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September 3, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

This past Sunday I was privileged to give a webinar for the Parental Alienation Awareness Organization, a Canadian group whose name is self-explanatory. Listeners/viewers from all over the world tuned in and many had excellent questions at the end. Unfortunately, this written version excludes “Jim’s Saga” that’s only oral. I’ve asked the PAAO for a link to the presentation that would include that story. As soon as they get it to me, I’ll provide the link.

I’m going to talk about Parental Alienation Syndrome, how it differs from simple alienation and how to spot it. I’d like to begin by reading the story of a typical target of alienating behavior, whom I’ll call Jim.

Jim’s Saga

Jim’s story is far from the most gruesome tale of PAS I could have given you; it’s just typical of what an alienated parent experiences. Aspects of the syndrome include a child custody case, alienating behavior by one parent (almost always the custodial one), that’s aided and abetted by institutions that should ameliorate such behavior, alienation’s profound effect on children and the gradual removal of the targeted parent from the children’s lives.

Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome are not the same. Parental Alienation is the behavior of the parent; Parental Alienation Syndrome refers to the behavior of the alienated child. PA is common and can be seen to some degree in countless child custody cases and, often enough, in intact couples. One parent wants the children for herself, wants their primary affection, wants to be their sole source of comfort and care. In a child custody case, a parent – angry at the break-up of the marriage - bad-mouths the other parent to the children. Such is the nature of parental alienation; it’s bad behavior by one parent against the other and, often as not, by both parents against each other.

In most cases, this sort of behavior attenuates over time. The raw feelings occasioned by the divorce begin to heal and the parents emotionally go their separate ways. They begin to interact in a more reasonable way for the sake of peace between them and the kids’ well-being. In the meantime, the children have learned to manage their parents’ hurt feelings. So, when they’re around Mom, they’re careful to not be too effusive about Dad and vice versa. This gives each parent the impression the kids are on their side while shielding the children from whatever anti-Dad/anti-Mom vitriol may come from their being too positive about the other parent.

Parental Alienation Syndrome is different. In it, the children take sides with the alienating parent against the target. They do so for a variety of reasons that include the real belief that the targeted parent conforms to the narrative of the alienator, i.e. he’s abusive, uncaring, alcoholic, drug-addicted, criminal, etc. But they also may side with the alienator because of a perception, often true, that the alienator is vulnerable and needs their help.

Importantly, in order to take sides with the alienating parent against the targeted one, the child must mentally discount all facts and perceptions that contradict the alienating parent’s narrative about the other parent. And the child must accept as true the claims of that narrative that’s intended to turn the child away from the other parent. To do those things is to radically contradict reality with a fictional narrative. So Mommy says Daddy is violent, but when the child is with Daddy, he’s not violent. So how does the child rationalize what Mommy says with what Daddy does?

The crucial fact, particularly for very young children is that they have no ability to distinguish fact from fiction and no life experience to draw on that allows them to understand that Mommy is lying, that Daddy loves them.

Older children, who are able to distinguish fact from fiction, may still see the benefit to taking sides with the alienator. They live with her between 80 and 85% of the time and rely on her goodwill for essentially everything in their lives. So they come to understand that peace in her home requires them to ally themselves with her against him. Plus, that alliance may confer added benefits.

For example, look at Jim’s daughters who easily understood that agreeing with their mother’s false narrative of abuse by Jim meant that they could avoid punishment by him. The learned they could cry “abuse” and he would be unable to correct their behavior.

Everyone has by now noticed that I’ve been using the feminine pronoun for the alienating parent and the masculine for the alienated one. That is not because fathers aren’t alienators; they can be. Nothing in the scientific literature on PAS indicates that fathers are any less prone to alienating behavior than are mothers. I identify alienators as mothers to make an important point about PAS – that it is an opportunistic phenomenon.

In order to alienate children the parent must have the opportunity to do so, and that means he/she must have the time in which to convince the children of the other parent’s defects, ill-will, etc. Doing so takes time and it requires that the other parent not have the time with which to contradict the alienator’s false narrative. In other words, it requires the precise conditions family courts so often create for divorcing parents.

In the United States, 83% of custodial parents are mothers, and in the UK, Canada, Australia, etc., it’s closer to 90%. Plus, standard visitation orders typically give non-custodial fathers only 14% to 20% of the parenting time. In short, the precise preconditions for effective parental alienation of fathers by mothers are ordered by judges on a daily basis. Therefore, when we see alienation, it’s very likely a mother doing it, not because mothers are more likely to alienate, but because they have the opportunity to do so.

