False Allegations of Parental Alienation

 Not everything is “parental alienation.”

Sometimes a child’s desire to avoid a relationship with one parent is justified by the parenting practice of that parent.

In about 25% of the cases that come to me because of my expertise in “parental alienation” the narcissistic parent turns out to be the targeted parent who is seeking my help in fostering the child’s relationship with this narcissistic parent because this parent feels entitled to possess the narcissistic object of the child.

This parent’s absence of empathic resonance for the child’s inner experience becomes clearly evident in the first few sessions with this narcissistic parent.  The child’s experience isn’t relevant to this parent, only the experience of the narcissistic parent is relevant in this parent’s perception.

Since the narcissistic parent has a fixed belief in his or her own perfection and wonderfulness, in their view there can be no other reason for the child’s reluctance to provide them with the narcissistic supply of adoration other than “parental alienation.”

In these cases, the child does NOT display the three diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” (Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs), and when I meet with the favored parent, this favored parent is entirely normal-range and does not display any narcissistic or borderline traits. 

Only the targeted parent displays narcissistic/(borderline) traits, and the child’s complaints about the absence of empathy of this parent makes total sense to me as a psychologist.  I see this narcissistic parent’s absence of empathy displayed in our sessions.  I know exactly what the child is saying.

Not everything is “parental alienation.”  Sometimes it is the targeted parent who is narcissistic.

Living with a Narcissistic Parent

In these false “parental alienation” cases, the profound absence of parental empathy of the narcissistic parent is experienced by the child as emotionally and psychologically painful.

There is interesting research by Moor and Silvern (2006) on the association of child abuse to parental empathic failure which found that parental empathic failure actually represents a form of psychological trauma for the child.

“The indication that posttraumatic symptoms were no longer associated with child abuse, across all categories, after statistically controlling for the effect of perceived parental empathy might appear surprising at first, as trauma symptoms are commonly conceived of as connected to specifically terrorizing aspects of maltreatment (e.g., Wind & Silvern, 1994).

However, this finding is, in fact, entirely consistent with both Kohut’s (1977) and Winnicott’s (1988) conception of the traumatic nature of parental empathic failure. In this view, parental failure of empathy is predicted to amount to a traumatic experience in itself over time, and subsequently to result in trauma-related stress. Interestingly, even though this theoretical conceptualization of trauma differs in substantial ways from the modern use of the term, it was still nonetheless captured by the present measures.” (Moor & Silvern, 2006, p. 197)

Moor, A. and Silvern, L. (2006). Identifying pathways linking child abuse to psychological outcome: The mediating role of perceived parental failure of empathy. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6, 91-112.

The absence of parental empathy is painful, and severe failures of parental empathy, such as those associated with a narcissistic parent, are traumatic for the child.

When a child is exposed to chronic and severe failures of parental empathy, such as from a narcissistic parent, the child will seek to avoid the psychologically painful relationship with this parent. The child’s efforts to avoid a relationship with a narcissistic parent represent a normal-range and healthy protective response to the chronic and severe failure of parental empathy associated with narcissistic parenting practices.

A child seeking to avoid a relationship with a narcissistic parent represents an authentic response of the child to severe and chronic failures of parental empathy.

A narcissistic parent is incapable of empathy. For the narcissistic parent, the child is an object; a possession. The narcissistic parent cannot resonate with the child’s inner needs and experiences. For the narcissistic parent only the narcissistic supply that the child offers the narcissistic parent is important.

In their relationship, only one person exists, the narcissistic parent. The child’s authenticity is not acknowledged, the child’s authenticity is nullified and obliterated so that the child can serve as a narcissistic reflection of the parent’s own self-experience.

In these cases of false allegations of “parental alienation,” the child experiences a relationship with the narcissistic parent as being painful and tries to communicate this to the narcissistic parent. However, the narcissistic parent is unable to self-reflect and deflects the authentic criticism of the child as being invalid. The narcissistic parent is entirely unable to comprehend why the child wouldn’t want to adore and become the narcissistic possession of the magnificent wonderfulness of the narcissistic parent.

Over time, the child becomes discouraged that the narcissistic parent will ever be able to show empathic care and responsiveness for the child’s authenticity, so that the child begins to withdraw from a relationship with the narcissistic parent because the relationship is too painful, the relationship with the narcissistic parent is experienced as being psychologically traumatic for the child.

