Key Concept: Splitting

Understanding Splitting

This post builds some bricks in the structure for understanding the construct of “parental alienation” which I will then be able to reference in future discussions. 

In this post I’m going to discuss a key construct, the nature of the splitting dynamic that is characteristic of both narcissistic and borderline personality organizations.  As part of this discussion, I will also elaborate on the equivalence of narcissistic and borderline personality organizations at the attachment level, and the key role of splitting in the symptom manifestation of “parental alienation” within an attachment-based framework of the construct (i.e., as the child’s cross-generational coalition with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent).

Splitting

Central to the psychological processes of narcissistic and borderline personalities is the characteristic of “splitting,” which is a polarized perception of events and people into extremes of all-good, ideal, and wonderful or all-bad, entirely devalued, and demonized.  In splitting, thinking and perception are black-or-white. Modulated shades of grey, of mixed positive and negative qualities, are not possible. People are EITHER idealized as the all-wonderful source of nurture and narcissistic supply, OR they are entirely demonized as being “abusive” and as “deserving” to be punished for their inadequacy.  Splitting involves black-or-white extremes of polarized thinking and perception.

The American Psychiatric Association (2000) 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)

One of the leading figures in personality disorder dynamics, Otto Kernberg (1977), links the characteristic of splitting to the capacity for denial as a defense mechanism,

“Denial here is typically exemplified by “mutual denial” of two independent areas of consciousness (in this case, we might say, denial simply reinforces splitting). The patient is aware of the fact that at this time his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about himself or other people are completely opposite to those he has had at other times; but this memory has no emotional relevance, it cannot influence the way he feels now. At a later time, he may revert to his previous ego state and then deny the present one, again with persisting memory, but with a complete incapacity for emotional linkage of these two ego states.” (p. 31-32)

One of the leading authorities on borderline personality disorder processes, Masha Linehan, captures the characteristic inflexibility of the splitting mindset,

“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. (p. 35)

Both the narcissistic and borderline personality display spitting as a characteristic feature of their personalities. This is because both the narcissist and borderline personality share an underlying personality organization with differing surface manifestations.

Both the narcissistic and borderline personalities have an experience of tremendous core-self inadequacy and both believe that this core-self inadequacy will result in their being rejected and abandoned by others, principally by attachment figures. These personality disorder dynamics are the product of underlying patterns in their attachment system that serve as the formative core for the development of the personality structure. Bowlby (1969; 1973; 1980), who initially described the formation and nature of the attachment system, called these underlying patterns “internal working models” of attachment. Beck et al., (2004) refer to them as organizing “schemas” that guide our perceptions of events and relationships.

The underlying internal working models of attachment, or organizing schemas, for both the borderline personality and the narcissist are the same, a fundamental experience of core-self inadequacy (belief about self-in-relationship) and a belief that he or she will be rejected and abandoned by the attachment figure because of this fundamental core-self inadequacy (belief about other-in-relationship). The difference between the borderline and narcissistic personality is the differing manner in which each personality style copes with and defends against this identical underlying core belief system.

Equivalence of Narcissistic and Borderline Organizational Structure

Kernberg (1975), one of the leading figures in understanding narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics, equates the two types of personalities as essentially representing differing external manifestations of an underlying borderline personality organization,

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

“Most of these patients [i.e., narcissists] present an underlying borderline personality organization.” (p. 16)

For mental health professionals reading this post, let me extend Kernberg’s discussion a little deeper,

“Underneath the feelings of insecurity, self-criticism, and inferiority that patients with borderline personality organization present, one can frequently find grandiose and omnipotent trends. These very often take the form of a strong unconscious conviction that they have the right to expect gratification and homage from others, to be treated as privileged, special persons. If an external object can provide no further gratification or protection, it is dropped and dismissed because there was no real capacity for love of this object in the first place.” (p. 33)

Childress Comment: it is interesting to note that when the targeted parent supposedly “provides no further gratification” for the child (according to the child’s report), the relationship with this parent is “dropped and dismissed” as if “there was no real capacity for love” in the child in the first place.  This child presentation is classically characteristic of narcissistic/borderline personality processes, and it is entirely inconsistent with the authentic functioning of the attachment system.

