Online Seminar: The Diagnosis & Treatment of Attachment-Based Parental Alienation

My 11/21/14 online seminar regarding the Diagnosis and Treatment of Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation” through the Master Lecture Series of California Southern University is now available online for the general public at:

https://vimeo.com/calsouthern/review/113572265/8d0b48de77

A handout of the Powerpoint slides for this seminar is available on my website: www.drcachildress.org

I believe this seminar is significant in several primary areas:

Standards of Practice: This seminar describes clearly defined standards for professional competence in the diagnosis and treatment of this “special population” of children and families experiencing attachment-based “parental alienation.”

Psychological Child Abuse: It establishes the theoretical foundations and support for identifying attachment-based “parental alienation” as psychological child abuse that warrants the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.

Diagnostic Criteria: It defines a set of clear diagnostic criteria based in established and accepted psychological principles and constructs that can reliably identify attachment-based “parental alienation” in every case, and that can reliably differentiate attachment-based “parental alienation” from other forms of parent-child conflict, including false allegations of “parental alienation.”

Protective Separation: It defines the structure necessary for treatment that begins with a protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.

This online seminar is now available for review by therapists, child custody evaluators, attorneys, judges, and the general media, and so can serve as a referral resource for targeted parents trying to increase general public awareness and the understanding of legal and mental health professionals regarding the issues surrounding an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” and the mental health needs of children and families experiencing this type of tragic family process.

With the proper professional understanding that leads to an appropriate legal and mental health response, the solution to attachment-based “parental alienation” in any individual family circumstance is likely to be achievable within a relatively short period of active treatment intervention.

The family tragedy of “parental alienation” needs to end.  Today.

Every day that passes that we do not enact the required solution is another day that we tolerate the profoundly destructive psychological abuse of the child.

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

High Road to Family Reunification

My blog posts have been somewhat quiet recently because I’ve been focused on writing a book regarding the Theory and Diagnosis of an Attachment-Based Model of “Parental Alienation,” and I had to prepare for my recent Master Series seminar through California Southern University regarding the Diagnosis and Treatment of Attachment-Based Parental Alienation.” I was also focused on a Court case in Hawaii that was operating under time pressures.  This case was referred to me through Ms. Dorcy Pruter, a co-parenting and reunification coach at the Conscious Co-Parenting Institute (www.consciouscoparentinginstitute.com)

The Court case had a successful outcome for the targeted-rejected parent, and Ms. Pruter is now handling the mother-daughter reunification process.

I have been aware of Ms. Pruter’s work in this area for a while, but through our work together on this case I have had the opportunity to review Ms. Pruter’s reunification protocol and have also been able to engage her in extensive dialogue regarding her approach and an attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation.”

I would like to take this opportunity to provide Ms. Pruter with my unequivocal, full and complete support for her model of family reunification (“High Road to Family Reunification”).  Based on my review of her reunification protocol, it is theoretically sound for addressing the issues surrounding an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.” I would anticipate that her reunification protocol will be highly effective in resolving the family issues surrounding an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

One of the primary issues regarding enacting Ms. Pruter’s reunification protocol is that it FIRST requires the child’s protective separation from the distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) allied (and supposedly “favored”) parent. This is, however, not a limitation of her protocol but instead represents an authentic treatment-related need of addressing the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is inducing the very serious child psychopathology evidenced in attachment-based “parental alienation.”

In my private practice I will no longer treat cases of attachment-based “parental alienation” without first obtaining the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent because I have become convinced that to do so places the child at risk of psychological harm as a result of being turned into a “psychological battleground” between the efforts of therapy to restore the child’s normal-range, balanced and healthy psychological functioning and the unrelenting efforts of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to maintain the child’s symptomatic rejection of a relationship with the normal-range and healthy targeted parent.

Turning the child into a psychological battleground between the goals of therapy to restore healthy child development and the pathogenic goals of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to maintain the child’s symptomatic state runs the considerable risk of harming the child-client’s emotional and psychological development.  So unless the necessary treatment-related conditions exist to allow effective therapy to restore the child’s healthy functioning without risking psychological harm to the child in the process, then I will decline treatment.

In my professional view, based on my professional experience and expertise in this area, professionally responsible and competent treatment of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” (i.e., the presence in the child’s symptom display of the three Diagnostic Indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation”) REQUIRES that the child FIRST be protectively separated from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.

Once the child’s healthy and normal-range functioning has been restored and the child’s healthy and normal-range relationship with the formerly targeted-rejected parent has been recovered, then the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent can be reintroduced under appropriate therapeutic monitoring of the child’s symptoms that ensures that the child’s symptoms do not return upon the reintroduction of the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (there are treatment-related steps that can be taken to reduce this risk).

