The Psychological Effect of Modelling (Imitation) on Parental Alienation

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


I am often asked how children become estranged from a parent after an acrimonious divorce or separation. What follows indicates the process by which alienation occurs and examples are cited on how non alienation can also occur, as well as the negative aspects of the destruction of a relationship between one of the parents (alienation). While most alienated parents are fathers, mothers also face this alienation process and hence the sex of the partners, in what follows as illustrations, are kept ambiguous. Hence A will equal one parent who responds well to counselling by a psychologist and therefore avoids the process of alienation, while the other (R) has not as yet been able to avoid the process of alienation. As each speaks, including the psychologist (P), the interaction of the two indicates the process by which alienation can also be avoided.

The illustrations also demonstrate as they are recorded by tape recorder, both positive and negative verbal and non verbal communications which equally result in positive and negative relationships respectively. These recordings have been made with the consent of the parties involved. It is important to begin with how the custodial parent prevents a process of negative (parental alienation) from developing with the help of the psychologist. This does much to prevent harm to the child in the short and long term. (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991; Blush & Ross, 1987; Gardner, 2000, 2001; Lowenstein, 2005 a-k). Before illustrating this with two actual cases as seen by the present author, it is vital to look briefly at the theoretical work on modelling leading to parental alienation. By modelling is meant the child identifying closely with the custodial parent and responding accordingly to the wishes of the custodial parent, whether these are subtle or direct.

There is considerable evidence that parental alienation results from a custodial parent acting with hostility and/or fear towards a former spouse. This then results in a child developing similar if not identical reactions towards the non custodial parent with whom the child had had a good relationship earlier. (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991; Blush & Ross, 1987; Gardner, 2000, 2001; Lowenstein, 2005 a-k)

Bandura and Rosenthal (1966) were some earlier investigators who noted that fear or alienation could be acquired through modelling, that is through observation and imitation. Hence a child may observe or hear a parent act or speak with fear or antagonism towards an absent parent and thereby equally develop the same fear and hostility towards that absent parent through imitation. The absent parent, by the mere absence, is unable to defend himself/herself. The child also becomes totally identified with the custodial parent and that parent’s position of fear and hostility towards the non custodial parent (Fredrikson, Annas & Wik, 1997).

Fear, anxiety and hostility are inculcated in the child by a hostile parent, often towards the absent parent which could be the father or the mother. This frequently leads to avoidance behaviour by the child in the short and long term through operant conditioning. Hence antagonism, could develop eventually for the whole gender of the alienating parent (male of female). This can lead to the avoidance of the whole gender group due to generalisation effects. This again is due to the preservation of the emotions and attitudes over the long term (Kim & Hoover, 1996; Wells et al., 1995). This could also result in a generalised anxiety disorder via a stimulus generalisation.

Now follow excerpts from two tape recorded interviews. These recordings were made with the consent from all parties involved. The first (A) was a parent who was amenable to a change of attitude and hence the avoidance of alienating, through the guidance of the psychologist. The second (R) was more resistant to avoiding alienating a child against the former partner.

Illustration 1: How PA can be prevented or curtailed

(The custodial parent A could be either the father or the mother, P is the Psychologist)

A: Doctor I don’t know how to deal with my daughter. We have both been let down by my partner who left me for someone else:

P: In the first instance you should be accurate in what you say to your child. You should tell her that her parent has not left her (the daughter) but has left you (the wife/husband). You should make it absolutely clear to the child that the absent parent loves her as much as when (s)he resided with her.

A: How then do I explain to my being alone and (s)he leaving me?

P: You should make it clear that there have been differences between yourselves (the parents) which made it difficult to live together but that this does not in any way change your child’s feelings towards your former partner. You should make it absolutely clear that you are both the child’s parents and that you both love the child.

A: I feel so bereft and alone with the burden of looking after and bringing up a family on my own.

P: I understand how you feel. Your former partner probably does also and possibly feels some guilt. You were undoubtedly close at one time.

A: Yes we were, but no longer. I must look ahead but how to do this is not easy.

P: There are many couples who after a time become friends once the grieving and animosity has ended.

A: I don’t see how I can ever forgive him/her.

P: You may never forgive or forget but now it is time to think of your daughter first and foremost and how best to provide for your daughter’s emotional security. That means continuing to involve your ex-partner in the life of that child. You are one of the most important members of your daughter’s life. (S)he has already seen one parent leave and may have witnessed acrimony and unhappiness of the two persons which mean most to her in her life. Your daughter must continue to depend on you and your former partner for her future emotional development, security and capacity for living a reasonable happy life. Please make certain that your daughter and the other parent is aware of that.

A: It makes sense when you say what you say and I will try to make my ex-partner to play an important part in our child’s life.

