Understanding and treating children who have been alienated against a parent

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


Abstract & Summary

What follows deals with what is to be done when children have been alienated (programmed, brainwashed) usually against the non custodial parent. The author defines what a good parent should and should not do, that is never to jeopardize a relationship between a child and a good parent. This is in the best interest of the child now and for the future to prevent parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Two case illustrations are presented featuring a father and the other a mother, as the alienator. Five specific treatment approaches used by the current expert are also presented. A final statement gives the dangers of PAS to children, the victim of alienation, as well as the dangers for the expert witness involved in sorting out the alienation process.

Understanding and treating children who have been alienated against a parent


Before beginning the introduction to this paper the author presents his basic principle as follows:

“Only a parent who speaks well of the other parent, and encourages and rejoices in the other parent having good contact with their mutual child should have custody of that child. Equally, that parent who alienates the child against the other parent should neither have contact nor custody of the child.”

One of the important functions, if not the most important of one working in cases of PAS (Parental Alienation Syndrome) or PA (Parental Alienation) is to help children to come to terms with the fact that they have two parents, both responsible, for their upbringing and care. This is severely in jeopardy. Frequently when one or both parents have acted in ways that are not in the best interest of children, by seeking to turn the children against the other parent due to their personal acrimony towards that parent.

This occurs usually as a result of vindictiveness towards the other parent following an acrimonious divorce or separation of the parents. Unfortunately, such acrimony also occurs while the parents are still together. One might say this is PAS within the relationship. In this situation, both parents still have custody and are together in one way or another and can influence their children “equally”.

The disharmony between the parents is reflected by how each parent speaks about the other parent to the children. The custodial parent has a considerable advantage over the now absent parent, be it the father or the mother, due to having total control over the minds of children while the absent parent has none. This provides ample opportunity for a vindictive custodial parent to vilify the now absent parent.

Unfortunately, the absent parent has no such opportunity to respond to or defend him/herself against accusations made against him/her. It is this which results in alienated children and it is this which requires the most astute understanding, assessment and treatment. These children need to be “reclaimed”, to be able to see, think and feel as they once did when they had a close, warm and caring relationship with the now absent parent.

Two illustrations, one an alienating mother and the second an alienating father will be presented, and efforts made to delineate treatment approaches. The first of the illustrations may be considered a comparative success but not a total one. The second must be viewed as virtually a total failure. The failure however, was not due to lack of courage or sincerity and the efforts made by the psychologist and expert witness, but due to the lack of co-operation by the family court working with the expert and his aims. This fact will be described more fully when considering the two illustrations. For obvious reasons the names of all the persons in the illustrations have been changed. They are however, based on true cases.

Illustration 1- a case of relative success

It was both a surprise and encouraging factor to be appointed by a family court with both parents agreeing to my appointment. This is probably the first hurdle which needs to be overcome. Usually one, or possibly both of the parents reject a particular expert in helping to mend matters for various reasons. My own association being with parental alienation leads to many parents refusing to have me as their expert. For this reason at least it was gratifying to note that no party rejected my nomination as the expert. One could expect the individual carrying out the alienation to reject such a party as myself.

Courts differ whether they do or do not overrule the views of one party or the other. Alienators on the whole, with good reason, do not want an expert involved who specializes in seeking to contain or eliminate the alienation process. Judges in family courts can be guided by the dissenting party or overrule them if they feel that a particular expert is required to find a solution to ongoing animosity which affects the children. This is especially the case when the parties have been in court repeatedly without a solution having been found to their antagonism to one another.

Needless to say, the court agreed; and so did the parents in my appointment with instructions to resolve the differences between the two parties. I saw each party, both the two adults and the children individually. The children were aged 8 and 9. Each had their own version of events. John the father stated that he had no contact with his two children for many months and blamed his former partner Jane for this fact.

Jane claimed her husband could not be trusted to avoid being violent with the children. She claimed that during their marriage he was verbally threatening and once pushed her during an argument. She also stated that John had once smacked their son during the last contact visit he had with the son. This act led to Jane avoiding sending either her son or her daughter to their father. John admitted this had occurred when the boy pushed his sister down the stairs injuring her. He had promised never again to “lay hands on any of his children”.

Jane did not believe him and hence failed to provide John with contact, despite a court ruling for her to do so. She claimed consistently that John was likely to be a danger to “her children”. She had also encouraged the children to regard her new partner as their father figure. Needless to say, the children were in a conflict situation having once been close to both parents.

Both parents were assessed separately by the psychologist. They were both found to be capable of being good parents as a result of the long interview and psychological testing that was carried out. Jane was found to be alienating the children against their father for reasons based on their unhappy marriage together. She had told the psychologist that John the father was likely to be a danger to the children, and she stated this in front of the children as well.

