Parental Alienation –  A Potentially Serious Mental Disorder

L.F. Lowenstein


Abstract & Summary

There has been much talk and controversy as to whether Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) exists and whether it should be included in DSM-V as a mental illness when, as it often does, goes to extremes. The article and research of this article strongly emphasises that PAS is a pathological condition whereby the controlling, custodial parent indoctrinates the child/children to avoid contact with the now absent parent due to implacable hostility toward the now absent parent. The present research, although constituting a small sample of alienators indicates that those who practice PAS have considerably higher psychoticism and neuroticism scores and lower empathy scores compared with the normal population. This has been determined by the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, an objective personality test.

Parental Alienation – A Potentially Serious Mental Disorder

Gardner (1998) was perhaps one of the earliest pioneers in judging some form of parental alienation as a serious mental disorder. This is especially when the alienation process is severe, highly calculated and based on paranoid and highly aggressive personality traits. This in turn has been acknowledged as due to implacable hostility between parents, whether male or female, but normally female. In this hostility the custodial parent seeks to turn the children from a loving relationship with the now absent parent, to one which is non existent or has been destroyed by a constant process of alienation of the children against the absent and once loved parent. Gardner (1998) reminds us that there are also mild and moderate cases of parental alienation, but when it becomes extreme or severe this is when it is likely that a pathology of a serious nature has occurred.

The primary symptom of such parents is that they are highly aggressive and hostile towards the former partner and anyone associated with him/her including relations and friends. They are unable to accept the reality of a relationship that has broken up and seek vengeance as a result of the relationship break up by destroying the love of the children for the absent parent. They do this by manipulating events and speaking badly about the former partner or insinuating ideas which the children can interpret as being negative towards the absent parent. Eventually the children are convinced of what the custodial parent is saying against the absent parent causing an alienation and a wish for no further contact with that parent.

The most common vilified parent is the father but in 25% approximately it is the mother who is alienated. When the child is older, Judges find it difficult to deal with this problem, especially when the children refuse to have contact with the absent parent. At that time, Judges tend, on the whole, to state that the child has made a decision and that decision must be adhered to, regardless of how the child developed the alienation. What Judges frequently fail to do is to understand the damage that has been done to the children concerned by being prevented, through the brain-washing exercise of the custodial parent. This leads to having no contact between the alienated parent who at one time had a close, warm and loving relationship with the child/children.

Judges instead of punishing, or dealing therapeutically, or even recommending therapy for the alienating parent will assign that child to remain with the alienator to spend a continuous period of time being further alienated against the absent parent. Hence the emotional abuse of the child continues. Many therapists and clinical and forensic psychologists recommend to the court that the child be removed from this dangerous abusive influence and be placed with the absent parent, or in a neutral environment where treatment can commence to help the child understand what has been happening in relation to being turned against the absent parent. This unfortunately is rarely done.

Judges are reluctant for the wrong reasons to remove such children from the pathological effects of the indoctrination and alienation process and place the child with the now absent parent so that a new relationship can be redeveloped. They are also reluctant to remove that child to a neutral area where therapy can commence to help the child understand what is happening and accept the idea that both parents love him/her and both wish to have regular contact with that child despite the acrimony that exists between the parents.

Court Orders ordering children to have contact with an absent parent are often flouted with impunity and are meaningless unless these Orders can be reinforced by action being taken including one or more of the following: 1) Punishing the indoctrinating parent; 2) Removing the child who is an emotionally abused victim from the indoctrinating parent to the absent parent; 3) Removing the child to a neutral environment where some form of therapy can take place which can eventually reduce the influence of the alienation process. The child can then have good contact with the absent parent.

It must be said that severe cases of parental alienation are not rare. They can spring from moderate cases of parental alienation which are carried to an extreme point where implacable hostility exists between the two parents. This leads to the rejection of the absent parent as a result of efforts made by the custodial parent, usually the mother, to “bad mouth” the father, and encourage the child not co-operate with the court instructions and generally make visitation rights unworkable. The victims of this situation are both the child and the absent parent.

There is still a deep rooted view that children who are in this situation should not be removed from the custodial parent. It is claimed that by doing so the child’s mental health will suffer worse than it is suffering already. Those who understand and are involved with parental alienation cases do not accept this view and feel very strongly that such children should be removed totally from the pathological manipulation of the custodial parent to a place of safety such as a children’s home or the parent who has currently no contact with the child concerned. Failure to do this, Gardner pointed out: “dooms their relationship with their father and predictably results in their developing longstanding psychopathology, even paranoia.” (Gardner, 1998; Cartwright, 2006).

