Fathers’ rights: What is parental alienation syndrome?

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 severe 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. These “beliefs” can then profoundly damage the parent-child 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).

PAS could affect up to 750,000 children

The term “parental alienation syndrome” was coined in 1985. “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 2010 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.

Is PAS more than a label?

Child advocates and psychologists who oppose defining PAS as a mental disorder claim that there is little substantial 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. Others say that a “diagnosis” of PAS is geared toward assisting a third party, rather than helping the diagnosed individual.

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. Furthermore, even if everyone agreed a child had PAS, it would still be challenging to determine precisely how it happened, who was to blame, and what to do about it.

Considering the best interests of the child

Whether parental alienation syndrome is a diagnosable mental disorder or a 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.

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