Empathy & Lack of Empathy- Craig Childress PsyD


Narcissistic personality pathology is the absence of empathy. The absence of empathy is the capacity for human cruelty.

Narcissistic personality pathology is the abuse pathology because of its capacity for cruelty. Narcissistic personality pathology is responsible for child abuse and spousal abuse.

Writing in the Journal of Emotional Abuse, Moor & Silvern describe the association of narcissistic personality pathology and the failure of parental empathy with child abuse.

From Moor & Silvern: “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)

From Moor & Silvern: “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)

In their study of child abuse survivors and the failure of parental empathy, Moor & Silvern found that the narcissistic pathology of the parent was itself a traumatic experience.

There is no difference between the trauma of child abuse and the failure of parental empathy that caused it – they are the same thing – just flip sides of the same trauma of child abuse by a parent.

From Moor & Silvern: “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)

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.

The trauma is the parental failure of empathy. The treatment for the trauma is abundant empathy – authentic empathy. Through our “eyes of the other” of compassion and empathy we bring our intent to understand to their self-experience, and we help the child discover their authenticity.

Whenever we are asking the child to understand us or something we are saying, empathy is flowing in the wrong direction.

“Tell me more about that” is always an appropriate response to a child in all situations.

The ADHD child is frustrated with doing homework, “It’s too hard, I can’t do it.”

Tell me more about that.

Don’t give encouragement. Don’t try to solve the problem. It’s their problem, they’ll be able to solve it once they have the support they need. What do they need for support?

Let’s find out. Provide genuine caring and genuine curiosity for “What is it like to be you?”

Her boyfriend just broke up with her and she is despondent over the lost love.

Tell me more about that.

Don’t give encouragement, don’t try to solve her problems. They’re her problems, she’ll be able to solve them with the proper support.

What support does she need? Let’s find out, with genuine caring, genuine empathy, and a genuine intent to understand “What’s it like to be you?”

Tell me more about that.

That is of benefit for all children in all circumstances. Empathy is always a good thing. Caring is always a good thing. Listening with an intent to understand always helps.

Complex trauma is the failure of parental empathy, and the failure of parental empathy is complex trauma – Moor & Silvern; Journal of Emotional Abuse.

The treatment for the failure of empathy is abundant empathy – all the time – provide authentic empathy for the authentic child – the person they are, the person they are becoming.

The child’s feelings are authentic. The child’s attribution of causality for WHY they feel the way they do is typically in error – all the time – with all children. Childhood is the time of figuring out how the machinery works.

They start as toddlers in the high-chair performing scientific experiments on cause-and-effect. Oooo, if I push my plate of food off the table it falls – cool – oh – and when I push my plate off the table mom gets loud… cool.

The child is a mini-scientist performing experiments to learn about the world, things like cause and effect, and how to deal with emotions… whooo, that’s tough.

In childhood, all of childhood, they learn about their feelings and how to express them for maximum gain, and how not to express them to remain out of trouble… hopefully. Emotions grab them, “How do you ride these things?”

They learn about relationships and love. It’s on-the-job training with only one set of instructors. They have to figure everything out, or try to. They have complex feelings and they try to figure out why, and what to do about it.

Feelings are such complicated things. Not like thoughts. Thoughts are precise. Feelings are so vague yet so captivating. I know what I feel, it’s figuring out the why that’s the hard part.

Not just for your kids in the courts, all kids everywhere. I worked with them – school behavior problems – ADHD – family conflict problems and oppositional-defiant anger in the family. The kids are just trying to figure things out.

They can do it, they just need the proper support. What support do they need? Let’s find out… tell me more about that so I understand your reality better. What’s the situation we’re dealing with inside you? What’s it like to be you?

Not to change it. Not to make things better. Just… empathy. I want to understand what it’s like to be you? The problems you’re facing. Tell me more about that. I want to understand.

Feelings come when we need them, they go when we don’t, once they’ve done what they came here to do.

Anxiety makes us alert – watch out, pay attention, something might be dangerous. Anxiety wants to be safe, anxiety seeks protection. When we’re safe, anxiety goes away.

Sadness says we’re losing something of value – that we need to attend to the things that are valuable to us. Sadness draws nurture, sadness draws love from others. Once love is there, sadness leaves.

Anger says we’ve been hurt (or we’re scared and trying not to be). Anger turns off the ‘weak’ emotions of sadness and fear. Anger protects us. We don’t feel sad or afraid when we’re angry. We just feel angry. But angry is sadness and hurt underneath – when empathy for the sadness and hurt arrives, anger leaves.

