Parental Alienation Syndrome - The Problem
Submitted January, 2002
Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has only recently been recognized in the literature as a phenomenon occurring with sufficient frequency and with particular defining characteristics as to warrant recognition. Today, PAS is attracting the attention of clinicians, researchers, social service agencies, parent groups and the legal community. As well, it is an issue that has fuelled considerable debate with respect to the validity of its existence. In spite of the divisiveness that has evolved around this topic, one issue that few will debate is the fact that too many children are caught in a "tug of war" between their separated parents.
Parental alienation syndrome has been variously defined. Based on my background in family studies as well as my observations of client families, I have developed the following definition:
"..the deliberate attempt by one parent (and/or guardian/significant other) to distance his/her children from the other parent and in doing so, the parent engages the children in the process of destroying the affectional and familial bonds that once existed"
Parental alienation develops over time and the distancing that occurs, includes some or all of the following features:
A parent speaks badly or demeans the other parent directly to the child(ren)
A parent speaks badly or demeans the other parent to others in the presence (or within audible distance) of the child(ren)
A parent discusses with the child(ren) the circumstances under which the marriage broke down
A parent exposes the child(ren) to the details of the parents' ongoing conflict, financial problems and legal proceedings
A parent blames the other parent for changes in life style, any current hardships, his/her negative emotional state and inability to function as before
Child(ren) come to know that in order to please one parent, they must turn against the other parent
Allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of a child(ren) are often made.
These features exemplify the denigrating diagnostic criterion set out by Dr. Richard Gardner in his discussion of PAS. In addition, a key feature of PAS is that it is almost exclusively associated with a separation/divorce situation. Similarly, allegations of abuse made following separation also have no prior history, nor upon investigation are they found to have any basis.
Children exposed to the ongoing conflict and hostility of their parents suffer tremendously. The guilt children experience when their parents' first separate, is exacerbated by the added stress of being made to feel that their love and attachment for one parent is contingent on their abandoning the other. Although they are powerless to end the struggle between their parents, they come to believe that if they turn against one in favour of the other, the unhappiness they experience on an ongoing basis will also end.
The challenge for counsellors and family services workers is to find ways of sparing children the emotional pain and stress that result when they are caught in their parents' crossfire. It involves helping parents understand the harm being done to their children through their actions, helping them find peace and reassurance in leading a life separate from each other and helping them develop effective ways of co-parenting. The challenge for lawyers is to discern whether the actions taken and allegations made by a client are based on genuine concerns for their child(ren)'s safety and well-being, or motivated by revenge, leverage for child support, fear of losing his/her children and the role of father/mother.
Copyright © 2002 Reena Sommer. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except as follows: You may link this article to your website, either directly or through an ExpertLaw Library index page, provided your link does not depict this article, its author, or expertlaw.com in a negative manner.
About the Author: Dr. Reena Sommer is a family life consultant with a private practice in Winnipeg. Telephone: (204) 487-7247.