Lowenstein (2007) in his book “Parental Alienation” asks the question: “Is PAS a mental illness?” As with any condition a mild form and perhaps even a moderate form will not be considered a mental illness. However, when it goes to extremes it certainly is a form of mental illness. The individual who is alienating the helpless obviously suffers from severe paranoid tendencies with little regard for the welfare of the child/children. The primary concern becomes seeking vengeance against an absent partner who will no longer be allowed to have contact with the child as a result of the alienation process. In addition to paranoia, delusions are frequently involved which border on a psychotic illness. It is for this reason that DSM-V should consider seriously placing pathological and severe cases of parental alienation on the new DSM-V classification. It is hard to explain why PAS is not already on DSM-IV but it is hoped to put this forward as a classification on DSM-V. Such a consideration is not dissimilar to the category of depression on DSM-IV, where individuals who suffer from mild depression are not categorised as a mentally ill but if it is severe depression then indeed they are considered so. It would therefore make sense that Gardner (1997) in his addendum IV recommends in the case of severe PAS that the legal approach should be: 1) court ordered transfer of primary custody to the alienated parent; 2) or court ordered transition site with a therapist monitoring a therapeutic programme with the child and anyone else who can be involved.

One of the most dangerous delusions suffered by alienators in PAS cases is accusing an innocent party, usually the father, of sexual abuse of a child (Burnet, 2006). The pathologically disturbed individual suffering from high level PAS with delusions and aggression frequently forgets the well-known statement quoted in Lorandos (2006): “I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me.” (Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy). Indeed those suffering from the pathological severe symptoms of PAS tend to ignore or forget or consciously repel the notion that a child is born to, or created by, two people with both having responsibility for that child and contributing to its welfare until it is no longer needed.

Treating a pathological situation of mental illness leading to parental alienation

There have been a number of studies carried out to deal with concerns related to pathological or abnormal behaviour by the alienating custodial parent in relation to a programme of denigration and alienation of the child against the other parent. Warshak, (2006) in his chapter in “The International Handbook of Parental Alienation” concerns himself with the treatment of such irrational alienation procedures in one parent against another. He, like Gardner (1997) recommends transfer of custody to the alienated parent and/or the use of transition sites to facilitate the conciliation between the alienated child and the alienated parent. Hence, the child is recommended to spent time with the rejected parent irrespective of the feelings of the child who has been brainwashed against this. It is unfortunate but understandable that frequently such children resist this and this could and should lead to transfer of legal custody (Kelly & Johnston, 2001).

Baker (2007) in her book “Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome” considers the alienation process practiced by either parent as a form of “emotional abuse” of the child. The child as a result feels isolated with total control being provided by the custodial parent and used against the non custodial parent. She believes very much in Gardner’s guidelines for therapists and the need for court ordered therapy for families in which PAS plays a significant role especially when such alienation is highly pathological and hence related to a mental illness type condition. In treating these children such statements as: “I hate him/her”, referring to the absent parent should be investigated for the basis of such a remark. If they are attributable to the custodial parent eventually then we have a severe situation of alienation which has corrupted the child’s possibility of having any close relationship with the absent parent.

The mental state of parents who seriously abuse children through alienation

The experiment which follows is based on 15 years of study of alienating parents and having measured their personality traits in three areas: psychoticism, neuroticism, and empathy. The test used for this purpose was the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire which already has norms for the average population based on age and sex.

Although the sample is small consisting of 15 women and 10 men who have been found to seriously alienate their children against the other party, it is at present the only study carried out to measure objectively the personality traits of such individuals compared with the norms on psychoticism, neuroticism and empathy.

The tables which follow provides the norms and standard deviations of the non alienating normal group and compares this with the alienators on the three dimensions measured.

  1. Psychoticism

Table 1

Psychoticism – age norms, means and standard deviations for different age groups for the general population, and parental alienating group (in brackets)

Age Group (yr) N= Males

(No. in group)

Mean Standard Deviation
21-30 148 (2) 8.65 (13.3) 4.56
31-40 117 (5) 6.69 (12) 3.58
41-50 107 (3) 7.0 (10.3) 4.65
Age Group (yr) N= Females Mean Standard Deviation
21-30 256 (4) 6.20 (15.5) 3.86
31-40 135 (8) 5.87 (10.3) 3.72
41-50 109 (3) 4.62 (9.25) 3.05

The results indicate that alienators appear to have a higher score on psychoticism indicating signs of mental illness of disturbance related to these symptoms.

