parent-child relational problem

Emotional Abuse and Neglect in America It's Everyone's Problem Now.

This blog has two parts. The first part is summary of the status of child psychological abuse as it pertains to our families and the second part is a short description of the "significant and observable changes" in a child who is being psychologically abused.  Please share this information with everybody you know.  While the APA is setting the stage to address this issue in the public's interest, the public can be given the tools to start recognizing and reporting severe child psychological abuse.  Both of these documents (Indicators and SAVE A CHILD)  can be found in the learning links section of the website, underChild Abuse Reports.

The number of children who are psychologically maltreated (emotionally abused and neglected) from living with a parent who has a serious mental illness has reached epidemic proportions.  As many as 22 million parents with children have relationally abusive and high conflict personality disorders (Harman and Biringen).  These personality disorders are unrecognizable by the general public and the majority of mental health and protective service professionals including law enforcement, child abuse investigators and family court.  Emotional abuse and neglect is grossly under reported and the least likely type of child abuse to be investigated or stopped.

This article describes the observable behaviors ofchildren who are being psychologically maltreated by a relationally abusive parent to reject their other healthy or  “targeted” parent.  Psychological abuse and neglect by a mentally ill parent is as damaging to children as sexual abuse and/or physical abuse; and in many cases it is worse.   The most powerful resiliency factor to protect children from the ravages of psychological abuse is for them to have strong relationships with healthy adults, most importantly, their other parent. 

Child Psychological abuse and neglect has been unraveling the fabric of America for generations and now poses a serious threat to our country.  Aside from the daily pain and anguish that relationally abusive parent inflict on their family, they also transmit their problems inter-generationally, which accounts for the rising percentage of these personality disorders in our society.

Child Psychological Abuse (p. 719, DSM-5, 2013), has mandatory standards of practice that apply to every case, in every state, for every child, at every age.  Clear and strict compliance to state and federal laws are such that ALL mandatory child abuse reporters, including mental health, legal and educational professionals can be held accountable for not reporting these cases.

But you don’t have to be a mandatory reporter to save a child and serve your country by reporting these cases.  As friends and family of a targeted parent, YOU can make all the difference, by reporting what you see to your county child protection agency.   When targeted parents report the abuse, the abusive parent retaliates by making things worse on the child and the targeted parent.  In addition, they often file counterclaims and the children are induced to support the lies against the targeted parent.  It rarely ends well.   However as an objective witness, your report carries much more weight, and can be anonymous.

By the time a child is have completely changed his or her demeanor, the normal development and survival systems have already been derailed.  This means that they are unable to extract themselves from the abuser without intervention.  A period of protective separation from the abusive parent is necessary for the child to recover.   During this no contact period the child and targeted parent reconnect and learn how to protect themselves from further abuse, allowing for the child to have a safe relationship with both parents.







Clinical Indicators of Child Psychological Abuse

As Defined by State Statutes

Children who are being psychologically maltreated (emotionally abused and neglected) exhibit one or more of the following characteristics to a severe degree: anxiety; depression; withdrawal; outward aggressive behavior; or a substantial and observable change in behavior, emotional response or cognition that is not within the normal range for the child’s age and stage of development.

In severe child psychological abuse cases, children will exhibit the following three substantial and observable changes. (Childress, 2015)

1.    A complete suppression of a child’s normal, healthy attachment to one parent.  Abruptly, a child begins to reject one parent for no reason.  He or she will publically display disdain and/or contempt for the “targeted” parent.  As this condition worsens the child will treat the targeted parent more and more harshly, with less and less remorse or empathy.

Early in the family’s history, the child felt attached and cared for by both parents.  Even though the mentally ill parent could not connect emotionally with the children, the healthy attachment to the other parent allowed the children to develop normally.   However, this never lasts.  Partners/parents who have relationally abusive personality disorders thrive on escalating conflict.  For reasons too complex to discuss here, these individuals lie, exaggerate problems and blame others to drive wedges between other members of their family.  They do not communicate directly, but instead plant seeds of suspicion and contempt in the minds of one family member against another.   The happy home quickly disintegrates and separation and divorce ensue.

