Is the concept of parental alienation a meaningful one?

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


Abstract & Summary

Many members of the Judiciary do not yet accept the concept of parental alienation (PA) or parental alienation syndrome (PAS). It has not as yet been included in DSM-5 or ICD-11. The author discusses the concept of PA as meaningful and resulting from serious conflict before, during and after separation of parents. It results in a child failing to have good contact with the now absent parent, despite the fact that the child previously had a good relationship with that parent. The concept of PA is defined and is differentiated into types . The behaviour of the alienator and the alienated parent is described. The incidence, symptoms and diagnosis of PA is also delineated, as are the long term effects and treatment of PA.

Is the concept of parental alienation a meaningful one?


The object in writing what follows, is to explain the concept of parental alienation as presented by numerous experts including theorists and academicians, as well as practitioners. Only a number can be chosen to represent answers especially in relation to the incidence of parental alienation, the causes and various other aspects.

Many Judges still do not recognise parental alienation of parental alienation syndrome. This is because it has not yet been included under ICD-11 or DSM-5. These judges have a preference for using such a term as “implacable hostility” leading to children avoiding or resisting contact with a once loved and now absent parent due to the hostility between the parents.

My work has been with families in turmoil due to such events as strong hostilities between parents following divorce or separation. This has imperiled the opportunity of children to enjoy the guidance, love and care of two loving parents following separation or divorce. Many experts have accepted the term parental alienation and even parental alienation syndrome, although the latter has not been fully acceptable by some experts.

In what follows, an attempt will be made to seek the views of a number of experts in the area of parental alienation who have defined the condition, followed by the incidence and types of alienation. Some time will be spent providing information concerning the alienator as well as the alienated parent. It will be made clear that it is not only mothers who alienate children against fathers, but equally so that fathers alienate children against the mother. It is less common because mothers tend to have custody of the children.

We will also look at how different experts note the signs or symptoms of prental alienation and how this is diagnosed. The long term effects of parental alienation are particularly important to consider and a number of researches have been carried out to produce this information. It is more difficult to find the treatment approaches that are effective in dealing with this problem but this will also be looked at.

Defining parental alienation and reaction of the alienated child

Kelly & Johnston (2001) defined an alienated child as “one who expresses freely and persistently unreasonable negative feelings an beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection, and/or fear) towards a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent. Before that Bricklin (1995) identified three categories of “not based-on actual interactions” (NBOAI) by providing three situations, these are:

1. The child expresses a strong favourable verbal opinion of the parent he/she wishes to live with and a strong negative verbal opinion of a parent he/she “never wanted to see again”.
2. If given a questionnaire the child will endorse only favourable things about the parent with whom that child resides and only negative statements about the parent who is no longer living with the child.
3. When the child was asked to give real life examples of negative endorsements, these examples were mostly trivial or downright irrelevant.
Most of the children studied by Stoner-Moskowitz (1998) had diminished self concepts following divorce conflict. More recent research by Bow et al. (2009) noticed that the concept of parental alienation was recognised by professionals in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia. This was also commented upon by Bernet (2010).

Types of alienation

Alienation is practiced by both mothers and fathers but is more common in mothers since mothers more often have custody of the children and are in a stronger position therefore to control the contact between the child and the now absent father. Examples of both fathers and mothers doing the alienating will be presented later.

Gardner (1992a) on a number of occasions has put forward three types of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) severe, moderate and mild cases. One of the most severe manifestations of parental alienation is when a parent, usually the mother, alleges sexual or other types of abuse against the father. From time to time this had led to serious custody disputes ending in a murder of a mother and children carried out by the maddened father suffering from an inability to control his emotions at losing his children (Kelly & Johnston, 2001). In this case mother had consistently and continually renewed allegations of molestation against the father until the father finally carried out the dramatic act of murder of both children and the mother. Similar, but not as drastic a result occurred in the case of an early German study by Reich (1945, 2006). William Reich, MD wrote his book showing how divorced parents defend themselves against narcissistic injury by fighting for custody of their child and defaming their former partner.

