The Possibilities and Limitations of Psychological Therapy in Cases of Parental Alienation

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



It is clear that cases of parental alienation are extremely complex and therapy has certain limitations especially when the implacable hostility of an alienating parent works against the efforts of the psychologist to remedy the situation and provide contact for the absent parent. The article concerns itself with one particular case of a child who wanted contact with her father but was unable to exceed to it being provided due to the hostility which the mother felt towards the father. The example given is presented in the form of a dialogue between the psychologist and the child. This is followed by a therapy session of an alienating mother also in a dialogue between an alienating mother and the psychologist. The psychologist adopts a directive approach in the form of cognitive behaviour therapy.

The Possibilities and Limitations of Psychological Therapy in Cases of Parental Alienation

In what follows two examples will be provided on how one psychologist attempted to engage with a number of children, although only one child will be singled out in this case, to remove obstacles of contact between a child and an absent parent. In the first illustration the psychologist meets the obdurate refusal of the custodial parent to co-operate in encouraging a child to make contact with the now absent parent. In the second illustration the psychologist succeeds to a considerable degree in promoting good and regular contact between the child and the now absent parent.
It will be noted that the therapy which is illustrated is directive, rational and emotional. This was found to be the best way forward. Most contact issues involve the lack of contact between the father and his child/children although there are cases when it is the mother who is prevented from contact with her child/children.
The illustration which follows is the more common one and we will begin with a dialogue between the psychologist and the child.

The child who wanted to love her father

It will be noted that C = child and P = Psychologist

C:        I can’t see my father.
P:         Why?
C:        It wouldn’t be fair to my mother.
P:         Why can’t you love and be with both your parents.
C:        Because my father has been so hurtful to my mother.
P:         Who told you that?
C:        My mother has told me many times how badly he treated her.
P:         That may or may not be true. How did he treat you?
C:        He was sometimes strict but he always treated me well. We often had fun together and we both loved cuddling one another. He even used to feed me as a baby so I am told but of course I can’t remember that.
P:         So you are ten years old now and you still have some happy memories with your father.
C:        But that was a long time ago. Everything is different now since my mum and dad split up. You don’t know what it is like.
P:         What do you mean?
C:        Mum is often so unhappy and angry about my dad. You can’t imagine how things have changed with dad no longer being around. I so much wish it had never happened and that things could be as they were before.
P:         How have things changed for you?
C:        It’s like we are no longer a family. Sure mum and dad used to argue a lot but we were at least a family. Now it is like the world will never be the same.
P:         But you still have both your parents even though they are not together. They both still love you, even though they can’t love one another anymore.
C:        It’s hard to be with my father because mother is so upset about him and I don’t want to upset  her anymore by being with him.
P:         But how do you think your father feels about not seeing you, a daughter he deeply loves?
C:        (She cries) I don’t know what to do. Please will you talk to my mother. She makes me feel so guilty whenever I think about being with my father. I just don’t know what to do. Whatever I do or don’t do I am going to upset someone and that includes myself.
P:         You are only ten years old and I can see things are difficult for you. Would you really like me to speak to your mother?
C:        Could you do that without upsetting her any more than she is upset already?

Therapy with an alienating mother

Now follows an illustration of the psychologist speaking to the mother in this case. It should be remembered that the illustration is an amalgamation of a number of cases which have great similarities, although also differences. There are only two outcomes possible following such a meeting. Both outcomes will be presented. The first result based on a number of cases is highly negative in its outcome and results in no contact between the child and the absent parent. The second is positive and also based on a number of cases in which the psychologist was involved. It must be admitted that the latter positive result is far less common unfortunately, than the negative one illustrated. What follows differs considerably when the more amenable parent is interviewed and treated. The aim of the therapist is to promote and aim for the second version, that is, a good outcome.

