 2004, p. 175).

We therefore have the advantage of working with the child’s authenticity. All we need to do is de-activate the inhibition created by the child’s chronic and unrelenting anger and the natural motivational systems for attachment and intersubjectivity will reactivate (with a little prompting). So therapy actually isn’t very difficult. What’s difficult is the pressure from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent on the child to maintain the child’s chronic anger and rejection, which will then turn the child into a psychological battleground between our efforts to restore the authentic child and the efforts of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to maintain the pathological child.

Our goal is to reactivate the natural pathways in the child’s brain, and we do this by turning off the child’s chronic anger. To do this, it helps to understand something about how the emotions work, but basically we will attempt to achieve this through harmonic resonance in which we maintain a chronic and unrelenting brain state of gentle kindness, empathy, compassion, humor, and emotional warmth in the face of the child’s unrelenting anger and hostility, encouraging the child to enter our brain state of gentle humor and kindness. Our brain state, and our responses to the child from this brain state, of gentle kindness, gentle humor, compassion, and gently pleasant curiosity places pressure on the child’s ability to sustain an activated state of chronic and unrelenting anger.

The child’s chronic and unrelenting anger is like a “muscle spasm” of the emotional system. The child’s anger is spasming like an emotional cramp. We want to soothe the emotional cramping of the child’s anger system by applying the relaxing balm of gentle kindness mixed with a gentle sense of humor, and add a touch of gently authentic curiosity about the child’s world from the child’s perspective (i.e., intersubjectivity).

Gandhi said, “the antidote is the opposite.”

The antidote for the force of the child’s anger is our gentleness. The antidote for the child’s hostility is our kindness and compassion. The antidote for the child’s cruelty is our gentle sense of humor. Shared smiles are healing.

When we do this, it will naturally pull for the child’s authentic love and kindness in return, which will put tremendous pressure on the child’s guilt for maintaining the cruelty. The kinder and more compassionate and more loving we are, the more the child experiences his or her authenticity beneath the anger, and so the more it hurts for the child to maintain the rejection of a beloved parent. The kinder and more compassionate the targeted parent is, the more guilt the child feels for acting cruelly and for rejecting the beloved parent.

This is a key point: the kinder and more compassionate the targeted parent is, the more the child hurts at the loss of a bonded relationship with the beloved-but-now-lost parent, and so the angrier and more hostile the child must then become in order to maintain the continual suppression (inhibition) on the child’s primary motivations for attachment bonding (shared love) and primary intersubjective motivations (shared understanding; shared empathy).

Understanding the Emotion System

There are four basic emotions, angry, sad, afraid, and happy. Each emotion provides a different type of information about the world, each emotion has a differing social function when we communicate it into the social field, and each emotion has a different effect on brain functioning.

Anger is power, assertion, and voice, and anger seeks to make the world be the way we want it to be. There are three levels to anger; “you hurt me, so I hurt you” are the top two levels, with anger being the “I hurt you” part. The third level down is the most interesting, “the reason you hurt me is because I care about you… but you don’t care about me.” At its core, we become angry when the other person doesn’t care about us.

Anxiety is concerned, it takes things seriously. Anxiety turns all systems of the brain on. Anxiety communicates the presence of a threat or danger. Anxiety has an “override” on all other brain systems.

Sad communicates that there is the loss of something important. The social function of sadness is to draw nurture from others, and sadness turns all brain systems off, we’re no longer motivated, our energy drops, we don’t want to go places or be with people.

Happy is the social bonding emotion. Happy is contagious, it spreads from brain to brain to brain. If we start laughing in a social group, everybody starts smiling and laughing, and they may not even know why they’re laughing. Happy is contagious.

And happy is the “let-go” emotion; it’s the “no worries” – “everything is going to be okay” emotion. Happy communicates there is no threat, that everything is okay.

Happy relaxes emotional spasms.

Using Background Emotional Signaling

When our child is locked up in an emotional spasm of angry, we want to bring the relaxing effect of a low-level pleasant and happy; no worries; everything is going to be okay. As an emotion, the pleasant-relaxed-happy channel is contagious. If we’re in a low-level background state of pleasant and relaxed, this will spread to the child’s brain as well, helping to relax the child’s emotional spasm.

Anger wants to make the world be a certain way. We want to avoid responding to the child’s anger with our own desire to change or alter the child because then we’re responding from a background state of low-level angry (i.e., power, assertion, and voice). The child has a right to be who he or she is, and if that is angry and grumpy, well then let’s find out what is hurting the child (“you hurt me, so I hurt you”) or about why the child doesn’t feel we care about them (“the reason you hurt me is because I care about you, but you don’t care about me”). We should generally avoid trying to make the child be different, either by discipline or direct persuasion, since “making the world be the way I want it to be” comes from the power, assertion, and voice of the angry channel, which won’t be productive. We want to relax the child’s anger-spasm, not fuel it (i.e., “I don’t care what’s hurting you, I want you to be the way I want you to be; nice and kind and loving with me.”).

And we want to avoid the “this is serious” over-concern of anxiety. This just makes emotional spasms worse. A calm and confident tone of relaxed self-assurance soothes.  Anxiety, on the other hand, makes things tense.

