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Written by Dr. Raj Mehta   

The Parental Alienation Syndrome, so named by Dr. Richard Gardner, is a distinctive family response to divorce in which the child becomes aligned with one parent and preoccupied with unjustified and/or exaggerated denigration of the other/target parent. In severe cases, the child's once love-bonded relationship with the target parent is destroyed.


Dr. Richard Gardner was a clinical professor of psychiatry in the Division of Child Psychiatry at Columbia University from 1963 until his death in 2003. In 1985, he introduced the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) in an article titled "Recent Trends in Divorce and Custody Litigation." Dr. Gardner has expertly demonstrated in his work with children and families that PA/PAS is usually related to highly litigious court cases where there is a “destroy to win or the end justifies the means” mentality. Ultimately, an obsessed parent could win in an unsuspecting or uncaring court by programming the child to despise the other parent (and completely destroying the child’s relationship with the target parent).

Parental alienation (PA) develops when the alienating parent relentlessly programs or "brainwashes" the child against the target parent in an effort to align the child with his/her own disturbed agenda to behave in a hateful manner. After this alignment occurs the child becomes a representative of the alienating parent’s agenda by also behaving in hateful ways toward the target parent, and becomes an alienator in their own right, and parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has developed. Depending on the severity of the PAS, the child asserts his/her decision to reject the target parent, in what Dr. Gardner calls the “independent thinker” phenomenon. The child reflexively supports the parent with whom he or she is aligned and expresses guiltless disregard for the feelings of the target parent. This animosity is usually extended to family members and other associated with the target parent.

Alienating parents are driven by the overriding need for power, influence, domination and control. Engaging in PAS may provide the dual gratification of maintaining power, influence and control over the child and vicariously over the ex-spouse whose visitation and relationship with the child is frustrated by the alienating parent's control maneuvers. The need for domination and control are sometimes acted out by abducting the child and using him/her to taunt and torment the frantic target parent.

Parental Child Abductors

An abducting parent views the child's needs as secondary to his/her agenda which is to provoke, agitate, control, attack or psychologically torture the other parent. It should come as no surprise, then, that parental child abduction post-divorce (or during divorce proceedings) is considered a serious form of child abuse. Abducting parents take the idea that the child would be better off without the other parent to an extreme. In order to win the child's cooperation in maintaining concealment, the abductor must continue to brainwash the child with fear of the target parent and what would happen if the target parent should find the abducting parent and child.

In Dr. Gardner's experience, mothers are more frequently found to engage in PAS, which is likened by Clawar and Rivlin to psychological kidnapping, and is also borne out by divorce research, as well as by the clinical PAS literature.

Dr. Gardner has developed many protocols for reversing alienation. However, without legal intervention to limit the alienating parent’s access to the child, and to have the brainwashed child deprogrammed by a child psychologist, it is unlikely that the child will ever recover from PAS. Alienated children lose their ability and free will to make rational choices over their lives. They are likely to experience serious psychiatric disorders, have poor social relationships, and of course pass the problem on to their children.

There are three categories of PA mild, moderate and severe.

In the mild form of PA, there is some parental programming but visitation is not seriously affected. The child participates in the campaign of denigration of the target parent in an attempt to maintain the primary emotional bond with the programming parent, usually the mother. Parent education is often needed to teach these parents to have boundaries that protect their children from upsetting feelings. Without such boundaries, parents are contributing to the psychological insecurity of their children.

In the moderate category of PA, there is a significant degree of parental programming, usually with significant struggles around visitation, and the alienating parent has convinced the child that the target parent is somehow despicable. The child finds the need to protect the angry, alienating parent, stops expressing positive feelings for the target parent, and become caught in a vicious cycle of trying to figure out how to be safe while also sorting through the demonizing attacks made toward the target parent. These are families where there is little hope for mediation to work out a reasonable parenting plan for their children. But using a court to resolve a high-conflict family dispute such as where PA/PAS is present has had some success. The outcome depends almost entirely upon a judge’s ability to understand the nuances of PA/PAS and to make appropriate orders to contain the problem.

Falling into the severe category of PA are those parents who become obsessed with destroying the child’s relationship with the target parent and their family and friends. When PA is severe enough, the child has no choice but to align with the disturbed alienating parent against the target parent, thus destroying their relationship with the target parent. The child no longer has the free will or the ability to continue loving the target parent. The child in severe PAS is fanatic in his or her hatred of the target parent. The Obsessed Alienator will often say: "If my children do not want to see him, I'm not going to force them. They are old enough to make up their own minds." In severe PAS, if the child is allowed to stay with the mother, the relationship with the father is doomed and the child develops long-standing psychopathology and even paranoia. The only effective remedy in severe PAS is to give custody to the alienated parent.

