The Solution

Any solution to “parental alienation” that requires that we prove “parental alienation” in Court is a failure.

1.  Financially Prohibitive: Proving “parental alienation” in Court is simply too expensive for the vast majority of targeted-rejected parents. The financial costs associated with proving “parental alienation” in Court places it beyond the means of 95% of targeted-rejected parents.

 Any solution that requires proving “parental alienation” in Court is only a solution for 5% of targeted-rejected parents. This is no solution.

2.  Requires Egregious Displays of Alienation: Proving “parental alienation” in Court is only possible in the most egregious cases of alienation. The more subtle cases of insidious alienation are nearly impossible to prove in Court.

Any solution that requires proving “parental alienation” in Court is only a solution for the limited number of targeted-parents who have sufficient financial resources and only in the most egregious cases. So now we’re down to 1-2% of the cases of “parental alienation.”

While proving “parental alienation” in Court may seem like a solution to professionals who work within the Court system. For those of us who work in the daily lives of people who cannot financially afford attorneys and child custody evaluations, it is no solution at all.

3.  Robbing the Child: The high financial costs of fighting “parental alienation” in Court robs the child of what should be his or her college education fund. Every dollar paid to an attorney or child custody evaluator harms the child by taking money from the child that should be going to his or her college education.

Any solution that requires proving “parental alienation” in Court harms the child by draining financial resources from the family that should be going toward the child.

4.  Too Slow: Proving “parental alienation” in Court can often take years of protracted legal battles.  During this time, important child developmental phases come and go, and are lost forever.  Lost childhood can never be reclaimed.  A mother only has 365 days of her child being 8 years old, that’s it.  And not a single lost day can ever be reclaimed.  A father only has a brief time with daddy’s little girl, with his princess. Once lost, this time never returns.

Years to enact a solution is simply too long.  Months are too long a timeframe.  Any solution to “parental alienation” should be able to be enacted within weeks in the life of the child. If we require months, so be it, but definitely not years.

Any solution that requires proving “parental alienation” in Court irrevocably harms the child by robbing the child of important and irretrievable developmental phases and experiences with a loving and affectionally available parent. It simply takes too long.

Of note is that I recently had the opportunity for a conversation with Ms. Dorcy Pruter (http://www.consciouscoparentinginstitute.com).  During our conversation she said she can enact the child’s restoration with the targeted-rejected parent in a matter of days, once the Court orders a protective separation of the child from the alienating parent, and based on my initial review of her approach during our conversation I suspect her treatment model can accomplish what she claims for it.  Just to be generous, I’ll give her some leeway and say weeks rather than days (yet days makes sense to me based on her description of the model), but the point is, in a very short time frame. Her approach seemingly has the proper components to accomplish what she claims for it.

Once we achieve a protective separation of the child from the ongoing pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, restoration of a normal-range and affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted-rejected parent is relatively straightforward because we are working WITH the normal-range functioning of the child’s own attachment system.  The child’s authentic brain WANTS to bond to the targeted-rejected parent.  We just need to provide the setting, structure, and guidance to allow the child’s natural attachment bonding motivations to achieve completion. 

Once the child’s attachment bonding motivations are able to achieve completion, the child’s (misinterpreted) grief response resolves, and the impact on the child of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s distorted and pathogenic parenting practices is eliminated.  We have recovered the authentic child.  We then take steps to build the child’s “psychological immune system” relative to the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and then we can begin to restore the child’s relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

If the narcissistic/(borderline) parent cooperates with the treatment process, that would be wonderful.  If not, then we need to take steps to ensure the child’s ongoing stability and balance in response to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s continuing pathogenic parenting.

The Solution

Any solution to “parental alienation” that requires that we prove “parental alienation” in Court is no solution at all because of the immense financial barriers, legal hurdles, and inherent harm to the child’s normal-range developmental trajectory associated with the long and arduous task of trying to prove “parental alienation” in Court.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” provides a solution. Once the paradigm shifts away from a Gardnerian PAS model to an attachment-based model, the solution becomes available immediately.

Phase 1

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” immediately identifies a set of standards of practice for professional competence involving an advanced level of professional understanding for the attachment system (and intersubjective system), and a professionally advanced level of understanding for narcissistic/borderline personality dynamics, their characteristic displays, their underlying dynamics, and processes of their manifestation in family relationships.

Once the paradigm shifts to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” these children and families become immediately identified as a “special population” requiring specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise to diagnose and treat.

Phase 2

Once professional practice in this specialty field is limited to a qualified set of highly trained and knowledgeable experts, the diagnosis of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is established in a clearly defined set of three Diagnostic Indicators (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post), supported by an additional set of confirming clinical signs.

This set of three clearly defined and dichotomous (i.e., present or absent) Diagnostic Indicators has a corresponding DSM-5 diagnosis of:

309.4  Adjustment Disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct

V61.20 Parent-Child Relational Problem

V61.29 Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress

V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed

(for an analysis of the DSM-5 diagnosis of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” see “Childress, 2013: DSM-5 Diagnosis of ‘Parental Alienation’ Processes” on my website)

Phase 3

All specialized experts in High-Conflict Family Divorce (HCFD specialty practice) will make the same DSM-5 diagnosis in response to the identifiable set of three clearly defined and dichotomous (present-absent) Diagnostic Indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” (i.e., pathogenic parenting). 

