Thursday, August 9, 2012

Essay: An Examination of the Debate around Parental Alienation

Lora O'Brien, 
NUI Maynooth 2011 - 2012

Parental Alienation (referred to forthwith as PA) is a problem I have experienced personally during current custody litigation and divorce.  For the purposes of this essay, PA is defined as the deliberate/unconscious manipulation by an Aligned (alienating) Parent, of their child/children’s feelings/beliefs with regard to the Target Parent.  Here we will examine the history and development, whether it can be classed as a syndrome, other issues and research, and look at some of the available data from medical and legal professionals.

What is the history of PA?
In 1976, Wallerstein and Kelly identified in their sample of divorcing families a clinical phenomenon that they termed pathological alignment. They described a child living with one parent who irrationally rejected the other parent and who refused to visit or have contact with that other parent. (Bow et al, 2009, p. 127)
They described it as an “unholy alliance” between a narcissistically enraged parent and a vulnerable older child or adolescent who together waged battle in efforts to hurt or punish the other parent.  (Johnston, 2003, p. 158)
The concept of this clinical phenomenon was developed by Richard Gardner, who became known for his writing and expert consultation on the subject, naming it Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), with his last article published posthumously in 2004.  There has been much written on PA, and in America, a majority of professionals studied who are involved with child custody cases “considered themselves very knowledgeable about the concept”; having read books, journal articles, and attended conferences, as well as being familiar through their working life (Bow et al, 2009, p. 134).

Is it a Syndrome?
The definition of PA as a recognised and measurable syndrome has proven to be one of the controversial points.  Kelly and Johnston (2001), maintain that PA cannot be a diagnostic syndrome, as defined in 1994 by the American Psychiatric Association, as there is no “commonly recognized, or empirically verified pathogenesis, course, familial pattern, or treatment selection” (p. 249).  Admittedly, it could be defined as a non-diagnostic syndrome, if it is viewed as a “grouping of signs and symptoms, based on their frequent co-occurrence” (p. 250), but their concern is that this does not examine cause, prognosis, or treatment of these behaviours.  Summarily, they say “the term PAS does not add any information that would enlighten the court, the clinician, or their clients, all of whom would be better served by a more specific description of the child’s behaviour in the context of his or her family” (p. 250) 
Gardner’s 2004 rejoinder to this, as mentioned above, provides a differing three level definition for the term syndrome, and argues that this definition is met by PAS on all three levels (p. 612). 
  • 1.       isolated signs or symptoms without apparent linkage to one another, with many possible causes and treatment modalities
  • 2.       the grouping of specific signs and symptoms into a distinctive syndrome, with the fact that the symptoms occur together being one of the hallmarks of the syndrome, even though all may not be present in the milder forms
  • 3.       the identification of a particular pathological process or causative agent that brings about the particular constellation of symptoms

However, PAS has not been included in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-III, the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV in 2000.  Parental Alienation Disorder is listed as one of the ‘Conditions Proposed by Outside Sources’ for DSM-5, which is due for publication in May 2013.
This has led to fresh controversy in the field, with the primary concern being that PAS has been an effective tool used by the defence in masking or diverting attention from child abuse allegations during court cases.  Paula Caplan, in a 2011 article in ‘Psychology Today’, states that PAS is a medical-sounding term for nothing more than “she’s a vengeful woman who’s trying to make her children tell horrific lies about their father”.  Johnston (2003) reports that “attorneys have vilified the aligned parent and argued for court orders that are coercive and punitive, including a change of custody to the ‘hated’ parent in some cases” (p. 158).  If the Aligned Parent is not actively manipulating, and the “hated” parent is indeed guilty of abusing a child, this is obviously cause for serious concern.  The assertions of Kelly and Johnston (2001) that the “indiscriminate use of PAS terminology has led to widespread confusion and misunderstanding in judicial, legal, and psychological circles” (p. 250) must be taken into account when examining PA.

Other issues and research
The relative lack of empirical research is a problem in our understanding of PA.  While this has begun to be addressed by such studies as Johnston, 2003; Baker, 2005; Baker 2006; and Bow et al, 2009, there are many gaps remaining in the available data on the subject.  For example, in these studies it has been noted that the mother is the usual Aligned Parent, with the father being the Target Parent.  Is this however, a primary custodial carer issue, rather than a gender based problem – or are mothers in general actually more humiliated, unstable, angry or vindictive on the break-up of their marriage?  In Baker’s 2006 study of 40 adults who were alienated from their parent as children, she notes:  ‘ all but six cases the alienating parent was the mother’ (p. 65).  In 85 per cent of the cases in this study, the mother is indeed the Aligned (alienating) Parent.  But in all of these 34 cases, the mother has full (26/34) or joint (8/34) custody. 
(See Appendix 1 Table for full layout)
·         Where mother has full custody, Aligned Parent is always the mother     (27/27)    100 per cent
·         Where father has full custody, Aligned Parent is always the father           (2/2)      100 per cent
·         Joint custody, Aligned Parent is likely the mother                                    (8/11)    73 per cent
·         Joint custody, Aligned Parent is less likely the father                                (3/11)    27 per cent

Of the joint custody cases, it is not stated whether the child lived usually with the mother, or the father.  It would seem more reasonable at this point to view this as a Primary Carer problem, rather than something that mothers are more likely to do, until we have more data available.  But this would deprive many Father’s rights groups of a major source of argument and outrage, as seen in an online article by Stan Hayward, ‘A Guide to the Parental Alienation Syndrome’ (date unknown), where we are told that the mother wants to “get rid of the father” using PAS methods, for such reasons as:
  • ·         The mother is egged on by other women hostile to men
  • ·         The children may be the only aspect of control the mother has
  • ·         A mother who has another partner will want the father out of her life

This type of view is overly simplistic, and further serves to muddy the waters of this debate. 

