The Shadow-Side of PAS

Not everything is “parental alienation.”

Our goal is to bring the unproductive and damaging debate surrounding the construct of “parental alienation” to an end.

On one side of this debate are those persons who are concerned about authentic sexual abuse, physical abuse, and domestic violence.

On the other side of this debate are those persons who are concerned about the psychological abuse inflicted on a child by the pathology of a narcissistic/borderline parent.

We are all on the same side. Protecting children from child abuse. We all want to protect all children from sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, and psychological abuse by a parent. There is no debate.

So how did this false divide within mental health occur? We must bring it to an end. We are all on the same side of protecting 100% of children 100% of the time from all forms of child abuse.

I want all targeted parents to go to a website page hosted by the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence regarding:

Overview of Dr. Richard Gardner’s Opinions on Pedophilia and Child Sexual Abuse

Read the expressed views of Gardner on pedophilia and incest. This is the dark underside of Gardnerian PAS. The views of Richard Gardner on pedophilia and incest are vile and repugnant. There is NOTHING normative about pedophillia.  NOTHING.  And a child NEVER seeks sexualized contact with a parent. The suggestion that a child ever seduces a parent into incest is vile and reprehensible. The views of Richard Gardner regarding the normalcy of pedophilia and incest are as repugnant as they are false. There is nothing normative about pedophilia and incest.

Within this context of Gardner’s views on pedophilia and incest, when he proposed that children’s allegations of sexual abuse against a parent could be discounted because of a “new syndrome” that he had just discovered, a new syndrome that is unique in all of psychology with no established linkages to any other form of established and existing psychopathology in all of mental health, responsible mental health professionals who were rightfully and authentically concerned about child sexual abuse and domestic violence were justifiably concerned that this supposedly “new syndrome” would be used as a dodge by sexually abusive parents (fathers) and the violent ex-spouses of domestic violence (fathers) to deny and avoid responsibility for their sexual abuse of their children and for the consequences of domestic violence. The concern was – and remains – that by discounting the expressed reports of children, this “new syndrome” of “parental alienation” proposed by Gardner will result in re-exposing children to their abusers.

But why is the focus on fathers as the abusive parent?  Because Gardner proposed that this “new syndrome” was primarily used by mothers who made false allegations of sexual abuse against fathers.  In his initial proposal for a “new syndrome,” Richard Gardner introduced a gender bias in this supposedly “new syndrome.”

But the proposal by Gardner of a “new syndrome” and a gender bias are both wrong. The pathology of “parental alienation” is not a new syndrome unique in all of mental health – it is a manifestation of well-established and well-accepted forms of existing psychopathology in mental health – and the pathology of “parental alienation” is equally evidenced by both genders.

In his initial proposal of the PAS pathology, Gardner incorrectly introduced a gender bias in the pathology which he proposed was typically enacted by women toward fathers following divorce, and often contained false allegations of sexual abuse supposedly perpetrated by the fathers. Within the context of the false and repugnant views of Richard Gardner regarding pedophilia and incest, a maelstrom of controversy was created that has divided mental health ever since.

It is important to understand the context in which this division emerged.  According to this one man, Richard Gardner, who held such vile and reprehensible views on pedophilia and child incest, a “new syndrome” exists which he supposedly just “discovered” which permitted mental health professionals and the court to disregard allegations of child sexual abuse made by children against fathers because the mothers in these cases were supposedly inducing the child into making these false allegations. And the only basis for disregarding the child’s allegations of being sexually abused was because of this “new syndrome” – a “new syndrome” which is a unique form of pathology in all of mental health and which has no association with any other existing and accepted form of psychopathology.  Child allegations of being sexually abused can be discounted based solely on this new and unique form of pathology which was supposedly discovered by this one man based on his own assertion of its existence, and who had such exceedingly aberrant and reprehensible views regarding child sexual abuse as being a normal-range expression of adult sexuality.  

What was especially terrifying to responsible mental health professionals was that this supposedly “new syndrome” – a pathology unique in all of mental health – which was discovered and defined by a single individual out of thin air without any linkage to any other form of established pathology and without any scientifically supported evidence for its existence – could be used in court cases to discount authentic child protection concerns and would instead return the child to the sexually abusive or violent parent.

