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Feb 27, 2024

Understanding Parental Alienation Syndrome

Children and Divorce

Divorce is never easy – even with couples who wish to part ways amicably. Having children makes divorce much harder. While the couple deals with the real-life issues of separating a marital estate, they also have to continue to work and maintain a lifestyle for the children. Unfortunately, children can end up being the collateral damage in the divorce. Children may be affected for years after the divorce. Unfortunately, the parents are often to blame for this unnecessary suffering.

What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) was first named by a child psychologist, Richard Gardner, in 1985. It is not recognized as a mental health condition, nor is it officially recognized by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization, but the mental health effects are real (Heitler, 2018).

Types of Alienation Behaviors: Overt, passive-aggressive and subtle

Parental alienation occurs in many ways, all damaging the child.

Overt: Hostile and aggressive

Overt parental alienation behaviors are the most obvious, although some might just believe the other parent is being a jerk. An example of is when one parent disparages the other parent in front of the children, such as “Your mother is a piece of shit”. Sometimes the children themselves criticizes the other parent over and over again and without justification. I have had parents tell me that they hear their other spouse through their children – such as, “Your just like your father”. These are just some examples of obvious alienation tactics, but there are others that are more dangerous.

Passive-aggressive – creating confusion and anxiety

There are those passive-aggressive parents who some will argue have narcissistic personality traits. One very common example occurs when there is a switch-off between custody of the children. The receiving parent might be “sweet” or “fake” to try to impress the children (which by the way, the children see right through this as they get older). Sometimes the parent might give the children the silent treatment or withhold snacks or treats if the children mention the other parent in a positive way, or if they are preparing for a visit with the other parent and show excitement.

Subtle – and lethal

Finally, there are subtle alienation tactics. These are difficult to prove and are usually done by people who are master manipulators (narcissistic or not). A parent might sign up a child for a summer camp that just happens to fall on days that interfere with the other parent’s custodial time. I have witnessed cases where the parent has selected phone call times with the other parent for the children at the worst possible times thus making the call with the other parent unproductive and sometimes impossible to occur.

The Damage Done to Children

Good Cop, Bad Cop Gone Rogue

As parents, we know the game of “Good Cop, Bad Cop”. This strategy works at times for families managing children of all ages. However, parental alienation syndrome is basically a form of this game gone bad. It is where one parent uses as many tactics as humanly possible to get their children to turn on the other parent.

Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) was first named by a child psychologist, Richard Gardner, in 1985. It is not recognized as a mental health condition, nor is it officially recognized by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization, but the mental health effects are real (Heitler, 2018). Parental alienation occurs in many ways. In part 1 of this series, I referenced three kinds of alienation: subtle, passive-aggressive, and overt.

Targeted Parent Faces Uphill Battle

If the children fall prey to these nasty tactics, the alienated parent could lose their children. They could lose them emotionally and also in court by losing physical custody of them. As a practicing family law attorney, I have witnessed this firsthand, many times. Remember that some of these tactics can be subtle, or passive-aggressive, which are the toughest ones to overcome, especially if the children are younger. They are especially hard to prove in court.

The alienating parent will badmouth the other parent, they will lie to the children about the divorce, saying things like, “Mommy took me to court”, which sounds bad, but then does not tell the truth about WHY Mommy took him to court. The alienating parent might not allow the children to visit extended family members on the other side. They might go so far as to call school officials and doctors and make false allegations turning them against the alienated parent. Sadly, there are some parents who will go so far as to have the child make allegations of sexual or child abuse, thus involving Children in Youth services, which are devastating to the alienated parent and are extremely time consuming.

Damage Extends into Adulthood

But what about the children during all of this? Gardner, who coined this syndrome, described eight behaviors that were identified in a survey of 68 targeted parents with severely alienated children. (Baker and Darnell, 2007). Some children become consumed with hatred for the targeted parent. Some children pick on the smallest things about the other parent. They lack ambivalence and see the alienating parent as perfect and the targeted one as flawed. Though completely brainwashed by the alienating parent, the children still believe their ideas are their own and are not those of the alienating parent. These children will turn on the extended family of the targeted parent. Even if the alienating parent treats the children poorly, they will still side with that parent, regardless if their basis is irrational.

