Attempting to Solve Child Contact Disputes (Recent Research)

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



The concept of seeking contact with children following an unhappy and acrimonious relationship is increasing due to greater separation and divorce of couples as time progresses. Of particular concern is the value of contact for non custodial parents and long-term effects on children when this does not occur. Courts have not been altogether in agreement on the value of the term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) albeit it is not dissimilar from parental alienation without the syndrome being added. It is therefore for those professionals who attend court as expert witnesses to consider that they use parental alienation as a preferred term until PAS has been established through the APA and BPS. The harm done to children by parents who are in an acrimonious relationship despite being separated cannot be over-estimated. It appears to follow a pattern from one generation to another.


Research will be conducted into contact disputes as well as the still uncertain concept of parental alienation (PA) versus parental alienation syndrome (PAS). The final part will be to discuss the role and plight of the non custodial parent.

The author has carried out considerable work in the area of children who have been alienated by a parent and thereby prevented from effective contact with their other parent. As an expert witness the author has been involved in dealing with courtroom cases, but more often than not attempting to find some way of reconciling differences between the warring factions through the process of mediation. This has sometimes been successful but at other times has failed dismally due to the fact that the Judiciary did not, on the whole, work together with the mediator (Lowenstein, 1998a, 1998b, 1999). Often it is necessary to carry out an initial investigation into the role of the parents and the attitude of the child in the dispute (Lowenstein 1999, & 2001).

It has not as yet been well understood how children suffer in the short and long term from the effects of parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome (Lowenstein, 2002) and how best to deal with the problem (Lowenstein, 2003, 2005).

Research into Contact Disputes

There is a considerable difference of opinion in how to involve children in decision making. The primary concern is always the child/children. This however, is not far behind the two adults responsible for the child/children’s welfare since the child/children’s welfare coincides with both parents, whenever possible, playing an important role or having responsibility for the rearing of the child/children. Children however, should have a meaningful voice in decision making (Warshak, 2003) but one must be absolutely certain from where the child’s decision comes. More will be said concerning this when alienation takes place against a non resident parent. Whatever happens the child/children should not be placed in the position of taking sides whether this is involved in joint custody, over night stays, relocation or any other way of both parent playing a meaningful role.

In recent times there has been a tendency for fathers to have more contact and sometimes even custody of a child/children due to feeling of sexual equality which is currently the view. Mothers therefore have substantial fears that they may lose custody as a result of such equality (Heiliger, 2003). Mothers realise since they are not the main bread winner that divorce puts the emotional, economic, and educational well-being of many children in danger. Therefore, courts today seek to involve both parents in the child’s life rather than having to choose between them. Mediation and education have sometimes replaced the courtroom as the primary forum for resolving parental disputes (Schepard, 2004).

Parents are often encouraged to formulate a visitation plan that is “reasonable”. What is reasonable in a court must also have an air of reasonableness to the parents. Unfortunately one or both parents are often unreasonable in the manner in which they make decisions on visitation and contact (Hauser, 2005).

A major issue in divorces that involves children is the allocation of parental time. In many divorces, parents work out, with greater or lesser difficulty, time sharing arrangements that satisfy both them and the court. In many other situations, parents cannot agree on how to allot time, and the court must decide on temporary or long-term plans. While sensible people have always recognised that no single time sharing arrangement is optimal for all children, often the court has to order who has custody. This can lead to one parent without access. The involvement of an expert witness who helps the court to make decisions can result in good solutions from time to time but equally can lead to parents, one or the other, turning against the solution by the expert who they feel is “against” them (Dember & Fliman, 2005). Many parents consider an expert to be biased against them.

Contact has been high on the agenda since the UK Government report, “Making Contact Work” (2002) which examined various means for facilitating contact between non resident parents and their children. More recently the issue has featured prominently in the headlines since in England and Wales a “father’s rights group” has complained about the injustice and have made demands to change the law so that fathers could have contact, or increased contact, with their children. Thus far little has been achieved in relation to better contact through these methods (Kaganas & Sclater, 2004).