What? No way. No, no, no. We cannot re-expose children to the abusive parent based on such a flimsy, unsubstantiated, and ill-formed conceptual model. If this were 1985 – I’m on the side of the anti-Gardnerians. Where is the scientific evidence for this supposedly “new syndrome”? What are the diagnostic indicators for this alleged “new syndrome”? Wait a minute, you’re just making up these diagnostic indicators. They have no association with any other type of pathology in all of mental health. If this were 1985, I’m fighting AGAINST a Gardernian PAS model.

A campaign of denigration? – The child is saying they hate their father because the father sexually abused the child; or the child is saying they hate their father because of the domestic violence the child witnessed from the father. How do we differentiate a “campaign of denigration” from a child who authentically dislikes an abusive parent?

For weak and frivolous reasons? – By whose determination is a reason considered “weak and frivolous?” Yours, Richard Gardner? The child is saying they were sexually abused, and Richard Gardner is saying, “Look, sexual abuse and pedophilia are normal-range adult sexual activities. It’s not so bad, and we shouldn’t overreact” (read the quotes by Richard Gardner). Is that who we’re allowing to decide what represents a “weak and frivolous reason?” How are we deciding what is considered a “weak and frivolous reason?” – (“Your dad used to hit your mom and scream at you in fits of rage? Well that’s no reason for you to be afraid of him. You need to just get over it.”)

Borrowed scenarios? – Of course the child and favored parent are saying the same thing about the abusive parent, because they were both abused and victimized by this spouse and parent. It’s not a “borrowed scenario,” it’s the truth of their shared experience.

Independent thinker phenomenon? – So if the child asserts the reality of his or her experience this will simply be discounted as the “independent thinker phenomenon” – an entirely new form of proposed pathology by the way. This is a circular no-win symptom. If the child doesn’t disclose the abuse then you say there’s no evidence of abuse. If the child discloses the abuse then you say this is just the “independent thinker phenomenon” in which the child believes what the child is asserting. Of course the child believes abuse occurred when the abuse occurred – (“No, you didn’t really experience abuse, you’re just saying that you did because of the “independent thinker phenomenon”),

An authentically abused child will say the abusive parent is a bad person – but this authenticity in reporting of abuse is being twisted by Gardnerian PAS into a symptom as a “campaign of denigration” – and who’s defining what is a “weak and frivolous reason” or a “borrowed scenario,” and based on what decisional criteria? Are we going to rely on the belief and assertion of single man, a man who holds such aberrant and repugnant views on pedophilia and child incest? Is that our expert to make these decisions about what is a “weak and frivolous” reason? This is who we are relying on to unilaterally decide what represents a “campaign of denigration” as opposed to an authentic parent-child conflict caused by an abusive parent; for what represents a “weak and frivolous reason” rather than the child’s justified estrangement from an abusive parent; for what represents a “borrowed scenario” rather than the mutual experience of a protective parent and child of an abusive ex-spouse and parent?

And so the debate and controversy begins. I’ll bet that already many Gardnerians want to begin arguing with me about my criticisms.  A polarized debate begins between those seeking to protect children from authentic sexual abuse and domestic violence and those seeking to protect the child from the psychological abuse of “parental alienation.”

The supporters of the Gardnerian PAS model then began to address the concerns of the skeptical – and I would say rationally skeptical – critics of the proposed “new syndrome” of “parental alienation.”

The supporters of Gardnerian PAS respond that “parental alienation” does not exist if there is authentic child abuse.

The supporters of Gardnerian PAS repudiate Richard Gardner’s views on pedophilia and incest (yet the construct of PAS remains forever tainted by these vile and repugnant views).

The Gardnerian PAS supporters try to define that “weak and frivolous reasons” means this-and-that type of situation (Dr. Childress Comment: I still haven’t seen a clear operational definition for this construct within Gardnerian PAS).

The Gardnerian PAS supporters try to define that “borrowed scenarios” refers to this-and-that type of situation (Dr. Childress Comment: I still haven’t seen a clear operational definition for what constitutes a “borrowed scenario” according to Gardnerian PAS).

