The Long Term Effect of Parental Alienation in Childhood
(A Case Illustration)
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
This case study (suitably disguised) shows how the effect of alienation affects the later life of the individual. It consists of 3 parts.
Part 1, demonstrates the reaction of the child at age 10 to being alienated against her mother by a vindictive father. It is presented in the form of a dialogue between the child and the psychologist. The Judge’s decision is often made based on what the child wants.
Part 2, presents the child as an adult 16 years later showing the long term effects which have resulted from the parental alienation.
Part 3 shows the resurrection of the now adult’s feelings toward her mother (the alienated parent) and the flawed judgment of the court in being ruled by the concept of the child’s right to make decisions whilst under the influence of parental alienation.
The Long Term Effect of Parental Alienation in Childhood
What follows concerns an alienated girl aged 10 which constitutes part one; this is followed by part 2 when the child has reached the age of 26 i.e. 16 years later after having been alienated against one of her parents; and part 3 deals with the girl now aged 26 i.e. the child who was alienated when young and the necessity for her to appear in court.
Part 1: Gemma when interviewed about her feelings, aged 10
I sometimes believe that the court’s either take the easy way out or fail to acknowledge, or are not aware that the rights of the child can be manipulated or usurped by an alienating parent. Although the child is always a victim in the case of implacable hostility between parents, the child also becomes a “powerful figure”, which the child should not be, in a scenario of hostile parents separating.
Let me illustrate this by a conversation I had with a 10 year old girl in this position. In the dialogue ‘P’ will stand for Psychologist (the expert witness), and ‘G’ for Gemma, the child in question. (In order to disguise the identity of the child various things have been altered including her name.)
P: What do you feel about your parents splitting up?
G: I expected it for some time. My parents were always arguing. Fortunately they never hit one another but their arguing was terrible and worrying. They always tried to hurt one another and it hurt me as well.
P: What happened next?
G: Mum left and then all was peaceful. Father told me that I could go with mum if I wanted to but if I did he didn’t want to know me anymore. I decided to stay with dad. We always got on well. He did a lot for me especially when I was a baby.
P: Didn’t you miss your mum?
G. Yes, a lot at first but I gradually got used to being without her. Dad told me often to visit my mum if I wished to but I know he didn’t really want me to. He never really insisted that I do so. Dad told me many times that if mum loved me she wouldn’t have gone off and left. He told me mum never wanted children and that I was a “mistake” but as far as he was concerned a wonderful surprise!
P: Did you believe everything dad told you?
G: Not at first but when mum never called I thought he must be right. She never really cared about me. (Years later Gemma found out that mother telephoned on many occasions and wrote letters to her that father kept from her and destroyed).
P: What happened next?
G: After a while my mother wanted to have contact with me but father said that she was trying to have custody through the courts and take me away from him.
P: You must have known by then that your mother wanted to be with you, and also loved you even if she no longer loved your father?
G: That’s not the way my dad explained it to me. He said she was jealous because I wanted to be with him (my dad), but she didn’t really want me. She was only trying to make trouble according to my dad.
P: Did you believe what your dad was telling you?
G: Yes, it made sense. Why did she never call me or write to me? Why did she leave me? In the end I decided that if she didn’t want to see me, I wouldn’t bother with her anymore. I didn’t know where she was anyway.
P: How can you be sure your mother does not love, or did not love you?
G: My dad told me that my mother often lied and pretended things. I hear my aunties and uncles (paternal family) talking about my mum as not being a nice person. I believe my dad. He doesn’t lie and he has always cared about me while my mother only pretended she loved me. She didn’t even look after me when I was a baby. That’s what dad told me.
P: You wouldn’t have known as a baby whether you yourself felt your mother cared about you or not would you?
G: My father and my grandmother also told me the same thing and they didn’t lie either. I’ve now decided I don’t want to see my mother anymore. No-one can make me meet her. It’s my life and it’s my decision. The Judge even told my father that a child has rights and should not be forced to be with a parent against their will.
P: Judges do say these things, but I know that not seeing your mother anymore is going to be bad for you now and in the future, and for your mother the loss of a once very close child is indescribably hurtful. Do you really want to hurt your mother, and yourself, by refusing contact with her?