Children get caught up in the aggressive exchange between the parents due to the fact that a number of divorcing parents encourage their children to get caught up in this conflict by getting to take sides and a considerable degree of brainwashing takes place by the parent with custody (Benedek & Schetky, 1985b). Such pathological alignment of a child with one parent against the other has also been noted by Wallerstein & Kelly as early as 1976, before the concept of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome surfaced. The objective is always to hurt and punish the other parent and planting seeds of doubt such as, “do not trust your father…….” conveying to the child the danger of a father to themselves (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989).

Dunne & Hendrick (1994) noted that the syndrome can occur without reference to the length of the relationship prior to the separation. It was also noted that although the alienating parent was more often the custodial mother, the alienation by a non custodial parent, usually fathers also occurred.

Douglas Darnall (2010) a clinical psychologist with over 25 years of experience published “Divorce casualties: protecting your children from parental alienation”. Here he distinguished between naïve, active and obsessed alienators. He described each of these as follows: naïve alienators made negative comments about the other parent but without serious intent to undermine the child’s relationship with that parent, their negative comments tend to be careless remarks to support the child’s relationship with themselves and not the other parent. Active alienators are more consistent and determined in their alienating behaviour. There is a strong intention to criticise and undermine the targeted parent. They however realise what they are doing wrong and that it is potentially harmful to the child. The obsessed alienators are so determined to destroy the child’s relationship with the targeted parent that they go to extremes and adapt a totally negative view of the targeted parent putting pressure on the child to reject that parent.

The alienator and how they behave

Briklin (1995) evaluated a large number of children who voiced strong opinions about the parent with whom they did not wish to have contact. Many of the statements were inconsistent with other information. The child made statements in relation to how they were manipulated, bribed or coerced by the alienating parent. Interference in visitation or contact with the other parent was the most notable sign of a child having been manipulated (Vassiliou, 2005). The author of this paper refers to the importance of listening to what a child says but being extremely critical of the statements made about the alienated parent. Expert witnesses and the Judiciary frequently fail to do this. As Turkat (2005) points out the child’s visitation interference is a direct result of a custodial parent suffering from parental alienation syndrome. The absent parent is considered to be untrustworthy, unlovable, lacking in care, malicious, and suffering from a number of negative labels inculcated by the alienating parent (Garrity & Baris, 1994). Such alienation is carried out sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly. False or unfounded accusations of abuse against the absent parent are delineated and children become fearful of displeasing or disagreeing with the alienating parent (Bone & Walsh, 1999).

The alienated parent

The alienated parent is in a highly disadvantaged position to counteract the process of alienation that takes place. This places children in an impossible situation and the need to support the alienating parent in order to avoid the fear of losing that parent as well. The child feels a certain degree of sadness in not being able to spend time with the once loved and now absent parent and the absent parent feels similarly (Colarossi, 2007). Everyone loses in the situation and this type of result of alienation has been reported from many parts of the world as previously mentioned (Bernet, 2010).

Fathers as alienators

Expert witnesses, especially if they are male, are frequently attacked for being biased against the female gender. Certainly in the case of the current expert witness this cannot be assumed to be the case, fathers indeed have been found also to alienate the children against the mother, whether the father has custody of the child or not. A case observed by Weinstein (2010) in Bernet (2010) on page 14 gives an example of father’s programming of children against the mother and portraying the mother as a diabolical creatures. He illustrated this by providing subliminal suggestions made by fathers against mothers such as: “Your mum’s not much fun is she>…….Your mum didn’t call you today, did she?…..Your mother didn’t take you to the doctor when you had a cough did she?….We had a great time at the zoo today didn’t we?….Your mother wasn’t with us though, was she?”

In another case an example of a father, who was an aristocrat in the UK, programming a child against the mother was found by Stone (1993) in a book entitled “Broken Lives – Separation and Divorce in England 1660-1857”. This case involved a high profile individual, the Duke of Buckingham. He instructed the household never to allow the mother to see or communicate with the child. He also thoroughly poisoned the child’s mind against the mother. This happened at a time when fathers had supreme power over families and children. Such power was often misused.

Incidents of parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome

A number of investigators have attempted to establish what the incidence is of this condition. Hetherington & Kelly (2002) discovered that 6 years after divorce, 20-25% of the couples studied engaged in just such conflicting behaviour leading to parental alienation. This is quite a large amount and not necessarily supported by other investigator’s incidence. This figure however, was supported by the work of Clawar & Rivlin (1991) who found that in about 80% of the cases studied there was some element of parental programming in an effort to implant false and negative ideas about the other parent. The intention was to turn the child against the other parent.

