Identifying Pathology

I recently heard (secondhand) a critique by a mental health professional about an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  This mental health professional was apparently concerned about “labeling” the alienating parent’s pathology as being related to personality disorder processes (“Why do we need to “label” the parent as having a personality disorder?”)

I wish to take this opportunity to address this concern for “labeling” the pathology of the allied and supposedly favored parent.


Identifying pathology is the central and primary function of mental health professionals.

To say that we shouldn’t identify the nature and severity of psychological pathology is like saying the legal system shouldn’t identify the nature and severity of the violations of the law.

Judge: “I really feel uncomfortable labeling someone as a murderer. Can’t we just say they’re a doer of bad things?”

Psychologist: “I know the person has prominent hallucinations, delusions, and conceptual disorganization, but why do we need to label the person as having schizophrenia?  Is that really necessary?  Can’t we just say they have different thoughts and experiences?”

Social Worker: “Just because someone sexually molests a child, do we really need to label that person as a pedophile?  Can’t we just say the person has unusual sexual desires?”

Our job in mental health is to understand the nature and variety of psychopathology, to assess persons and situations, and then to apply this knowledge of psychopathology to the person and situation based on standard principles of professional psychology, including the DSM diagnostic system of the American Psychiatric Association.

Personality disorders, and in this context I am speaking specifically about narcissistic and borderline personalities, are acknowledged and fully described forms of psychological pathology by preeminent figures in mental health, including Otto Kernberg (1975), Theodore Millon (2011), Arron Beck (2004), and Marsha Linehan (1994).

Narcissistic and borderline personality disorders are also recognized mental health pathology in the DSM-5 diagnostic system of the American Psychiatric Association with established diagnostic criteria.

In addition, the pathology of personality disorders is recognized as presenting along a “dimensional” continuum of severity (Widiger & Trull, 2007), meaning that a person can present some traits or features of a personality disorder without necessarily meeting the full diagnostic criteria for a personality disorder.

Furthermore, blends of personality disorder traits are acknowledged as more the norm than the exception. For example, the renowned psychiatrist, Arron Beck, describes that,

“Patients with BPD [borderline personality disorder] consistently meet criteria of one to five other personality disorders.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 196)

And the preeminent expert in personality disorders, Theodore Millon (author of the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory, which is considered the gold-standard for the assessment of personality disorders), describes the overlap of personality disorder traits for the narcissistic personality;

“Several personality disorders often covary with the narcissistic spectrum. Most notable among these are the antisocial and histrionic spectrum variants. Also listed are covariations seen with the sadistic, paranoid, negativistic personality spectra, as well as borderlines.” (Millon, 2011, p. 406)

The renowned expert in personality disorders, Otto Kernberg, identified the core structure of the narcissistic personality as representing a “subgroup of borderline patients,”

“One subgroup of borderline patients, namely, the narcissistic personalities…” (Kernberg, 1975, p. xiii)

In addition, both narcissistic and borderline personalities have been prominently associated with the collapse of thinking into delusional belief systems when under stress. The label of “borderline” personality was given to this personality style in the 1930s because this personality structure was considered to be on the “borderline” between neurotic and psychotic, and Theodore Millon has specifically described the collapse of the narcissistic personality disorders into delusional beliefs:

“Under conditions of unrelieved adversity and failure, narcissists may decompensate into paranoid disorders. Owing to their excessive use of fantasy mechanisms, they are disposed to misinterpret events and to construct delusional beliefs. Unwilling to accept constraints on their independence and unable to accept the viewpoints of others, narcissists may isolate themselves from the corrective effects of shared thinking. Alone, they may ruminate and weave their beliefs into a network of fanciful and totally invalid suspicions. Among narcissists, delusions often take form after a serious challenge or setback has upset their image of superiority and omnipotence. They tend to exhibit compensatory grandiosity and jealousy delusions in which they reconstruct reality to match the image they are unable or unwilling to give up. Delusional systems may also develop as a result of having felt betrayed and humiliated. Here we may see the rapid unfolding of persecutory delusions and an arrogant grandiosity characterized by verbal attacks and bombast. Rarely physically abusive, anger among narcissists usually takes the form of oral vituperation and argumentativeness. This may be seen in a flow of irrational and caustic comments in which others are upbraided and denounced as stupid and beneath contempt. These onslaughts usually have little objective justification, are often colored by delusions, and may be directed in a wild, hit-or-miss fashion in which the narcissist lashes out at those who have failed to acknowledge the exalted status in which he or she demands to be seen.” (Millon, 2011, pp. 407-408; emphasis added)

A delusion is an intransigently held, fixed and false belief that is maintained despite contrary evidence. The shared belief by the allied and supposedly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent and child that the targeted-rejected parent is an emotionally or psychologically “abusive parent,” whose parenting practices present a risk to the child, represents an intransigently held, fixed and false belief which is held despite contrary evidence that the parenting practices of the targeted parent are entirely normal-range. The belief that the targeted parent is an “abusive parent” who presents a danger to the child is delusional. It is not true.

This intransigently held, fixed and false belief (i.e., a delusion) is created by the collapse of the organized cognitive structures of the narcissistic/borderline personality into delusional beliefs, as specifically described by Millon (2011), in response to the psychological stresses triggered by the “unrelieved adversity and failure” surrounding the divorce experience (i.e., the public rejection and abandonment of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent by the attachment figure of the other spouse).

The pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” is extraordinarily severe. To miss making the diagnosis of this extremely severe psychopathology is, to me, stunningly incompetent. I can only attribute this level of professional incompetence to professional ignorance regarding the nature of personality disorder pathology, which would then likely represent practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence if the mental health professional is then diagnosing and treating personality disorder pathology.

If a patient has the characteristic symptoms of cancer, the physician diagnoses cancer.

If a patient has the characteristic symptoms of heart disease, the physician diagnoses heart disease.

The physician does not say, “Cancer is such a serious disorder, why do we need to label the patient as having cancer? Can’t we just say the patient has some “uncomfortable pains”?

According to the DSM-5, if the patient has hallucinations and delusions, then the patient is diagnosed with schizophrenia. If the patient has mania and depression, the patient is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Personality disorder pathology exists within the DSM diagnostic structure. Delusional disorders exist within the DSM diagnostic structure.

The purpose of identifying the nature of the parental personality pathology in attachment-based “parental alienation” is NOT to diagnose the parent. The diagnosis of attachment-based “parental alienation” is made SOLELY on the CHILD’s symptom display, not the parent’s.

The purpose of identifying the nature of the parental psychopathology is to gain an accurate conceptual understanding for the nature of the pathology being displayed by the child in attachment-based “parental alienation.” The key feature of this conceptual understanding is that the pathology of the parent is being TRANSFERRED TO THE CHILD through the distorting influence on the child’s belief systems of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s pathology. As a result of this transfer of pathology from the parent to the child, we will see evidence in the child’s symptom display of the distorted parental influence from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s psychopathology.

The pathology of the parent is creating the child’s pathology, and as a result, features of the parental pathology will be evident in the child’s symptom display (I refer to these symptom features as “psychological fingerprints” of parental influence by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent).

This “psychological fingerprint” evidence in the child’s symptom display represents Diagnostic Indicator 2 for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” i.e., the presence of five specific a-priori predicted narcissistic/(borderline) personality traits in THE CHILD’S symptom display (I’ll defer discussion of the anxiety variant).

Q: How does a child acquire this specific set of narcissistic/(borderline) personality characteristics that are being expressed selectively just toward the targeted-rejected parent?

A: Through the psychological influence on the child’s symptom formation from the pathology of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Failure to acknowledge the nature of the pathology will lead to a MISDIAGNOSIS of the personality disorder pathology displayed in the child’s symptoms as falsely representing diagnostic indicators of either oppositional-defiant behavior by the child, or problematic parenting by the targeted-rejected parent.

No. This is the wrong diagnosis.

Let me be abundantly clear… this would be the WRONG diagnosis.

The child’s symptom display is NOT oppositional-defiant behavior and is NOT the result of problematic parenting from the targeted-rejected parent. The child’s symptom display directed toward the targeted parent represents a set of specific narcissistic and borderline personality traits that are being acquired by the child through the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored parent. The source for this child symptom set is the narcissistic/(borderline) personality pathology of the parent that is creating the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” as expressed by the child.

If a mental health professional makes the WRONG diagnosis as a consequence of the personal discomfort of this mental health professional with the correct diagnosis, it would be analogous to a medical doctor making an incorrect diagnosis of cancer as instead representing high blood pressure because the physician was personally uncomfortable with the seriousness of the cancer diagnosis. The physician would then treat the patient for high blood pressure, and the patient would die from cancer.

When mental health professionals make the WRONG diagnosis concerning the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” as incorrectly being the product of the child’s oppositional-defiant behavior or as being caused by the problematic parenting of the targeted-rejected parent, this leads to incorrect and entirely ineffective treatment, and the patient (i.e., the child’s healthy development and the child’s healthy loving relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent) dies as a direct consequence of the misdiagnosis by the mental health professional.

If a physician were to ignore the symptom indicators of cancer and instead misdiagnose a patient’s cancer as being high blood pressure because of a motivated desire by the physician to avoid the correct diagnosis of cancer, and as a result of this motivated misdiagnosis the patient dies from untreated cancer, this would seemingly represent professional malpractice.

So why doesn’t the same apply to mental health? Actually, it does.

The central defining role for the mental health professional is to correctly identify psychological psychopathology.

The central defining role for the medical professional is to correctly identify the nature of physical pathology.

The central defining role for the legal professional is to correctly identify violations of the law.

Failure in any of these areas represents a fundamental failure in the primary professional obligation of the mental health, medical, or legal professional.

Personality disorder pathology exists. Delusional pathology exists, particularly in association with specific types of personality disorder pathology. It is the central professional obligation of mental health professionals to CORRECTLY identify the nature of the pathology in every single case.

Failure to do so would represent a foundational failure in the professional’s “duty of care” for the patient.

To then also assert a professional reluctance to correctly diagnose the nature of the psychopathology because of an unwillingness to apply a professionally established and defined professional label regarding the nature of the pathology runs perilously close to a motivated misdiagnosis of the psychopathology, which may then represent professionally negligent practice rather than simple incompetence.

The issue is NOT diagnosing the parent. An attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” DOES NOT diagnose the parent.

The diagnosis of the pathology associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” remains solely and completely focused on the symptom indicators in the child’s symptom display.

The correct clinical term for “parental alienation” is “pathogenic parenting” (patho=pathology; genic=genesis, creation). Pathogenic parenting is the creation of significant pathology in the child through highly aberrant and distorted parenting practices.

