Parental Alienation Syndrome
By Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC
Parental Alienation Syndrome is real. It devastates and destroys. And more and more children, grown-up children, and
targeted parents are coming forward to speak about their pain.
Parental Alienation Syndrome may be caused by one of the more damaging forms of child abuse you never heard of. And
because PAS often involves the abuse of the legal system too, the courts are
beginning sit up and take notice.
Or, as Toronto therapist Victoria Lorient-Faibish so aptly calls them, Amputative Parents. What are they? They are
parents that seek to damage, destroy, deconstruct or even completely end their child’s relationship with their (former)
spouse. In a nutshell, PAS is a syndrome caused by a specific type of abuse whereby one parent seeks revenge upon another,
and will stop at nothing, to get that revenge. They will manipulate and abuse their children and exploit and lie to their
children, family members, police, lawyers and the court system to effect that revenge.
A twelve-year study by the Family Law section of the American Bar Association showed that PAS abuse occurred to at
least some extent in nearly 60 percent of divorces (the extent to which it occurred ranged from mild to extreme). Even as little as three years ago, some people were denying PAS existed. And though it still doesn’t
have it’s own section in the DSM, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The DSM deletes and adds syndromes
in each edition. Today, more and more mental health professionals recognize that this is a very real and tragic problem.
Although PAS abuse usually occurs during or after a divorce, some argue that it can happen during marriages as well.
In these cases, the parent “dumps” their problems with the other parent on the child or sets up “gangs”
within the family.
In any case, the victims are first and foremost children who don’t usually realize what’s happening to
them (if they are older, and have a longer-term history with both parents, they may understand at some level what’s
going on). These children live with the loss of a parent that’s as painful and stressful as a death, but are not allowed
to grieve. They are taught to stuff those feelings of grief and to turn that pain and their natural love for their parent
The abusive parent is usually referred to as the alienating parent and the maligned parent is called the target parent.
The alienating parent effectively (sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly), teaches
the child to split. The target parent represents evil and the alienating parent represents perfection.
Children end up feeling so loyal to the alienating parent (often feeling that they have to protect him or her), that
they subsume their own emotional needs in many cases. Even if the alienating parent emotionally or physically abuses them,
the children will defend their actions. Because they perceive the target parent as having abandoned them, they want to avoid
being abandoned again (by the alienating parent) at all costs. They’ll do anything to show their loyalty. They might
curse, hit, not speak to, and exhibit other angry behaviors to the target parent.
The other victims, besides the children, are the target parents (and often grandparents). When mature target parents
divorce, they want to avoid confrontation and prevent escalation in order to prevent further damage to the kids. But if the
target parent doesn’t confront and expose the other parent, the abuse usually continues. It is a very painful spot for
any parent to be in.
Last year we posted a very moving video of a young woman who is a survivor of PAS. And just last month, a distraught
parent commented on one of our posts and posted the link to a very disturbing audio content of an abusive spouse/parent who
was maligning a former spouse.
This is simply one of the most devastating kinds of abuse children can go through-they don’t have a chance to
form healthy bonds with either parent and now that we have studied a generation in which this has happened, we can determine
the effects are long-lasting. Although divorce is never a walk in the park for
kids, emotionally mature and compassionate parents put the children before themselves and do their utmost to present a united
front when child-rearing during divorce. PAS destroys any chance of normalcy.
The parent who has custody is obligated by law to avoid any disruptions in the children’s relationship with the
other parent. However, a shocking number of custodial parents break the law by doing everything in their power to destroy
their children’s relationship with their other parent by “forgetting” visitations, disrupting visitations
in numerous ways, or simply moving, sometimes far away, and leaving no forwarding address.
One of the tell-tale signs of potential Parental Alienation Syndrome is when the alienating parent prevents the children
from having any relationship with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on the target parent’s side. The alienating
parent may malign the grandparents to the point where the children resist forming a relationship with them or they might set
up impenetrable blocks to visits with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. In cases where target parents are cut off
(such as when the alienating parent moves to another state or country) they’ll cut off the extended family, too.
Another tactic the alienating parent uses involves neighbors and community members. He or she might conscript them
as allies against the children’s other parent before, during, and after the divorce.
How to tell if you are being used? You’ll hear stories that never quite make sense and there may be inconsistencies.
Remember, an alienating parent is doing everything possible to cut off the relationship between the children and the target
parent in order to punish the other parent. A common tactic is to accuse the target parent of things that are difficult or
impossible to prove.
He or she is constantly seeking your sympathy and stoking your outrage because an alliance with you is necessary. You
might be needed to reinforce the children’s image of the target parent as all bad. You might be needed to reinforce
the lies. In many cases the alienating parent will enlist allies with specific qualifications and everyone from social workers
to clergy members becomes their “best-friend” while the divorce and custody battles are going on. If your skills
aren’t needed after the case ends you’ll be dropped. You’ll be told that “seeing you brings up painful
memories” or your calls will simply not be answered.
What can you do if you an adult child who’s been the victim of an alienating parent? Call a therapist, especially one who has experience in this area. Some of the videos and other resources,
below will be very helpful.
What to do if you are an adult who is the target parent? I recommend you get therapy yourself as well as seek top-notch
legal help. Remember, though, the alienating parent is incapable of loving and caring for his/her children and will never
put their needs first. Once the children find out how they’ve been manipulated and lied to, they will not only be struggling
with the loss of their relationship with you, but will have to do a lot of inner work to accept that it was the parent who
was supposed to protect and love them, who shattered their lives.
If you are the grandparent or relative of children (or adults) who is the victim of an alienating parent, speak to
an expert and ask them what’s the best, safest way to help the children and maintain a relationship with them.
PAS is something that I have encountered many times. In the past couple of years, it is finally beginning to be recognized
as the serious problem it is. I would like to share with you links to resources and information.
An excellent white-paper on the topic, required reading for anyone who’s been a victim (and anyone who’s
even thinking about alienating their children from their other parent-the results will devastate your children and hurt them
for their entire lives).
Our recent favorite, Toronto-based therapist Victoria Lorient-Faibish, hits the nail on the head with a video response
to an alienated son and a direct recommendation to alienating parents or anyone who is even thinking about becoming an alienating
parent. (Here’s Victoria’s web site).
PAS expert, attorney Amy Baker’s essential book on PAS, Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking
the Ties That Bind. Although it’s intended readership is the grown-up child of an alienating parent, target parents,
attorneys, judges, and therapists all can benefit from reading this candid and intelligent book.
A Family’s Heartbreak tells the personal story of PAS.
Here’s the moving video story an extreme case of PAS where one parent simply takes off with the child, cutting
off all ties. It’s the case of Scott Becker and his daughter April,reunited after his daughter April was taken from
him by her mom at the age of two months. (Grab some kleenex). As in some cases, reunion may not be possible for a variety
of reasons until the child becomes an adult.
Video of speaker at Canadian Symposium for Parental Alienation. The speaker (mentioned above), is lawyer, Amy Baker,
who talks about the devastating consequences of PAS. It is an excellent introduction to PAS and is required viewing. Here
is part 2, essential viewing to understanding the “head trip”, however there’s a caveat: the disdain for
one parent and the absolute love for another depends on the age of the child and is rarely as black and white as it is presented