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Parental Alienation Syndrome


Article written by Ingrid Vassallo, a Psychotherapist and resident kidsmalta.com expert. To contact Ingrid directly visit her page here.

Lucy (not her real name), now 22, suffers from classic parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Following her parents’ separation, her dad spent years brainwashing her into believing that her mother didn’t love her and that she was “the worst mummy ever.” Eventually her dad used his considerable means to win full custody, limiting Lucy’s contact with her mother to alternate weekends. Even then, however, when she was with her mum – who took good care of her – her dad called every day, ostensibly to ensure that she was fine, but in reality reinforcing the belief that Lucy’s mother could not be trusted to look after her well.
Wanting to please her dad, Lucy began to back out of her access visitations with her mum, claiming she had exams, studying and other activities. At the age of 10, she wrote a letter to the Judge telling him she did not want to see her mother ever again.
Five years later, Lucy was referred to me for psychological therapy as she was attempting self-harm and was experimenting with drugs. Over the course of her therapy, we discovered that she resorted to drugs in an effort to suppress any feelings of love towards her mother so as to please her father.

The consequences of this emotional child abuse – where the child actively seeks to ‘hate’ one parent in order to prove their love for the other, are indeed tragic and a burden that no child should have to bear.

With escalating rates of marital breakdowns, cases of parental alienation have been insidiously seeping in our society. It often starts with one parent being convinced that the child does not need the other (“target”) parent or that the other parent cannot be trusted to provide good care, even when all evidence is to the contrary.  In consolidation with this belief, the parent does everything in his or her power to become the “favoured” parent, brainwashing the child, and ultimately forbidding the child’s contact with the rejected parent.

The aims of this article are to share some insights, gained first hand working with high-conflict families, and to raise awareness of this phenomenon and its detrimental effect on the child at the receiving end.

The systematic programming or brainwashing of a child by one parent to denigrate the other parent often leads to PAS. It is the construction of an exclusive relationship between the one parent and the child (or children), effectively banishing the other parent’s participation from the child’s physical and emotional wellbeing. As a result, the alienated child eventually feels obliged to ‘collude’ in this banishment, actively seeking to build hostile feelings towards the target parent as a demonstration of love towards the other.

Children suffering from PAS lose their natural range of genuine feelings for both parents as they construct new and unnatural feelings that are more ‘in tune’ with the dominating parent’s wishes. 

My experience of working with such children supports research that suggests that the mother is much more likely to be the alienating parent who makes the father the target parent. However, fathers too can be the alienating parent and I have worked with many mothers who have been made the victim ‘target parent’ in the child – parent relationship.

Parental alienation almost always occurs within acrimonious marital separations, in fact, I sometimes meet parents who display alienation tendencies even prior to the definitive marital breakdown. In cases of non-hostile marriage separation, little or no alienation occurs as each parent appreciates the valid contribution that the other parent plays – and should continue to play – in the life of the child. These responsible parents understand that while their marriage may be over, their children’s need for both parents’ love and support is not. When the parents recognize this, there is no motivation for alienation because of the mutual worth credited for the wellbeing of their children.

Unfortunately, however, this scenario is not always the case, mainly because of the highly-charged domestic situations that precede separation such as in the case of domestic violence or infidelity. Also, marital separation is, in itself, a traumatic experience for the parents as it often marks the end of their existing role, life style and life stage. In some cases alienating behaviour only rears its ugly head after several years of separation, especially with the arrival of a new partner for one or the other parent.

Many parents go through the traumatic experience of their marital breakdown without giving themselves the chance to deal with their emotions as they are too busy trying to rebuild their life and coping with daily life in very different, and often more difficult, circumstances. The thought of stopping to take stock of their life, to ‘catch their breath’ and to seek professional help simply does not occur to them.

This bottled-up emotional roller coaster may put the parent at risk of confusing his/her own needs with that of the child. This, in turn, will put the child at risk of alienation where in its severe form, the child’s sense of self becomes completely dependent on the relationship with the alienating parent, and a failure in this relationship would imply destruction of the self.

When parents seek my help and ask for professional guidance on how to deal with a potential marital separation, their paramount concern is almost always how to approach the issue with the least harm to their children. As a professional, it is my responsibility to help parents to steer aware from alienating behaviour and to raise awareness of its dangers on their children. Educating the parents at the very initial phases of marital breakdown is a crucial and effective measure against child alienation

My role is to help the parents understand the effect of the separation both on them and on their children and to recognize their children’s basic need for both parents in their life. Professional intervention at the earliest possible stage of marital breakdown can also help raise the alarm in cases where parental alienation tendencies are noticed. The therapist can actively intervene to prevent the children from suffering the emotional abuse leading to PAS by alerting parents to the dangers and psychological consequences of their alienating behaviour on the well-being of their children.

My work as a therapist with separating parents involves educating the parents about the negative and often conflicting emotions and behaviour that separation brings along with it, such as anger, loyalties and manipulation; and equip them with the necessary skills to control and eventually outgrow their negative behaviour.

Though parental alienation is on the increase, there are many separated families where alienation does not come into play at all. These families are like a beacon of hope for those of us who work with, and battle on behalf of, the child of an alienating parent, and their target parent. They are the successfully separated parents who actively seek to reinforce – and live – the reality that parental separation does not mean child separation.

Their children continue to thrive emotionally because they know that their mum and dad separated only from each other and not from them. They are safe in the knowledge that they will continue to have the gift of two loving parents in their lives.

• Names have been changed

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