Gardner’s Model of PAS and the Need for a Paradigm Shift

The construct of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was first proposed by Richard Gardner in the 1980s.  His work and insight is to be applauded for recognizing a clinical phenomenon surrounding an induced child rejection of a normal-range parent as a result of the distorted parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.  However, Gardner too quickly abandoned established psychological principles and constructs in proposing a new “syndrome” that was supposedly identifiable by a set of anecdotal clinical signs.  In abandoning the rigor imposed on professional practice by scientifically established psychological principles and constructs, Gardner failed to adequately establish the theoretical foundations for his anecdotal clinical insights, and targeted parents and their children have been paying the price for this theoretical failure across the 30 years since the introduction of the PAS model.

Gardner’s lack of necessary professional rigor in formulating his theory of PAS has resulted in decades of internal disputes within professional psychology that have divided the voice of professional psychology and have prevented the formulation of a solution to a very real clinical phenomenon.  Professional psychology has been “split” in dealing with the issues of “parental alienation” as a consequence of Gardner’s lack of professional rigor.  In order to find a solution, it is imperative that this rupture in professional psychology be resolved.

Marsha Linehan, one of the leading experts in borderline personality processes, describes a phenomenon called “staff splitting” that is familiar to all clinical psychologists who work with borderline patients.  Staff splitting involves a parallel process in the treatment team to the splitting dynamic of the borderline patient, in which polar sides develop within the treatment team regarding the borderline patient so that the treatment team becomes divided by internal arguments and disputes regarding the borderline patient.  It is almost axiomatic in clinical psychology, when disputes and arguments develop within a treatment team regarding a patient, assess for borderline personality characteristics with the patient.

“Staff splitting,” as mentioned earlier, is a much-discussed phenomenon in which professionals treating borderline patients begin arguing and fighting about a patient, the treatment plan, or the behavior of the other professionals with the patient… arguments among staff members and differences in points of view, traditionally associated with staff splitting, are seen as failures in synthesis and interpersonal process among the staff rather than as a patient’s problem… Therapist disagreements over a patient are treated as potentially equally valid poles of a dialectic. Thus, the starting point for dialogue is the recognition that a polarity has arisen, together with an implicit (if not explicit) assumption that resolution will require working toward synthesis.” (Linehan, 1993, p. 432)

The dynamics of “parental alienation” emerge from the narcissistic and borderline personalty disorder processes of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, and so it is not surprising that the phenomenon of “staff splitting” has similarly emerged relative to the construct of “parental alienation,” in which sides have been drawn between supporters and detractors of the PAS construct. What is surprising is that no one in professional psychology has recognized the manifestation of “staff splitting” in the divided professional response to PAS, especially since the splitting dynamic is so prominently evident in the child’s symptom display.

In any event, an end to the division within professional psychology is long past overdue, and the clearly evident tragedy of “parental alienation” requires that professional psychology unite around a common effort to develop an accurate model of the clinical phenomenon associated with “parental alienation.”  Following the guidance of Marsha Linehan, professional psychology needs to recognize that both sides in the dispute represent “equally valid poles of a dialectic” that require synthesis.

The supporters of the PAS construct are correct in identifying a clinical issue of profound significance involving a parentally induced cut-off of the child’s relationship with a normal-range parent as a consequence of extremely distorted parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.  The critics of the PAS construct are also correct in their assertion that the PAS model lacks sufficient scientific foundation as a professional construct.  Both sides represent “equally valid polls of a dialectic.”

The division within mental health has lasted far too long to the the tragic detriment of far too many families and children.  It is time to end the rift and bring synthesis to the debate.  A clinical phenomena exists involving an induced child-initiated cut-off of the child’s relationship with a normal-range parent as a result of aberrant and distorted parenting practices emanating from the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, AND the nature of this clinical process requires description from within established and scientifically supported psychological constructs and principles.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” accomplishes this synthesis, and it can serve to end the division within professional psychology, so that mental health can speak with a single voice regarding the clinical phenomenon classically described as “parental alienation.”  An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” defines the dynamics involved in “parental alienation” across multiple levels of integrated analysis, 1) the family systems level, 3) the personality disorder level, and 3) the level of the attachment system.

