The Psychological Effect and Treatment of Parental Alienation Syndrome
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
Justice of the Peace, Vol. 163 No. 3, 16 January 1999, p 47-50
The psychological affects and treatment of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has now been studied by such pioneers as Dr Richard Gardner and others. It establishes that children who are alienated from one of their parents by the custodial parent suffer considerably both at the time of the alienation and often for a lifetime unless action is taken to prevent such alienation taking place as soon as possible.
At present the judicial system is still reticent to provide fathers with the same rights as mothers in connection with having an influence on the rearing of children. As a result of a hostile separation or divorce many parents subtly, or directly, attempt to turn a child/children against one of their parents.
The current situation
What follows are attempts to present some of the problems suffered by children due to the effects of parental alienation syndrome (PAS). This is followed by a longer section dealing with the psychological treatment of children who have suffered from PAS, and finally a section is dedicated to treating the alienator of parental alienation.
The parental alienation syndrome has not been generally recognised in the United Kingdom but there have been a number of court cases, many of which have been attended by the current author to emphasise the PAS condition. There are few psychologists in the United Kingdom that have a great deal of knowledge concerning parental alienation or the syndrome associated with it. It is for this reason that this chapter is likely to be of special value to many psychologists dealing with family problems and most especially custody disputes in the United Kingdom. It should be recognised that the reaction to PAS in children is not limited to British children. It occurs world-wide in a similar manner.
There still is a great tendency among Judges and Courts in the United Kingdom to virtually always give the benefit of the doubt to one of the parents, usually the mother, when there are disputes between former partners in relation to their children. It appears to go unrecognised that the non-custodial parent frequently suffers from the fact that the custodial parent has turned the child/children against him/her in the process of an unhappy split in the relationship between the partners (Stamps et al, 1997; Stamps, 2002)
The current author has been virtually the only voice in the United Kingdom concerned with the process of repercussions or parental alienation as a syndrome. It is hoped as a result of further court actions that this important syndrome will be recognised and dealt with appropriately by British Courts.
Problems suffered by children due to the effects of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)
The effect of PAS on children has been investigated by relatively few individuals in the United Kingdom so far. I should like to acknowledge my own gratitude to one researcher, Dr Richard A. Gardner for the work he has done in this area. (Gardner 1992, 1998, 2001), particularly on behalf of those who find themselves in a PAS situation and need some guidance and assistance to convince others that such a phenomenon exists. There are both short term and long term of parental alienation syndrome on children. Whatever one may think, the children become victims, not of their own making, but of their parents, most especially the parent who is carrying out the alienation process.
We hear a great deal about child abuse, increasingly so, especially sexual abuse, but less so about emotional abuse resulting from PAS. Many would consider parental alienation syndrome and the process of indoctrination to be a form of child abuse, since children are being used for the purpose of animosity and even revenge. This animosity being shown toward the alienated parent can have a terrible affect on the child in question. Those children who are participating in the alienation process are often unaware of its impact. They merely feel the consequences or take-on the views of the alienating parent. Such views that the other parent is “evil”, “wicked”, “stupid” or “dangerous” or all of these, can do untold damage to the relationship with the non-custodial parent who is being alienated. Children may be used as ‘spies’ or ‘saboteurs’ in relation to the alienated parent to provide “ammunition” for the alienator or “fuel for the fire” to be used against them. Additionally, the children are encouraged to treat the alienated parent with a lack of respect with the purpose of humiliating him/her. This is often taken up by the immediate family of the alienator. Some children may even be encouraged to behave in a deceitful manner toward the other parent when visiting, by lying, stealing and causing problems with another person with whom the parent may have developed a new relationship. False accusations may also be levelled against the alienated parent on the grounds of false information supplied by the child. Eager misinterpretation of information given to the alienating parent is then grasped to denigrate the other parent with whom they may be having a custody battle. Denial of this will of course be made by the alienator.
Encouraging a child to betray one of the two most important members of the family produces a tendency towards psychopathic behaviour within that child. Once the denigration process has started, the child, the child, due to the pressure of loyalty on him/her and the “power” wielded by the alienator needs to carry on the process of denigration.
Children who suffer from the syndrome of PAS develop a concept that one parent is the loving parent and hence to be loved back while the other is the hated parent who has done ‘wicked and nasty things’, and abandoned the family. This has been consciously or unconsciously indoctrinated into the child and results in fear as well as hatred for the alienated parent. Virtually all negative indoctrination is carried out by the mother who retains the child in residence. Occasionally it is the father who may have taken over the role of parenting.
