The Manipulative Alienator (When mediation can fail)

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


Summary & Abstract

This article illustrates and elaborates on how initial success in parental alienation cases can be based on a delusion of having been successful. The manner in which the alienator can continue alienating despite appearing to avoid this is illustrated. Psychologists and others treating or mediating in such cases need to be aware of this pit fall in allowing premature success to become a real or ultimate success when this has in fact not been attained. The writer suggests strong recommendations to be made to the Judiciary when this occurs.


No-one enjoys displaying one’s failures to the general public and one’s fellow professionals. It is this, however, I intend to do. It is important to share such undesired failures as much as it is to display one’s successes in the arena of family diagnosis and therapy. This is because other experts have experienced, or are likely to experience such failures themselves in the future if they have not done so already. It is important in such situations to be sufficiently creative and humble to seek alternatives that are likely to be effective than those used. Above all, one should not feel demoralised, although one is likely to feel temporarily disappointed. The example which will be cited later shows how a psychologist can be manipulated by a clever alienator as much as the alienator can manipulate a partner who becomes the victim.

Whatever one does, rightly or wrongly, one needs to be resilient by always hoping for the best, yet expecting the possibility of the opposite. One does the best one can to heal feuds between parents for the benefit of the children involved, as well as for the benefit of all concerned. In order to achieve this, one must be ever resolute and strongly expect one’s ego satisfaction will be dented, at least temporarily, from time to time. There is always an alternative solution however, on the horizon!

It must be said for the potential critics that in this case, it is the mother who is the alienator who is preventing good contact between the children and their father. Roles could be reversed with father having custody and carrying on the alienation process also. The current psychologist has always believed it is in the best interest of children and their future development to have good contact with both well-meaning parents, unless either one or the other is a physical, sexual or emotional abuser.

It is unfortunate that some parents, due to their hate for their former partner, will make allegations that are ill-founded or exaggerated. They practice a malicious and unjust reaction due to their feelings of hostility toward an often good parent. This leads certainly for the need to prove the innocence of an innocent parent, since many parents are thought to be guilty by allegation alone, when no validity exists for such charges. Vindictive parents, such as those have no right to have custody of children. This is because they will continue to poison the minds of their offspring with impunity. Such parents do not deserve the custody and control of vulnerable children.

As one who regularly deals with issues of parental alienation, one is sometimes lured into feeling a false sense of success, at least temporarily, until the future dictates otherwise. This occurs when all partners concerned in contact disputes appear to agree that good contact between the children and their now absent parent is best for all concerned. Then the former alienator changes tactics and continues to alienate anew. He/she has, for a period of time, lured the expert psychologist/psychiatrist into a false sense of having been successful. Let me now illustrate this through a real yet sufficiently disguised, actual case, in which the current author was involved.

Case Illustration

Mr X came to see the psychologist stating that he had not seen his children for over 6 months and had done nothing wrong except to break up with a partner who had become very vindictive, making life very difficult for his having contact with his children. Mr & Mrs X had gone to court after an acrimonious divorce and separation. There had always been a close relationship between the children and both parents. According to Mrs X, Mr X had displayed signs of hostility culminating in his pushing his wife on one occasion. She deemed this an act of aggression and forced him out of the matrimonial home.

Needless to say, the children were upset by this unexpected and unfortunate development. Mrs X claimed that her husband was a danger to her children who were aged 8 & 9. It was her decision that her husband should have no contact with the children, or as little as possible. This was her decision especially when on one occasion the father smacked the young boy for being aggressive to his sister. In the meantime both mother and father had established a new relationship with a new partner.

The court ordered for a psychologist to be involved to assess the family and to determine whether the father was likely to be a danger to the children or not. The psychologist was also asked to assess the children in order to ascertain their views about their father. Mother duly arrived with the two children and was placed in to one waiting room, as she did not wish to have any contact with her former partner. Father was placed in a second waiting room so that there would be no contact between the parents.

Mother pointed out in no uncertain terms that the father was a danger to the children’s welfare. It was clear from seeing and meeting with the children that they “appeared” to agree with the mother and both children stated that they wanted nothing to do with their father, despite the fact that they had always had a warm and loving relationship with him in the past. It was clear to the psychologist that the mother made every effort to disparage the father to the children and attempted to change their former strong paternal bond and feeling to direct the children’s affection toward her new partner. She did everything she could to extinguish the warm feelings of the children towards their natural father.

At the very same time, she attempted in a kind of double think, to convince the psychologist to think that the children could have contact with their natural father, if they themselves wanted this. She was, however, not inclined to force them to have contact. “It is up to them…..Whatever they want……but you can’t expect me to force them to be with him unless they want to be with him…….”

This I have found to be a most typical response or ruse to be used by the subtle or more direct alienator. From the interview of the mother and the testing of the children, as well the father, it became absolutely clear that father had always had a very close relationship with the children and loved them very much. After the parents separated this appeared to have changed. All the children needed was for their mother to encourage such contact sincerely and without ambiguity or “double messages”.

