Parenting Alienated Children: Dealing with Parental Alienation Syndrome
By Mary Wilder
“Dad, why don’t you just leave us alone?” The letter fell to the floor as my husband groaned and buried his face in his hands. His heart was breaking—his children were refusing to spend time with him. It had been 18 months since we had seen them and contact with them was becoming more difficult: Mom said the children were unavailable to come to the phone; we had evidence of mail being kept from them; visitation was being withheld.
Sadly, this scene is repeated in many homes where divorce has occurred. Seemingly out of the blue, children who had previously enjoyed a happy, loving, secure relationship with dad or mom become resistant, withdrawn, critical and openly hostile. The phenomenon is known as Parental Alienation Syndrome and its effects 90% of all divorced families in the US (when broadly defined).¹
Parental Alienation Syndrome occurs when one parent intentionally alienates a child or children from the other parent. The alienation is systematic and persistent and can be as mild as an occasional sarcastic comment (“You mean your dad actually parted with some of his money?”) to moderate (mother refuses to list father as a contact on school records or provide school pictures) or severe (“You are never to mention your mother in this house!”). The syndrome was first identified by Richard Gardner in 1985. His research revealed the alienators are predominantly mothers; however, one or both parents may engage in alienation.
Whether perpetrated by father or mother, the effect on the child(ren) is devastating and can include long-term depression, uncontrollable guilt, isolation, hostility, and ego and identity dysfunction. Physical manifestations may include headaches, vomiting and loss of sleep when the child is faced with the prospect of an upcoming visit with the alienated parent. During adulthood, these alienated children may succumb to alcoholism or drug abuse, have difficulty holding jobs, and be unable to maintain healthy relationships. The effect on the alienated parent is no less devastating. The anguish of rejection, concern for the emotional welfare of the child(ren) and the potential bitterness aroused against the alienating parent can consume the entire family unless handled prayerfully and properly.
While PAS involves a complex psychological process, the symptoms in children are relatively easy to identify and distinguish. They include, but are not limited to:
- The child, for unexplained or unfounded reasons, states that he/she wants nothing more to do with the alienated parent.
- The child shows no mixed emotions (ambivalence) whatsoever toward his/her parents. When asked, he/she will describe one parent as all good and the other as all bad…