Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Q & A: Challenging False Constructions of Meaning

This is a question I received through the Parental Alienation Awareness Organization:

How is a parent to respond when their child lets them know that the Alienating Parent is saying the Targeted Parent is doing bad things (false allegations) or is bad?  I realize age of the child is an issue.  If one does not respond (or defend one’s self) then the child is led to believe that the allegations are true. If the Targeted Parent defends one’s self, it will be twisted in court as bringing the child into the conflict.

This is one of the most difficult issues facing the targeted-Delta parent. 

The alienating-Beta parent typically lacks the empathy necessary to truly care for the child’s well being.  Because of the alienating-Beta parent’s narcissistically organized personality disorder processes, the alienating-Beta parent is typically unable to “attune” to the child’s inner experience, and instead they require that the child reflect the inner experience and meaning construction of the alienating-Beta parent. 

In healthy child development, the parent attunes to the child’s inner experience, which helps to bring organization and meaning construction to the authenticity of the child’s inner self-experience.  In the alienation process, this healthy parent-child processes is flipped on its head, so that it is the child who is resonating with the alienating-Beta parent’s inner experience, while the child’s authentic self-experience is invalidated through both subtle and overt communications from the alienating-Beta parent.

The meaning construction offered by the alienating-Beta parent is that the targeted-Delta parent is somehow inadequate or abusive.  Oftentimes, this communication is made within the context of the alienating-Beta parent presenting as the victim of the targeted-Delta parent’s abuse.  Sometimes this is presented as the emotional abandonment of the alienating-Beta parent by the “mean and abusive” targeted-Delta parent, and sometimes this is presented as the financial abandonment of the alienating-Beta parent by the “mean and abusive” targeted-Delta parent. The abandonment theme of the alienating-Beta parent reflects the borderline personality disorder processes of the alienating-Beta parent which involve an intense fear of abandonment.

Emotions have both internal signal functions, such as anxiety signaling threat, and social functions whereby each emotion provokes a particular type of response from others when it is communicated into the social field.  The emotion of sadness/hurt provokes a nurturance response in others when it is communicated into the social field. So the alienating-Beta parent’s communication of “injured victimization” provokes from the child a desire to nurture.  It’s just how the brain works. 

This is another example of the reversal of parent-child roles between the alienating-Beta parent and the child, whereby the child becomes the nurturer for the parent, rather than the parent for the child.

Over time, this social activation-provocation of nurturance from the child by the alienating-Beta parent’s assumption of the “injured-victimized” role relative to the targeted-Delta parent’s “mean and abusive treatment of the weak and helpless alienating-Beta parent” will provoke a protective response from the child toward the “weak and injured” alienating-Beta parent relative to the “mean and abusive” targeted-Delta parent. This is how the hostile-aggressive revenge motivation is transferred from the alienating-Beta parent to the child, through the initial provocation of a nurturing response from the child followed by the provocation of a protective response from the child for the “weak-injured victim” portrayed by the alienating-Beta parent.

Meanwhile, if the targeted-Delta parent tries to keep the child out of the spousal conflict by presenting as a capable and competent parent, a parent who is not “needy and vulnerable,” then this only feeds the child’s perception of the “strong and competent” targeted-Delta parent relative to the “weak and fragile” alienating-Beta parent.  This juxtaposition of parental responses to the family’s dissolution further encourages the meaning construction of the alienating-Beta parent as the “victim” of the “strong and abusive” targeted-Delta parent.

The alienating-Beta parent is also likely engaging in a subtle or overt campaign of denigration, which might include intruding into the independent life decisions of the targeted-Delta parent under the guise of “protecting the child” during the child’s visitations with the targeted-Delta parent.  The alienating-Beta parent may begin to complain in front of the child - but perhaps not directly TO the child - about discipline strategies being used by the targeted-Delta parent, about financial decisions being made by the targeted-Delta parent, about romantic relationships being engaged in by the targeted-Delta parent. These complaints may involve a level of distortion that constructs the meaning to be one of a “mean and abusive” targeted-Delta parent and a “weak and victimized” child (“you”), alienating-Beta parent (“me”), or child and alienating-Beta parent family unit (“us”).

