The Debate About Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)
Copyright 1998 by Douglas
PAS is becoming the ground for the modern day battle between parents. Some women are saying that PAS does not exists or that it is nothing more than a tool used by male dominant courts for taking children from their mothers. They content that fathers and the attorneys often use PAS as an aggressive defense
against real physical and sexual abuse. Some fathers argue that PAS is a real phenomenon that describes how vindictive women will use any means to destroy their relationship with their children. Courts are now torn because PAS has become a political issue that is causing a loss of objectivity.
Some parents use allegations of "alienation" now just as they have
used (false) allegations of abuse or domestic violence.
PAS must not be a gender-parent issue, nor a political issue. Instead, we have to put PAS in prospective. Let's summarize what we know and don't know about PAS.
Perhaps PAS would be less political if we made a distinction between PAS and parental alienation (PA). Parental alienation is a process that can occur between two parents that are consciously or unconsciously trying to align the children at the emotional expense of the other parent. Most conflicts between a parent and a child is not caused by PA. PAS is the consequences of severe parental alienation when the children get to the point where they have been programmed by the alienating parent to vilify the targeted parent without any justification. I agree with the argument that PAS is not a diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-IV-TR. Contrary to what
was previously written in the press, I have not advocated that PAS should be a DSM-IV diagnosis without further research as to its validity. On the other hand,
let's get our definitions correct. A syndrome defined by Oxford American Dictionary (1980) is "a set of signs and symptoms that together indicate the presence of a disease or abnormal condition." PAS is clearly an observable abnormal condition whether you use Dr. Gardner or my definition of PA. This should not be the issue. The issue is the safety and welfare of the children at a time when parents are battling. If
attorneys want to argue the merits of PAS, perhaps it would be prudent to focus on the behaviors rather than on the label. I personally disagree with Gardner in that I don't consider PAS a diagnosis.
- False allegations do occur. What is not known is whether false allegations occur more or less often than what most professionals think. And it is true that courts are suspicious when allegations of sexual or physical abuse first occur in the context of a divorce. The fact is professionals and the courts are not good in determining the validity of sexual or physical allegations. Many professionals working for childcare agencies are not adequately trained in getting the truth from children because children can be manipulated and inadvertently influenced in their testimony. Another problem is the lack of a professionally agreed upon protocol for conducting such an assessment because of the lack of research and validation studies supporting specific procedures. An example is the question about the validity of using anatomically correct dolls
(which has been shown to be an unreliable method to prove abuse occurred), or
the old politically correct belief that "children don't lie" (when
children can, in fact, lie or create stories). The fact is that a good investigation into allegations of abuse, especially sexual abuse, is expensive and takes considerable time. Many courts and children service agencies don't have the time or the personnel to do a thorough assessment. Recently, there has been greater emphasis on physical evidence, the quality of the investigative interview, and the credibility of the child's statements. Ceci and Bruck's book, "Jeopardy in the Courtroom" (1995) published by the American Psychological Association is probably one of the most recognized text on the subject of children's testimony.
I have seen getting an increasing number of requests to conduct an evaluation to assess for parental alienation. Sometimes what appears like alienation is a child's refusal or resistance to have parenting time with the targeted parent because the targeted parent has failed to bond with the child, has been an ineffective or punitive parent, or ignores the child when they are together. All of these possible reasons must be reviewed as part of the assessment.
Parent-child relationships and potential alienation, along with the assessment
of these, are complex.
- Courts will sometimes request a psychological evaluation to answer the question, "Who is telling the truth?" This is a misuse of psychological tests or evaluations. Unless there is an admission by the abuser, the
evaluator cannot conclude whether a person had or had not abused anyone. Sometimes a psychologist will suggest that an individual has a psychological profile similar to an abuser, therefore it is probable that they abused
(or may abuse) the child in question. This is not only an irresponsible conclusion but also unethical conduct on the part of the evaluator. Imagine a judicial system that determines guilt or innocence based on a psychological profile. That is scary. The fact is, psychologist, psychiatrist, and
child caseworkers are not good at determining the truth. They are good at using a process that
increases the likelihood of getting at the truth if the professional has cooperation and
time. Even at that, there is always room for error. The process and results of an evaluation should be used to support more substantial evidence
that is admissible to the court or to generate hypothesis to assist in the investigation.
A word of caution: I have seen too often when a child's therapist tries to also serve as an independent evaluator for the court in a custody dispute.
This practice is unethical and should never occur. The reason is that a therapist is ethically bound to be an advocate for their patient (parent or child) and cannot give unbiased testimony. An evaluator must have no prior relationship with any of the parties involved in the
evaluation other than perhaps updating or continuing a previous evaluation. Otherwise, this is a dual relationship and unethical. Most courts know this and will sometimes discount a therapist's testimony if
the therapist makes a custody recommendation.
A second word of caution is that the evaluator must see all the relevant parties if they make a custody recommendation. Think about
it: How can an evaluator make a recommendation for custody if they see only one parent? They can't and shouldn't.
5. No one knows how best to deal with severe parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome. The premise that the child should be removed from the alienating parent's care and given to the targeted parent has not yet been supported by research. If the court's goal is to facilitate a loving relationship with both parents and maximize the children's healthy adjustment, we all need to learn more about how to protect children, stop abuse, and prevent alienation. We must not make parental alienation a political football or another forum for the battle of the parents. Instead, parents, mental health professionals, courts, attorneys, and parent advocacy groups must support everyone's efforts to learn more about how to stop victimizing our children.
