Attachment based parental alienation describes both the impact of a narcissistic borderline parent’s disorganised attachment style and the attachment suppression behaviour in the child. It is based on well accepted psychological constructs known to the majority of mental health professionals:
- Attachment (Bowlby)
- Family systems therapy (Minuchin)
- Personality disorders (Beck)
- Complex trauma (van der Kolk)
- Child development (Tronick)
- Self psychology (Kohut)
The behaviours seen are all within the DSM-V:
- DSM-5 diagnosis of Child Psychological Abuse and an ICD-10 diagnosis of F24 Shared Psychotic Disorder.
- ICD-10 diagnosis of F24 Shared Psychotic Disorder and a DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse
- V61.29 Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress
- V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse
- V61.29 Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress
It is also IPV and psychological abuse of the child, using the child as a weapon in the spousal conflict, by destroying the child’s attachment bond to the other parent, it’s child abuse, psychological child abuse, using the child as a weapon.
Dr Childress has also introduced diagnostic criteria for pathogenic parenting. Download the checklist here.
To support the diagnosis, there are also 12 Associated Clinical Signals. How many do you recognise?
Impact on the Child
A child who is subjected to parental alienation is going to be affected in numerous ways, all of which are negative. We will consider the following:
- Personality disordered parenting
- Family system distortion
John Bowlby did a lot of work on the impact of attachments on children and found that it is a key feature in the early development of babies and how they view themselves and the world. It affects their physiological brain development as well as their internal working model (internal representation of themselves).
Attachment behaviours are designed to bring the child into close and protective relationships when they experience anxiety
Anxiety invoking factors come from 3 main sources:
- The child – sickness, tiredness
- The environment – perceived threats
- The attachment figure – availability of the figure and their response
(To understand more about attachment based parenting for children of narcissists, check out our Circle Of Security parenting course).
In parental alienation cases the parent lacks empathy so will be unable to recognise the anxiety in the child. They will only recognise anxiety when it mirrors their own feelings. The perceived threat to the parent is the child’s relationship with the ex and the proximity of the ex to them. The alienating parent will condition the child to be their regulatory object and so when the parent feels anxious, the child will seek to sooth them, which then becomes distorted by the parent who induces symptoms of anxiety in the child whenever the targeted parent is mentioned or near by as a means to sooth the parent’s own anxiety. This conditions the child to know that the alienating parent is only available to them when they reject the targeted parent. Impacting the attachment relationship in a highly negative way.
The response of the caregiver helps the child to organise their attachment into four main categories:
- Insecure Anxious
- Insecure Avoidant
When a parent chooses to alienate the other parent from a child’s life, it disturbs the attachment cycle resulting in the loss of trust in the child in themselves, the world and other people and this leads to an insecure or disorganised attachment style developing.
Insecure attachments impact outcomes for children. They present in slightly different ways which give clues about their home life.
Insecure anxious children learn to be hypervigilant around their parents, trying to be present in case a loving moment happens, while keeping their guard up in case they end up getting hurt.
In adulthood, preoccupied individuals act jealous and clingy with their significant others. They struggle with trust and can act smothering and intrusive within intimate relationships. They are trying to make up for their childhood, where their parent’s love was unpredictable. Now, in adulthood, they want to control their partner and ensure that they are always present.
Insecure avoidant children learn that it is unsafe to rely upon others for emotional closeness, and they become extremely independent at an early age.
As adults, those with avoidant attachment have great difficulty with expressing need or vulnerability. They find it almost impossible to rely on anyone, or to ask for their needs to be met. This can be very frustrating for their romantic partners, who yearn for a closer connection than the avoidant partner may feel comfortable providing.
(To understand more about attachment based parenting for children of narcissists, check out our Circle Of Security parenting course).
The final piece of the attachment puzzle for children who are alienated is that they have one parent who has a disorganised attachment style. And it is often the parent who they spend the most time with. A disorganised attachment simply means that the child does not know how to organise their relationship with their caregiver. It develops from a parent’s consistent failure to respond appropriately to their child’s distress, or by a parent’s inconsistent response to their child’s feelings of fear or distress.
As a parent, a disorganised attachment can be very damaging to a child because:
- They fear close proximity or intimacy in relationship
- They fear showing vulnerability
- They demonstrate extreme rage or aggression or can withdraw completely if they feel threatened
- They express little or no empathy towards others
- They have little or no understanding of personal boundaries
These behaviours create huge disturbance in the attachment cycle and result in children unable to trust themselves, others or the world.
