If you’re newly divorced, going through a messy separation, or even if you split from a partner a while ago, we feel for you. These things are rarely easy.
And if the two of you have a child or children together, the situation can be even harder. Among other things, you may worry that your former partner is turning your child or children against you.
Parental alienation is a situation in which one parent uses strategies — sometimes referred to as brainwashing, alienating, or programming — to distance a child from the other parent. Parental alienation syndrome is a somewhat controversial term (more on that in a minute), but it’s used by many to describe the resulting symptoms in the child.
If your former partner is constantly, and severely, making false statements about you to your child, can this lead to alienation and an accompanying syndrome? Let’s take a closer look.
The child psychologist who first coined the term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) in 1985, Richard Gardner, used it to describe behaviors in a child who is exposed to parental alienation (PA).
How do other experts in the field feel about this? First things first — there’s this large manual, called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, since it’s currently in its 5th revision), that lists mental health conditions recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. PAS isn’t in it.
PAS also isn’t recognized as a mental health condition by the:
- American Psychological Association
- American Medical Association
- World Health Organization
But the DSM-5 does have a code for “child affected by parental relationship distress,” which PAS would fall under. And there’s no doubt that a damaged parent-child relationship can be a big problem. It stands to reason that it can affect mental health.
So PAS isn’t really considered an official syndrome in the mental health or scientific fields, and it’s not something your child can be diagnosed with. That doesn’t mean the situation and its mental health effects don’t happen.
Parental alienation (minus the syndrome)
Parental alienation is when one parent discredits the other parent to a child or children the two share. For example, perhaps mom tells her child that their dad doesn’t love them or want to see them. Or a dad tells his child that their mom prefers her new family (and kids with a new partner) to them.
Accusations can be mild, or they can become incredibly severe. This distorts the child’s perception of the alienated parent, regardless of how great their relationship was with that parent before.
Basically, the parent-child relationship suffers, whether the allegations are true or not. If a child is repeatedly told, for example, that dad is a bad person and doesn’t want to see them — even if it isn’t true — the child may eventually refuse to talk to or see dad when the opportunity arises.
Sometimes, the parent doing the bad-mouthing is called the alienator and the parent who is the subject of the criticism is the alienated.
When Gardner talked about PAS, he identified eight “symptoms” (or criteria) for it:
- The child constantly and unfairly criticizes the alienated parent (sometimes called a “campaign of denigration”).
- The child doesn’t have any strong evidence, specific examples, or justifications for the criticisms — or only has false reasoning.
- The child’s feelings about the alienated parent aren’t mixed — they’re all negative, with no redeeming qualities to be found. This is sometimes called “lack of ambivalence.”
- The child claims the criticisms are all their own conclusions and based on their own independent thinking. (In reality, in PA, the alienating parent is said to “program” the child with these ideas.)
- The child has unwavering support for the alienator.
- The child doesn’t feel guilty about mistreating or hating the alienated parent.
- The child uses terms and phrases that seem borrowed from adult language when referring to situations that never happened or happened before the child’s memory.
- The child’s feelings of hatred toward the alienated parent expand to include other family members related to that parent (for example, grandparents or cousins on that side of the family).
Gardner later added that to be diagnosed with PAS, the child should have a strong bond with the alienator and previously have had a strong bond with the alienated. He also said the child should show negative behaviors when with the alienated parent and have difficulty with custody transitions.
Signs that parental alienation may be taking place
So are you or your ex-partner an alienator, alienating the other parent? Here are some signs that may exist:
- An alienator might divulge unnecessary relational details — for example, instances of affairs — to a child. This can certainly make the child feel alienated themselves, as well as angry at (and feeling personally hurt by) something that was really between mom and dad.
- An alienator may prevent a child from seeing or talking to the other parent, while saying that the alienated is busy/occupied/uninterested in the child.
- An alienator may insist the child’s personal items all be kept at the alienator’s house, regardless of how much time the kid spends with the other parent.
- An alienator might plan tempting activities during the other parent’s custody. For example, “You’re supposed to be at your dad’s this weekend, but I was thinking it’s the perfect weekend to invite your friends to a sleepover here for your birthday this month. What would you like to do?”
- Related to the above, an alienator might frequently bend or break custody guidelines, arranged inside or outside of court. On the flip side, an alienator may also refuse to compromise on a custody agreement. For example, if mom’s birthday falls on a day when dad has custody and dad is an alienator, he may rigidly refuse to let the kid go to mom’s birthday dinner when mom asks.