Gardner (1998) considers that there are eight cardinal symptoms of PAS in its effect on the child:
- The campaign of denigration.
- Weak, frivolous and absurd rationalisations for the denigration.
- Lack of ambivalence.
- The “independent thinker phenomenon.”
- Reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict.
- Actions of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent.
- The presence of borrowed scenarios.
- The spread of animosity to the extended family and alienated parent.
In cases of PAS in which I have been involved, I have found that the child has developed a hatred for the non-resident parent (usually the father) and there have been attempts to denigrate and vilify the alienated parent. The destruction of one parent can have serious consequences, not immediately recognisable in the short-term, but more so in the long-term. One might say the child has been robbed of the possibility of having a supportive and caring parent. All memories of a good relationship have been destroyed. Additionally, there often has been brainwashing in order to make the child fearful of the alienated parent, very often the father. The animosity created permeates often to the extended family of the alienated parent. This means the child will not merely lose one of his/her parents but also the grandparents.
Another common reaction of children who have been programmed is to pretend to the alienator that they have hatred or dislike for the alienated parent, when in fact they do not feel this way, and do not demonstrate this in the presence of the alienated parent. Hence they have practised deception and a form of lying in order to placate the alienator, while at the same time seeking to form some kind of warm relationship with the absent parent. Such deception is unlikely to lead to an individual who will be truthful and honest in other dealings now or in the future.
Exploitation of the alienated parent either by the child or by the alienator can also be practiced This is done in various ways including seeking money or clothes or other material objects for the children who are then used in this scheme of manipulation. The manipulator may clothe the children in the shabbiest of clothes hoping the alienated parent will be forced to buy new clothes for the child. This teaches the child a strategy that is unlikely to endear him/her to others in the future. and is also likely to be repeated by him/her. Other forms of deception can be carried out over the telephone by saying the child is absent when the other parent calls, when in fact this is not the case. They simply are not allowed to speak to the parent calling. The child who is aware of the conversation learns from this that lying is acceptable. This may also cause confusion with the child and forms a further rift with the alienated parent, especially if they are not informed that the parent has called to ask after them to make an appropriate arrangement for contact.
Lying and deception can become part of the child’s life, especially if he/she wishes to endear himself/herself to the alienating parent. This may be especially so if the other parent has another family or relationship. This deception will develop a power of manipulation through lies and will continue into later life and reflect on the child’s own relationships in the future. In contrast non-PAS homes do not maintain control over the child and the custodial parent does all he/she can to promote a healthy feeling towards the other parent by being truthful and to encourage the child to love and respect that parent. It is important that parents who have been divorced or separated do all they can to enhance the feelings of the child for the parent with whom they are not in residence, and vice-versa.
As the child grows older in a family where PAS takes place, the position often reverses. The child realises he/she is in a position of strength where he/she they may manipulate situations in order to get his/her way. This in turn reduces the capacity of the alienating parent to utilise discipline to create the right type of ethical behaviour. The alienated parent is dependent on the child to continue the process of alienation. The child can use this against the alienating parent and frequently becomes undisciplined as a result. Neither parent can do anything with the child and the child is the loser in the end.
In severe cases of PAS the alienator can create a seriously unhappy situation for the child who will often develop panic reactions when he/she is asked to visit the alienated parent. This in turn can lead to repercussions in his/her attitude to school and his/her capacity to concentrate on education. In some cases, there can be psychotic delusions in the child due to the pressure to passively submit to the alienating parent. In some cases intensive psychological treatment is required to overcome such serious disturbances. Serious indoctrination giving the child warped and worried views of the alienated parent, following therapy, may learn to be able to be more rational and realistic in the way he/she views the alienated parent. This is difficult to resolve in the very young as well as in the older child who may have developed a habit of hatred for the alienated parent.
The most interesting scenario is when the child who has been party to the alienation realises what the alienating parent has done and eventually turns against them. This may be through a falling-out, or merely through the emotional development of the child later in life. Sometimes the child will seek the alienated parent and find out the truth it at least be able to see things from the alienated parent’s perspective.