Once the abusive parent has the children alone, the child psychological abuse reaches a pathological level.  He or she begins to apply subtle but constant pressure to make the child question their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the other parent.  Under relentless coercion and manipulation the child starts to think that the targeted parent is a danger or threat to their survival (this is called trauma).  In order to cope with the extreme demand from the abusive parent to choose between parents, children suppress their positive feelings for the targeted parent.   

 Forcing a child to “choose” to love and care for only one of their two parents is simply evil.  The child must suppress their love, respect, attraction, emotional needs, positive thoughts and good memories of their healthy parent, who makes up half of their identity.  When the child internalizes these negative feelings it affects their perception of themselves and their relationships with others in the world around them.  This disrupts their emotional, cognitive, and personality development.  Suppression of attachment to a healthy, loving parent is so far outside the normal range at any stage of development that it is contrary to our primary motivation for survival.  It is impossible to understand the severity of torture these children must feel that drives them to have to take such drastic measures to cope with the demands of one parent.

Example: About 6 months after my divorce was final and the children were spending 50 percent of their time in each home, my 10 year old son came back from placement with his father, crying.  He said to me, “I’m so confused mom, dad says that you lie all the time.”

We sat down and I asked him to tell me when he could remember a time that I had ever lied to him.  I watched his contorted, tear stained face start to relax when he realized that what his father was saying wasn’t true.  He smiled and hugged me, relieved to know that I was still the same mom that he always had.

 At the time, I thought that I would be able to combat his father’s campaign against me by keeping open communication with my son.  However, the next time he came back from his father’s his  negative emotions toward me were so chaotic and caustic that he was no longer able to think critically and I couldn’t reconnect with him.   He was angry, belligerent, hyper aroused, frustrated and confused.  He withdrew.  It was 9 years later, after his first year in college when my son felt safe enough to let his attachment to me resurface.

2.    Children imitate the abusive parent’s patterns of narcissistic/borderline personality traits, such as superiority and entitlement.

 This drastic change in a child’s behaviors, emotional responses and cognition, is completely abnormal for any age or state of development.

Thankfully, the child does not have a personality disorder or the disorder traits themselves, but a child learns what he or she lives and they begin to imitate the abusive parent’s language, behaviors, and attitudes.  Psychologically abusive parents treat the child as if they are above the targeted parent in the family hierarchy.   They are encouraged to think that they have the right to judge and punish the targeted parent.   They use language that is not within the norm for any age or stage of development.  In particular, children start to use dramatic and attention getting words such as “abusive” and “forced” when describing the relationship with the targeted parent.

The psychologically abusive parent also creates an insecure attachment with their children.  The children believe that they will lose both parents, if they do not adopt the hateful and denigrating attitudes and feelings that the abusive parent has for the targeted parent.

Example: I told my son that his dog missed him when he was gone.  He immediately turned hostile and said that he didn’t have a dog, or a sister, or a mother.  Then he began telling me how I had failed the family.  He said ” You should have stayed in the marriage and just taken what dad dished out.  It wasn’t that bad, it’s not like he abused you, he never hit you!”  Then he started blaming me for his father’s affairs and also blamed me for the fact that his father’s girlfriend had broken off his most recent relationship.  My son vowed that if I “forced” him to follow placement he would make me cry everyday, because he would never stop hating me.  He ended the confrontation by snarling,  “I wish you would die so I could spit on your grave.”

3.    Children share the abusive parent’s delusion that the targeted parent is all bad and dangerous.  They begin to fear the targeted parent and resist contact.

Fear of a targeted parent is indicative of a 180-degree shift in a child’s behaviors and emotional response to their healthy and loving parent.  This is completely abnormal for any age or stage of development.

Children are ambivalent towards their parents.  They like and dislike somethings sometimes about one or the other.  They even favor a parent at times.  However, even when children temporarily favor one parent over the other, that doesn’t cause them to fear, hate and/or reject the targeted  parent. 

Example:  My son called the police on me the night that I confronted him about his drug use. He reported that he was afraid that I was going to hurt him.   When the police arrived, they saw my son cowering in a corner.  Scotty (named used with permission) was well known.   Heplayed on a State and National Champion Rugby team and one of the best weightlifters.  