In first requiring the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, Ms. Pruter’s protocol (the “High Road to Family Reunification”) demonstrates its accurate understanding for the family dynamics involved.

Furthermore, Ms. Pruter’s reunification protocol is solution-focused and avoids criticism of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, thereby respecting the child’s love for BOTH parents, even for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The fundamental issue for the child is his or her TRIANGULATION into the spousal conflict through the efforts of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that enlist the child in a cross-generational coalition against the other parent.

In avoiding criticism of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, Ms. Pruter’s reunification protocol represents an appropriate response to the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict by allowing the child to be de-triangulated from the spousal conflict.  The child does not need to take sides.  I’m sure this is a great relief to the child.

In addition, her protocol is psycho-educational in focus, so that it effectively brings cognitive mediation to emotional processes, thereby lessening the child’s hyper-inflamed emotional distortions toward the targeted parent.  The educational material also provides the child with a healthy and balanced narrative for understanding the family experience without blame for anyone, including without guilt for the child stemming from the child’s prior distorted-hostile-rejecting behavior toward the targeted parent.

Ms. Pruter’s reunification protocol elegantly provides the child with a narrative road out of the hostile-rejecting behavior toward the targeted-rejected parent while simultaneously de-triangulating the child from the spousal conflict.

Ms. Pruter claims she has experienced substantial (universal) success with her protocol in reunifying parent-child relationships, and after my review of her protocol I would similarly expect it to be fully successful based upon its structure and approach.

Ms. Pruter’s protocol also has a component for the participation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in learning the skills needed to avoid triangulating the child into the spousal conflict, which also recommends this protocol as a complete family intervention.  Although Ms. Pruter notes from her experience that participation by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is irregular at best.

One of the limitations of Ms. Pruter’s reunification protocol is that it is offered in an intensive four-day initial intervention with subsequent follow-up to stabilize the reunited parent-child relationship, which places this protocol beyond the reach of many families that live in other parts of the country or who may have limited financial resources.  I am currently in discussion with Ms. Pruter on ways to possibly make training in this reunification protocol available to mental health therapists via online training seminars so as to make this approach more broadly available to targeted-rejected parents and their children.

Another limitation is that the protocol (appropriately) requires that the child be protectively separated from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.  While this is both a necessary and professionally responsible requirement, it will require the cooperation of the Court, which is a hurdle that targeted-rejected parents will need to address and overcome before this protocol becomes available for restoring their relationships with their children that have been so severely damaged by the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Yet even with these barriers to enacting the protocol, I am heartened and optimistic in reviewing a reunification protocol that is both thoughtfully integrated and elegant in its formulation, and that is theoretically sound for addressing and resolving the family dynamics associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

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

Powerpoint Slides from Master Lecture Series Presentation

This morning I provided an online seminar through the Master Lecture Series of California Southern University regarding the Diagnosis and Treatment of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  The seminar seems to have been well-received.

This online seminar was recorded and will become available online in about one week through the Master Lecture Series of California Southern University.  Both this seminar on Diagnosis and Treatment, and the earlier companion seminar I delivered in July of 2014 through the Master Lecture Series regarding the Theoretical Foundations of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” will then be available online to mental health professionals, and as importantly, as a resource for targeted parents to refer treating mental health professionals for further information about an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

I have posted a handout of my Powerpoint slides for today’s seminar to my website.  Of particular note is my discussion beginning on page 15 of the handout regarding children and families evidencing the diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” as representing a “special population” requiring specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise to appropriately and competently diagnose and treat. 

Failure to possess the specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise necessary for professional competence in diagnosing and treating this “special population” of children and family issues likely represents practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence in violation of professional practice standards (Standard 2.02 of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct of the American Psychological Association (2002).

It is long past overdue to expect and demand professional competence from mental health professionals with regard to diagnosing and treating the severe psychopathology associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

Also of note from this seminar is my discussion of the pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” as representing a DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.  The presence in the child’s symptom display of the three definitive Diagnostic Indicators of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” shifts the issue from one of child custody and visitation to one of child protection.

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

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

Online Seminar on Diagnosis and Treatment

On November 21, 2014 from 10:00-12:00 Pacific Standard Time I will be presenting an online seminar through the Masters Lecture Series of California Southern University regarding the Diagnosis and Treatment of an attachment-based model for “parental alienation.”  

This seminar is offered free to the general public and the seminar will be recorded and made available online through California Southern University’s Master Lecture Series for later viewing.

