Parental Alienation Syndrome: Signs To Look For

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A divorce or separation can be a traumatic experience for children as the family navigates a major life change. One of the most common side effects of a divorce is parental alienation syndrome and it can have a damaging effect on a child’s relationship with their parents.

Children need their parents to provide support for them. When something gets in the way of that, especially during a difficult change, it can lead to lasting negative effects on relationships. 

Are you going through a separation that could lead to divorce, struggling with co-parenting, or looking for ways to help those close to you? Read on to learn about parental alienation syndrome and how it can be prevented. 

What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Parental alienation syndrome is a mental condition that occurs when one parent uses manipulative behaviors to turn their child or children against the other parent. This behavior tends to happen during times of separation or divorce with the offending parent intending to estrange their child from their former partner.

The offending parent works to brainwash and alienate their child from the other parent. They could be making false statements to the child to manipulate their feelings. They could actively try to prevent the other parent from seeing their child and making false claims to the child about why this is occurring. 

What Are The Symptoms Of Parental Alienation Syndrome?

The term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) was coined by forensic psychiatrist Richard Gardner in 1985. Gardner identified eight symptoms for it. The more symptoms a child exhibits, the more severe the case. Below are the eight symptoms:

  1. A campaign of denigration, where the child unfairly criticizes the alienated parent, tends to happen continuously and is not an off-hand occurrence.
  2. The rationalizations for the criticisms are weak or frivolous.
  3. The child has a lack of ambivalence, which means they don’t have mixed feelings about the alienated parent, they are firm in the belief their parent has zero redeeming qualities.
  4. The independent thinker phenomenon refers to the child claiming they have drawn their own conclusions based on their criticisms. In actuality, these beliefs were orchestrated by the offending parent.
  5. The child exhibits unwavering support for the offending parent.
  6. The child feels no guilt or remorse for their cruelty toward the alienated parent.
  7. There is a presence of borrowed scenarios that are clearly taken from the offending parent, either before the child’s memory or as a result of manipulation tactics.
  8. The child’s hatred spreads to the extended family of the alienated parent.

There are a few parental alienation signs to look for when determining if it may be taking place or if an alienator is trying to use manipulation with the child. The alienator may:

  • Share unnecessary details about the other parent or their relationship
  • Prevent the child from talking to or seeing the other parent, perhaps sabotaging the other parent’s custody time
  • Frequently break custody agreements
  • Intensely monitor communication between the child and the targeted parent
  • Persuade the child to keep personal items at their house instead of the other parent’s
  • Intentionally keeps secrets from the other parent and includes the child in the secret-keeping
  • Compare the targeted parent to their new partner
mother kissing daughter on cheek
Courtesy of RODNAE Productions (via Pexels)

What Are Some Common Causes Of Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Parental alienation syndrome most often occurs following a divorce or separation but can happen between co-parents who may not have been in a long relationship before having a child together. Any type of breakup, whether it involves children or not, can get messy. However, when children are involved, some parents use their children as a way to hurt the other person or selfishly satisfy their own needs. Alienators are often narcissists and have the desire to be seen as the superior parent.

The alienator uses manipulation to get the child to see things from their point of view. They want to turn the child against their other parent. Often parental alienation syndrome occurs during child custody disputes or high-conflict divorcing.

There are some cases where the alienator manipulates the child for reasons other than a bitter separation. The alienator may be engaging in abusive behavior in addition to emotional abuse. The parent alienates the child because of alcoholism and physical or sexual abuse as a way to not only alienate the other parent but alienate the child. 

How Can We Help Prevent Parental Alienation Syndrome?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association recognizes parental alienation as child psychological abuse under the code DSM-5. DSM stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Parental alienation syndrome can be considered emotional abuse because the alienator is actively manipulating the child to impose a negative belief on the other parent. They want to strain that relationship and it can have lasting effects on children.

Adults who have been the victims of parental alienation syndrome are documented as having low self-esteem, anxiety, self-hatred, lack of trust in others, depression, or substance abuse. They also lose out on a loving parent and end up with just one parent who emotionally abused them. The effects can leave a person without a healthy source of support throughout their life.

As a parent who may become alienated, here are a few ways you can work to prevent parental alienation syndrome:

  1. Maintain contact with your child and remain persistent in sticking with your custody agreements.
  2. Avoid placing blame on the child. Remember that the child is likely being manipulated, which is not their fault. Keep this in mind as you work towards keeping a healthy relationship with them.
  3. Don’t become an alienator yourself and avoid speaking ill of your ex-partner. You don’t want to fight fire with fire in parent alienation syndrome. This is where you have to be the bigger person and maintain decorum. 
  4. Continue being the best parent you can be. Avoid letting any signs of parental alienation deviate from parenting your child. Show your child as best you can that what they may be hearing about you is false.
  5. If you suspect parental alienation is occurring or might happen, keep a journal. Document everything because you may be able to seek legal action.
  6. If needed, seek counseling. Whether you are worried about parental alienation syndrome happening or are actively in it, get the guidance you need to navigate this challenging time. 

Because parental alienation syndrome is seen as emotional abuse, targeted parents can take legal recourse. Compared with other types of abuse children can suffer, it’s more difficult for adults such as teachers to identify that emotional abuse is taking place. That is why, as the alienated parent, it is essential to document everything you can about the alienation. Work to fight for your rights as your child’s parent and continue to be their greatest advocate.

Parenting is difficult and it’s made even worse when co-parenting with someone who fights you every step of the way. Be vigilant in identifying any signs of parental alienation syndrome and never stop loving your child. They need you and, if your relationship struggles at the moment, work towards maintaining a loving relationship so you can have a lasting bond with them.

This article was written exclusively for Love What Matters by Kate Fann. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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