Finding Empowerment

I recently received the following offer from a targeted parent, and I wish to respond on my blog because I believe my response may be of interest to other targeted parents,

“I would like to volunteer myself and my son to assist you in any way we can.”  Shawn

That’s very kind, thank you. I appreciate your offer.  Here’s what I would suggest…

This is important to understand:  There needs to be a paradigm shift within mental health The moment an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” becomes accepted within establishment mental health, the solution to the nightmare of “parental alienation” becomes available immediately.

The attachment-based model of “parental alienation” offers,

  • Clear diagnostic criteria (the three diagnostic indicators) immediately become available to allow the consistent diagnosis of attachment-based “parental alienation” in EVERY case, for ALL therapists and ALL child custody evaluators. The nature and degree of the psychopathology becomes immediately identified the moment it enters any aspect of the mental health system.
  • The pathology of “parental alienation” immediately becomes defined as “pathogenic parenting” (i.e., severely distorted parenting practices that are inducing significant developmental, personality, and psychiatric psychopathology in the child) that requires a child protection response.  

The child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery immediately becomes the professionally responsible and required treatment response to the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

  • Children and families evidencing the three diagnostic indicators for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” become defined as a “special population” requiring specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise to competently diagnose and treat.  Immediately, all child custody evaluators and all therapists working with this group of children and families must possess an advanced level of knowledge related to,

1.  Narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics, their characteristic presentation and their impact on family relationships,

2.  Family systems dynamics involving children’s triangulation into spousal conflicts through cross-generational parent-child coalitions,

3.  The characteristic functioning and dysfunctioning of the attachment systems during childhood,

4.  The nature and features of parent-child role-reversal relationships, and

5.  The formation of delusional belief systems as a product of decompensating narcissistic and borderline personality processes.

This immediately prohibits diagnosis and treatment by unqualified mental health professionals under standard of practice guidelines laid out in the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, Standard 2.01a. 

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

Since ONLY knowledgeable and competent mental health professionals will be able to diagnose and treat this “special population” of children and families, and, since professionally responsible treatment REQUIRES the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of treatment, no therapist, anywhere, will treat without first acquiring a protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

This will provide a clear and consistent directive from professional mental health to the Court that the issue is NOT one of child custody and visitation but is one of child protection, and that the child’s protective separation from the allied and supposedly “favored” parent is required during the active phase of treatment.

  • Since the appropriate DSM-5 diagnosis for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” includes the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs), and since ONLY trained and competent mental health professionals will be diagnosing and treating this “special population” of children and families, then all mental health professionals involved in the diagnosis and treatment of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” will be aware of this DSM-5 diagnosis and will have the decision as legally mandated child abuse reporters to file a child abuse report with the appropriate child protection service agency (note: reporting psychological and emotional abuse is an optional not a mandated report). 

If (when) child protective service agencies begin to receive an influx of these child psychological abuse reports related to the diagnostic indicators for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” these agencies won’t know how to investigate and resolve these reports. They will seemingly have two options,

1.  To accept the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed from the licensed and specially trained and competent mental health professional, which will then necessitate removing the child from the custody of the psychologically abusive narcissistic/(borderline) parent, thereby enacting the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/borderline parent, or

2. To train their investigators in the three diagnostic indicators and associated clinical signs of attachment-based “parental alienation,” so that ALL investigators at ALL child protection service agencies are trained to professional competence in the recognition of pathogenic parenting by a narcissistic/borderline parent that is inducing significant developmental, personality, and psychiatric psychopathology in a child.  I suspect this will be the option chosen by child protective service agencies once an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” becomes accepted within establishment mental health and these agencies begin to receive child abuse reports resulting from clinical diagnoses of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed

If (when) ALL investigators at ALL child protection service agencies are trained to professional competence in the recognition of the pathogenic parenting associated with attachment-based “parental alienation,” then this will help to resolve issues surrounding the reporting of false allegations of child abuse by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, because a child abuse report now becomes a double-edged sword.  Not only will the investigator be investigating the reported abuse, but also the potential for child psychological abuse from the pathogenic parenting of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  If evidence for the reported abuse is insubstantial but the child’s symptoms display the definitive three diagnostic indicators of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” then the child protection services may initiate a child protection response of removing the child from the custody of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent due to a confirmed DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse made by the investigator.

The potential of having the child removed from the custody of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent when false allegations of child abuse are made may cause the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to reconsider before making false allegations of child abuse, and so may have a deterrent effect on the filing of false allegations of child abuse by narcissistic/(borderline) parents.  Of note is that in cases of good faith but erroneous child abuse reports by parents, the child’s symptoms will not display the three diagnostic indicators associated with attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The cooperation of the Court will be necessary to obtain the required protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of treatment. To gain the cooperation of the Court, the targeted parent will need the strong support of mental health, and mental health must speak with a single voice to the Court, so that all mental health professionals will make exactly the same diagnosis when the child’s symptoms display the three characteristic diagnostic indicators of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” – and all therapists who treat this “special population” are trained and expert in the attachment-based model of “parental alienation” so that no therapist, anywhere, will treat “parental alienation” without first obtaining the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

When professional mental health speaks to the Court with a single voice, the Court can act with the decisive clarity necessary to solve “parental alienation.”

Note: We do not need to litigate the parental psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The issue is pathogenic parenting and the diagnosis can be made solely based on the child’s symptom display of the three definitive diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

The solution to “parental alienation” is not through the legal system. Any solution that relies on extended litigation to prove “parental alienation” in the legal system will fail. The legal system is far to expensive, takes far too long, and is far too easily manipulated by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Family relationship problems, particularly parent-child relationship problems, need to be resolved within the mental health system.  The legal system needs to be able to rely on a single clear voice from ALL of mental health as to what is needed to resolve the family problems. The attachment-based model of “parental alienation” provides the solid bedrock of accepted and established psychological constructs and principles that can unite mental health into that single voice.

Paradigm Shift

A paradigm shift is needed in mental health, away from the failed paradigm of Gardnerian PAS to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” that is based entirely within accepted and established psychological principles and constructs.