All of the above situations I have personally come across when dealing with cases of PAS. Unfortunately there has not been the willingness of the parents to resolve the situations not the backing of the courts to uphold censures against the alienating parent. Also severe lack of funds for treatment or mediation limit what can be done. Much of the liaison is left to the Court Welfare Officers who do not have the clinical qualifications to carry out the necessary treatment for the children who are, or will be, the victims of the “warring factions”. Expert testimony is sought only if the court is unsure of what direction to take in the case, and also to guide the court as to the character of the alienated parent and the manner in which contact visits should continue, i.e. supervised or unsupervised. If called to assist in a case I take this opportunity to spread the literature on PAS and seed to educate the Judiciary and others of the existence of PAS.
Specific problems of children suffering from the effects of PAS
Children, when presented over a period of time, with ‘brain washing’ or ‘programming’ against another parent often exhibit the following symptoms. The effects are both short and long-term. Not all symptoms occur in all children who are involved in PAS. There will also be some difference between the very young child and the older child whose reactions to PAS will differ. However, some symptoms will need some form of treatment to help eliminate the impact of the alienating process and the harm of psychological injury to the child:
- Anger is a common reaction of many children to the process of alienation. Most of the anger will be expressed at the alienated parent as sides are taken between one of the parents against the other. The fact that the children are forced into this kind of situation causes considerable distress and frustration and the response often is to show aggressive behaviour towards the targeted parent in order to accommodate the programmer.
- Loss or a lack of impulse control in conduct. Children who suffer from PAS are not merely suffering from aggression but also often turn to delinquent behaviour. There is considerable evidence that the presence of fathers and their influence can do much to prevent and alleviate the possibility of delinquency most especially in boys.
- Loss of self confidence and self esteem. Losing one of the parents through the programming procedure can produce a lack of self confidence and self esteem. In the case of boys identification with a male figure has been curtailed, especially if the alienated parent is the father.
- Clinging and separation anxiety. Children especially very young children who have been programmed to hate or disdain one of the parents will tend to cling to the custodial parent who generally is the one who has carried out the programming. Considerable anxiety may be induced in the child against the alienated parent, by telling him/her negative things about that parent, including the possible use of a great deal of negative actions against the child as well as the programming parent.
- Developing fears and phobias. Many children fear being abandoned or rejected when they have been induced to feel that one of the partners in a relationship, usually the father is less than desirable. Anxiety factors about the custodial parent may induce a school phobia, which is fear of attending school due to the fear of leaving the parent. Some children suffer from hyperchondriacal disorders and tend to develop psychosomatic symptoms and physical illnesses. Such children fear for the future and the safety of the custodial parent.
- Depression and suicidal ideation. Some children who are so unhappy at the tragic break up of the relationship are further faced with animosity that exists between the parents. This leads to ambivalence and uncertainty, and sometimes suicidal attempts occur due to the unhappiness which the child feels brought about by the two main adults in his/her life. An element of blame for the break-up may also contribute to the child’s thinking.
- Sleep disorders is another symptom which follows the parental alienation situation. Children frequently exhibit dreams of disturbance and often find it difficult to sleep due to their worries about the danger of the alienated parent and the guilt they may feel as a result of participating in the process of alienation.
- Eating disorders. A variety of eating disorders have been noted in children who are confronted by parental alienation. This includes anorexia nervosa, obesity and bulimia.
- Educational problems. Children who have pressure to reject one parent, frequently suffer from school dysfunctions. They may become disruptive or aggressive within that system or withdraw and their grades begin to decline.
- Enuresis and Encopresis. A number of very young children suffer from bed wetting and soiling due to the pressure and frustrations that surround them when there is acrimony between the parents. This is the response to the psychological disturbance of losing one parent and finding one parent inimical to the rejected parent.
- Drug abuse and self destructive behaviour frequently are present in children who have suffered from parental alienation due to a need to escape the feeling of abuse they feel they have suffered through the experience. In the extreme such conflicts can cause self-destructive behaviour which may result in suicidal tendencies.
- Obsessive compulsive behaviour. This psychological reaction is frequently present in the behaviour of children who seek to find security in their environment by adopting a variety of obsessive compulsive behaviour patterns.
- Anxiety and panic attacks are also frequently present and may be reflected through psycho-somatic disorders, nightmares, and avoidant behaviours.
- Damaged sexual identity problems. As a result of the PAS syndrome, children often develop identity problems especially as they may have failed to identify with one member of the relationship, whether the same sex or opposite sex.
- Poor peer relationships may follow the PAS situation due to the fact that such children often are either very withdrawn or aggressive in their behaviour.