Children are duly influenced by parents who may say one thing yet clearly mean another, or the very opposite. Hence a parent will say “Do you want to go with your father. If not I thought we might go bowling this afternoon with …….”The mother may also put other positive things in the children’s minds such as “Would you rather go out with your friends or meet your father?” A good parent, who considers what is in the best interest of children will sincerely and firmly establish a time that should be given to be with the other parent without the use of double talk or double meaning or without insistence always of being present when the children are with the other parent.

Expert witnesses may be influenced by a parent who is truly, or pathologically believes that the children will be unsafe with the other parent. It is necessary for the psychologist to determine and decide how safe, or unsafe, children are likely to be with their other parent. In virtually all cases, children are totally safe and happy when they are with their other parent. This was the case before and nothing should have changed to make things different. It must be noted that the psychologist is in danger of being manipulated by the custodial parent much as the other parent who has been alienated from contact with his/her children.

Each parent will seek the psychologist to become an “ally” in their ongoing feud and animosity towards the other parent. The advantage naturally rests with the custodial parent whose influence is paramount, if not total, in how their children think, behave and act.

The report written by the psychologist concluded:

    1. The children were in no danger being with their father.
    2. Mother could do much more than what she was doing to encourage firmly, resolutely and in good faith for the children to have regular good contact with their father.
    3. Only a mediation session between the psychologist, the mother and the father and the children would confirm or not confirm the two conclusions reached by the psychologist following the assessment of all parties concerned.

It was for this reason that such a mediation session, with all concerned, was arranged to see what  could be done about bringing the family together and to encourage the children to have good contact with each parent and also to convince the mother of the value of this for the sake of the children. This was to be followed by an addendum report for the court summarising the out come of one session of mediation and the conclusions drawn from the mediation session.

The result of mediation and the role of the Judiciary

The parents were seen separately, and the aim was for the psychologist to achieve some form of rapprochement which would bring things forward and that mother would agree to better contact of the children with their father. Mother again, agreed reluctantly, that the children could meet their father “if they wished to do so”. Father was eager for contact with the children in any way possible. The children were seen one at a time by the psychologist without stating what was to happen. Each child was taken separately to feed a flock of sheep with bread, which were on the grounds where the children were seen. The children enjoyed this opportunity to feed the sheep. At the same time they were questioned as to whether they would like to meet with their father if it could be arranged. They were informed that their father, as always, missed them very much and felt nothing but love for them.

The psychologist observed that the children listened intently to this while feeding the sheep. They were also asked if they still also loved their father. They responded in a positive manner to these discussions. Both children were positive in their reply that they would like to meet with their father. This would have been an unlikely scenario to have been the case had the mother been present. The children were then individually, reintroduced to their father.

Potentially happy ending

The meeting after 6 months of the father not seeing the children was a highly emotional one. Each child in turn jumped on their father’s lap and they enjoyed kissing and hugging their father. This was without any encouragement from the psychologist or the father. Both children felt perfectly at home with the father and overjoyed with the reunion with their father. It was as if they had been released from containment and were able to express their own opinions and feelings openly. These feelings had existed before the reunion but they had completely crumbled due to the fact that mother denigrated the father in the children’s eyes and made him out to be a “bad” man who should be avoided. She has schemed to encourage her new partner to become the father figure. Father was in tears and overjoyed at  being with his children for the first time in many months.

The psychologist had been warned by the mother that under no circumstances should the father be allowed to be with the children on their own. After watching this heart rending reunion the psychologist decided to leave the room, but with another person observing from another room,  so that the father could be together on his own with the children he had not seen for such a long time. The psychologist in the meantime returned to the mother to let her know what was happening. She insisted that the father apologise to her for alleged past threatening behaviour.

Mother was informed of the happy reunion of the children with their loving father. She appeared not to be at all pleased. The psychologist suggested, after a time, that she join the children and the father in the same room, and to somehow interact with each other positively. She was somewhat reluctant to join the father and the children but eventually did so. The psychologist commented on how happy everyone appeared to be and how this fact could continue into the future. Mother, reluctantly agreed that they might all go out after this session with the father to have a ‘ McDonalds’. The children were enthusiastic, and agreed with a considerable degree of happiness to this getting together.

It appeared that this could be a happy ending for all concerned. For some several weeks father and the children had regular good contact, sometimes with mother joining in by going out together for activities which consisted of meals out, going bowling or ice-skating etc. Several weeks later the father telephoned the psychologist. Mother had once again cancelled several meetings that had been arranged between the father and the children. Father always included the mother in these arrangements if she wished to participate in this. She mainly wished to be present whenever father was with the children. Her view was that she still needed to safeguard the children. His view was that they could be pleasant towards one another as parents and this could be to the advantage of the children. It was always father’s intention to do what was in the best interest of the children, hence to feel the love of both parents in their lives.

The lack of co-operation in allowing good contact between the father and the children led the psychologist to recommend to the Judiciary that father should have custody of the children unless the mother made certain that the contact between the father and the children was always assured, and was regular, and that there were no distractions from it. Otherwise, the alienation process would only continue.

It is of course for the Judiciary to make such decisions, and to make certain that both parents conduct themselves  in ways that are in the best interest of their children. There is no room for parents who unjustly alienate their children against a totally innocent, and essentially good  parent. The Judicial decision must reflect that fact.