Formulation of the term Parental Alienation Syndrome
Richard Gardner was the first mental health professional to formulate the term PAS as an abnormal and deep-seated preoccupation by the child (usually in a custody dispute) with criticism and deprecation of one parent. Gardner stated that PAS occurs when one parent the “Alienating Parent” (AP) blatantly or in more subtle ways, attempts to alienate a child from the other parent. “The parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.”
Eight Symptoms of PAS
According to Gardner, PAS is characterized by eight symptoms in the child. These include 1) a campaign of denigration and hatred against the targeted parent; 2) weak, absurd, or frivolous rationalizations for this deprecation and hatred; 3) lack of the usual ambivalence about the targeted parent; 4) strong assertions that the decision to reject the parent is theirs alone (“independent-thinker phenomenon”); 5) reflexive support of the favored parent in the conflict; 6) lack of guilt over the treatment of the alienated parent; 7) use of borrowed scenarios and phrases from the alienating parent; and 8) the denigration is aimed not only at the targeted parent but also at that parent’s extended family and friends. See examples below.
The Three Levels of PAS
Gardner and others have divided PAS into mild, moderate and severe levels. The number and severity of the eight symptoms displayed increase through the different levels. Gardner argued that any change in custody should be based on the symptom level of the alienating parent. In mild cases, he notes some parental programming against the targeted parent, but little or no disruption of visitation, in this case, Gardner did not recommend court-ordered visitation. In moderate cases, there is more intense parental programming and a greater resistance to visits with the targeted parent. In moderate cases, Gardner recommended that primary custody remain with the programming parent if the brainwashing had a “good chance” to be discontinued, but if not, that custody should be transferred to the targeted parent.
The Use of Therapy for PAS Alienated Children
In addition, Gardner also recommended therapy with the child to stop alienation and to remediate the damaged relationship with the targeted parent. In severe cases, children display most or all of the 8 symptoms, and refuse adamantly to visit the targeted parent. This level might include threats from the alienated child to run away or commit suicide if the visitation is forced. In such severe cases, Gardner recommended that the child be removed from the alienating parent’s home into a transition home before moving into the home of the targeted parent. In addition, therapy for the child is recommended.
PAS and the Loss of Independent Thinking
A child subject to PAS is very similar to a brainwashed POW or cult follower where independent thinking is compromised and the person’s outlook is dictated by the precise instructions of an authority figure. PAS has also been compared with the psychiatric condition —shared delusional disorder.
PAS and Gender Bias
When Gardner first published his book Parental Alienation Syndrome, his initial research concluded that only mothers were capable of being alienating parents; his later writings concluded that he was initially incorrect and actually there was no gender bias. This is an important psychological marker and further research in the last 25 years (as of 2010) continues to support his later findings. Gardner’s initial research led to a “gender battle” where women rights groups said “PAS” did not exist and was a litigation ploy or device to get children away from their mothers and given the over to their “abusive” fathers. On the other hand, father rights groups saw PAS as one of the very few ways they could overcome false accusations of abuse and have their relationship with their children restored. At the present time, PAS advocates are aware that either gender can be the alienating parent or the targeted parent.
The following is a list of symptoms and types of behavior that are common in cases of parental alienation:
- Allowing a child to feel as if they have some choice regarding visitation when the schedule has already been set forth by the court;
- Disclosing details about the marriage or break up of the marriage to the children;
- Failure to allow the child to transport belongings between the parents homes;
- Failure by one parent to allow access to the children’s medical records or school records to the other parent;
- One parent blaming the other parent for financial problems, breaking up the family, changes in lifestyle or having a boyfriend/girlfriend;
- One parent refusing to be flexible with the parenting time to accommodate the child’s schedule;
- Assuming that a spouse who has been abusive, will also be abusive toward the children;
- Asking the child to choose one parent over the other;
- The child becoming exceptionally angry with one parent;
- A parent or step parent raises questions about changing the child’s name or suggests adopting the child;
- A child being unable to express why they are angry with a parent;
- One parent having secrets, special signals, private rendezvous, or words with special meaning to communicate with the child;
- One parent uses the child to spy on or gain information about the other parent;
- Giving the child temptations that might interfere with the other parent’s parenting time;
- One parent acting upset or hurt if the child enjoys spending time with the other parent;
- One parent asking the child about the other parents personal life;
- A parent will physically or emotionally rescue the child when there is no threat to the child’s safety;
- One parent making demands on the other parent, which conflicts with the court order;
- One parent eavesdropping on the child’s phone conversations with the other parent;
- A parent can alienate their own child by continually breaking promises to the child.
Doctors believe that parents may exhibit the above symptoms and types of behavior in varying degrees. They characterized alienating parents into three categories:
The Naive Alienator
“A naive alienator generally means well and recognizes the importance of children having a healthy relationship with the other parent,” but will occasionally disagree with or have a brief conflict with the other parent. A naive alienator does not usually require continued trips back to court, as he or she is able to communicate with the other parent and work out differences.A child is usually not harmed by the behavior of naive alienators, because the child is able to cope; “either by talking out their feelings to a receptive parent, ignoring the argument or trusting that the skirmish will pass and all will heal.”A naive alienator has the ability to put the child’s needs before their own.
The Active Alienator
Active alienators have a difficult time controlling their frustration, bitterness or hurt. The active alienator usually means well and wants the child to have a healthy relationship with the other parent, but is often unable to make that happen because of the old feelings that they continue to harbor. As a result, the active alienator often finds him or herself returning to court to over problems with parenting time.According to Dr. Darnell, active alienators are usually receptive to receiving professional help if they have difficulties that will not resolve themselves, as the parent is concerned with helping the child deal with the divorce.
The Obsessed Alienator
The obsessed alienator is a parent whose sole purpose is to align the children to his or her side and destroy the child’s relationship with the targeted parent. The child of an obsessed alienator develops the personality and beliefs of the alienator.The behaviors of an obsessed alienator usually begin to surface after the divorce becomes final. The obsessed parent is often angry, bitter, or feels betrayed by the other parent. These feelings are often justified because of what the non-alienating parent did during the marriage, the difficulties arise when the alienator’s feelings do not heal, but worsen by being forced to continue a relationship with the ex-spouse because of the children.
There are no successful treatments for the obsessed alienator or the children of obsessed alienators. The only hope is that the symptoms can be identified early on and prevented.