G: I don’t need her. My father has always been the one to love me and look after me and anyway the Judge said………
P: I know what the Judge said but the Judge doesn’t know what you really feel deep down inside about your mum and could feel again if you met her and got to know her.
G: And you think you know?! You’re not even part of our family. How do you know how I feel. I know you are a Psychologist. They don’t know everything. I know what I think and I’m not going to change my mind.
P: I really believe you should spend some time with your mother to get to really know her and she to get to know you once again.
G: I told you I don’t need her and I don’t want to spend time with her. She really doesn’t want me anyway. She is only trying to make trouble by forcing my father to go to court.
As the expert witness in the case I had seen many cases that were similar to this one. Gemma refused to engage in therapy with anyone. She even shouted down the therapist and used abusive language. She showed no respect for any adult that the court asked to see and speak with her. She obviously felt empowered by these events. I felt therefore the only course of action other than capitulation to the child and what the child claimed she wanted, as well as what the Judge wanted, was to recommend the removal of Gemma from the father’s custody and placing Gemma either with her mother or in a children’s home for 6 months so that the mother and Gemma could engage with one another without the influence of the father interfering in this process.
After an initial period I was certain that Gemma would re-engage with her mother. Father, once the child had reengaged with the mother could have contact with Gemma, providing father gave real assurance that he would desist from any further alienating Gemma against her mother. Both parents could eventually therefore enjoy a form of joint custody. That was my recommendation to the court.
CAFCASS felt that if this was recommended and carried out it would be at the cost of serious psychological harm resulting to Gemma. They suggested that therapeutic intervention was the only way forward. Gemma’s reaction to therapy in the past was not to engage actively with the therapist and she regarded this with a determination that ‘her opinion would not be changed.’ When she was given therapy she did not engage with the therapist and eventually avoided it altogether persuading the father not to take her to the therapy sessions. The father was very happy not to do so and pleaded helplessness in not being able to “make her go”.
The Judge did not consider that parental alienation had even occurred and if it did it was of a minimal nature. He was convinced that the child not wanting to see the mother was “her choice”. The Judge felt that Gemma, as a child of 10 years of age, was capable of knowing what she wanted and what she did not want. He agreed with the Social Worker that great distress would result to Gemma if she were to be removed from her father’s custody and placed with the mother. He felt she had settled well and felt safe in her current home with her father. He felt the right of Gemma needed to be respected. The Children’s Charter had emphasised that right (see appendix 1).
Part 2: Gemma, at the age 26, 16 years later
Gemma had made no contact with her mother. Mother tried to call her, wrote letters and sent Christmas and Birthday cards but never received any acknowledgement. Telephone calls never got through to her daughter. The suffering of losing a beloved daughter never left her. She was very unhappy. She wanted so much to hear from her child. Gemma had not done well with her life. She had dropped out of school without gaining any qualifications.
She became involved with a group of girls and boys who were already drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana and there was a good chance that they would turn to other drugs. Most recently she got into trouble for shoplifting, not one but several times, and was due to attend court. Gemma had really let herself go. She was now overweight and never went to see her father except when she wanted money. Father had another partner with whom Gemma did not get on. She had been having numerous one night stands with men as well as women. She had become pregnant and her father had paid for her to have an abortion. Additionally, she found it difficult to hold down a job due to her late nights out with her friends and her inability to get up in the morning. A Solicitor was selected to represent her in the court paid for by Legal Aid. The Solicitor questioned her about her life and discovered that she had a mother. Gemma had not seen her mother for many years. Gemma mentioned that she had been seen by a Psychologist when her mother left the home. The Solicitor made enquiries and found that Psychologist (myself) was still practicing in the area of family problems. The Psychologist was requested to act as the expert witness in this case.
I suggested to Gemma that she might welcome meeting her mother after this passage of time. Her reply to this suggestion was as expected: “What good would that be? She’s never been interested in me since she left the home when I was a child.” Gemma however, accepted my proposal in the end to find her mother and to meet with her regardless of the passage of time. Gemma’s mother had never remarried. She had obviously aged and felt somewhat anxious about meeting her daughter after so many years. The meeting took place at the Psychologist’s clinic. It was unbelievable to watch Gemma being embraced by her mother and Gemma responding as if they had only been parted for a short time. They were both in tears, and I had to admit, so was I!
