During and after a divorce, emotions run high. Under the best of circumstances, it can be a real challenge to co-parent children with a former spouse. Especially when the divorce wasn't amicable, a disagreement can easily become a child custody battle. In some serious cases, however, it becomes much more than a disagreement.
When one parent constantly tears down the other in front of the children, the kids may come to believe that one-sided world view. A child can become wrongly convinced that the other parent is frightening or dangerous, which can profoundly and often permanently damage the parent-relationship.
In the past 25 years, many psychologists and fathers' rights advocates have become convinced that this unjustified fear, anger and hatred some kids are made to feel amounts a mental disorder: "parental alienation syndrome" (PAS).
Parental Alienation Is Real, But Is It a Syndrome?
The term "parental alienation syndrome" was coined in 1985 by controversial New York psychiatrist Richard Gardner. He argued that vindictive parents do sometimes "poison the children against the other" in order to cut the kids off from the other parent. He advocated for family courts to punish parents who do this and to enforce visitation with the other parent.
"We're talking about kids who have a false belief, a little like a delusion, that the other parent is an evil, dangerous person. To me that looks and sounds like a mental disorder," said Vanderbilt University psychiatrist William Bernet in a recent St. Petersburg Times article.
Fathers' rights groups and other proponents of the theory are lobbying to have PAS included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). They argue that the syndrome could be affecting some 750,000 American children.
Would a Diagnosis Help, or Is PAS Just a Label?
Child advocates and psychologists who oppose defining PAS as a mental disorder claim that there is little solid evidence that one parent poisoning the kids' minds against the other results in a "syndrome." They argue these experiences simply represent a negative family dynamic.
Mental disorders defined in the DSM, point out two psychologists interviewed for the article, are disorders of an individual. A "diagnosis" of PAS would not be "geared toward helping the diagnosed individual, but assisting a third party -- an estranged parent," said Joyanna Silberg, executive vice president of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, in the article.
There may be valid reasons for children to refuse visitation with or be estranged from one parent, ranging from simple preferences or separation anxiety to legitimate fear of abuse.
"The premise that you can improve a relationship with a parent through force and coercion and isolation from the preferred parent is simply erroneous and unethical,'' said Silberg.
Furthermore, even if everyone agreed a child had PAS, it would still be difficult to determine exactly how it happened, who was to blame, and what to do about it.
Whether parental alienation syndrome is a diagnosable mental disorder or a with family dynamic, many parents and children experience alienation in a real and tragic way. It may be unclear what choices parents have to rebuild relationships with alienated children, but it is abundantly clear that unfairly vilifying any child's parent cannot be in the best interest of the child.
"Controversial disorder at center of bitter custody cases" (St. Petersburg Times, May 23, 2010)