Registration for this online seminar regarding the Diagnosis and Treatment of attachment-based “parental alienation” is at:

http://www.calsouthern.edu/content/events/treatment-of-attachment-based-parental-alienation/

This Diagnosis and Treatment seminar is a follow-up to my earlier online seminar regarding the Theoretical Foundations for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” that I delivered on July 18 through the Masters Lecture Series of California Southern University, and which is currently available at:

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

My hope is that these two companion seminars will provide foundational information for mental health professionals in understanding, diagnosing, and treating the family dynamics associated with “parental alienation,” so that these seminars can serve as a resource to which targeted parents can refer diagnosing and treating mental health professionals to improve their understanding for the issues involved.

An attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” is based entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.  Within the field of mental health, all of these constructs are fully recognized and fully accepted psychological principles and constructs.

The family systems constructs of the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict through the formation of a cross-generational coalition of the child with one parent against the other parent is an established psychological principle within family systems therapy (Haley, 1977; Munichin, 1974).  Minuchin refers to this cross-generational coalition as a “rigid triangle,” Haley refers to it as a “perverse triangle.”

“The rigid triangle can also take the form of a stable coalition. One of the parents joins the child in a rigidly bounded cross-generational coalition against the other parent.” (Minuchin, 1974, p. 102)

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

Narcissistic and borderline personality disorder processes are recognized forms of pathology within the DSM diagnostic system (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) and are fully elaborated and described by preeminent theorists in professional psychology (e.g., Beck, et. al. 2004; Kernberg, 1977; Linehan, 1993; Millon, 2011).

The attachment system is a well-established and accepted psychological construct within professional psychology, with substantial theoretical foundation and research support (Ainsworth, 1989; Bowlby, 1969; 1973; 1980; Bretherton, 1992).

There is nothing new or controversial in any of these psychological principles or constructs.  They are all established and accepted psychological principles and constructs with which all mental health professionals should be familiar as a matter of professional competence, particularly if they are diagnosing and treating issues involving a child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict through a cross-generational coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that results in the induced suppression of the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system.

While targeted parents do not possess the professional background, training, and expertise in professional psychology to explain to the mental health professionals involved with their families the application of these established psychological principles and constructs , I do. 

In these two online seminars I explain to other mental health professionals the application of these accepted psychological principles and constructs to the family processes traditionally described as “parental alienation.”  Hopefully this professional-level dialogue can begin to shift the mental health community into greater professional expertise and responsiveness to the needs of targeted parents and their children that will be necessary if we are to resolve the family tragedy of “parental alienation” for all families in all cases.

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

References

Family Systems:

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

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

Personality Disorders:

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

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

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

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

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

Attachment System:

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

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

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

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

Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 1992, 28, 759-775.

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

All that Glitters…

In an attachment-based framework for understanding “parental alienation,” the child appears to present an emotionally bonded relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent while rejecting a relationship with the other parent, allegedly because of problematic parenting practices by this other parent.

However, the display of an emotionally bonded relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent actually represents a false presentation.  A professional level of understanding for how the attachment system works reveals that this apparent display of a bonded relationship actually represents the expected pattern associated with an insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment bond to the supposedly favored and allied parent.

Patterns of Attachment

Many people unfamiliar with the attachment system, including a great many mental health professionals who are ignorant of how the attachment system functions, believe that attachment is only relevant to early childhood bonding. This belief is entirely wrong. The basic patterns of attachment expectations (called “internal working models” by Bowlby and “schemas” by Beck) form during early childhood, but these patterns are used throughout the lifespan.

“Attachment behavior is in no way confined to children.  Although usually less readily aroused, we see it also in adolescents and adults of both sexes whenever they are anxious or under stress.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 4)

The analogy would be to the language system. The basic grammar of language is acquired during early childhood, but language is then used throughout the lifespan to mediate social relationships.

Similarly, the basic “grammar” of the attachment system, the “internal working models” of attachment relationships, forms during early childhood, but then this “grammar” of the attachment system is used throughout the lifespan to mediate closely bonded relationships, including the marital relationship (Feeney & Noller, 1990; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Roisman, Madsen, Hennighousen, Sroufe, & Collins, 2001; Simpson, 1990) and the child’s future relationships with his or her own children (Benoit & Parker, 1994; Bretherton, 1990; Fonagy, Steele, & Steele, 1991; Fonagy & Target, 2005; Jacobvitz, Morgan, Kretchmar & Morgan, 1991; Macfie, McElwain, Houts, and Cox, 2005; van Ijzendoorn, 1992).

