Parental Alienation Syndrome is a mental condition in which a child allies strongly with one parent (the “preferred parent”) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the “alienated parent”). Whether one calls the action interference, or manipulation, or parental alienation, it is a serious problem.
By William D. Slicker, Family Lawyer
With the recent publication of another book on Parental Alienation Syndrome – Parental Alienation: Science and Law by Demosthenes Lorandos, Ph.D., JD, (Charles C. Thomas Pub., 2020) – and an international conference on helping courts understand parental alienation, perhaps it is time to reexamine the subject.
One parent’s bad behavior that interferes with the other parent’s relationship with the parties’ children during and after divorce has been around a long time.
Today, most states have a statute that lists factors for the court to consider when making timesharing or visitation rulings. One of the most important factors is a willingness of a parent to encourage and facilitate a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent.
Parental Alienation Syndrome: One Label for a Host of Behaviors
Once, it was common for the courts to describe the specific behavior of a parent who was not encouraging and facilitating a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent as the basis for the court’s decision regarding timesharing or visitation. For example:
- interfering with the other parent’s timesharing or visitation,
- poisoning the mind of the child,
- impugning the character of the other parent,
- brainwashing the children,
- constantly disparaging the other parent,
- turning a child against the other parent,
- interfering with the parent child relationship,
- persistent and unrelenting efforts to prevent the children from having a healthy relationship with the other parent,
- false allegations of abuse, and
- criminal behavior.
Now, any type of behavior that interferes with the other parent’s relationship with the child has come to be called “Parental Alienation.”
Parental Alienation Syndrome: What’s in a Name?
The term Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was coined by Richard Gardner in 1985. Parental alienation has been defined as a mental condition in which a child allies strongly with one parent (the preferred parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the alienated parent) without legitimate justification or as a rejection and denigration of a parent by a child without a reasonable objective basis.
Do we really need an expert to put a label on harmful behavior in order to address it? For example, if a father enjoys sex with children, couldn’t the court say that such behavior should affect his timesharing or visitation – even if we did not have an expert to testify that the father was a pedophile? Or if a mother heard voices telling her to hurt her children, couldn’t the court say that such behavior should affect her timesharing or visitation – even if we did not have an expert to testify that the woman was schizophrenic?
Likewise, if a parent wrongfully interferes with the other parent’s timesharing/visitation or manipulates the children against the other parent, couldn’t the court say (as courts have said in the past) that such behavior should affect the timesharing or visitation of the offending parent – even if we do not label such behavior “Parental Alienation Syndrome”? Isn’t this just a newer term for an old type of bad behavior? Perhaps this is why some courts have specifically not ruled on acceptance of PAS. However, whether one calls the action interference, or manipulation, or parental alienation, it is a serious problem.
There certainly are matters on which therapists can present helpful testimony to the courts on this issue. For example, therapists can testify that a parent alienating children against the other parent has severe long-term negative effects on the children. Richard Gardner goes so far as to say the effects of parental alienation syndrome may be worse than physical abuse or sexual abuse of a child. However, there are others who disagree with Gardner on that issue. Interwoven in this controversy is the problem that many alienating parents lie and make false allegations of abuse against the alienated parent.
Parental Alienation vs. Estrangement
Therapists can also testify about the best treatment for alienating behavior. At this point, it is important to distinguish alienation from estrangement. Estrangement is rejection of a parent due to a reasonable objective basis. A child may be estranged from a parent who has abandoned, neglected, or abused the child. A slow reintegration of the estranged parent back into the life of the child may be recommended in such a case.
But for those cases where the child has been severely alienated from a parent, therapists recommend a court order that:
- immediately changes parental responsibility or custody from the alienating parent to the alienated parent,
- temporarily cuts off contact between the alienating parent and the child,
- requires corrective actions from the alienating parent, and
- requires short term intensive therapy by a therapist knowledgeable with parental alienation in order to teach the child to recognize alienating behavior.
There are several programs that are available for providing this therapy to treat parental alienation. These include:
- Dr. Richard Warshak’s Family Bridges,
- Overcoming Barriers (Family Camps are cancelled indefinitely due to COVID),
- Dr. Susan Heitler’s Therapy Help, and
- Linda J. Gottleib’s Turning Points for Families.
The problem of manipulating children against another parent, or interfering with timesharing or visitation, or parental alienation syndrome, is something that happens around the globe. There is an international organization that studies it: Parental Alienation Study Group, Inc. (PASG), which includes people from more than 50 countries, a university database that collects materials on parental alienation issues, and an organization that offers free online courses about parental alienation.
The Alienating Parent Often Suffers from Narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorders
The alienating parent is often narcissistic or a borderline personality type. Either one is difficult to deal with. The narcissistic parent wants to control the other parent. The borderline personality is overly angry. Both are willing to lie.
Of course, parents who commit physical or sexual abuse also lie. That makes these cases difficult to handle. The alienated parent will have to document the interfering and manipulative behavior of the alienating parent, he or she may have to disprove false allegations of abuse, educate the court of the serious long terms effects of alienation on the children, and convince the court to take immediate steps to correct the alienation.
A family lawyer should not take on such a case without educating themselves on the subject, having sufficient proof of the alienating behavior, and a knowledgeable therapist as a witness.
William D. Slicker served as a law clerk at Florida’s Second and Fifth district courts of appeal. He has received awards from the Florida Bar, St. Petersburg Bar Foundation, Ms. JD organization, and the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence for his pro bono assistance on behalf of victims of domestic violence. www.slickerlaw.com
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