Difficulties in Treating Parents and Children who have been involved in the Parental Alienation process

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


What follows is dedicated to my friend, now sadly deceased, Dr Richard Gardner, pioneer in the assessment and treatment of Parental Alienation Syndrome. What I have learned from him and his writings I have benefited from tremendously. What I have not learned, I hope to learn in the remaining years left to me.

It cannot be emphasised too much that what follows is concerned with the harm done primarily to children who are alienated against one of their parents, both in the short and in the long term. This is considered to be of primary importance to those considering such cases. Of importance, but of secondary importance, is the harm done to the alienated parent, eager to play a role in the rearing of the child created by both parents. There are also likely to be serious consequences to the alienator when the victim of the alienation process realises what has been done and rebels against it. It must be said that the alienator tends to be the mother and hence the alienator and/or mother will be used inter-changeably in the course of this paper.

What follows will consider just seven inter-related aspects involved in the parental alienation process and some ideas about what can be done to tackle it. These points are:

  1. The problem.
  2. What are the facts regarding parental alienation?
  3. What is the common process of alienation?
  4. Why does parental alienation occur?
  5. What is the function of the expert witness?
  6. How and who can attempt to resolve the alienation process?
  7. What happens when the alienator is allowed to succeed in the process of alienating the child against the non-resident parent?

1. The problem.

As most expert witnesses will tell you, the few who appear in such cases find them the most challenging one can ever seek to resolve. How can one hope to resolve the anger between parents who use their child as a vehicle against the other parent. The process of alienation is usually successfully done. This is unfortunate for all concerned, most especially the child.

2. What are the facts regarding parental alienation?

  1. No parent is perfect in his or her role as one seeking to inculcate the best or ideal attitudes and behaviour in children. In this way they have the chance of becoming socialised and worthwhile adults.
  2. Parents do not always agree with one another in many areas including how best to raise their children. When both parents seek to dominate there are problems. This is because each parent wishes to work in an independent manner without considering the other. When one parent is willing to be tolerant and accept what the dominant parent would do there are much less difficulties.
  3. When parents separate or divorce, there are often reasons why one or all sides create acrimony.
  4. This acrimony often leads to anger which prevails until it is treated. It especially effects how children are treated and how parents communicate with one another about their children. Parents fail to cooperate together in seeking to establish a secure base which they both agree is best for their children.
  5. When the separation occurs, one of the partners, usually the mother, takes over the custodial role while the other partner plays a non-involved, less controlling, even peripheral role in relation to the children. In some cases the role is limited to providing financial support.

3.) What is the common process of alienation?

The process of alienation, where the child or children are brain washed against the non resident parent follows a sequence of events, albeit not always the same sequence in every case. It should be remembered that it is sometimes the father who carries out the brain washing or alienation against the mother who is absent. On the whole, however, it is more the mother who acts as the alienator. The power of the alienator cannot be over emphasised. Furthermore it is extremely difficult to reverse the influence that the alienator has over the child in turning that child against the other party, usually the father.

First and foremost, the alienated party is viewed as always wrong or even evil. For this the alienated parent, usually the father is castigated unremittingly. The past events leading to the separation or divorce are selectively scrutinised and communicated to the child. There is a strong element of paranoia in this. Past actions are viewed negatively and this is communicated to the child directly and sometimes subtly. For example, even acts of kindness or generosity on the part of the father is denigrated to be actually harmful to the child. If the father gives money or a present to the child, the amount is seen as paltry; the present as inferior in some way.

In a recent case of a severe example of parental alienation, a father gave his estranged daughter a manicure set. The child looked at the mother in connection with this present. Mother’s look said everything, but what was to follow did not help the child show or feel thankful or appreciative for what had been her father’s good intention. The father intended to make the child happy, instead the reverse occurred. The mother said, “I do believe this manicure set is meant for boys or men, as it is in a dark leather case. The one for girls or ladies would have had to be in a pink case!”

