‘Attachment based “parental alienation” is not a child custody issue, it’s a child protection issue’ Dr C A Childress 2014
Dr Craig Childress, a Clinical Psychologist in the USA, uses established psychological principles and constructs to explain why a child would reject a safe parent. He uses knowledge of the attachment system, family systems, complex trauma, personality disorders and persecutory delusions to describe the cross-generational trauma that, in the severest of cases, drives the brainwashing and pathological disease inflicted on a child as a result of distorted parenting practices. These distorted practices are employed by an adult who most likely has a personality disorder such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) but he accepts those with other personality disorders may also manipulate a child to emotionally cutoff.
He has developed a set of diagnostic signs to identify a child that has been manipulated to reject a safe parent. In these severe cases his diagnosis would be that of child psychological abuse.
It is extremely rare for a child to reject a parent. Our internal Attachment System is a motivational system that has developed over millions of years of human evolution. Children who bonded with their parents were more likely to be protected from predators. Those who did not form an attachment were more likely to get killed by predators and so their genes did not get passed on to the next generation. Over time the Attachment System developed to a stage where children are programmed to attach to care givers. For a child to completely reject a parent, something has gone very wrong.
In cases where parents can’t agree why the child is rejecting, Childress maintains it is necessary to perform a differential diagnosis to identify the circumstances surrounding the child’s rejection.
First he asks, is there a neurological reason why the child is unable to maintain a relationship with their parent e.g. do they have ADHD or Autism? If there is no neurological reason it is important to look at the parenting practices of the parents involved.
Is the parent being rejected abusive or is the other parent being abusive by employing behaviours that manipulate the child to emotionally cutoff from the other parent?
Parents have different levels of skill when taking care of their children. No parent is perfect, there will be times when a parent is attuned to their child’s needs and times when they are misattuned. Parents may find their parenting skills being assessed against a parenting scale. The scale from 1 to 100 ranges from neglect of a child (between 1-20%) through normal parenting (between 20-80%) to more widely recognised abusive parenting such as physical, or sexual or emotional abuse (between 80-100%).
Child abuse is a valid reason for the failure of the child’s attachment system but Childress maintains that children of abusive parents are not likely to reject that parent. They are more likely to develop an “insecure attachment” where the child tries to please the dysfunctional parent in order to bond more with that parent because the child doesn’t want to be abandoned/left exposed to predators. The child doesn’t understand at this stage that the dysfunctional parent is the predator. There are exceptions to this, however, where the abuse is so severe that the bond is broken beyond repair. Cases such as this include when a parent engages in sexual abuse of the child, excessive violence against the child “such as beatings with fists, belts, switches, or electrical cords”, excessive violence against a parent that the child has witnessed or where the parent has a substance abuse problem which puts the child in a care taking role. It should be noted, however, that breaking of the bond in the case of such abuse is usually at later stages of life from 12 years onwards depending on the type of abuse.
A child that completely rejects a normal range parent, one who is between 20% and 80% on the scale, is a child who has most likely been brainwashed by a Narcissistic/Borderline (NPD/BPD) parent. In this case the child displays specific signs that are not present in cases where the child has good reason reject a parent. The child is in effect trained to enact the symptoms of narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. It is a form of emotional domestic abuse using the child as a weapon which inevitably causes psychological harm to both the weaponised child and the ex partner.
Parents with NPD/BPD who embark on a program of brainwashing are re-enacting their own childhood trauma of having been abused or abandoned themselves and project this on to their own child. Both having deep rooted feelings of inadequacy, a Narcissistic parent will view the child’s feelings towards the alienated parent as a challenge to their magnificence whereas a Borderline parent will relive feelings of abuse and or abandonment.
These disordered parents view themselves as victims, they have delusions that the targeted parent is an abuser like their own parent from their own childhood and, therefore, the target parent is a threat to the child. As a result the targeted parent must be removed from the child’s life. The NPD/BPD parent achieves this by slowly working on the child to make them feel like they are a victim of the targeted parent. Eventually the child will reach the point where they too have delusions of abuse that never happened or have been significantly exaggerated to appear worse than they are e.g. a parent who allows a child a sip of heavily diluted alcohol on a single occasion when the child shows interest in drinking it may be described as a parent who regularly forces the child to drink hard liquor.
The NPD/BDP parent transfers all their anxious feelings of inadequacy and abandonment onto the targeted parent. Their fragile personalities cannot cope with a reality where they have been rejected or abandoned. They feel threatened by the other parent. As a threat, the NPD/BPD parents do what they do best, they project all that is bad about themselves on to the targeted parent. They will say or do anything to ensure their child and court officials see the targeted parent in a bad light and to ensure they are seen as the ideal parent, thus drawing the focus away from the real problem, their narcissism.