The narcissistic parent, however, cannot abide criticism –

“I’m not at fault. I’m perfect. You’re the problem, not me. I’m wonderful.”

So then why is the child critical of the “wonderful” narcissistic parent? Why does the child seek to avoid a relationship with the “perfect” narcissistic parent? The only answer the narcissistic parent can come up with is that it must be “parental alienation” by the other parent. What else could account for the child’s criticisms and rejection of the perfection and wonderfulness of the narcissistic parent?

Not everything is “parental alienation.”

Sometimes the narcissistic parent is the targeted parent and the child’s avoidance of a relationship with this parent is an authentic child response to the profound failure of parental empathy associated with a narcissistic parent. So that in these cases, the allegation of “parental alienation” made by one parent toward the other is actually a false allegation.

Differentiating True “Parental Alienation” from False Allegations of “Parental Alienation”

How can we differentiate true “parental alienation” from false allegations of “parental alienation?”

The answer is that the full set of the three diagnostic indicators for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” will NOT be evident in false allegations of “parental alienation,” and the full set of three diagnostic indicators will always be present in true allegations of “parental alienation.”

Attachment System Suppression

The differentiation of the attachment system differences in authentic parent-child conflict from cases of “parental alienation” is subtle but distinctive.

False Allegations of “Parental Alienation” – In authentic parent-child conflict, the child’s “protest behavior” (e.g, angry-oppositional behavior) remains an “attachment-behavior” designed to elicit GREATER parental involvement.

In authentic parent-child conflict, the child still WANTS to form a relationship with the targeted parent but is frustrated and discouraged by some element of the targeted parent’s behavior, such as the chronic failure of parental empathy associated with narcissistic parenting practices. In authentic parent-child conflict the child’s withdrawal from a relationship with the targeted parent reflects the child’s discouragement in achieving an affectionally bonded relationship rather than a rejection of a relationship with the targeted parent.

In cases of authentic parent-child conflict, since the child’s protest behavior and withdrawal from the targeted parent reflect the child’s discouragement in achieving a positive relationship rather than rejection of a relationship, if the behavior of the targeted parent is changed to allow for child bonding then the child’s motivation toward bonding with the parent will achieve completion and the parent-child conflict will resolve.

In authentic parent-child conflict the child’s protest behavior reflects an “attachment behavior” designed to elicit GREATER parental involvement, and the child’s withdrawal from a relationship with the parent reflects DISCOURAGEMENT in forming an affectional bond to the parent, so that if the parenting behaviors are changed to allow an affectional bond to be established, the parent-child conflict will resolve.

True Allegations of “Parental Alienation” – Whereas when the parent-child conflict with the targeted parent is the product of attachment-based “parental alienation,” the child’s protest behavior will represent an inauthentic display as a “detachment behavior” designed to sever the child’s relationship with the parent. The authentic functioning of the attachment system DOES NOT ALLOW child detachment behaviors.

From an evolutionary perspective, children who detached in their bonding to parents fell prey to predators and other environmental dangers, so that genes allowing child detachment behaviors were selectively removed from the collective gene pool. Whereas children who bonded MORE strongly to problematic parents were more likely to acquire parental protection from predators, so that genes motivating INCREASED CHILD BONDING motivation to problematic parents were selectively increased in the gene pool because of the survival advantage that increased child bonding to the problematic parent provided..

This is important to understand about the authentic functioning of the attachment system, children are MORE STRONGLY motivated to bond to problematic parents. Children do NOT reject parents. Children who rejected parents were eaten by predators.

Authentic parent-child conflict is a product of the child’s desire TO FORM an affectional bond to the parent that is being frustrated in some way. When the barrier to the parent-child bonding is removed, the child completes his or her desire to form an affectional bond to the parent and the parent-child conflict is resolved.

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” on the other hand, the child is SEEKING TO SEVER the parent-child bond, so that the child’s protest behavior represents a “detachment behavior.” Child “detachment behaviors” represent an inauthentic display of the attachment system.

There are only a limited number of highly pathogenic circumstances that can override the survival advantage conferred by the parent-child bond so that a termination of the parent-child bond is sought.

  1. Sexual abuse/incest
  2. Prolonged and severe physical abuse of the child (years)
  3. Prolonged and severe domestic violence (years)
  4. Sometimes: chronic prolonged parental alcoholism or severe substance abuse (decades). More often, however, parental alcoholism and substance abuse produces a “parentified child” who adopts a caretaking role toward the parent

In the absence of these specific circumstances in the parent-child relationship, problematic parenting produces an INCREASED child motivation toward bonding with the problematic parent. Authentic child withdrawal from a relationship with a parent represents discouragement, NOT rejection.

