Who Have Successfully Fought Parental Alienation Syndrome
by Jayne A. Major, Ph.D. (UCLA)
stirs up passions more than the controversy generated
when parents are at war over the custody of a child.
A controversy is an issue where evidence on both sides
can make a compelling case. It is never black and
white, but when people have their emotions aroused,
an issue can quickly turn into two polar opposites.
Fear takes over reason, incomplete facts become evidence,
and court calendars become jammed with repeat visits
to a judge to try to bring sanity to what is unlikely
to ever be sane. On top of this, social movements
are promoting one side over another in their clamor
for justice. Politicians are lobbied to pass laws
to bring order to chaos. Gender wars are fueled and
lives are destroyed.
exposure to custody wars came from the mothers and
fathers attending my Breakthrough Parenting ® classes
at The Parent Connection, Inc., an agency that I founded
in Los Angeles in 1983. Many of the parents in my
classes were litigating over child custody. Most said
that they wanted to settle the case, but none of them
would settle by giving up all access to their child,
which seemed to be the only other alternative open
to them. It was disturbing to see that in many of
these cases, the child was behaving outrageously,
to the point of cursing one of their parents, kicking,
spitting, and calling them stupid, mean and horrible.
can you do when one parent is intractable and vitriolic?
What can you do when the child becomes caught up in
the fight and starts taking sides? I came to realize
that this level of conflict in custody disputes was
fallout from sweeping societal changes.
the 1960's and the 1970's, feminists told fathers
that they should take a more active role in raising
their children. Women were going to work, going back
to college and pursuing careers as never before. A
shift then began, and fathers became more involved
in the day-to-day care of their children than was
true in previous generations.
rigidity about parental roles began to fall away,
the tender years doctrine was still in place. This
doctrine presumed that, by virtue of the fact that
a woman was the mother of a child, she must be the
superior parent. In the early 1970's several states
passed "no-fault" divorce laws, where anyone who wanted
out of a marriage was free to leave. Some have called
it the "no guilt laws." There was a proliferation
of divorce that was historically unprecedented.
a family break-up, many fathers wanted to continue
to be involved with the care of their children. Suddenly,
they found that they had no legal right to have custody
of their children unless the mother agreed to it.
to the lobbying efforts of James Cook, founder of
the Joint Custody Association, who was caught up in
this problem himself, the California legislature successfully
passed the first joint custody laws. Joint custody
was widely seen as a better way of handling the evolving
problem of how to share child custody. It was believed
that it would lead to fewer fights over the custody
of children because it was more equal. Other states
also passed joint custody laws. These laws helped
to level the playing field for fathers.
majority of mothers and fathers welcomed joint custody.
Others did not. As with any trend, there was backlash.
Child custody became a highly political gender-specific
issue. Thus, the ramping up of high-level disputes
also began in the 70's.
most states the tender years presumption (mother knows
best) was replaced with the best-interests- of-the-child
presumption of joint custody (the best parent is both
parents). In the 1980's, courts began to increasingly
ignore gender in determining child custody. This removed
the automatic allocation of full custody rights to
the mother, so she had less time with the children.
Instead, the courts looked first at how the custody
could be shared, and if that wasn't possible, judicial
officers attempted to determine which parent was more
interested and better able to attend to the best interest
of the child. Fathers perceived that they were at
a disadvantage because of a bias toward the mother
having custody. Because of this, in the 1980's more
fathers than ever started showing up at parenting
classes to make sure that their skills were state
of the art. This is when these issues were first called
to my attention.
parents were able to share custody of their children,
and they worked out child care issues in an amicable
way. A large number of women were even relieved to
have fathers share in the child care, which enabled
them to pursue their personal life goals involving
their education and career. However, when there was
not a friendly resolution to custody, fathers found
themselves with a greater opportunity to gain joint
or primary custodial status by litigating (going to
court). The stakes got even higher when the legal
system was used to resolve these difficult problems.
In extreme cases, the alienation of a child's affection
against a targeted parent became a bizarre escalation
of the intensity of the conflict.
