Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2008, pp. 57-63
Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties that Bind
New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007. ISBN-10: 0393705196; ISBN-13:
978-0393705195 (hardcover), $32.00. 304 pages.
Reviewed by Lorna Goldberg, M.S.W.
Those of us who are immersed in the cult field often find
that our work has been marginalized by mental health professionals who see us as
treating a population that has little to do with the problems they are
addressing in their clinical practices. Over the years, I believe we have been
able to bridge this gap with those who work with other trauma survivors. Now Dr.
Baker has brought some of our cult-related insights into another field—family
environments in which children need to maintain total loyalty to one parent at
the cost of a relationship with the other parent. This is a family problem that
occurs on a continuum of influence, from such behaviors as mild bad-mouthing of
the other parent to using an array of strategies that might result in a case of
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), which happens in the most extreme cases.
We acknowledge the power of suggestion and influence on
both children and adults. In the past, those of us who work with cult survivors
immediately “got” the concept that poorly trained therapists could successfully
suggest to their patients that they might “recover” memories of child abuse of
which they previously had been unaware. Likewise, in contrast to some therapists
who become seduced or manipulated by parents who present them with children who
might totally reject and hate one parent without giving them specifics
(particularly specifics of abuse or neglect), therapists who have worked in the
cult area can be skeptical, request further information, and wonder whether PAS
is at work. We also wonder about the possibility of some form of parental
alienation when an adult enters therapy with a black-and-white version of his
In 2005, Dr. Baker published a fascinating paper in the
Cultic Studies Review entitled “The Cult of Parenthood: A Qualitative Study
of Parental Alienation.” In this paper, Baker discusses her study of 40 adults
who had been alienated from one of their parents when they were children.
Transcripts of Baker’s interviews with these individuals were analyzed to
identify similarities between alienating parents and cult leaders. The analysis
determined that adults whose parents had alienated them from their other parent
in childhood described their alienating parent in much the same way that former
cult members described their cult leaders. The adults saw these parents
primarily as being narcissistic and requiring excessive devotion at the expense
of the other parent, who often was targeted for rejection. Other commonalities
between the targeted parents and cult leaders included the use of a variety of
manipulative techniques to induce heightened dependency in the children and to
increase parental control, power, and adulation.
The adult children in this study described dealing with
aftereffects of this alienation from the targeted parent that were similar to
those that former cult members experienced. These aftereffects included the
- Low self-esteem stemming from feeling unloved
by a formerly loved parent and that parent’s relatives. The low self-esteem
also was derived from the child’s own self-hatred; that is, by needing to
hate a parent, the child was induced to hate a part of himself or herself.
- Guilt toward the targeted parent for the
callous treatment that he or she had shown in childhood.
- Depression about having lost this important
relationship during childhood and about the loss of childhood itself.
- A lack of trust in oneself and others.
Everything the adult child had believed about his or her parents was
distorted and people were not who they appeared to be.
Dr. Baker’s paper is now a chapter in the book Adult
Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome. This book has a great deal to tell
us of the psychological harm that can stem from growing up in this kind of
emotionally abusive environment. What is it like to grow up with a parent who
has a personality disorder, particularly a narcissistic, borderline, and/or
antisocial personality disorder, who is triggered to feel humiliated or
abandoned by his or her spouse (whether or not as a result of a divorce
situation)? This often results in the narcissistic parent’s obsessive need to
devalue and humiliate that spouse. Such parents employ and manipulate their
children to serve this need by inducing them to abandon the targeted parent.
These children quickly learn that their rejection of the targeted parent is the
price they must pay for feeling acceptance and love from (or not to be punished
by) this alienating parent. The child has the ever present fear that if one
parent can be banished, the child can be abandoned, too.
Although Dr. Richard Gardner first coined the term
“parental alienation syndrome” in the 1980s to describe the consequences of the
manipulations of a narcissistic mother who turns her children against the other
parent in a post-divorce situation, Baker expands our previous assumptions by
showing us how, at times, PAS describes behavior that occurs in an intact family
or behavior that a father might show toward the mother of a child. In fact,
Baker discovered through her own research and other research in this area that
just as many affected children grew up in families in which the father was the
The syndrome, as Gardner defined it, reveals the following
- Alienating parents obsessively have their children
become preoccupied with unjustified deprecation and criticism of the
targeted parent; this deprecation and criticism occurs in the absence of a
rational and legitimate cause. (This is not a situation in which the
targeted parent has shown abuse or neglect.)
- Alienating parents are obsessed with intentionally
destroying the relationship between the child and the targeted parent. To
this end, the alienating parent will lie to the child about the targeted
parent’s true feelings or induce the child to believe that the targeted
parent is harmful. There will be an attempt to erase the targeted parent
from the child’s life.
Children who are victims of PAS present with the following
- Preoccupation with unjustified deprecation, criticism,
and “hate” of the targeted parent.
- Weak, frivolous, or absurd reasons for the
depreciation of the targeted parent.