- Secrecy may become rampant. There are several ways this can happen: The alienator may keep medical records, report cards, information about the child’s friends, and more all under wraps. This can alienate the child from the other parent because let’s face it — if one parent knows all your friends, likes, and activities, that’s the parent you’ll want to talk to.
- And related to secrecy, gossip may become rampant. The alienator may ask the child about the alienated parent’s personal life and more. This can then become a subject of gossip. Oh, your dad has a new girlfriend? What’s she like? Wonder how long it will last. He had four girlfriends the year you were in kindergarten and we were still married, you know.
- The alienator may become controlling when it comes to the child’s relationship with the other parent. For example, the alienator could try to monitor all phone calls, text messages, or interactions.
- The alienator may actively compare the other parent to a new partner. This could take the form of the child hearing that their stepmom loves them more than their mom. A child might even be told that their stepparent will adopt them and give them a new last name.
These are just some of the forms parental alienation may take. Be aware that PAS is a tricky thing to use in legal contexts when it comes to custody agreements, because it’s hard to prove. Ironically, it’s in custody disputes that PAS comes up the most.
PAS can also be used to continue, hide, or reinforce abuse. This is a serious situation that can involve criminal allegations.
The short answer to this is not really — just that society has changed enough in the past 30 years that alienation is probably equally likely with either parent.
Gardner originally said that 90 percent of alienators were mothers. Is this because women are more jealous, controlling, or concerned for their kids and men are more prone to doing things women see as worthy of alienation? Doubtful. Any person — whether a mom or a dad — can have the qualities that lend themselves to alienating.
It’s probably more related to the still somewhat accepted “ideal” in the 1970s and 1980s that dads were the breadwinners and moms ruled the home — and therefore had more say with the kids. But times have changed. In fact, Gardner later said he saw a shift in alienators from 90 percent mothers to a 50/50 ratio of mothers and fathers.
Still, in many places, due to long-standing societal norms (among other things), the person who gets more custody by default (all other things being equal) is mom. That puts mom in a place where it may be easier to alienate dad.
On the other hand — and also due to long-standing societal norms, expectations, wage gaps, and more — dad may have more resources at his disposal to alienate mom when it comes to legal fees in custody battles and tempting the kids with gifts or promises. However, we aren’t saying this is necessarily the case.
Either way, the child has to deal with the consequences.
One 2016 study surveyed 109 college-aged individuals and found a significant link between the behaviors of alienating parents and the behaviors of those who had been alienated. In other words, children who are subject to a parental alienation situation may grow up to behave in much the same way as the alienator.
Children who are alienated from one parent may:
- experience increased anger
- have heightened feelings of neglect (or even have their basic needs actually neglected while being caught in the middle of their parents’ fight)
- learn a destructive pattern that they pass on to others
- take on a skewed view of reality and become prone to lying about others
- become combative with others due to learning an “us vs. them” mentality
- see things as very “black and white”
- lack empathy
Obviously, if a parent is abusive or otherwise harmful, there need to be limits — or an all-out ban — on exposure to the child. But in most other circumstances where two parents started out together and involved in a child’s life, the child gains the most from having both parents in their lives after a split, too.
Kids are resilient. But they are also impressionable. If parental alienation is going on, the children become more vulnerable.
There’s no established, one-size-fits-all treatment for PAS for a couple reasons: One, it’s not an official diagnosis. But two — and even if it were a medically recognized condition — PAS and the circumstances are so individual.
In some situations, therapy to reunite the child with the alienated parent may help. In other cases, forcing a child to undergo this kind of reunification therapy may be traumatizing. And court orders can certainly add to the trauma, with legal authorities lacking the proper training to deal with a complex mental health situation.
Finding a reputable family counseling center and quality therapist and child psychologist may be the best place to start. Mediators — court appointed or otherwise — can also be helpful.
Treatment will need to be individualized to your family’s specific situation. The dynamic, developmental age of your child, and other factors will all come into play.
For a place to start, talk to your child’s pediatrician about child mental health specialists they recommend.
Parental alienation syndrome has never been accepted by the medical or scientific communities as a disorder or syndrome. This can make it really problematic when it comes up in courts of law as part of custody considerations.
In fact, some people argue that PAS is “unscientific” and needs a really precise, medically accepted definition before it should be used at all.
Regardless, parent alienation sadly exists and can damage not only relational health, but a child’s own mental health as well. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s important to seek counseling for your individual circumstances with a qualified mental health professional.