Empathy and Parental Alienation
Of all the symptoms displayed by the child, the absence of empathy is the most disturbing. The absence of empathy is associated with the capacity for human cruelty
Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York: Basic Books.
There are only three disorders that display as a characteristic symptom feature an absence of empathy; autism, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder (the psychopath).
So when we see a child display an absence of empathy – a cavalierly unfeeling capacity to be cruel – this is an extremely concerning symptom.
Empathy represents a set of brain networks that have their foundation in a group of brain cells called “mirror neurons.” There is a wonderful PBS Nova program on mirror neurons up on the Internet:
These mirror neurons serve as the foundation for a brain system called “intersubjectivity” – what I refer to as “psychological connection” in my work with clients, and what is commonly referred to as empathy in the general population.
This psychological connection system – the empathy system – in the brain allows us to feel what other people feel as if we were having the feeling ourselves. It allows us to feel what the actors feel in the movies. When we’re in the movie theater, it’s the psychological connection system (intersubjectivity) that we are experiencing.
The psychological connection system (intersubjectivity) is one of two brain systems for relationship. In the 1960s and 70s, John Bowlby described the first brain system for relationship, the attachment system in three seminal volumes on Attachment and Loss:
Volume 1: Attachment
Volume 2: Separation: Anxiety and Anger
Volume 3: Loss: Sadness and Depression
All mental health professionals treating attachment-related pathology (disruptions to parent-child bonding) need to have read these three volumes. How can you treat an attachment-related pathology if you don’t know what the attachment system is, how it functions, and how it dysfunctions?
“The deactivation of attachment behavior is a key feature of certain common variants of pathological mourning.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 70)
The attachment system is the brain system governing all aspects of love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss. It evolved over countless millennia in response to the selective predation of children.
“The biological function of this behavior is postulated to be protection, especially protection from predators.” (Bowlby, 1980, p. 3)
Children who formed strong attachment bonds to parents received parental protection from predators, and their genes for forming strong attachment bonds to parents increased in the collective gene pool. Children who did not form strong attachment bonds to parents were eaten by predators at higher rates. Their genes for forming weak, or even moderate, attachment bonds to parents decreased in the collective gene pool.
Over millennia of evolutionary pressures applied by the selective predation of children, a very strong and very resilient primary motivational system (like the primary motivational systems for eating and reproduction) developed in the brain that strongly motivates children to form strong attachment bonds to parents. Even to bad parents.
Bad parents more fully expose children to the dangers of the predator. Children who rejected bad parents became the predator’s next meal.
On the other hand, children who were MORE strongly motivated to bond to the bad parent were MORE likely to obtain parental protection from predators than children who were less strongly motivated to bond to a bad parent (or who rejected a bad parent).
Bad parenting produces what’s called an “insecure attachment” that MORE strongly motivates children to bond to the bad parent. That’s the way the brain works.
Substantial research on the attachment system has demonstrated this scientifically established fact. Bad parenting produces an insecure attachment that MORE strongly motivates the child to bond to the bad parent.
Children don’t reject the attachment figure of their parent. That’s not the way the attachment system works. Children who rejected parents were eaten by predators. Who rejects the other attachment figure? Spouses. Spouses reject bad spouses.
So if we are seeing an attachment system display of a child rejecting a parent, that’s not an authentic child attachment system, that’s a spousal form of attachment system display being evidenced by the child.
There are only two cases where the attachment system can turned off, 1) incest, in which the parent becomes the predator danger, and 2) chronic and severe parental violence (beating the child with fists or electrical cords – for years), where, again, the parent becomes the predator danger.
Psychological Connection – Empathy
The second relationship system, for psychological connection (empathy), was discovered and described in the 1980s through the 2000s, and it has been extensively studied by some of the premier researchers in professional psychology; Daniel Stern, Edward Tronick, Alan Sroufe, Peter Fonagy, Colin Trevarthan.
We also know a lot about how this brain system functions because it underlies the development of language, and so the functioning of this specific brain system for psychological connection has been extensively studied relative to autism-spectrum disorders.
So there are two separate, but interrelated brain systems for relationship, one for emotional bonding (the attachment system) and one for psychological bonding (the connection system).
Can psychological connection – can empathy – be “turned off” as a result of trauma? The active emotion of anger will turn off (inhibit) both relationship systems during the active period of anger. But once the anger subsides (and active anger does subside), the normal-range functioning of the attachment and empathy systems return.
An empathy system that is continually turned off is the psychopath. The person who is capable of unspeakable human cruelty. The absence of empathy is an extremely disturbing symptom, especially in a child.
Simon Baron-Cohen (2011): The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty
What about the child’s empathy toward an abusive parent?
During the active phase of any anger toward the parent, the child’s empathy will be turned off. The emotion of anger inhibits both relationship systems. But when the child’s active anger subsides, the normal-range functioning of empathy will return. A classic and tragic example of a child’s empathy toward an abusive parent is the sexually abused child who is afraid to disclose her abuse because she doesn’t want daddy to get in trouble.
For anyone who has actually worked with abused children, children’s continuing empathy and desire to be loved by an abusive parent is heart-wrenching. Abused children still desperately want the love of the abusive parent. It absolutely breaks your heart, the child so desperately wants to be loved.
Authentically abused children actually try to protect their abuser.
That’s why the child protection advocates in mental health are so concerned about Gardnerian PAS. They believe that the diagnostic indicators of Gardnerian PAS are so poorly formulated that they lend themselves to discounting the reports of children who have overcome their tremendous natural reluctance to report the abuse inflicted on them by a parent. The child protection advocates in mental health are afraid that by discounting the child’s reports of abuse, we will be returning children to abusive parents.
