Attachment Theory and Parental Alienation

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



Following an acrimonious divorce or separation arguments are frequently presented as to why a child should not be with a non resident parent. The custodial parent whether a father or a mother uses the concept of a child being attached to him/herself and therefore this should prevent them from having actual or reasonable contact with the absent parent. This view is based on antagonism between the former partners rather than the importance of the attachment theory being relevant. The attachment theory is also used to discredit the intentions of the non custodial parent. This is especially the case for the younger child. With older children this is not likely to be as relevant. The history of the development of the “attachment theory” commencing with Bowlby and Ainsworth are presented and the counter arguments are also presented. Attachment to mother is obviously important initially but attachment to father is equally important to the child and such bonding is likely to lead to positive emotional and behavioural development. It is therefore argued that both fathers and mothers have an important role to play and are or should be responsible for the rearing of children. The acrimony between the couple should not be considered as relevant as it is in fact the real reason why attachment theory is used against a non resident parent.

Attachment Theory and Parental Alienation


Following an acrimonious divorce and a considerable degree of antagonism between the former partners, use is frequently made by the custodial parent of the importance of the “attachment theory”. It is used for the purpose of discrediting the intentions of the non custodial parent in seeking contact with a child.

It will be the intention to describe this particular theory and its founder John Bowlby in regard to infants and young children and their need to be closely attached to one figure, usually the female, in a relationship. As an expert witness to the courts, particularly in family problems, where there is a dispute as to whether the absent parent, be it father or mother, should have contact with his/her children, I am constantly being requested to comment on the value of considering the attachment theory as a reason for not allowing contact between an absent parent, (usually the father) and his children. When this occurs my response tends to be based on the research that has been conducted over a period of many years as to whether an attachment to one parent should mean the lack of attachment or association with the other parent.

It must first of all be stated that research into this area has been considerable commencing in the 1940s and continuing to be researched in 2007. I will illustrate this technique through an example of a particular court appearance wherein I played the role of the independent expert witness.

Example of use of attachment theory to prevent contact

Mrs X and Mr Y were involved in a constant dispute over many years dealing with a number of children. Mr Y had requested regular contact with all his children but each time Mrs X with the support of certain specialist paediatricians and psychiatrists had refused such contact. She claimed Mr Y would disrupt her child’s capacity for being close to herself and this feeling she had was more important than having contact with their father. It was a typical example of 19 cases the current psychologist has met where this ploy of using the attachment theory had been used, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully.

Comments on the research conducted into attachment theory

According to Bowlby the infant is primarily seeking proximity with an identified attachment figure and will experience considerable distress and alarm if this is not provided (Bowlby, 1951, 1999). Reference has even been made that failure to provide such attachment is likely to result in a dismal future for such young people, including their turning to juvenile delinquency (Bowlby, 1944). The attachment theory has been found as being dominant in the understanding of early social development in children (Schaffer, 2007). There has also been criticism of attachment theory, most especially the theory of maternal deprivation published in 1951 (Bowlby, 1951). Bowlby stressed however that this closeness of attachment need not be to one person alone but for the child to have a secure relationship with a number of care givers was necessary to improve normal social and emotional development. Hence the role of fathers and siblings has not been found to be ignored since here too attachments are made which provide for further security for the infant and young child.

Mercer et al. (2006) emphasised the importance of human attachment behaviour and emotions as being based one evolution and involved a selection for social behaviour that makes individuals or groups more likely to survive. It is encouraged that toddlers and very young children benefited from being with familiar people from the point of view of safety and learning early to adapt to others. It must also be said that toddlers in their first months have no preference for their biological parents over strangers and are equally friendly to anyone who treats them kindly. Preference for particular people, and behaviour which solicits their attention and care, develop over a period of time (Bowlby, 1958). On the whole infants become attached to adults who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with the infant and who remain consistent care givers for some time, and this could include fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters (Bowlby, 1969; Ainsworth, 1969).

