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Parental Alienation Syndrom (PAS) – Valid Theory or Debunked Sham?


What is PAS?

PAS is a theory regarding the behaviors of some children who are substantially affected by the conflict of the parents in highly charged custody battles. The founder of the theory, Richard Gardner, described what he saw as a syndrome that created “a disturbance in the child who, in the context of divorce, becomes preoccupied with deprecation and criticism of one parent, which denigration is either unjustified and/or exaggerated.” According to the theory, there are three main players in the syndrome, the child, the parent with whom the child appears to be aligned, and the alienated parent.

The child, according to the theory, will exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:

  • The child wages a campaign of denigration towards the alienated parent
  • The child’s stated reasons for the denigration of the alienated parent appear weak or frivolous
  • Animosity toward the alienated parent appears to be without the normal ambivalence of children towards even an abusive parent
  • The child claims that the decision to reject the alienated parent is his or her own
  • The child, without question, supports the parent with whom he or she is aligned
  • The child appears to have no regard for the feelings of the alienated parent
  • The child refers to negative experiences with the alienated parent in language that does not fit the child’s age, ability, or developmental stage
  • The child’s animosity towards the alienated parent extends to family members, friends and others associated with the alienated parent

The theory is that someone, most likely the parent with whom the child is aligned, is either intentionally or unintentionally, not only creating the alignment with the one parent but also the alienation of the other parent by “programming” the child.

History of the theory

The history of the theory appears to be intimately connected with its original proponent, a man named Richard Gardner. Gardner originally proposed the theory in the 1980’s. Gardner represented himself as a clinical psychologist, although it is not clear what his credentials were. Gardner remained the main proponent of the theory, until committing suicide in May 2003. He wrote numerous articles and books on the subject, gave speeches at conferences regarding custody battles, and testified as an expert witness in hundreds of custody court battles.

Hotly debated

In the decades following Gardner’s original proposal of the theory, the debate over the theory became as heated as many of the custody battles in which it figured. Proponents of the theory, many of them fathers and their attorneys, used the theory to discredit the other parents’ allegations of child abuse by introducing the concept into the custody case and saying PAS was the real reason behind the child’s behavior towards the alienated parent.

Opponents of the theory perceived it as a red herring, often used to deflect attention away from the allegations of abuse. Some courts found the theory helpful in making orders regarding custody because the theory offered an explanation and possible intervention in the most difficult custody matters.

PAS still arises in the context of highly contested custody matters in which the children are exhibiting signs of taking sides with one parent and against the other. However, just prior to Gardner’s death, some critics of the theory had begun to discredit it, raising concerns about the way it was used as an extreme intervention measure in some cases. These cases included efforts to coerce children into visiting parents with whom the children had no desire to spend time, and, in some cases, to remove the children from the home of the parents with whom they had aligned and place them in the home of the alienated parents.

Junk science?

Numerous professionals feel that the PAS theory has been completely discredited, that it was never based on solid scientific methods, and that Gardner’s own advocating of it was because it proved to be a highly profitable vehicle for him. Critics also point out that Gardner self-published his work. They allege that he failed to submit his work to the scrutiny of mainstream professional publications because he knew that it could not stand up under the peer review required by those publications. Opponents often also point out that Gardner referred to himself as being associated with Columbia University, which was true, but his actual position at Columbia was as an unpaid volunteer.

Valid theory?

Many mental health professionals feel that the theory has been useful in defining the most egregious of situations in cases where the parents are so entrenched in the fight that no one can determine what is really going on. Many clients, and their attorneys, find the theory helpful in resolving impasse in their custody cases. The theory also still has its defenders among psychologists who hire themselves out as expert witnesses in custody cases.


Some say that, if nothing else, the theory was helpful in defining many of the issues in cases, which had reached impasse, and that when used judiciously it, did result in the reuniting of children and the parents from whom they had been alienated. The interventions often recommended in cases where PAS was alleged were drastic. For instance, it was often recommended that the children be removed from the custody of the alleged alienating parent and forced to live with the alienated parent. Because of the highly controversial nature of such recommendations, and the theory itself, many professionals have taken it upon themselves to do further research into the issue of parental alienation and thus have added further understanding and insight into those cases in which a parent has become the target of a child’s extreme animosity.

On the other hand, some argue that the outcome of some cases, those in which the courts bought into the theory and punished the alleged alienating parents by removing the children from their homes or forcing children to visit the parents from whom they were estranged, caused irreparable harm to the children. One mother blames Gardner for the death of her 16-year-old son who committed suicide after he was forced to spend time with his father from whom he was extremely alienated.

Current trends re PAS in high-conflict custody cases

It appears that currently the drastic measure Gardner often recommended, which consisted of changing custody from the alleged alienating parent to the alienated parent, is disfavored among most child mental health professionals. Thus, it appears that few courts have ordered such in recent years. However, the theory remains active in the area of child custody disputes and many mental health professionals offer assistance to parents caught in both sides of the controversy either as an alleged alienator or as the parent who is experiencing being alienated from the children.


Whether or not a syndrome that can be defined as Parental Alienation Syndrome exists is probably moot. What is important is that there are children who have become alienated from one of their parents. Resolution of the alienation is more likely to happen as the children are protected as much as possible from the animosity between their parents and given the emotional support and assistance they need to develop beyond the factors that caused the alienation. Many mental health professionals believe that providing long-term therapy for the child, as well as education, counseling, and support for both parents, may be the best way to help children who fear one of their parents and the parents themselves.

Checklist: Parents

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