Happy is the social bonding emotion. It’s great and its easy. There’s a brain-hack you can do. You can add happy brain chemicals to any other emotion and change that emotion. It’s a back-channel brain chemical hack of the machinery of us.

Just smile. It fools your brain into thinking you’re happy, just a little bit but enough. If you smile your brain responds to the muscles and it thinks you’re happy, so it doses you with a little happy brain chemical… which gets added to the existing brain chemicals for whatever emotion is there.

If you’re anxious and you add happy to anxiety, you get excitement. That’s the roller-coaster – wheee, this is scary and fun at the same time. It’s not a fake thing, you’re actually changing the emotion. You’re changing the brain chemical composition when you smile.

Better living through neuro-chemistry.

If you add happy to anger, you get leadership. Anger is power, assertion, and voice, happy is social bonding. Together, power and social bonding is leadership – come on, we can do this.

Oh my goodness, happy is such a good emotion to add to anger. Smile when you’re angry. Just do it. DO IT. Smile. You can still say everything else, just do it with a smile too – angry with a smile. It softens the aggression. We need to soften our aggression with children.

When you’re angry… smile… add a dose of neuro-chemistry to your daily living.

If you add happy to sad, you get compassion. When those we love are sad, it makes us sad too, and that feels good somehow, to be sad with them together. They’re not alone. That’s compassion.

When you’re sad, if you can smile onto your sadness you’ll have the emotion of compassion for yourself. It’s hard to do, to smile when you’re sad. But that’s what the neuro-chemistry of your emotions will create if you add happy to sad – that’s compassion.

All you need to do on the brain-hack side is smile. The biology of your brain takes care of the rest. It adds a dose of happy chemical to your brain, just a tad, but enough.

Hey, and the more you practice the back-channel brain-hack on your emotional networks, the better you get at it and the more happy chemical your brain releases each time.

You get better at adding happy the more you add happy. Smile. Right now. Just try it. Smile. Now do it again. Go ahead. I don’t care if you don’t feel like it – just do it. Smile.

More. All the time more. It’ll make you a better person. I don’t care who you are, if you smile more you will become a better person.

Betcha. Try it. Think of it as an experiment. Smile all the time and see if your life doesn’t get better. It will. You know it’s true. Smile more – a lot more. It’ll make the world a better place by adding more happiness to it.

The problem with the world is not that there’s too little suffering in our world and we need to add more. The solution to our problems is NOT to add more suffering because we think people aren’t suffering enough.

The problem with the world is that there is too much suffering. Any chance we can take to remove some pain, we should take it.

Nor is the problem with the world that there’s too much happiness in it – “No, no, no, don’t add any more happiness to the world, there’s already way too much.”

That’s not the problem. The problem is that there is too little happiness in the world – we need to add more. Smile. Go ahead. See? Isn’t the world just a little bit better from just one little smile?

Oh my goodness, think if you smiled again. Try it. See? It makes the world a better place.

Carl Rogers said we only need three things for growth and healing of everything within us, that these three qualities were both “necessary and sufficient” conditions for change and growth – unconditional positive regard – authentic empathy – genuineness in the relationship.

He’s right. Do you know how Rogers developed his Person-Centered Therapy approach? From working with children. He started by trying to use a psychoanalytic model with children and it was a complete failure.

So he tried something different. He tried listening to the child. Not to change them – just to understand – empathy and caring, unconditional positive regard (those are each three interesting words in a row).

Complex trauma is the failure of empathy. The treatment for complex trauma is abundant empathy.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.

Clinical Psychologist, CA PSY 18857

Author: GreatCosmicMothersUnited

I have joined with many parents affected with the surreal , yet accepted issue of child abuse via Pathogenic Parenting / Domestic abuse. As a survivor of Domestic Abuse, denial abounded that 3 sons were not affected. In my desire to be family to those who have found me lacking . As a survivor of psychiatric abuse, therapist who abused also and toxic prescribed medications took me to hell on earth with few moments of heaven. I will share my life, my experiences and my studies and research.. I will talk to small circles and I will council ; as targeted parents , grandparents , aunts , uncles etc. , are denied contact with a child for reasons that serve the abuser ...further abusing the child. I grasp the trauma and I have looked at the lost connection to a higher power.. I grasp when one is accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like discrimination.. Shame and affluence silences a lot of facts , truths that have been labeled "negative". It is about liberation of the soul from projections of a alienator , and abuser ..

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