There are critical periods. Certain changes in attachment, such as the infant’s coming to prefer a familiar care giver and avoid strangers are most likely to occur within a fairly narrow age range. The period between 6 months and 2-3 years is likely to be the time that a specific care person might be preferred. Attitudes to care givers whether father or mother does change with both real and vicarious experiences (Mercer et al., 2003, 2006; Bowlby, 1973). The attachment attitude involves the seeking of proximity to other persons and may include a variety of other attachment behaviours and for the protection of unfamiliar persons (Ainsworth, et al 1974).

Attachment theory accepts the customary primacy of the mother as the main care-giver, but there is nothing in the theory to suggest that fathers are not equally likely to become principal attachment figures if they happen to provide most of the child care (Holmes, 1993). Hence the infant and young child will form attachment to any consistent care givers who are sensitive and responsive to social interaction with the child.

Rutter (1995) considers four main changes to have taken place over the years to 1995. He finds that it has become apparent that there are more differences than similarities with imprinting. It appears to be of value to children to be involved with a small number of people but the involvement should be close and as early as possible (Bowlby, 1988).

According to David Levy (1935) in a very early study of adopted children, early emotional deprivation of meaningful adults could have a disastrous affect in the long term on such children. It is also for this reason that some children reared in an institution and receiving care there are likely to be limited in their emotional development compared with children raised by two parents (Bowlby, 1988).

Bowlby took considerable interest in the work of ethologists such as Lorenz and the work of Tinbergen. This research showed how attachment works in the animal world. Bowlby collaborated with Robert Hind (Van der Horst et al.,2007) on the subject of attachment and human development. A study by Sir Michael Rutter (2002) showed that there is a considerable amount o of optimism in the manner in which children who have been rejected in early life in Romania and who were adopted by British citizens make considerable progress with their new families. It must be remembered that they were separated from familiar people in Romania.

Sroufe & Walters (1977) consider there are different ways by which children achieve security at different ages and in different environments. Hence there are different attachment styles.

Measurement of attachment styles

Ainsworth and others sought to construct a way of determining the type of attachment which a child may have towards its mother:

  1. Secure attachment – the child protests the mother’s departure and quiets promptly on the mother’s return, accepting comfort from her and returning to exploration.
  2. Avoidant attachment – the child shows little or no signs of distress at the mother’s departure, a willingness to explore the choice, and little response to the mother’s return.
  3. Ambivalent attachment – The child shows sadness on the mother’s departure, ability to be picked up by a stranger and even warms to the stranger and on the mother’s return shows some signs of ambivalence, signs of anger, reluctance to warm to her and return to play.
  4. Disorganised attachment – a child presents stereotypes on the mother’s return after separations, such as freezing for several seconds or rocking. This appears to indicate the child’s lack of coherent coping strategy. Children who are disorganised are also given a classification of secure, ambivalent or avoidant, based on their overall reunion behaviour.
  5. Secure attachment – the attachment figure responds appropriately, promptly and consistently to the emotional as well as the physical needs of the child. She helps her child transition and regulates stress, and as a result, the child uses her as a secure base in the home environment.
  6. Avoidant attachment – here the attachment figure shows little response to the child when distressed. She discourages her child from crying and encourages independence and exploration. The avoidantly attached child may have lower quality play than the securely attached child.
  7. Ambivalent attachment – The attachment figure is inconsistent with her child; she may at some time be appropriate and at other times neglectful to the child. The child raised in an ambivalent relationship becomes preoccupied with the mother’s availability and cannot explore his environment freely or use his mother as a secure base. The ambivalently attached child is vulnerable to difficulty coping with life stresses and may display role reversal with the mother.
  8. Disorganised attachment – this can be associated with frightened/disorientated behaviour, intrusiveness/negativity and withdrawal, role/boundary confusion, affective communication, errors and child maltreatment.

It must be said that this assessment procedure can equally be used with fathers as with mothers and the result is likely to be an effective way of assessing the attachment between the child and that parent.

