Is Parental Alienation Syndrome a Mental Disorder?

While psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are debating the legitimacy of parental alienation syndrome, family law lawyers across North America see examples of it every day.

In my experience the circumstances that give rise to allegations of parental alienation follow three typical patterns:

1. A parent who has been a victim of spousal abuse, either physical, mental or emotional, who refuses to permit a young child’s father or mother to be alone with the child or spend quality time with the child;

2. A parent who harbours extreme anger at his or her partner for events that took place during the marriage or after its breakdown. This parent involves his or her children in the minutia of the marriage breakdown and creates a picture of their father or mother as an uncaring “rogue” who is abusive, cheap and doesn’t care about them. Every nuance of the marital separation is fodder to denigrate the parent who has left the family unit;

3. A parent, usually a mother, who believes that her children belong to her and since her spouse has left her, he has no right to see the children. This parent typically enlists support from friends and relatives who all subscribe to the mother’s theory of parenting after marital breakdown.

Obviously there are situations where the custodial parent’s protection of a child is warranted. For example, where a parent has no parenting skills, or is generally unreliable or disinterested, steps must be taken to ensure the child is not at risk.

Parenting skills can be learned and most jurisdictions offer free classes on parenting after separation. A parent who is unreliable must have structured parenting time with his or her child until the parent understands that children require consistent and reliable relationships, particularly after marriage breakdown.

Even for parents who have only a passing interest in their children, it is the child’s right to have a relationship with each parent and a custodial parent is acting in their child’s best interests if they foster a relationship between their child and the child’s “occasional” father or mother.

The harder cases are ones where the parent seeking parenting time is debilitated by substance abuse or alcohol, mental illness or other anti-social behavior. Even in these cases, where a parenting arrangement can be put in place that ensures the child is not at risk, children do better with two parents in their lives. These scenarios call for supervised access with a
friend or relative as supervisor or a trained, paid supervisor.

Frequently, people who make lousy husbands or wives are wonderful, caring parents. A bad marriage marked by abuse does not necessarily translate into an abusive parent. However, where there has been abuse in the family, a psychological assessment of the family members is necessary.

Angry, vengeful parents who interfere with a child’s relationship with his or her other parent victimize their former partner, but worse yet, they set their child up for future failure. European studies show that children who were victims of parental brainwashing are more likely to suffer from emotional disorders than children who were not alienated from a parent.

As a family law litigator I have seen both sides of the coin: Mothers and fathers who refuse to recognize that their child needs his or her other parent; and parents who are tormented to the point of emotional and financial bankruptcy, desperate to restore relationships that should never have been severed.

The American Psychiatric Association, who will update their manual of psychiatric diagnoses in 2013, are debating whether to include parental alienation syndrome as a recognized psychiatric disorder.

One side of the debate posits there is no such disorder and the creation of a “syndrome” only benefits abusive parents, usually fathers.

Proponents for the inclusion of parental alienation syndrome say that European research and thousands of cases support their view.

I say once you have seen a “genuine” case of parental alienation, you can clearly see abuse: The alienating parent is the one who is the child abuser.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang


12 thoughts on “Is Parental Alienation Syndrome a Mental Disorder?

  1. Parental Alienation is a catchy, contemporaneous term for something that’s occured in every single divorce involving children I know.

    It can be as subtle as the ever popular “Go ask your Mother” and “Go ask your Father”. Or the perverbial “Does your Mother have a boyfriend?” etc.

    I don’t know where to begin or end with this topic, Marriage or Divorce and nor do the people that Marry, have children and break up.

    Not knowing where to begin or end seems to be the root of the problem.

  2. Parental alienation- where the parent alienates the child against the other parent can also be inverted into a parent who alienates the children from their custodial parent – another common form of abuse
    ( and mental illness/extreme narcissism) often seen after divorce.

    Often a parent will abandon the family and children and the ex-spouse goes on and forms a new family and completely severs connections with the children. As one woman described it: it is as if they enter a “My Lai of the mind”.

    This abandonment and alienation of the children has a profound affect on the survivors (depression/substance abuse/emotional problems) and is simply another form of abuse- usually seen in parents that are intellectually clever enough to know that while physical abuse is not permissible mental or psychological abuse is more difficult to prove.

    All of the descriptives that you use in your blog on parental alienation fit the description-unreliable, disinterested, lack of consistent parenting, failure to recognize the child’s needs, and substance abuse. The damage done by such conduct is irreparable and appears to be rampant in this era of personal entitlement, lack of responsibility, and breakdown of the family unit.