The child’s bonding with parents is directly mediated by the attachment system.  Any display or disruption of the child’s bonding with parents, such as the overly close emotional bond the child has with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent and the child’s rejection of a relationship with the other parent, the targeted parent, are mediated by the child’s attachment system. Therefore, any professional assessment of the family dynamics involving these attachment-mediated relationships REQUIRES a professional level of understanding for how the attachment system functions and for its characteristic patterns of dysfunctioning in response to problematic parenting.

Failure to possess a professional level of understanding for how the attachment system functions and its characteristic patterns of dysfunctioning when diagnosing and treating such clearly evident disruptions to the child’s attachment system as are reflected in the child’s rejection of a relationship with one parent while seeking primary bonding to an allied and supposedly “favored” parent would be analogous to a physician diagnosing and treating cancer without possessing a professional level of knowledge of what cancer is and what the various forms of cancer are.

Physicians who don’t know what cancer is shouldn’t diagnose and treat cancer.  Psychologists who don’t understand the attachment system, including the characteristic features of its functioning and the characteristic patterns of its dysfunctioning, should NOT be diagnosing and treating disruptions to the child’s attachment bonding motivations.

This would seem self-evident, and it is REQUIRED by professional practice standards,

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

Diagnosing and treating disruptions to the child’s attachment bonding motivations without possessing a professional level of understanding for what the attachment system is, how it functions, and its characteristic patterns of dysfunctioning would seem to represent practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence in violation of professional practice standards.

Secure Attachment Pattern

In a secure attachment, the child engages in relaxed exploratory behavior of venturing away from the parent to whom the child is securely attached. Periodically, the child will psychologically check back in with the parent to whom the child is securely attached, which is called “emotional recharging,” before once again engaging in exploratory behavior away from this parent.

In a pattern of secure attachment with a favored parent following the divorce, the child would enjoy the care and comfort of the favored parent but would also feel comfortable in engaging in the exploratory behavior of establishing an independent relationship with the other parent as well.

This is important to understand: A SECURE attachment to a bonded parent would be evidenced in the child’s comfort in separating from the bonded parent to form a relationship with the other parent as well.

Insecure (Anxious-Ambivalent) Attachment

In an insecure attachment to a parent, the child is preoccupied with bonding to the parent and expresses a high degree of reluctance to separate from the parent with whom the child is insecurely attached.

In an insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment style, also called a “preoccupied” attachment pattern, the child is hyper-focused on the child’s relationship with the insecurely attached parent and the child is reluctant to engage in normal-range exploratory behavior away from the parent.

Origins of these Patterns

This set of patterns becomes clear when we consider the origins of these attachment patterns.

The evolutionary origins of the attachment system is in the selective predation of children. The attachment system strongly motivates children’s bonding to parents in order to obtain parental protection from predators.

“The biological function of this behavior [i.e., attachment] is postulated to be protection, especially protection from predators.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 3)

Children who are secure in their attachment bond to the parent feel sufficiently safe and protected to be comfortable engaging in exploratory behavior away from the parent, secure in their relationship with the parent.

Children who are insecure in their attachment bond to their parent become vulnerable to predation, so that the child’s attachment system motivates the child to become preoccupied on maintaining proximity to the parent to whom the child is insecurely attached, so that the child does NOT display normal-range exploratory behavior away from the parent.

Anxious-Ambivalent (Preoccupied) Attachment

In an insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment pattern the child may evidence a hyper-bonding motivation of seeking continual parental involvement through the child’s dependent and clingy behavior.  To those unfamiliar with the characteristic displays of secure and insecure attachment, the child’s dependent preoccupation on the parent may appear to represent a bonded parent-child relationship, when in actuality the child’s hyper-bonding focus on the parent represents a symptom of pathology in the parent-child relationship.

The formation of an insecure anxious-ambivalent (preoccupied) attachment is associated with inconsistent parental availability

In attachment-based “parental alienation” this inconsistent parental availability stems from the (hostile) rejection of the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent whenever the child evidences bonding motivations toward the other parent, and corresponding indulgent parental involvement whenever the child seeks to avoid the other parent.

The inconsistency of the conditional love offered by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is contingent on the child’s rejection of the other parent creates an insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment bond to the narcissistic/borderline parent that produces both the child’s preoccupied focus on maintaining the child’s relationship with the inconsistently available narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and the child’s expressed reluctance to separate from this parent to engage in normal-range exploratory behavior of forming an independent relationship with the other parent for fear of losing the insecurely attached relationship bond with the narcissistic/borderline parent.

What on the surface may appear to be a bonded relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent actually represents a symptomatic expression of an INSECURE attachment bond to this parent.