Discovered Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)?
association with this growing child-custody litigation,
forensic psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Gardner first
identified Parental Alienation Syndrome in the 1980's.
He noticed a dramatic increase in the frequency of
a disorder rarely observed before, that of programming
or brainwashing of a child by one parent to denigrate
the other parent.
the disorder wasn't just brainwashing or programming
by a parent. It was confounded by what Dr. Gardner
calls self-created contributions by the child in support
of the alienating parent's campaign of denigration
against the targeted parent. He called this disorder
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), a new term that
includes the contribution to the problem made by both
the parent and the child.
definition of PAS is:
- The Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is a disorder
that arises primarily in the context of child-custody
primary manifestation is the child's campaign of
denigration against a parent, a campaign that has
results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing)
of a parent's indoctrinations and the child's own
contributions to the vilification of the targeted
from: Gardner, R.A. (1998). The Parental Alienation
Syndrome, Second Edition, Cresskill, NJ: Creative
is the Child's Part in PAS?
notes that the PAS is more than brainwashing or programming,
because the child has to actually participate in the
denigrating of the alienated parent. This is done
in primarily the following eight ways:
- The child denigrates the alienated parent with foul
language and severe oppositional behavior.
child offers weak, absurd, or frivolous reasons
for his or her anger.
child is sure of him or herself and doesn't demonstrate
ambivalence, i.e. love and hate for the alienated
parent, only hate.
child exhorts that he or she alone came up with
ideas of denigration. The "independent-thinker"
phenomenon is where the child asserts that no one
told him/her to do this.
child supports and feels a need to protect the alienating
child does not demonstrate guilt over cruelty towards
the alienated parent.
child uses borrowed scenarios, or vividly describes
situations that he or she could not have experienced.
is spread to the friends and/or extended family
of the alienated parent.
severe cases of parent alienation, the child is utterly
brainwashed against the alienated parent. The alienator
can truthfully say that the child doesn't want to
spend any time with this parent, even though he or
she has told him that he has to, it is a court order,
etc. The alienator typically responds, "There isn't
anything that I can do about it. I'm not telling him
that he can't see you."
is an Escalation of Parental Alienation (PA)
Douglas Darnall in his book Divorce Casualties: Protecting
Your Children from Parental Alienation, describes
three categories of PA:
mild category he calls the naïve alienators. They
are ignorant of what they are doing and are willing
to be educated and change.
moderate category is the active alienators. When
they are triggered, they lose control of appropriate
boundaries. They go ballistic. When they calm down,
they don't want to admit that they were out of control.
the severe category are the obsessed alienators
or those who are involved in PAS. They operate from
a delusional system where every cell of their body
is committed to destroying the other parent's relationship
with the child.
the latter case, he notes that we don't have an effective
protocol for treating an obsessed alienator other
than removing the child from their influence. An important
point is that in PAS there is no true parental abuse
and/or neglect on the part of the alienated parent.
If this were the case, the child's animosity would
be justified. Also, it is not PAS if the child still
has a positive relationship with the parent, even
though one parent is attempting to alienate the child
from him or her.
Gender is Most Likely to Initiate PAS?
statistics showed that the majority of PAS occurrences
were initiated by mothers. Mothers have traditionally
had primary custody of children (although before the
20th century it normally belonged to the father),
and the mothers usually spend more time with the children.
order for a campaign of alienation to occur, one parent
needs to have considerable time with the child. However,
in recent years increasing numbers of fathers have
started instigating PAS, since there are few legal
sanctions for doing so.
I've seen several dramatic cases where the father
was the alienator. In one case, the father had no
control over his obsession to trash the mother. Numerous
professionals told him, including the mother, that
he could have shared custody if he would be willing
to follow the rules. He didn't have the self control
to do this. When he lost custody because of his aberrant
behavior, he became a celebrity in the father's rights
movement and took his campaign into national circles.