What does help to clarify the situation is a focus on the child.  Johnston’s 2003 study sampled 215 children over the first three years of divorce/custody applications.  She found that only nine per cent showed extreme alignment to the mother, and a similar eight per cent extreme alignment to the father.  This would seem to indicate that there is a fairly even spread of mother/father alignment in cases where PA indicators are found to be present.  Johnston states:
Lack of warm, involved parenting was the strongest predictor of the child’s rejection of both mother and father, but this could well be a consequence of the child’s being difficult and rejecting the parent. (p. 167)
Her conclusions detail that contrary to general PAS theory, saying the Aligned Parent is the primary cause of alienation displays, “children’s negative behaviour and attitude toward a parent have multiple determinants” (p. 169).  Both parents may be contributing to the situation, while parenting skills deficiency, gender relationship (mother - daughter, etc), and any underlying vulnerabilities in the children (such as age, social competence, underlying anxiety, existing emotional and behavioural problems) are also contributing factors.  As a divorcing parent who has felt moderately targeted by an Aligned Parent, the author would have been very satisfied to report that symptoms of alienation were caused absolutely by the other party.  The reality though, is that divorce and custody litigation is a complex situation, with no black and white causality or cure.

Professional opinion and experience
A study of 448 medical and legal professionals (custody evaluators, trial attorneys, mediators, parent coordinators, therapists, judges, advocates, consultants, and researchers) was conducted in 2009 by Bow, Gould, and Flens; surveying them on the topic of PA in child custody cases.  PA was viewed by 67 per cent as controversial, with 95 per cent viewing it as multi-dimensional, but 75 per cent reported not viewing it as a syndrome.  In cases before them where PA was suspected/detected (26 per cent of their custody cases) the most common child age was ten years, and mothers were named as the most common Aligned Parent (66 per cent).  When it came to assessment, they indicated interviews with Target Parent, Aligned Parent, and child as the most useful methods (p. 139), while the most successful intervention tactics were given as:  individual therapy with the children, Aligned Parent, and Target Parent; and parental education (p. 139).

The majority opinion is certainly that PA exists as an observable, and even predictable/ measurable, issue of divorce or child custody litigation.   It would be useful for professionals across the disciplines, who deal with families of divorce and custody litigation, to remain aware of PA, educated with regard to current official status, and the most up to date research, identification and intervention recommendations.

Word Count:  1,610


Johnston, J. (2003) ‘Parental Alignments and Rejection: An Empirical Study of Alienation in Children of Divorce.’ The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 31(2) 158-170.

Baker, A. (2005) ‘The Long-Term Effects of Parental Alienation on Adult Children: A Qualitative Research Study.’ The American Journal of Family Therapy, 33 (4) 289-302.

Baker, A. (2006) ‘Patterns of Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Qualitative
Study of Adults Who were Alienated from a Parent as a Child.’ The American Journal of Family Therapy, 34 (1) 63-78.

Bow, J., Gould, J. and Flens, J. (2009) ‘Examining Parental Alienation in Child Custody Cases: A Survey of Mental Health and Legal Professionals.’ The American Journal of Family Therapy, 37 (2) 127-145.

Gardner, R. (2004) ‘Commentary on Kelly and Johnston’s The Alienated Child: A Reformulation
of Parental Alienation Syndrome.Family Court Review, 42 (4) 611-621.

Kelly, J. and Johnston, J. (2001) ‘The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome.’ Family Court Review,39 (3) 249-266.

American Psychiatric Association DSM-5 Development (2012)  ‘Conditions proposed by Outside Sources’ [on-line].  Available from: [Accessed 21 November, 2011],  (re-checked 29 January, 2012).
Hayward, S. (date unavailable) UK Men and Father’s Rights,  ‘A Guide To The Parental Alienation Syndrome’ [on-line].  Available from:, [Accessed 13 November, 2011],  (re-checked 29 January, 2012).

Caplan, P. (2011) Psychology Today - Science Isn’t Golden, ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’: Another Alarming DSM-5 Proposal’ [on-line].  Available from:, [Accessed 14 November, 2011],  (re-checked 29 January, 2012).


Yummy Mammy said...

Hi, I'd be interested in talking to you some more about PA as I have a developing situation in Ireland that nobody seems to be able to help me with. My email is yummie dot mammy at gmail dot com.

Thanks x

Lora O'Brien said...

Sorry I'm not on here much anymore, hope your case is getting better.

I'm over at - you can email me there if you still want to chat?


slave2live said...

Ireland must urgently introduce a law against PA. The PAASI suggested it in 2010. Nobody listened. The PAAA (Ireland) suggested it again in 2014. We do not know if they will listen. It is important for everybody to push it. See PAAA web page at

Shekhinah Asher said...

PA is a clever tool used by paedophiles to kidnap children. It's been refuted time and time again as a valid syndrome and no professional organisation accepts it.

Allen jeley said...


Allen jeley said...

Your written essay very helpful i like his ideas because it's helpful in study thanks for share it custom essay writing Ireland.

Donna Broadwater said...


Tyler Worgan said...

This is an wonderful blog and it help me a lot to enhance my writing skill. I love to use it in my essay writing