A Brief Synopsis of "Parental Alienation" and "Parent Alienation Syndrome"
Submitted November, 2003
Dr. Richard Gardner, psychiatrist, first described “parental alienation syndrome” in 1985 to explain problematic behaviour in children who rejected their access parent on the basis of indoctrination or brainwashing by the custodial parent.
Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is differentiated from “parental alienation” (PA). PAS is a diagnosis of the child who exhibits behaviour due to parental alienation where such behaviour further disrupts the relationship with the access parent. PA refers to the alienating behaviour of the custodial parent specifically. PA and PAS are destructive to the social-familial development of children. It is manipulative and represents a form of psychological abuse. The goal of parental alienation is to restrict or eliminate the role of the access parent in the life of the child. The motivation of the custodial parent may be anything from vengeance to financial gain.
A defining variable of PAS and PA is a custodial parent who feigns interest in the child’s access to the non-custodial parent, but where “serious concerns” undermine successful access. Serious concerns range from allegations of moral deficiencies to substandard parenting to abusive behaviour. The serious concerns have no actual basis in fact or are gross exaggerations of minor parental differences. There is no bona-fide evidence of actual abuse. The upset, anger or depression felt and displayed by the alienated parent is then used against them to support the position of the alienating parent.
Alienating parents are fully convincing of the righteousness of their position particularly on the basis of a one-sided account of issues. This elicits support from friends, lawyers and doctors who may be induced into crusading the custodial parent’s cause thus reinforcing and perpetuating the alienating behaviour.
Friends, lawyers and doctors are cautioned against necessarily accepting the position of any parent on the basis of a one-sided argument during a custody or access dispute unless there is clear third party support for claims of untoward behaviour by the access parent. This is not the same as suggesting that parent’s unsupported claims and concerns be rejected. Rather, people are advised to take a neutral position and demonstrate concern for the well-being of the children until there has been an assessment from an assessor familiar with these issues.
In extreme cases of PAS or PA, the alienating parents may not be amenable to changing their behaviour on the basis of information, feedback or confrontation. Gardner suggests some alienating parents will require strict court orders to assure access with sanctions for lack of follow-through.
With regard to the child, time well spent in the company of the access parent provides opportunity for learning and experiences that contradicts any supposed concern with the access parent. In the event a child still has difficulty adjusting, counselling may be in order for the access parent and child.
Counselling for the access parent would be to thicken their skin against the rejection of the child and develop an understanding of their child’s loyalty bind with the alienating parent. Counselling for the child takes a cognitive approach whereby their positive experiences of the access parent are used to challenge their negative beliefs. The approach presented as most therapeutic for the custodial parent is considered to be structural. They require a clearly defined access regime with sanctions for non-compliance from the courts. Sanctions can range anywhere from monetary fines to change of custody to supervised access for the alienating parent.
If continued, children subject to PA may lose the opportunity for healthy parental relationships, the foundation of future social and familial interpersonal relationships. Understanding, identifying and intervening as necessary can mitigate problems in the child. Interventions may require intrusive and forthright court action.
About the Author: Gary Direnfeld is a child-behaviour expert, a social worker, and the author of Raising Kids Without Raising Cane. Gary not only helps people get along or feel better about themselves, but also enjoys an extensive career in public speaking. He provides insight on issues ranging from child behaviour management and development; to family life; to socially responsible business development. Courts in Ontario, Canada consider Gary an expert on matters pertaining to child development, custody and access, family/marital therapy and social work.
Copyright © 2003 Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW.All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you believe you may lawfully use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article under the Fair Use exception to copyright law, except as otherwise authorized by the author of the article, you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.