“In attachments, as in other affectional bonds, there is a need to maintain proximity, distress upon inexplicable separation, pleasure and joy upon reunion, and grief at loss.” (Ainsworth, 1989, p. 711)

“The difference between narcissistic personality structure and borderline personality organization is that in the narcissistic personality there is an integrated, although highly pathological grandiose self… The integration of this pathological, grandiose self compensates for the lack of integration of the normal self-concept which is part of the underlying borderline personality organization: it explains the paradox of relatively good ego functioning and surface adaptation in the presence of a predominance of splitting mechanisms, a related constellation of primitive defenses, and the lack of integration of object representations in these patients.” (p. 265-266)

“The pathological grandiose self compensates for the general “ego-weakening” effects of the primitive defensive organization, a common characteristic of narcissistic personalities and patients with borderline personality organization, and explains the fact that narcissistic personalities may present an overt functioning that ranges from the borderline level to that of better integrated types of character pathology.” (p. 269)

Both the narcissistic and borderline personalities experience a primal core-self inadequacy that, at the attachment system level, represents the internal working models in the attachment system for self-in-relationship.

Both the narcissistic and borderline personalities also have a corresponding belief that they will be rejected and abandoned by the primary attachment figure, which represents at the attachment system level their internal working model for other-in-relationship.

Bowlby refers to these basic internalized belief systems that comprise the attachment system as “internal working models,” while Beck et al., (2004) refer to them as “schemas,”

Bowlby: Internal Working Models

“No variables, it is held, have more far-reaching effects on personality development than have a child’s experiences within his family: for, starting during the first months of his relations with his mother figure, and extending through the years of childhood and adolescence in his relations with both parents, he builds up working models of how attachment figures are likely to behave towards him in any of a variety of situations; and on those models are based all his expectations, and therefore all his plans for the rest of his life.” (Bowlby, 1973, p. 369).

“Every situation we meet within life is construed in terms of the representational models we have of the world about us and of ourselves. Information reaching our sense organs is selected and interpreted in terms of those models, its significance for us and for those we care for is evaluated in terms of them, and plans of action conceived and executed with those models in mind.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 229)

Beck: Schemas

“How a situation is evaluated depends in part, at least, on the relevant underlying beliefs. These beliefs are embedded in more or less stable structures, labeled “schemas,” that select and synthesize incoming data.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 17)

“The content of the schemas may deal with personal relationships, such as attitudes toward the self or others, or impersonal categories… When schemas are latent, they are not participating in information processing; when activated they channel cognitive processing from the earliest to the final stages.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 27)

“In personality disorders, the schemas are part of normal, everyday processing of information… When hypervalent, these idiosyncratic schemas displace and probably inhibit other schemas that may be more adaptive or more appropriate for a given situation. They consequently introduce a systematic bias into information processing.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 27)

”Some subsystems composed of cognitive schemas are concerned with self-evaluation, others are concerned with evaluation of other people.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 28)

These distorted internal working models of attachment (or organizing schemas) guide and direct the interpretation of relationships and the responses made to these distorted interpretations of reality by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. Some “alienating” parents will present with stronger narcissistic personality styles while other “alienating” parents will present with stronger borderline personality styles. Note in this regard, Kernberg’s analysis of the narcissistic personality that,

“…narcissistic personalities may present an overt functioning that ranges from the borderline level to that of better integrated types of character pathology.” (Kernberg, 1977, p. 269)

It is this wide variability in the overt presentation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in “parental alienation,” combined with the absence of personality disorder expertise in the mental health professionals who are diagnosing and treating general child and family problems, that may have contributed to the seeming non-recognition of the narcissistic/(borderline) pathology associated with “parental alienation.”

It is IMPERATIVE that ALL mental health professionals, all child custody evaluators and all therapists, who are involved in diagnosing and treating this “special population” of children and families have a professional level of expertise regarding the nature, dynamics, and presentation of personality disorder processes, particularly narcissistic and borderline personality development and characteristics.

I would strongly urge and strongly recommend that ALL mental health professionals involved in diagnosing and treating this special population of children and families, which means all child custody evaluators and treating therapists, read the following set of literature to establish professional competence in the requisite domain of personality disorder components for this special population:

Core Texts:

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.

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

Readings of Special Note:

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.

Childress Comment: Highly recommended regarding parental empathic failure as a form of psychological child abuse and developmental trauma. Failure of parental empathy is a characterological feature of both narcissistic and borderline personalities.

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

Childress Comment: Highly recommended regarding the nature of role-reversal parent-child relationships.  Role-reversal relationships are an extremely common feature of narcissistic and borderline parenting.

Dutton, D. G., Denny-Keys, M. K., & Sells, J. R. (2011). Parental personality disorder and Its effects on children: A review of current literature. Journal Of Child Custody, 8, 268-283.

Childress Comment: Recommended review of the impact of narcissistic parenting

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

Childress Comment: Recommended discussion of children’s presentation when living with a narcissistic parent.

There is no excuse or justification for professional ignorance.  If a mental health professional is going to be involved in the diagnosis and/or treatment of families that involve narcissistic and/or borderline personality dynamics, then the mental health professional MUST be professionally knowledgeable and competent in personality disorder dynamics.

