Three Levels of Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

Levels of Analysis

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

1) The Family Systems Level

2) The Personality Disorder Level

3) The Attachment System Level,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level 1: The Family Systems Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level 2: Personality Disorder Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level 3:  The Attachment System Level

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

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

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

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

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

  • Victimized Child
  • Abusive Parent
  • Protective Parent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If others fail to satisfy the narcissist’s “needs,” including the need to look good, or be free from inconvenience, then others “deserve to be punished” (Beck, et al., 2004, p. 252).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something about being with the targeted parent hurts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Therapy: Cross-Generational Parent-Child Coalition

A Cross-Generational Coalition: The “Perverse Triangle”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Perverse Triangle”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lethal” Strain of Parent-Child Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supplemental Quote:

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

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

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

References:

Family Systems Constructs:

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

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

Role-Reversal and Boundary Dissolutions

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

 

Therapy: Initial Considerations (1)

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

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

Here is the question I received:

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

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

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

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

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

Initial Comments:

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

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

The Symptomatic Eldest Child

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

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

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

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

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

Protective Separation

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

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

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

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

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

The Goal of Therapy

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

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

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

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

Correcting Child Pathology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Misattribution of Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(end Part I of Therapy)

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

Question: The Violent Child

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

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

Here is the question I was posed:


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Understanding Personality Disorders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Child’s Behavior

Children are a product of the parenting they receive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are the values we teach our children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extremely Poor Parenting

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

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

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

Pathogenic Parenting

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

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

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

Conclusions of Dr. Childress

Children are a reflection of the parenting they receive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Spectrum of Personality Disorder Traits

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

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

Attachment and Personality Disorder Formation

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

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

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

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

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

Attachment Theory

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

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

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

Association of Narcissistic and Borderline Personality

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

 

 

Legal: “Psychological Fingerprints”

Dr. Childress is a psychologist, not an attorney. This essay is not meant as legal advice.  For legal advice, consult an attorney and follow the counsel of your attorney.  This article discusses the possible application of psychological constructs in a legal setting.  Dr. Childress is a psychologist.


The “Puppet Master”

If the details of “parental alienation” need to be proven through the legal system, then the targeted-rejected parent is in trouble. The solution for attachment-based “parental alienation” is to be found through the mental health system, not through the legal system. When mental health speaks with a single voice the legal system will be able to rely on the testimony of mental health, and so can act with the necessary clarity to solve “parental alienation.”

In the meantime, however, targeted-rejected parents may need to turn to the legal system in order to protect and defend their children from the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Attachment-based “parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue.

Proving Gardner’s model of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) in court can be extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, because the theoretical understructure of PAS is based on anecdotal clinical indicators with no foundation in established psychological principles or constructs .

The psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is insidious, so that it can be hidden from general view by the veneer of the child’s induced and adopted role as “the victim” and the role adopted and displayed by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as the supposedly “understanding” and “protective” parent.  The script for the displayed drama is well written and rehearsed, and the theater can be convincing to the susceptible.

Through the highly distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is induced-seduced into psychologically surrendering to the controlling influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (see “The Hostage Metaphor” article on my website; http://www.drcachildress.org).  Once the child surrenders into adopting the “victim role” relative to the other parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent then places the child into the front, into the leadership position, in expressing the child’s supposed “victimization” by the supposedly “abusive” targeted parent.  It is the child who holds the pathology, but it is the narcissistic/(borderline) parent who is the source of this pathology.

By placing the child in front as the supposed “victim” of the the allegedly “abusive” parenting of the other parent, the actual source of the pathology within the family (i.e., the narcissistic/(borderline) parent) is hidden from view.  Placing the child into the leadership position in expressing the pathology directs the focus of mental health professionals and the legal system onto scrutinizing the parenting of the supposedly “abusive” targeted parent who is accused by the child’s adopted and presented role as a “victim,” an induced role that is then actively supported by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent,

“Oh you poor child, I can’t believe the other parent is so abusively insensitive of your emotional needs.”

“I know just how the child feels, the other parent was the same way with me during our marriage.”