A smaller number of subjects studied (8) found that PAS affected the relationship between the child and the parents in 8 out of 10 cases. Only 6 of the 8 subjects studied had recovered their relationship with the alienated parent.

Signs of symptoms of parental alienation of parental alienation syndrome

There have been a large number of studies which examined this particular feature. Gardner (2002b, 2002c) noted that after high conflict divorce and separation children rejected, without justification, a previously loved parent. These children were also preoccupied with deprecation and criticism of the absent parent which were found to be unjustifiable or exaggerated (Gardner, 1992a) . Planting of doubt in the mind of the child concerning the absent parent was noted by Wallerstein & Blakeslee, (1989).

Perhaps the most famous behavioural symptoms were coined by Gardner (1987a, 1992a, 2001b) and Gardner et al. (2006). These included a campaign of denigration towards the absent parent, weak frivolous and absurd rationalizations, lack of ambivalence, the independent thinker phenomenon, reflexive support of the preferred parent in the conflict, absence of guilt over cruelly exploiting and being hostile to the alienated parent. Gardner also noted that there was a spread of animosity to the extended family of the alienated parent.

In some extreme cases the alienating parent suffers from delusions which affected the child’s thinking (Kopetski, 1998a). Similar results were obtained by Johnston (1993) again finding that the child consistently denigrated and rejected the other parent. There was also a fear of losing the chosen parent if total and unquestioning loyalty was not bestowed upon them (Johnston et al., 2009). Burrill (2001) noted that in custody disputes at least two court appearances were likely over a 24 month period with the alienating parent seeking total control of the child and rejecting the absent parent. Such alienating parents frequently referred to their children suffering nightmares when thinking about the absent father or dreaming bad things about them (Bernet, 2010). Sometimes this has led to a condition termed “folie a deux”. The alienated child maintains the delusion of being persecuted by the now absent parent. In the extreme form false allegations of abuse are made which consist of either physical, sexual abuse or neglect (Brock & Saks, 2008). Lewis (2009) in a later study emphasised that the custodial parent repeatedly, tells the child that the absent parent is a bad person, hoping the child will not want to go on visits to that parent.

Diagnosing parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome

The diagnosis of parental alienation and its syndrome are really relied upon through the signs that are manifested by the alienating parent and his/her influences on the reaction his has on the child. A number of investigators have sought to use objective personality tests such as the MMPI-2, especially the validity scale. The researchers (Siegal & Langford, 1998) confirmed the hypothesis that the ‘K’ and ‘F’ scales of this test indicated that PAS parents were more likely to complete the MMPI-2 questions in a defensive manner. They tended to strive to appear as flawless as possible.

Long term effects of parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome

There have been a number of studies carried out to deal with the long term effects of such alienation in childhood and how it affects the adults in later life. Raso (2004) found that the more severe the parental alienation the more likely the child will develop externalizing problems such as becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol and early sexual and promiscuous sexual activity. They are also likely to suffer from more disciplinary problems at school. Such children will frequently lack the ability to trust, enjoy intimacy in later life and demonstrate commitment to another person. Frequently they are more likely to have a divorce and themselves become alienators (Baker, 2007a) describes readily in a number of her books the result of a child being turned against a good parent. She noted there were negative life-long impacts due to this experience for the child victim. She estimated that 40-80% of all divorcing families exhibited parental alienation tactics leading to such long term effects (Baker, 2010).

This is in agreement with the research of Reay (2007) who concluded that such adults in later life often had serious mental health issues. Waldron & Joanis (1996) also noted that there were long term deleterious effects on the child because the child learns that hostile, obnoxious behaviour is acceptable in a relationship and that deceit and manipulation is a normal part of a relationship. The child will therefore practice such tactics themselves leading to being ostracized in later life.

