Assessing Parenting

Children’s Response to Problematic Parenting

In “parental alienation,” the proposal put forward by the child’s symptomatic rejection of a parent is that the parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent are so problematic that they reasonably account for the child’s rejection of a relationship with the targeted parent. This allegation then invites an assessment of the parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent to determine if the parenting of the targeted parent is sufficiently problematic as to account for the child’s symptomatic rejection of a relationship with this parent.

The question then emerges as to the features of problematic parenting that produce a child’s rejection of a parent.

It is extremely rare for a child to reject a parent.  This is because of a specific primary motivational system in the brain called the “attachment system.”

The attachment system is a neuro-biologically embedded primary motivational system in the brain that compels children to form strong affectional bonds to their parents. As a primary motivational system, the attachment system is analogous to other primary motivational systems for hunger and reproduction in the obligating power of its motivational directives.

The attachment system developed as a primary motivational system across millions of years of evolution as a direct consequence of the selective predation of children.  Predators target the old, the weak, and the young.  Children are prey animals.

Children who formed strong attachment bonds to parents were able to receive parental protection from predators, so that genes promoting the formation of strong child attachment bonds to parents were passed on in the collective gene pool.

Whereas children who formed weak, or even moderate attachment bonds to parents were less likely to receive parental protection from predators (and from other environmental dangers) and so these children were differentially more likely to fall prey to predators (and other dangers), thereby selectively removing genes for weak or even moderate child bonding to parents from the collective gene pool.

Over millions of years of evolution involving the selective predation of children, a very powerful and resilient primary motivational system developed that strongly promotes children’s emotional and psychological bonding to parents.

Because the attachment system confers significant survival advantage to children it is a very strong and resilient system that does not dysfunction easily.  It takes SEVERELY problematic parenting to terminate the attachment bonding motivation of children.

For example, the response of children to bad, or even abusive parenting is to develop an “insecure attachment” because the inadequate parental care of the bad and abusive parent exposes the child to potential predation (and other environmental dangers), so that the child becomes MORE motivated to form an attachment bond to the parent.

The response of children to bad parenting is to be MORE strongly motivated to seek attachment bonding with the abusive parent.

I want to be entirely clear on this, because this is how the authentic child brain works, the response of children to bad parenting is to be MORE strongly motivated to seek attachment bonding with the abusive parent.

While adults may sever adult relationships in response to poor treatment by the other person (such as in divorce), children DO NOT sever their relationship with a parent because of poor parenting.  In fact, bad and abusive parenting produces an INSECURE attachment that MORE STRONGLY motivates children toward bonding to the bad and abusive parent.

So while a husband or wife may divorce their spouse for bad treatment during the marriage, exactly the opposite is true for children’s relationships with their parents.

While on the surface this may seem counter-intuitive and we would expect children exposed to abusive parenting to seek to sever the attachment bonds to the abusive parent, but it’s actually the reverse.  No matter how problematic the parenting of the bad parent may be, the bad parenting is still better than even the best predator.

Children who rejected a relationship with a bad parent were more likely to die from neglect, starvation, predation, or environmental dangers than children who responded to the bad parenting by increasing their efforts to form an attached relationship bond to the bad parent.  Children who become MORE motivated to bond to the bad parent survive.  Children who become less motivated to bond to the bad parent don’t.

“All seven of these MM monkeys [i.e., Motherless Monkeys who were raised without mothers] were totally inadequate mothers… Initially, the MM monkeys tended to ignore or withdraw from their babies even when the infants were disengaged and screaming… Later the motherless monkeys ignored, rejected, and were physically abusive to their infants…A surprising phenomena was the universally persisting attempts by the infants to attach to the mother’s body regardless of neglect or physical punishment. When the infants failed to attach to the ventral surface of the mother, they would cling to the dorsal surface and attempt to move to the mother’s ventral surface.” (Seay, Alexander, Harlow, 1964, p. 353)

Seay, B. Alexander, B.K., and Harlow, H.F. (1964). Maternal behavior of socially deprived rhesus monkeys. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 69, 345-354


“The paradoxical finding that the more punishment a juvenile receives the stronger becomes its attachment to the punishing figure, very difficult to explain in any other theory, is compatible with the view that the function of attachment behavior is protection from predators.” (Bowlby, 1969, 226-227)

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


“A potential evolutionary explanation suggests selection pressures supported infants that remained attached because it increased the probability of survival.  From an adaptive point of view, perhaps it is better for an altricial animal to remain attached to an abusive caregiver than receive no care. (Raineki, Moriceau, Sullivan, 2010, p. 1143)

Raineki, C., Moriceau, S., Sullivan, R.M. (2010). Developing a neurobehavioral animal model of infant attachment to an abusive caregiver. Biological Psychiatry, 67, 1137-1145.

While these survival features may not be relevant in a parent-child relationship that occurs today, in the 21st Century, the advances in our civilization over the past several thousand years are not relevant to the functioning of the attachment system that evolved across a span of millions of years and that is neuro-biologically embedded into the brain as a primary motivational system.

Problematic and abusive parenting produces an INSECURE ATTACHMENT that MORE STRONGLY motivates the child to seek attachment bonding to the abusive parent.

John Bowlby, who first identified and described the attachment system, referred to the attachment system as a “goal corrected” motivational system, meaning that in response to problematic parenting the attachment system maintains its goal of forming an attached relationship bond with the parent, so that the child’s behaviors then become distorted in an effort to achieve this goal to the greatest extent possible in the context of the problematic parenting.

Avoidance of Aversive Parenting

Problematic parenting may lead children to avoid the painful parenting of the problematic parent, but it does not result in a termination of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward the parent. The attachment system of the child CONTINUES to motivate the child to want to form an attached parent-child bond, but the problematic parenting prevents the formation of this attached bond

The frustrated motivation of the child to form an affectional attachment bond with the parent increases the child’s distress at not being able to form an attachment bond with the parent, and this increased distress creates the child’s “protest behavior” – see Parenting and Protest Behavior – to elicit the involvement of the parent.

In authentic parent-child conflict created by problematic parenting, the child’s “protest behavior” emerges from a frustrated effort to FORM a parent-child bond, it is NOT from a desire to SEVER the parent-child bond.

Change the problematic parenting that acts as a barrier to the formation of the affectional parent-child bond, and the protest behavior that is being caused by the child’s distress at not being able to form an affectional parent-child relationship goes away. 

That’s called “therapy.”

Resolve the features of the problematic parenting, and the child’s CONTINUING attachment bonding motivation will allow the formation of an affectionally attached parent-child relationship.

Problematic parenting may produce an avoidance response in the child, but NOT a termination of the attachment bonding motivation itself.

The attachment system is a primary motivational system, just like the hunger system.  When we don’t eat, we experience the distress of hunger.  But just because we are experiencing distress caused by not eating, that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to eat.  In fact, we want to eat even MORE when we’re hungry.

When the child’s desire for affectional attachment bonding with a parent is unfulfilled, the child experiences emotional distress (and so emits protest behavior).  But just because the child is experiencing distress and emitting protest behavior, that doesn’t mean that the fundamental motivational system for attachment bonding isn’t still active.  In fact, it’s even MORE active.

Just because we’re experiencing the distress of being hungry doesn’t mean that we don’t want to eat, and in an authentic parent-child relationship just because the child is experiencing distress at an unfulfilled attachment bond with the parent doesn’t mean that the child doesn’t want an attachment bond with the parent.

A child desire to terminate the child’s relationship with a parent is extremely unusual and is not at all a normal response to problematic parenting.

The primary motivational system still remains active even if we are in distress at our inability to satisfy the motivational press.

Parent-Child Conflict

Parent-child conflict is normal and developmentally healthy (see, Parenting and Protest Behavior). 

In some cases, child vulnerabilities or problematic parenting practices may elevate the severity of parent-child conflicts into unhealthy levels of excessive and extreme child displays of protest behavior.

Under no circumstances, however, is parent-child conflict ever lethal to the parent-child relationship, meaning that in no circumstances does parent-child conflict result in the termination of the child’s attachment motivations toward the parent.  No matter how bad the parent is, a bad parent is still far better than the predator.

Exceptions:

There are several exceptions, however, that CAN transmute parent-child conflict into a lethal strain that motivates the child to terminate the child’s relationship with the parent.  These exceptions are what should be assessed for in evaluating the parenting of the targeted parent that could be producing a termination of the child’s attachment bonding motivations.

  • Sexual abuse/incest

Parental sexual abuse of the child immediately and completely terminates the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward that parent.

The complete termination of the child’s attachment bonding motivation toward a parent is a very characteristic and singularly unique feature of the attachment system in response to incest.

The presence in “parental alienation” of the child’s motivated desire to entirely terminate a relationship with a parent, which is a singularly distinctive feature of the attachment system’s response to incest, suggests the possible presence of sexual abuse “source code” in the “files” of the attachment system that is being trans-generationally transmitted through distorted parenting practices from the original entry of the sexual abuse into the family system a generation or two prior to the current “parental alienation” iteration of the attachment system distortions.

  • Chronic parental violence expressed in physical child abuse

Years of excessive parental violence as expressed though physical abuse of the child, such as beatings with fists, belts, switches, or electrical cords, can sometimes result in the termination of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward the violent parent.

When it occurs, the termination of children’s attachment bonding motivations toward a parent because of chronic parental violence toward the child tends to occur during early or middle adolescence (between the ages of 12-16).

  • Chronic parental violence expressed in spousal domestic abuse

Years of excessive parental violence as expressed though physical spousal abuse can sometimes result in the termination of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward the violent parent.  In other cases, the child may develop an identification with the aggressor in which the child joins in the abuse directed toward the victimized parent/spouse.

When it occurs, the termination of children’s attachment bonding motivations toward a parent because of the chronic domestic violence directed by this parent toward the child’s other parent tends to occur during early or middle adolescence (between the ages of 12-16), at which time the child may stand up to the violent parent in an effort to protect the victimized parent.

  • Chronic parental alcoholism or substance abuse addiction

Most often, chronic parental alcoholism or substance abuse addiction creates a role-reversal parentification of the child into a caretaking role relative to the inadequate and addicted parent.  In some cases, after years of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship created by the alcoholic or substance addicted parent, the child may seek to terminate the parent-child relationship with the addicted parent.

When the child terminates the attached relationship with an addicted parent, the attachment bonding motivation remains active but is severed as a product of the parent’s continuing addiction-related dysfunctions, so that should the parent ever enter recovery and become non-addicted, the child’s attachment bonding motivation can become reactivated toward reconciliation in seeking and forming a parent-child bond.

When it occurs, the child’s efforts to terminate the parent-child relationship with an alcoholic or substance addicted parent tends to occur during the child’s early adulthood (between the ages 18-30).

Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation”

The only other family dynamic that can produce a lethal strain of parent-child conflict in which the child seeks to entirely terminate the child’s relationship with a parent occurs in a cross-generational parent-child coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The addition of parental narcissistic/(borderline) psychopathology to a cross-generational parent-child coalition against the other parent can transmute the child’s conflicts with the other parent into a particularly malignant and virulent form of parent-child conflict in which the child seeks to entirely terminate the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.

The termination of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent as a result of a cross-generational parent-child coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., attachment-based “parental alienation”) will be evident in a specific set of three characteristic and definitive diagnostic indicators in the child’s symptom display (see post, Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs).

In none of the other lethal strains of parent-child conflict (i.e., incest, chronic physical child abuse, chronic domestic violence, chronic parental alcoholism or substance addiction) will the child’s symptoms in seeking a child-initiated cutoff in the parent-child relationship evidence the specific set of three characteristic and definitive diagnostic indicators associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

Assessment of Parenting

1.)  Targeted Parent:  If the child’s symptoms are evidencing a motivated desire from the child to terminate the child’s relationship with a parent, then the parenting behavior of the targeted parent should be assessed for the presence of the severely dysfunctional parenting that can sometimes result in the termination of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward a parent,

  • Incest
  • Chronic physical abuse of the child (years)
  • Chronic domestic violence (years)
  • Chronic alcoholism or substance addiction (years)

The presence of these parenting behaviors would indicate pathogenic parenting by the targeted-rejected parent as the causal agent in the termination of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward this parent.

2.)  Allied Parent: If the child’s symptoms are evidencing a motivated desire from the child to terminate the child’s relationship with a parent, then the parenting behavior of the supposedly allied and “favored” parent should be assessed for the presence of the three characteristic and definitive diagnostic indicators in the child’s symptom display of the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict through a cross-generational coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e. attachment-based “parental alienation”),

  • Attachment System Distortion: The child seeks to terminate the child’s relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent.
  • Personality Disorder Symptoms: The child’s symptoms evidence a specific set of five narcissistic and borderline personality traits.
  • Delusional Belief: The child’s symptoms evidence an intransigently held fixed and false belief in the supposedly (abusive) parental inadequacy of the targeted-rejected parent.

The presence of this specific set of child symptoms would represent definitive diagnostic evidence for pathogenic parenting by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent as the causal agent for the termination of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward the targeted-rejected parent.

3.)  Avoidance of Aversive Parenting: If the child is seeking to avoid aversive parenting by a parent, then the child’s attachment system remains active so that altering the aversive parenting practices of the parent that are creating the child’s avoidance of this parent will allow the formation of an affectionally bonded parent-child relationship.

If the child’s complaints regarding the problematic parenting behavior of the targeted-rejected parent are credible and confirmed through clinical interviews and observation, such as,

  • Overly intrusive, over-anxious parenting
  • Overly sad, depressed, and dependent parenting
  • Overly angry, hostile, critical, and punitive parenting
  • Overly controlling parenting relative to adolescent development

Then the problematic parenting practices should be specifically identified and therapy to change the identified problematic parenting practices should be initiated. Changes made in the parenting responses provided to the child will produce changes to the child’s behavior. 

If changes to the parenting behavior of the targeted parent do not produce corresponding changes in the child’s behavior, then the diagnosis of the parent-child relationship problems as representing the child’s efforts to avoid aversive parenting practices is in error (i.e., the child’s responses to the targeted parent are not under the “stimulus control” of the parent’s behavior, suggesting the presence of a cross-generational coalition of the child with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent against the other parent.