In the child’s presentation as a “victim,” our attention is drawn to the puppet and away from the puppet master.  And if the targeted parent tries to expose the controlling influence on the child that is being exercised by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, then the targeted parent is accused of “not taking responsibility” for his or her supposedly bad parenting practices.  The focus remains on the puppet show, and away from the puppet master.  It’s the perfect manipulative control.

Inducing the child into adopting the “victim” role (supposedly occurring at the hands of the “abusive” parenting of the targeted parent) allows the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to then adopt and display as the coveted and narcissistically desired “all wonderful” and “protective” parent.  And the false roles within this artificially constructed drama are readily believed by the susceptible.

The appearance of bonding between the child and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is NOT a sign of a positive parent-child relationship, but is instead a symptom of severe psychopathology called a role-reversal relationship, with its source in the pathogenic parenting of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent draws “narcissistic supply” as the “all-wonderful” perfect parent from the child’s induced  surrender to the psychological control of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and the apparent bonding is actually a very pathological role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used to meet the psychological needs of the narcissistic/borderline parent.

“Prove It”

When we try to expose the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as the puppet master, the response of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is essentially, “prove it.”

We are then required to “prove” the psychological control of the child that is evident from careful inspection but that is so insidious as to be hidden from common gaze. The evidence of the control is present, but recognizing it requires an advanced understanding of psychological processes, too advanced for many in the mental health system and too advanced for the ready comprehension of the legal system. The legal system must rely on the testimony of psychology.

While the psychological evidence is complicated, the legal system does not need to litigate the advanced principles of psychology that are involved but can instead rely on the testimony of professional psychology.  Yet for the legal system to rely on the testimony of professional psychology, all of professional psychology must speak with a single voice. Dissent within professional psychology fractures the testimony to the Court which allows the pathology to remain hidden.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is an accurate description of the psychological processes involved.  An attachment-based description of these psychological processes is based entirely within established and scientifically supported psychological constructs and principles, so that an attachment-based model of parental alienation” can serve to unite professional psychology into a single voice.

And it can both identify the psychopathology and “prove it.” Key to understanding this proof, is that the psychological control of a child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent will leave “psychological fingerprints” in the symptoms of the child.

“Psychological Fingerprints”

The psychologist is like a detective investigating a murder… the murder of the authentic child who loves the targeted-rejected parent.   The murder weapon is the symptomatic child, who is being used by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to kill the authentically loving child of that parent. The targeted parent used to have a loving child. But that child is gone. That child is dead.

And there are no eye witnesses to the murder. The killing of the authentic child is committed outside of public view. Yet without an eye witness how can the murder of the authentic child be proven?

Yet even without an eyewitness to the murder of the authentic child, there is nevertheless substantial and convincing evidence that the allied and supposedly “favored” parent is the perpetrator, who is using the symptomatic child as the murder weapon.  The psychological control of a child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent will leave “psychological fingerprints” of the control in the symptom display of the child.

These “psychological fingerprints” are most directly evident in the narcissistic and borderline symptoms of the child that occur in association with the suppression of the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system and along with a delusional belief system displayed by the child that the parenting practices of the other parent, the targeted parent, are somehow “abusive” in their inadequacy, when they are not. The parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent are normal-range.

This set of three symptoms in the child’s symptom display represent definitive diagnostic indicators of the distorting influence on the child of pathogenic parenting practices by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that are inducing severe developmental, personality, and psychiatric symptoms in the child.  There is NO OTHER EXPLANATION possible for the presence in the child’s symptom display of this disparate set of a-priori predicted specific symptoms other than the pathogenic parenting of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent, in which the child acquires and expresses the psychological state of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, hence the presence in the child’s symptom display of narcissistic and borderline personality traits.

This definitive and specific set of three diagnostic indicators, 1) attachment system suppression, 2) narcissistic and borderline traits in the child’s symptom display, and 3) a delusional belief expressed by the child regarding the supposedly “abusive” parenting of the targeted-rejected parent, represent the “psychological fingerprints” in the child’s symptoms (i.e., on the “murder weapon”) of the pathogenic psychological control and influence of the child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is inducing severe developmental psychopathology (i.e., distortions to and suppression of the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system), personality distortions (i.e., the child’s acquisition of prominent narcissistic and borderline personality traits), and psychiatric symptoms (i.e., a delusional belief system that is resulting in the loss for the child of an affectionally bonded relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent).