Perhaps too little attention has been paid to the tremendous harm that has been done to children when parents are in conflict over their care. Parental conflict is a more total predictor of child adjustment than is divorce and conflict resolution is important to children’s coping with divorce (McIntosh, 2003; Lowenstein, 2005).

Parental Alienation Syndrome versus Parental Alienation. Is that the question?

The term parental alienation has been accepted as it is an undeniable fact that it frequently occurs as a result of conflicts in separation or divorce. The term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has not as yet been recognised by the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations or the British Psychological and Psychiatric Associations, despite there being peer reviewed discussions on Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome.

A study from the Netherlands by Spruijt et al (2005) reported that about 20% of children did not have any contact with their non resident parent after parental divorce. There were many reasons for broken contact, one of which was the process of parental alienation, when the child denigrated and excluded the non resident parent. Parental alienation was responsible for 42% of reasons for broken contact. The extent of parental alienation was classified as mild in 33% of cases, and moderate in 9% of cases. There were no severe cases. The authors used the term parental alienation syndrome and indicated that it occurred significantly more often when decisions with relation to children were not take together by the parents but were determined in court. The authors considered that compulsory mediation was the better way forward in many cases of PAS. (The author of this current article indicates that this is a useless exercise unless the court works directly with the mediator and supports his views. Only the courts have the power to impose sanctions and serve a penal notice on a parent who has been recognised to have practised parental alienation against the non custodial parent. A parent can take part in mediation to appease the court but at the same time carry on the practise of parental alienation with the child. Mediation in this case is a waste of time especially if the court does not take on board that parental alienation has taken place and action against the alienating parent needs to be taken to stop this process. Mediation alone will not do this especially if the custodial parent and alienator is entrenched in a programme of implacable hostility and is still carrying on a programme of alienation in a subtle way with the child.)

Caplan (2004) considered that PAS is a group of symptoms occurring together and constituted a recognisable condition. Emery (2005) considered PAS still of minimal scientific standards and preferred the use of the term parental alienation (PA). The signs were also stressed by Shopper (2005). He felt that alienation by definition involved the estrangement or transfer of feelings away from one person and onto another. Within a family, the attempts at alienation may take the form of undeserved criticism and bad-mouthing of a parent or an emphasis on the mistakes or inadequacy of the parent. For a younger child, the distinction between dis-identifying with a character trait versus dis-identifying with a parent as a whole may be beyond the child’s developmental abilities. In most cases the older child perceives that there is no denunciation of the parent as a whole but only of a circumscribed aspect of that parental behaviour.

In place of the term parental alienation syndrome, the term “medea syndrome”, or “implacable hostility”, or the “malicious mother syndrome” can be used. These terms are used to describe a conscious or concerted effort to disrupt the child’s affectionate relationship with the other parent and co-opt all of the child’s affection on to oneself. In the course of the alienation, the non resident parent is portrayed as such a demonised and dehumanised individual as to render that person unfit for either affection from or a positive relationship with the child. Alienation in any setting or cause can best be viewed theoretically and clinically as a subtype of what the author terms “disorder of created reality”. “Disorders of created reality” refer to a situation in which a person’s own autonomous sense of reality testing and reality appreciation are devalued, and overwhelmed and replaced by a different irrational reality concerning the rejected non custodial parent.

