A recent series of posts on a family law blog, along with some cutting edge fMRI research that is relevant has prompted me to do a short update on "parental alienation".
What is it?
Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist, coined the term in 1985 based on his observation of the behavior of children in divorces who were hostile toward one parent.
Gardner described PAS as a preoccupation by the child with criticism and deprecation of a parent. Gardner stated that PAS occurs when, in the context of child custody disputes, one parent deliberately or unconsciously attempts to alienate a child from the other parent. (Wikipedia; emphasis added is mine)
In my experience, both litigants and lawyers focus on the "deliberately" component, leading to a rapid escalation of conflict in the divorce and making dispute resolution and co-parenting more difficult, and lose sight of the damage to the child from the loss of a relationship with one parent.
There is ongoing controversy about whether PAS (which is a syndrome by definition) should be added to the upcoming DSM-V. In my view, PAS is not a mental disorder, won't make it into the DSM-V, and shouldn't.
What causes PAS?
In my view, after more than 30 years of dealing with divorces as a child custody evaluator, therapist, and now litigation consultant specializing in divorce litigation, PAS has multiple causes. In order for PAS to develop, all these things must be present in the family PRIOR to divorce:
1. Personality disorders and/or bipolar/schizophrenic disorders in mom and dad or both. The personality disorders are usually of the borderline, antisocial, narcissistic, or histrionic varieties and are present long before the divorce.
2. Black and white thinking by one or both parents (splitting-dividing the world into all good or all bad categories as a perceptual and thinking style). This can lead to black and white thinking in the children PAST the age when it's developmentally appropriate (early elementary ages generally).
3. Vulnerability to feelings of abandonment in one or both parents.
4. Chronic inability to empathize with their spouse and their child in one or both parents.
5. A family pattern of withdrawal of one of the parents from the tasks of parenting, and leaving that to the other spouse (usually the husband/father withdraws but sometimes it's the wife/mother). Usually this happens at the time of birth, but sometimes occurs later.
6. A pattern of overt conflict between the parents that begins long before divorce but escalates over time. This conflict includes arguments, name calling, expressions of contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and "stonewalling" (see John Gottman and his "four horseman of the apocalypse"). The child is a witness to this conflict nearly every time it occurs and is not protected from repeated exposure to marital arguments.
7. As the marriage unravels, one parent (usually but not always, the wife/mother) forms an abnormally strong emotional bond with the child/children as the other spouse withdraws as a defense against feelings of abandonment.
8. The spouse with the now "enmeshed" relationship with the child begins to confide in the child about her dissatisfaction and complaints about the other spouse. This process may or may not be intentionally designed to further distance the father from the children, but definitely is intended to provide the adult with "allies" in the conflict, and to prevent feelings of abandonment in the adult.
9. The distant parent fails to establish, maintain, or re-establish the emotional, positive, parenting bonds with the children, and withdraws further into work or an affair or substance abuse.
In my experience with hundreds of divorce cases, I know of NO case where ALL of the factors listed above were not present when "parental alienation" was an issue. Not one.
As I noted in a recent post, new neuroscience research has revealed that merely being a spectator to an event leads to the same neural (not merely psychological) changes in the brain as being a participant. No intensive brainwashing campaign is required, merely observation. For a child, whose world is defined by their parents and families, watching one parent systematically devalue and denigrate the other "teaches" alienation. When the divorce finally occurs, the process is already completed, and the divorce litigation merely illuminates it.
When the breakup has included a history of family violence, the odds of parental alienation are further increased, even if the child has NOT been the target of any violence. (see my last post on this blog).
When wounded people find each other and marry (and they always do find each other), and then have children before those wounds are healed and their relationship is repaired, the risk of both divorce, of PAS developing, is very high. As other professionals have noted, the children's relationship with the "alienated" can be repaired, but the process is arduous, and requires emotional and financial resources that the alienated parent doesn't always have.
PAS is a vexing family problem, not a mental disorder, and requires a family-oriented solution that includes both parents and the child.