This trust is further diminished by the lies they are being fed by the other parent which do not match up to their own memories. They therefore are unsure who to trust – themselves or their parent. Unfortunately most children have been conditioned to believe the parent because they know that to not to so will result in withdrawal and the child needs at least one caregiver to survive, they know this at a cellular level.
This split in their desire to be safe and their knowledge that it is false can lead to what is known as “attachment system suppression”. This is highly dangerous and abnormal for a human child and it causes long term problems and can result in anti social behaviour, self harming and eventually personality disorders.
However, a child feels guilty for saying horrible things about their parent. Even if they have been manipulated to say these things, internally they will hate the way they are treating their parent. A child who is made to say untrue things about their parent or dismiss them will be wracked with guilt and will often think that THEY are to blame and internalise that guilt. This can result in a detachment from their view of themselves, creating a fractured self image. Again this can result in self harming behaviours and self loathing, often at a young age.
One final element the alienating parent suppresses in the child, is their grief. The parent uses the natural emotions associated with grief (anger, sadness, pain, anxiety) and distorts them so that the child projects those feelings onto the targeted parent. The child blames the targeted parent for causing these painful emotions and begins to see the parent as the problem. When they are in proximity to the targeted parent, they feel these painful emotions (natural sadness) but interpret them as being caused by the targeted parent and so it is safer for them to cut off that parent to reduce their own anxiety. This also plays into the role reversal dynamic the alienating parent has created whereby the parent is feeling anxious due to narcissistic injury, abandonment fears and trauma reenactment and demands the child relieves their pain by rejecting the cause of their pain – the targeted parent. The child feels anxious because the parent feels anxious and projects it onto the targeted parent who they blame for feeling so uncomfortable and again, it becomes easier to distance themselves from them.
Personality Disordered Parenting
we should point out that my level of parental alienation we am talking about in this guide is severe. Often complete alienation has occurred, contact stopped or severely interrupted, and there has been a protracted law case over many years. In these cases there is usually a Cluster B personality disordered parent involved.
Cluster B Personality Disorders are:
- Narcissistic personality disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Anti-social personality disorder
- Histrionic personality disorder
The Cluster B personality disorders are characterised by dramatic, emotional or erratic behaviours which can be problematic in terms of parenting.
In parental alienation however, it is often a narcissistic or border personality disordered parent so we are going to focus on them.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
The following are the criteria in the DSM-V for NPD (patient must have 5 or more to be diagnosed):
(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
(4) requires excessive admiration
(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Narcissistic parents like the world to think they are the perfect perfect parent, they will talk about their achievements and how well they are doing without the ex. But the reality for the child is very different.
Their parenting style is fearful and dismissing. Phrases like “grow up and be wonderful, for me” are typically narcissistic.
- Emotional deprivation
- Insufficient self control
- Unrelenting standards
Children often fall into two categories depending on their ability to reach the narcissist’s unrelenting standards:
Conforms to avoid rejection, criticism and shame
Presents as being a high achiever, follows the rules, seeks approval from others, very responsible
Inside they feel guilt, hurt and inadequate
Are the emotional punch bag for the family
Presents as being hostile, defiant, rule breaker, in trouble
Inside they feel rejected, hurt, guilty, jealous and angry
Additional children are often lost or forgotten. They present as being quiet, shy, they resort to a fantasy life, are quite solitary and mediocre, they attach to things rather than people. Inside they feel rejected, hurt and high levels of anxiety.
In parental alienation cases the scapegoat will be labelled as “troubled or difficult” and as being “like his mother/father (targeted parent)”. They may not speak to professionals because the narcissist knows that they may reveal the truth and so they are kept away and may even be removed. The scapegoat is the most likely to see the reality of what is happening and be the first to reject the narcissist and return to the targeted parent.
The golden child will be paraded around as a “mini-me”, presenting as best buddies and saying they like to do lots together. This child will conform so will parrot the narcissists narrative regarding the targeted parent. This child will be the hardest to recover but helping them to reduce their guilt, alleviating their hurt and helping them to feel adequate in themselves will reunify parent and child.
The lost child or children will show little interest in what is going on, they live in their own world. There will be a lot of “I don’t know” when asked any questions. Recovering the child will be a slow process as they have withdrawn into themselves and become avoidant. Lots of reassurance is needed to help this child develop trust in people again.