The psychopathology involved is complex, but it is understandable, and it leads to a set of clear diagnostic indicators that are firmly established within scientifically supported psychological constructs.  In addition, an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” establishes clear domains of professional knowledge that define standards of practice for professional competence in the diagnosis and treatment of this “special population” of children and families.  Failure to possess the requisite professional knowledge, training, and expertise in attachment theory, personality disorder processes (particularly narcissistic an borderline personality dynamics and their characteristic decompensation under stress), and in family systems constructs (particularly centering on the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict through a cross-generational parent-child coalition against the other parent) which is necessary for competent professional diagnosis and treatment with this “special population” of children and families may represent practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence in violation of professional practice standards.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” also establishes clear treatment parameters based on a  fundamental understanding of the psychological processes involved, which require as the first step 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. The need for a protective separation of the child is made necessary on two grounds, 1) to protect the child from continued exposure to the psychological child abuse associated with the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and 2) to prevent psychological harm to the child during the active phase of treatment as a result of being turned into a “psychological battleground” by the continued active resistance of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to the goals of therapy, and from the continued motivated efforts of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to maintain the child’s symptomatic state even as therapy seeks to resolve the child’s symptoms.

Once ALL diagnosing and treating mental health professionals possess the same degree of understanding and professional competence regarding the reliable diagnosis and effective treatment of “parental alienation,” then professional psychology can speak with a single voice to the Court regarding the nature of attachment-based “parental alienation” and the treatment needs of the child.  No longer will targeted parents be required to prove “parental alienation” in Court.  Instead, the Court can rely on mental health for guidance since ALL professionally competent mental health professionals will be able to reliably come to exactly the same diagnosis under the same circumstances regarding the presence or absence of attachment-based “parental alienation,” which will allow the Court to rely on the clear and singular recommendations of mental health professionals.

Schizophrenia does not need to be proven in Court; bipolar disorder does not need to be proven in Court;  ADHD does not need to be proven in Court, because all of these psychological processes have achieved consensual validation within professional psychology.  In all of these cases, the Court can rely on the professional judgment and recommendations of professional psychology, because in all of these cases professional psychology speaks with a single voice.  An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” allows professional psychology to speak with a single voice regarding the diagnosis and treatment needs related to this “special population” of children and families.

The legal system is the wrong venue to diagnose and resolve psychological and family problems, just as the therapy office is the wrong venue to resolve contract disputes and criminal behavior.  By bringing professional psychology together in a single voice, an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” allows the diagnosis and resolution of the distorted family processes associated with “parental alienation” to be returned to its proper venue of professional mental health, rather than diagnosing the nature of psychopathology through the legal system.

Gardner’s model of PAS served many valuable functions.  It helped highlight the existence of “parental alienation” in the public and professional consciousness, and by giving the psychopathology a name the construct of PAS gave some degree of comfort to the many targeted-rejected parents who suffered the tragic loss of their children as a consequence of the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that so severely distorted the development of the children.

However, in proposing a new “syndrome” based on anecdotal clinical indicators, Gardner too quickly abandoned the professional rigor demanded of professional practice.  Instead of building his theoretical foundations on the firm bedrock of established and scientifically supported psychological constructs and principles, Gardner built the model of PAS on the shifting sands of anecdotal clinical indicators, so that when we try to leverage this model to achieve a solution, the sands shift beneath our feet and the structure collapses.  In the 30 years since its inception, Gardner’s model of PAS has failed to provide a solution to “parental alienation” for the countless parents who continue to lose their children to the psychopathology of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Gardner’s model of PAS is a failed paradigm

It is a failed theoretical paradigm.  It is a failed diagnostic paradigm.  It is a failed legal paradigm.  It is a failed treatment paradigm. It has failed to provide a solution.  We need to change paradigms.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” represents a paradigm shift to a scientifically based model based entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” can end the division within  professional psychology and unite mental health into a single voice because it is based entirely within established and scientifically supported psychological principles and constructs.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” establishes clear domains of professional knowledge and expertise in established psychological principles and constructs necessary to define professional standards of practice for ALL mental health professionals diagnosing and treating this “special population” of children and families.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” takes the solution for “parental alienation” out of the court system and returns it the the mental health system where the diagnosis and treatment of psychological problems the belongs.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” can provide targeted parents and their children with an actualized solution.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

References

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

 

Diagnosis of Attachment-Based Parental Alienation

I receive many requests for help and guidance.  When I am contacted, professional standards of practice prevent me from commenting on the specifics of an individual case.  However, the relationship dynamics involved with the pathogenic parenting of “parental alienation” processes are exceedingly similar across families, because they originate in the same type of parental psychopathology (a narcissistic personality disorder with borderline features that is decompensating into persecutory beliefs regarding the targeted/rejected parent’s abuse potential relative to the child).

Recently I received the following question from a parent, and I thought my response to this parent might be helpful to other parents (and to mental health professionals).

“Hello Dr. Childress, What assessment tools do you use to identify the possibility of a likely Parental Alienation Dynamic?  Would you need to interview the children?”