No one would know from hearing him speak about his
situation that there was serious pathology going on
(PAS) or how hard the professionals worked to stabilize
it. Moreover, in cultures where women traditionally
have no tangible rights, alienation by the father
can be severe.
met divorcing women who had been prevented from learning
how to make a living to support themselves. At the
time of separation all access to financial resources
were stopped and the children removed from her care.
These women reported severe alienation of affection.
It makes one grateful to have laws that protect human
rights and enforce a better way of resolving conflict
than a winner-take-all approach.
Common is PA and PAS?
parents first separate there is often parent alienation.
For example, due to the anxiety of the mother, she
is likely to say indirectly to a child that he or
she is not safe with the father.
me as soon as you get there to let me know you are
"If you get scared, you call me right away. Okay?"
"I'll come get you if you want to come home."
this level of alienation dies down after the separating
parents get used to changes brought on by the separation
and move on with their lives. However, in rare cases,
the anxiety not only doesn't calm down, it escalates.
PAS parents are psychologically fragile. When things
are going their way, they can hold themselves together.
When they are threatened, however, they can become
fiercely entrenched in preserving what they see is
rightfully theirs. Fortunately, only a small percentage
end up in this level of conflict.
Do PAS Parents Act Like They Do?
I believe that PAS parents have become stuck in the
first stage of child development, where survival skills
are learned. To them, having total control over their
child is a life and death matter. Because they don't
understand how to please other people, any effort
to do so always has strings attached. They don't give;
they only know how to take.
don't play by the rules and are not likely to obey
a court order. Descriptions that are commonly used
to describe severe cases of PAS are that the alienating
parent is unable to "individuate" (a psychological
term used when the person is unable to see the child
as a separate human being from him or herself). They
are often described as being "overly involved with
the child" or "enmeshed". The parent may be diagnosed
as narcissistic (self-centered), where they presume
that they have a special entitlement to whatever they
want. They think that there are rules in life, but
only for other people, not for them.
they may be called a sociopath, which means a person
who has no moral conscience. These are people who
are unable to have empathy or compassion for others.
They are unable to see a situation from another person's
point of view, especially their child's point of view.
They don't distinguish between telling the truth and
lying in the way that others do.
In spite of admonitions from judges and mental health
professionals to stop their alienation, they can't.
The prognosis for severely alienating parents is very
poor. It is unlikely that they are able to "get it."
It is also unlikely that they will ever stop trying
to perpetuate the alienation. This is a gut-wrenching
survival issue to them.
targeted parent needs to understand what has happened
to what was once an affectionate and loving child
who is now unexplainably hostile. Remember, Gardner's
definition stated earlier, "the disorder wasn't only
brainwashing or programming by a parent, but was confounded
by what he calls self-created contributions by
the child in support of the alienating parent's campaign
of denigration against the targeted parent." It
isn't PAS in the severe form of this disorder, unless
the child has crossed over and joined up with the
alienating parent. The child shares the alienating
parent's psychosis. How does this happen? At birth,
children are totally reliant on a parent, usually
the mother, for having all of their needs met. It
is part of normal child development to be enmeshed
with their primary caregiver, and very young children
do not have a separate identity from this caregiver.
of the mother's roles is to help the child develop
as a separate person, therefore, infancy and childhood
become a series of tasks of learning how to become
independent. For example, learning to put oneself
back to sleep, eating, toilet training and caring
for one's hygiene. Instead of promoting this independence,
the alienating parent encourages continued dependence.
The parent may insist on sleeping with the child,
feeding the child ("It's easier if I do it"), and
taking care of these rites of passage longer than
normal child development calls for. This "spoiling"
may not feel right to the child, but they do not have
enough ego strength to do anything about it.