This means that all HCFD specialty psychologists will make a DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.

Phase 4

In making the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed, these HCFD specialty psychologists then engage a professional responsibility to take protective action for the child.  Chief among these protective steps, and an option that I strongly urge them to enact, is to make a child abuse report to Child Protective Services (CPS) regarding their diagnosis of Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.

Phase 5

CPS workers will initially not know how to deal with the influx of child abuse reports by this group of specialist psychologists who are providing a DSM-5 diagnosis of v995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed along with their report.  CPS agencies will have one of three possible options,

1.  Ignore the reports (which is an unlikely response, especially as these reports continue to come in)

2.  Accept the DSM-5 diagnosis of the HCFD specialist and remove the child from the custody of the alienating (pathogenic) parent and place the child in the custody of the targeted, normal range and healthy parent (i;e;, engage a protective separation of the child from the psychopathology and pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent).

3.  Conduct their own investigation of possible child psychological abuse.

I suspect that CPS agencies will choose option 3. 

In the context of having a clinical psychologist who is expert in High-Conflict Family Divorce provide a confirmed DSM-5 diagnosis of Child Psychological Abuse, if the CPS system wants to conduct their own investigation then they will need to obtain similar training in the assessment of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” upon which the psychologist’s diagnosis is based (i.e., CPS case workers will need to develop professional competence in the specialty practice area of identifying child psychological abuse that occurs within high-conflict family divorce settings) since this knowledge base serves as the foundation for the diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed made by the HCFD specialist psychologist.

So ALL CPS workers everywhere will receive training in an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” and the three definitive diagnostic indicators of pathogenic parenting associated with the child’s cross-generational coalition with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent against the other parent that is inducing significant developmental (Diagnostic Indicator 1), personality (Diagnostic Indicator 2), and psychiatric (Diagnostic Indicator 3) pathology in the child.

Phase 6

The Diagnostic Indicators for attachment-based “parental alienation” are clearly defined and dichotomous, either attachment-based “parental alienation” is present or absent.  Once CPS has a set of clearly defined dichotomous criteria by which to identify pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” they will become empowered and confident in removing the child from the care of pathogenic narcissistic/(borderline) parent in every case where the three Diagnostic Indicators are present.

The Solution

Once a case of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” enters the specialty practice of an HCFD specialist psychologist, a child abuse report will be filed with CPS that includes the psychologist’s diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.  Once the report enters the CPS system, the CPS case worker will confirm the presence of the three Diagnostic Indicators of pathogenic parenting and will confirm the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed, so that the diagnosis has now been confirmed by two independent assessments of mental health professionals expert in the family processes associated with high-conflict divorce.

CPS will then immediately remove the child from the custody of the alienating narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., a protective separation of the child from the psychopathology of the pathogenic parent) and place the child with the normal-range and healthy targeted parent to allow for the treatment and resolution of the child’s symptoms.

This establishes the necessary protective separation conditions for a Pruter-style model of treatment that resolves the child’s symptoms within days or weeks.  Once the child’s symptoms have been resolved under the treatment guidance of an HCFD specialist psychologist, the child’s own “psychological immune system” can be strengthened to resist “reinfection” by the distorting pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and the child’s relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent can be reestablished.

Of note is that Ms. Pruter also indicated that she has a treatment protocol component for the alienating parent to complete as a requirement for their “reunification therapy” with the child.

This solution never enters the Court system.

It provides an immediate protective separation of the child from the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

It solves the family conflict in a matter of weeks and so restores the child to a normal-range developmental trajectory quickly.

It is relatively cost free to the parent so that it does not require an extensive parental financial investment of funds that should be allocated to the child’s future college education.

This is the solution.

If the case does enter the Court system, the judge can order a Treatment Needs Assessment report, which would be a targeted assessment by an HCFD specialist for the presence or absence of the three Diagnostic Indicators of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  The targeted Treatment Needs Assessment would be focused and so less extensive than a full child custody evaluation.  Since all child custody evaluators would have become HCFD specialists, this could be a secondary professional service available from them.

My estimate of a Treatment Needs Assessment is that it could be completed in four to six weeks and could provide a clear directive to the Court regarding the treatment needs of the child. If the three Diagnostic Indicators of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” are present, then the HCFD specialist psychologist conducting the assessment would make the appropriate DSM-5 diagnosis of the child (relative to the issue of pathogenic parenting) which would include the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.

Upon receiving the report from the HCFD psychologist that contains the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed, the judge could order removal of the child from the custody of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and placement of the child with the targeted, normal-range and healthy parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.  Under the guidance of an HCFD specialty psychologist, the child and targeted parent could receive a Pruter-style treatment protocol that would restore their relationship within weeks, followed by building the child’s “psychological immune system” response to the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parenting, culminating in “reunification therapy” between the child and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

This is the solution.

Enacting the Solution

I have created the solution.  All the dominoes are in line, and through my writings on my website and blog I have tipped the first domino.  In my view, it is just a matter of time now.

My estimate is the change in paradigm will take about 10 years.  The solution I have enacted has no natural allies.  Establishment mental health has little to no interest in “parental alienation.”  Their interest tends toward Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and the typical types of parent-child conflict.  “Parental alienation” isn’t really on their radar.  They are likely to simply equate an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” with the Gardnerian PAS model as being “controversial” (when actually an attachment-based model is not at all controversial – all of the constructs are standard and accepted psychological principles and constructs).

