Parental Alienation Syndrome or PAS is one of the most incorrectly used terms in the step-family world. It’s a word that can often send court-appointed officials running for the hills, or rolling their eyes so far back in the heads their eyes get whiplash. Why is this term so widely misused and misunderstood? And what does it actually mean?
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was a term coined by Dr Richard Gardner. He used it to describe children who rejected a non-abusive parent. This is where the incorrect understanding about PAS begins. Most people think PAS refers to the behaviour of a parent who is trying to damage the relationship between the child and the other parent.
A parent won’t let the child talk on the phone , withholds important information, doesn’t follow the parenting order, withholds the children – it’s PAS, it’s parental alienation syndrome people claim. Well, actually no, none of those things are parental alienation syndrome. They may be alienating behaviours, or as I prefer to call them, pathogenic parenting. They are not PAS. PAS is what occurs as a result of those behaviours.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is when the child rejects the parent. The child refuses a relationship with the parent. It’s nothing a parent does, it’s all about the child and his/her behaviour and responses.
Why is this such a controversial term, and why are so many professionals dismissive of it? Why is it not an officially recognised condition?
The original findings of Dr Gardner stated that alienating parents tended to be women. So the foundational belief was that women were the perpetrators of alienation behaviour, and the victims were children and men. As Dr Gardner did more work in the field, he found that it was a pretty even spread between the genders, and both men and women were indulging in alienating behaviour, but the initial findings are what many professionals identify. The damage was done. It is not recognised as an official disorder by the American Psychological Society. PAS is seen by many professionals as misogynistic; dangerous for women and children escaping domestic abuse. The fear is that abusive men use the term to try and discredit women who are trying to protect themselves and their children.
In fact, I heard a leading expert on domestic violence in New Zealand say exactly that. His description of PAS was that it was appalling and used by men to further abuse women. This narrative was very different to both my experience and understanding of what PAS actually is, but gave me a deeper insight into why the court system is so wary when parents, particularly fathers, bring this up in cusotdy disputes.
When you combine this with the prevailing paradigm exploited by many women who use alienating behaviour, which is that the children are scared of their father he is an awful person; it’s unsurprising fathers are not met with understanding or empathy when they raise the PAS question in custody battles. Women are also victims of this behaviour, with fathers using PAS as a way to discredit loving mothers.
So let me recap. Many court officials will have a view that PAS is used by abusive men to try and discredit mothers who are trying to protect themselves and their children. Many mothers who are attempting to cut their children off from the children’s father will claim bullying, fear, and the children/themselves are unsafe with the father. This plays right into the stereotypes of the concerns of court appointed officials, who worry about protecting children from abusive fathers. For mothers, a child rejecting the maternal figure is so far outside of the dominant discourse, many believe it must be because the mother is deficient in some way, otherwise why would a child reject their mother.
There is a distinct lack of understanding of the impact for children of being in the primary care of an alienating or pathogenic parenting. There is limited understanding that children who exhibit ADHD type behavioural issues in a high conflict divorce situation are often doing so because of the high conflict divorce and pathogenic parenting situation, rather than ADHD. There is not an understanding that children will lie to protect the alienating parent, out of fear, loyalty, and a sense they need to protect their parent. There is also a lack of understanding that a child will take on the fears and beliefs of an alienating parent when this is the dominant discourse and the alienating parent lies about the behaviour and intentions of the targeted parent.
So where does this leave a parent who is the target of their ex doing their level best to destroy their relationship with their children? This is not something I can address in a single article, but having an understanding of what the term PAS actually means, why it’s controversial, and why using that term in your legal battles may not serve you well is a start.
It’s important to realise that a single moment of expressing exasperation about the other house, or your ex, is not going to cause PAS. PAS is caused by sustained pressure on the child. This article is the first in a series about PAS and pathogenic parenting, so keep an eye out for more articles about how to counter PAS and to make sure our children are being given the tools to form healthy, loving relationships with all of the parental figures in their lives.
Anita runs courses and provides mentoring for people struggling with PAS/Pathogenic Parenting, family culture, and boundaries. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
She is the Lifestyle Editor at Stepparent Magazine and is a step/mum to 7, ranging from tweens to adults. She lives in New Zealand but works with clients in the US and Australasia. Her passion is mentoring divorced and step-mums to step into their power and couples to navigate the challenging waters of step-family life. She is a certified step-family coach, with graduate and post-graduate qualifications in psychology.