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What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Instructor: Derek Hughes
Parental Alien Syndrome is an issue that is often brought up in contentious divorce and custody litigation. This lesson will define the syndrome, detail some of the controversy surrounding it, and explain how to identify children who are affected.

Parental Alienation Syndrome

Have you ever heard a story about two people with a child who are getting divorced? In this story, one parent claims that the other is turning their child against them, effectively causing the child to alienate one parent. It's an incredibly upsetting situation that is cited and used in many divorce and custody cases.

This phenomenon is called Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). This syndrome describes a situation in which a child continuously berates, insults and distances themselves from one parent without justification. It is usually attributed to one parent indoctrinating the child against the other (mostly in custody or divorce cases). While this syndrome sounds harmful to everyone involved, there are many who don't consider Parental Alienation Syndrome a disorder at all.

History of PAS

The concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome was first defined and identified by Richard A. Gardner in a paper he published in 1985. He first described PAS as the tendency for a child to repeatedly criticize and insult one of their parents. He believed that this occurred because the child was effectively brainwashed by the other parent.

Since its first definition and description, PAS has been used in many custody cases as evidence that one side is an unfit parent. Gardner stated that it was most often the mother causing the child to alienate the father. However, Parental Alienation Syndrome is not considered a disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is most often used by 'expert witnesses' who testify on behalf of a parent.

Controversy

As mentioned, Parental Alienation Syndrome is not considered a disorder according the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Many of the claims and evidence used by Gardner to back up his theory have been consistently disproved by the scientific community. Despite this, many courts still allow PAS as an argument in custody cases.

Many experts have raised several concerns regarding the issues with Gardner's theory. For example, some believe that his theory ignores the sometimes angry and inappropriate reactions both parents and children have to divorce that are considered normal and predictable. Additionally, many argue that Gardner vastly overestimates the amount and frequency of cases in which a parent seeks to brainwash and alienate their child from the other parent. Finally, the theory places more attention on the custodial parent who may simply be trying to protect their child from the parent seeking custody (in fact, the child might be alienating the other parent because of some abuse).

Gardner proposed that, to treat and fix Parental Alienation Syndrome, the child should be taken away from the preferred parent and placed with the parent they are alienated from and accusing of abuse. This is because Gardner believed that the child's relationship with the alienated parent will become irreparably damaged. However, there is no evidence for this claim or that Gardner's proposed solution is effective.

Despite all of the claims from the scientific community, Parental Alienation Syndrome is still used in many custody cases. Gardner believed that judges should listen to expert witnesses who are trained to identify PAS in court cases. However, there is very little legal precedent that states that PAS is admissible in custody cases.

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