PAS mother can't imagine that the father is capable
of planning the child's time while in his care. Therefore,
she arranges several things for the child to do while
at the father's house. One of the most common ways
of doing this is to sign the child up for on-going
lessons without permission from the father. The parent
may even decree whom the child can and cannot see,
particularly specific members of the child's extended
family on the father's side. The mother desperately
wants control over the time when the child isn't with
of the most unusual situations that I ran into was
the father who picked up his sons at 9:00 a.m. on
a Saturday for the weekend. He discovered that his
very excited boys had their hearts set on going to
Disneyland for the day, when this idea had never crossed
his mind. One theory about why a mother will act this
way is that when a father takes his share of joint
custody, it is like asking her to give away part of
mother said, "He is going to remove my right arm and
take it for the weekend." It feels like the mother
has lost a profound part of who she is as a person.
She feels fractured, pulled apart.
is PAS a Double Bind for the Child?
children spend time with the father, and enjoy it,
they are put into a double bind. Clearly, they cannot
tell the mother that dad treats them well or that
they had fun together. They want to bond with the
father, but don't dare. They figure out on which side
the bread is buttered (who has the power), and their
survival needs tug at them. Therefore, children will
tell the mother about everything they didn't enjoy
about time spent with the father, which will add to
her belief that they don't like to be with him. These
children feel that they must protect the mother. The
same is true when the alienator is the father. The
child will avoid expressing their affectionate feelings
for the mother to him.
are volatile families. The father may have indeed
spanked a child, or lashed out at the mother physically
or emotionally. An isolated incidence can turn into
a holocaust. One father spanked his rebellious child
and ended up in jail on child abuse charges, followed
by a six week trial to determine his guilt. The jury
returned with a not guilty verdict in 20 minutes.
The verdict didn't end it as far as the mother was
alienating parent's hatred can have no bounds. The
severest form will bring out every horrible allegation
known, including claims of domestic violence, stalking
and the sexual molestation of the child. Many fathers
say that there have been repeated calls to the Department
of Family and Child Services alleging child abuse
most cases the investigators report that they found
nothing wrong. However, the indoctrinating parent
feels that these reports are not fabrications, but
very, very real. She can describe the horror of what
happen in great detail. Regardless of the actual truth,
in her mind, it did happen.
of the alienated fathers that I work with are continually
befuddled by her lying. "How can she lie like that?"
They don't realize that these lies are not based on
rational thinking. They are incapable of understanding
the difference between what is true and what they
want to be true. A vital part of fighting PAS is to
understand the severity of the psychological disturbance
that is the source of it.
makes this problem very complicated is that PAS is
often intergenerational in dysfunctional families.
Almost always the alienator has people within the
family who support the alienation. It might be the
mother, father or grandparent who encourage fighting.
They are likely to support the parent financially
or even provide massive amounts of money to fund litigation.
This is further proof to the PAS parent that he or
she is justified in what he/she does.
a Child is Placed in the Role of the Parent's Therapist
advances even further when the alienating parent uses
the child as a personal therapist. The child is told
about every miserable experience and negative feeling
about the alienated parent with great specificity.
The child, who is already enmeshed with the parent
because his or her own identity is still undefined,
easily absorbs the parent's negativity. They become
aligned with this parent and feel that they need to
be the protector of the alienating parent.
Happens to the Child When You Can't Stop PAS?
without anyone to stop the alienation from progressing,
the child will become estranged from the alienated
parent. The relationship with this parent will eventually
be severed. It is doubtful that, without psychological
intervention as the child grows, he or she will ever
understand what happened. The child's primary role
model will be the maladaptive, dysfunctional parent.
He or she will not have the benefit of growing up
with the most well adjusted parent and all that this
parent can contribute to enrich the child's life.
of these children come to experience serious psychiatric
problems. Will they ever grow up and realize what
happened to them? Without someone who can recognize
the syndrome and counsel them about it, it isn't likely
that they will ever figure it out. However, there
have been exceptions where the child and the alienated
parent have been successfully reunified later in life.
Can Good Intentions Backfire?
people who are typically called upon to handle such
difficult situations, such as the police, social workers,
attorneys or psychologists, assume that what the frightened
mother is saying is true. These things DO happen.