The assessment of “parental alienation” (i.e., pathogenic parenting) involves clinical interviews primarily with the child, but also with the targeted parent and child.  Additional interviews with the “alienating” parent can be helpful to confirm the diagnosis but are not necessary to making the diagnosis of “pathogenic parenting” associated with “parental alienation” processes (pathogenic: “patho” = pathology; “genic” = genesis, creation; pathogenic parenting is the creation of pathology in a child through highly aberrant and distorted parenting practices).

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is diagnosed from the presence of three separate symptom features that are evident in the child’s symptom display:

1.    Suppression of the normal range functioning of the child’s attachment system relative to one parent involving a child initiated “cut-off” of the child’s relationship with a parent.

2.   The presence in the child’s symptom display of a specific set of narcissistic and borderline personality disorder features, involving:

a.)  Grandiosity: A grandiose judgment of a parent in which the child perceives himself or herself to be in an elevated status position in the family hierarchy above that held by the targeted-rejected parent, so that the child feels entitled to judge the parent;

c.)  Entitlement: A sense of entitlement in which the child feels that his or her desires should all be met to the child’s satisfaction, and if the targeted-rejected parent doesn’t meet the child’s entitled expectations to the child’s satisfaction then the child feels justified in inflicting a retaliatory retribution on the targeted-rejected parent for the supposed parental failure;

d.)  Haughty Arrogance: A haughty and arrogant attitude of contempt regarding the supposed parental inadequacy (and personal inadequacy) of the targeted/rejected parent;

e.) Absence of Empathy: A complete absence of normal-range empathy and compassion for the feelings of the targeted-rejected parent;

a.)  Splitting:  Extremes in the child’s perception of relationships with his or her parents, in which the child overly idealizes one parent as being the all-good, perfect parent, while the other parent is viewed as being the entirely bad, horrible and wretched parent.

3. An intransigently held, fixed and false belief system (i.e, a delusion) regarding the fundamental inadequacy of the targeted-rejected parent who the child typically characterizes as being “abusive” (typically the allegation is that the supposedly inadequate parenting of the targeted-rejected parent is emotionally abusive).

If this specific set of 3 symptoms is present in the child’s symptom display, the only possible origin of this particular symptom set is through pathogenic parenting by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent, who represents the allied and supposedly “favored” parent in the family relationship pattern.  This specific symptom set CANNOT originate authentically to the functioning of the child’s nervous system.  This specific symptom set can only be acquired by the child from pathogenic parenting emanating from the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.

One of the key diagnostic criteria is number 3, the presence in the child’s symptom display of a delusional belief regarding the fundamental inadequacy of the parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent.  In order to determine this third criteria, that the child’s beliefs about the parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent are not based in reality, the parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent must be clinically evaluated.  This involves joint parent-child sessions in which the parenting behavior of the targeted-rejected parent, and the child’s responses to the parenting behavior of the targeted-rejected parent, are assessed.

If the parenting behavior of the targeted-rejected parent is broadly normal range (i.e., no evidence of alcoholism, chronic drug use,excessive anger dysregulation, domestic violence, severely distorted communication processes), then the parenting behavior of the targeted/rejected parent could not reasonably account for the creation of the child’s symptom constellation of the three specific features noted above.  The pathogenic parenting must be originating in the aberrant and distorted parenting of the other parent, the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.

There is no other alternative explanation that would account for the presence of that specific set of symptoms displayed by the child.  That specific set of symptoms CANNOT arise on their own from the authentic functioning of a child’s own nervous system. That specific set of symptoms MUST be induced through interpersonal processes – i.e., through pathogenic parenting.  If the parenting practices of the targeted-rejected parent are assessed to be broadly normal range (with due consideration and latitude given to the broad array of parenting practices displayed in normal-range families, and with due deference given to recognized parental prerogatives in establishing family values through the legitimate exercise of parental authority, leadership, and discipline), then the presence of that symptom set in the child’s symptom display MUST be the induced product of pathogenic parenting by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent.  There is no other alternative explanation possible regarding the origins of that specific child symptom set.

The diagnosis is made based on clinical interviews with the child and targeted-rejected parent.  If the allied and supposedly “favored” parent consents to clinical interviews, then these interviews can confirm the diagnosis, but they are not necessary to make the diagnosis.

Associated Clinical Signs:

The diagnosis of attachment-based “parental alienation” is based SOLELY on the presence in the child’s symptom display of the three characteristic diagnostic indicators noted above.  Additional confirmatory features are also typically present, and while not necessary for the diagnosis, these additional “associated clinical signs” can provide confirming clinical evidence for the diagnosis:

1)   Listen to the Child:  The allied and pathological parent evidences the phrase “...listen to the child…” – such as “I’m only listening to the child” –  “you [i.e., therapists, attorneys, etc.] should just listen to the child” – “why isn’t anyone listening to the child.”  This phrase by the allied and pathological parent comes from a need to empower the child, both to exploit the child’s expressed rejection for the other parent and also from a specific personal need to empower the child, originating from particular psychological dynamics with the allied and pathological parent (involving the reenactment narrative).  Other versions of this effort to empower the child are the allied and pathological parent advocating that “the child should be allowed to decide” if he or she goes on visitations with the targeted-rejected parent and efforts by the allied and pathological parent to have the child testify in Court.  The core issue is a need to empower the child.

