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Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)

Although parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a familiar term, there is still a great deal of confusion about its nature, dimensions, and, therefore, its detection. Its presence, however, is unmistakable. In a longitudinal study of 700 "high conflict" divorce cases followed over 12 years, it was concluded that elements of PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME are present in the vast majority of the samples. Diagnosis of PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME is reserved for mental health professionals who come to the court in the form of expert witnesses.

Diagnostic hallmarks usually are couched in clinical terms that remain vague and open to interpretation and, therefore susceptible to argument pro and con by opposing experts. The phenomenon of one parent turning the youngster against the other parent is not a complicated concept, but historically it has been difficult to identify clearly. Consequently, cases involving PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME are heavily litigated, filled with accusations and counter accusations, and thus leave the court with an endless search for details that eventually evaporate into nothing other than rank hearsay. It is our experience that the PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME phenomenon leaves a trail that can be identified more effectively by removing the accusation hysteria, and looking ahead in another positive direction.

For the purpose of this article the authors are assuming a fair degree of familiarity with parental alienation syndrome on the part of the reader. There are many good writings on PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME which the reader may wish to consult now or in the future for general information. Our focus here is narrower. Specifically, the goal is twofold. First we will describe four very specific criteria that can be used to identify potential PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME. In most instances, these criteria can be identified through the facts of the case, but also can be revealed by deposition or court testimony. Secondly, we wish to introduce the concept of "attempted" PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME; that is when the criteria of PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME are present, but the youngster is not successfully alienated from the absent parent. This phenomenon is still quite harmful and the fact of kids not being alienated should not be viewed as neutral by the court.

The criteria described below are fairly easy to identify separate and apart from the court file. When there is uncertainty about any of them, these criteria can be used to guide the attorney in the deposing of witnesses as well as in their examination in court.

Access and Contact Blocking—

Criteria I involves the active blocking of access or contact between the youngster and the absent parent. The rationale used to justify it may well take many different forms. One of the most common is that of protection. It may be argued that the absent parent's parental judgment is inferior and, therefore, the youngster is much worse off from the visit. In extreme cases, this will take the form of allegations of child abuse, quite often sexual abuse. This will be addressed in more detail in Criteria II, but suffice it to say that often this is heard as a reason for visitation to be suspended or even terminated. On a more subtle and common level, an argument heard for the blocking of visitation is that seeing the absent parent is "unsettling" to the youngster, and that they need time "to adjust." The message here is that the absent parent is treated less like a key family member and more like an annoying acquaintance that the youngster must see at times.

Over time, this pattern can have a seriously erosive effect on the youngster's relationship with the absent parent. An even more subtle expression of this is that the visitation is "inconvenient," thereby relegating it to the status of an errand or chore. Again the result is the erosion of the relationship between the youngster and the absent or "target" parent. One phenomenon often seen in this context is that any deviation from the schedule is used as a reason to cancel visitation entirely.

The common thread to all of these tactics is that one parent is superior and the other is not and, therefore, should be peripheral to the youngster's life. The alienating parent in these circumstances is acting inappropriately as a gatekeeper for the youngster to see the absent parent. When this occurs for periods of substantial time, the youngster is given the unspoken - but clear message - that one parent is senior to the other. Younger kids are more vulnerable to this message and tend to take it uncritically; however, one can always detect elements of it echoed even into the teenage years. The important concept here is that each parent is given the responsibility to promote a positive relationship with the other parent. When this principle is violated in the context of blocking access on a consistent basis, one can assume that Criteria I has been, unmistakably identified.

Unfounded Abuse Allegations—

The second criterion is related to false or unfounded accusations of abuse against the absent parent. The most strident expression of this is the false accusation of sexual abuse. It has been well studied that the incident of false allegations of sexual abuse account for over half of those reported, when the moms and dads are divorcing or are in conflict over some post dissolution issue. This is especially the situation with small kids who are more vulnerable to the manipulations implied by such false allegations. When the record shows that even one report of such abuse is ruled as unfounded, the interviewer is well advised to look for other expressions of false accusations.