The Gardnerian PAS experts are likely to be reluctant to see the end of their favored paradigm for conceptualizing “parental alienation” because they have fought for it for so long and hard.  To see it simply disappear and be replaced by a new paradigm about which they are entirely unfamiliar will likely be hard for them. The Gardnerian PAS experts are likely to simply ignore an attachment-based model and to continue their efforts to seek Court-based solutions for the PAS model.

So an attachment-based paradigm for “parental alienation” will probably languish in obscurity for a while.  Eventually it will get picked up (for a variety of reasons, one of the primary reasons will be its promise for guiding future research efforts).  It will likely become established through the efforts of a new generation of psychologists and mental health professionals who will see the value in a paradigm shift because they have no prior attachment to the PAS model.  They will have an easier time letting go of the PAS model and adopting a new paradigm for describing and understanding “parental alienation” processes.

Eventually the paradigm will shift.  The moment it does the other dominoes will begin to fall.  There is actually a line of dominoes that will also begin to fall that will solve the issue of false allegations of child abuse that are such a troubling part of “parental alienation,” but I’ll leave a description of that line of dominoes for another post.

It’s just a matter of time.

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

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.

Dealing with the Alienating Parent

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

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

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

Baseline Advice

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

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

Our primary goal should be,

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

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

Possible Interventions with the Alienating Parent

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

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

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

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

Inability to Process Sadness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Splitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

This is also exceedingly challenging.

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

Treatment involves four phases,

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

2. Recovery of the authentic child,

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

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

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

References

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

Finding Authenticity

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

Question:

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

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

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

Caveat 1

Without conducting an independent assessment of family relationships, I cannot offer advice on any specific situation.  I can, however, offer general commentary regarding the issues and factors related to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” generally. This response may or may not be applicable to any specific situation.

Caveat 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The premise of the question is similar to asking,

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

Or, similarly

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

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

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

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

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

Caveat 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Answer:

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

Harmonic Resonance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gandhi said, “the antidote is the opposite.”

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

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

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

Understanding the Emotion System

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy relaxes emotional spasms.

Using Background Emotional Signaling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Intersubjectivity

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

Standards of Practice for Court Ordered Parent-Child Therapy

The Court has the right to expect the highest standards of professional practice from psychotherapists who conduct therapy in response to Court orders.

The professional practices of therapists who provide Court-ordered psychotherapy to children and families should therefore reflect the highest standards of professional practice.

Professionally established guidelines exist that define standards of professional practice for forensic psychologists (Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology, 2013) and guidelines have been proposed for professional standards of best practice regarding child custody evaluations (Patel, & Choate, 2014), yet no professional guidelines have been proposed or established for mental health therapists providing Court-ordered therapy.

I would propose that this is easily rectified: Mental health therapists should always render services at the highest professional standard of practice.

If our child had cancer, wouldn’t we want THE BEST doctors and THE BEST treatment available anywhere for the treatment of our child.  Why should we expect any less from psychotherapy?  Children’s futures, their healthy or unhealthy development, their future success, struggles, and pain, can all depend on the quality of the psychotherapy services they and their families receive.  This is an awesome professional responsibility.

Mental health therapists should provide to their clients exactly the same standard of professional care that the therapist would want for his own daughter or for her own son.  For our own children we would want the best possible treatment, whether for cancer or psychological issues. Why should we provide less professional competence to our client children and families than we would want for our own children and families?

Mental health therapists should always render services at the highest standard of professional practice.

And Courts have the right to expect the highest standard of professional practice for child and family litigants referred by the Court for therapy.

Defining the Quality of Care

For many years now I have taught clinical assessment and treatment planning to Master’s level students seeking to become psychotherapists. Prior to my entering private practice I served as a psychologist on medical staff at Children’s Hospital of Orange County where I supervised pre-doctoral and post-doctoral psychology interns and fellows in the APA accredited internship at the hospital. I later served as the Clinical Director for a children’s assessment and treatment center, where I trained and provided clinical supervision in child and family therapy for psychology interns and post-doctoral fellows treating young children who were primarily referred through the Department of Children’s Services and the foster care system.

The following framework for clinical assessment represents the professional standard of practice that I would EXPECT from any graduate student I teach or therapist I supervise if they were to provide Court-ordered family therapy to restore a fractured parent-child relationship, and the following framework would definitely be what I would expect of therapists at the professional level who provide Court-ordered psychotherapy to children and families.

The Court and our clients have the right to expect the highest standard of professional practice from psychotherapists who provide Court-ordered psychotherapy to children and families, and therapists who provide Court-ordered psychotherapy to children and families should expect to provide the highest quality of care to their clients.

Source of Clinical Information

Therapists conducting Court-ordered therapy to treat and resolve parent-child conflict should collect appropriately comprehensive clinical data necessary to develop an accurate case conceptualization which is needed for the development of an effective treatment plan.

For child and family issues, the collection of appropriately comprehensive clinical information would typically involve collecting information from the following sources:

Parental Clinical Interviews: Clinical interviews conducted with each parent individually to obtain each parent’s perspective on background history and symptom information. 

Parent-Child Assessment: Initial parent-child therapy assessment sessions with the parent and child who are the clients targeted for treatment, to observe and conduct clinical probes of individual functioning and conjoint relationship dynamics, including client responses to clinical intervention probes.