  3. Brad and Joan Thank you for your helpful comments. It seems the problem is more widespread and complex than indicated in my post. It makes you wonder why some people think it does not exist.

  4. I am glad that this topic is finally being discussed. As a child who was alienated from her entire family (maternal and paternal) in the 1980’s, I watched my mother engage in hostile parenting. I lost my grandparents, my sister, my father, his entire family, but what was disturbing was that mom turned against her own family who did not agree with what was going on. I supported her, because I knew no different and it was not until I was older that I tried to heal the damage done. Some relationships repaired, others did not and my grandfather died shortly after all this started of a heart attack. I have believed for years, mom had some mental issues, conrol and anger issues she never dealt with. She was very good at covering them up though. Women (and this is a blanket statement to some degree) are much better manipulators when it comes to the legal system than me. I am not a psychologist or medical practioner but I work in a parallel field. I do believe narcissism plays into a lot of what is currently going on in our family law system. As a society it is all about me, what I want, what I have created, what is mine and sadly men and their role in family have been denegrated over decades.

    For four years I have watched the same tactics employed against my commonlaw husband and his children. I stood back the first year and a half. The file manager in me took over and I started to go through all correspondence, transcripts, court orders and I was surprised that mom had failed her psych test because, in short she lied and tried to make things out to be better for her than what they were. Yet on that report, she got custody. I was surprised, it was not taken seriously. That report cost them thousands and in the end it was not read. I watched numerous agreements made, only to be broken and delays, delays delays. The children were removed from their family home and away from the family in general (because mom had “support systems” elsewhere). I saw a judge cut short that discssion and gave grounds to appeal only to be counseled that by the time the appeal was put in place the children would have “established roots” and dad would not have been able to get his kids back.

    It has taken $50,000 and numerous court attendances and documentation after docuumentation to undoe the damage of false allegations, denied telephone and physical access, and over 30 documented events of contempt against the court orders. The children were withheld for 7 mos from their father. I have now personally spent $15,000 to just get back EOW access. The damage is finally repairing with the children. They have been brainwashed and it is so very very hard to keep our mouths shut about it. To have a lawyer stand up in court waving his arms saying the eldest (12) never wanted to see his father again, sent the alarm bells ringing for the judge and thank god we had a good one this time who saw through the malarcky, the innuendos, the half truths, and excuses.

    He is no saint but he is a good father (the psychologist who administered the same test felt he was suffering from PTSD – NO surprise after seeing the manipulation over years).

    I wonder why our society automatically believes sole custody goes to moms and only in extreme cases do fathers get it. I wonder just how much mental disorders play a part in this horrid game against children. And it disturbs me greatly that any discussion about this “syndrome” is going to be fluffed off as a ploy by abusive men against women. This is about the children, and children’s rights to both their parents. We need not only a discussion on Parental Alienation but on the divorce laws of our country that do not feel equal parenting (absent of documented abuse) SHOULD be the norm. Children are not pawns, a woman is not necessarily the better parent, and children DO AND WILL ALWAYS need their fathers.

    Thank you for talking about this. Perhaps with more talk another generation of children will not grow up without their fathers.

  5. Very good article on Parental Alienation, which I have been subject to for the past fourteen years.
    I believe that the recognition of P.A. is begining to get real acknowledgement.
    Thank you for helping to bring awareness to this evil.

  6. Thank you for your post on parental alienation. Alientation is a destructive family dynamic affecting countless children, parents and extended family members every year.

    As you pointed out, there is a lot of gray in these cases. Inclusion in the next edition of the DSM will help mental health professionals identify and address these heartbreaking cases. And educating mental health and legal professionals on how to tell the difference between real parental alienation and false allegations of abuse and vice versa will help judges make good decisions that are truly in the best interests of the child.


    mike jeffries
    Author, A Family’s Heartbreak: A Parent’s Introduction to Parental Alienation

  7. The comments on this blog I believe accurately represent the myriad of beliefs that circulate the world about what PA/PAS is not. As a mediator and an alienated parent myself, I can tell you that degrees of alienating behavior occur in most high-conflict divorces or separations that involve children.

    What seems to be missing here is a understanding that PA happens on a wide spectrum, just as some people are clinically depressed, their are folks out there who have mild seasonal affect disorder. This is not an all or nothing issue, just as if a personal with mild seasonal affect disorder might untreated go on to develop into full blown clinical depression, a parent allowed to continue utilizing alienating parenting techniques might cause the child to develop PAS, or Parental Alienation Syndrome as it has become to be known.