Note: I’m not saying Gardner’s model is wrong, it’s just inadequate to the task of solving “parental alienation.” In proposing the existence of a new “syndrome” defined by a set of anecdotal clinical indicators, Gardner too quickly abandoned the professional rigor imposed by standard and established clinical constructs and principles.  The attachment-based model of “parental alienation” returns to the basic clinical construct first identified by Gardner and applies the theoretical rigor necessary to define the construct entirely within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, thereby correcting the flaw in his approach that led to his construct of PAS being labeled as “junk science.”

There can be no such criticism of an attachment-based model since it meets the standards set by the critics of Gardner’s PAS model.  The attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is defined entirely within standard and established psychological constructs and principles.

A foundational paradigm shift is needed to a theoretical framework that is grounded on the solid bedrock of established psychological constructs and principles.  An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” accomplishes this.

The necessary paradigm shift in mental health is not an evolutionary progression from Gardnerian PAS into a new model, it is a revolutionary change in the foundational framework for conceptualizing “parental alienation.”  The Gardnerian model of PAS becomes irrelevant.

We used to think that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun and all the planets circled the earth.  As we gathered knowledge, our scientific evidence then clearly indicated that the sun was the actual center of our solar system, and that the earth and the other planets circled the sun. Our paradigm for understanding the solar system shifted.  

Yet it took many years for the Catholic church to accept the change in paradigms. Once it emerges, a paradigm shift can nevertheless take a long time to actualize.  Thomas Kuhn, who described the model of paradigm shifts within science, said that the completion of the paradigm shift is accomplished when all the adherents to the old paradigm die. 

The next generation of young psychology and law students will likely be the ones who will carry the paradigm shift in “parental alienation” into professional psychology and the legal system.  The current experts in Gardnerian PAS will likely hold to their favored and familiar model, and the inertia within establishment mental health will simply ignore the attachment-based model for decades, until the current graduate students enter establishment psychology and law.

The solution to “parental alienation” is not to be found in the Gardnerian PAS paradigm. The Gardnerian model of PAS represents a failed paradigm.  In the thirty years since Gardner first proposed PAS we have achieved the current abysmal situation of failed solution.  For a variety of reasons, the solution to “parental alienation” cannot be found in the Gardnerian model of PAS.  It is a failed paradigm. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m saying it is inadequate to the task of actualizing a solution.

The solution to “parental alienation is located in a paradigm shift within professional psychology to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  My estimate is that this paradigm shift will take about 10 to 15 years to enact.  The empowered activism of targeted parents may be able to reduce this time frame to a year or two, depending on how actively targeted parents advocate for the paradigm shift.

All of the constructs within an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” are established and accepted psychological constructs and principles, so the only barrier to the acceptance of this paradigm by establishment mental health is awareness.  The traditional approach to bringing this information into establishment mental health is through publication of professional papers in peer-reviewed journals.  If I were younger in my career, just starting out and wanting to build my professional reputation, and if the need for a solution weren’t so pressing, I might take this more gradual approach to building the information regarding an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” into the professional literature of establishment mental health.

But I’m not a young psychologist trying to establish my professional career, and the need for a solution is dire.  As for me, I’m 60 years old and I have already had one stroke.  I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be around.  Probably at most another 10 or 12 years before I leave or simply start winding down.  So if I were you, the community of targeted parents, I’d try to get this information into establishment mental health as quickly as possible in order to make as much use of me as you can while I’m still here. 

What I understand is that with every passing day the tragic nightmare of “parental alienation” continues.  A solution is already too long overdue.  Targeted parents and their children don’t have time to wait 10 or 15 years for establishment psychology to gradually accommodate to and adopt a new paradigm.  You need a solution today.

So when I began my journey to define the clinical phenomena of “parental alienation” entirely from within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, I decided to post material to my website as soon as it became available in my work, rather than delay it by writing for publication, and I’ve decided to write for this blog to make the information as broadly available as I possibly can as quickly as I possibly can, because I fully appreciate that the solution is needed yesterday.  With each day that passes the nightmare tragedy continues for targeted parents and their children.

Once I get this information up and out in the public domain, then I’ll return to write for publication.  But not now.  The solution is needed as soon as possible.

But ultimately, this is not my fight.  It’s your fight.  I can give you the tools and weapons, but you must enact the solution.  It is time to act into your power.  The foundational paradigm in mental health needs to change to allow the solution, which means we need to bring the awareness of establishment mental health to the attachment-based model for “parental alienation.” 

I have done my part.  The theoretical foundations are solid and accurate.  I have provided you with articles and essays, with a publicly available online seminar through the Masters Lecture Series of California Southern University, and with all of these blog posts.  There are no conceptual barriers to professional acceptance of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,”  the theoretical foundations are strong. It is just a matter of awareness within the broader mental health and legal fields.

But an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” has no allies within establishment mental health.  I am a solitary voice.  Current Gardnerian experts in parental alienation will ignore an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” because it’s foreign to them and, ultimately, it will replace the Gardnerian model with which they have grown comfortable.  They’ve spent decades arguing in favor of the Gardnerian model of PAS.  They are experts in the Gardnerian model of PAS.  It is known, familiar, and comfortable.

And in a blink of an eye, the Gardnerian model of PAS will be replaced and will become irrelevant, and it will be replaced by something foreign and unknown to them.  It’s not an evolution of their favored Gardnerian model, it is a revolution that overthrows their favored, known, and familiar Gardnerian model of PAS. Where a moment before they were experts in “parental alienation,” now they become like everyone else, needing to learn a new model, a new paradigm.

But there are no arguments against the attachment-based model, because it’s accurate; it’s what “parental alienation” is.  So Gardnerians will simply ignore the attachment-based model of “parental alienation” and continue talking about how the sun circles the stationary earth, until they are eventually replaced by the next generation in professional psychology.

Nor does an attachment-based model of parental alienation have allies within establishment mental health. For the most part, establishment mental health simply doesn’t care about “parental alienation.”  In establishment mental health, “parental alienation” is simply a small pocket of limited professional interest surrounding child custody evaluations and high-conflict divorce.  The only people interested in “parental alienation” are those who advocate for Gardner’s PAS model, and they’re going to hold onto their PAS model and ignore the attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” and a pocket of opponents to PAS who question the scientific validity of Gardner’s paradigm.  If you’re not in one of these two pockets of professional interest, then the construct of “parental alienation” isn’t really much of a consideration.

