Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was coined by psychologist Richard A. Gardner in the early 1980’s. He describes the child on an on-going basis belittling, insulting and in extreme cases hating one parent without any rational justification. This syndrome includes indoctrination by one parent and the child’s attempt to partner up and assist in this. Gardner’s construct, although experienced by parents and families, is not recognised by the medical or legal community due to the fact that it was not researched in a valid, reliable manner and not peer-reviewed. Despite the need for more research in this field, in reality families often present with the symptoms of Parental Alienation which is observed by legal professionals, mental health care workers, family mediators and facilitators.
Parental Alienation as opposed to PAS is less opposed by the professionals dealing with custody issues. The pervasiveness of the phenomenon often renders it difficult to pinpoint with more tangible proof. It is often masked by the alienating parent the stating that it is the child’s choice and wish not to be with the alienated parent. The child “blindly” approves and finds no fault with the alienating parent. This situation is often fuelled by pre-divorce dynamics in the family where triangulation (the child is manipulated emotionally to side with the alienating parent and the moment the relationship between the parents are restored, the child is no longer used as tool or emotional crutch) took place.
What does it look like?
Parental Alienation can present in various degrees; mild, moderate or severe, in the severe form it has escalated to irrational fears and paranoia. It can be in mild cases, unconscious or in moderate to severe cases conscious and is characterised by the following:
- The promotion of the use of degeneration and hatred against the targeted parent
- Rationalisations for the behaviour that is not based in reality
- Lack of usual ambivalence about the targeted parent
- Strong assertions that the decision to reject the parent is theirs alone
- Reflexive support of the favoured parent in the conflict
- Lack of guilt over the treatment of the alienated parent
- Use of borrowed scenarios and phrases from the alienating parent
- Denigration not just of the targeted parent, but also towards that parent’s family or friends
It is important to note that Parental Alienation can only apply when there is no actual abuse or neglect present. It is also important not to misjudge when it is expected estrangement from a parent due to pre-existing damaging family dynamics.
The phenomenon is often seen by professionals when talking to the “alienated child”. iGardner describes it in the following way: “After only minimal prompting, the record will be turned on and a command performance provided. One not only detects a rehearsed quality to the speech but often hears phraseology that is identical to that used by the “loved” parent.”
The child suffers
Parental Alienation does not serve in the best interest of the child. The focus should be on the alienated child and factors that contribute towards this type of behaviour. This phenomenon should be viewed in a very serious light and although not recognised as an official disorder by Health Councils, it is experienced as emotional child abuse. It is pervasive and not often treated, nor recognised in child custody disputes. The child exposed to Parental Alienation often feels insecure, anxious and overwhelmed, experiences feelings of guilt (even if it is not shown) and confusion.
The child is confused as to the adult-child role. Triangulation mentioned earlier is part of a construct called Parentification; the alienating parent uses the child as an emotional partner and the child feels responsible and obliged to step in and protect and care for the victim-parent. The child is robbed of the ability to form trust (the corner stone of relationships) in intimate relationships and lacks confidence in forming and maintaining healthy relationships. The child can also display clinging and separation anxiety, develops
fears and anxiety, poor peer relationships amongst other mental problems. The alienated child suffers from a loss of a sense of self and is placed within a situation that is emotionally beyond their coping ability.
How do we address this?
Gardner suggested that the best way to intervene in this type of case is for the court to order the child to live with the alienated parent or that a “halfway house” is used until the bond is more secure with the alienated parent. Since his suggestion interventions aimed at restoring the attachment between parent and child has progressed and a more empathic and child-focused approach would be to rather assist the alienating parent in revising parenting skills and securing a more healthy attachment with the child and coping with the new dispensation of divorce/separation.
The child and alienated parent would need to be assisted in corrective attachment and securing a conflict free and safe relationship. This process would need to be done in phases according to the child’s developmental level, maturity and emotional well-being. In severe cases the primary care and no contact or minimised supervised visitation should be given to the alienating parent until the alienating parent has been rehabilitated. The child will need to be counselled and address possible issues of trust and restore a sense of self.
This phenomenon has devastating consequences for all involved, especially for the child. Parents in divorce disputes need to take cognisance of the effect of their behaviour on the child. The means does not justify the end. Winning the battle with the ex now, may cost the parent a relationship with their child in the future.
*Dr. Ilze van der Merwe is a Counselling Psychologist and accredited Divorce and Family Mediator
1.i Gardner, R. (1991). Court Review. 28 (1).Pp.14-21. Legal and Psychotherapeutic Approaches to the three types of Parental
2. Opperman, J.C. (2000). Counselling Today 45 (11). Repairing the child-parent relationship after traumatic separation and