During a high conflict divorce, family can become a war zone at the emotional expense of a child. In response to personal rage and grievance, one parent sometimes tries to undermine a child’s love and affection for the other parent.
Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is when one parent is targeted with a campaign of hatred by the other parent, who uses the child as a vehicle for his or her hostile agenda. Some psychologists consider this kind of affective manipulation to be child abuse.
Behavioral Scientist Steve Maraboli describes it as “an emotional act of violence” aimed at an adult but that critically wounds a child. Here is an analysis of sixteen cases involving this intrafamilial disorder.
PAS was coined by American psychiatrist Richard Gardner in 1985 when he observed children who emotionally joined one parent in their anger toward the other. Under the influence of the alienating parent, the child becomes preoccupied with the denigration of the other parent, which is exaggerated and unjustified. This malicious antagonism can be directed at a parent of either sex and at relatives other than a parent, such as grandparents. Efforts at alienation usually come from an ex-spouse, but they can also come from another family member or even a well-intentioned mental health professional that expresses favoritism toward one parent or is unwittingly manipulated by one side of the marital couple.
The emotional estrangement of a child occurs in varying degrees whether by subtle or unconscious manipulations of one parent that portray the other in a bad light, magnify the target parent’s mistakes, and emphasize their shortcomings. One parent perpetuates negative stereotypes of the other.
Sometimes the alienating parent more deliberately turns a child against the other through coercive techniques, pressuring the child to withhold affection, to choose to live with one over the other, even with false allegations of neglect or abuse. In severe cases, there is thorough brainwashing that can lead to the severing of the parent-child relationship and the total rejection of one caregiver.
One sign of PAS is the child’s continual parroting of adult language and point of view of the alienating parent. Another is when criticism can only be directed at one parent. Here are a few checklists to verify whether your relationship with your child is being subverted in these ways.
Psychologist Richard Warshak uses the term “divorce poison” to depict PAS, and he delineates how parental alienation distorts a child’s sense of reality. He details how the love of a parent is transformed into hate through the manipulation of ambivalence.
All parent-child relationships, in fact all love relations of any kind, are fraught with ambivalent feelings. The alienating parent manipulates a child’s mixed feelings by selectively focusing the child’s attention on one side of the ambivalent trajectory, the negative traits or moments of a parent’s failing, adverse attributes, and painful memories—fueling distorted perceptions of the target parent’s behavior.
The alienating parent crowds out the pleasurable experiences of being with this parent. He or she may encourage the child to continually question the other parent’s judgment, relentlessly second-guessing decisions made by the target spouse.
PAS occurs in much the same way that a leader of religious cult manipulates their followers, by undermining their sense of basic trust. The child’s belief in the benevolence of this parent is corroded. With repetition, a new image of the target parent is constructed for the child and gradually internalized. Warshak puts it well: “Rather than topple an idealized parent off a pedestal,” the alienating parent merely needs “to highlight the cracks in the pedestal – cracks formed by the accumulation of past disappointments.”
This familial disorder deprives a child of their right to hold in mind a positive image of both parents and to express love for and be loved by both. In extreme cases, there is a polarized image of the child’s parents. Whereas both were formerly ambivalently loved, now one encapsulates the all-good parent, the other the all-bad—one a saint, another Satan.
PAS is motivated by a combination of personal rage and poor interpersonal boundaries. The alienating parent has narcissistic personality characteristics and he or she cannot tell the difference between what they want and what the child needs. The ex-spouse holds onto the failed marriage through hate, blame, and relentless attempts at control. Warshak notes that a child may become allied with one parent for various reasons: out of intimidation, fear of punishment, or even out of loyalty to a parent who seems emotionally fragile.
If you are a targeted parent subject to this kind of scapegoating, your intuition may be to try to remain “neutral” in order to avoid embroiling the child further in parental conflict. You may strive to remain neutral by being quiet to avoid exacerbating the child’s confusion.
Yet Warshak argues such “silence is not golden.” He urges the maligned parent to speak up in a thoughtful and constructive manner, providing a reality check for the child. At the appropriate moments, it is important to assert yourself in order to redeem the image of your character. But first, check your motives. Is your desire to speak up fueled by anger or revenge? The need to absolve yourself of the guilt or shame of a failed marriage? If done with an awareness of your own feelings and sensitivity toward the child, speaking up is the crucial strategy to remedy a toxic emotional environment. Your voice is needed to help the child make sense of another parent’s enraged behavior and gain a more realistic perspective.
Warshak gives excellent techniques for helping the child resist and recover from PAS. One useful exercise starts a dialogue with your child that addresses the similarities and differences between family members. Ask him or her about neutral topics such as their favorite food, colors, hobbies, and music. Then discuss with your child how he or she shares similarities with both parents, but is also different from each of them. Warshak suggests then moving into the realm of feelings: what things make you happy and sad? Ask the child for his or her own examples, working up to the feeling of anger: what kinds of things make the child angry? How is this alike and different from the things that make their parents angry?
This conversation can create psychic boundaries between parent and child. It helps the child take steps toward emotional individuation, and to understand that, simply because one parent is mad with the other, doesn’t mean the child has to be: “When Mommy is angry with daddy, sometimes she may want you to be angry with him, too, but you don’t have to be. You don’t have to feel all the same things as someone else, even when you love them.”
PAS is not a discrete diagnostic category in the DSM-5, but the manual uses terminology describing it such as “child psychological abuse” defined as “non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child” (Family Law, Leslie Harris). The concept of PAS also maintains traction in a legal setting where many judges in the Supreme Court have familiarity with the syndrome.
When a court has determined that one parent alienates the child’s affections from the other, the most common response is to limit custody time with the alienating parent and increase time with the parent who has been alienated. This aims to reorient the child’s biased perception of the rejected parent and circumscribe the time spent exposed to the alienating parent’s perceptions (Renaud v. Renaud cited in Handbook). A large study published by the American Bar Association reported beneficial results from such decisions and a repair in the parent-child relationship even in cases of severe alienation.
“Of the approximately four hundred cases we have seen where the courts have increased the contact with the rejected parent (and in half of these, over the objection of the children), there has been positive change in 90% of the relationships between the child and the rejected parent” (Handbook, p. 144).
These results support the contact hypothesis proposed by intergroup contact theory, which suggests one of the best ways to improve relations between two groups experiencing conflict is through interpersonal contact. When the proposed interaction is properly managed, and not allowed to escalate into insults or arguments, contact between opposing parties should reduce tension.
Warshak gives a few rules of thumb for what he calls “poison control” or the creation of a demilitarized zone. Parents in the vulnerable contact period should not denigrate the other spouse or dismiss the child’s feelings. The target parent should also not allow the child and one’s ex to dictate the terms of contact between you and the child. With such well-regulated exposure, the child has the opportunity to communicate with the alienated parent, to understand them in a more complex way and to appreciate their different viewpoint.
The prejudice that has come from oversimplifications and inaccurate information is ameliorated, and the child’s beliefs about one parent can be restored by ongoing affirmative contact with that person.
Gardner, R.A. (1987). "The parental alienation syndrome and the differentiation between fabricated and genuine sexual abuse." Creative Therapeutics, Cresskill, N.J.
Harris, Leslie. (2014). Family Law, 5th ed, NY: Wolters Kluwer Law & Business.
Lorandos, Demosthenes, & Bernet, William, & Sauber, S. Richard. (2013). Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas P.
Warshak, Richard. (2002). Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent/Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex. NY: Regan Books.