P = Psychologist         M = Mother

P:         I have had a good talk with your daughter.
M:        She needs a lot of help from someone since her father left. She has had some problems in school which she never had before. We have grown very close she and I and she is a great support to me.
P:         I gather she has hardly ever seen her father since the break-up of your relationship.
M:        That’s not my fault. She has had every opportunity to see her father. She hasn’t been wanting to do so.
P:         Have you encouraged her to have contact to be with him?
M:        When he has rung I have passed the phone over to her as I don’t want to speak to him. I have nothing I really want to talk about with him.
P:         Does she know how you feel about her father?
M:        I suppose so. I haven’t made a secret of the fact that I want nothing further to do with him. All that is behind us.
P:         Are you including your daughter in that? She and her father used to be very close in the past.
M:        That’s up to her. I have nothing to do with what she wants to do in relation to her father. That’s totally up to her.
P:         But she knows how you feel about him. Don’t you think that this would influence her and the way she feels about him and also about her making contact with him?
M:        She knows how unhappy he made me. I’ve made no secret of that and she has eyes and ears and knows how things have been between her father and myself. I won’t  and can’t force her to be with him. He has nothing further to do with us and especially with me.
P:         But he certainly wants to have something to do with his daughter and he is, according to my conversation with him, very upset that he rarely sees her now. You are probably aware that he misses her terribly.
M:        That’s his problem and there is nothing I can do about it.
P:         And you aren’t likely to do anything about it are you?
M:        What can I do if she doesn’t want to see him.
P:         They used to be very close didn’t they?
M:        That was a long time ago and I’m not even sure they were that close considering how she feels about him now.
P:         And you don’t intend to do anything to change the situation or your daughter’s mind.
M:        There is nothing I can do and I certainly don’t intend to force her to see her father.

This is usually the end of where implacable hostility leads to no or poor contact between the absent parent, whether father or mother, and the child. Such children are aware of the hostility that the remaining parent feels, and the child feels guilty about not supporting the custodial parent, even if it goes against the absent parent. These children find themselves in a conflict situation.

On the one hand is a parent towards whom they have always felt love and closeness. On the other is the parent with whom the child resides and identifies who is upset, saddened and angry with the  now absent parent. The child must decide and usually sides with the remaining custodial parent upon whom he/she is totally dependent.

This often results in the child avoiding contact with the now absent parent out of a sense of guilt in failing to be totally supportive of the custodial parent. Sometimes it is due to the child being so identified with the hostile resident parent that, the child also adopts the hostility of the custodial parent towards the now absent parent. It again must be remembered that the child, before the break-up of the parents, felt very differently about the now absent parent.

We left off where the mother in this case, (although it could be the father) makes no effort to encourage the child to have good regular contact with the now absent parent. Mother claims that she is doing all she can to encourage, or at least not discourage, good contact with the absent parent. Subtly however, mother by her attitude and demeanour shows her real feelings about the child having good contact with the absent parent and influences the child accordingly. The judiciary fails to see this and believes that the custodial parent is indeed trying to get the child to have contact when in fact this is not the case at all. As will be seen in the illustration that follows, it is vital to delve deeper into the matter of understanding what is really going on. It is of vital importance to convince the mother of the importance of letting go of the hostility towards the absent parent which has been influencing and affecting the child caught in the middle of the implacable hostility, this being communicated from the mother (in this case) to the child.

Mother may well be doing this consciously or at a subconscious level. The effect is the same. The child avoids contact with the absent parent and even rejects that parent much as does the custodial parent. It is the role of the psychologist to change this pathological pattern if at all possible through mediation or therapy.

As will be seen, sometimes this can be achieved, more often it cannot be achieved. In the latter case, other methods must be sought, often through the courts to help an alienated child to change their attitude and behaviour towards the absent parent.

