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When Parents Brainwash: Parental Alienation Syndrome

C.R. posts: First, let me say I believe parents have the right to educate and transmit their culture, religion, ethnicity, and beliefs to their children. I believe parents have the righs to discipline their children (without harm or abuse, as they are most often defined). In fact, I think it is fair to say I believe in “parents’ rights.”

Second, I have concerns about the proposals under review for inclusion in the DSM-5. Is it possible that variations of “normal” and criminal behaviors are now going to be pathologized? Is it possible that we’re going to fall victim to “over-diagnosis” as discussed this summer here at Psychcentral?

Overall, it might seem that way. To my thinking, normality isn’t always so easy to define but it sure is easy to paint unusual or unique personalities as abnormal. I believe we have to be careful about “treating” personalities. Otherwise, one day in the future, we could end up with everyone being required to exhibit “plain vanilla” personalities or be encouraged or even forced to get treatment. Kind of like the Stepford wives.

That being said, because I have personally witnessed debilitating instances of what is called parental alienation syndrome (a proposed disorder now under review by the American Psychiatric Association for the DSM-5), I admit to feeling quite conflicted. Sure, this diagnosis could be misused and abused and even over-diagnosed. It could even become a tool of hotly contested divorces—and brandished as a weapon that might not be based in reality. But, for children who have been brainwashed by their parents to hate another parent, the pain is very real and the syndrome does exist.

Even a well-meaning and relatively mature parent, if going through a rancorous divorce, might occasionally let fly a comment about the other parent (not that it is ever a good thing to do in front of a child). That’s not what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is a parent who teaches a child to hate the other parent. And it doesn’t always happen to divorced couples—it can happen while parents are still married to each other.

This not only has the effect of making a child hate or doubt one parent, it also can set the child up to be the “caretaker” of the “injured” parent, as in the video linked to below of a victim of parental alienation disorder who clearly describes the pain she endured.

It is the height of inappropriate non-physical behavior—kind of an emotional incest because it creates an intense, inappropriate relationship between one parent and the child. And it is extremely difficult for the child, even if he or she is now an adult, to disconnect from these feelings and false beliefs. Any minor less-than-perfect behavior on the part of the castigated parent will continue to be judged reflexively as “proof” of the manipulative parent’s charges.

Not only is the child hurting, but the parent on the receiving end also suffers. When the manipulative parent “sets up” the other parent, the put upon parent suffers greatly, as well. Perhaps, even more. They suffer not only for themselves, but hurt for their child’s pain and confusion. They too, have feelings of helplessness and confusion.

To compound the issue, these kinds of sick attacks can bleed into other relationships. These manipulators have even been known to set up the same kind of situation with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—even siblings. The facades that are created by these perpetrators not only lie to their children but they can also lie to teachers, lawyers, even the police. Even if at some point the child questions the accuracy of the attacks, in some situations they are unlikely to be believed.

The debate over including this syndrome is described as a “hot-potato” in this article by David Crary at the Associated Press. Do victims of parental alienation exist? Sure. But is it a separate syndrome or is it just another example of brainwashing?

This video is a very raw and painful first-person account of a young woman who was a victim of parental alienation: Parental Alienation Survivor Talks

When Parents Brainwash: Parental Alienation Syndrome

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2010). When Parents Brainwash: Parental Alienation Syndrome. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Oct 2010
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