Parental Alienation Syndrome: An Explanation

When parents separate, it is important for both the mother and the father to maintain a relationship with the children. Yet in many cases, children side with one parent or the other. Sometimes this is the child’s own choice, but all too often it occurs due to the influence of the favored parent.

This phenomenon is nothing new, but only recently did it receive a name. In the early 1980s, child psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner coined the term “Parental alienation syndrome.” He defined it as a disorder in which a child belittles and insults one parent without good reason, due in part to influence from the other parent.

Parental alienation syndrome is not officially recognized by the medical or legal fields as a mental health issue. But there’s no denying that estrangement from one parent takes place in many separations and divorces. This can occur for a number of reasons, including but not limited to the following:

  • One parent wants the other parent out of his or her life completely. Turning the children against the former partner is a way to achieve that.
  • The custodial parent wants money or property from the non-custodial parent and uses the children as bargaining tools.
  • One parent is overly possessive or jealous, and wants the children all to him/herself.
  • One parent believes that the other parent is unworthy of the children.
  • One parent feels unable to compete with the other parent for the children’s affections, and retaliates by trying to keep the kids from seeing him or her.
  • The offending parent is hostile toward the other parent and keeps the children away to hurt him or her.

Whatever the reason, the offending parent effectively turns the child or children against the other parent. He or she may withhold or limit visitation or reduce or eliminate contact between parent and child. He or she might make disparaging remarks about the other parent to or in the presence of the children, or even make false allegations of abuse. Whether it is directly stated or not, the offending parent might make the child feel that he must choose one or the other.

When subjected to this behavior, children often side with the alienating parent. They do this to gain approval from that parent, or because they believe the terrible picture that has been painted of the other parent. Yet they often assert that the decision to reject the other parent is their own, because they don’t want the offending parent to feel or appear guilty.

Parental alienation syndrome can be mild or severe, but in any event, it can have devastating effects on the child involved. He becomes trapped in the middle of a conflict between two of the most important people in his life. The relationship with both parents usually becomes strained, and he may lose contact with one of them. Unless abuse of some sort is a factor, it is generally in the child’s best interest to encourage a good relationship with both mother and father.