Stimulus Control

The clearest way to differentiate authentic from inauthentic parent-child conflict is through the construct of “stimulus control.”

All behavior is elicited by stimuli, or cues. Our driving behavior, for example, is under the “stimulus control” of traffic lights. If the traffic light is red, we stop. If it is green, we go. Yellow is a transitional warning. In addition, our driving behavior is under the stimulus control of painted lines on the road, traffic signs, and our internalized rules for driving. All of these various stimuli control our driving behavior.

Children’s behavior in authentic parent-child conflict is under the “stimulus control” of the parent’s behavior, so that changes in the parent’s behavior will produce corresponding changes in the child’s behavior.

If, however, changes to the parent’s behavior do not produce corresponding changes to the child’s behavior, then the child’s behavior is NOT under the “stimulus control” of the parent’s behavior, meaning that the parent-child conflict is inauthentic.

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” the child’s behavior toward the targeted parent is not under the “stimulus control” of the targeted parent’s behavior.  It doesn’t matter what the targeted parent does or doesn’t do, the child rejects a relationship with this parent. 

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” the locus of “stimulus control” for the child’s behavior toward the targeted-rejected parent is to be found in the cross-generational coalition of the child with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and is contained in internalized “rules” the child has acquired through the distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent regarding the child’s relationship with the targeted parent, much in the same way that our internalized rules regarding driving act to control our driving behavior.

Differentiating Authentic Versus Inauthentic Conflict

One means of differentiating authentic versus inauthentic parent-child conflict is whether the child’s protest behavior represents an “attachment behavior” designed to increase parental involvement in response to barriers to the child’s ability to form an affectionally bonded relationship with the parent, or whether the child’s protest behavior represents an inauthentic display of “detachment behavior” designed to sever the parent-child relationship.

A second means of differentiating authentic versus inauthentic parent-child conflict is through the construct of “stimulus control.” The child’s behavior in authentic parent-child conflict is under the stimulus control of the parent’s behavior, so that changes in the parent’s behavior produce corresponding changes in the child’s behavior. Whereas in inauthentic parent-child conflict the child’s behavior toward the targeted parent is NOT under the stimulus control of the targeted parent, so that changes to the behavior of the targeted parent DO NOT produce corresponding changes to the child’s behavior.

Personality Disorder Symptoms

This is the clearest set of symptoms for differentiating true allegations of attachment-based “parental alienation” from false allegations of “parental alienation.”

In attachment-based “parental alienation,” the child’s symptomatic rejection of a relationship with the targeted parent is the product of pathogenic parental influence on the child by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. In influencing the child to reject a relationship with the other parent, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent leaves telltale evidence of his or her pathogenic influence on the child through the narcissistic/borderline features of the child’s attitude toward the targeted-rejected parent.

Children to not spontaneously develop narcissistic and borderline personality traits. The development of narcissistic and borderline personality traits in children can ONLY be produced by the pathogenic parenting practices of a narcissistic or borderline parent. The psychological influence on a child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent will leave “psychological fingerprint” evidence of this pathogenic influence in the child’s symptom display toward the targeted parent.

The “psychological fingerprint” evidence of distorting pathogenic influence on the child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent is the presence in the child’s symptom display of five specific narcissistic and borderline features.

In authentic parent-child conflict in which a false allegation of “parental alienation” is made, the child’s symptom display toward the targeted parent WILL NOT display narcissistic and borderline personality features. In particular, the child will not evidence a sense of entitlement relative to the targeted-rejected parent, nor will the child evidence an attitude of haughty and arrogant contempt for the targeted-rejected parent.

In authentic parent-child conflict the child will also typically continue to evidence normal-range empathy for the emotional experience of the targeted parent, although this capacity for empathy may periodically disappear during periods of open anger toward the targeted parent. In authentic parent-child conflict, the child’s capacity for normal-range empathy for the targeted parent will typically be evident during inter-episode periods that occur between openly angry exchanges the child has with the targeted parent.