Hence anything the father has done or is doing is seen as wrong, bad, inadequate or paltry. The best of intentions on the part of the father are ridiculed. Simple and innocent statements made by the father are reinterpreted or exaggerated in a most negative way. Hence the parent who practices alienation against the absent or non-custodial parent is guilty of a serious ethical and psychological offence which will ultimately be harmful to the child. The alienator will frequently deny that they are actively or more subtly denigrating the other parent. This is especially the case when an expert witness comes on the scene or the alienator is before a Court of Law.

The child will on the whole accept and believe what the denigrator is doing or saying and will view it as right and fair. Such is the process of denigration, the denigrator will use all and any means to thereby sideline and remove the non-resident parent from playing any active or meaningful role in the rearing of the children.

Despite the obvious process of brain washing, the child via the alienator, will be encouraged to behave badly towards the alienated parent, usually the father. The alienator will claim or appear to be “encouraging the child to have contact with the father, especially when the father has sought to involve the legal process in order to seek regular contact with the child.” This is a false message which the alienator is presenting for the purposes of continuing the process of alienation.

The expert witness will, with knowledge and experience understand and expose these under handed tactics. He will realise they are used as a result of anger against the father or because the alienator has found another partner whom the alienator wishes to supplant for the natural father. Sometimes the alienator will accuse the father, unjustly of having physically, emotionally or sexually abused the child. They will seek to change the family name of the child to her own maiden name or the name of the new partner.

All these manoeuvres are for the purpose of destroying any influence or memory the child may have, especially good memories of their father. It is now not merely a process of denigration but the total annihilation of the father and his influence in the child’s life.

3. The process of opposing alienation by the expert witness.

The expert witness has a difficult role in gaining justice for an alienated father and for the benefit of the victim who has been alienated against one of the parents. The first job is to gather evidence that the process of alienation has taken place. This can be difficult since the alienator will attempt to mask his or her own alienation process as cleverly as possible. The alienator will therefore often seek to get the expert witness on her side by providing arguments as to why the father’s behaviour rather than her own has caused the child to reject the father. Here the mother will make such statements as, “it is not my fault that the child does not want to see her father…” Here will be presented a large number of facts or lies or exaggerations that will denigrate the unfortunate father even more. The alienator will then continue with the following, “I tried in every way to get the child to wish to be with her father…but I can’t force her against her own wishes and I am not going to do so…”

The expert witness obviously needs to go into the mother’s and child’s reasons for refusing contact. Firstly the expert witness needs to establish whether these reasons actually exist. Secondly, the expert witness needs to establish whether or when these reasons are removed, the child will then be willing to have contact with his or her father.
On the whole the response of the child will be negative, regardless of what the father promises to do or the changes that are likely to be made by the father. Nothing the father can do will lead to a change of mind in the child who had been unremittingly brain washed. The child will claim that the father will not really change and is only seeking to deceive. Sometimes the child will claim that the father has, “done so much damage.” that it is too late for good parental contact to take place. Hence there is no way the father can win regardless of what he does or says or intends which may have been suggested by the mother or the child.

It must be said here that the alienator here has been so totally successful in her process of alienation, that if there is contact forced upon the child such as supervised contact, the child will insult and seek to humiliate the father. The child has indeed become a tool of the mother and her blind and fanatical hostility towards the father.

It is a sad thing to watch such a scene taking place. Fathers will bring presents, seeking to show their love for the child and only receive insults and recriminations from the child. The child will even blame the father of causing so much trouble for the mother and for the child through the love he feels for the child and the father’s need to take legal action to obtain contact with the child. The child will in fact resent that they have to see so many people such as solicitors, psychologists, social workers etc.

It is at this point that fathers will often after many years of trying very hard to have positive contact with their children give up or stop seeking contact. The abandonment is then exploited by the mother as a sign that father never really cared for the child anyway!

Once the court has appointed the expert with the approval of both parents, or not the approval of both parents the parties will be in a state of war. The interviews that take place between the expert witness and the parties involved tend to result in each providing information which is to their benefit. The current psychologist believes firmly in using not only interviews but psychological tests in order to estimate the psychological state of each of the individuals involved. The report of these findings will eventually go to court. One recommendation may be that all concerned should be involved in the process of mediation to resolve the conflict. Once it has been completed, the expert witness must write another report of a comprehensive nature delineating what has occurred and what he feels about the process. This will be for the court to consider. The report provides a number of conclusions.

