Part II – Parental Alienation Syndrome and Its Impact on Children

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



Courts frequently ask whether there are any repercussions for children who have been subjected to parental alienation. What follows delineates those reactions by children who are alienated against one parent due to acrimony between the parents before and after separation. Numerous studies have shown that children involved in the alienation dispute often suffer greatly from emotional and behavioural problems as a consequence of the bitter alienation disputes which often remain unresolved unless treated by an expert.

Part II – Parental Alienation Syndrome and Its Impact on Children


Tin the past there has been relatively little work done in the area of the impact of parental alienation on children. Gardner (2002a; 2002b; 2002c; 2003; 2004) emphasised numerous times, the importance of involving mediation experts especially psychologists and psychiatrists in seeking to determine the damage that has been done or is likely to be done through the alienation process.

Those who carry out such evaluations should have a fundamental understanding of child development and a comprehensive knowledge and understanding on the research on divorce. Good evaluation skills are required and care must be taken to use rather than misuse psychological testing in such evaluations (Stahl, 2002).

Problems of PAS

It has been established that a small number of children with post divorce adjustment problems will go on to develop a more severe and entrenched reaction termed parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Ellis (2000a) describes 12 characteristics of children with PAS and suggests that intervention and treatment should be provided as soon as is possible. Johnston (2003) considers the family relationship after divorce and examines the frequency of child-parent alignment. It is often correlated with the children’s rejection of the alienated parent. Data was collected from an archival database which consisted of 215 children from the family courts and general community two and three years after parental separation. The findings indicate that children’s attitudes towards their parents range from positive to negative with relatively few being extremely aligned or rejecting. Rejection of a parent has multiple determinants, with both the allying and rejected parents contributing to the problem, in addition to vulnerabilities within the children themselves.

There has been an uncertain and not always harmonious relationship between mental health experts and the courts (Gunsberg & Hymowitz, 2005). The difficulties of this relationship have only grown more urgent as the offspring of the ‘custody wars’ keep proliferating. Close to half of the nations children grow up in single parent households, and many will have experienced the pain and trauma of their parent’s divorce and custody battles, battles that highlight the uneasy nature of interdisciplinary collaborations. There is indeed a need for ongoing dialogue between the legal and mental health professions, these often being so elitist within their own language and methodology.

Investigators such as Warshak (2002) are only minimally happy with the term PAS since it is felt that numerous children reject their parents regardless of whether they have suffered from alienation. On the whole however children are happiest when they have some contact with both parents, leaving aside abusive parents of course. There are some children who refuse to become alienated despite the denigration of one parent by the other, but there are many children who are indeed alienated successfully via programming.

The Damage to Children of PAS

It cannot be underestimated however, the damage suffered by children of divorced parents (Ellis, 2000b). Children would appear to be the biggest losers when relationships break-up and that is why it is the rule of mental health individuals to improve the outcome for hurting children. The children often have considerable difficulty in dealing with parental psychopathology and chronic parental conflict. In the extreme one parent may make the false allegations that sexual abuse has been practiced by the non-resident parent. This has an impact not only on the child but obviously the alienated parent, usually the father.

Some children as a result of the alienation process develop a victimised or paranoid approach to life (Firestone & Catlett, 1986). Formerly both parents were probably idealised but following the alienation process, only one parent remains as an ideal, while the other is denigrated. This injures children’s ability to function in the real world. Often such children act to keep the absent alienated parent distant from themselves and therefore fail to develop a satisfactory close relationship with that parent. It could develop into a feeling of negativity towards numerous individuals who may resemble the alienated parent. It also leads to children suffering from emotional deprivation.

There are numerous other repercussions frequently ignored such as the development of excessive empowerment on children as they are provided with a position of choice when they are able to reject the alienated parent, due to the influence of the alienator. This leads to children themselves contributing to the campaign of denigration against the alienated parent. This has been well documented by such pioneering experts as Gardner (2002d).

Not only are emotional factors repercussions within children affected by parental alienation but the mental development of such children is often at risk. These are definitely the consequences being deprived of fathers (Von Boch-Galhau, 2002).

There is a fallacy in thinking that children are protected in the family courts from the alienation process as on Australian study points out (Jenkins, 2002). Jenkins (2002) feels that despite a landmark high court judgement in the area of false child sex abuse allegations, a major concern in such cases seems to be the fear that mothers often use false accusations as a ‘weapon’ in custody and contact cases. The paper examines the nature of parental alienation syndrome with the belief that young children’s accounts of abuse often lack credibility. The paper argues that the principle of “protection of the child’s best interests” should not necessarily be equated with the child always having access, even supervised access with a parent previously accused of having abused the child. Equally the cases should be carefully investigated when in fact no sexual or other abuse has actually taken place. This depends to a large degree on the expert’s skill and total independence of thinking. It has been noted by Ellis (2000a) that a small number of children with post divorce adjustment problems will go on to develop more severe and entrenched reactions called parental alienation symptoms. Lowenstein (2005) discusses the reaction of children who have been programmed against the non resident parent. Difficulties occur within the school setting, due to physical problems and behavioural difficulties in many cases of children who have been so alienated against on parent.

It is vital to study the history of children and their relationship to their parents previous to the acrimonious or hostile separation of their parents. Children who previously loved their parents would often change dramatically in relation to one of their parents following the separation due to the hostility that develops thereafter (Gagne et al, 2005). Cases are typically observed in the context of separation and divorces especially when ex spouses are still in conflict. This phenomenon has instigated many controversies between experts in the forensic, social and mental health fields.

It is important that once it has been established that one of the parents is programming or brainwashing the child against the other that immediate action is taken to investigate the matter through the courts who appoint a qualified expert such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. The expert reports his or her findings back to the court so that action may be taken which should prevent further alienation from occurring. Unfortunately there are still many courts that do not necessarily abide by the views of the expert who are unable to state what they think is the best policy but can only state that alienation has taken place and has damaged the child’s prospects in the future and at the present time. This is verified by the work of Johnston et al (2005) in their study of 74 children aged 5 to twelve years in custody disputes. These children practiced rejecting one parent and the corresponding emotional enmeshment with the other parent. According to parent’s rating using the Child Behaviour Checklist, alienated children had more emotional and behavioural problems of clinically significant proportions compared to their non alienated counterparts. Such children who have been affected by alienation had difficulty in developing certain coping styles in life.


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