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Wise Counsel Interview Transcript: An Interview with Amy J. L. Baker, Ph.D. on Parental Alienation

David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

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Dr. David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by MentalHelp.net, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy.

My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show we'll be talking about parental alienation with my guest, Dr. Amy J.L. Baker. Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D. is the Director of Research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection in New York City and she is author of the 2007 book, "Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking The Ties That Bind".

Dr. Baker earned her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the Teacher's College, Columbia University in 1989. She is also the author or co-author of over 50 peer-reviewed scholarly publications in topics such as parental alienation, child welfare, parent-child attachment and parent involvement in their children's education. She has appeared on TV, radio and in the New York Times. She has presented at numerous conferences.

Now, here is the interview...

Dr. Amy Baker, welcome to the Wise Counsel Podcast.

Dr. Amy J.L. Baker: Thanks for having me on the show, David.

David: Well, I'm very glad to have you here and we're going to be discussing your book, the title of which is "Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome". So I guess the logical place to start is what's meant by the term "Parental Alienation Syndrome"?

Amy: That's a good place to start because there is some confusion, some people use the term "parental alienation", some use the term "Parental Alienation Syndrome". The working definition that I use is that parental alienation is a set of strategies that a parent uses to try to effectuate a child's rejection of the other parent who I refer to as the "targeted parent".

Parental Alienation Syndrome is the resulting behavior and attitudes within the child who come to believe that the targeted parent is someone unworthy of having a relationship with.

Now, it's important to know that not all cases of the child rejecting a parent qualify as Parental Alienation Syndrome.

David: Interesting.

Amy: We only consider PAS when there is no other reason. In other words, if a parent is abusive or neglectful or moves away or is a poor parent in some ways that results in the child saying, "You know Dad (or Mom), I really need to step back from this relationship", that's not PAS. It's only PAS when the child is being manipulated by one parent to reject the other parent in the absence of a good reason for rejecting that parent.

David: OK, so just to make sure that I understand and we're talking about a situation maybe where parents are about to get divorced or have gotten divorced or maybe have separated or about to get separated and one parent turns the child against the other parent, is that right?

Amy: That is right and it was first identified in the context of post divorce custody litigation, that is parents who are divorced fighting over visitation and parenting schedules. But in my research and in other research as well, it's become pretty clear that this can happen even when the parents are still married and living in an intact family.

David: Interesting. Now, is this a new diagnostic category? I mean, does it occur, for example, in the diagnostic and statistical manual of the American Psychiatric Association?

Amy: It does not, yet, and it is important to note that this manual is an evolving, living document. It's updated only every 20 or 25 years and the last time it was updated, this concept of PAS was so new (Dr. Garner began writing about it in the mid-1980s), there wasn't enough to allow the people who make the decision about what gets into the DSM and what stays out to conclude that this deserves to be included.

The DSM is going through another round of revisions, I think it's due out at some time in 2012 or something and at that point, PAS may be included. It really depends on how much empirical research and the lobbying and behind the scenes sort of pressures to include it and not include it that are going on.

So, simply because it's not in the DSM doesn't mean it doesn't exist and just as a reminder to your listeners, it took Tourette Syndrome, I think, 100 years to be included and PTSD was only just included in the DSM-III, even though many people believe that it existed long before its inclusion in the DSM.

David: Wow! That's interesting background...

Amy: Yeah.

David: And also, you do highlight that to some degree, it's also a bit of a political process and a little bit of a lobbying process. You made some reference to research and your book is a fairly thick one and I have the impression that it's based both on research and on clinical experience. Can you talk about to what extent is the book based on research and to what extent on clinical experience?

Amy: It's 100 percent on research and theory. I'm actually not a clinician...

David: Oh.

Amy: I only do research and the book is based primarily on interviews, in depth interviews with 40 adults who believe that when they were children they were turned against one parent by the other parent and then I used those case studies to explicate various aspects of PAS theory that I'm interested in writing about. The book is solely based on that. I don't have a clinical practice.

