It is beneficial for therapists, those in the law profession, and individuals involved with the children of narcissistic clients or partners to be aware of a concept known as parental alienation syndrome, how it is created, and what to do about it. In a normal attachment relationship, people are not interchangeable because each person is valuable in and of him or herself. However, this is not true for a narcissist. Narcissists have very shallow relationships in which people are interchangeable. One clue for a therapist to take note of when doing family therapy or parent/child conflict therapy is if the child has “interchanged” parents. If a therapist notices that a child is not connecting with a nurturing parent, but instead is calling him or her by their first name, then something is amiss in the attachment system. Basically, children do not reject parents. Under relatively healthy conditions, no matter what a parent does, children do not reject them. When you find a child rejecting a parent then you are witnessing an inauthentic attachment system.
Children are motivated to bond with parents. Even in a conflictual parent-child relationship, the child is still motivated to bond with the parent. This is a typical attachment experience between a parent and child. In parental alienation, we see detachment behavior, not attachment behavior. When therapists encounter a child rejecting a parent, not just having conflict with a parent, but completely detaching from a parent, then they are most likely witnessing parental alienation syndrome. In parental alienation there is no grief response to the separation between the parent and child.
While human attachment systems develop in early childhood as internal working models, humans continue to search for important attachment relationships throughout their lives, using their early working models as guides. When people develop personality disorders, they tend to have disorganized-preoccupied attachment style working models, which they carry on throughout their lives.
When a narcissistic parent experiences a great loss, such as a divorce, they do not feel normal grief like a typical person; rather, they experience a narcissistic wound to their fragile ego, which is manifested as anger and rejection of the other parent. The narcissist “splits” and makes the other parent all bad. When parental alienation occurs, it is because the narcissistic parent has implied to the child that the other parent is the “bad” parent and is the one causing the child’s pain. The child internalizes the narcissistic parent’s anger and resentment toward the other parent and also rejects the other parent. When the child is with the healthier parent, who is able to attach in a healthy way, painful emotions are brought up because the child needs/wants to bond, but they are conflicted because they have bought in to the theory that this parent is bad, which leads to feelings of alienation and sadness.
When the child is with the narcissistic parent, there is no attachment motivation available because of the nature of narcissistic relationships, and the child does not feel bad. This is because when the child is with the non-narcissistic parent he or she feels the natural grief response, which is painful, and when the child is with the narcissistic parent he or she does not feel the grief response. The child interprets this incorrectly thinking that they feel bad because the non-narcissistic parent is abusive.
Suffice it to say that the syndrome is created by the personality disordered parent by means of covert manipulation of the child based on the disordered parent’s delusional beliefs and ego defense mechanisms which are activated by the threat of abandonment by the other parent. The disordered parent’s early attachment system model is in full operation and the unhealthy parent feels the threat of early attachment trauma.
Therapy for a child with parental alienation syndrome involves reorienting the child to his “authentic self” by helping him to reattach to the nurturing, non-narcissistic parent, by reteaching him how to bond with that parent.
I would like to acknowledge Dr. Craig Childress for providing valuable information and research regarding this complicated issue (http://drcachildress.org/).
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