For years, the conventional wisdom in the mental health field was that psychopathic parents abandon their children. If this is true, why do some psychopaths fight to keep their children away from the other parent? Why do they engage in parental alienation to pry the children away? Or why do they accuse the other parent of alienating them from the children?
Lovefraud’s Dr. Liane Leedom led a research team a few years ago to examine the parenting behavior of psychopaths. Data are hard to come by — psychopaths often blend into society, and their children can’t articulate what they are experiencing. So Dr. Leedom took a creative approach to gathering data — the team read the memoirs of people who grew up with disordered parents, including another Lovefraud author, Travis F. Vining. They read seven books, six of them about convicted murderers who Dr. Leedom determined were severely psychopathic. The seventh book didn’t have enough detail for a diagnosis.
Dr. Leedom compared the descriptions in the books with two notorious cases that were in the news at the time of the research — the fake “Clark Rockefeller” who kidnapped his daughter during supervised visitation, and a man who won custody of his young daughter while on parole and continued his crime spree while she lived with him. Dr. Leedom also added information from two other outrageous custody cases with which she was personally familiar.
In 2013, Dr. Leedom and colleagues published their findings in the Journal of Child Custody. The article was entitled, The Problem of Parental Psychopathy. They found that, contrary to the common wisdom in the field, “In some cases, very psychopathic parents take an interest in children, behave ‘affectionately,’ spend time with them, and even fight to gain custody.”
Why? Why would people who are fundamentally incapable of authentic love do this? Dr. Leedom and her colleagues concluded that psychopathic parents sought social rewards due to their extraversion and their desire for dominance and power. The authors wrote:
Psychopathic individuals appear highly motivated to make social connections, to achieve dominance, and to control all the people in their lives. When this control is threatened, they may use an ingratiating strategy, become deceptive, violent, or fight tirelessly in family court. Psychopathic individuals can be quite affable when their control is not threatened or when they are engaged in manipulation. Although psychopathic parents are capable of “affection,” none of the parents we studied appeared to have a deep or abiding concern for the health and well-being of their sons and daughters. We have to caution, though, that this lack of concern is often difficult to detect without a comprehensive evaluation. Sons and daughters are cared for to the extent that this caring serves the social, material, or power goals of the psychopathic parent.
Behavior of psychopathic parents and their children
The authors summarized the parenting behaviors of psychopathic parents and how the children responded to them. The results are eye-opening:
Parenting behaviors of psychopathic parents
- Contrary to prevailing ideas, psychopathic parents are not universally “cold” and isolative but evidence a mix of loving and abusive parental behaviors.
- Parents who most closely resemble the “prototype psychopath” use affection and ingratiation to gain and maintain control over children and partners. In this context, expressed “love” does not reflect caring motives but reflects power motives.
- Psychopathic parents may desire to have a relationship with their children and even fight to gain custody.
- Although physical abuse is not always salient to children or perpetrated by psychopathic parents, emotional and psychological abuse and all forms of neglect are common.
- Pathological lying is an important symptom of psychopathy that is manifest in the behavior of psychopathic parents toward their children. Pathological lying underlies severe emotional and psychological abuse.
- Psychopathic parents may select both favorites and targets for abuse from among the children of the family.
- Psychopathic parents may enjoy inducing fear in their children.
- Psychopathic parents may maintain poor sexual boundaries.
- Psychopathic parents expose children to their own antisocial behavior and to other psychopathic adults.
- Psychopathic parents maintain family ties and may manipulate family members into covering for them.
Children’s responses to parenting by psychopathic parents
- Children may be confused by the behavior of the psychopathic parent and so focus their attention on only the “loving” aspect of the relationship. Children may dissociate and evidence amnesia for traumatic experiences.
- Children may experience and express love and loyalty toward a psychopathic parent, especially if they have a paucity of healthy adult role models.
- Children may have difficulty with identity formation if aspects of their identities are fabricated or withheld from them.
- Older children and teens desire “the truth” about their parents and themselves as they seek to make meaning of their experiences.
- Growing up with a psychopathic parent is associated with mood and anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and antisocial disorders.
The study authors conclude, “Although psychopathic parents do demonstrate ‘affectionate’ behavior and express concern for children, psychopathy does not appear to be compatible with effective parenting or a nurturing home environment for children.”
The parenting of psychopaths is at best, inconsistent, and at worst, abusive. Unfortunately, the children of psychopathic parents don’t know that, because they have no frame of reference for what healthy parenting looks like. It appears that mommy or daddy doesn’t love them, but they don’t know why. They struggle to make meaning of their experiences.
Meaning making is an important concept in psychology. It’s the process of how people construe, understand or make sense of life events, relationships and the self. Dr. Leedom and colleagues write, “Meaning making has a special place in psychopathy research, as psychopathic individuals are notorious for skillfully manipulating the meaning making processes of even trained clinicians, often to their advantage, and professionals and lay people alike are often baffled by the attitudes and behavior of psychopathic individuals.”
In other words, psychopathic lies and gaslighting make it difficult for people — including clinicians — to figure out what is going on.
As children of psychopaths get older, they may notice that their relatively healthy parent treats them with warmth, or their friends’ parents are pleasant and kind. Dr. Leedom and her team point out a risk in this: “As children make meaning of neglectful and abusive parental conduct in the context of this frame of reference, they may reject the psychopathic parent — placing the nonpsychopathic parent in danger of losing custody or being jailed due to ‘parental alienation.’”
Plenty of Lovefraud readers who had children with psychopathic, antisocial or narcissistic partners struggle against parental alienation. The other parent is trying to ruin their relationship with their children, either by engaging in parental alienation, or accusing them of parental alienation.
The disordered parents don’t really love their children, in that they do not truly care about the kids’ health and well-being. So why bother trying to separate the children from the other parent?
The answer is based in the fundamental motivation of psychopaths, antisocials and narcissists: power and control. To them, children are property. They are creatures to be dominated. They are potential servants and mini-me’s. So the disordered individuals want to keep them — and punish the other parent.