David: OK, that's interesting. Somehow, I didn't pick that up. Now, how did you become first interested in this as an issue?

Amy: Well, a researcher's dream is to find a topic that is both rich and fascinating and which there is human drama and a relatively understudied area where there is a significant need to be filled so that there's a kind of "ready made" audience for your findings. The opposite of that is to do a study and you write a book or an article and it just sits on a shelf and it doesn't help anybody.

I really found this topic of PAS because all of my research is on parent-child relationships and I work primarily in the field of child welfare, so it's a topic I was familiar with due to my professional employment. But I became aware when I first started to really want to do this research, that there was nothing known about this. It was so understudied and yet there's such a huge demand. Targeted parents are so hungry for information. That's why I really settled on the topic.

David: Interesting. Now, in the book you outlined three patterns that PAS or Parental Alienation Syndrome can take. Perhaps you could describe each of the three patterns and maybe illustrate each one from the cases that you studied.

Amy: Well, I would like to say that I think it's quite possible that there are even additional patterns other than the three that I identified because my sample was only 40 cases. But I think these are the three main ones.

David: OK.

Amy: The first one is your sort of standard case that Richard Gardner, the person who identified PAS, described in all of his work on PAS. It's a narcissistic mother in the context of a divorce who due to her fragile ego and her desire to exact revenge on the husband who's leaving the family. Through this psychological foundation she turns the children against their father. This is your classic PAS case.

The reason why it is important to know that there are other patterns is that a person who's a mother who believes that she's losing her children due to PAS may go to a therapist and say, "I think my children's father is trying to turn the children against me and I'm very concerned" and if the therapist only has this prototype in her mind, she may very well say back to the mother, "Oh, it couldn't be PAS, it's something that only mothers do to fathers."

Likewise, this might be something that's brought up in couple's counseling or marital counseling. And again, if the person thinks that this only happens in the context of post divorce custody, litigation by mothers to fathers, this concern might be dismissed.

So, part of my mission is to educate people and just to sort of leap ahead for a moment, I've done a couple of surveys, not interviews, but survey studies with targeted parents and I can put out a call on the Internet today that says, "Do you think the other parent of your child is trying to turn your child against you?" and I will get 50 percent mothers and 50 percent fathers. When I get talks, the audience is completely mixed between mothers who are going through this and fathers who are going through this.

So, although my first pattern that I talk about in the book is your classic mother doing it to the father in the context of divorce, it is not the only pattern.

David: OK, what are the other two main patterns?

Amy: Well, the second one is mothers doing this to fathers but in marriages that remains intact. Yeah, this really did surprise me. It's sort of one of the magical beauties of research, is you can be surprised by your own data. I put out a call on the Internet, "When you were a child, did one of your parents turn you against the other parent and did you later have the realization that this was the case?"

That's how I recur to people and I actually expected to find people who only had this experience in divorced families and 10 of the 40 people that I ultimately interviewed told me that their parents remained married. Yet their hearts were completely hardened to this other parent even though their parent stayed in the marriage and stayed in the family home. So the child has access to that parent on an ongoing basis.

And even though clearly the mother wasn't doing it to exact revenge for the husband leaving the marriage, it's still seen, based on the interviews, that she did have a narcissist personality. She did seek gratification from the children. She wanted the children to believe that the father was the cause of all the family's pain and suffering and she did want to align the children with her against the father even though they were still married.

David: OK, so what's the distinguishing factor then between the first kind and the second kind that you described?

Amy: The first one is the parents are divorced and the second one the marriage is intact.

David: Oh, OK. Great! And then the third major pattern?

Amy: The third pattern is sort of the other... And this is why I'm saying if I had a larger, larger, larger sample I might be able to pull out different versions of this other.

David: Yes.

Amy: But in this other category, there were father alienators and mother alienators. Basically, rather than being narcissistic and seducing the children into their camp, so to speak, they were abusive. The parents seemed to have a more anti-social personality disorder rather than a narcissistic or borderline. They really pull the kids to them through fear of rejection, fear of abandonment and more kind of controlling, even physically and sexually abusive style.

