Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)
By Dana Morningstar
This is a term coined by Richard A. Gardner in the early 1980s that describes a significant negative change in a child’s behavior toward one parent without justification, in which the child becomes belittling and emotionally withdrawn, often to the point where they don’t want to spend time with that parent (and sometimes it can extend to not wanting to spend time with that parent’s family). PAS can be caused intentionally by telling a child negative things about the other parent, or unintentionally by a child hearing (or overhearing) one parent talking about the other parent in a negative light.
It is important to note that sometimes a parent does need to be alienated, and that contact does need to end for the child’s safety. This would be if the parent is dangerous, and if the child is at risk of harm. If this is your situation, talk to an attorney and a therapist well-versed in abusive and manipulative people, as well as in PAS, about how to handle reducing contact with a destructive or dangerous parent.
Example: Susan and Tom were married for ten years and had a five-year-old son, Peter. When they divorced, Tom would continually tell Peter bad things about his mother. He would tell him that Susan didn’t care about Peter, because if she did, she wouldn’t have divorced him and split up the family. He would also tell Peter he didn’t have enough money to buy him toys because he had to pay his mother child support. Peter began to resent his mother for hurting his father and for causing him to not get any new toys, and started acting out. When Peter would return from visitation, he would act hostile and defiant, and would tell Susan that he didn’t want to live with her anymore. Susan was heartbroken and at a loss as to what to do.
Example: John and Kim recently broke up. They were never married but have two children, Liam and Barry. One day, John is on the phone venting to his friend about Kim. Liam overhears John say all kinds of bad things about his mother. Liam is really angry at his mother for doing all these things and becomes hostile towards her. Both John and Kim are caught off guard by Liam’s change in behavior, and chalk it up to the fact that kids sometimes act out when their parents separate. Over time, Liam’s anger grows, and his relationship with his mother becomes more and more tense and strained. Kim can’t figure out what she did to deserve such treatment from her son. John’s actions unintentionally led to a mild case of PAS, and can most likely be remedied if the parents are able to open up communication with Liam and find the source of his anger.
Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”