 The police looked at him and then at me, his 5 ft., nothing, 50 year old mother and raised his eyebrows.  All he said was “Scotty, we’re not buying this.”  Almost immediately, Scotty returned to normal and we had a pretty decent time until he went back to his father’s.






APA Responds With Respect and Enthusiasm

We were delighted to receive a confirmation from the American Psychological Association's (APA) Committee on Children, Youth & Families (CYF) that our petition had their full attention.  What really made me smile was that they immediately realized that the crisis we experience day and night can not be handled by their committee alone.  CYF bumped our petition up to their parent board, The Board on the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest (BAPPI), who determined that our petition has strong practice implications.  And indeed it does!

 BAPPI is considering forming a joint working group with the Practice Directorate but there are others who need to be represented on the work group in order to get all the pieces together.  The following diagram is not perfectly accurate, but illustrates how fragmented and complex our issue is.  However it also illustrates the power of collaboration, which is highly valued by the APA.

This diagram only illustrates the point that our issue is complex.


The NATP is not a polished, well-funded lobbying organization, or celebrities or even folks with any clout or influence.  On the contrary; we are parents who have been abused, tormented, marginalized and re-victimized by every system in place that claims to advocate for the best interest of children and families.  Even so, we never stopped trying to find a way to protect our children from our narcissistic/borderline ex-partners who have caused so much pain and suffering.  

Now, for the first time in the history of this nationwide travesty, one of the world’s most powerful organizations, the APA has heard our collective voice and responded swiftly with respect and compassion.  

Chills just ran down my spine as I re-read that last sentence.  I know this means that we are just at the starting gate, but my dear long suffering and heroic targeted parents, we are

AT the starting gate

and it’s only April.

We didn't start this war on families in American, but we will finish it. We still need to get as many of us in one place as possible, so PLEASE Join Us!  Submit you name and email in the red and black box at the bottom of this or any page of our website  


You Don't Have to Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

Healthy skepticism encourages us to check our assumptions, recognize the limitations of our methods, and proceed thoughtfully. When skepticism and controversy about a concept or label still remains as an obstacle, after decades of work to validate it in the eyes of mainstream science, then the validity of the skepticism must be examined.




When all efforts to get society, especially the mental health and legal professional to recognize parental alienation as a legitimate crisis in science and health have failed, then the problem is not on “them;" it is on us.   How can we expect "them" to adopt a concept when we ourselves cannot even define it?     Regardless of the inherent controversy with the term parental alienation, it is short sighted to think that the mental health and legal professions are going to fully embrace a problem that doesn't have a clear, stable definition.  Is it a dynamic?  Is it a mental illness?  Is it child abuse?  No one, outside of our elite little PA community is going to take us seriously until we resolve the confusion about what parental alienation is. 

Recently, a member of the Parental Alienation Study Group (PASG), proposed a far reaching position statement to its members for their feedback and adoption.  The position statement strongly supports using more widely accepted and less controversial terms like "coercive control" and "child psychological abuse" in place of “parental alienation”; recognizing that the controversy about "parental alienation" is more about the term than about the actual phenomenon.

Adopting this position statement (or an amended version) could bring this international group of authors and researches in line with the largest, most powerful organizations and agencies in the world working to change the outcomes for families struggling with child psychological abuse.  PASG could then network with established change agents such as; childhood attachment trauma, psychological maltreatment,   domestic violence association, developmental and personality psychology and a plethora of others, all fighting to stop psychological abuse.

The biggest problem associated with shifting our perception is that many of us are invested and comfortable with using this term.  But, we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater!  Simply put,  parental alienation is not the whole enchilada but a specific set of abusive strategiesor a pattern of abusive behaviors by one parent to alienate children from their other parent. 

Parental Alienation is a set of abusive strategies (or a pattern of abusive behaviors) that a narcissistic/borderline parent uses to exile the other parent from their children’s lives.

It is a subtle but significant difference.  The abusive acts of alienating a parentcannot be separated from the abuser's reenactment of their childhood trauma, or their narcissistic/borderline personality disorder.  

