Part I – Parental Alienation Syndrome or Parental Alienation Is That the Question? – (A Problem Crying Out For a Solution.)

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has not as yet been recognised by the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV). Parental alienation and its existence have never been disputed. There is a great need for psychological experts to be individual in seeking for solutions which will benefit the child in the short and the long term. What follows considers the causes and associated features of parental alienation along with its diagnosis and treatment. Experts working in this field must be empowered by being closely associated with the judiciary.

Part I – Parental Alienation Syndrome or Parental Alienation Is That the Question? – (A Problem Crying Out For a Solution.)


What follows will consist of some articles the first of which concerns itself with the issue of parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome as it is sometimes termed. The next will deal with the long term reaction or result of parental alienation on the future adult. Another aspect covered is the impact on the child of parental alienation. Finally, there will follow the last article which deals with research into the treatment of parental alienation.

The Problems Associated with Parental Alienation or Parental Alienation Syndrome

The terms parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has not been totally accepted by all concerned. While parental alienation does exist there is some controversy as yet as to whether parental alienation “syndrome” exists. There are many who favour this type of distinction and all are agreed that parental alienation is an increasing problem within society with the inflation of separating parents leaving their children with one or other parent, usually the mother. There are no problems associated with such partings providing both parents agree to remain reasonably friendly for the benefit of their children and are united in the manner in which they wish to rear them. No two parents, especially when they are separated or divorced can agree totally, but the overall picture must be one of applying good common sense to the fact that both have created a child and wish to do what is best for that child or children in the future.

There are a great variety of permutations in how parents work this out. Some have joint custody and this is to be preferred whenever possible, (Lowenstein, 1998). Others consider that at different times the child or children should reside or be with the non-custodial parent. Still others are in constant conflict as to whether the non-custodial parent should have “any” contact or only limited contact with the child or children. This is frequently determined by the mother who has on the whole custody of the child or children. While some fathers accept the acrimony associated with the parting of ways with their former spouse or partner, others find it difficult to deal with. Hence a number of fringe organisations have developed seeking greater rights for fathers which indeed is greater power for fathers in relation to being involved in the rearing of their children. Such desperate causes as those who favour greater rights for fathers have sometimes gone to the extreme and this is undoubtedly due to the desperation of many of these fathers who feel they have been totally side lined.

Richard Gardner has been in the forefront and a pioneer in the delineating of problems of parental alienation syndrome, (Gardner, 2002a; 2002b; 2002c; 2003; 2004). Gardner in virtually all his papers and books indicates that child custody evaluators frequently have difficulties when confronted with resistance when attempting to use mediation or other processes in order for non-custodial parents to have access to a child.

At present, the controversy between those who follow the parental alienation viewpoint consider that despite everything such alienation causes considerable problems within families or former families. It has been noted that children who have been programmed by one parent to be alienated from the other parent are commonly seen in the context of child custody disputes. Such programming is designed to strengthen the position of the programming parent in a court of law. It would appear to be of limited utility to differentiate evaluators who accept the term parental alienation syndrome or those who prefer the parental alienation.
Little will be said in connection with the impact of parental alienation on children as another section will consider this and also the long term effect of alienation on future adults who may themselves consider parenthood. Also little will be said in the area of mediation or treatment of the problem as there is a final article concerned with this topic. Two articles by the present author on the difficulties involved in treating cases of parental alienation are to be published in due course. These consider the difficulties that psychologists, psychiatrists and others have in seeking to reverse the programming carried out by a parent seeking to eliminate the presence or involvement of the non-resident parent, usually the father.

Gardner (2002b) considers that families are best served when the more specific term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is used rather than the more general term of parental alienation. There is some controversy concerned with this viewpoint. While Szabo (2002) agrees with the term PAS, there are others who do not. Johnston & Kelly (2004) and Emery (2005) consider the concept of parental alienation syndrome as confusing and unnecessary. In the case of Johnston & Kelly (2004) they also find it simplistic and resist the view that legal and mental health intervention is needed when dealing with alienated children. Emery criticises this from a different perspective. He considers that despite influencing many custody proceedings, Gardner’s ideas fail to meet even minimal scientific standards. The burden of proving any new hypothesis falls on his proponents. Given the complete absence of objective replication, parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is to be viewed as nothing more than a hypothesis, according to Emery (2005).

Caplan (2004) in his chapter dealing with, “What is it that being called ‘parental alienation syndrome’?” considers it vital to ask certain questions: (1)Who decides to call it a mental illness? (2) How is it defined? (3) What information supports the claim that the entity: (a) exists? (b) is consistent with some reasonable definition of mental illness? (c) that the use of the label PAS is helpful or harmful? These questions Caplan feels need to be addressed with respect to the concept of parental alienation syndrome which initially was coined by Richard Gardner as far back as 1987. It is for this reason that the term PAS has not as yet made it in to the DSM. Gardner had urged that it be accepted by DSM so that it can be used more effectively in court.

The Causes of PAS

As already pointed out PAS only occurs when there is an irresolvable acrimony between the partners which has in some ways intruded upon the children and contact by the non-custodial parent with the children. Usually such conflict includes intense marital difficulties, a humiliating separation, and the role of the inimical personalities involved and their behaviour. It frequently involves protracted litigation and professional mismanagement, (Kelly & Johnston, 2001).
A good description of parental alienation or PAS is put forward by Shopper (2005). It commences with stating that parental alienation is a confusing, perplexing legal and psychological problem that often defies simple or even complex remedies. Alienation by definition involves the estrangement or transfer of feelings away from one person and on to another, usually the mother. Within a family, attempts at alienation may take the form of criticism and “bad mouthing” of a parent or an emphasis on or pointing out of the mistakes or inadequacies of the non-resident parent. For a younger child, the distinction between disidentifying with a character trait versus disidentifying with the parent as a whole may be beyond the child’s developmental abilities. In most cases the older child perceives that there is no denunciation of the parent as a whole but only of a circumscribed aspect of that parent’s behaviour.