Severely distorting pathogenic parenting practices by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that are inducing severe developmental, personality, and psychiatric psychopathology in the child would seemingly warrant a DSM-5 diagnosis of “V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed” and would raise serious child protection concerns that rise beyond simple child custody and visitation considerations.

The Detective Metaphor

The psychologist is like a detective at a crime scene, collecting clinical evidence of what occurred.  The report of a child custody evaluation contains the clinical evidence collected by the custody evaluator, and if this evidence is correctly interpreted the “psychological fingerprints” of the child’s control by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent become evident.  However, the interpretation of the clinical evidence  collected through child custody evaluations sometimes (often) fails to recognize the degree of psychopathology within the family, and fails to “dust” for the “psychological fingerprints” of control by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent on the “murder weapon” of the symptomatic child.

Without the “psychological fingerprint” evidence, the presence of other circumstantial evidence is usually not deemed sufficient to “convict” the allied and supposedly “favored” parent of inducing the suppression of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward the other parent, so that the custody evaluator often recommends joint custody, or primary custody to the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, along with therapy for the child and  targeted-rejected parent.

But the child in attachment-based “parental alienation” is essentially being held as a psychological hostage to the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (see my article “The Hostage Metaphor” on my website, http://www.drcachildress.org).  Therapy will be ineffective unless and until we are first able to protect the child from psychological retaliation by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent if the child dares to show attachment bonding to the targeted parent, or even fails to show sufficient rejection of the targeted parent.

A more advanced review of the clinical data contained in the custody evaluation, however, can often reveal the “psychological fingerprints” of the child’s control by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  If the three characteristic diagnostic indicators of attachment based “parental alienation” are evident in the child’s symptom display, then this represents definitive clinical evidence for the child’s psychological control by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

It is NOT necessary to formally diagnose the allied and supposedly “favored” parent as having narcissistic and borderline personality traits, although evidence of these traits in the allied and supposedly “favored” parent would serve as confirming clinical evidence.

In other words, it is NOT necessary to have direct “eye witness” evidence regarding the “murder.”  The presence in the child’s symptom display of the three characteristic diagnostic indicators (i.e., the “psychological fingerprints”) of the child’s psychological influence and control by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent represents sufficient and definitive clinical evidence that the symptomatic child-initiated cut-off of the child’s relationship with the other parent is the direct result of the pathogenic parenting practices of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., the allied and supposedly “favored” parent), who is using the child in a role-reversal relationship as a “regulatory other” (see my blog essay: Parental Alienation as Child Abuse: The Regulating Other) for the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The Clinical Evidence

In the evidence reported in the child custody evaluation, the mental health professional (i.e., the “psychological detective”) will want to look for the following “psychological fingerprint” evidence in the child’s symptom display:

1.  Splitting:  The child maintains dichotomous black-and-white perceptions of his or her parents, in which one parent (the allied and supposedly “favored” parent) is perceived as the “all-good,” wonderful and perfect parent, while the other parent is perceived as the “all-bad,” devalued and degraded parent. (DSM-5 Borderline Personality Disorder criterion 2; American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

2.  Grandiosity:  The child perceives himself or herself to be in an elevated role status within the family above that of the targeted-rejected parent, and from which the child feels entitled to judge the targeted-rejected parent as a parent and as a person. (DSM-5 Narcissistic Personality Disorder criterion 1; American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

3.  Entitlement:  The child feels entitled to have his or her every desire met by the targeted-rejected parent to the child’s satisfaction, and if the targeted-rejected parent fails to meet the child’s entitled expectations to the child’s satisfaction, the child then feels entitled and justified in exacting a retaliatory retribution against the targeted-rejected parent for the judged parental failure. (DSM-5 Narcissistic Personality Disorder criterion 5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

4.  Absence of Empathy:  The child displays a complete absence of empathy for the emotional suffering of the targeted-rejected parent that is the result of the child’s behavior and attitude toward this parent.  The child may actually make immensely cruel and hurtful statements to the targeted-rejected parent without apparent distress or remorse from the child. (DSM-5 Narcissistic Personality Disorder criterion 7; American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

5.  Haughty and Arrogant Attitude:  The child displays a haughty and arrogant attitude of dismissive contempt for the personhood of the targeted-rejected parent, as if this parent “deserved” to suffer because of the fundamental unworthiness of the targeted-rejected parent. (DSM-5 Narcissistic Personality Disorder criterion 9; American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

This set of “psychological fingerprints” in the child’s symptom display is only possible through the psychological control of the child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent. There is no other explanation possible for this set of clinical evidence in the child’s symptom display.