Treatment of parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome

There are relatively few studies which deal with this particular aspect. Much depends on the expert’s relationship with the courts and whether the courts will accept the parental alienation syndrome label and accept the conclusions reached by the expert as well as the recommended therapeutic input which follow investigation. Deters (2003) emphasised the importance of helping parents communicate in a constructive manner and to reduce conflict in that way. This is easier said than done as high conflict divorce and separation leads to the opposite taking place. Baker (2007a) emphasises the importance of diagnosing that parental alienation exists and should lead to custody evaluations. The result is sometimes a need to change the custody of the child to the alienated parent, or at least to remove the child from the alienator and place him in a neutral environment (Lowenstein, 2007 ).

There is significant debate in the mental health and legal literature about the conceptualization of parental alienation and the most appropriate mental health intervention (Fidler et al., 2008a).

The concept of parental alienation of parental alienation syndrome was unfortunately not included in DSM-V or ICD-11. It is almost certain that in the future it will be included. There have been many efforts made by numerous experts in the field to attempt to include parental alienation in DSM-V. The fact that this has failed should not be in any way an indication that parental alienation of parental alienation syndrome does not exist. It is only too apparent from observation and from the literature that it does exist.

There are of course exceptions and there have been mistakes made when parental alienation has been diagnosed when in fact it does not exist. The main issue as to whether PA exists of not in a particular situation or case is whether the child/children have had a good relationship in the past with the now absent parent. If there has been such a good relationship then a change in the mind of the child where he/she refuses contact should be considered a possible indication of a child having been alienated against that absent parent.

Where however, the child has not had a close relationship with a now absent parent due to the fact that the parent who is absent has in some way abused the child then it cannot be claimed that this is parental alienation.

Most expert witnesses have been honorable and honest in not conceding parental alienation to be the case when there has been a poor relationship between the now absent parent and the child. Most expert witnesses have in fact followed the doctrine that if the child had a good relationship with the absent parent in the past, it is a good indication that the child should wish to continue that relationship. This will not occur however, when the custodial parent hsd altered the mindset of that child/children.

Hence, expert witnesses and others must be careful about diagnosing parental alienation and be ready to admit when it is not the case. There are of course situations where the child has had a moderate relationship with a now absent parent and now wishes nothing to do with that parent. It is the view of the current psychologist, and I believe many other experts, that children do best when two good loving parents have some influence in the child’s life and that both parents should always emphasise that the other parent is a worthy person with whom the child should relate. This is the very basis of a good family system, and is of most benefit to children.


