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Parental Alienation Syndrome: Does It Exist?


Parents who try to turn a child away from another parent have existed for as long as there have been parents and children. However, calling such behavior a syndrome first began in 1985, when psychiatrist Richard Gardner termed such behavior Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). The term describes the behavior of kids whose parent deliberately seeks to turn them against the other parent. Gardner refers to such behavior as coercive, manipulative, vindictive and sociopathic.

However, his ideas did not immediately catch on, at least in part because of controversies surrounding some of his cases. He famously reported that during the split between actor Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen, the couple's children were being manipulated by their mother to side against their father. In 1994, Dr. Gardner said that fathers are more deserving of protection from alienating behavior than mothers. Although Gardner moderated his views - in 2000 he acknowledged that mothers and fathers engaged in efforts to alienate their children from the other parent in equal measure - many professionals continue to refer to his theories as "junk science."

Like Dr. Gardner, many now believe that viewing PAS through the lens of gender is a mistake because it diverts attention from the real victims in any parental alienation case, the children. Others are concerned about the increased use of the term in casual conversation, as there is really no agreement about exactly what it means and the extent of the occurrence. One psychiatrist has said that until the disorder is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) there will be no agreement on the existence of PAS or the precise symptoms displayed by victims.

Generally acknowledged symptoms of parental alienation in children

Those who argue for the existence of PAS list symptoms such as these:

  • Black and white thinking by a child that characterizes one parent (the alienating parent) as wholly good and the other parent as wholly bad
  • A child denying that the alienating parent has coached or suggested language while using wording commonly used by the alienating parent
  • A child viewing the other parent's family - grandparents, siblings and cousins - as negatively as he or she views the target parent
  • The child objecting to the targeted parent is not based on specific and witnessed behavior but on attributions from the alienating parent
  • A child refusing to have contact with the target parent

These symptoms, according to attorneys, psychiatrists and social workers, most frequently occur when a parental divorce or child custody battle is especially drawn out and contentious.

What happens in parental alienation cases?

A typical parental alienation case goes like this: One parent alleges that the other parent is abusive. The allegedly abusive parent responds by charging that the other parent has manipulated the child and that the child's descriptions of abusive behavior are the result of parental alienation, that is, the child has been trained by one parent to see the other parent in a negative light.

In recent years, courts have paid attention to parents, often fathers, who charge that allegations of abuse are the result of PAS. The outcome has been that children have been reunited with fathers who are convicted rapists, drug abusers and sadists. Although the stereotype is that abusive fathers use allegations of maternal manipulation and charges of parental alienation to fight back against efforts to gain sole custody or eliminate the father's visitation, there is little actual information about the extent of PAS and which parent makes the accusations.

Nevertheless, the news media frequently reports stories about mothers bankrupted in their failed efforts to protect their children against allegedly abusive fathers, who in turn charge that the child or children are victims of parental alienation syndrome. This is seen by some commentators as overcompensation by the courts to support divorced fathers after years of essentially forcing fathers out of the family picture.

What happens when one parent charges parental alienation against the other? Parents often have little recourse if the court decides with the other parent - the alleged target of the alienating behavior. They may lose custody or visitation/parenting time, even if allegations against the other spouse have merit. They frequently feel powerless, and may experience significant financial problems as a result of court costs, medical bills and fees paid to experts.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has proposed significant changes in child custody arrangements, changes that could reduce the hostility and contentiousness of divorces involving children. If these changes occur, will the frequency of parental alienation charges also change? Time will tell. But the proposed updates to the state's child custody laws include providing judges the power to penalize a parent who deliberately tries to alienate a child from the other parent.

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