PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME
BY ALICE R. BERKOWITZ, PH.D.
Is there any possibility that you are the victim of Parental Alienation
Syndrome or could you be the Alienator?
Parental Alienation Syndrome develops out of High Conflict Divorces where there is a protracted
period of conflict and hostility between the parents. Characteristics of Parental Alienation are as
1. Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) - takes a while to develop and must be
differentiated from Alignment and Estrangement.
2. Alignment- Alignment is when one child or more than one child expresses a
preference for one parent. This can be due to age, gender-identification, and
possibly after divorce it could be a reaction to the circumstances of the divorce.
The child could be angry or hurt at the other parent’s decision to divorce, or the
child could feel enormous loyalty to the parent left behind. However, in cases of
Alignment, they tend to be time-limited if they are handled appropriately by a
warm non- defensive parent or can be resolved by brief counseling.
3. Estrangement- On the other hand is typically the result of the “estranged”
parent’s behavior. Whether it is domestic violence, physical abuse towards the
children, or emotional abuse towards the children or other parent, the children
in the family become estranged as a result of the estranged parent having severe
parental deficiencies (particularly problems with anger, control, emotional or
physical abuse, adultery that the children know of, or alcohol or other addictions
that are untreated). I find in many cases of estrangement, the parent that is
estranged tries to claim Alienation, and blames it on the other parent. A good
custody evaluator or a therapist familiar with these issues can usually call the
situation as it is, and focus on the reasons for Estrangement.
4. Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was first identified and named by Dr.
Richard Gardner in 1985. He initially likened it to “The Stockholm Syndrome”.
The Stockholm Syndrome is when someone who has been kidnapped or
abducted and held for a long period of time begins to identify with his/her
abductors. A perfect example of this was the case of Patty Hearst, the famous
heiress to the Hearst Newspaper Fortune who was kidnapped by the Symbionese
Liberation Army (SLA) in 1974. After many months of living with her captors,
Patty Hearst began to identify with her abductors and then joined their cause.
She did not want to be rescued, but once caught, it was years of psychotherapy
and de-programing before she could return to her own life and family.
5. Although the child as victim of PAS may not be abducted, the similarities to
Patty Hearst’s experience are not that different.
6. PAS typically develops in children ages 7-15 years of age. (Gardner, 2001). We
may certainly see the signs of alienation earlier, but it is not until a child is at
least seven years of age that they really can begin to show the signs of PAS.
Children older than 15, usually have enough of their own identity and their own
lives, that they will not be indoctrinated by a parent beginning at that age.
7. PAS can be provoked by conflicts other than custody matters. For example,
child support issues, the alienated parent having a new relationship, or even
more trivial matters such as differences between the parents about schools or
camps for the children.
8. Alienating is a gradual and consistent process that is directly related to the
time that the alienating parent spends working on alienating the child or
children. For some parents this becomes a full-time job. All of their time is
devoted to thinking up tactics and planning ways to alienate their child or
children from the other partner.
9. Slow judgments by the courts exacerbate the problem. So often, alienation
can be hidden or justified by the alienator that it often takes the courts a long
time to catch on. A custody evaluation by an evaluator familiar with PAS helps
considerably, but this often can be put off for years.
10. Children subjected to excessive alienation may develop a severe mental
illness. If not a severe mental illness, children subjected to PAS certainly develop
personality disorders and gross distortions regarding relationships with others.
11. Successful Parental Alienation has profound long term consequences for the
child and other family members which are only to be appreciated once the
alienation has been going on for a significant period of time.
Tactics of Alienation:
According to Garbarino and Stott (1998), using Gardner’s work on PAS,
cite five tactics of alienation, that this author finds correct and to the point:
1. Rejection- the Alienating Parent rejects the child’s need for both parents. The child
feels abandoned and rejected by the alienating parent whenever she or he expresses
positive feelings about the other parent.
2. Terrorizing- The alienating parent bullies the child into being terrified of the other
parent and punished the child if the child expresses any questions or disagreements
3. Ignoring- The Alienating Parent withholds love and affection from the child to create
such desperate feelings of abandonment that the child begins the campaign of
rejection against the other parent.
4. Corrupting- The Alienating Parent encourages the child to lie about and be
aggressive to the other parent. In very serious cases, The Alienating Parent will
actually recruit the child to assist in deceits and manipulative behavior intended to
harm the other parent.