Child Assessment: Separate child clinical assessment interviews that include clinical probes and assessment of the child’s emotional and psychological functioning.

Relevant Collateral Sources: Review of relevant reports and documents and clinical interviews with relevant collateral sources of information, such as additional family members.

Written Case Conceptualization and Treatment Plan

Therapists providing Court-ordered psychotherapy to restore a fractured parent-child relationship should, within 4 to 6 weeks of the initial intake assessment, produce a written case conceptualization and treatment plan.

Content Domains of the Case Conceptualization

This written case conceptualization should document the following:

  • Presenting Problem:  A brief introduction to the issues and symptoms that necessitate therapy
  • History of the Presenting Problem:  A description of how the presenting problem emerged, its developmental course over time, and its severity
  • Family History:  A description of current family relationships, the family’s history, and relevant information about the parents’ family of origin history
  • Academic & Work History:  A description of the child’s school behavior and academic performance, and the work history of the parents
  • Additional Relevant History:  A description of additional relevant information, such as possible trauma history within the family (including in the childhood of the parents or with the grandparents), histories of alcoholism and substance abuse within the family (including in the parent’s childhood or with the grandparents), and histories of psychiatric diagnoses within the family (including the extended family). Additional relevant social, legal, and medical histories should be documented.

Jones, K. D. (2010). The unstructured clinical interview. Journal of Counseling and Development, 88, 220-226.

  • Case Conceptualization: The symptoms to be addressed by therapy should be specified and a theoretically substantiated clinical determination should be made regarding the apparent origins of these symptoms.

The theoretical framework that organizes the case conceptualization can be from any of the six primary schools of psychotherapy; psychodynamic, humanistic-existential, cognitive-behavioral, family systems, post-modern social constructionism, neuro-social developmental, or can draw from and integrate several theoretical models (the anticipated length of this case conceptualization would be 1-2 pages and would assume the reader has a professional level knowledge of the theoretical foundations).

Content Domains of the Treatment Plan

The written treatment plan should specify a set of theoretically substantiated treatment interventions that are directly linked to the clinical case conceptualization regarding the origins of the symptoms.

The written treatment plan should specify an estimated timeframe for accomplishing the resolution of the identified symptoms, with due consideration given to the variability of treatment related influences that may arise and alter this estimated timeframe. The written treatment plan should also offer an estimated prognosis for recovery of normal-range development and relationships.

If the estimated timeframe for resolving the symptoms exceeds six months, then a six month benchmark of anticipated gains should be identified and the reasons for the longer than six month estimate of therapy should be documented.

Treatment Progress Updates

At six-month intervals during the course of therapy, the therapist should provide written treatment progress updates specifying the treatment gains to date and the estimated timeframe for achieving a resolution of the symptoms.

If treatment progress has not been substantial in six months of therapy, then an explanation of the barriers to treatment should be documented, and adjusted interventions should be identified to address these barriers.

There are a variety of possible reasons for the failure to achieve substantial treatment progress in six months,

Neuro-biological limitations. These include factors such issues as autism-spectrum limitations, prenatal child exposure to drugs or alcohol that affects cognitive and behavioral development, parental psychiatric disturbances such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, etc. These types of issues present an inherent limitation to the treatment gains that can be expected, and realistic treatment expectations need to be established.

Therapist failure. The therapist may lack adequate knowledge and expertise to enact the therapy, or the client-therapist fit may not promote treatment success. A change in therapists may be indicated.

Inaccurate case conceptualization. The initial case conceptualization may have been in error leading to treatment interventions that were off-target to the origins of the symptoms. A revision in the case conceptualization and the treatment plan may be necessary.

Note: Research in psychotherapy efficacy finds that all theoretical orientations are effective (Wampold, 2001). According to the empirical research, the key determinative feature in psychotherapy efficacy is that the therapist has a model of psychotherapy for case conceptualization and that the client accepts this model as an explanation for the problem.

Client factors. A client within the family system may be resistant to the goals of treatment, resulting in slowed treatment progress. The nature of the client factors affecting therapeutic progress should be identified and revised treatment interventions to address and adjust to client factors should be specified.

Inadequate time. Treatment progress is being made, but the prior issues creating the symptoms are complex and deeply embedded and require a longer period of time to resolve. The underlying issues slowing treatment progress should be documented along with an estimated time frame and prognosis, and the factors affecting prognosis should be identified.

Treatment expectations:

  • In most cases of parent-child conflict, substantial treatment progress should be expected from six months of therapy.
  • Treatment should be expected to resolve the symptoms in no longer than one year of therapy.
  • Failure to meet these expectations should generate documentation as to the reasons for the failure of therapy to meet these expectations.

Note on Child Development:

The developmental phases of childhood are relatively brief and each phase is associated with important child experiences and emerging developmental capacities that build sequentially and cumulatively upon earlier developmental maturation.

Child developmental phases occur at approximately three-month intervals during the first year, six-month intervals during the second year, and then express a roughly two-year interval pattern between subsequent developmental phases:

Ages
0-1 infancy development, early emergence of foundational brain systems
1-2 toddler development, socio-language integration and exploratory locomotion
2-4 preschool socio-emotional-behavioral integration
4-6 early school entry and more elaborated socio-cognitive development
6-8 increasing stability in self-regulation and enhanced maturation in family bonding
8-10 elaborated personal and peer (social) achievement motivations
10-12 enhanced social awareness and modeling of same-gender parent, enhanced early proto-adult cognitive reasoning
12-14 increasing independence in self-identity, physio-social puberty changes
14-16 stabilization of adult-like cognitive reasoning and enhanced adult-like self-independence, gender-bonding motivations emerge
16-18 emergence of adult-level cognitive and social maturation
18-20 transition into young adult responsibilities and self-reliance

A six month time period reflects fully ¼ of the timeframe for a developmental phase. Disruptions to normal-range development lasting longer than six months will have increasingly deleterious effects on healthy child development, as the phased sequencing of later developmental experiences become increasingly desychronized with developental readiness.

When treating children, therapy should have as its goal, and should make significant efforts toward achieving, a substantial resolution of treatment-related issues within six months, and no longer than one year.

Failure to achieve this goal, important to maintaining the healthy developmental trajectory of the child, should receive examined scrutiny to identify the reasons why therapy was unable to achieve this goal, leading to appropriate treatment modifications to address and resolve the limitations to the extent possible and in the least amount of time feasible.

Therapy lasting one year is fully ½ of a developmental phase. Therapy should achieve substantial resolution of developmental child symptomatology within a year. Given the critical importance of time-related factors in child development, failure to achieve this standard should receive review and require specific documentation of the factors limiting therapeutic progress. Substantial alteration of the treatment context and organization of therapy may be indicated.

Clinical Review of Treatment

In any initial review of the case conceptualization and treatment plan, broad latitude should be granted to the therapist’s identification of the theoretical framework for case conceptualization and treatment planing. Later reviews should expect moderate to substantial treatment progress with due consideration for legitimate barriers to treatment progress identified in the update report and within the context of the therapist’s responsibilities to resolve the family conflicts.

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

References

Professional Practice Guidelines

Specialty guidelines for forensic psychology. (2013). American Psychologist, 68(1), 7-19

Patel, S.H. & Choate, L.H. (2014). Conducting child custody evaluations: Best practices for mental health counselors who are court-appointed as child custody evaluators. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 36, 18-30

Jones, K. D. (2010). The unstructured clinical interview. Journal of Counseling and Development, 88, 220-226.

Psychotherapy Research

Wampold, Bruce E. (2001). The Great Psychotherapy Debate: Models, Methods and Findings. Routledge.

On Unicorns, the Tooth Fairy, and Reunification Therapy

The Myth of “Reunification Therapy”

The emperor has no clothes.

There is no such thing as “reunification therapy.”

There is psychoanalytic therapy (e.g., object relations therapy: Kohut, 1977; or self-psychology, Stolorow & Atwood, 1987),

There is humanistic-existential therapy (e.g., client-centered therapy, Rogers, 1961; or existential therapy, Yalom, 1980)

There is cognitive-behavioral therapy (e.g., CBT, Beck, 1976;  with general “Learning Theory” defining child behavior therapy; Patterson, 1982)

There is family systems therapy (e.g., Structural Family Systems therapy, Minuchin, 1974; or Strategic Family Systems therapy, Haley, 1963, Madanes, 1981; or Humanistic family systems therapy, Satir 1967)

There are post-modern therapies (e.g., solution focused therapy, Berg, 1994; or narrative therapy, White and Epston, 1990)

But there is NO model of therapy that has ever been proposed for what constitutes “reunification therapy,” meaning that therapists can essentially do whatever they want under the label of “reunification therapy.”

If therapists wish to describe the type of therapy they are conducting, they should use actual and established models of psychotherapy rather than vague and imprecise descriptive terms that do not increase understanding but that give the appearance of credibility without the substance of credibility.

The construct of “reunification therapy” is a haven, and a cover, for professional ignorance and incompetence.

The construct of “reunification therapy” is a mythical entity of no defined substance. Any therapist that uses the term “reunification therapy” is a charlatan. There is no defined thing as “reunification therapy” and they know it. If they are doing family therapy, then they should say, “family therapy,” in which case a follow up question could be, which model of family therapy are they employing?

I recognize that this is a strong accusation on my part. This weblog post has a comment section. I challenge any therapist to provide a reference citation for what “reunification therapy” entails… <crickets> … there is none.

Professional psychology should be ashamed of itself for knowingly perpetuating the myth of “reunification therapy” by not challenging the use of this construct.  There is NO SUCH CONSTRUCT as “reunification therapy” that has ever been defined within professional mental health.

If the therapist is doing family therapy, then the therapist should say this, which allows for the follow-up question of which model of family therapy is the therapist employing?

Establishment psychology blasts Gardner’s model of PAS as “junk science” yet allows the mythical construct of “reunification therapy” to go unchallenged. Professional psychology should be ashamed of itself.

If any therapist says that he or she does “reunification therapy” – run. That therapist is incompetent and is hiding his or her incompetence behind a mythical label. There is no such thing as “reunification therapy.”

If a therapist says that he or she does “reunification therapy,” ask for a citation reference regarding what “reunification therapy” is so that you can read up on “reunification therapy.” You will get no reference citation, because none exists. No model of “reunification therapy” has ever been proposed at any time, anywhere.

When engaging the services of a therapist to treat “parental alienation,” ask the therapist which of the five standard models of psychotherapy the therapist employs in “reunification therapy.”

