In today’s changing social landscape, divorce has become a significant and immutable feature. Currently, more marriages end in divorce than do not. The reasons for this are many and complex, and although these reasons are debated, the fact of the predominance of divorce is not disputed. With this upswing in divorce comes also an explosion in the number of children of divorce. 

Due primarily to social and legal changes that occurred in the 1970’s, the dilemma of where and with whom the child would live primarily became a reality that more of us knew directly or indirectly. Simply put, child custody disputes have became a much more prominent feature of our everyday lives. Children are routinely fought over in custody disputes, and seldom does a day pass that one does not hear of some tragic and sometime violent event that occurred in the context of a custody dispute.

Related to this, the courts have become choked with allegations of one spouse abusing the other spouse and/ or the children, again in the context of one of these custody disputes. It is within this complex social and legal context that the terms Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome were born.


Parental Alienation Syndrome was first defined and described by Psychiatrist Richard Gardner, M.D. in his work with divorcing families with minor children in 1985. He began to notice a growing phenomenon where one parent would try to alienate the children from the other parent so that the children would ultimately reject that parent. When this alienation was successful, Dr. Gardner identified a cluster of symptoms that these children would begin to exhibit, which he described as the “Parental Alienation Syndrome”. Since his original work in this area, there has been much further work and research done by Dr. Gardner as well as many other mental health professionals.

The Differences Between PA & PAS

  • Parental Alienation (PA) generally refers to the behaviors engaged in by the parent. 
  • Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is the psychological condition that exists within the child who has been a victim of Parental Alienating behaviors. 

First, Parental Alienation must be distinguished from Parental Alienation Syndrome.

Parental Alienation most often refers to the behaviors engaged in by the parent, with the possible result being the development of Parental Alienation Syndrome in the child.

Parental Alienation refers to the actions of one parent onto the children. Specifically, this refers to one parent denigrating, criticizing and attacking the other parent in front of and ultimately with the children. It represents the one parent’s attempt to remove who is referred to as the “Target Parent” from their children’s lives, and making it appear that it is the child who feels this way. How this is accomplished ranges from the most subtle to the most obvious of strategies. But they all carry the common goal of attempting to eliminate the Target Parent from the child’s life and world.

Elimination of label “Syndrome”

Since Dr Gardner’s landmark contribution into the literature of Parental Alienation, there has been much debate and discussion.  

As part of this discussion and debate, there has been a tendency to remove the “Syndrome” word from the label.  While most experts would agree that the symptoms within the child do meet the criteria for a “Syndrome,” that it is still best that this label is eliminated.  

Very briefly, “Syndrome” had become the focus of great debate and misinformation.   Literally hundreds of thousands of dollars and an equal amount of time has been spent on the “Syndrome” debate, so to speak.  We see this as a major distraction from the issues, and a disservice to the parents who are trying to save their children from this dynamic.  Consequently, most in the field simply refrain from using the word “Syndrome” in a effort to avoid spurious debate about what is really a non-issue.   I therefore include PA and PAS in this discussion in an effort to be historically accurate.

The 4 Key Criteria for Identifying PA

Parental Alienation refers to specific actions by the Alienating Parent.

These behaviors are predictable and form an identifiable pattern. The pattern of these behaviors form four Criteria which are listed below 

  1. Visitation or access blocking by one parent  – This process covers a wide range of expression from passively blocking telephone contact to outright refusal to honor a parenting time schedule.
  2. False allegations of abuse or unfit parenting against the Target Parent – This process also covers a wide range of possibilities from vague but consistent criticism of the one’s parenting, to outright accusations of physical or sexual abuse. 
  3. Deterioration in the Target Parent/child relationship since marital separation – This progressive deterioration ranges from loss of intimate knowledge regarding the child’s life to overt and progressed alienation. 
  4. Exaggerated fear reaction on the part of the child at displeasing the Alienating Parent – This may otherwise be understood as an enmeshed relationship between the alienating parent and the child where the child may be fearful of displeasing that parent, or may be placed in a position of protecting them. 

When these four criteria are present, the stage is set for the development of Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome. When these four criteria are present, the stage is set for the development of Parental Alienation Syndrome.

Parental Alienation Syndrome and Children

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is original term used to describe the psychological condition that exists within the child who has been a victim of these Parental Alienating behaviors. These behaviors have the effect of causing the child to internally reformulate how they view and feel about the now absent Parent. Parental Alienation Syndrome, as it was commonly referred to is the effect of manipulating the child to internally transform their view of the other parent from being an object of love into being an object of hate.

This is a profound and very damaging psychological illness can and often will create life long harm to the child, well into adulthood.

As noted in the discussion of PA and PAS, there is a general tendency to eliminate the word “Syndrome” in discussion of the phenomena of Parental Alienation.  

The primary reason for this is practical and related to litigation.  As one mother told me, “I really to do not want to spend thousands of dollars on the debate of weather Parental Alienation is a Syndrome or not.”  She raises an excellent point.  

The use of the word “Syndrome” had become its own distraction often needlessly debated in court.  As you will read elsewhere in this website or perhaps have experienced yourself, these cases thrive on, and become bogged down in various distractions in an effort to hide the very real child abuse that occurring under the court’s nose.  One of the most common of those distractions was as to the use of the word “Syndrome.”  It is for this reason – avoidance of a needless debate and distraction – that most experts endorse the elimination of this word at this time.  It is included here for explanatory and historical reasons.

Symptoms of PA & PAS

  • Campaign of Denigration
  • Weak or Frivolous Rationalizations for the Deprecation
  • Lack of Ambivalence
  • “Independent Thinker” Phenomenon
  • Reflexive Support of Alienating Parent
  • Absence of guilt over cruelty and exploitation of Alienated Parent
  • Presence of Borrowed Scenarios
  • Spread of Animosity to Extended Family of Alienated Parent

Symptoms Explained

Campaign of Denigration:This refers to the child’s negative campaign against the targeted parent. This campaign consists of negative and critical comments about this parent articulated by the child. While these sentiments largely originated from the other parent, they are translated by and spoken through the child.

Weak or Frivolous Rationalizations for the Deprecation:This refers to the child explanation as to why they do not wish to have a relationship with the parent. Based on what the scientific literature reveals regarding the strength of the bond between a parent and a child, the reasons given by the child are inadequate.

Lack of Ambivalence:This symptom refers to the child’s absolute absence of positive feeling about the targeted parent. This is often expressed as the child’s denial of any positive feeling for the targeted parent. This symptom is associated with more severely alienated children.

“Independent Thinker” Phenomenon:This refers to the child’s unsolicited protest that no one had influenced them to express what they were saying about the targeted parent. It represents the child’s denial that they had been coached, typically when they had not been told that they had been.

Reflexive Support of Alienating Parent:This refers to the child’s unyielding support of the alienating or favored parent and their unwavering opposition to any position taken by the targeted parent, specifically as they relate to the divorce.

Absence of guilt over cruelty and exploitation of Alienated Parent:One of the more severe symptoms, this one refers to the striking lack of empathy for the target parent by the alienated child, and the cruelty that this invokes.

Presence of Borrowed Scenarios:This refers to the effects of the child having been coached. The unreasonably negative picture of the targeted parent is created through distortion and misinformation, and it can be found in this symptom.

Spread of Animosity to Extended Family of Alienated Parent:This refers to the alienation of the child from the targeted parent’s own parents – the child’s grandparents – as well as from other extended family members and other aspects of that parent’s life.

Dr J Michaelbone “Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome” <> Accessed 4 January 2019

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