By Daniel H. Swerdlow-Freed, Ph.D.
Over the past two decades child custody disputes have become increasingly common. Two developments in particular have had a significant impact on the burgeoning of child custody disputes, namely the instituting of the best-interests-of-the-child presumption in place of the tender-years presumptions and the increasing acceptance of joint physical custody arrangements.
As the frequency of child custody disputes has increased, so has the animosity and antagonism parents bring to these conflicts. It has been my experience, as well as that of many judges and family law attorneys, to observe children caught in the middle of parental disputes and to be enlisted by one parent as an ally against the other parent in a campaign of systematic denigration and alienation of affection. These disputes tend to possess prototypical characteristics; one of which is a continuous level of high conflict and the other of which involves one or both parents being compromised with respect to the ability to act in the best interests of the child.
The more serious and intractable of these disputes escalate through accusation and counter-accusation and, despite the efforts of attorneys, Friend of the Court counselors, and judges, the conflicts worsen rather than resolve. As accusations and counter-complaints fly, it often becomes increasingly difficult to discern truth from exaggeration and reality from imagination. Looking for assistance in these most difficult of cases, attorneys request, and judges order, psychological evaluations of the warring parties in the hope this will provide useful insight into situations that have deteriorated into chaos and confusion.
Experience reveals that all divorcing couples make some negative remarks about one another and commonsense tells us that not every statement is meant to alienate a child from a parent. How then, are the occasional negative remarks made by one parent toward another distinguished from the vicious and devaluing statements that are designed to thwart one parent’s relationship with his/her child.
Research indicates (Johnston & Campbell, 1988; Garrity & Baris, 1994) that children in divorce situations develop closer alignments with one parent than with the other. Furthermore, in cases where there is a high degree of conflict, a child’s preference for one parent versus the other parent can become polarized and unyielding. Parental preference, like other attitudes and feelings, exists along a continuum, and like all human relationships, possesses some degree of ambivalence or contradictory emotions. Thus, while one end of the continuum is characterized by the complete idealization of a parent and the other end is characterized by total devaluation of a parent, the middle ground consists of a mixture of positive and negative feelings of varying degrees of strength.
In the course of normal development attitudes toward one’s parents typically consist of a mixture of positive and negative affects, albeit not necessarily in equal balance. The exception to this occurs when a parent has been severely neglectful or has emotionally, physically, or sexually abused a child. In these instances, the experience of abandonment or abuse may have so effected the child that his/her attitude and feelings for that parent have crystallized around intensely negative affect states. As we have learned from cases of child abuse and neglect, however, children do not automatically reject the neglectful or abusing parent and, in some instances, show a willingness to forgive the offending parent that baffles outside observers. The point here is that children typically hold a mixture of positive and negative feelings about their parents, unless some circumstances intervene to disrupt this balance. Moreover, some children’s desire to continue in a relationship with abusive and neglectful parents highlights the strength of parent-child bonding and illustrates that even severe mistreatment does not necessarily obliterate a child’s positive feelings for a parent.
Visitation interference can also be conceptualized to exist along a continuum (Turkat, 1994). At the end of no interference, the child’s alignment with each parent is roughly equal, or at least is not a significant factor in either parent-child relationship. The custodial parents of these children facilitate a continuing relationship between the child and their ex-spouse and promote, rather than discourage, frequent and meaningful contact. These parents have resolved the more serious of their marriage or divorce related conflicts and have established a reasonably harmonious level of post-divorce functioning. When problems arise, they are effectively resolved and the post-divorce environment is characterized by a reasonable degree of cooperation and mutual good will.
Acute interference occurs irregularly, typically in response to a specific precipitant, such as failure to pay child support, or some perceived provocation, such as the non-custodial parent bringing a fiancee or new spouse to pick up the child. The custodial parent may retaliate either actively, by denying visitation for a circumscribed period of time, or passively, by not having the child available for a future visitation period. Acute interference is characterized by its short lived, transient nature. Additionally, the custodial parent does not harbor an underlying motive to seriously disrupt the relationship between the ex-spouse and child. Rather, the interference episode is most accurately understood as a means of communication from the custodial to the non-custodial parent and is a warning to not repeat the offensive act.
