National Post Barbara Kay: Teaching children to hate the ex

National Post - Thursday May 23rd, 2013

Some of the Dickens family: (From left) Charles Dickens Jr., Kate Dickens, Charles Dickens, Miss Hogarth, Mary Dickens, Wilkie Collins.

The great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens was doubly traumatized in early youth by a feckless father and a harsh social system with scant appreciation for children’s tender psyches.

Dickens’ soul-searing experience at age 12 in a shoe-blacking factory provided a cornucopia of creative inspiration for his novels, into which he decanted much empathy for his fictional child alter-egos. Yet as Robert Gottlieb writes in his new book, “Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens,” the author could be cruel in his personal life. And those closest to him carried their own scars as a result.

When Dickens’s last child, youngest of a large brood, was six years old, Dickens, who’d fallen in love with the actress Ellen Ternan, expelled his wife Catherine from his life, and demanded that his children do the same. He justified his brutality against his wife with claims that Catherine was an unloving mother – not true – and that the children did not love her – a much more pernicious lie.

This grotesque emotional behaviour — inciting one’s children to hate their other parent — is a form of alienation that did not have a name in 1850. But today, it is well understood by experts, as well as those unlucky enough to be a “target parent” like Catherine Dickens. The term used to describe the phenomenon, as it affects children, is parental alienation syndrome (PAS).

Thanks to the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), launched last week, PAS is now almost logged in as an official disorder. I say “almost” because those exact words are not in the DSM-5 (this was a deliberate and much-discussed decision). However, the new broader category of “child psychological abuse” is defined as “non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child.”

Under this rubric, one finds in a description of “parent-child relational problem” symptoms that all but link hands and sing out PAS. For example, the child’s perception of an alienated parent “may include negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility toward or scapegoating of the other, and unwarranted feelings of estrangement.”

The PAS child is subjected to a calculated and baseless campaign of incitement to hatred of the target parent

PAS was coined by the late psychologist Richard Gardner in 1985. It refers to a “disturbance in which children are obsessed with deprecation and criticism of a parent – deprecation that is unjustified and/or exaggerated.”

PAS has nothing in common with the moderate alienation that can accompany any high-conflict divorce (“Can’t your father ever pick you up on time?”). Rather, the PAS child is subjected to a calculated and baseless campaign of incitement to hatred of the target parent. Alienating parents are so consumed with anger at the target parent that their anger always trumps the child’s mental well-being.

A child must have extraordinary courage and strength of character to resist such hate propaganda. As Gottlieb notes of Dickens: “Anyone who tried to reason with [the author], or to defend [his wife] Catherine, was expelled into utter darkness, never to be forgiven.”

In more modern times, former model and journalist Pamela Richardson’s 2006 book, “A Kidnapped Mind,” paints a harrowing portrait of psychological deterioration in her alienated son Dash who, following a remorseless, decade-long campaign by his father to “disappear” her from the boy’s life, jumped off Vancouver’s Granville Street bridge in 2001.

If the Victorians had known what we know today, Dickens might not have gotten away with such callous behaviour

I spoke with Vanderbilt University’s Emeritus professor of psychiatry Bill Bernet, who specializes in divorce and custody effects on children, and who was the leading advocate for PAS’s inclusion in the DSM. He told me: “Even though it does not go quite as far as we’d hoped, I’m very happy that this new terminology is in the DSM-5.”

Professor Bernet leads the Parental Alienation Study Group, whose members are dedicated to educating clinicians, social workers and other frontline professionals, so that they will recognize the disorder by its invariable features and develop strategies for combatting it. The trickledown effect of the DSM inclusion will hopefully play out in family court, with judges acquiring familiarity with the syndrome and moving swiftly to protect the child from the alienating parent.

Most children will continue to love their parents in spite of PAS abuse. Indeed, it is extraordinarily difficult to stop a child from loving a parent. Those who do stop are usually ashamed to admit it. A child who is proud to hate a parent is likely a PAS-afflicted child.

If the Victorians had known what we know today, Dickens might not have gotten away with the callous behaviour his long-suffering wife and children did nothing to deserve. Let us hope enlightenment on this disorder helps consign PAS to the dustbin of history.

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