The issue is NOT the parent’s pathology. It is the transfer of this parental psychopathology to the child through highly aberrant and distorted pathogenic parenting practices, as evidenced in the specific features of the child’s symptom display.

The reason for identifying the nature of the parental psychopathology is to ground the diagnosis in an underlying theoretical understanding regarding the nature of the psychopathology, which then allows us to identify specific diagnostic indicators in THE CHILD’s symptom display that represent definitive diagnostic evidence of the psychopathology.

At its fundamental core, attachment-based “parental alienation” represents the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma from the childhood of the allied and supposedly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent to the current family relationships. This trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma is mediated by the distorted personality pathology of the parent. The personality pathology of the parent is, in turn, the consequent product of the attachment trauma (i.e., of disorganized attachment patterns) from the childhood of the allied and supposedly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The professional issue is NOT labeling the parent, the issue is correctly identifying the nature of the psychopathology being expressed in the child’s symptom display.

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

References:

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.

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.

 

Foundations: Recovering your Children

My book, “An Attachment-Based Model of Parental Alienation: Foundations” is on its way.  I’m anticipating it will be available June 1 on Amazon.com.  It will fundamentally alter the dialogue surrounding the construct of “parental alienation.”

It defines the construct of “parental alienation” from entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs. 

It fully and completely describes the psychopathology. 

It fully and completely describes the complex and manipulative communication processes by which the narcissistic/(borderline) alienating parent induces the child’s rejection of the other parent. 

It fully and completely describes the core pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality that is creating the pathology of “parental alienation.”

Everything is explained.  Everything.

In the final three chapters, I turn to professional issues. In this discussion I provide a broad overview of diagnosis, treatment, and professional competence.

Attachment-based “parental alienation” is defined as psychological child abuse that REQUIRES the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting practices of the alienating narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.

From Foundations (Childress, 2015):

“The creation of significant developmental, personality, and psychiatric psychopathology in the child through highly aberrant and distorted parenting practices as a means for the parent to then exploit the induced child psychopathology to regulate the parent’s own psychopathology warrants the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed. The form of the child psychological abuse is a role-reversal relationship in which the child’s induced psychopathology is used to regulate the psychological state of the parent. The psychological child abuse is confirmed by the presence in the child’s symptom display of the three definitive diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation.” When the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present, the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed is warranted because of the highly destructive developmental impact on the child that is created through the child’s role-reversal relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.” (p. 312)

“Attachment-based “parental alienation” is a child protection issue. When the three definitive diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present, providing an immediate protective separation for the child from the severely distorting pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent represents both a warranted and a necessary child protection response to the severity of the role-reversal pathology.” (p. 322)

“Attachment-based “parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue.” (p. 257).

In the final chapter I take professional mental health to task for its prior ignorance and incompetence in colluding with the psychopathology of “parental alienation” (i.e., the “bystander” role that I discuss earlier in the book in the trauma reenactment section), in which ignorant and incompetent mental health professionals directly contribute to and collaborate with the destruction of children’s lives and the lives of targeted parents.

From Foundations (Childress, 2015):

“The children and families evidencing attachment-based “parental alienation” represent a special population requiring specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise to appropriately and competently diagnose and treat. Failure to possess the necessary specialized knowledge, training, and professional expertise needed to appropriately assess, diagnose, and treat this special population of children and families likely represents practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence in possible violation of professional practice standards. To the extent that professional ignorance and practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence then causes harm to the child client and to the targeted parent, the mental health professional may become vulnerable to professional or legal sanctions.

Given the domains of psychological processes involved in attachment-based “parental alienation,” three areas of professional expertise are required for professional competence in assessing, diagnosing, and treating this special population of children and families…” (pp. 341-342)

“If a mental health professional wants to work with this special population of children and families, it is incumbent upon the mental health professional to acquire the necessary knowledge and expertise needed to appropriately assess, diagnose, and treat this special population of children and families. Professional competence is not a suggested professional practice, it is a professional obligation. Otherwise, the mental health professional should refer the client child and family to someone who does possesses the necessary knowledge and professional expertise necessary to competently assess, diagnose, and treat this special population of children and families.” (p. 351)

The battle for the recovery of your children is about to be joined in earnest.  When “Foundations” becomes available on Amazon.com, you must read this book, and then you must get this book into the hands of every therapist, child custody evaluator, parent coordinator, attorney, and legal professional who deals with “parental alienation.”

With “Foundations,” the solution to “parental alienation” becomes immediately available.  The only barrier becomes the ignorance, indolence, and inertia of professional mental health.  Once the paradigm shifts in mental health, we will turn our full attention and focus to the legal system.  Mental health must become your ally first.  Then, with mental heath as your staunch ally, we will enlist the legal system as your ally in the recovery of your children from the pathology of “parental alienation.” 

The battle for your children is about to be joined.

Here is a description of the theoretical overview of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” from the Introduction chapter of my book (pp. 17-22)


From “An Attachment-Based Model of Parental Alienation: Foundations” pages 17-22:

Theoretical Overview

          The psychological processes involved in attachment-based “parental alienation” are complex, but they become increasingly self-evident with familiarity.  The primary reason for the initial apparent complexity of the dynamics is that they involve the psychological expressions within family relationship patterns of a narcissistic/(borderline) personality structure that has its origins in early attachment trauma from the childhood of the parent which is influencing, and in fact driving, the patterns of relationship interactions currently being expressed within the family.  The inner psychological processes of the narcissistic/(borderline) mind are inherently complex and swirling, and linking these distorted personality processes into the functioning of the underlying attachment system adds another level of complexity.  However, the nature of the pathology is stable across cases of “parental alienation,” so that this consistency in the pathology provides ever increasing clarity of understanding from increasing familiarity for the concepts.

            Fully understanding these seemingly complex psychological and family factors requires an integrated recognition of the psychological and interpersonal dynamics across three interrelated levels of clinical analysis, 1) the family systems level, 2) the personality disorder level, and 3) the attachment system level.  Each of these levels individually provides a coherent explanatory model for the dynamics being expressed in “parental alienation,” and yet each individual level is also an interconnected expression of the pathology contained at the other two levels of analysis as well, so that a complete recognition of the psychopathology being expressed as “parental alienation” requires a conceptual understanding of the process across all three distinctly different, yet interconnected, levels of analysis.

          The family systems processes involve the family’s inability to successfully transition from an intact family structure that is united by the marital relationship to a separated family structure that is united by the continuing parental roles with the child.  The difficulty in the family’s ability to transition from an intact family structure to a separated family structure is manifesting in the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict through the formation of a cross-generational coalition with one parent (the allied and supposedly favored parent) against the other parent (the targeted-rejected parent).  These principles are standard and established family systems constructs that are extensively discussed and described by preeminent family systems theorists, such as Salvador Minuchin and Jay Haley.

          The problems occurring at the family systems level of analysis have their origin in the narcissistic/(borderline) personality dynamics of the allied and supposedly favored parent.  The personality pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is creating a distorted emotional and psychological response in this parent to the psychological stresses associated with the interpersonal rejection and perceived abandonment surrounding the divorce.  The inherent interpersonal rejection associated with divorce triggers specific psychological vulnerabilities for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, who then responds in characteristic but pathological ways that adversely influence the child’s relationship with the other parent.

            The characteristic psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent draws the child into a role-reversal relationship with the parent in which the child is used by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as an external “regulatory object” to help the narcissistic/(borderline) parent regulate three separate but interrelated sources of intense anxiety that were triggered by the divorce,

  • Narcissistic Anxiety: The threatened collapse of the parent’s narcissistic defenses against an experience of core-self inadequacy that is being activated by the interpersonal rejection associated with the divorce;
  • Borderline Anxiety: The triggering of severe abandonment fears as a result of the divorce and dissolution of the intact family structure;
  • Trauma Anxiety: The activation and re-experiencing of excessive anxiety embedded in attachment trauma networks from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that become active when the attachment system of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent activates in order to mediate the loss experience associated with the divorce.

          At the core level of the psychological and family dynamics that are traditionally described as “parental alienation” is the attachment trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is being triggered and then reenacted in current family relationships.  It is this childhood attachment trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is responsible for creating the narcissistic and borderline pathology of this personality.  The childhood attachment trauma experienced by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent subsequently coalesced during this parent’s adolescence and young adulthood into the narcissistic and borderline personality structures that are driving the distorted relationship dynamics associated with the “parental alienation.”  The childhood attachment trauma (i.e., a disorganized attachment) creates the narcissistic and borderline personality structures that then distort the family’s transition from an intact family structure to a separated family structure.

            At the foundational core for triggering this integrated psychological and interpersonal dynamic is the reactivation by the divorce of attachment trauma networks from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that are contained within the internal working models of this parent’s attachment system.  The representational schemas for this childhood attachment trauma are in the pattern of “victimized child”/“abusive parent”/“protective parent,” and it is this trauma pattern from the childhood of the “alienating” narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is being reenacted in the current family relationships.

          The childhood trauma patterns for role-relationships contained within the internal working models of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment system are being reenacted in current family relationships.  The current child is adopting the trauma reenactment role as the “victimized child.” The child’s role as the “victimized child” then imposes the reenactment role of the “abusive parent” onto the targeted parent, and the coveted role in the trauma reenactment narrative of the all-wonderful “protective parent” is being adopted and conspicuously displayed by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to the “bystanders” in the trauma reenactment.  The “bystanders” in the trauma reenactment are represented by the various therapists, parenting coordinators, custody evaluators, attorneys, and judges.  Their role in the trauma reenactment is to endorse the “authenticity” of the reenactment narrative.  These “bystanders” also serve the function of providing the narcissistic/(borderline) parent with the “narcissistic supply” of social approval for the presentation by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as being the idealized and all-wonderful “protective parent.”

          At its foundational core, “parental alienation” represents the reenactment of a false drama of abuse and victimization from the childhood of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is embedded in the internal working models of the “alienating” parent’s attachment networks.  This false drama of the reenactment narrative is created by the psychopathology of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent in response to the psychological stresses of the divorce and the reactivation of attachment trauma networks as a consequence of the divorce experience.  In actual truth, there is no victimized child, there is no abusive parent, and there is no protective parent.  It is a false drama, an echo of a childhood trauma from long ago, brought into the present by the pathological consequences of the childhood trauma in creating the distorting narcissistic/(borderline) personality structures of the alienating parent.