Note on Normal-Range Parenting:

There is wide variability in normal-range parenting, from lax and permissive parenting to more structured and firm parenting. Both ends of the parenting continuum can be normal-range and both approaches to parenting can produce healthy child development.

Parents have the fundamental right to establish family values through their approach to parenting. Some parents will value the improved relationship features available from parenting along the more lax and permissive spectrum of parenting practices, while other parents will value the improved child maturation of personal responsibility available from parenting along the more structured and firm end of the parenting continuum.

The decisions regarding the establishment of family values through parenting practices is the legitimate right of parents and is embedded within cultural values.

Broad latitude should be granted to parents in establishing family values through their parenting with their children.

It is only when parenting reaches the extremes on either end of the spectrum, either excessively lax and permissive parenting so as to represent child neglect, or excessively structured and firm parenting so as to represent emotional or physical child abuse, should broader societal standards for appropriate parenting be applied.

If we place parenting behavior along a continuum from 1 to 100, with lax and permissive parenting at the lower end of the spectrum and structured and firm parenting at the higher end, then normal-range parenting would fall between 20 and 80 on this scale.

Each style of parenting has positive and negative features, so that professional psychology tends to recommend parenting that falls in the mid-range spectrum (been 40 and 60 on a 100 point scale) that employs a balance of both reasonable parent-child dialogue and reasonable parent-imposed structure.

The relative balance of these two features, parent-child dialogue and parentally imposed structure, changes with the child’s increasing maturation, so that the amount of structure we provide to younger children, such as with a 5 or 6 year old child, is greater than the parental structure we would apply for older children, such as with a 15 or 16 year old adolescent who is preparing for entry into young adulthood.

As parenting practices move toward the more prominent use of a lax and permissive parenting approach over a structured and firm parenting style (20-40 on the 100 point scale), or toward the more prominent use of a structured and firm parenting style over a lax and permissive approach (60-80 on the 100 point scale) more problematic family issues can begin to emerge based on the parenting style employed, yet parenting from these more distinctively pronounced frameworks nevertheless remains normal-range and within the parental rights and legitimate prerogatives of the parent.

Broad latitude should be granted to parents in the establishment of values within their families.

Except in cases of prominent parental neglect or abuse, parents have a legitimate right to establish family values through their parenting practices, and it is up to children to adjust to parental values and expectations. Adjusting to parental rules, values, and expectations is an important part of child maturational development.  As long as the parenting practices are broadly normal-range (i.e., between 20 and 80 on a 100 point scale), then the rights and legitimate prerogatives of the parent should be respected and supported, and it is up to the child to adjust and adapt to the parenting approach.

If desired, therapeutic dialogue with the parent can be engaged regarding possible parenting approaches within the mid-range of the parenting spectrum that use a balanced blend of reasonable dialogue and reasonable structure, but such therapeutic dialogue should not undermine the legitimate parental right and the legitimate authority of the parent to establish family values that are consistent with the parent’s values as long as the parenting practices employed are broadly normal-range.

Healthy child development REQUIRES that the child adjust and adapt to imposed restrictions on the “degrees of freedom” available to the child that “constrain their children’s behavior in a way that promotes transitions to more highly organized, complex phases of organization.” (Cherkes-Julkowski & Mitlina, 1999, p. 7; see Parenting and Protest Behavior).  As long as parenting practices are broadly normal-range, healthy child development requires that the child adjust and adapt to the values of the parent as expressed in the parenting practices.

Reasonable parent-child dialogue that provides some restrictions on the child’s developing brain systems “while at the same time allowing enough degrees of freedom for the child to self-organize according to her or his own periodicities” (Cherkes-Julkowski & Mitlina, 1999, p. 14; see Parenting and Protest Behavior) can be encouraged, it nevertheless remains centrally important to healthy child development to support the legitimate rights, authority, and leadership of the parent in determining and establishing family values through the choice of parental responses and parenting practices.

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

References

Cherkes-Julkowski, M. and Mitlina, N. (1999). Self-Organization of mother-child instructional dyads and latter attention. Journal of Learning Disability, 32(1), 6-21.

Parenting and Protest Behavior

Preface

Let me begin this post by acknowledging that it is technical.  I need the material described in this post as a foundation for later discussion of parenting.


The child’s symptomatic rejection of a relationship with a parent inherently accuses the targeted-rejected parent of poor parenting practices, which then requires that we assess the parenting practices of the targeted parent to determine if they represent normal-range parenting practices or whether the parenting of the targeted-rejected parent is sufficiently problematic as to account for the child’s rejection of a relationship with this parent.

Yet by what criteria do we assess parenting?  In my next series of blog posts I plan to address this issue.

My professional background is in ADHD and parent-child conflicts generally, not in “parental alienation.” In addition, I am a bit of an odd-bird professionally because I have a secondary expertise in early childhood mental health (ages 0-5).  Acquiring this expertise in early childhood mental health required that I develop a professional-level understanding for the various brain systems and how they develop, since brain systems are coming online all over the place in early childhood.

To work professionally in early childhood requires a fairly sophisticated understanding for how the brain works, and this foundational understanding for how the brain works has profound implications regarding our approach to parenting and parent-child conflict generally.

In order for me to address the issue of parenting, I need to first lay some foundational groundwork in the current scientific evidence regarding parenting and brain development during childhood that I can then refer to in my future discussions regarding the criteria by which we can assess parenting.

This blog post lays one of those foundational bricks regarding the scientific evidence concerning parenting and the neuro-development of the brain during childhood that I will need in future discussions of assessing parenting.

Parent-Child Conflict is Developmentally Normal, Healthy, and Necessary

Context: Understanding Child Development

Parent-child conflict is both normal and developmentally healthy. It is only when there are distortions in how parent-child conflict is addressed that the developmental consequences of parent-child conflict elevates to problematic levels.

The issue is NOT that parent-child conflict occurs, parent-child conflict is SUPPOSED to occur, the issue is how we respond to it.

To understand the developmental origins of normal range parent child-conflict requires an understanding for the context for how the brain develops during childhood.

We Build What We Use

The brain develops based on the principle of “we build what we use.” Whenever we use a brain system or pathway, that system or pathway becomes stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient.

The technical term for this process is called “canalization,” like building canals or channels in the brain, only these are not actually physical channels in the brain, but instead are chemical “channels,” chemical “grooves” in the brain that are created by structural changes in the molecules along the used pathway that make it more likely for that set of neurons, for that set of brain cells, to fire in that pattern again in the future. The technical term for these use-dependent chemical changes is “long-term potentiation.”

Brain cells that are used together also grow additional interconnections, called synapses, along the pathway that has been used in a process called “synaptogenesis.” This increase in the number of brain connections along used pathways makes it more likely that the used pathway will fire in that same pattern in the future.

Key Construct: We build what we use

The renowned neuroscientist, Donald Hebb (1949), referred to this as “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

The Brain is the Cause

Behavior is a symptom. The brain is the cause.

The organized and integrated functioning of the various brain systems produces organized and integrated behavior. Organized and integrated behavior is socially pleasant and cooperative.

When the integrated functioning of brain systems becomes disorganized and dysregulated for whatever reason, such as when emotions become too intense or too painful, or when there is a conflict between differing motivational goals, then this produces disorganized and dysregulated behavior.

Disorganized and dysregulated behavior is referred to as “protest behavior” and can be reflected in children becoming defiant and uncooperative, evidencing behavior that is too rigid and inflexible or that is too fluid and disorganized, and in emotional expressions that are too extreme such as angry tantrums in response to frustration.  All of these “protest behaviors” reflect disorganized and dysregulated behavior that is the product of disorganization and dysregulation in the functioning of the underlying brain systems.

Key Construct: A disorganized and dysregulated brain produces disorganized and dsyregulated behavior.

Key Construct: Disorganized and dsyregulated behavior is called “protest behavior”

Protest behavior is annoying to the parent, who then wants to make the child’s protest behavior stop.

In this way, the child’s protest behavior elicits the involvement of the parent who is motivated (i.e., annoyed by the protest behavior) to help the child regain an organized and well-regulated state (i.e., to make the protest behavior stop).

For mental health professionals:

Protest behavior is “designed” by nature to elicit the involvement of a more mature nervous system (i.e., the parent) who then mediates the transition of the child from a disorganized-dysregulated state back into an organized and well regulated state.

There are a variety of ways of transitioning the child back into an organized and well-regulated state. Essentially these approaches involve the use of either discipline or guidance strategies.

Discipline uses coercive strategies involving punishment to activate the child’s fear system and so induce submissive behavior in the child. The submissive override available through the activation of the fear system organizes the child’s brain networks into a submissive state and so eliminates the protest behavior that was emerging from a disorganized and dysregulated brain state.

Guidance strategies use social negotiation strategies to reorganize and re-regulate brain systems. Authority based guidance strategies are social communications of parental authority that trigger child cooperation with the socially expressed authority of the parent. This social communication of parental authority is predicated on prior (and possibly current) parental use of discipline strategies. The difference is that the communication of authority within a guidance-based approach is sufficient to engage the child’s cooperation without the need for a threatened application of punishment (i.e., the activation of the fear system override); the social communication of authority is sufficient to enlist social cooperation.

Guidance-based strategies also include social negotiation in which reasonable parent-child dialogue is engaged to encourage the child’s socially responsible communication of distress and the child’s consideration of the social and environmental context, in which a mutual goal can be achieved of meeting the child’s needs within the context of social and environmental restrictions.

A disorganized-dysregulated brain produces disorganized-dysregulated behavior (i.e., protest behavior) that elicits the involvement of the parent (because protest behavior is annoying and the parent wants to make it stop). The involved parent then uses discipline and guidance-based strategies to transition the child back into an organized and regulated brain state (i.e., protest behavior stops).

Now this is important to understand…

Through this process of the parent’s mediation of the child’s state transition from a disorganized-dysregulated state to an organized and regulated state, ALL OF THE BRAIN NETWORKS that were used as part of this state transition from a disorganized-dysregulated state to an organized and regulated state become stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient as a result of USE-DEPENDENT processes (i.e.. long-term potentiation and synaptogenesis).

In the scientific literature, the parent’s mediation of the child’s state transition from a disorganized-dysregulated state to an organized and regulated state is called “scaffolding.”

The parent “scaffolds” the child’s transition from a disorganized-dysregulated state to an organized and regulated state, and in doing so BUILDS the neural pathways in the child’s brain for making this transition. We build what we use.

Do this once, do this twice, do this five thousand times, and eventually the pathway is grooved in the child’s brain (i.e., “canalized”) for making this transition, so that the next time the child’s brain begins to enter this type of disorganized and dsyregulated brain state, the child can slip back into an organized and regulated brain state on his or her own without the parent’s active involvement, because the parent has BUILT the transition networks for this phase-state transition.

The capacity for the child to make this phase-state transition from a disorganized-dysregulated brain state (emitting disorganized-dysregulated behavior; i.e., protest behavior) back into an organized and regulated state (emitting organized and regulated behavior; i.e., socially calm and cooperative behavior) as a result of prior scaffolding of the neuro-development of this transition network is called the development of the child’s capacity for “self-regulation.”

The capacity for child “self-regulation” is initially mediated by the “scaffolding” support of the parent, whose involvement is elicited by the child’s “protest behavior” (i.e., disorganized-dysregulated behavior that is the product of a disorganized and dsyregulated brain state in response to a developmental challenge that the child cannot independently master).

Important Points:

1.)  Children are supposed to be annoying.

When a child is faced with a developmental challenge that he or she cannot independently master, the effective integration of the underlying brain systems begins to become disorganized and dsysregulated (such as from too intense or too painful an emotional state, or from conflicts in motivational goals). As the effective integration of the brain begins to break down into a disorganized and dsyregulated state, the child begins to display disorganized and dsyregulated behavior (i.e., “protest behavior”) as a consequence of the underlying disorganized and dsyregulated brain state.

The protest behavior is “designed” to elicit the involvement of the parent who then scaffolds the child’s transition back into an organized and regulated brain state (and organized and regulated behavior) through the well-modulated use of discipline and guidance strategies. In doing this, the parent builds the networks in the child’s brain (through use-dependent neural processes) for managing the developmental challenge that the child initially faced and that was threatening the collapse of the organized and integrated functioning of the child’s brain systems.

That’s EXACTLY how things are SUPPOSED to work.

The child’s protest behavior is not a “problem” – we only perceive it to be a “problem” because we find protest behavior annoying. But protest behavior is supposed to be annoying in order to elicit our involvement.

The child, or more accurately, the child’s brain, is doing EXACTLY what it is supposed to be doing. A disorganized and dsyregulated brain produces disorganized and dsyregulated behavior to elicit the involvement of a more mature nervous system to help re-regulate the brain and in the process of re-regulation to BUILD through use-dependent processes of “canalization” the neural capacity to manage the developmental challenge.

These developmentally vital relationship exchanges are called “breech-and-repair” sequences.

2.)  The issue is not that children are annoying, of course they’re annoying, they’re supposed to annoy us whenever they are having trouble and need our help.  The issue is not that children’s protest behavior is annoying, the issue is how do we respond to their protest behavior?

That becomes the central question of parenting.

Parent-child conflict is normal and natural.  Minor parent-child “breech-and-repair” sequences are developmentally essential for the healthy maturation of the child’s brain systems. It is what is SUPPOSED to occur.

Parenting involves an ongoing dance of consolidating the relationship through affectionate bonding, followed by minor “breech-and-repair” sequences of helping the child navigate developmentally challenging situations.

Vygotsky called these developmental challenges the “zone of proximal development”

Kohut called the normal-range breech-and-repair sequences providing the child with “optimal frustration” that builds the child’s “self-structure.”

3.)  Protest behavior is neuro-biologically “designed” to elicit the parent’s involvement.

Protest behavior (i.e., angry-oppositional behavior, inflexible-defiant behavior, angry tantrums, fearful-timid behavior, etc.) is an “attachment behavior” designed to elicit GREATER parental involvement. That’s how the brain works.

Protest behavior is NEVER a “detachment behavior” designed to DECREASE parental involvement. That is NOT how the brain works.

