Parental Alienation Due to a Shared Psychotic Disorder (Folie a Deux)

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


It is almost too simplistic to state that children fare best when there are two loving and caring parents who guide these children to live in accordance with what is best in society. When parents separate or divorce, it is still possible to provide such care and guidance despite certain difficulties. Here again the love and care for children should be of primary importance for both parents. It must be based on the acceptance that both parents have an important role to play and that both parents welcome this dual relationship vis a vis their children even though their own relationship has been severed.

It is unfortunate, however, that often due to the hostility between the parents or just one of the parents, the positive goal of dual parenting is often disrupted if not destroyed. This is almost always due to one parent, usually the custodial parent, seeking to sideline and even totally reject the non custodial parent being involved with the child/children. This is undoubtedly due to the implacable hostility which has developed leading to the break-up of the relationship.

The reason for such hostility varies. Often it is a need for revenge, influence, and power especially when the rejected parent finds a new partner. When this occurs, the alienator feels all the more the need for power and control, and to dominate by keeping the child/children exclusively to themselves by a relentless process of programming (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991).

Intractable Hostility

Intractable hostility between the former partners in a relationship is the result which often leads to a close relationship developing between a child/children with one rather than both parents. The child has come to share the emotions of hatred for the non custodial parent. This is known as “Folie a Deux”. This is due to the fear or phobia (Lowenstein, 2006b) and programming by an alienating parent and the child has a fear of losing the security of the one remaining parent.

The inducer of the implacable hatred holds the key to the child’s delusional beliefs of the absent parent. If this parent (with or without counseling) learns to self reflect and stimulate the child in his/her relationship with the other parent, then the child’s delusional beliefs of the absent parent and their ‘evil and wicked ways’ can be eliminated. Often this is not the case and the custodial parent persists in promoting rejection of the absent parent in the child. Only by breaking the relationship between the inducer of such implacable hatred towards the absent parent can the child’s delusional beliefs of the absent parent and their ‘evil and wicked ways’ be eliminated. The difficulties involved in breaking this exclusive pathological bond are only too apparent. As an expert witness my work in the courtroom is to seek a solution for a programmed child which is not to be undermined by the custodial parent while the process of mediation occurs. This will be discussed later when it is considered when a severe pathological alienation process has occurred and how best to deal with it.

The Honourable Judge Gomery of Canada put it wisely:

“ 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”.

Would it were that more judges would share such a view in the UK. It would prevent many injustices to children and alienated parents who are sidelined (usually but not always fathers). Such parents have limited contact with their children, if any contact at all. Some have no direct contact. These parents suffer both humiliation and sadness and more importantly the children also suffer both in the short and long-term (Lowenstein, 2006a). One does not always know from the child’s behaviour that there is anything amiss. Their behaviour is anything but hostile towards the absent father initially, but only later, after a period of considerable brainwashing or programming does the hostility occur, and it eventually becomes an implacable hostility, difficult to reverse.

Behaviour of children who have been alienated (brainwashed) are often:

  1. they express the same hostility as does the custodial parent, hence the “folie a deux” analogy;
  2. they identify with and imitate the alienator;
  3. they do not wish to visit or spend time with the absent and alienated parent;
  4. the child’s views of rejecting the absent parent is virtually identical with the programming of the custodial parent;
  5. the children suffer from the same delusions and the irrational beliefs as the alienator in regard to the non resident parent (this occurs because the children have totally identified with the custodial parent);
  6. the children feel themselves to be powerful due to their alliance with the controlling and powerful alienator;
  7. they are not frightened (albeit they claim to be) by the absent parent or the court;
  8. the children have no valid reasons for rejecting the alienated parent, but will often manufacture these reasons, or exaggerate events for the purpose of rejecting alienated parents;
  9. they can see nothing positive or good about the absent parent and even the absent parent’s family, indeed they claim not to be able to remember anything of a positive nature in the form of memories about the absent parent;
  10. they have difficulties in being able to distinguish between what they are told about the absent parent and their own recollections of that parent;
  11. they appear not to feel any sense of guilt about the way they treat the absent parent if and when there is contact;
  12. they appear to be ‘normal’, yet appear also no longer to have a mind of their own being totally obsessed with the custodial parent and his/her implacable hostility towards the absent parent and frequently his/her extended family.