- Excessive feelings of guilt. Guilt may be due to the knowledge deep down that the ostracised parent who has done nothing wrong to deserve the kind of treatment received. This may effect the child’s later life as they become increasingly aware of the truth and the destructive alienator’s motives.
Children who are exposed to PAS suffer in a variety of general as well as specific ways from this experience. It will often have both temporary and lasting effects on their lives. This was not the intention of the alienator but it is the result of such alienation procedures and programming.
The psychological treatment of children who have suffered from PAS
Having stated the difficulties that may arise in the behaviour of children involved in PAS, we must consider the help that can be given. In the United Kingdom the symptoms of PAS are rarely given over to treatment providers. This is both due to the denial of occurrence and lack of funding where it can be proved to have happened. Less than 10% of cases are treated. This is often due to the resistance of the alienating parent and the lack of reinforcement and co-operation by the courts. It also is difficult to overcome the continuous negative influence of the alienator which has been brought to bear on the opinions of the children.
Before any treatment can commence, it is vital to assess or diagnose such children carefully. This is done through in-depth interviews as well as psychological personality testing. At the same time it is valuable, whenever possible, to deal with the alienating parent and make them aware of the possible damage that will be done to the child. The objective of the treatment procedure is to de-program children who have been turned against the target parent. Needless to say the most effective treatment is achieved through gaining the co-operation from the family members concerned and instructions and orders from the court process. Within the treatment process efforts should be made to reduce and eliminate if possible, the hatred and paranoia that has been created in the child towards the alienated parent. It is important to develop independent thinking in the child so that he/she is not influenced by one party, the alienator, as has been the case in the past. The development of a conscience about the treatment that the child has meted out to the alienated parent needs to be made with the child in order to alter his/her feelings toward the alienated parent. The goal of the treatment is for the child to make contact with the alienated parent to re-establish as far as possible a positive and loving relationship with that parent.
The only instance where this would not be possible or recommended is where some form of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse has taken place. On the whole though, where treatment is recommended the alienated parent has done nothing to deserve the hostile treatment by the child and the alienator. The therapist who carries out this treatment must be aware that the alienator is likely to be working constantly behind the scenes against his/her efforts. It is essential, therefore, that there is some form of support, and recognition in the form of threats or orders by the court if the alienator persists in sabotaging the efforts made on behalf of the child. It is this very problem that often stops the treatment process before it starts or causes it to be given up once it has started.
1. Dealing with the hatred developed
Dealing directly with the hatred and paranoia used by the alienator to encourage the child to hate or blame his/her misfortune on the alienated parent is essential. This may have been done directly or very subtly. The therapist needs to ascertain not only the strength of the paranoia developed but the reasons for it. He needs to counter-act the arguments that the child has been given and which he/she has been given and with which he/she has identified and which lead to such antagonistic behaviour towards the parent. The hatred must be demolished through rational and logical arguments from the therapist. The paranoia must be dispersed as a delusion and, therefore, of no substance. Children who have developed a strong hatred and paranoia are difficult to influence through logic and reason, but nevertheless, the therapist should make this effort. The real evidence for such feelings must be sought and discussed and all other evidence counteracted accordingly as hearsay or the opinion of others not based on real evidence.
2. The child identifying with the alienator.
The only course for children with whom alienation is practised is to take the side of the alienating parent. In order for therapy to be successful, such identification with the alienator must be broken down. The alienated parent must be seen in a more realistic and favourable light and the child needs to recognise why he/she feels as he/she does. By confronting the child with evidence from the past, often provided by the child from memories, photographs and story telling, of positive feelings of the alienated parent it must be pointed out to the child that the opinions he/she held once are accurate but have been overtaken by the negative opinions of others. The child should be made aware that he/she is merely repeating the views expressed by the alienating parent. Those children who have suffered a reasonably long period of indoctrination by an alienating parent find it difficult to deal with confrontation type therapy. Older children who have developed free thinking are more amenable than younger children to this method.
The child of parental alienation is a victim. The other victim of course is the alienated parent. Any love for the beleaguered alienated parent is destroyed and it becomes difficult to reverse. In the courts, many Judges administering alleged fair and just decisions find it difficult to deal with seeking to reverse such powerful indoctrination against one parent and are often advised to leave the “status quo” especially if there is resistance from the child. This is a contradiction of the evidence presented to the fact that alienation has been seen to take place. As a result, they will enhance the difficulties of the alienated parent by providing limited or practically no contact with the child.
