Foundations

An Attachment-Based Model of Parental Alienation: Foundations

Dr C A Childress released a book in June 2015 that is truly remarkable. It explains the complex psychology of severe parental alienation with the child, within the aligned parent, and in the context of a family system. For anyone seeking answers about what happened and why, this book is the definitive answer. He nails it. It is available on Amazon. Read free, online, the first chapter of Foundations or the overview section on pages 17-22 of Foundations. Also see the summary of pathogenic parenting.





From The Back Cover
The construct of “parental alienation” has a controversial history. An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” brings the controversy to an end. An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” uses established constructs and principles of professional psychology to fully describe the psychological and interpersonal processes that create the symptom features of “parental alienation.” By defining “parental alienation” within standard and established psychological principles and constructs, an attachment-based model identifies a set of specific diagnostic indicators that can reliably identify "parental alienation" while differentiating "parental alienation" from other sources of parent-child conflict. An attachment-based model for the construct of "parental alienation" also identifies specific domains of professional expertise and knowledge necessary for the professionally competent diagnosis and treatment of this special population of children and families. Children deserve a childhood free from the stress of their parents’ conflict, and parents deserve to love and be loved by their children. An attachment-based model of "parental alienation" represents an important step in creating a solution to the family tragedy of "parental alienation" in high-conflict divorce.

Theoretical Overview (pages 17-22)
The psychological processes involved in attachment-based “parental alienation” are complex, but they become increasingly self-evident with familiarity.  The primary reason for the initial apparent complexity of the dynamics is that they involve the psychological expressions within family relationship patterns of a narcissistic/(borderline) personality structure that has its origins in early attachment trauma from the childhood of the parent which is influencing, and in fact driving, the patterns of relationship interactions currently being expressed within the family.  The inner psychological processes of the narcissistic/(borderline) mind are inherently complex and swirling, and linking these distorted personality processes into the functioning of the underlying attachment system adds another level of complexity.  However, the nature of the pathology is stable across cases of “parental alienation,” so that this consistency in the pathology provides ever increasing clarity of understanding from increasing familiarity for the concepts.

Fully understanding these seemingly complex psychological and family factors requires an integrated recognition of the psychological and interpersonal dynamics across three interrelated levels of clinical analysis, 1) the family systems level, 2) the personality disorder level, and 3) the attachment system level.  Each of these levels individually provides a coherent explanatory model for the dynamics being expressed in “parental alienation,” and yet each individual level is also an interconnected expression of the pathology contained at the other two levels of analysis as well, so that a complete recognition of the psychopathology being expressed as “parental alienation” requires a conceptual understanding of the process across all three distinctly different, yet interconnected, levels of analysis.

 The family systems processes involve the family’s inability to successfully transition from an intact family structure that is united by the marital relationship to a separated family structure that is united by the continuing parental roles with the child.  The difficulty in the family’s ability to transition from an intact family structure to a separated family structure is manifesting in the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict through the formation of a cross-generational coalition with one parent (the allied and supposedly favored parent) against the other parent (the targeted-rejected parent).  These principles are standard and established family systems constructs that are extensively discussed and described by preeminent family systems theorists, such as Salvador Minuchin and Jay Haley.

 The problems occurring at the family systems level of analysis have their origin in the narcissistic/(borderline) personality dynamics of the allied and supposedly favored parent.  The personality pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is creating a distorted emotional and psychological response in this parent to the psychological stresses associated with the interpersonal rejection and perceived abandonment surrounding the divorce.  The inherent interpersonal rejection associated with divorce triggers specific psychological vulnerabilities for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, who then responds in characteristic but pathological ways that adversely influence the child’s relationship with the other parent.

 The characteristic psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent draws the child into a role-reversal relationship with the parent in which the child is used by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as an external “regulatory object” to help the narcissistic/(borderline) parent regulate three separate but interrelated sources of intense anxiety that were triggered by the divorce,

 Narcissistic Anxiety: The threatened collapse of the parent’s narcissistic defenses against an experience of core-self inadequacy that is being activated by the interpersonal rejection associated with the divorce;

 Borderline Anxiety: The triggering of severe abandonment fears as a result of the divorce and dissolution of the intact family structure;

 Trauma Anxiety: The activation and re-experiencing of excessive anxiety embedded in attachment trauma networks from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that become active when the attachment system of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent activates in order to mediate the loss experience associated with the divorce.

 At the core level of the psychological and family dynamics that are traditionally described as “parental alienation” is the attachment trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is being triggered and then reenacted in current family relationships.  It is this childhood attachment trauma of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is responsible for creating the narcissistic and borderline pathology of this personality.  The childhood attachment trauma experienced by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent subsequently coalesced during this parent’s adolescence and young adulthood into the narcissistic and borderline personality structures that are driving the distorted relationship dynamics associated with the “parental alienation.”  The childhood attachment trauma (i.e., a disorganized attachment) creates the narcissistic and borderline personality structures that then distort the family’s transition from an intact family structure to a separated family structure.