Establishment mental health will simply lump an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” in with the Gardnerian PAS group without taking the time to understand the paradigm shift.  So an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” will generally be ignored by establishment mental health simply because they don’t care all that much.  That’s why the paradigm shift that will bring a solution to “parental alienation” will take between 10 to 15 years to achieve, because the attachment-based model of “parental alienation” that contains the solution will simply languish in obscurity because it has no allies to advocate for its acceptance.

So, you ask what you can do to be helpful?  I am a lone voice.  It would be helpful to have allies within the targeted parent community who will bring the awareness of establishment mental health to the existence of this new paradigm for understanding the construct of “parental alienation.”  The sooner it becomes accepted within establishment mental health, the sooner the solution to “parental alienation” becomes available.

Possible Suggestions

I might suggest the following:

1. Organize advocacy groups of targeted parents who are willing to contact leadership in professional mental health to increase awareness of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  Send emails to the identified leadership in establishment mental health suggesting that they, 1) watch the online seminar available through the Masters Lecture Series of California Southern University, 2) read my blog posts, and 3) read the articles and essays on my website.  You might want to also attach an article or essay from my website, such as the Professional-to-Professional letter, or The Hostage Metaphor article, or the Reunification Therapy article.  Be gentle, be kind, but be relentless.  You’re fighting for your child and you’ve tolerated the professional incompetence of mental health far too long.  It is time that you demand professional competence from professional psychology.  Be kind, but be relentless.  Things must change within professional psychology.

2. Identify and create a list of leadership in professional mental health.

If I were to approach this task, I might look around the homepages of the American Psychological Association, along with various relevant divisions, such as Division 41: American Psychology-Law Society, Division 43: Society for Family Psychology, Division 53: Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Division 12: Society of Clinical Psychology, looking to identify the leadership of these groups and organizations.

I’d then google the names of the leadership to find email addresses, and I’d send them a brief and polite email suggesting that they watch the online seminar of Dr. Childress regarding a new attachment-based model for describing “parental alienation.”  It’s not Gardner.  It’s new.  It describes a model for understanding “parental alienation” from the perspective of the attachment system.  And attached is an article by Dr. Childress from his website, and you might want to follow up by checking out his blog, he has some very interesting pieces on “parental alienation” from an attachment system perspective on his blog.

I might also google State Psychological Associations, such as the Texas Psychological Association, the New York Psychological Association, the Ohio Psychological Association, the California Psychological Association, etc. and do the same thing, identify and google the leadership of these organizations to find email addresses, and then send them brief and polite emails promoting their awareness for the attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

I might explore other professional associations, such as the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.  Psi Chi is an International Honor Society in Psychology for undergraduate and graduate students in psychology. They might be interested in a new attachment-based model of “parental alienation.  Identify and google the leadership to find email addresses, and send them a brief and polite email.

Google APA journals, such as Law and Human Behavior;  Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice;  Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment;  Professional Psychology: Research and Practice;  Journal of Personality Disorders;  Child Maltreatment;  Journal of Family Studies;  Family Relations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies;  Journal of Child and Family Studies;  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.  Identify and google the editors to find email addresses and send them a brief and polite email suggesting they watch the online seminar of Dr. Childress regarding an attachment-based model for “parental alienation.”

3. Begin a campaign of emailing the identified leadership in establishment psychology.  Not all at once, but pinging them regularly from time to time. Different people, pinging them now and then.  You have tolerated professional incompetence within mental health for far to long.  Things need to change.  But be kind and gentle, but also be relentless.

4. Email editors for various law reviews at university law schools, suggesting that they watch the online seminar on an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.” The hook for an article in a law school review is how changing the paradigm affects the presentation of “parental alienation” in court.  Instead of “parental alienation” the issue becomes “pathogenic parenting” and instead of a child custody issue the issue becomes one of child protection.  Students will be the ones who will most likely actualize the paradigm shift.

I think it would be interesting for a student bar association at a university law school to join with the Psi Chi honor society at the same university, or at another university, to host an online seminar or panel discussion on “The Changing Paradigm in Defining Parental Alienation in Family Law” or some such topic.  I suspect you might be able to find interest and energy in graduate student organizations.

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

Dealing with the Alienating Parent

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

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

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

Baseline Advice

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

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

Our primary goal should be,

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

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

Possible Interventions with the Alienating Parent

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

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

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

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

Inability to Process Sadness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Splitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

This is also exceedingly challenging.

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

Treatment involves four phases,

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

2. Recovery of the authentic child,

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

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

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

References

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

Finding Authenticity

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

Question:

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

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

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

Caveat 1

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

Caveat 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The premise of the question is similar to asking,

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

Or, similarly

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

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

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

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

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

Caveat 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Answer:

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

Harmonic Resonance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gandhi said, “the antidote is the opposite.”

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

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

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

Understanding the Emotion System

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy relaxes emotional spasms.

Using Background Emotional Signaling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Intersubjectivity

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

Guardians ad Litem and the Best Interests of the Child

The respective roles of a Guardian ad Litem and of minor’s counsel are different, and the mandates governing the legal representation provided by Guardians ad Litem differ from those governing the representation provided by minor’s counsel.

Guardians ad Litem are mandated to represent the “best interests of the child” whereas the role of minor’s counsel is simply to represent the expressed views of the child, supposedly as an unfiltered “voice of the child” in the Court proceedings.

The roles and mandates of Guardians ad Litem (GAL) and minor’s counsel are different.

In a prior post I addressed the highly problematic features associated with the appointment of minor’s counsel (see The Appointment of Minor’s Counsel Must Stop). In this current post I will address issues surrounding the role of a Guardian ad Litem for the child. Since the Guardian ad Litem is tasked with representing the “best interests” of the child the problems discussed in association with minor’s counsel do not apply.

The Guardian ad Litem’s role in providing legal representation for the child’s “best interests” can serve an important and valuable function in the legal setting and can be coordinated effectively with the role of mental health professionals to resolve the family’s psychopathology. The primary issue surrounding Guardians ad Litem is in defining the criteria by which the “best interests of the child” is to be defined.

