When adults decide to terminate a marriage, it is most often an emotional and difficult time. This is particularly true when there are children involved, even if the separation is an amicable one.
For children, the separation of parents can leave them with feelings of fear, sadness, anger, and even guilt. Even worse, in some cases, children are pulled into the harsh feelings between the parents and may be used as pawns. This occurs most often during custody proceedings and involves one of the parents turning the child against the other with the goal of creating a rift in the relationship between the child and the other parent. This may involve one parent using words or behaviors to make the other appear to be a bad person, or the child may be encouraged to choose one parent over the other. Often, contact between the child and parent is cut off altogether. This is known as parental alienation or, in extreme cases, parental alienation syndrome (PAS). PAS also involves brainwashing of the child and allegations of abuse.
The term “parental alienation syndrome” was originally coined in 1985 by Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist. PAS begins with a custodial or alienating parent who turns a child against the absent, target parent. The alienating parent makes accusations against the target; often, accusations are of sexual or other forms of abuse. According to the definition of PAS, the children are brainwashed into supporting and even believing the accusations. The child or children may display fear of the target parent or distance themselves from the parent. According to Gardner, the alienating parent is usually the mother, with the target parent usually being the father. He claimed to have come by his theory based on observations that he’d made of clients in his private practice. According to the American Psychological Association, there is a lack of data to support PAS. Although they do not have an official stance on the validity of the theory, they have expressed concern regarding how the term is used.
Despite any concerns regarding the theory, PAS is commonly used in custody hearings, as is parental alienation. PAS is considered to be a form of child abuse, as mental manipulation is used to cause the child to accuse or alienate a parent. Children who are victims of PAS or parental alienation may experience side effects that affect their mental health. These problems may include aggression, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. In some cases, children may further be affected and show signs of post-traumatic stress, cruelty, and self-destructive behavior. Adults who claim to be victims of PAS note that these problems continue to plague them even after they’ve matured into adults.
When a parent is a victim of this type of behavior, it is possible to seek help. The parent should expect a lengthy process and therefore must practice patience and hire a lawyer experienced in dealing with parental alienation. The best way to prove that a child is being subjected to parental alienation is to seek the help of a mental health professional who is familiar with it. Most often, this will be a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist who will evaluate the situation through interviews, observation, and psychological testing. Once one of these professionals has assessed the situation, the court must be petitioned in most cases. Because it may take several return trips to court to prove parental alienation, the parent will want to always behave in a rational manner and follow any court orders that are given. Documentation of unusual incidents that can be used as evidence is also helpful. Seeking out support groups and speaking with others who are in or have been in similar situations is also helpful in coping with parental alienation and PAS.
Parental alienation and PAS are controversial issues that are commonly brought up in volatile custody hearings between parents. The difference between the two is that PAS involves changes in the child’s behavior. PAS and parental alienation can negatively affect either fathers or mothers. Because it involves the potential abuse of a child, courts are often extremely careful and even conservative when it comes to determining the validity of PAS. Also, because true cases of parental alienation syndrome are a form of mental abuse, the targeted parent must be diligent in pursuing their allegations against the alienating parent.
For more information about parental alienation and PAS, please review the following information:
- Parents Who Have Successfully Fought Parental Alienation Syndrome
- What is Parental Alienation
- Parental Alienation Syndrome: How to Detect It and What to Do About It
- Parental Alienation Syndrome and Alienated Children – Getting It Wrong In Child Custody Cases (PDF)
- What is Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)?
- Parental Alienation Information
- Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: A Research Review (PDF)
- Parental Alienation Syndrome: Fact or Fiction?
- What is the Difference Between Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome?