Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Parental Alienation Syndrome - The Starting Point

In the last post, I responded to Dahlia Lithwick’s article in Slate regarding Parental Alienation Syndrome indicating that the major problem with her article was its one-sidedness. Today, I would like to address the substance of parental alienation and give a slightly more nuanced view of the situation that has given rise to the current discussion. There is absolutely no way to explain this issue fully in a blog post, but the point is that the debate surrounding parental alienation syndrome is much broader, and not quite as scientific vs. disillusioned that Lithwick implies.

The catalyst, I believe, for Lithwick’s article is the fact that there has been serious discussion about including Parental Alienation Syndrome in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (“DSM”) V. As I mentioned, the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts had a plenary about this topic at its annual conference last year in Denver – a conference that focused significantly on the issues surrounding alienation. Attendance at that session left me with two main takeaways: 1) Including PAS in the DSM V is problematic because a) it forces us to label the child as having a psychiatric disorder, and b) there is no need to have a labeled syndrome to address the issues, and 2) the behaviors that often give rise to the label of PAS are real, and we must deal with them on their merits, regardless of any label we give those behaviors.

The entire conference left me with the broader impression that these issues are not macro; each case is different, and each case needs to be considered with respect to how and why children and parents are behaving in particular ways. There is nothing black and white about individual families, especially when dealing with issues of alignment, estrangement, possible abuse, memory, and “truth.”

The first problem is that there is no single definition for PAS; instead, we can say it usually entails a child rejecting one parent as a result of the other parent making false allegations against the rejected parent; the child begins to believe these false allegations, thus leading to rejection of the alienated parent. Richard Gardner, the man who coined the phrase Parental Alienation Syndrome, believes that in extreme cases, the child should be forced to live with the alienated parent in order to heal the relationship (and perhaps punish the alienating parent). Those absolutely opposed to the notion of PAS say that the rejected parent is usually an abuser, and the child and aligned parent reject with good cause. This labeling between PAS and abuse leave little room for debate. More importantly, it leaves no place for individual interventions in individual families.

There is no question that alienation is an issue in family courts across the world. The arguments transcend borders, and allegations abound – one side arguing that abuse has occurred and the other arguing that alienation has occurred. In other words, the ultimate zero-sum situation. Studies have shown that there are numerous reasons that a child may reject a parent, and while there are times when alienation is the reason, there are times when normal development affects how a child aligns with his or her parents, and there are times when abuse is real. By labeling all estranged behavior as alienation, we ignore that there can be any number of explanations, each of them as likely as another on the macro level.

There are levels of estrangement and alienation, from mild to severe. A mild case might be one parent making off-hand comments about the other parent and the child feeling put in the middle enough to begin to think less highly of the parent being maligned. This can happen even with a parent who does not intentionally try to influence the child’s feelings towards the other parent. Severe alienation occurs when a parent makes a child believe that the other parent has been abusive and therefore the child absolutely rejects seeing the alienated parent even if that parent never really did the things of which that parent has been accused.

The situation is difficult to assess because the child may actually believe something that never happened. The more we learn about memory, the more we learn how unreliable it is – especially in children. But that does not change the fact that a child may believe that a parent was abusive and thus reject that parent. Memory is subjectively real, even if objectively the act being remembered never occurred. Thus, determining truth in any particular case is difficult, and sometimes impossible because each person has his or her own subjective truth.

Thus, on the macro level, there can be no solutions; we cannot name it as a syndrome, put it in the DSM-V and assume that this will solve the problem. Instead, the professionals involved must evaluate all the facts – everyone’s facts. But we must also move forward from those facts. We may never know the objective truth in these cases; each person has his or her subjective truth, and that is something we must accept. The point is that each subjective truth may be that alienation and/or abuse has occurred. From there, we have to find a way to ensure that children are harmed as little as possible.

So, is it a syndrome? That may never be determined. What we do know is that the problem is real, and children are caught in the middle. Rejecting it outright under the assumption that it is pseudo-science only harms the children who are caught in the mess of their parents’ controversy. Recognizing that the behaviors exist and that each case must be evaluated on its own merits means that the macro argument of right vs. wrong is over, and forces us to get our hands dirty and try to understand how to move forward. Arguing about the past debate surrounding the name of a disorder is not going to help the individual children and families harmed by professionals arguing about whether it should be a label.

There is certainly a bigger discussion to be had, but this is a very simple beginning – a move away from labels and macro thinking to individuals and understanding that truth is subjective, especially with these emotionally-charged issues. What we do with this will have a huge impact on our ability to serve children and families struggling to find their place in a system that promotes accusations because of the need to have someone win and someone lose.

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. Thank you for your summary. It is a very difficult issue for everyone. Your suggestion that each case be evaluated individually is valid. My question is this: I would like to know a suggested criteria for evaluation.

  2. Emilyss, I think such criteria for evaluation would be a great idea. Again, I think it will depend greatly on the particular situation, but I will ask some people who work in the field. Perhaps this is a great topic for a guest post.