A disorganized brain creates disorganized behavior (i.e., protest behavior) that elicits greater parental involvement in order to mediate (“scaffold”) the brain’s transition back into an organized and regulated state, and thereby build all of the brain networks associated with this phase-state transition from a disorganized-dysregulated state to an organized and regulated state.

A Complex Self-Organizing System

I’m going to close this post with a somewhat technical construct that I need to establish relative to criteria for evaluating parenting.  Placing restrictions on children that force the child to accommodate to the restriction is developmentally vital for the healthy maturation of brain systems.  In addition, these imposed restrictions must be well-modulated to the child’s own rhythms and “periodicities.”

The brain is a complex self-organizing system.  As such, its maturation benefits from some external restrictions (challenges) being placed upon its “degrees of freedom” so that in accommodating to these restrictions the integrated functioning of the various brain systems will be forced to organize their integration at a higher maturational level. 

If no restrictions are placed on the degrees of freedom afforded to the developing brain then there is little impetus for it to develop into a higher organizational level, and the elaboration and integration of its brain systems remains flaccid and immature,

See Vygotsky’s construct of “zone of proximal development”

At the same time, if these imposed restrictions on the degrees of freedom afforded to the brain’s functioning are too rigid and inflexibly applied, then the organized functioning of the brain will collapse into chaos.

The restrictions placed on the integrated functioning of the developing brain of the child must be well-modulated and responsive to the child’s own rhythms and “periodicities.”

“A controlling parameter effectively limits the degrees of freedom within the system and thus constrains the system to assemble itself in more stable and productive ways. Mothers/instructors can act as communication partners/control parameters who constrain their children’s behavior in a way that promotes transitions to more highly organized, complex phases of organization.” (Cherkes-Julkowski & Mitlina, 1999, p. 7)

“Constraints must be well modulated. Strong constraints could infuse excessive amounts of energy, causing extreme perturbation, wildly chaotic activity, and a resultant rapid fall to a less organized, more entropic state. On the other hand, constraints that are too weak may provide little impetus for higher order development (Nicolis & Prigogine, 1989; Schmidt et al., 1990).” (Cherkes-Julkowski & Mitlina, 1999, p. 7)

“Well developing dyads move together as intentions move in a more gradual progression back and forth between the instructional intention and the child’s intention.” (Cherkes-Julkowski & Mitlina, 1999, p. 13-14)

“Effective instruction would begin with a goal not too disparate from the child’s and pursue it flexibly, with ample acknowledgment of the child’s intention. This is tantamount to providing weak constraint, one that provides some reduction of response parameters while at the same time allowing enough degrees of freedom for the child to self-organize according to her or his own periodicities.” (Cherkes-Julkowski & Mitlina, 1999, p. 14)

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

References

Cherkes-Julkowski, M. and Mitlina, N. (1999). Self-Organization of mother-child instructional dyads and latter attention. Journal of Learning Disability, 32(1), 6-21.

Brain Development References

Hebb, D.O. (1949). The organization of behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. London: Penguin Books.

Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blakley, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood Trauma, the Neurobiology of Adaptation, and “Use-dependent” Development of the Brain: How “States” Become “Traits”. Infant Mental Health Journal, 16(4), 271-291.

Shore, A. N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.

Shore, A.N. (1996). The experience-dependent maturation of a regulatory system in the orbital prefrontal cortex and the origin of developmental psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 8, 59-87.

Trevarthen, C. (2001). The neurobiology of early communication: Intersubjective regulations in human brain development. In Kalverboer, A.F. and Gramsbergen, A. (Eds) Handbook of Brain and Behaviour in Human Development. London: Kluwer Academic Publishers

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

Restoring Authenticity: Compassion, Empathy, and Gentle Kindness

Gandhi said, “the antidote is the opposite.”

The child is expressing anger, hatred, and rejection.  The antidote is compassion, empathy, and gentle kindness.

The authentic child is lost.  The antidote is a calm and gentle assertion of a truth that guides the child’s return to authenticity, that the child is loved, and that the child wants to love in return.

Understanding

Empathy is the single most important parenting quality.  Children flourish with parental empathy, and they starve in its absence.

Children absorb their parents.  Children experience what their parents experience.  This is because of a primary relationship system in the brain called “intersubjectivity” (Fonagy, Luyten, & Strathearn, 2011; Stern, 2004); Trevarthan, 2001; Tronick, et al., 1998), and it is so central to a deep understanding of the “parental alienation” process that ALL mental health professionals involved in the assessment of parental capacity and the diagnosis and treatment of “parental alienation” need to be professionally well-versed in the nature and functioning of the intersubjective system.

The intersubjectivity system (which I refer to as “psychological connection” in my practice) is one of two primary relationship systems in the brain, the other relationship system is the attachment system.

One of the premiere researchers and theorists in child development and the intersubjective system, Daniel Stern (2004), said of this fundamental psychological connection system,

“Our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others. Our intentions are modified or born in a shifting dialogue with the felt intentions of others. Our feelings are shaped by the intentions, thoughts, and feelings of others. And our thoughts are cocreated in dialogue, even when it is only with ourselves. In short, our mental life is cocreated. This continuous cocreative dialogue with other minds is what I am calling the intersubjective matrix.” (p. 76).

At the cellular level, this intersubjective system of shared psychological states (the “interpenetration of minds”) is mediated by a set of brain cells called “mirror neurons.” There is a wonderful PBS Nova program online about mirror neurons and I highly recommend watching it:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/mirror-neurons.html

Stern (2004) also discusses the linkage of intersubjectivity (empathy) and the mirror neuron system:

“The discovery of mirror neurons has been crucial. Mirror neurons provide possible neurobiological mechanisms for understanding the following phenomena: reading other people’s states of mind, especially intentions; resonating with another’s emotion; experiencing what someone else is experiencing; and capturing an observed action so that one can imitate it — in short, empathizing with another and establishing intersubjective contact.” (p. 78)

“Mirror neurons sit adjacent to motor neurons. They fire in an observer who is doing nothing but watching another person behave (e.g., reaching for a glass). And the pattern of firing in the observer mimics the exact pattern that the observer would use if he were reaching for the glass himself… We experience the other as if we were executing the same action, feeling the same emotion, making the same vocalization, or being touched as they are being touched.”(p. 79).

At a fundamental neurobiological and relationship level, children psychologically absorb the experience of their parents.  This means that your child is absorbing the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and what the child is expressing through anger and hatred, through the rejection of love, is the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is being absorbed psychologically into and through the child.

Understanding the Pathology

The origin of the narcissistic and borderline personality is found in an immense pain and suffering.  This type of personalty has its source in an intense experience of deep personal inadequacy, an abyss of inner emptiness. From within this core experience of fundamental emptiness the narcissistic/borderline personality expects and anticipates that no one will love them because of their deep, primal, fundamental inadequacy as a person.  They are empty inside, unloved and unlovable.

The narcissistic personality defends against this primal inadequacy of being unloved and unlovable by adopting a superficial veneer of grandiose self-inflation. But this defensive veneer requires continual input of “narcissistic supply” from others because it is not sustained by any authentic internal source of true self-value.  Inside, at their core of self-experience, is a dark void of fundamental inadequacy and an abiding belief that they are fundamentally unloved and unlovable. 

If their superficial defensive veneer of narcissistic self-inflation is challenged then their fragile self-structure is threatened with collapse into the void of their self-inadequacy, the dark abyss of being fundamentally unloved and unlovable.  They then protect their fragile self-structure by exploding into narcissistic rage at the source of threat, attacking with irrational accusations and haughty arrogance, striving to maintain their fragile narcissistic defense against a collapse into the void of primal emptiness of self.  Holding their fragile self-structure together by the sheer cohesive force of their rage and anger.

At its core, the narcissistic personality has a borderline organization of primal self-inadequacy and an intense fear of abandonment because they experience themselves as fundamentally unloved and unlovable.  The difference is that the borderline personality experiences this abyss directly and continually, which creates a chaotic self-experience of intense emotions, desperately seeking to be loved, needing to have their inner emptiness filled by the love of others (which could be called “borderline supply”), only to then collapse into their primal experience of fundamental inadequacy, unloved and unlovable, at any sign of a real or imagined rejection, producing the “borderline rage” of accusations and denigration of the formerly beloved object

“you’re not loving me well enough to hold me outside the abyss of my inner emptiness”

When eventually the borderline personality’s self-structure is able to restabilize itself after its collapse into the abyss of the borderline’s inner emptiness, they desperately reach out once again, seeking the love of the other to fill the fundamental void of their self-structure and to hold at bay the experience of their being fundamentally unloved and unlovable. 

And this pattern is endlessly repeated, seducing love from the other which supports the borderline’s self-experience as “I am loved and lovable,” followed by a collapse into the abyss of core-self inadequacy and a profound experience of inner emptiness at any sign of real or imagined rejection, leading to a hostile-aggressive attack on the other person for failing to provide the needed self-supply of fundamental adequacy that the borderline person is fundamentally loved and lovable as a person (i.e., the message communicated by the real or imagined rejection is that “you are unloved and unlovable” which provokes the self-structure collapse into the dark abyss of personal inadequacy), and then a return once more to desperately seeking (seducing) once again the love of the other when the borderline self-structure eventually recovers from its collapse into the void.

The source of the narcissistic/borderline personality is in pain and suffering.  They protect themselves from their immense pain and suffering by projecting into the world their core inadequacy and their fundamental unloveableness.  It is the world that is inadequate, it is the world that doesn’t “deserve” to be loved by the narcissistic/borderline personality.

The dark abyss of emptiness at the inner core of the narcissistic/borderline personality is psychologically expelled from the self-structure of the narcissistic/borderline personality by projecting it, externalizing it, into the world, into us. We are unloved and unlovable.  We are inadequate. 

The narcissistic personality style adopts a detached haughty and arrogant contempt and disdain for the inadequacy of others, which they use to inflate their own narcissistic specialness, while the borderline personality style alternately seeks continual displays of love from others for their specialness, and then savages the formerly beloved with hostility and contempt for their inadequacy in failing to provide the borderline with the continual perfect love that their specialness deserves.

For the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, it is essential that the targeted parent is inadequate, unloved, and unlovable, because the targeted parent is the external container that holds for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent their own inner emptiness and suffering.  They can avoid the abyss by projecting it, externalizing it, into us. 

And they accomplish this through the child, through the beloved of the targeted parent. 

You are inadequate as a parent and you are rejected because of your fundamental inadequacy.  You are unloved and unlovable because of your inadequacy. 

Through the child’s rejection of a loving relationship, you are made to hold the inner suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The pain you feel is measure for measure the pain of the narcissistic/borderline experience being transferred into you as the “holding container” for their inner emptiness and suffering. 

As a parent rejected by your beloved child, you experience a profound inner emptiness at the core of your being.  This is the dark abyss of emptiness at the core of the narcissistic/borderline personality.  Your suffering is their primal suffering being transferred into you.

Your immense pain at being rejected by your child, unloved and unlovable, is measure for measure the inner suffering-of-being experienced by the narcissistic/borderline parent of being fundamentally unloved and unlovable because of their primal self-inadequacy.

What the narcissistic/borderline parent is doing in distorting the child’s love and self-experience is an abomination, yet we can nevertheless have compassion and empathy for the immense inner suffering of the narcissistic/borderline personality that is driving the abomination of twisting and distorting the child’s authentic love for a normal-range and loving parent into hatred, loss, and rejection.

The antidote is the opposite.

The Conduit

The child is the medium, the conduit, for this transfer of suffering from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to you.

And in this transfer process, the child absorbs the suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and gives it to you.  The anger, hateful rage, absence of empathy and cruelty displayed by the child represents the distortions caused to the authentic child by the immensity of the psychological suffering passing through them in the transfer.

As the suffering moves from the core-self of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into you, the child absorbs the psychological pain of their narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and the child’s cruelty, anger, and hatred are expressions of the pain and suffering of this parent, that the other parent doesn’t experience directly but projects onto the world.

The child loves this other parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The child feels the deep emotional pain and suffering of this parent, not at a conscious level, but at a deeper level of the mirror neurons, of the shared psychological state, the intersubjective state.  The child hurts for this parent and wants to heal this parent’s pain. And the child knows that this parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, needs the child more than you do.

By surrendering to the role-reversal relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent the child understands at a non-conscious but fundamental level that the child is helping to heal this parent’s immense pain and suffering.  The act of the child in rejecting you is the child’s act of compassion for the suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

It is imperative that any therapist treating attachment-based “parental alienation” understand that at the core of the child’s experience are two deep feelings, one toward the targeted-rejected parent of misunderstood and unprocessed grief at the loss of the beloved targeted parent, and one toward the narcissistic/(borderline) parent of compassion for the deep primal suffering of the narcissistic/borderline parent. 

Restoring the child’s authenticity requires that we understand the complexity of the child’s authenticity.

If the therapist is able to work with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to lessen the psychological pain and fear of this parent, then this will potentially free the child from the role of taking care of this parent.  However, the strongly entrenched defensive structure of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality that externalizes their pain through its projection into the world restricts our ability to help with this pain because they never acknowledge it as their own, but instead attribute it to the failures and inadequacy of others.

The child’s rejection of the targeted parent emerges from an act of the child’s compassion for the immense psychological suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  But the “splitting” dynamic within the family created by the presence of narcissistic and borderline personality processes (see Key Concept: Splitting post) splits the child’s empathy and compassion into polarized extremes of complete compassion and empathy for the psychological suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., the 100% attachment bonding motivation) and a complete absence of empathy and compassion for the suffering of the targeted parent (i.e., the 100%  avoidance motivation), rather than a more balanced and integrated blend of healthy compassion and empathy.

Restoring Authenticity

The antidote is the opposite.

In responding to the child’s distorted anger, cruelty, and lack of empathy it is helpful to remain grounded in our own empathy and compassion for the child’s experience as a conduit for an immense suffering born in the core personality suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent whom the child loves.  While we cannot condone the child’s hostility and irrational cruelty, we can nevertheless respond from our own place of compassion and empathy for the amount of pain the child is channeling.

In the response of therapists and targeted parents, it will be helpful to remain in a gentle place of calm and simple assertion; that the child’s hostility toward the targeted parent comes from a misunderstood and misattributed experience of sadness and grief at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted parent.  Children absorb their parents. If we are calmly confident in our assertion that the child actually loves us and is sad at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with us, then the child absorbs this belief through the resonance of their mirror neurons and intersubjectivity.