The child may begin to raise these issues with the targeted-Delta parent, perhaps in a hostile-protective way, as a behavioral-relationship effort to check out the accuracy of this construction of meaning.  The construction of meaning being gradually imposed on the child (that the targeted-Delta parent is mean and abusive) is sharply discrepant from the child’s own authentic construction of meaning (the child loves the targeted-Delta parent and enjoys his or her time with the targeted-Delta parent).  Yet the child is experiencing the pull toward nurturance relative to the “weak and victimized” alienating-Beta parent, and is being offered an alternate construction of meaning by the alienating-Beta parent regarding the “mean-abusive” targeted-Delta parent.  The child’s confrontation of the targeted-Delta parent with allegations represents the child’s effort to obtain a degree of psychological orientation as he or she falls down the rabbit hole of the shared persecutory delusional process with the alienating-Beta parent.

However, if the targeted-Delta parent begins to defend and clarify the myriad of negative issues fed to the child by the alienating-Beta parent, then this only further triangulates the child into the middle of the spousal conflict, forcing the child to choose between competing constructions of reality and competing love-allegiances.  Yet if the targeted-Delta parent does not engage in a defense and clarification of the distorted facts being provided to the child by the alienating-Beta parent, then the child will ultimately be seduced-coerced by the alienating-Beta parent into the shared persecutory delusional disorder.

The choice for the targeted-Delta parent is to either make their child a battlefield for a hostile-aggressive spousal conflict, and in doing so to destroy the child emotionally and psychologically; or to refrain from further triangulating the child into the spousal conflict, but in doing so to lose the battle-for-the-child that is being imposed by the alienating-Beta parent’s use of the child as a weapon, since the alienating-Beta parent has no compunction about using the child as a weapon and destroying the child emotionally and psychologically.  So, in doing what is best for the child and not further triangulating the child into the spousal conflict, the targeted-Delta parent will ultimately watch as their child’s expressed love for them in the relationship is transformed, first into a hostile-mean-aggressive relationship, and then potentially into an empty, distant, and non-existent relationship.  Not a very good choice.

The solution is for the targeted-Delta parent to do what is best for the child, not to engage in compensatory defense-clarification, but to respond by summarily dismissing the false allegations and constructions of meaning as absurd and not accurate and then move on to the authentic and affectionate parent-child relationship the parent has with the child.  In this process, the goal is to give the child a general yet non-precise compensatory construction of authentic meaning that allows the child to recognize the challenge to the false construction of meaning being proffered by the alienating-Beta parent’s persecutory delusional disorder, but without drawing the child further into the spousal conflict by offering detailed clarifications.

However, this is not likely to be enough.  In my view, it is then up to the treatment team of the child’s individual therapist and the parent-child therapist to more actively challenge the false construction of meaning being offered by the alienating-Beta parent.  It is up to the professional therapists to offer more robust challenges to the delusional belief system.  This should be done with a pleasantly dismissive tone communicating that the accusations are absurd, false, or irrelevant, and then providing an alternate construction of meaning that is attuned to the child’s authentic experience.  Again, detailed clarifications that draw the child further into the triangulation should likely be avoided, but should be dependent on the issue raised by the child.  For example, detailed discussions of what constitutes appropriate parental discipline as opposed to “abuse” might be appropriate, whereas detailed discussions of financial considerations would not be appropriate.

Scenario 1
Child: “My dad doesn’t pay my mom enough child support.  He spends all his money on his girlfriend.”

Therapist: “Nawww, that’s not true.  The amount of child support your dad pays is set by the court.  Your dad’s doing okay with that.”

<note: on this type of issue the therapist needs to pre-verify outside of the session that the father is fully paying child support and that the payments are always on time.  If the child’s accusations are accurate, then we’re likely in an entirely different ballgame than parental alienation processes.  If the therapist is unsure of the accuracy of the child’s assertion, the therapist may want to respond, “Well, I’ll check into that” followed by the continuation below;>

Therapist:  Your dad loves you very much, and he will ALWAYS do everything he can to make sure that you and your mom are okay.

Scenario 2
Child: “My mom is too mean to me.  She makes me do the dishes when I don’t want to.”

