Emotional Abuse of Children Due to Implacable Hostility Between Parents
(Is it PA or something else?)

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



This article attempts to distinguish between subtle and more direct forms of alienation by one parent or both parents seeking to influence the child against the other parent. This is a form of emotional abuse which is harmful to the child in the short and long term. This strategy is used and is most effective when used by the custodial parent. The result is the child apparently not wishing for contact and a relationship with the now absent parent. This is despite the fact that the child had a good relationship with that parent before the acrimonious divorce or separation. This separation led to an implacable hostility between the parents. The question frequently asked: “Could the alienation be due to something else other than the influence of a parent to turn the child against the other parent? Attempts are made to answer this question.

Emotional Abuse of Children Due to Implacable Hostility Between Parents
(Is it PA or something else?)

Quotation from the Honourable Judge Gomery of Canada:
“Hatred is not an emotion that comes naturally to a child. It has to be taught. A parent who would teach a child to hate the other parent, represents a grave and persistent danger to the mental and emotional health of that child”.

In what follows we will consider what causes the emotional abuse of children once parents have separated and suffer from continuing implacable hostility towards one another. This sometimes leads to parental alienation. This is an active form of abuse of the child.

Parental alienation yes, no, sometimes?

There is still some uncertainty in the family courts, whether parental alienation or the even more controversial concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), does or does not exist. As an expert witness to the courts, the current writer has experienced entrenched positions by the judiciary which are as follows:

      1. parental alienation is irrelevant when an older child (over 8-10) refuses to have contact with an absent parent;
      2. there is a total denial that the concept of parental alienation exists at all.

In what follows the current writer considers when and how parental alienation exists and when it does not exist. Illustrations will follow of actual cases where parental alienation occurred. There are also actual examples provided where there were other factors responsible for no or little contact between the child and the non resident parent, because the child him/herself was opposed to such meetings with the non custodial parent. It must be added here that the custodial parent may have done nothing to dissuade the child from having contact with the absent parent, but may not have encouraged it either.

It would therefore be ridiculous to conclude that parental alienation always exists in every case of an acrimonious divorce or separation or that it never exists at all. Each case must be investigated intensively by a truly independent expert witness to establish the reason or reasons why a child refuses contact with the absent parent whatever the age of the child. Any generalisation by experts must be viewed as suspect since each case must be seen with an open mind rather than a set notion or hypothesis which is biased in one direction or another. It is however, important to establish the real cause of why a child fails to wish to have contact with a parent, especially when no hostility was present before the acrimonious divorce or separation and the child enjoyed a successful and good relationship with the now absent parent. There is a need to find an explanation as to why no contact is wanted. There are at least three possible explanations:

  1. The non custodial parent has done something which the child dislikes or fears, since or before the parting of the parents to change the child’s view of the now absent parent, despite the fact that the child enjoyed a good relationship with the now disparaged parent.
  2. The absent parent has done nothing wrong towards the child or anyone else, but the child has been influenced by the custodial parent, usually the mother, or someone else to view the absent parent negatively or with animosity.
  3. The absent parent may have behaved only “mildly” inappropriately or negatively, such as showing anger/hostility toward the partner and/or the child, but this behaviour has been exaggerated due to the effort of the custodial parent. One might say that it constitutes a quasi or “semi-alienation”.

In the case of numbers (ii) and (iii), there is now considerable evidence that children who experience such alienation are likely to have experienced emotional or psychological abuse. The symptoms which many children manifest will be shown in the next section.

Emotional abuse of children due to parental alienation

In recent times there has been an emphasis on child sex or physical abuse. Little comparative research and concern has been expressed in relation to children suffering emotional or psychological abuse. Children suffer emotional abuse for a number of reasons. Emotional abuse due to PA is a form of rejection and aggression frequently expressed by a parent who suffers from a variety of psychological disturbances including, in some cases, mental illness.

It frequently occurs in reaction to an acrimonious divorce or separation leading in turn to implacable hostility by the custodial parent. One of the parents has left the home and both, before as well as after the parting show bitterness toward one another. Both parents love the child but only one has custody. If bitterness remains, this results in the child becoming a weapon with which to beat the opposite parent. The results are that one parent, usually the mother or custodial parent turns the child against the other parent, and frequently punishes or rejects a child who opposes such “brain-washing”. The hatred which continues against the other parent leaves the child with but one parent which the child wishes to please or appease and to whom the child clings fearing the possible loss of that parent also. This is usually the one who has gained custody and on the whole it tends to be the mother. Such hostility is, however, frequently also expressed when it is the father who gains custody, and mother is the alienated party.

