The secret killer of parent-child relationships: Parental Alienation Syndrome

Parental Alienation Syndrome: the secret killer of parent-child relationships
By Jeff Opperman, For Counseling Today



Jeff Opperman is a writer living in Seymour, Connecticut, USA. He is the author of "Hugs to Heartbreak: A Parent's Journey Through Parental Alienation Syndrome." In the next issue, he will provide additional information and perspective on PAS. 

This article was first published in Counseling Today, the monthly newspaper of the American Counseling Association, Volume 45, Number 10.

It is published here with the special consent of the author and Counseling Today.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on Parental Alienation Syndrome.

NCHR's comments: Although this article focuses on how one parent can deliberately sabotage previous loving relationships between a child and the parent with whom he/she no longer lives it is published on the NCHR's web site because it is applicable and has full relevance for cases where children are taken into public care and placed in foster homes. The social-workers, the foster parents and the courts can be identified as the alienators.
See Lena Hellblom Sjögren's article.



Imagine a week where you filed for divorce, were arrested and falsely accused of child abuse. Also imagine that you walked into a clinic with all the symptoms of a heart attack. Then consider those events the high points of your week.

What could be worse than divorce, arrest, child abuse charges and heart attack symptoms? How about losing a child? Only your child didn't die. He or she is alive, well and living a few miles away. Despite a normal, healthy, loving relationship with your child just weeks or even days before, your child professes to hate you; refuses to see you or talk with you. Welcome to the world of Parental Alienation Syndrome.

The concept of PAS is pretty simple - one parent deliberately damages, and in some cases destroys, the previously healthy, loving relationship between his or her child and the child's other parent. In a severe PAS case, the alienating parent and child work together to successfully eliminate the previously loved mom or dad from the child's life.

Richard A. Gardner, a private practitioner and attending psychiatrist at New York's PresbyterianHospital since 1963, coined the term PAS in his book, "The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals," almost 20 years ago to characterize the breakdown of previously normal, healthy parent/child relationships during divorce and child custody cases. Yet the United States judicial system pays little, if any, attention to PAS. The legal and psychological communities, not to mention family members and well-meaning friends, often mistakenly dismiss PAS as the typical rancor associated with high-conflict divorce and child custody cases. Unfortunately, most divorce cases include low, moderate or high levels of PAS activity.

Divorce and mental health professionals agree that unless one parent is found to be unfit, both parents should participate equally in the child's post-divorce upbringing in order to ensure the child's normal, healthy emotional growth and development. Yet an alienating parent inevitably acts in ways that damage a child's relationship with the other parent. Unresolved psychological and emotional issues are at the foundation of the alienating parent's behavior. These issues may lie dormant for years, but the stress of divorce makes the alienating parent symptomatic.

"The key factor that is characteristic in all PAS families is the alienating parent's real or perceived fear of abandonment," said David Israel, a Connecticut clinical psychologist who specializes in child advocacy and family mediation. "If the alienating parent is female, somewhere in her past she felt abandoned physically or emotionally by her father or other significant male figure. The alienating father's feelings of abandonment stem from the real or perceived, physical or emotional, abandonment by his mother or other maternal figure. These feelings are the basis of the alienating parent's fear of abandonment as an adult."

A person on the verge of divorce who fears abandonment can't tolerate the thought of being alone. Once the divorce becomes real, the individual's dormant feelings of loss and hurt begin to surface. This person will do anything to keep these old feelings away - even take a child as an emotional hostage. "The parent makes the child so dependent on him or her for the child's needs, the child feels a big responsibility to take care of the parent," Israel said. "The child is in an emotional bind characteristic of all PAS cases. He or she sees the parent suffering. The spouse has left. The child still has feelings for the other parent, but he or she needs to side with the poor, suffering dependent parent. If the child sides with the other parent, in the child's mind he or she would be abandoning the parent too."

In the most severe PAS cases the alienating parent and child form an unhealthy emotional alliance in an attempt to cut the other parent out of the child's life. In order to justify their positions, the alienating parent and child embark on a relentless campaign of denigration against the other parent. Their campaign is aimed at destroying mom or dad's position as a loving parent and responsible adult. In an effort to gain support for their position from family, friends and professionals involved in the case, the alienating parent and child often falsely and maliciously accuse the other parent of alcohol or substance abuse, or worse, sexual or physical child abuse.

"False physical or sexual abuse charges are standard operating procedure in severe PAS cases," according to Israel. "The alienating parent needs a compelling reason why he or she is so adamant about keeping the other parent away from their child." The parent makes sure the allegations quickly reach state child protection agencies and domestic violence or sexual abuse counselors. The agency workers' and counselors' mandate is to protect the rights and safety of children. Once a parent is accused of abuse, these professionals start from a place where the targeted parent is already assumed guilty of abusive behavior. The parent who spanked his or her child must prove he or she didn't physically abuse the child. The father who helped his young daughter at bath time must prove he didn't touch his daughter inappropriately. If the alienated child is older, can speak for him or herself and corroborate the allegations, the professionals give the charges even more weight. A targeted parent only has a small window of opportunity to reach the alienated child before the child's position becomes entrenched and irreversible. But instead of using the time to focus on the real issues for the estrangement, the parent is forced to waste time denying false allegations to police, counselors, attorneys, judges and state agency investigators.

"Allegations of abuse or neglect are often leveled against the non-custodial parent during a divorce as a way for the custodial parent to gain some leverage," said Brian Canfield, president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors. "The longer that parent can limit the contact the child has with the non-custodial parent, the bigger the advantage."

