About Parental Alienation

Dr. Richard A. Gardner, introduced the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) phenomenon in a 1985 published article called “Recent Trends in Divorce and Custody Litigation.”  Here’s his definition for it:

“The parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its 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.”

Some of you may have heard the term parental alienation (PA) used. If so, you may have wondered, “What on earth is the difference between PA and PAS, if anything?” Well, there are distinct differences between the two terms. The general term parental alienation entails any situation or event in which a child or youth can be alienated from a
parent.  A number of contributing factors can encompass the definition for PA such as the following:

  • Parental verbal abuse
  • Parental mental abuse
  • Parental emotional abuse
  • Parental physical abuse
  • Parental sexual abuse
  • Parental rejection and abandonment
  • Parental neglect
  • Parental mental illness (for example, major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, a personality disorder, etc.)
  • Parental chronic illness or chronic medical disability such as a traumatic brain injury
  • Parental criminality
  • Inadequate parenting skills such as being overly punitive, intimidating, chronically angry and having unrealistically high expectations of children
  • Children or adolescents who are hooked into cults and brainwashed to become alienated from a parent
  • Children who are abducted by a parent
  • Children who witness domestic violence
  • Parental alcohol abuse/dependence combined with any of the above behaviors
  • Parental substance abuse/dependence combined with any of the above behaviors
  • Both parents may engage in alienation tactics
  • Can occur in intact families and in toxic divorce cases

Here’s the confusing part: PAS is one subtype of PA in which an identifiable parent systematically programs one or more children or youths in the same family against the other parent who has been a good, loving parent prior to the alienation occurring. True PAS necessitates that there is an identifiable parent who is programming the child against the other parent and the alienated child or youth manifests some or all of the eight manifestations, whereas PA does not necessitate the identification of a specific programmer. In PA cases, both parents can be responsible for creating the alienation. In PAS cases, the alienating parent is generally the custodial parent who holds the most power and control over the child or youth.

PA is legitimate justifiable alienation because some form of abuse, neglect, partial or total absence of parenting occurred to bring about alienation in the child. Estrangement tends to occur in the latter situations.

PAS is legitimate unjustifiable alienation because there is no reason for it and the child and target parent had a good, loving relationship prior to its start. 

According to Gardner, PAS consists of eight primary manifestations of symptoms, which may or may not be present in every situation.  They are:

  1. The child aligns with the alienating parent in a campaign of denigration and hatred against the alienated (also referred to as the “targeted”) parent, with the child making active contributions.
  2. Rationalizations for denigrating the alienated parent are often weak, frivolous or absurd.
  3. There seems to be no ambivalence in the child’s feelings toward the target parent; thus, animosity toward the alienated parent is demonstrably severe.
  4. The child states that the decisions to reject the alienated parent are the child’s own (referred to as the “Independent Thinker” phenomenon).
  5. There is an automatic, reflexive support by the child for the alienating parent.
  6. The child expresses a guiltless disregard for the feelings of the alienated parent.
  7. The child borrows from various subject matter and jargon of the alienating parent.  Thus, the child’s denigration of the targeted parent has a distinct rehearsed quality.
  8. The child’s animosity extends to the alienated parent’s extended family and friends.

Although the eight manifestations of PAS are typically triggered during high-conflict child custody battles, PAS can also be precipitated during other divorce disputes including, but not limited to, child support issues, property division issues, remarriage, and financial arrangement issues.

Parental Alienation (PA) and Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) are very complex topics.  It is important to keep in mind that alienation not only can occur by parents, but
mental health experts, physicians, lawyers, teachers, grandparents, step-parents
and others can easily alienate, too.  Moreover, please keep in mind that in instances where true parental abuse and/or neglect are found, the PAS label must not be employed.  Further, PA is not officially recognized as a syndrome by the American Psychological Association or the Canadian Psychological Association.  Nonetheless, both bodies do recognize PA as a behavior that generally occurs during the separation and divorce process.

I strongly urge you to bookmark and regularly read this website.  Whether this is the first time you’ve heard the term PA or not, there’s plenty of information that will follow on a regular and consistent basis that will increase your knowledge and understanding of
it.  Stay tuned.

Dr. Kathleen M. Reay