Also, in authentic parent-child conflicts the psychological dynamic of splitting will not be evident in the child’s symptom display. Spitting is the characteristic tendency for polarized black-and-white thinking in which people and relationships are seen as entirely good and wonderful, or as entirely bad and evil. In authentic parent-child conflict the child will express anger and frustration with the targeted parent, but will not characterize the targeted parent as a polarized extreme of all bad. Instead, during periods when the parent and child are not openly fighting, the child will be able to maintain a nuanced, shades-of-gray, perception of both positive and negative qualities possessed by the targeted parent, even though the child may find some parental qualities frustrating and provoking.

In order for attachment-based “parental alienation” to be diagnosed as being present, ALL FIVE narcissistic and borderline traits MUST be present in the child’s symptom display. The presence of all five narcissistic and borderline traits in the child’s symptom display represents the “psychological fingerprint” evidence for the distorting pathogenic influence on the child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Since the child is rejecting a relationship with the targeted parent, the psychological influence on the child that is evidenced in the child’s display of narcissistic and borderline personality traits CANNOT be emanating from the targeted parent, since the child is rejecting the influence of this parent. Since narcissistic and borderline personality traits can ONLY emerge as a result of distorting pathogenic parenting practices by a narcissistic/borderline parent, the only possible source for the child’s symptom display of narcissistic and borderline personality traits is the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the allied and supposedly favored parent.

Sub-Threshold Display

If the child’s symptoms display some but not all of the five narcissistic and borderline personality traits predicted by an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” then the diagnosis of attachment-based “parental alienation” cannot be made.

In sub-threshold cases in which some but not all of the diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present, a 6-month “Response-to-Intervention” (RTI) trial can be initiated, treating the parent-child conflict as if it was authentic. This 6-month RTI trial can clarify diagnostic features in one or the other direction.

If the parent-child conflict is authentic, then six months of treatment should produce substantial improvements in the relationship. If the parent-child conflict is the result of attachment-based “parental alienation,” then six months of treatment will produce no gains, and during the six month RTI trial the additional confirmatory diagnostic indicators should become evident during the course of treatment.

The presence of additional clinical signs (Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs) indicative of attachment-based “parental alienation” may also help confirm diagnostic impressions.

Delusional Beliefs

The third diagnostic indicator of attachment-based “parental alienation,” an intransigently held, fixed and false belief (i.e., a delusion) regarding the supposedly abusive parental inadequacy of the targeted rejected parent, will not be present in authentic parent-child conflicts.

The foundational source of this delusional belief is the reenactment narrative involving attachment trauma networks in the “internal working models,” or “schemas,” of the alienating parent’s attachment system. This process is explained more fully in my online Master Lecture Series seminars on theory and treatment (7/18/14: Theoretical Foundations11/21/14: Diagnosis and Treatment) through California Southern University. The child’s delusional belief represents the child’s adopting the “victimized child” role within the trauma reenactment narrative.

This type of trauma reenactment is familiar within the treatment literature related to trauma,

“Reenactments of the traumatic past are common in the treatment of this population and frequently represent either explicit or coded repetitions of the unprocessed trauma in an attempt at mastery. Reenactments can be expressed psychologically, relationally, and somatically and may occur with conscious intent or with little awareness.” (Perlman & Courtois, 2005, p. 455)

“One primary transference-countertransference dynamic involves reenactment of familiar roles of victim, perpetratorrescuer-bystander in the therapy relationship. Therapist and client play out these roles, often in complementary fashion with one another, as they relive various aspects of the client’s early attachment relationships. (Perlman & Courtois, 2005, p. 455)

Pearlman, C.A., Courtois, C.A. (2005). Clinical Applications of the Attachment Framework: Relational Treatment of Complex Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 449-459.

In the case of attachment-based “parental alienation” it is the family members who are enacting the various roles of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment trauma history, in which the child is enacting the role as the “victimized child,” the targeted parent is enacting the role as the “abusive parent,” and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is adopting and enacting the coveted role as the “rescuing/protective parent.”

But none of this trauma reenactment narrative is true. The child is not a victim, the targeted parent is not abusive, and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is not protective. It is a false drama created in the trauma contained in the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment system.

The child’s delusional belief represented by Diagnostic Indicator 3 is a manifestation of the child having been induced through the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into adopting the “victimized child” role within the false trauma reenactment narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment trauma.

So that expert clinical diagnosticians, which should be a requirement for all mental health professionals working with this “special population” of children and families, should look beyond the mere surface features of the child’s delusional beliefs into the surrounding context for signs of the trauma reenactment narrative of which the child’s false belief in the “victimization role” is but one feature.

