Parental Alienation Syndrome – A Relationship Problem, Not a Mental Disorder

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First proposed by psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner in 1985, “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” describes a “cluster of symptoms” present in children who, during the process of a child-custody dispute, reject one parent as a direct result of strong, negative claims introduced by the other parent. The term conveys how a child’s relationship with one estranged parent can be poisoned by the other parent, and there’s broad agreement that it sometimes occurs in the context of divorces and child custody disputes.

However, a bitter debate has raged for years over whether the “syndrome” should be officially classified as a mental health disorder. With the American Psychiatric Association in the process of updating its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for the first time since 1994, there has been a concentrated lobbying campaign to include the concept in the updated edition of the DSM.

The new manual, known as DSM-5, won’t be completed until next year, but the decision against including Parental Alienation Syndrome in the updated edition of the catalog of mental disorders was made last week. “The bottom line – it is not a disorder within one individual,” said Dr. Darrel Regier, vice chair of the task force drafting the manual. “It’s a relationship problem – parent-child or parent-parent. Relationship problems per se are not mental disorders.”

The American Psychiatric Association has felt intense pressure from groups who believe Parental Alienation is a serious mental condition that should be formally recognized in the DSM-5. Proponents of listing the syndrome in the DSM-5 argue that its official classification will lead to fairer outcomes in family courts, enable more children of divorce to get treatment they need, and parent-child reconciliation.

Parental alienation surfaced in main stream media several years ago as a consequence of the bitter divorce and child custody battle involving actors Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Baldwin was assailed by some feminist groups for citing parental alienation syndrome as a source of his estrangement from his daughter.