So, what precisely is PAS? The science on PAS is by now well-established. Indeed, the most recent and most comprehensive text on the syndrome was published late last year with Dr. William Bernet of Vanderbilt University as its editor. The book, includes over 1,000 bibliographical references to the syndrome from researchers in 35 countries worldwide and over 500 legal cases in which PAS has been recognized.

Observations of PAS date back at least to the 1950s. In the 70s, Wallerstein and Kelly observed and recorded the alienation of children and their subsequent hostility toward the alienated parent. The fact that Dr. Richard Gardner coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome in 1986 does not mean that that was the first time mental health professionals had noticed the phenomenon. It only means that they had just begun to recognize it as a discrete syndrome worthy of investigation and treatment.

Here is Gardner’s definition that still serves today: PAS is “a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.”

Notice particularly the words “a campaign that has no justification.” Those who oppose recognition of PAS typically claim that a child who vilifies its father may be completely justified. The man may be a monster, an abuser, a pedophile and the child’s response is entirely appropriate to the reality of the situation. That may be true, but what those opponents of PAS recognition refuse to notice is that, if it is, a diagnosis of PAS can’t be made. The definition of the term includes the concept that there is no justification for the child’s anti-dad attitude.

And that is where the courts come in. Consider a typical scenario. Mom files for divorce and demands primary or sole custody of the children. Dad doesn’t want to lose his kids, so he counterfiles for custody. Mom’s concerned about losing custody or parenting time, so she alleges child abuse by Dad. Dad indignantly rejects the claim and points out that Mom’s behavior is aimed at removing him from the child’s life, i.e. she’s alienating. The court is now faced with figuring out who is telling the truth. Confusing the situation is the possibility that the children may well corroborate Mom’s story, much as Jim’s children learned to do. Is their campaign against Dad justified or not?

For a diagnosis of PAS to be made, eight distinct symptoms must be present in whole or in part.

The first is a campaign of denigration of the targeted parent by the child.

All families create their own narratives of who they are and what they’re doing. It’s one way they make sense of life and their own place in the scheme of things. One of those narratives can be the campaign of denigration. It begins with the alienating parent bad-mouthing the targeted parent and continues as the child picks up on the alienator’s narrative and elaborates on it. Indeed, one of the most obvious diagnostic clues is the child’s use of language that’s not age-appropriate. So one therapist reports a five-year-old referring to her father as a “philanderer.” Well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the child is simply channeling Mom.

Another simple diagnostic technique is to ask the child for specifics of Dad’s objectionable behavior. In a PAS situation, the child will be unable to offer concrete examples, will rely on generalizations and sometimes not even understand what’s being said.

How do alienating parents convince their children that a formerly loved parent is in fact unworthy of the child’s affection, formerly so freely given? Dr. Amy Baker has identified several methods. An alienating parent may diminish the importance of the target parent in the eyes of the child by persistent and merciless denigration of his character. She may inculcate in the child the notion that its father is dangerous. She may question the other parent’s love for the child in order to break the emotional bond between the two. She may withdraw her own love when the child expresses feelings of love for Daddy. And finally, she may simply attempt to remove the other parent from the child’s life, often using the courts to assist her. In short, alienating parents manipulate their children with gifts, threats and intimidation and are often assisted by courts, CPS and the police.

(2) Weak, frivolous or absurd rationalizations for denigrating the other parent.

When asked to justify their hatred of the targeted parent, the child relies on examples of bad behavior that either don’t make sense or don’t warrant rejection of the parent. When a child joins the campaign of the alienating parent, the two collude to create often fantastic tales to justify the denigration. But typically, the child by itself will be unable to justify the anti-dad narrative.

So the child will come up with vague generalities to explain his/her behavior. “He lies,” “he’s embarrassing,” “he’s annoying,” “he’s abusive,” are all typical of the genre. But, when asked for specific examples, the child comes up short. Or, even if the child can cite an example, it’s “weak, frivolous or absurd.” So one mental health professional recalled a child telling her “If he would only stop going on the Internet or talking on the phone, I would be happy to be there.” Other examples include a child who complained that his father had been embarrassing at the supermarket by asking to speak to the manager about a particular issue. Still another claimed his father had demanded that the child give up his allegiance to the New York Mets baseball team in favor of the Yankees.

(3) Lack of Ambivalence.

All healthy relationships are characterized by a certain level of ambivalence. No sensible wife thinks her husband is perfect and no husband thinks that about his wife. Adults understand their own shortcomings and those of their partners, family members, neighbors, business associates, etc. Ambivalence is a given in essentially all relationships.

