Parental Alienation Syndrome
Also called PAS

What is it?

Parental Alienation Syndrome occurs when one parent consciously, or unconsciously, programs the child to see the other parent as negative, and therefore to be avoided or disliked, despite the alienated parent's desire to be involved with their child. Typically this happens in the months and years during and after a breakup or divorce.

It's increasingly important to understand Parental Alienation Syndrome, with so many marriages ending in divorce. Richard A. Gardner, M.D. introduced PAS in 1985, and there has been much written about it.

During the often bitter ending of a marriage or relationship, the spouses become fixated on, or even obsessed by, the deficiencies of each other (particularly those at the root of the divorce or break up, such as an affair). The process of parental alienation syndrome begins as the parents also focus the child on these deficiencies. The alienating parent becomes the preferred parent to the child by targeting, highlighting and/or exaggerating the mistakes, problems, or deficiencies of the non-preferred parent.

The message that the child gets is that the targeted parent is not worthy of respect or honesty, and therefore it's acceptable to avoid that parent. Often the child's own normal disappointments in the targeted parent are seen as further evidence that this parent is to be judged intolerable.

Whether the influencing is direct or subtle, what's happening is that the child becomes an ally to the preferred parent and is used as a weapon against the targeted parent, enabling the preferred parent to act out his or her hostility to the hated parent through the child. PAS can be mild, moderate, or severe depending on how damaging the negative influence.

Other factors can also make PAS easier to become established, and these are discussed below.

PAS only applies when the targeted parent has not engaged in abusive behavior that would normally create a need for avoidance in the child (such as physical abuse to the child). Often, during the highly conflicted and stressful end of the marriage or relationship, neither parent's behaviors may have been skillful. But generally, the parenting skills of the targeted parent is within normal range, though there may be some deficiencies. Often parent's behaviors improve once they get out of the highly conflicted environment of the marriage.

PAS is a condition largely created and maintained by the preferred parent's criticisms, the child's own normal disappointments with the parent(s) and the break up, and other factors such as the targeted parent having less time with the child.

Examples of "targeting" that create alienation

Typically, this negative programming by the preferred parent is created by criticising the other parent to the child (or within hearing distance when speaking to someone else). Sometimes this criticism takes more subtle forms such as finding more neutral ways of pointing out the inadequacies of the other parent. This is called "targeting."

For example, saying things like:

  • I can't tell you the truth about your mom, you wouldn't like it
  • I could tell you some things, but I don't want to talk bad about your dad
  • You better spend some time with your dad or he'll take me to court
  • I really miss you when you're gone! (These types of statements provoke guilt in the child and they feel they're abandoning the preferred parent.)
  • Common negative complaints of the preferred parent that get communicated to the child are:
  • He/she has to pay for everything
  • He/she cannot depend on the other parent
  • The other parent "abandoned us"
  • The other parent destroyed the family
  • The other parent is mean, sick, destructive, irresponsible, etc., etc.
  • Other common behaviors of the targeting parent:

  • Using sarcasm to highlight that the targeted parent is undesirable in some way.
  • Interfering with phone calls, emails, texting between the other parent and the child.
  • Directly encouraging disparaging or complaining discussions about the other parent.
  • Labeling the targeted parent's attempts to contact the child and be involved as harassment.
  • Requiring the child to call the other parent by his or her first name instead of having the child say "my mom or my dad."
  • Complaining conversations with the other parent or gossiping about the other parent within earshot of the child.
  • Denying or ignoring positives between the child and targeted parent.
  • Not having emotional boundaries such as merging his or her own feelings with the child against the targeted parent, such as saying, "We won't let her/him take us to court and hurt us anymore." Or, "You better go spend some time with your dad or he'll take us to court."
  • Intrusiveness during time the child is with the other parent.
  • Involving the child in information gathering or spying.
  • Use child as a confidant, sharing adult issues about the divorce, break up, affairs, problematic finances, other issues, blaming etc.
  • Uses child as messenger between parents.
  • Portraying self as weak or a victim, by denying any role in the current difficulties, and having the inability to cope.
  • The role of the targeted parent in PAS

    Commonly, the targeted parent might unknowingly helps make alienation easier. For example, being over-reactive, defensive, avoidant, or having difficulties with responsibility (such as showing up on time, child support, etc.).

    Some parents react to being targeted by detaching in order to avoid conflicts, wait it out, and lessen the pain they feel, but this can reinforce the targeting behaviors of the preferred parent. When the targeted parent becomes fed up and more action oriented, the new assertive behaviors can be unfairly labeled as harassing.

    Here are more conditions or behaviors from the alienated parent that can allow alienation to happen more easily, and need to be remedied so that parenting and co-parenting relationships can improve:

  • The alienated parent had little to do with the child before the separation. For example, regularly working long hours or traveling often.
  • Quickly becomes involved in a new relationship, with insensitivity to child's feelings and issues of adjusting to the new person.
  • Controlling, dominating, blaming behaviors.
  • Parent-child relationship has a superficial quality due to years of neglect, then expecting the child to respond in ways that reflect a stronger relationship.
  • Only shows up at key moments (a game or graduation) and is absent the rest of the time
  • May report being active in the child's life only in specific areas (such as sports), but the child feels pushed into those things.
  • When it's not PAS

    Avoidance behaviors by a child to a parent do not always indicate PAS.

