Parental Alienation Syndrome in Child Custody Cases

One concern many parents have is that the other parent is alienating their child from them, or that the child is suffering from Parental Alienation Syndrome (“PAS”).  Before going to far with this topic, understand that this is an extreme situation and does not apply to every case.  Many times a parent will vilify the other parent or a child will act out.  Those situations can still be acted upon and have an effect in a case without it being PAS.

If you know me, you know I try to always start with a definition –

Parental Alienation Syndrome:

The parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a childhood disorder that arises almost exclusively in the context of child-custody disputes.  Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification.  It results from the combination of a programming parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.  

 See, The Parental Alienation Syndrome (Second Edition), by Dr. Richard A. Gardner, 1998, Creative Therapeutics, Inc., at xx.

This means PAS consists of two parts, (1) the child bad-mouthing the target parent without justification and (2) the alienating parent trying to program the child that the target parent is bad without justification.

Symptoms of PAS:

In addition to the above, PAS is defined by a number of symptoms evidenced by the child.  Those symptoms are:

  1. A campaign of denigration
  2. Weak, absurd, or frivolous rationalizations for the deprecation
  3. Lack of ambivalence
  4. The “independent-thinker” phenomenon
  5. Reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict
  6. Absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent
  7. The presence of borrowed scenarios
  8. Spread of the animosity to the friends and/or extended family of the alienated parent

 See, The Parental Alienation Syndrome (Second Edition), by Dr. Richard A. Gardner, 1998, Creative Therapeutics, Inc., at xxv.

A couple of those symptoms are explained more fully below:

The first symptom, a campaign on denigration, is simply the child continuously discussing their hatred of the target parent or the imagined faults of the target parent, with weak or absurd reasons (second symptom) and lack of guild (sixth symptom).

Lack of ambivalence is the idea that one parent is all good while the other parent is all bad.

Independent thinker phenomenon is when the child refers to the alienating parent’s expressions or ideas as their own.  An example would be repeated what a parent said about the other, “Daddy doesn’t care about us,” and claiming it as their own.

Presence of borrowed scenarios is when a child incorporates speeches of a parent as reasons for hating a parent.  Typically this are obvious as the statements would never come from a child’s mouth, either because they do not understand the words or would not understand the context/situation.

Problems with PAS:

First, PAS is commonly seen as ‘junk science.’  This diagnosis is still in the early stages of development and it has yet to be seen if PAS will become accepted by the scientific community.  What this means in the legal world is that attorneys are going to have a difficult time getting testimony and opinion about PAS specifically into  evidence.  I say specifically because while courts will address the actions of parents and the situations described as symptoms above, the court may not want to put it in the context of PAS.

Second, many times there is some justification, no matter how limited, for a child’s behavior.  The child may not want to go to a parent’s house because there was a bad experience in the past, or they will have to miss out on an activity they would otherwise enjoy.

Third, a parent may claim PAS only to flip the focus of the case from them to the other parent.  Courts are aware of this behavior, view PAS with scrutiny and often will re-focus on the parent alleging PAS if the court believes the claim unfounded.


Alleging PAS, while certainly an option, should only be done with extreme caution.  All of the underlying actions a parent takes that make up the allegation can be addressed without alleging PAS.  Many courts view PAS with skepticism and the alleging party may lose some credibility before even stepping into the courtroom.  With that in mind, and the relative newness of this diagnosis, parties should be cautious in trying to assert it in a child custody matter.  Keep in mind that there are many roads to the same destination or goal, and some are better than others.