Best Interests of the Child

By what criteria are the “best interests of the child” defined?  This is a complex and challenging question; but it is not an impossible question, and it is a question that professional mental health must begin to address.

We cannot act in the child’s “best interests” if we don’t first know what those “best interests” are. How do we define what the child’s “best interests” are? Nowhere has an operational definition been proposed for how the construct of the child’s “best interests” should be defined.

By analogy to the legal system, the absence of an operational definition for a construct is like saying that we shouldn’t do anything illegal, yet we never define the laws for what represents legal and illegal activity. We then go about deciding on a case-by-case basis what the definition of “illegal” is without any guidance from underlying laws and legal principles.

This is essentially what we are doing with the construct of “best interests” in mental health. We have no established definition, or even criteria, by which we can define what the construct of the child’s “best interests” mean, so that we must then we go about defining this vague and nebulous construct on a case-by-case basis without any guiding principles or foundations.

By analogy, this is like defining the term “illegal” without any guiding principles or foundations provided by underlying laws and legal structures.

While we can never achieve precision in defining what the construct of “best interests” entails, and while decisions will still need to be made on a case-by-case basis for the unique situation of each child, we can nevertheless achieve greater clarity regarding the basic principles on which a decision regarding the child’s “best interests” are to be made.

Again, by analogy, while we will always need Courts to make determinations of what represents legal and illegal activity on a case-by-case basis, we can nevertheless create an underlying structure of laws and procedures that guides the endeavor to define the construct of “illegal”.

So too, while we will always need to make determinations of what represents the child’s “best interests” on a case-by-case basis, we can nevertheless create, through professional level dialogue regarding established psychological principles and scientific evidence, an underlying structure and foundation to guide our efforts to operationally define the construct of the child’s “best interests”.

The Domains and Factors

It is beyond the scope of a blog post to define such a complicated construct. However, I can begin to identify some of the general domains involved.

Foundational Domains

Developmental Sensitivity: Children’s emotional and psychological needs change based on their age and the developmental period. Identifying the “best interests” of the child requires a full understanding for specific features of the differing developmental periods during childhood and adolescence and the changing needs of children based on these ever-changing, ever-emerging developmental periods.

Parental Qualities: The child’s healthy or unhealthy development is highly dependent on the qualities of parenting the child receives. Identifying the “best interests” of the child requires a full understanding for how parenting affects child development and for the specific qualities associated with healthy and toxic parenting practices.

Secondary Domains

Interaction Effects: The demands on parenting change based on the child’s developmental period. For example, young children benefit from the calm and confident assertion of parental authority that provides children with a sense of security, while adolescents benefit from parenting that includes increased respectful dialogue and negotiation that recognizes the increasing developmental autonomy of the adolescent.

Balancing Alternatives: A perfect situation is seldom available, so that determining the “best interests” of the child often involves comparative judgments regarding the options available. This increases the demands on the professional who must possess a high level of understanding for the primary dimensions of child developmental needs and parental influences in order to compare and balance the relative importance of factors.

Tertiary Domains

Unique Situational Factors: Within the context of Foundational and Secondary Domains, the professional must also evaluate the impact across these primary and secondary domains of unique situational factors, such as special medical issues with the child or the unique psychological needs of the child.

Additional Considerations: The degree to which additional considerations, such as financial stability and material comforts, cultural factors, or unique issues of family history are considered relative to the “best interests” of the child merits additional dialogue and discussion.

The determination of the child’s “best interests” is a complex undertaking that requires a high degree of professional expertise in child development and mental health issues.  To expect an attorney to possess this complex psychological and mental health expertise is unreasonable, just as it would be unreasonable to expect a psychologist to understand the extensive information of the legal field.

Guardians ad Litem then need to interface closely and cooperatively with the mental health profession in order to access the professional expertise necessary for fulfilling the required role of the Guardian ad Litem to represent the “best interests” of the child.

The close collaborative relationship that attorneys acting the the capacity of Guardian ad Litem for a child must maintain with mental health places professional responsibilities on the attorney to possess some understanding of the mental health issues involved in order to allow informed dialogue to occur.

Standards of Practice

Mental health professionals who work in the context of the legal system are required to possess a fundamental understanding for the legal system as a component of their professional competency.

Both the American Psychological Association (2010; 2013) and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (2006; 2010) have produced guidelines for mental health professionals who interface with the legal system.

American Psychological Association, (2013) Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology. American Psychologist, 68, 7-19.

American Psychological Association. (2010) Guidelines for child custody evaluations in family law proceedings. American Psychologist, 65, 863-867.

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

Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. (2010) Guidelines for Court-Involved Therapy. Madison, WI: Author.

Yet no equal and commensurate guidelines have been produced by the American Bar Association or the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts regarding the necessary training in mental health issues involving children and families needed by attorneys who interface with the mental health system as Guardians ad Litem for children. 

Given the extensive child developmental and mental health expertise necessary to make a responsible determination of the child’s “best interests,” commensurate and equal professional guidelines from the American Bar Association and Association of Family and Conciliation Courts for attorneys who serve as Guardians ad Litem need to be developed that outline:

1)  The foundational knowledge base in child development and family mental health issues necessary to dialogue and interface effectively and collaboratively with mental health professionals

2 )  The procedures used in making determinations regarding children’s “best interests”

3)   The general criteria to be used in making determinations regarding children’s “best interests”

Foundational Knowledge Base

Making decisions regarding the “best interests” of the child can have such a profound and permanent impact on the child’s developmental trajectory and life outcomes that it represents an awesome professional responsibility.  Asking that attorneys who are acting in such a powerful and responsible position possess at least a professional-level familiarity with relevant developmental and mental health family constructs represents both a reasonable and rational approach to addressing the awesome responsibility involved in making determinations regarding a child’s “best interests,” determinations that can have an incredibly profound and permanent impact on a child’s life.