When we pluck the middle “C” string on a harp, the other two “C” strings an octave above and below begin to vibrate in harmonic resonance. If we respond from a calm confidence that our child loves us, the child’s inner experience will begin to vibrate in neural resonance to our psychological state.  Gentle smiles help. Kindness helps.

Recognize that as we show greater love and kindness we will activate the child’s attachment bonding motivations which will produce a larger sadness and grief at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with us.  So as we become kinder and more loving, the child might become angrier and more hostile.

Overtly, the child will actively deny that the targeted parent is loved. But the therapist and targeted parent can simply remain calm in their certainty of this attribution. The child loves the targeted parent, and the actual source of the child’s pain associated with the targeted parent is not what this parent does or doesn’t do, it’s that the child is not expressing and receiving the love and affection available from this beloved parent.

The child’s pain originating from the targeted parent is real and authentic.  The child thinks the pain is caused by some fundamental inadequacy in the parenting of the targeted parent.  The true cause of the child’s pain is the grief and sadness at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted parent.  Once affectional bonds with the targeted parent are restored the child’s pain will vanish.

The child will deny any grief and sadness, which has been distorted under the pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into “anger and resentment loaded with revengeful wishes” (Kernberg, 1975, p. 229), but the therapist and targeted parent can gently encourage the child to test whether it’s true,

“Try it out, see if what I’m saying is true.  See if giving hugs, and smiles, and sharing laughter together, see if that doesn’t make your inner pain go away.”

The pain being channeled by the child is that we are unloved and unlovable. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent as the source, the other parent as the target, and the child as the conduit are all, in their own way, unloved and unlovable.  But this is not true.  The child and the targeted parent are both loved and lovable.  And the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is loved by the child.  Once the affectional bond is restored with the targeted parent, then this love can be taken back through the channel by the child to the source of the pain to heal the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to the extent possible, because this parent too is loved and is lovable for the child.

I might also suggest that targeted parents consider whether they too can bring compassion, empathy… and love… to the suffering of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, even within the context of the family tragedy of “parental alienation.”  The core dynamic within the family is one of being unloved and unlovable.  That is an extremely painful experience for anyone, to feel unloved and unlovable, and it is a self-experience that lies at the very core of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality.

The antidote is the opposite.  Empathy, compassion, affection, and shared love will heal the pain that is too widely distributed within the family.

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

References

Fonagy, P., Luyten, P., and Strathearn, L. (2011). Borderline personality disorder, mentalization, and the neurobiology of attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal, 32, 47-69.

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

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

Trevarthen, C. (2001). The neurobiology of early communication: Intersubjective regulations in human brain development. In Kalverboer, A.F. and Gramsbergen, A. (Eds) Handbook of Brain and Behaviour in Human Development. London: Kluwer Academic Publishers

Tronick E.Z., Brushweller-Stern N., Harrison A.M., Lyons-Ruth K., Morgan A.C., Nahum J.P., Sander L., Stern D.N. (1998). Dyadically expanded states of consciousness and the process of therapeutic change. Infant Mental Health Journal, 19, 290-299.

Key Concept: Splitting

Understanding Splitting

This post builds some bricks in the structure for understanding the construct of “parental alienation” which I will then be able to reference in future discussions. 

In this post I’m going to discuss a key construct, the nature of the splitting dynamic that is characteristic of both narcissistic and borderline personality organizations.  As part of this discussion, I will also elaborate on the equivalence of narcissistic and borderline personality organizations at the attachment level, and the key role of splitting in the symptom manifestation of “parental alienation” within an attachment-based framework of the construct (i.e., as the child’s cross-generational coalition with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent).

Splitting

Central to the psychological processes of narcissistic and borderline personalities is the characteristic of “splitting,” which is a polarized perception of events and people into extremes of all-good, ideal, and wonderful or all-bad, entirely devalued, and demonized.  In splitting, thinking and perception are black-or-white. Modulated shades of grey, of mixed positive and negative qualities, are not possible. People are EITHER idealized as the all-wonderful source of nurture and narcissistic supply, OR they are entirely demonized as being “abusive” and as “deserving” to be punished for their inadequacy.  Splitting involves black-or-white extremes of polarized thinking and perception.

The American Psychiatric Association (2000) defines splitting as,

“Splitting. The individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by compartmentalizing opposite affect states and failing to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self or others into cohesive images. Because ambivalent affects cannot be experienced simultaneously, more balanced views and expectations of self or others are excluded from emotional awareness. Self and object images tend to alternate between polar opposites: exclusively loving, powerful, worthy, nurturant, and kind — or exclusively bad, hateful, angry, destructive, rejecting, or worthless.” (p. 813)

One of the leading figures in personality disorder dynamics, Otto Kernberg (1977), links the characteristic of splitting to the capacity for denial as a defense mechanism,

“Denial here is typically exemplified by “mutual denial” of two independent areas of consciousness (in this case, we might say, denial simply reinforces splitting). The patient is aware of the fact that at this time his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about himself or other people are completely opposite to those he has had at other times; but this memory has no emotional relevance, it cannot influence the way he feels now. At a later time, he may revert to his previous ego state and then deny the present one, again with persisting memory, but with a complete incapacity for emotional linkage of these two ego states.” (p. 31-32)

One of the leading authorities on borderline personality disorder processes, Masha Linehan, captures the characteristic inflexibility of the splitting mindset,

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

Both the narcissistic and borderline personality display spitting as a characteristic feature of their personalities. This is because both the narcissist and borderline personality share an underlying personality organization with differing surface manifestations.

Both the narcissistic and borderline personalities have an experience of tremendous core-self inadequacy and both believe that this core-self inadequacy will result in their being rejected and abandoned by others, principally by attachment figures. These personality disorder dynamics are the product of underlying patterns in their attachment system that serve as the formative core for the development of the personality structure. Bowlby (1969; 1973; 1980), who initially described the formation and nature of the attachment system, called these underlying patterns “internal working models” of attachment. Beck et al., (2004) refer to them as organizing “schemas” that guide our perceptions of events and relationships.

The underlying internal working models of attachment, or organizing schemas, for both the borderline personality and the narcissist are the same, a fundamental experience of core-self inadequacy (belief about self-in-relationship) and a belief that he or she will be rejected and abandoned by the attachment figure because of this fundamental core-self inadequacy (belief about other-in-relationship). The difference between the borderline and narcissistic personality is the differing manner in which each personality style copes with and defends against this identical underlying core belief system.

Equivalence of Narcissistic and Borderline Organizational Structure

Kernberg (1975), one of the leading figures in understanding narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics, equates the two types of personalities as essentially representing differing external manifestations of an underlying borderline personality organization,

“One subgroup of borderline patients, namely, the narcissistic personalities… seem to have a defensive organization similar to borderline conditions, and yet many of them function on a much better psychosocial level.” (Kernberg, p. xiii)

“Most of these patients [i.e., narcissists] present an underlying borderline personality organization.” (p. 16)

For mental health professionals reading this post, let me extend Kernberg’s discussion a little deeper,

“Underneath the feelings of insecurity, self-criticism, and inferiority that patients with borderline personality organization present, one can frequently find grandiose and omnipotent trends. These very often take the form of a strong unconscious conviction that they have the right to expect gratification and homage from others, to be treated as privileged, special persons. If an external object can provide no further gratification or protection, it is dropped and dismissed because there was no real capacity for love of this object in the first place.” (p. 33)

Childress Comment: it is interesting to note that when the targeted parent supposedly “provides no further gratification” for the child (according to the child’s report), the relationship with this parent is “dropped and dismissed” as if “there was no real capacity for love” in the child in the first place.  This child presentation is classically characteristic of narcissistic/borderline personality processes, and it is entirely inconsistent with the authentic functioning of the attachment system.

“In attachments, as in other affectional bonds, there is a need to maintain proximity, distress upon inexplicable separation, pleasure and joy upon reunion, and grief at loss.” (Ainsworth, 1989, p. 711)

“The difference between narcissistic personality structure and borderline personality organization is that in the narcissistic personality there is an integrated, although highly pathological grandiose self… The integration of this pathological, grandiose self compensates for the lack of integration of the normal self-concept which is part of the underlying borderline personality organization: it explains the paradox of relatively good ego functioning and surface adaptation in the presence of a predominance of splitting mechanisms, a related constellation of primitive defenses, and the lack of integration of object representations in these patients.” (p. 265-266)

“The pathological grandiose self compensates for the general “ego-weakening” effects of the primitive defensive organization, a common characteristic of narcissistic personalities and patients with borderline personality organization, and explains the fact that narcissistic personalities may present an overt functioning that ranges from the borderline level to that of better integrated types of character pathology.” (p. 269)

Both the narcissistic and borderline personalities experience a primal core-self inadequacy that, at the attachment system level, represents the internal working models in the attachment system for self-in-relationship.

Both the narcissistic and borderline personalities also have a corresponding belief that they will be rejected and abandoned by the primary attachment figure, which represents at the attachment system level their internal working model for other-in-relationship.

Bowlby refers to these basic internalized belief systems that comprise the attachment system as “internal working models,” while Beck et al., (2004) refer to them as “schemas,”

Bowlby: Internal Working Models

“No variables, it is held, have more far-reaching effects on personality development than have a child’s experiences within his family: for, starting during the first months of his relations with his mother figure, and extending through the years of childhood and adolescence in his relations with both parents, he builds up working models of how attachment figures are likely to behave towards him in any of a variety of situations; and on those models are based all his expectations, and therefore all his plans for the rest of his life.” (Bowlby, 1973, p. 369).

“Every situation we meet within life is construed in terms of the representational models we have of the world about us and of ourselves. Information reaching our sense organs is selected and interpreted in terms of those models, its significance for us and for those we care for is evaluated in terms of them, and plans of action conceived and executed with those models in mind.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 229)

Beck: Schemas

“How a situation is evaluated depends in part, at least, on the relevant underlying beliefs. These beliefs are embedded in more or less stable structures, labeled “schemas,” that select and synthesize incoming data.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 17)

“The content of the schemas may deal with personal relationships, such as attitudes toward the self or others, or impersonal categories… When schemas are latent, they are not participating in information processing; when activated they channel cognitive processing from the earliest to the final stages.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 27)

“In personality disorders, the schemas are part of normal, everyday processing of information… When hypervalent, these idiosyncratic schemas displace and probably inhibit other schemas that may be more adaptive or more appropriate for a given situation. They consequently introduce a systematic bias into information processing.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 27)

”Some subsystems composed of cognitive schemas are concerned with self-evaluation, others are concerned with evaluation of other people.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 28)

These distorted internal working models of attachment (or organizing schemas) guide and direct the interpretation of relationships and the responses made to these distorted interpretations of reality by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. Some “alienating” parents will present with stronger narcissistic personality styles while other “alienating” parents will present with stronger borderline personality styles. Note in this regard, Kernberg’s analysis of the narcissistic personality that,

“…narcissistic personalities may present an overt functioning that ranges from the borderline level to that of better integrated types of character pathology.” (Kernberg, 1977, p. 269)

It is this wide variability in the overt presentation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in “parental alienation,” combined with the absence of personality disorder expertise in the mental health professionals who are diagnosing and treating general child and family problems, that may have contributed to the seeming non-recognition of the narcissistic/(borderline) pathology associated with “parental alienation.”

It is IMPERATIVE that ALL mental health professionals, all child custody evaluators and all therapists, who are involved in diagnosing and treating this “special population” of children and families have a professional level of expertise regarding the nature, dynamics, and presentation of personality disorder processes, particularly narcissistic and borderline personality development and characteristics.

I would strongly urge and strongly recommend that ALL mental health professionals involved in diagnosing and treating this special population of children and families, which means all child custody evaluators and treating therapists, read the following set of literature to establish professional competence in the requisite domain of personality disorder components for this special population:

Core Texts:

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

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

Millon. T. (2011). Disorders of personality: introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal. Hoboken: Wiley.

Readings of Special Note:

Moor, A. and Silvern, L. (2006). Identifying pathways linking child abuse to psychological outcome: The mediating role of perceived parental failure of empathy. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6, 91-112.

Childress Comment: Highly recommended regarding parental empathic failure as a form of psychological child abuse and developmental trauma. Failure of parental empathy is a characterological feature of both narcissistic and borderline personalities.

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

Childress Comment: Highly recommended regarding the nature of role-reversal parent-child relationships.  Role-reversal relationships are an extremely common feature of narcissistic and borderline parenting.

Dutton, D. G., Denny-Keys, M. K., & Sells, J. R. (2011). Parental personality disorder and Its effects on children: A review of current literature. Journal Of Child Custody, 8, 268-283.

Childress Comment: Recommended review of the impact of narcissistic parenting

Rappoport, A. (2005). Co-narcissism: How we accommodate to narcissistic parents. The Therapist.

Childress Comment: Recommended discussion of children’s presentation when living with a narcissistic parent.

There is no excuse or justification for professional ignorance.  If a mental health professional is going to be involved in the diagnosis and/or treatment of families that involve narcissistic and/or borderline personality dynamics, then the mental health professional MUST be professionally knowledgeable and competent in personality disorder dynamics.

There is NO EXCUSE for professional ignorance.

The Neurological Origins of Splitting

Spitting is not an actual physical splitting of areas in the brain. It involves the excessive “cross-inhibition” of two brain areas, so if one area is active (the area containing positive representations, for example) then this active area of the brain triggers inhibitory connections that entirely suppress the activity of another area of the brain (the area containing negative representations), so that only one or the other area of the brain can be active at any one time.

So, as noted earlier by Kernberg regarding denial and splitting, the person will continue to have a memory that he or she previously didn’t feel this way, “but this memory has no emotional relevance” for the person because that area of the brain that was previously active is now entirely turned off (entirely inhibited by the activity of the other brain area).

For the rest of us, living in a normal-range brain, we can have both brain areas on simultaneously. Our brain area containing positive representations can be on AT THE SAME TIME as our brain area containing negative representations, so that we can have a complex blend of both positive and negative features about an event or person. Yet even in our normal-range brains we still have a little bit of cross-inhibition occurring. If we like someone, we tend to see more positive things about that person, and we’ll tend to overlook their negative qualities (this is called a “positive halo” effect), whereas if we don’t like someone we will tend to interpret what they do in a more negative and critical way (this is called a “negative halo” effect).