There is NO EXCUSE for professional ignorance.

The Neurological Origins of Splitting

Spitting is not an actual physical splitting of areas in the brain. It involves the excessive “cross-inhibition” of two brain areas, so if one area is active (the area containing positive representations, for example) then this active area of the brain triggers inhibitory connections that entirely suppress the activity of another area of the brain (the area containing negative representations), so that only one or the other area of the brain can be active at any one time.

So, as noted earlier by Kernberg regarding denial and splitting, the person will continue to have a memory that he or she previously didn’t feel this way, “but this memory has no emotional relevance” for the person because that area of the brain that was previously active is now entirely turned off (entirely inhibited by the activity of the other brain area).

For the rest of us, living in a normal-range brain, we can have both brain areas on simultaneously. Our brain area containing positive representations can be on AT THE SAME TIME as our brain area containing negative representations, so that we can have a complex blend of both positive and negative features about an event or person. Yet even in our normal-range brains we still have a little bit of cross-inhibition occurring. If we like someone, we tend to see more positive things about that person, and we’ll tend to overlook their negative qualities (this is called a “positive halo” effect), whereas if we don’t like someone we will tend to interpret what they do in a more negative and critical way (this is called a “negative halo” effect).

But our cross-inhibition is relatively mild (hopefully), which allows us a more balanced perception of events and people. For the narcissistic and borderline personalities, however, the cross-inhibition of the two brain areas is complete and totalEITHER the positive representation area is active, in which case the negative representation area is entirely turned off (i.e., creating the all-good, perfectly nurturing, and idealized extreme), OR the negative representation area is active, in which case the positive representation area is entirely turned off (i.e., creating the all-bad, entirely devalued, and demonized extreme).

No balanced blend of perception is possible in the brain circuitry of the narcissistic borderline parent. Black-or-white extremes. This is called “splitting.”

How does a situation like this develop?

Spitting occurs in the attachment system, and it is a response to a parent who is simultaneously a source of fear and a source of nurture.

“Various studies have found that patients with BPD are characterized by disorganized attachment representations… Disorganized attachment is considered to result from an unresolvable situation for the child when “the parent is at the same time the source of fright as well as the potential haven of safety” (van IJzendoorn, Schuengel, & Bakermans-Kranburg, 1999, p. 226).” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 191)

The positive representation area of the brain is the area containing attachment bonding motivations, and the negative representation area of the brain is the area containing avoidance motivations. The parent, as a source of nurture for the child, naturally triggers the child’s attachment bonding motivations. However, when this parent is simultaneously a source of threat who provokes an intense fear in the child, the child’s avoidance motivations also become active, and the child becomes strongly motivated to flee from the source of threat and danger (the hostile-abusive parent) and seek nurture and protection from… the parent… who is… the source of threat and danger and who is triggering the child’s avoidance motivation.

This creates a state of intolerable inner conflict, where both the attachment bonding and avoidance motivation systems are simultaneously active at high intensities. If this becomes a chronic experience, the brain begins to resolve this conflict by excessively cross-inhibiting these networks, so that if one network is active, say the attachment bonding network, then the other network, the avoidance network, is entirely inhibited and becomes completely inactive. Or, if the avoidance motivation system is active, then this entirely inhibits the attachment bonding motivation system. So that ONLY one or the other motivating system is on at any given time.

So unlike our normal-range brains that can simultaneously experience both attachment bonding and avoidance motivations, with only minimal cross-inhibition (i.e., the halo effect), the brain of the narcissistic/borderline personality experiences EITHER one OR the other motivation (an intense bonding motivation or an intense avoidance motivation), but never both simultaneously (i.e., never a complex blend of good and bad).

This is what “splitting” is. It is a distinctive and characteristic feature of both narcissistic and borderline psychopathology. It is easily recognized by a competent mental health professional.

Splitting and “Parental Alienation”

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent is neurologically unable to simultaneously experience both positive and negative perceptions of a person. Either the other person is seen as an idealized source of nurture and narcissistic supply, or the other person becomes a devalued object of complete contempt and scorn. No middle ground is possible. Ambiguity is neurologically impossible for the narcissistic/(borderline) personality.

When the divorce occurs, the targeted parent becomes an ex-husband or an ex-wife.

In the black-and-white polarized brain pathways of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the “bad husband” MUST also become the “bad father” and the “bad wife” MUST also become the “bad mother.”  There is no other possibility.  This is an imperative imposed by the neurological networks of the narcissistic/(borderline) brain, i.e., by the splitting dynamic characteristic of both narcissistic and borderline personalities.

