Family Law Blog

The Littlest Pawns – Parental Alienation & Parental Alienation Syndrome.

In 2008, award winning actor Alec Baldwin wrote a book, A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce, which detailed his highly publicized divorce from actress Kim Basinger and their bitter custody battle over their daughter. He complained that Parental Alienation Syndrome nearly led him to commit suicide.  More recently in September of 2011, singer Bill Hudson,  Goldie Hawn’s former husband and father of actress
Kate Hudson, also wrote a tell-all book about his rocky relationship with his famous daughter and how parental alienation ruined whatever rights he had as a father.  Unfortunately, in many divorces parties can agree on just
about everything except parental responsibility and timesharing (which used to be known as custody in Florida). More time and money is often spent litigating this particular issue than on anything else, especially when a parent uses a child as a pawn or negotiating tool in trying to extract a settlement.  Often in these highly litigious and acrimonious cases, one parent or another may intentionally or inadvertently alienate the other parent and/or indoctrinate the child against their spouse. You don’t have to be famous or a rock star to experience parental alienation. Nicholas Bala, a professor of law at Queens University in Canada and an expert in parental alienation, has concludedthat children have been brainwashed and manipulated by parents, and that in the more severe cases, children may not respond to counseling or therapy. While many decry the use of the term “parental alienation syndrome,” Mr. Bala says that it is indeed a psychiatric disorder which can cause long term effects on children.
A child’s brainwashing can begin subtly with the alienating parent at first complaining to the child about the other parent and exaggerating the target parent’s negative behaviors. From there the brainwashing
can escalate through repetitive critical and judgmental comments. The child is often left with no choice but to side with the alienating parent, who they believe is their protector, and reject the targeted parent.
Parental alienation may be seen in highly complicated and/or contested divorce cases and may ultimately lead to a change in a child’s residential placement if the Court finds there is just cause.
So what is parental alienation and what can be done about it? Even thought not all divorces involve parental alienation and/or Parental Alienation Syndrome, it still pays to understand the basic precepts so you can recognize it and nip it in the bud should it rears its ugly head.

Where Did It All Begin?

Way back in the dark ages of divorce (the 1960s and 1970s), many states utilized the tender years presumption and declared that it was in the minor children’s best interest that they remain with their mother. Over the years fathers sought greater rights regarding their children and gained ground regarding custody. Dads increasingly were able to obtain joint custody or, in some instances, full custody. While many divorces settled amicably, some cases escalated into full blown war. Child psychologists and therapists were often called in to evaluate children and report their findings to the Court.  This became so prevalent that in 1985 a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Gardner, coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome to describe a childhood disorder marked by the malicious indoctrination of a child almost exclusively during a child custody battle and which includes the child
belittling, denigrating and/or insulting the other parent. While Dr. Gardner’s terminology has become accepted, his theory has never been formally adopted or recognized by mental health professionals in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation is a set of behaviors exhibited by an adult parent that causes a downward spiral in the relationship that the other parent has with the child. The behaviors may be conscious or unconscious, and the alienator parent may not even be aware of what he or she is doing. In severe cases of parental alienation, the alienating parent will enlist the help of family, friends and others as they try to purge the “offending” parent from their life and the lives of their children.  The alienating parent may use the children to spy on the other parent; speak badly about the other parent in the children’s presence or within earshot of the children; and/or interfere with timesharing by not allowing the children to spend time with their husband or wife.  However, like in most relationships, it takes two to tango, and the targeted parent often unwillingly participates in this hurtful cycle by retaliating against the alienating behavior. In divorce cases, parental alienation usually occurs in highly contested custody matters, such as: where the child’s primary residence will be; the amount of timesharing the
other parent exercises; and how the husband and wife will co-parent the child until their son or daughter reaches the age of majority. If left to ferment and fester, parental alienation may eventually cause Parental Alienation Syndrome.

What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is thought to be a harmful psychological syndrome in which a child is brainwashed by one parent (known as the “alienator”) who poisons the child’s mind by continually berating and belittling the other parent(known as the “target”) to the point at which the child is unable to differentiate between his or her own opinions and those of the alienating parent. Sometimes the children are so young and passive
that they cannot comprehend what is happening to them. PAS is a strategy that is used to disable or prevent the other parent from experiencing from their child’s love, affection and respect and sharing in the joys and responsibilities of co-parenting their children. This can occur when one parent feels powerless in their divorce battle and that husband or wife feels a need to retaliate against their spouse.  Studies have shown that women are primarily the alienators, but not exclusively. Many men can similarly destroy a child’s affection for their other parent.
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