For one local parent, and likely thousands more like him around the country, the prosaic pleasures of Father's Day did not pan out.
Tim, we will call him, relinquished joint custody of his daughter rather than subject her to the battle her mother had made of every visit, phone call and holiday, he said earlier this spring.
"I thought, if I just let her have her, and wait until ‘Sarah' is 18, I could resume being a parent then."
His thinking was that "it would be nice to never have to deal with her mom again, and (Sarah) might be better off."
Since Tim has learned about PAS, Parent Alienation Syndrome, he regrets giving up his rights to see his daughter, however.
"If I knew then what I know now," he said, "maybe I would have approached it better."
When Tim read a description of the problem, which describes a deliberate campaign on the part of one custodial parent to turn a child against the other parent, he said he immediately recognized his own experience.
He had a healthy relationship with his child for several years after he and her mother split up, Tim said. He spent his days off with the little girl, they were close, and she spent time with paternal grandparents and other relatives.
Then, Tim started a serious relationship with a new woman.
"Suddenly, my daughter's mom became extremely threatened. She told me, 'I will not have my daughter around your girlfriend,' " he said. "She began withholding her from visits, sabotaging my plans. His ex "started ridiculing me, telling (Sarah) that I was not a good father.
"It took me some time to figure this out."
Although his ex had always been matter-of-fact when they talked by phone, she started to flip out whenever she had an audience on the other end, he said. "She'd start screaming, ‘I will not argue with you!' She staged these outbursts."
The blow-ups would be followed by weeks and then months of no contact with Sarah, he said.
When he did see her, "my daughter was starting to berate me. She'd act up. She showed a fear of me."
He saw an attorney to sort out the visitation problems, but "it became a consuming battle. I spent $5,000 before we saw the inside of a courtroom. It was a cat-and-mouse game; it didn't help me get peace of mind. It was so emotionally draining."
Worst of all, Tim said, was seeing his daughter struggle to reconcile her own experience with what her mother was saying.
"We'd spend a four-day weekend, and by the third day, my daughter would get agitated and upset. She was preparing to get the third degree" when she returned home. The mom "got more and more aggressive."
"To see a child be systematically brain-washed — I was spinning," Tim said. "I didn't want my daughter to be in the middle. The system is not all that effective. It gives people power to do something so cruel to a child, and to the other parent."
He did two things he now regrets, Tim said.
"I grew up in the Oprah era. You do not berate the other parent." He stayed quiet when Sarah would parrot criticisms of him. Then he started reading about PAS. "In all my research, it says you have to stick up for yourself, and I did not do that for many years."
Secondly, he gave up his custodial rights. Courts typically intervene in shared custody only in cases of abuse or neglect, "and that never happened," Tim said.
It was his choice to give up custody. After reading about PAS, he discovered that psychologists have identified and named the behaviors his ex was using. He might have stood fast, Tim said, if he had had some support and understanding of what was going on.
Instead, he did what he thought was right at the time — he packed up his photo albums, needs and hopes until his daughter turns 18.
"It was heart-breaking," he said. "Even my family was against it. They're educated people; they don't see this as even possible."
The cult of alienation
Although a custodial parent instigates the alienation, "The PAS syndrome describes the child," said Dr. Amy J.L. Baker, an expert in developmental psychology. She has researched Parent Alienation for years and written several books on it, especially the ways it affects children well into adulthood.
"In the triangle that develops, the parent who is manipulating the child is called the alienating parent, and the other is called the targeted parent," Baker said in a phone interview from New York. "Some of this behavior is unconscious, but in the worst cases it's conscious, intentional, strategized."
Dr. Richard Gardner, a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University, identified PAS as a syndrome around 1985, said Baker. Later, Dr. Douglas Darnall divided alienating behavior into three degrees: naive, active and obsessed.
Lots of parents do things in the naive category, Baker said, such as rolling their eyes when the other parent is always late, or griping about an ex's failings around the child. "If someone lets slip a negative remark, that's not abuse," she said. "The question is, are you trying to ruin the kid's relationship with the other parent?
Alienating parents who are obsessive will lie, spy, throw out gifts and mail, confiscate cell phones and demand to know everything that happens in the other household or in therapy sessions.
"If you're the child, even if you don't choose a side, the exposure is still damaging, because one of your parents is labeled unworthy, unsafe, unavailable," Bake said. "And all of these messages are bad for kids."
As a researcher rather than a therapist, Baker works with "scientifically designed and collected data, which makes sure that theories are understood and analyzed" so conclusions and remedies can result.
Her research has focused on the emotional fallout among adults who in childhood were alienated from one parent by the actions of the other parent.
She has discovered that alienating parents "use the same strategies cult leaders use. They create a psychological wedge between the child and the rest of the world so that the child is completely dependent on the parent — what to think, what to believe, what to eat."
Such children can only trust the alienating parent, she said, "just the way cult members can only trust the cult leader. ... The world is dangerous, and I as cult leader know you better than you know yourself."
The cult model holds up when children who suffer from PAS grow up, Baker said.
Just like survivors of cults, their development is stunted. "They don't have life skills; they cannot think critically. They suffer from depression, they have issues with trust and failed relationships, and they're not capable of taking care of themselves,"
Loss, controversy, hope
The trauma that trails divorced and feuding parents is nothing new.
