Book Review - Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome Breaking the Ties that Bind

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2008, 57-63

Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties that Bind

Amy J. L. Baker

New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007. ISBN-10: 0393705196; ISBN-13: 978-0393705195 (hardcover), $32.00. 304 pages.

Reviewed by Lorna Goldberg

Those of us who are immersed in the cult field often find that our work has been marginalized by mental health professionals who see us as treating a population that has little to do with the problems they are addressing in their clinical practices. Over the years, I believe we have been able to bridge this gap with those who work with other trauma survivors. Now Dr. Baker has brought some of our cult-related insights into another field—family environments in which children need to maintain total loyalty to one parent at the cost of a relationship with the other parent. This is a family problem that occurs on a continuum of influence, from such behaviors as mild bad-mouthing of the other parent to using an array of strategies that might result in a case of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), which happens in the most extreme cases.

We acknowledge the power of suggestion and influence on both children and adults. In the past, those of us who work with cult survivors immediately “got” the concept that poorly trained therapists could successfully suggest to their patients that they might “recover” memories of child abuse of which they previously had been unaware. Likewise, in contrast to some therapists who become seduced or manipulated by parents who present them with children who might totally reject and hate one parent without giving them specifics (particularly specifics of abuse or neglect), therapists who have worked in the cult area can be skeptical, request further information, and wonder whether PAS is at work. We also wonder about the possibility of some form of parental alienation when an adult enters therapy with a black-and-white version of his parents.

In 2005, Dr. Baker published a fascinating paper in the Cultic Studies Review entitled “The Cult of Parenthood: A Qualitative Study of Parental Alienation.” In this paper, Baker discusses her study of 40 adults who had been alienated from one of their parents when they were children. Transcripts of Baker’s interviews with these individuals were analyzed to identify similarities between alienating parents and cult leaders. The analysis determined that adults whose parents had alienated them from their other parent in childhood described their alienating parent in much the same way that former cult members described their cult leaders. The adults saw these parents primarily as being narcissistic and requiring excessive devotion at the expense of the other parent, who often was targeted for rejection. Other commonalities between the targeted parents and cult leaders included the use of a variety of manipulative techniques to induce heightened dependency in the children and to increase parental control, power, and adulation.

The adult children in this study described dealing with aftereffects of this alienation from the targeted parent that were similar to those that former cult members experienced. These aftereffects included the following:

Low self-esteem stemming from feeling unloved by a formerly loved parent and that parent’s relatives. The low self-esteem also was derived from the child’s own self-hatred; that is, by needing to hate a parent, the child was induced to hate a part of himself or herself.

Guilt toward the targeted parent for the callous treatment that he or she had shown in childhood.

Depression about having lost this important relationship during childhood and about the loss of childhood itself.

A lack of trust in oneself and others. Everything the adult child had believed about his or her parents was distorted and people were not who they appeared to be.

Dr. Baker’s paper is now a chapter in the book Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome. This book has a great deal to tell us of the psychological harm that can stem from growing up in this kind of emotionally abusive environment. What is it like to grow up with a parent who has a personality disorder, particularly a narcissistic, borderline, and/or antisocial personality disorder, who is triggered to feel humiliated or abandoned by his or her spouse (whether or not as a result of a divorce situation)? This often results in the narcissistic parent’s obsessive need to devalue and humiliate that spouse. Such parents employ and manipulate their children to serve this need by inducing them to abandon the targeted parent. These children quickly learn that their rejection of the targeted parent is the price they must pay for feeling acceptance and love from (or not to be punished by) this alienating parent. The child has the ever present fear that if one parent can be banished, the child can be abandoned, too.

Although Dr. Richard Gardner first coined the term “parental alienation syndrome” in the 1980s to describe the consequences of the manipulations of a narcissistic mother who turns her children against the other parent in a post-divorce situation, Baker expands our previous assumptions by showing us how, at times, PAS describes behavior that occurs in an intact family or behavior that a father might show toward the mother of a child. In fact, Baker discovered through her own research and other research in this area that just as many affected children grew up in families in which the father was the alienator.

The syndrome, as Gardner defined it, reveals the following factors:

Alienating parents obsessively have their children become preoccupied with unjustified deprecation and criticism of the targeted parent; this deprecation and criticism occurs in the absence of a rational and legitimate cause. (This is not a situation in which the targeted parent has shown abuse or neglect.)

Alienating parents are obsessed with intentionally destroying the relationship between the child and the targeted parent. To this end, the alienating parent will lie to the child about the targeted parent’s true feelings or induce the child to believe that the targeted parent is harmful. There will be an attempt to erase the targeted parent from the child’s life.

Children who are victims of PAS present with the following symptoms:

Preoccupation with unjustified deprecation, criticism, and “hate” of the targeted parent.

Weak, frivolous, or absurd reasons for the depreciation of the targeted parent.