But our cross-inhibition is relatively mild (hopefully), which allows us a more balanced perception of events and people. For the narcissistic and borderline personalities, however, the cross-inhibition of the two brain areas is complete and totalEITHER the positive representation area is active, in which case the negative representation area is entirely turned off (i.e., creating the all-good, perfectly nurturing, and idealized extreme), OR the negative representation area is active, in which case the positive representation area is entirely turned off (i.e., creating the all-bad, entirely devalued, and demonized extreme).

No balanced blend of perception is possible in the brain circuitry of the narcissistic borderline parent. Black-or-white extremes. This is called “splitting.”

How does a situation like this develop?

Spitting occurs in the attachment system, and it is a response to a parent who is simultaneously a source of fear and a source of nurture.

“Various studies have found that patients with BPD are characterized by disorganized attachment representations… Disorganized attachment is considered to result from an unresolvable situation for the child when “the parent is at the same time the source of fright as well as the potential haven of safety” (van IJzendoorn, Schuengel, & Bakermans-Kranburg, 1999, p. 226).” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 191)

The positive representation area of the brain is the area containing attachment bonding motivations, and the negative representation area of the brain is the area containing avoidance motivations. The parent, as a source of nurture for the child, naturally triggers the child’s attachment bonding motivations. However, when this parent is simultaneously a source of threat who provokes an intense fear in the child, the child’s avoidance motivations also become active, and the child becomes strongly motivated to flee from the source of threat and danger (the hostile-abusive parent) and seek nurture and protection from… the parent… who is… the source of threat and danger and who is triggering the child’s avoidance motivation.

This creates a state of intolerable inner conflict, where both the attachment bonding and avoidance motivation systems are simultaneously active at high intensities. If this becomes a chronic experience, the brain begins to resolve this conflict by excessively cross-inhibiting these networks, so that if one network is active, say the attachment bonding network, then the other network, the avoidance network, is entirely inhibited and becomes completely inactive. Or, if the avoidance motivation system is active, then this entirely inhibits the attachment bonding motivation system. So that ONLY one or the other motivating system is on at any given time.

So unlike our normal-range brains that can simultaneously experience both attachment bonding and avoidance motivations, with only minimal cross-inhibition (i.e., the halo effect), the brain of the narcissistic/borderline personality experiences EITHER one OR the other motivation (an intense bonding motivation or an intense avoidance motivation), but never both simultaneously (i.e., never a complex blend of good and bad).

This is what “splitting” is. It is a distinctive and characteristic feature of both narcissistic and borderline psychopathology. It is easily recognized by a competent mental health professional.

Splitting and “Parental Alienation”

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent is neurologically unable to simultaneously experience both positive and negative perceptions of a person. Either the other person is seen as an idealized source of nurture and narcissistic supply, or the other person becomes a devalued object of complete contempt and scorn. No middle ground is possible. Ambiguity is neurologically impossible for the narcissistic/(borderline) personality.

When the divorce occurs, the targeted parent becomes an ex-husband or an ex-wife.

In the black-and-white polarized brain pathways of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the “bad husband” MUST also become the “bad father” and the “bad wife” MUST also become the “bad mother.”  There is no other possibility.  This is an imperative imposed by the neurological networks of the narcissistic/(borderline) brain, i.e., by the splitting dynamic characteristic of both narcissistic and borderline personalities.

What’s more, since the narcissistic/(borderline) brain cannot experience (fundamentally cannot experience) ambiguity, the ex-husband must also become an ex-father; the ex-wife must become an ex-mother. To the mind of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent this seems self-evident and obvious. Remember Kernberg’s discussion of denial,

“The patient is aware of the fact that at this time his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about himself or other people are completely opposite to those he has had at other times; but this memory has no emotional relevance, it cannot influence the way he feels now… [There is] a complete incapacity for emotional linkage of these two ego states.” (p. 31-32)

All memories held by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent of the positive relationship the targeted parent may have had with the children are lost to relevance. The bad spouse has now become a bad parent, and the ex-husband must become an ex-father, the ex-wife must become the ex-mother, and there is a “complete incapacity for emotional linkage” to any prior experiences of the targeted parent as a good spouse or good parent. These memories have “no emotional relevance.”

And, since the child is in a shared psychological state with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (variously called an “intersubjective” state (Stern, 2004; Trevarthan, 2001), a “dyadic state of consciousness” (Tronick, 2003), or “enmeshment” (Minuchin, 1974), the child is acquiring the orientation and belief systems of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, hence the presence of narcissistic and borderline traits in the child’s symptom display (i.e., diagnostic indicator 2).

So the child will exhibit the SAME splitting process (diagnostic indicator 2.5). The child’s memories of formerly positive experiences with the targeted parent will also lose relevance for the child. The child may remain “aware of the fact that at this time his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about [the targeted parent] are completely opposite to those he has had at other times; but this memory has no emotional relevance, it cannot influence the way he feels now… [There is] a complete incapacity for emotional linkage of these two ego states.”

This explains what otherwise is a very puzzling feature of “parental alienation.”

Why doesn’t the child remember all the good times with the targeted parent? Their love and affection, their laughter and warmth? What happened to all those positive memories?

“In this case, we might say, denial simply reinforces splitting” (Kernberg, 1977, p. 31)

Now Kernberg wasn’t talking about “parental alienation.” Kernberg was describing the narcissistic/borderline personality. Which highlights an important point, the moment we ground our definition of “parental alienation” in established psychological constructs and principles, a wealth of relevant information immediately becomes available to us, and explanations are revealed.

Understanding the role of splitting in “parental alienation” is just one more brick in a comprehensive and accurate explanation of what “parental alienation” is from within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.

Parallel Process

Whenever multiple mental health professionals work with borderline personality processes (and narcissistic processes have an underlying borderline organization), there always exists the potential that the splitting dynamic of the borderline process will be transferred and expressed among the involved mental health professionals, variously called “parallel process” and “staff splitting.”

Linehan, one of the premiere experts in borderline personality processes, describes this potential for the transfer of splitting into the professional team working with borderline personality dynamics in patients,

“Staff splitting,” as mentioned earlier, is a much-discussed phenomenon in which professionals treating borderline patients begin arguing and fighting about a patient, the treatment plan, or the behavior of the other professionals with the patient… arguments among staff members and differences in points of view, traditionally associated with staff splitting, are seen as failures in synthesis and interpersonal process among the staff rather than as a patient’s problem… Therapist disagreements over a patient are treated as potentially equally valid poles of a dialectic. Thus, the starting point for dialogue is the recognition that a polarity has arisen, together with an implicit (if not explicit) assumption that resolution will require working toward synthesis.” (p. 432)

This very much sounds to me like the professional discussion surrounding “parental alienation” that has occurred over the past 30 years, in which each side (pole in the dialectic) is advocating for their position without finding synthesis with the other side (the other pole in the dialectic).  Establishment mental health (symbolized by the DSM committees) have discounted Gardnerian PAS as “junk science” and have withheld granting legitimacy to the construct of PAS, and a separate partisan divide has swirled around the construct of false allegations of child abuse, with each side taking staunchly polarized positions. 

For their part, the Gardnerian PAS advocates have failed to grasp and appreciate the legitimate criticism of PAS as being founded on a set of loose anecdotal indicators that have no connection to established psychological constructs or principles. Rather than take this criticism to heart and employ the professional rigor necessary to define “parental alienation” within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, the Gardnerian PAS supporters have simply tried to storm the gates of the DSM with the same continual argument of “it exists.”

From the perspective of “staff splitting,” Marsha Linehan provides us the way out of this unproductive professional squabbling.  First, we must recognize that a polarity has arisen, and that both sides represent equally valid poles of a dialectic.  Second, we must come together to work toward synthesis.

The criticism of Gardner’s model of PAS as not being sufficiently grounded in scientifically established psychological principles and constructs is a valid criticism.  An attachment-based reconceptualization of the construct of “parental alienation” addresses this criticism levied by establishment mental health against Gardner’s model of PAS.  And, in applying the professional rigor necessary to describe the construct of “parental alienation” entirely from within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, a wealth of explanatory information is made available to guide both diagnosis and treatment.

Equally, establishment mental health needs to similarly work toward synthesis by recognizing the legitimacy of a clinical phenomenon associated with what has traditionally been called “parental alienation.”  It doesn’t matter what it’s called, but it represents severe distortions to family processes as a result of a cross-generational coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is creating serious developmental (diagnostic indicator 1), personality (diagnostic indicator 2), and psychiatric (diagnostic indicator 3) pathology in the child, which defines it as “pathogenic parenting.”

Because the construct has a history of being labeled as “parental alienation,” I would recommend we keep this descriptive label, but I have added the prefix “attachment-based” to the label to differentiate this scientifically grounded model for the clinical phenomenon from the earlier Gardnerian PAS model.

Fundamentally, however, within mental health we must show enlightened professionalism and bring this parallel process of “staff splitting” to an end for the benefit of our client children and families.  Both sides are right, both sides represent equally valid poles in a dialectic.  It is time we engage in professional dialogue that recognizes this truth so that we can maintain our professional focus on serving the needs of our client families by coming together to work toward synthesis

This is ALSO true surrounding the divisive issue of false allegations of abuse.  We need to protect children from child abuse and a healthy trust for children’s reporting of abuse is warranted.  One of the absolutely worst things we can do in a case of authentic child abuse is allow the child to report the abuse, and then not believe the child and not do anything to stop the abuse.  That is psychologically devastating to the child.  The skeptics of false allegations of child abuse, who are advocating for providing greater credibility to child reporting of abuse have an extremely legitimate and important point.  They are right.

And…

In some cases, particularly when there is parental narcissistic and borderline processes and a cross-generational role-reversal relationship in which the child has been induced/seduced into meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the narcissistic/borderline parent, there are occurrences of the narcissistic/borderline parent inducing/seducing false and distorted allegations of abuse from the allied child directed toward the other parent in order that the narcissistic/borderline parent can exploit the allegations to achieve power over the situation and the targeted parent.  Furthermore, borderline personality parents may have been abused themselves and so have a pre-potentiated schema of fearfulness in which they see abuse where none exists (the term “borderline” refers to being on the “border” of neurosis and psychosis).

“Young’s schema model… patients with BPD were characterized by higher self-reports of beliefs, emotions, and behaviors related to the four pathogenic BPD modes (detached protector, abandoned/abused child, angry child, and punitive parent model.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 193)

“Patients with BPD are characterized by hypervigilance (being vulnerable in a dangerous world where nobody can be trusted) and dichotomous thinking.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 193)

“The conceptualization of the core pathology of BPD as stemming from a highly frightened, abused child who is left alone in a malevolent world, longing for safety and help but distrustful because of fear of further abuse and abandonment, is highly related to the model developed by Young (McGinn & Young, 1996)… Young elaborated on an idea, in the 1980s introduced by Aaron Beck in clinical workshops (D.M. Clark, personal communication), that some pathological states of patients with BPD are a sort of regression into intense emotional states experienced as a child. Young conceptualized such states as schema modes…” (p. 199)

Young hypothesized that four schema modes are central to BPD: the abandoned child mode (the present author suggests to label it the abused and abandoned child); the angry/impulsive child mode; the punitive parent mode, and the detached protector mode… The abused and abandoned child mode denotes the desperate state the patient may be in related to (threatened) abandonment and abuse the patient has experienced as a child. Typical core beliefs are that other people are malevolent, cannot be trusted, and will abandon or punish you, especially when you become intimate with them. (p. 199)

Narcissistic personalities can also decompensate into paranoid and persecutory delusional beliefs (Millon, 2011). 

“Owing to their excessive use of fantasy mechanisms, they [narcissists] are disposed to misinterpret events and to construct delusional beliefs… Among narcissists, delusions often take form after a serious challenge or setback has upset their image of superiority and omnipotence… Delusional systems may also develop as a result of having felt betrayed and humiliated. Here we may see the rapid unfolding of persecutory delusions…” (Millon, 2011, p. 407)

The presence of parental narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics realistically elevates the risk of false allegations of abuse directed toward a normal-range targeted parent as a consequence of the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, especially when the child has been induced/seduced into a cross-generational coalition with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent against the other parent that involves a role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

We need to protect children from ALL forms of child abuse.

Both sides represent “equally valid poles in a dialectic.”  For the well-being of our clients, professional psychology must demonstrate sufficient self-reflective insight to avoid the parallel process dynamic of staff splitting associated with treating borderline personality processes (i.e., “parental alienation”) and must work together, NOT as adversaries, toward a synthesis of understanding that recognizes the legitimacy of both poles in the dialectic.

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

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Attachment

Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44, 709-716.

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

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

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

Personality Disorders

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

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

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

Moor, A. and Silvern, L. (2006). Identifying pathways linking child abuse to psychological outcome: The mediating role of perceived parental failure of empathy. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6, 91-112.

“The indication that posttraumatic symptoms were no longer associated with child abuse, across all categories, after statistically controlling for the effect of perceived parental empathy might appear surprising at first, as trauma symptoms are commonly conceived of as connected to specifically terrorizing aspects of maltreatment (e.g., Wind & Silvern, 1994). However, this finding is, in fact, entirely consistent with both Kohut’s (1977) and Winnicott’s (1988) conception of the traumatic nature of parental empathic failure. In this view, parental failure of empathy is predicted to amount to a traumatic experience in itself over time, and subsequently to result in trauma-related stress. Interestingly, even though this theoretical conceptualization of trauma differs in substantial ways from the modern use of the term, it was still nonetheless captured by the present measures.” (Moor & Silvern, 2006, p. 197)

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

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

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

Dutton, D. G., Denny-Keys, M. K., & Sells, J. R. (2011). Parental personality disorder and Its effects on children: A review of current literature. Journal Of Child Custody, 8, 268-283.