Unwanted contact from the point of view of the child has its drawbacks too as the child may scheme against the alienated parent and make up stories in order to force contact to cease. The fact that this is a possibility should be drawn to the attention of the child and such practices discouraged. Even if the child has had contact with the alienated parent and not found anything favourable with that parent, it is the role of the therapist to do all that he can to promote a better attitude toward that parent. In time a relationship may grow, and the advantages of having both parents willing to help a child to develop positive attachments to both parents can only be to the child’s advantage. Rational and logical thinking comes into play and less so the emotional side of the argument. This is difficult to tackle in young children since they have not developed the capacity for a well developed conceptual and cognitive ability and the influence of the alienator is stronger. However, from the cognitive and attitude frame of reference the child must be encouraged to behave properly toward the alienated parent.
Stories told by a child against the alienate parent must be looked into thoroughly to determine the source of these impressions and why they have been designed and expressed. For instance, the disciplining of one parent may be different than the other. In a case I recently attended, the child claimed she was ‘forced’ to eat a certain amount of vegetables. The real explanation was that the father preferred her to try to eat different kinds of vegetables while the mother and stepfather, the custodial parents, let her eat whatever she wanted. The child obviously wanted to follow the line of least resistance and consequently exaggerated the actions of the father, knowing the mother would complain about it.
I have even counselled adults who have been victims of PAS who have been troubled in their adult life by the guilt that they have come to feel over the alienation process. One such case involved a woman who had been teased as a child about her preferred vegetarianism. This became a massive exaggeration of the father’s terrible and insensitive behaviour towards her when younger and was encouraged by the mother to remain so. When she had problems in her later life with divorce and separation she sought the help of a therapist to see the truth of the matter and initiated action to correct what occurred between her and her father
Many alienated parents are put at a disadvantage with the child by the alienator or custodial parent. A good example of this is when a father makes an arrangement to attend a football match with his son and the arrangement is not finalised soon enough. His plan clashes with the arrangements made by the alienating parent who then cancels the outing but also points out to the child that the father has let him/her down. Ambivalence from the child also puts the father in a no-win situation. If he offers to attend an event with the child and the child indicates to the mother while there that he really is not wanted, then this indicates that the father is rejected by the child who is embarrassed by his presence. Why this should be so should be carefully investigated by the therapist.
Needless to say therapists vary in their approach to the problem of PAS. Some will actually view the situation from the child’s current thinking and not attempt to alter that thinking in any way. This will do little to reduce PAS or eliminate it and will in fact allow it to continue mostly due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of the situation. The approach recommended would be to be sensitive to the indoctrination process. Logic and reason must be applied and the helpless plight of the targeted parent must be improved in order to allow a healing process, or more balanced view of the alienated parent, to take place. In extreme cases of PAS, it may be necessary to resort to ‘anti-psychological’ approaches and make the child actually feel guilty for the way he/she behaves towards the alienated parent. Such feelings of guilt can have a positive effect in removing the alienator’s influences on the child.
The alienators influences may be a burden to the child and the child may welcome the intervention of the court in the decision-making process.
A recent case illustrates this in that the acrimony between the two parents had reached an absolute deadlock over access visits. The child was torn between both parents and felt compelled to support the mother and the new blended family of which she was part. The new family was laissez-faire in their discipline of the girl and the father mor autocratic with her and his new family members. As a result the difference in the parenting styles and discipline of the two families toward the child constant friction resulted and eventual physical threats occurred from the father toward the mother. This caused the child to feel that access visits should be terminated, which caused great distress to the father. My interview with the child revealed that the child still felt she wanted to see the father but she would not accept the father’s angry reactions toward the mother. My recommendations to the court were that drop-off and pick-ups should be supervised and that the father attends a course of anger management. Thus the child could resume visits with the father because the court ordered it so and the influence of the mother was less of a burden to the child who could say: “I am only doing this because the court demands it and I want to get you to avoid any trouble”.
It has long been known that broken homes create instability in the child and can often lead to psychological problems, delinquency and other serious difficulties. A more harmonious break-up where both partners seek to love the child and encourage the child to love both parents, and where parents are unified in their approach, can avoid many problems. It should always be made clear to any child involved in a marital break up that the love for the child has not been lost and the friendship between the parents can be maintained for that reason. The child then realises he/she has two parents who both care for him/her even though they cannot live with each other in harmony. They may even choose another partner but this does not in anyway reflect on both parents seeking to continue their support, love and care of the child. This is the very opposite of parental alienation, parental co-operation.
