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Parental Alienation – techniques and diagnosis

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

The American psychologist Dr Richard Gardner discovered the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome in 1985. He based this concept on his observations of child custody cases involving false allegations of child sexual and/or physical abuse. Gardner states PAS relates to the combination of two contributing factors:

  • The programming or brainwashing of the child by the alienating parent to denigrate the target parent
  • The self-created contributions of the child in support of the alienating parent’s campaign of denigration against the target parent

Gardner then goes on to define PAS 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 indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent. When true parental abuse and/or neglect is present the child’s animosity may be justified, and so the parental alienation syndrome explanation for the child’s hostility is not applicable. (Gardner, 1998: xx)

Alienation techniques

In a study by Baker (2005), he examined individual experiences of 38 adults who had experienced PAS, findings showed similar patterns. Baker (2005) found five primary mechanisms for manipulating the thoughts and feelings of the children:

  1. Constant bad mouthing of the TP
  2. Creating the impression that the TP was dangerous and would hurt the child
  3. Deceiving children about the TP’s feelings for child to create resentment
  4. The AIP withdrawing love if child showed affection towards TP
  5. Erasing the TP from the life and mind of the child through minimising actual and symbolic contact

Clawar and Rivlin (1991) who studied the concept of PAS argued that brainwashing techniques employed by the parent are repetitive and are employed to undermine and hinder the relationship of the child with the other parent. They identify eight stages of the brainwashing process in severe PAS cases:

  1. A thematic focus to be shared by the alienating parent and child is deliberately chosen by the parent which then is used to attack the other parent – e.g. the TP is an alcoholic
  2. Mood induction techniques are employed to create a linkage between the child and the programmer to establish support from the child
  3. Feelings of sympathy towards the programmer are induced in the child
  4. The child begins to demonstrate compliance such as wanting to visit the TP less often or using similar language to the programmer
  5. The programming parent tests the effectiveness of the programme, with proper feedback being rewarded
  6. The child’s loyalty is tested by asking the child which parent is preferred better or if the child wishes to see the TP again
  7. There is an escalation, broadening and generalisation in the assault on the TP such that the child rejects the TP
  8. Telling the truth to the child about past events that portray the TP negatively

It seems as though the age of the child predicts how successful the alienation will be. Bone and Walsh (1999) stated that younger children aged between 7 and 15 are more vulnerable than older ones.

The Diagnosis of PAS

In order to help custody evaluators and clinicians recognise PAS, Gardner (1998) asserts that evaluators need to be aware signs and the symptoms associated with PAS. As a tool in the diagnosis of PAS, Gardner (1998) identifies eight cardinal symptomatic manifestations that he considers are commonly demonstrated by children in PAS cases:

  1. A campaign of denigration
  2. Weak, Frivolous, and absurd rationalisations for the deprecation
  3. Lack of ambivalence
  4. The “independent-thinker” phenomenon
  5. Reflexive support of the alienating parent
  6. Absence of guilt over cruelty towards the alienated parent
  7. Borrowed scenarios
  8. Spread of animosity to the extended family and friends of the alienated parent

In addition to the Clinical manifestations of PAS, Gardner (1987) further describes three levels or types of PAS families. These are mild, moderate and severe (see Table 1) and apply to the eight primary symptomatic manifestations and are based on the symptom level in the child – not the AIP. Gardner asserts that the differentiation is important because custody evaluators need to determine the child’s level of alienation in order to provide correct recommendations for court ordered and psychotherapeutic interventions.

Table 1. Differential and Treatment to the Three Levels of PAS
Child?s Symptom Level Legal and Therapeutic Approaches
Mild Primary custody remains with the alienating parent.
Moderate a)  Primary custody remain with the alienating parent, court appoints a PAS therapist and consider the use of sanctions, such as fines, incarceration or community serviceb)  Occasionally the court may need to transfer residency from the AIP to the TP, child contact with the AIP be extremely restricted and monitored to prevent further indoctrination.  Court-appointed PAS therapist
Severe Custody should be transferred from the AIP to the TP and a PAS therapist appointed.  Treatment by a court-appointed PAS therapist


If you are going through PAS and need someone to talk to, please do not hesitate to contact us. This is a serious and rising issue in the UK which needs to be acknowledged. Please refer to our forum to add any comments or opinions you wish to state.

Source: SharedParenting


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