The Development of Parental Alienation Syndrome Theory

(emphasis mine)

Parental Alienation Syndrome & Parental Alienation: Research Reviews

By Joan S. Meier

The notion of children's hostility to one parent in the context of divorce was first characterized as a pathology by divorce researchers Wallerstein and Kelly. They theorized that a child's rejection of a noncustodial parent and strong resistance or refusal to visit that parent was sometimes a "pathological" alignment between an angry parent and an older child or adolescent and that this alliance was fueled by the dynamics of marital separation, including a child's reaction to it (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1976, 1980). Although significant, Wallerstein and Kelly's construct did not become a staple of custody evaluations or judicial determinations. Moreover, their early work does not use the phrase "parental alienation," but focuses instead on children's "alignment" with one parent against the other.

Beginning in the early 1980's, attention to a purported "parental alienation syndrome" exploded as the result of the dedicated efforts of Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist loosely affiliated with Columbia Medical School who ran a clinical practice that focused on counseling divorcing parents. Based solely on his interpretation of data gathered from his clinical practice, Gardner posited that child sexual abuse allegations were rampant in custody litigation and that 90% of children in custody litigation suffered from a disorder, which he called "Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)." He described PAS as a "syndrome" whereby vengeful mothers employed child abuse allegations as a powerful weapon to punish ex-husbands and ensure custody to themselves (Gardner, 1992a; 1992b). He further theorized that such mothers enlisted the children in their "campaign of denigration" and "vilification" of the father, that they often "brainwashed" or "programmed" the children into believing untrue claims of abuse by the father, and that the children then fabricated and contributed their own stories (Gardner, 1992b, p. 162, 193; 2002, pp. 94-95). He claimed, based solely on his interpretation of his own clinical experience, that the majority of child sexual abuse claims in custody litigation are false (Gardner, 1991), although he suggested that some mothers' vendettas were the product of pathology rather than intentional malice (Gardner, 1987, 1992b). In short, Gardner claimed that when children reject their father and they or their mother makes abuse allegations, this behavior is most likely the product of PAS rather than actual experiences of abuse. PAS theory is thus premised on the assumption that child abuse claimants' believability and trustworthiness is highly suspect.

While acknowledging that if there was actually abuse which explained a child's hostility there could be no PAS (Gardner, 1992a), Gardner's "diagnostic criteria" focuses on various personality characteristics of the accuser, accused, and the child, rather than expert assessments of abuse itself or the other reasons that might explain a child's hostility to a parent (Gardner, 1992b; see also Hoult, 2006). Rather, Gardner's PAS theory presumes that a child's hostility to a father is pathological, which, in turn, encourages courts to suspect that mothers who make such allegations are doing so only to undermine the child's relationship with the father. This dynamic has a chilling effect in family courts, causing many valid child abuse claims not to be seriously investigated. Indeed, in differentiating between "fabricated" and "bona fide" abuse, Gardner uses "the Presence of the Parental Alienation Syndrome" as itself an "extremely valuable differentiating [criterion]" (Gardner, 1987, p. 109). By PAS, as previously discussed, he means a child's "campaign of denigration" of the father and the mother's "programming" of the child/ren (Gardner, 2002, pp. 95-97). One of the problems with Gardner's theory is that without first objectively assessing abuse allegations, it is impossible to know if the claims are in fact mere "denigration" or true.

It should be further noted that the Sexual Abuse Legitimacy Scale, which Gardner invented as a means of quantifying the likelihood that sexual abuse claims were valid, was so excoriated by scientific experts as "garbage" that he withdrew the scale. However, many of the factors continue to be reflected in his qualitative discussions of how to determine whether child sexual abuse allegations are legitimate (Bruch, 2001; Faller, 1998).

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