Children who turn against one parent are developing a process leading to serious consequences. Changing behaviour relies on changing the attitude or cognition of the child, but equally important is the changing of the behaviour of the child towards the alienated parent. It must be remembered that both parents can practise PAS, one as the initiator and the other as the reactor, setting up a ‘tit-for-tat’ situation with the child often in the middle. Children can suffer in the long-term from the alienating process emotionally, educationally and in later life relationships which may cause them to develop and become future alienators.
3. Treating the alienator
The treatment of the alienator is the most difficult task of all. The difficulty results in that the alienator feels totally justified in the programming being carried out. There is often “denial” that this is indeed happening.
Most alienators know exactly what they are doing and are prepared to avoid any form of treatment in order to continue their alienation process. They seek to destroy or end any possible relationship between a child in their care and the targeted parent. Normally, in order to reduce the resistance of an alienator, and to get them to participate in therapy, there must be a Court Resolution and pressure by a Judge that the parental alienation must stop.
The treatment process has three objectives:
- To prepare the alienator for the treatment itself.
- To treat the alienator.
- To monitor the effects of the treatment vis-a-vis the child who has hitherto been programmed.
4. Preparation for treatment
The therapist must be prepared for resistance from the alienator. The attitude of the alienator will reflect the following types of thinking when verbalised:
“There is nothing wrong with what I am doing. I don’t need any treatment”.
“I am only coming along to the treatment as you call it because the Court has forced me to do so.”
“There is nothing wrong with me that needs treatment, it’s my former spouse who needs therapy.”
With this kind of attitude, treatment involving a change in attitude seems far from simple. It is however, important to repair step-by-step this tragically destructive interaction by a means of convincing the alienator that there is much to be gained by co-operating with the therapist and by accepting the irrationality of their demeanour.
The two main reasons for this are:
- The alienator would benefit via a better relationship with the alienated partner including, possibly greater financial help, care and support, and even friendliness from the alienated parent.
- One must appeal to the good sense of the mother, or father, who must realise the benefit the child would have in the short and long-term if contact of some kind were established with the alienated parent.
5. The treatment
The treatment initially will have to be spontaneous. It is vital to win the confidence of the alienator. It is important to listen carefully and sensitively to the grievances of the alienator and to sympathise with their feelings of hurt, anger and betrayal in some cases.
The treatment must not only be concerned with the past but also in planning a way forward by giving hope to the alienator. Hatred and resentment toward the alienated parent have permeated the life of the alienator. It is vital to seek to establish a new relationship and possibly a new direction in life by developing new pursuits which have a positive aspect and can eliminate or counteract those negative feelings which tend to originate totally within the person. The alienation process often becomes obsessive, compulsive and habit-forming in their rituals.
Promoting and guiding the alienator to develop a personal hope for the future, does much to reduce or remove the often pathological animosity towards the targeted parent which has become the centre of the alienators ‘modus vivendi’. It can only be counteracted by an attitude of looking outwards with optimism and putting behind them the acts of evil and betrayal they perceive to have happened to them.
The therapeutic intention is to simultaneously change the attitude and behavior of the alienating individual which involves cognitive plus behavioral treatment. The success of the therapeutic approach can only be ascertained via two interacting factors: changing the hostility of the programmer towards the targeted parent and the child being encouraged to have contact with the alienated parent and by actually spending positive time with that parent. This obviously means requiring the child to be involved in treatment, once the alienating parent has shown the necessary signs and actions of co-operating with the efforts of the therapist.
Monitoring the effects of the treatment against PAS
In order to prepare fertile ground for the therapeutic success, the therapist must be involved in a positive reintroduction of the child with the targeted parent. This can only be achieved with the full agreement of the alienating parent. In turn, the alienated parent must also be prepared to deal with the initial likely difficulties of having contact with the child who has hitherto been adversely programmed against them. If possible, there may be a need to establish ways whereby some communication takes place between the alienator and the targeted parent. A form of mediation should take place between the two adults with the help of the therapist. In this way an agreement can be developed which can then lead to some kind of ongoing co-operation. This should be sought initially on an individual basis once there are sufficient sign of agreement, regarding the two of them meeting.
