Assessing and Treatment of Parental Alienation

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


One of the most difficult tasks for clinical psychologists and psychiatrists is to assess via interview and personality testing and then to treat the result of long term parental alienation. Those dealing with such challenging endeavours are few, mainly due to the stress this induces in all concerned including the therapist facing the arduous challenge of trying to right what has been done wrong often for many years. Psychologists and psychiatrist’s roles and functions differ. It must be remembered, however, that in most cases it is the mother who does the alienating against the father since she is normally in total control of the child or children while the father is either no longer there or plays the role of a “side lined” individual. In what follows the expert witness is the current psychologist. Psychiatrists are also involved and the term psychologist however will be used for both. In both professions through their role of expert witness their professional status could be in endangered by acting as expert witnesses to the courts.

The typical psycho-therapeutic approaches which deal with neuroses and psychotic illnesses are unlikely to be effective on those who practice parental alienation and the results of such practices. This is because those involved are rarely considered to be mentally ill. Instead they intend, on the whole, to be premeditated and conscious in their activities. Their objective is to seek total or paramount control over children at the expense of a current or previous partner. This in turn is due to an acrimonious separation or divorce.

The fight over who is in control, who owns a child goes back to biblical times such as when Solomon faced with the two alleged mothers of an infant, suggests in his wisdom, that the only solution was to cut the infant in half and give each mother half of the body. The real mother decided that she could not abide by this, while the other alleged mother agreed with Solomon’s decision. She was obviously not the real mother. The real mother would rather give the infant to the other party than have the infant killed. This is an example of the famous wisdom of Solomon.

Why alienation of children?

Dealing with parents who both wish to have control and own a child, when it is practiced is a process of alienation and is much more difficult to resolve than the previous case mentioned involving Solomon. Psychological treatment requires the full backing of a Court of Law. Otherwise little or nothing can be achieved. (See section dealing with protagonists).

Strong judicial decisions must be combined with whatever the psychological aspect of the work and intervention that takes place. This is for any chance of success in resolving this type of issue. This is because of the following:

  1. Those who alienate children are determined, often skilled and in perpetrating deceitful actions, do what is best for themselves rather than for the child and obviously not for the other parent.
  2. The process has often endured for a long period of time mainly in the absence of the targeted parent. (On the whole the father.)
  3. The process of alienation is increasing as a consequence of out time of social change.
  4. The power in society of the female has increased with the greater equality of the sexes and while there is justice in this, there are also drawbacks. We now have greater fluidity and more divorces and separations among parents. Participants in a relationship, whether marital or otherwise, no longer feel bound to its permanence under all or any circumstances.
  5. Parental alienation therefore is likely to increase with time because the judicial system and especially judges often feel unhappy in the making of what could be just decisions in relation to the role of the alienated parent and the contact he or she should have with children. This is most especially the case in Great Britain and less so in the United States. In the United States, judges are currently less likely to take the easy option. British judges on the whole view matters differently. They seek to maintain the status quo of not rocking the boat too much or at all. The result is the alienated parent on the whole remains sidelined. It means, the alienator has won. The children have lost because they will be without the care, love and influence of one of their parents.
  6. Needless to say, should the investigation by the psychologist of all family members indicate that parental alienation is not the important issue, then there may be other reasons for the child not wishing contact with their father or indeed the mother not wishing the child to have contact with their father. If there has been, sexual, physical or other abuse practiced by the father, then only supervised contact could be the answer. It must therefore be emphasised that the psychologist is not there to grant fathers contact with the child regardless of the past behaviour of the father. It must also be said, that mothers often use false allegations that sexual or other abuse has taken place when it has not.
  7. The primary role of the psychologist is to do what is in the best interests of the child or children and not what is in the best interests of their parents. Obviously the two often coincide. It must additionally be recognised that what the child wants may not always be in the best interests of the child especially when the process of alienation has occurred.

The protagonists of parental alienation.

There are the more obvious protagonists. The main ones obviously are the parents and the children. There are however, in the background, relatives including grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces and cousins etc who are influenced and who influence the parental alienation process. More often than not they take sides. Hence alliances are built up over time. The other side is viewed as the enemy. The enemy on the whole tends to be the father who has left the home or has been forced to leave following prolonged antagonisms, quarrels and sometimes extra-marital experiences.

