Divorce is never easy for families, especially if there are children involved. Parents who get divorced should make it a priority to make the split as easy as possible for their children. Unfortunately, some parents cannot put their negative emotions aside and end up trying to poison their children against the other parent. This behavior has become so common and problematic that it has its own name: parental alienation syndrome.
Understanding Parental Alienation Syndrome
Parental alienation syndrome, which is a term first expressed by child psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner in 1985, refers to the efforts of a divorced parent to turn his or her children against their other parent. Put another way, it is a parent’s attempt to undermine the other parent’s relationship with their shared child as a punishment for divorce.
Parental alienation syndrome can include many different behaviors, including:
- Repeating derogatory statements about the child’s other parent in their presence
- Deliberately spreading lies about the child’s other parent
- Falsely reporting sexual assault or child abuse
- Preventing a child from spending time with his or her other parent, and
- Telling the child that their other parent doesn’t care about them or that they don’t want to see them.
The primary goal of these behaviors is to indoctrinate the child and eventually cause that child to reject his or her other parent on their own.
When Gardner first discussed parental alienation syndrome, he firmly believed that mothers were more likely to engage in this devious behavior by falsely accusing fathers of sexual and/or child abuse. In fact, he even stated that the mother would be the alienator in an overwhelming 90 percent of parental alienation syndrome cases. However, in time, Gardner retracted this assessment and said that was equally likely for either parent to engage in alienating behavior.
Is Parental Alienation Syndrome a Recognized Mental Disorder?
While much of the research about parental alienation syndrome comes from scientists and mental health professionals, it is not formally recognized as a mental health disorder. Instead, the American Psychological Association currently argues that it is not a mental disorder limited to one parent, but rather a “relationship dysfunction” of two individuals.
However, there is much debate in the mental health community about whether or not this syndrome should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV). In fact, approximately half of all mental professionals are in favor of including it. Many new entries in the DSM IV directly reflect the importance of a parent’s behavior on his or her children. If parental alienation syndrome were formally recognized as a mental health problem, parents who engaged in the dangerous and damaging behavior could potentially receive much-needed treatment and counseling. This could help to limit the damage caused by parents who attempt to alienate their children from their other parent.
How Does Parental Alienation Syndrome Affect Custody Disputes?
Children are very impressionable and may be easily swayed by one parent’s efforts to alienate them from the other. In many states, including California, this could have very real consequences in child custody matters. In California, most children have the right to offer input about which parent they would rather live with after a divorce. If a child has been indoctrinated to believe that one of their parents is bad or evil, or falsely led to believe that one of their parents simply doesn’t care about them, that child’s testimony could easily sway a child custody matter.
There may also be times when parents falsely claim that they have been victimized by parental alienation syndrome. For example, imagine that a child has been abused by or witnessed Parent A hitting Parent B. In court, Parent A argues that the reason the child is fearful of them is because Parent B has filled the child’s head with lies. If the court believes Parent A, it could decide that he or she should get additional visitation or custody of the child. This could potentially put the child in very real danger.
What Are the Signs of Parental Alienation Syndrome?
The consequences of parental alienation syndrome can be very real and very devastating for the entire family. Good parents can lose visitation and/or custody of their children. The bond between a parent and child can be irreparably broken. Abusive parents may be able to work the system and manipulate a court to get the result they want, effectively putting a child in harm’s way.
The best way to avoid the consequences of parental alienation syndrome is to know how to identify the problem. If a child has been affected by parental alienation syndrome, they may demonstrate some of the following sudden and unexpected behaviors:
- Unwilling to spend time with one parent
- Cowering in fear when in the presence of one parent
- Refusing to obey or listen to one parent
- Repeating lies and derogatory statements about one parent
- Refusing to speak with and/or communicate with one parent, and
- Expressing outright hatred for one parent.
When a child engages in these behaviors, but has no justification or way to explain his or her actions, it may be wise to consider that they have been victimized by parental alienation syndrome.