A child who fails to “side” totally with the more influential custodial parent is frequently coerced into reflecting the views of the custodial parent in that the other parent (usually the father) is bad, violent, aggressive or unworthy in some way. Failure of the child to adjust to such alienation, leads to the emotional abuse of the child with severe consequences likely in the short and long term (Lowenstein, 2007, 2006a,b,c,d,e,f,g; Baker 2005a,b, 1997; Gardner. 2004 a, b, c, 2001 a, b, 2000). This conclusion comes from studies concerned with the assessment of what happens to children who suffer emotional abuse after having been exposed to the process of alienation by one parent against the other and sometimes by both parents.

Frequently children are unaware of how they are being manipulated by a parent leading to a loss of contact with the absent parent. I will illustrate this by a number of conversations that have been recorded on tape based on ‘in vivo’ telephone conversations between alienating parents and the child. In order to disguise the participants, I will use terms such as ‘M’ for mother, ‘F’ for the father, and ‘C’ for the child.

Example 1

(M) to (C): You know your father is coming to pick you up and take you out this Sunday?

(C) Yes, I look forward to seeing dad again. It’s been a long time.

(M) You realise it’s the day your best friend may be having a birthday party although it isn’t certain yet.

(C) He hasn’t definitely said this yet. The date hasn’t been fixed.

(M) What do you want to do if he has the party on Sunday? You wouldn’t want to miss it.

(C) What do you think I should do mum?

(M) It’s up to you what you want to do. The party will be good and you will meet lots of your friends there. Your father could see you another time couldn’t he?

(C) But dad will be very disappointed won’t he? He likes me to see him on his only day off.

(M) It’s up to you: shouldn’t we call dad so that he won’t have a wasted journey coming here when you would rather go to your friend’s party?

(C) OK, you call him and tell him.

(M) No it’s up to you.

(Mother picks up the telephone to ring father. She hands phone to child)

(C) It’s me dad. Are you alright?

(F) I am really looking forward to seeing you on Sunday.

(C) Are you? Me too. Mother wanted me to let you know that my best friend may be having a birthday party on that Sunday.

(F) What would you like to do?

(C) I don’t know dad. You know I would like to be with you. What do you think I should do?

(F) I do really want to see you, but if you would like or prefer to go with your friend and his birthday party I understand. Most of all I want you to be happy.

(C) Can we see each other another time.

(F) Of course but I will only have time off work in another month’s time.
Here we have an example of subtle manipulation by the child’s mother. Mother is providing the 8 year old with desirable alternatives instead of having contact with the absent father. Without the mother’s intervention the child would certainly have spent the valuable time with his father. Mother should of course have encouraged the child to have the alternative of being with his father rather than thinking about the birthday party which had not been definitely fixed. Instead she has practiced a subtle form of alienation which is also emotional abuse of the vulnerable child who needs to see his father in order to keep contact with him and to have the influence and guidance of that father.

In many instances, the keeping of the child away from the absent parent is much more direct leading to the child being totally alienated eventually from the absent parent. In the next example it is the father who has custody, with the mother having been awarded weekly contact with the child a 10 year old daughter.

Example 2

(F) Your mother called last night. She wants to take you to see a ballet. I hate ballet with all those gay men prancing about. What about you?

(C) I have never been to a ballet. What do you think I should do?

(F) I can’t afford to take you to the ballet. I don’t know where she gets her money from. It’s all I can do to keep house and home together working all hours. You know what your trouble-making mother is like. She has gone and left us for that young chap. She’s having a good time with no responsibilities. She is trying to break up our family. She won’t stop until she has you living with her and that man she is with. How would you like that to happen?

(C) Dad you know I will never leave you.

(F) It’s not easy working and looking after a child and a house. She’s fancy free. I have tried to be a good father to you.

(C) You have been dad. It’s mother who left us.

(F) I worry about the guy she is with. I have heard some terrible stories about what step-fathers can do to children. I wouldn’t like anything bad to happen to you when you are with your mother but there is nothing I can do while you are there.

(C) I am not sure that I want to go to mum.

