What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is a theory created by Dr. Richard Gardner for use against protective mothers in custody and divorce proceedings. PAS is not based on any research but rather the personal beliefs, experience and bias of Dr. Gardner. He assumed that virtually all reports of domestic violence or child abuse must be false.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Parental Alienation Syndrome a gender based theory?
Yes. if a child expresses dislike of the father, report his abuse or don’t want to spend time with him, the only possible explanation is that the mother is alienating the children from him. The remedy is to force the children to live with the father they fear and deny the mother who is usually the primary parent anything beyond supervised visitation. Dr. Gardner believed this was an actual mental illness caused by parents behaving badly during divorce or by judges awarding custody in a way so lopsided that the child lost any meaningful relationship with the parent they insult and belittle. However, it has never been considered a mental illness according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or the World Health Organization’s equivalent listing of mental disorders.
Did Richard Gardner contribute anything significant to psychiatry other than describing PAS?
No. The only notable part of his professional career involved his opinions and postulations about the children of divorce. He is also well-known for publicly saying he believed child sexual abuse was less common and less damaging than was widely believed. He was saying this from the 1980’s until his death in 2003; a period of time where we were learning more and more about how common, and how damaging child sexual abuse actually was.
I’ve heard people refer to the cottage industry. What does this refer to in the context of child custody disputes?
Although court professionals are often taught to treat contested custody cases as if they were high conflict with the parents acting out in ways that hurt the children, a large majority are actually domestic violence cases. Domestic violence involves a variety of tactics for the abuser to maintain control over his victim and economic control is one of the most common tactics. This means that in most contested custody cases the abusive father controls most of the economic resources. PAS provided an approach for unscrupulous mental health professionals to help them obtain custody. PAS has been described as a defense lawyer’s dream theory because the more proof of abuse is presented the more it is treated as proof of alienation. Lawyers and mental health professionals routinely use PAS, often by other terms such as alienation or parental alienation as a way to silence abuse reports and to justify removing mothers who are the children’s primary attachment figures and always provided good care. PAS is a huge profit center for the cottage industry, but children pay a huge price.
I’ve seen kids live with one parent who says horrible things about the other parent, and after a while so does their child. Is that PAS?
No. First, it’s important to remember that most high-conflict divorces are actually divorces where there is domestic violence. So the remarkable cruelty that is sometimes seen in courtrooms usually followed the couple there from their own home, where it was a better hidden but easier to recognize. Children exposed to domestic violence often have negative things to say about either or both parents. While children may, indeed, say negative things about a parent in response to some sort of “alienation”, it doesn’t mean the alienating process gives rise to a bona fide mental illness.
I’ve seen kids say really horrible things about their battered mothers after divorces. These mothers are great people and are great to their kids. What do these fathers do that turns them against their mothers like that?
Some batterers will tell their children to insult or even attack their mother during battering episodes. The children obey their father when they are hyper-aware of how dangerous he can be. This is a crushing form of psychological abuse for the victim, and can cause problems with her bond with her children after she leaves the relationship. Children who witness domestic violence sometimes do what’s called Identification with the Aggressor, where they take the side of their abusive parent. This may result in a small child saying things like “well, if you hadn’t burned dinner that wouldn’t have happened”. This can also cause great anguish for the abuse victim. Children of abusers may also say and do very inappropriate things to their abused parent out of simple modeling, usually exacerbated because the mother may be too afraid of the behavior to appropriately correct it. Children are often more likely to act out when with their mother because they understand she is the safe parent and won’t hurt them.
I’ve seen women claim they were abused in relationships where there’s no way they were abused, and their kids suddenly start talking about hating their father. Isn’t that PAS?
First, domestic violence is so common in our society that most of us will know an abuser socially. And most of us will like them, because they present themselves as charming, likable people. And despite this, most of us will never witness an abuser we know socially engaging in the most violent aspects of their abuse. Research by the Department of Justice shows false allegations by mothers of domestic abuse only happen about 2% of the time. Women divorcing an abusive partner may not have documentation of the abuse, their attorneys may advise them not to mention abuse, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t abused. And as such, if their children become safe and healthy enough to speak out against the abusive parent, it’s a therapeutic milestone. It isn’t PAS.
Don’t our standards of what is and isn’t a mental illness change over time?
Yes, they do, but the process of defining something as a mental illness isn’t arbitrary. Some things, like homosexuality, have been de-listed as mental illness because research has shown they aren’t inherently harmful. Oppositional Defiant Disorder has been listed, delisted and re-listed as clinicians struggle to come up with relevant, workable definitions for abnormal, harmful conditions, especially as the norms of our culture change. A lot of research goes into every nuance of a mental illness, and all that research has to be duplicatable. PAS was never based on empirical research, just the observations and postulations of one psychologist.
But isn’t there such a thing as parental alienation?
Yes. Children’s relationships with a parent will change and weaken for a variety of reasons. But that doesn’t mean the behavior rises to the level of a mental illness. Many children have more energy than their parents want them to- that doesn’t mean they have Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. One of the things needed for a mental illness diagnosis to be added to the DSM is for many trained clinicians to be able to distinguish between the mental illness that’s being proposed and existing conditions. Clinicians besides Dr. Gardner were generally unable to distinguish PAS from normal behavior of a child exposed to domestic violence.
What is the best thing to do if there is alienation happening in in the parent/child relationship?
The most important thing to do if a child seems to have a strained relationship with a parent is to understand why. If the relationship is strained because the child has been abused, the most important thing is to keep the child from being abused more- this means not giving the abuser unsupervised access until they can prove themselves safe. Most experts believe an abused child should have the right to decide if they want any contact with their abuser or not. If the child has witnessed domestic violence, the child should not be put in a situation where they will witness any more. The child should be allowed to deal with their justified feelings of anger towards the abuser. Even if a careful investigation reveals that the only source of the child’s negative attitude towards the “alienated” parent is the behavior of the other parent, it is not appropriate to take the child from their primary attachment figure and place them with the other parent, as Dr. Gardner recommended.
Does anyone believe in PAS today?
Not really. It has been ruled inadmissible in court in the UK and Canada, and there are some laws banning its use in family court in the United States. Despite much lobbying by its supporters, it has never been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that classifies mental illness. Unfortunately, what tends to happen in the United States is that some other postulate of Richard Gardner concerning PAS is used, but the name PAS isn’t. In Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody, co-edited by Dr. Mo Therese Hannah and Barry Goldstein, some of the judges who are most knowledgeable about domestic violence expressed the belief that no one takes PAS seriously any more as it has been thoroughly debunked. That will come as a big surprise to the thousands of mothers who have been separated from their children because too many less informed judges continue to use some version of PAS. The Saunders’ study from the U.S. Department of Justice found that evaluators and other inadequately trained professionals tend to focus on unscientific alienation theories and this leads to decisions that harm children.
Did Richard Gardner come up with any useful theories that the courts are trying to use?
No. Richard Gardner was an outspoken in his belief that child sexual abuse was both much less common and much less damaging than the ACE study proved and the rest of mainstream psychology has come to believe. This makes his work very appealing for lawyers representing abusive parents, and child abuse and domestic violence are often perpetuated by the same people.
The Safe Child Act will help prevent judges, and other court officials, from considering Parental Alienation Syndrome. It makes judges consider the health and safety of children before anything else. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study by the CDC clearly shows how trauma, like abuse and neglect, effects the rest of a child’s life.
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