Parental alienation syndrome
Richard Gardner, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, coined the term “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) in the mid 1980s. Gardner described a condition wherein a child was brainwashed or programmed by one parent through a “campaign of denigration” against the other parent that sometimes included a false sex-abuse accusation and automatic parroting of the brainwashing parent’s views. PAS arises primarily in the context of high conflict child custody disputes. Few mental health professionals considered it to be a mental health disorder and it has been highly criticized for a lack of scientific validity and reliability.
However, parent alienation (PA), as opposed to PAS, has been widely recognized as a grouping of behaviors that often accompanies high-conflict marriages, separation and/or divorce. These behaviors can result in alienated children, alienated parents, and targeted parents. A child who strongly attaches to one parent (the alienating parent) and rejects the other (the targeted parent) in the false belief the targeted parent is bad or dangerous is a recognized problem.
The alienated child & symptoms of parental alienation
An alienated child may display characteristics including: unreasonable anger, intense negative portrayal of the target parent, lack of conflicting feelings toward parent, use of adult language by the child, and the child says things which appear rehearsed.
Dr. Douglas Darnell identifies symptoms of parental alienation including:
- Giving child a choice when they have no choice about visitation.
- Telling the child “everything” about the marital relationship or reasons for the divorce.
- Refusing to acknowledge the child has property and may want to transport possessions between residences.
- Resisting or refusing to cooperate by not allowing the other parent access to school or medical records and schedules of extracurricular activities.
- One parent blaming the other parent for financial problems, breaking up the family, changes in lifestyle, or having a girlfriend or boyfriend.
- Refusing to be flexible with the visitation schedule in order to respond to the child’s needs, or scheduling the child in so many activities that the other parent is never given the time to visit.
- Assuming that if a parent has been physically abusive with the other parent, it follows that the parent will assault the child. This assumption is not always true.
- Asking the child to choose one parent over the other.
- The alienating parent encouraging natural anger the child has toward the other parent.
- A parent or stepparent suggesting changing the child’s name or having the stepparent adopt the child.
- When the child cannot give reasons for being angry towards a parent or gives reasons that are vague and without any details.
- Using a child to spy or covertly gather information for the parent’s own use.
- Arranging temptations that interfere with the other parent’s visitation.
- Reacting with hurt or sadness to a child having a good time with the other parent.
- Asking the child about the other parent’s personal life.
- Physically or psychologically rescuing a child when there is no threat to their safety.
- Making demands on the other parent that are contrary to court orders.
- Listening in on the child’s phone conversation with the other parent (this is generally illegal in North Carolina).
These behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, may cause a child to be mentally manipulated into believing the targeted parent is the enemy.
North Carolina’s recognition of parental alienation
Under North Carolina law, only two appellate cases mention PAS or PA. In Kilian v. Kilian, 175 N.C.App. 420, 623 S.E.2d 367 (2006), the father introduced a child care application which did not list him as a parent, but rather listed mother’s new husband as the child’s father/guardian as evidence of parental alienation. In a criminal rape case involving the rape of his daughter, Donald Fuller attempted to use evidence of parental alienation syndrome unsuccessfully in his criminal defense. See State v. Fuller, 160 N.C.App. 250, 584 S.E.2d 109 (1993).
Even though NC appellate courts have not fully addressed the PA issue, our trial courts here such evidence frequently. One district court judge in North Carolina recently wrote an article in which she detailed dialogues with children involved in custody disputes such as this one:
Judge: “Did you and your mother talk about coming to court today?”
Judge: “Has your mother ever told you what this case is about, and what happens when she comes to court?”
Minor: “Well your Honor, I don’t think it would be in my best interest to have dinner with my dad. I realize there is a court order in place and that I cannot unilaterally change the order, but my mom should not be held in willful contempt for not making me go to dinner.”
Judge: “Now you’re sure you and your mom haven’t discussed this case?”
Call to action
If you suspect parental alienation, you need to take appropriate action. Even if your spouse or ex-spouse is acting badly, don’t talk to your child about any pending litigation and don’t allow your child to see any of your court documents. Talk to your child custody attorney and a licensed mental health professional about how to best handle the issue. At Rice Law, we often work with Denise Scearce, MSW, LCSW and Bridge Builders Counseling and Psychotherapy in Wilmington.
- Parental Alienation Awareness Organization
- Parental Alienation: A Mental Diagnosis?
- Symptoms of Parental Alienation, by Dr. Douglas Darnell, Ph.D.
- Hartsfield, Judge Denise S., Family Jewels: “Kids are to be seen, not heard” — Somebody’s grandmother in the 1960s. NC Bar Association’s Family Forum, Vol 30, #3, (2010).
The above is presented as general information on parental alienation syndrome and parental alienation. It is not exhaustive coverage of the issue but only a general explanation from a child custody attorney’s perspective. Seek help from a licensed mental health professional and an attorney for more information.