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The Long Term Impact of Parent Alienation Syndrome (PAS)

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Child Abuse » Featured Article

By Christina Szarka, MSW, MSTL

Christina Szarka, MSW, MSTL

Many factors contribute to healthy development in young people. However, children who have suffered through a divorce must try to maintain strong family relationships with both parents. A strong component to children thriving through a divorce is being shielded from parental conflicts. However, in many cases parents cannot separate their angry and negative feelings from their spouse and end up manipulating their children in an attempt to bolster their own importance and parental identity. This creates situations where children feel pressure to choose sides with one parent or the other. In extreme situations, such as parent alienation, a parent may actually foster their child’s rejection of the other parent. Parental alienation involves “programming” a child to degrade the alienated parent in an effort to undermine the child's relationship with that parent.

Parental alienation involves repetitive verbal denigration of the alienated parent. This would include; interference with visits such as making excuses the child is sick, has too much homework, etc; exaggerated or unfounded claims of abuse/neglect; denying positive memories, or exaggerating the negative ones and forbidding or shaming the children into not discussing their other parent. The custodial parent emphasizes the victimization of the family while claiming their own impartiality and implying that they are only helping to protect their children. Eventually the child’s views of the alienated parent can become almost exclusively negative leading to the rejection of the that parent.  Parental alienation is more common than is often assumed. Fidler and Bala (2010) reported both an increasing incidence and increased judicial finding of parental alienation; they reported estimates of parental alienation in 11-15% of divorces involving children.

The long term effects of parental alienation on the children are well-documented. Studies have shown that adult children who endured parent alienation suffer low self esteem, self-hatred, abandonment issues, lack of trust, depression, and are more likely to have substance abuse or addictions. As young adults many lose the capacity to give and accept love from trusted figures. Self-hatred is particularly disturbing, as children tend to internalize the hatred targeted toward the alienated parent, and begin to believe that the alienated parent did not want or love them.

Reunification/Reintegration Therapy

Unlike with other traditional therapy models, the role of the family Reunification/Reintegration therapist becomes a dual role; Therapist for the parent(s) and advocate for the children. When Reunification Therapy (RT) is warranted, it usually begins where there is a significant amount of stress and turmoil in the family.  Using an integrative approach to family therapy the Reunification therapist enters the process with the belief that children need and deserve a healthy relationship with both parents. This can be a complex and difficult process as parents typically present with a family system of communication and events which have eroded the ability of one or both parents to nurture and facilitate this need. Such is the case in high-conflict divorces or separations where there are allegations of sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse of the children, domestic violence, or abuse of alcohol and drugs (many times these issues overlap). The presence of any of these issues typically results in one parent assuming the role of protective parent, and the other becoming estranged or absent from the child’s life. In the context of families who are entangled in the family court system the custodial parent may sabotage the reunification process by delaying appointments and interrogating the children after sessions with the estranged parent in an attempt to undermine any progress made in therapy.

Last Update: 9/12/2016

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