The therapist must consider with great care, each step of the way how much further he can go, or what can be further achieved to advance the process of harmonising a former acrimonious relationship. Success in reducing acrimony can only be measured in degree. It depends on the skill of the therapist and the sincere willingness, voluntarily or ordered by the court for the alienator to co-operate in the healing process. It also depends on the continuous support of the court over time to maintain the pressure for the alienator to comply with their request for reconciliation for the sake of the child.
Outcome of PAS treatment when ordered by the court
In Great Britain, it is likely that very few courts would endorse establishing pressure on the alienator to be involved in treatment to counteract the PAS. This is because Judges on the whole, consider it counter-productive, or even unlikely, that any form of treatment will be successful. Judges, therefore, rarely order an alleged perpetrator of PAS to participate in therapy. The outcome of therapy, in the few cases where it is ordered, may be surprising. The table that follows illustrates the outcome of the therapeutic intervention of the present psychologist specialising in severe or recalcitrant cases.
Table 1 – Result of Treatment for PAS
Targeted & Former PAS parent
Relationship with child
Has led to effective harmony being developed
Some positive contact established
No effective change
Discussion of Results
The result of this rather small sample indicates what can be achieved through a form of mediation and therapy with those individuals involved intensively in programming a child against another parent. Parent alienation is a process which has been occurring over time and frequently occurs more often than is realised. It not only occurs in acrimonious separations and divorces but it may be manifested in unhappy marital relationships. One of the partner’s motivation is to seek almost total control over a child at the expense of the other partner.
In a happy, loving relationship these attempts at alienation are much less likely to occur as each will consider the other partner in making decisions concerning the children and how to deal with them. It also means they will adopt a unified approach to the rearing of the children and most especially to the application of discipline. PAS practicing parents are opposite to this and often feel and express a great deal of antagonism, hatred and hostility towards the other estranged partner and will do anything they can to cause damage to the partner. In extreme cases, alienation becomes pathological where the individual virtually thrives on antagonism and animosity towards the other party. Unfortunately, the real victim is the child of the trilogy.
Judges are reluctant to force the recalcitrant programming parent realising that treatment against their will is likely to fail. This, however, is not always the case and Table 1 illustrates that when the court upholds the desire to resolve the alienation process, much can be done by mental health professionals, to deal with the alienation, reduce its extent, or even to eliminate it.
The Judiciary must realise their responsibility and adopt a firmer approach to confront those who practice PAS. Judges, therefore, should develop a plan of action to include punishment for the lack of co-operation with a court order. Both parents should have a responsibility for the rearing of their children if they want it. Mediation at an earlier stage of the proceedings should be made available, with a set timetable for reaching the necessary decisions. In order for rulings to be made they must have “teeth” and this provides a favourable climate and strong therapeutic pressure for the participant who is the alienator, to seek to benefit from the treatment being carried out. It can also lead to better relationships eventually between the alienator and the former targeted parent. There is much to be gained but the course of action is not easy and relies heavily on the commitment and strength of the Judicial system supporting the therapeutic process. It also relies greatly upon the wisdom, sensitivity and skill of the therapist.
Recent changes in the PAS approach by the Judiciary in the United Kingdom
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is becoming slowly becoming recognised in Great Britain. Attention has been drawn by Barristers such as Willbourne and Cull (1997) and by Lowenstein (1998,a, b; 1999 a, b, c, d.)
There has even been a political party developed by Coe: The Equal Parenting Party. Another organisation that has become involved is the Association for Shared Parenting. Rand, (1997) produced her series of articles, The Spectrum of Parental Alienation Syndrome, published in the American Journal of Forensic Psychology. In Great Britain, the voice of parental alienation syndrome has been less vocal but one particular article appearing in the Sunday Times, 22 May, 2000, entitled “Children with Fathers in Family Have Head Start in Life” points to the importance of both parents playing a role in the rearing of children.
There have recently been some remarkable cases that have highlighted the importance of judging parental alienation in the courts. Judges are becoming bolder in insisting that all things being equal, both parents have the right to have contact with their children. The exceptions of course are, when one or both parents have proclivities towards violence or paedophilia, to name but two negative features which must be considered.