In more extreme cases, particularly those characterized by moderate to high levels of chronic conflict, the custodial parent directly and indirectly, purposely, and maliciously seeks to undermine and/or destroy the relationship between the ex-spouse and child. Gardner (1992) has proposed labeling this pattern of behavior Parental Alienation Syndrome and describes it as “a disturbance in which children are preoccupied with deprecation and criticism of a parent – denigration that is unjustified and/or exaggerated” (p. 59). He posits that PAS includes a brainwashing component as well as conscious, subconscious, and unconscious factors within the programming parent. Moreover, Gardner purports that factors within the child, independent of parental contribution, play a vital role in the development of this syndrome. Finally, situational factors, such as those existing in the family or environment, play a contributing role in this disorder, as well. Before discussing Gardner’s concept of PAS, I will briefly discuss Turkat’s (1994) proposed concept, Divorce Related Malicious Mother Syndrome, a disorder he suggests is more severe than PAS.
For unexplained reasons, Turkat characterizes this as a disorder effecting mothers and not fathers, although experience reveals that men are as capable as women of behaving maliciously. DRMMS is characterized by, “A mother who unjustifiably punishes her divorcing or divorced husband” by attempting to alienate the child from the father, involving others in malicious actions against the father, or engaging in excessive litigation. A second diagnostic requirement is that, “The mother specifically attempts to deny her child(ren)” regular, uninterrupted visitation with the father, uninhibited phone access to the father, or paternal participation in the child’s school life and extracurricular activities. The third diagnostic requirement indicates, “The pattern is pervasive and includes malicious acts towards the husband including,” lying to the children or others, or violations of law (p.740). Unfortunately, Turkat, like Gardner, is writing solely from clinical experience and does not offer any empirical data in support of his observations. While clinical experience is consistent with some of Turkat’s observations, empirical research is required to validate labeling these observations as truly unique and as warranting the syndrome label.
A common manifestation of PAS, appearing within the context of psychological evaluations, is unwarranted denigration: Alienated children will profess to hate one parent and, without warning, will suddenly refuse to speak to or have any contact with that parent. In this circumstance, the child often claims to not have any positive feelings for that individual, despite a history that suggests otherwise. When questioned about their seemingly abrupt change in attitude toward the hated parent, these children will often rationalize the reason for their attitude change or will state vague reasons for the sudden estrangement.
I interviewed a 14-year-old girl who abruptly refused to return to her father, the custodial parent, after summer visitation with her mother. Despite an absence of serious conflict in the father-daughter relationship prior to summer visitation, afterward the girl became uncharacteristically critical of her father and spoke about him in an excessively derogatory manner. When questioned about her attitude, she was unable to account for her sudden change in feelings, other than complaining that her father expected her to complete certain household chores and live up to other, age appropriate responsibilities. Noticeably absent from this girl’s complaints were any accusations of serious parental misbehavior such as severe neglect or abuse. Furthermore, during interview of the mother in which she lambasted the father for being a deficient parent, she was unable to provide any credible support of her accusations.
No indication of ambivalence: As I mentioned previously, all of us experience some ambivalent feelings toward our parents, unless we have been subjected to severe abuse or neglect. A child who has been alienated from a parent, however, has suppressed any positive feelings for that individual. The child will speak about the parents in dichotomous terms, characterizing the preferred parent as all good and the hated parent as all bad. Furthermore, the child is likely to spontaneously offer a litany of weak, frivolous complaints against the hated parent and will often deny that that parent possesses any redeeming qualities. Even when confronted with a history of harmonious, enjoyable interactions, the child is liable to deny having held positive feelings for the despised parent and will assert that previous expressions of affection were disingenuous.
I recall asking a five-year-old boy about the nicest thing his mother had ever done for him and he replied, “She brought me into the world so I could be with my father.” Despite further questioning, he denied any history of positive experiences with his mother. Even when asked about pleasant experiences involving his mother that had been reported by his father, this boy remained steadfast in denying affectionate feelings for his mother. Such extreme assertions are questionable in the absence of a history of severe abuse or neglect, because children do not naturally hate parents, even parents who have serious shortcomings and deficiencies.
Alienated children will claim they alone made the decision to stop talking to or visiting with the hated parent and will insist they were not influenced in this decision by anyone else, particularly the preferred parent. Not surprisingly, the preferred parent will testify to the veracity of this claim and will describe the child as unusually independent minded. The preferred parent will also give homage to the importance of the child maintaining contact with the hated parent, despite having previously characterized the non-preferred parent in completely negative, derogatory terms. Notwithstanding the plethora of criticisms voiced about the hated parent, the preferred parent will bemoan the child’s decision while simultaneously claiming to be helpless at influencing the child to alter his/her attitude. However, when this parent is asked how he/she would handle the child’s refusal to visit one of his/her relatives or to attend school, the parent quickly indicates he/she would not tolerate such disobedience and would employ some means of getting the child to comply with his/her expectation.
