Parent Alienation Syndrome
by Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D.
A Problem for Mothers as Well as Fathers
If you are a separating or divorcing parent, you have a lot on your mind. In addition to everything that you already know you need to be worrying about, you should also know about parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome.
This may be something you never have to deal with - hopefully that will be the case -- but it can never hurt to be educated and informed.
Parental alienation (PA) is the term used to describe any number of behaviors and attitudes on the part of one parent that are designed to undermine and interfere with a child's relationship with his or her other parent. Examples of parental alienation include chronic badmouthing of you by your ex, interference with your parenting time (coming early for pick-ups, dropping off late, not allowing the child to be with you), interfering with communication (hanging up on you when you call your child, throwing out your letters and cards and gifts), creating loyalty conflicts (making your child feel as if he or she must choose), referring to you by your first name and encouraging your child to do the same, and so forth.
Unfortunately, some children who are exposed to parental alienation behaviors eventually succumb to the pressure and become aligned with one parent against the other parent. If the rejected parent is not abusive and does not deserve to be rejected, the term used to refer to the child's behavior is parental alienation syndrome (PAS). PAS children typically exhibit 8 related behaviors (Gardner, 1998).
A campaign of denigration against the targeted parent. The child becomes obsessed with hatred of the targeted parent (in the absence of actual abuse or neglect that would explain such fear, hatred, and rejection).
Weak, frivolous, and absurd reasons for the rejection of the targeted parent. The explanations for the rejection are often not the type that would typically lead a child to reject a parent, such as a parent allegedly forcing the child to go to Disney World, or wearing cowboy boots or serving spicy food to the child.
Lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent. The alienated child demonstrates automatic, reflexive, idealized support of that parent. Examples of statements an alienated child might make include, "I love my father to death" or "I worship my mother and would sacrifice anything for her." These children speak of their parents as if they are perfect, something that is not typical or normal child behavior.
Alienated children vehemently deny that they are being influenced by their parent to reject and behave so negatively toward the targeted parent. It may appear to observers that the child is being influenced but the child strongly asserts that the decision to reject the targeted parent is his or her own. This is what is known as the "Independent Thinker" phenomenon. They may say something like, "Mom, I don't want to see you anymore and dad had nothing to do with my decision. I am making this decision entirely on my own." They often refer to having "free will," even when they don't really grasp the concept.
Lack of guilt or remorse about how they are treating the targeted parent. Alienated children act as if the targeted parent has no feelings and is unworthy of common human decency. An alienated child may reject all gifts from the targeted parent or accept gifts but refuse to show appreciation by declaring that the targeted parent does not deserve it. They seem to be capable of lying and stealing from the targeted parent with no sense that they have done anything wrong or hurtful.
Automatic unquestioning support for the alienating parent in any parental conflict. In the eyes of the child, the alienating parent is always right, regardless of the evidence to the contrary. No matter outlandish the claim or accusation that parent makes, the child will always agree with that parent.
Use of borrowed scenarios. Alienated children often make accusations towards the targeted parent that utilize phrases and ideas adopted wholesale from the alienating parent, even using words and concepts that the child does not understand and cannot define. This is what gives parental alienation syndrome the feeling of brainwashing.
The campaign of hatred and rejection spreads to the extended family and friends of the targeted parent. Thus, not only is the targeted parent denigrated, despised, and avoided but so too are this parent's entire family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are suddenly shunned and rejected. The targeted parent's family is treated as if it has an infectious disease that must be avoided at all costs. Alienated children have been known to important family functions such as birthdays, weddings, and even funerals of relatives with whom the child had once been quite close.
PAS was first written about in the professional literature in the mid 1980s. At that time, the problem was thought to be confined to mothers turning children against their fathers in the context of post-divorce custody litigation. Since then greater understanding and awareness has developed but there is still an assumption that parental alienation is primarily or only perpetrated by mothers against fathers.
It is crucial that parents be knowledgeable about PAS in order to prevent complacency ("Oh that could never happen to me, I am the mother") or misdiagnosis by professionals ("Oh that cannot be what you are dealing with, that is the thing that happens to fathers by mother."). Awareness of the problem is the first step in diagnosing and intervening in parental alienation syndrome, a painful and tragic problem that has devastating long-term effects for both the targeted parent and the child.
If a parent is concerned about the possibility that the other parent is using alienation strategies to interfere with his or her relationship with the child, appropriate mental health and legal assistance should be sought immediately. A first step is to ensure that the professionals on the team understand that PAS exists and that it is something than can happen to mothers as well as fathers. All parents need to be educated and protected from parental alienation.
© Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D.. All Rights Reserved. Dr. Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist and author of "Adult children of parental alienation syndrome: Breaking the ties that bind, W.W. Norton, April 2007. You can visit her site at to find out more.