What’s more, since the narcissistic/(borderline) brain cannot experience (fundamentally cannot experience) ambiguity, the ex-husband must also become an ex-father; the ex-wife must become an ex-mother. To the mind of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent this seems self-evident and obvious. Remember Kernberg’s discussion of denial,

“The patient is aware of the fact that at this time his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about himself or other people are completely opposite to those he has had at other times; but this memory has no emotional relevance, it cannot influence the way he feels now… [There is] a complete incapacity for emotional linkage of these two ego states.” (p. 31-32)

All memories held by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent of the positive relationship the targeted parent may have had with the children are lost to relevance. The bad spouse has now become a bad parent, and the ex-husband must become an ex-father, the ex-wife must become the ex-mother, and there is a “complete incapacity for emotional linkage” to any prior experiences of the targeted parent as a good spouse or good parent. These memories have “no emotional relevance.”

And, since the child is in a shared psychological state with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (variously called an “intersubjective” state (Stern, 2004; Trevarthan, 2001), a “dyadic state of consciousness” (Tronick, 2003), or “enmeshment” (Minuchin, 1974), the child is acquiring the orientation and belief systems of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, hence the presence of narcissistic and borderline traits in the child’s symptom display (i.e., diagnostic indicator 2).

So the child will exhibit the SAME splitting process (diagnostic indicator 2.5). The child’s memories of formerly positive experiences with the targeted parent will also lose relevance for the child. The child may remain “aware of the fact that at this time his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about [the targeted parent] are completely opposite to those he has had at other times; but this memory has no emotional relevance, it cannot influence the way he feels now… [There is] a complete incapacity for emotional linkage of these two ego states.”

This explains what otherwise is a very puzzling feature of “parental alienation.”

Why doesn’t the child remember all the good times with the targeted parent? Their love and affection, their laughter and warmth? What happened to all those positive memories?

“In this case, we might say, denial simply reinforces splitting” (Kernberg, 1977, p. 31)

Now Kernberg wasn’t talking about “parental alienation.” Kernberg was describing the narcissistic/borderline personality. Which highlights an important point, the moment we ground our definition of “parental alienation” in established psychological constructs and principles, a wealth of relevant information immediately becomes available to us, and explanations are revealed.

Understanding the role of splitting in “parental alienation” is just one more brick in a comprehensive and accurate explanation of what “parental alienation” is from within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.

Parallel Process

Whenever multiple mental health professionals work with borderline personality processes (and narcissistic processes have an underlying borderline organization), there always exists the potential that the splitting dynamic of the borderline process will be transferred and expressed among the involved mental health professionals, variously called “parallel process” and “staff splitting.”

Linehan, one of the premiere experts in borderline personality processes, describes this potential for the transfer of splitting into the professional team working with borderline personality dynamics in patients,

“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.” (p. 432)

This very much sounds to me like the professional discussion surrounding “parental alienation” that has occurred over the past 30 years, in which each side (pole in the dialectic) is advocating for their position without finding synthesis with the other side (the other pole in the dialectic).  Establishment mental health (symbolized by the DSM committees) have discounted Gardnerian PAS as “junk science” and have withheld granting legitimacy to the construct of PAS, and a separate partisan divide has swirled around the construct of false allegations of child abuse, with each side taking staunchly polarized positions. 

For their part, the Gardnerian PAS advocates have failed to grasp and appreciate the legitimate criticism of PAS as being founded on a set of loose anecdotal indicators that have no connection to established psychological constructs or principles. Rather than take this criticism to heart and employ the professional rigor necessary to define “parental alienation” within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, the Gardnerian PAS supporters have simply tried to storm the gates of the DSM with the same continual argument of “it exists.”

From the perspective of “staff splitting,” Marsha Linehan provides us the way out of this unproductive professional squabbling.  First, we must recognize that a polarity has arisen, and that both sides represent equally valid poles of a dialectic.  Second, we must come together to work toward synthesis.

The criticism of Gardner’s model of PAS as not being sufficiently grounded in scientifically established psychological principles and constructs is a valid criticism.  An attachment-based reconceptualization of the construct of “parental alienation” addresses this criticism levied by establishment mental health against Gardner’s model of PAS.  And, in applying the professional rigor necessary to describe the construct of “parental alienation” entirely from within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, a wealth of explanatory information is made available to guide both diagnosis and treatment.

Equally, establishment mental health needs to similarly work toward synthesis by recognizing the legitimacy of a clinical phenomenon associated with what has traditionally been called “parental alienation.”  It doesn’t matter what it’s called, but it represents severe distortions to family processes as a result of a cross-generational coalition of the child with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is creating serious developmental (diagnostic indicator 1), personality (diagnostic indicator 2), and psychiatric (diagnostic indicator 3) pathology in the child, which defines it as “pathogenic parenting.”

