Limited Definition of Parental Alienation Syndrome Included in DSM-V

man repairing girl bike smallMay 26, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

For many years now, feminists and other anti-father minions have fought tooth and nail against the very concept of Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). That opposition has taken many forms, but the most seriously contested battlefield has been over the pages of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Specifically, those opposed to the acknowledgement of PAS staked their all on keeping it out of the fifth and most recent edition of the DSM.

They lost. Science won. As this article by Barbara Kay informs us, although PAS as such is still excluded from the DSM, what’s included are concepts that get about as close as possible to PAS without actually being called that (National Post, 5/23/13).

Thanks to the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), launched last week, PAS is now almost logged in as an official disorder. I say “almost” because those exact words are not in the DSM-5 (this was a deliberate and much-discussed decision). However, the new broader category of “child psychological abuse” is defined as “non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child.”

That of course is vastly broader than any definition of PAS that focuses on one parent’s targeting of the other parent via the alienation of the child. That clearly does result in harm to the child, but that’s not its purpose. But there’s more.

Under this rubric, one finds in a description of “parent-child relational problem” symptoms that all but link hands and sing out PAS. For example, the child’s perception of an alienated parent “may include negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility toward or scapegoating of the other, and unwarranted feelings of estrangement.”

As Kay accurately states, that’s not exactly PAS, but it’s close. Moreover, any mental health professional who would otherwise make a diagnosis of PAS can now make a diagnosis of “parent-child-relational problem” and have the imprimatur of the APA and its DSM-V. And no lawyer in court can say that the diagnosis isn’t covered by the bible of the APA.

In the long run-up to the fifth edition, much commentary was produced on all manner of mental health issues, PAS among them. The politics of getting the thing published looked fraught with anguish and peril. That much was obvious, and, reading between the lines, what resulted is a compromise between science and dogma.

Yes, there seem to be principled mental health professionals who opposed inclusion of PAS in the DSM-V. But in the mainstream press and among the lay commentariat, there was no principle involved. Among them, the very idea of PAS is an attack on mothers and their unquestioned right to primary custody in most if not all cases. Time and again, their arguments against PAS inclusion ran the gamut from absurd to hypocritical to dishonest. Put simply, this was the anti-father crowd at its anti-intellectual, anti-justice, anti-child worst.

Possibly the most scurrilous example was brought to us by the National Organization for Women that put out a white paper on PAS that managed in a few words to utterly misrepresent the history of PAS, the science of PAS, its harmful effects on children and the fact that PAS recognition would end up helping mothers. NOW gets a lot wrong; in fact, it’s kind of a time-honored tradition of theirs. But the PAS white paper descended to new depths.

What’s true about PAS is that it’s mostly mothers who alienate their kids. That’s because it’s mostly mothers who have custody and it usually requires the kind of time custodial parents have to accomplish the alienation of a child from a parent. The simple fact is that, if a child spends 80% of his/her time with Mom, Dad can’t alienate the child even if he wants to. He doesn’t have the opportunity and all his effort collapses because the child has plenty of time with its mother to learn that she’s really not as bad as Dad makes out.

Of course some fathers are in a position to alienate their children, and sadly some of them do. The literature on PAS is never gender-specific; it never claims that alienation is something mothers do but dads don’t.

But typically, NOW and other anti-father groups don’t care about the science. If they did, they wouldn’t oppose PAS inclusion. No, what they care about is anything that holds the potential for improving fathers’ rights in family courts. It doesn’t much matter what that might be, they oppose it. Period. They’ll get to making up their excuses later.

Predictably, the excuses they came up with regarding PAS were lame in the extreme. According to them, PAS is a plot by fathers’ rights groups to take children from “protective mothers.” They never get around to explaining how a mother who so abuses her children that they hate and fear their loving father is “protective” of them. And of course they never explain why, if PAS inclusion is an insidious scheme to steal away children from mothers, fathers engage in parental alienation. Obviously, that makes no sense, but NOW, et al, long ago stopped doing that.

Then of course there was NOW’s outright lie that there’s no science to support PAS. In all honesty, the massive amount of science on PAS developed actually since the 1950s, and rigorously since the 1980s, in all parts of the globe is a bit too significant to get tossed aside by NOW in a few words. But the simple fact is that if NOW and the others had anything of substance with which to oppose PAS inclusion, don’t you think they’d have mentioned it? When you have to make stuff up to support your point of view, your point of view isn’t worth supporting.

But the deep and broad awfulness of the anti-dad crowd’s opposition certainly doesn’t stop at mere dishonesty, it’s radically anti-child too. PAS is child abuse. It’s child abuse that can have detrimental effects long into adulthood. Read any description of an alienated child. Read just a few pages of, for example, Linda Gottlieb’s fine text, The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Family Therapy and Collaborative Systems Approach to Amelioration. Any of countless descriptions of what parents do to children and its effects on them will make you tear your hair out. More importantly, it’ll remove any doubt from your mind that parental alienation can be in any way benign. It’s clearly abusive.

And so, by opposing recognition of PAS, NOW struck a blow against children’s welfare. By trying to convince us that PAS doesn’t exist, NOW and the others were attempting to perpetuate its awful, destructive process. In so doing, they sought to damage children. It really doesn’t get any worse than that.

Well, it doesn’t get worse unless you’re an advocate for mothers. Then yes, it gets worse. By opposing PAS inclusion and by utterly misrepresenting it, NOW ironically supports alienating parents (mostly mothers) in their campaign to keep fathers out of the lives of their children. If they’d been successful, who would then have been left holding the childcare bag? That’s right, mothers.

If a mother succeeds at her campaign of alienation, she ends up with the child full-time. Every decision is hers, every night, every weekend she’s on duty. Is the child sick? She takes care of it. Does the child get in trouble in school, with the law? She deals with it. Every bit of the job of raising the child falls to her.

And what does that do to her earnings, her ability to find and keep a well-paying full-time job? Obviously, it puts a major dent in it and that means she and the child live on less and when she retires, she’s in dire financial straits.

And that, my friends, is what NOW argues for when it argues against inclusion of PAS in the DSM-V. It’s kind of ironic for an organization that claims it wants to empower women. Indeed it’s doubly ironic for one that has long argued for more women in the workplace.

So what can we conclude? It looks a lot like NOW’s anti-male bias is stronger than its pro-female one.

All of that is to say that it’s a good thing that NOW lost and science won in the long and rancorous debate about PAS.

I spoke with Vanderbilt University’s Emeritus professor of psychiatry Bill Bernet, who specializes in divorce and custody effects on children, and who was the leading advocate for PAS’s inclusion in the DSM. He told me: “Even though it does not go quite as far as we’d hoped, I’m very happy that this new terminology is in the DSM-5.”

Professor Bernet leads the Parental Alienation Study Group, whose members are dedicated to educating clinicians, social workers and other frontline professionals, so that they will recognize the disorder by its invariable features and develop strategies for combatting it. The trickledown effect of the DSM inclusion will hopefully play out in family court, with judges acquiring familiarity with the syndrome and moving swiftly to protect the child from the alienating parent.

Just so.

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The National Parents Organization is a non-profit organization that is educating the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents and extended families. If you would like to get involved in our organization, you can do so several ways. First, we would love to have you as an official member of the National Parents Organization team. Second, the National Parents Organization is an organization that believes in the importance of using social media as a means to spread the word about shared parenting and other topics, and you can visit us on our Facebook Page to learn more about our efforts. Last, we hope you will share this article with other families using the many social networking sites so that we can bring about greater awareness of shared parenting. Thank you for your support.

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