What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

parental alienation syndrome

The controversial theory of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) was conceptualized in the 1980s by clinical psychologist Richard A. Gardener, who defined it as follows:

“The parental alienation syndrome 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 or brainwashing parent’s indoctrination and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.”

The American Psychological Association rejects parental alienation syndrome as a legitimate diagnosis. It is not included in two important books that mental health professionals use to diagnose psychological issues. These books are the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) and the International Classification of Diseases, Eleventh Edition (ICD-11). Studies have shown that the theory behind this diagnosis is not true and it is not supported by science.

Why is Parental Alienation A Rejected Theory?

The American Bar Association published an article clearly stating, “there remains no test, no data, or any experiment to support claims made concerning PAS. Because of this lack of scientific credibility, many organizations—scientific, medical, and legal—continue to reject its use and acceptance.”

It included reports from the Presidential Task Force of the American Psychological Association on Violence in the Family, The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), The American Prosecutors’ Research Institute and the National District Attorney’s Association.

For several decades, parental alienation has repeated failed to stand the test of scientific scrutiny.

Child Withdrawal Is A Relationship Issue Not A Pathology

One of the reasons the theory of parental alienation syndrome is considered problematic is because it pathologizes children who have relational issues with a parent. Relationship breakdowns are not necessarily indicative of psychological disorders. In order words, withdrawing from a relationship with a parent may occur without any impairment of a child’s healthy psychological functioning. Moreover, mental health treatment is not always a prerequisite for resolving the issue of a child’s withdrawal from a parent.

As painful as the situation is, it can be helpful to develop an understand of the child’s perspective. Parent-child attachment specialist Dr. Michael Kinsey, explains, “If a child is forced to choose, they might choose the person that they feel they are most like or they’ll also choose the person who they feel is safer or who they feel is the more desirable one to follow. In the case of the kind of scenario you’re discussing, it’s really a matter of survival.” Being in the ‘in-group’ of the narcissist is so essential to survival.”

It can also help to read evidence-based research into the some of the reasons why some children withdraw from parents in high-conflict relationships.


Many people searching for answers to an excruciatingly painful question relate to the theory of parental alienation syndrome. It can resonate deeply with parents who are grieving the absence of a beloved child. However, attributing the child’s withdrawal to a discredited mental health construct will not solve the problem. Children do not have to be afflicted with cognitive, affective, or behavioral problems in order to distance themselves from a parent. There are many reasons why a perfectly healthy child might take such a painful decision that merit further exploration.


  • Gardner, Richard A. “Recent trends in divorce and custody litigation.” In Academy forum, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 3-7. 1985.
  • Thomas, R.M., Richardson, J.T. (2015, July 1) “Parental Alienation Syndrome: 30 Years On and Still Junk Science,” American Bar Association.
  • Vilalta, R., Winberg Nodal, M. “On The Myth of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) and the DSM-5,” Psychologist Papers, 2017. Vol. 38(3), pp. 224-231.

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