Because the construct has a history of being labeled as “parental alienation,” I would recommend we keep this descriptive label, but I have added the prefix “attachment-based” to the label to differentiate this scientifically grounded model for the clinical phenomenon from the earlier Gardnerian PAS model.

Fundamentally, however, within mental health we must show enlightened professionalism and bring this parallel process of “staff splitting” to an end for the benefit of our client children and families.  Both sides are right, both sides represent equally valid poles in a dialectic.  It is time we engage in professional dialogue that recognizes this truth so that we can maintain our professional focus on serving the needs of our client families by coming together to work toward synthesis

This is ALSO true surrounding the divisive issue of false allegations of abuse.  We need to protect children from child abuse and a healthy trust for children’s reporting of abuse is warranted.  One of the absolutely worst things we can do in a case of authentic child abuse is allow the child to report the abuse, and then not believe the child and not do anything to stop the abuse.  That is psychologically devastating to the child.  The skeptics of false allegations of child abuse, who are advocating for providing greater credibility to child reporting of abuse have an extremely legitimate and important point.  They are right.

And…

In some cases, particularly when there is parental narcissistic and borderline processes and a cross-generational role-reversal relationship in which the child has been induced/seduced into meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the narcissistic/borderline parent, there are occurrences of the narcissistic/borderline parent inducing/seducing false and distorted allegations of abuse from the allied child directed toward the other parent in order that the narcissistic/borderline parent can exploit the allegations to achieve power over the situation and the targeted parent.  Furthermore, borderline personality parents may have been abused themselves and so have a pre-potentiated schema of fearfulness in which they see abuse where none exists (the term “borderline” refers to being on the “border” of neurosis and psychosis).

“Young’s schema model… patients with BPD were characterized by higher self-reports of beliefs, emotions, and behaviors related to the four pathogenic BPD modes (detached protector, abandoned/abused child, angry child, and punitive parent model.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 193)

“Patients with BPD are characterized by hypervigilance (being vulnerable in a dangerous world where nobody can be trusted) and dichotomous thinking.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 193)

“The conceptualization of the core pathology of BPD as stemming from a highly frightened, abused child who is left alone in a malevolent world, longing for safety and help but distrustful because of fear of further abuse and abandonment, is highly related to the model developed by Young (McGinn & Young, 1996)… Young elaborated on an idea, in the 1980s introduced by Aaron Beck in clinical workshops (D.M. Clark, personal communication), that some pathological states of patients with BPD are a sort of regression into intense emotional states experienced as a child. Young conceptualized such states as schema modes…” (p. 199)

Young hypothesized that four schema modes are central to BPD: the abandoned child mode (the present author suggests to label it the abused and abandoned child); the angry/impulsive child mode; the punitive parent mode, and the detached protector mode… The abused and abandoned child mode denotes the desperate state the patient may be in related to (threatened) abandonment and abuse the patient has experienced as a child. Typical core beliefs are that other people are malevolent, cannot be trusted, and will abandon or punish you, especially when you become intimate with them. (p. 199)

Narcissistic personalities can also decompensate into paranoid and persecutory delusional beliefs (Millon, 2011). 

“Owing to their excessive use of fantasy mechanisms, they [narcissists] are disposed to misinterpret events and to construct delusional beliefs… Among narcissists, delusions often take form after a serious challenge or setback has upset their image of superiority and omnipotence… Delusional systems may also develop as a result of having felt betrayed and humiliated. Here we may see the rapid unfolding of persecutory delusions…” (Millon, 2011, p. 407)

The presence of parental narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics realistically elevates the risk of false allegations of abuse directed toward a normal-range targeted parent as a consequence of the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, especially when the child has been induced/seduced into a cross-generational coalition with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent against the other parent that involves a role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

We need to protect children from ALL forms of child abuse.

Both sides represent “equally valid poles in a dialectic.”  For the well-being of our clients, professional psychology must demonstrate sufficient self-reflective insight to avoid the parallel process dynamic of staff splitting associated with treating borderline personality processes (i.e., “parental alienation”) and must work together, NOT as adversaries, toward a synthesis of understanding that recognizes the legitimacy of both poles in the dialectic.

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

References

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

Attachment

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.

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

Personality Disorders

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

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 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)

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

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

Rather than telling the child directly what to do or think, as does the behaviorally controlling parent, the psychologically controlling parent uses indirect hints and responds with guilt induction or withdrawal of love if the child refuses to comply. In short, an intrusive parent strives to manipulate the child’s thoughts and feelings in such a way that the child’s psyche will conform to the parent’s wishes. (p. 12)

Dutton, D. G., Denny-Keys, M. K., & Sells, J. R. (2011). Parental personality disorder and Its effects on children: A review of current literature. Journal Of Child Custody, 8, 268-283.

