What's Behind Parental Alienation Syndrome

Some children with divorced or separated parents can experience a situation called parental alienation syndrome. This is where one parent works to turn a child or children against the other parent.

The form of alienation can come in many ways, but one of the most serious is where one parent creates false allegations of child abuse.

Learn more about parental alienation syndrome and some of the common traits that alienating parents tend to have here.

What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Parental alienation syndrome occurs when one parent uses methods to distance a child or children from the other parent. These methods are often referred to as brainwashing, alienating, and programming. That’s because the parent is vindictively coming up with false statements and ways to alter and manipulate how their child views the other parent.

Parental alienation syndrome refers to the symptoms that the child gains. This can sometimes be believing that the other parent abused them when they didn’t.

The term was first coined by child psychologist Richard Gardner in 1985. Gardner used the phrase to describe the behaviors of children who experienced parental alienation.

Having said all that, PAS is not a mental health condition that can be diagnosed pursuant to the DSM-5. The DSM-5 does have a section for a “child affected by parental relationship distress,” and that’s probably the closest thing to PAS in the DSM-5 Manual.

Distorted Perceptions and Memories

As mentioned, parental alienation can come in many forms. For example, one parent may tell their child that the other parent doesn’t love them anymore. Or a parent may pretend that the other parent has moved on with a new family and has forgotten about the child.

In extreme cases, a parent may convince their child that their other parent abused them. Accusations can be mild, or as you can see, they can be severe with serious consequences.

With time, the child’s idea of the alienated parent can be distorted and inaccurate. That is true even if the child and the alienated parent had an incredible bond before the alienation.

Whether the accusations are true or not, the relationship between the alienated parent and the child suffers. For example, a young child may be told by the mother (the alienating parent) that daddy is a bad person and is going to hit the child again if they meet again. Even if this didn't happen, the child may become too frightened to see or even speak to the father.

In time, this could create a false memory that can’t be trusted. The child may believe that they were abused by their alienated parent because they’ve been told it so many times.

Even if the child still wants to see or speak to their alienated parent, the alienator may become controlling when it comes to their relationship. For example, the alienating parent may try to stop all phone calls, messages, and any other interactions between the child and the alienated parent.

The Traits Behind Parental Alienation Syndrome

A parent who alienates their child from the other parent often displays narcissistic or borderline tendencies. This is especially when parental alienation is conducted severely. (See Jeffrey C. Siegel, Joseph S. Langford. MMPI-2 Validity Scales and Suspected Parental Alienation Syndrome. American Journal of Forensic Psychology. Vol. 16, No. 4, 1998, 5-14.)

Narcissistic people are often self-absorbed. They struggle to listen to other people’s different perspectives and viewpoints. Instead, they think about what they want for themselves without considering other people’s desires, feelings, and ideas.

An alienating and narcissistic parent often uses their child as a weapon or pawn to “destroy” or “get back” at the other parent. This is especially common if the breakup was particularly bad.

Narcissists often claim and sometimes believe that they’re protecting their kids against the other parent. However, by brainwashing and distorting their child’s mind they’re not showing consideration for what’s best for their child.

In most cases, it’s healthy for a child to have a relationship with both parents. They can be harmed when one of their parents talks about the other parent in a persistently negative way. This is similar to how a child can be harmed by parents who fight through a messy divorce.

People suffering from a borderline personality disorder, on the other hand, experience emotional hyper-reactivity.

These emotions are often extremely intense, and often they can come out as anger. As well as becoming emotional often and intensely, those with borderline personality disorder find it hard to self-soothe. This means that their emotions and unhappiness can often be longer-lasting than other people’s. As a result, they have issues with emotional resilience. They also struggle to recover after feeling upset, frustrated, or disappointed.

They can then create a victimized self-image whereby they blame others for things that go wrong in their own life. This may prompt them to victimize others, which is how parental alienation can occur. For example, they may believe “I’m a victim of this divorce, so now I can victimize you.”