The Gardnerian PAS supporters try to define that the “independent thinker phenomenon” refers to this-and-that type of situation (Dr. Childress Comment: I still haven’t seen a clear operational definition of the independent thinker phenomenon).

And so it goes, the back-and-forth in this endless and needless debate. Sides are established. Professional mental health is split into two camps in which those who are advocating for a recognition of the “parental alienation” pathology are pitted against those who are trying to protect children from the authenticity of child sexual abuse and domestic violence.

But all of this has been an entirely unnecessary and extremely damaging division in professional psychology that has paralyzed the response of the mental health system to the very real pathology of “parental alienation.” There are no sides. We are all on the same side. We all seek to protect children 100% of the time from all forms of child abuse.

But a false division was created by Gardner’s proposal that the pathology of “parental alienation” represented a unique “new syndrome” in all of mental health, unlike any other form of recognized and existing pathology, and that this unique “new syndrome” which was defined by a similarly unique set of 8 vaguely defined diagnostic indicators which were simply made up by Gardner specifically for this supposedly “new syndrome,” then allows mental health professionals and the court to disregard child allegations of sexual abuse and domestic violence, based solely on a poorly defined set of anecdotal symptom identifiers created specifically for this supposedly “new syndrome” by a man who espoused that pedophilia and incest were normative expressions of adult sexuality and that children would seduce their fathers into sexual encounters because of the children’s sexual desires for the parent (ideas that are as abhorrent and repulsive as they are grossly irresponsible and flat out wrong).

Ending the Division

The pathology of “parental alienation” exists. It is not a “new syndrome.” It is a manifestation of well-established and fully accepted forms of pathology (personality disorder pathology; family systems pathology; attachment trauma pathology) as described in Foundations.

The pathology of “parental alienation” can be reliably identified and reliably differentiated from other forms of pathology by a set of 3 Diagnostic Indicators that are firmly anchored in established and accepted forms of pathology.

An attachment-based model of “parental alienation” will in no way, under any circumstances, re-expose a child to an authentically abusive parent. No way. Not under any circumstances.

Our goal is to protect 100% of children 100% of the time from all forms of child abuse; physical, sexual, and psychological. This goal can be accomplished.

There are no sides. We are all on the same side of protecting all children from all forms of child abuse.

In order to bring mental health together again and end this totally unnecessary and extremely destructive division within professional psychology, we must acknowledge the reasonable concerns of the other side regarding an ill-conceived Gardnerian PAS proposal of a “new syndrome” which is unique in all of mental health and which is identifiable by a similarly unique set of vague symptom identifiers that are simply made up specifically for this supposedly unique new form of pathology and that have no linkage or association to any other form of established or existing pathology in all of mental health.

In order to bring mental health together, we must recognize that what the critics of the Gardnerian model of PAS have steadfastly asserted for over thirty years is correct: that the Gardnerian model of PAS represents an inadequate professional model for describing the pathology. This is constructive criticism from reasonable and responsible mental health professionals.

But just because the Gardnerian description of the pathology is professionally flawed and inadequate, does not mean that the pathology of “parental alienation” doesn’t exist. It very much exists. It’s simply that Gardner’s description of it is flawed.

The pathology of “parental alienation” is NOT a new syndrome. It is a manifestation of well-established and fully accepted forms of existing psychopathology within mental health.

Family Systems Level of Analysis:

The pathology of “parental alienation” represents the cross-generational coalition of the child with a narcissistic/borderline in which the addition of the parent’s splitting pathology to the cross-generational coalition transforms the already pathological coalition into a particularly malignant and virulent form that seeks to entirely terminate the other parent’s relationship with the child; i.e., to make the ex-husband an ex-father, the ex-wife an ex-mother, consistent with the polarization of the splitting pathology.

Attachment System Level of Analysis:

The pathology of “parental alienation” represents the reenactment of attachment trauma patterns from the childhood of the narcissistic/borderline parent into the current family relationships.  The reenactment of the childhood trauma is in the trauma pattern of “abusive parent”/”victimized child”/”protective parent” – mediated by the narcissistic and borderline personality pathology of the allied parent.