There are considerable problems in relation to PAS and the Judiciary, who realise the non acceptance of the term by the APA or BPS and use this to avoid making decisions upon it’s diagnosis. Hence PAS has been unfairly criticised by both judicial and mental health communities despite the fact that there is considerable evidence that it exists. Critics sometimes go so far as to deny it exists and then equal the term with parental alienation (PA). It has of course been well recognised that PA does exist but even then some courts have barred testimony on this, even from professionals who have dealt with the truly rejecting behaviour of an alienated child (Andre, 2004). The child as a result is often forced to reject one or other of his/her parents in the short term due to the false belief that the non custodial parent is a bad, horrible person, who causes problems and unhappiness for the family and the custodial parent. In the long term the child loses the parental input and contribution of the rejected parent to his/her upbringing. The child also faces many psychological problems in the future due to the process of alienation which will reflect on his/her future behaviour and happiness. This resulting damage is not in the best interests of the child. Furthermore, the child loses contact with a parent with whom they once had a close and loving relationship.. The result is the sorrow and confusion of a rejected parent, and the pathology of a hateful alienating parent. Given the large number of children of divorce who are likely to be vulnerable to this condition there is potential for far-reaching and tragic circumstances for individuals, families and society. Those who reject the term PAS or the rejecting behaviour of one parent towards another consider it simplistic and not supported by findings from recent empirical research (Johnston & Kelly, 2004).

A number of attempts have been made to define both PA and PAS. All consider that it is the persistence of conflict between the two parents in regard to their children based on extreme hatred towards the non resident parent (Batchy & Kinoo, 2004). Some investigators have considered that PAS or PA are similar to the false memory syndrome (FMS)(Gardner, 2004 a&b). Both share in common a campaign of acrimony against a parent. Both also persist in strong negative attitudes and rejecting behaviour towards that parent with corresponding emotional enmeshment with the other parent (Johnston, 2003; Johnston et al., 2005). What is perhaps most hard to bear for the rejected parent is that the parent is rejected where previously he/she was loved. All this is due to ex spouses still being in conflict with their former partner (Gagne et al., 2005). Child custody evaluators commonly find themselves confronted with resistance when they attempt to use the term parental alienation syndrome or even parental alienation during their time in courts of law. Although convinced that the individual being evaluated suffers from the disorder, they often find that the solicitors, attorneys or barristers who represent alienated parents, although they agree with the diagnosis, discourage use of the term in the evaluators reports and testimony. Even those who are biased against the whole concept of alienation and consider the view that father’s who are often the rejected parent are actually inadequate individuals. Such injustice fortunately is not general (Van Gijseghem, 2005).

Gardner (2002 & 2003) has for a long time been a great advocate of PAS rather than PA before the judiciary. This is despite the fact that up to now DSM-IV diagnosis has not recognised the term PAS. This should not be confused however, with the fact that such a syndrome of combination of aspects are related to parental alienation as to virtually term it a syndrome. It was the hope of Gardner (2003) that PAS would be recognised in due course by the judiciary in order to make prudent decisions in child custody disputes. Some courts indeed do recognise it. Proponents of its use applaud it as a distinctly diagnosable phenomenon and appreciate the clarity it brings to diagnosis and treatment of intra and inter-family dynamics. Some critics sometimes go so far as to deny it exists. Some courts who have recognised it have made good progress while other courts bar testimony on it (Andre, 2004). Despite this there are those who still oppose its use and the concept of PAS (Emery, 2005). It is the view of the current author that it makes little difference whether the term PAS or PA is accepted as it is self evident that this situation exists and that the alienating process does much harm to children as well as their parents.

At present the extent of the problem of parental alienation is unknown and there are often multiple factors that may contribute to the refusal of children to have contact with the parent. It is however, always recommended that there be therapeutic intervention when this occurs albeit the custodial parent will often refuse or be opposed to such a procedure (Falco, 2003).
It is unfortunate that the legal systems in many areas of the world find it difficult to reverse the refusal of a child to see a parent. Courts tend to give in to the views of the child irrespective of what has caused these views to be developed (Gardner, 2003).

Are Non Residential Parents of Value?

Although the rejected parent is predominantly the father, it does also occur that mothers are the rejected party. There is now some evidence that concrete aspects are related to fathers being left out or rejected in the child’s life. Snow (2003) found that divorce affected more than 1 million children each year in the United States. Within two years of their parents divorce, roughly 50% of the children will have contact with their father less than twice per year. Conflicts tend to arise when a parent has disparate definitions and expectations of the other parent’s role performance. Obstructions or threats to the enactment of good relations create conflicts between the parents. This conflict often escalates when parents see themselves as a victim of the other parent.

