Parental Alienation Syndrome

The concept of PAS was first coined by the late Dr Richard Gardner, an American psychologist in 1985 based on his observations of child custody cases involving false allegations of child sexual and/or physical abuse (Gardner, 1985).  According to Gardner (1985) Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) relates to the combination of two contributing factors:

  • The programming or brainwashing of the child by the alienating parent to denigrate the target parent
  • The self-created contributions of the child in support of the alienating parent’s campaign of denigration against the target parent


Accordingly, Gardner (1998) defines PAS as:

… a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent. When true parental abuse and/or neglect is present the child’s animosity may be justified, and so the parental alienation syndrome explanation for the child’s hostility is not applicable. (Gardner, 1998: xx)

Gardner (1985) argues the massive increase in child-custody litigation since the mid 1980s has corresponded with a dramatic increase in the frequency of PAS, a disorder rarely seen previously.  Other authors have also contributed to the literature on the existence and effects of PAS.  Lowenstein (2007) argues that PAS is used as a weapon by the custodial parent to nullify the very existence of the absent parent or to demonise that partner as a means to prevent contact with the child.  According to the Green Paper, Parental Separation: Children’s Needs and parents Responsibilities, ‘three million of the twelve million children in this country have experienced separation of their parents’ and that ‘each year between 150,000 and 200,000 parental couples separate’ (2004:1).  Bradshaw and Miller (1991) found that 40 per cent of fathers had no contact with their children after two years.  In a study by Spruijt et al (2005) in the Netherlands, the authors state that the PAS was responsible for 42 per cent of reasons for lost contact.


What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

PAS is not the same as the hindrance of contact, but a psychiatric disorder in the child that originates from the conscious and unconscious actions of the alienating parent (Gardner, 1998; Baker, 2005).  Gardner (1985) is keen to point out that a child’s rejection or estrangement from an offending parent in bona fide cases of abuse or neglect does not constitute PAS – it is the unwarranted rejection of one parent that constitutes PAS.  According to many PAS authors, such as Lowenstein (2007), custody evaluators and the Courts lack sufficient knowledge of PAS and the harm caused to children.


Why does PAS occur?

Gardner (1985, 2006) attributes the massive increase in frequency of the parental alienation syndrome to two important changes in child custody determinations: the replacement of the tender-years presumption with the best-interests-of-the-child presumption and the increase in the popularity of the joint custody concept.  As a result of these changes, Gardner (1985, 2006) asserts that whereas mothers could rely on the tender-years presumption to gain sole custody, this is no longer a certainty.  PAS arises then from the need to not only keep or gain custody of children after an acrimonious separation, but also to control totally the rearing of children following parental separation (Gardner, 1985; Lowenstein, 2007).  PAS usually involves allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse being made by the alienation inducing parent (AIP) to justify the prevention of contact between the target parent (TP) and children – such allegations are virtually always disproved (Baker, 2005) The result of such allegations results in social worker and police investigations and often leads to the TP giving up the fight for contact with his children (Lowenstein, 2007).


Alienation Techniques

A number of authors have described the numerous techniques involved in the induction of PAS.  The most common techniques used by the AIP involves transmitting a negative set of beliefs about the TP to the child and replacing the child’s loving memories of the TP with a negative scenario that justify the rejection of the TP (Gardner, 1998).  With time the child totally shares the animosity and paranoia with the AIP and develops a virtual phobia, fear and dread contact with the alienated parent (Lowenstein, 2007).  In a study by Baker (2005), examining the disparate experiences of 38 adults who had experienced PAS, findings showed very similar patterns of parental alienation.  Baker (2005) asserts that when children adopt the views of the AIP and severe all ties with the TP, the child is living in something similar to a cult – the cult of the alienating parent.  Baker found that many adult children reported having to express devotion and allegiance to the alienating parent, the loyalty being extracted through sweet seduction or wrathful commands, often a combination of both.  Baker (2005) found five primary mechanisms for manipulating the thoughts and feelings of the children:

  1. constant bad mouthing of the TP
  2. creating the impression that the TP was dangerous and would hurt the child
  3. deceiving children about the TP’s feelings for child to create resentment
  4. the AIP withdrawing love if child showed affection towards TP
  5. erasing the TP from the life and mind of the child through minimising actual and symbolic contact



Clawar and Rivlin (1991) suggest that the programming of children can be conscious and deliberate or unconscious and unintentional with children passive or willing participants, but such involvement changes over time.  Clawar and Rivlin assert that parental programming and brainwashing in custody disputes is widespread with dire consequences for children with around five percent of children who are alienated to the point of no return.  The authors argue that brainwashing techniques employed by the AIP are repetitive and are employed to undermine and hinder the relationship of the child with the other parent.  They identify eight stages of the brainwashing process in severe PAS cases:


