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Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Summary of What We Know

Anger can result in parental alienation syndrome

Most people, especially if they are in the midst of a divorce or child custody battle, have heard of parental alienation syndrome (PAS). But they may be unclear about what it is. Some of this lack of clarity reflects disagreement among mental health professionals and social workers about whether it exists at all.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not include PAS in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which means that the APA does not recognize it as a diagnosable condition. However, that does not mean that the behaviors that some call a syndrome are the figment of someone's imagination. They exist and can do significant harm to kids.

Why Parents Do It

Essentially, PAS is a term that describes the consequences on children and parents when the second parent tries to turn the children away from that parent. Both mothers and fathers engage in this type of behavior at about the same rates. Research has shown that PAS-inducing behaviors can begin long before parents actually divorce. The effects of PAS behaviors are felt not only by children, but also by their parents.

Parents who engage in this behavior are seeking different things. Some are trying to bolster their identity as parents. Some want their kids to choose sides and encourage the children to reject the other parent. In the most extreme cases, a parent hopes that the kids will hate the other parent.

Many definitions of parental alienation see it as an effort by one parent to denigrate the other parent with the goal of undermining the child's relationship with the other parent. It is often a reflection of the parent's inability to separate himself or herself from the conflicts of the divorce and focus on the needs and interests of the child. The child is programmed or brainwashed into believing the targeted parent is somehow bad.

Examples Of Alienating Behaviors

Although this has probably been going on as long as parents have used their children in the proxy wars against ex-partners, PAS was first described as a syndrome in the 1980s. Strategies used by parents include:

  • Limiting contact with the other parent
  • Telling the child that the other parent is evil and making up stories to support those statements
  • Forbidding pictures of the other parent in the child's room
  • Not allowing the child to talk about the other parent
  • Threatening withdrawal of affection if a child continues to want the other parent in his or her life
  • Refusing to allow the child to visit the extended family of the other parent

The Scope Of PAS

Statistically, women are often the alienators. Experts estimate that around 1 percent of children and teens in the U.S. have been seriously affected by PAS. Moreover, when a parent is distant and out of his or her children's lives, parental alienation is often the culprit.

Many mental health professionals believe that severe parental alienation is a form of child abuse. Teaching a child to believe that a parent is evil, dangerous and unworthy results in a child who has low self-esteem, suffers from self-hatred, does not trust, is depressed and becomes vulnerable to substance abuse. Children with these types of mental afflictions are as damaged as they would be if subjected to extreme physical abuse. The effects of PAS on victims can last a lifetime.

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