Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is the unhealthy coalition between a narcissistic parent and his or her children against the targeted, non-narcissistic, non-abusive parent. The innocent or targeted parent receives hostility and rejection from his or her children in this system. The psychological health of the children is used as arsenal in the narcissist’s twisted world.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is a family systems pathology involving the triangulation of children into the abusive, narcissistic parental relationship. In the case of PAS the cross-generational coalition exists between the narcissist and the child or children, and is a covert type of narcissistic abuse. In typical family systems therapy there would most likely be cooperation with the offending parent to break the coalition with the child and stand united with the other parent. With a narcissist this will not happen. Narcissists have limited insight so they will be unwilling or unable to see their unhealthy union, believing it to be occurring because he or she happens to be the superior parent, deserving of loyalty, deeming the innocent parent as “bad.” In addition to this, narcissists are unwilling to collaborate on anything; even in therapy. Going to therapy with a narcissistic partner will usually backfire on the targeted partner.
The symptoms of PAS are: (1) The children sit in judgment of the targeted parent’s adequacy and competency as a parent. (2) The narcissistic parent covertly encourages, empowers, and rewards the children for this behavior. (3) The narcissistic parent feigns innocence in this process. (4) The children believe they are acting independently (that is, they believe they are not being influenced by the alienating parent.)
The system is created as the alienating parent rewards the children when they say hostile or angry things about the targeted parent by encouraging and displaying “understanding” for the children’s negative feelings, when what should really be occurring is the children should be taught to respect the other parent. In essence, the children are gaining acceptance from the narcissistic parent as they complain about the target parent.
For instance, suppose the targeted parent tells the child to do a chore and the child resists as is so often the case with children being told to do something they don’t want to do. Now, suppose the child goes to the narcissist and complains about the “mean” other parent. The narcissist will then sympathize with the child, encouraging him or her to feel victimized by the “outrageous” expectations of the targeted parent, and will excuse the child from having to do the chore. Thus, the child is getting sucked into the web of PAS. The targeted parent is outraged, bewildered, hurt, and betrayed. The child has been covertly empowered to disrespect the one parent who is actually trying to develop a decent human being. The narcissist sits back, effortlessly creating the destructive coalition with his or her child.
In essence, the children are empowered to disobey, disrespect, and disregard the non-narcissistic parent. On the surface, the children feel and believe they are benefiting and winning, but in reality they are playing a sordid part in the narcissist’s perverse mind games. There are some detrimental effects to the children because of this:
If you are a victim of PAS, here are some suggestions for you to try to help turn things around:
I recently received an email request from a family law judge overseas who asked for input on resolving “parental alienation” in the family courts. I thought my email response to this question might be more broadly of interest, so I am providing it here as well.
What has traditionally been called “parental alienation” represents an attachment-related pathology. The attachment system is the brain system that governs all aspects of love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss. A child rejecting a parent following divorce is a problem in the love-and-bonding system of the brain — the attachment system.
The key to solving this attachment-related family pathology is to return to the standard and established constructs and principles of professional psychology. The problem faced by the family courts is that professional psychology is not providing the court with the necessary level of professional expertise needed to solve the pathology. The focus of my work is to help professional psychology develop the professional expertise in four areas of professional knowledge needed to successfully resolve the pathology:
The Attachment System
Personality Disorder Pathology
Family Systems Pathology
Complex Trauma Pathology
I recently completed the first AB-PA Certification seminar here in Pasadena, California training mental health professionals in these four domains, and in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of attachment-related family pathology.
So the first step is to return to standard and established professional constructs and principles in professional psychology. The next step is to establish a standard of practice for addressing attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce. This begins with assessment.
Assessment leads to diagnosis, and diagnosis guides treatment.
I have a booklet available on Amazon.com:
This booklet describes a six-session assessment of attachment-related pathology. I am recommending that in all cases of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce, that courts order this six-session assessment protocol.
The trouble that courts will currently run into is locating a mental health professional who can conduct this structured and standardized assessment protocol. I describe the assessment protocol in my booklet (The Assessment of Attachment-Related Pathology Surrounding Divorce), I have YouTube videos up that provide a professional-to-professional level description of the assessment process (Professional-to-Professional Conversation with Dr. Childress), and I directly train mental health professionals in this assessment protocol as part of my AB-PA Certification seminars.
This structured assessment protocol is built around two instruments, 1) the Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting which documents the child symptoms resulting from pathogenic parenting by a narcissistic/(borderline) personality parent, and 2) the Parenting Practices Rating Scale that documents the possible problematic parenting of the targeted-rejected parent. Both of these instruments are available on my website:
The issue of concern is called “pathogenic parenting” (patho=pathology; genic=genesis, creation). Pathogenic parenting is the creation of significant psychopathology in the child through aberrant and distorted parenting practices.
The attachment system (the brain system for love-and-bonding) never spontaneously dysfunctions. The attachment system ONLY becomes dysfunctional in response to pathogenic parenting. So the assessment question becomes, which parent is creating the child’s attachment-related pathology.