A lack of ambivalence for parents—one parent is totally loved and one parent is totally hated.

Absence of guilt for behavior shown toward the targeted parent.

Insistence that the decision to reject the target parent is their own.

A reflexive unconditional support for the alienating parent.

Use of arguments that seem to be adopted wholesale from the alienating parent (e.g., the use of adult concepts and interpretations).

Alienation that broadens to the entire family of the targeted parent.

In addition to presenting the work of those from the cult field, such as Lifton, Lalich, and Hassan, Baker presents the theories of several psychoanalytically oriented therapists. In particular, she offers insights from clinicians such as Herman, van der Kolk, and Benjamin, who are experts in the nature of abusive relationships and trauma situations. Baker describes the defenses the alienated children use, citing reaction formation, denial, and identification with the aggressor. She uses attachment theory as the fundamental developmental theory for her understanding of the tie that binds the child to of the alienating parent. She emphasizes how insecure attachment to this type of parent, who is intermittently rejecting and loving only if he or she is “served,” creates strong insecurity and dependency needs in a child who must show complete loyalty and obedience to ensure that love. However, some alienating parents rule through the use of intimidation and fear rather than through seductive “love.” In either case, this way of relating to the child clearly is emotional abuse, in which the child recognizes that he or she will be rejected, isolated, ignored, terrorized, or threatened with abandonment if he or she does not submit to parental wishes. To avoid pain, the child anxiously maintains a close relationship with the alienating parent. I also would add that the cement that could hold the child’s loyalty might be the sense of his or her importance to the alienating parent as a replacement figure for the targeted parent. This bond, in part, serves to gratify libidinal and narcissistic feelings, but it exists at a tremendous cost to the child.

How have these alienated children come to see things more realistically? As with those who are enslaved in cultic groups, there are multiple possibilities to the answer.

As they entered their adolescence and adult lives, these children’s cognitive abilities became stronger [omit,] and their emotional and physical need to continue to depend on and safeguard that relationship by idealizing the alienating parental figure diminished. Instead, they were beginning to forge close ties with new relationships in the wider world, such as friends and new love relationships.

Some children began to become more aware of their alienating parent’s lies and manipulations as they watched that parent’s interactions with others. They often began to compare their own family to the families of others. When others spoke with friends, their friends often would question their descriptions of their parents.

Some individuals sought therapeutic help for other problems and began to review their childhood with the therapist, who might have questioned their distorted, black-and-white impression of reality.

Entrance into new families allowed some of the alienated children to review their original families with more distance.

However, Baker points out that those who did not feel basic security with their caretakers were less likely to protect themselves from the exploitation of others as adults. Therefore, these children often had a tendency to repeat the experiences of childhood. Some married a new version of the alienating parent and found themselves becoming the targeted parent within their new family. This highlights an unconscious characteristic tendency to masochistically serve the new relationship as the narcissistic parent was served.

All the factors that allow these individuals to escape from a manipulative environment are familiar to those of us who work with second-generation cult members. We are keenly aware of the exploitive behavior of parental figures. Unfortunately, however, too many therapists who are intent upon “believing the children” are blind to the possibility of PAS, to the eventual harm for the children and targeted parents involved. Therapists often become either manipulated or intimidated by the alienating parent’s story of how the targeted parent is the one who is harmful to the child. And this story is parroted by the child, who adopts the parent’s language. This often occurs because the child does not have language of his or her own—no real experiences to confirm this belief.

In this book, Baker offers excellent and thoughtful suggestions for therapists who work with children who might be alienated from one of their parents, for adult children of PAS, and for targeted parents. Baker demonstrates how therapists working with children can focus on specifics rather than simply accept the global or wholesale language of the child.

For those working with adults who have experienced PAS in childhood, the therapist’s role is similar to that of those who work with former cult members. Baker suggests that therapists begin to identify the multiple manipulations the alienating parent has used to help the adult client understand that he or she was prey to a deliberate process of alienation. She also proposes the use of cult literature to further allow the client to gain an appreciation of the mind-control techniques the alienating parent utilized. Additionally, the therapist might offer to meet with the adult child and the targeted parent to clarify what happened to both of them.

Baker also offers extremely useful advice for those who have been targeted. She mainly encourages the targeted parent not to believe the child’s rejecting behavior and to remain as involved as possible with the child.

This book is comprehensive, helpful, and clearly written. It contains a great deal of theory-building content, illuminating PAS in a more complex way than we have seen in the past. Baker uses poignant clinical vignettes to give us a rich and varied understanding of the struggles of adult children of PAS. With heartbreaking detail, the book stimulates a thorough examination of the harm to both the children and the targeted parent. Baker reminds us that we will find cult leaders not only in cults. This book gives those of us working in the cult area a new avenue for viewing the damage that alienating parental figures might cause.