          The child, for his or her part, is caught within this reenactment narrative by the distorting psychopathology and invalidating communications of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that nullify the child’s own authentic self-experience in favor of the child becoming a narcissistic reflection for the parent.  Under the distorting pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is led into misinterpreting the child’s authentic grief and sadness at the loss of the intact family, and later at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted parent, as representing something “bad” that the targeted parent must be doing to create the child’s hurt (i.e., the child’s grief and sadness).  The (influenced) misinterpretation by the child for an authentic experience of grief and loss is then further inflamed by distorted communications from the narcissistic/(borderline) that transform the child’s authentic sadness into an experience of anger and resentment toward the targeted parent who (supposedly) caused the divorce and who (supposedly) is causing the child’s continuing emotional pain (i.e., the child’s misunderstood and misinterpreted feelings of grief and sadness).

          Through a process of distorted parental communications by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is led into adopting the “victimized child” role within the trauma reenactment narrative.  Once the child adopts the “victimized child” role within the trauma reenactment narrative, this “victimized child” role automatically imposes upon the targeted parent the role as the “abusive parent,” and then the combined role definitions of the “abusive parent” and “victimized child” that are created the moment the child adopts the “victimized child” role allows the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to adopt the coveted trauma reenactment role as the all-wonderful nurturing and “protective parent,” which will then be so conspicuously displayed to the “bystanders” for their validation and “narcissistic supply.”

          The description of an attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” will uncover the layers of pathology, beginning with the surface level of the family systems dynamics involving the family’s difficulty in making the transition from an intact family structure to a separated family structure.  The description will then move into the personality disorder level to describe how the pathological characteristics of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality structures become expressed in the family relationship dynamics, particularly surrounding the formation of the role-reversal relationship of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent with the child in which the child is used (exploited) as a “regulatory other” for the psychopathology and anxiety regulation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Finally, the origins of the “parental alienation” process in the attachment trauma networks of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will be examined, with a particular focus on the induced suppression of the child’s attachment bonding motivations and the formation and expression of the trauma reenactment narrative.

          Following this discussion of the theoretical foundations for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” a broad overview of the diagnostic considerations emanating from an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” will be discussed, and three definitive diagnostic indicators for identifying attachment-based “parental alienation” will be described.  A descriptive framework for a model of “reunification therapy” will also be presented which will be based on the theoretical underpinnings for an attachment-based model of the “parental alienation.”  Finally, a discussion of the domains of knowledge necessary for professional competence in diagnosing and treating this special population of children and families will be identified.

From: “An Attachment-Based Model of Parental Alienation: Foundations” C.A. Childress, 2015, pages 17-22.


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

References: 

Childress, C.A. (2015). An atttachment-based model of parental alienation: Foundations. Claremont, CA: Oaksong Press.

Foundations: The Book

My book “An Attachment-Based Model of Parental Alienation: Foundations” is due for publication in the next few weeks.  This book is the culmination of my work over the past seven years to redefine the construct of “parental alienation” from entirely within standard and established mental health constructs and principles.

This book will fundamentally alter the current discussion surrounding the construct of “parental alienation” and will provide a solution for targeted parents to their nightmare.  

“Foundations” provides a complete and elaborated description for the construct of “parental alienation” from entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs to which mental health professionals can be held accountable.

After reading “Foundations,” mental health and legal professionals will no longer be able to say, “I don’t believe in parental alienation” or “parental alienation doesn’t exist.”  It exists. It is not a matter of belief.  And “Foundations” describes what it is.

We begin the construction of any structure by first laying a solid foundation that can support the structure.  An attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” provides an anchored and substantial description for what “parental alienation” is from entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.

“An Attachment-Based Model of Parental Alienation: Foundations” defines the construct of “parental alienation” on the solid bedrock of established psychological principles and constructs that can be leveraged into a solution.  The entire discussion surrounding “parental alienation” is about to change.

In your fight for your children, “Foundations” will become your lance, your sword, and your shield.  We will end this nightmare. Today.  Now.

In “Foundations” I have provided you with the professional concepts and theoretical structure that you need to enact the solution. I strongly recommend that every targeted parent read this book so that you become knowledgeable and conversant in the coming dialogue, and then we must get this book into the hands of every mental health and legal professional working with this “special population” of children and families. Every child custody evaluator, every therapist, every minor’s counsel, every family law attorney, and every family law judge must read “Foundations.”

It is time to end “parental alienation.”  Today.  Now.  The time has come to restore the loving and affectionate bond of lost children with their parents who so desperately love them and miss them.

It is time for you to take up the lance, the sword, and the shield offered by an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” and engage the battle for your children.  We will end “parental alienation.”  It is a certainty – because we must.  There is no other alternative.

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

Psychologist Consultant Model

The solution to “parental alienation” requires a paradigm shift away from the failed Gardnerian paradigm of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), over to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” that describes the nature of the pathology from entirely within standard and established psychological constructs and principles.

Until we are able to achieve this paradigm shift, however, we are stuck working with the systems that we have, and these systems are broken. The mental health response is inept and too often colludes with the pathology, and the response of the legal system is glacial at best, prohibitively expensive, and entirely inadequate. So how are we to cope with these failed systems when we need the support of the mental health and legal systems to achieve a solution to   “parental alienation?”

Until we are able to achieve a paradigm shift that will allow us to solve all cases of attachment-based “parental alienation” quickly and effectively as they arise, we must find ways of resolving the ignorance and incompetence in mental health and the inadequacy of the legal response.

The Single-Subject Design remedy that I wrote about in my recent blog post and on my website (Single Subject Design Remedy) may (or may not) offer a remedy acceptable to the Court. 

My professional recommendation, however, is that the appropriate treatment response to the presence of the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation”  in the child’s symptom display (see Diagnostic Indicators post) would be an immediate 9-month protective separation of the child from the pathogenic psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent; followed by an initial intervention with the intensive “High Road” protocol of Pruter to quickly restore the child’s normal-range authenticity; followed by ongoing recovery stabilization therapy with a capable and competent therapist. 

In developing and offering the Single-Subject Design remedy I am trying to find a compromise solution that may be acceptable to the Court and functional in the current context of dysfunctional systems.  If you are familiar with the rationale of the SBS Intervention available on my website, you may also recognize the strategic family systems component of the Single-Subject Design remedy that seeks to alter the power dynamics conferred by the child’s symptoms.

The SBS Intervention and the Signal-Subject Design remedy are efforts to address the inadequate response of the legal system which is reluctant to take the necessary treatment related step of ordering the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery stabilization. 

In my view, we desperately need to end the unproductive and unnecessary debate in mental health surrounding whether or not “parental alienation” exists.  The pathology of narcissistic and borderline personalities definitely exists, as does the attachment system, attachment trauma, and the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma.  All of these things definitely exist.  And all of these things comprise the core foundation for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

Instead of being frozen in endless unproductive and unnecessary debate, we should be moving forward in actively conducting systematic research on different models for resolving the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation.”  The SBS Intervention and the Single-Subject Design remedy are two offers for compromise solutions that may be acceptable to the Court and that could serve as beginning options for additional treatment research (once we end the unproductive and unnecessary debate in mental health as to whether “parental alienation” exists).

Broken Mental Health Response

But until we can achieve the needed paradigm shift, we must work within the broken systems that we have.  In this blog post I will be turning my attention to the broken mental health response.  We need to address the ignorance and incompetence which is prevalent in the mental health response to attachment-based “parental alienation.” In this blog post I describe a possible “psychologist consultant” model for the role of an expert professional in assisting the targeted parent in obtaining an appropriate mental health response to the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The concept of a psychologist consultant model is not new. Michael Bone and Richard Sauber (2013) have proposed a similar professional consultation role for an expert mental health professional.  But in this blog I will be extending the specificity of describing the role of the “psychologist consultant” in helping the targeted parent obtain an appropriate and competent mental health response to the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

This increased specificity in describing the role of the psychologist as a consultant to the targeted parent is made possible by the shift from the Gardnerian PAS model employed by Drs. Bone and Sauber to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” that’s based entirely within standard and established psychological constructs and principles. One of the primary advantages offered by a paradigm shift is that an attachment-based model establishes clearly defined boundaries of professional competence within standard and established constructs of professional psychology.  

Once we establish domains and boundaries of professional knowledge and competence necessary to diagnose and treat this special population of children and families, we can then begin to hold ALL mental health professionals accountable to a defined standard of practice in diagnosis and treatment.

The attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” defines the pathology being evidenced in the family, and in the child’s symptom display, within the established professional constructs of parental narcissistic and borderline personality pathology, the role-reversal relationship, the triangulation of the child into the spousal conflict through the formation of a cross-generational coalition with the allied and supposedly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent against the targeted parent, and the severe distortion to the child’s expression of attachment bonding motivations toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent.

The nature of the pathology requires that diagnosing and treating mental health professionals possess an advanced level of professional expertise in the following domains of professional knowledge:

1.  The Attachment System

The child’s rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent represents a severely pathological distortion to the formation and expression of the child’s attachment system.

As a consequence of the attachment system foundations to the child’s expressed pathology, mental health professionals who are diagnosing and treating the severely pathological distortions to the child’s attachment system must possess an advanced level of professional knowledge and expertise regarding the developmental formation and expression of the attachment system during childhood, including the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma, in order to competently diagnose and treat this type of child and family pathology.

An advanced professional understanding for the reenactment of attachment trauma patterns that are contained within the “internal working models” of the attachment system is crucial to professional expertise and competence in working with this special population of children and families.

2.  Personality Disorder Pathology

The pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” represents the expression of pathogenic parenting practices by a narcissistic and/or borderline personality parent who is inducing severe psychopathology in the child.  The term “pathogenic parenting” is a construct in clinical psychology and child development referring to the creation of severe psychopathology in the child as a result of highly distorted and aberrant parenting practices (patho=pathology; genic=genesis, creation).

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent is engaging the child in a pathogenic role-reversal relationship in which the parent is using the child as a “regulatory object” to regulate the emotional and psychological state of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. While a role-reversal relationship will superficially appear to be a hyper-bonded parent-child relationship, it is actually an expression of extreme psychopathology which is highly destructive for the child’s healthy development.

Because narcissistic and borderline personality psychopathology plays such a central role in the formation and expression of the child’s symptoms, mental health professionals involved in diagnosing and treating this type of child and family pathology must possess an advanced level of professional knowledge and expertise in narcissistic and borderline personality processes. This includes an advanced professional expertise in recognizing the presentation of narcissistic and borderline psychopathology in clinical interviews, and in recognizing the expression of narcissistic and borderline psychopathology through a role-reversal relationship with the child, in which the child is used as an external “regulatory object” for the parent’s own pathology.