Is it pathogenic parenting by an allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent who has formed a cross-generational coalition with the child against the other parent? (the Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting)
Or is it pathogenic parenting by the targeted-rejected parent (child abuse) that is creating the child’s rejection of this parent? (the Parenting Practices Rating Scale).
We begin with assessment.
Assessment leads to diagnosis, and diagnosis guides treatment.
Now to address the intervention and remedy issues…
We first need to conduct a proper assessment of the attachment-related pathology to identify the source of pathogenic parenting. If the pathogenic parenting is coming from an allied narcissistic/(borderline) personality parent – as documented by the Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting – then we move on to treatment.
The three diagnostic indicators of AB-PA (pathogenic parenting by an allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent) are:
1) Attachment system suppression
2) Narcissistic personality traits in the child’s symptom display
3) An encapsulated persecutory delusion in the child’s symptom display
Pathogenic parenting that is creating significant developmental pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 1), personality disorder pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 2), and delusional-psychiatric pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 3) is a DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed.
Assessment leads to diagnosis, and diagnosis guides treatment.
In all cases of child abuse, physical child abuse, sexual child abuse, and psychological child abuse, the professional standard of practice and “duty to protect” requires the child’s protective separation from the abusive parent.
We then treat the emotional and psychological damage created in the child by the abusive parenting and we recover the normal-range and healthy development of the child.
Once we have recovered the normal-range and healthy development of the child, we then restore the child’s relationship with the formerly abusive parent with sufficient safeguards to ensure that the child abuse does not resume once the child’s relationship with the formerly abusive parent is restored.
This is the standard of practice for ALL cases of child abuse, physical child abuse, sexual child abuse, and psychological child abuse. Diagnosis guides treatment.
In cases of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce, there MAY be a treatment-oriented approach that does not require a protective separation period. It is a Strategic family systems intervention designed to alter how the child’s induced symptoms confer power within the family. Strategic family systems therapy is one of two primary schools of family therapy (the other being Structural family systems therapy). The principle theorist of Strategic family system therapy is Jay Haley
A possible Strategic family systems intervention for attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce is a Contingent Visitation Schedule that makes the child’s visitation with the abusive and pathogenic narcissistic/(borderline) parent contingent upon the child being symptom-free. If the psychologically abusive narcissistic/(borderline) parent creates significant symptoms in the child, then this parent’s time with the child is reduced and the child’s time with the targeted parent is increased. Once the child’s symptoms have been treated and the child’s normal-range and healthy development is restored (the child is symptom-free) then normal-range contact with the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is restored.
The child’s contact with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is made contingent on the child remaining symptom-free. It’s like small-scale protective separation periods of a few days or weeks based on the emergence of documented child symptoms and their recovery.
The Contingent Visitation Schedule is a pre-defined and structured approach to potentially addressing the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality parent. I describe the Contingent Visitation Schedule in a booklet available from Amazon.com:
However, without the Contingent Visitation Schedule the standard-of-practice treatment would be a six to nine month protective separation period from the psychologically abusive parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent based on a confirmed DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse identified in the assessment phase.
A possible treatment alternative is a Strategic family systems intervention of the Contingent Visitation Schedule.
The Contingent Visitation Schedule will require an organizing family therapist to run and implement the Strategic family system intervention, and a current problem that the court is likely to run into is the absence of mental health professionals who are skilled in family systems therapy and who can run a Contingent Visitation Schedule intervention. I describe how to run a Contingent Visitation Schedule in my booklet, and as part of my three-day AB-PA Certification seminars I train mental health professionals in both the six-session assessment protocol for AB-PA (attachment-based “parental alienation”) and in structuring and running a Contingent Visitation Schedule.
My current efforts are directed toward training and Certification of mental health professionals in AB-PA, including how to conduct a six-session assessment protocol and run a Contingent Visitation Schedule. The goal is to provide the courts with the necessary level of professional expertise needed to solve the attachment-related family pathology of “parental alienation” (AB-PA). Until we achieve that goal, however, achieving the solution may remain challenging for the courts.
I am currently working with an organization in Houston, Texas (Children4Tommorrow: Dwilene Lindsey) to create a pilot program for the courts for addressing all cases of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce. This involves teaming an AB-PA Certified mental health professional with an AB-PA knowledgeable amicus attorney. To establish this AB-PA Key Solution pilot program for the family court, I would conduct a two-day Certification seminar for 15 to 20 mental health professionals in the Houston area and then a one-day AB-PA seminar for 5 to 10 amicus attorneys tailored to explaining the pathology to legal professionals. This would provide the courts in the Houston area with the necessary level of professional knowledge and expertise needed to solve the attachment-related pathology of “parental alienation.”