P: How are you going to make sure this is communicated to the child? You will have to speak well of your ex-partner regardless of how you may feel about his/her treatment of yourself. You will have to speak well and mean it and sincerely encourage your child to have contact with your former partner. (S)he must of course feel and do the same. If each speaks well of the other the child will feel secure as a result of this. This will lead also to a better relationship between yourself and your former partner since you do have in common the love for your child.

Illustration 2: Attempting to counteract potential negative influences and feelings leading to parental alienation

With the previous approach having taken place, we continue with a session with a parent who is more resistant to accepting the role of the other non custodial parent and who has already begun, to some degree, programming the child against that parent. It has to be said that many custodial parents are not so easily convinced that it is in their child’s best interest, or their own best interest, to encourage positive contact between that child and their former partner.

The dialogue which follows between the present psychologist and the alienation parent demonstrates how the alienator feels and behaves in order to prevent positive contact between a child and the other parent. It also includes the direct and subtle resistance which the psychologist encounters in his effort to convince the custodial parent that they are already programming the child against the non resident parent. The custodial parent is undermining the non custodial parent subtly, and sometimes unconsciously. This is not in the best interest of the child. It will also do much to cause problems for that child in the future.

(The custodial parent R could be either the father or the mother, P is the Psychologist)

P: I believe there have been some problems about your former partner having contact with your mutual child?

R: That has nothing to do with me. I have never stopped my child (it may be noted that ‘my’ is used instead of ‘our’ by the alienator) from having contact. I can’t force the child to do so and I don’t intend to force him/her.

P: Why do you believe the child does not want contact?

R: I don’t know. You will have to ask the child.

P: What do you think the child would say?

R: Probably that (s)he did not behave as (s)he should have behaved towards me and the child and that’s why they want nothing to do with him/her, and feels very angry, with him/her.

P: So you are blaming your former partner for the fact that the child is so hostile towards your former partner?

R: What other reason could there be? (Here we may note the denial that the custodial parent is doing anything to prevent contact. This is where modelling is seen to be acting). I haven’t done anything to stop the child from having contact. So don’t blame me, which you are doing, because I know about your work on parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome.

P: Do you not believe that a parent sometimes tries to turn a child against a former devoted parent intentionally or even without meaning to do so?

R: Sure it exists, but I would never do such a thing even though I hate my former partner after what (s)he has done to us.

P: You say ‘us’ don’t you mean ‘you’……what your former partner has done to you? Your partner has not really done anything to the child.

R: You have to ask my child.

P: What do you believe the child would say?

R: My (note the constant use of ‘my’) child does not like my former partner just as I don’t.

P: But why……..?

R: I know what you are trying to get me to say……. That I influenced the child in some way.

P: Well have you?

R: Of course not. Why should I do that? I have always considered there should be the same contact with my ex-partner. (One may note the denial here that the partner is doing anything to prevent contact).

P: But how much? How much contact do you think the child should have?

R: That’s up to the child. My child should have some say in the matter. (Here again the power of the child is put in the frame. The child is to make the decisions rather than the mother/father. The custodial parent empowers the child totally when in fact the parents should be proactive in encouraging contact with both parent. The custodial parent is in fact pretty certain that the child will reflect the custodial parent’s views and reject the other parent, now the alienated parent. Normally the custodial parent is a pretty dogmatic person but in order to appear ‘fair’ steps out of character and allows, and even insists that the child make the decisions in this instance).

P: Don’t you realise you are putting an excessive amount of responsibility on the child?

R: My child has a right to decide what the child wants and I believe (s)he can handle it.

P: Do you give your child that kind of freedom of choice about when to go to bed or when to get up, or how much television to watch, and whether the child needs to see a dentist or go to school, or whether to wear warmer clothes in the winter time etc., etc?

R: That’s different……. Very different.

P: What do you say to your child about being with your former partner?

R: I say that (s)he wants to see the child the next weekend and asks if (s)he wants to go.

P: What if the child says, “No, I would rather do other things such as being with my friends or playing games or watching television? What then?

R: What can I say? The child has a mind of his/her own and I can’t and won’t force him/her to go if (s)he doesn’t want to go. (R neither encourages nor puts any pressure on the child to have contact with the other parent).

P: But you could insist that (s)he see ….let’s say…a dentist and would insist on it, or…go to school, wouldn’t you?

R: That’s different. You do have to insist on a child going to school and seeing a dentist, but to be with a parent is not the same, especially if the child already doesn’t want to do so.

P: Don’t you see what could happen if the child rarely, or never sees the other parent?

R: I don’t see what I can do about that and anyway why should that be harmful to the child not to be with the other parent, especially if the child says (s)he does not want to be with that parent but prefers to do other things.

P: So you feel that the child not being with the other parent is not really that important? So you won’t insist the child should go with his/her other parent who doesn’t live with him/her anymore?

R: What can I do? I already told you that if the child doesn’t want to go I can’t do anything about it.

P: You could encourage ………You could insist……You could say how important it is that (s)he is with the other parent. You could do this for the sake of your child. You could even go out together perhaps with the child and the other parent providing that there are no arguments.

R: I can’t do any of those things. My ex-partner wouldn’t like it also.

P: Have you tried it……Have you discussed it with the other parent? Might not that be good for the child and also improve your relationship with the other parent?

R: No. Neither of us would like to be together in the company of the child. Anyway, it would just increase the chance of us quarrelling.

P: You seem very negative about possible ways to improve the situation between yourselves and your former partner.

R: You don’t know what (s)he is really like or you wouldn’t suggest such an idea.

P: You seem very negative and pessimistic about all and everything I suggest. Don’t you believe your child would benefit if you and your former partner could agree most specially about good contact between the child and the other party? Isn’t that what you would want if things were the other way around and your former partner had custody and not you?

R: Well that is not the case now isn’t it. Besides that, I would do anything to have my child want to be with my former partner, but I have heard him/her say how much (s)he dislikes and even hates him/her, probably as much as I do.

P: So your child has heard you say that about your former partner?

R: I may have said it a few times. I was being honest. I can’t help it. Should I have lied?

P: You could have said to the child, that your former partner loves him/her as much as you do and that (s)he has always been a good father/mother to him/her. The other partner equally should say the same to the child. Both you and your former partner could emphasise the importance of the child showing ‘respect and love’ for both parents.

R: You really want me to help my former partner have contact and for me to be friendly towards him/her?

Here the mother/father has shown their true feelings. At this point the interview is at an end although it could go on without perhaps much being achieved. It must be admitted that those who are pathological alienators are not easily convinced that they should not directly or subtly programme a child against the absent parent. A former hostile relationship and acrimonious parting is often sustained and leads to parental alienation. It also leads to the prevention of contact between the child and the former grandparents and other relations of the absent parent. It can lead to insults by the child against the alienated parent which was not the case before the acrimonious parting between the adults.

In these cases, the expert witness (psychologist of psychiatrist) must rely on the judicial system to enforce contact with the absent parent, even if this is against the “apparent” wishes of the child. It could and should lead to a change of residence if all else fails to achieve its objective. Only in that way can there be the possibility of reversing the harm that has already been done to the child in the short and in the long term. It is unfortunate that at present the judiciary is rarely willing to act on behalf of what is best for the child but will only act if the child’s views are sacrosanct. What is lacking here is a failure to identify what the real needs are of the child and not what the child states having been influenced by others in some way . It is very unfortunate that many psychologists/psychiatrists have an attitude of being “child-centred” and by this they mean that they believe what the child says rather than what the child needs and what is best for the child in the short and long term. It is the view of the current psychologist that providing there has been no abuse of the child and there is unlikely to be any abuse of the child, both parents have a vital role to play in continuing having positive and good contact with the child over many years.


There is considerable research now that modelling and classical conditioning may be responsible for fear and hostility reactions in children towards and alienated parent where previously there had been a good relationship. These children have identified with the programmer who directly, or subtly, causes a child to develop animosity combined with fear towards a previously loved and caring parent. The process of alienation has produced a product or reaction in the child which is virtually pathological and can only be removed by changing custody for the child temporarily or permanently, or by intense treatment, or a combination of the two, so that the child will recollect positive moments with the alienated parent and resume the relationship which formerly existed. Obviously the process of alienation and identifying with the programming parent must be halted before this can solidify into total rejection of the non custodial parent. Only the psychological treatment combined with the court’s appropriate reaction to this situation can lead to a resuming of a favourable relationship between the alienated parent and the child in question.


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Lowenstein, L. F. (2005a). The psychological effects and treatment of parental alienation syndrome worldwide. In: International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Conceptual, Clinical and Legal Considerations. Binghampton, New York, Haworth Press.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005b). Causes and associated features of divorce as seen by recent research. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, Vol 42(3/4), 153-171.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005c). Signs of parental alienation syndrome and how to counteract its effects. Being considered for publication.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005d). Parental alienation syndrome or parental alienation: Is that the question? (A problem crying out for a solution). Part 1. Being considered for publication.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005e). Parental alienation syndrome and its impact on children. Part 2. Being considered for publication.

Lowenstein, L F. (2005f). Long-term reactions as a result of parental alienation. Part 3. Being considered for publication.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005g). Dealing with the treatment of parental alienation syndrome or parental alienation. Part 4. Being considered for publication.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005h). How can one overturn the programming of a child against a parent? Being considered for publication.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005i). How does one identify and treat false accusations of sexual abuse in parental alienation situations? Being considered for publication.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005j). Family courts. Being considered for publication.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005k). “Real” justice of non custodial parents. Being considered for publication.
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