Parental Alienation Syndrome: The Problem

The Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) has only recently been recognized in the literature as a phenomenon occurring with sufficient frequency and with particular defining characteristics as to warrant recognition. Today, the PAS is attracting the attention of clinicians, researchers, social service agencies, parent groups and the legal community. As well, it is an issue that has fueled considerable debate with respect to the validity of its existence. Opponents and critics of the PAS continue to argue that the PAS does not exist simply because of its absence from the DSM-IV. This argument which might have face validity, neglects this extremely salient counter argument:

Would this line of reasoning hold today if one was to argue that because attention deficit disorder was not previously included in the DSM publications that it never existed before? - CERTAINLY NOT!

Regardless of the arguments put forth to discount PAS' existence and validity, it is difficult to argue and explain how a previously strong, intact, positive and loving relationship between a parent and child disintegrates and transforms into outward hostility toward the parent by his or her child, usually following separation or some other significant family reorganization involving high levels of conflict. In spite of the divisiveness on this issue, one issue that few will debate is the fact that too many children are caught in a "tug of war" between their separated parents.

When you purchase the Research Report on Children's Adjustment to Divorce (available online for only $14.99), you will be entitled to a Free 15-Minute Telephone Consult with Dr. Reena Sommer. Please Contact Us to arrange for your consult!!

Parental alienation syndrome has been variously defined. Relying on my background in Psychology and family studies as well as my observations of client families, I have developed the following definition:

"...the deliberate attempt by one parent (and/or guardian/significant other) to distance his/her children from the other parent and in doing so, the parent engages the children in the process of destroying the affectional and familial bonds that once existed..."

The alienation process develops over time and the distancing that occurs, includes some or all of the following features:

A parent speaks badly or demeans the other parent directly to the child(ren) - the disparaging comments made by the alienating parent to their children about their other parent can be impicit ("I am not sure I will be able to afford to send you to camp because "Mom" or "Dad" does not realize how much you enjoy it") or explicit ("Mom/Dad" left us because he/she never cared enough about you to keep our family together").

A parent speaks badly or demeans the other parent to others in the presence (or within audible distance) of the child(ren).

A parent discusses with the child(ren) the circumstances under which the marriage broke down.

A parent exposes the child(ren) to the details of the parents' ongoing conflict, financial problems and legal proceedings.

A parent blames the other parent for changes in life style, any current hardships, his/her negative emotional state and inability to function as before.

Child(ren) come to know that in order to please one parent, they must turn against the other parent.

Allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of a child(ren) are often made.

These features exemplify the denigrating diagnostic criterion set out by Dr. Richard Gardner in his discussion of PAS. In addition, a key feature of the PAS is that it is almost exclusively associated with a separation/divorce situation. Similarly, allegations of abuse made following separation also have no prior history, nor upon investigation are they found to have any basis.

Children exposed to the ongoing conflict and hostility of their parents suffer tremendously. The guilt children experience when their parents' first separate, is exacerbated by the added stress of being made to feel that their love and attachment for one parent is contingent on their abandoning the other. Although they are powerless to end the struggle between their parents', they come to believe that if they turn against one in favor of the other, the unhappiness they experience on an ongoing basis will also end.

The challenge for counselors and family services workers is to find ways of sparing children the emotional pain and stress that result when they are caught in their parents' crossfire. It involves helping parents understand the harm being done to their children through their actions, helping them find peace and reassurance in leading a life separate from each other and helping them develop effective ways of co-parenting. The challenge for lawyers is to discern whether the actions taken and allegations made by a client are based on genuine concerns for their child(ren)'s safety and well-being, or motivated by revenge, leverage for child support, fear of losing his/her children and the role of father/mother.

The PAS is a burden that a child is forced to bear by a parent who fails to recognize their child's strong need to love and be loved by the other parent.

The Solution

In theory, the solutions sound easy. In practice, they are anything but easy! For many, simple education and reassurance is enough to set things right. For others however, these reasonable strategies simply do not work. In these cases, a skilled lawyer must demonstrate that one parent is deliberately and maliciously attempting to sever the bond between the children and the other parent. The challenge for the client is to find such a skilled lawyer who is knowledgeable about PAS.

Dr. Reena Sommer & Associates supports clients' and lawyers' efforts in addressing the enormous challenges associated with PAS cases. We do so by:

  • providing counseling to parents who are wrongly denied access to their children
  • working with families to re-establish contact between children and parents
  • conducting PAS assessments to determine or discredit PAS and to ascertain whether allegations of abuse are bona fide or bogus
  • reviewing and critiquing assessments conducted by custody evaluators who have failed to identify PAS
  • consulting with lawyers on how to question suspected alienating parents and/or suspected alienated children and how to develop strategies for case development
  • providing expert testimony on PAS, parenting & domestic abuse

Fees for PAS Assessments and consultations are determined on a case by case basis.

We are pleased to offer consultations and custody assessment reviews to clients in any geographic location. These can be done by fax, telephone and email.

© 2009, Reena Sommer

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However often marriage is dissolved, it remains indissoluble. Real divorce, the divorce of heart and nerve and fiber, does not exist, since there is no divorce from memory. - Virgilia Peterson

Dr. Reena Sommer is an internationally recognized relationship and divorce consultant. She became widely known as a strong critic of domestic violence policies that failed to recognized the reciprocal nature of partner abuse.

Dr. Sommer has been an invited speaker to academic, government and lay audiences in Canada and the U.S.. In 1998, Dr. Sommer testified before the Joint Senate-House of Commons Committee on Custody and Access on the issue of domestic violence. More recently in April 2002, she was invited by the Canadian federal government to participate on a panel of experts on the issue of custody and access.

She has written extensively on relationship and family issues such as domestic violence, addictions, divorce and custody. Her interest in high conflict relationships led her toward developing expertise as a divorce consultant in the assessment and treatment of parental alienation syndrome under Dr. Richard Gardner. As well, Dr. Sommer recently completed her e-Book, The Anatomy of an Affair. A free condensed pdf version of the e-Book can be downloaded.

Dr. Sommer has produced three divorce related informational products which are currently available online in the form of downloadable audiofiles: Divorce 101: Things You are Unlikely to Hear from an Attorney; Developing an Effective Parenting Plan, and Preparing for a Custody Evaluation.

You are also welcome to sign up for a free mini-course, Arming Yourself for Your Custody Battle! See or for more information, please email us at E-Mail or 204. 487.7247 or fax: 204.487.3051  

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