Treating the Long and Short Term Effects of Parental Alienation
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
Abstract & Summary
The author considers four important questions when it has been accepted that one parent has alienated a child against a now absent parent following divorce or separation:
1. Are there short and long term effects of parental alienation (PA)?
2. How can PA be identified?
3. How can PA be treated?
4. What are the repercussions of judicial decisions regarding PA at present?
The author urges just and decisive action to deal with this situation.
Treating the Long and Short Term Effects of Parental Alienation
I have received many letters over time concerning the long term impact of PAS. One such letter follows:
“Dear Dr Lowenstein
Please may I pass my heartfelt thanks to you, having read your material on PAS all the things that happened in my childhood and adult life are now beginning to make sense. I had never heard of PAS I am 50 and still struggling with how I was treated as a child and as an adult by my mother . I still suffer from some of the symptoms you outline, I try to make progress but keep falling. Please could you send details of your counselling to adults if you offer such a service… I would be traveling from Ireland, so I would have think about how feasible it would be for me.? Either way if you thought you might be interested in my experience I would be happy to send an account.”
It may be noted that the letter refers to the long term effects of just one person in having suffered from parental alienation in childhood. It is a tragedy which at that point in time is difficult to reverse. There is however the opportunity of doing so when it occurs in children, as will be noted by the article which follows. We will cover the following:
1. Are there long term effects and short term effects of parental alienation?
2. How can parental alienation be identified?
3. How can parental alienation be treated?
4. What are the repercussions of Judicial decisions regarding cases of parental alienation at present?
1. Are there long term and short term of effects of parental alienation?
As a practicing clinical, forensic psychologist for over 40 years working with families in turmoil, I am frequently asked this question by the Judiciary who are required frequently to make very difficult decisions in the case of contact and custody disputes between separated and divorced parents. These parents were at one time united, even in love, and loving towards the now absent parent, and were probably members of a united and close family. The children had a good relationship with both parents, until the unexpected happened: the parents became enemies leading to separation.
This led, for whatever reason, to the parents parting with one or both experiencing animosity towards the other. This has led to the once united couple, singularly or together, adopting a hostile stance towards one another. One of the symptoms or repercussions is contact disputes between the now absent parent and the child who is in the care and total control of the custodial parent. The custodial parent seeks, and has total control over the child, and manipulates and encourages the child not to have any further contact with the now absent and once loved parent.
The child/children are used as a pawn or weapon usually against a now absent parent. That absent parent, whether the mother or father is at a distinct disadvantage in having any contact with a once loved child who was loving in return. The result is little or no contact with the formerly loving child with the alienating parent insisting that the child no longer wishes to have any further contact with the former parent.
The destruction of that relationship by the process of alienation practiced by a vindictive father/mother has an immediate and even more long term repercussions on children when they are adolescents and adults. This especially occurs when the adult had disappeared or has died. Children and adolescents frequently develop behavioural problems such as suffering from aggression, sleep disturbances, enuresis and sometimes educational difficulties as well as many other problems. As they get older and begin to take a more and more independent view of life they may suffer from feelings of guilt. Many also have difficulties in forming relationships with a partner as adults. Sometimes alienation from a parent in perpetuated in their own future relationship when they have children of their own.
2. How can parental alienation be identified?
This is another question frequently asked by the Courts of myself as an expert witness in child contact cases. It is vital that parental alienation be identified with some certainty as soon as possible. One can be certain that the alienator will deny any knowledge that they are responsible for the child no longer wishing to have contact with an absent parent. This absent parent has been discredited in the child’s eyes, despite the fact that the child at one time had a close relationship with that parent. Hence Judges need to be convinced that the custodial parent has indeed misused his/her power to consciously and successfully turn a child against a once loved and now absent parent. There needs to be evidence that parental alienation has taken place. In some cases it has not occurred.
In many, if not most cases, Judges will turn a blind eye to the diagnosis of parental alienation. They will consider the concept of parental alienation of little importance and concentrate on what the child superficially feels and says. Judges most frequently regard the child’s views as sacrosanct. Whatever “causes” a child to react with enmity towards a now absent parent appears to matter very little to some Judges. Their typical response is likely to be, when questioned about a child not wishing contact as: “What can I or anyone do when the child refuses to interact with the now absent parent?” Hence follows the resigned conclusion by some Judges to do nothing further to encourage the child and the alienator to change their demeanour and accept the ‘status quo’. Without the help of experts, Judges are unlikely to look deeper into the matter. Some even ignore expert opinion based on verifiable evidence after a thorough investigation.
One of the most telling ways of accepting that parental alienation has indeed occurred is the fact that the child in the past had a warm relationship with the now despised, rejected parent. Judges rarely ask why the child has changed in his/her view towards that parent. Another clue is that the child has totally identified with the mental state or views of the alienator. Children will use identical phrases uttered by the alienator without realizing it and consider these ideas and words are truly their own view.
Children therefore view the now rejected parent with the same hostility shown by the alienator. In extreme forms they experience what tends to be called “folie a deux affect” which has been described by the author elsewhere. Here the identification with the alienator is total. Anything that differs from the alienator’s process of thinking is totally rejected. In addition, the victim of such insidious direct or subtle brainwashing develops a total loyalty towards the alienator for fear, that in having totally lost one parent, there is a desperate fear that they will also lose the other parent if they do not show total obedience to that parent.
