Childress outlines that AB-PA by a NPD/BPD parent works on 3 levels.
In the lowest level the attachment trauma consists of 3 components:
- Victimised Child
The successful rejection of a parent lies in the NPD/BPD parent being able to get the child to accept a view of themselves as a victim. The NPD/BPD parent may do this in many subtle ways, they don’t have to overtly criticise or rage about the other parent in front of the child, although they often do. Childress gives an example of the NPD/BPD parent asking the child what might be a simple question but the parent doesn’t accept what the child has to say until the child learns to give the responses the NPD/BPD parent likes.
NPD/BPD Parent: How did it go at your dad’s?
Child: I had a great time.
NPD/BPD Parent: Did you really? Are you sure you had a good time?
NPD/BPD Parent: [Looking dejected] Oh, OK.
Child: [Picks up parent is upset] Well, it was a bit boring actually.
NPD/BPD Parent: [Having elicited mild criticism picks up on it and draws it out] Oh isn’t that typical of your dad not to do anything nice for you, he’s selfish.
Over time the questioning increases, the child tries to regulate the parent’s feelings and learns the type of responses that please the parent. If the NPD/BPD is not pleased, the child is punished. The punishment may include shouting, asking the child to do things they don’t like to do etc.
If a minor incident occurs between the child and the other parent e.g. the parent tells the child off for not doing as they have been asked several times, the NPD/BPD parent will exaggerate the situation to elicit criticism from the child. When the child criticises the other parent the NPD/BPD parent seizes this opportunity and supports them in criticising the parent. The child begins to feel that the NPD/BPD parent is siding with them – protecting them.
For a time the child feels torn between caring for two people they love but under constant barrage from the NPD/BPD parent the child chooses, for the sake of their own survival, to align themselves with the NPD/BPD parent. Eventually the child learns to be openly critical of the other parent and believes that they really are not being cared for properly by them. The NPD/BPD parent has achieved their objective – the child sees themselves as a victim.
If the child has any contact with the other parent the Attachment System kicks in. The child starts to feel bad when they are with their parent. Their Attachment System wants to bond with the parent but the child denies themselves the opportunity. They have been programmed to believe the parent is bad for them. This causes the child pain. When they are not with the parent their Attachment System settles down and the pain goes away. The child misinterprets this pain as a sign that the targeted parent is bad for them and this view is encouraged by the NPD/BPD parent. The child does not understand that they are actually grieving for the loss of the bond with their parent. It is in fact a grief response.
Thus begins the “independent thinker” behaviour. The child begins to state loudly and proudly, with no empathy for their parent, that they do not want to see them ever again and “It has nothing to do with mummy, it’s not what she told me, this is what I think!”The child and the NPD/BPD parent form a cross-generational coalition against the rejected parent. The purpose of the coalition is to completely remove the rejected parent from the child’s life.
Childress describes this as the child sacrificing their own self in the service of regulating the NPD/BPD parent’s anxieties, the child is a hostage of the NPD/BPD parent’s needs. In effect the roles of child and parent have been reversed, the child has now taken on the responsibility for meeting the NPD/BPD parent’s needs.
To get rid of the bad feelings, the child must psychologically kill off the rejected parent. It is worth noting here, that over time where the rejected parent feels there is no hope of re-gaining contact, they may also psychologically kill off the child. They will no longer seek to gain access to the child because it is too painful. Thus the emotional cutoff is complete. This is a miscarriage of justice – the child is left with an abusive parent and a bleak future.
- Abusive Parent
In order to return to a state of equilibrium the NPD/BPD parent requires the child to see the other parent as an abuser/bad parent. By defining the other parent as an abusive parent this automatically suppresses the child’s attachment bonding motivations as they don’t want to bond to someone they see as a threat, they want to get as far away from the threat as possible.
The child will say horrible and untrue things about the rejected parent to court officials, social workers, therapists and anyone who will listen. They will show a complete lack of empathy for the rejected parent. They have no regard for the pain they are putting them through e.g. a child who is told that their behaviour is making the rejected parent cry may respond with “they’re just trying to make me feel guilty.” The child does not show any evidence of a grief response.
A person with NPD does not experience sadness in the same way more balanced people do at the loss of a relationship. Instead they are preoccupied with anger, resentment and a need for revenge. This rubs off on the child who mirrors their behaviour.
- Nurturing-Protective parent
The child is motivated to bond with a “protective parent”. The NPD/BPD parent is afraid the child will not love them and will abandon them too. So as soon as the child accepts the victimised child role, the NPD/BPD sets about casting themselves in the protective parent role, seeking to be the preferred parent that the child will not abandon. There is no half way house, the NPD/BPD parent cannot cope with the “threatening” other parent having any part of the child’s life.
The child will eventually view the NPD/BPD parent as all good and the other as all bad, this is the manifestation of narcissistic splitting. Anything less and they will face the NPD/BPD parent’s wrath.
A child with secure attachment to its parents ventures out into the world and then comes back. An insecure attachment has the child being hyper focused on the narcissistic parent, this is pathological bonding and it is harmful to the child.
Coercive and controlling behaviours used to manipulate a child to reject a parent are learned behaviours. Children who reject a normal range parent are likely to grow up and find themselves reliving their dysfunctional parental relationships with future partners and teaching their own children how to reject a parent if their relationship fails.
If the relationship produced more than one child, it is likely the NPD/BPD parent will start attempting to manipulate the eldest child first. Once they have them on board playing the victimised child role, their attention will switch to the other children. They will also solicit the help of the child who has already rejected the parent to influence their siblings. Eventually all the children will be under the influence of the NPD/BPD parent.
Whilst it doesn’t form part of the AB-PA model, Dr Amy Baker has studied the coercive and controlling behaviours people use to get their child to reject a normal range parent. She has identified 17 strategies/behaviours they may employ to bring about conflict between a parent and child in order to bring about the emotional cutoff.