Parental alienation syndrome is a term coined by the late forensic psychiatrist Richard Gardner to describe a phenomenon he witnessed where children were being turned against one parent, usually as the result of a divorce or bitter custody battle. He described parental alienation syndrome (PAS) as 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 is caused by a combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the targeted parent.”
What are the Symptoms of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)?
A syndrome is simply a cluster of symptoms with a common etiology. The eight symptoms of PAS are the specific symptoms found in a child who has been successfully alienated. The more symptoms one sees of the eight, as well as the intensity of them, determines the level of severity of the PAS disorder. The eight symptoms are:
- a campaign of denigration;
- weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the deprecation;
- lack of ambivalence in the child;
- the “independent thinker” phenomenon;
- reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict;
- absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent;
- presence of borrowed scenarios;
- spread of animosity to the extended family of the alienated parent.
In mild PAS, the eight symptoms are mostly present with the exception of two symptoms (lack of ambivalence, and absence of guilt over cruelty to the alienated parent).
As a child moves from mild to moderate PAS, the remaining six symptoms increase in their severity, and the two symptoms noted above begin to appear. In severe PAS, all the symptoms have progressed to the severe level including the two noted above. In other words, with severe PAS, the child loses his or her ability to empathize and to feel guilt in a patterned and predictable way. This level of symptom organization is the very hallmark of the existence of a syndrome.
Is Parental Alienation Syndrome Real?
According to Baker (2006b),
PAS is not universally accepted by therapists, lawyers, judges, or custody evaluators, and the concept has not yet made its way into the mainstream consciousness. There may in fact be some underlying resistance to the notion that an otherwise “good” parent could be so vehemently rejected by his/her child. Perhaps such skeptics hold the belief that a parent must have done something to warrant their child’s rejection and/or the other parent’s animosity.
The problem PAS faces is the problem all new proposed mental disorders face — providing sufficient, objective empirical research that builds upon a solid theoretical foundation. Without such research, professionals can propose all the new diagnoses they’d like, but they will never appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the mental health bible of diagnoses).
One contributing factor to the debate is the lack of sufficient empirical data regarding construct validity. The current literature is only about 20 years old and, thus, still in its relative infancy. Moreover, the majority of books and articles on the topic of parental alienation syndrome and parental alienation are theoretical, descriptive, or proscriptive.
As you can see, something that is only 20 years old in psychological and family research tends to be seen as something “new” or “untested.” Some clinicians and researchers see PAS more as a family dynamic rather than a formal diagnosis, and therefore are resistant to slapping another label on a family or child already going through a stressful family dynamic (Baker, 2007). There have yet to be any psychometrically valid diagnostic tools used to assess PAS, and even amongst professionals, what constitutes parental alienation syndrome is in disagreement (are all eight symptoms necessary or prevalent?).
There are also some misconceptions about PAS, despite its relative newness. Baker (2006a) found that alcoholism, maltreatment, and personality disorders co-occurred in most of the alienating families, suggesting possible areas of targeted intervention for PAS families. Parental alienation could occur in intact families as well as even non-litigious divorced families. In other words, the power games parents play with their children aren’t necessarily because of litigation or legal issues.
In late 2005, the American Psychological Association released a brief statement saying it didn’t have a formal stand on parental alienation syndrome, but noted the lack of empirical research supporting this syndrome.
Despite this syndrome not being too well known outside of custody, legal and family therapy circles, there appears to be a growing body of research to support its use.
Baker, A.J.L. (2007). Knowledge and Attitudes About the Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Survey of Custody Evaluators. American Journal of Family Therapy, 35(1), 1-19.
Baker, A.J.L. (2006a). Patterns of Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Qualitative Study of Adults Who were Alienated from a Parent as a Child. American Journal of Family Therapy, 34(1), 63-78.
Baker, A.J.L. (2006b). The power of stories/stories about power: Why therapists and clients should read stories about the parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Family Therapy, 34(3), 191-203.
Gardner, R. (1998) Parental alienation: A guide for mental health and legal professionals. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics Inc.