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Children who have been subjected to Parental Alienation Syndrome need a process to help them learn to think clearly about their parents and the marriage dissolution. I have been doing reunification therapy for the past 20 years and recommend it in many cases.

In divorce, alienation a big risk

How to spot it, what to do

Children who have been subjected to Parental Alienation Syndrome need a process to help them learn to think clearly about their parents and the marriage dissolution. I have been doing reunification therapy for the past 20 years and recommend it in many cases.

Parental Alienation Syndrome, while rejected by the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V, still remains to be a real phenomenon in my own professional opinion.  Of course, parental alienation will occur naturally in any type of adversarial marital breakup.  It does not mean that a parent will intentionally alienate a child from the other parent.  Instead, the post-marital conflict certainly is experienced by the child and/or adolescent and because of their cognitive development at any particular stage they typically will align themselves with one parent or the other.

It is difficult for that child or adolescent to come to the conclusion on his or her own that while their parents are divorcing they have a right to love each parent, and to stay out of their marital and post-marital arguments.  This is in fact one of the most fundamental therapeutic goals I have when I am treating children or adolescents whose parents are going through a divorce.

But, I have encountered many cases where there has been intentional estrangement of a child from another parent.

At this time, it may be useful to review some of the literature on parental alienation. Dr. Amy Baker (Baker, 2007) found a cluster of eight symptoms dubbed “Parental Alienation Syndrome” that has been discussed in research literature since 1980.

Eight symptoms

The syndrome hinges on a preoccupation by the child with criticism and depreciation of a parent, and occurs when one parents tries to alienate the child from the other parent, either deliberately or unconsciously.  PAS was considered for including in DSM-V as a childhood disorder.  It was rejected.  However, the eight symptoms traditionally listed for PAS are:

• A campaign of denigration and hatred against a targeted parent.  “They deny any positive past experiences and reject all contact and communication.” (Baker, 2007).

• Weak, absurd or frivolous rationalizations for this depreciation and hatred/hostility towards the targeted parent; the explanations offered are not of the magnitude that typically would lead a child to reject a parent (Baker, 2007).

• Lack of the usual ambivalence about the targeted parent. “The alienating parent is perceived as perfect, while the other is perceived as wholly flawed. This presentation is in contrast to the fact that most children have mixed feelings about even the best of parents and can usually talk about each parent as having both good and bad qualities (Baker, 2007).

• Strong assertions that the decision to reject the parent is the child’s alone.

• Reflexive support of the favored parent in the conflict.  “The alienated child will side with the alienating parent, regardless of how absurd or baseless the parent’s position may be. There is no willingness or attempt to be impartial when faced with interparental conflicts.” (Baker, 2007).

• Lack of guilt over the treatment of the alienating parent.

• Use of broad scenarios and phrases from the alienating parent.  “Alienated children often make accusations toward the targeted parent that utilizes phrases and ideas adopted from the alienating parent.” (Baker, 2007).

• The denigration not just of the targeted parent but also that parent’s extended family and friends.

Alienation’s effects

A study by Godbout and Parent in 2012 looks at adults who have been alienated from parents in the past.  For these adults, alienation was associated with difficulties at school, behavior problems, and a search for identity after reaching adulthood.

A 2005 paper by Lowenstein suggested that parental alienation in the process of indoctrination may be considered a form of emotional child abuse. The same paper also listed a host of psychological problems that children who have been alienated from a parent may be at risk for. These include anger, loss of impulse control, an increase in delinquent behavior, lack of self-confidence and self-esteem and development of separation anxiety or displaying overly clinging behaviors with the alienating parent, in addition to intense fears of being abandoned and other specific phobias. They may have high levels of anxiety, panic attacks or obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

Children who have been alienated from a parent may also suffer from sleep disorders (difficulty sleeping or night terrors), eating disorders and school disruptions, including declining grades, disruptive behaviors, or aggression.  Young children may suffer from wetting or soiling the bed.  Some older children may engage in substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors.  They may have poor peer relations and damaged sexually identity problems.