Bonding to a Problematic Parent

The attachment system is a “goal corrected” motivational system, which means that when parenting is problematic and does not allow the child to form a secure attachment bond, the child nevertheless maintains the goal of forming an attachment bond to the problematic parent so that the child’s behaviors become distorted in an effort to achieve the goal of establishing an attachment bond in the context of the problematic parenting behavior.

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

The distortions to the child’s behavior that result from the child’s ongoing efforts to achieve the goal of establishing an attached relationship with the parent in the context of the parent’s problematic parenting practices result in characteristic patterns of child behavior reflecting insecure attachment to the parent.

Children do NOT seek to sever a relationship with a problematic parent. 

Problematic parenting exposes the child to increased survival risk from predation and other environmental dangers.  Problematic parenting produces an INSECURE attachment, and the child actually becomes MORE STRONGLY motivated to bond to the problematic parent, producing the characteristic patterns of insecure attachment bonding.

Children who severed their relationship to problematic parents were exposed to increased predation and other environmental dangers.  These children died.

Children who became MORE STRONGLY motivated to bond to problematic parents had a higher likelihood of continuing to receive parental protection from predators.  These children survived.

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

Over millions of years of evolution involving the selective predation of children, the attachment system developed a motivational response to problematic parenting that is “goal corrected” in which children become MORE STRONGLY motivated to bond to problematic parents.

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

Children do NOT seek to sever the attachment bond in response to problematic parenting. 

Instead, children become MORE highly motivated to form an attachment bond to the problematic parent. 

In attachment-based “parental alienation” the child is expressing a hyper-bonding motivation toward the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.  This, in itself, suggests that it is the parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that are problematic and so are provoking the child’s hyper-bonding motivation from an insecure attachment created by the problematic parenting of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.

Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation”

The behavioral display in attachment-based “parental alienation” is that the child is preoccupied with maintaining continual proximity (i.e., full custody) to the allied and supposedly “favored” parent while rejecting normal-range exploratory behavior of establishing an independent relationship with the other parent.

This is the expected child behavioral display associated with an INSECURE anxious-ambivalent (preoccupied) attachment to the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.

So while it may superficially appear that the child is in a bonded relationship with the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, this relationship is actually a symptomatic expression of pathology.

All that glitters…

It is crucial that mental health professionals who are diagnosing and treating disruptions to children’s attachment bonding motivations, including and especially child custody evaluators, have a professional level of knowledge and expertise in the attachment system, its nature, its features, and its characteristic patterns of functioning and dysfunctioning.

Failure to possess a professional level of knowledge and expertise regarding the attachment system when diagnosing and treating a disruption to the child’s attachment system very likely represents practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence in violation of professional practice standards.

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

References

Attachment

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

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

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

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

Attachment & the Marital Relationship

Feeney, J.A. and Noller, P. (1990). Attachment style as a predictor of adult romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 281-291.

Hazan, C, and Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

Roisman, G.I., Madsen, K.H., Hennighousen, L. Sroufe, L.A., and Collins, W.A. (2001). The coherence of dyadic behavior across parent-child and romantic relationships as mediated by the internalized representation of experience. Attachment and Human Behavior, 3, 156-172.

Simpson, J.A. (1990). Influence of attachment styles on romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 971-980.

Trans-Generational Transmission of Attachment

Benoit, D. and Parker, K.C.H. (1994). Stability and transmission of attachment across three generations. Child Development, 65, 1444-1456

Bretherton, I. (1990). Communication patterns, internal working models, and the intergenerational transmission of attachment relationships. Infant Mental Health Journal, 11, 237-252.

Fonagy, P., Steele, M. and Steele, H. (1991). Intergenerational patterns of attachment: Maternal representations during pregnancy and subsequent infant-mother attachments. Child Development, 62, 891-905.

Fonagy P. and Target M. (2005). Bridging the transmission gap: An end to an important mystery in attachment research? Attachment and Human Development, 7, 333-343.

Jacobvitz, D.B., Morgan, E., Kretchmar, M.D., and Morgan, Y. (1991). The transmission of mother-child boundary disturbances across three generations. Development and Psychopathology, 3, 513-527.

Macfie, J., McElwain, N.L., Houts, R.M., and Cox, M.J. (2005) Intergenerational transmission of role reversal between parent and child: Dyadic and family systems internal working models. Attachment & Human Development, 7, 51-65

van Ijzendoorn, M.H. (1992) Intergenerational transmission of parenting: A review of studies in nonclinical populations. Developmental Review, 12, 76-99

Assessment of Parental Capacity

The central parenting quality that differentiates healthy from unhealthy parenting practices is the capacity for parental empathy.