In authentic parent-child conflict involving false allegations of “parental alienation,” the child’s beliefs regarding the parenting practices of the targeted parent are not delusional. If, for example, the child asserts that the parent is physically abusive, the evidence presented by the child for this belief will be consistent with the child’s expressed belief. So that a child who asserts that the targeted parent is physically abusive should report that this belief is based on repeated incidents of being hit with a belt, or with a fist, or with an electrical cord.

Whether or not these child reports can be substantiated is another matter, but the reports of the child regarding the parenting practices of the parent should be consistent with the child’s beliefs that the parent is physically abusive (in the case of allegations of physically abusive parenting).

This is in contrast to a child who alleges the targeted parent is “emotionally abusive” because the parent took the child’s iphone away as punishment for the child’s hostile and negative attitude and display of disrespect. This is not considered “abusive” parenting, this is considered “discipline” and is entirely within normal-range parenting practices.

In this case, if the child maintains the position that the parent taking the child’s iphone away for a period of time as discipline for inappropriate child behavior represents “emotional abuse” rather than normal-range parenting practice (i.e., “discipline”), then this would suggest the presence of an intransigently held, fixed and false belief in the supposedly abusive parenting practices of a normal range and affectionally available parent, which would be consistent with the child adopting a “victimized child” role.

In authentic parent-child conflicts, such as when the targeted parent is the parent with the narcissistic personality, or in cases of authentically abusive parenting, the child’s beliefs regarding the parenting practices of the targeted parent are not delusional, they are accurate.

Furthermore, in cases where it is the targeted parent who has the narcissistic personality and is making a false allegation of “parental alienation” from an inability to self-reflect and from a charcterological propensity to externalize blame and responsibility, professional clinical interviews with the targeted parent should reveal the presence of narcissistic personality traits.

Prominent among the distinctive clinical indicators of narcissistic personality is the absence of empathy. So in cases of authentic parent-child conflict in which the narcissistic parent is the targeted parent, clinical interviews with the narcissistic targeted parent should be able to reveal this parent’s profound absence of empathy, which then supports the beliefs of the child regarding the problematic parenting practices of the narcissistic targeted parent, so the child’s beliefs again are not delusional but are supported by direct clinical observation.

Diagnosis of Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation”

Not everything is “parental alienation.”

Sometimes the targeted parent is the narcissistic parent and the child’s withdrawal from a relationship with this narcissistic parent is an understandable and reasonable response to the profound absence of parental empathy emanating from the narcissistic parent. Sometimes the allegation of “parental alienation” by a narcissistic parent represents the inability of the narcissistic parent to self-reflect and the narcissistic tendency to externalize blame and responsibility.

Sometimes the child’s withdrawal from a relationship with a parent is the product of actual physical or sexual abuse of the child, or is the product of prolonged and severe domestic violence. In these cases the child’s belief in the abusive parenting practices of the physically or sexually abusive parent are not delusional, they’re true.

However, in these circumstances the child will not display narcissistic personality traits toward the abusive parent. In particular, the child will not display an attitude of haughty and arrogant disrespect and contemptuous disdain toward the physically or sexually abusive parent, nor will the child display a sense of entitlement relative to the abusive parent, in which the child feels entitled to have every desire immediately met by the physically or sexually abusive parent.

Instead, physically and sexually abused children tend to present as timid and submissive in their relationship with the abusive parent, and they may display as angry and aggressive in other settings, such as in peer relationships at school.

Sometimes, however, a narcissistic/(borderline) parent has formed a cross-generational coalition with the child against the other parent, in which the child has been induced into adopting the “victimized child” role in the trauma reenactment narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, so that the child is induced through the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into rejecting a relationship with a normal-range and affectionally available parent so that the child can be used by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a “regulatory object” for this parent’s own emotional and psychological needs.

This process is explained more fully in my online Master Lecture Series seminars on theory and treatment (7/18/14: Theoretical Foundations11/21/14: Diagnosis and Treatment) through California Southern University.

So that sometimes the child’s rejection of a relationship with a parent is the product of attachment-based “parental alienation.”

When ALL THREE diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” are present in the child’s symptom display, then a clinical diagnosis of attachment-based “parental alienation” is warranted since NO OTHER PROCESS can produce THIS SPECIFIC SET of child symptoms other than an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

Authentic parent-child conflict will not produce this specific symptom set. Authentic child abuse will not produce this specific symptom set. ONLY the processes of an attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” will produce this specific symptom set of three diagnostic indicators (Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs)

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

References

Moor, A. and Silvern, L. (2006). Identifying pathways linking child abuse to psychological outcome: The mediating role of perceived parental failure of empathy. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6, 91-112.