    While their might be differing opinions on how and with what methods we utilize to approach this challenge, the most important issue here is to gain legitimacy for PA/PAS. While there are many good people out on the front lines contributing to their part of the conversation, what would benefit this movement the most is a collective and collaborative effort on behalf of those people in the PA community.

    This is why I developed the Parental Alienation Global Directory. Our mission is to support the global efforts of non-profits, advocacy groups, therapists, psychologists, social workers, mediators, lawyers, researchers and students, in their individual and collective efforts, to bring legitimacy to the topic of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome.

    When we can join together and create legitimacy through our works, we will create the way for education and understanding which will make way for solutions for families who need it.

    Chelsey Williams
    Editor, Parental Alienation Global Directory

  8. This is so relevant and present in most if not all of divorces. Thank you Chelsey for putting some definitions and articulating what is so difficult for some to understand.

    These are incredibly complex issues for young people to deal with on top of the breakdown of a family. Not only do you lose the main grounding force of development but are told to accept these behaviours as “a part of divorce.” Incredibly patronizing for young developing minds and crippling.

    As for clinical depression, suicidal tendancies, drug and alcohol addiction, interpersonal conflict? Yes, yes, yes to the end of the list. For some the end being death. For me, strength, will, courage and eventual freedom. Happiness.

    That is my story.

    Thank You Georgia and Chelsey!

  9. To remind all those with morals and to all those who love all children, that this David J. Glass Esq. PhD would giggle & laugh at me while waiting to see the judge. Shortly after this attached letter dated 2-12-2012 was received by the community of Malibu, CA this David J. Glass Esq. PhD conspired to injure a 3rd party (myself) , suborned perjury and falsified evidence just before he closed down his practice and went to FMBK Law.The CA State Bar has just received a 2nd complaint regarding this matter.

    2-12-12 Mr. Graham J Miller


    To The Principals of Malibu Elementary Schools and To Whom it may concern within the LAUSD and SMMUSD administrations, Directors or other persons.
    Dear Sir Madam or MS,

    I am writing to you firstly as a parent. I have a child in a Malibu public school. I am also writing as a Citizen, and therefore concerned in a more global manner with issues that I personally find disturbing and relevant. I believe a possible failure to perform to ethical codes of several professions, let alone what any normal person may find to be reasonable is about to, and could in the future lead to embarrassment, public consternation and at best a complete lack of faith ,trust and confidence in the above agencies.

    I have recently been informed by my daughter Lily-Jane Faith Miller that her mother has taken her out of Callahan elementary (Northridge); and she is now at some school in Malibu district. (Grade 2)

    My reasons for my concern follow.

    Within the Malibu school district there is a teacher, (C Cullen) who has accused her ex-husband of two counts of sexual abuse of their son, and 5 other counts of abuse of their son (11). This alleged abuse according to Ms. Cullen and her Attorney took place over the past 5 years.

    I would like a notation in my daughter’s file that she is never to be placed in class with the above person as her “(my daughters)” teacher. I apologize in in that I amenable to provide more details on my daughter’s whereabouts (school) but her Mom has not provided that info. I’m sure Dr Jacob the principal at Callahan would be able to assist.

    In MS Cullen’s divorce and custody case she utilized the services of a Mr. D Glass Esq.(Attorney) Mr Glass is also a PhD in Psychology .Mr. Glass was also utilized by the mother of my daughter, Lily -Jane in my own divorce and custody matter. Mr. Glass a Psychologist/ Attorney and mandated reporter saw fit to bring allegations of sexual abuse of a child and 4 allegations of other forms of abuse of MS Cullen’s son Sammy before family court. These all were investigated by the Police DCFS, and the District Attorney. They were found to be without either Medical or Credentialed 3rd party verification and closed therefore as unsubstantiated. These allegations were brought by MS Cullen via the services of Mr. Glass and occurred regularly before the summer school break on a yearly basis. MS Cullen had also recently remarried a Mr Brian Winsick another Teacher and coach in the Conejo Valley. Their marriage took place just prior to the allegations beginning.

    I will now outline my concerns and reasons for the request of the notation in my daughters file.