Structured and firm parenting that is enacted with parental empathy for the child will be sensitive to both the child’s developmental need for structure and parental guidance, and for the child’s emerging individuation and self-expression (consistent with the child’s developmental period, i.e., infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, early adolescence, later adolescence).

Similarly, a parenting style that is more flexible and permissive which is enacted with parental empathy for the child will balance both the child’s need for autonomy and self-expression with the child’s developmental needs for limits and parental direction (consistent with the child’s developmental period).

The central parenting issue is not whether parents are structured and firm or flexible and permissive. The central defining feature of healthy parenting is the capacity for parental empathy.

Since the absence of parental empathy is a central defining characteristic of narcissistic and borderline personality organization, this means that the assessment for parental narcissistic and borderline personality traits becomes the central feature to be assessed for in all assessments of parental capacity.

Structured and firm parenting that lacks parental empathy for the child will be overly harsh, excessively punitive, and over-controlling, and will not allow the child sufficient latitude for the child’s emerging autonomy and individuation. Structured and firm parenting that lacks parental empathy for the child’s experience represents a narcissistic parenting style in which the parenting behavior reflects the parent’s needs for domination and control rather than the child’s need for reasonable limits and structure.

Flexible and permissive parenting that lacks parental empathy for the child will be too lax and disengaged and will not provide the child with appropriate structure and parental guidance. The child will be allowed too much autonomy that is beyond the child’s maturational level.  Lax and permissive parenting that lacks parental empathy for the child’s needs reflects a narcissistic parental self-focus on the parent’s own need to avoid conflict through the self-indulgent gratification of desires.

“The patient with NPD [Narcissistic Personality Disorder] often has a low tolerance for frustration and expects not only to have wishes easily gratified but also to remain in a steady state of positive reinforcement.” (Beck et al., 2004)

Problematic Parenting is the Absence of Parental Empathy

Problematic parenting emerges from the absence of parental empathy for the child’s experience that then interferes with the parent’s ability to recognize and respond to the child’s authentic needs.  Instead of responding to the child’s emotional and psychological needs, the absence of parental empathy for the child’s authentic experience leads the problematic parent to impose his or her own needs upon the parenting interaction rather than responding to the child’s needs for structure and parental guidance or for flexible parent-child dialogue and negotiation.

The absence of parental empathy arises from a narcissistic parental stance by the parent that places primacy on the expression of the parent’s own emotional and psychological needs over responding to the child’s authentic emotional, psychological, and developmental needs. This can result in the parent projecting onto the child the parent’s imagined needs for the child that are then used to justify for the parent the expression of the parent’s own emotional and psychological needs.

For example, a parent whose own emotional regulation of anxiety requires the parent to adopt a “protective parent” role for a supposedly “vulnerable child” will induce the child to become dependent and needy in order to allow the parent to enact the parent’s own need to be the “protective parent.”

Alternatively, the parent who needs to express anger and domination of the child, perhaps as an expression of the parent’s own emotionally traumatic experiences as a child, will then induce the child into becoming the “disobedient child” which the parent then uses to justify the expression of anger and punishment toward the child.

In problematic parenting, the child is being used to regulate the parent’s own emotional needs as the result of a parental failure of empathy that is a product of a narcissistic parental orientation toward the experience of the child.  Whereas in healthy parenting, the parent empathically attunes to the child’s needs and responds in a way that serves to regulate the child’s needs, either for parental guidance and structure or for parental dialogue and flexible support.

Often, the absence of parental empathy that originates from a narcissistic self-focused stance of the parent, that then produces problematic parenting responses that are misattuned to the child’s needs, is the product of the parent’s own family of origin experiences and so represent a trans-generational replication of parent-child experiences from the parent’s own upbringing and childhood.

We tend to parent our children in ways that are based on the patterns we develop from our own childhood experiences with our parents, so that the failure of parental empathy in one generation establishes the relationship template for the failure of parental empathy toward the next generation.

At its core, problematic parenting represents the absence of parental empathy for the child’s authentic needs that involves a narcissistic stance by the parent in which the parent’s behavior is a reflection of the parent’s own emotional and psychological needs rather than an empathically attuned response to the authentic emotional and psychological needs of the child.

Assessing Parenting Capacity

The central feature of parental capacity is parental empathy for the child’s experience that allows the parent to register and respond to the child’s authentic emotional, psychological and developmental needs.

Narcissistic and borderline personality organizations are characterologically INCAPABLE of empathy.

To the extent that narcissistic and borderline personality organizations are characterologically incapable of empathy, THE primary and central feature in all assessments of parental capacity should be the assessment for narcissistic and borderline personality traits of the parent.  Given the primary and central importance of parental empathy for healthy child development, all other parent-child factors (except direct child safety issues) should be secondary considerations relative to an assessment of parental capacity.

