In recent years psychiatrists and psychotherapists are confronted in their clinical work more and more often with severe psychiatric and psychosomatic consequences of the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) in now adult “children of divorce” as well as in parents, who have been traumatized by alienation and rupture of contact with their children. In PAS we deal with a special subcategory of parent-child alienation mainly in separation/divorce conflicts in the sense of an induced disorder in the child, as a result of severe manipulative and aberrant parental behavior in which the child irrationally and without true reason radically refuses contact with a once loved, caring parent.
Research in recent times refers to the condition resulting from induced alienation between parent and child as “pathological alienation”, “parental alienation”, “parental alienation disorder”, “alienated child” or “parental alienation syndrome”. The term “parental alienation syndrome” was introduced in 1985 by the american child psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner, who died in 2003. Standard works on PAS include his book “The Parental Alienation Syndrome – a guide for mental health and legal professionals”, first edition published in 1992, second edition 1998, and Gardner/Sauber/Lorandos (eds., 2006) “The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome”.
Dr. Gardner, M. D. defined PAS as follows:
“The Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is 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 results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent. When true parental abuse and/or neglect is present the child’s animosity may be justified, and so the parental alienation syndrome explanation for the child’s hostility is not applicable.”
The concept “Parental Alienation Syndrome” thus is characterized by three elements:
- Rejection or denigration of a parent that reaches the level of a campaign, i.e., it is persistent and not merely an occasional episode;
- the rejection is irrational, i.e. the alienation is not a reasonable response to the alienated parent’s behavior; and
- it is a partial result of the non-alienated parent’s influence.
If any of these three elements is absent, the term PAS is not applicable.
In PAS – especially in its moderate and severe manifestation – one can identify a complex of eight chief symptoms in the behavior of the child (in a mild case of PAS not all of them may show up). These symptoms can vary in markedness and strength, which is significant for the decision on the kind of required legal and psychological intervention:
1. A campaign of denigration
2. Weak, absurd, or frivolous rationalizations for the deprecation
3. Lack of ambivalence
4. The “independent-thinker” phenomenon
5. Reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict
6. Absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent
7. The presence of borrowed scenarios
8. Spread of the animosity to the friends and/or extended family of the alienated parent.
The diagnosis and the degree of PAS are established on the basis of the observed behavior of the child, not on the basis of the degree of manipulation to which the child is exposed. A careful evaluation of the entire family system and identification of the manipulating person(s) is indispensable. Also, the role of the so called alienated parent and his/her possible contribution to the process of alienation need to be evaluated, in order to avoid a misdiagnosis.
PAS is not the same as hindrance of visitation, or any kind of refusal of contact and alienation with respect to the non-residential parent — as many believe –, but a psychiatrically relevant disorder in the child, as a result of traumatization. In contrast to other, e.g. psycho-dynamic interpretations of contact refusal by children, one has in PAS always a massive hindrance of contacts and/or manipulation and indoctrination of the child by others. Active manipulation is carried out — consciously or not – by the chiefly caretaking parent and/or other important persons to whom the child relates or is dependent upon. In these manipulative persons one can usually identify specific psychological problems, e.g. severe narcissistic and /or borderline personality disorder, traumatic childhood experiences, paranoid coping with the divorce conflict, or psychosis. Also, attitude and behavior of professionals accompanying the divorce process play an important role in the course of the alienation process.
Significant alienation techniques in the induction of PAS are, among others, denigration, reality distorting negative presentation of the other parent, boycott of visitation, rupture of contacts, planned misinformation, suggestive influence, and confusing double-bind messages. Sometimes direct psychological (e.g. threats of withdrawal of love, suicide threats) or physical threats ( hitting, locking in) are used against the children. The loyalty conflict in the child, which exists anyway in a divorce situation, is enhanced. Fear, dependence on and identification with the alienator play an important role. A related psychodynamics is found in the Stockholm Syndrome, in cases of hostage taking, or also within sect systems. Some cases of PAS of the severe degree show similarities in their dynamics with the Munchausen-by-Proxy-Syndrome. The affected children depend upon outside help.
In order to be able to better support children of divorce, affected by PAS, by appropriate prevention and intervention measures numerous international experts recommend that the diagnosis “Parental Alienation Syndrome” (or “Parental Alienation Disorder”) in the sense of an induced child disorder be included in the forthcoming DSM-5 of the American Psychiatric Association. Appropriate intervention in the case of PAS by divorce accompanying professionals – especially in the context of the family court system — often is precluded by the fact that PAS is not diagnosed, its psychotraumatic importance or its existence even denied, with reference to the fact that the disorder is not included in DSM (-IV). The alienated children often are left for years in a pathological environment, with corresponding risks for their psychological development and mental health.
An important clinical research topic appears to be a clarification in as far there are connections between induction of PAS in the child of divorce and later Borderline-, personality-, or other trauma- related disorders in the adult, as well as a trans-generational passing on of corresponding pathological behavioral patterns. Furthermore: whether and what kind of psycho-pathology can be found in severely alienating parents, what role the alienated parent and perhaps also the participating professionals possibly play in the process of alienation.
It remains to hope that the considerable confusion on the concept of Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome can soon be ended, in order to better, as up to now, help pathologically alienated children of divorce and their families.