That’s why I have never advocated for adopting a Gardnerian model of PAS. You can review all of my writing, I never once advocated for the adoption of Gardnerian PAS as a model for the pathology. It’s a bad model of pathology.
An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” (AB-PA) is NOT Gardnerian PAS. They are two totally and completely different descriptions of pathology.
There is zero – ZERO – chance of returning a child to an abusive parent using the three diagnostic indicators of AB-PA. Zero.
On the Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting, notice the qualifier in the first diagnostic indicator that the parenting practices of the targeted parent have been assessed by a mental health professional to be broadly normal-range. Physically and sexually abusive parenting is NOT normal-range. An authentically abused child will not meet the criteria for diagnostic indicator 1.
Neither will any abused child display a haughty and arrogant attitude toward the abuser, or a sense of entitlement that the abuser must meet the child’s needs to the child’s satisfaction or else the child feels entitled to punish the abuser (diagnostic indicator 2). We never see an abused child display a haughty and arrogant attitude of entitlement toward their abuser.
And the abused child’s belief in their victimization is not delusional. It’s real. So the child will not meet diagnostic criteria 3. An authentically abused child will meet NONE of the diagnostic criteria for AB-PA.
In the pathology of AB-PA, however, the child’s symptom display will meet ALL three of the diagnostic indicators:
1.) Attachment system suppression toward a normal-range parent – which is the symptom evidence of an attachment-related pathology;
2.) All five narcissistic personality disorder traits – which are the “psychological fingerprints” in the child’s symptoms of the child’s psychological control by a narcissistic parent from whom the child is acquiring the narcissistic traits and attitudes;
3.) A delusional belief in the child’s supposed victimization – which is evidence of the false trauma reenactment narrative of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent which is being imposed on the current child and current family.
AB-PA is a trauma pathology from child abuse that occurred one (and two) generations earlier and is still rippling through the family.
The parent of the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent was abused as a child (most likely sexual abuse). When this abused child became a parent, the childhood trauma was passed on to the next generation (to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a child) through the creation of a “disorganized attachment” with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent as a child. This trauma is now being extended into the next generation through the false trauma reenactment narrative being created by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in the trauma pattern of “abusive parent”/”victimized child”/”protective parent.”
Does a true trauma narrative of an abusive parent, a victimized child, and a protective parent also exist in families? Absolutely. Dogs exist. Authentic child abuse exists. I’ve seen it up close and personal during my work in the foster care system.
And the trans-generational transmission of trauma also exists. Cats exist.
Our goal is to protect 100% of children 100% of the time from all forms of child abuse, physical, sexual, and psychological.
Both the active trauma of child abuse and the multi-generational ripple of child abuse will carry the same “meme-structures” – the same trauma themes – so it can sometimes be complex to unravel whether the family pathology is a manifestation of current trauma or past trauma that is still rippling through the family in the form of parental personality disorder pathology.
But that’s the profession of clinical psychology. That’s our job, to know this. I am a clinical psychologist. It’s my job to know this.
That’s why I worked out in detail the pathology of the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma which I describe in my book Foundations. And based on a deep understanding for this specific form of trans-generational transmission of child abuse trauma, I was able to identify three key features in the child’s symptom display that will reliably – 100% of the time – differentiate authentic child abuse occurring today from the echo of child abuse that occurred a generation or two ago but that is continuing to ripple through the family by distorting the current child’s attachment bonding motivations toward a loving and normal-range parent.
This pathology is complex, and differentiating it from current trauma is vitally important. That’s why children and families displaying this form of attachment-related pathology should receive the professional designation as a “special population” who require specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat.
Research by Moor and Silvern (2006) on the long-term effects of child abuse and the mediating role of parental failure of empathy found that child abuse and parental failure of empathy are the same thing – they are flip sides of the same coin.
The absence of empathy is the cause of child abuse – and the absence of empathy is also the trauma.
The presence of empathy is the healing of trauma.
The absence of empathy is associated with the capacity for human cruelty.
The presence of empathy is our salvation.
The absence of empathy in the child’s symptom display is the most disturbing of all the child symptoms.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Loss: Sadness and depression. NY: Basic Books.
Moor, A. and Silvern, L. (2006). Identifying pathways linking child abuse to psychological outcome: The mediating role of perceived parental failure of empathy. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6, 91-112.
From Moor & Silvern (2006):
“The act of child abuse by parents is viewed in itself as an outgrowth of parental failure of empathy and a narcissistic stance towards one’s own children. Deficiency of empathic responsiveness prevents such self-centered parents from comprehending the impact of their acts, and in combination with their fragility and need for self-stabilization, predisposes them to exploit children in this way.” (Moor & Silvern, 2006, p. 95)
“Only insofar as parents fail in their capacity for empathic attunement and responsiveness can they objectify their children, consider them narcissistic extensions of themselves, and abuse them. It is the parents’ view of their children as vehicles for satisfaction of their own needs, accompanied by the simultaneous disregard for those of the child, that make the victimization possible.” (Moor & Silvern, 2006, p. 104)
“The indication that posttraumatic symptoms were no longer associated with child abuse, across all categories, after statistically controlling for the effect of perceived parental empathy might appear surprising at first, as trauma symptoms are commonly conceived of as connected to specifically terrorizing aspects of maltreatment (e.g., Wind & Silvern, 1994). However, this finding is, in fact, entirely consistent with both Kohut’s (1977) and Winnicott’s (1988) conception of the traumatic nature of parental empathic failure. In this view, parental failure of empathy is predicted to amount to a traumatic experience in itself over time, and subsequently to result in trauma-related stress. Interestingly, even though this theoretical conceptualization of trauma differs in substantial ways from the modern use of the term, it was still nonetheless captured by the present measures.” (p. 197)