Associação de Pais e Mães Separados
THE USE OF CHILDREN IN THE SEPARATION PROCESS:
PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME.
ARTICLE FOR THE MAGAZINE LEX NOVA, OCT-DEC 2005
José Manuel Aguilar Cuenca. Psychologist.
At the beginning of the Eighties there began to occur a set of inexplicable deaths that were to change the recent history of our planet. Nobody knew the reasons for these deaths and as a result different hypotheses began to be elaborated. In order to explain what was happening, people began to speak of curses, lethal new drugs, conspiracies by paramilitary groups or by government, even divine punishment.
At the beginning of the Eighties AIDS did not exist. It was not to be found in any medical textbook, international forums did not include it as a subject of debate, there were no specialists to write books on it and no government of the world considered that it had any duty to allocate funds to support its victims. Today, as twenty years ago with AIDS, Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is an evil barely understood by the majority of those who work within the judicial ambit of our country, and about which barely any information is available to those paralegal professionals such as social psychologists, doctors and social workers who must carry out the work involved. Nevertheless, every year it is suffered by thousands of children, being responsible for an unknown number of pathologies amongst them.
WHY DOES MY CHILD NOT WANT TO SEE ME?
The Royal Spanish Academy defines a lie as an expression or statement contrary to that which is known, believed or thought, and that to lie is to say, show or do the opposite of that which is known,believed or thought. The psychologist Paul Ekman (1985) considers that "two fundamental forms of lie exist: to hide and to falsify. The liar who hides retains certain information without in fact saying what the truth demands. The liar who falsifies takes an additional step: he not only retains true information, but presents false information as if it were true"i. The requirement to discriminate between what is real, likely and therefore credible, and what is hidden and sometimes in addition falsified, is the daily remit of the psychologist whilst carrying out his work for courts and tribunals. It is a subject area which is becoming more and more controversial.
Together with this, for some decades other ideas from outside the legal domain have come to occupy space in the very area in which professionals are working. This is the case with terms like programming, brainwashing and alienation. To the concepts lie or truth were then added those of reality and belief in reality, making psychological investigation more complex, but much more welladapted to what was happening in the area of family conflict.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is a disorder characterized by a set of symptoms resulting from the process by which a parent transforms the perceptions and attitudes of his or her children, by means of different strategies, with the object of impeding, obstructing or destroying their bonds with the other parent, until their feelings become contradictory to those which would be expectedii. This situation is directly related to the conflictive processes of separation or, where separations have begun in mutual agreement, to their subsequently turning into conflictive situations.
The first author to define PAS was Richard Gardner (1985), Professor of Clinical Psychiatry of the Department of Infant Psychiatry at Columbia University, in an article entitled “Recent Trends in Divorce and Custody Litigation”iii. On revising the history of this syndrome we can discover that the same essential ingredient has been described in various ways, even parallel and without contact, by diverse authors each of whom, on the basis of their own professional experience, has in my opinion given a different name to the same phenomenon. Wallersteiniv (1980) in California and Jacobsv (1988) in New York both published information on cases which they classified as Medea Syndrome - Medea Syndrome begins with a marriage in crisis and the subsequent separation, and describes how the parents adopt the image of their child as an extension of themselves, losing from sight the fact that they are quite separate beings - whereas Michigan Blush and Rossvi (1986) published a work in which they defined the personality profile for parents who laid false accusations of sexual crimes, defining the Syndrome SAID (Sexual Allegations In Divorce). Finally, in the same year, Turkatvii described Divorce Associated Malicious Mother Syndrome - malicious mothers are those who successfully use the law to punish and to harass their ex-spouse, using all types of legal and illegal means, with the aim of impeding contact between child and father object.
All the previous works came to reflect facts that, in the course of the investigation, have opened a path to understanding the different situations to be found at the heart of the processes of separation and divorce – and which professionals and parents need to know. The assumption on the part of the children of the inherent biases, ideas and injurious attitudes of the alienating parent is created by manipulating their awareness, up to the point where the children feel this negative emotion of repulsion from their mother or father as if it were something they themselves had arrived at, a phenomenon defined by Gardner as “the independent thinker”. At this point the child has enclosed himself in a personality which he believes he has created himself, in such a way that it is impermeable to the influences of others, equipping himself with all the resources necessary to maintain his system of values and beliefs with the object of isolating any possible influences.