  Below is a diagram of the chronology of how attachment trauma impacts the development of narcissistic/borderline personality disorder and how that disorder plays out in family situations.  The hallmark of these parents is that they are abusive to their family and escalate conflict whenever possible. Most of these families breakdown under the unrelenting stress, which triggers the unstable parent to reenact his or her childhood trauma based on distorted and disorganized memories stored in their internal working model.   During this reenactment period the narcissistic/borderline parent engages in and escalates specific strategies meant to alienate a child from his or her parent.  





 The sooner we stop calling psychological abuse parental alienation, the sooner we can engage in meaningful and effective intervention and prevention.

But this is up to us.





Courts That Care?

As we begin to talk about trauma, I thought it would be good to re-post this blog from last February.  The newest addition in the library section of this website now contains the protocol manual being used for family courts to become trauma informed.   Every targeted parent in family court must be aware of the official, professional movement to make family courts trauma informed and use their personal cases as avenues to protect their children while pushing the movement forward.    We are traumatized and our children are traumatized.  We need courts that are trauma informed! 

According to the protocol manual for developing trauma informed courts, "Juvenile and family judges and courts are in a unique position to promote healing and prevent future trauma.  In 2013, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) undertook development of a court trauma consultation protocol in response to an increase in requests for assistance from courts seeking to become trauma-informed. the NCJFCJ and organizations such as the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) have an extensive history of providing training and technical assistance to courts on traumatic stress."

Published February 10, 2016

Recently, The Honorable Marshall Murray, a respected and experienced Circuit Court Judge in Milwaukee County, co-authored a blog with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) in which he sounded more like a caring parent than a Judge.  It was the first time I heard a Judge express sadness at seeing so many abused children in his court.  It was also the first time I had heard anyone defend judges for being concerned that courts make the right decisions in cases involving abuse.

“One of the most important duties for any court system

is to ensure that youth in the community

are protected.” 

                                         -Judge Marshall Murray (2016)

One point that Judge Murray discusses is that in order for judges to make the right decisions when ruling on cases involving children and youth, they must be able to recognize how trauma affects behavior. He specifically mentioned trauma from emotional and verbal abuse, recognizing that psychological maltreatment (emotional abuse and neglect) is the most prevalent and damaging type of child abuse, causing a lifetime of problems for these victims.  The blog that Judge Murray wrote focuses on teen dating violence, but I found that his sentiments reflected a fundamental problem for Judges presiding over high conflict custody cases in family courts.

For decades, Family Court Judges have misinterpreted the expression of trauma in most of the high conflict custody cases.  This misinterpretation continues to lead Family Court Judges to make inaccurate assumptions about the parents and children.  Their mistaken assumptions are the basis for placing children with the abusive parent.  Thus, Family Courts directly contribute to severe adverse childhood experiences and the escalation of intimate partner violence.  The travesty of Family Courts abandoning children to their abusive parent is so common that it appears as if the Judges are intentionally colluding with the abusers.  As it stands today, a Family Court Judge could throw a dart at both parents in high conflict custody disputes, and at least then, they would make the right decision at least 50% of the time.   

It is hard to imagine that Family Court Judges care about families, abuse or even the job they do because I see no indication that family courts are trying to improve their longstanding abysmal record of making family situations worse for the “high conflict” families they serve.  As a self-regulating profession, this lack of care, due process or competence is inexcusable and begs external oversight if not remedied.

While the majority of families can manage custody issues without assertive court intervention, a significant and growing population of parents cannot.  These “high conflict” custody cases take up a disproportional amount of family court dockets because one parent has a personality disorder in which he or she is manipulating the court and escalating conflict.  All the while, he or she continues to psychologically abuse the family causing extreme ongoing chaos and stress.  In the pure sense, these cases aren’t “custody” cases; they are cases of child abuse and domestic violence and need immediate court ordered protection.

High conflict custody cases have been particularly troublesome for family court because the origin and nature of the problem lies in the abusive relational pathology of a narcissistic and /or borderline personality disordered parent who is a master at manipulation and exploitation.   By the time the family gets to court, the abuser has seriously wounded the children and the non-abusive parent and they present with extreme and misleading symptoms of trauma.  Comparatively, the abuser appears calm and confident as if he or she were innocent.