So that third category, it's different from the first two not only because it includes fathers but also because the style, the strategies that those parents use are somewhat different.

David: OK. In your book, you refer to the "cult of parenthood" and that seems like strong language. So, in what ways is parenthood a "cult"?

Amy: Well, I have to tell you this resonates with targeted parents when they read this. I actually wrote this chapter first and it got circulated on the Internet and I was flooded. It actually made its way around the world. I was getting emails from people in South Africa and New Zealand and whatever. Because if you experience this, from what I gather from talking to targeted parents, you feel like your child is in a cult. There's complete adulation and obedience and devotion and allegiance to the other adult.

So, the way in which it's like a cult is first of all, alienating parents use many of the same strategies that cult leaders use. The same youth control, they create dependency, they use the same black/white thinking. If you break it down on a point by point basis, alienating parents and cult leaders use essentially the same thought reform and emotional manipulation techniques.

It's also an interesting analogy because it helps us understand how do people leave this cult of parenthood? There's a lot of literature about cults and how people leave cults so we can sort of apply that to understanding how to help people have the realization they're victims of PAS. It's also a useful analogy in terms of the long term effects.

When I interviewed the people who had this experience as adults and I said, "Well, what was this like to you? What do you think this meant to you? What's the impact of this on you?" They talk about the very same negative long term effects that we know people who've been in cults have.

David: Wow! That's really interesting to me because I've made something of a study of cults myself and certainly what you described rings true. Now, later on in the book you talk about the strategies that one parent will use to alienate the child from the other parent. Maybe you can talk about some of those strategies? One of the things I'm wondering too is whether or not those strategies are conscious or unconscious.

Amy: That's such an interesting question and I think the answer is essentially, "it depends". I think there are some alienating parents, based on my research with both targeted parents and these adult children and now I've kind of provided consultations with maybe 100 targeted parents just talking to people on the phone.

And basically, I conclude that some alienating parents are very conscious and they will say to the targeted parent, "It is my life goal to ruin your relationship with our child" or "my child". Usually, they just say this is "their child". Or they'll say: "I'm going to make your life a misery."

David: Ouch!

Amy: Yeah. They are very powerful, charismatic, hostile, aggressive people; these alienating parents, some of them. But I think others are less conscious in what they're doing and sort of have tricked themselves into believing that they're doing this for the child, "No matter what it takes I'm going to save my child from that horrible, horrible, horrible person", who they used to love and were married to, but now they've kind of completely demonize them.

So, the level of consciousness I think really varies and unless I interview them, I don't know that I could really answer that in more detail.

David: Yeah, that's not surprising. That's what I would expect, is that it would vary along a continuum just as you've described. What are some of the chief strategies that they use in alienating, whether conscious or unconscious?

Amy: Well, the main one is badmouthing. I wish there was a more sophisticated term for that but basically, when I asked the adult children, "How did mom turn you against dad? How did dad convince you that mom was bad and to move out of her house?" What they remembered first and foremost was a continual litany of negative remarks made about the other parent and the alienating parent spared their children nothing.

These children remember hearing their other parent talked about as a "whore", a "slut", an "abuser", an "alcoholic", a "lazy bum" and no detail of the targeted parent's life was too small to criticize. One woman remembers that the main criticism that her father and stepmother had about her targeted mother was that she made instant oatmeal in the morning, rather than oatmeal from scratch. The daughter came to believe that her mother was lazy and didn't really care about her because "Oh, my God! She used instant oatmeal."

David: My goodness!

Amy: But when you boil it down...

David: [jokingly] Not the oatmeal.

Amy: When you boil it down, the message that is conveyed to these children is that their targeted parent is unloving, unsafe and unavailable. Now, when you strip away the details, the message is basically that parent doesn't really love you, they're not really around, they're not really doing anything to take care of you and in some cases, the message is that person is dangerous.