The mother in the illustration that follows allowed herself to be persuaded by the psychologist that good contact with the absent parent was in the best interest of the child and his/her future. Again, what follows is an amalgamation of a number of cases that ended positively as a result of psychological intervention combined with the initial or ultimate cooperation of the alienating party. (Again we need to keep in mind that the alienating parent can be the father or the mother). The current psychologist as well as other psychologists have found the ratio of alienators between mothers and fathers to be roughly estimated as 4:1. This is because mothers rather than fathers are more likely to have or be given custody over children. Now follows a relatively successful effort, unlike the previous one, to overcome parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome in an alienator. The ratio of success to failure using this type of therapy used by the current psychologist is at the ratio of 1:8, indicating that it is not always successful.

Needless to say, other procedures must be found, involving the power of the courts supporting psychological methods and conclusions reached. Other articles published by the current psychologist refer to the necessary judicial decisions for the benefit of the child and the alienated parent. When the alienator refuses to co-operate as in the case previously presented, little of a psychological nature can be done. The essential strategy in convincing the alienator is not merely to get them to desist in their programme of alienating or brainwashing and to reverse this tendency. This can only be achieved when the former alienator firmly, sincerely encourages, or insists that the child has good regular contact with the previously alienate parent. Let us see how this will work.

P:      You are obviously very angry with your former partner but I am also convinced that you wish for the very best for your child.
M:     Of course I do. All I have left is my child/children. I do not want them to suffer in any way as a result of our marriage and our relationship breaking up.
P:      Then you need to accept that children do best when they have two loving parents involved with them.
M:     What about when the parents are no longer together and where both parents dislike and even hate one another?
P:      That is one of the unfortunate resulting situations which separation and divorce brings, but that need not have such bad consequences for the children if parents behave appropriately.
M:     Does it really affect children that much when parents are not both involved with the child?
P:      It usually does in the short and in the long term.
M:     What is likely to happen if the other parent does not have contact with the parent?
P:      The children are shocked and then made very anxious as the world around them seems to be disintegrating. They even blame themselves in some cases that they may have done something to make such a catastrophe happen. They may also develop sleep, eating problems and have difficulties in school, and develop psychological problems and behaviour difficulties including anxieties, depression, and change into becoming more aggressive. Most of all they will identify with you and your negative feelings towards your former partner. Later in life they may have difficulties in establishing a good relationship with an adult partner. They may well become alienators themselves thus perpetuating what happened to them in their own life. These are but a few results of what will happen when you try to succeed in turning good feelings towards a former partner into negative ones. All this is based on past and current research into the effects of alienation.
M:     That’s terrible, but what can I do now to change my child’s determination not to see her father.
P:      You must do more than pay lip-service, or merely encourage, but insist on her seeing her father. You must continue to emphasise all the good things father has done in the past and avoid talking about his faults and the things he has done badly. Remember your child feels guilty already about being close and happy with her father incase this upsets you. You must most importantly consider what is in the best interest of your child now and in the future and not think about your own dislike or hatred for your former partner. It is for that child to share the love of both parents. Such behaviour on your part, however difficult, will do much to heal the rift which now exists between you and your former partner. Believe me or not, I have known such changes to result in partners going out together with a child or even going on holiday together. Can you imagine what impact this has on a child to see its parents who were hostile to one another now showing friendship instead of being enemies?
M:     I can’t imagine that happening at the moment.
P:      To achieve such ideals there is a need for us to meet for some time and for me also to meet with your former partner. In time, at the right time, it is important to meet together and eventually to include your child in such a meeting.
M:     You can be certain that I will do whatever is necessary to provide my child with every chance of happiness now and in the future.
P:      From what you have said, I have every hope of a successful outcome; providing of course your words lead to actions. Remember there will be setbacks from time to time but you know that you can contact me at such times so that I can help you to put matters right that have gone wrong.
M:     Thank you. I will start at once by talking with my daughter. If I have any problems with her can I contact you?
P:      You should do so immediately. What you are doing is so very important. I believe you have the good will and the ability to succeed and that will be to the benefit of everyone.