Following the initial report to the court about both parents, the parents were seen again but placed in separate waiting rooms due to the animosity between them. The two children were with the mother initially. Again the mother reiterated in the waiting room that she felt the children would not be safe in the presence of the father unless there was someone available to supervise the meeting. It was for this reason that she was reluctant to allow or encourage the children to be with their father. When father was interviewed he disagreed totally with Jane and claimed that he was never ever a danger to his children but rather a caring and loving parent to both children. He knew that they both felt similarly about him.

The psychologist (myself) saw both children separately to engage with them and to assess their feelings towards their father. As they were young children, the psychologist attempted to make the meeting with the children enjoyable and relaxing. He took each child in turn to feed the chickens and ducks on his farm which was a part of the property on which he had his consulting rooms. Both children enjoyed this experience and they both had a good relationship with the psychologist.

Each child was initially, however, reticent to speak about their feelings towards their father. When they were told that their father was actually here and that he loved them very much and had said so, and were eager to make contact with him, they were eventually asked separately whether they would like to see their father. After such preparation and agreement, first the boy and then the girl were led into the waiting room where father waited. Both the boy and the girl jumped on their father’s lap and were received with gestures of affection. This was done in the presence of a colleague who was present, not because there was any concern about what John might do but to satisfy the mother that the children were definitely safe!

When Jane was told of how the children responded to the father, she stated that she was still worried about their safety in father’s company. She virtually berated the psychologist that he was taking a great chance in allowing such contact without supervision. Jane the mother seemed only somewhat reassured when told that there was in fact another person in the room with John and the children. Alienators are likely to be convinced that what they believe to be true based on the acrimony they feel for the other party is true. This is despite virtually all evidence which contradicts their views.

Jane was then induced to come into the room where John was relating to the children still in a very affectionate manner. She seemed unsure about doing this but eventually was convinced by the psychologist to come. She was also likely to be interested because she still was not certain that the children were actually safe in the presence of their father. The meeting of the couple went well in the presence of the psychologist and the psychologist suggested that they all go out to a McDonalds for a meal. The children were all enthusiastic. They appeared to enjoy the fact that both parents were together and reasonably friendly, or at least not unfriendly towards one another. John was happy with the idea. Jane the mother was less pleased but reluctantly agreed when the children showed such eagerness.

Feedback to the psychologist was that there were some hiccups with further meetings but they took place, especially as the Judge awarded contact every two weeks to the father providing John’s new partner was there to supervise that contact. The Judge did this despite the fact that the psychologist felt, and communicated this, that the children were totally safe and happy with the father. The Judge therefore carried out this careful supervision order mainly to appease the reticent Jane.

Although the outcome was better than the situation in the past, the psychologist felt that despite all that took place, Jane would continue with a mild form of alienation against John. If the truth were known, the psychologist felt that it would have been best to change the custody of the children to the father. This was due to the fact that the father never would have alienated the children against the mother and would have in fact encouraged the children to have good contact with their mother. This was providing that there was no actual evidence that Jane continued to alienate the children against the father in the future. Unfortunately, it was the Judiciary in all its wisdom who had the final word by not providing custody to the father.

Illustration 2 – a relatively unsuccessful effort to treat PAS in children

Initially there was some evidence that there would be a successful outcome here, but time and events proved otherwise. The case concerned Jack and Jill and a son aged 10 who we will call Peter. Jack and Jill both wished to be dominant in the home and in their relationship. It was this that caused many of the problems between them. Jack had been given custody of Peter, the child in question, due to the fact that mother was often absent from home since she worked for a long period abroad. She however wished to have regular and continued contact with her son, especially when she was in the country.

Jill and her son Peter had been close before her frequent promotions led to her highly responsible position at work. Jack felt considerable animosity towards Jill mainly because she was so much more successful than himself in the world of work. He took advantage of his position as the custodial parent by putting the notion into his son’s head that his mother preferred her work and career to being at home with the family. Peter eventually believed his father’s views of his mother. Jack was deeply envious of the success of his wife, since she earned much more than he did working as a clerk for an airline.

Both parents were strong-willed and controlling as previously mentioned but Jack held all the cards since he was at home every evening and weekends. When the marriage ended, Jack wanted as little as possible to do with Jill but welcomed the fact that she earned money which helped the family. Eventually, he convinced his son to have as little as possible to do with his mother and to have as few contacts with his mother as possible. He claimed that the mother had been unfaithful which she was not. He also claimed that she loved no-one but herself and her work. This was totally untrue but the 10 year old son after much repetition of negative remarks about his mother increasingly believed what his father had said.