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

 

 

Parental Alienation as Child Abuse: The Regulating Other

Note: narcissistic and borderline personality processes are outward variations of the same underlying personality organization (see Kernberg, 1975)


The “Regulating-Other”

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” the child is being used by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to regulate the emotional and psychological state of the parent.

(see my blog on Attachment Foundations: Regulation Systems for more on the construct of “regulation”)

The clinical phrase for this process is that the child is being used as a “regulating-other” for the parent.  The child must express the attitudes and behavior desired by the parent or else be exposed to parental displays of narcissistic or borderline anger and rejection.

Narcissistic anger is very intense, although it can be subdued on the surface, and it combines signals of hostile-rejection with disgust (a visceral repulsion).  The combination of intense parental anger, rejection, and disgust can be extremely disturbing for a child.  Children exposed to parental narcissistic anger (commonly referred to as “narcissistic rage,” Kohut, (1972) find the experience so psychologically disturbing that they become strongly motivated to avoid venturing outside of the psychological state desired by the narcissistic parent.

This requires that the child continually monitor the internal psychological state of the narcissistic parent to remain aware of the emotional and psychological needs of the parent, so that the child can then meet the parent’s needs and avoid the retaliation of narcissistic anger and rejection should the child fail to be what the narcissistic parent needs the child to be.

One of the primary needs of the narcissistic parent is for continual admiration, called “narcissistic supply,” in which the narcissistic parent is perceived to be the all-wonderful, perfect and ideal parent.  This creates the surface appearance of a seemingly hyper-bonded parent-child relationship, with the child expressing uncritical adoration for the parent.  Rather than an authentically bonded relationship, however, this superficial appearance of bonding actually reflects the child being used by the narcissistic parent as a “regulating other” to maintain the narcissistic parent’s own grandiose self-image as the ideal and perfect parent/(person).

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

Borderline anger is more chaotic and disorganized in its intensity, and will typically be combined with tearful displays of supposed victimization because of the alleged “abuse” supposedly being inflicted on the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The borderline personality cannot organize or modulate its hyper-intense emotional experiences, leading to chaotic swings of intense emotional displays.

In addition, the thought processes of the borderline personality, the “cognitive structure” of the borderline personality, breaks down in response to the intensity of the emotional experience and the over-arching need of the impaired borderline personality structure to regulate the intensity of the emotions.  If truth and reality needs to be changed in order for the borderline personality to regulate the intense emotions, then the borderline personality simply asserts a different truth, a different reality.  For the borderline personality, “truth is whatever I assert it to be.”   Truth and reality are fluid constructs for the borderline personality, subject to the changing moment-to moment emotional needs of regulating the intensity of the emotional experience.

Within this context of volatile parental anger and an ever-changing definition of truth and reality that is based on the shifting moment-to-moment needs of the borderline parent, the child learns to continually monitor the emotional state and needs of the borderline personality parent in order to be what this parent needs, so that the parent remains in a regulated emotional state and the child can avoid the parent’s volatile displays of anger and hostility.

Because the truth and reality asserted by the borderline parent are continually in flux based on the shifting emotional needs of the parent, the child is unable to anchor his or her own perception of truth and reality in any stable frame of reference.  And in the context of unpredictable and intense displays of parental anger based on an ever changing reality, the child ultimately surrenders to the truth and reality asserted by the borderline parent in order to keep the anger and emotional volatility of the parent regulated and in check.  If the borderline parent asserts that the sky is red, the child agrees.  An hour later, if the borderline parent asserts that the sky is yellow, the child agrees.  No mention is made by the child regarding the inconsistency, because this would only provoke the parent into a tirade.  The child learns to surrender completely to the reality defined by the needs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Role-Reversal Relationship

In the child’s relationship with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child becomes a “regulating other” for the psychopathology of the parent.  The child is used by the parent to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the parent.  When a parent uses a child to meet the parent’s needs, this is called a “role-reversal” relationship (note: there are several different types of role-reversal relationships).  In healthy parent-child relationships, the parent meets the needs of the child.  In a role-reversal relationship, the child is used by the parent to meet the needs of the parent.