Then, in all cases of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce, the court would order a treatment-focused assessment by an AB-PA Certified mental health professional using the structured and standardized six-session assessment protocol. If the pathology of AB-PA is identified by the assessment (attachment-based “parental alienation”), then the court would team a new AB-PA Certified mental health professional with an AB-PA Knowledgeable amicus attorney. This team could then establish and monitor a Contingent Visitation Schedule and guide the family’s stabilization into a successful post-divorce separated family structure of cooperative co-parenting and shared bonds of affection between the child and both parents.
I describe this AB-PA Key Solution pilot program in a booklet available on Amazon.com:
There are models for brief-intensive interventions that are available that will quickly and gently restore the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system. The two primary brief-intensive interventions are:
Family Bridges: Richard Warshak
High Road to Family Reunification: Dorcy Pruter
My understanding is that they use similar approaches. I have not reviewed the Family Bridges protocol but I have reviewed and observed the High Road protocol of Dorcy Pruter, so I can speak directly to the High Road protocol.
The High Road protocol of Dorcy Pruter will gently and effectively restore the child’s normal-range attachment bonding motivations within a matter of days. I have provided the High Road protocol with my endorsement;
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857
Psychologist Richard Gardner coined the term "parental alienation syndrome" in 1985, making PAS a recent addition to considered psychological conditions. As such, it has been challenged in court on several occasions. This has helped define PAS for use in court. In Williams v. Williams in Florida in 1996, courts determined that PAS could be caused by the mother or father, and that it was not gender-specific. In other cases, when parents argue against a charge of PAS, the behavior is enough to influence the court. This allows PAS to be a part of the court system without having to be a diagnosable condition.
Bala, Fidler, Goldberg, and Houston (2007), speaking about the importance of case management in the alienation context, wrote
It is important for judges to take control of alienation cases, to limit the possibility of manipulating the court process by the parents, and to ensure a firm and quick response to violations of court orders. These are cases for which judicial case management is especially appropriate. Given the need for timely assessment and intervention, judges should ensure that assessments are completed in a reasonable time (say 90–120 days). Further, cases that cannot be settled should be brought to trial as soon as possible after completion of the assessment, so that it does not become stale and require an update.
This view is reinforced in Fidler, Bala, Birnbaum, and Kavassalis (2008), where the authors emphasize the importance of early identification, case management, and post-judgment control. As Sullivan and Kelly (2001) exclaimed more than a decade ago:
A clear mandate for support, with a threat of court sanctions if alienating behavior persists, is essential to the intervention process. These sanctions may include financial payments or enforcement of an order that the aligned parent’s primary legal or physical custody is conditional on supporting therapy and facilitating reasonable access.
Justice Martinson (2010) of British Columbia recommended:
“several steps are necessary in order to maintain the focus on the best interests of the children and move the case to a resolution in a just, timely and affordable way:
Poor parental mental health can have a detrimental effect on the health and development of children, leading to an increased risk of mental health problems for the children themselves.
The court has an obligation to act in the best interests of the child involved in a divorce. In some situations, a parent may pose a significant risk to a child due to mental illness or psychological instability. If you are facing a divorce soon and think your spouse may have a psychological issue that could be dangerous for your child, it’s vital to understand your options and how to approach the situation.
Psychological testing plays a role in many divorce cases, even when mental illness isn’t a glaring concern for either parent. The court needs to accurately assess the parenting capability of each parent and determine whether a parent’s mental state poses a risk to the children’s safety. Some of the tests that custody evaluators may use during divorce proceedings include:
PTSD: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and it is referred to as a psychological diagnosis made after an individual’s experiences a traumatic event. Due to the nature of trauma, symptoms may not start showing immediately after the traumatic event, but rather several months after. This is usually caused by denial, as most survivors of traumatic events often suppress the event all together in an attempt to get back to a place of normalcy. Once the denial starts to wear off this is when symptoms start to manifest themselves.
According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, it is reported that about 6 in every 10 men in the U.S. will suffer from a minimum of one trauma in their lifetime that may cause serious PTSD. It is also reported that 5 in every 10 women will experience the same. Not every traumatic event leads to PTSD, however, 80% of trauma survivors will experience some if not all symptoms of PTSD.
Children's rights are the human rights of children with particular attention to the rights of special protection and care afforded to minors. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as "any human being below the age of eighteen years, unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier." Children's rights includes their right to association with both parents, human identity as well as the basic needs for physical protection, food, universal state-paid education, health care, and criminal laws appropriate for the age and development of the child, equal protection of the child's civil rights, and freedom from discrimination on the basis of the child's race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, ethnicity, or other characteristics. Interpretations of children's rights range from allowing children the capacity for autonomous action to the enforcement of children being physically, mentally and emotionally free from abuse, though what constitutes "abuse" is a matter of debate. Other definitions include the rights to care and nurturing. There are no definitions of other terms used to describe young people such as "adolescents", "teenagers", or "youth" in international law, but the children's rights movement is considered distinct from the youth rights movement. The field of children's rights spans the fields of law, politics, religion, and morality.
Wendy Archer, officer and North Texas chapter manager of Parental Alienation Awareness Organization USA (PAAO USA)