“One of the most impactful consequences brought about as a result of growing up with parental PD is the way in which a child is raised with emotionally unavailable, unpredictable, or hostileabusive parenting and the consequences of this upbringing on attachment issues.” (p. 271)

“The results [of Horne’s study] indicated mothers’ narcissism rates correlated significantly and positively with their sons’ narcissism and negatively with their sons’ expressions of empathy.”

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

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

In a narcissistic encounter, there is, psychologically, only one person present. The co-narcissist disappears for both people, and only the narcissistic person’s experience is important. Children raised by narcissistic parents come to believe that all other people are narcissistic to some extent. As a result, they orient themselves around the other person in their relationships, lose a clear sense of themselves, and cannot express themselves easily nor participate fully in their lives. (Rappoport, 2005, p. 3)

“Often, the same person displays both narcissistic and co-narcissistic behaviors, depending on circumstances. A person who was raised by a narcissistic or a co-narcissistic parent tends to assume that, in any interpersonal interaction, one person is narcissistic and the other co-narcissistic, and often can play either part. Commonly, one parent was primarily narcissistic and the other parent primarily co-narcissistic, and so both orientations have been modeled for the child. (Rappoport, 2005, p. 2)

 Intersubjectivity & Enmeshment

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

Trevarthen, C. (2001). The neurobiology of early communication: Intersubjective regulations in human brain development. In Kalverboer, A.F. and Gramsbergen, A. (Eds) Handbook of Brain and Behaviour in Human Development. London: Kluwer Academic Publishers

Tronick, E.Z. (2003). Of course all relationships are unique: How co-creative processes generate unique mother-infant and patient-therapist relationships and change other relationships. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 473-491.

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

What Can I Tell the Court?

I received the following question from a targeted parent:

“I am in a custody/divorce battle that has gone on for over two years. I have spent every penny that I could raise on this, over $150k and I am now little more than a broken parent living on very little. I can no longer afford anything for my case so I am now representing myself in Court. I would love to get some ideas on how to present PA in Court.  Thanks much.”

I receive variations of this request a lot. I wish there was some positive answer I could offer.

This is exactly why the Gardnerian model of PAS is a failed paradigm. The Gardnerian PAS paradigm requires that the targeted parent prove “parental alienation” in Court, and this becomes a long and expensive process. Too expensive for all but a few parents, and it takes years of legal struggles.  And all the while, through the years of protracted legal battles trying to prove “parental alienation” in Court, the child’s symptoms become ever more severely entrenched, so that recovering the authentic child becomes increasingly difficult even if there is a positive outcome in Court.

But, except in the most severe cases of “parental alienation,” there is seldom a positive outcome in Court.

The Court will issues orders for custody and visitation that the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will ignore. The targeted parent will return to Court seeking contempt charges, and the Court will not levy sanctions but will instead modify its orders and stress to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent the importance of following Court orders, and these new orders will simply be ignored by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The targeted parent will AGAIN need to return to Court to obtain the compliance of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent with the PREVIOUS Court orders and the judge will reprimand BOTH parents for not adequately co-parenting.

Meanwhile, time passes and the child’s symptoms become ever more severely entrenched, the child grows farther away from the love of the targeted parent, and the child increasingly surrenders with each passing day to the distorted influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The Court will order “reunification therapy,” even though no such thing as “reunification therapy” exists in any established models of psychotherapy (see On Unicorns, the Tooth Fairy, and Reunification Therapy post). The construct of “reunification therapy” is a fraud perpetrated by mental health professionals on the Court and public. No such thing exists.

I’m aware that “fraud” is a strong accusation, but this blog has a Comments section and I challenge any mental health professional to provide me with a professional reference for what “reunification therapy” entails.  None exists.   No model of “reunification therapy” has ever been proposed or defined within the professional literature. There is no such thing as “reunification therapy” and professional psychology should be ashamed of itself for fostering this “junk therapy” upon the Court and public.

Since “reunification therapy” has no established model, it is essentially whatever the “reunification” therapist makes it up to be. The construct of “reunification therapy” is a made up and fraudulent therapy construct. If any therapist disagrees, there is a Comment section available to you on this post…

There are psychoanalytic models of therapy, humanistic-existential models of therapy, cognitive-behavioral models of therapy, family systems models of therapy, and post-modern models of therapy, but there are no models that define what “reunification therapy” entails.

Nevertheless, the Court will order “reunification therapy” as if it exists, and even this therapy will be delayed by the non-cooperation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. When it does eventually take place, the reunification therapist is revealed to be clueless regarding how to treat and resolve “parental alienation” and the ineffective and pointless “reunification therapy” will continue for months, or even years, without producing any change whatsoever.