These reactions are both pathological and unfair towards the targeted parent and harmful to the perpetrator of such behaviour, that is, the child. The result is a refusal of contact with the formerly close and even loved parent (Rand, 1997). Now they feel dread, anxiety and a virtual phobia when being requested to visit that parent (Lund, 1995, Lowenstein, 2006b). If forced to do so they will physically resist, threaten to run away and actually do run away from the alienated parent back to the alienator. The child totally shares the animosity and paranoia with the programming parent. That parent will insist that they have done nothing to cause the child to behave this way. They will claim that they have encouraged contact, but it is the child who rebels so vehemently against visiting the absent parent.

Sometimes this is influenced by different rearing approaches between the two parents. The indulgent parent is usually the programmer, and this is usually the mother. The programmed parent often seeks to guide the child in a certain way and may appear to the child to be more authoritarian and demanding. This is usually the absent father. The child is being used to do what the programmer wants and will resent the parent who directs and guides (this is usually as already stated the father) Lund,(1995).

Sometimes it is the father who is over-indulgent while the child is in his custody. The absent mother fares similarly if she attempts to discipline or direct the child. The warring parents create a climate where the child feels insecure. Instead of unity there is the opposite. The child feels it has to make a choice and chooses usually that parent who had custody to whom to give his/her loyalty. In so doing the child feels inclined to reject the absent parent because that parent has so little power compared with the parent with whom the child resides more or less full time.

Therapists or mediators who seek to resolve parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome may antagonise the child as well as the custodial parent when efforts are made for encouraging the child to have contact with the absent parent. If the therapist goes along with the child’s wishes of rejecting the non custodial parent, and many do, then the parental alienation becomes all the stronger and more difficult to reverse. This means the therapist has fallen into the trap of the alienator who will claim that it is the child’s wishes not to have contact, or only minimal contact with the alienated parent (folie a trios). The courts follow suit by backing the therapist who considers the status quo best for the child. This demonstrates quite clearly how the system of parental alienation works.

Here it becomes imperative that the therapist has the basic principle of “the child needs both parents” firmly in mind. It is important that the therapist is not manipulated either by the alienator, the child, or the current unequal and pathological situation. The therapist must work in order to prevail in getting the child and the alienator to see the value of contact with both parents. As I have so often said, failure to do this, reduces the likelihood of little or no subsequent contact with the absent and alienated parent. “Absence does not make the heart grow fonder”. Absence in fact creates a greater likelihood that the absence will be permanent. Little contact results eventually in no contact.

This allows the alienator to continue his/her work of indoctrination, virtually unchallenged having received the backing of the court. It takes both a wise and courageous judge to seek to see beneath those ‘shenanigans’. There are still too few psychologists whose principle is “the child needs both parents” when such obdurate opposition from the alienator and the child exists.

Cartwright (1993) indicates that “time is on the side of the alienator”. The alienator practices various ploys to prevent good contact between the child and the absent parent. Such delaying tactics are unscrupulous and unfair, but they are effective. In time and after numerous efforts to gain good contact through the courts, the alienated parent sometimes gives up. The odds are stacked against him/her ever having real positive contact with her child and this gives the alienator the pathological chance to continue the alienation process. One may well ask: “Is this real justice?” It is not only ‘folie a deux’ or the folie a trois that has won the day but ‘folie carré’, to coin a new phrase with the third person in this case being the encased therapist and the fourth party being the court of law. Eventually all favourable recollections the child has had about the relationship with the absent parent disappear. This is again a reflection of how the alienator feels about the former partner as they both enact their ‘folie a deux’ pathological delusions.

One is often asked what effect this has on the child now and in later life. This has been discussed more fully by Lowenstein (2006a). To summarise, the child grows up relentlessly reenacting what it has experienced in its own life. Not only does the hostility perpetuate itself towards the targeted parent but it perpetuates itself in the life of the child as he/she becomes an adult. The child as an adult has difficulties very often in relationships with a partner and reenacts what has been learned by perpetuating the cycle of the paranoid delusions and hostility resulting in PAS.

