Difference Between Parent Alienation and Stockholm Syndrome

Reader’s Question

My question relates to the abuser (emotional/manipulator) being the father (my ex-husband) and the victim being my 7-year-old daughter (along with myself, as I now understand it, an emotional domestic violence victim)… I left the father just over a year ago (after 7 year marriage); I had wanted to leave for a few years but stayed out of guilt and pity. The catalyst for finally leaving was realising his heavy handedness was part of the cause for our 6-year-old’s (at the time) tantrums and behaviour throughout that year escalating. The kindergarten school teachers talked to me after school one day saying when my daughter was crying at school that day she explained “daddy held his fist in my face then punched the wall”. Her (negative) behaviour is soley expressed with me. She is a model student, my friends that mind her say she’s an angel, her father astutely claims she’s an angel with him. (Part of his abuse is related to heavy handedness, making her strip her bed and remake it when wetting it, locking her for a couple of hours outside at night for the same reason above, leaving her and 2-year-old sister in car at supermarket, leaving them also at the beach all day whilst he is on surf life patrol…and many other things).

During solicitor and court action he constantly made her aware of many details, also blamed me, told her I was the one to leave him, saying I could come back if and when I wanted to. He was emotionally heavy on her, barely filtering it (his bawling) at all. She hates me, she won’t even talk to me on the phone. I have now had to tell her, her behaviour is not welcome in my house. I love her to bits and have tried everything to make our bond closer, but have told her she just can’t stay with me anymore. (he had been saying she desperately wants to live with daddy and hates me anyway. All I’ve been doing is trying to protect her). She escalated her behaviour to 1 to 2 hour tantrums ‘rampaging’ through the house attacking me, damaging things, ‘taunting’ me and escalated to hitting and kicking not only me but her now 3-year-old sister.

How does one make a clear distinction between ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’, ‘Stockhom Syndrome’, and just a result of (emotional) domestic violence??? (Although I believe this is not isolated to only ’emotional’…as I have found going over my marriage of ‘social, financial and sexual’ abuse…although it seems subtle). Those that I speak to that understand domestic violence see all of his actions, words and traits as ‘completely typical’ of the ‘type’ (domestic violence). But when it comes to being in court, emotional abuse is ‘hearsay’: prove it! Show me it! He is clever and charming and a grand story-teller. And I…I have such self doubt and self blame.

Psychologist’s Reply

Parent Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is controversial but is described as a purposeful, intentional attempt by one parent to ruin the child’s feelings for the other parent. Techniques used include false stories, deceptions, rumors, and negative explanations of events. While children are often confused and conflicted during custody and divorce proceedings, PAS is often considered when a child appears “brainwashed” to hate the other parent.

Stockholm Syndrome (SS) is an emotional bonding between an abuser and the victim (often of domestic violence) in which the victim defends and supports the actions of the abuser in a subconscious attempt to ensure their emotional and physical survival. This commonly develops in hostage, prisoner-of-war, cult, and controlling situations.

Victims of domestic violence don’t always develop Stockholm Syndrome (SS). They may also not participate in PAS, despite the emotional and physical abuse experienced in the relationship. Victims of domestic violence, unlike those with Stockholm Syndrome, are painfully aware of their abusive situation but may have few options for escape, separation, or help at the time. They do not support or defend abusive behavior but may clearly be intimidated and fearful.

Parents who participate in purposefully alienating their children from the other parent — when there is no legal, criminal, abusive, or emotional justification to protect them from that parent — are often the controlling individual in the relationship. Sadly, they view punishing the ex-spouse as more important than the emotional development of the child and feel justified to use the children to retaliate.

For additional information on abusive partners, I’d recommend reading my introduction to personality disorders on this website. You may also consider my article on Love and Stockholm Syndrom, also on this website.

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