Borderline Personality Disorder
The following is the diagnostic criteria for BPD from the DSM-V:
- Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
- A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
- Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self image or sense of self.
- Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self- damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). Note: Do not include suicidal or self- mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.
- Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self- mutilating behavior.
- Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
- Chronic feelings of emptiness.
- Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
- Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.
Fear of abandonment is the primary driver of behaviour for a BPD parent. They will use manipulation and coercive control to prevent people from leaving them. They often threaten suicide in order to maintain the control and prevent the abandonment they fear so much. As a parent, this presents as high levels of anxiety when separated from the children but it may be interpreted as anxiety in the child. They will also look like they are very close to their children. However, this is often due to a lack of emotional boundaries and is known as enmeshment. BPD may make regular claims of being ill or the children being ill (Fabricated Illness Syndrome aka Munchausen’s Syndrome and Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy).
Their parenting style is fearful and Preoccupied (overprotective/demanding/inconsistent). BPD parents can be often heard saying “If you grow up and leave, bad things will happen to me (parent)”
- Abandonment issues
- Emotional deprivation
- Social isolation
- Insufficient self control
The family will present as:
- Strong interdependence between family members (do everything together, share everything, no privacy or boundaries)
- Low levels of differentiation between member (hive thinking)
- Loss of individuality and reduced autonomy
- More illnesses because family members have difficulty separating themselves from other members problems and illnesses
Children will struggle with their own identity and seek validation from others when making decisions. This can make them extremely vulnerable to abusive personality types. When separation or divorce occurs, the child can become a surrogate spouse. Infantilization and parentification are often present in these families.
Characteristics of children, in addition to those identified in narcissistic families, can include:
Often the family clown whose role is to make others happy
They present as immature, fragile, cute, hyperactive and distracted
Inside they are fearful, anxious and insecure
They are dependent upon the family
They present as hostile, manipulative, aggressive or self pitying, blameful, charming and having rigid values
Inside they feel shame, guilt, fear, pain and hurt
The mascot will feel responsible for everyone’s happiness and feel anxious if anyone else is upset. They are people pleasers and feel their entire identity caught up in the clown persona. They are emotionally immature though and can act much younger than their age and be developmentally behind. They will display these characteristics at school as well.
The victim is often the surrogate spouse. They are little adults, elevated within the family hierachy to parental status. They are firm supporters of the alienating parent and often take over responsibility for the care of the other children. Can become very controlling of their siblings and actively alienate them from the targeted parent or from each other if they choose to not to conform.
The differences between the NPD and BPD family are so subtle that they often present the same and, unless there is a diagnosis, the label is not important. What is important is to acknowledge and understand the impact on families and children. PD increases the risk of abuse by 60-70%. To understand parental alienation, you have to understand the role of personality disorders because it is the driving motivation behind the behaviour.
If you would like more information about narcissistic families, check out our ebook Understanding Narcissistic Families.
Family System Distortion
We have already looked at some of the elements of family systems (enmeshed, role reversal, infantilization and parentification) but we are now going to explore some specific elements unique to parental alienation.
One of the most powerful triangles in parental alienation is the role reversal behaviour in the reversed hierachy.
The second image shows how the child or children are elevated following separation as part of the parental alienation dynamic. This achieves three things:
- Gives the child power they are not emotionally or cognitively capable of understanding and dealing with
- Pushing the targeted parent out of the adult position, taking away their authority and putting them into a position of being controlled
- Making it easier for emotional cutoff to occur
This reverse is achieved through a range of behaviours by the alienating parent. Firstly, the child becomes the regulatory object for the parent which means that they respond to the emotions of the parent (as the targeted parent used to). The child learns to read the alienating parent’s emotions and responds accordingly to prevent them from completely dysregulating through anger, rage or withdrawal.
The child has been conditioned to know that this is the only way to keep the attachment in tact, which they are desperately clinging on to for survival. The alienating parent will punish the child when they don’t meet their needs and reward them when they do. Regular repetition of these behaviours ensures the role-reversal relationship is permanent.