Personality Disorder Level of Analysis:

The pathology of “parental alienation” represents the role-reversal use of the child by the pathology of the narcissistic/borderline parent as an external regulatory object to stabilize the pathology of the narcissistic/borderline parent which is collapsing in response to the rejection and abandonment inherent to the divorce (the loss of the attachment figure of the other spouse).

Take your pick of the descriptive level of analysis.  All of them are simultaneously true, it’s just a matter of which level of analysis one wishes to use to describe the pathology.

But the pathology of “parental alienation” is NOT a new syndrome that is unique in all of mental health. It is a manifestation of well-established and fully accepted forms of existing psychopathology within mental health that can be reliably identified through standard and established forms of accepted symptomatology.

Using an attachment-based model for identifying the pathology of “parental alienation” will in no way, under any circumstances, result in re-exposing any child to an abusive parent. No way. Not under any circumstances. The three diagnostic indicators of an attachment-based reformulation of the “parental alienation” pathology can reliably, 100% of the time, differentiate child symptoms resulting from authentic child abuse from child symptoms resulting from the pathology of a trauma reenactment narrative created by the psychological decompensation of narcissistic/borderline parental pathology as described in Foundations.

The Gardnerian 8 symptoms of “parental alienation” are not relevant to the diagnosis of this pathology, and are NOT to be used in identifying the pathology. To the extent that the 8 symptoms of Gardnerian PAS essentially represent the entirety of the Gardnerian model of PAS, then the Gardnerian model of PAS is not relevant to identifying the pathology.

For Wikipedia consideration:

In the view of Dr. Childress, the Gardnerian PAS model represents an historical curiosity which for thirty years, from 1985 to 2015, polarized the discussion surrounding “parental alienation” pathology, and which created an unnecessary and damaging internal division within mental health that paralyzed the mental health response to this form of interpersonal pathology. In its 30 years as the dominant paradigm for describing the pathology of “parental alienation,” the Gardnerian PAS model was never accepted by establishment mental health as a valid diagnostic description of the “parental alienation” pathology (with its most recent rejection in 2013 with the publication of the DSM-5).

In 2015, the Gardnerian model of PAS was supplanted by a more theoretically grounded attachment-based reformulation for the pathology (Childress, 2015). An attachment-based model describes the family pathology of “parental alienation” as representing the trans-generational transmission of attachment trauma from the childhood of a narcissistic/borderline personality parent to the current family relationships, mediated by the narcissistic and borderline personality pathology of the parent. In this attachment-based reformulation for the pathology of “parental alienation,” the child’s induced (manipulated) rejection of the targeted parent is being used (exploited) by the narcissistic/borderline parent to stabilize the decompensating psychological state of the narcissistic/borderline parent following divorce (i.e., the loss of the spousal attachment figure which represents both a narcissistic injury and abandonment by the attachment figure).

Childress, C.A. (2015). An attachment-based model of parental alienation: Foundations. Claremont, CA: Oaksong Press.

In order to end the unnecessary and extremely damaging division within mental health, the paradigm by which we define the pathology of “parental alienation” needs to change.

In order to re-unite mental health into a single voice in which we are all seeking to protect all children from all forms of child abuse – 100% of children 100% of the time – and bring to a close the unnecessary and extremely damaging division within mental health created by the Gardnerian model of PAS and Gardner’s extremely aberrant and morally repugnant views regarding the supposed normalcy of child sexual abuse, we must relinquish the Gardnerian PAS model.

There will be NO Gardnerian banner on this battlefield. The coming battle Foundations Banner Red-Blueto reunite mental health into a single force to protect all children from all forms of child abuse will be fought entirely under the battle flag of Foundations.

Foundations and an attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” represent a full and complete, 100% break with the Gardnerian formulation for this pathology. I will in no way defend a Gardnerian PAS model for the pathology.

In all my writings I have never once advocated for adopting a Gardnerian PAS model of the pathology. I am an outsider to this “parental alienation” debate. I come from the fields of ADHD and early childhood mental health. An attachment-based model for the pathology of “parental alienation” represents an accurate clinical description of the pathology from entirely within standard and established forms of existing psychopathology in mental health.

