Parental Alienation or not – is that the question?

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



This article considers the complexities of what can occur when two parents separate and the reaction of children to such separation. Three scenarios are described and their impact on children. The author stresses the complexities of parents developing and maintaining their hostility toward one another. It also considers other factors that can cause a child to avoid contact with a now absent parent.

Parental Alienation or not – is that the question?

I begin with three case illustrations which will be referred to in the article which follows. They present three different scenarios related to the concept of parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome.

As an expert witness in the Family Courts in the UK, I am frequently asked to decide whether parental alienation is currently the problem and the cause of why a child appears to refuse contact with an absent parent. The events following an acrimonious divorce and separation are in many ways predictable.

Fortunately, many parents part from one another on relatively good terms ( see illustration 1 which follows). One or both have become unhappy in the relationship which is almost certainly likely to lead to a parting of the parents.

Three case illustrations

Illustration 1- a harmonious separation

Mr and Mrs X were married as a result of the conceiving of a child. They realised that their personalities were incompatible. Both wished to leave the relationship in as dignified a manner as possible and to get on with their lives, hopefully with another partner. They realised they had created a child for which they were responsible. They both loved the child and wished to do what was in the child’s best interest.

They decided on joint custody and equal parenting of responsibility, was the most sensible way. Both realised that they had made a mistake in being together and yet valued each other’s present and future role as a parent. They encouraged the child to spend as much good time as possible with both parents and agreed on a flexible timetable. They remained friends rather than intimate partners.

The child benefited tremendously from the harmonious manner in which the parents co-operated. Eventually each parent began a relationship with a new partner and had further children. Each parent encouraged their mutual child to have as good contact as possible with the other parent.

Illustration 2 – A case exemplifying active parental alienation

Father and daughter had always been close in the past. They enjoyed each other’s company and there was considerable affection between them. Due to the animosity between the parents, father eventually felt forced to leave the home, when his wife and her mother combined to make life difficult for him. Arguments between the parents were frequent. On one such occasion mother actually attacked and injured the father. Father restrained her but did not retaliate with violence.

Eventually mother insisted on a divorce which father did not oppose. Father left the home, but tried to maintain good contact with his beloved daughter. Mother, although maintaining her hostility, did not actively initially oppose contact between the father and the daughter until her former husband told her that he had met someone else. He also mentioned that he would like his daughter to meet the new partner. After this, the conflict between the parents increased sharply. The mother insisted that under no circumstances should the child be permitted to have contact with his new partner and girlfriend. Mother used a less than flattering word to describe her as a “slapper”.

Contact between the father and his once close daughter became difficult. Frequently mother changed times and dates at the last minute stating that other arrangements had been made or the daughter indicated that she did not want contact. It was at this point that father sought joint custody or total custody of his daughter through the courts. Hence the battle involving dependence on the family court began and continues to this day.

Illustration 3 – a case illustrating a subtle practice of parental alienation and other factors

Before the parents separated there had been considerable animosity between them. Their son aged 10 received most disciplining from the father. The father attempted to inculcate decent behaviour and promote good habits of eating a variety of foods including vegetables. The child tried to avoid eating vegetables even though the father said it was good for him to eat them. The mother never insisted on the child eating vegetables and the child was allowed to choose to eat what he wished. Mother was permissive in allowing the boy to do as he wanted to do most of the time. The boy actually wished to remain with the mother and frequently avoided being with the father. Mother’s approach when contact dates were arranged was to tell her son that he could go to meet father if he wished to do so. She would not insist that he see his father if the boy was disinclined to do so. The boy began to avoid being with his father.

The boy was aware of the enmity between the parents. He also preferred to be with his mother as she gave in to what he wanted and on the whole gave him greater freedom to do as he wished. Furthermore, mother, while not preventing contact of the boy with his father, did nothing to sincerely encourage it. Eventually the boy saw his father less and less and finally not at all.