Some children will express absolute, unwavering support of the loved parent’s position, regardless of the issue. Furthermore, these children are incredibly unyielding, refusing to accept any information that contradicts their negative assertions about the hated parent. In extreme cases, a child will argue the loved parent’s perspective more vigorously than will that parent.
When I met the five-year-old boy mentioned above, he spontaneously launched into a highly critical litany of his mother’s perceived shortcomings, even before I asked him a single question about either parent. Moreover, he used words and phrases that were uncharacteristic of young children, but were highly similar to those used by his father when discussing this boy’s mother. The use of age inappropriate phraseology is another indication of possible parental alienation. Often when children are asked to state their concerns in different words, they cannot because they lack genuine understanding of what they are saying and are merely parroting remarks made by the preferred parent. Similarly, when asked to provide an example of an allegation, the child is unable to do so, or, wanting to defend his/her position, cites an extremely weak circumstance. For example, in a recent case a girl complained that her father promised to purchase her certain material goods, such as a stereo and computer. While she acknowledged that the father came through on these promises, she criticized him for not getting them in a timely manner and for giving these items as birthday and Christmas presents. When asked what her objection was to this, the girl responded incredulously, implying that her father was seriously deficient for giving these items as special gifts rather than as items to which she was entitled as a birthright.
Let us now turn attention to some parental behaviors indicative of attempts to alienate a child from a parent. Programming parents, with varying degrees of self-awareness, typically evidence a pattern of verbalizing to the child unjustified, excessively derogatory remarks about the ex-spouse. These may include repeatedly blaming the other parent for the marital problems and characterizing that individual as an adulterer or an abandoner. The programming parent externalizes all blame for dissolution of the marital relationship as well as for having played any role in these problems. Another common criticism is to complain about how little money the other parent is paying in child support, along with statements implying that the other parent would pay more support if he/she genuinely cared about the child. In severe cases, the child may actually believe a financial crisis in imminent and may be encouraged to blame the hated parent for their lack of security.
Some programming parents will exaggerate minor psychological problems or other shortcomings possessed by the other parent. These may be discussed at length with the child, particularly just prior to visitation, along with the admonishment to be careful and wary of the non-preferred parent and to contact the loved parent immediately if anything untoward occurs. Similarly, a programming parent may make repeated phone calls to the child when he/she is visiting the other parent, under the guise of making sure the child is okay.
Some programming parents will refuse to permit their ex-spouse to baby-sit the child, claiming that almost any other adult is better suited to take care of the child’s needs. These parents also tend to be overly rigid with regard to schedules, refusing to make reasonable adjustments or accommodations. Needless to say, voluntary makeup visitation is almost unheard of in these circumstances. Some programming parents may refuse to provide copies of the child’s report card or may instruct the school that they are the custodial parent and that the other parent is not to be contacted nor dealt with. These parents also refuse to inform the non-preferred parent of school plays, concerts, or other special events, although they are quick to criticize when the other parent fails to attend one of these functions.
A more subtle behavior occurs when the programming parent expresses neutrality regarding visitation. A healthy parent understands the importance of the child maintaining contact with both parents and barring extreme circumstances, encourages visitation. When a parent takes a position of “neutrality” this implicitly communicates to the child that contact with the other parent is unimportant and that failure to maintain contact amounts to a loss for the child. Some programming parents will minimize and negate the child’s loss if the child refuses visitation. However, if the preferred parent fails to keep a scheduled visitation time, the loved parent will characterize the child as having felt rejected and abandoned.
What does the child contribute to this situation and how does this promote alienation? The most singularly important contributing factor is the child’s wish to maintain the bond with the preferred parent. Recall that the child, as a consequence of the parent’s divorce, has experienced a disruption in bonding, typically with the non-preferred parent or the parent with whom the child no longer lives. Feeling abandoned by one parent, the child is not going to risk abandonment by the preferred parent and, consequently, is motivated to align him/herself with the preferred parent. One method of alignment is to join with, or identify with, the preferred parent’s anger at the other parent. By sharing a mutual enemy, the child ingratiates him/herself to the preferred parent and assumes the status of a valued ally.
