Lesson 6 of 7 - learn to parent effectively

About Parent Alienation
Syndrome (PAS)

What are your options?

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/pas.htm

Updated  03-07-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This YouTube video summarizes what you'll tread here: The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site. I've reduced that to seven.

      This is one of a series of Lesson-6 articles on effective parenting. The article focuses on understanding and reducing minor kids being harmed by major hostility between cohabiting or separated parents. This dynamic is called "Parent Alienation Syndrome (PAS)," "Malicious Mother Syndrome (MMS)," and Hostile Aggressive Parenting (HAP) syndrome.

      Many well-meaning programs focus on trying to reduce this toxic family dynamic. I suspect few or no passionate activists understand what you'll read in this article and Web site.

       This article offers...

  • a definition of "parental alienation syndrome" (PAS)

  • typical surface causes of PAS

  • five real causes of PAS

  • options for family adults and supporters to reduce PAS, and

  • perspective on allegations of parental child abuse.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it,   

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 to 6, part 1

  • Q&A items on divorce and divorce-recovery,

  • basics and Q&A items about ex-mate relations.

  • this article on effective parenting agreements

  • options for reducing ex-mate hostility, and...

  • this news article and commentary about PAS

colorbutton.gif What is "Parental Alienation Syndrome" (PAS)?

      This term refers to a complex family-system dynamic where one parent intentionally and maliciously "brainwashes" one or more of their minor biological children to disrespect and reject the other parent. Because PAS is associated with bitter divorces, child custody and visitation disputes, and sometimes alleged child abuse, this term causes strong reactions in family members, supporters, and human-service professionals. Psychiatrists are now (2010) debating whether to formally accept PAS as a "mental disorder" or a "relationship problem."

      PAS ranges between "alleged" (disputed) and observable. It is specially provocative in legal fights over child custody, visitation, and parenting agreements. Chronic conflict between parents, and the "malicious" and/or "abusive" behavior of the "alienating parent" (or grandparent) are commonly seen as "the problem." Here's more detail: 

colorbutton.gif Surface Causes of Ex-mate Hostility and PAS

  • Escalating disrespect, blaming, scorn, discounting, and distrust;

  • Endless rehashing of past offenses, lies, and failures

  • Using minor kids and teens as messengers, victims, witnesses, allies, and hostages

  • Significantly different perceptions of conflicts and events (reality distortion)

  • Polarizing family members and friends, causing relationship triangles and loyalty conflicts;

  • Using child visitations, vacations, holidays, custody, and school events as weapons and punishments

  • Vehemently-denied accusations of parental "mental illness"

  • Invoking the legal system to force the other ex mate to comply

  • a minor child trying to rescue and protect a rejected parent

  • Hotly contested claims of child neglect, abuse, and abandonment

  • Tangled webs of conflict over parenting, sex, money, affairs, religion, loyalties, and possessions

  • Voluntary or court-ordered mediation and counseling that "don't work."

  • One or both ex mates denying responsibility for their half of these problems

Typically, these surface problems occur in clusters which amplify each other and stress all family members. They are compounded in typical stepfamilies by a mix of other complex problems.

      These surface (secondary) issues are significant family stressors - and they each are symptoms of deeper issues. They are likely to persist until the primary issues causing them are admitted and resolved.

colorbutton.gif Four Primary Causes of Ex-mate Hostility and PAS

      As a family-systems therapist since 1979, I've worked with hundreds of conflicted divorcing parents. I conclude that four interactive factors cause excessive anger, aggression, and hostility between such tormented couples. These factors are often amplified by biased, unaware relatives, loyal new partners, lawyers, mediators, judges, and counselors.

      Once each primary factor is understood and accepted, it can be significantly reduced. I propose that the roots of divorce and PAS are…

      1)  Psychological wounds - One or both parents are wounded and don't want to know that or to admit that they are survivors of early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse (trauma). Common wound symptom are blaming each other, defending, counter-blaming, and denying personal responsibility for causing half the family problems. See Lesson 1 in this Web site for practical options on wound assessment and healing.

      And a related root cause is...

      2)  Unawareness - One or both parents don't know they don't know how to...

  • communicate and problem-solve effectively; (Lesson 2);

  • help each other grieve divorce-related and other losses effectively (Lesson 3);

  • relate harmoniously and co-create a high-nurturance family (Lessons 4 and 5); or how to...

  • parent effectively (Lesson 6).