Since the mother had little or no contact with her son she hired a solicitor who appointed the present psychologist via the courts to assess both adults and a 10 year old boy. It was found, as expected, that the process of alienation had occurred carried out by the father. This had been relatively successful influencing the boy to wish to have nothing or very little to do with his mother.

A period of treatment of the boy showed that the boy had some good memories of a warm relationship with his mother in the past but this had been virtually extinguished by the efforts of the father. The psychologist, after a number of sessions with the boy induced the alienated boy to have contact with his mother by explaining that his mother loved him as much as did his father, if not more so. She showed her love by working hard in order to provide her son with all he needed especially as father earned relatively little.

During the final treatment session mother was reintroduced to the boy. Initially the boy showed little emotion towards his mother. When he saw her weep both with joy at seeing him again and sadness at his apparent reluctance to have contact with her the psychologist made it clear that the mother loved him as much as the father did. The psychologist stated to the boy that the father should encourage the boy to have good contact with his mother and not the reverse. Eventually the boy cried and threw his arms around his mother’s neck weeping also as he did so.

The psychologist was delighted with the result that had been achieved. Unfortunately, the father’s brainwashing continued when the mother had left and father had total control once again. In order to please his father the boy once again said he wanted no more contact with his mother. The psychologist requested that the Judge recommend a change of residence with the mother, or the maternal grandparents, having custody of the child. This was for two reasons: 1) to prevent further alienating by the father; and 2) so that mother could have regular access to the son when she was in the country.

Unfortunately, the judgment of the Court was that the boy could not and should not be forced to have contact with his mother and was to remain in the custody of the father. The psychologist disagreed, but it was the judiciary who made the final decision despite being aware of the process of alienation practiced by the father.

Some generalisations on the treatment of alienated children

The process of alienation is direct, insidious, constant and powerful in its effect. It is difficult to reverse unless the psychologist can convince the Judge that what has been stated in the beginning of this article: “Children should live with that parent who sincerely subscribes to a child having good contact with the other parent, notwithstanding the child’s wishes, or apparent wishes. It must be acknowledged that it is in the best interest of the child to have a good contact with both parents providing neither parent suffers from being an abuser, physically, emotionally or sexually. The alienating parent must be considered an emotional abuser and should not have custody.

The child who does not wish to have contact with the other good parent has a mindset which has been induced over time. This mindset needs to be changed. The child must be made aware and learn to accept the following:

1) The absent parent is a good loving parent and cares about the child:

2) Whoever asserts the opposite and speaks badly of the other parent is both wrong and unjust and the child must be made aware that he has been abused when it is asserted that the non custodial parent is uncaring and does not love the child. Every argument possible must be presented to reiterate this point.

3) The psychologist must go back to the time when the child and the now absent parent were in a totally positive relationship and to reinstitute those memories into the present consciousness of the child.

4) While the process of treatment continues, it is important, but is usually ignored by the Court, that the emotionally abused child should be placed in a neutral environment. Here the effects of the hostility of the alienator can be curtailed by the victimised parent can reestablish a positive relationship with the brainwashed or alienated child.

5) If possible there should be therapist for the child, the alienator and the alienated parent. One expert would be responsible for co-ordinating the “decontaminating” of the alienation situation.

Final statement

The treatment of children who have been pathologically alienated by a determined mother/father is extremely difficult. Only establishing a close and unified relationship between the mental health expert and the Judiciary can there be a likelihood of a successful outcome.

Once the alienator has been warned and failed to heed that warning, decisive steps need to be taken to remove the influence of the alienator from the capacity to continue in the alienation process. Pathological alienators are notoriously difficult to change. In that case the alienator should have no contact with the child who has been, and is likely to, continue to be a victim of “brainwashing”.

This is not in the best interest of the child now and in the future. It is obviously extremely harmful to a good parent and the extended family of that innocent alienated parent. One cannot emphasise too often or too firmly that a close working relationship between the Judiciary and the mental health expert is essential.

The expert witness or mental health professional is not immune to emotional reactions, especially in feelings related to the child being used as a vehicle of vengeance by the alienator against the alienated parent. Whether the alienator acts for reasons of vindictiveness, mental illness or a combination of the two the effect on the expert varies.

It is always best to focus on what is truly in the best interest of the child and be guided by certain basic principles. One of these is that it is to the benefit of the child to have the positive input of two good parents rather than one parent. It is vital to add that both parents, whether separated or together, should encourage their children to have good contact with the other parent.

Finally, it must be stated that the expert witness or mental health professional dealing with PAS perpetrators is ever in danger of complaints being made against him/her by a vindictive, dissatisfied parent. Expert witnesses must therefore have a combination of courage, resilience, and determination to deal with set-backs and threats to their professional status and integrity.