The Pike Syndrome

Here is an experiment undertaken in 1873 by Dr. Karl Mobius, a German marine biologist: he took an aggressive natured fish, a Walleyed pike, and placed it in a spacious tank filled with minnows, one of the pike’s favorite food sources, which were soon devoured by the hungry predator.

Later, he inserted a piece of clear glass into the middle of the tank, separating the pike from the refreshed supply of minnows. Now, when the pike went for its meal, it hit this glass partition, bouncing back and injuring its snout.  Time after time the pike tried to reach the minnows; each time it painfully hit the invisible barrier set between it and lunch. 

After some time, the pike no longer went after his prey. Each time it charged the minnows after the initial strike against the glass, it imperceptibly slowed its attack, understanding that something wasn’t right. Though it still smashed into the glass and bounced back, it was not done with the energy and power of the first few times.

Eventually, the pike stopped striking the glass and swam in a circle alongside it; though it could not see the glass, it soon learned exactly where the invisible barrier began and would swim within fractions of an inch beside it, making a regular circuit only around its side of the tank.

Blue Pike, subspecies of the Walleyed Pike

The pike learned that charging the minnows was a painful and futile experience and no longer sought to reach them, endlessly circling his side of the tank, avoiding additional contact with the invisible barrier.

Dr. Mobius carefully removed the glass partition and the pike did something unexpected; he continued his circuitous path around his side of the tank, never crossing the invisible barrier that was no longer there.  Cautiously, though the emboldened minnows eventually swam to the pike’s side of the tank, it refused to eat them, even when they swan next to his mouth.

The pike eventually died of starvation and exhaustion, surrounded by an abundance of his favorite food, being conditioned by repeatedly and painfully hitting the glass that it was impossible to capture the minnows without pain and distress. 

Many people are like this pike: when a series of negative events repeatedly happen to them—hitting the glass of life—they come to the point when they give up trying: they have been painfully conditioned to fail and avoid all contact with the source of their pain. Even when the particular set of circumstances causing the pain and grief disappear—the proverbial glass is removed from their tanks—the conditioning for failure and defeat is so permanently etched in their wounded psyches that they find it impossible to act positively. They are frozen in a permanent state of failure, pain, and defeat.*

Ryan Thomas, alienated from his dad at an early age, shares a gripping story that perfectly illustrates the “Pike Syndrome.” Pay close attention at 15:06 through 15:21 and 15:39 through 17:27.

This experiment with the Walleyed Pike has countless applications; I will use it to highlight what happens to children who are innocent victims of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) and their attitudes toward the alienated parent.

Children damaged by PAS often get physical symptoms of distress, fear and anxiety whenever they are to return to their alienated parent: stomach aches are one common manifestation. Why is this so? Because of the damaging environment created by the alienating parent who is fostering in the innocent child’s mind that spending time with the alienated parent is neither healthy or safe.

Each time the child is due to transfer to the home of the other parent—the “targeted” or “alienated parent”—the alienating parent (source of the abuse) creates in the child a fear, anxiety or animosity that the targeted parent is not someone who is safe to be around—the invisible barrier inserted into the child’s relationship with the other parent whereby the child “hits the glass” each time they see them.

For the alienated child, going to see the targeted parent is like “hitting the glass”: an event that was one time filled with joy—seeing the loved parent and spending time with him or her—now becomes painful and filled with stress, worry, fear, and anxiety.

There will come a time in this child’s life that, like the pike, he or she will get the unmistakeable message that this interaction only results in suffering. To steel themselves against this guaranteed pain, these psychologically damaged children will protect themselves from the torment by any number of defense mechanisms; one of the common ones is to align themselves with the hostile attitudes of the alienating parent and no longer show a desire to be with the targeted, unwanted parent. Many use hatred, a powerful force that overrides virtually all other emotions: “better to hate than hurt.”

Without intervention to break this cycle of lies and deception created by the alienating parent against the targeted parent, the child, like the psychologically damaged pike, will never venture into the other side of the “tank” where the once loved parent lives. He or she will avoid everything associated with that painful experience and, like the pike, learn that having no contact with that which brings pain is the only way to avoid additional suffering.

Even if the alienated parent attempts to “swim to their side of the tank” by making contact with them, the emotionally damaged child, conditioned and brainwashed against him or her, will refuse to deal with their attempts at reconciliation. Sadly, like the pike, the child will one day die without ever having the life-giving relationship with the now hated parent restored.

Thankfully, children are not fish, and this vicious and cruel cycle of rejection and abuse can, and does, experience healing and restoration. Better, it does not have to entail long stretches of months and years of counseling and enormous sums of money paid to counselors to effectuate the reconciliation. In a future post, I will share how this can happen.

* I first heard this story in the 1980’s by Christian psychologist Dr. James Dobson and it made a profound impact on my life. Last week, I did some research on its origins and, after reading different websites where the story is repeated in one form or another, I’ve come to the conclusion that the story is probably made up: I could not find any solid, documented proof that Dr. Mobius actually performed this experiment—or for that matter, anyone else.

Though this story could be true, without proof that such an experiment was performed and the results can be duplicated or verified, I have to assume it is yet another urban legend or parable invented to teach a valuable “life lesson.”

It certainly could be true and other studies have proven that certain animals or fish can be conditioned to act or react to certain situations when they are repeatedly exposed to them, setting up conditioned responses, whether negative or positive. Animal trainers, for example, use food as a reward when animals perform certain tricks.

Regardless of whether the “experiment” actually happened, it made an indelible impact on my life that I still carry decades later. It was only recently that I questioned its authenticity and spent over an hour researching its validity, showing me that as I age, I’m far more cautious to hear something so remarkable without wanting to insure it is based on fact. Hopefully, we get wiser as we get older.

“Hitting the glass of life” can happen in any number of ways. When we are adults and face the inevitable trials and tribulations that life throws at us, we are better prepared, mentally and psychologically, to deal with their emotional fallout. But children are not so fortunate; they have yet to learn all the necessary coping skills required to successfully navigate through the storms of life that each of us must pass through.

But when children are suddenly placed in a situation they are not emotionally or psychologically prepared for, like their parents divorcing, the guaranteed trauma they face affects them far more significantly than if they were mature adults. And since their parent’s divorce is devastating even to grown children, imagine the compounded emotional and psychological damage that happens with small children ill equipped to handle such things.

This is one reason among many while PAS is correctly considered to be child abuse by experienced mental health professionals who work closely with this particular pathology. Normal and healthy people understand that children, to grow up healthy, need the loving input and companionship provided by both parents.

But in PAS, one parent, the alienating parent, psychologically damaged themselves, do not understand, or refuses to understand, the importance of both parents being involved in the lives of their children caught in the crossfires of divorce.

Again, normal, healthy parents who for whatever reason choose to divorce their partner, intuitively understand that their children must have both parents remaining in their lives in order to develop into as healthy adults as is possible in such traumatic situations. But if one parent—and this is critical to emphasize—ends up being the primary or only care provider to the children to the exclusion of the other parent, you know something dreadfully wrong has happened in this family dynamic. And if this one-sided situation has occurred through PAS, those unfortunate children have suffered, at the very least, emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of the favored parent.