Divorcing parents don’t always end on good terms and sometimes bad blood between the parents can create conflict where children are the ones that ultimately end up suffering. Parents who choose to use a set of strategies to foster a child’s rejection of the other parent engage in what is known as parental alienation. According to Psychology Today, parental alienation occurs when one parent who may harbor negative feelings towards their ex-spouse attempts to turn the couple’s children against the other parent by painting a negative picture of the other parent and sharing comments, blame and false accusations with the children. When this happens, children may experience Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), a term coined by Dr. Richard Gardner in 1985, describing the outcome or impact those behaviors could have on a child, including long-term traumatic psychological effects.
According to research, children experiencing PAS are usually pressured to choose between the alienating parent, who may act like the victim of the other parent’s actions, and the parent who is being pushed away. The alienating parent might emotionally blackmail their child by saying they won’t love the child anymore if they aren’t the only parent chosen. Alienating parents can limit or even cut off the child from the other parent completely by sabotaging visits, which can lead a child to believe that their parent doesn’t want to see them and could end up feeling like they are not loved.
Once a child has been successfully alienated from the parent, they will start to exhibit signs such as bad-mouthing the parent, cut off any sort of communication, and disregard the targeted parent’s hurt feelings. A German study found that there are three levels of severity regarding parent alienation. In mild cases of PSA, the child may refuse contact with the alienated parent but enjoys when contact was made. In moderate cases, the child could stubbornly refuse contact, but respond once contact is made when the alienating parent is absent. In severe cases, the child will refuse contact with the parents and may have internalized a negative image of the parent.
Although most of the research regarding PAS comes from mental health professionals, it is not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which offers a standard that mental health providers use to classify mental disorders. Instead, the American Psychological Association currently argues that it is not a mental disorder limited to one parent, but a “relationship dysfunction” between both parents. Groups who advocate against this type of emotional abuse claim that recognition of PAS in the DSM-5 would lead to fairer outcomes in family courts and enable more children of divorce to get psychological help to reconcile with the alienated parent.
PAS could have harsh consequences during child custody matters in the state of California. During some custody battles, most children have the right to offer input about which parent they would rather live with after a divorce. If a child has been forced to choose a side by a form of alienation, the child’s testimony could sway a child custody matter. There may also be times when parents falsely claim that they have been victimized by PAS. In some cases, the court may order a psychological evaluation if they determine that the parents are placing their emotional needs above their children’s well-being. This would help determine the best course of action in cases involving parental alienation.
While efforts at parental alienation are often intended to cause emotional harm against a former spouse, it’s the children involved who are most emotionally impacted. Neither parent should engage in conduct that could undermine the children’s love and affection for the other. Each parent should actively promote a close and loving relationship between the children and the other parent regardless of the parents’ feelings toward one another. Parental alienation syndrome is serious and adversely affects the health, safety, and well-being of your children. That said, if you are engaging in PAS, you could lose custody of your child. This type of conduct should be avoided at all costs. You should promote the children’s relationship with their other parent, notwithstanding your feelings towards that person.
by Debra Schoenberg