There are men who are seriously disturbed, violent,
out of control sexually, and stalk, who are rightfully
feared. The mother is very convincing in her desperation
and vivid in her descriptions. The clincher is that
the alienated child collaborates with the mother by
saying, "Yes, I am afraid of my father." "Yes, my
father did touch me down there." "Yes, he does beat
me." What would you do if you were faced with having
to decide how to protect a child in such a situation?
with master's degrees are unlikely to realize the
severity and depth of the problem, because they are
not trained in this level of pathology. In fact, they
may unwittingly side with the alienating parent and
even testify in court that the child is afraid of
the alienated parent. This can be a serious stumbling
block in getting an accurate diagnosis. Indeed, it
can tip the scale into the alienating parent's agenda
and do real damage.
courts, social services and mental health workers
are all committed to stop child abuse and neglect
when they see it occurring. Unfortunately, in PAS
situations a dramatic and loud complaint from the
alienating parent often ends up being acted upon without
an investigation as to the accuracy of the allegation.
This frequently removes the alienated parent from
the children and allows the alienating parent considerable
additional time to proceed with the alienation.
the time all of the evaluations are in place and the
case is heard by the court, considerable damage has
been done to the child. It is an irony that the very
people we turn to for help in such a difficult situation
can often be those who most contribute to allowing
the on-going abuse and neglect of the child to continue.
Can Be Done About the Problem?
it takes a sophisticated mental health professional
to be able to identify that PAS is occurring. Most
forensic evaluators such as psychiatrists and clinical
psychologists at the Ph.D. level have studied the
disorder and are able to recognize it.
evaluators diagnose PAS by having the parents take
a battery of psychological tests, doing a detailed
case history and by observation. They make recommendations
as to what to do. After the evaluator has written
a report on the family and made recommendations, nothing
will happen to resolve the crisis without court intervention.
alienated parent has to take the report to a judge
who must then be convinced that the child is being
alienated and that it is not in their best interest
to stay in such an environment. It is rare however
that judges have any degree of mental health training.
They most often learn about PAS from the bench. It
usually takes several trips to court to point out
how badly a child is being treated before a judge
is willing to act.
Are PAS Cases Resolved Legally?
are inevitably conservative in their orders. Even
when the evidence is overwhelming that the alienation
is occurring, the court order may still end up saying,
"the parents are to make joint decisions about the
child's welfare," when this is impossible to do. This
is further evidence that the judge doesn't understand
the magnitude of the problem. The judge in one of
the most severe PAS cases I worked on was from the
old school. He was tired of having the litigants continue
to appear before him. One day he said, "Why don't
the two of you go out in the hallway and kiss and
make up." This is an example of how frustrating these
cases are for judges. Indeed, these are the most difficult
cases to decide.
have been slow to place serious sanctions on the alienating
parent. If there is no threat of severe fines, jail
time or sole custody to the targeted parent, the chances
are remote that the out-of-control parent can be stopped.
It usually takes a dramatic situation where court
orders are broken to force the court to change primary
custody. Often it is only a matter of time before
alienating parents become desperate and their unstable
mental health gets the better of them. People in an
official position start to recognize the alienating
parent as being out of line, and become supportive
of the targeted parent.
one case, the 9 and 4 year old daughters were abducted
and presumed to be on their way to Australia through
an underground group that hides women who are victims
of domestic violence, often of a sexual nature and
where the father is stalking. The girls were missing
for 3 months and found in another county where they
were waiting for final arrangements to be made before
their departure. When the police broke into the house
at 3:00 a.m., they found the girls sleeping with their
mother. They had been given boy's names, clothes,
haircuts and their hair was dyed. They were not allowed
contact with anyone outside of their hiding place,
not even to go to school. The oldest child had strep
throat and the youngest was seriously withdrawn.
another case, the mother could no longer convince
the social workers, the police or the Court about
her allegations. She was known to be unstable because
she had "cried wolf" too many times. She abducted
her daughter to Utah. She told officials there that
the courts where she lived were protecting a proven
child molester. The press was called. After, she was
interviewed; there was a virtual feeding frenzy as
the father's photograph and the story was on all the
local news networks. A big part of the problem was
that the seven year old girl said, "Yes" when asked
if her father had molested her. Even though this had
already been disproved by forensic evaluators, she
was still confused.
