The term “Parental Alienation
Syndrome” was invented by a US child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst called
Richard A Gardner (Gardner 1998) to describe an extraordinary psychological
phenomenon which is seen in a relatively small number of children whose
parents have undergone a bitter and hostile separation. The phenomenon,
which Gardner clarified and attempted to explain, had been known for many
years and is that some of these children develop an extraordinary fear
and loathing of one parent and a simultaneous total loyalty to the other.
Unfortunately Gardner’s explanation for this phenomenon, his use of medical
and psychodynamic terminology and, most of all, the advice he gave on the
management of the problem caused enormous controversy. Prior to his
death in 2003 he had written extensively on the subject and frequently
appeared in US Courts to give evidence.
W was 8.7; the younger of
2 boys born to his parents’ marriage. He was a year old when his parents
separated. He and his brother remained with their mother and there was
regular contact until he was 5 when all contact ceased at the mother’s
insistence, on the basis that her sons disliked visits and no longer wished
to see their father. There had been no visits since. The father applied
to the Court and Proceedings commenced. Reports were obtained from CAFCASS
Reporters and experts but no progress was made. At interview W was openly
disparaging of his father, made implausible allegations against him and
was resistant to the idea of a contact visit. A visit was arranged and
W was taken to his father’s home. Shortly after meeting his father he made
rude comments about him and punched him hard on the chest. W refused his
father’s efforts to engage him and kept asking to go home. Of his own accord
W talked to the father’s wife and her mother, later saying that he liked
them. On the way home to his mother W protested when told that there were
to be 2 further visits. Those visits went well. Visiting contact was Ordered
and 4 years later W enjoyed regular unsupervised staying contact with his
This case is typical of scores
that I have assessed over the years and shows features which will be recognisable
to most professionals who are frequently involved in dealing with children
who are the subject of prolonged high conflict contact disputes.
The vast majority of these children are pleasant, well adjusted and doing
well socially and academically. It is only within the confined and
restricted context of their relationship with one of their parents (usually,
but not always, the non resident parent - NRP) that the child expresses
feelings, statements and behaviour which are extreme and out of character.
The Causes of Children’s
Resistance to Contact
A more recent and more acceptable
attempt to explain the origins of this type of behaviour was made by Joan
Kelly and Janet Johnson in their paper “The Alienated Child: a reformulation
of parental alienation syndrome” (2001). Kelly and Johnson are US
academics who have both written extensively on the topic of children whose
parents have separated or divorced (e.g. Kelly 2007).
Kelly and Johnson’s 2001
paper contains a reasoned critique of the main objections to Gardner’s
PAS theory. Gardner’s theory proposed that children with PAS had
been indoctrinated against one parent by the other. Kelly and Johnson
pointed out that in high conflict contact disputes many children are exposed
to denigration of the NRP but very few develop “alienation”. Similarly
clinical research suggested that some children who developed “alienation”
had not been exposed to indoctrination or denigration of the NRP.
Thus they concluded that “alienating behaviour by a parent is neither a
sufficient nor a necessary condition for a child to become alienated”.
Secondly they criticised
Gardner’s use of the term “syndrome” as needlessly adding to the controversy
because it suggested that it was a medical “condition” with a known cause,
and giving it the spurious authority of medical acceptance (when in fact
it was not recognised in existing medical classification schemes).
Although this latter is a reasonable argument in the sense that this aspect
of Gardner’s theory has created considerable controversy it is of note
that a similar use of the term syndrome to describe a psychological set
of symptoms, “The Child S.exual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome” (Summitt
1983) was accepted without controversy in the legal/psychological/academic
Their third main criticism
of PAS was the lack of corroborative scientific research. Gardner
wrote and published prodigiously, but very little of his work appears to
have been the subject of peer review so that his claims were largely unsubstantiated.
Kelly and Johnson stated that Gardner’s theory “generated both enthusiastic
acceptance and strong negative response”, the latter being somewhat of
an understatement given the degree of vilification and personal abuse to
which Gardner has been subjected.
Kelly and Johnson suggest
that there are a number of explanations for the varying ways in which children’s
relationships with their parents can be affected following parental separation.
They suggest that those relationships can be considered to be spread along
a continuum of adjustment with at one end the healthiest outcome, children
who are able to maintain “a positive relationship with both parents”, and
at the other end the most pathological outcome “alienation” in which one
parent is idealised and the other denigrated and rejected.
Between these two extremes
were children who showed varying degrees of difficulties in their relationship
with one parent. They suggested that these other contact resistant children
can be placed in three broad groupings of children who show “affinity”,
“alliance” and “estrangement” from one parent. They emphasised that whilst
it is easy to characterise each group it should be recognised that children
themselves may not fall neatly into one group and may share characteristics
of more than one group.
My own clinical experience
suggests that their groupings are useful but would add that they have to
be viewed as flexible. For example, within a single family different
child members may be showing quite different reactions to the separation
of their parents, so that one can see a child who maintains “a positive
relationship with both parents” and a child who is “alienated” within the
same sibling group. In addition any individual child can change the
way in which they relate to their separated parents from time to time and
although some of these changes are understandable (e.g. a reduction of
separation anxiety with age; a reduction of moral condemnation with maturity;
changes as a consequence of changes to the parents’ relationships), others
seem quite unpredictable. With these provisos the five proposed groupings,
in order along the spectrum are as follows: