What the Research Says About Adult Children of PAS

By Amy J. L. Baker, PhD, director of research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection of the New York Foundling

The problem of children allying with one parent against the other has been noted for decades, yet little research has been conducted on the problem of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) and especially what happens to the children who grow up alienated from one parent by the other parent. In the fall of 2004, such a study was conducted, the purpose of which was to ask three general questions:

  1. Do some alienated children grow up to figure out that they had been manipulated by one parent to forgo a relationship with the other parent?
  2. What are the catalysts for such a realization process?
  3. What are the perceived long-term effects of such an experience?

It was the aim of the study to give a voice to individuals who had been at the center of intense conflict between their parents. These are people for whom so many others have spoken but who have not yet had a chance to speak for themselves.

Forty adults participated in in-depth interviews about their experience growing up turned against one parent by the other parent. Based on the content analysis of the interviews, the following conclusions were developed:

  • The children were not necessarily allying with the “better” parent – Many of the adult children of PAS experienced physical and/or sexual abuse by the alienating parent. This finding is consistent with epidemiological research on the co-occurrence of different forms of abuse. That is, parents who abuse their children in one way tend to abuse them in other ways. This finding should put to rest the idea that, when children chose sides, they are always selecting the better parent, the one more likely to be responsive to their needs.
  • Alienating parents function like cult leaders – The parents who perpetrated parental alienation utilized techniques similar to those employed by cult leaders. Alienating parents were described by their adult children as using emotional manipulation strategies such as withdrawal of love, creation of loyalty binds, and cultivation of dependency. They were also described as using brainwashing techniques, such as repetition of negative statements about the targeted parents and black-and-white thinking.
  • Parental alienation strategies disrupt the attachment between child and targeted parent – The adult children of PAS described 32 different parental alienation strategies their parents used. These can be considered through the lens of attachment theory, as described by John Bowlby. Within this framework, the strategies are viewed as effective tools for interfering with the developing or existing an attachment relationship between the child and the targeted parent.
  • Alienating parents may have personality disorders – The descriptions of the alienating parents provided by the adult children led to the conclusion that many met the diagnostic criteria for having a personality disorder, a pervasive and distorted relational style. Narcissism was the personality disorder most likely to have been present in these families, although some of the parents might have had borderline or antisocial personalities.
  • Parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse – The strategies that the alienating parents used to effectuate the alienation were emotionally abusive in and of themselves. That is, the alienating parents verbally assaulted, isolated, corrupted, rejected, terrorized, ignored, and over-pressured the children in order to alienate them from the targeted parent. These behaviors are part and parcel of what constitutes emotional abuse of children. In addition, it is proposed that separation of a child from a parent for no reason also constitutes a form of emotional abuse.
  • Realization of parental alienation is a process, not an event – Realizing that one has been turned against a parent by the other parent was usually a slow and painful process. For most of the adult children of PAS, it did not occur in a single transformative event. The defense mechanisms constructed to support the alienation – denying that the alienating parent is selfish and manipulative, denying that the targeted parent has positive qualities, denying that the child wants a relationship with the targeted parent, denying that the child is afraid of losing the love of the alienating parent – take time to be broken through. Although all of the adult children interviewed for the study had come to realize that they had been alienated from one parent by the other, the length of time they had been alienated and the age at the time of the awareness varied.
  • The impact of parental alienation is lifelong and may be intergenerational – PAS has negative long-term effects including depression, low self esteem, inability to trust self and others, substance abuse, and becoming alienated from one’s own children. Three different patterns of the intergenerational transmission of PAS have been identified.

These findings from this study refute three common myths about PAS:

  1. That parental alienation is only perpetrated by mothers against fathers – Although this was the case for many of the adult children, it was not true of all of them. In 6 of the 40 interviews, fathers were the alienating parent. Because the sample was neither random nor representative, it is not possible to calculate the actual proportion of gender in the general population of alienating parents. But it can be concluded definitively that some fathers do practice parental alienation. This was also borne out in surveys of targeted parents that produced samples that were evenly divided between mothers and fathers.
  2. That PAS only occurs in divorced families – While PAS was first identified as a phenomenon in the context of post-divorce custody litigation and evaluations, it is now evident that PAS can take place in intact families.
  3. That PAS is only effectuated by custodial parents – Again, a prototypical PAS case was a custodial mother alienating the children from their father, following a bitter divorce. However, this is not the only PAS scenario. The custodial parent has a far greater degree of access to the child in order to effectuate the alienation, but this does not preclude the possibility of alienation being perpetrated during visitation with a non-custodial parent, especially if visitation is frequent and the parent is especially effective at thought control and emotional manipulation techniques.

12 thoughts on “What the Research Says About Adult Children of PAS”

  1. If alienating children is considered emotional abuse of those children then why do most states agree but ignore it? I asked DFS about this in my home town. They agreed and then told me there is nothing they can do about it. What’s with this? No laws? No one seems to care what it is doing to these kids? My duaghter has not talked to me in over sixteen years. She is a very angry person and has threatened a stalking charge against me if I try to contact her. I have never been in jail in my life, have no criminal record, and yet she has been pushed into thought like this? I know who is doing it but find no way to combat it. I have tried, there isn’t any.

  2. I have been fighting this battle for 6 years with now grown children, 24 and 21 years of age. Their father holds them hostage emotionally and financially being that he was the primary ‘bread winner’ of the family. He has not taken care of his responsibilities with respect to my alimony and back pay of child support. He has remarried and has financially supported two other college aged children. My children have been ‘taken’ from me physically and emotionally at various times in their late teen years. Even after her father and his new wife ‘threw’ my daughter out of their home in garbage bags and I literally had to build her a room in my small apartment, she still takes his side when his negative effects ‘wear off’. I would imagine he gives them an option of ‘it’s her or you’….and ultimately they choose themselves. My son, who missed his own grandfathers funeral, after being estranged from me for 2 1/2 years is now defending his father who is crying to him/them that I am pursuing him in family court for what he owes me. If I ever, in the past, brought up our divorce my children would tell me it isn’t their fight and to please not discuss it with them. Now, at the eleventh hour, even after me compromising and compromising ,(which I certainly never had to do) in family court(to try to keep some semblance of sanity) and allowing him to lessen the payments………he has convinced them that I am not only the aggressor but the enemy.

    Children don’t side with the abusive parent because they don’t want to be abused and they are afraid that they will lose that parent. The kinder, saner parent is less of a threat and is forced to bear this burden. I am at my wits end. This syndrome must be brought into the foreground in Family Law. The emotional wreckage is unmeasurable.

  3. What I would love to know about grown children with PAS is this:
    how do you convince a grown child that the non-custodial parent did not abandon them. How do you connect with a grown PAS child?

  4. I have two adult children. My son (36) is not as bad as my daughter. I have somewhat of a relationship with him. My daughter (34) I have no relationship with. We have not spoken or seen each other in 6 months. and then I have only seen her 3 times for a total of 2 hours last few years. There father is now deceased. We made amends to each other before he died of a drug overdose. I came across this website by chance. I immediately realized what it was I had been looking for all of these years but couldn’t prove it. I desperately need help in how to resolve this so that I can have the relationship that my children and I deserve to have. Any help or suggestions would greatly be appreciated.

  5. Dear Rebecca,

    There are a few API resources that may be of help. First, here are a few additional articles about PAS from TheAttachedFamily.com:
    http://theattachedfamily.com/?p=1464
    http://theattachedfamily.com/?p=318
    http://theattachedfamily.com/?p=221

    You can also obtain a login to the API Forums here: http://www.attachmentparenting.org/forums/. After obtaining a login and password, please visit the Divorce and Custody Forum. The Forums are moderated by API Leaders, so you can ask questions and get more information and assistance. This is a restricted forum; once you login to the main forum page, you will see special instructions on the Divorce and Custody Forum about how to gain access.

    I hope this information is helpful.

    Editor,
    TheAttachedFamily.com

  6. My wife divorced me after 27 years of marriage. My daughters were 18 and 22 at the
    time. We had just moved to a new location, which was chosen by all of them. After
    being there for 4 months my wife just seemed to give up on why she wanted to come
    out here, and seemed to just trash our relationship and just everything else. She be-
    came manipulative with my daughters and basically they developed a completely
    different attitude toward me. Suddenly they were involved in groups and go to therapy.
    It seemed that everything I did, and was doing , was open for analysis and revision.