the Alienation of Children Be Reversed?
children get older, the alienation can be reversed
with proper psychological care. However, it won't
work if the alienating parent is not contained. In
the last case described above, the mother had severely
limited visiting rights. She had remarried and had
a new child, however, she still regularly calls the
police to report the father for abuse. Presently,
the daughter resides with her father, receives weekly
therapy and hates the police. She gradually understands
how disturbed her mother is.
the former case, where the mother was kidnapping the
children, she now sees them two hours a month at the
Department of Children's Services with a social worker
present to monitor everything that she says and does.
The girls have also been in extensive therapy and
are doing well.
these are among the most severe kinds of abuse of
a child's emotions, there will be scars and lost opportunities
for normal development. The child is at risk of growing
up and being an alienator also, since the alienating
parent has been the primary role model.
Is the Best Way to Deal With PAS?
parents I know who were successful in getting primary
custody of their children in a PAS situation shared
the following characteristics:
completed a comprehensive parenting course such as
Breakthrough Parenting, and stuck with it until they
rated excellent in the knowledge, skills and methods
taught. Their parenting skills became superior.
They were even-tempered, logical and kept their emotions
never retaliated. A person who reacts in anger is
proving the alienator's point that he or she is unstable.
They certainly thought of giving up but never did.
No matter how awful the harassment got, they worried
about leaving their daughter or son in that environment.
They were driven to continue trying to get the court
to understand the seriousness of the issues and to
change primary custody to them.
were willing and able to go to the financial expense
of seeing it through.
got help from a skilled family lawyer who had experience
with Parent Alienation Syndrome.
became good at understanding how the laws and the
courts work as it applied to their case. In many
cases, because of excessive expenses, parents even
ended up as pro per (called pro se in some states)
where they were representing themselves without
had a case where a forensic evaluator made a strong
statement about the alienation and recommend changing
legal and primary custody to the alienated parent.
Some parents had to go back to the evaluator to
demonstrate that his or her earlier recommendations
were not working.
persevered in demonstrating that they were rational,
reasonable, and had the best interest of the child
provided the court with an appropriate parenting
plan that showed how the child would be well taken
care of in their care.
understood the nature of the problem and focused
on what to do about it, even though they and their
children were being victimized. (Alienated parents
who got caught up in "how terrible it all is" and
spent time judging the situation, went under emotionally.)
didn't live a victim's life.
were proactive in seeking constructive action.
avoided adding to the problem. One father expressed
it like this: "I don't know how to make it better
with the mother, but I do know how to make it worse."
He was one of the most successful parents I met
in fighting the PAS problem because he stayed in
the role of the peacekeeper.
kept a diary or journal of key events, describing
what happened and when.
documented the alienation with evidence that was
admissible in court.
always called or showed up to pick up their children,
even if they knew that the children won't be there.
This was often very painful, but then they could
document that they tried, when the alienator alleged
that this parent had no interest in the child.
focused on enjoying their children's company and
never talked to their children about their case.
They always took the high road and never talked
badly about the other parent to their children.
They absolutely never showed a child any court orders
or other sensitive documents. They didn't let the
children overhear inappropriate conversations on
didn't violate court orders. They paid their child
support on time and proved that they could live
within the letter of the law.
were truly decent, principled people. It was obvious
that they loved their children.
PAS cases are notoriously difficult to figure out,
even for professionals in the field of divorce. Once
the syndrome is discovered, it is even harder for
the professionals to figure out what to do about it.
It is important for alienated parents to be supported
by compassionate people while experiencing this difficult
time. PAS is never easy, but there is plenty of hope
for those who take the high road and follow the recommendations
outlined in this article.
For a journal article for mental health professionals
Parent Alienation for Professionals on the website www.breakthroughparentingservices.org
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