Parental Alienation Syndrome
Separation and divorce can put enormous pressure on families, especially families with young children. Parental alienation occurs when one parent attempts to eradicate the relationship between the children and the other parent, and it makes the difficulty of separation even worse. So, what is the impact of parental alienation on both the alienated parent and children involved, and how is this issue handled under Australian family law?
Over my 30+ year professional experience, I have seen multiple cases of parental alienation perpetrated by both mothers and fathers. Parental separation in itself does not necessarily harm children. However, ongoing conflict between parents, including parental alienation activities, most assuredly does harm children. Offending parents often tell me that they are keeping their children safe from their other parent. In my experience, the motivations for such behaviour are generally much more to do with punishing or hurting their former partner or taking revenge on their former partner than protecting their children. Clearly, there are legitimate situations when children’s safety and well-being must be given priority. However, these situations are best dealt with through legal means.
What is Parental Alienation?
Parental Alienation, or Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), is a term coined by Richard Gardner, an American psychiatrist, in 1985 and describes the act of one parent turning their child or children against the other parent. Tactics and strategies often used in this type of conduct include emotional manipulation, programming and brainwashing.
What this ultimately leads to is a damaged relationship between the alienated parent and their children. Both the alienated parent and children are also at risk of suffering severe psychological trauma as a result of these malicious and false allegations.
This term is widely used and accepted in Australian family law cases, especially when it comes to high-conflict custody and parenting disputes.
What Are Some Examples of Parental Alienation?
There are many examples of parental alienation, but some common examples that I have seen in my professional practice include:
- Criticising or belittling the other parent in front of the child;
- Sharing unnecessary details of the separation or divorce with the child;
- Using the child to ‘spy’ or share information about the other parent;
- Deliberately making the child unavailable to the other parent;
- Suggesting the child has been abused or harassed by the other parent without any evidence, and;
- Monitoring phone calls and other forms of communication between the child and the other parent.
What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?
Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) involves a child’s unwarranted rejection of one parent in response to the attitudes and actions of the other parent. This often causes children a great deal of emotional and psychological harm. They often feel guilty and torn by having to choose between loving both of their parents.
PAS is often seen in high-conflict divorcing couples and parents who believe that the other parent has or will turn the children against them. PAS results in alienated children refusing to see a parent, adults who are still alienated from a parent, or elders who have “lost” their grandchildren to parental alienation.
People may enter individual therapy presenting with anxiety, depression, or relationship problems and later reveal that they have been cut off from one parent by another parent during childhood. These people may be unaware of the meaning of the lost relationship and may even minimise its effect on their growth, development, and current mental health concerns.
Children referred to a counsellor for acting out or experiencing academic problems may casually reveal that they have no contact with a “hated” parent. When questioned about the absent parent, these children may vehemently denounce the parent as “good riddance to bad rubbish.” The family of such a child may be manoeuvring behind the scenes to exclude the other parent from the child’s school life by mis-representing that parent’s intentions to school staff, withholding information from that parent to create the appearance of a lack of interest, and removing contact information from school records.
Another consequence of PAS is people who enter therapy consumed with fear that the other parent is turning their children against them. Such parents will be desperate for advice and guidance about how to cope with the chronic provocation of the other parent. These parents live with anxiety, depression, and helplessness, as well as feelings of victimisation by the other parent, the child, and myriad systems (legal, mental health, school) that are not always responsive to the needs of targeted parents.
In all these cases, one parent has engineered the child’s rejection of the other parent and poisoning the child’s relationship with the other parent generally in the absence of just cause.
Parental alienation is a set of strategies that a parent uses to foster a child’s rejection of the other parent. Parental alienation syndrome develops in children who come to hate, fear, and reject the targeted parent as someone unworthy of having a relationship with them. Richard Gardner, PhD, described in The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals that there are eight behavioural components that have been validated in a survey of targeted parents of severely alienated children (Baker & Darnall, 2007).
Eight Manifestations of Parental Alienation Syndrome
- A Campaign of Denigration
Alienated children are consumed with hatred of the targeted parent. They deny any positive past experiences and reject all contact and communication. Parents who were once loved and valued seemingly overnight become hated and feared.
- Weak, Frivolous, and Absurd Rationalisations
When alienated children are questioned about the reasons for their intense hostility toward the targeted parent, the explanations offered are not of the magnitude that typically would lead a child to reject a parent. These children may complain about the parent’s eating habits, food preparation, or appearance. They may also make wild accusations that could not possibly be true.
