I’ve written lots of content on high conflict individuals and people with personality disorders. Much of my work includes working with clients who are trying to manage co-parenting situations with high conflict individuals. Many people know, immediately, what I’m talking about. Conflict, arguments and disagreements at every turn. This article is obviously about parental alienation syndrome, that’s why you’re here. This is a loaded topic, and a hard one to discuss because it often comes with a sense of powerlessness. At least usually for one parent. Their efforts to preserve their relationships with their kids seem to be to no avail, sometimes it even seems to backfire and have the opposite effect and they often feel hopeless.. But first I want to talk about what parental alienation is.
Richard Gardner was a psychiatrist that did years and years of research on parental alienation syndrome (PAS). He pinned down traits and criteria through his research and was on the verge of having it become a diagnosable disorder through the American Psychiatric Association (APA). He nearly got the disorder approved to go into the DSM 5. If you don’t know what the DSM is, it’s the diagnostic manual that we mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health disorders. Everything from bipolar disorder to autism is in that book with all the qualifying criteria. Unfortunately, Dr. Gardner committed suicide in 2003 which brought research on PAS to a grinding halt. Many believe that he did so in the face of the extreme opposition with exploring PAS. In his own words, PAS is defined as “a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrination and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the targeted parent.”
PAS, in basic terms is when one parent turns the children against another. A lot of people say that PAS is a scam and that Dr. Gardner was a fraud. So is it a real thing? There are thousands of parents out there that would tell you, without a doubt, that it is real. As a therapist, I have encountered many instances in which one parent has said bad things about another parent directly to the children and expended tons of effort to demonize them. Is that parental alienation?
It usually starts on basic levels. Telling the kids the other parent is a liar, is controlling or is a bad person. But it usually runs deeper than that. High conflict parents have also been known to tell their kids that the other parent doesn’t love them, has done horrific things and I recently heard that a young teen told his dad that he was “just a checkbook,” it was something that he had heard from his mother.
Why do they create parental alienation?
These stories and cases trouble me a lot. Kids need loving parents and I take issue with parents who seem to view their children as a tool to manipulate. I think that it’s important to understand the reasons why high conflict parents engage in parental alienation so we can adjust our approaches to help the situation. So why, why do high conflict parents engage in parental alienation? For starters, I believe this behavior is often fueled purely by blind hatred and it’s unfortunate that people aren’t concerned about the harm it brings to their children. High conflict parents usually feel betrayed and are angered by it.
Another reason they do this, I believe, has to do with loyalty and abandonment. Some high conflict individuals, especially those who have tendencies towards Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), have an absolute morbid fear of abandonment. That fear also revolves around their children, that is, they fear that their kids will also abandon them and their way of dealing with fear is to become manipulative and controlling. And honestly, they don’t know any other way to deal with the intense anxiety and fear that comes with abandonment. They fear that their kids will abandon them for the other parent so their behavior will naturally sway to submarine the other parent. High conflict parents don’t believe that kids can love and be loyal to both parents and are threatened by any loyalty that kids show to their other parent. It’s very difficult for them to understand how their kids can love someone that they had and may even see it as a betrayal with the message being “if you loved me, you wouldn’t love them.” High conflict parents even sometimes tell their kids that they are a traitor because they love both parents.
Sadly, another reason that PAS seems to be created can boil down to money. This may be a controversial thing to say but there is evidence that suggests that some parents create parental alienation so they can get bigger child support payments. The more parental time they have, the more child support they can usually collect. Unfortunately, this seems to be one of those ugly truths that we don’t want to admit or talk about.
There are some other reasons for parental alienation but it’s effects on individuals and families is profoundly destructive. If you liked this article and found it helpful, be sure to subscribe so you can get the next articles in the series about parental alienation. I’m going to talk about how to start building some ground work for effectively dealing with it. But the most important thing I want to say for now is to not give up and hang in there because it’s not hopeless. If you need help dealing with a high conflict ex and parental alienation, I hope you will give me a call and give the opportunity to work with your family.