3.  Delusional Processes

The narcissistic/(borderline) personality structure is extremely fragile and will readily collapse into distorted, and often delusional, perceptions of others.

Since the fragile narcissistic/(borderline) personality structure is prone to collapse into delusional thinking, mental health professionals working with this type of psychopathology within the family must possess a professional expertise in recognizing the characteristic delusional processes surrounding the collapse of the narcissistic and borderline personality structure.  This professional expertise also includes the means by which parental delusional beliefs can be transferred to the child through the child’s role-reversal relationship with the parent.

In a role-reversal relationship, the child is used by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a “regulatory object” for the parent’s emotional and psychological state. This requires that the child surrenders self-authenticity in order to adopt the regulating role for the parent as a continual narcissistic reflection for the parent’s emotional and psychological needs. The child’s role as a “regulatory object” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is to prevent the collapse of the parent into chaotic displays of emotional and psychological disorganization by stabilizing the fragile self-structure of the parent.

Through the child’s role as the “regulatory object” for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child acquires the delusional perceptions of the narcissistic/(borderline).  The child’s role as the “regulatory object” for the parent’s  psychopathology requires that the child surrenders self-authenticity to the parent in order to become a regulating narcissistic reflection for the emotional and psychological needs of the parent.

Defining the processes of attachment-based “parental alienation” from entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs establishes a set of clearly defined professional domains of knowledge required for professional competence in the diagnosis and treatment of this special population of children and families.

Evaluation of the Child

The evaluation of the child’s pathology occurs in two professional contexts:

1. Treatment:  When the child enters either individual or family therapy, the treating mental health professional must evaluate the nature, extent, and the cause of the child’s symptom display in order to develop a treatment plan.

This initial treatment evaluation can be either skillful or inadequate based on the professional expertise and competence of the treating therapist.

If the treating therapist lacks professional expertise in the necessary domains of professional knowledge needed to competently diagnose and treat the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation,” then the evaluation of the child will be inadequate, incomplete, and faulty.

Physicians who do not understand cancer should not be diagnosing and treating cancer.

Mental health professionals who do not understand the attachment system and personality disorder pathology should not be treating distortions to the attachment system of the child that are caused by the personality disorder pathology of a parent.

Most therapists treating attachment-based “parental alienation” lack the professional knowledge and expertise necessary to appropriately diagnose and treat the pathology involved. As a result, most therapy provided for the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” is inadequate, misguided, and entirely ineffective.

2.  Custody Evaluation: The Court sometimes seeks the input of professional psychology regarding matters of family conflict and child custody. The input of professional psychology is typically structured into a child custody evaluation regarding family processes and parental capacity.

The quality and conclusions of the child custody evaluation can be either sound or faulty based on the professional expertise and competence of the mental health professional conducting the evaluation.

Typical child custody evaluations involving attachment-based “parental alienation” do a fairly thorough job of gathering and reporting on the clinical data, but the clinical interpretations and conclusions based on the clinical data are frequently faulty and incorrect, and the recommendations offered by the child custody evaluation are often inadequate and fundamentally wrong from a treatment perspective.

The reason that so many child custody evaluations get it wrong regarding the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” is that the mental health professionals conducting these evaluations often lack the advanced level of professional expertise regarding the attachment system and personality disorder processes that is needed to recognize and understand the nature of the pathology being expressed in attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The absence of professional expertise in mental health professionals conducting child custody evaluations is in three primary areas:

Role-Reversal Relationship. Many child custody evaluators lack the advanced level of professional expertise needed to recognize and understand the severe pathology of the role-reversal relationship, in which the child is used as an external “regulatory object” to regulate the emotional and psychological state of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Narcissistic & Borderline Pathology: Many child custody evaluators avoid assessing for diagnostic labels in the belief that diagnosis is beyond their role as a custody evaluator. They often see their role as assessing “parental capacity,” not parental pathology.  However, diagnostic labels provide an extremely useful function in organizing and interpreting the meaning of clinical data. Diagnostic categories can bring together disparate clinical information into organized constellations of integrated meaning, which then contain important implications for the treatment and resolution of the pathology.  

While some diagnostic categories may not affect parenting capacity, prominent indicators of parental narcissistic and borderline personality traits have extremely important implications regarding the potential for creating child psychopathology. As a consequence of the central and primary role of parental narcissistic and borderline personality processes in the subsequent creation of child psychopathology, a focused evaluation for the presence of parental narcissistic and borderline personality traits should be one of the central and primary functions of a child custody evaluation.

So centrally important is the role of parental narcissistic and borderline personality pathology to the creation of subsequent child psychopathology, that an entire section of EVERY child custody report should be dedicated to specifically addressing an analysis of the clinical data surrounding the potential for parental narcissistic and borderline personality pathology.

The Attachment System: The evaluation of a primary disruption to the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward a parent requires that the evaluator possess an advanced level of professional expertise and understanding for the role and functioning of the child’s attachment system, which includes the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma through the reenactment of parental attachment patterns (especially attachment trauma patterns) from the childhood of the parent into the current family relationships.

This includes processes of parental projective identification with the child and the role-reversal use of the child as a “regulatory object” for the parent.

Projective identification involves the parent’s loss of psychological boundaries with the child. In projective identification, the child becomes a psychological extension of the parent, and the parent will subtly induce emotions in the child that actually belong to the parent. For example, an over-anxious parent may induce the child into becoming overly anxious in order to allow the parent to then nurture the child’s anxiety. In nurturing the child’s (subtly induced) anxiety, the parent is actually nurturing his or her own anxiety that is being “held” or contained by the child.

In projective identification, the parent is projecting the parent’s own experience into the child, and in responding to the child’s symptoms the parent is identifying with the child; i.e., projective identification.

Role-reversal relationships are characteristic of a particular pattern of attachment called “disorganized attachment,” and role-reversal relationship are transmitted across generations. Children who experienced a role-reversal relationship with their parents will subsequently grow up to use their own children in role-reversal relationships when they become parents.

Currently, most therapists and child custody evaluators lack the specialized professional knowledge and expertise necessary to adequately and accurately evaluate the pathology surrounding attachment-based “parental alienation.” As a result, the response of mental health professionals to the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” is often flawed.

Professional ignorance leads to professional incompetence.  The psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality is highly manipulative and exploitative.  Naive mental heath professionals can easily be drawn in by the highly manipulative and exploitative pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The subtly manipulative and exploitative pathology characteristic of narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics seduces naive and ignorant mental health professionals into becoming allies of the psychopathology.

From professional ignorance and practice beyond the boundaries of their professional competence, many mental health professionals begin to collude with the psychopathology, to the extreme detriment of the child’s healthy emotional and psychological development.

So what do we do…

The solution is to mandate that ONLY those professionals who have the advanced level of professional knowledge and expertise necessary for professionally competent practice with this special population of children and families be allowed to diagnose and treat this special population of children and families.

Professionals who lack the advanced knowledge and expertise in the attachment system, personality pathology (including delusional processes of narcissistic and borderline personality pathology), and the nature of role-reversal relationships, would be prevented by established standards of professional practice from practicing beyond the boundaries of their professional competence.

Actually, this is currently the case.  Professionals who lack the specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently diagnose and treat the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” already ARE prevented by professional practice standards from diagnosing and treating the attachment system and personality disorder processes associated with attachment-based “parental alienation.”  They just don’t know it yet because the field of professional mental health is still using the old Gardnerian PAS model to define the construct of “parental alienation.”

However, until we are able to achieve a paradigm shift, what do we do in the meantime… before we achieve the solution?

The Consultant Model

Because of my expertise in attachment-based “parental alienation” I am increasingly being asked by targeted parents to provide consultation regarding what they can do. Until we achieve a paradigm shift, there is very little we can do in any specific situation to solve the situation.

We cannot ask the child to expose his or her authenticity until and unless we can first protect the child from the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The  pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue.

As a result of my consultations with targeted parents I am sometimes asked to serve as an expert witness to the Court regarding the “pathogenic parenting” evidenced in their particular case. In this capacity I usually work for the attorney in reviewing documents, particularly reports from therapists and child custody evaluations.  Based on the information provided to me by the attorney, I will write a report and provide testimony regarding my professional opinions regarding the material I reviewed.

Sometimes the Court appears to be influenced by my report and testimony, other times not.

This model of professional consultation is directed toward the legal system. In order to effectively treat and resolve the child’s symptoms we must first obtain the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Obtaining the child’s protective separation from the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent requires the cooperation of the Court.

More recently, however, I have also been exploring an alternative consultant model that is focused on the currently dysfunctional mental health response to the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation.” In this “psychologist consultant” model (as opposed to the expert witness model), I serve as a consultant for the targeted parent in trying to achieve an appropriate and professionally competent response from the therapist who is involved in treating the family’s pathology, either individually with the child or in “reunification therapy” (there’s no such thing) with the parent and the child.

An analogy to my role would be to purchasing a home where both the home seller AND the home buyer are represented by their own real estate agents.  I’m like the psychology “agent” for the targeted parent in negotiating psychotherapy with the treating therapist.

Targeted parents don’t understand psychopathology, or psychological theories and terminology, or the variety of approaches to psychotherapy that are available.  I do.  I’m a clinical psychologist; psychopathology and psychotherapy are the areas of my professional expertise.

My role as a psychologist consultant to the targeted parent is to interface with the treatment provider to provide information about “areas of clinical concern” that the targeted parent and I are asking the therapist to consider and further evaluate for us.

This consultation role, however, can become sensitive. Many therapists may be put off by the implication that they don’t know what they’re doing. These therapists may become even more closed and unwilling to listen. Other therapists may feel intimidated by having their work monitored. These therapists may withdraw from the case.

There is also a phenomenon called “resistance.” When we push one way the other person pushes back in the opposite direction. If we say “parental alienation” then we will automatically produce a counter-response of “no its not.”  That’s just the nature of resistance.

There’s an interesting explanation of this “backfire effect” on Youtube at 

Video on Backfire Effect

An additional video of interest is on negotiation and anchoring.  This video is at

Video on Anchoring

In negotiation, we anchor our frame of reference to the first information we receive. In attachment based “parental alienation” the first information therapists often receive is from the child, so the therapist’s later interpretation of information is anchored to the child’s characterization of the targeted parent as “abusive.”

What I’m currently exploring as a psychologist consultant for the targeted parent is whether we can anchor the treating therapist to an attachment-based definition of the family processes before the therapist becomes anchored to the trauma reenactment narrative of “abusive parent”/”victimized child”/”protective parent” that is being presented to the therapist by the child and narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

But we need to accomplish this without producing the “backfire effect” explained in the first Youtube video. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. I’ll keep you posted.