The prototype exemplar of a role-reversal relationship is incest, in which the child is used to meet the psychological-sexual needs of the parent.

  • A role-reversal relationship is the product of relationship patterns contained within the internal working models of the attachment system (Macfie, McElwain, Houts, & Cox, 2005).
  • The development of borderline personality structure is linked to distorted relationship patterns contained within the internal working models of the attachment system  (Agrawal, Gunderson, Holmes, & Lyons-Ruth, 2004; Fonagy, Target, Gergely, Allen, & Bateman, 2003)
  • Borderline personality organization is also linked to childhood sexual abuse victimization (Hodges, 2003; McLean & Gallop, 2003; Ogata, et al., 1990; Trippany, Helm, & Simpson, 2006; Zanarini, et al., 1990) and to role-reversal relationships (Shaffer & Sroufe, 2005).

While other developmental factors can lead to a role-reversal relationship (such as parental alcoholism), the symptomatic presence in “parental alienation”of both a role-reversal relationship and borderline personality organization in the parent suggests the possible presence of sexual abuse “source code” in the internal working models of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment system that was inserted into the trans-generational transmission of attachment patterns (Benoit & Parker, 1994; Bretherton, 1990; Jacobvitz, Morgan, Kretchmar, & Morgan, 1991).

“There is evidence for the intergenerational transmission of boundary dissolution within the family. Adults who experienced boundary dissolution in their relationships with their own parents are more likely to violate boundaries with their children” (Kerig, 2005, p. 22)

“A maternal history of sexual exploitation has emerged as a significant predictor of boundary dissolution at 42 months” (Shaffer & Sroufe, 2005, p. 75)

Parent-initiated boundary dissolution in early childhood instantiates a pattern of relationship disturbance in the child. Role reversal is apparent by early adolescence and the available data suggest links to psychopathology in later adolescence, particularly as a result of sexualized behavior observed at age 13. (Shaffer & Sroufe, 2005)

The analogy would be to a computer virus infecting the “source code” of files in the internal working models of the attachment system, that is then passed on inter-generationally as the regulatory networks of the attachment system are “downloaded” from the parent to the child through the distorted parenting practices created by the corrupt “files” in the internal working models of the parent’s attachment system (see my blog, Attachment Foundations: Regulation Systems).

The internal working models of the attachment system mediate all close, emotionally bonded relationships throughout the lifespan.  Distortions in the parental attachment system will distort the parenting practices of this parent, leading to the inter-generational transmission of distorted attachment patterns from the parent to the child (Benoit & Parker, 1994; Bretherton, 1990; Fonagy, Steele, & Steele, 1991; Fonagy & Target, 2005; Jacobvitz, Morgan, Kretchmar & Morgan, 1991)..

The possible sexual abuse origins of this “source code” may be at the generational level of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, representing the possible childhood sexual abuse victimization of this parent, or the “source code” may have entered the trans-generational transmission of attachment patterns a generation earlier, with the parent of the current narcissistic/(borderline) parent whose distorted parenting practices then produced the narcissistic/(borderline) personality organization of the current parent, so that this particular “phrase” of the “source code” (i.e., a role-reversal relationship in which the parent uses the child to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the parent) is being passed on inter-generationally through several generations following the incest victimization trauma.

Psychological Child Abuse

The child-initiated cut-off of the child’s relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent as a consequence of the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent in which the child is being used by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in a role-reversal relationship to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the personality disordered parent (i.e., “parental alienation”) may represent a trans-generational iteration of child sexual abuse victimization that occurred a generation (or two) prior to the current child, but that is continuing to severely distort parent-child relationships through the distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (whose own disordered personalty organization likewise represents the impact of the prior sexual abuse victimization).

There is evidence to suggest that the severely distorted parenting practices associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” represent a variant of child sexual abuse/incest that is being transmitted inter-generationally to the current child in a non-sexualized, but still psychologically abusive form.

Our response should be commensurate with this possibility, i.e., that what we are dealing with is a form of non-sexualized psychological-(sexual) abuse victimization of the child in a trans-generational iteration.  Attachment-based “parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue.

Even if the distortions to the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent as a consequence of pathogenic parenting by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent are not the product of the trans-generational transmission of sexual abuse trauma, the severely distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in which the child is being used as a “regulating other” to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent nevertheless rise to the level of psychological child abuse that is severely distorting the child’s healthy emotional and psychological development.

What may superficially appear to be a bonded parent-child relationship between the child and the allied and supposedly “favored” narcissistic/(borderline) parent actually represents a role-reversal relationship that is a symptomatic expression of the severe pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Attachment-based “parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it is a child protection issue.

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

Note:  I want to be entirely clear.  I am in NO WAY suggesting that the currently allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent is sexually abusing the child.  What I am saying is that there is evidence suggesting that the psychological processes currently being manifested through an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” could very possibly represent the trans-generational iteration of prior sexual abuse victimization that occurred a generation or two earlier, and that is continuing to severely distort parent-child relationship processes through the influence of pathogenic “source code” contained in the internal working models of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment system

References

Boundary Dissolution

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

Shaffer, A., & Sroufe, L. A. (2005). The Developmental and adaptational implications of generational boundary dissolution: Findings from a prospective, longitudinal study. Journal of Emotional Abuse. 5(2/3), 67-84.

Trans-Generational Transmission of Attachment Patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borderline Personality Disorder and Sexual Abuse Association

Hodges, S. (2003). Borderline personality disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder: Time for integration? Journal of Counseling and Development, 81, 409-417.

McLean, L. M., & Gallop, R. (2003). Implications of childhood sexual abuse for adult borderline personality disorder and complex posttraumatic stress disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 160(2), 369-71.

Ogata, S. N., Silk, K. R., Goodrich, S., Lohr, N. E., Westen, D., & Hill, E. M. (1990). Childhood sexual and physical abuse in adult patients with borderline personality personality disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 147(8), 1008-13.

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

Zanarini, M. C., Williams, A. A., Lewis, et al. (1997). Reported pathological childhood experiences associated with the development of borderline personality disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 154(8), 1101-6.

Borderline Personality Disorder and Attachment Networks

Agrawal, H.R., Gunderson, J., Holmes, B.M., & Lyons-Ruth, K. (2004). Attachment studies with borderline patients: A review. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 12, 94-104.

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

Co-Narcissism

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

Narcissistic Rage

Kohut, H: Thoughts on narcissism and narcissistic rage. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 1972; 27:560-400.

Association of Narcissistic and Borderline Organization

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

“One subgroup of borderline patients, namely, the narcissistic personalities… seem to have a defensive organization similar to borderline conditions, and yet many of them function on a much better psychosocial level.” (Kernberg, 1975, p. xiii)

Attachment Foundations: Regulation Systems (1)

In my discussions you will frequently hear me use the term “regulation,” so let me take a moment to discuss the meaning of “regulation” relative to child development and the brain.


The brain has a variety of regulatory systems, with the attachment system being one of the primary systems for regulating emotions, behavior, and particularly relationships.

A useful analogy for understanding the concept of “regulation” is the thermostat.  When the temperature gets too warm in a room, the thermostat registers this and turns on the air conditioner to bring the temperature back down into a comfortable range.  Similarly, if the temperature in the room gets too cold, then the thermostat turns on the heater to return the temperature to a comfortable range.  The thermostat “regulates” the temperature of the room so that the temperature remains in a comfortable mid-range.

The brain works in the same way, acting to regulate emotions, behavior, and social relationships so that the person’s state remains organized and integrated with the environment and social field, a comfortable mid-range of emotions, behavior, and social cooperation.  Emotions that are too intense or conflicted, or demands that are too frustrating can lead to dysregulated emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal displays.  Meanwhile, the brain’s regulatory networks seek to maintain the organism in an organized and well-regulated mid-range comfort zone, and there are a variety of brain systems that act to maintain the integrated regulation of our emotions, behavior, and social relationships.