I don’t care one whit for internecine professional debates and turf wars. The ONLY thing I care about is that we bring this pathology to an end as quickly as we possibly can for the sake of targeted parents and their children.

Compromise & Unity

We need to bring this unnecessary and damaging debate within professional psychology to a close, for the sake of targeted parents and their children. We are all on the same side. The advocates for recognition of the “parental alienation” pathology and the critics of the Gardnerian PAS model, we are all on the same side. We are all seeking to protect 100% of children 100% of the time from all forms of child abuse; physical, sexual, and psychological. We are all on the same side.

To bring us all together on the same side of protecting ALL children from ALL forms of child abuse, targeted parents and their supporters in professional mental health MUST relinquish their inflexible insistence that establishment mental health accept a “new syndrome” as defined by Richard Gardner.

In return, establishment mental health must acknowledge that the pathology of “parental alienation” exists, and that this pathology represents such a complex and interwoven network of attachment trauma pathology, family systems pathology, and personality disorder pathology that it REQUIRES a high level of professional expertise to competently assess, diagnose and treat, so that these children and families warrant the professional designation as a “special population” within mental health who require specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat.

Before entering private practice, I was the Clinical Director for a children’s assessment and treatment center dealing with children in the foster care system. I know what the psychological trauma of authentic child abuse is, and I know what it looks like, which is one of the reasons I find the views expressed by Richard Gardner on the normalcy of pedophilia and incest so highly disturbing and deeply repugnant.  

From my professional clinical experience with authentic child abuse, I know what authentic child sexual abuse looks like in the child’s attachment system and in the child’s symptom display, and from my professional clinical experience I also know what authentic physical abuse and domestic violence looks like in the child’s attachment system and in the child’s symptom display. Authentic parental violence and the sexual abuse of a child look very different in the attachment system and in the child’s symptom display than the role-reversal pathology of a child’s use (manipulation and exploitation) by a narcissistic/borderline parent as an external “regulatory object” for the parent’s own psychopathology. These are very different forms of psychopathology with very different manifestations in the child’s attachment system display and symptom features.

Capable and expert mental health professionals can reliably differentiate the two types of pathology 100% of the time. In order to reliably differentiate the differing pathologies, mental health professionals need to be expert in the manifestations of attachment trauma pathology, personality pathology, and family systems pathology. With this professional expertise, mental health professionals can reliably differentiate the two types of pathology 100% of the time.

Our goal is to protect 100% of children 100% of the time from all forms of child abuse.

All we are seeking from establishment mental health is:

1.)  Formal acknowledgement that the psychopathology of a narcissistic/borderline parent can have a substantially distorting influence on family relationships following divorce (i.e., that the pathology of an attachment-based model for the construct of “parental alienation” exists – as described in Foundations)

2.)  Formal recognition that the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of this type of complex and interwoven pathology requires a high level of professional expertise, which warrants the designation of these children and families as representing a “special population” within professional psychology requiring specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat.

That’s all we’re asking.

Formal acknowledgement that the pathology exists and formal recognition of these children and families as representing a “special population” requiring specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat.

The appropriate location for this formal acknowledgment is the official Position Statement of the American Psychological Association on the Family Pathology of Parental Alienation.

With the proper professional knowledge and expertise, we are absolutely able to differentiate a child’s symptoms created by authentic sexual abuse and parental violence from child symptoms that are the induced product of a role-reversal relationship with a narcissistic/borderline parent who is using (manipulatively creating and then exploiting) the child’s rejection of the other parent to stabilize the personality disorder pathology of the narcissistic/borderline parent.

False Allegations of “Parental Alienation”

Not everything is “parental alienation.”

In my private practice, approximately 20% of the cases that come to me alleging “parental alienation” actually turn out NOT to be “parental alienation.” In these cases, it often turns out that it is the supposedly targeted parent who is actually the narcissistic parent.

Narcissists externalize blame. In their grandiose narcissistic self-perception they perceive themselves as the ideal and “all-wonderful” person-and-parent, and they cannot recognize there being anything problematic with their parenting.

