Does Parental Alienation cause PTSD?
Let’s start with what Parental Alienation Syndrome is. It is an aggressive form of psychological abuse whereby one parent, usually, degrades and destroys the relationship between the children and their other parent.
Though primarily occurring in high conflict divorce and custody situations, it can be seen in intact families, between parents of parents, and even worse, child protective agencies. This destruction of a once very strong bond between the children and the parent is like a living death with no closure and thus a daily reminder of someone we love and feel disconnected from.
So what is PTSD? PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But what does that mean? The DSM or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists it with a diagnosis code of 309.81 and describes it as follows:
the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate (Criterion A1). The person’s response to the event must involve intense fear, helplessness, or horror (or in children, the response must involve disorganized or agitated behavior) (Criterion A2). The characteristic symptoms resulting from the exposure to the extreme trauma include persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event (Criterion B), persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (Criterion C), and persistent symptoms of increased arousal (Criterion D). The full symptom picture must be present for more than 1 month (Criterion E), and the disturbance must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (Criterion F.)
But what does all this mumbo jumbo mean? It means that when a devastating event or series of events occur to an individual, it can have profound effects on their ability to cope and deal with it. The victim becomes paranoid or scared. They have panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, inability to think clearly, anger, fear, hatred, rage, uncontrollable fight and flight responses, even reoccurring thoughts or dreams of the event.
It can lead to extreme depression, exaggerated emotional responses including irritability and anger, substance abuse, insomnia or excessive sleep, nightmares, heightened attention and reactions, inability to concentrate or finish a task. Basically, the person feels lost, confused, scared, and all alone.
PTSD is classified with three levels or types. Acute PTSD occurs within the first 3 months. Chronic PTSD continues for 3 months or more. And Delayed Onset PTSD occurs after 6 months or more have passed and then the symptoms appear.
You can actually have PTSD but not know it because you have learned how to cope with it, control it and deal with it by compartmentalizing it. In other words, you have learned various tools and tricks to put it at bay so you can focus on what needs to be dealt with and then at a later date, when you can allow yourself, you break down from the PTSD. PTSD is not just a word or phrase for a tragic event; it is literally about the signs and symptoms caused by the reaction to this traumatic event.
How does parental alienation cause PTSD?
Parental alienation is severe trauma to an important relationship between a parent and their child. It is pervasive and goes on and on day in and day out until finally, the victims either concede to the stress of the emotional abuse or fights back with all their might. Each person’s response to this trauma is different.
For the Targeted parent and the children, it becomes a roller coast of emotions, fears, devastation, and abuse. A living death with no closure, they cannot move forward in a positive way. They are traumatized by the aggressive attacks from the alienator and hence the severe responses that we often see in the children and then in the targeted parent.
One might even venture a guess to say that the alienating parent is suffering from PTSD because of the loss of the marital relationship and control but is in survival mode to make sure that they are not abandoned and that they win at all costs.
Some of the many responses I have heard and seen from the trauma of PAS are:
- Uncontrollable rage and anger,
- Constant Fear,
- Constant anguish,
- Avoidance of the aggressor,
- Avoidance of the children,
- Substance abuse of all kinds,
- Inability to think rationally,
- Inability to control their emotions,
- Distancing themselves from everyone around them,
- Putting up walls to protect themselves,
- Flunking school or life,
- Obsessive-compulsive issues,
- Deviant behavior in the children,
- Hypervigilance in everything they do,
- Burying themselves in school or work,
- Panic attacks,
- Over-exaggerated responses to stimuli
I could go on and on with the signs and symptoms of PAS but there is no need. From this list, you can see how the psychological abuse of PAS has the same signs and symptoms as PTSD. This proves that PAS should be considered a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by the trauma of psychological abuse. And this opens the door to an additional way of treatment for the victims of Parental Alienation.