The construct of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was first proposed by Richard Gardner in the 1980s. His work and insight is to be applauded for recognizing a clinical phenomenon surrounding an induced child rejection of a normal-range parent as a result of the distorted parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent. However, Gardner too quickly abandoned established psychological principles and constructs in proposing a new “syndrome” that was supposedly identifiable by a set of anecdotal clinical signs. In abandoning the rigor imposed on professional practice by scientifically established psychological principles and constructs, Gardner failed to adequately establish the theoretical foundations for his anecdotal clinical insights, and targeted parents and their children have been paying the price for this theoretical failure across the 30 years since the introduction of the PAS model.
Gardner’s lack of necessary professional rigor in formulating his theory of PAS has resulted in decades of internal disputes within professional psychology that have divided the voice of professional psychology and have prevented the formulation of a solution to a very real clinical phenomenon. Professional psychology has been “split” in dealing with the issues of “parental alienation” as a consequence of Gardner’s lack of professional rigor. In order to find a solution, it is imperative that this rupture in professional psychology be resolved.
Marsha Linehan, one of the leading experts in borderline personality processes, describes a phenomenon called “staff splitting” that is familiar to all clinical psychologists who work with borderline patients. Staff splitting involves a parallel process in the treatment team to the splitting dynamic of the borderline patient, in which polar sides develop within the treatment team regarding the borderline patient so that the treatment team becomes divided by internal arguments and disputes regarding the borderline patient. It is almost axiomatic in clinical psychology, when disputes and arguments develop within a treatment team regarding a patient, assess for borderline personality characteristics with the patient.
“Staff splitting,” as mentioned earlier, is a much-discussed phenomenon in which professionals treating borderline patients begin arguing and fighting about a patient, the treatment plan, or the behavior of the other professionals with the patient… arguments among staff members and differences in points of view, traditionally associated with staff splitting, are seen as failures in synthesis and interpersonal process among the staff rather than as a patient’s problem… Therapist disagreements over a patient are treated as potentially equally valid poles of a dialectic. Thus, the starting point for dialogue is the recognition that a polarity has arisen, together with an implicit (if not explicit) assumption that resolution will require working toward synthesis.” (Linehan, 1993, p. 432)
The dynamics of “parental alienation” emerge from the narcissistic and borderline personalty disorder processes of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, and so it is not surprising that the phenomenon of “staff splitting” has similarly emerged relative to the construct of “parental alienation,” in which sides have been drawn between supporters and detractors of the PAS construct. What is surprising is that no one in professional psychology has recognized the manifestation of “staff splitting” in the divided professional response to PAS, especially since the splitting dynamic is so prominently evident in the child’s symptom display.
In any event, an end to the division within professional psychology is long past overdue, and the clearly evident tragedy of “parental alienation” requires that professional psychology unite around a common effort to develop an accurate model of the clinical phenomenon associated with “parental alienation.” Following the guidance of Marsha Linehan, professional psychology needs to recognize that both sides in the dispute represent “equally valid poles of a dialectic” that require synthesis.
The supporters of the PAS construct are correct in identifying a clinical issue of profound significance involving a parentally induced cut-off of the child’s relationship with a normal-range parent as a consequence of extremely distorted parenting practices of the allied and supposedly “favored” parent. The critics of the PAS construct are also correct in their assertion that the PAS model lacks sufficient scientific foundation as a professional construct. Both sides represent “equally valid polls of a dialectic.”
The division within mental health has lasted far too long to the the tragic detriment of far too many families and children. It is time to end the rift and bring synthesis to the debate. A clinical phenomena exists involving an induced child-initiated cut-off of the child’s relationship with a normal-range parent as a result of aberrant and distorted parenting practices emanating from the allied and supposedly “favored” parent, AND the nature of this clinical process requires description from within established and scientifically supported psychological constructs and principles.
An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” accomplishes this synthesis, and it can serve to end the division within professional psychology, so that mental health can speak with a single voice regarding the clinical phenomenon classically described as “parental alienation.” An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” defines the dynamics involved in “parental alienation” across multiple levels of integrated analysis, 1) the family systems level, 3) the personality disorder level, and 3) the level of the attachment system.
