Handout for Mental Health Professionals by Rebecca Davis Merritt, Ph.D.
Why were you Given this Handout?
If you are a therapist or psychologist and your client or client’s parent has given you this handout, it means that they believe the other parent has a Cluster B personality disorder which negatively affects the child(ren) you are treating. Of course, if that other parent is not your client, you have no way to assess or diagnose whether they are, in fact, antisocial, narcissistic, borderline, or histrionic. Erring on the side of caution, it can be useful to raise and test hypotheses about such a possibility because the way you best help a minor client is different when a parent consistently shows impaired empathy and limited impulse control with their offspring.
Who Authored this Handout?
I, Rebecca Davis Merritt, am a retired academic clinical psychologist who supervised clinical psychology pre-doctoral students in a Cluster B specialty clinic and who now serves as president of One Mom’s Battle, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that helps parents of both genders mired in high-conflict family court cases. Most drawn out, complicated, hostile, high-conflict family court cases have a common denominator; a parent with a Cluster B personality disorder. Though these parents profess to love their children immensely and thrive in their court performances, claiming they would do anything to help the children, closer examination usually illuminates a parent engaging in emotional abuse, power plays and controlling behavior. They are simultaneously robbing their children of financial security through unnecessary, continuous court hearings and failure to meet court ordered financial obligations like child support. Even worse, these parents manipulate their own children to meet their own emotional needs while ignoring the children’s emotional requirements and well-being.
Why Does it Matter if I Label a Parent Cluster B?
Therapists are often unaware that the smiling, charming, socially-at-ease parent may be a chameleon who outside the therapy context is threatening the child with what family secrets must never be revealed, encouraging the children to distrust the therapist, or punishing the child if s/he communicates honestly in sessions. This type of parent insidiously blocks true treatment gains with goal of ending any treatment which threatens to expose their true nature and manipulatively (and often successfully) casts negative impressions of healthy parent.
The child and healthy parent live in fear (domestic violence by proxy) wanting to reach out to the therapist for help but fearing the repercussions if they do. Will the therapist accuse healthy parent of gatekeeping or Parental Alienation (a term we do not advocate) and see them as the problem (badmouthing the other parent) if therapist believes the charming manipulative parent? Will the unhealthy parent be told of the child’s distress resulting in painful repercussions? Will a “family systems approach” therapist hold child and healthy parent equally responsible for Cluster B’s hurtful words and actions?
Many therapists assume parents love their children and do not wish to emotionally or physically harm them. With Cluster B personality disordered individual involved, one should not start therapy with this assumption. One needs to start therapy, testing the hypothesis about whether the child views both parents as safe and loving, recognizing that most children even in abusive parental relationships, desperately love and want to protect their parents. To do this you need to generate hypothesis testing questions at the beginning stages of therapy but also at stages further along in treatment as frightened children may not disclose initially, but if they come to trust you, may disclose latter in therapy.
Examples of such questions are:
- Do you feel safe with your mom? Do you feel safe with your dad?
- Have you ever been bullied?
- Has your mom ever bullied you?
- Has your dad ever bullied you?
- Has anyone ever tried to make you believe something you know is not true?
- Has anyone asked you to keep secrets you do not want to keep?
- Has anyone asked you to lie in therapy, not talk about certain topics,or asked you to not tell the whole truth?
- Have you ever worried you would be seriously harmed or injured bysomething your parent or someone else did?
- What is the one behavior you wish your dad would stop doing?
- What is the one behavior you wish your mom would stop doing?
- What is the one thing you wish your mom would start doing?
- What is the one thing you wish your dad would start doing?
Knowing your client will allow you to tailor more case specific questions that give you necessary information about the child’s view of each parent and their trustworthiness. Asking basic safety questions is also important (have you been kicked, hit by fists, choked, locked outside, left alone in car for long periods of time, threatened by gun or knife or, do you fear for your life?).
