Dave was around 9 or 10 when his parents got divorced. He was not too surprised as there was a lot of tension and conflict in the home, nevertheless, the family was breaking up and this was hard on him. He stayed living in the home he was used to with his mom, which was really nice. He could stay at his school and in the neighborhood where most of his friends also lived. He loved his home, his pets and friends and aside from occasional visits with his dad, he was in his comfort zone.
He didn’t realize until he was in his late 20’s that he had been horribly abused by his mom. How could someone not know they were being abused? Well, the type of abuse he endured for more than half his life was the subtle and inconspicuous abuse called Parent Alienation or Parent Alienation Syndrome (PAS).
What is Parent Alienation Syndrome?
It’s a type of mental and emotional abuse that doesn’t necessarily have marks or scars on the outside. Proceeding, anything written in red will be signs and symptoms of PAS.
How does it start?
It started very slowly. Mom would say a few negative things about dad here and there. For example, “your dad is too strict”, “your dad doesn’t understand you”, “your dad is mean”. Over time, it got a bit worse with mom saying things to Dave like she was lonely, she was worried about finances and would use Dave to get information about his dad’s private life. Often Dave would overhear his mom talking on the phone complaining and saying bad things about his dad. In addition, mom would take Dave to the doctor or counselor appointments without telling his dad until days or weeks later. She was functioning independently of the custody agreement. His dad lived a few towns away and slowly but surely, Dave wanted to spend less and less time there. He would miss his friends and worry about his mom being alone.
His dad became the “bad” guy
More things started to happen over the years. Dave’s dad tended to discipline him for poor grades and mom tended to be more “understanding” of his struggle in school. Any attempts to discipline Dave for his poor grades or poor behavior would get undermined by Dave’s mom. Dave’s mom would tell Dave that his dad was unreasonable and unfair in his discipline, therefore, Dave’s dad was the “bad” guy. Dave’s mom became his best friend. He could tell her anything and felt he couldn’t really open up to his dad, also making time with his dad more and more uncomfortable.
The abuse really intensified when Dave was 15. His dad had gone through some business struggles. He wasn’t privy to the details but it seemed pretty intense. Dave’s dad had to scale back on their spending and was extremely busy trying to rebuild his career. It was in this time that Dave’s mom started to share more of the legalities that his dad was involved in. Mind you, she didn’t know the details but felt entitled to share her assumptions as facts. She even started to tell Dave lies about the divorce, her financial stressors that were his “dad’s fault”, she would show Dave emails and text messages that Dave’s dad sent to her, and a whole host of other fabrications that caused Dave more and more distress. Dave’s struggles in school, depression, low self-esteem and overeating became more and more destructive. Finally, since it seemed as if Dad was the reason Dave was struggling so much, he decided he didn’t want to see his dad at all.
He became his mom’s mouthpiece
Out of what seemed like nowhere, mom then got in touch with her lawyer and started the ball rolling in changing the custody agreement. As Dave’s dad started to feel pushed away he would ask Dave what was going on and why Dave was so angry with him. Dave shared bits and pieces of what mom was saying and dad started to get the feeling that mom was on a mission to keep Dave to herself. The things that Dave would express to his dad sounded just like the words Dave’s mom would say and did say to his dad in the past. Dave had become his mom’s mouthpiece. She was purposely trying to turn Dave away from his dad and he wasn’t sure how to stop it or help Dave see what was going on. Dave’s dad knew that his mom had bitterness from the divorce (even though she was the one who asked for the divorce). Dave’s dad knew that they had never agreed on parenting styles and that there were many incompatibilities between them, but he never thought she would purposely try and turn Dave against him.
Dave’s story is not that rare
It’s sad but true that many divorced parents either intentionally or unintentionally turn their children against their ex. Unless there is documented abuse where a child should not be spending time with both parents, then it is against the law for a parent who has custody to create disruptions in a child’s relationship with the other parent. What Dave’s mom was doing, which is a definite form of mental and emotional abuse, was targeting Dave’s dad and alienating Dave from him. Dave’s mom was subtly over time teaching Dave that his dad was the “evil” parent and she was the “perfect” parent.
This has been called Parent Alienation Syndrome, however, I’d like to simplify it and call it what it is, Brainwashing. So now what, what in the world could Dave’s dad have done or do now that Dave is older?
To know what to do, we must first understand brainwashing. In Dave’s situation, his mom used isolation and intense influence of his perception of his dad with the lies and negative statements. Unfortunately, and very sadly, there was not a lot Dave’s dad could do. He did make ongoing attempts to stay connected to Dave by taking him out to dinners or sporting events. He tried to limit the isolation as much as possible by staying connected through text messages and special dates with his son. In that time, Dave’s dad simply loved him and was patient (as per his therapist’s encouragement). Dave’s dad sought support and guidance so that he didn’t inadvertently make things worse with Dave.
The struggle with low self-esteem and depression
As Dave grew older and entered adulthood, he continued to struggle with very low self-esteem and eating disorder behaviors. His depression persisted as well and he realized that his issues were interfering with his life. One day, he had his “moment of clarity”. We professionals like to call it the “aha” moment. He wasn’t exactly sure where, when or how it happened, but one day he woke up and really missed his dad. He began spending more time with his dad, called him weekly and began a reconnection process. It wasn’t until Dave had his moment of clarity that Dave’s dad could really do anything to combat the alienation/brainwashing.
Dave was finally back in touch with his innate need to love both parents and be loved by both parents. With this awareness, Dave sought his own therapy and began the process of healing the abuse he endured by his mom. He was eventually able to talk with her about what he had learned and experienced. It will take a long time for his relationship with his mom to repair but he is at least connected to both parents, desiring to know and be known by both.
The tragedy in this story is that kids have an innate need and desire to love both parents and be loved by both parents. A divorce doesn’t change that. For anyone reading this article, please put your kids first.
Encourage kids to be connected with the other parent
If you and your spouse have separated or divorced please encourage your kids to be connected with the other parent as much as possible and within the legalities of the custody agreement. Please be consistent and flexible as relationships need time to grow and develop. Please never speak negatively about the other parent in front of the child or in earshot of the child. Please seek counseling for any unresolved issues you may have with your ex so that your personal issues do not spill over onto the children. Most importantly, if there is no evidence of abuse then please be supportive of your children’s relationship with the other parent. Children never ask for a divorce. They never ask for their family to be broken apart. Children of divorce who have parents that maintain respect and common courtesy adjust much better throughout life and have healthier long-term relationships. Put children and their needs first. Isn’t that what it means to be a parent?