What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

By: Steven Fernandez
November 07, 2016

Parental Alienation Syndrome, which was once called “maternal brainwashing,” is very common in divorces and other family law proceedings, especially if there is a high level of conflict. Bear in mind that it only takes one spouse to create a sufficient amount of conflict in these situations. In a nutshell, PAS is an alienating parent’s systematic attempt to erect an emotional barrier between the children and the targeted spouse.

Dr. Richard Gardner first discussed Parental Alienation Syndrome in 1985. The symptoms are hard to recognize and the entire subject is emotionally charged (especially given the early “maternal brainwashing” moniker), so many non-family law professionals refuse to recognize it. Lately, to resolve part of this conflict, some psychologists distinguish between Parental Alienation, which focuses on parental behavior, and Parental Alienation Syndrome, which focuses on parents who instill hatred for the other parents in their children.

Whether it is mild or severe, PAS normally causes permanent damage to the relationship between the targeted spouse and the children, so prompt action is essential.

Look For the Signs 

In this political season, we know that regardless of the type of ad that Candidate A airs, whether it extols the virtues of Candidate A or attacks Candidate B, the objective is the same. Similarly, the PA/PAS distinction is largely a matter of degree, because the intent is always the same, whether the alienating parent tries to push the children away from the targeted parents or pull them in the other direction. 

  • Granting Privileges: Mother may give the children a later bedtime or Father may give the children longer curfews. In all such cases, the alienating parent often says something like, “I bet you don’t get this kind of treatment at Mom’s/Dad’s house,” and the not-so-subtle message is that the targeted parent is a less desirable parent.

  • Replacement Spouse: Some alienating parents abandon the normal parent-child relationship in favor of one that is more like spouse-spouse, through things like discussing financial matters, their relationships with third parties, and otherwise using the children as emotional confidants.

  • Time Disruption: One of the best ways to choke off a relationship is to reduce the amount of time that the people spend with one another. Therefore, alienating parents often intentionally schedule children’s activities on the other parent’s weekend (e.g., “Susie cannot come see you this weekend because she has a Girl Scout event").

  • Parental Kidnapping: In the most extreme cases, alienating parents deny visitation with targeted parents and may even remove the children from the jurisdiction and conceal them from the targeted parents.

Many alienating parents begin with very low-key alienation tactics and then move on to more aggressive measures if the targeted parents do not respond to the threat. 

It is important to stress that PAS is not always “intentional” in the ordinary sense of that word. For example, Dad may legitimately want Susie to attend the Girl Scout event and he may even make vague promises to Mom about a make-up weekend. But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so when Dad pulls Susie towards himself, he also pulls Susie away from Mom, and that is why PAS is so potentially destructive.

Preventative Steps

Since PAS is a danger in so many family law cases, most standard temporary orders have some anti-PAS provisions. For example, most temporary orders prohibit the parents from discussing litigation in the presence of the children or disparaging the other parent within the children’s earshot.

This language is a good start, but considering everything that is at stake, it may not go far enough. And, as the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, in addition to the standard orders, family law attorneys often add language like, “In most cases, the children shall go to bed at 9 p.m. on school nights and 11 p.m. on non-school nights” or “The parents are encouraged to directly communicate with one another regarding the issues covered in this Temporary Order.”

If there are symptomatic and consistent signs of PAS, targeted parents should not hesitate to aggressively file motions to modify the temporary orders. 

Curative Steps

Aggressive motions to modify visitation or custody, along with motions to enforce the current orders, should also be part of a post-proceeding strategy, because if nothing else, such filings draws attention to the issue and may help convince the alienating parents to change their approaches. Whether or not you take this route, discuss it with your family law attorney to understand your options.

Most California judges order social studies in contested modification actions. That is good news for targeted parents, because family law social workers are trained to recognize PAS, and they also appreciate its long-term effects. Similarly, when these cases go to court, experienced judges have seen PAS before, know what it looks like, and know what it can do to a family.

In 1980, the Golden State passed the nation’s first joint custody law, so the principle that both parents should be actively engaged in child-rearing, if at all possible, is deeply ingrained in California law and many other states' laws.