Therapist: “Really?  You think doing the dishes is being mean to you?  I have my kids do the dishes all the time.  It’s part of their chores.  That’s not being mean, it’s being a parent.  Your mom loves you very much.  She’s your parent.  Doing chores is what kids do.  Kids may not always like to do their chores, but that’s just the way of things.  Your mom goes to work to pay the bills, you help out around the house.  That’s just normal family stuff.”

<note: this is the correction to the false belief and narcissistic entitlement expression that being asked to do household chores is “abusive.”  The next phase is to attune to and support the child’s authentic self-experience in this regard;>

Therapist: “But you don’t like to do dishes do you? <therapist attunement to authentic self-experience of the child>  How often do you have to do the dishes? <a therapist “intent-to-understand” the child’s inner experience from the child’s point of view.  An intent-to-understand brings organization to the child’s meaning construction of his or her self-experience.>  Well, that seems about right.  Do you have other chores around the house, what about like getting ready for bed and bedtime, that’s something you have to do, isn’t it? <therapist nesting of child’s chores into broader context of general life cooperation>  Do you get any allowance for doing household chores? <therapist opening of possible parent-child negotiation; offering the child influence with the targeted-Delta parent from an appropriate hierarchy status of parent-in-charge – but the child’s desired listened to, which challenges the “power-domination-abuse” construction of the child and restores the appropriate meaning construction of parent as nurturing legitimate authority>…

In my view, it is up to the therapist to challenge the child’s false constructions of meaning, not the targeted-Delta parent.  Yet I also recognize that this is not what many child therapists typically do.  Instead, many “non-directive” child therapists do not challenge the child’s false constructions of meaning, and may actually respond in ways that give credibility to the child’s false constructions of meaning.  This is a problem.

Even in situations where therapeutic support is absent, I would still propose that the targeted-Delta parent should not engage in compensatory justification-defense or in compensatory alienation directed toward the alienating-Beta parent. 

Yet, as a father of two children myself, I can understand how very hard it would be to abandon my children to a person who has significantly destructive psychopathology and who is willing to mangle the children psychologically by using them as weapons in the spousal conflict.  And the process of losing a loving relationship with my children would be unbearable.  For me, the unasked question from my children that I would always have in the back of my mind would be, “Dad, why didn’t you fight harder for us?  Why did you let us go?” (or “Mom, why didn’t you…” the alienation process knows no gender).

From my perspective, this is why it is imperative that mental health steps-up and stops debating the existence of the parental alienation process --- it exists --- and begin the productive discussion of how best to diagnose and treat alienation processes when they occur.  The targeted-Delta parent needs mental health to accurately diagnose and treat the process of alienation, and the courts need clarity from mental health in order to act to protect the child.  It is from the field of child and family psychotherapy, supported by the court, that we must begin the fight to restore the authentic child to his or her authentic life.


  1. Dr. Childress thank you for writing this. I am presented with this exact scenario each & every time I am with my 10 yr old son who is in OK. It is absolutely maddening to NOT react sometimes to the lies he is being told, but I feel like it is the best thing to do.
    So far, I am lucky (or so I've been told) as I still have a relationship with him when he visits me 3 times/year, but it's not any less painful, maybe moreso as after having him safe for awhile, I then have to send him back KNOWING what is being done to his mind, all the while praying that someone comes along that can help.
    Professionals in the Family Court system MUST become educated on this in order to recognize it. I am constantly met with scrutiny simply because most people cannot fathom as to WHY someone would behave as the hostile parent does. I assure you...it is real, it is dangerous and it is most definitely-Abuse.

  2. Dr Childress.. Your method, your understanding and descriptions of this phenomena are eXtraOrdinarily Beautiful.. functional clear & concise. I am so happy to have found your descriptions.. although I have yet to read them all.. they're 'wordy' but so succinct and logical! I look forward to understanding more... and more.. and more. My desire in Australia (in the future) is to create reunification clinic here.. and need to work out some practical things for getting it going. (Long Term Project!!)

    Kind Regards

  3. Thanks for the post on parental alienation and for raising the visibility of a destructive family dynamic affecting countless children, parents and extended family members every year.

    You've been a passionate advocate and objective voice on this issue for a long time. Please know those of us affected by these heartbreaking situations apprectiate your tireless and ongoing efforts.

    Best wishes always...

    mike jeffries
    Author, A Family's Heartbreak: A Parent's Introduction to Parental Alienation