“One of the most impactful consequences brought about as a result of growing up with parental PD is the way in which a child is raised with emotionally unavailable, unpredictable, or hostileabusive parenting and the consequences of this upbringing on attachment issues.” (p. 271)

“The results [of Horne’s study] indicated mothers’ narcissism rates correlated significantly and positively with their sons’ narcissism and negatively with their sons’ expressions of empathy.”

Rappoport, A. (2005). Co-narcissism: How we accommodate to narcissistic parents. The Therapist.

“To the extent that parents are narcissistic, they are controlling, blaming, self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ views, unaware of their children’s needs and of the effects of their behavior on their children, and require that the children see them as the parents wish to be seen. They may also demand certain behavior from their children because they see the children as extensions of themselves, and need the children to represent them in the world in ways that meet the parents’ emotional needs. (Rappoport, 2005, p. 2)

In a narcissistic encounter, there is, psychologically, only one person present. The co-narcissist disappears for both people, and only the narcissistic person’s experience is important. Children raised by narcissistic parents come to believe that all other people are narcissistic to some extent. As a result, they orient themselves around the other person in their relationships, lose a clear sense of themselves, and cannot express themselves easily nor participate fully in their lives. (Rappoport, 2005, p. 3)

“Often, the same person displays both narcissistic and co-narcissistic behaviors, depending on circumstances. A person who was raised by a narcissistic or a co-narcissistic parent tends to assume that, in any interpersonal interaction, one person is narcissistic and the other co-narcissistic, and often can play either part. Commonly, one parent was primarily narcissistic and the other parent primarily co-narcissistic, and so both orientations have been modeled for the child. (Rappoport, 2005, p. 2)

 Intersubjectivity & Enmeshment

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

Trevarthen, C. (2001). The neurobiology of early communication: Intersubjective regulations in human brain development. In Kalverboer, A.F. and Gramsbergen, A. (Eds) Handbook of Brain and Behaviour in Human Development. London: Kluwer Academic Publishers

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

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and Family Therapy. Harvard University Press.

Online Seminar Available

On July 18, 2014 I presented an online seminar through the Master Lecture Series of California Southern University regarding the theoretical foundations for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

This online seminar is now posted by California Southern University and is available online to the general public at:

http://www.calsouthern.edu/content/events/parental-alienation-an-attachment-based-model/

On November 21, 2014 I will be presenting a second seminar through the Master Lecture Series of California Southern University regarding therapy of attachment-based “parental alienation. This seminar will also be posted online by California Southern University and will be available to the general public.

During the second seminar on therapy, I will assume that the audience is familiar with the content of this first seminar on theory, so I will NOT re-describe the theoretical foundations but will instead move directly into therapy related applications.

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

Nothing New – No Excuse

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

All of the component elements for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” are established and accepted psychological principles and constructs. I am not proposing something new. I am simply connecting the dots between several constructs that EVERY mental health professional already knows as part of their professional competence.

Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorder

Personality disorders are defined within the DSM diagnostic system, and ALL mental health professionals are expected to be professionally familiar with ALL of the diagnoses within the DSM.  Narcissistic and borderline personality processes are not new or exotic constructs.

The theoretical foundations for narcissistic and borderline personality disorder processes have been extensively described and elaborated in the professional literature (e.g., Beck, et al., 2004; Kernberg, 1975; Linehan, 1993; Millon 2011) and if a mental health professional is not familiar with this literature at a professional-level of competence, then that mental health professional is not professionally competent in the domain of personality disorders and so should refer cases involving narcissistic and borderline personality disorder dynamics to professionals with the appropriate background and expertise

(not only SHOULD the mental health professional refer cases outside of the professional’s “boundaries of competence” to more expert and competent professionals, the mental health professional is actually REQUIRED to refer cases that are outside of the professional’s “boundaries of competence”
under established standards of professional practice.)

Mental health professionals are only allowed to practice within their “boundaries of professional competence.”

American Psychological Association Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct Standard 2.02:

“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.”

American Counseling Association Code of Ethics; Standard C.2.a

“Counselors practice only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, state and national professional credentials, and appropriate professional experience.”

If a mental health professional is not knowledgeable and experienced regarding the diagnosis and treatment of narcissistic and borderline personality disorder dynamics, then the mental health professional is professionally required to refer the client to someone who is professionally competent.  Plastic surgeons should not diagnose and treat cancer.

Cross-Generational Parent-Child Coalition

Professionally competent treatment of families requires understanding principles of family dynamics. This should be patently obvious.  Therefore, mental health professionals working with families should be professionally familiar with basic family systems constructs. 

For example, the Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation proposed by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (2006) identifies a set of “areas of expected training for all child custody evaluators” that includes “(2) family dynamics, including, but not limited to, parent-child relationships, blended families, and extended family relationships” (p. 8).

A central construct of family systems theory is the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict, and among the standard triangulation patterns is a cross-generational coalition of the child with one parent against the other parent.

Salvador Minuchin (1974), considered by many to be THE preeminent family systems theorist, identified this cross-generational coalition of the child with one parent against the other parent as a form of “rigid triangle”,

“The rigid triangle can also take the form of a stable coalition. One of the parents joins the child in a rigidly bounded cross-generational coalition against the other parent.” (p. 102)

Another preeminent family systems theorist, Jay Haley (1977) defined a cross-generational parent-child coalition as a “perverse triangle”,

“The people responding to each other in the triangle are not peers, but one of them is of a different generation from the other two…

In the process of their interaction together, the person of one generation forms a coalition with the person of the other generation against his peer. By ‘coalition’ is meant a process of joint action which is against the third person…

The coalition between the two persons is denied. That is, there is certain behavior which indicates a coalition which, when it is queried, will be denied as a coalition…

In essence, the perverse triangle is one in which the separation of generations is breached in a covert way. When this occurs as a repetitive pattern, the system will be pathological.” (p. 37)

The construct of “parental alienation” is simply a manifestation of a cross-generational parent-child coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) personality disordered parent. Nothing new. I am simply linking two established constructs that ALL mental health professionals working with children and families are responsible to know and understand within standards of professional practice.

It is the addition of narcissistic/(borderline) personality disorder traits of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that transforms the family dynamics into a particularly malignant and virulent form of the cross-generational parent-child coalition.

Narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics occur.  Cross-generational parent-child coalitions against the other parent occur.  When the two occur together, the addition of the narcissistic and borderline personality disorder traits of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent transforms the family dynamics into a particularly malignant and virulent form of the cross-generational parent-child coalition.  It is this malignant and particularly virulent form of cross-generational parent-child coalition that has traditionally been described as “parental alienation.” 

Nothing new, nothing exotic.  Personality disorders and cross-generational parent-child coalitions are simply standard psychological constructs with which all mental health professionals working with families should already be familiar as part of their existing professional competence.

No Excuse

Since the constructs of narcissistic and borderline personality disorders and cross-generational coalitions of the child with one parent against the other parent are established psychological constructs about which ALL mental health professionals working with children and families should be familiar, for ANY mental health therapist or child custody evaluator to miss making the diagnosis of the child’s cross-generational coalition involving a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is targeted against a normal-range and affectionally available parent is simply unacceptable and represents professional incompetence.

The clinical evidence for the child’s cross-generational coalition with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent is clearly evident in the child’s symptom display (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post) and the diagnostic clinical indicators are available to ANY professional who is competent in personality disorders and family systems constructs. If a mental health professional is NOT competent in personality disorders and family systems constructs, then that professional should not be diagnosing or treating family dynamics involving the presence of personality disorder dynamics, and should instead refer the client to a professionally competent child custody evaluator or therapist.

These are NOT new or exotic constructs. There is NO EXCUSE.

To the extent that professional incompetence in diagnosing narcissistic and borderline personality processes involved in a cross-generational parent-child coalition causes developmental, emotional, and psychological harm to the child client through the loss of an affectionally bonded attachment relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent (i.e., the parent who is rejected by the child as a result of the undiagnosed and so untreated psychopathology and pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) allied and supposedly “favored” parent within the parent-child coalition), this may represent negligent professional practice that is directly responsible for causing harm to the client.

To the extent that professional incompetence in diagnosing evident narcissistic and borderline personality processes involved in a cross-generational parent-child coalition causes harm to the targeted-rejected parent through the loss of an affectionally bonded attachment relationship with their child as a result of the undiagnosed and untreated psychopathology and pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) allied and supposedly “favored” parent within the parent-child coalition, this may represent negligent professional practice that is directly responsible for causing harm to the client.

Nothing New

No component of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is new or exotic.

Personality disorders are NOT new constructs. There is extensive literature regarding the dynamics of narcissistic and borderline personality disorder processes.

The triangulation of the child into the spousal conflict through a cross-generational coalition of the child with one parent that is against the other parent is not a new construct. It is a professionally established construct of family dynamics with extensive support in the family systems literature.

The attachment system and its characteristic functioning and dysfunctioning is not a new construct. There exists extensive professional research and literature regarding the nature, functioning, and dysfunctioning of the attachment system. There is also extensive literature linking narcissistic and borderline personality disorders to patterns of dysfunction in the attachment system, and regarding the transmission of dysfunctional attachment patterns from parents to children.

The psychological decompensation of narcissistic and borderline personality disorder processes into persecutory delusional belief systems is not new. One of the preeminent researchers and theorists in personality disorders, Theodore Millon (2011), explicitly links the decompensation of narcissistic personality processes under stress into persecutory delusional beliefs.

“Under conditions of unrelieved adversity and failure, narcissists may decompensate into paranoid disorders. Owing to their excessive use of fantasy mechanisms, they are disposed to misinterpret events and to construct delusional beliefs.

Unwilling to accept constraints on their independence and unable to accept the viewpoints of others, narcissists may isolate themselves from the corrective effects of shared thinking. Alone, they may ruminate and weave their beliefs into a network of fanciful and totally invalid suspicions.

Among narcissists, delusions often take form after a serious challenge or setback has upset their image of superiority and omnipotence. They tend to exhibit compensatory grandiosity and jealousy delusions in which they reconstruct reality to match the image they are unable or unwilling to give up.

Delusional systems may also develop as a result of having felt betrayed and humiliated. Here we may see the rapid unfolding of persecutory delusions and an arrogant grandiosity characterized by verbal attacks and bombast.” (p. 407)

Delusional beliefs are a well defined construct in the DSM diagnostic system, and ALL mental health professionals are professionally required to be familiar will ALL diagnoses within the DSM diagnostic system.  Nothing new.

And the very term “borderline” as a descriptive label was derived from these personality organizations being on the “borderline” of neurosis and psychosis.

“The diagnosis of “borderline” was introduced in the 1930s to label patients with problems that seemed to fall somewhere in between neurosis and psychosis. (Beck et al, 2004, p. 189)

Nor is the reenactment of past trauma in current relationships new. A “repetition compulsion” was initially proposed by Freud, and there is significant research evidence supporting the reenactment of past trauma (see for example, Trippany, Helm, & Simpson, 2006; van der Kolk, 1989), and the reenactment of relationship patterns is a foundational component of Bowlby’s theoretical formulation for the functioning of the attachment system. We replicate our attachment patterns in future relationships.

Nothing about an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is new.  All of the component elements are standard and established psychological principles and constructs.  The construct traditionally described as “parental alienation” represents the triangulation of the child into the spousal conflict through the formation of a cross-generational parent-child coalition between the child and a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The addition of parental narcissistic/(borderline) psychopathology transforms the cross-generational coalition into a particularly malignant and virulent form of family pathology.

The cross-generational coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent can be reliably recognized by a definitive set of diagnostic indicators and an associated set of predicted clinical signs (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post).

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

Personality Disorders

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

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

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

Millon. T. (2011). Disorders of personality: introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal. Hoboken: Wiley.

Family Systems

Haley, J. (1977). Toward a theory of pathological systems. In P. Watzlawick & J. Weakland (Eds.), The interactional view (pp. 31-48). New York: Norton.

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and Family Therapy. Harvard University Press.

Trauma Reenactment

Freud, S. (1922). Beyond the Pleasure Principle (The Standard Edition). Trans. James Strachey. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Trippany, R.L., Helm, H.M. and Simpson, L. (2006). Trauma reenactment: Rethinking borderline personality disorder when diagnosing sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 28, 95-110.

van der Kolk, B.A. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma: Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 389-411

Standards of Practice

Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. (2006) Model standards of practice for child custody evaluation. Madison, WI: Author.

American Psychological Association (2002). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060-1073.

American Counseling Association. (2005) ACA code of ethics. Alexaandria, VA: Author.

Three Levels of Analysis

In proposing the construct of “Parental Alienation Syndrome” (PAS), Gardner too quickly abandoned the professional rigor required by professionally established constructs and principles, and he instead proposed a “new syndrome” that was outside of established psychological constructs, and which was instead based solely on a set of anecdotal clinical indicators.  Although Gardner was correct in identifying a characteristic constellation of clinical features, his absence of professional and scientific rigor has ultimately undermined our ability to achieve a solution to the family tragedy of “parental alienation.”

We need to return to the fundamental definition of what “parental alienation” is, and employ the necessary professional rigor required to re-define the interpersonal processes associated with the construct of “parental alienation” from entirely within standard and established psychological constructs and principles.  We construct any building by first laying the foundation. The foundation provides the stability on which the rest of the structure can rely.

Gardner built the foundation for his theory of PAS on the shifting sands of anecdotal clinical indicators that were not anchored in any professionally recognized theoretical principles or constructs.  When we then try to leverage the theory of PAS to achieve a solution in the mental health and legal settings, the sands shift beneath our feet and the structure collapses.

We cannot achieve a solution until we have established a firm, accurate, and substantial theoretical foundation for defining the construct of “parental alienation” that relies entirely on standard and established psychological principles and constructs. We begin constructing any structure by laying the foundation.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” establishes the required theoretical foundations for the construct of “parental alienation” on a bedrock of well-established psychological principles and constructs, which then allows us to leverage the theoretical foundations to create the diagnostic, legal, and treatment solutions needed within the mental health and legal systems.

Levels of Analysis

The construct of “parental alienation” can be understood at three distinct, and yet interrelated, levels of analysis,

1) The Family Systems Level

2) The Personality Disorder Level

3) The Attachment System Level,

Each of these levels rests upon the foundational structure provided by the underlying level.  The family systems level of analysis is embedded within the deeper psychological context of the personality disorder level, which itself is embedded in the still deeper level of the attachment system.