The case of Cox v Cox (1990) in Family Law, was one of the first to prove the sentencing and imprisonment of parents who refused access to fathers for contact with the child. This was done by a highly courageous Judge, who truly believed in “justice for all”, even though there was considerable embarrassment in having to put a mother into prison. This was despite the likelihood of also being castigated by the press by sending the mother to prison. What is often not mentioned are the efforts made beforehand to gain the assent of the obdurate parent for such contact before such an action is taken and by threatening less stringent means than imprisonment. In most cases of lack of co-operation, it is the mothers refusing the fathers. Sometimes, following an acrimonious separation or divorce, the mother will claim there to be a serious cause for concern about the father, such as being excessively punitive, permissive, being a substance abuser, and even a paedophile. In many of these cases, such allegations are shown to be unfounded. In cases unfortunately it is the fathers who are often considered guilty by allegation alone and need to prove their innocence rather than the alienator having to prove the guiltiness of the alienated father!
Judges are naturally averse to imprisoning mothers for failing to honour the contact arrangements with fathers. This is because mothers usually are responsible for the day-to-day care of the children. Judges are also aware of the likely adverse publicity that would follow such a judgement. The alternatives, however, often fail to achieve what is desired, that is, to comply with offers of mediation such as recommended by one psychologist (Lowenstein, 1999 a, b, c, d). However, by having the threat of punishment, including the possibility of imprisonment hanging over the head of an uncooperative parent, like the sword of Damacles, there is a possibility that such mothers can be brought to the “negotiating table”. Those who alienate children, much as anyone else, must stand before the law as either innocent or guilty of such an offence. Failing to adhere to the judgement of a Court must be considered as breaking the Law, with threatened punishment following.
Parents who thus fail to observe their legal responsibility to co-operate, are likely to suffer from severe and often unfounded hostility towards the other parent. Such hostility, can and often does, reach pathological proportions. There are only two possible solutions:
- In extreme cases, imprisonment must be threatened, until the parent is willing to co-operate with the law.
- Accepting some form of mediation and treatment by a qualified psychologist over a prescribed period, normally two weeks to a month or longer, in order to resolve the ‘impasse’.
- Failure by the alienating parent to co-operate must lead to punishment including imprisonment as a final alternative only. It could also result in the alienated parent being given custody of the children temporarily or permanently.
Most alienating parents would and should learn to co-operate under such strictures and resolve the matter of parental alienation syndrome. It is hoped that future legal procedures will find it easier to deal with such cases and follow the courageous footsteps of earlier pioneering Judges. These Judges were not deflected from doing the just and right thing, despite the criticism from individuals and the mass media.
- Coe, T. Equal parenting party. Headquarters: 30-40 Gloucester Road, Kensington, London, SW7 4QU.
- Dobson, R. (2000, 21 May) Children with father in family have a head start in life. Sunday Times.
- Gardner, R. A. (1992) True and false accusations of child sex abuse. Creskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
- Gardner, R. A. (1998) The Parent Alienation Syndrome – A guide for mental health and legal professionals, Second Edition, Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
- Gardner, R. A. (2001) Therapeutic interventions for children with parental alienation syndrome. Creskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
- Lowenstein, L. F. (1998a, December) Parent alienation syndrome: A two step approach toward a solution. 20(4) Contemporary Family Therapy 505-520.
- Lowenstein, L .F. (1998b) Parent alienation syndrome, (chapter 20). In L. F. Lowenstein, Paedophilia (pp 257-277). Hertfordshire,UK: Able Publishers
- Lowenstein, L. F. (1999a, January) Parent alienation syndrome (PAS). 163(3) Justice of the Peace 47-50.
- Lowenstein, L. F. (1999b) Parent alienation syndrome: What the legal profession should know. 66(4) Medico-Legal Journal 151-161.
- Lowenstein, L.F. (1999c, Sept) Mediation in the legal profession. 163 Justice of the Peace 709-710.
- Lowenstein, L. F. (1999d) Parent alienation and the judiciary. 67(3) Medico-Legal Journal 121-123.
- Rand, D. C. (1997) The spectrum of parental alienation syndrome (Part II). 15(4) The American Journal of Forensic Psychology 1-13.
- Stamps, L. E; Kunen, S; Rock-Faucheux, A. (1997) Judges’ beliefs dealing with child custody decisions. 28(1/2) Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 3-16.
- Stamps, L. E. (2002) Maternal preference in child custody decisions. 37(1/2) Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 1-11.
- Willbourne, C; & Cull, L. (1997, Dec) The emerging problem of parental alienation. Family Law, 807-808