What Causes Parental Alienation?

One of the saddest consequences of parents not getting along is that children often feel torn between the two parents that they love. When one parent seeks to exact revenge on the other parent by brainwashing children, the result is a form of emotional child abuse known as parental alienation or at its most extreme, what Richard Gardner, MD termed parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Although there is speculation as to what causes some children to succumb and others to remain resistant, the exact reasons are not known. What is known is that some children are more vulnerable than others to this abuse. It is thought that these vulnerable children perceive that they must choose between parents and in an attempt to cope with conflict, they reject a parent they love.

PAS was first described in the 1980s by psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner, M.D. Dr. Gardner realized that there were similar and recurring behaviors among 90 percent of children in high-conflict, court involved, drawn-out divorce cases. Since these behaviors frequently appeared together on a regular basis, he called it a syndrome.

These behaviors are frequently occurring behaviors on a continuum from mild to severe. The most severe is often referred to as PAS.

Twenty years later we know more than we did when Gardner first described it.  When compared to the huge numbers of new children and families affected each year, parental alienation nor PAS  have received the research attention they deserve. Dr. Amy Baker’s book Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome provides insightful research from adults who were child victims into their inside worlds and the life-long consequences of its impact on their lives.

Consistent with information from Dr. Baker’s research, extended families also become involved, forming coalitions, thus making it harder for an alienated child to “cross the line” of programmed loyalty.  These coalitions have the quality of absurdity and craziness that have been compared to the irrational qualities of fear and loathing in cultural and racial hatred. In addition, some mental health practitioners believe that it is the healthier parent who is the targeted parent and thus the child is denied the healthier of his/her parent relationships.

Instead of helping, the courts sometimes fail miserably to provide appropriate legal sanctions and interventions to families. Sometimes lawyers, judges, and even mental health professionals are unknowing participants.

Some advocacy groups attempt to make parental alienation controversial, but when it happens to you or to someone you love, it’s not controversial. It’s painfully devastating. If this is your situation, knowing that there is a name for what you are going through and that you are not alone, may provide you with some comfort.

Parental alienation is easier to prevent than to correct. The best way to stop it is to know what causes it. Forewarned is forearmed and increased awareness can help to stop it before it becomes entrenched.