"There's a lot of loss on the table," Baker said. "You may go through loss of identity, income, pride. You're so vulnerable already, and now you have to share your kid with the very person you do not love any more. Those unresolved feelings related to marital loss get projected onto the relationship with the kid."
Sometimes, the damage goes deep, the psychologist said.
"The relationship you have with your parents is the foundational relationship. That's the origin of your feelings about yourself. Big, big ideas about where you fit in the world are shaped by that early relationship."
Although Parent Alienation Syndrome proponents seek to increase awareness and provide services, the syndrome has aroused "enormous controversy," Baker said.
"Feminist groups object in general" to the idea of PAS, she said. "They don't say it's a bad thing; they say it doesn't exist, that it's something made up so abusive men can deflect the blame for kids' rejecting them onto the wives. ...
"There are battering husbands who have taken kids away from moms by claiming PAS. It happens. The husband will say, ‘My kids are not afraid of me — they're just being manipulated by their mother.' So the authorities say, ‘Let's give custody to the man.' And he beats and kills the children. That's the story feminists tell."
"Even if some battering fathers do that," Baker said, "it doesn't mean PAS does not also exist."
The matter is further complicated "because fathers rights groups endorse PAS and use it to support the idea that the solution is 50-50 custody," which Baker does not support, she said. "Every case should be decided on its individual merits."
Jean Waller, an attorney and court investigator at Family Matters in Vancouver, is skeptical about PAS.
"The majority of the experts and research today don't give credence that there really is a Parent Alienation Syndrome, treatable the way a disease is treatable," Waller said in a phone interview.
"Parental alienation absolutely exists, but it should not be called a syndrome, any more than child abuse is called that, It involves behaviors that have consequences, but it's not a disorder" recognized by mental health experts.
"I've seen pretty horrific parental alienation cases and consequences to children," the attorney said. "Oh my gosh, the problems caused are extraordinary, just like other forms of child abuse ..."
Sexual abuse allegations "get the most attention," Waller said, "but for me, working in the trenches, it's fairly rare. More common are the run-of-the-mill behaviors that still have a dramatic effect on kids, where one parent is on a campaign to turn child away from other parent, in more subtle ways."
Why is this such a hot issue, what the behavior is called?
Waller said important nuances are lost when someone is labeled an "alienating parent."
Children are highly attuned to conflict between feuding parents, she said, and they may come up with their own, often understandable, reasons for rejecting a parent.
"The child may tell the parent ‘You're a bad person, I don't want to see you any more.' Sometimes they run away. Is the reason the child has that level of dislike about something real, or has the alienating parent put it in their heads?
"I talk to kids, to try to get some sense of what's going on, but sometimes it doesn't help much."
Waller said some adults "don't understand how their own behavior affects kids. There are jealousies about a new relationship, or they're so selfish or so angry because of their own stuff ... that the kids are secondary to their issues."
Is there any light at the end of this tunnel?
Having written a book for middle-school kids dealing with divorce and another based on 40 interviews with adult survivors of PAS, Baker said she wants to share ways parents and kids who are victims of the behavior can cope.
She has published a set of guidelines for parents who feel they are being targeted and sells the booklet on her website.
Among its suggestions:
• Do not fight every single battle. "The kid is going back and forth, filled with accusations — ‘You stole my college money, you had an affair, why did you miss my soccer game?' They're incited by strife, and they're angry and hurt."
The targeted parent tries to correct the misunderstanding — "Your mother didn't tell me about the game" — or he does nothing, because he doesn't want to argue with the child and badmouth the mom.
"Either way, the targeted parent is doing the work for the alienating parent," Baker said, because either you're a bad parent, a liar, or you end up fighting.
"There's another way," the psychologist said. "Respond positively to your child. The main thing parents forget is that what kids hold on to is the feeling of the interaction. If you yell, ‘I did not steal your college money!' that's all they remember."
Instead, "be empathic. Say, ‘That must really hurt you, that you think I would do that." It's not about correcting information, Baker said, it's about allowing the child to feel hurt.
• Avoid going to weekly therapy sessions with the child. They turn into gripe sessions, and "there's intense pressure on the child in the run-up to the therapy session, and again after the session" from the custodial parent.
When the targeted parent goes to therapy, "It endorses the alienating parent's point of view: ‘See, I was right — he's crazy.' "
A more effective model, Baker said, is the Building Family Bridges intervention of Richard Warshak, who advocates a four- to seven-day period pairing the child with a therapist who understands PAS and helps the child think critically about what's happening.
• Don't "take the high road" by giving up custody. "This is no time to be heroic by stepping away," Baker said. "Find a way to stay and deal with the chronic frustration." Again, the targeted parent should not reinforce the alienating parent's agenda: "See, he didn't fight for you."
The local father who gave up custody of his daughter is thinking about trying to restore his rights, he said. In the meantime, he updates the journal he has kept through every year of Sarah's life.
"I will have that to show her. She knows I love her; I know she loves me. I know our relationship will resume, and I hope, I know, it will be healthy and beneficial. It's going to take time."