  1. Neuroticism

Table 2

Neuroticism – age norms, means and standard deviations for different age groups for the general population, and parental alienation group (in brackets)

Age Group (yr) N = Males

(No. in group)

Mean Standard Deviation
21-30 148 (2) 11.08 (18.0) 5.37
31-40 117 (5) 11.92 (17.0) 5.70
41-50 107 (3) 11.22 (16.0) 5.97
Age Group (yr) N = Females Mean Standard Deviation
21-30 256 (4) 12.53 (17.5) 4.78
31-40 135 (8) 11.71 (15.5) 4.94
41-50 109 (3) 6.79 (19.5) 3.74
  1. Empathy

Table 3

Empathy – age norms, means and standard deviations for different age groups for the general population, and parental alienation group (in brackets)

Age Group (yr) N = Males

(No. in group)

Mean Standard Deviation
20-29 97 (2) 11.76 (5.0) 3.17
30-39 69 (5) 11.87 (8.5) 3.36
40-49 31 (3) 11.82 (9.5) 3.0
Age Group (yr) N = Females Mean Standard Deviation
20-29 191 (4) 14.39 (4.78) 2.87
30-39 101 (8) 14.17 (4.94) 3.19
40-49 126 (3) 14.14 (3.74) 2.98


The results indicate that:

  1. Alienators appear to have a higher score on psychoticism and neuroticism indicating signs of mental illness or emotional disturbance related to these symptoms.
  2. Alienators also appear to have a lower score in the area of empathy than the norm of men and women assessed in the general population in the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire Manual.

Conclusions from table data

It is concluded that there are signs of mental disturbance if not mental illness related to those individuals who carry out the process of alienation. Furthermore they are likely to be low on empathy indicating that their relationship with their children is strictly on the basis of the enmity they display towards their former partner in influencing the child/children accordingly against the non custodial absent party. It is important that other researchers carry out a study of a larger sample of alienators.

Discussion of results

Table 1 indicates that those who have been alienating a child/children against an absent parent have a much higher psychoticism mean score than the normal population based on comparison with a control group of the Eysenck norms. This is both for males and females. The numbers in brackets show the actual numbers participating in the experimental PAS group. Males are somewhat lower in number than females as alienators as they do not normally have custody of the children.

The mean psychoticism score for males between 21-30 years of age was 8.65 while the mean score for males who were alienators was 13.3. In the case of females of the same age group it was also noted that while the control group had mean of 6.20 the alienating group had a mean score of 15.5. The tables on the whole are self explanatory.

In the case of neuroticism alienators also had a much higher mean score than non alienators or the control group. This may be exemplified by the group 21-30 which unfortunately had only a small number of males (2), but even among those the mean for the normal non alienating group was 11.08 while the mean of the alienating group was 18. In the case of females similar results occurred in comparison with the normal mean of 12.53 with the mean of the alienator at that age group being 17.5. The remainder of the table has a similar trend for the different age groups.

The empathy group again showed differences between alienators, whether male or female, compared with ordinary individual norms of both sexes. For the age group 20-29 the mean for the non alienating group was 11.76 while for the alienating group it was 5. Hence alienators tend to have a lower empathy score. Again the remainder of the table has a similar trend for the different age groups.

The conclusions that can be reached are:

  1. The conclusions deal with the fact that alienators whether male or female tend to score high on psychoticism than non alienators based on the norms of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire.
  2. The same can be said for neuroticism in that alienators score higher on neuroticism and hence have more problems relating to their lifestyle with considerable anxiety, worry and other symptoms of mental disturbance.
  3. On the empathy scale it was noted that the alienator scored much lower than the non alienator based on the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire. Hence a lack of empathy may be associated with a tendency toward alienating.


Baker, A. J. L. (2007) Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Norton & Co. Ltd., Castle House, London.

Bernet, W. (2006) Sexual abuse allegations in the context of child custody disputes. In, R. A. Gardner, S. R. Sauber & D. Lorandos.The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome.Chapter 18 (pp 242-263) Charles Thomas, Springfield, Illinois, USA.

Cartwright, G. I. (2006) Beyond parental alienation syndrome: Reconciling the alienated child and the lost parent. In, R. A. Gardner, S. R. Sauber & D. Lorandos.The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome.Chapter 21 (pp 286-291) Charles Thomas, Springfield, Illinois, USA.

Gardner, R.A. (1998) The parental alienation syndrome (2nd Ed.). Creskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.

Kelly, J. B. & Johnston, J. R. (2001) The alienated child. A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome. Family Court Review, 39(3), 249-266.

Lowenstein L. F. (2007) Parental alienation: How to understand and address parental alienation resulting from acrimonious divorce or separation. Russell House Publishing Ltd. Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK.

Warshak, R. A. (2006) Social science and parental alienation: Examining the disputes and the evidence. In, R. A. Gardner, S. R. Sauber & D. Lorandos.The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome.Chapter 27 (pp 352-362) Charles Thomas, Springfield, Illinois, USA.