If nothing else, it will place the therapist on notice that the actions of the therapist are being monitored by a clinical psychologist. It’s possible that when the therapist learns that I’m monitoring them they may seek out information from my blog and website to lower their anxiety caused by the unknown of me. This would be a good thing. As they become more educated, they become more competent.

The Treatment Plan

Key to achieving competent treatment in the current no-solution environment is to obtain a written treatment plan from the therapist. Most therapists do not develop a treatment plan, written or otherwise. But they should. One of the courses I teach at the graduate level is how to develop a treatment plan.  When I was the Clinical Director for a children’s assessment and treatment center working with foster care children, I always asked the therapists working for me to develop a treatment plan following their initial assessment.

The treatment plan should define:

  • The Case Conceptualization: What does the therapist view as being the cause of the issues?
  • The Treatment Plan: How does the therapist intend to solve the problems identified as the cause of the issues in the case conceptualization?
  • Prognosis & Timeline: How optimistic is the therapist that the issues can be resolved, and how long will it take? Expectation benchmarks for symptom change should be identified at 3-months, 6-months, and 9-months intervals (if therapy is expected to take that long).

As a side-note; therapy for parent-child conflict should achieve a significant resolution of the issues within 6-9 months (without complications from things like autism-spectrum issues that make the problems more treatment resistant and intractable). 

A year for severe problems might be necessary.  But if therapy is taking longer than a year then the case conceptualization needs to be closely examined and serious consideration needs to be given to possibly redefining the case conceptualization and treatment plan.

Naturally, the prognosis and timeline are subject to revision as things proceed, but the treatment plan sets forth a set of expectations and guidelines to which everyone can agree. If things change and the treatment plan needs to be adjusted, then the new factors and the needed alterations to the treatment plan can be discussed.

This is actually an important part of the process for “Informed Consent” to treatment. How can clients give informed consent to treatment if they don’t know what treatment entails?

When someone has a medical disease, the physician describes for the patient what the disease is and what the various treatment implications are.

The physician would also provide a clear description of what treatment would entail. For example, would the cancer require six cycles of chemotherapy over two years?  Or surgery?  Or radiation? If there are alternative forms of treatment, these would also be explained to the patient, along with the physician’s estimates for prognosis and recovery.

This is called the “Informed Consent” process, and is a requirement of professional practice. According to Standard 10.01 of the Ethics Code for the American Psychological Association:

Informed Consent to Therapy
“(a) When obtaining informed consent to therapy as required in Standard 3.10, Informed Consent, psychologists inform clients/patients as early as is feasible in the therapeutic relationship about the nature and anticipated course of therapy”

The general informal guidelines within professional standards of practice are that people have a right to all the relevant information that they need in order to make an informed decision regarding their participation in therapy.

Medical physicians describe the disease and its treatment to their patients as part of the informed consent process, why shouldn’t psychotherapists do the same? Actually, they should. But most don’t.

Why don’t they? The primary reason is that many therapists have no idea what they’re doing. How can they explain to you what they’re going to be doing if they don’t know what they’re doing themselves?

This is where the advice in the first Youtube video on avoiding resistance can be helpful.  Draw out the therapist to increasingly explain what his or her therapy is going to entail. Cultivate the appearance of oh-so-pleasant ignorance.  Don’t assert what truth is, that will just provoke resistance.  Instead ask the therapist what their truth is… and keep asking from your oh-so-pleasant ignorance until things make sense to you. 

Ask the therapist for the treatment plan.

  • What does the therapist see as being the cause of the problem?
  • What’s going to happen in therapy to fix the problem?  How is talking in therapy sessions going to fix the problem?  Find out specifically what the linkage is between what is going to happen in therapy and fixing the problem.
  • Do you, as the parent, need to do something specific to fix the problem?  And if you do this, whatever the therapist says you need to do to fix the problem, then the problem will be fixed?
  • What will the treatment entail?  What’s going to happen in the treatment sessions?  So if treatment sessions do this, whatever the therapist says will happen, then the problem will fixed?
  • How long will it take before the child’s symptoms go away?

We’re not asking for certainty. Of course things will depend on circumstances. But what circumstances? And what is the general expectation?

The incompetent therapist may start to give you voodoo gobblygook about the “need to develop a therapeutic relationship,” and because they’re the professional and you’re not you may accept this gobblygook as if it somehow makes sense.

However, the clinical psychologist who is working as a psychologist consultant for the targeted parent would seek a more complete and coherent description.

Why is a therapeutic relationship important to addressing the cause of the child’s symptoms? How is that exactly going to work, in terms of a “therapeutic relationship” somehow fixing the problem?  So the child is going to come to trust the therapist more… and then what?  Explain it to me.

Is the therapist talking about a Kohutian therapeutic relationship of mirroring, idealizing, and twinship self-object functions? Or perhaps the therapist is talking about a Rogerian therapeutic relationship of self-actualization of the child’s authenticity? Or perhaps the therapist is talking about a psychoanalytic therapeutic relationship called the transference relationship? What does the therapist mean by building the “therapeutic relationship” and how specifically is this going to fix the problem?

Of note is that the therapeutic relationship is also sometimes called the “therapeutic alliance.”  If the child is in a cross-generational coalition with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent against the targeted parent, then in proposing to build a “therapeutic alliance” (i.e., the “therapeutic relationship”) with the child, the therapist is essentially proposing to join the alliance of the child and narcissistic/borderline parent against you.

That doesn’t sound like a good treatment plan.

Or perhaps the therapist doesn’t ’t have a clue as to what they’re doing and they’re simply throwing up a smokescreen of gobblygook “therapy-speak” to hide that they have no idea what they’re doing.

The Danger

The danger, however, is that my working as a psychologist consultant for the targeted parent may simply annoy the therapist into further entrenching into his or her ignorance (the “backfire effect”), or the therapist may become so annoyed with me that they’ll simply quit as the therapist (possibly when they are asked to provide a written treatment plan).

I’m not quite sure yet whether either of those responses are actually bad things though. If the therapist is going to entrench further into his or her ignorance, it’s likely best to know that early rather than after six months or a year of ineffective and pointless therapy. And if the therapist quits when asked to provide a written treatment plan, that too is probably something good to know and deal with early. If the therapist doesn’t want to be held accountable to a treatment plan then it is highly likely the therapist has no clue as to what they’re doing – and that’s why they don’t want to develop a treatment plan.

Your physician will tell you what the disease is and what the treatment entails because your physician knows what they’re doing. Your therapist should do the same… if they know what they’re doing.

If the therapist cannot explain what the treatment plan is in a way that is understandable and makes sense to you, it’s most likely because the therapist has no idea what they’re doing.

When the Therapist Finally “Gets It”

Still, even if the therapist understands the pathology the question still remains, so what do we do about it?

As long as the child remains under the severely distorting pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent there is little we can do in terms of treatment.

If we try to treat the child while the child is still under the continuing pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, then we will simply rip the child apart psychologically from the conflict created between the goal of effective therapy to restore the child’s healthy authenticity and the continuing obsessive and relentless efforts of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to keep the child pathological.

Turning the child into a psychological battleground because of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s relentless efforts to maintain the child’s psychopathology while therapy seeks to restore the child’s healthy functioning will psychologically destroy the child.

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent is essentially playing “chicken” with us. The pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is completely willing to destroy the child.  Are we?  I’m not.  So then the narcissistic/(borderline) parent wins and can continue to create the child’s psychopathology.

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent will do everything in his or her power to maintain the child’s pathology. For the narcissistic/(borderline) parent it is a psychological imperative that the child reject the other parent. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent actually believes that the parenting practices of the targeted parent are “abusive” and place the child in danger. The narcissistic/(borderline) parent is delusional (i.e., an intransigently held, fixed and false belief that is non-responsive to contrary evidence) and will stop at nothing to keep the child pathological.

On a scale of 1-10, the psychopathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” is 15.  It’s off the charts.  Attachment-based “parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue. We must first protect the child. Only then can we treat the pathology.

So even if I am able to alert the therapist to the nature and severity of the pathology, so what. There’s still nothing we can do.

Except perhaps we can avoid six months, a year, or even two years of unproductive and pointless therapy. And perhaps the therapist will write a treatment letter to the judge saying that for the child’s protection the therapist is declining to do therapy until the child is protectively separated from the pathogenic parenting of the allied and supposedly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery stabilization.

Maybe that would help obtain the necessary period of protective separation… or maybe not. I don’t know, I just don’t know.

Maybe having a psychologist consultant will just result in treating therapists withdrawing from the case. If no therapy is taking place then nothing changes. But nothing changes with ineffective therapy either, so what’s the difference?

The solution is a shift in paradigms.  All of these interim half-measures are not likely to produce a solution.

Still, we do what we can until we achieve a paradigm shift in which ALL therapists who work with this special population of children and families are exceptionally skilled and knowledgeable. At that point; no therapist – anywhere – will treat the child unless the child is first protectively separated from the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. When mental health speaks with a single voice, the Court will be able to act with the decisive clarity needed to solve “parental alienation.”

It’s Not Me

I’m just one person. I cannot solve everything. I’m in California. I’m busy with my client caseload. I’m expensive.

I am not sharing this information to seek business. For a variety of reasons I am limiting my professional treatment-related consultation to families in the Los Angeles area.  I’m sharing this model simply to frame what a psychologist treatment-related consultation model might look like.

I’m 60 years old. I’m coming to the end of my professional career. I’ll be wrapping things up soon. It will be up to the next generation of psychologists and therapists to put into place the procedures needed to solve attachment-based “parental alienation.” I’m providing this possible consultant model to them.

Targeted parents need you, as competent mental health therapists, to educate our professional brethren in mental health, therapist-to-therapist… and we need to hold our brethren therapists accountable. Their ignorance should not be allowed to destroy the lives and development of children.  That’s not allowed.

Until we achieve a paradigm shift away from a Gardnerian PAS model over to an attachment-based model for “parental alienation” that will solve “parental alienation” for all targeted parents and all children everywhere, we must find a way to make do with the broken mental health and legal systems as they exist.

From where I sit, the current state of the broken mental health and legal systems won’t allow a solution.  But I’m trying to find something anyway.

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

References

Bone, M.J. and Sauber, R. (2013). The essential role of the mental health consultant in parental alienation cases. In A.J.L. Baker & S.R. Sauber (Eds.) Working with Alienated Children and Families:  A Clinical Guidebook (71-89). New York: Routledge

 

Remedy: Single-Case ABA Design

“Remedy:  The manner in which a right is enforced or satisfied by a court when some harm or injury, recognized by society as a wrongful act, is inflicted upon an individual.”


