Parental alienation syndrome: invention or reality?

Since Richard Gardner first described the term parental alienation in 1985, much controversy and criticism has arisen from this concept. Critics of the concept have relied on different kinds of arguments to invalidate its existence over the past decades, which authors such as Suárez and Nodal (2017) have analyzed in a recent review to shed light on this complex phenomenon.

Therefore … Is the concept of parental alienation syndrome valid? Let’s see.

    Parental alienation syndrome

    Gardner’s original definition of SAP referred to “the tampering that usually occurs in the context of a divorce, in which the child despises and criticizes one of their parents, when that negative assessment is unwarranted or exaggerated ( in Vilalta Suárez, 2011) ”.

    SAP involves that a parent perniciously influences the child to reject the other parent in cases where there is no evidence of abuse by the estranged parent of the child. Specifically, the following are included as defining signs of SAP (Vilalta Suárez, 2011):

    • existence of a smear campaign.
    • Frivolous or absurd rationalizations of the rejection of the parent.
    • Lack of affective ambivalence towards parental figures.
    • Emergence of the “phenomenon of the independent thinker”, it is argued that the decision to reject is exclusive to the child.
    • Automatic support of the “dear” parent in any range.
    • Absence of guilt in the child for the expression of rejection.
    • Appearance in the story of the son of borrowed scenarios, which the child has not lived or does not remember.
    • The extent of the rejection in the family or around the rejected parent.

    According to the aforementioned authors, the Practical Guide to Comprehensive Measures of Protection against Gender Violence, prepared by a group of experts on the subject and by the General Judicial Council in 2016, alleges the impossibility of validating the existence of the NOT.

    This categorization is based on the fact that such a psychological entity it is not collected in the reference mental disorder classification systems current ones, like the DSM-V. This is all the more relevant as the document becomes a fundamental guide in the field of forensic psychology and can in turn condition the conception that professionals in the field of clinical psychology have of the SAP concept.

      Critical analysis on SAP validation

      The work carried out by Suárez and Nodal (2017) present various arguments that question the justifications put forward by the detractors of the SAP and the authors of the aforementioned Guide when it comes to invalidating its existence.

      First of all, it seems that the nomenclature of the SAP which defines it as a syndrome has given rise to many debates, In the sense of knowing whether its conceptualization as a pathological phenomenon, mental disorder or disease should be legitimized.

      1. Pathology of a relational phenomenon

      According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), a syndrome is defined by a set of signs and / or symptoms which, due to its frequency of occurrence, may suggest pathogenesis (DSM-IV-TR, 2014). While it is true that the element “syndrome” may be insufficiently scientifically justified in SAP, it is not for this reason that the existence of the situational phenomenon cannot be denied described in parental alienation. This can be considered regardless of whether there is sufficient consensus to grant it the nosology of the syndrome.

      Related to the above, SAP was not included as such in any of the versions of the DSM, although the debate over whether or not to include it among the expert group responsible for the formal development of the DSM. current manual.

      2. The circular argument

      In this sense, the authors of the article allege that the fact that the PAS was ultimately not included in the classification system, this does not necessarily imply that its existence should be denied. See examples used such as “battered woman syndrome” or homosexuality, which was defined as a mental disorder until 1973. Both justify the fact that although no specific diagnostic label is available on psychological problem at any given time, this can be just as relevant and priority attention in clinical professional practice.

      So if ultimately SAP or PA (parental alienation) is considered in a future DSM review, would that imply that it is only from then that it could be defined as a mental pathology and not before?

      3. Alleged lack of interest on the part of psychology

      Another of the arguments that Suárez and Nodal (2017) question refers to the belief that SAP has not been (and is not) the object of interest of the psychological scientific community. The text lists numerous works which show the exact opposite, although it is true that they also include meta-analysis studies which describe the difficulty of empirically validating SAP. Therefore, it cannot be said that there is no interest of the scientific community in the clinical and forensic field in investigating and more objectively delineating SAP (or AP).

      In addition to the above, it appears that in the area of ​​jurisdiction, there can also be no decision of the Supreme Court or the Court of Human Rights of Strasbourg which intrinsically calls into question the existence of the PAS.

      SAP and DSM-V

      As stated above, SAP is not recognized as a nosological entity in DSM-V. However, in the section corresponding to “Problems that can be the object of clinical care” seems to consider an entity called “Problems of relationship between parents and children”.

      Taking into account your diagnostic criteria, this may adapt to what is defined in the SAP: psychological problem, related to family education and that it causes functional impairment at the behavioral, emotional and cognitive levels. Therefore, although it is conceived as a relationship problem and not as a mental disorder, it seems that SAP or AP can be described in such a way as to allow its detection by specific indicators defining in real cases, the evaluation an intervention at the psychological and / or medico-legal level and, finally, to allow in the future the continuation of the investigations which more precisely determine the implications of the PAS.

      Bibliographical references:

      • American Psychiatric Association., Kupfer, DJ, Regier, DA, Arango López, C., Ayuso-Mateos, JL, Vieta Pascual, E., and Bagney Lifante, A. (2014). DSM-5: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Madrid [etc.]: Editorial Mèdica Panamericana.
      • Escudero, Antonio, Aguilar, Lola and Cruz, Julia de la. (2008). The logic of Gardner’s parental alienation syndrome (SAP): “Threat Therapy”. Journal of the Spanish Association of Neuropsychiatry, 28 (2), 285-307. Retrieved January 26, 2018, from
      • Suárez, RJV and Nodal, MW (2017). On the Myth of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) and DSM-5. Psychologist’s Papers, 38 (3), 224-231.
      • Vilalta Suárez, RJ (2011). Description of parental alienation syndrome in a forensic sample. Psicotheme, 23 (4).

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