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.
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.
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.
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.