Pearlman, C.A., Courtois, C.A. (2005). Clinical Applications of the Attachment Framework: Relational Treatment of Complex Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 449-459.

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

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

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

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

I believe this seminar is significant in several primary areas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Road to Family Reunification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powerpoint Slides from Master Lecture Series Presentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online Seminar on Diagnosis and Treatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Family Systems:

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

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

Personality Disorders:

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

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

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

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

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

Attachment System:

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

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

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

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

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

The Solution

Any solution to “parental alienation” that requires that we prove “parental alienation” in Court is a failure.

1.  Financially Prohibitive: Proving “parental alienation” in Court is simply too expensive for the vast majority of targeted-rejected parents. The financial costs associated with proving “parental alienation” in Court places it beyond the means of 95% of targeted-rejected parents.

 Any solution that requires proving “parental alienation” in Court is only a solution for 5% of targeted-rejected parents. This is no solution.

2.  Requires Egregious Displays of Alienation: Proving “parental alienation” in Court is only possible in the most egregious cases of alienation. The more subtle cases of insidious alienation are nearly impossible to prove in Court.

Any solution that requires proving “parental alienation” in Court is only a solution for the limited number of targeted-parents who have sufficient financial resources and only in the most egregious cases. So now we’re down to 1-2% of the cases of “parental alienation.”

While proving “parental alienation” in Court may seem like a solution to professionals who work within the Court system. For those of us who work in the daily lives of people who cannot financially afford attorneys and child custody evaluations, it is no solution at all.

3.  Robbing the Child: The high financial costs of fighting “parental alienation” in Court robs the child of what should be his or her college education fund. Every dollar paid to an attorney or child custody evaluator harms the child by taking money from the child that should be going to his or her college education.

Any solution that requires proving “parental alienation” in Court harms the child by draining financial resources from the family that should be going toward the child.

4.  Too Slow: Proving “parental alienation” in Court can often take years of protracted legal battles.  During this time, important child developmental phases come and go, and are lost forever.  Lost childhood can never be reclaimed.  A mother only has 365 days of her child being 8 years old, that’s it.  And not a single lost day can ever be reclaimed.  A father only has a brief time with daddy’s little girl, with his princess. Once lost, this time never returns.

Years to enact a solution is simply too long.  Months are too long a timeframe.  Any solution to “parental alienation” should be able to be enacted within weeks in the life of the child. If we require months, so be it, but definitely not years.

Any solution that requires proving “parental alienation” in Court irrevocably harms the child by robbing the child of important and irretrievable developmental phases and experiences with a loving and affectionally available parent. It simply takes too long.

Of note is that I recently had the opportunity for a conversation with Ms. Dorcy Pruter (http://www.consciouscoparentinginstitute.com).  During our conversation she said she can enact the child’s restoration with the targeted-rejected parent in a matter of days, once the Court orders a protective separation of the child from the alienating parent, and based on my initial review of her approach during our conversation I suspect her treatment model can accomplish what she claims for it.  Just to be generous, I’ll give her some leeway and say weeks rather than days (yet days makes sense to me based on her description of the model), but the point is, in a very short time frame. Her approach seemingly has the proper components to accomplish what she claims for it.

Once we achieve a protective separation of the child from the ongoing pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, restoration of a normal-range and affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted-rejected parent is relatively straightforward because we are working WITH the normal-range functioning of the child’s own attachment system.  The child’s authentic brain WANTS to bond to the targeted-rejected parent.  We just need to provide the setting, structure, and guidance to allow the child’s natural attachment bonding motivations to achieve completion. 

Once the child’s attachment bonding motivations are able to achieve completion, the child’s (misinterpreted) grief response resolves, and the impact on the child of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s distorted and pathogenic parenting practices is eliminated.  We have recovered the authentic child.  We then take steps to build the child’s “psychological immune system” relative to the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and then we can begin to restore the child’s relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

If the narcissistic/(borderline) parent cooperates with the treatment process, that would be wonderful.  If not, then we need to take steps to ensure the child’s ongoing stability and balance in response to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s continuing pathogenic parenting.