And average divorcing parents and any new partners are usually unaware of...

  • how to co-create and maintain a high-nurturance stepfamily (Lesson 7).

Wounds and unawareness are inherited. They combine to cause typical relationship barriers between ex mates and others.

      Two more primary causes of Parent Alienation Syndrome are...

      3)  Minor kids have been raised in a low-nurturance environment, and may have begun showing symptoms of their own psychological wounds ("rebelling" and/or "acting out"). This often fuels parental blame, counterblame, and divisive family loyalty conflicts; and relationship triangles; and...

      4)  Relatives, lawyers, mediators, social workers, and therapists who try to help resolve the surface issues above don't understand or validate these three root problems. They focus fruitlessly on trying to fix the symptoms, which inevitably causes more family stress.

      The ultimate problem is parental and social unawareness of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and its effects. Until antagonistic ex mates and their advocates understand and accept these four root factors and decide to refocus on them instead of the surface problems above, they’ll experience increasing frustration and weariness and continue to wound their kids.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect: Does the concept of surface problems and underlying primary problems make sense to you? Do these four proposed root causes of family dysfunction and PAS conflict seem realistic? Can you think of any other root causes? Have you ever read or heard these ideas any- where else?

      If you are in a PAS-conflicted (low-nurturance, "dysfunctional") family, what can you do?

colorbutton.gif Summary: Steps to Reduce PAS

      Some divorcing parents I've worked with have broken free of their toxic hostility cycle. In every case, they chose to do many or most of the steps below. With your minor kids' faces in mind, reflect on what it would take for your family adults to work on these steps. What follows assumes that at least you ex mates have begun studying and applying Lessons 1 thru 6 or 7 here.

      What follows is a skeletal outline of overlapping action-options to reduce PAS. Inability or reluctance to do any of these steps is a sure sign of inherited psychological wounds.

_  1)  All family adults study and discuss the [wounds + unawareness] cycle. It is surely causing your family problems and threatening your descendents. Implication: your adults' best shared goal should be to break this lethal cycle, not just to end ex-mate hostility and PAS.

2)  Use Lesson 1 here to assess all your family adults for psychological wounds and to reduce them over time. If your ex is wounded, see this. Ignoring this step ensures that the following steps won't work, and your kids will suffer for many years.

_  3)  Accept that each ex mate is half the problem, and stop blaming each other.

4)  Adopt a patient multi-year outlook. There are no quick fixes for your complex situation. Seek "progress, not perfection."

5)  Edit your attitudes and your language. Change ex-mate labels like stupid, insensitive, dishonest, pathetic, pathological, liar, ignorant, abusive, selfish, malicious, evil, egotistical, wimpy, clueless, bastard, bitch, retarded, sick, tyrant, control freak, ridiculous, psycho, etc. to "(psychologically) wounded and unaware."

6)  if either ex-mate is addicted (self-medicating), (a) confront that and avoid enabling, and (b) make maintaining sobriety a key part of your wound-reduction plan. Addictions, denials, and enabling are proof of psychological wounds, unawareness, and major family dysfunction.

7)  If either ex mate disrespects the other, commit to patiently regaining respect. Otherwise, you can't hope to problem-solve effectively. You'll each need your true Self guiding you to do this.

Recall - this is a summary of options your family adults have to reduce "Parent Alienation Syndrome" (PAS) and protect your descendents. Do you need a stretch break?

_  8)  if either of you doesn't trust the other to tell the truth and/or to do what s/he says s/he will, commit to rebuilding trust over time. You'll each need your true Self guiding you to do this.

_  9)  If either of you is stressed by excessive guilt and/or shame over prior actions or decisions, follow the links.

_  10)  Study Lesson 2 to learn how to do win-win problem-solving instead of these harmful alternatives. That includes learning how to analyze and resolve typical relationship conflicts and stressors. For incentive, try this quiz.

_  11)  Help each other learn to distinguish anger from frustration, and upgrade your personal and family  ''anger policies.'' Don't expect "anger management" classes alone to cause lasting reduction in  angry/violent outbursts. They are caused by false-self dominance.

_  12)  If you feel an ex mate or other family member is abusing someone, learn the how to distinguish abuse from aggression, and discuss the options that follow this summary.

_  13)  STOP or avoid all court action unless someone's safety clearly depends on it. If you must use legal force, educate any legal professionals on what you're reading here. Otherwise, expect increased conflict.