HOW TO MANIPULATE YOUR CHILD?
In order to manipulate or educate your child into hatred, with the object that s/he rejects contact with the other parent, there is a need for what I have come to identify as certain preconditions – which the alienating parent will seek out in order to attain the objective of destroying the emotional bond between the child and the other parent - and there is a need for specific behaviours - that the alienator uses to execute their plan.
If we are looking to achieve in a subject the elaboration of a mental picture or emotional reaction to a determined object we will require systematic work, continuous and prolonged, in which isolation, fear, the emotional purging of all positive affection towards him and physical distance allow the acquisition of the exclusive model which we wish to inculcate. The behaviours which are expressed to obtain this usually begin with interference in the communication between child and parent - not allowing telephone calls to the children - as well as limits on physical contact - arriving late to contact visits, inventing diseases, appointments, forgetfulness, etc. ...
This interference extends to many areas - not informing the other parent of relevant activities in the evolving development of the children, as in school activities, cultural activities, sporting events in which they participate - as well as matters of greater depth and emotional relevance – intercepting correspondence and other items sent by the parent and his extended family on occasions such as birthdays, communions, etc. Later on, or in parallel, there commences a campaign of denigration, insults and attacks on the parent in front of the children. Within this campaign there continues, increasing in intensity and extending the objectives of the attacks – a devaluing and insulting of the new partner of the other parent - while the isolation of the child is maintained by means of obstruction of contact which prevents the other parent from exerting their contact rights - as well as from intervening in the child’s life – “forgetting” to inform them of significant appointments the children have with the dentist, the doctor, the psychologist, etc. …
Little by little the alienating parent’s influence is extended to the close surroundings of the child - implicating the extended family in these acts of child programming - and the parent begins to make key decisions in the life of the children without consulting the other parent - changes of school, visits to health professionals, hospital operations, etc. ... In the desire for expulsion of the alienated parent from the life of the child, the alienator reaches areas like the academic - preventing access to reports and knowledge of progress at school - or the home life with the alienated parent – where the children are told that the clothes that the other parent bought them are ugly and that they are not allowed to put them on.
When the process of alignment with one parent allows the formation of autonomy of thought in minors - that is to say, the moment at which the child takes the initiative of hating their other parent with no need of an adult supervisor - the alienating parent claims that they can do nothing to change the decisions of their children, becoming accustomed to giving an image of helplessness in front of an observer. But in subtle ways they continue supporting their children in the rejection of the other parent, allowing them to choose whether or not to go to their contact visits, granting them rights and responsibilities that are not appropriate to their age.
This is very important when it comes to understanding the attitude of assumed powerlessness and cooperation of the alienating parent. At this point, it is a normal procedure for courts to decide to use family mediation, contact centres or classic psychological therapy to stop these problems. Due to the change that has occurred in the child, the alienator can allow themselves to radically change their frame of mind and external behaviour, to one which will tend to manifest itself as an attitude of impotence and conciliation. Powerlessness as defined by the presumed incapacity to do anything when presented with the child’s own desire not to see the other parent, arising from justified and “excellent reasons” as perceived by the child for not seeing their hated father or mother. Conciliatory in as much as the parent displays to the external observer no need to deploy bitter and offensive arguments, reasons without weight or tendentious arguments, since now it is the child who is using them, freeing the adult of this necessity, this serving to confuse professional psychologists and social workers, who end up writing mistaken reports when they find no source for the children’s attitude. Eager to reply to the expressions and desires of the children towards the rejected parent, the professionals produce rationales based on the closer contact of alienating parent and child, the incapacity of the rejected parent to respond to the demands of their children or, and perhaps this is the worst thing, justifying their views by citing the supposedly negative experiences they have had with the parent who they are rejecting, giving substance to what in many instances are justifications with no basis in reality.
THE LANGUAGE OF CHILDREN.
When PAS is present we can find distinct patterns of expression in children which are no more than the reflection of the identification criteria which are used to diagnose the presence of this pathology. With the intention of facilitating the identification of this syndrome for the reader, I will gather here some examples that I have been able to compile in my professional practice.