The Solution

Any solution to “parental alienation” that requires that we prove “parental alienation” in Court is no solution at all because of the immense financial barriers, legal hurdles, and inherent harm to the child’s normal-range developmental trajectory associated with the long and arduous task of trying to prove “parental alienation” in Court.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” provides a solution. Once the paradigm shifts away from a Gardnerian PAS model to an attachment-based model, the solution becomes available immediately.

Phase 1

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” immediately identifies a set of standards of practice for professional competence involving an advanced level of professional understanding for the attachment system (and intersubjective system), and a professionally advanced level of understanding for narcissistic/borderline personality dynamics, their characteristic displays, their underlying dynamics, and processes of their manifestation in family relationships.

Once the paradigm shifts to an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” these children and families become immediately identified as a “special population” requiring specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise to diagnose and treat.

Phase 2

Once professional practice in this specialty field is limited to a qualified set of highly trained and knowledgeable experts, the diagnosis of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is established in a clearly defined set of three Diagnostic Indicators (see Diagnostic Indicators and Associated Clinical Signs post), supported by an additional set of confirming clinical signs.

This set of three clearly defined and dichotomous (i.e., present or absent) Diagnostic Indicators has a corresponding DSM-5 diagnosis of:

309.4  Adjustment Disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct

V61.20 Parent-Child Relational Problem

V61.29 Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress

V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed

(for an analysis of the DSM-5 diagnosis of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” see “Childress, 2013: DSM-5 Diagnosis of ‘Parental Alienation’ Processes” on my website)

Phase 3

All specialized experts in High-Conflict Family Divorce (HCFD specialty practice) will make the same DSM-5 diagnosis in response to the identifiable set of three clearly defined and dichotomous (present-absent) Diagnostic Indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation” (i.e., pathogenic parenting). 

This means that all HCFD specialty psychologists will make a DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.

Phase 4

In making the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed, these HCFD specialty psychologists then engage a professional responsibility to take protective action for the child.  Chief among these protective steps, and an option that I strongly urge them to enact, is to make a child abuse report to Child Protective Services (CPS) regarding their diagnosis of Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.

Phase 5

CPS workers will initially not know how to deal with the influx of child abuse reports by this group of specialist psychologists who are providing a DSM-5 diagnosis of v995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed along with their report.  CPS agencies will have one of three possible options,

1.  Ignore the reports (which is an unlikely response, especially as these reports continue to come in)

2.  Accept the DSM-5 diagnosis of the HCFD specialist and remove the child from the custody of the alienating (pathogenic) parent and place the child in the custody of the targeted, normal range and healthy parent (i;e;, engage a protective separation of the child from the psychopathology and pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent).

3.  Conduct their own investigation of possible child psychological abuse.

I suspect that CPS agencies will choose option 3. 

In the context of having a clinical psychologist who is expert in High-Conflict Family Divorce provide a confirmed DSM-5 diagnosis of Child Psychological Abuse, if the CPS system wants to conduct their own investigation then they will need to obtain similar training in the assessment of an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” upon which the psychologist’s diagnosis is based (i.e., CPS case workers will need to develop professional competence in the specialty practice area of identifying child psychological abuse that occurs within high-conflict family divorce settings) since this knowledge base serves as the foundation for the diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed made by the HCFD specialist psychologist.

So ALL CPS workers everywhere will receive training in an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” and the three definitive diagnostic indicators of pathogenic parenting associated with the child’s cross-generational coalition with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent against the other parent that is inducing significant developmental (Diagnostic Indicator 1), personality (Diagnostic Indicator 2), and psychiatric (Diagnostic Indicator 3) pathology in the child.

Phase 6

The Diagnostic Indicators for attachment-based “parental alienation” are clearly defined and dichotomous, either attachment-based “parental alienation” is present or absent.  Once CPS has a set of clearly defined dichotomous criteria by which to identify pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” they will become empowered and confident in removing the child from the care of pathogenic narcissistic/(borderline) parent in every case where the three Diagnostic Indicators are present.

The Solution

Once a case of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” enters the specialty practice of an HCFD specialist psychologist, a child abuse report will be filed with CPS that includes the psychologist’s diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.  Once the report enters the CPS system, the CPS case worker will confirm the presence of the three Diagnostic Indicators of pathogenic parenting and will confirm the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed, so that the diagnosis has now been confirmed by two independent assessments of mental health professionals expert in the family processes associated with high-conflict divorce.