(F) It is up to you but you had better call your mother for if you don’t go to her she is very likely to take me back to court. You know what she is like.

Here we have an example of direct manipulation of the child’s mind and attitude to the parent with whom she has previously enjoyed a close relationship. The marriage between the parents had been a stormy one with each attempting to score against the other. This is in contrast with what they should be doing, encouraging the child to enjoy the company of the other parent instead of demeaning that relationship and the parent in the eyes of the child. It is almost certain that the mother in this illustration equally vilifies her former husband as a “control freak”, the reason for which she left the family. Her current relationship with a more ‘laid back’ partner, whom father virtually accused of child abuse, appears to be going well.

This is the kind of atmosphere that must be seen from the child’s emotional point of view. The child is in an insecure position, due to hostility between the parents. Each parent is seeking the child’s love and loyalty totally towards him/herself and to reflect and identify the hostility towards the other parent. This is likely to lead to a number of short or long-term emotional and behavioural problems in the child (Baker, 2005a). These are delineated also by Lowenstein, 2007) and include behavioural problems at school and/or at home, learning difficulties, sleeping and eating problems and other difficulties that are likely to arise. Had a more harmonious relationship existed between the parents, or one where they put the child first, rather than each other’s hatred or dislike for one another, then the child would have benefited from contact with the other parent. Their final consideration should be what is best for the child instead of prolonging the antagonism between themselves.

What to do

Once it has been established that parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome has developed as a result of an acrimonious relationship between the parents, one or both parents may be considered a danger to the emotional security of the child, but this judgment is rarely made. Their behaviour should be considered inimical to what may be termed “good parenting behaviour”. Their behaviour often endangers the child and makes it more likely that the child becomes emotionally and often behaviourally disturbed. This however, is rarely considered. Courts faced with the prospect of knowing how to deal with the child who opposes contact with an absent parent are likely to take the easy way out, instead of the right or justified way. Few judges or magistrates will remove a child from a custodial parent to place that child with the absent parent when such abusive alienation is present. This occurs for the following two reasons:

1. The child “appears” to be adamant that he/she wants no or very little direct contact with the absent parent. The courts do not consider why or what are the underlying reasons.

2. Judges consider, sometimes incorrectly, that the absent parent must have done something to deserve such an adamant refusal by the child to see him/her.

Judges rarely look behind the true reasons why a child is likely to reject a parent with whom, in the past, that child enjoyed a close and happy relationship. It is far easier for judges to assume that “something must have happened” between the absent parent and the child to lead to such rejection. Furthermore, whatever the child’s reasons for wishing no or limited contact, judges on the whole consider that a child’s wishes, especially if the child is above a certain age, must be respected.

There are many expert witnesses (psychologists and others) who go along with such a view instead of being responsible and truly independent professionals by seeking for the true reasons behind the child’s refusal for contact. It has already been pointed out by the writer, that the child may have witnessed or experienced negative behaviour towards himself/herself or the custodial parent by the now alienated parent. In that case there is some valid justification why the child will reject contact with the absent parent. Even here, however, the judiciary, at least in some cases should conclude that efforts must be made to therapeutically and then gradually reintegrate the child with the non custodial parent, whatever the reasons for the child not wishing contact. This is, as ever in the best interest primarily of the child, who benefits most from having the enduring love and guidance from both parents. I will exclude, however, here any parent who has physically, sexually or otherwise abused the child. Here contact should be considered very carefully if at all.

At the same time, efforts need to be made to establish or re-establish at least a possible harmonious relationship, between the parents in any even limited way possible, so that the responsibility of being two good parents can follow. Again this is primarily for the benefit of the child. The judiciary must be determined that the separated parents will do as the court directs, because this is also in the best interest of the child in the short and long-term. That parent who fails to fulfil the directions of the expert and the court, needs to be aware that there will be consequences for such a lack of co-operation. This is the meaning of “true justice” and it is this, and only this approach which will prevent the emotional abuse of the child and the consequences of such emotional abuse.

In the case where the custodial parent practices alienation, subtly or directly in order to turn the child against the absent parent, the influence of such a parent on the child leads clearly to abuse. The child is in no position to counteract such destructive influencing of his/her mind. The child is coerced or bullied into adopting the view of the custodial parent. This is a form of “brain-washing” which can only be stopped by removing the child from such an influence. If the custodial parent is unwilling or unable to refrain from demeaning or demolishing the role which the absent parent can play voluntarily, then there are only two right and just alternatives available:

1. To remove the child from the parent to a neutral venue such as being placed in care or in a foster-parenting situation.