  1. A thematic focus to be shared by the alienating parent and child is deliberately chosen by the parent which then is used to attack the other parent – e.g. the TP is an alcoholic
  2. Mood induction techniques are employed to create a linkage between the child and the programmer to establish support from the child
  3. Feelings of sympathy towards the programmer are induced in the child
  4. The child begins to demonstrate compliance such as wanting to visit the TP less often or using similar language to the programmer
  5. The programming parent tests the effectiveness of the programme, with proper feedback being rewarded
  6. The child’s loyalty is tested by asking the child which parent is preferred, better or if the child wishes to see the TP again
  7. There is an escalation, broadening and generalisation in the assault on the TP such that the child rejects the TP
  8. Telling the truth to the child about past events that portray the TP negatively


Gardner (1998) takes a different view from Clawar and Rivlin, in that Gardner emphasises that PAS involves the conscious and unconscious factors within the TP combined with factors that arise within the child – independent of the parental contributions.  Bone and Walsh (1999) believe that PAS children learn to manipulate the truth just to survive and to avoid an emotional attack by the AIP and in doing so, eventually internalise the AIP’s perceptions of the TP.


Age appears to be the most significant trait that predicts the success of alienation (Bone and Walsh, 1999).  Bone and Walsh (1999) report that younger children aged between 7 and 15 are more vulnerable than older ones.  Research by Burrill (2006) found that children under age five years tend not to fall victim to severe alienation and suggest this is because they may lack the psychological and emotional maturity to be programmed.  Gardner (1998) asserts that compared to older children, younger children are more vulnerable to the AIP’s suggestibility since they have greater need to ingratiate themselves to adult authority.


The Diagnosis of PAS

Since the very concept of PAS remains disputed, verifying the presence of PAS remains a difficult task (Gardner, 2002; Baker 2007).  A central task of social workers under the Children Act 1989 is to ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child concerned.  However, Lowenstein (2007) asserts that that ‘no effort, or very limited effort, is made to unearth the real basis for the child’s stance and frequent implacable hostility to one parent, usually the absent father’ (p.62).  Indeed, Sauber (2006) points out that custody evaluators who simply accept the wishes and feelings of a child not to have contact with the TP, often overlook the fact that the child’s preferences have been contaminated – their feelings are essentially based on misleading information provided by the AIP.


In order to help custody evaluators and clinicians recognise PAS, Gardner (1998) asserts that evaluators need to be aware signs and the symptoms associated with PAS.  As a tool in the diagnosis of PAS, Gardner (1998) identifies eight cardinal symptomatic manifestations that he considers are commonly demonstrated by children in PAS cases:


1) A campaign of denigration

2) Weak, Frivolous, and absurd rationalisations for the deprecation

3) Lack of ambivalence

4) The “independent-thinker” phenomenon

5) Reflexive support of the alienating parent

6) Absence of guilt over cruelty towards the alienated parent

7) Borrowed scenarios

8) Spread of animosity to the extended family and friends of the alienated parent



Differential Diagnosis of the Three Levels of PAS Children

In addition to the Clinical manifestations of PAS, Gardner (1987) further describes three levels or types of PAS families.  These are mild, moderate and severe and apply to the eight primary symptomatic manifestations and are based on the symptom level in the child – not the AIP.   For a detailed description of each of the eight cardinal symptoms and the differential diagnosis of the three levels of PAS see Appendix 3.  Gardner asserts that the differentiation is important because custody evaluators need to determine the child’s level of alienation in order to provide correct recommendations for court ordered and psychotherapeutic interventions.


Treatment of the Three Levels of PAS

Depending on the severity of the PAS condition, Gardner (1998) proposes the treatment plan as shown in Table 1.1 for legal and psychotherapeutic approaches:



Table 1.1 – Differential and Treatment to the Three Levels of PAS


Child’s Symptom Level Legal and Therapeutic Approaches
Mild Primary custody remains with the alienating parent. 
Moderate a)       Primary custody remain with the alienating parent, court appoints a PAS therapist and consider the use of sanctions, such as fines, incarceration or community serviceb)       Occasionally the court may need to transfer residency from the AIP to the TP, child contact with the AIP be extremely restricted and monitored to prevent further indoctrination.  Court-appointed PAS therapist
Severe Custody should be transferred from the AIP to the TP and a PAS therapist appointed.  Treatment by a court-appointed PAS therapist



PAS as a Shared Psychotic Disorder: Folie á Deux

In some cases of alienation, the PAS inducing parent and the programmed child may develop a condition known as shared psychotic delusion, referred to in psychiatry as a folie á deux (Gardner, 1999; Lowenstein, 2007).  Folie á deux (DSM-IV code: 297.3) is a disorder in which two people who have a close relationship come to share the same delusions and false beliefs.  Gardner (1997) believes that alienating inducing parents are often paranoid and psychotic and hold delusional beliefs.