I am a psychologist, not an attorney. For legal advice consult an attorney and follow the advice of your attorney.

When the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present, treatment requires the protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the treatment and recovery stabilization period.

We cannot ask the child to expose his or her authenticity until we can first protect the child. 

“Parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue. The first and only consideration should be the child’s welfare. 

When the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present, the child’s welfare requires the protective separation of the child from the psychopathology and pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery stabilization.

Achieving the required protective separation requires the cooperation of the Courts.

Courts, however, are not psychologists.  Superficially, the child appears bonded to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The psychologically destructive impact of the role-reversal is not overly evident.  Courts may be reluctant to do what’s necessary, and may desire a more moderate response.

Until Courts recognize the severity of the pathology involved, we must work with the legal system as it is. Under the current conditions, providing judges with an alternative that is both balanced and temperate may help achieve a resolution. 

Toward that end, I have developed a possible remedy that may be acceptable to the Court.  It involves a scientifically grounded and evidenced-based approach to resolving “parental alienation.” This potential remedy employs a standard scientific research methodology called a single-case ABA design (actually a single-case ABAB reversal design). 

(In addition to teaching graduate-level courses in psychopathology, treatment planning, and child development, I also teach courses in research methodology.)

I have posted a description of this approach to my website, just below the Therapy article, and a direct link to the single-case ABA design article is at:

Single-Case ABA Design

If a Court wishes to employ this approach, I would be happy to consult with a psychologist in supervising the implementation of the single-case design.

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

Coping with the Trauma of Parental Alienation

 

Enduring the experience of attachment-based “parental alienation” represents a profound form of trauma inflicted on targeted parents.  This type of chronic psychological trauma differs from what combat veterans face when they develop PTSD, yet the experience of targeted parents who are caught in the nightmare of attachment-based “parental alienation” is a form of trauma.  The technical term for the type of emotional and psychological trauma experienced by targeted parents is “complex trauma.”

It is no coincidence that the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is born in complex trauma from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and that the current processes of attachment-based “parental alienation” are inflicting onto the targeted parent a form of complex trauma. These two features of attachment-based “parental alienation” are definitely related.

It is important for the targeted parent to find ways of coping with the complex trauma of attachment-based “parental alienation.”  This post addresses ways the targeted parent can cope with the severe emotional trauma created by the experience of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The Trauma Reenactment Narrative

The processes of attachment-based “parental alienation” represent the reenactment of the childhood attachment trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into the current family relationships. The trauma reenactment narrative of attachment-based “parental alienation” represents a false drama created by the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The trauma-related roles contained within the attachment networks of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent were created during the childhood experiences of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s own relationship trauma with his or her own parent.

The complex developmental trauma experienced by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a child was so devastating to the psychological development of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, that this childhood trauma experience led to the development of the narcissistic and borderline personality structures that now drive the distorted family processes called “parental alienation.”  The complex trauma of childhood created the narcissistic and borderline personality traits we now see evidenced in attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The attachment system of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent contains representational networks for the childhood relationship trauma experienced by this parent as a child. These internalized working models of the attachment trauma are contained in the pattern of:

“abusive parent”-“victimized child”-“protective parent” 

These trauma-related roles from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are now being reenacted in the current family relationships.

“Abusive Parent”: the targeted parent is being assigned the trauma reenactment role as the “abusive parent”

“Victimized Child”: the current child is being induced by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into accepting the trauma reenactment role as the supposedly “victimized child”

“Protective Parent”: the narcissistic/(borderline) parent adopts and conspicuously displays to the child and to others the coveted role as the supposedly “protective parent.”

The trauma reenactment narrative is initiated into the current family relationships by first inducing the child into accepting the role as the “victimized child.” This is a critical initial step in the creation of attachment-based “parental alienation.” 

The moment the child accepts and adopts the “victimized child” role in the trauma reenactment narrative, this automatically defines the targeted parent into the “abusive parent” role. The “victimized child” role automatically imposes the “abusive parent” role onto the targeted parent, independent of any actual behavior of the targeted parent. By adopting the role of the “victimized child,” this automatically defines the targeted parent as being an “abusive parent.” 

The targeted parent is immediately put on the defensive, and must continually try to prove to therapists and others that he or she is not “abusive” of the child.  It doesn’t matter that the parenting practices of the targeted parent are entirely normal-range.  The moment the child is induced by the distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into adopting the “victimized child’ role in the trauma reenactment narrative, the “abusive parent” role is immediately imposed upon the targeted parent.

The child’s acceptance of the “victimized child” role also invites and provides the context for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to adopt and conspicuously display to the child and to others the coveted role as the all-wonderful, perfect and idealized, “protective parent.” In a circular process of role-definition, the “protective parent” role being adopted and conspicuously displayed to the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent invites the child to then adopt the “victimized child” role, and the “victimized child” role invites the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to adopt the role as the “protective parent.” 

These two roles in the trauma reenactment narrative are mutually supporting.

The processes of attachment-based “parental alienation” essentially involves a false drama created by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as an echo of the childhood trauma that created this parent’s personality pathology. In the narrative of this false drama, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent authentically believes that the targeted parent represents an “abusive” threat to the child, and that the supposedly “victimized child” requires the protection of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

But none of this false drama is true. It is delusional. The parenting of the targeted parent is entirely normal range, and the child is in no danger and doesn’t need any “protection.” It is a false narrative born in the childhood relationship trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The Trauma of the Targeted Parent

In reenacting the childhood attachment trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (that produced this parent’s personality psychopathology), the themes of trauma become alive and active once again.

Abuse – Victimization – Helplessness – Suffering

These trauma themes from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are brought to life once more in the trauma reenactment narrative, and are delivered into the experience of the targeted parent.

The psychological trauma of attachment-based “parental alienation” is an abuse inflicted by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent onto the targeted parent (by means of the child). It could almost be considered a form of psychological domestic violence. Once the controversy over the construct of “parental alienation” is resolved, targeted parents should be able to find allies in domestic violence survivors.  Domestic violence and attachment-based “parental alienation” are simply different manifestations of abuse inflicted by a narcissistic personality onto the other spouse.

The trauma themes of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s childhood are being created into the experience of targeted parent. The targeted parent is being made to experience the emotional and psychological abuse, the immense suffering, and the helpless victimization, that was part of the childhood trauma experience of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  It was this childhood trauma experience of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a child that created the twisted personality pathology that is now driving the family pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The suffering of the targeted parent created by the re-initiated and transferred childhood trauma experience of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, is both deep and unending, just as it was for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a child. There is no escape. The targeted parent is helpless to make the abuse and suffering end. These are trauma themes being recreated into the experience of the targeted parent, which the targeted parent is made to endure. The childhood trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is alive once more, only this time in the emotional and psychological suffering of targeted parent.

For the targeted parent, attachment-based “parental alienation” represents a “complex trauma” of profound magnitude. Suffering without end – trapped, and helpless.

Coping with the Trauma

The targeted parent must find a way to process and cope with the trauma experience.

In your suffering, you must strive to achieve the triumph of light over the darkness of trauma.  You must find your way out of the trauma experience being inflicted upon you, and into a recovery of your authentic psychological health and balance.

As much as you may want to save your child, you cannot rescue your child from the quicksand by jumping into the quicksand with them. If, in trying to rescue your child from quicksand you jump into the quicksand as well, you will simply both perish.

In order to rescue your child from the quicksand of “parental alienation,” you must have your feet firmly planted on the shore, steady in your own emotional and psychological health, and then extend your hand to retrieve your child.

Even then, your child may not grasp your hand. You will need the support of mental health and the courts, and we’re working on that. For your part, you must strive to find your freedom from the imposed trauma experience. You must strive to find and keep your own emotional and psychological health within the immense emotional trauma of your grief and loss.

The trauma experience captivates the psychology of the targeted parent. The world of the targeted parent revolves entirely around the trauma experience of the family’s pathology. The difficult and challenging relationship with the hostile-rejecting child; the chaos of trying to work with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to schedule visitations; the blatant and repeated disregard of court orders by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent; and the continual intrusions and disruptions by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into the relationship of the targeted parent with the child, continually consume the focus of the targeted parent.

Repeated court dates, lawyers, therapists, custody evaluations, that all occur in the context of continuing parent-child conflict, act to fully captivate the complete psychological involvement of the targeted parent.

And in this upside-down world, the targeted parent is continually being blamed for the child’s rejection, even though the targeted parent did nothing wrong.

“You must have done something wrong if your child doesn’t want to be with you.”

Your beloved child is being taken from you, and no one understands. No one helps.

The emotional and psychological trauma and profound grief of attachment-based “parental alienation” consumes the life and psychology of the targeted parent.

You must find your freedom from this trauma.

The emotional trauma inflicted on the targeted parent is severe, and the grief of the targeted parent is deep. The challenge of the targeted parent is to once more find the light of their joy amidst the darkness of their grief and loss.

We are working to solve mental health, so that mental health will understand and will help you.

Once mental health becomes your ally, we will work to solve the courts, so that the courts too will understand and will help you.

In this process, you can help by taking up the challenge to once more find your emotional health and balance within the trauma of your loss and grief. Your child needs you to have your feet firmly planted on the shore of your own emotional and psychological health and balance in order to help them escape the quicksand of their experience.

That is your challenge.

Finding Happiness

Here are nine ways that targeted parents who are caught in the trauma of attachment-based “parental alienation” can recover and restore their emotional health and balance. The basic ideas for this list are drawn from an article by Belle Beth Cooper in which she cites the various scientifically supported methods for increasing happiness.

1.  Practice Smiling

The physical and emotional systems in the brain are  interconnected. We can create a small dose of any emotion by acting as if we had that emotion. That’s what actors do. They act as if they felt a certain way, and this creates a small dose of that feeling. Then the actor expands this small seed of the emotion into a full experience of the desired emotion.

We smile when we’re happy. But it also works in reverse. We become happier when we smile.

When we smile, we create a small dose of the happy feeling. The physical act of smiling fools the brain:

The brain says, “Why am I smiling? Hmm, I must be happy. Hey emotions, stop slaking off down there and produce some of that happy that you’re supposed to be feeling.”

When we smile we fool the brain into thinking it must be happy, so it then releases a small amount of the brain chemicals for the feeling of happy. It’s not much, maybe just a single point on a 10-point scale. But it’s a start. The more we practice smiling, the easier it becomes to produce the happy, and we begin to create a little more happy each time.

With the brain, “we build what we use.”