Psychoanalytic – Psychodynamic
(generally “object relations”; Kohut)

Humanistic – Existential
(generally “client-centered”, Rogers, or existential therapy, Yalom, for adults; Ayers for humanistic “play therapy” with children, Oaklander for gestalt therapy with children)

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
(generally Beck for CBT; or “Learning Theory” involving operant and classical conditioning for child “behavior therapy”)

Family Systems Therapy
(generally Minuchin for Structural Family Systems therapy, occasionally others)

Post-Modern Therapy
(generally Berg for solution focused therapy)

Sometimes the therapist may say “eclectic” or “integrative.” This means that the therapist applies several of the above models depending on the situation and needs of the client. If the therapist responds “I’m eclectic” or “I use an integrative approach,” ask which models they tend to prefer and which models they tend to integrate.

If the therapist cannot describe which models of psychotherapy they are employing, then they are just making things up based on their whims at the moment and calling it “psychotherapy.”  Run.

If you are hiring an attorney to handle a divorce, you want a family law attorney not a corporate attorney. Ask. What area of law do you specialize in?  If you are getting cosmetic surgery, you want a plastic surgeon not a cardiac surgeon. Ask. What type of surgery do you do?  As a consumer, you may not know the technicalities of the various types of law or medicine – or psychotherapy models – but the professional should.  A professionally competent psychotherapist should be able to explain to you the treatment model being used. This is a part of the INFORMED consent process.

You have the right to consent to therapy, and in order to consent to therapy you the right to be informed about what therapy will involve. How does the therapist conceptualize the issues? How is treatment going to resolve these issues?  This is called the “treatment plan.”  Ask for a written “treatment plan.”

I am a clinical psychologist… I know what is out there passing itself off as “psychotherapy”…

“The emperor has no clothes.”

Do not trust that the psychotherapist knows what he or she is doing. Your family and your child are too important. I would recommend that you become an informed consumer by learning about the various models of psychotherapy.

But if you don’t want to personally learn about the various available models of psychotherapy, then at least ask the treating therapist to explain his or her approach, and how the therapist sees this approach to psychotherapy as solving your specific problems with your child.

If your child had cancer, the doctor would explain to you the treatment options, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or some newer form of treatment. You would be presented with the available options and recommendations, and you would be able to ask questions in order for you to make an informed treatment decision. Psychotherapy is no different.

Your child is too important, and your relationship with your child is too important.

Application of Therapy Models to Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation”

Treatment Structure:

Individual child therapy is NOT the appropriate treatment approach for attachment-based “parental alienation.” The issue in attachment-based “parental alienation” is interpersonal involving the parent-child relationship. Therapy sessions should be structured as conjoint parent-child relationship therapy. Some individual sessions with just the child or just the parent(s) may be appropriate (within a family systems model), but the focus is on treating the relationship.

Imagine a therapist conducting marital therapy but only seeing the wife individually.  Marriage therapy involves the relationship. Marriage therapy sessions involve BOTH the husband and the wife to resolve their relationship issues.  The same is true for the treatment of attachment-based “parental alienation.”  The treatment focus is on the parent-child relationship and therapy sessions should involve BOTH relationship partners.

Individual therapy with the child is NOT the appropriate model for resolving attachment-based “parental alienation.”

Treatment Models

Psychodynamic psychotherapy (generally object relations therapy) for attachment-based “parental alienation” is NOT the appropriate treatment model for attachment-based “”parental alienation.” It will be entirely ineffective for resolving the parent-child relationship, although it would be an appropriate model for treating the narcissistic/(borderline) personality dynamics of the alienating parent.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy is generally, if not always, individual therapy, and it does not have a theoretical structure for conjoint in-session relationship therapy.  Could it be adapted to conjoint in-session relationship therapy?  Perhaps, but I’ll leave that to others to propose such a model appropriate to treating the parent-child relationship issues of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

To Psychotherapists: Kohut does have some extremely important constructs related to empathic failure and narcissistic processes that are directly relevant to both the interpersonal trauma issues and the treatment of attachment-based “parental alienation” – it’s just that an individualistic object relations therapy model is not an appropriate treatment framework.

Kohutian theory, however, is directly relevant.

Humanistic-existential therapy, including all forms of non-directive client-centered and play therapy models, is CONTRA-INDICATED for the treatment of attachment-based “parental alienation.” Client-centered treatment models will collude with the psychopathology and will make things worse.

Humanistic-existential therapy assumes an authentic individual.  However, in attachment-based “parental alienation” the child is being induced/(seduced) into a role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used as a “regulating other” by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to regulate the parent’s psychopathology.  The child’s psychological authenticity has been nullified, and continues to be nullified, by the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline parent). 

Under these conditions, humanistic-existential models of therapy are NOT appropriate and will only serve to collude with the psychopathology.

To Psychotherapists:  Rogerian interpersonal conditions of empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness remain vitally important components of the therapeutic relationship.  It’s just that a non-directive therapy is not an appropriate treatment model for attachment-based “parental alienation.”  The therapist needs to be an active interventionist, consistent with a Structural or Strategic Family Systems (or Humanistic, Satir) model of unbalancing family “homeostasis” to create interpersonal change within and across family relationships.

Empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness remain vitally important components of the therapeutic relationship.

Humanistic-existential therapy tends to be individual therapy. The therapist will meet with the child individually and the parent will seldom be involved in therapy. Avoid humanistic-existential therapy, it will be harmful and will only make the situation worse.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) involves altering distorted and false beliefs that are creating distorted emotional responses. With a skilled CBT therapist, this treatment model could be helpful in treating attachment based “parental alienation,” particularly to the extent that the therapist challenges the irrational beliefs of the child.