- Lack of Ambivalence About the Alienating Parent
Alienated children exhibit a lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent, demonstrating an automatic, reflexive, idealised support. That parent is perceived as perfect, while the other is perceived as wholly flawed. If an alienated child is asked to identify just one negative aspect of the alienating parent, he or she will probably draw a complete blank. 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. This is a normal state of affairs.
- The “Independent Thinker” Phenomenon
Even though alienated children appear to be unduly influenced by the alienating parent, they will adamantly insist that the decision to reject the targeted parent is theirs alone. They deny that their feelings about the targeted parent are in any way influenced by the alienating parent and often invoke the concept of free will to describe their decision.
- Absence of Guilt About the Treatment of the Targeted Parent
Alienated children typically appear rude, ungrateful, spiteful, and cold toward the targeted parent, and they appear to be impervious to feelings of guilt about their harsh treatment. Gratitude for gifts, favours, or child support provided by the targeted parent is non-existent. Children with parental alienation syndrome will often try to get whatever they can from that parent, declaring that it is owed to them.
- Reflexive Support for the Alienating Parent in Parental Conflict
Intact families, as well as recently separated and long-divorced couples, will have occasion for disagreement and conflict. In all cases, the alienated child will side with the alienating parent, regardless of how absurd or baseless that parent’s position may be. There is no willingness or attempt to be impartial when faced with inter-parental conflicts. Children with parental alienation syndrome have no interest in hearing the targeted parent’s point of view. Nothing the targeted parent could do or say makes any difference to these children.
- Presence of Borrowed Scenarios
Alienated children often make accusations toward the targeted parent that utilise phrases and ideas adopted from the alienating parent. Indications that a scenario is borrowed include the use of words or ideas that the child does not appear to understand, speaking in a scripted or robotic fashion, as well as making accusations that cannot be supported with detail.
- Rejection of Extended Family
Finally, the hatred of the targeted parent spreads to his or her extended family. Not only is the targeted parent denigrated, despised, and avoided but so are his or her extended family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are suddenly and completely avoided and rejected.
In a recent study (Baker & Darnall, 2007), targeted parents rated their children as experiencing these eight behavioural manifestations in a way that was generally consistent with Gardner’s theory. Parents reported that their children exhibited the eight behaviours with a high degree of frequency. One exception was alienated children being able to maintain a relationship with some members of the targeted parent’s extended family, which occurred in cases where that relative was actually aligned with the alienating parent.
Emotional, Physical, and Sexual Abuse
Many alienated children report that the alienating parent had emotionally, physically, or sexually abused them. These data put to rest the prevailing notion that all children (in their naive wisdom) will ally themselves with the parent better able to attend to their needs. The people interviewed appeared to side with the parent on whom they had become dependent and whose approval they were most afraid of losing, not the parent who was most sensitive or capable.
Cults offer a useful example for understanding parental alienation syndrome. Alienating parents appear to use many emotional manipulation and thought reform strategies that cult leaders use. Awareness of this analogy can help individuals who experienced parental alienation syndrome understand how they came to ally with a parent who was ultimately abusive and damaging. The analogy is also helpful for understanding the recovery and healing process.
The research and clinical literature on recovery from cults offers useful ideas for adult children of parental alienation syndrome. For example, the way in which a person leaves a cult has ramifications for the recovery process. Cult members can walk away from a cult, be cast out of a cult, or be counselled out of a cult. Those who walk away (come to the realisation on their own that the cult is not healthy for them) and those who are counselled out (those who are exposed to a deliberate experience designed to instigate the desire to leave) tend to fare better than those who are cast out (those who are rejected from the cult for failing to meet its regulations and strictures) (Langone, 1994).
Regardless of how the cult is abandoned, leaving represents only the beginning of the recovery process. Considerable time and effort is required (usually in therapy) to process the experience and undo the negative messages from the cult that have become incorporated into the self. The same may be true of adult children of parental alienation syndrome.
Different Pathways to Realisation
There appear to be many different pathways to the realisation that one has been manipulated by a parent to unnecessarily reject the other parent. Eleven methods were described by research participants. This represents both good and bad news. The good news is that there are many different ways to evolve from alienation to realisation. The bad news is that there is no silver bullet or magic wand to spark that process. For some participants, it was a matter of time and gaining life experience. For others, it was the alienating parent turning on them and, for others, it was becoming a parent and being the target of parental alienation from their own children. For most, the process was just that—a process.
There were a few epiphanies, but most experienced something like a slow chipping away of a long-held belief system, a slow awakening to a different truth and a more authentic self. Most gained self-respect and a connection to reality and were grateful to know “the truth.” At the same time, they acknowledged that this truth was hard won and quite painful. Once they were aware of the parental alienation, they had to come to terms with some painful truths, including that the alienating parent did not have their best interest at heart, that as children they had probably behaved very badly toward someone who did not deserve such treatment, and that they missed out on a relationship that may have had real value and benefit to them.
