Parental Alienation Syndrome
Richard Gardner first coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) in 1985. We see this syndrome primarily in the context of child custody disputes.
In parental alienation syndrome, one parent launches a campaign to damage the relationship the child has with the other parent. The children don’t want to believe that the people they love, who care for them and love them, are bad.
So, the most noteworthy symptom of PAS is signs of rejection from the child towards one of his parents after a difficult separation. These signs vary in intensity.
When PAS comes into contact with the legal system, it becomes a judicial-familial syndrome. The responsibility, then, extends to the judges and lawyers as well as the parents.
“The father or mother attempts to brainwash the child or children against the other parent.”
-Pablo Nieva, Spanish Association of Neuropsychiatry and the Castilla de la Mancha College of Psychologists
In parental alienation syndrome, the “bad parent” is despised and badmouthed. The “good parent” is loved and idealized. According to this author, the “programmer” parent indoctrinates the child to believe these things. Furthermore, the child himself contributes to the vilification of the target parent.
No scientific organization (such as the WHO or the American Psychiatric Association) recognizes parental alienation syndrome. In Spain, the General Council of the Judiciary recommends not accepting it as an argument. However, the judges have the last word.
What causes Parental Alienation Syndrome?
Psychologists describe different possible motives a parent could have for trying to turn their child against the other parent. The most significant ones are the following:
- Inability to accept that the relationship is over.
- An attempt to keep the relationship going through conflict.
- A desire for revenge.
- Pain avoidance.
- Fear of losing the children or losing their role as the primary parental figure.
- The desire for exclusive control of the children (in terms of power and property).
Parental alienation syndrome may happen when one of the parents doesn’t accept that the relationship is over, or want some kind of financial benefit after the divorce.
The parent might be jealous of the other. He or she could also be trying to gain the upper-hand in decision-making related to dividing assets.
Psychologists also hypothesize about the pathology of the individual. They posit that there could be a personal history of abandonment, alienation, physical or sexual abuse, or even identity loss (Gardner, 1998b; Dunne and Hedrick, 1994; Walsh and Bone, 1997; Vestal, 1999.)
Symptoms in children with Parental Alienation Syndrome
Gardner (1998b) describes a series of “primary symptoms” that usually appear together in children affected by PAS:
- They don’t feel guilty about the cruelty and exploitation demonstrated towards the alienated parent. In other words, they are completely indifferent towards the hated parent’s feelings.
- They attempt to show that the other parent is hateful, terrible, and the source of everything bad in their lives.
- Their justification for their behavior is weak, absurd, or frivolous. The child makes irrational and often ridiculous arguments about why he doesn’t want to be close to the parent.
- A total absence of ambivalence. All human relationships, including parent-child relationships, have some degree of ambivalence. However, in these cases, the children don’t show any mixed feelings. Instead, everything about one parent is good, and everything about the other is bad.
- Often, the children unconditionally accept the validity of the allegations. They pit themselves against the “hated” parent. This is true even when they see evidence that the parent making the allegations is lying.
- Borrowed arguments. The child makes arguments that seem rehearsed. For instance, he may use words or phrases that aren’t usually part of a child’s speech.
“No child should be treated like a traitor just because he loves both parents.”
Other indicators of parental alienation
Other authors besides Gardner have also written about the following indicators (Waldron and Joanis, 1996):
- Contradictions. The child tends to contradict himself in his statements and his account of past events.
- The child has inappropriate and unnecessary information about his parent’s separation and the legal process.
- The child demonstrates a feeling of urgency and fragility. As a result, everything seems to have life-or-death importance.
- The child feels restricted in his capacity to love and be loved.
Children with Parental Alienation Syndrome and their fear
Fear is very common among children with PAS. Consequently, they may display the following symptoms:
- Fear of abandonment. The alienating parent tries to make the child feel guilty for spending time with the other parent, even if it is only for a few hours. They might express pain at being separated from the child.
- Fear of the loved parent. Some children witness the angry and frustrated attacks of the alienating parent towards their target. Therefore they tend to feel responsible. They worry that they will end up being the target of the attacks and so they become even more psychologically dependent. Then, they arrive at the conclusion that the best way not to become a target of anger is to stay on the side of the aggressor.
However, children are not the only one who experience fear. The alienating parent’s family members tend to support him or her. Consequently, they reinforce the belief they are in the right.
What strategies does the alienator use to distance the child from the other parent?
The alienation techniques can be quite diverse. They employ a wide range of strategies, from the most shameless to the most subtle. For example, the “accepted” parent might just deny the existence of the other parent. They label the child as fragile and in need of protection. As a result, a close-knit loyalty is created between them.
Another technique is to turn normal differences between parents into matters of good/bad or correct/incorrect. They turn insignificant behavior into generalizations or negative traits. As a result, they put the child in the middle of the argument.
Another strategy is to compare good and bad experiences with one parent and the other. Or they might question the character or lifestyle of the other, or tell the child “the truth” about past events to gain their sympathy.
They may play the victim, or provoke fear, anxiety, guilt, or intimidation in the child. Finally, they might also be extremely indulgent or permissive. (Waldron and Joanis, 1996).
Bowen, M. (1989). La terapia familiar en la práctica clínica. Bilbao: DDB (Original edition 1978).
Bolaños, I. (2000). Estudio descriptivo del Síndrome de Alienación Parental. Diseño y aplicación de un programa piloto de mediación familiar. Tesis doctoral no publicada. Universidad Autònoma de Barcelona.
Suares, M. (1996). Mediación. Conducción de disputas, comunicación y técnicas. Barcelona: Paidós.