    It is my belief that the relationship between this teacher Ms. Cullen and her attorney and my own ex-wife and the same attorney is cause for reasonable concern. That to avoid any unfortunate incident where god forbid I was to be accused by my daughter’s mother of something similar as MS Cullen accused her ex-husband of it is imperative no establish able link is in place as could lead to suspicion of collusion. The worst case scenario that Ms. Cullen at some time becomes my daughters teacher and subsequently claims are made that perhaps my daughter had inferred to MS Cullen that I had abused her ( Lily-Jane) and MS Cullen then could relate this to my daughters mother through their mutual attorney, or contact at school is beyond horrific. I feel the separation of my daughter and this teacher protects LAUSD/SMMUSD and my daughter and me.

    In a more global sense I am concerned that a teacher married to another teacher and coach and an attorney who is also licensed as a psychologist made no attempt to make aware the LAUSD or the SMUSD of their concerns. (Two allegations of Sexual abuse and five other allegations of abuse.) Surely some ethical codes of their respective professions would demand other relevant or parties who could be impacted be advised.

    When a teacher finds the resources to pay $500 an hour to a Beverly Hills Attorney for 5 years surely there is a need for verification that such allegations will bring in terms of the expenses the County and State will bear during the protracted conflict. Especially if the accused has been made indigent by the continued claims and has suffered stress or work issues stemming from such accusations and is no longer paying taxes.

    As a parent I certainly would be outraged if I knew my child’s teacher was aware of a legitimate abuse situation and if, as in this case it included Sexual Abuse allegations and that teacher did nothing to bring attention to it as could protect other children I would expect answers. Specifically why and how a person(s) (2 Teachers, (Coach), An Attorney/Psychologist) would go ahead and consciously disregard accusations of such a serious nature, and then they having brought these allegations before family court and the district attorney go ahead and let other parents arrange activities with the person they were accusing of abuse in a manner as would expose other children to the accused.

    What is more disturbing and I expect the press will find disturbing is that repeated allegations of this nature are often utilized in family conflicts and that this is acceptable is in fact a failure of morality within our society. I believe this failure may have had a profound societal impact.

    That the failure of an application of evidentiary standards as are normally applied in criminal matters may have allowed credentialed persons possibly with questionable motive to use family court in a manipulative and deceitful way to achieve their own ends appears to me to be worthy of consideration.

    This epidemic of claims of abuse of children caught in such situations, (family breakups) versus children, who suffer actual abuse , desensitizes the general public and governmental agencies and allows real and dangerous criminals to hide and operate with virtual impunity in our society. It is beyond Peter and the Wolf it is an ongoing crime against humanity. To falsely perpetrate something that I believe leads to what we are now facing in the LAUSD and SMMUSD and may have exacerbated, perpetuated and indeed by lack of action condoned events and actions that possibly has led to emotional; mental and even physical harm to any child is heinous.

    I believe because of the actions as I have described many prior red flags have been ignored in many abuse situations and much suffering and harm and expense could have been avoided if a less commonplace attitude of children was the norm.

    Indeed in the immediate situation with (C Cullen, B Winsick )either the allegations were scurrilous and a product of vitriol, and an attorney(PhD Psych) with who knows what motivation (7 Claims) and that these claims were worthy of public expense .Or these persons were aware the claims they were bringing were false and therefore not worthy of reporting to LAUISD/SMUSD or other parents.? The alternative is an admission of negligent lack of reasonable due diligence and surely a great lack of concern for the school both pupils and other teachers and parents has been flagrantly displayed in total disregard for the safety and welfare of minors. Whether this is or should be a concern for the bond holders of these persons I do not know. Mr. Glass, Glass family Law and former associate of (Kolodny & Anteau) One of the most respected family law firms in the United States (Mel Gibson Getty, etc.) has been investigated by the CA Bar already in this matter and while the complaint was not upheld a letter suggesting the possibility of civil redress was issued by them.

    The APA also found he did no wrong apparently within their own ethics code.

    The fact remains an Attorney/Psychologist and a Teacher and a Teacher/Coach surely have some duty to the community. The positions of trust and respect they are afforded should allow the general public a reasonableness within their expectation of propriety and protection of the innocent by such credentialed persons.

    Perhaps the LAUSD/SMUSD could incorporate or suggest to the CA Bar a cooperative relationship of a professional nature that would allow this protection to be afforded our children as well as draft a code for the LAUSD/SMUSD’s own employees in such situations.

    Certainly recent events could lead one to surmise that a better clarified way of maintaining the safety and welfare of our children, from both bonifide and false claims of abuse would be helpful. The harm that both real and imagined events can bring to families, as well as collateral persons and an institution such as children’s learning environment should be minimalized at all times.

    Sincerely Yours,

    Graham J Miller.

    885 Avenue of the Americas

    Penthouse 1A

    New York. NY. 10001

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