At its core, “parental alienation” represents the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma from the childhood of the alienating parent to the current family relationships, and involves the reenactment of relationship trauma embedded in the “internal working models” of the alienating parent’s attachment networks.

This trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma is mediated by the narcissistic and borderline personality disorder traits of the alienating parent that represent the coalesced product of the alienating parent’s insecure anxious-disorganized/anxious-preoccupied attachment patterns.

It is the influence of the narcissistic and borderline personality disorder traits of the alienating parent that create the primary driving force for the enactment of the alienation process within the family.

At the surface level, “parental alienation” represents the manifestation of a cross-generational parent-child coalition of the child with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent against the other parent, the targeted-rejected parent, in which the child is used by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a weapon to inflict suffering on the other parent for having failed to properly appreciate the inflated self-grandiosity of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and for having the temerity to leave (abandon) the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

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

Maintaining clarity in the complex dynamics of “parental alienation” requires understanding what level of analysis we are discussing; the family system processes, the personality disorder processes, or the attachment system processes, although all three are intertwined and interrelated.

Level 1: The Family Systems Level

The central construct at the family systems level is the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict through a cross-generational parent-child coalition with one parent (the narcissistic/(borderline) against the other parent.

Haley (1977) refers to the cross-generational coalition as a “perverse triangle” and offers the following definition:

“The people responding to each other in the triangle are not peers, but one of them is of a different generation from the other two… In the process of their interaction together, the person of one generation forms a coalition with the person of the other generation against his peer. By ‘coalition’ is meant a process of joint action which is against the third person… The coalition between the two persons is denied. That is, there is certain behavior which indicates a coalition which, when it is queried, will be denied as a coalition… In essence, the perverse triangle is one in which the separation of generations is breached in a covert way. When this occurs as a repetitive pattern, the system will be pathological.” (Haley, 1977, p.37)

It is important to recognize that it is definitional of this construct that “the coalition between the two persons is denied.” It is, therefore, entirely pointless for child custody evaluators and therapists to ask the child if the allied and supposedly “favored” parent is somehow influencing or creating the child’s hostility and rejection of the other parent.

A cross-generational coalition is, BY DEFINITION, denied.

Of course the child says, “no.”  And the allied and supposedly “favored” parent supports the child in this denial by maintaining that it is entirely the child’s decision and the child’s choice. (“The child should be allowed to decide whether or not to go on visitations with the other parent. We should listen to the child.”).

“The coalition between the two persons is denied” (Haley, 1977)

That the child denies that there is a coalition is ENTIRELY CONSISTENT with there actually being a coalition.  The presence of a cross-generational parent-child coalition must be determined by collateral evidence that “indicates a coalition” rather than by any direct evidence. The nature of this collateral evidence will be described in future posts.

Level 2: Personality Disorder Level

Beneath the distortions at the family systems level is the psychopathology of narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics. The inability of the family to navigate the transition from an intact family structure to a separated family structure is the direct result of the distorting influence on family relationships of prominent narcissistic and borderline personality traits of the alienating parent.

Narcissistic and borderline personality disorder traits represent very serious psychopathology that can severely distort child development and the relationship dynamics within the family.

Based on my professional knowledge of child development, child and family therapy, and the central role of parenting in influencing healthy and unhealthy child development, I would rank order the worst possible parenting as:

  1. Sexual abuse/incest
  2. Narcissistic and borderline personality parenting
  3. Physical child abuse
  4. Domestic violence
  5. Suicidal/depressed parenting

Some professionals may argue that the psychological trauma resulting from physical child abuse is more developmentally problematic for the child than the effects of narcissistic and borderline parenting, and I certainly understand the concern regarding the impact on child development of physical child abuse.  But I would argue that the psychological trauma from the childhood experience of parental violence is treatable, whereas the effects of narcissistic and borderline parenting distort the child’s very self-structure organization, resulting in potentially severe and lifelong deformations of personality and severe distortions to interpersonal relationships.

Obviously, all of the forms of distorted parenting noted above are extraordinarily bad, and all of them are extremely detrimental to child development. My rank ordering of them is simply to give an indication of how severely bad narcissistic and borderline personality parenting is on the child’s development.

“Parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue.

The distortions to the family processes created by the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are manifestations of a variety of features of the parental psychopathology.  One of the central features driving the alienation dynamic is the characterological inability of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to experience and process sadness. According to Kernberg (1975),

“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 then 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 divorce and loss of the intact family structure creates an experience of sadness and loss for everyone involved. For the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the experience of sadness and grief at the loss of the intact family is translated into “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes.”

Through the pathogenic parental influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is then also led into a similar interpretation of the child’s own sadness and grief at the loss of the intact family as being “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful feelings” directed toward the targeted parent instead of the authentic feeling of “real sadness for the loss of a person whom they appreciated.”

The authentic child isn’t angry and resentful.  The authentic child is sad.

At the core of the child’s experience is a misunderstood and misinterpreted grief response involving deep, deep, sadness, initially resulting from the loss of the intact family but later amplified by the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved, but now rejected, targeted parent.

The child’s misinterpretation of an authentic experience of deep sadness (i.e., grief) surrounding the loss of the intact family and the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved-but-rejected targeted parent, is created and fostered through the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Level 3:  The Attachment System Level

The principle feature at the attachment system level is the reenactment in current family relationships of attachment trauma embedded in the “internal working models” of the alienating parent’s attachment system.

The attachment system mediates both the formation and the loss of close emotional relationships.

The loss experience associated with the divorce activated the alienating parent’s attachment system in order to mediate the loss experience.  The activation of the alienating parent’s attachment system activated the relationship trauma networks embedded in the “internal working models” of the alienating parent’s attachment system (it was this core trauma that led to the formation of the narcissistic and borderline personality traits).

So that, following the divorce, two sets of attachment representation networks become concurrently activated in the attachment system of the alienating parent, one set representing the current family members, and one set embedded in the internal working models of the alienating parent’s attachment system, representing patterns of attachment expectations formed in childhood.

The attachment representations in the internal working models of the alienating parent’s attachment system are in the pattern:

  • Victimized Child
  • Abusive Parent
  • Protective Parent

The concurrent simultaneous activation of two sets of representational networks, one set from the past trauma patterns and one set involving the current family members, creates a psychological fusion, or equivalency, between these two sets of activated attachment networks.

So that, in the mind of the alienating parent, the current child represents the “Victimized Child” of the internal working models of attachment, the other parent corresponds to the “Abusive Parent” representation in the internal working models of the attachment system, and the coveted and ideal “Protective Parent” role is adopted by the alienating narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The characters are now all in place for the reenactment of the attachment trauma.  All that remains is to induce the child into initiating the reenactment drama by adopting the “Victimized Child” role.

Common thinking appears to be that the alienating parent induces the child’s rejection of the targeted parent by “bad-mouthing” and saying derogatory things about the other parent.  While this does happen, it is not the driving communication force for inducing the child’s rejection of the other parent.

The critical feature for initiating the trauma reenactment narrative is NOT to define the targeted parent as the “Abusive Parent,” it is getting the child to adopt the “Victimized Child” role.  This is critical to understand,

The key feature of enacting the alienation process is to induce the child into adopting the “Victimized Child” role relative to the other parent.

Because once the child adopts the “Victimized Child” role this immediately defines the targeted parent into the “Abusive Parent” role, and the child’s victimization role also immediately allows the alienating narcissistic/(borderline) parent to adopt (and conspicuously display to others) the coveted role as the ideal and all-wonderful “Protective Parent.”

The key defining feature in enacting the alienation process is not that the targeted parent is abusive, it is that the child is a victim.  The focus of alienation is inducing the child’s false belief that the child is the “victim” of “abusive” parenting practices by the targeted parent, which is then used to justify the child’s attitude toward the targeted parent of hostile rejection because the targeted parent “deserves” to be punished” for his or her “abusive” parenting.

This represents a key feature of the trauma reenactment narrative, that the targeted parent “deserves to be punished” for the “abusive” parenting toward the child (it is so central to the dynamic that it could almost be diagnostic).

“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” (Beck, et al., 2004, p. 252).

Now, none of this reenactment narrative is true.  The targeted parent is not abusive, the child is not victimized, and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is not the all-wonderful protective parent.  But truth is not a relevant consideration for a narcissistic/(borderline) parent in the throes of pathology. 

“Owing to their excessive use of fantasy mechanisms, they are disposed to misinterpret events and to construct delusional beliefs.  Unwilling to accept constraints on their independence and unable to accept the viewpoints of others, narcissists may isolate themselves from the corrective effects of shared thinking.  Alone, they may ruminate and weave their beliefs into a network of fanciful and totally invalid suspicions.” (Millon, 2011, p. 407)

The trauma reenactment narrative captivates the psychologicial state and functioning of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  In the mind of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the trauma reenactment is absolute truth, and there is no amount of contradictory evidence that can convince the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that the constructed storyline of the reenactment narrative isn’t true.

In the distorted psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is being victimized by the abusive parenting of the other parent, so that the child is in desperate need of the protective parenting of the all-wonderful narcissistic/(borderline) parent who is rescuing the “victimized child” from the “abusive parent.”  In the mind of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, this is truth.

But it is a false story, born of the psychopathology of a narcissistic/(borderline) personality, a narrative reenactment of childhood trauma with constructed characters and a constructed “truth.”

And the child can be induced into adopting the “Victimized Child” role because the child does have an authentic experience of sadness and grief that is being triggered by the presence of targeted parent, which, under the distorting influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, is being misinterpreted by the child as “evidence” of the “abusive” parenting of the targeted parent. 

Something about being with the targeted parent hurts.

(i.e., the child feels an authentic sadness and grief at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with this parent). 

It must be something bad that the targeted parent is doing that’s making me hurt.

(no it’s not, the hurt is just normal sadness as the result of an unfulfilled attachment bonding motivation).

The alienating parent must be right, something the targeted parent is doing is “abusive,” and that’s what’s causing my hurt.

(no, the hurt is just sadness at the unfullfilled attachment bonding motivation with the beloved-but-rejected targeted parent).

When a therapist or the child’s attorney believes the constructed false story of the reenactment narrative, they become co-opted into colluding with the severe psychopathology, to the extreme detriment of the child’s healthy development and in abrogation of their professional responsibilities to the child.

I am personally appalled by the level of professional ignorance and incompetence that exists in diagnosing and treating this family process.  While complex, all the facets of this dynamic are entirely within standard and accepted domains of professional knowledge, principles, and constructs, and should be expected domains of professional competence when diagnosing and treating this “special population” of children and family processes.

  • Family systems constructs of triangulation and a cross-generational parent-child coalition are standard and established professional constructs that should represent a domain of expected clinical competence in diagnosing and treating child and family dynamics, particularly in high-conflict divorce settings. 
  • Narcissistic and borderline personality traits are established and accepted professional constructs defined within the DSM diagnostic system and as such should be within the domains of professional competence for all mental health practitioners, particularly when diagnosing or treating potential role-reversal parent-child relationships within the context of high-conflict divorce settings.
  • The nature and functioning of the attachment system is an established psychological construct with extensive empirical support in the research literature, and should be an expected domain of professional competence for all mental health practitioners who are diagnosing and treating family processes involving a disruption to the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward a parent.

In both my personal and professional view, there is absolutely no reason why a mental health professional should miss diagnosing the severity of the psychopathology involved, and the consequences of professional failure are so devastating to the child’s development as to raise for me serious professional concerns regarding the professional competence of any mental health professional who does miss the diagnosis.  If you don’t know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be working with this “special population” of children and family processes.

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

References

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

Haley, J. (1977). Toward a theory of pathological systems. In P. Watzlawick & J. Weakland (Eds.), The interactional view (pp. 31-48). New York: Norton.

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

Millon. T. (2011). Disorders of personality: introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal. Hoboken: Wiley. 

Therapy: Cross-Generational Parent-Child Coalition

A Cross-Generational Coalition: The “Perverse Triangle”

The construct of “parental alienation” represents a variant of a more familiar and elaborated clinical construct of the child’s “triangulation” into the spousal conflict, in which the child is being drawn into the two-person spousal conflict to form a three-person, triangulated, conflict that includes the child.

“Anxiety within either husband or wife or both may arise, for example, as they attempt to balance their needs for closeness with their needs for individuation… One way to resolve such an anxious two-person relationship within the family, according to Bowen (1978), is to triangulate – draw in a significant family member to form a three-person interaction.” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1996, p. 173; emphasis added)

“During periods when anxiety is low and external conditions are calm, the dyad or two-person system may engage in a comfortable back-and-forth exchange of feelings.  However, the stability of this situation is threatened if one or both participants gets upset or anxious, either because of internal stress or from stress external to the twosome.  When a certain moderate anxiety level is reached, one or both partners will involve a vulnerable third person.”(Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1996, p. 173; emphasis added)

The twosome may “reach out” and pull in the other person, the emotions may “overflow” to the third person, or that person may be emotionally “programmed” to initiate involvement.” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1996, p. 173; emphasis added)

Should anxiety in the triangle increase, one person in the triangle may involve another outsider, and so forth until a number of people are involved.  Sometimes such triangulation can reach beyond the family, ultimately encompassing social agencies and the courts.” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1996, p. 173; emphasis added)

Triangulation is a standard family systems construct.  Nothing new.  Nothing exotic.

The specific type of “triangulation” involved in the construct of “parental alienation” is called a “cross-generational parent-child coalition” of the child with the allied and supposedly favored parent against the other parent.

One of the leading figures in family systems theory, Jay Haley (1977), defined this type of cross-generational coalition as comprised of three primary features,

  1. “The people responding to each other in the triangle are not peers, but one of them is of a different generation from the other two” (Haley, 1997, p. 37; emphasis added)

2. “In the process of their interaction together, the person of one generation forms a coalition with the person of the other generation against his peer. By ‘coalition’ is meant a process of joint action which is against the third person.” (Haley, 1997, p. 37; emphasis added)

3. “The coalition between the two persons is denied. That is, there is certain behavior which indicates a coalition which, when it is queried, will be denied as a coalition.” (Haley, 1997, p. 37; emphasis added)

Haley refers to a cross-generational parent-child coalition as a “perverse triangle”,

“In essence, the perverse triangle is one in which the separation of generations is breached in a covert way. When this occurs as a repetitive pattern, the system will be pathological.” (Haley, 1997, p. 37; emphasis added)

The “Perverse Triangle”

The reason that Haley refers to this particular variant of the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict as “the perverse triangle” is that the coalition crosses generational boundaries. The crossing of generational boundaries should never occur.

