Parental Alienation Syndrome
During a divorce, most reasonable parents will believe that it is in the best interest of the child if they have a healthy relationship with both parents. What may seem more important at the time is the strengthening of their own parent-child relationship. Parental alienation syndrome occurs when one parent unconsciously, or in many cases consciously, manipulates their child into disliking the other parent. Even if both parents have good intentions, one may unintentionally bad-mouth or make negative comments about the other parent; the child may begin to side with one or the other, and in the most severe cases, will refuse to see or talk to the “alienated” parent. Cases of alienation have been reported even in “friendly” divorces. As cases of divorce have been increasing in recent years, parental alienation has also become more common. Many mild cases, in which the disturbance between the alienated parent and child is subtle, may be misinterpreted as normal part of adjusting to the divorce; many cases of parental alienation and PAS go unreported.
Parental alienation is a term, which is focused on the parent’s behavior; making derogatory or disrespectful statements about the other parent are examples of parental alienation behavior. The frequency and the severity of these statements are two factors that determine whether or not parental alienation syndrome will take hold. Although the majority of cases may be unintentional, there are parents who are intent on destroying the relationship between the child and the other parent. These “obsessed” alienators may be hurt or angry by the divorce, and so may rationalize their behavior. Severe cases will usually end up being reported; this is when a psychologist will evaluate the situation. Not giving an opinion, or even supporting the child’s refusal to see or talk to the other parent are often noted by clinical psychologists. Claiming allegations of sexual abuse, or other illicit activities are commonly used to try and hurt the other parent. Females often claim to be suffering from battered woman syndrome, and may even lie to the child about being hurt.
Parental alienation syndrome is a term, which is focused on the child’s behavior. Young children are especially vulnerable to siding with one parent or the other. PAS is sometimes compared to “brain washing”; after a certain point, the child may actually begin to badmouth the alienated parent without any instigation from the other parent. Severe cases of parental alienation syndrome are often seen in the divorce process when there is a child-custody dispute. A child suffering from PAS may refuse to spend time with the alienated parent, may hold delusional or irrational beliefs about the other parent, and may feel hatred to both the target parent, as well as the targeted parent’s family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.). There are even rare reports of children becoming so disillusioned that they actually harm the alienated parent. In 2004 for example, a 10-year old boy shot and killed his father as a result of PAS. The boy’s defense attorney tried using parental alienation syndrome as a defense against the murder charge. Should PAS be able to be used as a defense, or at the very least, seen as a mitigating factor? Some clinicians believe PAS should be placed in the DSM as a legitimate mental condition, though many disagree. Research has shown a 3-5 times higher risk of developing juvenile conduct disorder and various emotional disorders in a child between 6 months and 5 years old, who has gone through a period of separation of three or more months from a parent.
Divorce rates are continually rising, and as a result, cases of parental alienation syndrome are also on the rise. Some cases of alienation may be unintentional or even unavoidable; increasing awareness of this phenomenon may help combat the prevalence of PAS. Recognizing early signs will help avoid any long-term damage between the parent and child. Once the PAS becomes severe, it is much harder to correct or reconcile the parent-child relationship. Children who are old enough to understand divorce should be seeing a therapist throughout the process. The therapist will be better able to recognize signs of parental alienation; if signs are recognized, a psychologist trained to work with children will be able to correct any irrational thinking before it turns into a full case of parental alienation syndrome.