Treating Families in Turmoil

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services

Justice of the Peace, Vol 166, N 23, June 8-2002 p 4442-224, ISSN 1351 5756

Mr and Mrs X had been married for 14 years. They were strict Catholics. Despite this however, they .were divorced as each accused the other of being unfaithful. Mr X also accused his wife of not keeping the house tidy. He had always said, however, that she was a good mother. She, in her turn, accused her husband of being bad-tempered especially in relation to the children and sometimes being “physical” with them.

Mr X had, for six years, attempted through the courts, to gain contact with his four children. Such contact had been denied by the mother, rather than the courts. The court appointed the present psychologist on the recommendation of the Judge. The Judge had read some of the articles written by the psychologist on mediation involving families in conflict. These articles are listed in the Appendix of this article.

Mrs X and her four children, aged six, eight, ten and twelve, were adamant in not wishing to have any contact with the father. The reasons given by all, who seemed to be in total agreement, were that:

  1. Father had a bad temper.
  2. He sometimes smacked them when they were naughty.
  3. He did not give them much of his time when they had been with him after the parents separated.
  4. He failed to provide financially for them after the divorce when contact had been denied, according to the mother.

Mrs X, when interviewed first with the psychologist, stated that she had always encouraged the children to be with their natural father. It was the children who refused to see him for the reasons already mentioned. “What could I do? Should I force the children to be with their father against their wishes?” She had, in the meantime, developed a relationship with a partner, who the children, after six years, regarded as “their father”.

At this point it was explained to the mother, after accepting her version of events, that considerable harm could result to the children, if they failed to have some kind of relationship with their natural parent. When she requested to know what harm could occur, the psychologist told her in some detail and gave her one of his articles on this subject, which involved dealing with children who had been alienated and who suffered as a consequence now and in the future. Finally, the remainder of the session sought to establish a good relationship with her and through her, with the children. She was encouraged to do all she could to get the children to have some kind of contact with their father, but only after the psychologist had counselled the father on how hè should behave towards the children. The meeting went extremely well, both by showing warmth and using understanding and humour to break down some of Mrs X’s defensiveness and antipathy towards her former spouse. She also indicated that she was tired of, time after time, having to appear in court.

Additionally, she complied in taking two personality tests; one an objective test, the Eysenck Personality Inventory, and the other a projective technique, the Rorschach Test. The psychologist promised to let her know the result of these tests in due course. She became increasingly co-operative, especially when it was indicated by the psychologist that he did not anticipate at this time, recommending unsupervised contact with the children by their father. Perhaps three to six months afterwards this may be considered, but not at the present time. This reassured the mother considerably. She was also informed that as a result of such contact, which was initially supervised, he would need to agree to provide some funding for her to deal with her children.

The next step was to see the children. It was vital to establish a good relationship with them as quickly as possible and also to depend to some degree on the mother talking to the children about co-operating. The children were then interviewed individually to ascertain their feelings in relation to possible contact with their father after so many years. They were not at all well disposed to any contact initially with their father. They were encouraged to say why they felt that way. They were also provided with an objective personality test, the Junior version of the Eysenck Personality Inventory, and a projective personality test. The projective test consisted of them drawing a picture of themselves and their family doing something. This established their position in the family, their relationship with their mother and their step-father. As was expected, the children drew a picture of their mother and partner and then labelled the male in the group, their “dad”. They also indicated verbally that they now regarded the partner as their “father”. The man played a fairly passive role, according to the children. He never disciplined them. He very wisely left that to the mother. The children saw this father as a “kind” person. In direct contrast, they viewed their natural father (from their memory of him), as strict, with a bad temper.

Each child, following several short meetings on the same day, was encouraged by the psychologist, as well as by the mother, to regard the natural father as deserving of another chance for contact. They ultimately accepted that they would co-operate with supervised contact. Later it was decided that such supervised contact would occur on alternate Sundays. It was also to be carried out during the afternoon under the supervision of the catholic priest of the church where they attended.

The personality testing was important to ascertain the mental and psychological state of the children at the present time. Prior to making any decision, the father had been interviewed and counselled on three occasions during the day for short periods. He was also submitted to the objective and projective personality testing, identical to his ex-wife. The result of this testing was duly explained to him. He was made aware of his problems and also why his children wished to avoid having contact with him and how this could be reversed by changes in his own attitude and behaviour towards them.