But alienated children often exhibit behaviors toward both the alienating parent and the targeted parent that are 100% black or white. That is, they lack the ambivalence that characterizes virtually all human relationships. So therapists attuned to the concept of PAS will look for indications of “black/white thinking” on the part of children. PAS children will recite a long list of deficits about the targeted parent while minimizing any suggestion of positive attributes on his part. And when it comes to the alienator, the opposite is true. With that parent, all is sweetness and light; the child will admit of no negative qualities.

So when a mental health professional asks a child about memories of interactions with the targeted parent, the response is a litany of the negative. He never threw a ball with me, never helped with homework, never took me to the zoo, never praised a good report card, etc. Even proof positive that the child’s notions are inaccurate can be useless in convincing the child of the falsity of the anti-dad narrative. One therapist reported the following: “During our sessions, the children proclaimed to him that he was “totally worthless” because he does not provide child support. Despite producing canceled checks of his child support, they could not be disabused of their beliefs because their alienating mother continued to inculcate them with misinformation…”

Other children are more creative. One boy was extremely excited to receive a gift of camping equipment from his father in preparation for a camping trip they’d planned. He even went so far as to set up the tent in his father’s back yard to get the feel of camping out. But a single telephone call from his mother changed his tune. Suddenly he refused to go on the trip at all, explaining to his father that he was merely feigning pleasure over the camping gear and their anticipated trip.

The psychologist for that same boy recounts how he “crucified his father for his every trivial oversight such as failing to bring home dental floss, but simultaneously excused his mother for having filed multiple petitions requesting an order of protection based on bogus abuse charges, charges which he knew to be false and about which he knew his mother had perjured herself.”

(4) The Independent Thinker.

This is the child who denies any influence on his/her thinking about the alienated parent. According to this narrative, the child maturely and deliberately came to conclusions about his father alone with no coaching from anyone.

One of the key diagnostic clues is that these children are often eager to volunteer their declarations of independent thought without being asked and often in situations in which such a statement is totally extraneous to the topic. Reasonably sensible adults understand such expressions to reveal the very opposite of what’s claimed. Those who are eager to display their independence can be counted on to be the least independent, and so it is with kids. As Dr. Richard Gardner pointed out, “Children who have their own opinions do not have to vociferously profess them with the disclaimer about the programmer’s input.”

There are several basic motivations for this behavior. First, the child is protecting the alienating parent with whom he/she is allied. Clearly, if the child has drawn conclusions independently, the alienator cannot be at fault if the conclusions turn out to be wrong or hurtful. Second, the child gains points with the alienating parent with whom he/she spends most of the time. The child demonstrates to the alienator that he/she can carry some of the weight of alienating the target parent. Finally, the child has learned that negative consequences result from contradicting the alienator’s narrative and so he/she is eager to demonstrate fealty to it.

(5) Reflexive Support for the Alienating Parent.

When divorced or divorcing parents have conflict, children often find themselves with dueling loyalties. Smart parents take pains to assure their kids that the conflict is only between the two adults, and that both adults love the children and will always be there for them. Alienating parents are different. They demand the unswerving loyalty of the kids. Whatever the issue, the alienating parent must be in the right and the target in the wrong. No matter how bizarre the alienator’s claim, no matter how questionable her behavior, the child will be required to support her and oppose Dad. That alienator-child alliance is developed and cemented in all the ways described previously.

And there’s nothing like continuing conflict in court to provide those “it’s him or me” type of issues on which alienators thrive. Researchers report that alienators can be relied on to draw the children into the courtroom drama. And, just like in court, conflict is exacerbated to further the campaign of denigration. Therefore for example, if Dad seeks to lower child support payments, the child is told he wants the custodial parent and the child destitute and living in the street. Motions to expand visitation are spun as efforts to tear the child from its loving mother.

Children recruited to take sides against the targeted parent routinely use the plural pronouns, “we, us and our” instead of the singular “I, me and my.” One teenaged boy told his targeted father “Your suggestion for how to divide our marital assets doesn’t sound credible.”

Needless to say, it’s easier for a parent to get a child to take his/her side if the issue concerns the child directly. So one teenage son took his father’s side in making the utterly false claim that the mother was attempting to exempt herself from contributing to the boy’s college fund.

And of course claims of domestic violence or child abuse are often used in court. And when children join the alienating parent in making those claims, it can present a very difficult problem for the judge to sort out fact from fiction.

(6) Cruelty Toward the Alienated Parent with no Remorse or Guilt.

PAS children seem to take pleasure in rubbing salt into the court-inflicted wounds of divorce and child custody. And they do so in a strangely sociopathic manner; they seem to have no awareness of how their behavior affects the targeted parent.