Other examples of this might be found in allegations of physical abuse that investigators later rule as being unfounded. Interestingly our experience has been that there are fewer false allegations of physical abuse than of other forms of abuse, presumably because physical abuse leaves visible evidence. It is, of course, much easier to falsely accuse someone of something that leaves no physical sign and has no third party witnesses.

A much more common expression of this pattern would be that of what would be termed emotional abuse. When false allegations of emotional abuse are leveled, one often finds that what is present is actually differing parental judgment that is being framed as "abusive" by the absent parent. For example, one parent may let a youngster stay up later at night than the other parent would, and this scheduling might be termed as being "abusive" or "detrimental" to the youngster. Or one parent might introduce a new "significant other" to the youngster before the other parent believes that they should and this might also be called "abusive" to the youngster.

Alternatively one parent might enroll a youngster in an activity with which the other parent disagrees and this activity is, in actuality, a difference of parental opinion that is now described as being abusive in nature. These examples, as trivial as they seem individually, may be suggestive of a theme of treating parental difference in inappropriately subjective judgmental terms. If this theme is present, all manner of things can be described in ways that convey the message of abuse, either directly or indirectly. When this phenomenon occurs in literally thousands of different ways and times, each of which seems insignificant on its own, the emotional atmosphere that it creates carries a clearly alienating effect on the youngster.

Obviously, this type of acrimony is very common in dissolution actions but such conflict should not necessarily be mistaken or be taken as illustrative of the PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME; however, the criteria is clearly present and identifiable when the parent is eager to hurl abuse allegations, rather than being cautious, careful and even reluctant to do so. This latter stance is more in keeping with the parent's responsibility to encourage and affirmatively support a relationship with the other parent. The responsible parent will only allege abuse after he or she has tried and failed to rationalize why the issue at hand is not abusive. Simply put, the responsible parent will give the other parent the benefit of the doubt when such allegations arise. He or she will, if anything, err on the side of denial, whereas the alienating parent will not miss an opportunity to accuse the other parent. When this theme is present in a clear and consistent way, this criterion for PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME is met.

Deterioration in Relationship since Separation—

The third of the criteria necessary for the detection of PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME is probably the least described or identified, but critically is one of the most important. It has to do with the existence of a positive relationship between the minor kids and the now absent or nonresidential parent, prior to the marital separation; and a substantial deterioration, of it since then. Such a recognized decline does not occur on its own. It is, therefore, one of the most important indicators of the presence of alienation as well. as a full measure of its relative "success."

By way of example, if a father had a good and involved relationship with the kids prior to the separation, and a very distant one since, then one can only assume without explicit proof to the contrary that something caused it to change. If this father is clearly trying to maintain a positive relationship with the kids through observance of visitation and other activities and the kids do not want to see him or have him involved in their lives, then one can only speculate that an alienation process may have been in operation. Kids do not naturally lose interest in and become distant from their nonresidential parent simply by virtue of the absence of that parent. Also, healthy and established parental relationships do not erode naturally of their own accord. They must be attacked. Therefore, any dramatic change in this area is virtually always an indicator of an alienation process that has had some success in the Parental Alienation Syndrome.

Most notably, if a careful evaluation of the pre-separation parental relationship is not made, its omission creates an impression that the troubled or even alienated status that exists since is more or less an accurate summary of what existed previously. Note that nothing could be further from the truth! An alienated or even partially or intermittently alienated relationship with the nonresidential parent and the kids after the separation is more accurately a distortion of the real parental relationship in question. Its follow-through is often overlooked in the hysterical atmosphere that is often present in these cases. A careful practitioner well knows that a close examination is warranted and that it must be conducted with the utmost detail and scrutiny.

If this piece of the puzzle is left out, the consequences can be quite devastating for the survival of this relationship. Also, without this component, the court can be easily swayed into premature closure or fooled into thinking that the turmoil of the separation environment is representative of the true parent-child relationship. Once this ruling is made by the court, it is an exacting challenge to correct its perception.