Each spoke at the same time. There was so much to say after so many years of being apart. Mother explained how she had written many letters to her daughter to which she never received a reply. Gemma in turn responded that she had never received any of these letters. The telephone number had become ex-directory and had been changed as Gemma’s father no longer wished to hear from his former partner, and he did not wish his daughter to hear from her either.
I considered how Gemma’s life might have been so different had her mother been with her, guiding her and being a role model for her. I felt instinctively that I could use Gemma’s past experiences of having been alienated and connecting this with her current downfall and antisocial behaviour. I would assess Gemma to discover what the impact was on her of losing a loving mother. Gemma had always felt there was something wrong with her which led to her mother abandoning her!
Now Gemma realised that her mother had never forgotten her and had never stopped loving her. Gemma gradually realised this and the fact that her father and his family were responsible for her loss of a loving and caring mother. Gemma also claimed that the Judge and the court were also responsible of depriving her of a wonderful mother. She had told the Judge that she wanted to be with her father and wanted nothing to do with her mother. Gemma realised that the Judge shouldn’t have believed this statement but should have listened to the Psychologist who was aware that her father had alienated her against the mother.
Gemma felt she had been betrayed and used as a weapon by the father against a loving mother. Gemma questioned why those in authority had allowed this injustice to happen, although she knew she had contributed to this herself. She was however, just a child. Why did the Judge believe a child when she said she did not want anything to do with her mother! Gemma’s life had been virtually ruined by a vindictive father and a Judiciary that failed to understand Gemma’s deeper feelings which were being influenced by an alienating father. This forced her to make a decision which she should not have had to make. She was after all only a child who had been manipulated. Her superficially based rights of not wanting contact with her mother had been granted. As the Psychologist knew, deep down Gemma did not wish to have no contact with her mother. Here true and real right to have continued contact with a loving mother had been ignored.
I decided after examining Gemma’s intelligence and personality to draw attention to the mistakes that had been made in the past by a Judiciary, that failed to accept that Gemma’s right as a child had indeed been observed, but she had as a result lost a loving mother and the input that mother could have had in Gemma’s life and development.
Despite the sadness I felt about what had happened in the past that could have been prevented, it was gratifying to see Gemma and her mother walking out of the clinic clutching one another almost in desperation. I must confess I felt immense joy in seeing the two together as if they had never been apart. Sometimes a Psychologist’s gratification also comes many years later after having failed initially to achieve what he wanted to achieve. This was one such time
Part 3: The expert witness in court again
The assessment of Gemma’s intelligence revealed that she had the ability to eventually attend a university. She needed, however, to return to college to finish numerous GCSEs and take numerous ‘A’ levels. Mother had retired from work as an Accountant for a Local Authority. She had a small flat and offered Gemma a small bedroom which she agreed also to make into a place where Gemma could study.
Gemma’s personality had a large number of traits such as depression, worry, and feelings of guilt and anxiety. She also suffered from impulsiveness. As a result of finding her mother, and on the advice of the Psychologist, Gemma agreed to continue with her education. This information was recorded in a report for the court. I presented the fact that Gemma’s downfall had, at least in part, been due to the loss of a loving mother with whom she was now belatedly re-engaged and with whose company she was happy.
This time the Judge actually listened to what I had to say about the good future prospects I predicted for Gemma. Gemma had been in trouble before for a streak of shoplifting. The possibility of a custodial sentence was likely. I promised to provide Gemma with therapy ‘pro bono’ if she was not to be incarcerated for this current charge. The Judge gave Gemma a deferred sentence and warned her that the next time she would not be so fortunate if she offended again. Gemma, I must report, never disappointed me. She finished her studies at college level and was accepted at university to take a degree, which she selected, in psychology. I knew she would do well. She regained the love of her mother, something she realised now she had never lost. I, naturally wondered why Gemma had chosen to read psychology! Perhaps it was because she, unlike many others, would seek to understand the depth of problems resulting from parental alienation. This I had tried to instill in Gemma when I interviewed her when she was so uncooperative as a child.
I thought Gemma would make a good psychologist. Her personal experience in early life would stand her in good stead. She would hear the voice of a child but look beneath that voice and understand what really was important to that child: the love and care of not one, but two parents in a child’s life.