Attachment Foundations: Regulation Systems (1)

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


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

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

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

The Development of Regulatory Systems

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

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

The Example of Language Acquisition

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

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

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

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

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

The Attachment System

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transmission of Attachment Patterns

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

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

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

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

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

References

Regulatory Function of Language

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

Internal Working Models

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

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

Attachment System and Spousal Relationships

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

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

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

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

Trans-Generational Transmission of Attachment Patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Attachment System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

References

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

 

Diagnosis of Attachment-Based Parental Alienation

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Associated Clinical Signs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note on “Splitting”

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

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

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

The American Psychiatric Association (200) defines splitting as,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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