The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Parental Alienation Syndrome


What is parental alienation syndrome?

Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) describes a condition, typically following separation or divorce, where a child has been repeatedly trained or brainwashed by one parent to denigrate and alienate the other parent. In order to be considered parental alienation syndrome, the child must actively participate in shunning the other or "alienated" parent.  Therefore, parental alienation syndrome is the combination of parental programming and the child's contribution to vilifying the other parent. The campaign of parental alienation must also be unjustified in order to be considered parental alienation syndrome. For example, if verbal, physical, or sexual abuse is causing the child to alienate the parent, it is not considered parental alienation syndrome.

How common is parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome?

Some degree of parental alienation (PA) behavior is common when parents first separate.  However, parental alienation normally diminishes as parents and children adjust to the changes brought on by separation or divorce.  Problems occur when separated or divorced parents remain entrenched in a high-conflict parenting relationship.  This is when parental alienation can and often does continue long-term.

In the worst cases, the alienating parent becomes preoccupied with destroying the relationship between the child and the other parent, routinely engaging in the act of parental alienation. When PA results in a child developing PAS, anxiety and anger increase rather than decrease.

Why is parental alienation syndrome controversial?

Currently, parental alienation syndrome is not a formally recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V).  The DSM V is the publication that categorizes and standardizes psychological disorders. Nevertheless, parental alienation syndrome is a common term that arises in child custody cases, where one parent (the alienated parent) claims the child is estranged due to the negative speech and/or actions by the other parent (the instigating parent).

PAS is often documented as a significant issue in high-conflict divorce custody cases. While some family courts have reversed custody based on parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome, some courts will assume it is not valid because it has been rejected as a disorder by the DSM V.

What are symptoms of parental alienation syndrome?

Dr. Richard A. Gardner, the person who first coined the term "parental alienation syndrome" in 1985, identified eight symptoms that a child with PAS might have. These are as follows:

  1. A hatred toward the alienated parent
  2. Weak rationalizations for the hatred toward the alienated parent
  3. Little or no mixed emotions toward the alienated parent
  4. A denial that their rejection of the alienated parent was the result of the other parent who instigated parental alienation
  5. An automatic, instinctive feeling of support toward the parent who instigated the alienation when their is a conflict
  6. Little or no guilt/remorse over how the alienated parent feels or is treated in conflict by the parent who instigated the alienation
  7. Using situations and discussions that came from the alienating parent as support for their own basis of negative feelings toward the other parent
  8. A strong irrational dislike for other acquaintances, friends, and family of the alienated parent

What are the different categories of parental alienation syndrome?

Gardner also formally classified PAS into three different categories:

  • Mild Parental Alienation
  • Moderate Parental Alienation
  • Severe Parental Alienation Mild Parental Alienation

Mild parental alienation syndrome
A parent who engages in mild parental will have an occasional outburst about the other parent in front of the children, but will regret the behavior.  In mild parental alienation, a parent does not typically disrupt the child's visitation with the non-custodial parent or time with parent in the case of joint custody.  Most people, especially early in a divorce, are prone to committing this type of behavior.

Moderate parental alienation syndrome
Moderate Parental Alienation is when a parent tends to resist allowing the child to have parenting time. Moderate parental alienation often happens when the instigating parent feels inconvenienced by something involving the alienated parent, and the instigating parent has an outburst due to that inconvenience. The behavior typically subsides when the triggering event is over, but it is likely to come up again when another triggering event occurs. This can make the alienated parent feel like they are "walking on eggshells" around the other parent.

Severe parental alienation syndrome
Severe parental alienation is where the instigating parent deliberately sabotages the relationship with the other parent. The instigating parent has a mission to destroy the child's relationship with the alienated parent. For those who subscribe to the idea that PAS is a real disorder, children subjected to severe parental alienation syndrome are assumed to exhibit most or all of the symptoms associated with PAS.

How can parents prove parental alienation syndrome in court?

Proving parental alienation syndrome in family courts during a child custody case is complicated.  Courts are guided by the best interest of the child doctrine, and it would appear that if a parent is engaging in parental alienation, it would automatically be assumed to not be in the children's best interests.  However, in child custody cases where PAS is being argued, there are typically two opposing sides that come into play with regard to the best interest doctrine.  This results in a dilemma that can be understood by asking the question, "What matters more: the strong relationship with both parents or the stable and normal environment that the child has always known?"  These are the questions that a judge or arbitrator will be asking themselves if they are deciding a child custody case where PAS is being argued.

Reversing custody in the case of PAS essentially means that the child will be uprooted from the life they have grown accustomed to, for the purpose of developing a renewed relationship with the alienated parent. Family courts have gone both ways with their decisions about child custody where PAS is an issue. Several family courts involve the child being interviewed by the judge on camera, for the purpose of getting the child's opinion as to which parent they want to stay with. They will disclose their feelings about each parent.

Because parental alienation syndrome is not recognized in the DSM V as a real disorder, proving parental alienation syndrome may be difficult within the confines of family law as they exist today.

How can PAS be addressed or treated?

Because PAS is entirely created by psychosocial, any prevention program requires educating and raising public awareness.  Today, a great deal of confusion and controversy surrounds the issue of parental alienation syndrome.  Many continue to question what is it, whether it really exists, how to detect it, and how treat it.