2. The child is handed to the non custodial parent with access to the custodial parent providing neither parent will further alienate the child against the opposite parent.

Once parents are capable of speaking well of one another and working with co-operation in the interest of the child the emotional abuse of the child will end. If this co-operation does not occur, then the parent who does the least damage by not abusing the other parent in the child’s mind should have custody of that child.

Is it parental alienation or something else which causes a child to avoid contact with an absent parent or can it be a combination of both?

Anyone working with cases of alleged parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome is confronted from time to time with difficulties in making a decision of whether in fact parental alienation has or has not occurred. In a recent case in which I was involved involving a teenage boy this fact may be illustrated. One of the main problems that existed in the relationship between the mother and the father was that the father wanted his children brought up with rules and structure whilst the mother was permissive and more relaxed in her approach to the upbringing of the children. One interview with the a teenage boy, one of the children in the family clearly shows the hostility that the boy had for his father. The participants were the psychologist (P), the child (C) and the father (F).
(P) You say that you have never been influenced in any way by your mother to not wish to see your father?

(C) That’s correct. My mother has never done anything to me to stop me from seeing my father.

(According to the Father the mother had criticised him a great deal to the boy and this undoubtedly had affected they boy not wanting to be with the father.)

(C) It had nothing to do with my not wanting to be with my father. I have always hated him and hate him even more now and don’t want to be with him or to see him. I have to do it because of the court decision but it isn’t something I want to do.

(P) Why have you always hated your father that much that you don’t want to see him.

(C) He has treated me badly. He used to smack me even for little things for which I didn’t deserve to be smacked, and generally I don’t like him as a person. He acts very stupid sometimes, in fact quite often. He doesn’t seem to be able to think straight.

(P) Is that a reason for not wanting to have any contact with your father who has of course done a great deal for you and wants to do even more for you in the future?

(C) I don’t want anything from him. I don’t even like to say thank you when he does anything for me. I have always hated him and the more I am with him the less I like being with him.

(P) Didn’t he take you last year to Disney World and you had an enjoyable time there?

(C) Yes I went there.

(P) How was it?

(C) It was OK.

(P) I noted that you never even said thank you to your father for taking you to that place and spending all the money to help you enjoy yourself in Florida.

(C) He doesn’t deserve to be said thank you to.

(P) But you did go to Disney World and enjoyed yourself.

(C) Yes, but that doesn’t mean I owe him a thank you.

(P) Don’t you think out of courtesy that he is owed at least a thank you even if you do dislike him that much.

(C) No he doesn’t deserve to be thanked.

(P) And this is all due to the fact that you had some smacks when you were younger?

(C) And he did lots of other things which I can remember that made me unhappy.

(P) Did he ever do anything that you enjoyed or liked doing which you could have said thank you to?

(C) No I can’t think of anything good about me being with him. The less I see of him the happier I am. My court order says I have to see him every other week and that is why I am doing it. Otherwise I wouldn’t and when I am 18 I will no longer want to see him at all.

Here is an example of a child not wanting to have any contact, or as little as possible contact, with his father and not even being willing to say thank you when his father does something nice or he enjoys the activities that father provides. The boy is showing implacable hostility towards the father. One may well ask if the occasional smacks that he received as a child and other incidents the boy claims happened worthy of having that type of reaction. Furthermore the boy states that he has never been in any way influenced by his mother, (who is remarried), in turning against the father. This is hard to believe and there are several views that can be expressed here.

Here are some of them:
1. How much did mother do to openly encourage the boy to have contact with his father?

2. Why was the boy so adamant about not even wishing to say thank you to his father when he had a good time with him and enjoyed the time out? Was this deliberate, a lack of respect or just plain bad manners which were encouraged by the custodial parent, or at least not discouraged?

3. Was the boy unable to show that he had a good time with the father because this would displease the mother?

4. Did the boy therefore feel that he should not acknowledge the good times with the father and felt that he should say something negative against the father all the time?

