What Is Grandparent Alienation Syndrome?

Estrangement Results From a Family Member's Intentional Actions

Alienated grandparents are denied contact with grandchildren.
Pali Rao | Getty Images

Grandparent alienation syndrome, sometimes referred to as GAS, is a term spun off from the term parental alienation syndrome, or PAS. In a 1985 journal article, psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner used the term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) to describe a process in which a parent "programs" a child to reject the other parent, usually during the course of a custody battle. The child is rewarded for acting antagonistically toward the targeted parent and for devising his or her own charges against the targeted parent.

Some grandparents and grandparenting groups have adapted Gardner's ideas. They have created the term grandparent alienation syndrome to describe a scenario in which a child is programmed to reject a grandparent. This programming can be carried out by either or both parents. The most prominent group using the term GAS is Alienated Grandparents Anonymous, or AGA, which is based in Florida but has outreach operations in many states.

Another term for these syndromes is familial alienation. Some have suggested that instead of PAS or GAS, we should use the term Family Alienation Syndrome (FAS) in order to cover all who have become alienated as a result of an active campaign by family members.

Different From Simple Estrangement

Families can become estranged for many reasons, including basic conflicts and misunderstandings. In GAS, the estrangement is the result of one or more persons actively working to turn a grandchild against a grandparent.

Usually this takes the form of blocking grandparents' access to grandchildren, combined with verbal attacks against the targeted grandparent. Of course, grandparents cannot know what is being said about them out of their presence, but when previously affectionate grandchildren become distant or fearful, that could be a red flag.

Another sign that grandparents may notice if they are allow to converse with the grandchildren is language that sounds like the parents' language or an echoing of the parents' grievances. 

When grandparents are marginalized, similar tactics may be used. In these cases, grandparents are not banned outright but are kept on the margins of family activities. Their grandparenting role is always in doubt. They never know if they will be allowed to babysit their grandchildren or if they will be invited to family celebrations. As a result, they suffer from anxiety and untold stress.

The Role of the Legal System

Although all of the United States have grandparent visitation laws, they are seldom helpful to those who have been targets of GAS. Since GAS involves a campaign of misinformation, grandchildren may not want to see their grandparents. Also, this type of campaign typically targets older grandchildren, and forcing visitation can be difficult.

In addition, not all grandparents will have standing to sue for visitation. Winning visitation can be very difficult even for those who have the proper legal standing. Those who are having difficulty with access to grandchildren should explore steps to take before suing for visitation rights.

For many grandparents, the only option is to learn to cope with reduced contact with their grandchildren.

The Establishment and Alienation Syndromes

Neither PAS nor GAS has been widely recognized in the psychiatric community. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM5) does not mention either syndrome. PAS has been cited in some court cases in the United States, but it has been challenged on both legal and scientific grounds.

Since there are few resources dealing specifically with grandparent alienation syndrome, grandparents who find themselves in this situation may be interested in learning more about parental alienation syndrome. Also the Open Directory Project lists a number of scholarly articles about PAS. It appears that GAS has not been the subject of scholarly research.