An alienating parent quickly recognizes that time is best advantage against the targeted parent. Absence does not make the alienated child's heart grow fonder. "The alienating parent will make sure the child only hears negative references to the previously loved mom or dad," Israel said. "The alienating parent will also reinforce the concepts of betrayal and abandonment at every opportunity." The longer an alienating parent can keep the child angry with the other parent, the easier it becomes for the child to stay angry and continue without any contact. After all, what child misses someone who constantly angers or disappoints others?

The slow-turning wheels of justice are an alienating parent's unwitting accomplices. Family court is an institution that has more legal disputes than there are courtrooms to hold them. On the judge's daily docket, cases stack up like cords of firewood. Judges encourage divorcing couples to work out their difference on their own. The courts even have special counselors and mediators to help couples settle their differences. Judges think nothing of granting multiple continuances in order for the parties to reach an agreement. This approach may work when couples are fighting over bank accounts and personal property, but not in PAS cases. An alienating parent isn't interested in reaching any kind of agreement that would allow the other parent back in the child's life. So together with an attorney, the alienating parent delays the proceedings, ignores court counselors' suggestions and court orders that could potentially repair the damaged parent/child relationship. If the targeted parent has the money to keep fighting for his or her child, the case inevitably ends up back in the judge's lap.

In today's courtrooms, judges are unlikely to spend the time it takes to really understand PAS - even when listening to testimony from court-appointed psychologists or expert witnesses. Many judges believe they've seen it all and heard it all. And the truth is many judges have seen alienating behavior before. Recognizing the symptoms is easy. Just like doctors in the 1970s recognized flu-like symptoms - fever, headaches, nausea and vomiting - without understanding that their patient was HIV-positive, many judges recognize PAS symptoms without understanding what drives the alienating parent and child's behavior.

"Parental Alienation Syndrome is a relatively new term," Israel said. "It is a syndrome - a cluster of symptoms as opposed to a diagnostic category like schizophrenia or major depressive disorder. PAS isn't even in our DSM-IV-R. If the entire psychological community doesn't recognize PAS, judges certainly won't give it a great deal of consideration in the courtroom."

"As therapists we must incorporate an awareness of PAS into our training programs," Canfield added. "Mental health professionals must understand this dynamic so when we are called upon to play a role in child custody cases, we can educate parents, attorneys and judges."

Without understanding PAS, many judges consider PAS symptoms as nothing more than a combination of two embattled spouses with an axe to grind and bad parenting. They hold the view that the best place to address PAS is in a therapist's office and not a courtroom. They're right. But what most judges typically don't understand is that getting everyone to cooperate with the therapist in a timely fashion is the judge's job. They're the only persons with the power to put the alienated child in the counselor's office.

"Many judges don't punish the alienating parent for disobeying court orders aimed at repairing the other parent's relationship with the child," said Bonnie Amendola, an attorney specializing in family law and an advocate for children during the divorce and custody process. "There are no teeth in most court orders."

Why not? Judges are reluctant to impose any punishment on the parent that might cause the child any more pain. If a judge takes any money out of the alienating parent's pocket, that's money that the parent theoretically might have needed to support the child. If a judge places the alienating parent in jail, even for a few hours, he or she runs the risk of further upsetting an emotionally troubled youngster already traumatized over the breakdown of his or her family. Award custody of the child to the targeted parent and remove the child from the only place the child considers "home"? Don't count on it.

Judges rarely take such draconian measures.

Some judges do understand that draconian measures are necessary in severe PAS cases. Last September, a judge in New Zealand took two children away from their mother and sent them to live with their father after the judge found that the mother had subjected the two to "an insidious form of emotional abuse" by making the children believe their father had harmed them and was someone to be feared.

Last August, a judge in Norfolk, Va., sentenced a mother to three years in prison for abduction, conspiracy and three counts of perjury. The mother fled Texas for Norfolk in 1999 and left the father wondering if his child were dead or alive. Then she lied in court about the child's whereabouts and falsely accused the father of sexual abuse. The judge's verdict exceeded the sentencing guidelines that recommended no more than six months behind bars.

Why? The judge said the guidelines weren't the answer. Her Honor said she was particularly upset that the mother falsely accused the father of sexually molesting their daughter and had lied repeatedly in court.

Around the same time, a judge in Wisconsin ordered a teen-ager against his will to enter counseling with his father and eventually visit him under the state's Juvenile in Need of Protection or Services law. The boy had said he was afraid of his father and had refused to visit him since he was 10. But the court ruled that there was no proof that the father sexually or physically abused the boy. Up until this case, the court only used the JIPS law to force runaways, habitual truants and dropouts to follow rules or face sanctions. Court officials said this was the first time the law was used in a case typically reserved for family court.

"Judges are only part of the problem," Amendola said. "The bigger problem is that the adversarial system, our system, of justice enhances PAS. The ongoing legal conflict is the biggest part of the alienated child's problem."

Approximately 20 million children are victims of PAS. With one of every two marriages ending in divorce, another 25 million children will face some form of PAS. PAS victimizes children and families. Understanding PAS and how to address it is critical if children of divorce are to enjoy the emotional benefits of loving, healthy, relationships with both parents and their extended families; and grow up with the ability to form loving, stable relationships with other adults.

Jeff Opperman can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Repairing the child-parent relationship after traumatic separation, alienation
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A Guide To The Parental Alienation Syndrome
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The Spectrum of Parental Alienation Syndrome
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PAS - Denial of the Parental Alienation Syndrome Also Harms Women
By Richard A. Gardner

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