Assuming PAS is considered to be real, treating PAS depends largely on the severity of the disorder and the age of the children.  Assuming children are younger, the alienated parent may want to use a parenting coordinator or supervised visitation service to help mitigate the issues caused by parental alienation.

Families experiencing issues with PA and PAS should also seek counsel from a therapist that specializes in working with divorced families. Often parents feel very confused about how to approach a situation where their children have received alienating messages from the other parent. As a result, parents often do not say anything.  But saying nothing is actually saying a lot, and it serves to confirm in the child's mind that the alienating messages they have received from the other parent are valid.

A skilled therapist should be able to address children and correct them regarding the misinformation they have received from the offending parent.  This can be a very triggering situation; however, even if the alienating messages have been very offensive, it is important to not retaliate by attacking the instigating parent.  This only places them in the middle of escalating conflict and will likely only serve to increase further parental alienation.

How can high-conflict parents avoid parental alienation syndrome?

To be effective co-parents, it is necessary to move past triggering issues.  Parents in a high-conflict parenting situation should avoid trying to co-parent until the issues that lead to conflict have subsided.  Parallel parenting is a strategy they may wish to employ so that each of them can parent the children without interference or conflict from the other parent.  If new issues arise, it is essential to establish healthy ways to deal with them, such as talking to a therapist versus badmouthing the other parent.  Behave just as you would want your cooperating parent to do for you..

After being successful with parallel parenting for some time, parents can further move toward a child-centered parenting relationship by co-parenting.  But because of the past conflict, it is advisable to seek the assistance of a co-parenting counselor before making the transition from parallel parenting to co-parenting.

How can parents help children move past parental alienation syndrome?

The deeper and longer the parental alienation has gone on, it is more difficult it is to undo the effects of parental alienation syndrome. Trying to bond again with a child that has been subjected to parental alienation will likely take time and effort on the part of the alienated parent. That parent must reach out to the child and show their child that they love them unconditionally. This should be done again and again.

It is crucial that the alienated parent be patient and not expect the child to change his or her mindset quickly. From the child's perspective, by accepting the alienated parent, they may feel like they need to reject the parent that caused the alienation. Doing this without destroying the bond that the child has with the parent that caused the alienation is the goal. If it turns into a battle between parents, it will likely not work.

Paraphrasing Dr. Reena Sommer, author of the book, The Ten Biggest Divorce Mistakes, the following techniques do NOT work when faced with a parent who is engaging in parental alienation tactics:

Waiting: Children are not likely to change on their own, and the alienating parent may not adjust either.

Negotiating: A parent that commits parental alienation is purposefully attempting to destroy the bond that the child has with the other parent, and negotiating with that parent is unlikely to work. Furthermore, precious time is wasted in trying to change that parent's mindset and conflict likely increases, which means more negative comments and an more alienating events are occurring.

Mediation: For mediation to be effective, both parties have to be in the mindset that they want what is best for the children. A parent that is committing parental alienation is not in that mindset. They view raising the child as a win/lose arrangement. If you win, they lose.

Appeasing: The parent committing the alienation is motivated by wanting to destroy the child's bond with that parent. A person in this state-of-mind cannot be appeased.

What are some do's and don'ts that parents can follow to avoid Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Prevention is the best cure for avoiding parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome. A loving relationship with both parents and a strong parent/child bond are critical elements to avoiding the negative consequences of divorce on children. The following guidelines can help divorced parents reduce and prevent the damaging effects of parental alienation from happening:

  • Never ask your child to provide information about what is going on at the child's other house.
  • Never badmouth the other parent in front of the child.
  • Always encourage your children to love and respect the other parent.
  • Always respect the child's time with the other parent.
  • Never argue with the other parent in front of the child.
  • Be on time for custody exchanges and respect visitation or the other parent’s time with the children.
  • Review and abide by the divorced children's bill of rights!


How do you approach your child that has received alienating messages from your ex spouse?

Dr. Richard Warshak, in his book, Divorce Poison, suggests using words like "mistake" or "mistaken". For example, instead of saying, "Your dad is a liar," an alienated parent might say, "Your dad was mistaken."

The following is an example of a way of speaking to a child who has been given alienating messages:

"Sometimes parents get upset or mad just like kids do. Sometimes we make mistakes like calling someone a name or saying something that we didn't mean.  So, what your father said was a mistake, and he probably said it because he is mad about something. He and I will talk and try our best to make up. Sometimes that takes time. But what I want you to know is that your dad and I love you very much and that will not change."


Avoiding Parental Alienation
Dr. Reena Sommer describes steps to avoid parental alienation, or "BOND ABUSE" as she describes it. She also shows strategies the do and do not work to deal with PAS.
Parental Alienation Blog
Rick Nischalke's blog is a personal documentation of what PA can do to a family.
Keeping Familes Connected
A parental alienation resource site from a parent who suffered the effects of parental alienation syndrome.
Wikipedia - Parental Alienation Syndrome
Describes the origins of PAS, the characteristics of PAS, and how parental alienation syndrome is viewed in courts.
YouTube Video - Parental Alienation from Rick Nischalke
An emotional video of a father who has lost his relationship with his children after PAS.

PAS, PA, parental, alienation, syndrome, divorce

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