In severe PAS cases, the domineering parent (AIP) with a specific form of psychopathology induces the same psychopathology in the child thus making the DSM-IV diagnosis Shared Psychotic Disorder applicable (Gardner, 1998).  For Bernet (2006) children  are  impressionable and  open to  the alienating  parents  ideas  and  like  the

AIP they also come to be psychotic and share the same delusions as the AIP.  Only by breaking the relationship between the inducer of the alienation and the child can the child’s delusional beliefs be eliminated (Lowenstein, 2007).  In situations where two or three children share the same delusional beliefs as the AIP, the folie á trois or folie á quatre situation respectively exists (Gardner, 1998).


In Baker’s (2005) study, she found that descriptions of alienating parents met the diagnostic criteria for a personality disorder, a pervasive and distorted rational style, including narcissism, borderline, and anti-social personality.  Equally, Kopetski (1998b) identifies four main psychological characteristics commonly demonstrated by AIP’s:

  1. A narcissistic or paranoid orientation to interactions and relationships with others
  2. An over-reliance on defences against psychological pain that result in externalising unwanted feelings, attitudes and responsibility so internal conflict is transformed into less painful interpersonal conflict. An example of such a defence is “splitting” whereby there is a preoccupation with the shortcomings of others and feelings, characteristics and judgements are polarised such that the AIP views the self as all good and other person is seen as bad.
  3. There is evidence of an abnormal grieving process in which there is a preponderance of anger and an absence of sadness in reaction to the loss of the marital partner
  4. A family history of absence of awareness of normal ambivalence and conflict about parents, enmeshment with one’s family or a family culture in which “splitting” is a prominent feature.


Gardner (1998) asserts that the longer the AIP has to influence a child, the stronger the alienation is likely to be.  According to S.1(2) of the Children Act 1989 ‘delay is likely to be prejudicial to a child’s welfare’.  The results of the survey in this study (Chapter 6.F) show that the average number of hearings was ten, suggesting lengthy delays.  Significantly, research by Smart (2003) found that from the moment of application to final order, just under a half of all cases were resolved in less than 6 months and that 20% of cases took between 9 and 12 months, 17% of cases took between 1 and 2 years and while 13% took more than 2 years.  The House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee Report, Family Justice: The Operation of the Family Courts (2004: 10) found that:

‘Delay in court proceedings can be so protracted that it undermines the relationship with the non-resident parent to the extent that, by the time a decision is made, the court may take the view that it is no longer in the child’s interest to grant contact’.


Parental Alienation Leading to Sexual Abuse Allegations

An important feature in PAS dynamics involves the frequent use of child sex-abuse allegations (Bernet, 2006; Lowenstein, 2007).  According to Gardner (1987) the increased awareness of child sexual abuse in the early 1980s has resulted in a new and effective weapon for mothers in child custody disputes.  Gardner (1998) asserts that 90% of allegations of sexual abuse in custody disputes are false.  For Gardner (1998) the sex abuse allegation is a spin-off or derivative of the PAS, but is not synonymous with it.  The sex-abuse allegation usually surfaces after other exclusionary manoeuvres have failed (Gardner, 1998; Lowenstein 2007).  However, Gardner (1998) also makes clear that the presence of such allegations does not preclude the existence of bona fide sex abuse.  Lowenstein (2007) mentions, that to his knowledge, not a single mother has ever been prosecuted for making false allegations.


Gardner (1998) suggests that mothers have learnt that with sex-abuse allegations the courts are likely to order that contact cease pending investigations.  This view is shared by McGleughlin et al (1999: 358) who point out that with allegations, ‘the judicial process hinds to a halt, which poses a critical dilemma for judges as the stakes are so high and because they must decide to allow contact to continue or not’.  McGleughlin et al stress the importance for investigators and custody evaluators to consider the timing and function of such allegations.


McGleughlin et al (1999) also argue that child protective workers; mental health workers and judges are particularly susceptible to bias when sexual abuse is alleged, based on strong emotional reactions to the allegations.  When a child makes sex abuse allegations, social workers may believe what the child says because they consider that children are not capable of lying and may seek further evidence that sexual abuse has occurred rather than impartially seeking the truth (Lowenstein, 2007).


