Using Family Systems Theory to Explain Parental Alienation

Parents arguing while sad daughter sits at the tableAttachment-based parental alienation is a complex and potentially harmful dynamic whereby a parent manipulates their children to avoid, reject, and disdain their other parent. It can be viewed as a symptom of the narcissistic paradigm and is often of clinical concern regarding the child’s healthy development.

Parental Alienation Characterized

Parental alienation may involve the following symptoms and manifestations:

  • The suppression of the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system.
  • A role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used to meet the emotional and psychological needs of a parent (the allied and favored parent).
  • Symptoms of narcissistic and/or borderline personality may also be present in the child and can also of extreme clinical concern for their healthy development.
  • Symptoms in the child can only be the product of “pathogenic parenting” practices and cannot emerge spontaneously or for unrelated mental health reasons.

Roles in the Attachment-Based Parental Alienation Dynamic

In this role-reversal dynamic, the following roles are identified:

  • Pathogenic parent: The parent who psychologically manipulates the child to devalue and discard the targeted parent.
  • Targeted child: The child within a family system who has been singled out for the attention of the pathogenic parent.
  • Targeted parent: The normal-range and affectionately available parent; the “victim” in the story. This is the parent who is scapegoated.

This type of parental alienation incorporates elements of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory, which is based on the dynamics between people in systems.

Bowen believed the family unit was the basic starting point for explaining human behavior.

Bowen believed the family unit was the basic starting point for explaining human behavior. His premise was that “individual behavior seemed determined less by individual choice and more by the individual’s relationship context.” He believed each family member derives their identity from their involvement within the family’s relationship system.

Connecting Family Systems Theory and Attachment-Based Parental Alienation

How is understanding Bowen’s theory helpful for understanding parental alienation? If the targeted parent can understand the underlying dynamics at play, they can use this information to work toward improving their relationship with their alienated child.

Let’s analyze the situation piece by piece, using Bowen’s eight concepts.

1. Triangles

A triangle is a three-person system. It is typically more stable and can handle more tension than a two-person system. A triangle often has one side in conflict and two harmonious sides, and it usually contains an “odd man out,” which can cause anxiety to that person.

Triangulation is a huge part of parental alienation, as the child is triangulated between their two parents, creating a cross-generational coalition. The coalition with the child serves as a vessel for the pathogenic parent to express their anger toward the targeted parent. The pathogenic parenting practices eventually cause the child to reject the targeted parent.

The function of a cross-generational coalition is to direct the pathogenic parent’s anger toward their partner through the child, using the child’s relationship with the other parent to inflict conflict and suffering on the other parent. Through the cross-generational coalition, the child is manipulated into expressing hostility and/or rejection of the other parent for supposed parental inadequacies and failures.

2. Differentiation of self

Part of healthy development involves a differentiation of self. People with a poorly differentiated self are more likely to be dependent on the approval and acceptance of others, to the point that they will try to please or bully others into agreeing with them. A person with a well-differentiated self has confidence and well-established inner boundaries regarding their own values.

Because of the pathogenic parent’s parenting, a child’s psychological boundaries may be compromised, and differentiation from that parent may not occur.

Because of the pathogenic parent’s parenting, a child’s psychological boundaries may be compromised, and differentiation from that parent may not occur. Instead, the child becomes infused with the mindset of the pathogenic parent and alienated from the normal-range parent through covert psychological manipulation on the part of the pathogenic parent.

The ensuing preoccupied attachment with the parent interferes with the child’s development of important ego functions, such as self-organization, affect regulation, and emotional object constancy.

3. Nuclear family emotional process

According to the nuclear family emotional system concept, there are four relationship patterns that help determine where problems develop in a family:

  1. Relationship conflict: As tension rises within the family and each partner gets more anxious, they may externalize their anxiety into the relationship. Both focus on what is wrong with the other, try to control the other, and resist being controlled.
  2. Dysfunction in one partner: One partner exerts control on the other to think and act in certain ways, and the other gives in. Both partners accommodate to preserve harmony, but one does more of it. The interaction is comfortable for both people up to a point, but if family tension rises further, the subordinate partner may yield so much of themselves that their anxiety increases significantly.
  3. Impairment of one or more children: Each partner focuses their insecurities on the children. They may focus either in an idealized or negative way on one or more of the children. The more the parents focus on this child, the more the child may focus on them. This child becomes more reactive than any siblings to the attitudes, needs, and expectations of their parents. This dynamic can diminish the child’s ability for differentiation from the family and make them prone to acting out or internalizing family tension.
  4. Emotional distance: Family members become distant from each other to reduce the relationship intensity but risk becoming too isolated.