Yet the complete absence of empathy for the child by these narcissistic parents is emotionally and psychologically traumatic for the child. However, when the child tries to express this to the narcissistic parent, the narcissistic parent lacks the capacity for self-examination and instead externalizes blame onto the other parent (i.e., a false allegation of “parental alienation”).

In the mind of the narcissistic parent, the child cannot possibly have any problem with the ideal and “wonderfully perfect” person and parenting of the narcissistic parent. So in the mind of the narcissistic parent, the only possible reason for the child to be upset with the ideal and “wonderfully perfect” narcissistic parent is because of the negative influence of the other parent on the child.

Narcissistic Parent:  “I’m so wonderful and perfect as a person that the child cannot actually be upset with me. The only possible explanation is “parental alienation” by the other parent.”

In these cases, the child’s symptoms DO NOT evidence the 3 diagnostic indicators of attachment-based “parental alienation.” These cases are easily identified. I’ll explain all this for mental health professionals in my upcoming book on Diagnosis.

In addition, in some of these cases BOTH parents are pathological. In these cases, the child is a prize to be won in a pitched battle between the parents. This type of pathology is also easily recognized by an attachment-based model of “parental alienation,” although it is nearly impossible to solve.

In false allegations of parental alienation and cases where both parents are pathological, the primary guiding issue remains one of child protection. Once parental pathology enters into the picture, the clinical psychology issues shift from child custody and visitation to prominent child protection considerations.

Not everything is “parental alienation.” Authentic child abuse exists (dogs exist). The role-reversal pathology of a narcissistic/borderline parent also exists (cats exist).  In addition, false allegations of “parental alienation” also exist (ducks exist) and both parents being pathological exists (alligators exist).  All sorts of pathology exist.

When we relinquish the construct of Gardnerian PAS and return to standard and established forms of existing psychopathology, we are on much more solid ground, solid foundations, for our diagnosis and treatment.

From a clinical psychology perspective, the issues are those of “pathogenic parenting” (parenting practices that are so aberrant and distorted that they are creating significant psychopathology in the child) and corresponding child protection concerns.

By remaining grounded in the solid professional foundations of well-established and existing forms of psychopathology, an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” pathology can reliably, 100% of the time, diagnose authentic trauma caused by child abuse from the role-reversal pathology of a narcissistic/borderline parent, and from false allegations of “parental alienation” made by a narcissistic parent.

Not everything is “parental alienation.”

An attachment-based model can reliably differentiate between all of the differing possible pathologies.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

3 thoughts on “The Shadow-Side of PAS”

  1. From a mom and a generationally targeted child and parent. I now undrstand what it means when you say role reversal. We have a woman who was my fathers partner who says that my sister was manipulative, for one among many accusations toward all of us, when she was a child and court ordered to stay with our father. Is this correct? An adult acting like a child? Also, to be fair to all parents in a perfect world where no one is accused and isolated but structure is offered until resolution, whatever that is in each case, parents are going through he– with their kids overnight after many years of routine and if we are lucky, some peace and happiness thrown in but it seems that suddenly we are, some of us, at odds with our kids and are caught off guard and may act out childishly by counterattack with accusation. This is another very good reason for educated family counseling so this kind of interaction does not escalate to the worst of who we can be. If all of us can own up to uor own responsibility in safety, we and society could be better for it. Anyone with a teen has heard the ‘leave home’ comments and ‘my parentals are a nightmare’, etc… Some of us have even been lucky enough to have overheard our own flesh and blood planning for lawyer visits for their first flight from the nest, in the same room, cooking dinner for them, as dinner conversation. We can embrace this brave new world or destroy ourselves. The decision makers think that it foes not affect them. G-d bless them. I was fortunate enough to believe the same for many years. I have recently started asking if there is a step-mother syndrome instead of just lumping it all together in psychopathy which doesnt really fit. Lastly, from my childhood, my parents did threaten to accuse each other of everything you can think of including sexually motivated abuse so I know that it happens and probably more than anyone knows. So to counter this kind of war and knowing that recognizing this for what it is takes skill that many of us do not have, mediation over time will reveal all. Mediation through the tough times will help us all to be better human beings. Referees and trainers are for the boxing ring. Jabs and knockouts with the best lie does not make us stronger and it affects everyone, everyone.

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