One study (Jones, 2004) found that when there was a good relationship between the father and his children despite divorce, academic performance in school rose. This study found that boys living without their fathers were under-functioning when compared with boys living in father-resident homes. This indicated the importance of fathers in promoting academic school performance for boys.

Hence numerous studies have found the importance of involving fathers after divorce or separation and how paternal involvement improved the adjustment of young children from zero to six years of age and older (Insabella et al., 2003).
It is unfortunate that at present non resident parents such as fathers have little input with their children aside from providing financial support. Results suggest that efforts should be made to continue to examine non resident father’s involvement. Fathers should do more than providing leisure and recreational activities, which is currently the case in non resident father-child contact.

Novick (2003) pointed out the importance of Gardner’s book on Parental Alienation Syndrome and how it emphasised how quickly the process of alienation should be checked and reversed to prevent it becoming an ongoing way of life. Rand et al., (2005) went so far as to insist that children be forced to visit the target parent even if they did not wish to do so. The authors felt that absence from a non custodial parent was likely to make matters worse. There should be immediate contact and this was important for maintaining a relationship with both parents in the future. Children who had enforced visitation with the target parent or were in the target parent’s custody, maintained relationships with both parents unless the alienator was too disturbed pathologically and continued the alienation process. Unfortunately many alienators violated Court Orders with impunity.

A Dutch study by Spruijt et al. (2004) emphasised the value of the non resident parent and father having close and regular contact with adolescent young adults. Increasing frequency of contact with the non resident father over time seemed to correlate with diminishing internalising problems.

Long term effects of Parental Alienation on children

There have been very few long-term studies of children who have suffered from parental alienation. One such study by Baker (2005a) consisted of a retrospective study conducted with 38 adults who experienced parental alienation as a child. Individuals participated in one hour semi-structured interviews. Audio tapes were transcribed verbatim, and submitted to a content analysis for primary themes and patterns. Findings pertaining to the long-term effects of parental alienation were analysed. The results revealed several major areas of impact:

  1. Low self-esteem.
  2. Depression.
  3. Drugs/alcohol abuse.
  4. Lack of trust.
  5. Alienation of their own children.
  6. Divorce.
  7. Other negative results, such as difficulties in their own relationships with the opposite sex and a variety of psychological problems which vary according to the individuals and their experiences.

Another study by the same author Baker (2005b) revealed that adults whose parent alienated them from the other parent described the alienating parent much the same way former cult members described cult leaders. The alienating parent was described as narcissistic and requiring excessive devotion and loyalty, especially at the expense of the targeted parent. The alienating parent also was found to utilise many of the same emotional manipulation and persuasion techniques cult leader used to heighten dependency on them. Finally, the alienating parent seemed to benefit from the alienation much the way cult leaders benefited from the cult members. They had excessive control, power, and adulation. Likewise, the participants reported many of the same negative outcomes that former cult members experienced such as low self-esteem, guilt, depression, and lack of trust in themselves and others. These findings provided a useful framework for conceptualising the experience of parental alienation and it was maintained should also be used by therapists who provided counselling and treatment to adults who experienced alienation as a child.


Parental Alienation and the Parental Alienation Syndrome is very much alive. Children are being deprived all over the world of an essential part of their childhood, their loving parents and connected loving family members. In essence they are being deprived of half of their own personality since both parents are the founders of the child(ren). Both parents are therefore needed for a healthy development of the child(ren). The long term effects – all be it that long term research needs to increase – are devastating for the child(ren). The APA and BPS can no longer deny the existence of PA and PAS and should start an open dialogue on these subjects. If they do not then the APA and BPS are not meeting their responsibilities towards the healthcare of children and adolescences.


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