Expressions of fear: “I want to go off with my father, I am scared, I am scared I won’t see him again.” “I do not want to get into your car because you surely want to kill us.” “I do not want to eat your food, you want to poison us.”
Expressions that reflect the process of objectifying the alienated parent and achieving emotional distance from him: “I don’t want to know anything about that person” (talking about his father). “If you do not give me what I want I will go to court and tell them about you abusing me.” “You are not my mother, the only thing I want to know from you is how to get my bicycle back from your house.”
Expressions which put the love felt towards the alienator on a pedestal: “If anyone fails to respect me, my dad can face up to him and do whatever he likes; because my father is my father and I have the right to do what he wants.” “Dad forgives you and is letting you come and eat in our house with us; he is nice.” “Oh, if only you hadn’t left us!”
Two-way expressions: “With you I am bad and with daddy I’m not”. “Grandma is bad because mummy says so; mummy always tells the truth.” “My mum is bad; my dad says so, dad never lies to me.”
Expressions that denote immersion in the judicial process and inappropriate knowledge thus acquired: “The 30th of November we are going to see the judge and the judge is taking my opinion into account.” “We will be friends, but don’t say to the police again that I must be 300 metres from dad, OK?” “Next Wednesday a judge is going to ask me ‘What do you want, how do you see it, who do you want to live with?’” (On the day of the hearing, first thing in the morning, a message to the mother on the answering machine) “Er ..., hello mum, well ..., don’t say bad things about dad in the hearing, stop telling this stuff to other people and it will be alright. OK? Please.”
Contradictory expressions: “Mummy says that you are bad, but you are good; I must hide underneath the table because mummy says that I cannot go outside with you.” “Mummy, you are a slag, you idiot, a slag. Sorry, sorry ...”
Expressions that demonstrate identification with the desires and emotions of the alienating parent: “Dad is feeling bad, it’s your fault he has no money.” “I have read an article in the Medical Journal that says that children cannot eat Kinder eggs or ice cream because they give you cholesterol.” “You should not have put me through the courts and if you behave properly in future he will forgive you. Dad said to me, tell this to your mother.”
Age-inappropriate expressions: “I do not want to see my father because he mistreats me psychologically in a systematic way.” “What? You went to see that slag?” “Don’t forget to pay the child support into mum’s bank.”
Indirect attacks: “Dad was going to take me to Disney World next week, but of course, as you insist that it is your turn to be with me! ... You are a selfish person, my father is right.” “Of course, since you prefer to be with your fiancée instead of us.” “I forgive my father because at heart he cannot avoid being an irresponsible person.” “My mother says that she is never going to speak badly of my father to me, although she has reasons to do so.”
Emotional purge: “I leave the toys mum buys me in the house because if not my dad throws them away.” “Before we often went skating in that place my mum liked, but my father doesn’t want us to go there, he says that’s where my mum’s friends go.”
CONSEQUENCES OF PAS IN CHILDREN.
Studies carried out in the last decades on the consequences of divorce in children have demonstrated that these children did not necessarily display any more problems than children in nuclear families. The anguish and anxiety that children undergo in all the processes of separation and divorce tend to disappear as they return to the routine of their lives. It is the degree of conflict and the involvement of the children in this conflict which determine the type and the level of the consequences of the family break-up on the children (Aguilarviii, 2005). Few data about the medium- and long-term effects of PAS on its victims exist (Cartwrightix, 1993). In the cases of families which undergo PAS, the return to normality described above can take years, or never happen. During this time there is a continuous emotional wearing down exerted by the attacks of the alienating parent and the defensive actions of the alienated parent, to which are added the court process and the child’s own problems – for example adolescence - arising as part of his ongoing development. The succession of tests at the hands of diverse professionals, the repeated involvement in episodes within the campaign of denigration, and the continuous messages of hatred towards the other parent fill the time and the emotional life of the children.