In a separate but related issue, a word should be said about the use of experts. First, it must be understood that all mental health professionals are not aware of nor know how to treat the PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME phenomenon. In fact, when a mental health professional unfamiliar with PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME is called upon to make a recommendation about custody, access, or related issues, he or she potentially can do more harm than good. For example, if the psychologist fails to investigate the pre-separation relationship of the nonresidential parent and the kids, he or she may very easily mistake the current acrimony in that relationship to be representative of it, and recommend that the kids should have less visitation with that parent, obviously supporting the undiagnosed PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME that is still in progress. If that expert also fails to evaluate critically the abuse claims or the agenda of the claimant, they may be taken at face value and again potentially support the undiagnosed PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME.

If that professional is not also sensitive to the subtleties of access and contact blocking as its motivator, he or she may potentially support it, thereby contributing to the PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME process. When these things occur, the mental health professional expert has actually become part of the PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME, albeit unwittingly. Alarmingly, this happens often. Suffice it to say, if PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME is suspected, the attorney should closely and carefully evaluate the mental health investigation and conclusion – failure to do so can cause irreparable harm to the case, and, ultimately to the kids.

Intense Fear Reaction by Kids—

The fourth criteria necessary for the detection of PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME is admittedly more psychological than the first three. It refers to an obvious fear reaction on the part of the kids, of displeasing or disagreeing with the potentially alienating parent in regard to the absent or potential target parent. Simply put, an alienating parent operates by the adage, "My way or the highway." If the kids disobey this directive, especially in expressing positive approval of the absent parent, the consequences can be very serious. It is not uncommon for an alienating parent to reject the youngster, often telling him or her that they should go live with the target parent. When this does occur one often sees that this threat is not carried out, yet it operates more as a message of constant warning. The youngster, in effect, is put into a position of being the alienating parent's "agent'' and is continually being put through various loyalty tests. The important issue here is that the alienating patent thus forces the youngster to choose moms and dads. This, of course, is in direct opposition to a youngster's emotional well being.

In order to fully appreciate this scenario, one must realize that the PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME process operates in a "fear based" environment. It is the installation of fear by the alienating parent to the minor kids that is the fuel by which this pattern is driven; this fear taps into what psychoanalysis tell us is the most basic emotion inherent in human nature--the fear of abandonment. Kids under these conditions live in a state of chronic upset and threat of reprisal. When the youngster does dare to defy the alienating parent, they quickly learn that there is a serious price to pay. Consequently, kids who live such lives develop an acute sense of vigilance over displeasing the alienating parent. The sensitized observer can see this in visitation plans that suddenly change for no apparent reason.

For example, when the appointed time approaches, the youngster suddenly changes his or her tune and begins to loudly protest a visit that was not previously complained about. It is in these instances that a court, once suspecting PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME must enforce in strict terms the visitation schedule which otherwise would not have occurred or would have been ignored.

The alienating parent can most often be found posturing bewilderment regarding the sudden change in their youngster's feelings about the visit. In fact, the alienating parent often will appear to be the one supporting visitation. This scenario is a very common one in PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME families. It is standard because it encapsulates and exposes, if only for an instant, the fear-based core of the alienation process. Another way to express this concept would be that whenever the youngster is given any significant choice in the visitation, he or she is put in the position to act out a loyalty to the alienating parent's wishes by refusing to have the visitation at all with the absent parent. Failure to do so opens the door for that youngster's abandonment by the parent with whom the youngster lives the vast majority of the time. Kids, under these circumstances, will simply not opt on their own far a free choice. The court must thus act expeditiously to protect them and employ a host of specific and available remedies.

As a consequence of the foregoing, these kids learn to manipulate. Kids often play one parent against the other in an effort to gain some advantage. In the case of PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME, the same dynamic operates at more desperate level. No longer manipulating to gain advantage, these kids learn to manipulate just to survive. They become expert beyond their years at reading the emotional environment, telling partial truths, and then telling out-and-out lies.

One must, however, remember that these are survival strategies that they were forced to learn in order to keep peace at home and avoid emotional attack by the residential parent. Given this understanding, it is perhaps easier to see why kids, in an effort to cope with this situation, often find it easier if they begin to internalize the alienating parent's perceptions of the absent parent and begin to echo these feelings. This is one of the most compelling and dramatic effects of PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME, that is, hearing a youngster vilifying the absent parent and joining the alienating parent in such attacks. If one is not sensitive to the "fear-based" core at the heart of this, it is difficult not to take the youngster's protests at face value. This, of course, is compounded when the expert is also not sensitive to this powerful fear component, and believes that the youngster is voicing his or her own inner feelings in endorsing the "no visitation" plan.