The psychopathology involved is complex, but it is understandable, and it leads to a set of clear diagnostic indicators that are firmly established within scientifically supported psychological constructs. In addition, an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” establishes clear domains of professional knowledge that define standards of practice for professional competence in the diagnosis and treatment of this “special population” of children and families. Failure to possess the requisite professional knowledge, training, and expertise in attachment theory, personality disorder processes (particularly narcissistic an borderline personality dynamics and their characteristic decompensation under stress), and in family systems constructs (particularly centering on the child’s triangulation into the spousal conflict through a cross-generational parent-child coalition against the other parent) which is necessary for competent professional diagnosis and treatment with this “special population” of children and families may represent practice beyond the boundaries of professional competence in violation of professional practice standards.
An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” also establishes clear treatment parameters based on a fundamental understanding of the psychological processes involved, which require as the first step the child’s protective separation from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of the child’s treatment and recovery. The need for a protective separation of the child is made necessary on two grounds, 1) to protect the child from continued exposure to the psychological child abuse associated with the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and 2) to prevent psychological harm to the child during the active phase of treatment as a result of being turned into a “psychological battleground” by the continued active resistance of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to the goals of therapy, and from the continued motivated efforts of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to maintain the child’s symptomatic state even as therapy seeks to resolve the child’s symptoms.
Once ALL diagnosing and treating mental health professionals possess the same degree of understanding and professional competence regarding the reliable diagnosis and effective treatment of “parental alienation,” then professional psychology can speak with a single voice to the Court regarding the nature of attachment-based “parental alienation” and the treatment needs of the child. No longer will targeted parents be required to prove “parental alienation” in Court. Instead, the Court can rely on mental health for guidance since ALL professionally competent mental health professionals will be able to reliably come to exactly the same diagnosis under the same circumstances regarding the presence or absence of attachment-based “parental alienation,” which will allow the Court to rely on the clear and singular recommendations of mental health professionals.
Schizophrenia does not need to be proven in Court; bipolar disorder does not need to be proven in Court; ADHD does not need to be proven in Court, because all of these psychological processes have achieved consensual validation within professional psychology. In all of these cases, the Court can rely on the professional judgment and recommendations of professional psychology, because in all of these cases professional psychology speaks with a single voice. An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” allows professional psychology to speak with a single voice regarding the diagnosis and treatment needs related to this “special population” of children and families.
The legal system is the wrong venue to diagnose and resolve psychological and family problems, just as the therapy office is the wrong venue to resolve contract disputes and criminal behavior. By bringing professional psychology together in a single voice, an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” allows the diagnosis and resolution of the distorted family processes associated with “parental alienation” to be returned to its proper venue of professional mental health, rather than diagnosing the nature of psychopathology through the legal system.
Gardner’s model of PAS served many valuable functions. It helped highlight the existence of “parental alienation” in the public and professional consciousness, and by giving the psychopathology a name the construct of PAS gave some degree of comfort to the many targeted-rejected parents who suffered the tragic loss of their children as a consequence of the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that so severely distorted the development of the children.
However, in proposing a new “syndrome” based on anecdotal clinical indicators, Gardner too quickly abandoned the professional rigor demanded of professional practice. Instead of building his theoretical foundations on the firm bedrock of established and scientifically supported psychological constructs and principles, Gardner built the model of PAS on the shifting sands of anecdotal clinical indicators, so that when we try to leverage this model to achieve a solution, the sands shift beneath our feet and the structure collapses. In the 30 years since its inception, Gardner’s model of PAS has failed to provide a solution to “parental alienation” for the countless parents who continue to lose their children to the psychopathology of a narcissistic/(borderline) parent. Gardner’s model of PAS is a failed paradigm
It is a failed theoretical paradigm. It is a failed diagnostic paradigm. It is a failed legal paradigm. It is a failed treatment paradigm. It has failed to provide a solution. We need to change paradigms.
An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” represents a paradigm shift to a scientifically based model based entirely within standard and established psychological principles and constructs.
An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” can end the division within professional psychology and unite mental health into a single voice because it is based entirely within established and scientifically supported psychological principles and constructs.
An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” establishes clear domains of professional knowledge and expertise in established psychological principles and constructs necessary to define professional standards of practice for ALL mental health professionals diagnosing and treating this “special population” of children and families.
An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” takes the solution for “parental alienation” out of the court system and returns it to the mental health system where the diagnosis and treatment of psychological problems belongs.
An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” can provide targeted parents and their children with an actualized solution.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford