As a divorced parent, you worry when the other parent makes nasty remarks about you to your child. Your ex might blame you for all of your family problems and make you appear as the bad guy.

At what point do mere derogatory remarks turn into a harmful psychological phenomenon that psychologists call the “parental alienation syndrome”?

What is PAS?

Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) occurs when one parent’s efforts to consciously or unconsciously brainwash a child combine with the child’s own bad-mouthing of the other parent. In severe cases, the child won’t want to see or talk to the alienated parent.

Once the alienation reaches this point, it’s difficult to reverse. Permanent damage is done to the child and to the relationship between the child and the alienated parent. 

Warning Signs of Parental Alienation

How can you tell if your ex’s behavior, or even your own conduct, is alienating? Here are some warning symptoms described by Dr. Douglas Darnall, Ph.D.:

  • Letting the child choose whether to visit with the other parent when the child really has no choice about visitation because it’s set by a court order
  • Telling the child details about the marital relationship or reasons for the divorce
  • Denying that the child has property and may want to move possessions between homes
  • Denying the other parent access to school or medical records and schedules of activities
  • Blaming the other parent for money problems, splitting up the family, or having a girlfriend or boyfriend
  • Refusing to be flexible with the visitation schedule or over-scheduling the child with activities so the other parent isn’t given time to visit
  • Assuming that a parent who has physically abused the other parent will assault the child. This assumption isn’t always true
  • Asking the child to choose one parent over the other
  • Encouraging the child’s anger toward the other parent
  • Suggesting changing the child’s name or having a stepparent adopt the child
  • The child is unable to give reasons, or can give only vague reasons, for their anger toward a parent
  • Using a child to spy or secretly gather information for the parent’s own use
  • Arranging temptations that interfere with the other parent’s visitation
  • Reacting with hurt or sadness to a child having a good time with the other parent
  • Asking the child about the other parent’s personal life
  • Physically or psychologically rescuing a child when there’s no threat to their safety
  • Making demands on the other parent that are contrary to court orders
  • Listening in on the child’s phone calls with the other parent
  • Breaking promises to the child  

What Causes Parental Alienation?

Why would a parent want to damage their child’s relationship with the other parent at their own child’s expense? Intentions differ from one parent to the next, but psychologists say the following could be motivators:

  • An alienating parent may have unresolved anger toward the other parent for perceived wrongs during the relationship. They may be unable to separate those issues from parenting issues
  • An alienating parent may have unresolved issues from their own childhood that they project onto the other parent
  • An alienating parent may have a personality disorder, such as narcissism or paranoia, which makes them unable to empathize with the child’s feelings or see the harm to the child
  • An alienating parent may be so insecure with their own parenting skills that he or she projects those concerns onto the other parent
  • An alienating parent may be so wrapped up in their child’s life that he or she has no separate identity. So, they view the child’s relationship with the other parent as a threat
  • Sometimes new spouses or grandparents push the alienating parent into inappropriate behavior for their own wrong reasons, and the alienating parent isn’t strong enough to resist

Why Children Are Alienated

What causes a child to buy into the alienating parent’s brainwashing? The child may:

  • Feel the need to protect a parent who’s depressed, panicky or needy
  • Want to avoid the anger or rejection of a dominant parent 
  • Want to hold onto the parent the child is most afraid of losing, such as a parent who is self-absorbed or uninvolved with the child.

In choosing to go along with the alienating parent, the child can avoid conflict and the constant tug-of-war.

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