Adult children of this abuse believed that their experience had many negative effects. Some admitted to having depression and to abusing drugs and alcohol to help them hide from their true pain. Others ended up having failed relationships and marriages as well. The worst long-term effect of this was them alienating their own children. The children interviewed in this study revealed that the alienating parent “had emotionally, physically, or sexually abused them”, yet these children stayed aligned with that parent. (Baker, 2008).

This can be life-changing for the targeted parent. It is painful, it is unfair, and it is very difficult to overcome. There are ways, however, to get the children to move from alienation to realization.

Coping Strategies

If children can realize what is happening, there is a chance that true healing can begin and the relationship can be restored. If you are the victim of parental alienation, here are ways you can cope with this challenge. As a practicing attorney, I tell my clients that each divorce is unique, and I believe this to be especially true of cases involving parental alienation. Listed below are some coping strategies that might help you. I hope some of these tips will comfort you during this difficult time.

Be prepared

Lawyers tell their clients to “Expect the worst, but hope for the best”. With parental alienation, however, the alienated parent has to expect and be prepared for the worst. Some alienated parents see this as a ‘battle.’ The length of the battle depends on the ages of the children. Do not be fooled; adult children are almost as vulnerable as young children.

Accept the facts and be real

Sharie Stines, a PsyD, says to begin by figuring out how to make peace with your reality. (2018, Stines) If you are dealing with a narcissist, this is especially difficult. It is almost impossible to comprehend that this person who was once your spouse is now someone whom you hardly recognize. They have a relentless, vengeful, and hateful attitude towards you and that will never change. You will want to hope for the best and even think things might improve over time. It will not. So just accept this as your new normal.

Seek the guidance of a therapist

There are many counselors out there that specialize in parental alienation. It might be helpful for you to start alone to learn how to manage the abusive behavior and then maybe after a few sessions, try to engage the children. If you can get your children into therapy, there is a chance at reversing the damage. Unfortunately, by the time you realize this is occurring, the children might refuse therapy so be prepared. In this case, you are left to time and taking the higher road. If the child is a minor a parent can make them go to counseling, but from my anecdotal observations, this does not end well for the child or the parent.

Also, realize that you cannot save the children from the alienating parent. The children must learn this on their own and most therapists agree that it is healthy for the children to have to work through this on their own for their own emotional growth. The fact is that they will always be that other parent and they have rights. Of course, if the abuse becomes unbearable, using the legal system may be your only option.

Investigate support groups for alienated parents

For some this is great, but again for others it might not be as effective. You might have to try one or more groups to find the one that offers you the greatest benefit. If you do not have time to sit with a group and discuss parental alienation, arm yourself with knowledge. Read up on the topic, as there are many great articles and blogs out there to help you. Every little bit helps.

Be kind to yourself

If the parental alienation is caused by a narcissist, you will additional issues and it will take time. A lot of time. One client of mine told me she does a ten-minute meditation before she gets out of bed each morning. Another client focuses on exercise and goes for a walk daily. Another client journals. All of these simple activities not only help you feel better physically, but they do a great service to your mental health and some can assist with weight management (a bonus!).

Have a support system

Most of us don’t want to impose on others but divorce is different. Adding parental alienation makes it very different and very difficult. Surround yourself with a group of people who are like-minded and share your values. Take time to spend with friends. Talk to them and let them listen. There are many people who are happy to lend you an ear to vent your frustrations. You will need this for yourself so you don’t vent in front of your kids when they are with you.

Remember this is a marathon and not a sprint

Many wise people, therapists and others who have lived through this have told me that the kids will eventually grow up. So, start to live your life, and learn to live with them as they grow into adulthood. It takes time. Enjoy their moments with them – genuinely. Hopefully, they will be with you in the years to come.

About the author

Christine Lombardo-Zaun, Esquire

Christine brings extensive experience and expertise to the Alpha Center for Divorce Mediation. Her credentials include operating her own practice in Allentown since 2011 while also working with the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas as a Divorce Review officer and court-appointed attorney since 2011. She earned her Doctor of Jurisprudence from The Dickinson School of Law of the Pennsylvania State University in 2010 and also holds an MBA from Penn State as well as a BSBA in Business Administration and a BA in Speech Communication from Shippensburg University.