Dear Dr. T.,
What exactly is PAS [Parent Alienation Syndrome]? Is it contrived, junk science as its detractors say, or is it an insidious, subtle form of child abuse, as its defenders hold?
There is a divorced staff member in our office whose children are almost completely estranged from him because of what he calls PAS. But, how is that possible? Don’t children naturally bond with a decent, loving parent, even when there is a divorce? He seems like a lovely person, but maybe it’s a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde kind of thing? Not that it’s my place to judge whatever is going on, but I don’t want to cause any further damage by my ignorance.
PAS is a fairly new designation occurring in a divorce when one parent turns the children against the other. The injured [their view], angry, and/or emotionally disturbed party exacts his/her revenge for the disruption of the family by brainwashing their child against the other parent. This includes blaming the former spouse for all the messiness that divorce inevitably brings and then hurting where it hurts most -through the children. The main goal is to punish the ex-partner. The fact that the children lose out is immaterial- and so very, very sad.
How does the offending parent accomplish this? Don’t children naturally love both their parents? True, but few children [or even adults, for that matter] can withstand a barrage of brainwashing, especially when there is full force, multi-pronged, constant attacks. It generally begins by speaking negatively about the other parent. This includes denigrating the parent, blaming them for things going wrong, denying their love for the children, and any other bad-mouthing strategies handy. When a child is constantly subjected to nasty comments about their parent, told he is at fault for all that is wrong with their lives, and given many ‘proofs’ of his failure to love his children- it becomes their perception and eventually their reality.
Verbal assaults are especially effective when in the context of limited contact with the other parent. When a parent is not there to say otherwise, to demonstrate his/her love, to counter accusations, and do all the little things that say “I love you” to his child, it’s easy to demonize that parent. And when the other parent harps on what is missing because of this absence [someone to take you to shul, money for whatever, chauffeur services] -it reinforces the negative impression of the absent parent. It becomes a vicious cycle- even a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more the parent is devalued, the less the child wants to be with him, and the fewer the opportunities to connect positively to the child.
PAS is not restricted to verbal attacks and onslaughts: manipulation and control are two other basic weapons in the arsenal. Manipulation takes many forms. It may involve restricting or tampering with visitation. The parent make keep changing days and times- citing emergencies, school events, braces, or just at will. Once the child has been convinced Tuesday is better than Wednesday, if the other parent insists on Wednesday because that is their right and due, they lose favor in the child’s eyes. Or, visits may be cancelled totally because the child ‘doesn’t feel well’ or doesn’t want to go at all. This constant separation from the other parent further weakens the bond between parent and child and reinforces the idea that the parent is irrelevant. Any insistence on the parental right for visitation makes the parent look bad, because he seems unreasonable. And, if it leads to an argument between the two parents, three guesses who’s the villain here.
Parents may also manipulate by playing the ‘victim’ card and getting the sympathy vote- from school staff, rabbonim, and- most importantly- relatives on both sides of the fence. Let’s face it- no one other than the couple knows what happened in this marriage. Unfortunately, people are still prone to take sides. So, though we all know that people can be lovely in public and nightmares at home, or great public figures- doctors, speakers, torah scholars- and difficult to live with- we still think we ‘get it.’ Because everyone naturally sides with the helpless and the weak, the alienating parent is careful to assume the role of the victim- the one who suffers at the hands of the ex-parent and therefore deserves all the sympathy, consideration, and support. Once this narrative is established, it unfortunately becomes common lore in the family or community – and there is support for the alienation because it is seen as just and fair – considering the ‘circumstances.’
Alienation often takes the form of control: restricting access of grandparents or other relatives, of medical records/information and school reports, of mail and gifts. Without engaging in major battles- which invariably upset the children and solidify his role as the difficult parent- what can the besmirched parent do? Many parents have found that giving in gracefully is in the best interests of the children- even though it denies them the affection and relationship that they want and deserve.
To my way of thinking, it is cruel to use the children as pawns. When a parent hates their ex-partner more than they love their kids, the children suffer. They are no longer simply the children of divorce, but rather the victims of a major world war. They are forced to choose sides and lose out on familial love every child deserves. They often suffer from poor self-esteem. After all, if my parent is garbage, what am I?
Sad to say, PAS works. Most people are clueless about this pattern and just see the fighting as natural results of the divorce. But it is so important to see that this is a particular pattern that is especially harmful to our children. Whether it is an acknowledged syndrome or not, may our recognition and understanding of this ugly reality lead to positive change in our world.