The Psychological Treatment of Children who have suffered from Parental Alienation Syndrome

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



It is unfortunate that the symptoms of children who suffer from Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) are rarely given over to treatment procedures. Less than 10% are involved in this. Their response varies but on the whole the mere fact that they are receiving treatment and are accepting such treatment frequently leads to good results. The remainder of children involved in the PAS situation fail to receive treatment. Much of this is due to the alienating parent influencing such children to refuse such treatment. In combination with this are the Courts who frequently do not recommend that such treatment is to be carried out. In a case of PAS where the alienating parent is caused to defend her behaviour and the Courts find in favour of her they tend to side with the defending solicitors and barristers who seek to avoid any form of treatment influenced by their client usually the alienating parent. Judges on the whole tend to back such an approach of non-treatment since there are so many obstacles involved in overcoming the resistance of the resident parent in allowing such treatment to take place. One cannot help but suspect that less than 10% of children who are being treated were those least damaged by the programming of the alienating parent. Before any form of 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. It is also valuable whenever possible to at the same time seek to deal with the alienating parent and also the targeted parent of the alienation. The objective of the treatment procedure is to de-program children who have been turned against the target parent. It is also important to make the alienating parent aware of the damage that has been done and to seek their co-operation in deprogramming such children.

For the most effective result through treatment it is important for one therapist to work not merely with the whole family but also with the Guardian ad Litem or anyone else associated with the court procedures involving PAS children. Psychologists must have the backing of the court in order to have any chance of effectively reducing the effect of PAS. What follows now will be the approaches taken in dealing with children who have been alienated.

In what follows it will noted that efforts have been made to reduce and eliminate if possible the hatred and paranoia that has been created in the child towards the alienated parent. This has in turn led to the denigration of the targeted parent. It is also important to develop independent thinking in the child so that the child is not influenced by one party that is the alienating parent, and is able to see matters from an autonomous or independent point of view. Finally it is vital to develop some form of shame or guilt in the child for what has been done and seek thereby to alter his or her feelings towards the alienated parent. Eventually through such treatment the child will be more amenable to make contact with the alienated parent to re-establish a positive and loving relationship which was destroyed through the alienation process.

Needless to say if the alienated parent has been involved in emotionally physically or sexually abusing the child the process of treatment towards rehabilitation should not be carried out. It would be wrong to return a child to a parent who has in the past mis-treated that child and is likely to do it again without having made some effort to treat that parent before such a reunion is to be considered. On the other hand the alienated parent has done nothing to deserve such treatment by the child and the alienator. All efforts must be made to change the child’s point of view and how that child sees the targeted parent. The therapist who carries out this work must be aware that the alienator will be working constantly behind the scenes against the efforts of the therapist. This is why it is vital that the court’s appoint a therapist and the therapist has the backing of the court and will report back to the court should an attempt be made by the alienator to sabotage the treatment being carried out. This in turn should result in some form of punishment by the court of the alienator.

1.) Dealing with the hatred developed and the paranoia practised on the child towards the alienated parent.

The child who practices hatred towards a previously well regarded parent does so with the power of the alienator behind that child encouraging this. This may be done directly or very subtlely. Direct dialogue between the therapist and the child needs to ascertain not only the strength of the paranoia developed but the reasons for it and to counter-act the arguments that the child has been given and has identified with, which lead to such antagonistic behaviour towards the parent.

It must be accepted that the child’s “thinking for himself or herself” is extremely limited by the impact of the alienation process. The child therefore must be questioned as to why such hatred is shown for the parent and the arguments used by the child which are usually a reflection of the alienator must be demolished through rational and logical arguments from the therapist.

Paranoia and such hatred which forms it must be viewed as a delusion and therefore of no substance. Those practising paranoia and inculcating it in the child will frequently feel as if they are themselves prosecuted by the alienating parent when in fact this is not occurring at all. When there is a real prosecution by the alienated parent then this is not a case of paranoia.
Children who have developed such a strong hatred and paranoia are difficult to influence through logic and reason. This however must be the effort of the therapist. They must question why the child feels as he or she does towards the alienated parent and what evidence (real evidence) there is for behaving as they do towards the alienating parent.

Gardner points out this paranoia through an example given in his latest work therapeutic intervention for children with parental alienation syndrome. (2001) It is worth quoting here:

Gardner: I am very sorry to hear that your Grandfather died.

Billy: You know he just didn’t die. My father murdered him.

Gardner: (Increduously) Your father murdered your Grandfather his own Father?

Billy: Yes I know he did it.

Gardner: I thought your Grandfather was in hospital. I understand he was about eighty five years old and that he was dying of old age disease.

Billy: Yeah, that’s what my father says.

Gardner: What do you say?

Billy: I say my father murdered him in the hospital.

Gardner: How did he do that?

Billy: He sneaked into the hospital, at night, and did it while no-one was looking. He did it while the nurses and the doctors were asleep.

Gardner: How do you know that?

Billy: I just know it.

Gardner: Did anyone tell you such a thing?

Billy: No, but I just know it.

Gardner: (Now turning to the mother who has been witness to this conversation) What do you think about what Billy has just said?

Mother: Well, I don’t really think that my husband did it, but I wouldn’t put it past that son of a bitch!

One may note it would take a considerable argument to be able to redress the paranoid impression which the child received undoubtedly through the Mother of his own Father being a party to murdering his Grandfather.

2.) The Child identifying with the alienator.

Children upon whom alienation is practised must take the side of the alienating parent against all the arguments or past experiences with the parent who is now no longer present. In order for therapy to be successful such an identification with the alienator must be broken down. In other words one must try to provide evidence for the child for viewing the alienated parent in a more favourable light or at least a more realistic light. One must ask the child whether there were any times in the past when the child felt different about the alienated parent and why the changes in views have taken place. It is vital to make the child aware of the fact that he or she has been the instrument of the alienation and prejudice.

Confronting the child by providing evidence from the child himself or herself as to what favourable aspects there are about the alienated parent a more balanced view could be developed in the child. Children must be made aware of the fact that they are merely repeating the views expressed by the alienating parent and are not thinking independently. Such independent thinking must be inculcated so that the child is made aware that all is not negative or bad about the alienated parent. Children who have suffered a reasonably long period of indoctrination by an alienating parent find it difficult to deal with confrontation type therapy which involves the child and the alienating parent, an attempt by the therapist to make the child realise what has been done to him in the presence of the alienating parent. It becomes even more difficult with a very young child. This is mainly because the child has lost one parent and does not feel it is possible to lose yet another through being confronted with the idiosyncratic and damaging realisation that he or she has been the victim of indoctrination and brain washing against the other parent. Older children however may be more amenable but then a longer period of indoctrination has usually occurred in their case.

It is important to reiterate that the child of parental alienation is a victim but does not realise that he or she is a victim. Any love they may have had for the beleaguered alienated parent has been destroyed and it becomes difficult to reverse this. The other victim is of course the targeted parent. In many cases judges administering alleged fair and just decisions find it difficult to deal with seeking to reverse such powerful indoctrination against one of the parents. They will frequently instead accept the situation as it is and often also provide little opportunity for contact between the alienated parent and the child especially if the child offers resistance against such contact.

Children show their animosity to the alienated parent if they come and visit them at all by reporting back almost as a secret agent to the alienating parent what has happened and often lying about what has occurred. They may even carry out acts of stealing from the targeted parent. Children often return to the alienating parent carrying objects and money from the targeted parent as a proof of their animosity towards that parent.

Attention must be drawn to such behaviour by the therapist to show that it is not merely disloyal to behave in this way but also it is a criminal act which is likely to be perpetuated in the future by anti-social behaviour from delinquency to criminality.

Even if the child has met and not found anything favourable about the alienated parent it is the role of the therapist to do all that he or she can to engage the child in more favourable attitudes towards the alienated parent by bringing forth arguments that support such a claim. Most importantly the child must be made aware of the fact that he has been used in the armoury of alienation as a weapon against the alienated parent.

It cannot be repeated too often that without the power of the court behind the therapeutic effort little can be achieved with recalcitrant alienating parents or their offspring. It must be the objective of the therapist to get the child to think independently and not respond and co-operate with the vilification of the father or mother.

Children deep down realise that they are depriving themselves of a parent but they don’t want to realise it on the surface and will do almost anything to avoid contact with the alienated parent for that reason. More must be done therapeutically to encourage such contact despite this opposition.

It is important to convince the child of the sacrifices the alienated parent would be likely to make if that child required help merely to survive. Gardner (2001) emphasises how an alienated parent could well give up a kidney for the child to survive which an ordinary stranger or even another member of the family more distant to the alienated parent would be unlikely to do. Gardner (2001) in his latest book on the treatment or therapeutic interventions for children with parental alienation syndrome terms the alienators approach as a campaign of denigration of the targeted parent. It is this denigration which the therapist needs to reduce or eliminate. Without the court behind one the therapist is carry on an uphill struggle. Obviously if the alienated parent has indeed been abusive or difficult or has neglected the child the job of the therapist becomes even more difficult. This however is rarely the case or indeed if it does exist it has been exaggerated by the alienating parent.

The children thus alienated must view the situation from the point of view of rational and logical thinking. This child must learn not to please the programmer at the cost of the targeted parent. This is somewhat easier with older children, but as already stated these have often been put through the process of alienation for longer periods. Younger children are more difficult to influence due to the total control of the alienator and the relatively undeveloped capacity for rational thinking of very young children. Due to the process of alienation children are often exaggerating what has happened to them while the targeted parent was still living in the same home. Hence the child eating his dinner and refusing to eat vegetables when encouraged to do so by the alienated parent will claim that he or she was “forced” to eat the vegetables against his or her will. Precise information therefore must be obtained from the child as to why he or she feels so acrimonious towards the alienated parent and seeks to denigrate that parent for that reason.

Even as adults children who have been programmed against one of the parents will remember and even attend therapy to rid themselves of the process of alienation. One such case involved an adult woman who as a child complained that her father teased her as did her brother about her not eating meat. This later became a massive exaggeration of the father’s terrible and insensitive behaviour towards his young daughter. This as a whole shows a lack of unity between the parents and leads to children using one parent against the other in order to get their own way. It is therefore vital to get underneath to the true reasons as to why a child feels a parent has all the negative traits possible. The therapist must work hard to get the child to be rational, to think clearly and to provide information which in the end can lead to the right reasons if there are any as to why the child feels negative towards a particular parent after having been programmed to be as such. From the cognitive and attitude changes in thinking the child must then be encouraged to behave appropriately towards the alienated parent. This can only be achieved however when the child feels that his or her initial attitude towards the alienated parent was faulty.

Many alienated parents are placed in a no-win situation whereby if they do something they are criticised. If they do nothing they are equally criticised. A good example of this is when a father was asked to come to a football game and then the child indicates to the mother that the father is unwanted. Had the father not offered to come it would have showed rejection, however, the fact that he goes indicates that he might do something to embarrass the child in question by his being there.

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 prevents PAS from being reduced or eliminated and in fact encourages it to continue. Therapists who are likely to do any good to reverse the PAS situation must be well versed in logic and reason and be sensitive to the indoctrination process of alienating parents and the helpless plight in which the targeted parent finds himself or herself.

In order to change the child’s view of the world and of the alienated parent it is sometimes necessary to resort to what may be termed anti-psychological approaches such as making a child actually feel guilty for the way the child behaves towards the alienated parent. Such feelings of guilt can have a positive effect in removing the alienator’s influences on the child.

The process of de-alienating or de-programming a child may be viewed from the dialogue which follows:

Dr L: Now tell me why is it you don’t want to see your Mother at all anymore?

Child: She was cruel to me once and even hit me. She made my Father’s life hell when he was still alive and I preferred to be with my Grandmother for that reason.

Dr L: I did speak to your mother about what you have said and she has admitted to me that she did hit you once, but that was to prevent you from doing something that could be dangerous to you. Do you remember?

Child: I only did what other children do that is to want to stay out late at night and not come home if I felt like doing so.

Dr L: Do you think it is a parent’s role to let children do what they like even if it is bad for them?

Child: Parents have no right to tell me what to do. My Grandmother never tells me what to do and I can stay out and do what I like for as long as I like.

Dr L: Do you think the parent has no right or duty to try to protect you from a life outside the home that could be detrimental to your welfare now and in the future?

Child: I know what I am doing I am now fifteen years old and I should be able to do what I want to do.

Dr L: Tell me exactly what you specifically dislike about your Mother and be as specific as possible.

Child: She’s just no good, she’s nasty to me and she’s not nice to my Grandmother. She has never done anything for me of any value.

Dr L: Do you really mean that? She has never done anything for you at all? Think about what she might have done for you in the past that you have forgotten.

Child: I can’t think of anything good she has ever done for me.

It is statements such as these which may need to be investigated further and points brought out as to what the Mother has done in the past which has made the child happy and which has now been forgotten consciously or unconsciously disowned. It is of course vital for the therapist to have developed a close relationship with respect from the child towards the therapist in order to convince the child that his or her thinking against the alienated parent has no foundation or has been exaggerated due to the programming process. The therapist must do all he or she can to rid the child of the total negative attitude and resulting behaviour towards the alienated parent and the alliance of a total nature again between the child and the alienator. The therapist must help the child to see both the negative and positive aspects of both the alienating parent and the alienated one. In developing such independent thinking in the child it is vital albeit difficult.

Children although they may not show it frequently welcome the fact that a Court of Law has been involved in their unhappy family relationships since through the Court of Law the child can feel that they are now following the instruction of a superior force even more superior than the alienating parent and have an excuse for giving some time and possibly affection to the alienated parent. Confronted by the alienating parent the child is then able to say, “I am only doing this because the court demands it and I don’t want to get into any trouble.”

As has also already been mentioned the child often feels ashamed and even guilty about the manner in which he or she has treated the alienated parent despite no real good evidence being present for such treatment. Children who denigrate such a parent are faced with deep feelings of guilt which they tend to hide through cruel actions against the denigrated parent. The process of feeling guilty can lead to a change in attitude and behaviour. Another term for guilt is conscience and this has not been of a term denigrated even by psychologists. The super-ego as Freud termed it is responsible often for right actions.

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. When a relationship break up is more harmonious and both partners seek to love the child and encourage the child to love both parents and respond to them effectively and when parents are unified in their approach many problems can be avoided. 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. Children then realise that they have two parents who both care for them 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. It is the aim of the therapist to develop such a relationship if this ideally is possible. In this way the child’s future may be assured rather than put into jeopardy.

Children who turn against one parent are developing a process leading to serious consequences. This is due to the fact that they have renounced one parent and frequently feel a sense of guilt thereafter especially if that parent dies or is no longer available for other reasons. It is vital in such children to engender both a feeling of guilt for wronging the alienated parent and a sensitivity towards that parent. Changing behaviour relies on changing the attitude or cognition of the child but equally important is changing the behaviour of the child towards the programmed against parent. It should be remembered that both parents can practise PAS, one as the initiator and the other as the reactor by seeking to demolish the value of the alienated parent. It must be remembered that children can suffer in the long term from the alienating process emotionally, educationally and in future relationships that may develop and could themselves in the future become the alienator.