It is undoubtedly true that here we have a case of implacable hostility allegedly not due to any form of alienation by the custodial parent. But is this so? It is difficult to verify whether no form of alienation has occurred, subtly or otherwise. One thing is certain the boy is adamant about not wanting contact with his father and claims that no-one influenced him in this respect. However, there is evidence that children observe and learn from their parents and the parent’s own attitudes towards others and life in general. Is it not possible therefore that the child has observed negative behaviour/feelings towards the father by the mother and copied this accordingly? What are psychologists to do in cases such as this in order to provide the child with an optimum future and care knowing that ultimately both parents want to be involved with the child?

Much depends on the principles adhered to by the psychologist. As already mentioned on a number of occasions, the current psychologists approach has always been that two parents are better than one providing neither parent is abusive either sexually, physically and emotionally. It is clear in cases such as that described it is likely to be an uphill battle to get a young person to feel any sort of warmth for a parent for whom he feels such hatred, or indeed to relate to him in any way. Nevertheless it is the view of the current psychologist that all efforts should be made to try to heal the rift between that child and the parent, whether or not the process of alienation has occurred or not.

In the case quoted, previous reports by other psychologists read by the current psychologist, indicate mother is disparaging of the former partner such as calling him a “jerk” among other things. Clearly the child has no recollection of any pleasant events between himself and his father or wishes somehow not to reveal these pleasant events due to selective memory. One must note that such implacable hostility towards a parent is not rare especially when no favourable memories of any kind are recollected by the child in question. It is the view that the individual wishes to shut out anything positive that he has experienced with his father in order to continue the process of hate against that person. Whether or not alienation occurred, which is denied by the boy, is another question. It could well be that the child is unaware of the fact that the process has occurred and is reacting to it. If it has not occurred then certainly the hostility felt by the child towards that parent is excessive to say the least. It is not at all in keeping with having received a few ‘smacks’ as a child, since many children receive such punishments without reacting many years later with such animosity.

In this case efforts were made for over 10 hours in an intensive therapeutic approach to seek to change this boy’s views about his father, being aware of the fact that father could offer him a considerable degree of support in the future, especially in relation to payment for his education and other supportive efforts. The seed of seeking to make the young person grateful for what in fact father had done already was sown in the boy’s mind and since a good relationship had been developed between the psychologist and the boy concerned, it was felt that following the ten hours of intensive work some changes had occurred in the thinking and hopefully the future attitude and behaviour of the child in question.

All this points to the fact that there are considerable complexities to the reactions by a child following marital break-up and an acrimonious divorce in relation to how it affects children. Eventually one must deduce signs such as the over-reaction of hostility of the boy to his father, his lack of recollection of any positive events in the past and the fact that he had enjoyed the company of his father, even though he did not wish to admit it, or be grateful for it.

It was the view of the current psychologist that it was the psychologist’s task to heal such wounds of hostility between a child and his parent even when there was no obvious or direct evidence of parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome. This was my main aim when therapy took place in this case. It was obvious that alienation of some kind had taken place for the boy to have such a negative attitude toward his father. This negativity was unlikely to have been caused by the father’s behaviour alone. One of the problems that existed was that each parent had a different attitude toward the rearing of the child and therefore did not work together in order to maintain a harmonious or at least positive co-operation for the benefit of the child. This in itself added to the eventual situation when separation occurred. The differences became more apparent and the child was reared by the custodial parent (the mother in this case) who was more laid back and less structured than the father. This coupled with the negative attitude of the mother toward the father led to the implacable hostility of the boy building and building to the point where no contact was wanted from the boy with his father. The implacable hostility which was observed by and possibly learned by the child therefore grew worse over time. The only course open was to try to heal the rift that had occurred and not to dwell too much on the fact that alienation had taken place. Hopefully in time the boy would realise the value of contact with his father and how this had contributed to his life despite the feelings of acrimony that existed.

This is but one case where alienation was suspected but denied. Some of the behaviour of the father toward the child at some stage in the child’s life was possibly responsible for some of the feelings of hostility but not all. Some kind of hostility, lack of respect and general acrimonious feelings had been transferred from the mother to the child towards the father. Father had tried to give the boy positive and good experiences for which the boy was not grateful and felt that the father “did not deserve” his thanks. This surely had not developed on its own and the boy was suffering from this situation by not appreciating his father and what his father did for him despite the hostility shown to him by the child. The court in this case were not remiss in ordering contact but alongside of this the alienation should have been stopped and the child given some form or early intervention in the form of remediation of his behaviour toward his father. The little that was attempted was too late, Although seeds of reason were planted for the future possible growth.


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