The final part of ensuring the hierachy is reversed, is for the child to completely align themselves with the alienated parent which is achieved by created an “understanding of shared grievances” against the targeted parent. For example, the child picks up a picture of the targeted parent and the alienating parent gets really mad. The child puts the picture in a drawer and the alienating parent buys them a new toy. They then push that to evoking criticism of the targeted parent using the same conditioning techniques. The child may say they had a good time with the targeted parent and the alienating parent lashes out and tells them they are so ungrateful for all that they do for them. So the child mentions they had a disagreement and the alienating parent gives them a hug and tells them that they understand how angry and controlling the targeted parent can be. The child quickly learns that to regulate the alienating parents emotions and get their own needs met, they simply need to criticise the targeted parent. This is pushed and pushed until the child rejects the parent, believing it is their own choice. This reduces the anxiety for the parent which in turn reduces the anxiety for the child.
Another triangle at play is the drama, or Karpman, triangle. This is not only playing out in this scenario but is often the basis of the trauma reenactment.
In the current scenario, the alienator is playing the role of rescuer, the child is the victim and the targeted parent is the abuser/persecutor. What is being reenacted is the alienated parent in their own childhood where they were the victim, there was an abuser (usually a parent) but no-one rescued them. Psychologically, the alienator is getting a chance at a do-over. This time they get to be rescued (through the children).
Unfortunately the impact on the child is that they take on all three roles in this triangle:
- They are the victim of abuse by their parent who is psychologically abusing them
- They are the rescuer of a personality disordered parent
- They are the abuser of the targeted parent
This triangle is a very toxic environment and unless the child is released from each of these roles, they will replay this in their own lives and relationships.
Differentiation of self
Once the role-reversal relationship has been established, the child and the parent are aligned and enmeshed. The views of the parent become the views of the child. The child no longer knows what they think and feel and seek validation from others, particularly the alienated parent. This gives the alienated parent complete control over their lives. It will be seen in all of the choices the child is asked to make. They will be anxious about making a decision for themselves and often refer to their parent for help. The child’s developmental milestones will be either delayed or above normal.
Nuclear Family Emotional Processing
The alienating parent’s emotion dictate the emotions of the child. When the parent is anxious, the child will be anxious. The child will also learn how to process their own emotions and can be easily manipulated into believing that their emotions are whatever the alienator tells them they are. This can be seen when a child is expressing an emotion but is unable to label it correctly and regularly mislabel their emotions.
Family Projection Process
The family will behave like a cult and almost robotic in their views. There will be a consensus of opinion and thought amongst the family with no-one voicing a different perspective. Children may become anxious when the family view is challenged and be very adamant that their way is the right way.
Multigenerational Transmission Process
There will be patterns of behaviour across the whole family including down family lines. The alienating parent may have been alienated themselves. This can result in the trauma reenactment narrative of the drama triangle.
Rules, rituals and beliefs are uncompromisable and usually there has been no merging of family traditions or styles, with one family’s behaviours being more evident.
The final stage of the reverse hierachy is for parent 2 to be completely cut out of the family system.
The cutoff services two purposes:
- For the child they no longer have anxiety about dealing with the targeted parent and triggering the alienating parent
- The alienating parent does not have to deal with their own anxiety and feel they have full control over the situation which appeases their ego
Once cutoff has occurred, children will be completely resistant to contact and will express a very negative view of the targeted parent. The child has developed a copy strategy for the situation and attempts to change it will cause them anxiety. However, children can definitely been restored to their authentic selves and the reunited with the targeted parent with support to help the child develop new coping strategies.
We have previously covered the different roles children play in families. It is important to understand the siblings very rarely have close relationships in these situations because none of them have a secure attachment so feel very anxious about getting their own needs met so are unable to share what little the alienating parent can give. It feeds both personality styles to have their children vying for their attention and so siblings are often pitted against one another. However, the dependent child (victim) will present as a carer for their siblings so it may appear that they are close but the reality is that they are all fearful and will put themselves first (except the victim) to get their own needs met.
(If you would like to know more about Family Systems Theory, check out our free course).
Parental Alienation cases are notoriously difficult to manage in Family Court and the pathogenic parent can quickly gain ground with false allegations which pause contact or use contact with the children to triangulate the child into a conflict loyalty, covertly forcing them to choose between you and them. This can result in children expressing a desire to no longer see you which professionals can initially take on face value. Based on years of working with clients who were years down the line, in a court system which had incorrectly followed the false narrative and contact with the children had either ceased or was continually controlled and interferred with, we developed our Get Your Ready Programme to help you rewrite the narrative and restore your relationship with your children.