In her 2007 book, Baker reports that adult children with parental alienation syndrome report depression, drug and alcohol use, failed relationships, multiple divorces and becoming alienated from their own children.

In situations where children are so aligned with one parent, it is not necessarily productive to immediately proceed with reunification therapy. Research has suggested this sort of parental alienation puts the children in a similar psychological state to those involved in cults due to the similarities and emotional manipulation and thought reform strategies.

‘Deprogramming’

Therefore, the children must first be in a sense “deprogrammed” in order for reunification therapy to be successful or productive.  Overcoming this type of alienation requires establishing boundaries with the alienating parent in addition to rebuilding a relationship with the alienated parent. Many books and articles have been published on the best way to counsel someone through this process, but they all emphasize how intense and extensive this counseling process is.

It is my opinion that this deprogramming would be impossible to achieve if children continue to live with the parent they are aligned with. Although this is potentially controversial, the children would likely benefit in the long-term from being placed with a neutral relative, or in a therapeutic foster home.

I had a case whereby I recommended such a placement regarding a mother who was entrenched in resisting any type of reunification therapy, and the five children, ranging from 16 to 5, refused to see the father.  The mother, after resisting reunification therapy, then alleged sexual abuse by the father to the children.  The judge in the case did remove the children from the home. If the children are placed in a neutral environment, they will be more likely to disentangle their thoughts about the parent who has not seen them from the alienating beliefs they currently have, and reunification therapy cannot progress until this begins to happen.

Finally, deprogramming will not be successful unless the parent who has been alienating the children truly will discontinue those behaviors.  Both attorneys in the case must be on board to support this. If there is a Guardian ad Litem, he or she should also be supportive of this, and that the court should order this process to take place.

In closing, I have witnessed fathers who have been alienated from their children for life.  This causes a great deal of psychological damage to the father and equally so to the children.  I also have seen cases whereby an adult who is alienated from a parent requested reunification therapy 20 years after no contact.

In my opinion children who are alienated from a parent go on as adults to have significant interpersonal relationship problems and are at higher risk for many psychological/psychiatric disorders.

Dr. Paul Reitman is a forensic and clinical psychologist and an adjunct associate professor at St. Mary’s University.

About Paul M. Reitman, Ph.D., L.P., F.A.C.F.E., and Adam Gierok

7 comments

  1. This guy is a monster who performs the “pit of despair” on human children. Similar to Harry Harlow, this monster doctor wants to separate children from their primary attachment figure. He should be in jail for inflicting abuse on women and children as well as ignoring real child abuse and using invented syndromes to cover up child abuse.

  2. Thanks you for this post on parental alienation. This destructive family dynamic destroys countless children, parents and extended family members every year.

    For more information, and resources, on parental alienation you can visit http://www.afamilysheartbreak.com. I’m confident you and your clients will find the resources valuable.

  3. Thanks for your article, and for your willingness to specialize in an area as challenging and controversial as Parental Alienation. I have seen firsthand the consequences of Parental Alienation. I agree it is a form of child abuse.

    parentalalienationisreal.info

  4. Thankfully, the American Psychiatric Association denied this as a valid syndrome. It’s amazing that the “symptoms” are so similar to that of an abused child. I don’t know of anyone, child or adult, who would want to be with an abusive person. Would you really have warm feelings towards someone who enjoys terrorizing you? This needs to stop. Obviously, in a healthy relationship, a child would want to see the other parent. Women are caught in a no-win situation. If they don’t leave, they are guilty of not protecting their children. If they do, they might be accused of PAS because they are trying to keep their children safe. This is one of the answer to “Why do abused women stay.”

    If we were talking about animals, there would be no question that they need to be protected from abuse. Maybe we need a reality show like “Animal Cops” but for abused children to wake us up to the ugly side of abuse. Please help change the direction of this country. Stand up for children. Stop abusive parents from getting custody. If our country saw the need for mandatory reporters, we need to follow through, and hold abusers accountable.

  5. Hey, I’m a MOTHER who has lost her beautiful 12 year old daughter due to an embittered obsessive alienating ex. PAS does exist (whether or not it is a syndrome), and it IS a very real gform of child abuse.