All the criteria listed above can be found independent of each other in highly contested dissolutions, but remember that the appearance of some of them does not always constitute PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME. When all four are clearly present, however, add the possibility of real abuse has been reasonably ruled out, the parental alienation process is operative. This does not necessarily mean, however, that it is succeeding in that the kids are being successfully alienated from the target parent. The best predictor of successful alienation is directly related to the success of the alienating parent at keeping the kids from the target parent. When there are substantial periods in which they do not see the other parent, the kids are more likely to be poisoned by the process. Another variable that predicts success is the youngster's age. Younger kids generally are more vulnerable than older ones.

Also, another variable is the depth and degree of involvement of the pre-separation parent-child relationship. The longer and more involved that relationship, the less vulnerable will be the kids to successful alienation. The final predictor is the parental tenacity of the target parent. A targeted parent often gives up and walks away, thus greatly increasing the chances of successful alienation.

The question remains: What if all four criteria are present, but the kids are not successfully alienated? Should this failure at alienation be seen as nullifying the attempt at alienation? The answer to that should be a resounding "No!" It should be, but often it is not. It is very common to read a psychological evaluation or a GAL's report that identified PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME but then notes that since it was not successful, it should not be taken very seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any attempt at alienating the kids from the other parent should be seen as a direct and willful violation of one of the prime duties of parenthood, which is to promote and encourage a positive and loving relationship with the other parent, and the concept of shared parental responsibility.

It is our feeling that when attempted PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME has been identified, successful or not, it must be dealt with swiftly by the court. If it is not, it will contaminate and quietly control all other parenting issues and then lead only to unhappiness, frustration and parental estrangement.

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Best Comment:

This story may amaze you, but nonetheless is true! I would appreciate it if you could take the time to read it is very important to one young man who is going to be 20 in August. Here is our story:

My boyfriend's son is soon to be 20 years old this year and has Asperger's Syndrome. He is highly-functioning on the autism spectrum. However, he is being manipulated, interrogated, tortured and controlled by his mother who has sole-guardianship of him now. My boyfriend was stripped of his co-guardianship because his son called him crying hysterically and begging him for help, pleading with his Dad to come get him, stating that his mother was torturing (interrogating, controlling) him. First, we called 911 to report the incident and asked if they would go to the house to check things out. After 45 minutes, the supervisor called us back and stated that they had "called" the home and that the young man was fine! The records indicate that my boyfriend had just called for "legal advice"! Of course the 911 records are now purged. We called the Virginia State Police to see if we could go to the home to make sure the son was alright. The officer said since my boyfriend had co-guardianship and there were no orders of protection that he could indeed go check on him. Ryan's father then went to the mother's house to see if his son was okay whereupon the mother yelled that he was not allowed on her property although there was no such legal instrument. Ryan said that he wanted to go to his father's house (just a few miles away). He walked to the car willingly and with much enthusiasm (we have audio of Ryan from that night of his great expressions of joy in being with us in the car and relieved of his mother)! Five minutes after arriving at Dad's home, the house was surrounded by blasting sirens and bright lights from police cars whereupon the police charged my boyfriend with ABDUCTION! He was CO-GUARDIAN and was respecting the wishes and desires of his ward (son) according to Virginia statutes pertaining to guardianship along with protecting him from the misuse of powers by the other co-guardian!!

We also have video of the police officers in his bedroom at Dad's attempting to remove him from his Dad's house even though Ryan, age 19 and an adult, told them he DID NOT want to leave! Eventually when they saw he was not leaving voluntarily, they called his mother at which point they lied to him, telling him they were taking him to see some girls he knows but took him right back to his mother's home! She threatens him with jail or "bad boy's school" or that he will never see his father again (whom he adores) if he doesn’t go along with her demands! This night with the police has now caused Ryan to have PTSD! He has a "meltdown" every time he hears a police siren since that event and runs to the window when visiting with his father to see if the police have come for him again! A meltdown is not a very pretty sight, not to mention the fear, exhaustion and anguish the Aspie has to go through during and after it!

