The late author and child psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome more than 20 years ago to characterize the breakdown of previously normal, healthy parent-child relationships during divorce and child custody cases. The definition of parental alienation is heartbreakingly simple—one parent deliberately damages, and in some cases destroys, the previously healthy loving relationship between the child and the child’s other parent.
Many mental health professionals argue over whether the patterns of behaviors that make up parental alienation constitute a clinical “syndrome.” Parental Alienation Syndrome is not in the DSM, the psychology profession’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The manual is the clinician’s guide to symptoms and syndromes and the definitive diagnosis on any legitimate mental health condition.
Whether or not mental health professionals ever classify parental alienation as a clinical “syndrome,” the patterns of behavior that make up this destructive family dynamic are often consistent within families where parental alienation exists.
Unresolved psychological and emotional issues are at the foundation of the alienating parent’s behavior. These issues may lie dormant for years, but when the divorce, the ultimate adult abandonment, becomes real, the alienating parent becomes symptomatic.
Many professionals identify three levels of parental alienation—low, moderate and severe—to describe increasingly more destructive parental alienation behavior. These “levels” are nothing more than identifying marks or labels along a continuum of behaviors. These marks make it easy for people to clarify and compare the behaviors. Both psychologists and lay people need labels to quickly and easily communicate complicated concepts.