    I also ‘perfectly fit’ the description of the Alienated Parent who tended to be passive, bullied, and overwhelmed, in an abusive marriage.

    Women, please DON’T assume PAS is a male construct. Men can be alienating parents too, and MOTHERS can lose their children to this condition.

    Thank fully my son (5) sees through his dad, and doesn’t yet follow in his sister’s footsteps, but he needs help to cope with the pressure that will only increase on him.

    Thank you so much for such an informative article with great refernces that I will follow up further.

  6. My boyfriend has suffered through PAS for the past 2 years. His ex has fully poisoned their son against him with the help and support of her entire family. To watch things unfold and see the effects it has on this wonderful man is gut wrenching, but to step back and really consider the depth of what has been done to this child will break your heart. It is alarming to me that a person can be so angry and bitter with another person that choosing to cause life-long psychological damage to their own child seems acceptable. In our situation a loving father who would move mountains for his children is unfairly being kept from his son due to his ex’s deep seeded bitterness and anger towards him. Where does it stop? When will the alienating parent be held accountable for their actions? If they were physically abusing children they would be thrown in jail. Causing psychological damage is abuse as much as physical abuse, it’s effects aren’t openly visible but this damage will cause life-long issues for these kids all the same. In our case, it’s the mother who is doing the alienating but it can be either parent who inflicts this upon their child and the alienated parent. I pray the courts start really recognizing that this happens, not in every divorce, but certainly more frequently than it should and it’s causing damage to children and to parents.

  7. My daughter is 16 years old. Her father and I are in the middle of a divorce. We were separated for the last couple years. And my daughter lives with me that whole time. We decided to try and work it out so I move back in. And then about three weeks later We had a fight & he kicked me out while she was at a friends house so she has been with him the last month and a half. In this time he has introduced her to his family who he hadn’t spoken to in 17 years. She has turned on me hates me is texting me nasty messages all day as is he. He has never fostered a relationship between she and I. If anything he has been jealous of our bond and has done everything he could in the last couple years to throw a wrench in it. He & his family and him are turning her against me. She has always been the only child and grandchild and I noticed a problem around age 8. My husband wants her to be his friend. He tells her everything. Including intimate details of our sexual relationship. He is denying everything. I have always been the one with rules and boundaries when it comes to her and when she doesn’t like when she’s told no or she’s being disrespectful and I tell her not to be that way to me she runs to him and cries. Then he starts saying that I mentally abuse her. She is loving the affection and attention she’s getting from his family. And because he is letting her run free she is loving being with him. Tomorrow she is having surgery he even went as far to call the hospital and tell them that my daughter doesn’t want me there. And they called and told me that I have to wait in the waiting room. He is not letting her talk to any of my family either. And they have always been there for all of us. He is saying that it is her that she is choosing this. But she & I have had a good relationship until about a month ago. This is so frustrating. She has blocked me on her phone as has he. He is a big bully and I see a lot of that in her. About 10 years ago we had a domestic case at our house. He beat me up so terribly I had six staples in my head. He was criminally charged. After that we went to some counseling and decided to work it out. He seems to forget about everything he has ever done to me. And clearly so has she. I guess I made the mistake of never involving our child in our personal issues. Because now I’m paying for it. I have been nice I have been supportive of her having a relationship with his family I just want out of this and I want 50% custody of my daughter. I’m being told when a 16-year-old is fighting that you will have trouble getting time with them. How can this be? How can he not look at circumstances and know that clearly he is intervening in this and she is not able to make a clear choice. I text her all the time telling her I love her and I’m always here for her. I never talk about the situation even though she is constantly saying things and I tell her that it’s for data night to worry about. I text her all the time telling her I love her and I’m always here for her. I never talk about the situation even though she is constantly saying things and I tell her that it’s for data night to worry about. Has anybody been in this position with a teenager before? I know she’s going to go and say she hates me doesn’t want to live with me. And this is just getting worse. He is using her as his pond to get back at me

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