The prototype exemplar of a generational boundary violation is sexual abuse/incest. Now I want to be entirely clear on this, I am NOT suggesting that the cross-generational parent-child coalition involved with “parental alienation” involves the sexual abuse of the child, I am merely highlighting the high degree of clinical concern associated with cross-generational boundary violations.  Cross-generational boundary dissolutions are highly pathological and damaging to the development of the child.  Cross-generational boundary violations, whether physical or psychological, are of a high degree of clinical concern.

In her article in the “Journal of Emotional Abuse,” Kerig (2005) describes the psychological damage to the child of a cross-generational “boundary dissolution.”

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

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

“In the throes of their own insecurity, troubled parents may rely on the child to meet the parent’s emotional needs, turning to the child to provide the parent with support, nurturance, or comforting (Zeanah & Klitzke, 1991). Ultimately, preoccupation with the parents’ needs threatens to interfere with the child’s ability to develop autonomy, initiative, self-reliance, and a secure internal working model of the self and others (Carlson & Sroufe, 1995; Leon & Rudy, this volume).(Kerig, 2005, p. 6)

“A theme that appears to be central to the conceptualization of boundary dissolution is the failure to acknowledge the psychological distinctiveness of the child… Examination of the theoretical and empirical literatures suggests that there are four distinguishable dimensions to the phenomenon of boundary dissolution: role reversal, intrusiveness, enmeshment, and spousification… Enmeshment in one parent-child relationship is often counterbalanced by disengagement between the child and the other parent (Cowan & Cowan, 1990; Jacobvitz, Riggs, & Johnson, 1999). (Kerig, 2005, pp. 8-10)

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

“Lethal” Strain of Parent-Child Conflict

What makes the perverse triangle processes of “parental alienation” different from less severe forms of parent-child coalitions is the presence of a narcissistic/(borderline) personality disordered parent who introduces significantly distorted psychopathology into the parent-child coalition.

Note: the formation of a narcissistic/(borderline) personality organization very likely involved “boundary dissolution in their relationships with their own parents,” thereby making these parents, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, “more likely to violate the [psychological] boundaries of their children.”

The cross-generational coalition creates increased child conflicts with the other parent, the targeted parent.  However the significant degree of psychopathology introduced by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent greatly amplifies and transmutes the “ordinary” levels of increased parent-child conflict with the other parent into a “lethal” strain of parent-child conflict, in which the child seeks to completely terminate the child’s relationship with the other parent.

Essentially, the child is psychologically “killing” the other parent in the child’s heart and attachment motivations. It is the “lethal” nature of the parent-child conflict created by the severity of the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that transforms the family processes of “parental alienation” into a qualitatively different level than less virulent forms of the “perverse triangle” of the child’s cross-generational coalition with one parent against the other parent.

What is classically referred to as “parental alienation” is not some form of exotic family process, but actually represents a variant of a fairly standard family dynamic involving the formation of a cross-generational parent-child coalition against the other parent (i.e., a “perverse triangle”; Haley, 1977), that includes an enmeshed relationship of the child with the allied and supposedly favored parent and a corresponding disengagement of the child from the other parent.

What makes the family processes of “parental alienation” distinctive is the addition of narcissistic/(borderline) personality disorder psychopathology that creates a particularly virulent and “lethal” strain of the family relationship dynamics in which the induced parent-child conflict toward the targeted parent results in the child’s motivation to completely terminate, or cut-off, the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.

What is traditionally described as “parental alienation” is not some strange and exotic psychological process (although the psychological processes of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are a complex and interwoven knot of psychopathology manifesting across multiple levels).  What is classically described as “parental alienation” is simply the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict by the distorted parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored parent that creates a cross-generational parent-child coalition against the other parent (i.e., a “perverse triangle”).

The variation factor that elevates “parental alienation” into a qualitatively different presentation from a typical cross-generational parent-child coalition is simply the introduction of significant parental psychopathology in the form of parental narcissistic/(borderline) personality organization that distorts, elevates, and transmutes the child’s conflict with the other parent into a particularly virulent and “lethal” form of parent-child conflict in which the child seeks to completely terminate (cut-off) the child’s relationship with the other, targeted, parent.

The presence of parental narcissistic/(borderline) personality processes will be evident in the child’s symptom presentation of prominent narcissistic and borderline personality traits in the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.  Parental influence of the child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent will leave “psychological fingerprints” in the symptom display of the child (see my blog: Legal: “Psychological Fingerprints”).

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

Supplemental Quote:

The following quote by Juni is technical and dense, but I include it for professionals because of its linkage of triangulation with narcissistic parenting.

“From the perspective of object relations, it is clear that the triangulated person is not valued as a person in his own right; rather his function is solely that of a repository of transferential affect from the dyad which cannot be affectively elaborated at its natural source. Thus, Alanen’s (1977) depiction of the double bind victim in terms of Kohut’s (1977) narcissistic object, insofar as he is depersonalized and used in the service of the perpetrator’s own needs, seems quite applicable in defining the role of the triangulated as well.” (Juni, 1995. p 93)

Juni, S. (1995). Triangulation as splitting in the service of ambivalence. Current Psychology: Research and Reviews, 14, 91-111.

References:

Family Systems Constructs:

Goldenberg, I. and Goldenberg, H. (1996). Family therapy: An overview. 4th Ed. 
Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks-Cole Publishing Company

Haley, J. (1977). Toward a theory of pathological systems. In P. Watzlawick & J. Weakland (Eds.), The interactional view (pp. 31-48). New York: Norton.

Role-Reversal and Boundary Dissolutions

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

 

Gardner’s Model of PAS and the Need for a Paradigm Shift

The construct of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was first proposed by Richard Gardner in the 1980s.  His work and insight is to be applauded for recognizing a clinical phenomenon surrounding an induced child rejection of a normal-range parent as a result of the distorted parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.  However, Gardner too quickly abandoned established psychological principles and constructs in proposing a new “syndrome” that was supposedly identifiable by a set of anecdotal clinical signs.  In abandoning the rigor imposed on professional practice by scientifically established psychological principles and constructs, Gardner failed to adequately establish the theoretical foundations for his anecdotal clinical insights, and targeted parents and their children have been paying the price for this theoretical failure across the 30 years since the introduction of the PAS model.

Gardner’s lack of necessary professional rigor in formulating his theory of PAS has resulted in decades of internal disputes within professional psychology that have divided the voice of professional psychology and have prevented the formulation of a solution to a very real clinical phenomenon.  Professional psychology has been “split” in dealing with the issues of “parental alienation” as a consequence of Gardner’s lack of professional rigor.  In order to find a solution, it is imperative that this rupture in professional psychology be resolved.

Marsha Linehan, one of the leading experts in borderline personality processes, describes a phenomenon called “staff splitting” that is familiar to all clinical psychologists who work with borderline patients.  Staff splitting involves a parallel process in the treatment team to the splitting dynamic of the borderline patient, in which polar sides develop within the treatment team regarding the borderline patient so that the treatment team becomes divided by internal arguments and disputes regarding the borderline patient.  It is almost axiomatic in clinical psychology, when disputes and arguments develop within a treatment team regarding a patient, assess for borderline personality characteristics with the patient.

“Staff splitting,” as mentioned earlier, is a much-discussed phenomenon in which professionals treating borderline patients begin arguing and fighting about a patient, the treatment plan, or the behavior of the other professionals with the patient… arguments among staff members and differences in points of view, traditionally associated with staff splitting, are seen as failures in synthesis and interpersonal process among the staff rather than as a patient’s problem… Therapist disagreements over a patient are treated as potentially equally valid poles of a dialectic. Thus, the starting point for dialogue is the recognition that a polarity has arisen, together with an implicit (if not explicit) assumption that resolution will require working toward synthesis.” (Linehan, 1993, p. 432)

The dynamics of “parental alienation” emerge from the narcissistic and borderline personalty disorder processes of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, and so it is not surprising that the phenomenon of “staff splitting” has similarly emerged relative to the construct of “parental alienation,” in which sides have been drawn between supporters and detractors of the PAS construct. What is surprising is that no one in professional psychology has recognized the manifestation of “staff splitting” in the divided professional response to PAS, especially since the splitting dynamic is so prominently evident in the child’s symptom display.

In any event, an end to the division within professional psychology is long past overdue, and the clearly evident tragedy of “parental alienation” requires that professional psychology unite around a common effort to develop an accurate model of the clinical phenomenon associated with “parental alienation.”  Following the guidance of Marsha Linehan, professional psychology needs to recognize that both sides in the dispute represent “equally valid poles of a dialectic” that require synthesis.

The supporters of the PAS construct are correct in identifying a clinical issue of profound significance involving a parentally induced cut-off of the child’s relationship with a normal-range parent as a consequence of extremely distorted parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.  The critics of the PAS construct are also correct in their assertion that the PAS model lacks sufficient scientific foundation as a professional construct.  Both sides represent “equally valid polls of a dialectic.”

The division within mental health has lasted far too long to the the tragic detriment of far too many families and children.  It is time to end the rift and bring synthesis to the debate.  A clinical phenomena exists involving an induced child-initiated cut-off of the child’s relationship with a normal-range parent as a result of aberrant and distorted parenting practices emanating from the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, AND the nature of this clinical process requires description from within established and scientifically supported psychological constructs and principles.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” accomplishes this synthesis, and it can serve to end the division within professional psychology, so that mental health can speak with a single voice regarding the clinical phenomenon classically described as “parental alienation.”  An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” defines the dynamics involved in “parental alienation” across multiple levels of integrated analysis, 1) the family systems level, 3) the personality disorder level, and 3) the level of the attachment system.

The psychopathology involved is complex, but it is understandable, and it leads to a set of clear diagnostic indicators that are firmly established within scientifically supported psychological constructs.  In addition, an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” establishes clear domains of professional knowledge that define standards of practice for professional competence in the diagnosis and treatment of this “special population” of children and families.  Failure to possess the requisite professional knowledge, training, and expertise in attachment theory, personality disorder processes (particularly narcissistic an borderline personality dynamics and their characteristic decompensation under stress), and in family systems constructs (particularly centering on the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict through a cross-generational parent-child coalition against the other parent) which is necessary for competent professional diagnosis and treatment with this “special population” of children and families may represent practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence in violation of professional practice standards.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” also establishes clear treatment parameters based on a  fundamental understanding of the psychological processes involved, which require as the first step 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. The need for a protective separation of the child is made necessary on two grounds, 1) to protect the child from continued exposure to the psychological child abuse associated with the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and 2) to prevent psychological harm to the child during the active phase of treatment as a result of being turned into a “psychological battleground” by the continued active resistance of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to the goals of therapy, and from the continued motivated efforts of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to maintain the child’s symptomatic state even as therapy seeks to resolve the child’s symptoms.

Once ALL diagnosing and treating mental health professionals possess the same degree of understanding and professional competence regarding the reliable diagnosis and effective treatment of “parental alienation,” then professional psychology can speak with a single voice to the Court regarding the nature of attachment-based “parental alienation” and the treatment needs of the child.  No longer will targeted parents be required to prove “parental alienation” in Court.  Instead, the Court can rely on mental health for guidance since ALL professionally competent mental health professionals will be able to reliably come to exactly the same diagnosis under the same circumstances regarding the presence or absence of attachment-based “parental alienation,” which will allow the Court to rely on the clear and singular recommendations of mental health professionals.

Schizophrenia does not need to be proven in Court; bipolar disorder does not need to be proven in Court;  ADHD does not need to be proven in Court, because all of these psychological processes have achieved consensual validation within professional psychology.  In all of these cases, the Court can rely on the professional judgment and recommendations of professional psychology, because in all of these cases professional psychology speaks with a single voice.  An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” allows professional psychology to speak with a single voice regarding the diagnosis and treatment needs related to this “special population” of children and families.

The legal system is the wrong venue to diagnose and resolve psychological and family problems, just as the therapy office is the wrong venue to resolve contract disputes and criminal behavior.  By bringing professional psychology together in a single voice, an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” allows the diagnosis and resolution of the distorted family processes associated with “parental alienation” to be returned to its proper venue of professional mental health, rather than diagnosing the nature of psychopathology through the legal system.

Gardner’s model of PAS served many valuable functions.  It helped highlight the existence of “parental alienation” in the public and professional consciousness, and by giving the psychopathology a name the construct of PAS gave some degree of comfort to the many targeted-rejected parents who suffered the tragic loss of their children as a consequence of the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that so severely distorted the development of the children.

However, in proposing a new “syndrome” based on anecdotal clinical indicators, Gardner too quickly abandoned the professional rigor demanded of professional practice.  Instead of building his theoretical foundations on the firm bedrock of established and scientifically supported psychological constructs and principles, Gardner built the model of PAS on the shifting sands of anecdotal clinical indicators, so that when we try to leverage this model to achieve a solution, the sands shift beneath our feet and the structure collapses.  In the 30 years since its inception, Gardner’s model of PAS has failed to provide a solution to “parental alienation” for the countless parents who continue to lose their children to the psychopathology of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Gardner’s model of PAS is a failed paradigm

It is a failed theoretical paradigm.  It is a failed diagnostic paradigm.  It is a failed legal paradigm.  It is a failed treatment paradigm. It has failed to provide a solution.  We need to change paradigms.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” represents a paradigm shift to a scientifically based model based entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” can end the division within  professional psychology and unite mental health into a single voice because it is based entirely within established and scientifically supported psychological principles and constructs.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” establishes clear domains of professional knowledge and expertise in established psychological principles and constructs necessary to define professional standards of practice for ALL mental health professionals diagnosing and treating this “special population” of children and families.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” takes the solution for “parental alienation” out of the court system and returns it the the mental health system where the diagnosis and treatment of psychological problems the belongs.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” can provide targeted parents and their children with an actualized solution.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

References

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