Children are often far more perceptive than the adults in their lives are aware, and this is especially true in cases of parental separations and the ensuing child custody disputes. Blame, guilt, and other hostilities sometimes get broadcast in front of – or even directly toward – children. These events can take a physical and emotional toll on all who are involved. For children, however, this can lead to Parental Alienation Syndrome.
What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome?
In 1985, child psychologist Dr. Richard Gardner introduced the world to the term Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). After editing the second edition of the book in which this was first published, Dr. Gardner described PAS as a disorder that results from the combination of a parent successfully attempting to influence the child’s opinion of the other parent and the child, in turn, vilifying the targeted parent.
In 1997, Dr. Douglas Darnall reinterpreted the definition of PAS as being a disturbance experienced by a child as the result of an alienator parent whose attempts to denigrate the other parent. In this situation, the child becomes preoccupied with the thoughts that result from being what Dr. Darnall claims is brainwashed. Dr. Darnall adds that alienation is reciprocal in nature, meaning that both parents get ensnared by this process.
Symptoms of Parental Alienation Syndrome
But what, precisely, might a parentally-alienated child behave like? The most important thing to know is that the child’s actions and emotions can be both conscious and unconscious. The hatred that children develop toward one parent does not happen naturally and can be extremely difficult for any child to understand. These children might not feel guilty over the alienation of one parent and will not think of the targeted parent’s feelings as being valid.
Aside from not exhibiting signs of guilt, there are quite a few other criteria that Dr. Gardner set forth to determine whether a child could be experiencing PAS. These criteria include:
- The presence of a campaign of denigration launched by one parent against the other.
- The child’s inability to logically explain why they hate the targeted parent.
- The child sees both parents in a black-and-white fashion in which the alienating parent is “all good” and the targeted parent is “all bad”.
- The word choices used by the alienating parent might be mimicked by the child, even though the alienating parent might claim that the child has independently come up with these thoughts.
- The child appears to be unconditionally joined with the alienating parent since there is no perceived way to counter that parent’s arguments. This is what Garnder calls reflexive support.
- The child might go so far as to retell stories about the targeted parent (as told to them by the alienating parent) as a way to justify their hatred.
It should be noted that, in many cases, the alienating parent and even the child might try to involve others in the campaign against the targeted parent. Those who are associated with the targeted parent might find the alienating parent and child to be quite convincing since their stories tend to sync up.
Causes of Parental Alienation Syndrome
The root cause of PAS is the animosity that the child experiences when their parents are in the middle of a divorce or custody battle. However, as Dr. Amy J.L. Baker writes, this can also occur within intact families when there is tension between the parents. In some cases, the alienating parent could be guilty of physically, sexually, or mentally abusing the child. Although this counters the idea that a child will naturally gravitate toward the parent better able to provide comfort and meet their needs, this could explain the sense of dependency the child feels toward the alienating parent.
Alienating parents do not just randomly choose to manipulate their children into hating targeted parents. As Dr. Becker points out, there are quite a few cases in which the alienating parent has met the criteria for Cluster B personality disorders, including Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. The presence of either of these personality disorders could explain why one parent might feel the need to turn their child against the other parent.
Other Issues Related to Parental Alienation Syndrome
As Gardner has outlined, there are different degrees of parental alienation, each of which involves a slightly different intervention strategy. Intervention should ideally be conducted in both legal and therapeutic manners. In its most severe form, a child with PAS might be reassigned custody to the targeted parent. However, in many cases, both parents could potentially have deeply-rooted psychological and emotional issues that could be problematic for the child.
Parental Alienation Syndrome Treatment Options
Trying to force a child to live with the targeted parent could potentially reinforce the child’s negative views if this is done against the child’s will. Repairing these severed bonds takes a lot of time and will-power from everyone involved. For therapists, it can sometimes be difficult to tell fact from fiction when working with a family afflicted with PAS.
Counseling might not be the best answer for the alienating parent, as it could inadvertently reinforce some of their views. It could, however, benefit the targeted parent. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) could help the targeted parent better comprehend their own feelings and thoughts and work to insert more positive ones. Therapy might prove beneficial for children who have already been reassigned full legal custody to the targeted parent, as some of these children might want to love and be loved by both parents.
Examples of Parental Alienation Syndrome
The most high-profile potential case of PAS involves actor Alec Baldwin and his ex-wife Kim Basinger. Baldwin related in a book about how PAS impacted his relationship with their daughter and how any “dissent was abuse” in his ex’s mind. Baldwin was eventually able to restore his relationship with his daughter after a drawn-out legal battle and counseling intervention.
While some psychologists and psychiatrists view PAS as a false science, many legal cases land in lawyers laps each year that suggest otherwise. PAS is extremely difficult to prove in court but, when done correctly, can be treated with therapeutic intervention.