In the more severe parental alienation some times termed PAS and “medea syndrome” there is a malicious mother syndrome or alienation which refers to a concerted attempt, conscious or not to disrupt a child’s previous affectionate relationship with the other parent (usually the father) and co-opt all the child’s affection and loyalty onto oneself. In the course of the alienation the other parent is portrayed in such a demonised and dehumanising fashion as to the render that person unfit for giving or receiving affection from or a positive relationship with the child.

Sometimes when the custodial parent or indeed the other non resident parent remarries or a new relationship is formed further problems occur which exacerbate the parental alienation situation, (Warshak, 2000). Underlying dynamics include jealousy, narcissistic injury, desire for a revenge, the wish to erase the ex-spouse from the child’s life in order to “make room” for the step parent. There are also competitive feelings between the ex-spouse and the step parent and the new couples, attempt to unite around a common enemy and avoid recognition of conflicts within the previous marriage.

Sometimes the only expectation of the non-custodial parent normally, the father, is financial support and there may arise complications in connection with this when fathers feel they have the right to see their children and unless this is the case financial support may be withdrawn, (Palmer, 2002). According to two investigators, Andre (2005) and Warshak (2001) the term parental alienation syndrome has been both fairly and unfairly criticised. It has been used appropriately and inappropriately by the legal system and is still hotly debated by social movements. This controversy leads to such difficulties as whether an expert’s testimony is acceptable or not before a court of law.

The result is that the relationship between mental health experts and the courts is sometimes strained rather than moving smoothly. Despite many incidents of parental alienation or PAS there is little known about the number of incidents of this problem. With approximately 50% of marriages ending in divorce or separation and other break ups of partnerships, it is likely that the incidence of PAS is greater than one supposes. The whole concept of parental alienation has been disparaged by advocacy groups who view it as another means employed by biased experts to defend inadequate, if not incestuous, fathers.

Those who seek to heal the rifts caused by parental alienation are obviously concerned with any parent who abuses the child sexually, emotionally or physically. Most will agree that such parents have only a limited right or capacity for playing a positive or valuable role in the rearing of their children and may in extreme cases have to be eliminated or only provided with supervised contact, (Van Gijseghem, 2005). Only one piece of research indicates the severity of the problem. Spruijt et al (2005) studied parental alienation syndrome in the Netherlands. There about 20% of children do not have any contact with their non-resident parent after parental divorce.

There are often many reasons underlying the broken contact, but one might well be the process of parental alienation, when the child denigrates and excludes the non-resident parent. There are often many reasons underlying the broken contact, but one might well be that the child is no longer interested in having contact with the non-resident parent due to the programming the child has received. Spruijt et al (2005) summarises two articles which are concerned with families after divorce. A total of 138 respondents cooperated in this study. Of the respondents, 58% thought PAS either does not, or rarely occurs in the Netherlands, and 42% thought that PAS does occur. The extent of parental alienation was classified as (33%) mild, or moderate (9%). The study did not accept Gardner’s view that there were 8 separate symptoms of parental alienation syndrome as this could not be confirmed by the research data. The result also indicated the importance of mediation in seeking to help make decisions with relation to children. In the end, however, the court made the final decision probably with the help of experts involved in the case. Compulsory mediation seeks to achieve better communication during divorce. This was seen as the best way of preventing cases of PAS.

The Views of the Courts of Law

Courts of Law vary on their attitude to the concept of PAS and indeed parental alienation. Much greater interest and reaction to PAS or parental alienation has been provided in certain countries such as the United States to deal with this problem. In the UK much is still left to the judiciary and judges are often unwilling or unable to reverse parental custodial care even in the most severe conditions, (Lowenstein (2005). The judiciary should be primarily concerned about what is in the best interests of the child and decisions are allegedly made on that basis, (Batchy & Kinoo (2004).

There is undoubtedly some difference of view between the law and child mental health experts. In the mental health sphere questions arise about the role of experts in advising courts and in offering therapeutic intervention for children and families. The legal system needs to show that it is capable of distinguishing between reliable and unreliable mental health knowledge and court experts, (King, 2002). There has however been some change in the manner in which the courts consider expert testimony. Parental alienation syndrome as a concept, despite it not being as yet universally accepted in the DSM categorisation, has been increasingly admitted in court rooms across the United States. There is still a broad discretion given to trial judges in determining admissibility, but this should be re-evaluated and a new rule of evidence be provided to consider social science testimony, (Zirogiannis (2001).

Presently it must be admitted that the concept of parental alienation syndrome and parental alienation are controversial. Some judges and courts call into question the admissibility of any expert evidence, Williams (2001).

As an expert in the area of parental alienation and PAS it is my view that much needs to be done to encourage judges to take stands and to make decisions based on the evidence provided by experts. It is of course my view that these experts are independent and fair and provide evidence for anything they have presented in the court setting. This can only be achieved through thorough investigation of all members involved in the problem of parental alienation and access should therefore be provided for all individuals to have the opportunity of being assessed by such experts. This in turn can lead to the treatment or mediation of the problem and prevention of short and long term damage to children and of course the alienated parent. Courts must work closely with expert witnesses involved in seeking to promote harmony between the warring factions for the benefit, primarily of the children.


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