CPS will then immediately remove the child from the custody of the alienating narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., a protective separation of the child from the psychopathology of the pathogenic parent) and place the child with the normal-range and healthy targeted parent to allow for the treatment and resolution of the child’s symptoms.

This establishes the necessary protective separation conditions for a Pruter-style model of treatment that resolves the child’s symptoms within days or weeks.  Once the child’s symptoms have been resolved under the treatment guidance of an HCFD specialist psychologist, the child’s own “psychological immune system” can be strengthened to resist “reinfection” by the distorting pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and the child’s relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent can be reestablished.

Of note is that Ms. Pruter also indicated that she has a treatment protocol component for the alienating parent to complete as a requirement for their “reunification therapy” with the child.

This solution never enters the Court system.

It provides an immediate protective separation of the child from the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

It solves the family conflict in a matter of weeks and so restores the child to a normal-range developmental trajectory quickly.

It is relatively cost free to the parent so that it does not require an extensive parental financial investment of funds that should be allocated to the child’s future college education.

This is the solution.

If the case does enter the Court system, the judge can order a Treatment Needs Assessment report, which would be a targeted assessment by an HCFD specialist for the presence or absence of the three Diagnostic Indicators of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”  The targeted Treatment Needs Assessment would be focused and so less extensive than a full child custody evaluation.  Since all child custody evaluators would have become HCFD specialists, this could be a secondary professional service available from them.

My estimate of a Treatment Needs Assessment is that it could be completed in four to six weeks and could provide a clear directive to the Court regarding the treatment needs of the child. If the three Diagnostic Indicators of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” are present, then the HCFD specialist psychologist conducting the assessment would make the appropriate DSM-5 diagnosis of the child (relative to the issue of pathogenic parenting) which would include the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.

Upon receiving the report from the HCFD psychologist that contains the DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed, the judge could order removal of the child from the custody of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and placement of the child with the targeted, normal-range and healthy parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery.  Under the guidance of an HCFD specialty psychologist, the child and targeted parent could receive a Pruter-style treatment protocol that would restore their relationship within weeks, followed by building the child’s “psychological immune system” response to the distorted pathogenic parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parenting, culminating in “reunification therapy” between the child and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

This is the solution.

Enacting the Solution

I have created the solution.  All the dominoes are in line, and through my writings on my website and blog I have tipped the first domino.  In my view, it is just a matter of time now.

My estimate is the change in paradigm will take about 10 years.  The solution I have enacted has no natural allies.  Establishment mental health has little to no interest in “parental alienation.”  Their interest tends toward Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and the typical types of parent-child conflict.  “Parental alienation” isn’t really on their radar.  They are likely to simply equate an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” with the Gardnerian PAS model as being “controversial” (when actually an attachment-based model is not at all controversial – all of the constructs are standard and accepted psychological principles and constructs).

The Gardnerian PAS experts are likely to be reluctant to see the end of their favored paradigm for conceptualizing “parental alienation” because they have fought for it for so long and hard.  To see it simply disappear and be replaced by a new paradigm about which they are entirely unfamiliar will likely be hard for them. The Gardnerian PAS experts are likely to simply ignore an attachment-based model and to continue their efforts to seek Court-based solutions for the PAS model.

So an attachment-based paradigm for “parental alienation” will probably languish in obscurity for a while.  Eventually it will get picked up (for a variety of reasons, one of the primary reasons will be its promise for guiding future research efforts).  It will likely become established through the efforts of a new generation of psychologists and mental health professionals who will see the value in a paradigm shift because they have no prior attachment to the PAS model.  They will have an easier time letting go of the PAS model and adopting a new paradigm for describing and understanding “parental alienation” processes.

Eventually the paradigm will shift.  The moment it does the other dominoes will begin to fall.  There is actually a line of dominoes that will also begin to fall that will solve the issue of false allegations of child abuse that are such a troubling part of “parental alienation,” but I’ll leave a description of that line of dominoes for another post.

It’s just a matter of time.

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

All that Glitters…

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

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

Patterns of Attachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secure Attachment Pattern

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

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

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

Insecure (Anxious-Ambivalent) Attachment

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

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

Origins of these Patterns

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

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

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

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

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

Anxious-Ambivalent (Preoccupied) Attachment

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

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

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

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

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

Bonding to a Problematic Parent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation”

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

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

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

All that glitters…

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

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

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

References

Attachment

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

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

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

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

Attachment & the Marital Relationship

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

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

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

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

Trans-Generational Transmission of Attachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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