Another issue that is drawing attention is the use of the word "visitation." While courts and legislators are trying to encourage parent's equality in parenting, the term visitation still delegates the non-custodial parent to a lesser or interior status. Words are important because they evoke strong feelings. For this reason, serious consideration should be made to replace the word "visitation" to something like "parenting time." Personally, I like the words "parenting time" because the words remove the legal connotations. If this language were adopted, the courts would order "parenting time" or set up a "parenting schedule." These terms put both parents more on an equal status.
I have been getting a tremendous response with e-mail. I have heard from parents in Germany, England, France, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and of course, the US. It seems that PA and PAS and visitation (parenting time) problems are happening just about everywhere. I was even told that PAS is a problem in Turkey. One question that keeps coming up is "Do I know of an expert in PAS that lives in their area? Unfortunately, I don't. I have thought about putting together a directory but I don't want to be presumptuous to suggest that I am qualified to say who is or is not qualified. To make such a directory, I would need a mechanism to check out references and validate the applicant's qualifications. Another concern would be my liability for a poor referral. If I happen to personally know of someone, I will be happen to give out the person's name, but for the most part, I won't be able to give a referral. I am sorry for this.
I NEED YOUR OPINION
A very disturbing issue that has to be faced in deciding when a parent should stop trying to regain a relationship with their children because the harm caused to the children by the attempts to reconcile is too great. I have said over and over again that PAS must be prevented because we don't have validated treatment protocols that are effective in reestablishing a relationship between the children an the targeted parent. Thought I encourage parents to not stop trying, there is a time that persistent effort to see the children is causing the child more harm. In effect, some severe cases of PAS are lost causes. The decision for the targeted parent is when to quit because, on balance, persistent attempts to reconcile through the courts, with counseling and forced visits is more damaging to the children than not seeing the targeted parent. I realize this is like conceding to the Obsessing Alienator that is unfair and unjust. The bigger question has to be,
"How much do we put the children through when success is unlikely and the
children continue to be hurt, many times by the system that is trying to
help?" and frequently, parents ask, "when should I quit trying?" I have thought a lot about this issue and have come up with some criteria to consider in deciding when to quit. If you can e-mail me your thoughts about the criteria, this would be most appreciated. I am proposing
the following criterion for your consideration.
When you continue to lose control over your feelings in the presence of the children and they appear to be hurt or becoming increasing angry over your behavior.
- Therapy has failed in helping you learn to control how you express your feelings.
- The children are getting worse rather than better about how they relate to you. They are more hostile or depressed.
- There is a temporal relationship between your efforts to enforce visits and the child's deteriorating functioning (drop in school grades, more withdrawn, more hostility, and social withdrawal).
- The child's mental state since you have started trying to enforce visits has deteriorated to the point that they require psychiatric or mental health treatment.
I realize that my suggestions on when to quit may appear unfair to the parent having to make this decision. I have had both custodial and non-custodial parents ask me
"when should I quit?" I can't make this decision for parents but perhaps what I have written will help make the decision easier. I need your comments about what I have written. In time I may dedicate a web page to these issues.
What should a parent do if they decide to stop trying to force parenting time?
The children should be told of your intentions and given an explanation that you love them and don't want to cause them any further hurt or anxiety by trying to force parenting time.
- I would make a videotape explaining your feelings and reasons for your decision, stressing the point that you are always there for them and they are welcome to reach out to you anytime or place they would like. Remind the children you are not angry but are sad about having to make this decision for their best interest.
You should plan to watch the tape with your children, if possible, and
answer any questions they have.
If is not possible to watch the tape with your children, give or send a copy
of the tape to the children if you feel they are able to understand
it. Or, you could give the tape to another unbiased and trusted
adult, so that adult can watch the tape with the children. You (or
the trusted adult) may decide the children are too young at that time,
Although ideally the children should have easy access to the tape
immediately. But if that is impossible, a copy of the tape should be
kept safe from the time you make it--until the children are adults so they
can watch it, even if it's years later.
- Continue to acknowledge holidays and birthdays with cards and gifts even if you believe that the children will never receive the gifts.
- Don't cause yourself to feel guilty or angry by mentally beating yourself about how you have failed or been victimized by the other parent. This only makes matters worse for you and prevents you from healing. Though you will miss your children, you still have to go on with your life and, perhaps, with your new family.
- Don't stop making your child support payments. Though your hurt and anger is understandable, you still have a legal and moral responsibility to help support your children. You cannot retaliate against an alienating parent by not paying support. You will only get into trouble with the courts.
- Remember, there are many examples when alienated children decide later to seek reunification. Its not always hopeless.
But your decision to stop forcing visitation may save countless incidents of
anger, frustration, bitterness, and alienation between you and your ex, and
thereby save your child from continuing emotional and psychological
Having to stop trying to get your fair share of parenting time is very painful and
the decision itself can cause considerable guilt, bitterness and inner turmoil. Using terminal cancer as a metaphor, this is much like dealing with death with dignity.
Dignity does not mean you will not feel loss. If you find yourself not healing from this decision,
or are not coping well after making this decision, you may want to consider counseling.
Dr. Barbara Steinberg and I have authored and submitted an article on "Spontaneous Reunification" that
we hope will be published later this year. We will keep you informed.
I hope my points will stimulate thought and discussion. I would appreciate if you would e-mail your comments
and I will respond to you. Thank you.
Read my opinion about what makes an Ethical Psychological Evaluation (and what doesn't)
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