Understanding the Signs of Parental Alienation Syndrome

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A divorce or separation can be devastating—and when children are involved, the situation can become even more difficult. Suddenly, children can be seen as pawns, with one parent trying to turn them against the other.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon situation, and there is even a clinical name for it. Known as parental alienation syndrome, it can leave children angry, families devastated, and one parent hurt and confused. Breaking down the distinct signs of Parental Alienation Syndrome is the first step in repairing your relationship with your child or children.

Signs of Parental Alienation Syndrome

What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Child psychologist Richard Gardner coined the term in 1985. Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is when one parent actively works to turn a child against the other parent; the parent uses allegations that are typically false to make a child believe the other parent doesn’t love or want them.

While PAS is a condition described by a child psychologist, the syndrome is not listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The manual lists all mental health conditions recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

Even though the APA does not currently recognize the syndrome, it does not make it any less devastating for affected parents and their children.

The Eight Symptoms of Parental Alienation Syndrome

Dr. Richard Gardner has identified eight classic symptoms children experiencing PAS typically exhibit.

  1. The child is constantly criticizing one parent, often unfairly. For example, criticizing their dress, cooking, or housekeeping abilities.
  2. Criticism is based solely on false reasoning. The child cannot provide any specific examples of the parent’s behavior they are criticizing.
  3. All of the child’s feelings about the parent are negative. There are not even any ambivalent feelings towards the parent.
  4. The child strongly believes their negative feelings and spoken criticisms are the result of their independent thinking and observations. They deny the other parent is influencing their thoughts toward the alienated parent.
  5. The support of the child toward the alienating parent is absolute.
  6. The child does not feel guilty about the negative treatment of the alienated parent. For example, if their words and actions upset the parent, the child does not feel shame or remorse.
  7. When describing situations that occurred before their birth or did not occur, the child uses terms that seem more advanced than their years. Their language may even be similar in words and tones to the alienating parent.
  8. Other family members, typically those related to the alienated parent, also experience the child’s negative feelings. The child may hate these relatives simply because they are related to the parent.

Common Signs of Parental Alienation Syndrome

While not every child will exhibit signs one parent is trying to turn them against the other, there are some common ones to watch for. Catching signs of PAS early can help prevent the symptoms that can be emotionally devastating to both the alienated parent and their child.

  • Your child is increasingly angry with you for no discernable reason.
  • Feelings of neglect intensify in your child, even when you’re making every attempt to reassure them of your unconditional love.
  • Your child is exhibiting destructive behaviors and encouraging other children to follow their example.
  • Lying is becoming more common. The scope of the lies is increasing, similar to telling a story they believe to be based on real events. For example, you ruined their birthday party even when it went off without a hitch.
  • Your child begins exhibiting an us vs. them mentality. For example, they believe everyone is working against them and the parent who is responsible for alienating the child.
  • Everything is either right or wrong. Your child does not accept any type of compromise.
  • Your child does not show empathy towards anyone but the alienating parent. If empathy is shown, it is only for individuals approved by the parent.

While these are signs common of parental alienation syndrome, they can also indicate an abusive environment. Make sure you talk to your child, and if necessary, make an appointment with a licensed child therapist or psychologist.

Treating and Healing From Pas

There is no prescribed treatment for children and parents going through PAS, and part of the reason for the lack of standardized treatment is PAS is not a medically recognized condition. Also, every situation is different, and what works for one family may not be effective for yours.

Some treatment tips include actively seeking therapy and counseling for yourself (the alienated parent) and your child. You also want to spend quality time talking and interacting with them. Sometimes, spending time with your child is the best way to begin rebuilding your relationship with them. 

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