To add more confusion to the decision, narcissistic and/or borderline personality disordered parents have a well-developed social persona where they can mirror appropriate responses appearing sincere, charming and caring.  The abusive parent stays hidden behind this persona while covertly escalating conflict, exploiting the expressed trauma of the non-abusive parent and the children, making false allegations of abuse or fitness, manipulating the Judiciary, sabotaging treatment plans and lying through their teeth.  

Narcissistic and/or borderline parents will not admit that they have a personality disorder, even if they have been diagnosed, however once Family Court Judges are cued into looking for a handful of specific personality disorder traits, they will see that narcissistic/borderline abusers present as predictable as a March snowstorm in Wisconsin, and are just as easy to spot. 


Family court judges are not psychologist, nor should they be.  However, the fact remains that family courts have become the roosting site for narcissistic and/or borderline personality disordered parents and they are manipulating the court into making decisions that are extremely harmful to children and the non-abusive parent.  Assertive court intervention is necessary because these abusers cannot and will not change or follow any orders by the court unless the court will enforce sanctions for violations.   

The good news is that under a caring family court judge, trained to recognize the psychological manipulation of a narcissistic/borderline abuser and to spot trauma, family courts can stop being part of the problem of child abuse and domestic violence and become a big part of THE solution.  If these high conflict abuse cases can be stopped when they get to family court, the children and parents can recover and learn how to protect themselves from being psychologically abused so that the children can still have a relationship with both parents.  Just as important, Family Courts can lead the way in breaking the cycle of narcissistic/borderline abuse by preventing it from being expressed in the next generation of families who are lucky enough to have found their way into a court that is concerned about making the right decisions.

The End of Parental Alienation


                                 When the Moon is in the seventh house,

and Jupiter aligns with Mars.  Then peace will

guide the planets,

                            and love will steer the stars.  

                               –The Fifth Dimension (1969)


2016 is the year that parental alienation (as we know it) will end.  It’s only January and already, the traditional framework of parental alienation is disappearing and a new era is emerging.  Almost everyday I find another piece to the puzzle that brings us one step closer to ending this nightmare.  We are light years away from that dark place were there was no hope that people or systems would ever understand and care enough to change. 

Up until now, it’s probably a good thing that we didn’t know how complex and damaging the problem is.   If we had, most of us might have given up in the face of such comprehensive adversity.   What we were unaware of is that many other people have been also been working on aspects of our problem under different names.  It is now becoming clear that any one domain couldn’t possibly have discovered the multifaceted aspects of parental alienation.  And indeed what we call parental alienation is just one aspect of a bigger problem.  This is why we have struggled trying to explain or get others to understand our crisis.  This is also why individual approaches to resolving the issue have failed.  

The attachment-based model of parental alienation1 is the only model that identifies the multifaceted interaction of the clinical psychological definition of parental alienation, but even that does not account for the impact of the longstanding social injustices of custody allocations, parenting and gender role biases that have as much or maybe more of an impact on the problem.  Make no mistake about it, parental alienation is a huge, huge problem, possibly our county’s number 1 public health problem and the solution is just as big, but not insurmountable.

There is nothing that is insurmountable for targeted parents because we have the one thing we need to overcome this worldwide assault on our children, our families and our country.   We have the GOLD bullet; the most valuable possession in the world.  It’s called attachment.

Attachment is the most powerful force on earth.

Attachment is the enduring emotional bond between a healthy parent and his or her children and it is our superpower.  It exists with no boundaries in time or space.  Nothing can destroy it.  Nothing can stop it.  It is how David beat Goliath.  It is how we can be immersed in intolerable pain, but not be debilitated by it.  It is how we endure being stripped of our personal and civil rights and still step forward.  Attachment is how targeted parents can work full time jobs, plus put in 20-30+ hours a week preparing for court, mediation, and still fight for the good of the order.  In addition, targeted parents spend every moment thinking, working, praying, sharing, and caring for our children, whether we have contact or not.   We are either crazy, or invincible and know that I’m not crazy.