And all the while, the child’s symptoms become ever more established and entrenched, the loving relationship with the targeted parent becomes ever more hostile and rejecting, and the child falls ever more fully under the distorting pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. No one apparently sees or recognizes the degree of the pathology.

This is the only “solution” offered by Gardner’s model of PAS, and it is no solution at all. Gardner’s model requires the litigation and proof of “parental alienation” in Court. As long as the construct of “parental alienation” is defined through Gardner’s model of PAS then there will be no solution available to the nightmare of “parental alienation.”

An attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” redefines the construct of “parental alienation” entirely from within standard and established psychological constructs and principles, and seeks the solution FIRST in the mental health system, which can then be leveraged to achieve an efficient and effective solution in the legal system.

When mental health speaks with a single voice, then the legal system will be able to act with the decisive clarity necessary to solve “parental alienation.” The solution to “parental alienation” is in the mental health system, not the legal system. Mental health remains divided by the Gardnerian model of PAS (i.e., it is not accepted by establishment mental health as represented by the DSM diagnostic system), so it requires that targeted parents prove “parental alienation” in Court.

An attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” is based entirely in established psychological constructs and principles that are accepted by establishment mental health (i.e., the attachment system, personality disorder dynamics, delusional processes), which can then be used to establish professional standards of practice, and the single voice from mental health can then be used to efficiently and effectively guide decisions before the Court.

Until a paradigm shift occurs, no solution is available.

I fully understand the desperate struggle of targeted parents seeking a solution, as you feel your relationship with your child slipping away into a nightmare of distortions, hostility, and rejection. I understand that you’re hoping that because I understand what “parental alienation” is that I will have some magic words to give you that will help the Court and therapists understand. Unfortunately, I don’t have magic words to enlightened the unenlightened.

The solution is to be found in a paradigm shift to an attachment-based model of parental alienation (see Finding Empowerment post), and until this paradigm shift occurs within establishment mental health, no solution will be available.  I’m sorry.  I wish it were different. But its not.

If you’re struggling with the Court, your attorney may find my expert testimony helpful (my professional expertise is in child and family therapy, child development, and parent-child conflict; not in “parental alienation”). I can review reports by other mental health professionals and provide a second opinion on the clinical data contained in these reports, and I can provide testimony in response to hypothetical questions that are posed to me by your attorney that mirror the features of your case. This may or may not be helpful to your case.  I am not an attorney.  For legal advice consult an attorney and follow the advice of your attorney.

In general, my opinion as a psychologist is that reframing the issue away from “parental alienation” and over to “pathogenic parenting” that focuses on the child’s symptoms may possibly be helpful, but that is a decision for you to make in consultation with your attorney.

For parents who lack the financial resources to hire an attorney… I fully understand, and I am sorry, because it is unlikely that you will be able to have my testimony or materials admitted into your case because you probably don’t know how to navigate the requirements of the legal system. That’s the expertise that attorneys provide. But legal representation is expensive. I understand that, which is why I am convinced that any solution to “parental alienation” that requires extensive litigation will be unproductive. We need a solution that is practical, that can be accomplished within 6 months, and that does not require excessive financial expenditures. In my view, an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” provides this solution once it is accepted into establishment mental health.

However, I am not an attorney. For legal advice, consult an attorney.

To achieve any hope of a solution, the Gardnerian paradigm of PAS requires that you have a good attorney who can effectively navigate the legal system. Trying to be successful in the legal system on your own will very likely prove unproductive with regard to “parental alienation.” To make use of my testimony or my materials in Court will likely require the expertise of an attorney to actualize. I’m sorry. I wish it was different. I’m working to make it different. But that is seemingly the current state of affairs.

The current Gardnerian model of PAS is a failed paradigm. There is no pragmatic and practical solution available under the current paradigm. Under the Gardnerian paradigm you must prove “parental alienation” in Court.  In the vast majority of cases, this is not a practical solution that can be actualized.

However, the moment an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is accepted by establishment mental health (and there are no barriers to this acceptance, see Nothing New – No Excuses post) then the solution becomes available immediately.

The solution to parental alienation” is to be found in the mental health system, not the legal system. Any effort at a solution that requires the litigation of “parental alienation” in the legal system will be unsuccessful. Litigation in the legal system is far too expensive, takes far too long, and almost invariably produces inadequate results.

I wish I had a different answer. I don’t know what you can provide to the Court to persuade them. If you have an attorney and your attorney thinks my expert testimony may be helpful, then I am available to provide my insight to the Court .