When we use a brain network we create structural and chemical changes along the pathways that were used and these changes make the connections in the used networks stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient. This process is called the “canalization” of brain networks (like building “canals” or channels in the brain).

The more we smile, the more we canalize the brain systems for being happy. We essentially groove the happy channel more deeply into our neural networks. Its just like practicing the piano. At first it feels awkward and we’re only able to play “twinkle-twinkle little star,” and even then our playing is slow and halting. Yet as we practice, our playing gradually improves. Soon we’re playing simple songs, and it actually begins to sound like music, sort of. Eventually we’re playing ragtime and Mozart concertos.

Practice smiling. It’s extremely simple to do. Just smile.

Smile often. For no particular reason, just smile. Smile in the car. Smile when you’re alone. Smile at your spouse (but not a creepy smile; a warm and relaxed smile). See if you can get your eyes to smile too.

The more you practice smiling, the easier it becomes to bring forth a feeling of relaxed low-level happy, and the longer it remains.

Smiling is especially useful when something makes us angry. Adding happy to angry softens our anger.  Instead of becoming caught up in anger and frustration, when you smile at the same time as you’re angry, you’ll begin to laugh at the absurdity of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s all-too-predictable crazy. As soon as you see that email from them in your inbox, smile. Instead of the painful wince of “Oh dear God, not again.” you will begin to experience a relaxed and bemused, “Really? Again?”

Practice smiling. A lot. Whenever. For no particular reason. Just smile.

2.  Meditate

Meditation is wonderful. Meditation is the surest way of bringing emotional peace and balance.

There are a wide variety of meditative practices. Try out different types. There are sitting meditations of inner thought. There are moving meditations of integrated flow. There are breathing meditations of relaxation. Try out different ones. Some won’t fit for you, but others might. See if one fits for you.

One of the most common forms of meditation is to simply sit in a quiet area and let go of each thought as it comes. Mind will continually offer sentences, our thoughts, that capture us. This type of meditation is simply the active letting go of being captivated by the thought.

Let the thoughts come… and let them go. Don’t follow them. Just let them go. The next one comes… let it go. The next one come comes… let it go.  Ooops, thoughts can be so tricky, so captivating, and you find you’ve been caught by one and have wound up following a line of thought. That’s okay. When you become aware of it, simply let it go. Then let go of the next thought. The next thought will come, and let it go too. Soon, mind will quiet. Peace arrives.

Another form of meditative practice is to repeat in your mind or out loud certain sounds, called “mantras.’ These sounds quiet the mind.

A particularly wonderful and relaxing form of meditation is to focus on developing a rhythmic flow of breath. The inhales and exhales of your breath become deep and circular. Mind turns off as we flow into our breathing.

There are also physically active forms of meditation, such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong. These forms of meditation are especially wonderful. They achieve a profound peace through the active integration of personal being with movement and the body.

Sometimes a calming meditative background music helps, and sometimes people prefer quiet. Up to you. Try out different approaches to meditation and see if one works for you. You’ve been through a lot, you deserve to nurture yourself. Valuing yourself enough to give to your “self” the gift of time is tremendously healing.

3.  Spend Time with Friends and Family

The trauma of “parental alienation” can justifiably consume the life focus of targeted parents. The beloved child is being distorted or has been lost entirely. What could be more important than that?

Yet being consumed into the trauma is not healthy. You cannot rescue the child by jumping into the quicksand as well. You must stand on the shore of your own emotional and psychological health so that, when the time comes, you can reach out your hand to rescue the child.

We are working on solving the problems in mental health so that they become your ally. Once mental health becomes your ally, then we can solve the courts so that they too understand and become an ally. Once we have solved the current “bleeding out” of actively occurring “parental alienation,” then we will turn our attention to the adult survivors of childhood “alienation” to see if we can recover these now adult children of “alienation” as well. We’re working on it.

Your challenge is to live into your emotional and psychological health, and not allow yourself to be consumed by the trauma, so that when the time comes you can reach out your hand to recover your child.

We belong in community. We thrive in community. Share your life with friends and family. Arrange dinner parties. Go to movies and plays with friends and family. Join groups, join a church, join an organization. Browse the course catalog of the local college extension program and sign up for a class or activity where you meet other people who share similar interests. Join an adult softball or bowling league. Take salsa dancing, square dancing, line dancing, ballroom dancing, tango. Go on dates. Be with people.

In my professional experience with targeted parents, I have met a number of targeted parents who are successfully remarried to wonderful new life-partners. Maybe it’s something about having made such a horrendous choice in partners the first time that allows the targeted parent to then make a wonderful choice the second time. But for whatever reason, I seem to have met many targeted parents who are now remarried to truly wonderful partners.

However, living in the throes of “parental alienation” can be very hard on these new spouses. These new partners often become so incredibly angry at the destructive maliciousness of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, who is willing to destroy the children of the targeted parent if this will create suffering in the targeted parent. The new spouse loves the kindness and love available from the targeted parent, and it is so very hard on them to watch helplessly as immense pain is inflicted on the person they love.

If you are a targeted parent who has been fortunate enough to find a new and wonderful life partner, recognize and nurture the joy and love that is available in this new relationship. It’s okay to let go of the pain and trauma of the “parental alienation” and to love and laugh with the new life partner. You are not letting go of the child, you are embracing your emotional and psychological health; you are embracing love.

When the time for solutions arrives, you will have created a wonderful nest of a loving homelife that the child will be able to join.

You are always available for your child. We know that. You also have a right to your life.

There is a lot we must do to fix so many things that are wrong in mental health and the legal system. You are doing all you can. It’s okay to also embrace your life while we work to recover your children.

4. Sleep

Make sure you get enough sleep.                                   

Sleep is a basic rhythm of our lives. Disruptions to our sleep create imbalances in the brain chemistry that can lead to increased stress and emotional exhaustion.

One of the most important aspects of achieving balanced sleep is establishing a routine surrounding our sleep. This is called our sleep hygiene.

Make sure your bed is comfortable and use it only for sleeping, not for reading, or watching television, or working on the computer or tablet. Disconnect yourself from television and the computer at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Allow your brain time to relax and get ready for sleep. Brush your teeth, change into your bedclothes, read a book or a magazine in a nice comfortable chair or sofa. Nurture yourself by getting ready for the beautiful relaxation of sleep. Allow yourself to rest before you ask yourself to sleep.

If you find yourself going to bed and then lying awake for a long time, go to bed later. If your desired bedtime is 10:00 but you wind up falling asleep at 11:30, go to bed at 11:15 for two weeks. Once you’re falling asleep relatively quickly after you go to bed, shift your bedtime back fifteen minutes to 11:00 for a couple of weeks. Once you begin to fall asleep relatively quickly at that bedtime for a while, shift your bedtime back another fifteen minutes to 10:45. Gradually… gradually… begin moving your bedtime back to the desired time. Don’t let yourself lay awake in bed.

Also, don’t watch the clock. Think about pleasant things. Develop fantasies of desired vacations and things you’ll do when your ship comes in. Develop visualizations of mountain pastures, calming ocean vistas, streams and forests. Find a “happy place” in your mind’s world and allow this to be your companion at bedtime.

5. Help Others

In his book “The Art of Happiness,” the Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

When we help others, we find our own happiness.

We are designed to live and thrive in community. We become happy when we turn outside of our own selfish needs and give of ourselves to something larger than ourselves. The trauma of “parental alienation” draws you inward into your pain and suffering. Giving to others expands you into life and returns you to the human community.

Live into compassion.  Give to others.  And you will find your happiness.

Two hours a week, give to others. You will be happier.

6. Practice Gratitude

My son is away at college on the East Coast. I am on the West Coast. I see him only rarely and I interact with him infrequently. But I still share in his joy and happiness, even if I don’t know exactly what these joys are, because I know he is living into his life. Even if I am not specifically aware of his day-to-day studies, his friendships, his struggles, and his triumphs, I know he is living into his young adulthood, and I am happy with him.

Even though you may be excluded from the day-to-day knowledge of your child’s experiences, your child is still living into his or her life, and you can still take joy with them in this knowledge, even if you don’t know the specifics.

Your child is bright, and beautiful, and healthy. He or she has a life to live, struggles and triumphs to experience and master. You may not know specifically what they are, but your love shares them as surely as if they were your own. Foster your gratitude for your child’s magnificence, even if the pathology of the other parent seeks to inflict suffering on you through your love for your child. Your child is still wonderful.

Find the thousand things in your life for which you are grateful. Break free from the trauma and reenter the magnificent world that surrounds you. The darkness seeks to injure you, to crush you in the trauma of abuse. Don’t let it. Find the expansive light of life’s riches. Your suffering is real, but it does not need to define you.

Practice gratitude.

7.  Plan a Trip

When we plan a trip, we become happy. Taking the trip can be nice, but we are happiest when we are planning the trip. Planning a trip draws us into life. It gives us something to look forward to with eager anticipation.

The grief and frustration of “parental alienation” traps you into the trauma reenactment. You cannot escape, you are helpless, you must simply endure the emotional and psychological abuse of “parental alienation.” In your helplessness, the trauma themes from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are being transferred into you. You cannot escape the abuse. You are trapped. You are being abused. This is the trauma.

Fight back. Escape. Get away. Until we achieve the help of mental health there is no solution to the tragedy of attachment-based “parental alienation.  But don’t allow yourself to be trapped by the trauma.  Plan a trip.  Where are you going to go? What are you going to do there? What will you see? What adventures will you have? Get away.

Look forward. Escape from the continual focus on the tragedy. In planning a trip, reawaken joyful anticipation. Get away. With all you’ve been through, you deserve it.

Actually taking the trip can also be fun. But the happiness is actually found in the planning of the trip. Where will you go? What will you do? Escape the trauma.

8.  Go Outside

Nature is healing. Feel the sun on your face. Stare up at the stars in wonder. Surround yourself with trees. Hike in the mountains. Listen to the ocean waves crashing on the shore. Take a nap on a Sunday afternoon by the banks of river or stream. Nature is healing.

Pack a picnic and go to the local park. Take a morning walk or an evening stroll. Sit on your porch and watch the world go by. Be outside.

Isn’t it marvelous how absolutely blue the sky is? And those clouds are so wispy, so puffy, like cotton. Look how many shades of green are in those trees, and the many colors in the fields; the browns, and golds, and blues, and pinks.

Smell the freshness of the trees. The sound of the birds chirping that invites us into the world that surrounds us. In the smell of the ocean and the crashing of the waves we are at peace. Under the night sky and the stars we are home.