Using the attachment theory is one of the more insidious, wrong, unfair and unjust arguments offered by parents who do not wish their former partner to have any/or most limited contact with their children. This view is then supported by a number of psychologists, psychiatrists and paediatricians who, instead of being independent in their views, have sided with the custodial parent, usually the mother.

There is of course evidence that under normal conditions, a baby or very young infant gains in security by being closely attached to the primary care givers. This is usually the mother but father’s influence can and should soon follow. The father when given custody will often also prevent the children being in contact with the mother providing similar reasons to that previously mentioned.

Whoever has custody, the argument for parenting or limited contact between the non resident parent and children is unsound, and not in the best interests of the children. Neither Bowlby (1969), nor Ainsworth (1969) ever considered that their research and theory should be used to lead to the nullification of either a father’s or mother’s contact with their mutual children (Garber, 2007). Bowlby (1969) in his conducted research often speaks of the undeniable bond between infants and their primary care givers (Eagan, 2008).

More currently, research indicates that whilst mothers may be the primary care giver for a short time, fathers and other family members including grandmothers and grandfathers, can and often do play an important role in promoting attachment to a number of people. Attachment can be defined as the strong bond that develops first between the parents and the child and later other individuals on both sides of the family. Divorce between parents can, but need not necessarily lead to detached attachment bonds and the possibility of the process of alienation.

Many parent who truly care for their children consider what is in the children’s best interest. Such parents, whether fathers or mothers, do as much as possible to praise the absent parent rather than depreciating the absent parent. In this way children will continue to feel a close attachment towards the absent parent despite the separation of the parents themselves. This will be of real value to the children in the short and long term and also their separated or divorced parents. This will allow children to feel they are loved and cared for by both parents equally.

It is the implacable hostility between the parents that destroys the capacity of the custodial parent to encourage good contact between the child and the now absent parent. The child needs to feel a positive and valuable attachment to both parents to do as well as possible in his/her development. Parents who put the welfare of their children first do not practice alienating the children against the other parent, because of an acrimonious relationship and separation. They put their love and knowledge of what is in the best interest of the children first, and their acrimony towards the other parent second, whatever the reason for the relationship ending.

Such parents realise the importance of encouraging the attachment, not merely towards themselves, but towards the now absent parent. They do not use the “attachment theory” for the purpose of obliterating the contact between the children and the now non resident parent. It is unfortunate that the Judiciary fail to note this fact.

Hence, the family courts often listen to, and adhere to the advice provided by inexperienced experts and unprincipled experts who are not truly independent but favour one of the parents who has custody and who benefits, at least in the short term, by obliterating the guidance and love that could be provided by the absent parent. That now absent parent being deprived of contact resolves despite the fact there was in the past very often a positive relationship between the child and that now absent parent. Hence the attachment theory used and hence misused and abused in the manner described helps the custodial parent unfairly and unjustifiably to retain total control of a child/children leading to what is not in the best interest of these children.

It must be reiterated that no expert would or should allow or encourage contact between children and sex or physically abusing adults, “once this has been proven as fact”. Unfortunately it is not always proven by factual evidence when the custodial parent alleges that physical or sexual abuse between the child and the now absent parent has occurred. This is also used as a weapon for curtailing or totally eliminating contact between children and the now absent parent (usually the father).

This again is evidence of how the attachment theory has been misused as an argument, albeit a false one based on keeping a parent at bay. Even a study of adopted children shows that positively formed attachment heightens the chance for a well adjusted life regardless of the biological or non biological relationship of the attachment figure (Juffer, Stams & van Ijzendoorn, 2002). Also Harlow (1958) found that infant monkeys became attached to surrogate mothers in the form of heated cloth covered objects when they had no contact with their real mother.

The effect of divorce on children

There is a large list of studies considering the effect of divorce on children and the resulting loss of one parent. (Booth et al. 2000; Lowenstein, 2007) referred to various national studies when stating that poor school performance, low self-esteem, behaviour problems, distress and maladjustment is often associated with divorce.