_  14)  Choose to stop rehashing past hurts, betrayals, and offenses, and focus on forgiveness and problem-solving in the present, for your kids' sakes. Difficulty doing this indicates that a false self dominates you.

I5)  Identify each minor child's family-adjustment needs, and assess their status with each need. Evolve a parenting plan to fill these needs. Consider using experienced professional help to do this.

_ 16)  If you disparage your ex mate to your child/ren and other family members, you are forcing them into major values and loyalty conflicts which will promote serious psychological damage and fuel family stress. If you say "I can't help it," or "S/He deserves it," a false self surely dominates you. See option #2 above.

17)  if relatives - specially grandparents - are actively promoting hostility between ex mates, assert respectful boundaries with them. Show them these options and ask them to help you act on them for all your sakes. If any involved kinfolk are psychologically wounded, see this for relationship options.

_  18)  If you're battling over child custody, financial support, discipline, and/or visitations, you have a values conflict, and aren't problem-solving as co-parenting partners. Follow the links.

19)  If you're in a psychological or legal stepfamily, accept that you have many simultaneous problems in addition to "parental alienation." Implication: study Lesson 7 (stepfamily basics), and identify and prioritize your concurrent stressors.

      Then help each other stay focused on resolving a few problems at a time, and celebrate your progress. Lessons 1 thru 7 and the steps above will help you evolve a stable, high-nurturance family over time if each adult frees their true Self to guide them..

_ 20)  When conflicted, confused, or overwhelmed, heed these ageless wisdoms. Learn to change the things you can, and accept (grieve and forgive) the things you can't. Teach these wisdoms to your kids and others you care about.

+ + +

      Because these overlapping steps are complex, alien, and challenging, consider investing in informed professional help along the way. "Informed" means:

  • professionally qualified and experienced,

  • knowing these topics, and...

  • understanding and accepting the [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

Option: review Q&A about counseling and therapy here.

      Pause, breathe and reflect: what are you aware of now? Do these steps seem practical? Applicable to your situation? Are you motivated to ask your other family adults to learn them and work on them with you now? If not - why not?

colorbutton.gif Perspective on Alleged Child Abuse and Neglect

      Accusations of parental "child abuse" are common in PAS conflicts. They evoke strong feelings in typical family members and others, like blame, outrage, scorn, disgust, reality distortions, defensiveness, vehement denials, arguing, threats, and aggression. When allegations of abuse are part of legal battles between ex mates, they amplify conflicts and antagonisms and among all people involved.    

      True child abuse ranges between subtle (like silent parental looks of annoyance, disapproval, and disgust) to blatant (like beating, burning, or starving). Opinions vary about whether parental neglect or smothering (enmeshment and codependence) is "abusive." Implication - adults in PAS families and their supporters should be very clear on (a) each child's developmental and special needs, and (b) what "child abuse" is; and be very cautious about alleging "child abuse."

      A loose definition is: "Any one-time or repeated, self-gratifying behavior by an adult that clearly harms a defenseless dependent child physically, psychologically, and/or spiritually is "child abuse." "Clearly" is a subjective judgment. This definition implies that parental neglect is abuse, because it damages a young child's self-image, security, and self esteem.    

      From this perspective, a family member who deprives their child of regular contact with their other (healthy) parent, is "abusive." So is a parent who requires their child to scorn, fear, dislike, ignore, avoid, and/or reject their other parent.

      Because "abuse" can be difficult to verify and is highly inflammatory, family adults and legal authorities do well to get an objective professional family-system assessment before alleging it. When child abuse is suspected or confirmed, it must be reported to authorities like the police and state Child Protective Services (CPS) or the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). It is a symptom of the real problem: parents' inherited psychological wounds and ignorance.

      Avoid relying on lay or professional consultants who believe the abusive, hostile, and/or neglectful parent is the problem. The child's dysfunctional family system is the problem!

colorbutton.gif Recap

      "Parental Alienation Syndrome" (PAS) occurs in a significant number of troubled biological, divorcing, and step families. It refers to one parent intentionally manipulating the child to side with them in adult disputes, and to revile, blame, and reject their other parent.

      From 36 years' experience as a family therapist with over 500 typical conflicted families, this article proposes a group of common surface PAS problems, and four primary problems. It summarizes 20 practical options that informed family adults can use to reduce these primary problems over time and protect their descendents from inheriting lethal [psychological wounds + unawareness].

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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