Parental Alienation Syndrome – Part I: Are Your Children Suffering From Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)?

Aug 8, 2012 by

It is widely believed that divorce damages children. But is it the actual divorce that hurts children, or is it something else? In the long run, most children can survive their parent’s split. But many children can’t recover from Parental Alienation Syndrome or PAS, which is caused by a parent’s actions after the divorce.

So what is PAS and why is it so harmful? PAS is caused when one parent poisons a kid’s relationship with the other parent. You don’t need to be a psychologist to figure out that putting a child in a position where he or she constantly receives negative information about the other parent damages the child’s relationship with that parent. Ironically, in the long run, the strategy of the alienating parent (the one doing the badmouthing) often backfires. Some of these children realize as a teenager or as an adult the harm this parent caused and end up without close relationships to either parent. (And where the alienating parent is over the top, the court sometimes steps in and gives full custody to the non-alienating parent.)

Sometimes PAS is a conscious program embarked on by one parent intent on severing the child’s relationship with the other parent. But many times it is innocent or unconscious; it is this unconscious type of alienation that I will discuss here.

Let’s face facts. If you thought your spouse was so wonderful you would still be married, right? So it is perfectly natural to dislike (OK, and in some instances hate) your ex. But it does not follow that because your former spouse was a terrible husband/wife, that they are also an awful parent.

Here is an actual story about a mother who is unconsciously alienating her daughter against her father. Susan and Steve had different parenting styles when they were married. Susan had very strict rules about homework schedules and diet; Steve was more of a pizza and pasta guy, but one who kept in shape through exercise. When mom wasn’t home, he let the kids watch an hour of TV or play with friends before beginning their homework so that they could unwind after school. Needless to say, their different parenting styles were one of the many fights that resulted in their eventual break-up.

Fast-forward five years. Susan is still very rigid about organic fruits and poultry; Steve is still eating pizza. Because Susan can no longer control 100% of what her daughter eats and her homework habits now that Steve shares custody, she vents her considerable anger by telling her children that their father is “bad” because he doesn’t share her parenting strategies.  She says things like, “People who feed children junk food don’t really love them” and “If you want to be successful in life, you need to do your homework the minute you get home from school.”

And what happens when Susan drops off her daughter at her father’s house? She hands her over without so much as a “hello” and then hurls an insult “I see that you still don’t believe in clean windows” and then leaves in a huff. Her child, wanting to please her mother, mimics her mother’s coldness to her father so long as she is present.  

If you asked Susan point blank if she is trying to sever her daughter’s relationship with Steve, she would say she wasn’t. But in Susan’s case, her actions speak volumes.

I have always found great irony in this type of alienation. If you asked Susan if it was more important for a child to eat organic chicken or to have a father in her life, she would say a father. Yet, because of her actions, in the long term, her daughter won’t be close to her “terrible” father.

So are you unconsciously engaging in PAS or is your former spouse?

Read about the signs of PAS in Part II of this article.

by Wendy Jaffe, ESQ.

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