It’s Official: Parental Alienation Syndrome is NOT a Psychological Disorder

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.

Read about it here:

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

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:

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!”



  1. There is a danger implicit in the story of the broken arm – yes it is true you can tell that an arm is broken if it is hanging at a 45 degree angle – but that does not mean you can tell that alienation has taken place if the child is alienated – it may just be that the parent claiming alienation has been mean to the child, or that the child has observed that parent being mean to their primary care-giver or other people, or even animals. However, just like a broken arm can be self-diagnosed without a medical degree, just so, a child knows a mean adult by observing behaviour and does not need to be ‘alienated’ by the other parent for that to happen.

  2. You are making a valid point. I hadn’t approached this from the perspective of the child. (Perhaps I should have.) But it is true that often, at least in my experience, the parent attempting alienation may, in an ironic twist, actually alienate his/herself from the child. Kids are very smart and often much more aware than the parents. Additionally, you are also correct, that there are at times valid reasons why a particular child may not wish to be around a parent that have nothing to do with alienation but entirely with the very bad behavior of the disenfranchised parent. (I.e., it doesn’t take a syndrome for a child to not wish to be around an abuser.)

    Again, my point is much more that the labels are unhelpful. Judges should focus much more heavily on behavior without needing to rely on a scientifically dubious theory that happens to be in fashion. Rather, Judges should call out bad behavior when it happens and have the courage to assign consequences to the offending party.

  3. Parental Alienation begins long before spouses file for divorce.
    Just Saying, It happens whenever mom and pop have an arguement, and call each other names. It begins when one spouse runs to thier family for support, and the family takes sides in the argument and actively encourages their family member to do the exact opposite of what the alienated spouse wants from their spouse.
    It is terrible. I took a test and was told I was on the fence. I guess I am because I can look at this from two perspectives and I know what transpired during my divorce over 25 years ago. My spouse immortalized himself by not signing the final divorce papers and bifurcating the divorce and killed himself, instead of going through his planned marriage to the woman he was going to marry. The stigma from that decision lingers on through my daughter and her choices to remain loyal to her fathers family. Which is odd, since, when we had filed for the second divorce, [she was 16 ] and bluntly told me that if I allowed her father back into our home she was going to run away.
    I moved on with my life only to be dragged back in with one of her crisis’s. Her memory on this subject seems to be wiped out of her mind and I am still being blamed by her and his family, and now her husband who my daughters father never liked or approved of when he was alive. It a convoluted situation to say the least.
    I wish I had seen this blog last year.

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