One of the most important factors as to why these tactics work so well in some children
is that they are starting off with certain vulnerabilities in the areas of attachment, object
constancy, fears of abandonment, being victims of emotional abuse (or physical abuse),
and living in a chaotic family where they do not feel safe or protected. Certainly the age
that the alienation begins is another major factor. The alienated parent’s personality is
also a factor, if that parent is perceived as weak, distant, unavailable, or fragile, or
extremely rageful next to the alienator, the alienator is going to literally become the
child’s salvation in their mind. As Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) refer to the bond between
the child and the alienator and as an “Unholy Alliance”. This was prior to Gardner’s
(1985, 1987) work, where he actually coined the term “Parental Alienation Syndrome.”
CHARACTERISTICS OF PAS
Kelly and Johnston (2001) delineated characteristics of Alienated Children. They built on
the work of Richard Gardner (1985, 1987), and further attempted to categorize the
features most seen in children suffering from PAS. The following features are the most
relevant in this author’s experience.
1. Alienated Children are openly “hateful” or “contemptuous” towards the
“rejected” parent and his/ her deficits.”
2. They demonize and vilify the rejected or alienated parent and often present
trivial and irrational reasons for their hatred. For Example, Mommy can’t cook;
daddy doesn’t read well.
3. When the alienated parent’s shortcomings are considered, the child’s angry
rejection still seems excessive. Daddy doesn’t come to my dance recitals- but
with such rage, self –righteousness and completely indignant.
4. The child expresses as “absolute refusal to see the alienated parent in any
setting, including a therapeutic one”.
5. The child will only talk to professional- like minor’s counselors or their own
therapists that completely support their positions.
6. The child rejects not only the alienated parent, but the grandparents and
other family members on that parent’s side that at one time the child was very
7. The child idealizes the parent that s/he aligns with (the alienator). The child
sees that parent as absolutely perfect. The child excuses major personality
problems or parenting flaws that the aligned parent may make.
8 .There is absolutely no guilt or ambivalence towards the parents whom the
child viciously denigrates. In making claims against that parent, the child seems
to be enjoying himself.
9.The child appears to feel entitled to have free reign over all decision making
regarding the rejected parent, as well as their inappropriate behavior, animosity
and disrespect towards that parent.
10. The alienated child demonstrates an obsessive hatred toward the rejected
parent. The child is distraught and fixated on their hatred in the evaluator’s or
reunification therapist’s office. However, in school and in other areas of life, the
child appears to function fine.
11. The child’s school work stays intact. However, given the rigidity with which
they approach their hatred for the rejected parent, eventually this begins to spill
over to friends and other authority figures.
12. If the court orders visitations, it is the rejected parent’s home that is
problematic. The alienated child will often destroy furniture, break things, act in
bizarre ways and the child may even physically abuse the alienated parent.
13. When the alienated child refuses contact with the rejected parent, all
efforts of the rejected parent to communicate are rebuffed. The child demands
that the alienated parent never contact them again, and the child will not pick up
phone calls, open cards or gifts.
The only real possibility of changing this pattern is a court order that changes custody,
giving the rejected parent sole physical and legal custody. There would be absolutely no
contact between the alienated child(ren) and the alienating parent for at least 90 days. After
that first 90 days, gradual monitored visitation with a professional monitor would begin
with the alienating parent and the alienated child. It is the Professional Monitor’s duty to
watch the alienator and the child closely, not allowing any private conversations or plans to
be made for outside monitored visits. Alienators and Alienated Children can be very sneaky
to find ways to meet at school, to have a mutual friend provide the child with a cell phone
from that parent so they can talk at all hours. All parties must be in counseling and if the
child genuinely becomes different at home with the parent that had been the victim of
alienation, more time can be given to the alienator and the child with a monitor; however, if
the child continues to act out, visitation must remain very limited and always monitored.
Along with the change in custody, the child and the alienated parent must be in reunification
therapy with a therapist who specializes in dealing with PAS. Often the siblings are brought
into the sessions as well, in attempt to regulate the family system and to bring some reality
to the alienated child’s view of both parents.
The possibility for programs for the entire family, similar to the Wilderness Programs, that
parents send their acting out teenagers to would be a wonderful idea to help break the cycle
of PAS. I have not heard of any such program to date, but it would be a wonderful and
difficult program to develop and maintain. In addition to be able to get both parents and all
of the children to a remote camp for at least 4-6 weeks is also hard to do, as well as the cost
of such a program. It would, however, be another way to deal with breaking the brainwashing
and working with the entire family on establishing healthier ways to interact.
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