9.  Exercise

The emotional and psychological stress of attachment-based “parental alienation” is profound. The type of psychological trauma in attachment-based “parental alienation” is called “complex trauma.” It’s different from the PTSD type of trauma experienced by combat veterans. The PTSD type of trauma involves intense periods of hyper-arousal that cannot be processed by the brain. Complex trauma is not as intense but we are exposed to it for longer.  Complex trauma is an unrelenting stress for days, months, years; exhausting the brain chemistry until there is no psychological coping capacity left.

Stress finds a home in our bodies. Exercise cleanses us of the stress chemicals created by sadness and anger. Not only does exercise cleanse us of the toxic stress chemicals, exercise also releases brain chemicals that feel good. We feel stronger, healthier, and happier when we exercise… and we sleep better.

Exercise is one of the most powerful ways to alleviate stress and feel better.

 Escaping Trauma

 Attachment-based “parental alienation” represents a form of complex trauma inflicted on the targeted parent.  In coping with all of the issues surrounding the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation,” look to find your emotional and psychological health once more. 

Your challenge is to free yourself from the trauma themes being imposed upon you.  Don’t allow yourself to enter a victim mentality.  Don’t allow yourself to be abused.  Rediscover and live into your life and happiness.  Be with friends.  Love again.  Find activities.  Give to others.  Nurture your emotional health.  Escape the trauma.

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

SBS Intervention

“Remedy:  The manner in which a right is enforced or satisfied by a court when some harm or injury, recognized by society as a wrongful act, is inflicted upon an individual.”

http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/remedy

Just a reminder, I am not an attorney.  I am a psychologist.  For legal advice consult an attorney and follow the advice of the attorney.  In this post I will be discussing a possible compromise intervention that may, in some cases, be presented to the Court as a proposed remedy based on the legal strategy of the attorney in a given situation.


I am increasingly being asked by attorneys to serve as an expert consultant or witness regarding cases of “parental alienation.”

Just for the record, I am not an expert in “parental alienation.”  From a clinical psychology perspective, the term “parental alienation” is not a defined clinical term. 

The proper clinical term for the interpersonal and family processes typically called “parental alienation” is “pathogenic parenting” (patho=pathology; genic=genesis, creation).  Pathogenic parenting is the creation of significant child pathology as a result of highly distorted parenting practices.

My professional expertise is in child and family therapy, diagnosis and psychopathology, parent-child conflict, and child development.

I recently met with a targeted parent and discussed her situation.  I then spoke with her attorney regarding the case.  The attorney believes the evidence of “parental alienation” is substantial.  There is a history of unsuccessful “reunification” therapy and a child custody evaluation is pending.

From a psychological perspective, I recommended that the approach remain focused on the child’s evident pathology (i.e., on pathogenic parenting) and the child’s treatment needs rather than on trying to prove that “parental alienation” has interfered in the relationship of the targeted parent and child.

Attachment-based “parental alienation” is not just a matter of disrupting the targeted parent’s relationship with the child, it is a matter of inducing serious and severe psychopathology in the child through the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  I believe it is best to remain grounded in the child’s pathology and in the treatment needs of the child.

My concern is that if the focus shifts to proving “parental alienation,” then this invites an identification of harm or injury as being to the parental rights and parental relationship of the targeted parent, leading to a remedy directed toward satisfying the harm and injury done to the targeted parent

If, on the other hand, the focus remains on the extent and severity of the child’s pathology that is being created by the distorted pathogenic parenting of the allied and supposedly favored parent, then the remedy involves the treatment needs of the child that are necessary to restore the normal-range and healthy development of the child.

It’s not about injury to the parent, its about injury to the child.  The remedy isn’t focused toward the parent, the remedy is focused toward the child.

Attachment-based “parental alienation” isn’t a child custody issue, it’s a child protection issue.

Again, I am a psychologist not an attorney, but I would tend to recommend avoiding the construct of “parental alienation” as  I view this as chasing a rabbit down the rabbit hole.  The narcissistic/(borderline) parent responds, “prove it,” and then we’re into chasing a nearly impossible task of proving distorted parenting and we have lost the grounding afforded by a relentless focus on the nature and severity of the child’s pathology and treatment needs, and on what is necessary to restore the normal-range and healthy development of the child.

When we remain focused on the nature and severity of the child’s symptoms, we open the door to the treatment needs of the child.  The treatment needs of the child depend on the clinical diagnosis regarding the origin of the child’s pathology. I am a clinical psychologist.  That’s what I do.  I identify the origins of child pathology and I develop and implement treatment plans that will restore the child’s healthy development based on what the origins of the child’s pathology are.

Q:  Could the nature and extent of the child’s pathology be originating spontaneously from the child?  A: No.

Q:  Could the nature and extent of the child’s pathology be the product of the pathogenic parenting of the targeted-rejected parent?  A: No.

Q: If the child’s severe pathology is not originating spontaneously from the child, and is not a product of the pathogenic parenting of the targeted-rejected parent, then what could be the origins of the child’s pathology?

A:  The child’s pathology is being induced by the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored parent.

Remedy: What are the treatment needs of the child to restore normal-range and healthy development?

Again, this is not legal advice.  I am a psychologist.  This is just my opinion from my perspective as a clinical psychologist.  This is what I do for a living.  I first identify the nature and severity of the child’s pathology.  I then use features of the child’s pathology to identify the origins of the child’s pathology.  I then develop and implement a treatment plan to resolve the child’s pathology based on my assessment regarding the origins of the child’s pathology. 

I am a clinical child and family psychologist. That’s what I do.  I do this for autism-spectrum disorders, for ADHD-spectrum disorders, for child depressive and anxiety disorders, for oppositional and defiant child behavior, for school failure, for attachment disorders, for parent-child and family conflicts.

I do this across the developmental spectrum; for young children and their families, for school-age children and their families, for adolescents and their families.

1.)  Identify the nature and severity of the child’s pathology.

2.)  Use features of the child’s symptom display to identify the origins of the child’s pathology.

3.)  Develop and implement a treatment plan that will restore the child’s normal-range and healthy development based on the identified origin of the child’s pathology

Treatment Needs

The attorney and I then discussed what the treatment needs of the child are in this case based on the information I had from the targeted-rejected parent.

We discussed the child’s potential triangulation into the spousal conflict through the formation of a cross-generational coalition with the allied and supposedly favored parent against the other parent.

We discussed the child’s apparent narcissistic and borderline symptoms as described by the targeted parent, and the possible origin of these reported child symptoms in the pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored parent.

I described the hypothesis that the child was experiencing a misunderstood and misinterpreted grief response relative to the lost relationship with the beloved-but-now-rejected targeted parent, and we then discussed the treatment for that.

We discussed the means by which the child’s symptomatic rejection of a normal-range and affectionally available parent could be induced through a role-reversal relationship with a narcissistic-borderline parent who is using the child as a “regulatory object” to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the parent.

I discussed the importance relative to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” of a protective separation of the child from the pathology of the allied and supposedly favored narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery as representing a necessary condition for protecting the child if we are to ask the child to expose his or her authenticity.

Treatment Plan

As we discussed the remedy the attorney could seek from the Court for the severely pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” my  recommendation was Dorcy Pruter’s “High Road to Family Reunification” protocol. I have reviewed her protocol and I completely understand how she achieves the recovery of the children’s relationship with the targeted parent. The “High Road” protocol would be my first-line recommendation for restoring the parent-child relationship, over and above any other approach to family reunification.

Her protocol requires that the Court order a 9-month period of protective separation of the children from the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  I understand why this is necessary and I entirely agree with the requirement. 

With this protective separation in place, she asserts that her protocol is capable of restoring normal-range parent-child relationships in a matter of days, and based on my review of her protocol, I would agree with this assessment of the protocol’s effectiveness..

In my view, this is the best approach for restoring  children’s affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted parent because of its effectiveness, its intensity, and its speed.  The child’s initial recovery will be fragile at first, so a continued protective separation of the child from the pathogenic pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is needed to stabilize the child’s recovery.

The attorney and I then discussed the likelihood in this case that the Court would order a protective separation of the child from the allied and supposedly favored pathogenic parent.  This will likely be dependent on the strength of the evidence that can be presented to the Court regarding the severity of the pathogenic parenting as evidenced in the child’s symptoms, and the associated treatment needs of the child necessary to restore the child’s healthy and normal-range development.

The SBS Intervention

As we discussed remedies relative to the child’s pathology and treatment, and the possible reluctance of the Court to order the necessary protective separation of the child which would be required for the child’s treatment and recovery, I remembered an old “compromise solution” for the Court that I developed back in 2011, the Strategic-Behavioral-Systems Intervention (SBS Intervention). 

The SBS Intervention is a Strategic family systems intervention that targets the power dynamic in the family. 

Strategic Family Systems Therapy

From a Strategic family systems framework, the child’s symptom confers power.  Strategic family systems therapy analyzes the power dynamics within the family and develops a prescriptive intervention which, if followed, will alter the power dynamics so that the symptom just drops away because it no longer serves its function of conferring power within the family relationships.

Strategic family systems therapy is a less common form of family systems therapy because it requires a fair degree of sophisticated skill in family systems therapy to first analyze the power dynamics within the family and then to also develop a prescriptive solution which, when implemented, will automatically alter the power dynamics within the family in a way to release the symptom.

While difficult to develop, and as a consequence rare in clinical practice, a good Strategic family systems intervention, however, can be quite elegant and powerful in its operation. The major limitation to Strategic family systems therapy is the level of clinical skill required to develop a prescriptive intervention that alters the specific power dynamics within the family in a way that will release the symptom.

The SBS Intervention

The Strategic-Behavioral-Systems Intervention for attachment-based “parental alienation” represents my effort to develop a Strategic family systems intervention for attachment-based “parental alienation.”  My goal in this is to provide the Court with a possible compromise solution to removing the child entirely from the care of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

I sent the SBS Intervention protocol to the attorney with whom I was consulting for her consideration as a possible proposed remedy.

I have also posted the Strategic-Behavioral-Systems Intervention protocol to my website, and a direct link to it is at:

Strategic-Behavioral-Systems Intervention

Note:  My recommendation as a clinical psychologist would be for a period of protective separation of the child from the pathogenic pathology of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery stabilization.

If the SBS Intervention is tried as a compromise solution to a complete protective separation, then I would recommend a six-month trial of the SBS Intervention.  If the SBS Intervention has not restored the child’s normal-range development after a six-month “Response-to-Intervention” trial, then I would recommend a complete protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent and intervention with the High Road protocol.

If the High Road protocol of Pruter’s is not possible, then I would recommend a treatment model along the lines described in my essay on Reunification Therapy available on my website.

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