Different situations, different outcomes

When there are no children, most couples meet other partners and start a new life, hopefully, but not always an improvement from the last relationship. When there are children and when there is hostility between the former partners, the children cannot help but be involved and distressed.

The effect on children

The loss of a parent at the best of times is a tragedy. Children grieve for a parent who has died, especially when the relationship with that parent has been a close one. Eventually the children and the remaining parent grieve and then come to term with the loss.

When parents separate, most children are for a time in a state of shock. Their apparently secure world and family has been destroyed. The result is a combination of fear for the future as well as anger. Often they try to find a reason for the loss, that is, who is to blame?….Have they themselves done anything to make this happen? Self-blame and hence guilt is not uncommon in children when parents separate and their family are in disarray.

Good outcomes (See illustration 1)

Some parents decide to carry on in the best way they can by putting the welfare of their children first and foremost. They behave as much as possible as parents accepting the situation as it is without hostility or excessive sadness. By that I mean, both parents realise what is in the best interest of their children by behaving in a reasonably friendly way towards one another. Each parent encourages the children to have good contact with the other parent.

Despite the divorce or separation, the parents treat each other with civility and sometimes even with affection. This, undoubtedly has a positive effect on the children. They are happy to be with either parent. The parents share their time with the children and sometimes even go out on picnics and holidays with both parents! Such an outcome is possible and does occur, but unfortunately not always.

Poor outcomes

In many cases even before a divorce or separation there is a presence of hostility and blame involved between the parents. This has a very adverse effect on the children. They are often encouraged to take sides. They identify with one parent, usually the parent who has custody and hence control of the child and more power than the absent parent.

Such identification with the remaining parent means the child develops the same feelings and attitudes as that of the custodial parent, that is, they become hostile to the once loved but now absent parent. Frequently the remaining parent speaks badly about the absent parent. The child tends to identify with that sentiment. The absent and often rejected parent fails to feel welcome in the family that remains. Sometimes he/she is even hated and there was already a less than harmonious relationship between the child and the now absent parent. This makes it easier for the child to do without, and even to reject that parent. What was once a preference for one parent rather than the other now becomes an “idée fixe” of the good parent versus the bad parent.

The result is that the child is unwilling to have much, or any, contact with the absent parent. The child is aware that the custodial parent has power and feels similarly in wanting as little contact as possible with the now distant non custodial parent. Such a custodial parent sees no value in a child being encouraged to have good contact with the absent parent.

The complexity and interaction between parental alienation and other aspects – see illustration 3

The result of implacable hostility between the custodial and now absent parent often leads to a hybrid reaction in the custodial parent. Such a parent may obviously or subtly undermine the child’s desire to have contact with the absent parent, who is usually the father.

There is an uncertainty as to whether a custodial parent is actually practicing parental alienation. Such statements as “I don’t discourage John seeing his father/mother. He/she can be with him/her if that is what he/she wants. What I will not do is force the child to be with the non custodial parent and go against the child’s will.” Now there are at least two background features or two possible scenarios that complicate matters. These are: 1) when there has been a good relationship between the child and the now absent parent in the past; 2) when there has been a less than good relationship between the child and the now absent parent.

In the first case, when the child refuses or is reluctant to have contact with the now absent parent, the reason for this could well be parental alienation having been practiced subtly or directly by the custodial parent. In the second scenario, ascribing parental alienation as a reason why the child is reluctant to have contact becomes more problematic (see example 3).

Since the child has not been close, or even had a dislike for the absent parent in the past, his/her reason for now rejecting that parent cannot be attributed entirely to PA or PAS and hence to the attitude and behaviour of the custodial parent alone. The custodial parent has not necessarily strongly influenced the child against the now absent parent. In this situation the child has personally decided to have as little contact as possible with the other parent who is now absent. This attitude is based on past events and experiences with the now absent parent, sometimes exclusively. This is not parental alienation.

