The diagnosis of Parental Alienation Disorder is being considered for inclusion in the upcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Advocacy groups and clinicians are pushing for it to go through – saying that it’s a real condition that affects a huge number of children.
The clinical picture: a divorced family in which the child is brainwashed by one parent to believe that the other parent is the bad guy (without good reason). In mild form it means withholding or interfering with visits to the other parent, not being able to tolerate being in the same room, or making subtle negative comments that influence the kid’s feelings about his mom or dad. The severe form?
One of the speakers at an upcoming conference of the Canadian Symposium for Parental Alienation Syndrome, Pamela Richardson, describes her own experience losing her four-year-old son after going through a divorce. Richardson says, in her book A Kidnapped Mind, that her husband emotionally abused their son – teaching him slowly but surely to hate his mother and eventually cut off communication.
Severe or “obsessed” alienators, according to the Parental Alienation Syndrome website, have relentless hatred for the other parent and go on a crusade to make the kid feel the same. The end result – one parent-child duo becomes enmeshed, while the alienated mom or dad is edged out completely. Clinicians who work with these families describe kids who kick, hit, spit on and swear at the parent who has fallen out of favor – even threatening to hurt themselves or someone else if they are forced to visit.
Advocates say it’s beyond the normal anger and emotional turbulence of a separation – one parent, usually for narcissistic reasons, is manipulating and controlling the child.
It seems like a tricky clinical assessment to make (nothing about family dynamics is simple). But having this diagnosis on the books might give therapists a framework for spotting and helping families that are being driven apart.
The C.S.P.A.S. conference will take place Oct 2 and 3 at Mount Sinai School of Medicine – it’s for mental health and family law professionals, but open to the public.