In adolescents from divorced families, it has been noted that there are more instances of delinquent behaviour, early sexual activity and continued academic issues and problems. Blakeslee & Wallerstein, (1989) add that small children may suffer from sleep problems. Boys especially suffer from lack of contact with a major attachment figure and causes them to have troubles in school (Amato & Keith, 1991; Amato, 2001). Parents who remain together in severe conflict are also not immune to producing problems in children (Blakeslee & Wallerstein, 1989).

It is unfortunate that as a result of divorce, one of the parents loses his/her position in the family and hence there is the threat that the attachment to the absent parent by the child may be damaged or destroyed (Cordero, 2008). The child is at the same time powerless to influence the situation, especially when the custodial parent, who is all powerful, discredits the absent one. The child may also have formed a negative impression of the absent parent during the trouble between the parents. This may be independent of, or combined with, the alienation process conducted by the custodial parent (Garber, 2004) against the non custodial and now absent parent.

When, however, as Garber (2004) states the main or custodial parent encourages by word and action good contact with the non custodial parent, this will increase the child’s security and attachment to the now non resident parent. It also leads to a positive relationship between the non custodial parent and the custodial parent. This can often be achieved with the help of a therapist (Freeman et al., 2004). It is, however, difficult to achieve when there is ongoing alienation being practised by the custodial parent (Lowenstein, 2007) while the therapy is taking place. The process of alienation or brain-washing against the absent parent, as already mentioned, causes much to harm the child in the short as well as the long term. The child has already witnessed much unpleasant acrimony between the two most important supports of his/her life. When this is followed by separation of the parents and one or both parents are determined in seeking to turn the child against the other parent, this ongoing vilification destroys the child’s security. The child’s mind is being manipulated mostly by the more powerful custodial parent (Kopetski, 1998).

The attachment theory, unfortunately used as an argument is especially powerful with the younger child with the unjustified claim being made that visits to the alienated parent causes the child distress! This distress, it is claimed is for two main reasons:

  1. The child has been separated from the parent with whom he/she has a strong “attachment” in the past.
  2. The child is unhappy being with the alienated and now vilified parent because it has not “formed an attachment” to that parent and therefore does not want to be with that parent due to the influences received, mainly by the custodial parent.

The child will eventually identify totally with the view of the custodial parent since there is no counter presence or influence from the absent parent. The influence of the absent parent and the potential for attachment to the child becomes less and less strong when there is decreasing or no contact. Eventually, the child wishes no further contact at all, or very limited contact with the absent parent since the attachment has to some degree been severed of broken. The impact of maligning the absent parent as evil, immoral, untrustworthy, irresponsible and feckless, has turned the child away from a formerly loved parent.

The court, noting the situation of the child’s lack of desire for contact with the now absent parent accepts this unquestioningly. The view expressed by the court is that the child’s rights must be protected. The child’s need for two rather than one parent only is not accepted. Instead the child’s right to make allegedly his own choice is paramount. The courts, fail due to the element of subterfuge which has led to the child making the decision he/she makes. The concept of the attachment theory cleverly lends itself well to this kind of scenario of deception.

What should the Judiciary do?

The Judiciary should be aware of how a parent may use various ploys for preventing contact between the child and an absent parent including the use of the attachment theory. This theory can, and is frequently misused by claiming that a child is harmed by being absent from contact with the custodial parent. It is claimed that the child regresses as a result of this absence from the primary parent, allegedly the mother mostly, including suffering from disturbed sleep, enuresis and a number of other negative symptoms.

This reaction is mainly due to the fact that the custodial parent rarely if ever praises the absent parent as worthy, because of the separation of the parents. If the case is reversed and the custodial parent speaks highly or well of the absent parent, the child is likely to wish to be with both parents as it was in the past when the parents lived together and perhaps even loved one another. When the child claims that he/she does not want to be with a parent and gives as a reason(s) that he/she has no reason for not wanting to but that he/she does not wish to leave the custodial parent then the court should investigate further. The reasons should be investigated in depth. If the reasons given are found to be unreasonable or illogical the process of alienation could well have taken place. This results in a child not wanting contact because he/she is so “attached” to the custodial parent.