The full facts of why the children no longer desired contact with him had a most salutary effect on him. At first he denied that he was or had been overly strict with them, but gradually accepted this. He, however, took notice of what would be required of him should he wish the supervised contact to work and to lead eventually to all he desired, i.e., unsupervised contact and the children being able to visit his own parents.

The final session was between the psychologist and the couple “in conflict”. This could only be carried out after the initial sessions had led to an agreement between them on certain issues. This agreement was written down for each individual. One agreement was then put forward to them, to make certain that they both agreed once again with the arrangements which would lead to unsupervised contact. They were then asked to sign the statement. Mother even agreed to let father write down the actual agreement, obviously checking it afterwards to see it was correct.

There was a need for silence from time to time, when one or other of the parties brought up past grievances. It was then emphasized, and they agreed, to consider only those aspects which could be viewed at present and in the future, and which ultimately would improve their relationship regarding the children. The firm handling of this final interview showed each party what they had to gain by sitting down together and agreeing on areas of financial and emotional support for the children and both parents being involved in the parenting role.

The case went forward with a full report and the Judge made orders based on the agreement which had been reached between the adult parties and also involving the children. Further progress was contemplated, including eventually unsupervised contact if all worked well with the supervised contact.

The initial success achieved may be attributable to three important aspects working together:

  1. The role of the psychologist in leading the adults and the children, towards co-operating with each other.
  2. The “court weariness” experienced by both parties.
  3. The pressure of the court eventually backing the mediation process of the psychologist.

Summary of Similar Cases

A summary of cases which involved mediation, where there had been no contact between the parents and the children for six months – six years was carried out involving 24 males seeking contact and nine females seeking such contact. The table which now follows summarizes the result which followed the process of mediation previously analyzed through the case study.

Expatiation of Tables

Although the result of IMM is not perfect, it must be noted that no contact whatsoever had been accepted or achieved by the non-custodial parent, despite numerous appearances in court before the intervention of the mediator. In the case where no contact was achieved (in seven cases) between parents and children, this was due to the inaction of the courts in failing to deal effectively with the non-co-operating custodial parent.

Table 1 – Number of cases assessed and treated ant their outcome (initial)

Indirect contact
Supervised contact
Contact supervised
No contact
Fathers (24)
Mothers (9)

Table 2 – Type of contact

Led to indirect contact
Supervised contact
Contact supervised
No contact
Fathers (24)
Mothers (9)

It may be noted that the figures in Table 2 showed the changes from indirect contact to supervised and unsupervised contact. Hence, among fathers there was eventually a shift from six who had indirect contact to two; with supervised contact increasing from nine to 11. This again was due to mediation procedures. Unsupervised contact was eventually increased from five to seven in the case of fathers. In the case of mothers, the number with indirect contact was reduced from three to one. The others had supervised contact. Mothers also had more unsupervised contact with their child/children after a period of time, this being from two mothers having unsupervised contact to three mothers having unsupervised contact. Unfortunately, no changes could be achieved in the no contact group where, in tour cases, fathers never had any contact with their children and equally so for mothers., as already stated, due to the failure of the court to ensure that the custodial parent co-operated with the mediator.

Articles and Books Published in the Area of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) and Mediation

  1. “Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Two Step Approach Toward a Solution”. Contemporary Family Therapy, December 1998, Vol 20 (4), pp.505-520.
  2. Paedophilia (Book) – “Parent Alienation Syndrome”, ch.20, Lowenstein 1998 Able Publishers, Hertfordshire.
    “Parent Alienation Syndrome (PAS)”. (1999) 163 JPN 47-50.
  3. “Parent Alienation Syndrome: What the Legal Profession Should Know”. Medico-Legal Journal, Vol 66 (4) 1999, pp.151-161.
  4. Mediation – The Way Forward. Unpublished at present.
  5. “Mediation in the Legal Profession”. (1999) 163 JPN 709-710.
  6. “Parent Alienation and the Judiciary”. Medico-Legal Journal (1999), Vol. 67, Part 3, pp.121-123.
  7. “The Role of Mediation in Child Custody Disputes”. (2000) 164 JPN 258-262.
  8. “Tackling Parental Alienation”. (2001) 165 JPN 102.