A variable that is going to determine the future consequences in the children is the set of strategies that the alienator uses with them in the indoctrination process. A frequent strategy is the use of false accusations and complaints of sexual abuse. This problem has already been evaluated in the mid-Eighties in the U.S.A. A study by the Research Unit of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts of that time suggested that accusations of sexual abuse in the divorce process were likely to be valid only in 50% of casesx. The problem continued to become more pronounced until in 1996 the US Congress enacted an amendment to eliminate the impunity that had previously been enjoyed by those who made false allegations of sexual abuse, thus permitting the different states to establish legal policy initiatives to respond to the situation. In our country a number of voices, including those of the judiciary, have been raised against this situation, without anything having yet been done about it. The use of this strategy can be terribly destructive for the child, and will mark a difference in future behaviour and circumstances.
Perhaps the most pressing problem with these children is that their relationship with one of their parents is broken. The loss of one of these parent figures needs to be quantified in terms of loss of day-today interactions, of learning opportunities, of the support and the affection that normally flow from parents and grandparents. Whereas in the case of a death the loss is inevitable, in the case of PAS it is as avoidable as it is inexcusable (Cartwright, 1993).
In the area of psychology the development of self awareness and self-esteem can be seen to be affected, deficiencies that contribute to many other problems at this level. The child learns to manipulate and to be valued to the degree that loyalty towards the precepts held by the alienating parent is shown. The effects of PAS on children can be irreparable. The emotional infidelity of the child towards the alienating parent can result in punishments the severity of which covers the whole spectrum. Blackmail, withdrawal of affection or corporal punishment are usually a constant. If we imagine an alienating parent in whom paranoid delusions are expressed in full-blown form, it would be necessary to accept the possibility of a serious risk to the physical integrity of the child. In my professional experience I have discovered a case of suicide related to PAS.
In summary, we must consider that we are speaking of a type of emotional abuse with ample and deep consequences for children and their close relatives. Beyond the differences arising between two adults, the behaviours we have recorded are responsible for the severing of emotional ties of children with part of their family, which causes an unnecessary impoverishment, as well as exposure to scenes in which the probability of developing diverse problems is increased. Finally, we must recognize that we are speaking of the introduction in the subject of ideas, beliefs and values which are highly pernicious to a child’s personal development and vision of the world, ideas that will organize their future conduct and the way in which they confront their life.
LEGAL APPROACH TO PAS.
The normal habit of family courts at the time of passing judgment and deciding the measures to be adopted is to maintain the status quo, with stubborn resistance at the point where decisions are made to significant changes in the children’s situation. This supposes an extraordinary error on the part of judges, in as much as this becomes the principal weapon of the alienating parent when it comes to continuing the campaign of denigration, as well as in the child, for the maintenance of his aggression towards the alienated parent, once the campaign of aggression initially caused by the parent has been assumed by the child.
My fundamental recommendations are that, taking into consideration the classification (slight, moderate and severe) of the PAS diagnosis, certain decisions must be taken which inevitably involve substantial change in what has been considered possible to date. Observational experience seems to lead in this direction. Clawar and Rivlin, responsible for the largest study carried out on this problem, comment that of the four hundred cases observed in their investigations in which the courts decided to increase contact with the alienated parent, a positive change took place in 90% of the relationships of the children with these parents. This change included the elimination or reduction of psychological, physical and educational problems present before this intercession. It is really significant that half of these decisions were taken even where they went against the wishes of the children (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991)xi.
Another study includes sixteen cases of PAS, diagnosed as moderate or severe. In three of these cases the court decided for a change of custody and/or limitations on contact with the alienating parent. In these three cases PAS was eliminated. In the other thirteen, those in which the court maintained the custody regime and did not limit contact, psychological intervention was decided upon. None of the children in this last group showed any improvement in regard to alienation (Dunne & Hedrick, 1994)xii.
In my professional experience, with a study group of fifty cases of PAS diagnosed as being of the moderate and severe types, in which some form of traditional psychological therapy was recommended by the court, none improved in terms of their alienation from the hated parent and, for those who had been included at the moderate level, once having completed the therapy all went on to develop the severe type.