However, a comprehensive CBT model for treating the specific issues associated with the family dynamics of attachment-based “parental alienation” has yet to be proposed. Of central importance is that the CBT therapist reads the work of Arron Beck on personality disorders (Beck, et al., 2004).  The quality of the CBT work will improve substantially to the extent that the therapist understands the underlying “schemas” of personality disorders and their interpersonal manifestations.

Child behavior therapy involves delivering positive and negative “consequences” for appropriate and inappropriate child behavior. While child behavior therapy has a good intention, it will likely only make matters worse.

The targeted parent will be directed by the therapist to establish reward and punishment contingencies and to deliver these “consequences” for the child’s “problem behavior.” In attachment-based “parental alienation,” however, the child will be unresponsive to rewards and “positive attention” and will instead frequently provoke negative consequences (punishments) that will then create increasingly negative and hostile parent-child exchanges, that will be used by the child (and by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent) as “evidence” of the targeted parent’s insensitivity to the child’s needs, and as reasons and justifications for the child’s wanting to terminate the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.

To Psychotherapists: The reason for this treatment failure is that the child’s behavior is not under the “stimulus control” of the behavior of the targeted-rejected parent.  Instead, the child’s behavioral responses to the targeted-rejected parent are under the “stimulus control” of the child’s relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored parent.”  The focus of behavior change must target the correct locus of the stimulus control for the child’s behavior in the relationship cues, reinforcers, and punishments within the child’s relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.

It is possible that high quality behavior therapy combined with cognitive restructuring can be helpful, particularly if the child is separated from the ongoing distorting influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of treatment.  A key feature of effective behavior therapy will be focusing on a quality of the interaction called the “stimulus control” of the child’s behavior. 

Currently, in attachment-based “parental alienation,” the stimulus control for the child’s distorted behavior toward the targeted-rejected parent is in the child’s relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored” narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Effective behavior therapy would need to alter the locus of this stimulus control away from the child’s relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and back onto the authentic source of stimulus control in the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.

Family systems therapy is the appropriate and indicated therapy model for treating attachment-based “parental alienation,” with Structural Family Systems theory being the primary indicated treatment framework, although a Strategic Family Systems model can also be effective. Family systems therapy involves multiple family members in the sessions (although it is highly unlikely that the involvement of the the narcissistic/(borderline) parent directly in the parent-child therapy sessions with the targeted parent will be warranted based on a variety of treatment considerations), and the family systems therapist will be an active participant in therapy. Initially, the therapist will seek to alter, disrupt, and “unbalance” the unhealthy “homeostasis” (relationship stability) within the family relationships in order to then re-structure family relationship patterns without the symptom present.

To Psychotherapists:  There may be circumstances in which conjoint sessions with the targeted parent and the allied and supposedly “favored” parent could be productive. The family therapy issue is helping the family transition from an intact family structure to a separated family structure. The locus for the family’s difficulty is in the narcissistic and borderline vulnerabilities of one of the spousal partners.  Helping the spousal relationship, and particularly this vulnerable spousal partner, effectively navigate the experience of loss and grief regarding the end of the marital bond can resolve the expression of pathology within the family.  It is skilled family systems work, but it is possible in some cases.

If a conjoint-spousal intervention is attempted, the child should NOT be present for these conjoint parental sessions (the child must be de-triangulated from the spousal conflict), although the child can be made aware that these parental sessions are occurring as part of the therapy process.  By the therapist taking over the caregiving role for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, this may help release the child from the necessity of maintaining a role-reversal caregiving relationship for the vulnerable narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

However, a family systems approach with attachment-based “parental alienation” becomes challenging precisely because it will be effective.  As the therapy creates change in the child’s symptoms, the allied and supposedly “favored” narcissistic/(borderline) parent will apply ever increasing psychological pressure on the child to resist the influence of therapy and remain symptomatic.

The resistant pressures applied on the child by the pathological narcissistic/(borderline) parent for the child to remain symptomatic, even as family systems therapy is applying treatment-related resolutions encouraging the child’s release of symptoms and the restoration of normal-range relationships within the family, will turn the child into a psychological battleground between the forces of effective therapy that are resolving the child’s symptomatic state and the continuing and increasing psychological pressures being applied on the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to remain symptomatic.

Turning the child into a psychological battleground will be psychologically harmful to the child.  The only way to resolve this dilemma is to either,

1) Terminate effective therapy and discontinue efforts to resolve the child’s psychopathology, thereby choosing to leave the child in a symptomatic state of a cut-off relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent that is the product of the distorted parenting practices of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent who is using the child in a role-reversal relationship to meet the needs of the pathological parent, or

2) Provide the child with a protective separation from the ongoing pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.

Family systems therapy will be effective, but this becomes a problem because the effectiveness of family systems therapy will be met with active resistance by the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent who will place increasing psychological pressure on the child to remain symptomatic. Turning the child into a psychological battleground between the goals of therapy and the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is not recommended. But the only alternative is to terminate effective therapy.

Ineffective Therapy

There is a third alternative, which is to conduct entirely pointless ineffective “therapy” that lasts for years and produces absolutely no change (except the further strengthening and entrenchment of the child’s hostile rejection of the parent), and unfortunately this is far too often the type of “therapy” currently being employed with attachment-based “parental alienation.” 