Note: Not every post-divorce parent-child conflict is the result of “parental alienation.” In any analysis of clinical data, I will follow wherever the clinical data leads.  If other potential factors besides “parental alienation” are evident in the clinical data, I will say so.  I have no personal investment in finding “parental alienation,” and I am clear in my writings that I define what has traditionally been called “parental alienation” as “pathogenic parenting” evident in a specific set of child symptoms.  I am a clinical psychologist, and my expertise is in child and family therapy, child development, and parent-child conflict, not in “parental alienation.”

The ultimate solution to parental alienation, however, is to be found in the mental health system, not the legal system, and the solution is not to be found on a case-by-case basis.  The fate of targeted parents will rise or fall together.  It will be solved for everyone, or will be solved for no one.

Once mental health speaks with a single voice, then the legal system will be able to act with the decisive clarity necessary to solve the family tragedy of “parental alienation.”

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

Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting

I have just posted to my website a Diagnostic Checklist for the three Primary Diagnostic Indicators and Secondary Clinical Features for the pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

This diagnostic checklist is available at the link below:

Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting, and directly through my website

I am not sure if this checklist will be helpful to targeted parents, but I am trying to provide you with something simple that you can give to therapists and child custody evaluators.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, we can lead a horse to water but we can’t make him drink.

We can’t force mental health professionals to be knowledgeable.  If you have cancer and you’re in the position of educating your physician regarding the diagnosis and treatment of cancer… you’re in trouble.  The treating physician should know more than you about the disorder.  Would that this were the case with mental health professionals and “parental alienation.”

This Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting may, or may not, be helpful in educating therapists and child custody evaluators.

If the three Primary Diagnostic Indicators are present then a diagnosis of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is warranted, because no other possible explanation can account for this specific set of child’s symptoms.  It is simple.  It is clear.  It is definitive.

In addition, there are a set of secondary clinical features that can be used as confirmatory support for the diagnosis, or as initial signs triggering additional focused assessment for the three Primary Diagnostic Indicators.

The diagnosis of pathogenic parenting associated with an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” is made solely on the presence or absence of the three Primary Diagnostic Indicators.

If one or more of the three Primary Diagnostic Indicators is sub-threshold, then a 6-month Response to Intervention (RTI) trial of therapy would be warranted to assist in clarifying the diagnosis. If the parent-child conflict with the targeted parent is NOT due to the pathogenic influence of the child’s cross-generational coalition with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., “parental alienation”), then 6 months of appropriate therapy should produce a significant resolution to the parent-child conflict.  Perhaps not a complete resolution in 6 months, but significant gains should be achieved from 6 months of therapy.

If, however, the parent-child conflict IS the result of the pathogenic influence of the child’s cross-generational coalition with a narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., “parental alienation”), then 6 months of therapy will have had no effect, the Primary Diagnostic Indicators would have become more clearly evident, and the presence of secondary clinical features could confirm the diagnosis.

If you want to remain focused in educating a therapist or child custody evaluator, I structured the checklist so you can simply present the first two pages.  At the end of the first page are resources of my website, blog, and online seminar if the mental health professional wants more information.  At the end of the second page is the appropriate DSM-5 diagnosis (including V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed) with a reference in the footnote to the article on my website where I provide an analysis of the DSM-5 diagnosis for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation.”

The third page is a single-page checklist for all of the associated secondary clinical features, followed by bullet-point descriptions of each secondary clinical feature.  I’m planning to address each one in turn in future blog posts, describing each feature and explaining why it occurs.

Again, this may, or may not, be helpful.  We can lead a horse…

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

 

Finding Empowerment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradigm Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible Suggestions

I might suggest the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing with the Alienating Parent

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

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

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

Baseline Advice

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

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

Our primary goal should be,

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

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

Possible Interventions with the Alienating Parent

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

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

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

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

Inability to Process Sadness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Splitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

This is also exceedingly challenging.

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

Treatment involves four phases,

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

2. Recovery of the authentic child,

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

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

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

References

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

Finding Authenticity

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

Question:

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

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

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

Caveat 1

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

Caveat 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The premise of the question is similar to asking,

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

Or, similarly

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

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

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

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

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

Caveat 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Answer:

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

Harmonic Resonance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gandhi said, “the antidote is the opposite.”

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

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

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

Understanding the Emotion System

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy relaxes emotional spasms.

Using Background Emotional Signaling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Intersubjectivity

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

Guardians ad Litem and the Best Interests of the Child

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

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

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

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

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

Best Interests of the Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Domains and Factors

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

Foundational Domains

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

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

Secondary Domains

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

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

Tertiary Domains

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

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

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

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

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

Standards of Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foundational Knowledge Base

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Domains of Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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