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:
Other common behaviors of the targeting parent:
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:
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:
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?
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.