Severely alienating parents are usually psychologically disturbed. They assume that they are entitled to special treatment, and expect others to take care of them, including their children. Drama replaces reason, and they depart from rational thinking. They have no internal conflict, because they truly believe they are right. If a problem arises, it is always someone else’s fault.

They are masters at projection, the strategy that refers to when another person’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are reversed and used to describe the person making the complaint. They lack good parenting skills and are unable to act in the best interests of their child. Children are in their lives to serve them and to help them get their way. The child is not allowed to grieve for the loss of the target parent, extended family, and friends; they are kept busy taking care of the disturbed parent.

According to Clawar and Rivlin, the campaign to alienate the child from the other parent is used to deflect unwanted scrutiny of the programming parent's personal problems, e.g., neglectful parenting, or socially unaccepted life-style. Sometimes parents engage in PAS behavior out of fear that they will be found wanting when compared to the more loving and capable target parent. Although the programming of the child is done for personal gain, some alienating parents are able to use their gender to their advantage and obtain the sympathy of the courts, professionals, and even society. PAS can also be used by keeping the other parent hostilely engaged, as in the Divorce Related Malicious Mother Syndrome. The personality makeup of some parents is such that revenge (Medea Syndrome) seems like their only viable option in response to feeling wounded by the divorce and anger can lead to child stealing.

Divorce Related Malicious Mother Syndrome

This disorder describes a special class of alienating parents who engage in a relentless and multifaceted campaign of aggression and deception against the ex-spouse, who is being punished for the divorce. The parent with the disorder uses an array of tactics including excessive litigation, alienating the child from the target parent, and involving the child and third parties in malicious actions against the ex-spouse. Malicious parents are often successful in using the law to punish and harass the ex-spouse, many a times violating the law themselves but often getting away with it. Their efforts to interfere with the target parent's visitation are persistent and pervasive, including attempts to block the target parent from having regular, uninterrupted visitation with the child and from having telephone contact, as well as trying to block the target parent from participating in the child's school life and activities.

Reason why alienating parents find it so easy to misuse the law

Alienating parents finds it easy to misuse the law because our court processes are based on the assumption that all such individuals are law-abiding citizens. In family law, it is rare to have an accurate psychological evaluation of the alienating parent, since they are usually able to present themselves as the victim. Playing this role allows them to manipulate professionals and society at large. If the alienating parent does not agree with a judicial decision, they are likely to view a court order as a recommendation, and not an order to be obeyed. Due to the current structure of the family court system, PA/PAS cases are usually delayed for years by the alienating parent, lawyers or even judges in the family courts. This jeopardizes the child’s relationship with the target parent, and allows the alienating parents the advantage to continue alienating the child. Seldom in family court are sanctions of fines, jail time, or community service applied to individuals who are held in contempt of court orders including the lawyers who knowingly assist the alienating parent.

Very few family courts use mental health experts to assess the psychological underpinnings of a family. However, if psychological evaluations are conducted on the alienating parent, they often reveal the “borderline, narcissistic, or hysterical personality” disorder. Also, making a diagnosis is tricky, as there are rarely clean-cut distinctions that can be made. Moreover, some abusers are able to use their gender to their advantage and easily play the role of the victim to obtain help from society and professionals. Because alienating parents are socially maladaptive and have no moral conscience, they are often called "sociopaths." Although they may know how to act the part, they are unable to have empathy, sympathy, or compassion for others. Unlike rational people, they do not distinguish between telling the truth and lying.

As the Clawar and Rivlin study points out, brainwashing occurs over time and is usually achieved in multiple ways. It can be conscious and willful or unconscious and unintentional. It can be obvious or subtle, with rewards for compliance that were material, social or psychological, and punishment for noncompliance. The brainwashing is generally influenced and endorsed by relatives and professionals who are aligned with the alienating parent.

In conclusion, PA/PAS is destructive irrespective of the gender of the alienating parent. Every year, thousands of children and parents are experiencing this phenomenon of PA/PAS and the resulting devastation it causes. The financial and emotional cost of PA/PAS is excessive to the target parent. In an attempt to protect an innocent child from the abusive alienating parent, as well as trying to maintain a loving relationship with their child, target parents are likely to borrow against credit cards, siphon money from pension plans, liquidate the equity on a house, or ask extended family to help pay for an escalating and increasingly long legal battles. Legal intervention is a must to set boundaries for alienating parents and their lawyers in order to protect children from this type of devastation. Without setting boundaries for the alienating parents and their lawyers, the courts are condemning innocent children to life-long psychological damage.


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