Sometimes a child as an adult or mature adolescent will consider what has occurred and how he/she has been used by the alienator. This sometimes results in a change of thinking, due to therapy or in conversation with intimate friends. Then follows an active seeking for the lost parent. Unfortunately there is no research as to the frequency of this happening. The conjecture is that it is relatively rare. As Cartwright (1993) states:

“The child’s good memories of the alienated parent are systematically destroyed and the child misses out on the day to day interaction, learning, support and love, which, in an intact family, usually flows between the child and both parents as well as grandparents and other relatives on both sides.”

In many cases what occurs is that the now lost parent may no longer be available and the grandparents have undoubtedly died. Additionally the more mature child does sometimes turn against the alienator in the realization of what has been done. Mothers are twice as likely to be responsible for parental alienation than fathers, as they tend to be on the whole, the custodial parent.

Any expert assessing and/or treating such problems must be scrupulously fair and independent. The overwhelming important principle, as already stated must be that all things being equal both parents whenever possible should have an equal access to care and have influence on a child/children. The exception is that when it can be shown that either parent is an abuser (sexually, physically, and emotionally) or in other ways is a danger to the child. Mothers appear to make the greatest number of complaints of sexual abuse (67%) (Gardner, 1987). These allegations more often than not are invalid, about 50% of the time. Fathers are accusers of sexual abuse also in 22% of cases.

The pattern of gaining control over children varies by gender. Men tend to abduct physically 60-70% of the time when such abductions occur. Whilst women use a kind of social of psychological abduction ( Clawar & Rivlin, 1991). Whoever has control, (custody) of the child can use the child against a former partner since they see the child as an extension of themselves. In these cases they do not view the child either as independent of themselves or also belonging to the alienated parent. They hence view the alienated parent as in no way of being of value, or having any rights over the child despite being the natural parent (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1994). There is in addition a denial of rights for the absent parent. There is however, the desire nevertheless to make that absent parent responsible towards the maintenance of the child, in financial terms. This causes much acrimony as the non custodial parent (usually the father) will complain as to why he must contribute financially without having a role to play in the child’s upbringing or even regular good contact with that child. These issues however are strictly separated by law. Rightly so the Courts are strict on parents who do not take up their responsibility to pay for the rearing of the child. Likely so the Courts should be as equally as strict to parents who do not take up their responsibility to make this rearing of the child a matter in which both parents partake.

Turkat (1995) calls this disorder “malicious parent syndrome” as the parent is usually but not always the mother, who engages with the ‘folie a deux’ child a relentless and multi-faceted campaign of aggression and deception against the ex-spouse. Sometimes other people are involved in this ‘folie a deux’ scenario and it may well be called ‘folie a plus de trois’. This includes family members and friends and even neighbours who will back the alienator. Each will support the alienator, without a qualm. They fall into the trap of attacking the absent parent and thereby prevent that parent playing any role in a child’s life. Sometimes they will go so far, without first hand evidence, to claim that the absent parent is a sex or physical abuser. Both mothers and fathers have been responsible for such totally false allegations being made. Children will be encouraged or even pressurized to lie about sex abuse or physical contact of some kind in order for the innocent parent to be eliminated totally from having contact with the child. Hence the alienators delusions are imposed not only on an innocent child, but many others, in a form of ‘folie a pluisieurs’ or madness or delusion of many.

Such alienating and falsely accusing parents may be diagnosed as suffering from “a personality disorder”. This includes mixed , unspecified, histrionic, borderline, passive-aggressive or paranoid behaviour”. (Wakefield & Underwager, 1990). Such views in these parents lead to a typical totally controlling, and maintaining of a symbiotic bond and elimination of the other parent ( Ross& Blush, 1990).

Such alienators impose fear of the absent parent on the child as already mentioned. This is sometimes termed ‘folie imposee’. When many or one side is involved it is termed ‘folie a plusieurs’ (Enoch & Ball, 2001).

What is the Solution to the ‘Folie a Deux’ Phenomenon?

In seeking to deal with the problem it must be emphasized strongly that what is to follow is the solution only to be considered if and when the alienation is so pathological that no other course of action is available. What will have preceded such appearingly drastic responses is for mediation and the edicts of the court to have had no effect of changing the alienators dangerous and damaging acts in the short but even more in the long-term (Lowenstein, 2006a). This damaging action has come in the form of preventing a child having good, or any contact, by making that contact very difficult with the absent and non custodial parent.

