When parents get divorced and there is a dispute over child custody, children can suffer the harm that comes from being in the middle of a conflict they have no control over. In some cases, the children end up developing anger and long-term resentment toward both parents, though they may not have the emotional capacity to process it at the time.
Outcomes like the one above are often the unintentional result of parents having a difficult time transitioning from marriage into divorced co-parenting. But there is another phenomenon that sometimes occurs during this period which is much more sinister, much more intentional and much more damaging to children and to one parent. It is called parental alienation syndrome. While it has been a recognized form of domestic abuse for many years, it is still relatively unknown among the general public.
How is parental alienation syndrome defined?
According to a Psychology Today article, parental alienation syndrome (PAS) occurs when a child develops a hatred of and/or refuses to spend time with one parent because of consistent negative messages sent by the other parent. It is not the same as estrangement, in which the rejected parent is rejected because of their own words and actions. Instead, it is alienation perpetrated by the aligned-to parent, and it can be considered a form of brainwashing.
Frequency of PAS and who is likely to be a victim
Although there is solid scientific research confirming the existence of PAS, it is unclear how common it is. According to one estimate, about 10-15 percent of children whose parents are going through a divorce will experience parental alienation syndrome.
It is important to note that PAS isn’t a gendered issue. Women and men can be perpetrators or victims. Instead of focusing on gender, some researchers are looking at whether people with certain types of personality disorders are more likely than others to try and turn their children against the other parent.
Regardless of what causes PAS or who perpetrates it, the victims are the alienated parent and the child or children. One research study found that when children who experience PAS become adults, they are more likely to suffer poor mental health outcomes and to experience trauma responses. They also have a “need to find coping strategies for emotional dysregulation.”
Are you worried this has happened to you? Here’s how to respond.
If you’re going through a divorce and your relationship with your child has taken a sudden and unexplainable turn for the worse, you may want to discuss the possibility parental alienation syndrome with your attorney. Because PAS remains somewhat controversial, however, it’s important to work with an attorney who is knowledgeable on the subject and will help you determine your options. One of our attorneys, Carlton D. Stansbury, has delivered presentations on Parental alienation syndrome in family law seminars.
If PAS is confirmed to be a factor in your case, it will also likely limit your options for how divorce and custody can be resolved. Because it is a form of domestic abuse, PAS generally precludes the possibility of using mediation or collaborative divorce. Instead, your case will likely need to be litigated. As such, your attorney should also be highly skilled in the courtroom and ready to advocate vigorously for your interests and the interests of your children.