Lost in the Divorce Shuffle

Reviewed by Jacqueline Brooks, MBBCH, MRCPsych

July 30, 2001 -- Remember the late '70s film Kramer vs. Kramer, where Dustin Hoffman battles Meryl Streep for custody of their little boy? A radical notion back then, when it was assumed and accepted that after a divorce, kids live with mom and visit dad. But bitter legal disputes over "who gets the kids" have become increasingly common, giving rise to an emotional disorder whose chief victims are children.

Parental alienation syndrome, or PAS, is typically seen in the parent who has custody of the children. In a desperate and ultimately self-serving attempt to punish their ex-spouses, these parents block access to the children and embark on a relentless but unfounded smear campaign against their ex.

A new study, published in the May-June issue of The American Journal of Family Therapy, examines the effect of this syndrome on both children and parents.

This type of behavior is used to gain the upper hand in child custody disputes, and is a powerful mechanism for vengeance, says PAS expert Richard A. Gardner, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry in the division of child psychiatry at New York's Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. "The diagnosis of PAS is based only on symptoms in the child," he says. Gardner was not involved in the study and offered WebMD his assessment of the study.

If the parent is successful, the child becomes an active participant. Fed enough negative information, even if it clearly contradicts the child's experience prior to the divorce, the child is brainwashed against the victim parent. Successful "programming" depends on the strength of the child's bond with, and the ability to distance the child from, the victim parent.

An especially ugly "spin-off of the situation is false claims of sexual abuse," Gardner tells WebMD. "Sexual abuse does happen, but this is unfounded allegations," he says. And once the finger of misconduct is pointed at an ex-spouse or their new mate, chances that they'll be granted custody, or even visitation rights, is permanently reduced.

"There are two kinds of parents who will alienate their children," says PenelopeKnapp, MD, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of California, Davis. Those trying to shield a child from a truly abusive ex-spouse, and those who "don't distinguish between their own feelings and their children's' feelings."

To protect everyone involved, "it's important to know why someone is carrying out this behavior -- whether it's to protect the child or to vent their own feelings. Court mediation people should be able to find out what's really going on," she tells WebMD.

Though he's been practicing psychiatry for more than 45 years, Gardner says he never saw a single PAS case until the early 1980s. Before the switch to evaluation of parents regardless of their gender, and equality in decision-making, this was unheard of, he says.

Today, the precise number of cases is unknown, but "PAS is extremely common," he says. And with half of all marriages ending in divorce, it's something that is likely to affect most of us at some point, whether directly or indirectly.

If divorce is an inevitable part of your future, think long and hard before going into court battles over child custody, says Gardner. "And if you're inclined to seek vengeance by depriving the other party of the children, ask yourself if that is a reasonable way to deal with your anger and hurt." The children will not only suffer in the short run, he says, but mounting evidence shows that PAS can lead to lingering psychological problems.

What's more, says Gardner, once done, there is little chance of its being undone. "In a recent follow-up study of 99 PAS cases, PAS produced life-long alienation," he says. "Some parents never saw their kids again."