Sometimes, however, combined with such negative experiences with the now absent parent the custodial parent also acts directly or subtly to discourage contact between the child and the now absent parent. This may be termed a combination or a “hybrid” of parental alienation because there are other influences affecting the child having and wishing for less contact with the absent parent.

Such custodial parents always claim that they are not standing in the way of a child, if he/she wishes to have contact with the absent parent. What such parents do not do, and could easily do if they were thus determined, is to actively and enthusiastically insist that the child have good contact with the absent parent. The child is very aware of how the custodial actually feels about the absent parent, that is, whether there is hostility or positive feelings towards the absent parent. The child is more influenced by this than what the parent actually says!

There is a world of difference between the two statements which follow and how they influence the child’s attitudes and behaviour:

1. Your father/mother is looking forward to spending the weekend with you. I am sure you will have a good time with him/her. Have fun when you see your father/mother.
2. Your father/mother wants you to spend a weekend with him/her. Would you like to go? If you have any problems you can phone me. I’ll be here waiting for you to come back. I will of course miss you very much. (see illustration 2).

The first statement is positive about the time being spent with the other parent and encourages the child to have a good time with the other parent without feeling guilty, or worrying about the custodial parent who is left behind. The second statement places some pressure on the child to respond in a negative way toward the fact that they are spending time with the absent parent. Reading between the lines it is actually saying to the child “I don’t want you to go to see your father/mother”. It is also putting some guilt on the child as to the fact that the custodial parent is being left alone because the child is going to spend time with the other parent. Often the parent making statement 2 will tell the court that they are encouraging the child to see the absent parent when in fact the innuendos are that they do not want the child to see the absent parent. The custodial parent wants others to feel that they are not preventing the child from seeing the absent parent. The child however, picks up on this hidden message and often states that he/she does not wish to see the absent parent.

The three scenarios described are typical of what may occur when parents part company. Much depends on the attitude and behaviour of both parents as to whether the child feels secure and is happy in the company of each parent. Parental Alienation is one of the consequences following implacable hostility between the parents. This leads to a child having little or no contact with the absent parent. Parental Alienation and all that it entails may not be the only aspect as to why a child seeks to avoid contact with the now absent parent. Much depends on how the child has experienced the relationship in the past with the non custodial parent.

Hence the child seeking to avoid contact with the now absent parent is often complex rather than straight forward for one reason or another. As noted in illustration 1, a great deal depends on the custodial parent and past events whether a child has the benefit of being with both parents, and enjoying the security of being guided and loved by two selfless and well adjusted adults, or only by one parent.

What has been stated indicates both the clearness and the complexities of the diagnosis of parental alienation. This is because there is, in some cases of parental alienation, not always a pure diagnosis, but that there is an interaction, with other influences. Hence children who do not see, or wish to have contact, with an absent parent come from backgrounds that differ.

Expert witnesses, (of whom I am but one) need to assess each case with the greatest of care and attention to detail. It is easy to jump to conclusions! Everything needs to be unraveled from the past in order to understand the present situation. Only then can the most sensible and just decisions be made in how to resolve the problem by the advice given by the expert witness to the Court.

The expert’s role is to analyse all members of the family (mother, father and children, and in some cases the grandparents) and the events created by the interaction between them, before and after the parents have separated. Although there are undoubtedly problems before the separation, these problems have become more profound due to the hostility between the parents that has taken root. It frequently becomes a tug of war, with the absent parent wishing for good contact with a child and the custodial parent who, for a number of reasons, preventing this. The real needs of the child need to be considered independent of the often hostile parents.

Attention has been drawn to a variety of scenarios, including good and effective separations and good contact between all members of the family. The extreme of vindictive and hostile parental alienation has also been delineated. The frequent interaction between parental alienation and other influences which affect the child, has frequently been ignored. Hence, this situation has been especially highlighted. As has been pointed out in other writings by the author there needs to be a close cooperation between the expert witness and the Judiciary. Only in this way can we approach what is in the best interest of the child now and in the future. The best interest of the parents, although important, must come second.