Extreme hatred is a veiled disguise for strong love and true rejection is characterized by neutrality and indifference, not anger and hate. Thus, when a child’s attitude toward the non-preferred parent focuses on that individual’s perceived shortcomings and a sense of feeling disappointed in that parent, an attitude of caring and importance is revealed. The mere fact that the child invests so much effort hating the non-preferred parent indicates that the parent is still very much on the child’s mind and that the parent’s behavior remains important, as well. However, because these children are caught in a loyalty bind, they are unable to overtly express positive feelings for the non-preferred parent, lest they jeapordize their status as a valued ally with the other parent. Feelings are transformed and get expressed as their opposite, thus maintaining a tie with the non-preferred parent, but in such a way so as not to jeopardize the relationship with the loved parent.
As Lund (1995) has pointed out, there are several reasons for a child not wanting to visit with a parent and these are not all the result of parental alienation. For example, preschool children sometimes experience separation anxiety when leaving the custodial parent. Whether this develops into a serious problem or not is determined by the child’s temperament as well as by how sensitively the parents respond to the child. Usually, reassuring and comforting the child, while making it clear that visitation will take place, is sufficient.
Some non-custodial parents have poor parenting skills and are insufficiently sensitive or responsive to the child’s needs. Children in these circumstances are typically capable and willing to describe what is lacking and will agree to continued visitation if the problem is rectified. Parent training, reading books on parenting technique, and parent-child therapy can all be effective methods of correcting this situation.
When children reach adolescence, they may go through a stage of rejecting one or both parents. In fact, it is a normal developmental occurrence for adolescents to distance themselves from parents and to invest more importance in peer relationships. Generally, however, such distancing does not go to an extreme and the child maintains contact with the non-preferred parent. Some teenagers will resist contact with the non-preferred parent, however, because the parent does not engage in activities that the teen finds enjoyable. Again, this situation is usually easy to correct by clarifying appropriate limit setting and negotiating differences with the child.
Finally, some children reject contact with a parent because they have genuinely been subjected to the parent’s neglect or abuse. For example, alcoholic or drug abusing parents, or parents with severe psychological problems may have a history of mistreating their children and these youngsters may resist contact out of legitimate fear and concern for their safety. In some of these cases. children will agree to have contact with the parent, providing it takes place in a safe setting, such as supervised visitation or in a therapist’s office. (DISCUSS LEVI)
My experience conducting psychological evaluations indicates that many allegations of parental alienation contain elements of truth, although not all negative remarks made by one parent against another constitute an attempt to alienate a child. Careful evaluation of these allegations is required because of the long term consequences of either enforcing or not enforcing visitation. When evaluating these allegations, it is critical to obtain a careful history of the child’s relationship with each parent, as well as a thorough history of each parent’s relationship with his/her parents. This information sometimes provides useful insight into the nature of the conflict. For example, I recall an alienating parent who described having an extremely unpleasant childhood and having distanced herself from both parents, as a result. Interview revealed that the woman was having difficulty distinguishing her bad experiences as a child from her daughter’s experiences with her former husband. Specifically, the woman was projecting onto her ex-spouse many of the shortcomings she had experienced at the hands of her own parents. It became clear that this woman was compromised with respect to her ability to make an adequate distinction between the way she had been treated as a daughter and the way her ex-spouse was treating their daughter.
It is important to carefully evaluate the psychological functioning of the child and each parent, paying particular attention to each person’s reality testing as well as their propensity for distortion or misunderstanding. Psychological testing is quite useful in these assessments because it provides information that may not be directly available through interviewing, yet can be compared and contrasted with verbal reports. For example, in a case where a father alleged parental alienation by his wife, psychological testing revealed his strong propensity for arbitrary, idiosyncratic perceptions and unrealistic thinking. This finding was supported by my observation of the father’s behavior during interview, as well as by descriptions of his behavior provided by the children. My conclusion was that, while the father genuinely believed his assertions, he was so lacking in self-awareness that he did not accurately perceive his interactions with his children and, consequently, had little appreciation of the emotionally upsetting effects his actions had on them.
In conclusion, these cases are extremely complicated and require thorough evaluation to identify and clarify the dynamics of the situation. Careful interviewing is required and psychological testing often provides a useful source of additional information. Most importantly, however, these cases need to be dealt with in an expeditious manner because allowing a child to avoid contact with an allegedly hated parent is self-reinforcing. The resulting estrangement is difficult to overcome and only worsens with the passage of time.
Divorce-Online wishes to thank Dr. Swerdlow-Freed for sharing his expertise with our readership. Parental Alienation Syndrome is a growing concern in today’s family law disputes, and this most comprehensive explanation of PAS should provide answers to the many questions received from our readership.