The process of assessing, whether or not parent alienation has taken place is required to be carried out by an experienced psychologist or psychiatrist. Such a person needs to look not only for the signs of PAS (Lowenstein, 2006c) but also the manner in which the dissimulation occurs. This results in the form of the child refusing any contact or only very limited contact with a previously loved but now alienated parent. The alienation has taken place through the efforts of the custodial parent and his/her implacable hostility as previously stated towards the non custodial parent.

Once the assessment of the problem has been presented to the court, it is often recommended that efforts are made to gain the co-operation of the custodial parent and the child so that the alienated parent and the child are able to establish or re-establish some kind of positive relationship. If this succeeds and the absent parent has regular and good contact, that is the end of the matter and one can describe this to be a success in promoting good parenting on both sides.

Unfortunately this course of action from its very inception fails as a result of the continuing implacable hostility of the custodial parent and the process of alienation not having been reversed. Hence, while the alienator often plays “lip-service” to the process of mediation, this is not supported by the efforts to reverse the “folie a deux” phenomenon. The child therefore still resents, if not loathes, the alienated parent and gives the impression that this is in no way due to having been programmed to share the alienators implacable hostility.

This scenario, frequently is missed or purposely ignored by psychologists. Instead the child’s opinion is taken for granted, instead of investigating the true reasons for the child’s attitude towards the alienated parent. Judges also make decisions of no or little contact for the absent parent based on “the child’s apparent wishes”. This is an act of betrayal, in fact to the child (!), lacking in sophistication and an injustice. The judicial decision is made on the basis of the brain-washed view of the child. Judges will often hide behind: 1) the expert witness’ superficial opinion that a child’s view cannot be ignored; 2) the expert who notes the alienation which has occurred yet feels that it is now too late to do anything to reverse the situation, considering it now a “damage limitation exercise”.

Expert witnesses who do not fall into the previous two categories are either ignored or seen as extreme in the view they express when they seek to reverse the successful alienation process by more drastic means. Such experts are viewed as being harsh, heartless and “unrealistic”. What follows is nevertheless a solution, not often employed which could well reverse the betrayal both of a child and an innocent and rejected parent who has been wronged. Such a parent and such a child has often also been betrayed by an unjust judicial system. What now follows is the more extreme approach in cases of severe pathological indoctrination or programming by the custodial parent.

Silveir & Seeman (1995) considers the only solution possible to the ‘folie a deux’ pathological phenomenon to be separation of the individuals involved until the alienated parent has been able to have good contact with the child. This may appear to be a drastic solution. The solution is likely to be frowned upon by those who consider themselves to be ‘child centred’ and this viewpoint is understandable. Let us however, look at the situation from the point of view of the long-term consequences to allowing ‘folie a deux’ to continue its unjust and damaging course of action. The child loses a good parent and the parent loses the opportunity of rearing the child he/she has created. Let us remember our basic principle, that the input of two parents is on the whole better than one parent, all things being equal. The long-term deprivation of a parent for a child has been delineated as leading to a perpetuation of the same situation occurring ad infinitum. Following the separation from the alienator the child should be provided with intensive therapy by a skilled therapist who understands the pathology of PAS. In addition to this it is not justice but injustice that has triumphed (Lowenstein, 2006d, e, f, g).


The articles considers the shared psychotic disorder (folie a deux) which is often an integral part of the parental alienation process. The way it functions insidiously, leads to the alienation of a good parent. The basis is the intractable hostility of the alienating parent against the now non resident parent. The alienator systematically destroys the child’s attitude, affection and love which the child previously felt for the now absent parent. The child forms a pathological bond (folie a deux).
Eventually contact between the child and the alienated parent becomes negligible or non existent. After mediation and lack of response to the courts decisions, the author recommends splitting the child totally for a time from the programmer. The purpose of this is for the child to receive treatment to deal with the alienation without being under the influence of the alienator, and at the same time to have contact with the alienated parent. This should continue until good contact is possible once again with both parents.


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