The Development of Regulatory Systems

We build what we use:  Brain cells and brain systems develop based on the principle of “we build what we use.”  Every time we use a brain cell or a particular brain network the connections within that network become stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient through “use-dependent” neural processes.  We build what we use.  If you want to learn to hit a baseball, you go to the batting cage and hit baseballs over-and-over again.  If you want to memorize a phone number, you repeat it back to yourself over and-over again.  We build what we use.  The renowned neuroscientist, Donald Hebb, referred to this use-dependent development as, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Based on the requirements of this use-dependent approach to neural development, the brain employs a dual-system of “experience expectant” and “experience dependent” maturation in which the brain expects certain categories and types of experience and is already “pre-wired” in certain brain areas to receive these experiences (i.e., brain development is “experience-expectant”), and meanwhile the exact nature of the specific patterns that are laid down in these “pre-wired” areas is dependent on the specific nature of the experiences the person has (i.e., brain development is “experience-dependent”).  This integrated dual-process of experience-expectant and experience-dependent brain development is most clearly illustrated in our acquisition of language.

The Example of Language Acquisition

One of the primary regulatory systems of the brain is language, and the development and functioning of the language system can shed light on how other regulatory systems develop and function.

The brain expects that it will be exposed to language and already has certain areas pre-wired to acquire the rich complexity of language (experience-expectant).  However, the specific language that is learned, Chinese, French, Russian, is dependent upon which specific language the child is exposed to during sensitive periods of development (experience-dependent).

Language is also a primary regulatory network, serving to regulate emotions, behavior, and social relationships in order to keep them in an organized and comfortable mid-range of effective functioning. When we use language to express our emotions there are inhibitory networks from language and communication channels back to the emotion system that help quiet the intensity of the emotion (Greenspan & Shanker, 2004).  Language also helps us regulate our emotions and behavior through internalized self-talk (thinking) in which we can organize and direct our actions in planning and execution.  One of the primary regulatory functions of language is with our social relationships, in which language allows us to cooperatively organize our interpersonal relationships.  Language is a primary regulatory system that develops through an integrated combination of experience-expectant and experience-dependent developmental processes.

The primary organizational patterns that are laid down in the language system by experience-dependent development occur during a sensitive period of early childhood development, primarily between the ages of one to five years old.  This is the period when the basic structure of grammar is acquired.  The brain expects that it will acquire grammar and already has dedicated brain systems and structures ready to acquire the grammar of language, but each specific language will have its own unique grammatical structure.  The grammatical structure of Chinese is vastly different from that of French, yet the developing brain is equally adept at acquiring the underlying grammatical structure of either language.  The exact patterns laid down in the language system are experience-dependent.

And while the specific underlying patterns of language are acquired during a time-limited sensitive period of early childhood, we nevertheless use these underlying patterns of language throughout our lifespans to regulate our emotions, behavior, and social interactions.  Language isn’t something that’s just relevant to early childhood because that’s the period when we acquire the patterns of language.  We use the patterns of language we developed in childhood throughout our lives, from childhood to old age.

The Attachment System

In the 1970s a seminal psychological theorist, John Bowlby, identified another primary regulatory system in the brain, the attachment system.  The attachment system likewise acts to regulate our emotions, behavior, and social relationships throughout our lifespans, with a particular focus on regulating our emotionally close and intimate relationship bonds.

The attachment system developed across millions of years of evolution, just like the language system did, because of the survival advantage that children’s attachment bonding to parents confers, and the attachment system likewise develops through a combination of experience-expectant and experience-dependent developmental processes.  The brain expects certain attachment-related experiences of close emotional bonding with the parental caregivers, and the brain has pre-dedicated networks already in place to acquire the “grammar” of these relationships, what are called the “internal working models” of attachment relationships (Bowlby, 1969; Bretherton & Munholland, 2008).  The actual specific patterns imprinted onto the attachment networks, however, depend on the specific features of the parent-child relationship.

The “grammar” of attachment, the “internal working models” of the attachment system, is primarily acquired during a sensitive period of early childhood based on the child’s relationship interactions with parental caregivers.  Yet these internal working models of attachment continue to change and develop throughout childhood and adolescence (just like we continue to modify and change our language development throughout childhood), and we use the internal patterns of the attachment system throughout our lifespan to regulate both the formation of emotionally close and bonded relationships, as well as the loss of these emotionally close relationships.