The nuclear family emotional process is implicated in the creation of parental alienation. There is obvious relationship conflict and a dysfunctional partner, as well as the impairment of one of the children (the alienated child). Additionally, there is emotional distance between the two parents and between the alienated child and the targeted parent.

4. Family projection process

The family projection process describes the primary way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. The parents’ fears and perceptions may so shape the child’s development and behavior that the child comes to embody these perceptions. Then the parent tries to “fix” the problem they have diagnosed in the child.

In attachment-based parental alienation, the pathogenic parent projects their views of the other parent onto the child while the child “introjects” these views, believing they are their own.

5. Multigenerational transmission process

This is the process by which differentiation between family members across generations affects individuals and their personal differentiation process. The transmission occurs on several levels involving both conscious teaching and unconscious programming of emotional responses and behaviors. Due to the intricacies of the relationship dynamics, some children develop more of a differentiated “self” than others.

6. Emotional cutoff

This is the concept where individuals attempt to reduce relational tension by cutting off emotional contact with other family members either by physically reducing contact or by simply cutting off emotional connection. Either way, the relationships may look “better,” but the problems have simply gone underground.

The alienating parent and the targeted child both exhibit emotional cutoff to the targeted parent. This can be an abuse of the child’s attachment system, as it is not typically normal or healthy for children to experience emotional cutoff from a parent. This must be taught and is encouraged by the alienating parent.

7. Sibling position

People who grow up in the same sibling position have been found to often share important characteristics. For example, oldest children may tend to gravitate to leadership positions and youngest children might prefer to be followers, while middle children tend to exhibit the functional characteristics of two sibling positions–youngest and oldest. Parents’ sibling positions also have a role in the family interaction dynamics.

Sibling position affects the way a child relates to the world. In general, the targeted child could be of any birth order, but it is commonly the firstborn child. This is the child the pathogenic parent may choose to use as a conduit through which they can deliver abuse to the targeted parent. Using a child in such a manner is abusive (Woodall, 2015).

Once the firstborn child has been fully indoctrinated, they may also work to ensure the siblings eventually follow suit.

8. Societal emotional process

This concept describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level. Cultural forces are important in how a society functions but are insufficient for explaining how well societies adapt to the challenges that face them.

The societal-emotional process is evident in the case of parental alienation. While the targeted parent takes on the role of society, the pathogenic parent takes on the role of the enabling parent. The child begins to disrespect their other parent. The effect is a form of child abuse, as the pathogenic parent is encouraging poor character and behavior in their child. This form of conditioning can be difficult to discern and undo.

References:

  1. Bowen family systems theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://wpfc.net/bowen-family-systems-theory
  2. Childress, C. A. (n.d.). Re: Testimony by a family therapist. Retrieved from http://www.drcachildress.org/asp/admin/getFile.asp?RID=96&TID=6&FN=pdf
  3. Childress, C. A. (n.d.). Strategic family therapy for a cross-generational coalition. Retrieved from http://www.drcachildress.org/asp/admin/getFile.asp?RID=121&TID=6&FN=pdf
  4. Childress, C. A. & Pruter, D. (2019). Empathy, the family, and the core of social justice. Retrieved from http://www.drcachildress.org/asp/admin/getFile.asp?RID=239&TID=6&FN=pdf
  5. Eight concepts. (n.d.) The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. Retrieved from https://thebowencenter.org/theory/eight-concepts
  6. Woodall, K. (2015). Separating siblings in alienating situations. Retrieved from https://karenwoodall.blog/2015/01/26/separating-siblings-in-alienation-situations

© Copyright 2019 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sharie Stines, PsyD, therapist in La Habra, California

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