Don’t worry, just because the child is angry and complaining, the world isn’t going to come to an end. We care, but our caring comes from compassion for the child’s hurt (anger communicates hurt; “you hurt me, so I hurt you”). We don’t want the child to hurt, and we’re gently curious from our compassion for why the child hurts. But we don’t necessarily want the child to stop hurting (i.e., the power, assertion, and voice of low-level angry), nor are we worried because the child is hurting (i.e., the “this is serious” of anxiety). We simply care,

“Oh my goodness. I’m sorry sweetie. What’s hurting you so much? Really? You don’t think I care about you, about what you want? Oh, I’m sorry, honey. I do care. How can I show you I care? Really? Is that the only way? How about a hug. I’ll bet a hug would help right about now. No? Why not, I love you and it seems like you could use a hug right about now. Really?…”

A gentle kindness. Compassion. A gentle curiosity to understand the child’s world from the child’s point of view. We don’t have to agree with the initial explanations of the child, because the child is all mixed up and confused. The child thinks the targeted parent is a bad parent who “deserves to be punished.” This is all mixed up. The child feels a grief response at the loss of the intact family and the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved-but-now-rejected parent. The child is all mixed up. So we don’t have to believe the child’s initial explanations, because the child is all confused and mixed up about what’s going on inside. But we care. We want to understand. A gentle curiosity that helps the child begin to unravel the confusion.

As we remain in a background-emotional state of low-level pleasant-relaxed-happy, of gentle compassion and kindness, the child’s own authenticity begins to “vibrate” in harmonic resonance. We awaken in the child the gentle feelings of kindness, compassion, and love through the child’s emotional harmonic resonance with our gentle feelings of kindness, compassion, and love. We awaken the child’s intersubjective bonding (empathy and the shared bond of being understood) by our understanding for the child’s inner experience, even if we don’t agree with it, even if we realize it’s mixed up and confused. Still we understand that this is what the child feels right now. It’s mixed up, but that’s okay, no worries, we’ll unravel it over time, no pressure.

We’re using a low-level relaxed-pleasant-happy background emotion to relax the child’s anger-spasm. It’s not a high-level happy-pleasant response that is too far out of synchrony with the child’s anger. Instead, it’s simply a background brain state of gentleness, of kindness, of compassion and of concern that is born from our kindness – not from our anxiety or from our desire to change things and make them be the way we want things to be. We simply care. And we have a gentle curiosity about what is hurting the child.

“Oh my goodness, what’s hurting sweetie?”

Understanding the Child

Our kindness and compassion are born from our understanding that people, even the child, have an existential right to be who they are.

This understanding, in turn, has its roots in understanding why the child must do what he or she is doing.

It’s not just the influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, it’s also because we cannot protect the child from the psychological retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent; it’s also because the child is being psychologically compelled by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to cruelly reject the beloved targeted parent, and this is creating immense sadness and guilt which the child avoids through maintaining a chronic state of anger and hostility toward the targeted parent; through making the targeted parent somehow “deserve” the rejection and cruelty of the child, because then it doesn’t hurt so much.

As our gentle kindness moves deeper into activating through harmonic resonance the child’s own kindness and loving affection, we will open up the child’s immense sadness and hurt. With sensitive timing we can facilitate the child’s self-awareness of this reservoir of pain.

“I’m sorry you’re hurting, honey. This has all been very hard on you hasn’t it?”

“I’m not hurting! I hate you. I don’t want to be with you!”

“No, sweetie. That’s hurting. You think it’s anger. But that’s where anger comes from. When we’re hurting.”

“Shut up. Just shut up. You’re so full of s#@.”

“When we’re sad, a hug helps. I’d like to help, but I’ll leave you alone now. Your anger is because you’re sad. You’re hurting. We can make it stop, if you’d like. I know how to make it stop hurting so much. Let me know if you’d like to make it stop, okay?”

“Just go away and leave me alone. That’s what would help.”

“I know, sweetie. It does help you hurt less when I’m not around. But that’s because you actually love me, and I love you. But we’re not able to find that shared love, that’s what’s hurting you. Once we find that shared love, the hurting will go away – poof – just like that. You’ll see.”

“Shut up. I don’t love you. I hate you.”

That’s the anger. That’s the hurt. It’s okay, I’ll leave you alone now.”

Gentle, persistent, kindness. Calm and confident. Activating through harmonic resonance the child’s kindness and compassion, the child’s love, all of which will activate immense sadness expressed as angerIn essence, we want to communicate “It’s okay. I understand. No worries. Take my hand and I can lead you out of Wonderland, out of your pain and confusion, I can lead you back home. There are no worries… no pressure”.

Smiles are good. Not crazy, psychotic, you’re freaking me out smiles. But gentle smiles of kindness.  A twinkle in the eye.

Rub-pat-pats on the shoulder and back are good. The child may pull away… for now… but that’s okay. The rub-pat-pat is a self-expression from the giver, the other person can accept or decline… but it always feels better to accept.

The child must maintain the chronic and unrelenting anger, the hatred, at all times, in order to maintain the inhibition on the attachment and intersubjective systems. The moment the anger begins to fade, the authentic child begins to emerge. And the authentic child hurts.

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

References

Intersubjectivity

Stern, D. (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York:

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

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