Even if the Guardian ad Litem relies on the opinions and judgments of mental health professionals, the inherent professional responsibility of the Guardian ad Litem should require at least a professional-level familiarity with the relevant psychological constructs in order to allow for informed dialogue with mental health professionals.  This would be commensurate with the expectations of mental health professionals who interface regularly with the legal system to understand basic procedures and issues relevant to the legal system in order to function collaboratively within that system

Standard 2.04 of the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology of the American Psychological Association regarding “Knowledge of the Legal System and the Legal Rights of Individuals” requires that,

Forensic practitioners recognize the importance of obtaining a fundamental and reasonable level of knowledge and understanding of the legal and professional standards, laws, rules, and precedents that govern their participation in legal proceedings and that guide the impact of their services on service recipients.”

It is reasonable to expect that attorneys who interface regularly with mental health professionals in determining the “best interests” of the child, which requires a high level of expertise in relevant developmental and family mental health constructs, possess an equal and commensurate “fundamental and reasonable level of knowledge and understanding” regarding the developmental and family mental health constructs and principles that guide the determination of the child’s “best interests.”

Furthermore, mental health professionals are also required to coordinate their professional activities within the legal system in a way that does not “threaten or impair” the legal rights of individuals within the legal context.

“Forensic practitioners aspire to manage their professional conduct in a manner that does not threaten or impair the rights of affected individuals.  They may consult with, and refer others to, legal counsel on matters of law.” (APA, 1010; Standard 2.04)

An equal and commensurate standard regarding the professional responsibilities of Guardians ad Litem to interface effectively with the child’s family therapy is a similarly reasonable expectation.

Recommended Domains of Knowledge

I would offer the following domains as necessary for the reasonable interface of attorneys acting as a child’s Guardian ad Litem with the mental health system in order to responsibly fulfill their role of determining the child’s “best interests”:

Developmental Knowledge:  A foundational understanding for the qualities and characteristics of the developmental phases of childhood and adolescence

Family Systems Constructs:  A basic understanding for established family systems constructs of homeostasis, triangulation, boundaries and enmeshment, the role of child symptoms in conferring power within the family, and the indicators of cross-generational parent-child coalitions

Parental Psychopathology:  Centering on personality disorder traits that can severely impact parenting and family dynamics. Of particular note is the importance of understanding and recognizing narcissistic and borderline parental psychopathology as these have a particularly toxic effect on children and family relationships and often go unrecognized and unnoticed by untrained and unfamiliar professionals (the presence of prominent narcissistic and borderline personality traits in a parent can raise child protection concerns)

The Attachment System: A foundational understanding for the nature of the attachment system, its characteristic features, and its display in both healthy parent-child relationships and distorted parent-child relationships

Communication Dynamics:  The relationship and communication dynamics by which parental influence on the child is achieved, including constructs of parental attunement and misattunement, parental emotional signaling, and role-reversal parent-child relationships.

Neuroscience of Child Development: An appropriate level of familiarity with current neuroscience regarding the socially mediated development of the brain during childhood, particularly regarding the healthy developmental importance of breach-and-repair sequences (i.e., parent-child conflict) and the central role of parental empathy (i.e., “intersubjectivity”) in healthy child development

Online seminars in these domains could be developed through the collaborative expertise of the American Psychological Association and the American Bar Association to ensure that attorneys serving as Guardians ad Litem for children possess the requisite “fundamental and reasonable level of knowledge and understanding” in the relevant domains necessary for making a professionally responsible and informed determination regarding the “best interests” of the child. 

Scientific Foundation

Mental health professionals who interface regularly with the legal system are required to base their opinions on “adequate scientific foundation, and reliable and valid principles and methods”.

Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology: Standard 2.05 “Knowledge of the Scientific Foundation for Opinions and Testimony”:

“Forensic practitioners seek to provide opinions and testimony that are sufficiently based upon adequate scientific foundation, and reliable and valid principles and methods that have been applied appropriately to the facts of the case.”

Attorneys who are making determinations of the child’s best interests” that can significantly impact the developmental trajectory of the child throughout the remainder of the child’s life, should be held to a similar standard for anchoring their professional responsibilities in “adequate scientific foundation and reliable and valid principles and methods that have been applied appropriately to the facts of the case.”

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

References

American Psychological Association, (2013) Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology. American Psychologist, 68, 7-19.

American Psychological Association. (2010) Guidelines for child custody evaluations in family law proceedings. American Psychologist, 65, 863-867.

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

Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. (2010) Guidelines for Court-Involved Therapy. Madison, WI: Author.

The Appointment of Minor’s Counsel Must Stop

Appointing minor’s counsel to represent the child in a family custody dispute is the single most destructive action the Court can take.

There are four primary problems with the appointment of minor’s counsel to represent the child:

1.) Appointing minor’s counsel introduces two prominent sources of bias into the legal proceedings that favor one side over the other;

2.) The appointment of minor’s counsel introduces, incites, colludes with, and supports pathological processes within the family to the detriment of the child;

3.) By introducing, inciting, and supporting the family’s psychopathology, the appointment of minor’s counsel undermines and can fully nullify therapeutic efforts to resolve family psychopathology;

4.) In failing to comprehend the complexity of developmental immaturity during childhood and adolescence, appointing a minor’s counsel offers an overly simplistic effort at a solution that will result in misguided advocacy by minor’s counsel for positions that are contrary to the child’s best interests and healthy development.

Bias

The Spectrum of Normal-Range Parenting

Normal-range parenting extends across a continuum from lax and permissive parenting to structured and firm parenting.

Lax and permissive parenting favors relationship development, while structured and firm parenting emphasizes the development of maturity. Both styles can be entirely normal range and healthy parenting approaches, and both parenting styles can lead to mature and healthy child development.

Parental preferences for one style over the other is a matter of parental values which are typically the product of parental experiences within their own families of origin. As such, parental preferences for differing parental styles are culture bound and culturally influenced.

Professional psychology typically favors a balanced approach of parenting styles that is more in the mid-range of parenting approaches, combining flexible negotiation with structured expectations for child behavior. For example, if parenting style were represented by a numerical continuum ranging from 1 to 100, with lower numbers indicating a more lax and permissive parenting style and higher numbers representing a more structured and firm parenting style, then normal-range parenting would extend from a range of 20 to 80 on this scale. The more extreme the parenting becomes the more problematic it becomes, but there is a wide latitude of normal-range parenting. Professional psychology tends to favor parenting in the mid-range represented by a combined parenting style, somewhere between 40 to 60 on the numerical range of parenting style.