The attachment system is a neuro-biologically embedded primary motivational system analogous to other primary motivational systems for food and reproduction (unlike the language system, which is not a motivational system).  Because we all live in a brain, we are all familiar with the experience of the attachment system.  When we love our mother, our father, our siblings, our grandparents, that’s the attachment system glowing warm within us.  Who we choose for a spouse, why we choose this person, and how we relate to this person, that’s the attachment system operating within us (Feeney & Noller, 1990; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Roisman, et al., 2001; Simpson, 1990)  When we argue and fight with our spouse, trying to improve our relationship and restore our affectional bonding, that’s the attachment system motivating us.  When we grieve the death of our parent, the divorce from our spouse, or the loss of our child leaving home for college, that’s the attachment system.  How we do each of these things, our style of love and loss, represents the manifestation of the internal working models of our attachment system, the “grammar” of our attachment networks (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980).

One of the primary experts in attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth, describes the functioning of the attachment system,

I define an “affectional bond” as a relatively long-enduring tie in which the partner is important as a unique individual and is interchangeable with none other. In an affectional bond, there is a desire to maintain closeness to the partner. In older children and adults, that closeness may to some extent be sustained over time and distance and during absences, but nevertheless there is at least an intermittent desire to reestablish proximity and interaction, and pleasure – often joy – upon reunion. Inexplicable separation tends to cause distress, and permanent loss would cause grief… An ”attachment” is an affectional bond, and hence an attachment figure is never wholly interchangeable with or replaceable by another, even though there may be others to whom one is also attached. In attachments, as in other affectional bonds, there is a need to maintain proximity, distress upon inexplicable separation, pleasure and joy upon reunion, and grief at loss. (Ainsworth, 1989, p. 711, emphasis added)

Transmission of Attachment Patterns

Just like we acquired the patterns of the language system from the language our parents spoke, i.e., the patterns in their language system were transferred to our language system, we acquire much of our attachment patterns, the internal working models of our own attachment networks, from the patterns contained in our parents’ attachment systems (Benoit & Parker, 1994; Bretherton, 1990; Fonagy, Steele, & Steele, 1991; Fonagy & Target 2005; Fraiberg, Adelson, & Shapiro, 1975; Jacobvitz, Morgan, Kretchmar & Morgan, 1991; van Ijzendoorn, 1992).  Just like we acquire the grammar of language from the grammar “files” in the language networks of our parents, we similarly acquire the “grammar” of the attachment system, our internal working models of attachment expectations, from the “files” of our parents’ attachment networks.

The patterns of attachment contained within the parents’ attachment networks are transferred to the children’s attachment networks. This is called the “trans-generational transmission of attachment patterns.”  And here is what is important for understanding the distortions to the child’s attachment bonding motivations in “parental alienation” — any corrupt “files” in the attachment system of the parent will be transferred to the child’s attachment system, just like a regional dialect or accent is transferred in the language system, so that the child’s attachment networks will contain the same corrupt “files” as the parent’s.

The child-initiated cut-off in the child’s relationship with a normal-range, affectionate and available parent represents the manifestation of a set of corrupt “files” in the attachment system of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that are being transferred to the child’s attachment networks, and these corrupt “files” are crashing the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system relative to the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward the targeted parent.

What will be interesting is when, in later blog posts, I open these corrupt files and we read the actual source code that is contained in these files.  We will find that it is a very specific and characteristic code that speaks to the trans-generational origins of the “parental alienation” process.

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

References

Regulatory Function of Language

Greenspan, S.I. and Shanker, S.G. (2004) The first idea: How symbols, language and intelligence evolved from our primate ancestors to modern humans. New York: Da Capo Press.

Internal Working Models

Bretherton, I., & Munholland, K. (2008). Internal working models in attachment relationships:  Elaborating a central construct in attachment theory.  In J. Cassidy & P. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment (pp. 102-130). New York: Guilford Press.

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

Attachment System and Spousal Relationships

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

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

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

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

Trans-Generational Transmission of Attachment Patterns

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

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

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

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

Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. (1975). Ghosts in the nursery. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 14, 387–421.

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

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

The Attachment System

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

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

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

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