    After being there for 23 years as a father, and often being called, ” a great dad”, now
    I’m not a great dad and I haven’t seen my daughters in nearly a year.

    It seems the course of her divorce it became necessary for her to eliminate me as a
    father as well. I’m devastated and heartbroken. After 23 years of being a dad, now
    I’m not even worth acknowledging on Father’s Day. After the divorce my daughters
    have been going to therapy, but it seems that therapy has driven them further from
    me. My younger daughter sent me a note telling me she doesn’t want any contact
    with me. I ask why, but I still don’t get an answer. My wife took out a restraining
    order out on me based on bogus claims. She took me to court twice and said I
    violated the order. She said I sent unauthorized and emotional emails. The emails
    had nothing to do with her, and they were not angry emails from me, they were
    emails from me asking why my daughters have turned from me..asking for some
    insight. She will tolerate me bringing them up. Heartbreaking.

  7. My ex husband is obsessed & I believe he would rather my daughter destroy herself (& she’s doing that in many ways) than to beloved & love someone else, especially me, who he’s determined to try to continue to hurt. I am so afraid things will never be okay for her, & if they’re not ok for her, they won’t be for me, ever, really. Praying for a miracle. Please develop literature for teens about Parental Alienation & psychological abuse.

  8. My attorney told me not to talk about the fact that my ex kept going into the bathroom with my 11-year-old daughter. Her father gave her a big screen tv for saying that I kicked cats down the stairs and threw her into a swimming pool when she didn’t know how to swim. (She graduated from Tiny Tot swimming lessons when she was 4 – I took her). My daughter is 26 now. I have not had any time with her since she was 12. I will not apologize for things I did not do, and I will not subject myself to the cursing and hatred. The problem is our legal system is broken. One parent wins; the other loses, and most of the time the loss is permanent.

  9. Take heart. My boyfriends ex did this to her two kids. One Boy, one girl. Living in different states he could only see them a few times a year. Mom threw everything but the kitchen sink at him trying to alienate the kids. It worked while they were young because mom made their lives a nightmare if they didn’t go along, but my boyfriend saved every phone bill, every email, every legal document to prove to these kids what had happened to them and now they call him for advice and support, they come for visits of their own accord. They hate what their mom did and they struggle to understand what happened. It was hell but my guy didn’t give up and it’s paying off. He is growing close with his adult children who are now in their 20’s and they constantly share information unprovoked about the craziness of what they are going through with their mom as adults. As ugly as she was to alienate her children she is now directing that ugly at her adult children.

    People who alienate a child from a parent are generally “off” center. Those thought processes and mental issues don’t disappear when the kids become adults. Eventually the children become the victims of the warped mind of a person capable of such disturbing behavior as alienation. Just keep trying. Hopefully you will live to see the benefits of your efforts.

  10. I am an adult child of parental alienation. My Dad missed seeing my brother and I grow up. My Mom married our step-father when I was 4 and my brother was 2. During the 8 years they were married we called our step-father dad and in school we were named after him. It wasn’t until I was 12 that I was told my step-father wasn’t my dad and that they were getting a divorce. My Mom didn’t even try to keep the connection with our step-father and refused to talk about our biological father.

    It wasn’t until I was 16 that my biological dad hired an investigator to find us. Unfortunately, he lived across the states from us so our visits were infrequent.

    My Mom always told horrible stories about my Dad. However once I got to know my dad, I realized they weren’t true. My Dad was always very kind and thoughtful.

    My Dad recently passed away and now I not only mourn him but I also mourn the memories that I never had the opportunity to have with him as a child. I only have one memory of my Dad as a toddler and that is an outright shame!

    Parental Alienation has a lifelong affect on children. I would know, I will be turning 46 next month.

  11. My adult child has now for the past 4 years been told by her absentee father that the reason he was not in her life is my fault. He list several lies, my daughter without verifying the facts as they really are, had estranged herself from me for 4 long years. There’s nothing I can do or say to change her mind, even if she stop to listen. :(

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