It here becomes necessary once again to recall that a very precise series of conditions is necessary for the development of PAS. The one that is perhaps most relevant is the generation of a distance in time and space between child and alienated parent, so that it is impossible to contrast, and through this to contradict by direct experience, the programme of fear and hatred inculcated in the child. There then follow the expression of behaviour patterns (interference with communications, non-information about academic, health and social matters, etc., guilt-inducing stories, negative accusations, implicit reinforcement of the rejection expressed by the child towards the alienated parent, etc.) that provide for the internalization of negative feelings against the alienated parent. The maintenance of the circumstances that made possible the manifestation of such behaviour is neither more nor less than the express facilitation of its practice. PAS is an excellent example of a disorder in which mental health professionals and the courts must work together to help these children. No one discipline can help these children without the significant participation of the other (Gardner, 2001)xiii. This is without doubt the greatest stumbling block that I have encountered in my professional practice in the courts. If a professional makes a series of recommendations and these are not considered it is, quite simply, impossible to be successful in the treatment of this problem. Recently, a ruling made by the Provincial Court of Segovia, roll nº 113/2005, sets out in plain language its support for the test procedure counselled by the psychologist, in a matter where the presence of PAS was being considered, “without obstructions of any type by either of the interested parties allowed; and equally, being able to count on the help or collaboration of those professional colleagues deemed necessary and if necessary including evaluation of the parents, with notification and authorization of the Judge”, support that, unfortunately, is scarce in the immense majority of cases where this problem is witnessed in our country.
On the other hand, if illegal delays of process are allowed, consolidating and maintaining the distance between the parent and his child, the basic pillars on which the pathology is built are facilitated. In our country I have records of cases in which parents have accumulated three-hundred-and-fifty complaints, or case files in which twenty-one professionals - psychologists, psychiatrists - with their corresponding expert witness statements, have taken part, allowing the prolongation of these cases for years, and consequently the de facto elimination of one of the parents from the life of their children.
I began this article by exposing a problem that is a daily occurrence in the courts of this land. We have then passed to the definition of the problem, the consideration of its spread and the way it is expressed in the child. I close with the directives that must be considered if we wish to halt it. To date more than twenty regional circuit judgments mention PAS in Spain. Unlike other countries like the USA – which has at its disposition legal measures for considering this problem, or Mexico City - which included it in its latest reform of the Civil Code in September 2004 - Spain is only just beginning to consider PAS a serious problem which is starting to be studied, and ignorance by professionals can be the greatest problem when facing up to this reality. A reality in which inaction, if not tacit assent, causes us annually to leave thousands of victims strewn across our path with this type of abuse, which passes almost unrecognised at a technical level by legal professionals.
José Manuel Aguilar Cuenca. Psychologist.
Translated by Julian Fitzgerald
i Ekman, P. (1985) Cómo detectar mentiras. Barcelona, Ed. Paidós.
ii Aguilar, J.M. (2004) SAP. Síndrome de Alienación Parental. Ed. Almuzara. Córdoba.
iii Gardner, R. (1995) Recent trends in divorce and custody litigation. Academy Forum, 29:2:3-7
iv Wallerstein, J.S. & Kelly, J.B. (1980) Surviving the breakup: how children and parents cope with divorce. New York, Basic Books.
v Jacobs, J.W. (1988) Euripides' Medea: a psychodynamic model of severe divorce pathology. American Journal of Psychotherapy; XLII:2:308-319
vi Blush, G.J. & Ross, K.L. (1986) Sexual allegations in divorce: the SAID syndrome. Conciliation Courts Review 1987; 25:1:1-11
vii Turkat (1994) Child visitation interference in divorce. Clinical Psychology Review, 14:8:737-742.
viii Aguilar, J. M. (2005) Con mamá y con papá. Ed. Almuzara. Córdoba.
ix Cartwright, G.F. (1993). Expanding the parameters of Parental Alienation Syndrome, American Journal of Family Therapy, 21 (3), 205-215.
x Thoennes, N. & Tjaden, P.G. (1990). The extent, nature, and validity of sexual abuse allegations in custody visitation disputes. Child Abuse & Neglect; 12:151-63
xi Clawar, S.S. & Rivlin, B.V. (1991) Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children. Chicago, Illinois, American Bar Association, (p. 150)
xii Dunne, J. & Hedrick, M. (1994). The parental alienation syndrome: an analysis of sixteen selected cases. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 21(3/4):21-38.
xiii Gardner, R. (2001). Should Courts Order PAS Children to Visit/Reside with the Alienated Parent? A Follow-up Study; The American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 19(3):61-106.