All mental health professionals involved in assessing parental capacity should therefore have a high level of professional expertise in recognizing both the features and the underlying personality dynamics of narcissistic and borderline personality organizations (e.g., Beck et al. 2004; Kernberg, 1975; Linehan, 1993; Millon, 2011).  A high level of professional expertise in narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics would represent a defining feature of professional competence regarding the assessment of parenting capacity.

Several factors in the assessment of possible narcissistic and borderline parental features would represent primary areas of prominent concern:

1.  Any evidence of the splitting dynamic (see Key Concept: Splitting post).  Splitting is a very distinctive interpersonal feature of both narcissistic and borderline personality processes (note: narcissistic and borderline personality organizations are variants of the same underlying personality organization; Kernberg, 1975).  Any evidence of splitting, either with a parent or in the child’s symptom display, should be of great concern and should trigger a more focused and targeted assessment for signs of parental narcissistic or borderline dynamics.

2.  Prominent indicators of a parental attitude of entitlement as evidenced by a repeated disregard for Court orders or the rights of the other parent.

“They [narcissists] are above the rules that govern other people… Unlike the antisocial personality, they do not have a cynical view of rules that govern human conduct; they simply consider themselves exempt from them.” (Beck et al., 2004,pp. 43-44)

 “Out of their vehement certainty of judgment, boundary violations of all sorts may occur, as narcissists are quite comfortable taking control and dictating orders (“I know what’s right for them”) but quite uncomfortable accepting influence from others” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 215)

“Narcissistic individuals also use power and entitlement as evidence of superiority… As a means of demonstrating their power, narcissists may alter boundaries, make unilateral decisions, control others, and determine exceptions to rules that apply to other, ordinary people.” (Beck et al., 2004, 251)

3. The incapacity to experience empathy.

Assessing the Capacity for Empathy

In assessing parental empathy, two domains in clinical questioning of the parent can reveal the capacity of the parent for empathic resonance with another person’s experience,

1.  The parent’s capacity for empathy for the other parent’s experience.

2.  The parent’s capacity for empathy regarding children’s love for both parents and developmental need for the child to have both parents in the life of the child.

Parental Empathy for the Other Parent

The clinical interview with the parent can engage a series of questions embedded into the clinical interview designed to elicit a response of empathy and understanding for the other parent’s experience.  While anger and judgment of the other parent may be present, there should at least be the capacity to understand the other person’s perspective from the other person’s point of view.

The narcissistic/borderline parent is unable to fake having empathy because the narcissistic/borderline personality lacks the capacity for empathy and so does not know when a normal-range empathic response is called for.  The narcissistic/borderline parent is entirely engaged in justifying the legitimacy of his or her anger (and the child’s anger) toward the other parent and so will reject all invitations by the clinical interviewer for demonstrating normal-range empathy for the other parent as a person.

Instead of empathy, the narcissistic parent will adopt a judgmental stance toward the other parent by asserting that the other parent “deserves” to suffer because the other parent is inherently a bad human being (a belief that represents a manifestation of the “all-bad” polarization of the splitting dynamic).

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

The borderline personality parent will similarly blame the other parent rather than show any capacity for empathy, but will do so in a slightly different style from the more narcissistically organized parent.  Instead of empathy for the other parent, the borderline personality style will turn the focus back onto themselves (i.e. a narcissistic self-focus) by adopting a victimization stance relative to the other parent.  So invitations to show empathy for the experience of the other parent will produce a response from the borderline parent of justifying the borderline’s anger toward the other parent as being warranted by the borderline parent’s supposed victimization by the other parent.

Narcissistic Style: The narcissistic style parent responds to clinical invitations to display empathy for the other parent’s experience with a harsh judgmental attitude that the other parent “deserves” his or her suffering.

Borderline Style: The borderline style parent responds to clinical invitations to display empathy for the other parent’s experience by entirely disregarding the experience of the other parent and returning the focus back onto the borderline parent’s own self-experience of supposed victimization by the other parent.

Normal-Range: Normal-range parents display balance. Normal-range parents will at least display a capacity for empathy by acknowledging and understanding the legitimacy of the other parent’s experience from the other person’s perspective, although this may then be followed by their offering a complementary context of the situation from their own perspective.

Parental Empathy for the Child’s Bond to the Other Parent

Children love their parents. Both parents. Even bad parents.

Children love their parents and children want their parents’ love in return.

When children do not receive the love of their parents, children become sad. Children may also become frustrated when they cannot achieve their parents’ love, so sometimes children become sad AND angry when they cannot get the love of their parents. But children always WANT the love of their parents.