2)   Exploiting the Child’s Symptoms:  An exploitation of the child’s symptoms by the allied/pathological parent to limit, restrict, disrupt, and nullify the ability of the targeted-rejected parent to form a relationship with the child.

3)    Protecting the Child:  The allied/pathological parent prominently presents in the role as the “protector” of the child from the abuse (typically emotional abuse) of the targeted-rejected parent.  The need to “protect the child” can reach almost obsessional levels.

4)   Selective Parental Incompetence:  The allied/pathological parent presents as selectively incompetent, typically using the phrase “…what can I do, I can’t make the child…xyz” – for example; “I encourage the child to go on visitations with the other parent, but what can I do, I can’t make the child go if the child doesn’t want to go.” – “I tell the child to cooperate with the other parent, but what can I do, I can’t make the child be nice to the other parent.  I’m not there, how am I supposed to make the child be nice to the other parent?” The presence of this phrase has to do with placing the child into the leadership position so that the the narcissistic/(borderline) parent can exploit the child’s symptoms.

5)  Justifying – “I know just how the child feels…”:  The selective incompetence of the allied/pathological parent is often accompanied by a statement of supposed “understanding” for the child’s hostility and rejection of the other parent – “I tell the child to be cooperative, but what can I do, I can’t make the child be cooperative, I’m not there.  And, actually, I know just how the child feels.  The other parent acted just like that with me during our marriage.”

6)  Typical Complaints: The typical complaints regarding the targeted-rejected parent are,

a)  Insensitive to the Child’s Needs: the targeted-rejected parent doesn’t adequately “listen to the child”

b)  Too rigid, inflexible and controlling, the targeted/rejected parent always has to have things his (or her) way

c)  Anger management issues: the targeted-rejected parent has anger management problems;

d) Selfish and self-centered: this allegation combines doesn’t listen to the child and always has to have things his or her own way.

7)   Disregard of Court Orders:  The allied/pathological parent displays a cavalier disregard for the authority of Court orders, so that the targeted-rejected parent must continually return to Court seeking enforcement of Court orders.  This represents the expression of narcissistic personality processes of the allied pathological parent.  Narcissists to not recognize (i.e., perceptually register) the construct of “authority” – only the power to compel.  For the narcissist, the construct of “authority” (such as the Court’s authority) is synonymous with the “power to compel.” If the Court does not compel, then the Court has no authority in the mind of the narcissist.

Note on “Splitting”

The child’s “splitting” symptom is often expressed as an “unforgivable grudge” in which the child maintains that some past parental failure supposedly justifies the child’s rejection of this parent.  One of the leading authorities on borderline personality processes (narcissism is a subset of borderline personality organization), Marsha Linehan describes this “unforgivable grudge” feature of splitting:

“They tend to see reality in polarized categories of “either-or,” rather than “all,” and within a very fixed frame of reference.  For example, it is not uncommon for such individuals to believe that the smallest fault makes it impossible for the person to be “good” inside.  Their rigid cognitive style further limits their abilities to entertain ideas of future change and transition, resulting in feelings of being in an interminable painful situation.  Things once defined do not change. Once a person is “flawed,” for instance, that person will remain flawed forever.”(Linehan, 1993, p. 35; emphasis added)

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

The American Psychiatric Association (200) defines splitting as,

“Splitting:  The individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by compartmentalizing opposite affect states and failing to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self or others into cohesive images.  Because ambivalent affects cannot be experienced simultaneously, more balanced views and expectations of self or others are excluded from emotional awareness.  Self and object images tend to alternate between polar opposites: exclusively loving, powerful, worthy, nurturant, and kind – or exclusively bad, hateful, angry, destructive, rejecting, or worthless.”  (p. 813; emphasis added)

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Splitting is a characteristic feature of both narcissistic and borderline personality organizations, because both of these types of personalities are differing external expressions of the same underlying structures,

“Splitting is an identified symptom of both borderline and narcissistic personality disorders.” (Siegel, 2006, p. 419)

Siegel, J.P. (2006). Dyadic splitting in partner relational disorders. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(3), 418–422.

“Splitting is often thought to be central to pathological narcissism” (Watson & Biderman, 1993,p. 44)

Watson P. J. and Biderman, M.D. (1993). Narcissistic personality inventory factors, splitting, and self-consciousness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 61 (1), 41-57.

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