(7) The Presence of Borrowed Scenarios.

This symptom refers to the strong tendency of children to simply adopt the alienating parent’s narrative. As such, the narrative is foreign to the child, a fact that becomes clear in his/her discourse. Basically, PAS children sound like they’re reading from a script. The language isn’t theirs, it’s that of the alienating parent. So they use words and concepts they don’t understand, refer to events at which they weren’t present and often make claims that are outlandish or even impossible. Likewise, the words they use are often identical to those used by the alienating parent.

So, one boy who passionately demanded of his father “Didn’t anyone ever teach you to love?” was asked by his therapist what he meant. He had no idea. The reason of course was that the idea was not his own, but his mother’s and he’d merely adopted it.

(8) Extension of animosity to the extended family of the target parent.

If the goal of parental alienation is the removal of the targeted parent from the child’s life, the narrative of the alienating parent may well expand to include the target’s extended family. After all, if little Andy or Jenny is permitted to see paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. the campaign of denigration may well come undone. So the narrative that Daddy is an ogre is often extended to his family who of course raised him and therefore make easy targets. Only ogre’s beget ogres.

Such is the nature of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Let us be clear; PAS is child abuse. No serious mental health professional thinks otherwise. And judges, lawyers, legislators, custody evaluators and the like must be educated to understand the fact. As Dr. Richard Gardner said, “A parent who inculcates PAS in a child is indeed perpetrating a form of emotional abuse in that such programming may not only produce lifelong alienation from a loving parent, but lifelong psychiatric disturbance in a child.”

Consider the vulnerability of a child, particularly a very young one. Divorce alone is traumatic enough and divorce often means separation from a familiar and loving parent. That separation adds to the trauma. Plus, the alienating parent demands that the targeted parent be, all of a sudden, perceived to be a monster, an abuser who doesn’t love and never loved the child. Add to that the mental and emotional gymnastics a child must perform in order to distort known reality to fit the narrative of the alienating parent. We can easily see that the emotional stability of a child, particularly a very young one, whose ability to distinguish fact from fiction is limited, can be permanently damaged.

Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what mental health professionals see in adults who were alienated as children. Dr. Amy Baker, in her book Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, finds that those adults suffer damage to self-esteem, formation of shame and guilt, the fear of abandonment, increased dependency, inability to form secure relationships, suicidal ideation etc. Likewise, alienated children are more likely than others to become alienating parents. After all, their primary role model was exactly that.

More and more, mental health professionals are starting to acknowledge the existence of PAS and to diagnose it. The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association does not include the specific term, but the diagnosis and symptoms appear under other headings. And countless courts now accept the diagnosis as having a sound scientific foundation.

But courts rely on mental health professionals to inform them about child well-being and to properly evaluate parents for the purpose of ordering custody. Time and again we see evaluators utterly unversed in PAS who unquestioningly accept the word of alienating parents and alienated children when even rudimentary training would cause them to question the narrative. Think of Jim’s experience. Indeed, not a few of these evaluators are happy to join in the alienation itself.

So, in order for family court judges to make proper custody orders, mental health professionals must be educated in PAS and they must set aside whatever anti-father bias they have. But beyond that, judges and lawyers too must learn the rudiments of PAS. Family lawyers must be ethically required to discharge an alienating parent from their representation. And judges must be taught to see PAS when it comes into their courtrooms. Most importantly, they must learn that PAS is child abuse and act immediately to alter custody so as to blunt its terrible effects.

Fortunately, many states have taken a first tentative step toward prohibiting alienators from having custody. So-called “friendly parent” clauses in custody statutes are becoming more and more the norm. Those clauses require judges to consider whether a parent promotes the relationship of the child with the other parent and can therefore form the basis for correcting alienating behavior. Indeed, in many cases we see judges doing exactly that. Still, judges, police, lawyers, therapists and CPS are all woefully behind the curve. Science sees PAS for what it is, but science alone can’t stop it. Only when all the institutions involved in child custody issues are educated on PAS will we start to see a change for the better.

More importantly, we must scrap once and for all our system of primary and sole custody. Recall that PAS cannot exist without the opportunity by one parent to turn the children against the other parent and the lack of opportunity by the target parent to demonstrate that he’s not as the alienator claims. Equal parenting, or close to it, removes the opportunity to alienate from both parents and provides the opportunity to both to contradict any alienation that may be occurring.

Therefore, equal parenting statutes alone will go a long way toward removing the scourge of PAS from children’s lives and judges and mental health professionals educated in the syndrome can do the rest.

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