 At the foundational core for triggering this integrated psychological and interpersonal dynamic is the reactivation by the divorce of attachment trauma networks from the childhood of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that are contained within the internal working models of this parent’s attachment system.  The representational schemas for this childhood attachment trauma are in the pattern of “victimized child”/“abusive parent”/“protective parent,” and it is this trauma pattern from the childhood of the “alienating” narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is being reenacted in the current family relationships.

 The childhood trauma patterns for role-relationships contained within the internal working models of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent’s attachment system are being reenacted in current family relationships.  The current child is adopting the trauma reenactment role as the “victimized child.” The child’s role as the “victimized child” then imposes the reenactment role of the “abusive parent” onto the targeted parent, and the coveted role in the trauma reenactment narrative of the all-wonderful “protective parent” is being adopted and conspicuously displayed by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to the “bystanders” in the trauma reenactment.  The “bystanders” in the trauma reenactment are represented by the various therapists, parenting coordinators, custody evaluators, attorneys, and judges.  Their role in the trauma reenactment is to endorse the “authenticity” of the reenactment narrative.  These “bystanders” also serve the function of providing the narcissistic/(borderline) parent with the “narcissistic supply” of social approval for the presentation by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as being the idealized and all-wonderful “protective parent.”

At its foundational core, “parental alienation” represents the reenactment of a false drama of abuse and victimization from the childhood of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent that is embedded in the internal working models of the “alienating” parent’s attachment networks.  This false drama of the reenactment narrative is created by the psychopathology of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent in response to the psychological stresses of the divorce and the reactivation of attachment trauma networks as a consequence of the divorce experience.  In actual truth, there is no victimized child, there is no abusive parent, and there is no protective parent.  It is a false drama, an echo of a childhood trauma from long ago, brought into the present by the pathological consequences of the childhood trauma in creating the distorting narcissistic/(borderline) personality structures of the alienating parent.

 The child, for his or her part, is caught within this reenactment narrative by the distorting psychopathology and invalidating communications of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that nullify the child’s own authentic self-experience in favor of the child becoming a narcissistic reflection for the parent.  Under the distorting pathogenic influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is led into misinterpreting the child’s authentic grief and sadness at the loss of the intact family, and later at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the targeted parent, as representing something “bad” that the targeted parent must be doing to create the child’s hurt (i.e., the child’s grief and sadness).  The (influenced) misinterpretation by the child for an authentic experience of grief and loss is then further inflamed by distorted communications from the narcissistic/(borderline) that transform the child’s authentic sadness into an experience of anger and resentment toward the targeted parent who (supposedly) caused the divorce and who (supposedly) is causing the child’s continuing emotional pain (i.e., the child’s misunderstood and misinterpreted feelings of grief and sadness).

 Through a process of distorted parental communications by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is led into adopting the “victimized child” role within the trauma reenactment narrative.  Once the child adopts the “victimized child” role within the trauma reenactment narrative, this “victimized child” role automatically imposes upon the targeted parent the role as the “abusive parent,” and then the combined role definitions of the “abusive parent” and “victimized child” that are created the moment the child adopts the “victimized child” role allows the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to adopt the coveted trauma reenactment role as the all-wonderful nurturing and “protective parent,” which will then be so conspicuously displayed to the “bystanders” for their validation and “narcissistic supply.”

 The description of an attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” will uncover the layers of pathology, beginning with the surface level of the family systems dynamics involving the family’s difficulty in making the transition from an intact family structure to a separated family structure.  The description will then move into the personality disorder level to describe how the pathological characteristics of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality structures become expressed in the family relationship dynamics, particularly surrounding the formation of the role-reversal relationship of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent with the child in which the child is used (exploited) as a “regulatory other” for the psychopathology and anxiety regulation of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  Finally, the origins of the “parental alienation” process in the attachment trauma networks of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will be examined, with a particular focus on the induced suppression of the child’s attachment bonding motivations and the formation and expression of the trauma reenactment narrative.

 Following this discussion of the theoretical foundations for an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” a broad overview of the diagnostic considerations emanating from an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” will be discussed, and three definitive diagnostic indicators for identifying attachment-based “parental alienation” will be described.  A descriptive framework for a model of “reunification therapy” will also be presented which will be based on the theoretical underpinnings for an attachment-based model of the “parental alienation.”  Finally, a discussion of the domains of knowledge necessary for professional competence in diagnosing and treating this special population of children and families will be identified.

Much more information on the attachment model is available online.
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