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The Globe and Mail


The family Pandora's Box

Some victims of parental alienation syndrome don't realize until adulthood that one parent turned them against the other

The Globe and Mail, by Tralee Pearce, March 24, 2009

After Joe Rabiega's parents divorced, when he was an adolescent, his father repeatedly told him his mother had abandoned him. The boy had to return any gifts that came from his mother's side of the family and, twice daily, he had to pledge his allegiance to his father.

"I was never allowed to have anything to do with her," he says from his home in Raleigh, N.C. "The consequences were dire if I did. He said I would have nobody."

Even though Mr. Rabiega, now 33, had witnessed ugly behaviour by his father toward his mother and knew his dad to be an erratic alcoholic, it wasn't until he sought counselling for personal problems in his early 20s that his past snapped into focus: He had been the victim of parental alienation syndrome - his father had systematically turned him against his mother.

The phenomenon, coined by psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner in 1985, has gained traction recently due to a number of recent high-profile divorce cases in Canada - not to mention the very public case of movie star Alec Baldwin, who accused his former wife, Kim Basinger, of parental alienation.

Although the condition remains controversial, the debate has centred on how to treat children who have been turned against one parent by the other. One model, originally recommended by Dr. Gardner, involves rapid "deprogramming" and the removal of the child from the alienating parent. Another, less aggressive technique, which encourages children to think critically and strives to keep both parents involved, is the focus of a group of Toronto-based mental health experts and lawyers who hope to open a "family reunification clinic" within the year.

But in many cases, experts say, PAS is not identified when the victim is a child. Some never unravel their pasts. Others, like Mr. Rabiega, pry open their family's Pandora's box as adults. It can be confusing and painful; long-held narratives of childhoods crumble, and many adults recoil at their own complicity.

"These people say, 'I was such a fool. I was such a horrible person. How could I have betrayed one of my parents?' " says Amy Baker, a psychology researcher and the author of Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties that Bind.

A common scenario involves an adult realizing that one parent told them the other parent wanted nothing to do with them, all the while denying the former spouse access through the courts, says retired Toronto psychologist Marty McKay who has treated adults dealing with past parental alienation. "That can create a lot of bitterness when it comes to light."

Dr. Baker, who is leading a seminar on this topic at the Canadian Symposium for Parental Alienation Syndrome in Toronto on Friday, uses the analogy of a cult to describe how PAS takes hold.

"No adult wakes up in the morning and says, "You know what? Today's the day I want to shave my head, give away all my money and cut off my friends and family so I can sell flowers at the airport for a nickel so some stranger can drive a Mercedes. Nobody says that. And yet it happens, doesn't it? If it can happen to an adult who gives an allegiance to a total stranger, it can happen to a kid giving allegiance to a parent."

For her part, Dr. Baker, who has a PhD in developmental psychology but is not a practising clinician, says she started her research to answer alienated parents' "burning questions" about whether kids ever figure out what has happened. After she put out a call for participants, 40 people, including Mr. Rabiega, responded.

A number of catalysts can trigger a realization, including getting married, having a first child or the death of a parent. But outcomes vary wildly. "For some people, the same event - the death of the alienating parent [for example] - can function to entrench the alienation, and for another person, it frees the person up," Dr. Baker says.

Rhonda Pisanello had never heard of parental alienation until she was doing online research for a loved one and typed "turning a child against a parent" into a search engine. She believes the term describes her father's efforts to sever her ties with her mother after their divorce.

"I had never had a name for what had happened to me before and had for the most part blamed myself for being such a difficult child!" says the 45-year-old, whose life has been characterized by running away as a teen, depression and attempted suicide, in an e-mail interview.

While Ms. Pisanello, who lives in Rimbey, Alta., is not undergoing therapy, she says she has found solace online with the Oakville, Ont.-based Parental Alienation Awareness Organization and other online resources. She is now estranged from her father but reconciled with her mother before her death in 2007.

For those who seek professional help, a number of therapies are available. Cognitive behavioural therapy is considered helpful by many.

Some adult children come to maintain relationships with both parents. Dr. McKay has overseen many meetings between children and parents. She says it's crucial to focus on what's possible. "What isn't possible is getting into a time machine and going back and making things change in the past," she says. "Even if you didn't have the kind of parent-child relationship you would have wanted as a child or adolescent, you can still have a relationship as adults."

Now that both of Mr. Rabiega's parents are deceased, he says he's still processing some guilt over never fully discussing the past with his mother, although the two had reconciled. His father's behaviour escalated in later years, and Mr. Rabiega eventually took out a restraining order against him.

As the happily married father of a 13-month-old daughter, he says he feels increasingly calm about what he can and can't "fix" about his childhood.

"As a child, it messes with your development and your sense of being," he says. "I don't think you ever truly understand because it's a rewiring of your brain away from what you were supposed to be."