- A lack of ambivalence for parents—one parent is
totally loved and one parent is totally hated.
- Absence of guilt for behavior shown toward the
- Insistence that the decision to reject the target
parent is their own.
- A reflexive unconditional support for the alienating
- Use of arguments that seem to be adopted wholesale
from the alienating parent (e.g., the use of adult concepts and
- Alienation that broadens to the entire family of the
In addition to presenting the work of those from the cult
field, such as Lifton, Lalich, and Hassan, Baker presents the theories of
several psychoanalytically oriented therapists. In particular, she offers
insights from clinicians such as Herman, van der Kolk, and Benjamin, who are
experts in the nature of abusive relationships and trauma situations. Baker
describes the defenses the alienated children use, citing reaction formation,
denial, and identification with the aggressor. She uses attachment theory as the
fundamental developmental theory for her understanding of the tie that binds the
child to of the alienating parent. She emphasizes how insecure attachment to
this type of parent, who is intermittently rejecting and loving only if he or
she is “served,” creates strong insecurity and dependency needs in a child who
must show complete loyalty and obedience to ensure that love. However, some
alienating parents rule through the use of intimidation and fear rather than
through seductive “love.” In either case, this way of relating to the child
clearly is emotional abuse, in which the child recognizes that he or she will be
rejected, isolated, ignored, terrorized, or threatened with abandonment if he or
she does not submit to parental wishes. To avoid pain, the child anxiously
maintains a close relationship with the alienating parent. I also would add that
the cement that could hold the child’s loyalty might be the sense of his or her
importance to the alienating parent as a replacement figure for the targeted
parent. This bond, in part, serves to gratify libidinal and narcissistic
feelings, but it exists at a tremendous cost to the child.
How have these alienated children come to see things more
realistically? As with those who are enslaved in cultic groups, there are
multiple possibilities to the answer.
As they entered their adolescence and adult lives, these
children’s cognitive abilities became stronger [omit,] and their emotional and
physical need to continue to depend on and safeguard that relationship by
idealizing the alienating parental figure diminished. Instead, they were
beginning to forge close ties with new relationships in the wider world, such as
friends and new love relationships.
Some children began to become more aware of their
alienating parent’s lies and manipulations as they watched that parent’s
interactions with others. They often began to compare their own family to the
families of others. When others spoke with friends, their friends often would
question their descriptions of their parents.
Some individuals sought therapeutic help for other problems
and began to review their childhood with the therapist, who might have
questioned their distorted, black-and-white impression of reality.
Entrance into new families allowed some of the alienated
children to review their original families with more distance.
However, Baker points out that those who did not feel basic
security with their caretakers were less likely to protect themselves from the
exploitation of others as adults. Therefore, these children often had a tendency
to repeat the experiences of childhood. Some married a new version of the
alienating parent and found themselves becoming the targeted parent within their
new family. This highlights an unconscious characteristic tendency to
masochistically serve the new relationship as the narcissistic parent was
All the factors that allow these individuals to escape from
a manipulative environment are familiar to those of us who work with
second-generation cult members. We are keenly aware of the exploitive behavior
of parental figures. Unfortunately, however, too many therapists who are intent
upon “believing the children” are blind to the possibility of PAS, to the
eventual harm for the children and targeted parents involved. Therapists often
become either manipulated or intimidated by the alienating parent’s story of how
the targeted parent is the one who is harmful to the child. And this story is
parroted by the child, who adopts the parent’s language. This often occurs
because the child does not have language of his or her own—no real experiences
to confirm this belief.
In this book, Baker offers excellent and thoughtful
suggestions for therapists who work with children who might be alienated from
one of their parents, for adult children of PAS, and for targeted parents. Baker
demonstrates how therapists working with children can focus on specifics rather
than simply accept the global or wholesale language of the child.
For those working with adults who have experienced PAS in
childhood, the therapist’s role is similar to that of those who work with former
cult members. Baker suggests that therapists begin to identify the multiple
manipulations the alienating parent has used to help the adult client understand
that he or she was prey to a deliberate process of alienation. She also proposes
the use of cult literature to further allow the client to gain an appreciation
of the mind-control techniques the alienating parent utilized. Additionally, the
therapist might offer to meet with the adult child and the targeted parent to
clarify what happened to both of them.
Baker also offers extremely useful advice for those who
have been targeted. She mainly encourages the targeted parent not to believe the
child’s rejecting behavior and to remain as involved as possible with the child.
This book is comprehensive, helpful, and clearly written.
It contains a great deal of theory-building content, illuminating PAS in a more
complex way than we have seen in the past. Baker uses poignant clinical
vignettes to give us a rich and varied understanding of the struggles of adult
children of PAS. With heartbreaking detail, the book stimulates a thorough
examination of the harm to both the children and the targeted parent. Baker
reminds us that we will find cult leaders not only in cults. This book gives
those of us working in the cult area a new avenue for viewing the damage that
alienating parental figures might cause.