The obsession with this reaction to the alienation abuse is total and there appears to be no arguments or therapeutic intervention which can easily overcome or reverse this obsessive compulsive delusion or mindset. To the child, the alienator is “perfect”, while the once loved parent is “evil” or the devil incarnate and to hence to be avoided.
3. How can the condition of parental alienation be treated and reversed?
The simple answer to that question is: “ with the greatest of difficulties”. Once the condition of parental alienation has been established and recognised, and the expert witness having convinced the Judiciary of that fact, there is a need for urgent treatment of both the child and the alienator. This treatment needs to be directive, comprehensive, in-depth and involving the victim (the child), as well as the perpetrator and the alienated parent who is also a victim.
Both child and alienator are very difficult to treat. They are ever in collusion, the child being unaware of this while the alienator is fully aware of this. The child is convinced that the other parent who is now absent is to be avoided and even to be insulted if he/she is directly faced with that person. The result is total rejection of that parent. The child is the pawn and main victim in the scenario. One hates to use an extreme term such as “brain washed” but this is what it is and there is no other way to describe the tragic event of what has taken place.
The perpetrator is even more resistant to changing his/her opinion and mindset. Convincing the child now that the child has much to gain by re-establishing a warm relationship is met with resistance. Hence, changing the views of the child towards the now absent parent who is often a totally sidelined parent is a true challenge to any experienced therapist.
This is due to the constant presence of the alienator in the child’s life and the influence of the alienating parent on the child. Therapists will often attempt to make the alienator aware and to believe the following:
1. The child would benefit considerably from having contact and a good relationship with the now rejected parent.
2. The alienator must be made aware that they are practicing a form of emotional child abuse by enlisting the child in the vendetta the alienating parent feels about the now absent parent.
3. The alienator needs to know that the expert is aware and understands the reason for the custodial parent’s feelings such as animosity towards the sidelined parent.
4. The alienator alone can, if they so wish, change the mindset of the child in avoiding contact with the absent parent, but this is rarely done convincingly by the alienator.
5. The alienator needs to change the mind of the child and avoid further behaviour which will make the child feel insecure if they have a good relationship with the now absent parent.
6. The alienator needs to be aware that the expert witness needs to insist the alienator sincerely and firmly encourages the child to have a good long term contact with the absent parent. The argument that the child does not want contact needs to be exposed as a ruse!
7. The alienator needs to be made aware that if the therapist is unable to change the child and the alienator’s behaviour, the child may need to be removed from the influence of the custodial parent who is also an emotional abuser.
8. If the alienator still stubbornly refuses to change and still do nothing to help the child overcome the engendered feelings about the absent parent, the child can be moved from the abusing influence of the alienator by the Court..
4. What are the repercussions of Judicial decisions regarding cases where parental alienation may be present?
The first thing that must be said is that not all Judges accept that parental alienation exists following acrimonious divorce and separation. The same can be said of many expert witnesses who equally fail to accept that this condition exists. Such Judges and experts are foolish, if not biased against the victimised child and the alienated or rejected parent if they do not consider that parental alienation could occur. Those who accept the possibility of parental alienation being present in many cases, find it difficult to deal justly, fairly and effectively with a child who claims he/she does not wish to have any contact with the now absent parent. This is especially in the case of the older child beyond the age of 8 and upwards.
The Judges’ attitudes tend to be pragmatic. They will consequently voice such statements as the following: “I must respect the rights of the child to make a decision ……..The child cannot be coerced to have contact with a parent which whom they do not wish to have a relationship any more”. If an expert recommends therapy to change the mindset, some Judges will see this as a way, temporarily at least, out of the dilemma. This is despite the fact that this approach may prove to be difficult and ineffective. The use of therapy is the “softly, softly” approach, often welcomed by other Mental Health workers and Judges. When this approach leads to the result of the child now accepting some contact with the absent parent, most practitioners and the Judiciary are likely to be delighted. The child has been given a choice and the choice made is in the right direction.
Unfortunately, therapy on the whole fails in cases such as insidious entrenched and continued parental alienation. This is due to the alienator continuing to be behind the scene influencing the child in the direction of wishing the child to reject the alienated parent. Very few alienators can understand or want to understand the harm they are doing by alienating the child against the absent parent. They are too influenced by the continued hostility they feel towards the alienated parent.
When no amount of therapy is effective, the Court will need to make decisions which they would rather not make: either accepting no contact with the absent parent as best, or removing the child from the alienator and the emotional abuse which continues. Judges are, on the whole, loathe to do the latter. This is despite the opinion of expert witnesses who can no longer see any alternative to removing the child from the alienator’s influence and emotional abuse. Most Judges will still do nothing about the matter, relying totally on what the child wishes and thereby creating an injustice for the absent parent and also subsequently the child, in the short and/or the long term.
The situation needs to be likened to the patient who suffers from a gangrenous limb, which if not amputated would lead to the death of the person. We must remember that a child’s emotional future is at stake. Failure to deal with alienation, as explained, can lead to both short and long term serious harmful consequences. The Judiciary must consider these consequences in the decisions they make (see opening letter in article).