What to do if you suspect Cluster B Parental Pathology and/or Domestic Violence in your Child Client’s Life?
Do your best to create a positive therapeutic environment. Children in these types of environments need safe, consistent and trustworthy adults in their lives. You may never fully realize the positive impact you can have by providing a safe place for child to both vent and learn how to create and maintain healthy boundaries with an unhealthy parent. Teaching such children that they do NOT carry the responsibility of catering to an adult’s emotional needs (and that it is the adult’s responsibility to attend to the child’s emotional and physical needs) is ground-breaking and positive. Helping such children learn to recognize emotional manipulation, set healthy boundaries and refuse to succumb to the manipulations can spare them a lifetime of vulnerability to other emotional vampires. Teaching children that their role is to be a child and not to carry unhealthy parent’s messages back to healthy parent or to you is invaluable. Giving them the voice to say, “I don’t want you to say mean things about mom/dad,” is helping them to set healthy boundaries. Teaching them to know their personal truth and recognize gaslighting so they do not collaborate in questioning their own sanity, memories, and life experiences is vital. If you do not understand gaslighting, please familiarize yourself.
As a therapist, you cannot just tell a child to ignore it or to forgive their abuser. Children have to understand why a parent is lying to them, what the intent of gaslighting is (to control them by making them doubt their perceptions and reality or distrust their healthy parent), and how to safely challenge (in one’s self statements) the gaslighting content. They cannot do this on their own and need for you to recognize gaslighting and give them the tools to fight this brainwashing. You may need to develop a safety plan with your client. Cluster B personality disordered individuals often anticipate who the child(ren) may reach out to and may also gaslight those resources. Safety plans themselves are not always straightforward. In a case that I am familiar with, children begged next door neighbor to call police and their request was refused based upon the tales the unhealthy parent had told them about these young, vulnerable children.
Educate yourself about Cluster B pathology to understand and appreciate that offspring of Cluster B parents experience complex traumatic environments causing reverberating long-term effects unless someone like you helps them better cope and, ideally, intervenes to contain or limit the Cluster B’s impact on the child. The work you are doing is invaluable and it is imperative that you educate yourself thoroughly on Cluster B personality disordered parents.
Two good resources pertaining to adverse events are:
- The National Child Trauma Stress Network: Effects of Complex Trauma
- Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
The emotional abuse committed by Cluster B personalities is domestic violence. The consequence of such abuse exerts at least as much harm as actual physical abuse. A skilled and strategically planned intervention in the life of a child who is being negatively affected by a Cluster B personality disordered parent can help that child become resilient while limiting the current and future risk factors. Thus, it is very important that you develop the willingness to hypothesis test when dealing with a minor client caught in a high-conflict custody battle. Do not assume that all parents do their best.
One Mom’s Battle: Our mission at One Mom’s Battle is to increase awareness of Cluster B personality disorders (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder) and their impact upon shared parenting and the Family Court System which includes Judges, CPS workers, Guardian ad Litems (GAL), Parenting Coordinators (PC), Custody Evaluators, therapists and attorneys. Education on Cluster B disorders will allow these professionals to truly act in the best interest of the children.
History of One Mom’s Battle: In 2009, One Mom’s Battle began with one mother, (Tina Swithin), navigating the choppy waters of a high-conflict divorce in the Family Court System. Since then, it has turned into a grassroots movement reaching the far corners of the Earth. Tina’s battle spanned from 2009 – 2014 during which time she acted as her own attorney. Ultimately, Tina was successful in protecting her daughters and her family has enjoyed complete peace since October 2014 when a Family Court commissioner called her ex-husband a “sociopath” and revoked his parenting time in a final custody order.
Tina Swithin: Tina Swithin’s books are available online at Amazon (print, Kindle or audio format). Each year, Tina offers life-changing weekends of camaraderie and healing at the Lemonade Power Retreat. Tina also offers one-on-one coaching services and a private, secure forum called, The Lemonade Club, for those enduring high-conflict custody battles.