Research on the prevalence of false allegations and those proving to be validated differs tremendously and remains unclear.  McGleughlin et al (1999) report that the findings significantly differed from very few cases involving allegations to 75 per cent of court cases involved allegations.  In a review of welfare reports in England and Wales, Buchanan and Hunt (2003) found that eleven per cent of welfare reports contained child protection concerns and only four per cent had current social services involvement due to protection issues.  Equally, research by Thoennes and Tjaden (1990) found that child sexual abuse following divorce was rare (2-4% of cases).


The Psychological Effects of Parental Alienation Syndrome

Several authors in addition to Gardner agree on the short and long-term negative effects of parental alienation on children.  For instance, according to Van Rooyen and Mahendra (2007) parental alienation is ‘likely to endanger the child’s mental health and seriously compromise its emotional and psychological well-being’ (p.61).  The authors also add that depriving a child of a healthy relationship with a parent is psychologically harmful to children.


The PAS child who loses contact with a parent with whom they once had a loving relationship suffers great loss, the enormity of which is similar to the death of the alienated parent, two grandparents and all the lost parent’s relatives and friends all at once and may trigger mental illness in the child (Cartwright, 1993).  Cartwright further adds that for the child this is a major tragedy since the child is unable to openly acknowledge the loss, much less mourn it.


Waldron and Joanis (1996) emphasise that ‘the effect of PAS on the child is never benign; it is malevolent and intense’ the severity of which is dependent on ‘the extent of the brainwashing and the amount of time the child spends enmeshed with the AP, the age of the child, and the degree to which the child believes the delusion’ (p129).  Waldron and Joanis, assert that the effects of PAS run across all areas of the child’s functioning and that ‘the dominant emotion for PAS children is loss’ and ‘the effects of the loss of the parent on other aspects of adjustment are pervasive’ (p129).


Baker’s (2005) study examining the disparate experiences of 38 adults who had experienced PAS as children confirms the findings of Cartwright (1993) and Waldron and Joanis (1996).  Baker found that these children had experienced serious emotional and psychological problems throughout their lives.  For instance, Baker found that 70 percent of the adult children suffered significant episodes of depression rooted mainly in not being loved by or able to love the targeted parent.  Many of the adult children described how the AIP conveyed the message that the loss of the TP was a positive event, essentially ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ (p.60).


Baker also found many long-term impacts on the PAS child, such as, drug and alcohol dependency used as a coping mechanism (35%).  Baker found that adult children also had difficulties with personal relationships (40%) and high divorce rates (57.5%).  A key long-term outcome of Baker’s research was that many adult children (50%) of PAS went on to be alienated from their own children, with many of the respondents repeating their experiences of loss and rejection.  Less prominent effects for adult children in Baker’s study included problems with identity and not having a sense of belonging or root and not choosing to have children to avoid rejection by them; low academic and career achievement; anger and bitterness for lost time with the TP and problems with memory.


A key feature of Baker’s study was that low self-esteem problems were prevalent amongst the adult children (65%).  Baker suggests that the first source of low self-esteem was the internalisation of the hatred of the TP.  Bakers adds that ‘this process is consistent with object relations theory in which the bad object is taken as an introject into the child’s understanding of him or herself’ (p.181).  Children felt they too must be bad and experienced the AIP’s rejection of the TP as a rejection of part of them.


Equally, Boch-Galhau and Kodje (2006), argue that children, under strong pressure to submit to the AIP, learn to adjust to the expectations of others and as a result can fail to develop a clear individuality.  The authors also assert that PAS children often develop hardly curable severe personality disorders with lifelong sources of uncertainty centred around questions such as, “What do I think?” “Who am I?” “What do I really feel?”


Similarly, Owusu-Bempah (2007) views PAS as a form childhood separation with long-term consequences similar to those of adoption and donor insemination.  Examples of medium to long-term problems encountered by PAS children include behavioural, emotional, psychiatric, identity, relationship and mental health problems.  For Owusu-Bempah, PAS children lack a sense of socio-genealogical connectedness.  Sociological connectedness relates to ‘one’s self-identity, one’s self worth, one’s sense of psychological wholeness and one’s mental health’ (Owusu-Bempah, 2007:23).  Owusu-Bempah asserts that PAS children who possess no or inadequate/damaging information about one of their genetic parents are less likely to integrate it and develop a sense of genealogical bewilderment.  Owusu-Bempah (2007) asserts that PAS children presented with distorted and negative information about one of their parents are more likely to experience psychological and emotional difficulties much the same as looked-after children.