Long-Term Negative Effects
Not surprisingly, many adult children with parental alienation syndrome believe that the experience had negative long-term consequences for them. Many speak of suffering from depression, turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, failed relationships and multiple divorces and, most sadly, becoming alienated from their own children later in life. In this way, the inter-generational cycle of parental alienation syndrome is perpetuated.
Wide Range of Alienation Tactics
The adult children with parental alienation syndrome described a range of alienating strategies, including constant bad-mouthing of the targeted parent, chronic interference with visitation and communication, and emotional manipulation to choose one parent over the other. These same strategies were confirmed in a subsequent study of targeted parents by Baker & Darnall in 2006.
Working With Targeted Parents
In my work with parents who are facing parental alienation, I see the need to offer support, education, and guidance. My primary role is to help the person become educated about parental alienation (what are primary behaviours that turn a child against the other parent) and parental alienation syndrome (what are the behavioural manifestations of an alienated child) so the parent can determine whether this is in fact the problem. These parents must be encouraged to look at themselves and their relationship with their children prior to blaming the other parent for their difficulties.
If the conclusion is that parental alienation is at work, the targeted parent can learn a series of responses to parental alienation that can allow the targeted parent to maintain the high road while not becoming overly passive or reactive. Such parents need ongoing validation and support in dealing with the pain and suffering associated with parental alienation.
Working With Alienated Children
In working with older children who are currently alienated, I assist them to be self-reflective and aware so that they do not ally with the alienating parent against the targeted parent. A second concern is avoiding becoming intimidated or manipulated by the alienating parent. I assist the child to develop age-appropriate critical thinking skills in order to enhance his or her ability to resist the pressure to choose sides. The targeted parent and the child’s relationship with that parent must be validated for the child. I act as a role model who values and respects the targeted parent in order to counter the ongoing message that this parent is inadequate and someone to be discarded.
Parental alienation is a complicated and painful issue. I aim to provide people with information, guidance and hope in my work with them.
How Do the Courts Deal with Parental Alienation?
While the courts can deal with cases of parental alienation under Australian family law in extreme cases, generally, your first approach should be to resolve the issue with dispute resolution mechanisms such as mediation or collaborative law.
If these methods do not work, the alienated parent can take the issue to court. As with any children’s matter, the court will always consider what is in the best interests of the child. Under section 60CC of the Family Law Act 1975, the primary considerations for this are:
“(a) the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both of the child’s parents; and
(b) the need to protect the child from physical or psychological harm from being subjected to, or exposed to, abuse, neglect or family violence.”
If it can be proven that there is evidence of family violence, including psychological harm, then the need to protect the child from physical and psychological harm will come first ahead of any other consideration.
What You Should Do If You Experience Parental Alienation
If you’re experiencing parental alienation and negotiating with your ex-spouse on your own accord has been unsuccessful, then you should consider mediation or collaborative law as a next step. The key differences between these two services is that mediation requires a neutral third party to remain impartial and offer no advice, whereas, Collaborative Law allows for both parties and their lawyers to work together to resolve the conflict.
If these techniques do not work for your parental alienation situation, you should obtain legal assistance from an experienced family lawyer and seek an order through the Australian family law system. This court order allows the alienated parent to request a change in the child’s primary residence from one parent to the other. Remember, your child’s welfare should be your top priority when dealing with parental alienation. Make sure you do not over-share your opinions or concerns with your child during this process.
Author: Merryl Gee, BSocWk, AMHSW, MAASW, MACSW, MANZMHA, MPACFA.
Merryl Gee is a psychotherapist working from a strengths-based, person-centred framework. With over 30 years’ experience, she has a particular interest people who have experienced trauma such as sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychotherapist Merryl Gee try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422 .
Baker, A. J. L. (2007). Adult children of parental alienation syndrome: Breaking the ties that bind. New York: W. W. Norton.
Baker, A. J. L. & Darnall, D. (2006). Behaviors and strategies employed in parental alienation: A survey of parental experiences. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 45 (1/2), 97-124.
Baker, A. J. L. & Darnall, D. (2007). A construct study of the eight symptoms of severe parental alienation syndrome: A survey of parental experiences. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 47(1/2), 55-75.
Gardner, R. (1998). The parental alienation syndrome: A guide for mental health and legal professionals. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics, Inc.
Langone, M. (ed) (1994). Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse. New York: W. W. Norton.
Wallerstein, J., Lewis, J., & Blakeslee, S. (2001). The unexpected legacy of divorce: The 25-year landmark study. New York: Hyperion.