And children always love their parents. Even bad parents. That’s just the way the attachment system works.

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

“I define an “affectional bond” as a relatively long-enduring tie in which the partner is important as a unique individual and is interchangeable with none other. In an affectional bond, there is a desire to maintain closeness to the partner. In older children and adults, that closeness may to some extent be sustained over time and distance and during absences, but nevertheless there is at least an intermittent desire to reestablish proximity and interaction, and pleasure – often joy – upon reunion. Inexplicable separation tends to cause distress, and permanent loss would cause grief.

“An “attachment” is an affectional bond, and hence an attachment figure is never wholly interchangeable with or replaceable by another, even though there may be others to whom one is also attached. In attachments, as in other affectional bonds, there is a need to maintain proximity, distress upon inexplicable separation, pleasure and joy upon reunion, and grief at loss.” (p. 711)

The attachment system is a primary motivational system similar to other primary motivational systems for eating and reproduction.  It developed over millions of years of evolution involving the selective predation of children.  Predators are seeking the old, the weak, and the young. 

Children are prey animals.

Children who bonded to parents, i.e., to specific individual people, received parental protection from predators.  Children who bonded less strongly to parents fell prey to predators (and other environmental dangers).  Over millions of years of the increased survival advantage provided to children from bonding to their parents, a very strong and resilient primary motivational system developed that strongly motivates children’s bonding to parents.

Children love their parents. Both parents. Even bad parents.

Bad parents expose the child to predation and to other environmental dangers. Children who rejected bad parents died. Children who were MORE STRONGLY motivated to bond to bad parents had a better chance of survival than children who rejected bad parents. Over millions of years of evolution involving the selective survival advantage provided to children from an INCREASED motivation to bond to bad parents, the attachment system expresses an INCREASED child motivation toward bonding to bad parents.

Children love their parents. Both parents. Even bad parents.

Furthermore, except in a limited number of extraordinary circumstances, children benefit from relationships with both parents.

Those exceptional circumstances are:

1.  Child sexual abuse by a parent

2.  Parental physical violence as expressed in physical abuse of the child that endangers the child’s safety

3.  Parental emotional and psychological violence as expressed in psychological abuse of the child that endangers the child’s healthy emotional and psychological development

4.  Parental neglect that endangers the child’s safety

5.  Current parental alcohol or substance abuse that could reasonably expose the child to neglect or parenting behaviors that endanger the child’s safety or emotional and psychological development.

Except in these extraordinary circumstances, children benefit from relationships with both parents.

Children love both parents. Children want the love of both parents.

Every possible effort should be made to allow children to love both parents and to provide the child with the opportunity to be loved by both parents.

The Father-Son Relationship: A boy’s relationship with his father provides important gender-identity self-esteem, and the boy’s relationship with his father provides the son with gender related role modeling that is important for the son’s healthy maturation.

The Father-Daughter Relationship: A daughter’s relationship with her father provides her with important cross-gender self-esteem, every daughter should be her father’s princess, which will become an important self-esteem template for her in her choice of a marital partner.

The Mother-Son Relationship: The boy’s mother provides him with an invaluable source of nurturing love, and the mother-son relationship template will become important to the boy’s later choice of a marital partner.

The Mother-Daughter Relationship: A daughter’s relationship with her mother is one of the most wonderful and complex. It provides the daughter with important gender-identity self-esteem and gender role modeling that is vital for her healthy development.  The mother-daughter relationship becomes particularly impactful at the birth of the daughter’s first child, when she transitions from being a daughter in one relationship to being a mother herself in another relationship.

The understanding that children love their parents, both parents, and that they want to be loved by both parents is self-evident to everyone with normal-range empathy, because we all have an attachment system and we have all lived up close and personal with our own attachment system.  We all recognize from our own personal experience how the attachment system works relative children’s love for parents.

Children love their parents, both parents, even bad parents, and children want to be loved BY their parents.

And a child’s relationship with both parents is valuable and important for the child’s healthy development.

However, when the narcissistic and borderline personality parent is invited to demonstrate empathy for the child’s needs relative to the other parent, the narcissistic/borderline parent evidences a complete vacancy of empathic capacity.  For the narcissistic/borderline parent, relationships are superficial… and disposable.  And the psychological consistency demanded by the splitting dynamic (see Key Concept: Splitting post) requires that the ex-spouse also becomes an ex-parent.

Invitations to the narcissistic/borderline parent to show empathy for the other parent and for the child’s love for the other parent will be met with a profound vacancy of empathic capacity, and the capacity for empathy is THE central and primary feature of parental capacity.

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

References

Personality Disorder

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

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

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

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

Attachment

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