His mother and father have been divorced since he was two years old and the father has been taken to court many times for "bogus" charges over the past sixteen years! We have tons of paperwork of court orders as evidence, including several videos where Ryan states that he wants to live with his Dad. Ryan is a very bright young man, excelling in athletics, polite, friendly and outgoing even with his diagnosis of Asperger’s.

Ryan is not given any rights at his mother’s home, for example, to choose his own clothing (he likes to wear athletic jerseys of his favorite teams-including the Redskins (NORMAL for most young people but she calls athletes "thugs"), she will not allow him to wear a watch, have a wallet or a state ID (what if he got lost?), have a cell phone, etc. In other words, she is a guardian who is a dictator! She is excellent at interrogation of his every move whether with him or away from him due to the fact that she is a detective on the sheriff's department in their county, hence my reasoning for not yet divulging said county. She has had much practice at interrogation and chooses to use these methods on her own son to keep him in a state of constant confusion, fear and control, but really she is using mind control and brainwashing as the young man now has become terrified of the things he loves to do, confused about people he likes to see and intimidated about what he would choose to wear if given the opportunity! His mind is in a constant state of duress and he has detachment disorder from mother--now sole-guardian! He had been growing and evolving mentally and emotionally during the time he was with us as we were taking him into DC to cultural events, Nationals games, rallies, walks and such. The year prior to his becoming an adult he could not even ride the metro or go on an escalator without a meltdown, all things he had begun to enjoy, now squelched!

This is a classic case of parental alienation and emotional, mental and spiritual abuse to Ryan and his psyche!

My boyfriend, Doug, has never gotten a fair hearing in the southern county where he resides due to her position. She has even had him investigated for sexual abuse of his son, once in 2005 and again in 2007, both cases UNFOUNDED! She even went so far as to ask someone in the court system to "do her a favor" and find them founded!! When the judge heard this evidence, he did not even reprimand her, again due to her position with the county! We have the original paperwork showing that both cases were unfounded and which we have provided every attorney. Therefore, we are attempting to see what information, advice, help or opinions we can garner from the disabilities’ rights people, judges, state senators, judicial committees and Asperger’s society advocates. Unfortunately, we have heard from no one!! It's time for someone to listen to these people with Autism!

She has cost Dad over $90,000 in the past 18 years trying to defend himself over her ridiculous charges while he was also faithfully paying his monthly child support; $90,000 has been exhausted in attorneys and court fees just to be the wonderful father that he is! No regular family law attorney seems to want to take this case due to the fact that mother is a detective!

My boyfriend is the best father in the world; nurturing, comforting and teaching his son healthy and wholesome choices and activities, i.e., enrolling him in Tae-Kwan-Do to build his self-esteem (which he absolutely loves), taking him to the Food Bank to learn not only a job, but to help others, allowing his son to make choices and has been his son's only advocate! But we need help to get Ryan away from his mother as she has forbidden his father to ever take him to either place again! She is destroying Ryan while making every attempt to intimidate his father via blame-switching!! She verbally intimates and abuses Dad for every good thing that he attempts to do for Ryan. We have exhausted every avenue! And what about RYAN’S RIGHTS??? He is now an adult and perfectly capable of making his own choices which she says he is not!! Ask any Asperger's expert and they will tell you that they definitely can make choices and decisions on their own!

What I have described to you here is only a few layers of a very large onion! His mother has been a despicable parent, and her actions resemble those of a sociopath -- a bully behind a badge! She is killing his self-esteem and confidence!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post on parental alienation. I just wanted to take a quick second and introduce myself to the Parenting Coach.

I'm Mike Jeffries, author of A Family's Heartbreak: A Parent's Introduction to Parental Alienation. You can learn more about us and our work at

We are always looking to connect with professionals who understand alienation and how to address it. If the Parenting Coach would like to become part of our network, please email me at

Anonymous said...

found your site on today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

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