Such parents very often state “I have encouraged him/her to be with her father/mother but he/she doesn’t want to…….Do you expect me to force my child against his/her will?………Hasn’t the child got the right to decide?………I will not force my child…….”

In the case of sex or physical abuse having certainly been shown to have occurred, the Judiciary can demand no contact between the child and the abuser. When this is not the case the Judiciary can order that contact occurs even when the child claims not to wish this. How can an attachment occur with an absent parent when a child does not see that parent?

It is unfortunate that at present some psychological experts are being manipulated by acrimonious, vindictive custodial parents to do what is not in the best interest of the child both in the short and long term. At the same time such experts encourage and even stronger attachment between the custodial parent and the child at the cost of the absent parent. This is by sacrificing the non resident parent who is increasingly and often totally obliterated from being involved and hence attached to the child.

As an expert in and outside the courts, I am often demonised for my principle of believing that both parents should play a responsible role in the life of a child. This is in the best interest of the child, all things being equal, and neither parent is harmful to, or abuses the child. This is a view with which many eminent bodies agree including the United Nations and the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations.

Any parent who fails to respond to this need of contact with both parents requires treatment as does the child who has been thus alienated. Failure of the custodial parent to accept this necessitates the removal of the child from the control of such a parent and placing the child with the parent who will instil in the child love and respect for the other parent. Hence the court must act decisively imbued with the knowledge that such action is necessary and truly in the best interests of the child.


1. From the assessment of the research into attachment disorder it becomes clear thaton the whole mothers have the greater initial influence on their children due to their likelihood to be involved from the very beginning, firstly in carrying the child, and secondly giving birth to it and having early contact.
2. Fathers are equally, frequently and increasingly involved in bonding with their children and therefore they are too care providers despite other areas taking priority such as work in many cases.
3. Attachment to the child therefore, all things being equal, is close in both parents provided there are no pathological situations arising such as separation or divorce which frequently lead to implacable hostility between the two partners and affect the child-rearing process. It is here that attachment to the now non resident parent is threatened when there is no, or little, contact with the child.
4. Hence while the child/children are close initially to both parents, due to circumstances of acrimony between the couple this may well be altered, but attachment remains the same if one considers in depth what the child has experienced and feels, despite the possible alienation that child has received from the custodial parent against the absent and non custodial parent.
5. Psychologists and the judicial system must be aware of the fact that both parties in the relationship have an equally important role to play.
6. The child/children’s futures are best served by harmony between the parents especially in relation to child rearing. It is vital for the court when making decisions on contact to be aware of the possible alienation or brain-washing process by the custodial parent against the absent parent, before making decisions which are vital to the welfare of the child/children’s futures.

Final Statement

The concept of attachment as a theory is a two edged sword. It has been used as a weapon to prevent contact with children by a custodial parent of either gender. The argument goes something like this: the custodial parent, especially of a younger child, but not exclusively of a younger child claims that the child has a strong attachment to themselves and for this reason should not be, or cannot be forced into having a close relationship with the absent parent who is usually the father.

Frequently there has also been a process of alienation practised against the absent parent. This has led to the child identifying totally with the custodial parent and therefore has little or any contact with the absent parent.

The concept of attachment, however, emphasises also the importance of a child being attached to both parents and not merely to one who has or seeks total control over that child (usually the mother). This leads to a battle of wills between the parents with the power almost totally in the hands of the custodial parent.

The question which is not always asked is: “What is in the best interest of the child?” There is considerable research that demonstrates that children will do best if they have a relationship with both parents rather than just one parent providing none are abusers of the child. If there is acrimony between the parents this could be a sign that some form of alienation is likely to be occurring.

The only way attachment to the absent parent can continue and to develop, or redevelop, is for there to be regular and prolonged good contact with the non resident parent. This is an important fact frequently forgotten or ignored in the effort to keep the non resident parent away or excluded altogether. This is not done because it is in the best interest of the child, but because it is the best interest of the often controlling and vindictive custodial parent.


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