One boy remembered asking his mom, "Tell me about Dad" and the mom said, "Well, one day he came home from work and he said, 'Wrap Johnny up in a blanket, I want to take him out.'" Adult Johnny remembered as a little boy saying to his mother, "Well, why did Dad want to take me out?" and she said, "I don't know. I think he wanted to throw you in the river" when there was no reason to believe that that's what his father was going to do.

David: Right.

Amy: So, a constant inundation of the message that that other parent is really no good and not available anyway and then when you tie that to the other part of the message which is basically, "If you pursue that relationship, you will lose me." And that was the other strategy that these kids remembered, is that the relationship with the alienating parent felt like it was in jeopardy if they wanted to have any contact with the targeted parent.

They would go for visitation and they would come home and the alienating parent would be angry. Some of them remember being given inferior portions of food, "Oh, you went to visit your father? Here, you can have the smallest lamb chop on the plate" kind of thing.

David: Wow! So it's...

Amy: And they were given the cold shoulder, they weren't talked to for 24 hours after visitation.

David: Yeah, so really it's a kind of emotional blackmail and I know in the book you strongly suggest that PAS is a form of emotional child abuse?

Amy: I do indeed because although there are many definitions of emotional abuse and I just picked one, you could take any definition and compare on a point by point basis and you would see that PAS really lines up. Even if you didn't do it on a sort of systematic basis, just intuitively, it makes sense to say, "Well, a parent who makes a child lose a relationship with the other parent is abusive in and of itself." Even if you didn't also conclude, as I do, that these very strategies that the parent uses are abusive.

David: Yes. Now, as I mentioned earlier, the title of your book is "Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome" and to me that suggests that the effects of PAS linger on into adulthood. So what sorts of symptoms or effects do you see or what the clinicians see in adults?

Amy: Well, the people that I interviewed talked at length about self-esteem problems. They said they hated themselves and thought that they were horrible, horrible people. Part of this is the guilt they felt when they finally had the realization that they had been manipulated to treat one parent very badly.

Let me just say that children who have gone through this really treat the targeted parent very shabbily. They're rude, ungrateful, nasty, hostile and cold. They really put the targeted parent through the ringer and if they ever do figure out, "Gee, I was really manipulated by Dad to treat Mom really badly." They grow up and they feel badly about themselves.

But they also have self-esteem problems because they've been told their whole life that one of their parents doesn't love them. They've become too dependent on the approval of the alienating parent. This is another way in which it's like a cult. Good parents aim to promote the self-efficiency and independence of their children but like cult leaders, alienating parents really want to maintain that dependency of their children on them and that in turn does lead to a low self-esteem. They don't feel they can take care of themselves and make good choices in the world.

David: OK.

Amy: I can go on but maybe we need to move on to another topic.

David: Well, even though you're not a clinician yourself, do you have any sense of what the process would be by which an adult suffering from this might recover?

Amy: Well, in terms of the catalyst to the realization, which isn't necessarily recovery but it's sort of the first step...

David: Sure.

Amy: The very first step is sort of having this... I don't want to say it's an epiphany because it really wasn't an epiphenal moment for the people I interviewed but an awakening or a realization that yes in fact, they had been manipulated by one parent to forego a relationship. So they really need to have that realization in order to even deal with everything else.

The people I spoke to said it was a very, very painful realization for them. They had this sort of admitted that they've been lied to and tricked and cheated and they lost time with the parent, who really didn't deserve to be cut out of their life. They lost all that time to somebody who they eventually came to value again.

So the realization process often is very painful but, from a clinical point of view, it has to happen. It's like an addiction. You have to admit you have a problem before you can even begin to deal with it.

David: Certainly, certainly. Now, what if you're being targeted for alienation? Let's say your parent and your mate is somehow targeting you for this kind of alienation. How should you respond? Is there a way to be of helpful to the children in that case?

Amy: Yes, I have a lot of advice, and again, I'm not going to have time now. Maybe at the end, I can give my email address so people can contact me if they want.

David: Certainly.

Amy: But for the minimal advice, don't argue with your children about the details of their disgruntlement with you. The kids show up for visitation and they're all trying to treat the targeted parent, "Why did you have an affair? Why did you steal our money?" They sort of have been bothered in all these personal details; and they believe things that aren't true.