Usually the ineffective mode of therapy is a non-directive “wing-it” style of Humanistic-oriented therapy, typically involving “validating the child’s feelings” in an apparent hope by the therapist that this will have some sort of magical “self-actualizing” impact on the child that will somehow stop the parent-child conflict.  The “wing-it” component sometimes involves encouraging the targeted-rejected parent to apologize to the child for supposed past parental failures. That these alleged “parental failures” in the past never actually occurred or are gross distortions of the actual events doesn’t seem to be relevant to the therapist in the “wing-it” style of “therapy,” and the therapist-elicited parental apologies to the child never produce the hoped for change in child attitude or behavior.

The Required Therapeutic Context for Effective Therapy

Therapy must begin with the child’s protective separation from the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.

We cannot ask the child to change and to relinquish the symptoms if we cannot first protect the child from the psychological retaliation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent for any change the child makes.

Professional Expertise

An additional problem with the family systems models of psychotherapy is that there are a limited number of trained and knowledgeable family systems therapists available.  Family systems therapy is sophisticated, and so requires a high level of professional knowledge and skill.  Only a limited number of therapists will seek out the post-graduate training necessary to become professionally competent in family systems therapy.

In the absence of established knowledge and formal training in family systems models of therapy, many therapists simply choose to “wing it” and do whatever they think is best under any given circumstances.  Unfortunately, this is more common than one might imagine.  Many therapists are simply not competent to be doing family-related therapy.

Another limitation is that few child therapists and family systems therapists have experience treating personality disorders.

Most therapists in general, adult therapists included, have very limited experience and exposure to treating narcissistic personality disorders because narcissistic personalities very rarely present for therapy. Narcissistic personalities do not desire self-insight and would much rather maintain their grandiose self-opinion and judge others to be inferior rather than to engage in self-reflection regarding their own possible inadequacy. Borderline personalities will present to therapy because of the chaotic drama in their lives and intense depression, but most therapists do not treat borderline patients and those that do tend to be adult-oriented therapists who work from individual models of psychotherapy. 

For child therapists, the lack of exposure to narcissistic and borderline personality processes is even more acute, since personality disorders are rarely a feature of child therapy.  Most child therapists lack professional knowledge related to recognizing and treating personality disorder dynamics.

However, narcissistic and borderline personality features are prominent components of attachment-based “parental alienation” so that family systems therapy with attachment-based “parental alienation” will be improved considerably to the extent that the therapist is knowledgeable about personality disorders, such as Beck et al. (2004) and/or Millon (2011).

Post-Modern Therapies

Post-modern therapies would represent an intriguing application of social constructionism to the pathology of attachment-based parental alienation, but it is unclear how the principles of solution-focused or narrative psychology could be applied to the distorted family processes involved in attachment-based “parental alienation.” I would invite solution focused therapists and narrative therapists to attempt the application of their theoretical frameworks to the treatment of the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma associated with the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

I suspect that there are intriguing applications of these models to the issues in attachment-based “parental alienation,” but I’m unsure on how to actualize this application since, while I am familiar with the theoretical constructs of these models, they are not directly within my area of professional expertise.

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

References

Psychoanalytic – Psychodynamic Therapy

Kohut, H. (1977). The Restoration of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.

Stolorow, R., Brandchaft, B., and Atwood, G. (1987). Psychoanalytic Treatment: An Intersubjective Approach. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Humanistic-Existential Therapy

Rogers, C.R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Yalom, I.D., Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books, 1980.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: Meridian.

Patterson, G. R. (1982). Coercive family process. Eugene, OR: Castalia.

Family Systems Therapy

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

Haley, J. (1963). Strategies of psychotherapy. New York: Grune and Stratton.

Madanes, C. (1981) Strategic Family Therapy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 

Satir, V. (1967). Conjoint Family Therapy: A Guide to theory and technique. Palo Alto, California: Science and Behavior Books, Inc.

Post-Modern Therapy

Berg, Insoo Kim (1994) Family Based Services: A solution-focused approach. New York: Norton.

White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: W. W. Norton.

Personality Disorder Dynamics

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

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.

 

Therapy: Initial Considerations (1)

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

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

Here is the question I received:

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

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

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

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

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

Initial Comments:

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

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

The Symptomatic Eldest Child

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

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

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

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

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

Protective Separation

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

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

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

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

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

The Goal of Therapy

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

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

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

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

Correcting Child Pathology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Misattribution of Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(end Part I of Therapy)

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

Question: The Violent Child

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

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

Here is the question I was posed:


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Understanding Personality Disorders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Child’s Behavior

Children are a product of the parenting they receive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are the values we teach our children.

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

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

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

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

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

“If others fail to satisfy the narcissist’s “needs,” including the need to look good, or be free from inconvenience, then others “deserve to be punished”… Even when punishing others out of intolerance or entitlement, the narcissist sees this as “a lesson they need, for their own good.” (Beck, et al., 2006, p. 252).

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

Extremely Poor Parenting

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

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

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

Pathogenic Parenting

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

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

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

Conclusions of Dr. Childress

Children are a reflection of the parenting they receive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Spectrum of Personality Disorder Traits

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

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

Attachment and Personality Disorder Formation

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

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

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

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

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

Attachment Theory

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

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

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

Association of Narcissistic and Borderline Personality

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