Sometimes in seeking to heal or “improve the state of war” which exists between the main protagonists the parents involve close or more distant relations in order to have them on their side in the conflict. It is not so unlike a world war involving indirectly and sometimes directly other countries who were not involved with the initial conflict. There are unfortunately few if any individuals who will do what is right in the short and long term for the children involved such as developing harmony and a way forward between parents who are at odds over their children.

One could say that there are yet others who are protagonists, such as solicitors, barristers and social workers. The first two as is the custom are likely to adopt a partisan attitude and function. This is unfortunate but inevitable. Social workers vary in the role they are likely to play.

Judges also vary, but on the whole they are not eager to seek publicity by making decisions that are in opposition to societies current views and expectations of them as the “upholders of law and order”.

Hence few judges would threaten a mother with prison when she fails to adhere to a ruling of father having contact with the child. Even fewer would sentence her to actual imprisonment for failing to cooperate with the father as to him having regular and positive contact with their mutual child. The reverse situation, when fathers have custody (a rare occurrence) and he refuses to cooperate judges are much less likely to be so lenient!

What treatment does each party need?

Before the treatment or mediation, if it is suggested by the court takes place, an assessment of the situation of parental alienation must occur. Here we will concentrate on the most intimate protagonists only in what is essentially a tug of war between parents. On the whole, it is the father who seeks to have regular and positive contact with their child or children once having separated from the mother.

The mother due to the anger she often feels for the father is the principal alienator in this scenario and often makes such contact between the father and children impossible or with a strong tendency for it to be acrimonious.

This provides father with a reason for feeling dissatisfied and mother pleased with the fact that the children have sided with her against the father. There is almost certainly the likelihood that mother will deny that she is doing anything wrong indirectly or subtly turning the children against their father. It is under these conditions that the psychologist’s initial report of his finding will be critical and must be written for the benefit of the court. The psychologist must decide in fact whether parental alienation has actually taken place. This is often no easy matter. Before doing this, let us see how two typical interviews are obtained in the process of this assessment. These interviews have been summarised based on over thirty such typical assessments.

The assessment of parental alienation.

1.) Interview with the mother.

Dr L: I need to know what has happened to make it so difficult for you and your former partner to allow him to have contact with the children.

Mother: I really don’t know why you ask me this. You should ask the children.

Dr L: I will in due course, but now I am asking you for your own opinion.

Mother: It is his behaviour which has caused all this trouble. It is nothing to do with me. I don’t know why the children don’t like being with their father. It is nothing to do with me. I have always encouraged that they see him but they don’t want to do so or at least that is what they say.

(These last two sentences are typical of the response one gets from the mother who had directly or subtly turned the child or children against their father. Children who have had an good relationship with their father until the alienation process begins rarely turn against their father for no reason at all. One may note the strong element of passivity in the mother who claims she is helpless to alter the attitude of the children. She can get them up in the morning to go to school, visit the dentist or doctor when necessary but she cannot manage to get them to see their father.)

Dr L: Have you tried hard to get the children to think well of and to like their father, whatever happened between yourself and the father?

Mother: Of course I have. I have always tried to be a good wife and mother. I can’t force them to do what they don’t want to do whatever the judge says. They have their own minds and they just don’t like him anymore or want to be in his company. (Here again is an example of the mother showing her alleged helplessness.)

Dr L: How do you feel about your former partner?

Mother: I would rather not say… I am better off without him and so are…

(I have purposely left the last sentence incomplete since many mothers will not go so far as to say that the children are also better off without their father. That would be giving the true matter of the situation away and mothers are too clever on the whole to do this.)

2.) Interview with the father

Dr L: How do you feel about the situation as to why the children refuse regular contact with you or any contact for that matter?

Father: I have no idea. We were always so very close before I left home due to the unhappiness I felt everyone was suffering. Despite all that has been said I and my children had a lot of fun together. I can show you pictures and videos of the children with me and how much joy they expressed.

(Then usually father would shows these pictures and videos to the expert witness.)

Father: Here they are for you to see yourself. When I first left I used to telephone the children regularly and they were friendly and even asked to see me. They asked me when I was coming home again. I explained that I could not come home because of all the unhappiness with their mother but that I and she still both loved them.