But it's sort of pretty much a waste of time to argue with your child. I think the best thing a targeted parent can do is say something like, "I hear that you think I did (whatever). I can see why you would be so hurt and angry. I'm so sorry you're hurt and angry. I do have my own perspective. If and when you want to hear it, let me know. In the meantime, let's go (insert fun activity)." That is, if you're lucky enough to still have contact with your kid.

David: Yes.

Amy: It's the trick that the alienating parent -- one of their strategies -- is that they send their kids for visitation trying to have a big fight with the targeted parent. The targeted parent often takes the bait and then they end up spending the whole visitation fighting with their kids. Then, the kid leaves and goes, "Mom's right! Dad is unsafe. All he did was yell at me all weekend."

So, you have to find ways to acknowledge and amplify, put it on the record that you have another side to the story, but leave it at that unless they come to you. If they do come to you and say, "You know, I do hear want to hear what happen to my college fund. I do want to hear your side of things." Unless this is appropriate given the development level of the child, then they're going to be receptive. But you can't wave around the bank statement in their face, and they're not going to look at if they don't want to know the truth.

David: Yes.

Amy: Well, that's sort of my main advice. Now, for people who have already lost their kid. People email me or come up to me and tell me, "I haven't seen my kid until the year." My main advice is never give up on your kid, never give up hope. This kid do eventually, some of them do eventually figure it out, and most important thing is for them to know that you're still there and that you'll open your arms to them, no questions asked.

So I advise, unless your lawyer or therapist tells you otherwise -- and always do what your lawyer or therapist tells you -- you should be having some contact with your kid every week, every month, whatever it is. IM them, text message, send them a gift, send them a card. I don't care if you think you know for sure that that kid is ripping up your card and spitting on it and throwing it out. You still send the card because the worst thing from the point of view of the people I interviewed, it's the parent who stopped sending the card and stopped reaching out, and then they're alienating parent turns around and the kid and says, "See? Your Dad is a bum. He never writes you." And look what the kid say, "Yes, I guess you're right. He doesn't write."

David: That sounds like really important advice. Maybe this is a good place for you to in fact, give your email address in case people want to get additional information from you.

Amy: It's very simple. It's amyjlbaker@aol.com. So, it's my professional name but without the periods after the "J" and the "L".

David: OK.

Amy: I invite people who reach out to me. I'm not a clinician. I can give one shot advice or direct you to maybe to a therapist or support groups or some kind of help of support groups who start in my county. Because I know the targeted parents are so ashamed and so frustrated and so demoralized, they really believe the core while dealing with it.

David: OK. Well, I wonder if there's anything that you did not get a chance to say that you'd like to say before we wrap things up here.

Amy: Well, I do recommend a particular website. I have no vested interest in it. It's just a website I think is good. It's called Parental Alienation Awareness Organization.

I do encouraged people who are going through this to read the book. I feel that I can give you perspective in reading the book because it really is the voices of the kids who have gone through this.

I welcome every body to reach out to me and I give my heart out with sympathy to anybody who's dealing with this short of the death of the child, this is one of the most tragic and painful things that a parent can go through.

David: Well, Dr. Amy J.L. Baker, thanks so much for being my guest today on "Wise Counsel".

Amy: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

[musical interlude]

David: I hope you found this interview with Dr. Amy J.L. Baker informative. If you were someone you know as caught up in this sort of parental blame game that she describes, you do well to take a look at her book as well as the website she mentioned. And as you heard, she would welcome any inquiries or comments via the email address she gave earlier. In addition, I would encourage you to post comments on our show's website.

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by MentalHelp.net. If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit MentalHelp.net where you can add a comment or question to this show's Web page, view other shows in this series, or simply page through the site which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content.

Access the show's page and show archive information be at the podcast box on the MentalHelp.net home page. If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like Shrink Rap Radio, my other interview podcast series which is available online at www.ShrinkRapRadio.com.

Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.