Lax and Permissive Parenting: Parents who tend toward the lax and permissive style favor emotional and relationship qualities over maturational and behavioral qualities. Rules and expectations for children’s behavior are more flexibly negotiated, and lax and permissive parents may tend to avoid conflict in an effort to maintain interpersonal harmony within the family. As parenting moves toward the extremes of this style, parenting becomes increasingly over-indulgent and disengaged.

Firm and Structured Parenting: Parents who tend toward a more firm and structured parenting style favor maturation in child behavior, and these parents tend to adopt a more hierarchical family organization that emphasizes parental authority. Rules and expectations for child behavior are more clearly established and maintained, and parents adopting a structured and firm parental approach tend to be more comfortable with managing interpersonal conflicts. At extremes of this parenting style (80-100), parents can become dictatorial and overly inflexible, potentially prompting high levels of parent-child conflict or excessively submissive child behavior.

Within the normal-range of parenting approaches, both parenting styles are acceptable, both parenting styles can produce normal-range and healthy children, and both parenting styles have advantages and disadvantages, which is why professional psychology tends to favor a mid-range balanced approach to parenting that blends both parenting styles. Families can also blend parenting styles between the parents in a healthy and normal way, with one parent tending toward the more lax and permissive (emotionally nurturing) parenting style, while the other parent tends toward the more structured and firm (disciplinarian) parenting role. As long as the spousal unit remains cohesive, this blend of parenting styles can work effectively.

However, in fractured marital relationships differences in parenting style can become the source of inter-parental conflict. From the perspective of either parenting style, the other parenting style will appear problematic. For the lax and permissive parent, the more firm and structured parenting style of the other parent will appear too harsh and insensitive. From the perspective of the structured and firm parent, the lax and permissive style of the other parent will appear too indulgent and disengaged. Yet from the balanced perspective of professional psychology, the differing parenting styles of both parents are recognized as entirely normal-range and healthy, with the differences merely reflecting a matter of differing parental value systems.

Parents have the legitimate parental right to establish their value system with their children and in their families, so wide latitude should be granted to parental prerogatives in the exercise of parental style. As long as parenting avoids the extremes of either parenting approach (i.e., 0-20 the disengaged/neglectful parent; 80-100 the harsh/abusive parent) then due deference should be granted to the legitimate parental rights afforded to parents to establish family structure patterns consistent with their value systems.

Child Preferences

However, from the perspective of the developmental immaturity of children and adolescents, the lax and permissive parenting style will be favored over the structured and firm parenting style until full child-to-adult maturity is achieved, at which point, in retrospect the young adult develops a greater longitudinal appreciation for the benefits afforded by a firm and structured parenting style that led to the development of greater personal maturity. For example, the child may not like practicing the piano or doing homework for 90 minutes every night, yet by adulthood the once-child-now-adult may appreciate knowing how to play the piano and may be more successful in his or her academics and career because of the structured expectations provided by parents during childhood and adolescence.

But if we ask the child at the time, the developmental immaturity of the child would prefer to eat ice cream rather than vegetables, and the developmental immaturity of the adolescent would prefer to play video games or talk with friends rather than do homework and complete household chores. Yet the parental structure of insisting that the child eat healthy meals and insisting that the child complete responsibilities before indulging in play or leisure activities – even though these parentally directed activities are not preferred by the child, and even though parental insistence on these child behaviors can lead to increased parent-child conflict – can nevertheless promote the child’s healthy emotional and psychological maturation and development over more indulgent and permissive parenting.

Yet the developmental immaturity of the child and adolescent will nevertheless favor the lax and permissive parent.

So if minor’s counsel is appointed to represent the child’s or adolescent’s expressed preferences, an inherent bias is introduced into the Court proceedings in favor of whichever parent adopts a more lax and permissive parenting style. The more structured and firm parent is then placed in a problematic position through the inherent bias introduced by the Court of altering his or her parenting style and the legitimate expression of parental values within the family in favor of adopting a lax and permissive parenting style commensurate with the other parent in order to seek the child’s favor, since the child’s preferences and favor are being granted weight in the legal proceedings.

The influence of this Court-introduced bias in favor of one parenting style over the other then unbalances the family by requiring that both parents adopt an equally lax and permissive parenting style, which can undermine providing the child with the needed structure and discipline necessary for healthy maturation. However, if the more structured and firm parent continues to act in the best interests of the child by providing normal-range structure and discipline, then the inherent bias introduced by the Court in appointing a minor’s counsel to represent the expressed but developmentally immature preferences of the child will tend to produce unfavorable rulings against the structured and firm parent because of the weight given to the child’s expressed “preferences”.

The deliberate introduction of bias by the Court into legal proceedings is contrary to the principles of balance and fairness within the legal system, and the potentially detrimental impact that such Court-introduced bias has on family relationships, family functioning, and the long-range healthy emotional, social, and psychological development of the child or adolescent is contrary to the best interests of the child or adolescent. Courts should respect the legitimate parental rights and prerogatives of parents to establish within their families interaction patterns with their children that are consistent with parental value systems, and Courts should avoid taking actions that deliberately introduce preferential bias and that give preferential influence to one set of family values over another set of family values, particularly considering that these family values can be culturally embedded.

Second Source of Bias

The second source of inherent bias introduced by the appointment of minor’s counsel is in favor of pathological family processes over healthy family processes.

The appointment of minor’s counsel to represent the child fails to appreciate the complexity of family relationship dynamics, and two particular family relationship patterns are of particular concern relative to the appointment of minor’s counsel, 1) a role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used to gratify and meet the emotional and psychological needs and the psychopathology of the parent, and 2) the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict through the formation of a cross-generational parent-child coalition of the child with one parent against the other parent.

Role-Reversal Relationship

There are a variety of types of role-reversal relationships. In some role-reversal relationships the child takes on a parental caregiving role for the parent (such as with an alcoholic, depressed, or incapacitated parent). Other types of role-reversal relationships involve the parent using the child as a “regulating object” (such as when the parent prevents the development of the child’s independent autonomy in order to ameliorate the parent’s own abandonment insecurities).