    PAS results from the hostile targeting behaviors of one parent toward the other. But there are instances where avoidance isn't PAS, such as if one parent has had a physically abusive relationship with the child.

    Also, smaller children (and even many older children) may simply have trouble leaving the parent they spend the most time with, or have difficulty adjusting to back and forth schedules between two homes. There are ways to make these transitions easier, but it takes both parents willing to cooperate in order to help the child with the transition.

    What PAS is like for the child

    Children don't have the power or ability to maintain relationship boundaries with their parents on their own. They are dependent on their parents to set limits, guidelines, and model healthy behaviors. When parents are unable or unwilling to act in ways that are in the best interests of their children, the children become caught in the middle between adults who continue to wage war upon each other. The children's needs become secondary.

    Both of you may be emotionally be in a better place, but here are some of the problems that your children could still be dealing with, for years to come:

  • Depression
  • Dependency
  • Anxiety
  • Abandonment issues
  • Inability to tolerate frustration
  • Anger and rage
  • Difficulty developing intimate relationships and resulting loneliness
  • Conflicts with authority figures
  • Psychosomatic symptoms
  • Eating disorders
  • Feelilng entitlemed to treat adults with disrespect
  • What is it like to parent a child with PAS?

    If your child is dealing with the above, what would it be like for you, the parents? What would it be like for your child's teachers, your child's friends, other family members?

    • Difficulty getting along with your child due to his/her emotional and behavioral issues from the PAS.
    • Years of expensive mental health care visits and medications, and side effects of medications.
    • Ongoing school problems and lots of meetings with school professionals.
    • Ongoing legal battles over custody and money, with continued PAS tactics.
    • Your child will get older and eventually see through the PAS tactics and blame you for not supporting their relationship with the other parent.
    • When teens have less close relationships with both biological parents, they rely more on friends, with the resulting drug use, early sexual behavior, and rejection toward parents and teachers.
    • Doing less well in school, falling behind, difficulty catching up. Your child hates school and ditches classes to get high with friends.
    • Watching your child suffer and feeling guilty about it.
    • You've met someone you'd like to date, but these problems take up all your time.
    • Your new partner seems reluctant to move forward in the relationship because of all the drama.
    • You envy your friends who have children that seem to be getting decent grades, have nice friends, have interests and hobbies, and they help around the house. Their lives may not be perfect, but there just seems to be a lightness and fun in their house that's missing in yours. You just don't understand it because they're divorced, also. (But their kids aren't experiencing PAS.)

    What can you do to prevent PAS and all the problems that come with it?

    The first thing to do is accept that children need relationships with both parents, and it's both parents job to help with this. These do not have to be perfect relationships. In fact, no relationship is perfect. Whether your relationship with your ex was a one night stand or a marriage lasting 25 years, both of you need to maintain your relationship with the child, if at all possible.

    Why is a relationship with both parents important?

    Adults can have multiple partners over time, but kids have one biological mother and one biological father. You and your ex can replace each other because your relationship was based on a peer to peer, adult, mutual decision to be together, and a (legally dissolvable) marriage contract. Ultimately, adult partners can and should move on if it doesn't work out, but their children are a permanent part of both partner's families through blood ties (this includes both sets of grandparents and other family).

    The parent-child relationship goes deeper in many ways and for many reasons that are very complex and have to do with early attachment structures, identity, and self-esteem. Interfering in a child's relationship with a parent can cause serious consequences to the child.

    Children should be concerned with child-appropriate things such as growing, developing skills, schoolwork, friends, hobbies, and helping around the house. They shouldn't have to figure out loyalty issues with either parent, miss a parent, or get stuck in the middle.

    What can you do now? Create an alienation proof co-parenting relationship

    Require that your child spend time with the other parent. Support their time together in positive ways.

    Accept that both of you are divorcing each other, not the kids. So do not undermine the relationships the child has with the other parent, whether intentionally or accidentally.

    If you are a non-custodial parent, do not give up no matter how hard the other parent or the situation makes it to get along. Be reliable and present. Don't let hopelessness set in.

    Know that co-parenting after divorce is going to need good communication skills to work out schedules, etc. Discipline yourself to not let your emotions, bitterness, dependency, etc., run your behavior.

    You can make a decision right now to stop giving your child a front seat to watch your disappointment and rage toward the other parent, or to the adult issues between you and your ex. Protect your child from bitterness, intolerance and gossip. Become aware of how you may be involving your children in your frustrations, and the pain and helplessness it creates for them.

    Let your children have a chance at having the best relationship they can with both of their parents. This is a requirement for their mental health, and your own future happiness with your child.

    If you feel like you can't let go of your bitterness, dependency or rage, or you need guidance to help begin to turn the situation around, then seek help. You can call me to begin therapy so you can free yourself and your child from a toxic environment that will likely lead to more problems down the road for you and your families.

    PAS can take time and effort to reverse, especially if severe

    You can become informed on the subject of PAS. There has been much written in the past few years. Check out websites and other resources.

    If you feel your situation is very severe or difficult, you may need therapeutic or legal assistance. The legal system can provide you with a formal process in order to get the situation in order. This is something to explore if you feel you and your ex cannot create a peaceful co-parenting situation on your own. Or if PAS has been happening in your families for a long time.

    Top of Parental Alienation Syndrome.