(This last sentence is a crucial one and both parents should make it clear to the child or children why they have parted. It is unfortunate that it is less likely for the alienator to make such a statement of both parents caring for the child or children.)

Dr L: Has anything happened since you left or when you were still with the children to make them feel differently about you now.

Father: Nothing I can think of… I suppose their mother has been getting at them trying to do what she can do to turn them against me. I don’t know… I am not there. All I know is they are more like strangers now… Always looking at their mother to ascertain as to what they are saying and whether it is alright with her to be with me.

(This is the typical scenario based on the unhappy relationship between the partners and how this affects the children.)

Father: Things have got worse and worse over time, until the present when I have not seen the children for…

(Not seeing the children can last as long as weeks, months and even years. The longer there is no contact with the children the more difficult it becomes to establish future contact. Hence in such cases, “absence does nothing to make the heart grow fonder;” Just the reverse is the case. Eventually the children will be influenced that the father and his involvement with the children serves no value except in providing financially. This latter fact is taken for granted… He is after all their father and has the responsibility of providing for the children. If mother has independent means, even this role as the provider is no longer desired.)

3.) Interview with the child or children.

We will illustrate this by an interview with just one child, since this will illustrate how the child feels. The other children when they are present will almost certainly express similar views.

Dr L: You know why you are here with me, don’t you?

Child: To talk about why I don’t want anything to do with my father…

Dr L: That is right. What has changed so that you no longer want to be with your father?

Child: I just don’t want to… I don’t like him…

Dr L: Have you always felt that way?

Child: No I suppose not… but things have changed… I just don’t want to see him now… I don’t feel comfortable with him… I would rather be with my friends or play with my video game or be with my mother etc.

Dr L: You are of course aware that despite what you say, your father wants to see you, as he has always done because he loves you.

Child: I don’t think that is really true.

(The child has to think this in order to repel any contact with the father.)

Dr L: Why do you say that?

Child: Because of all the things he has been saying about my mother and the way he has been behaving.

Dr L: Why, what has he been saying or doing that you don’t like?

Child: He says lies about mother and what she is doing and makes me see people like you and solicitors and social workers and makes mother go to court, threatening her with going to prison. Even if she does try to make me be with him. Nothing is going to make me be with him or be nice to him… He has done so much harm…

Dr L: What has he done to make you feel the way you do? Give me some examples.

Child: I just don’t like being with him… He doesn’t want to do the things I like to do…He doesn’t like my mother and she has done nothing wrong… It is he who did the wrong things with my mother and me. I am also worried in case he might hit me.

Dr L: Did he ever hit you?

Child: No he hasn’t, but he could hit me or he might. He looks like he might.

Dr L: Did he never do anything right or anything you enjoyed doing with him?

Child: Maybe a long time ago, but not now. Maybe one day I will feel different but not now. I think I am better off without him and so is my mother. She is all I have and she is enough for me.

Dr L: He does love you, you know and provides for you.

Child: I know that, but that is because the law says he has to do it.

Once the interview has been completed the report is served to the Court. It is served with conclusions reached and recommendations made such as the need for mediation between the parties. Here psychologists differ in their approach. If the Court agrees, the treatment or mediation should begin as soon as possible. There is frequently considerable resistance to this by the alienator who seeks to put off this process for as long as is possible.

The treatment process to counter-act the parental alienation.

The initial report written has been offered to the Court. Much depends on the judge as to whether he or she recommends mediation for the purpose of finding a solution to what appears to be an intractable or impossible problem. If mediation is recommended, the psychologist makes it clear to the Court that all will be done which can be done to resolve the apparently intractable problem. The psychologist makes it clear that it is for the court to act as it sees fit, after the completion of the sessions of mediation and the report which has been written by the psychologist of his findings.

The psychologist makes it clear to all the members of the family that a report will be compiled including how those participating have cooperated with the mediation process. Those who fail to cooperate will have to take responsibility for what the Court decides should be done. The solution which must be reached is that each parent should have regular contact with the children. This naturally applies predominantly to the non-custodial parent that is the father. Hence the resolution must be not whether the father is to have contact, but rather the manner in which it is to be arranged and the way it will be heeded by all those concerned. Naturally this will not occur if for any reason the father is actually a threat or danger to the children, but not whether mother feels they may be in danger and has inculcated this idea in the child’s mind.