This further report must be considered by the court itself and there are a number of possible judicial decisions the judges may decide upon:

  1. There is no way the child can be induced or forced to have contact with the alienated parent or that the father is at fault in some way.
  2. No contact should take place until the child wishes for that contact to occur.
  3. The mother must sincerely or definitely make the child see her father and failure to do so will result in one or more of the following punitive actions:
    1. The mother is fined.
    2. The mother is jailed for failing to adhere to the court order for the father to see the child at a set place and time without the mother being present.
    3. A change of residence is given where the child must reside with the alienated parent for the time being or for good.

Most judges avoid course three and opt for courses one or two. There are a number of reasons for this. The problem of the alienation has succeeded so much that judges are reluctant to force the child to be with the alienated parent or to punish mothers who fail to cooperate in ending the process of alienation. Judges therefore consider it best to decide on what they consider to be the reality of the matter allowing the status quo to continue. This is done by them despite accepting that the mother has done wrong in having turned her child against the innocent victim, usually the father. They consider by removing the residence of the child with the alienating parent will cause more harm to result. Judges are likely to decide that as the child matures it will eventually make contact with the alienated parent or not do so.

Judges may consider the punishment of the mother and separating the mother from the child as more harmful than depriving the child of the father’s presence and influence. In so doing they are failing in their role of providing justice for the child and the alienated parent. They are also failing to consider the long term consequences to the child of having no contact with one of it’s parents. It will be for the more bold and pioneering judges to lead the way and set the bench marks for more judges to follow at a latter stage, considering what is true justice for all concerned.

4. Why does parental alienation occur?

Alienation occurs on the whole when there is extreme hostility by one or both parents towards the other. It does not occur when both parents both care and love their child and accept and respect that both parents whatever their differences have been, have a vital role to play in rearing or guiding their children as they mature.

It does, however, occur under one or more of the following conditions:

  1. When one or both parents are hostile to the other and seek to avenge past, real or imagined events of harm done to themselves by the now absent parent.
  2. When there has been and continues to be an acrimonious separation of the parents.
  3. When the alienator intends or has already sought an alternative partner and father figure.
  4. When the alienator seeks to totally shut out the father from having a positive relationship with the child.
  5. When the mental state of the alienator is such that no right can occur and the individual has adopted a paranoid virtually mentally ill approach to dealing with the separation with father and the rearing of the child.

5. What is the function of the expert witness (ew)?

The function of the expert witness will vary depending on the views of the expert. The present expert sees his function in the way as it appears in this paper. Other expert witnesses are likely to see their own functions differently. It is the view of the current expert that he will need to adopt a firm and decisive attitude having studied the case comprehensively. He will be in the position of drawing fairly firm conclusions. He cannot act as a typical therapist and be very tolerant and act on such toleration. He must work for all concerned to achieve the right decision and justice. The present expert seeks to promote what is best for all parties therefore concerned in the conflict. Of primary importance is the child whose future security and mental health is at stake and is being threatened by the process of alienation. This will be explained further in section seven, (what happens when the alienator is allowed to succeed in the process of alienating the child against the non-resident parent?).

The present expert views the process of alienation as unjust, evil and psychologically and otherwise damaging to the child, the alienated party and the alienator him or herself in the short and long term. It must be made clear that whoever does the alienating is wrong, be it the father or mother, since they are thereby depriving the child of the opportunity of establishing a positive relationship with one of the parents. On the whole, it must be said, that the mother has usually the control over the child and is most likely to be the alienator. It is for this reason the term alienator and mother have been and will be used inter-changeably.

There are four essential functions of the expert witness:

  1. To fairly investigate the allegations that parental alienation has or is in the process of occurring and provide a report of his or her findings to the court. This involves a thorough assessment of the parents and the children.
  2. To present his or her evidence to the court after drawing conclusions from the evidence ascertained from all the parties that have been studied intensively through interview and often through testing. (The method preferred by the current psychologist in addition to interviewing clients.)
  3. To appear before the court of law to provide information which will be helpful to resolve issues and help the judge to make a possible informed decision.
  4. To carry out a process of mediation of the court agrees in order to establish who is cooperating and who is not cooperating in seeking to find a solution to the long term battle between the alienator and alienated parent.

6. How and who can attempt to resolve the alienation process?

As has been seen it is extremely difficult to reverse the process of alienation or brain washing which has taken place when the mother seeks to denigrate the father in every possible way. The child is tremendously influenced by the custodial mother in this, especially when mothers have total control. It is vital therefore that the expert witness is involved to help to resolve the alienation process, but he cannot do this on his own. The role of the court is essential in working together with the expert to resolve the alienation which has been taking place often for years.

It is rare for the expert witness to obtain the cooperation of the child and parents. The expert will need the backing of the court. If the individuals concerned realise that the court may decide certain issues in a particular way they will frequently succumb and give up their process of alienation as in the case of the alienator. The alienator will then seek to back track or seek to convince the child in question to cooperate in having contact with the father. In some cases, however this does not occur and the alienator will continue to the very end to seek to denigrate the other party and prevent any form of positive contact with the father.

Despite the difficulties, definite decisions will have to be made by the court. These decisions can only be influenced by the expert witness who has examined the matter in as much detail as possible. It will be for the judiciary to decide on how best to act and a number of suggestions have already been made as to how this can be done. Course three of the judicial decisions possible needs to be imposed or threatened to be imposed. Courses one and two of the judicial decisions possible are unlikely to reverse the process of alienation.

7. What happens when the alienator is allowed to succeed in the process of alienating the child against the non-resident parent?

The success of the alienator is always to the detriment of the child as the child matures. It is of course detrimental to the non-resident parent but this must be considered secondary to what harm has been done to the child. Such children are gradually but inevitably convinced that the other parent is wrong, evil and only has negative intentions. When the child is given time to have contact with the father, the child scrutinises the father with vigilance looking for ill intentioned actions. These are then reported back to the mother. Sometimes the child will even create situations and information in order to please the mother as she continues her process of “brain washing.” The child in fact knows what the mother wants to hear and will act accordingly. Anything positive or nice said about the father is unlikely to impress the mother with whom the child has identified so closely.

The child is aware of what the mother wants to hear since the child identifies totally with her point of view about the father. This view could persist into adolescence and as a mature man and woman. This in turn could interfere with a girl being able to develop a healthy relationship with an adult male later in life. In the case of a boy the initial identification with the father figure has been disturbed leading to later problems.

In both cases realisation as to the alienator and what the alienator has done could lead to feelings of severe guilt (not present at the time of the alienation) for what was done to the father. There are also likely to follow recriminations against the alienator by the child who is now an adult once more independent thinking has developed in the former victim of alienation.

Certain symptoms of maladjustment have been observed and recorded about children who have been victims of the alienation process. These have been delineated by Gardner (1998) and others. These include the child developing behavioural problems, suffering from depression, having difficulties at school, sleeping, suffering from such psycho-somatic conditions as enuresis and encopresis. They may also suffer from a number of neuroticism traits such as extreme worry, anxiety, guilt, lack of motivation towards school work, loss of appetite or suffer from over eating. They may self harm or even have suicidal ideations.

When the alienator behaves as she does these repercussions are not envisaged as possibilities. Such children also often suffer from impulsivity, as already mentioned impaired stable human relationships, deceitful, the absence of empathy and a great disregard for the feelings of others especially members of the family of the alienated parents. These and other long term and short term effects do not always occur in every child, but there is a great danger that some certainly will and hence short term solutions are likely in the long term to lead to tragic consequences.

In a time when so many relationships either through marriage or otherwise lead to separation or divorce it is vital to consider the impact on children of the alienation process. It will perpetuate almost certainly the poor relationships which currently exist between many people in the marital or other state of partnership. This only occurs however when hostility develops between parents and this must at all costs be prevented. If it occurs it must be treated appropriately. Otherwise we will be developing a generation of more victims of abuse and the alienation process will persist on ad infinitum.