Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)
Parental alienation syndrome, so named by Dr. Richard Gardener, is a distinctive family response to divorce, in which the child becomes aligned with one parent and preoccupied with unjustified and/or exaggerated denigration of the other target parent. In severe cases, the child’s once loved, bonded relationship with the rejected target parent is destroyed.
Gardener is a very well known authority in child and forensic psychiatry, and has written many well-known and well-respected books on the subject. He knew from experience that children of divorce continue to love and long for both parents, and this can continue even into adult life. From his work with children of divorce, he became concerned about this feature which he called “parental alienation syndrome” where children become preoccupied with denigrating the target parent. Many other typologies have been created since the 1980’s which are similar. One of them is SAID syndrome, which is an acronym for Sex Abuse Allegations in Divorce; another is called Medea syndrome; the third is called Divorce-related Malicious Mother Syndrome. Of course, these dynamics can also result from a father’s behaviour.
These syndromes have started to develop simultaneously with the shifting of the Courts away from the maternal preference rule and the tender years presumption, and allowing for the possibility either of fathers to have sole custody or joint custody on the standard of the best interests of the child.
Gardener sees parental alienation syndrome arising primarily from the combination of parental influence and the child’s active contributions to the campaign of denigration, factors which may mutually reinforce each other. The mutually reinforcing behaviour can be seen in this case with the theme of the mother’s allegations, her being very stirred by the children’s allegations and reacting accordingly, supporting and reinforcing them.
The child’s contributions notwithstanding, Gardener views the alienating parent as a responsible adult who elicits or transmits a negative set of beliefs about the target parent. The child’s loving experiences with the target parent in the past are replaced with a new reality, the negative scenario shared by the programming parent and child that justifies their rejection of the alleged alienating parent.
Gardener alerted the health profession and the legal system as to the disastrous consequences that occur if parental alienation syndrome is left unrecognised. The process of how parental alienation develops is described by Clawar & Rivlin who identify 8 stages of programming of the brainwashing process that culminates in severe parental alienation syndrome:
1. Thematic focus to be shared by the programming parent and child emerges or is chosen. This may be tied to a more-or-less formal ideology relating to the family religion or ethnicity.
2. A sense of support and connection to the programming parent is created.
3. A feeling of sympathy for the programming parent is induced.
4. The child begins to show signs of compliance, such as expressing fear of visiting the target parent or refusing to talk to that parent on the phone.
5. The programming parent tests the child’s compliance, for example, asking the child questions after a visit and rewarding the child for “correct answers”.
6. The programming parent tests the child’s loyalty by having the child express views and attitudes which suggest a preference for the one parent over the other.
7. Escalation, intensification, generalisation occurs, for example, broadening the programme with embellished or new allegations. The child rejects the target parent in a global, unambivalent fashion.
8. The programming is maintained along with the child’s compliance, which may range from minor reminders and suggestions to intense pressure, depending on Court activities and the child’s frame of mind.
All of these stages can be seen in this case. Ceci and Bruck’s in 1993 in an article on Suggestibility of a Child Witness: A Historical Review and Synthesis, cited in Gardener, conducted a comprehensive historical review and synthesis of research on the suggestibility of witnesses. Their review resulted in several important clinical findings:
(a) There appear to be significant age differences in suggestibility with pre-school children more vulnerable to suggestion than either school-age children or adults.
(b) Children can be led to make false or inaccurate reports about very crucial, personally experienced central events.
(c) Children sometimes lie when the motivational structure is tilted towards lying.
(d) The previous points notwithstanding, children, including pre-schoolers, are capable of recalling much that is forensically relevant.
They conclude that in order to know the reliability of a child’s report, the conditions surrounding the report need to be carefully evaluated, including prior access to the child by an adult motivated to distort the child’s recollections. Distortions frequently occur as a result of relentless and potent suggestions by adults, sometimes to the point of outright coaching.
Many authors on parental alienation syndrome, including Gardener, suggest that when alienation becomes complete, it can amount to a de facto termination of parental rights. This includes the fact that parentally alienated children experience a loss of nuclear and extended family in addition to other long-term detrimental effects. Because of the seriousness of this problem, many of these writers suggest that evidence of parental alienation syndrome should be enough for the Courts to transfer custody from alienating parent to the targeted parent. While that is not the suggestion in this case, as it would not be in the best interests of the three minor children at this point, the writer is quoting that recommendation in order to highlight the seriousness with which prominent writers in this field view this problem.
Parental alienation does not imply a question as to whether the allegations are real or imagined, accurate or exaggerated. Even if the allegations are real, it is the meanings attached to them and the attitudes that follow that are important. Parents influence children’s meanings of events simply through the language that they use
All parents have faults, and all couples have disputes about parenting practices. A parent who highlights the faults and shortcomings of the other and generalises these to become a reflection of that person’s adequacy as a parent, present and past, inevitably alienates the children.
Parental alienation has been defined as any constellation of behaviours, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between the child and the other parent.
Parental alienation syndrome can be seen as a campaign:
1. of denigration with professions of hatred, easily evoked by professionals, most often strong in the presence of the hated parent. A child withdraws from the targeted parent and speaks directly of that person. For example, “You can tell daddy …..”, avoids taking toys to the other parent’s home, may play the game back and forth until it is established on which side the child’s bread is buttered, and what sells the best to which people.
2. weak, frivolous or absurd rationalisations for deprecation. In parental alienation syndrome, the hostility of the alienating parent just never seems to be reasonably linked to the scenarios or incidents alleged. The alienating parent often relies on the child’s professed refusal to see the other parent as evidence of the inadequacy of the other parent (Goldwater, 1991, p. 125).
3. complete lack of ambivalence in both the alienating parent and the child Ambivalence typifies all human relationships. Even children who have been abused, and even in severe cases of abuse, children express loyalty and longing to be with the abusive parent and often feel resentful at not being allowed contact.
4. contention that the decision to reject the parent is the child’s (Would the parents take a child’s decision that seriously if the child was refusing to attend school?)
5. almost automatic reflexive support by the child for the loved parent.
6. almost complete absence of guilt regarding feelings of the lost parent.
7. borrowed scenarios, a litany of rehearsed phrases and acts.
8) in parental alienation, it is very common for the animosity to spread to the extended family, as can be clearly seen in this case.
1) Alienated children typically show a relentless hatred towards the targeted parent.
2) Alienated children parrot the obsessed alienating parent.
3) Another feature of the alienated child is that the child does not want to visit or spend time with the targeted parent.
4) A further feature of an alienated parent is that many of the child’s beliefs are enmeshed with the beliefs of the alienator
5) Another feature of an alienated child is that their beliefs are often delusional and frequently irrational.
6) Another feature of an alienated child is that they are not intimidated by the Court.
7) The children show a lack of ambivalence towards the targeted parent
8) Alienated children have no capacity to feel guilty about how they behave towards the targeted parent or forgive any past indiscretions.
9) Alienated children share the obsessed alienator’s cause
10) The most concerning feature of alienated children is that they appear like normal, healthy children until the issue of the targeted parent is brought up, and it is only when this issue is brought up that their hatred is triggered. This ties in with the almost delusional aspect of alienation.