In role-reversal relationships the child is induced or seduced by the parent into taking care of the parent’s emotional and psychological needs, and a role-reversal relationship is considered highly pathological and highly destructive to the child’s healthy emotional and psychological development (for example, the prototype exemplar for a role-reversal relationship is incest, in which the child is used to meet the parent’s sexual/psychological needs).

The outward appearance of a role-reversal relationship, however, is of a bonded parent-child relationship in which the child expresses a high degree of affectional bonding toward the (pathological) needy parent. This pathological bonding motivation is typically at the expense of the child’s relationship with the other parent.

“By binding the child in an overly close and dependent relationship, the enmeshed parent creates a psychological unhealthy childrearing environment that interferes with the child’s development of an autonomous self… 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, p. 10)

Note that Kerig’s analysis of role-reversal relationships (also referred to as a “cross-generational boundary dissolution”) is published in the Journal of Emotional Abuse. Role-reversal relationships are considered to be highly pathological.

Also of note, is the commentary of Minuchin on the impact of enmeshed parent-child relationships on the cognitive functioning of the child,

“Members of enmeshed subsystems or families may be handicapped in that the heightened sense of belonging requires a major yielding of autonomy… In children particularly, cognitive-affective skills are thereby inhibited” (Minuchin, 1974, p. 55)

The appointment of a minor’s counsel to represent the child’s expressed “preferences” colludes with the psychopathology of a role-reversal relationship within the family and will introduce an inherent bias in the legal proceedings in favor of the pathological parent over the healthy and normal-range parent. The deliberate introduction by the Court of an inherent bias to the Court proceedings that favors the continued maintenance of family psychopathology is exceedingly ill-conceived.

Triangulation and Coalitions

It is both extraordinarily common and unhealthy for children to become triangulated into spousal conflicts. One of the common forms of children’s triangulation into spousal conflict is through the formation of a cross-generational parent-child coalition in which the child is drawn into an alliance with one parent against the other parent.

Salvador Minuchin, considered by many to be the preeminent family systems theorist, described the cross-generational parent-child coalition as a form of “rigid triangle”,

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

Another preeminent family systems theorist, Jay Haley, defines the cross-generational coalition as a “perverse triangle”,

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

Note that it is definitional to the cross-generational coalition that the coalition is denied. The client child or adolescent of minor’s counsel will, by definition, deny the coalition that exists between the child and the allied and supposedly “favored” parent that is against the other parent. This means that in representing the child’s expressed preferences, minor’s counsel is actively colluding with the cross-generational coalition of the child and one parent against the other parent. This then, becomes an inherent source of Court-introduced bias in the legal proceedings.

Note also, that Haley identifies the cross-generational parent-child coalition as “pathological”. The minor’s counsel then is colluding with the family’s psychopathology against the interest of the healthier parent who is seeking resolution of the family’s pathology.

When minor’s counsel is appointed to represent the child who is in a pathological cross-generational coalition with one parent against the other parent, minor’s counsel is essentially being appointed to represent the maintenance of the psychopathology within the family. An inherent bias is thereby introduced into the Court proceedings in favor of maintaining the family’s psychopathology over the healthier elements of the family system that seek resolution of the family’s pathology.

Appointing minor’s counsel is essentially appointing legal representation for the family’s psychopathology. This is both insane and extraordinarily destructive.

If the Court insists on appointing legal counsel to represent the interests of the family’s psychopathology by supporting the child’s role-reversal relationship with the pathological parent and the child’s pathological cross-generational parent-child coalition with one parent against the other parent, and that will inherently introduce bias into the Court proceedings in favor of maintaining the family’s psychopathology over the healthier aspects of the family that seek resolution of the family’s pathology, then additional compensatory and balancing legal counsel should be appointed to represent the healthy aspects of the family that are seeking to resolve the family’s psychopathology.

Better still is for the Court to avoid deliberately introducing an inherent bias into the legal proceedings that favors maintaining the family’s psychopathology by completely avoiding introducing into the legal proceedings the inherent bias associated with the appointment of minor’s counsel to represent the interests of maintaining the family’s psychopathology.

Nullification of Therapy

By appointing minor’s counsel to collude with and support the maintenance of the family’s psychopathology, the actions of the Court will effectively undermine, and in some cases completely nullify therapeutic efforts to treat and eliminate the family’s pathological functioning.

First, as noted above, the appointment of minor’s counsel colludes with and entrenches the pathological processes within the family. Therapy must then OVERCOME the distorting influence of minor’s counsel that supports and colludes with the maintenance of the family’s psychopathology.

Second, the appointment of minor’s counsel destructively inverts the parent-child hierarchy by placing the child in an overly empowered and overly inflated position of judging parents. Salvador Minuchin discusses the importance of parental authority within the family,

“Parenting always requires the use of authority. Parents cannot carry out their executive functions unless they have the power to do so…. Children and parents, and sometimes therapists, frequently describe the ideal family as a democracy. But they mistakenly assume that a democratic society is leaderless, or that a family is a society of peers. Effective functioning requires that parents and children accept the fact that the differentiated use of authority is a necessary ingredient for the parental subsystem. This becomes a social training lab for the children, who need to know how to negotiate in situations of unequal power. (p. 58)

The appointment of minor’s counsel inappropriately and destructively elevates the child’s position in the family hierarchy, which serves to further entrench any pathological processes that exist within the family.

The elevation of the child puts the “non-favored” parent in a position of having to appease the child in order to curry the child’s favor. This is an extremely destructive family dynamic that undermines the therapeutic resolution of the family’s pathology. As long as this family dynamic exists, therapy will be ineffectual because the parent has been disempowered by the Court’s decision to appoint minor’s counsel and so lacks the necessary parental authority to “carry out their executive functions.”

Seeking and giving weight to the child’s preferences regarding his or her parents effectively acts to triangulate the child into the spousal conflict by asking the child, or allowing the child, to form alliances with one parent against the other, and choose one parent over the other. The child’s “preferences” are elevated into becoming a “prize to be won” within the spousal/parental relationship, with each parent competing to be the “winner” of the child’s “preference”. This is an extremely destructive relationship dynamic to introduce into the family, yet it is EXACTLY this destructive triangulation of the child into the spousal conflict as a “prize to be won” that the appointment of minor’s counsel to represent the child’s expressed preferences introduces into the family.

In my professional view, the appointment of minor’s counsel in a family conflict situation is so inherently destructive of the conditions necessary for effective treatment, that professional psychology should strongly consider whether the appointment of minor’s counsel to represent the child in a family conflict precludes and effectively prevents therapy.

Standard 10 of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct established by the American Psychological Association addresses the context and conduct of Therapy, and Standard 10.10a requires that “psychologists terminate therapy when it becomes reasonably clear that the client/patient… is not likely to benefit…”

The appointment of minor’s counsel acts to firmly entrench the family’s psychopathology and actively colludes with the family’s psychopathology, and appointment of minor’s counsel both introduces and sustains distorted family relationship dynamics that are likely to prevent and preclude therapy from resolving the family’s pathology, so that under Standard 10.10a of the ethics code for the American Psychological Association psychologists should terminate treatment because the child and family are “not likely to benefit” from therapy in that context.

Developmental Immaturity

The appointment of minor’s counsel grossly misunderstands the nature of child and adolescent immaturity and development. Focusing only on adolescents, brain neurodevelopment is still incomplete during adolescence. While some proto-adult capacities are active and available, other important socio-emotional and judgment capacities remain incompletely developed, so that the judgment of adolescents remains significantly impaired.

If an adolescent is to make an informed “independent” decision (the construct of “independent” is questionable from a socio-neurological perspective, see for example Cozolino, 2006) then the adolescent should be afforded all of the relevant information necessary to make an informed decision. In the context of divorce and the dissolution of the intact family structure, the relevant information can include the reasons for the divorce from each parent’s perspective, since in the absence of balanced information one parent may provide the child with inaccurate and unbalanced information that potentially blames the other parent, thereby inciting and inflaming the child’s anger and hostility toward the other parent.

Simply asking the child if one parent influenced the child is insufficient to guarantee that the child has balanced and accurate information on which to base a decision, since a number of family processes can subtly provide the child with distorted information and interpretations, but the processes by which the child acquired this information may remain below the level of the child’s conscious awareness. So if we are to seek the child’s preferences, then we should guarantee that the child has accurate and balanced information from both sides regarding the family dysfunctions and family relationship dynamics so that the child can make an informed “independent” decision regarding his or her desires and best interests.

So then, let’s have each parent in turn sit before the child and recount the reasons for the divorce and family’s dissolution and describe for the child the failures of the other parent as a spouse and parent, with each parent presenting to the child the reasons the child should choose a particular option. In this way, the child will have balanced and (reasonably) accurate information regarding the family situation from which the child can then make an informed decision about his or her best interests and preferences regarding family relationships.

But is this actually what we want to do? Absolutely NOT.

But in the absence of establishing such a procedure to ensure that the child has accurate and complete information on which to base his or her decisions, then we are vulnerable to advocating for child decisions that are based on the child’s incomplete understanding of the situation and its consequences.

It is best to avoid this whole quagmire by not seeking the child’s supposedly “independent” preferences, and by instead making decisions among adults as to the best interests of the child.

Furthermore, the adolescent brain lacks important executive function abilities that would allow it to make fully reasoned decisions. There is a tendency for the adolescent brain to make impulsive decisions based on indulgent gratification of present-moment desires, and it lacks the capacity for longer-term perspective taking that fully considers future consequences of present decisions.

This is an inherent, neuro-developmentally based limitation on the adolescent brain.

So while it may appear that the adolescent brain has some mature decisional capacities, these capacities are biased in favor of momentary gratification and self-indulgence that inherently favors the lax and permissive parenting style over the structured and firm parenting style, even though the structured and firm parenting style may be in the adolescent’s longer-term best interests.

The immature development of the adolescent’s frontal lobe executive function capacity would recommend that in making decisions the adolescent should be provided with the scaffolding support of a fully mature nervous system of an adult. This raises the question of which adult should provide the scaffolding support (i.e., directive influence) for the adolescent’s still immaturely developed frontal lobe executive function capacity. In normal-range families, this scaffolding support is provided by the adolescent’s parents until the age of 18, at which time this scaffolding support is withdrawn and the late-adolescent is allowed to enter into contracts and make decisions independently of parental permission.

If the Court is to advance the adolescent’s decision making influence into the period of earlier neuro-developmental immaturity and instability by appointing legal counsel to represent the younger-adolescent, then it becomes incumbent upon minor’s counsel to possess a professional level of understanding for the exact nature of the compromises inherent to the cognitive functioning and judgments of the adolescent client. Unless we compensate for the yet uncompleted developmental immaturity of the adolescent brain we will be inadvertently providing support to the compromised decision making by the client that can lead to long-term negative consequences for the adolescent client because of poor decision making which received our misguided and developmentally ignorant support.

Conclusion

Except under extraordinary circumstances, minor’s counsel should NEVER be appointed by the Court to represent the child or adolescent in family conflicts.

The role of representing the child’s (or adolescent’s) interests should be shifted into the domain of professional psychology. If the Court wishes to achieve representation for the child’s interests in the legal proceeding, or for those of an adolescent, then the Court should appoint a family therapist to act as the child’s or adolescent’s representative (the voice of the child) to the Court. This would allow the Court to receive balanced and professionally informed input from the perspective of the child or adolescent while avoiding collusion with the family’s pathology that would undermine the ability of therapy to treat and alleviate the family’s psychopathology.

If the Court insists on appointing minor’s counsel, then standards of practice should be developed to direct and guide the interface of minor’s counsel with the surrounding mental health needs of the family and client. Additional guidelines would be needed to address the inherent biases to the legal proceedings in favor of one party over the other that are introduced as a consequence of appointing minor’s counsel.

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

 References

Cozolino, L. (2006): The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. WW Norton & Company, New York.

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

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

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

 

Online Seminar Available

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing New – No Excuse

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

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

Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorder

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

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

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

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

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

“Psychologists provide services, teach and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study or professional experience.”

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

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

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

Cross-Generational Parent-Child Coalition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Excuse

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personality Disorders

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

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

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

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

Family Systems

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

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

Trauma Reenactment

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

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

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

Standards of Practice

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

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

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