Life Events & TraumaRelationships & Kids

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What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Whether you are recently divorced, struggling with a messy separation, or split from your partner a while ago, you may worry that your former partner is turning your child or children against you.

Parental alienation occurs when one parent uses strategies—sometimes referred to as programming or alienating—to distance a child from their other parent. Parental alienation syndrome is used to describe the resulting symptoms in a child.

Is parental alienation syndrome real?

Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) was first coined in 1985 by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who used the term to describe behaviors in children exposed to parental alienation (PA).

PAS isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which lists mental health conditions recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Additionally, PAS isn’t recognized as a mental health condition by the American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, or the American Medical Association.

Although the DSM-5 doesn’t recognize PAS, it includes a code for “child affected by parental relationship distress.” Indeed, a strained parent-child relationship could be a significant problem, as alienation can detrimentally affect the mental health of both an alienated child and an alienated parent.

Symptoms of Parental Alienation Syndrome

Gardner defined the symptoms of parental alienation as including the following:

  • The child regularly and unfairly criticizes the targeted parent by making false accusations.
  • The child lacks strong evidence or justifications for their criticisms.
  • The child’s feelings toward the targeted parent aren’t mixed. In most cases, children express uniformly negative feelings. 
  • The child expresses unwavering support for the alienating parent.
  • The child uses terms and phrases that seem borrowed from adult language when criticizing the targeted parent or refers to situations that happened before the child would remember.
  • The child’s aversion toward the targeted parent expand to include other relatives related to the parent (for instance, cousins or grandparents on the mom’s side of the family).

In most cases, children with PAS have a strong connection with the alienating parent and may have previously had a secure relationship with the targeted parent. Many children also show negative behaviors when spending time with the targeted parent and find it challenging to adjust to custody transitions.

How can you tell if PA is taking place?

It can be challenging to determine whether you or your ex-partner are alienating the other parent. Here are some common signs that PA is taking place:

  • The alienating parent divulges developmentally inappropriate details about the relationship, such as instances of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or affairs with the child.
  • The alienating parent may prevent or discourage the child from seeing the targeted parent.
  • The alienating parent may insist that the child’s belongings be kept at the alienator’s house.
  • The alienating parent may plan tempting activities during the targeted parent’s custody.
  • The alienating parent may regularly compare their new partner to their old partner.

PAS is often challenging to use in the context of child-custody disputes in the United States because it can be difficult to prove and indeed, the existence of PAS is under debate.

How does parental alienation syndrome affect children?

A recent study found a significant link between the behaviors of alienating parents and those of alienated children. In other words, children subjected to PA may grow up to behave in the same way as the alienating parent.

Children in a PA situation may:

  • Experience increased anger
  • Experience feelings of neglect, or have their basic needs neglected
  • Adopt destructive behaviors
  • Become prone to lying
  • See circumstances as “black and white”
  • Lack empathy

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What can you do about parental alienation syndrome?

Because PAS is not an official diagnosis and the circumstances of PAS vary depending on the parent-child relationship, there’s no established treatment for PAS that is formally accepted by the psychological or psychiatric community.

If your child is struggling with PAS, working with a therapist can re-establish the bond between the child and the alienated parent. However, in severe cases of PAS, forcing a child to undergo reunification therapy can be a traumatizing experience.

Finding a reputable and experienced family therapist and child psychologist is often the best place to start. Depending on your situation, family court-appointed mediators may also be helpful.

What should you look for in a therapist?

Alienation can damage not only the relationship between a parent and child but a child’s mental health as well.

If you find yourself in this situation, consider reaching out to a mental health professional on the WithTherapy platform. WithTherapy’s unique service will match you with a mental health professional you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of our qualified mental health professionals can help you and your child establish a healthy relationship and overcome the challenges of PA.

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