By Tim Lemire
Parental Alienation (PA) occurs when one parent corrupts the relationship between their child and the other parent. The alienating parent, though words and behavior, converts the child to an unwarranted view that the other parent is not deserving of respect and love.
PA occurs most often within families of divorce, and there are many frustrations that can make the pain of PA even worse.
1) Being told PA is not real. In the make-believe courtroom of Law & Order, crackpot psychological disorders are handily dismissed because they’re “not listed in the DSM.”
The DSM (that is, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is a reference book published by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s a reputable text, but they do not print it on stone tablets shipped in from Mt. Sinai: its authors are not infallible or immune from trends and politics within professional psychiatry.
At present, the DSM does not list parental alienation syndrome (PAS) as a disorder.
That does not mean PA itself isn’t real, and it doesn’t mean PA cannot or does not result in a child exhibiting anxiety, depression, impaired academic performance, substance abuse, or self-harm.
It means the DSM, a single book, doesn’t recognize something called PAS—yet.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, was not added to the DSM until 1980. That doesn’t mean that prior to the Reagan administration (cough: Vietnam), PTSD didn’t exist and people experiencing its symptoms were just imagining things.
2) Being told PA is not happening. After his parents’ divorce, Jared, age 16, angrily tells his Mom: “You’re an awful mother” and “If you hadn’t prolonged the divorce by being so difficult, I’d have more money for college.”
When Jared’s Mom shares this with her friend Barbara, she responds, “Well, that’s how kids are today: they have no respect. My son is sure like that.”
Jared’s Mom is aware “how kids are.” She also can recognize when Jared says things that might as well have come straight from the mouth of her ex-husband.
Yes, children lash out at their parents. But then they also will say “I’m sorry,” “I was upset just now,” and “I love you.”
There is a big difference between a teenager who occasionally gets sassy and a child who, before a divorce, was loving and kind-hearted toward a parent but after the divorce consistently exhibits hostility toward that parent.
3) Being told PA is your fault. This is what the alienating parent wants the world—family, friends, school staff, judges, and the children themselves—to swallow hook, line, and sinker: that if their child rejects the targeted parent, it’s because the targeted parent deserves it.
And people tend to buy this, because in our culture of child rearing, we give parents enormous credit: the food we give kids, the gadgets we buy them, the schools we send them to—all of it, we’re told, has deep, far-reaching formative effects on kids.
So when people see a situation in which a child rejects a parent … well, it must be something the parent did, as if children cannot be prompted, coached, or pressured to act in a certain way.
For Joanne, an alienating mother, it’s not enough that her ex-husband Bill bear the burden of their daughter Laura’s rejection: Bill must also take the blame. Because Joanne wants her daughter to be her girlfriend, she regales Laura with tall tales, half-truths, and outright lies about how irresponsible and awful Bill is. Joanne tells Laura she is entirely within her rights to not see her father, even on Father’s Day or Christmas. Thus Joanne becomes the “good parent,” protecting Laura from the rejected “bad parent.”
Some parents, of course, are bad, but the words and behaviors of PA are either unwarranted or grossly disproportionate to anything the targeted parent has said or done.
To parents experiencing PA: Educating yourself about PA can help you understand you’re not crazy and not everything is your fault. Knowledge and information can also help you avoid the baits and traps that PA lays. Most importantly, you learn how and why not to do it yourself.
TIM LEMIRE is a writer in Providence, RI. He is working to petition his state’s General Assembly to convene a Study Commission on effective co-parenting classes for divorcing parents in his state. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.