So it’s official. The American Psychological Association has made it clear that Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) will not be included in the forthcoming DSM-V as a psychological disorder. Frankly, I am relieved.
I have seen some very alienating behavior over the years in my family law practice. It comes from both genders and every time it comes up, a child is harmed. Sometimes it is driven by emotional issues such as addiction, abuse or even a personality disorder. More often than not, however, it is just because someone is being mean by putting their poor emotionally defenseless child in the middle of their divorce.
To get an idea of what Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is, here is an article from PsychCentral.com: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2008/02/13/what-is-parental-alienation-syndrome-pas/
PAS has not been well received in the California courts. For one thing, the science is not very good and is not deemed as sufficiently reliable for use in custody proceedings.
Here are some links to sources by skeptics of Parental Alienation Syndrome:
- PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME: Proponents Bear the Burden of Proof: http://www.ncdsv.org/images/PASProponentsBeartheBurdenofProof_Emery_2005.pdf
- Bond, Richard (2008). The Lingering Debate Over the Parental Alienation Syndrome Phenomenon. 4. Journal of Child Custody. pp. 37–54.
- Martindale, David; Gould, Jonathan W. (2007). The Art and Science of Child Custody Evaluations. New York: The Guilford Press. ISBN 1-59385-488-9.
I have had many potential clients call me wanting to launch a legal campaign in family court based on PAS. I try to explain that the science is considered unreliable. However, these parents often feel so convinced that they are victims of PAS that they won’t hear anything else. When I start to explain that PAS is not a recognized psychological disorder, I am quickly written off.
I try to explain that the BEHAVIOR, without talking about the label, is what counts. It is universally accepted that exposing children to alienating behaviors is harmful to them. We can hang our hats on that concept in court rather than getting caught up in the label of a so-called syndrome.
As a caution, experience has also shown me that many parents who complain of PAS often miss the point that it is quite possible that the child is alienated because the alienated parent truly IS terrible for that child. It is not uncommon for an abuser to complain that the other parent is alienating. But that’s a discussion for another day.
My recommendation to all parents in difficult custody cases is to focus on the undesirable behaviors and not assign psychological labels.
My brother, in describing how he can spot an emotional problem without being a trained psychologist, relates the story of how a mishap on a swing resulted in his own self-diagnosis that his arm was broken. How was this child able to diagnose his fracture without being an M.D.? He simply looked at his arm and noticed that it was bending at a forty-five degree angle the wrong way. No medical books required — his arm was broken! It’s not much different in figuring out that there is a serious problem in a custody battle.
I have observed that most cases where alienating behaviors occur often involve psychology that is more reliable than the very unreliable “unscience” of PAS. For instance, there is often abuse of a parent or the children. Very often substance abuse is involved. Perhaps one or both parents suffer from a personality disorder. I don’t need the en vogue diagnosis of a psychological disorder to show the court that there is a problem and that a child is suffering. Just like my brother’s childhood diagnosis of his own broken limb — Judges don’t need it either.
Here’s an idea. When there is bad behavior in a custody battle — the Judge should simply call it out and put an end to it. You don’t need a DSM diagnosis to conclude that it is bad for kids if one parent is on a campaign to alienate the other parent. It’s just rotten, nasty and mean behavior. Period. This is not about gender, because I see rotten behavior from moms and dads equally. Where I practice family law in San Diego, it is almost standard in every case that there is an order that neither parent shall speak negatively of the other parent in the hearing or presence of the child. I believe a child has a right to draw his/her own conclusions about a parent without being subjected to either parent’s mean-spirited histrionics — no DSM diagnosis required. As Bob Newhart would say, just “stop it!”