Lowenstein (2007) lists 16 specific potential effects of PAS that are not immediately recognisable in the short-term, but become very obvious in the long-term as the effects are long-lasting (Appendix 4).  In many cases children may develop psychotic delusions due to the tremendous pressure to passively submit to the AIP (Lowenstein 2007).  One of the most significant effects of PAS is that children learn to practice deception in order to placate the AIP and in this way children learn that deceit and manipulation are normal and acceptable in relationships (Lowenstein, 2007; Waldron and Joanis, 1996.

PAS as Emotional Abuse

A key assertion of Gardner’s theory is that indoctrinating a PAS into a child is a form of emotional or narcissistic abuse because it can result in the progressive weakening or total destruction of the psychological bond between the child and a loving parent (Gardner, 1998).  According to Garbarino et al (1986) emotional abuse is the most elusive and most prevalent form of child maltreatment.  The authors describe emotional abuse as a form of psychological maltreatment, which in turn they define as ‘a concerted attack by an adult on a child’s development of self and social competence, a pattern of psychically destructive behaviour’ (Garbarino et al 1986: 8).  The authors classify psychological maltreatment into five behavioural forms each of which has a differential impact on children depending on age and stage of development:


  • Rejecting – behaviours which communicate or constitute abandonment of the child, such as refusal to show affection;
  • Isolating – preventing the child from participating in normal opportunities for social interaction;
  • Terrorising – threatening the child with severe or sinister punishment, or deliberately developing a climate of fear or threat;
  • Ignoring – where the caregiver is psychologically unavailable to the child and fails to respond to the child’s behaviour
  • Corrupting – caregiver behaviour which encourages the child to develop false social values that reinforce antisocial or deviant behavioural patterns, such as aggression, criminal acts or substance abuse


Baker (2007) examining each of the in the Garbarino et al components as they pertain to the experiences of adult of children of PAS found that all of the adult children had experienced a combination of the five behavioural forms.  Additionally, Baker (2007) found that adult children had been told that they were unloved by the TP and that the TP was in turn unworthy of their love and respect.  The adult children were often overburdened with information that they were not able to handle cognitively or emotionally.  In this respect, Baker talks of the ‘parentifying’ of the adult children, that is, the children were overburdened with emotionally having to support and having to make the alienating parent feel better (p.98).


The child’s cognitive understanding and view of the world is shaped by a conglomeration of immediate perceptions combined with the perceptions of caretaking adults (Kopetski, 1998a).  Because children trust the perceptions of their parents more than their own, their emotional and cognitive dependencies can easily be exploited by the very adults they trust and rely upon (Kopetski, 1998a).  Thus, children presented with a distorted perception of the TP are likely to share the same distorted perception Kopetski adds that the most mitigating factor against sharing a distorted perception is the child’s relationship with any other person, who is able to presents the child with a different perspective or corrective influence.  This would explain why alienated children are usually prevented from having any direct contact with the TP, the TP’s extended family, or indeed friends of the TP.  Instead, the AIP communicates to the child that only they or their delegates can be considered safe and that only the AIP can provide the child with the relationship required for psychological survival (Kopetski, 1998a).


However, according to Lowenstein (2007) Judges and the courts ‘virtually always give the benefit of the doubt to one of the parents, usually the mother when parents have disputes in relation to their children’ and the alienation and emotional abuse goes unrecognised (p292).  The lack of concern by the courts and social workers seems to be at odds with the very principles of Every Child Matters, which all health and social organisations delivering services to children must adhere to.  Lowenstein (2007) further adds that the courts often side with the wishes and feelings of a child as established by the family reporter, whilst often failing to take in to consideration the reasons and unwarranted fear some children appear to have of the TP.


In addition, establishing the presence of emotional abuse during the alienation process may prove difficult for custody evaluators since children are often active participants in the alienation process and therefore will not speak out against the AIP or because children may share the same distorted perception as the AIP (Kopetski, 1998). Lowenstein (2007) adds that even when expert witnesses or custody evaluators discover that alienation has taken place, the judiciary often take the view that they are acting in the child’s best interests to by not forcing the child to have contact with the TP.  The main aim of CAFCASS is to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.  However, since PAS is not accepted by the judiciary or included in the DSM-IV, many custody evaluators for fear of be discredited may deny its existence or that PAS is relevant to the case they have been assigned to and in doing so, may contribute to the harm being done to the child (Gardner, 1998).