Baker, A. J. L. (2007a). Knowledge and attitudes about the parental alienation syndrome: A survey of custody evaluators. American Journal of Family Therapy, 35(1), 1-19.
Baker, A. J. L. (2010). Adult recall of parental alienation in a community sample: Prevalence and associations with psychological maltreatment. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 51(1), 16-35.
Benedek, E. P., & Schetky, D. H. (1985b). Custody and visitations: Problems and perspectives. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 8(4), 857-873.
Bernet, W. (2010). Parental Alienation DSM-5, and ICD-11. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.
Bone, J. M., & Walsh, M. R. (1999). Parental alienation syndrome: how to detect it and what to do about it. Florida Bar Journal, 73(3), 44-47.
Bow, J. N., Gould, J. W., & Flens, J. R. (2009). Examining parental alienation in child custody cases: A survery of mental health and legal professionals. American Journal of Family Therapy, 37(2), 127-45.
Bricklin, B. (1995). The custody evaluation handbook: Research-based solutions and applications. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Brock, M. G., & Saks, S. (2008). Contemporary issues in family law and mental health. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.
Burrill, J. (2001). Parental alienation syndrome in court referred custody cases. (Dissertation, Northcentral University, Prescott Valley, Arizona).
Clawar, S. S., & Rivlin, B. V. (1991). Children held hostage: Dealing with programmed and brainwashed children. Chicago, Illinois: American Bar Association.
Colarossi, M. (2007). The different voices of separation and divorce. (Dissertation, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec).
Darnall, D. (2010). Beyond divorce casualties: Reunifying the alienated family. Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing.
Deters, J. A. (2003). Parenting coordination services: A forensic intervention for high-conflict child custody cases when parental alienation syndrome is present. (Dissertation, Spalding University, Louisville, Kentucky.).
Dunne, J., & Hedrick, M. (1994). The parental alienation syndrome: An analysis of sixteen selected cases. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 21(3-4), 21-38.
Fidler, B. J., Bala, N., Birnbaum, R., & Kavassalis, K. (2008a). Understanding child alienation and its impact on families. In B. J. Fidler et al. (Ed.), Challenging issues in child custody assessments: A guide for legal and mental health professionals. (pp. 203-29). Toronto: Thomson Carswell.
Gardner, R. A. (1987a). The parental alienation syndrome and the differentiation between fabricated and genuine child sex abuse. Creskill, New Jersey: Creative Therapeutics.
Gardner, R. A. (1992a). The parental alienation syndrome: A guide for mental health and legal professionals. Creskill, New Jersey: Creative Therapeutics.
Gardner, R. A. (1992b). True and false allegations of child sex abuse. Creskill, New Jersey: Creative Therapeutics.
Gardner, R. A. (2001b). Therapeutic interventions for children with parental alienation syndrome. Creskill, New Jersey: Creative Therapeutics.
Gardner, R. A. (2002b). Parental alienation syndrome vs. parental alienation: Which diagnosis should evaluators use in child custody disputes? American Journal of Family Therapy, 30(2), 93-115.
Gardner, R. A. (2002c). The empowerment of children in the development of parenatl alienation syndrome. Journal of Forensic Psychology, 20(2), 5-29.
Gardner, R. A., Sauber, R., & Lorandos, D. (2006). The international handbook of parental alienation syndrome: Conceptual, clinical and legal considerations. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.
Garrity, C. B., & Baris, M. A. (1994). Caught in the middle: Protecting the children of high-conflict divorce. New York: Lexington Books.
Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. (2002). For better or for worse: Divorce reconsidered. New York: W. W. Norton.
Johnston, J. R. (1993). Children of divorce who refuse visitation. In C. Depner & J. H. Bray (Eds.), Non-residential parenting: New vistas in family living. (pp. 109-35). Newbury Park, California: Sage.
Johnston, J. R., Roseby, V., & Kuehnle, K. (2009). In the name of the child: a developmental approach to understanding and helping children of conflicted and violent divorce (2nd ed). New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Kelly, J. B., & Johnston, J. R. (2001). The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome. Family Court Review, 39(3), 249-66.
Kopetski, L. (1998a). Identifying cases of parent alienation syndrome, Part 1. Colorado Lawyer, 27(2), 65-68.
Lewis, K. (2009). Child custody evaluations by social workers. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Lowenstein, L. F. (2007). Parental Alienation (How to understand and address parental alienation resulting from acrimonious divorce or separation). Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK: Russell House Publishing Ltd.
Raso, C. (2004). If the bread goes stale, it’s my dad’s fault: The Parental Alienation Syndrome. (Dissertation, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec.).
Reay, K. M. (2007). Psychological distress among adult children of divorce. (Dissertation, Capella University, Minneapolis, Minnesota.).
Reich, W. (1945, 2006). Charakteranalyse [Character Analysis]. Cologne, Germany: Kiepenheuer & Witsch.
Siegal, J. C., & Langford, J. S. (1998). MMPI-2 validity scales and suspected parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 16(4), 5-14.
Stone, L. (1993). Broken Lives: Separation and divorce in England, 1660-1857. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stoner-Moskowitz, J. (1998). The effect of Parental Alienation Syndrome and interparental conflict on the self-concept of children of divorce. (Dissertaion, Miami Institute of Psychology of the Caribbean Center for Advanced Studies.).
Turkat, I. D. (2005). False allegations of parental alienation. American Journal of Family Law, 19, 1-15.
Vassilou. D. (2005). The impact of the legal system on Parental Alienation Syndrome. (Dissertation, McGill University, Montreal.).
Waldron, K. H., & Joanis, D. E. (1996). Understanding and collaboratively treating parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Family Law, 10(3), 121-33.
Wallerstein, J. S., & Blakeslee, S. (1989). Second chances: Men, women and children a decade after divorce. New York: Ticknor & Fields.
Wallerstein, J. S., & Kelly, J. B. (1976). The effects of parental divorce: Experiences of the child in later latency. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 46, 256-69.
Weinstein, M. N. (2010). Father alienates children from mother. In W. Bernet (Ed.), Parental Alienation, DSM-5 and ICD-11 (p. 14). Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.