What is in the Best Interest of the Children?
(Problems associated with parental divorce and separation)
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
This article is written by a clinical and forensic psychologist frequently engaged as an expert witness to the courts dealing with family problems and disputes and its effect on children. A book has been published on the subject of Parental Alienation by the current author in 2007 entitled “Parental Alienation” (Russell House Publishing).
In what follows we will consider ideals when separation or divorce occurs but also the reality of separation and divorce and its effect on children. Also considered are the Judiciary faced with cases of implacable hostility of one or both parties in the dispute. This is followed by what the Judiciary should do in connection with such disputes. Finally, there will be a discussion on the signs of parental alienation due to the implacable hostility between the parties and what the court can do in combating the effects of parental alienation.
The Ideal result of separation and divorce
What is in the best interest of children should be the predominant concern primarily of those who are the parents, but also those functionaries such as Solicitors, Judges, Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Guardians ad Litem and Social Workers to name but a few who may become involved in a case. That is the way it should be in an ideal world containing ideal, sensible and rational parents and others involved in a dispute.
Ideal, good or sensible parents who love their children, frequently act in what is truly in the best interest of their offspring. They will speak well of the other parent and include the absent parent as much as possible with the children in order to remain a part of the family. Such parents strive to do what is best for their children including rather than excluding the absent parent. This is despite the way they may feel about the other parent. It should be remembered however, that when parents “fall” what is generally termed “out of love” there is likely to result a feeling of being rejected on one side or the other. One or both of the parents may have found another partner and this adds to the difficulties and complexities of trying to find a solution that will be in the “best interest of children”. This is also open to various interpretations according to from which standpoint you view matters.
It is in the children’s best interest that despite parents separating, the parents continue to display the love and responsibility towards their mutually conceived offspring. Parents would also do well to behave in a friendly, and even caring, manner towards their former partner. Such attitudes and behaviour provide continuing security for the children and the children will feel that although the parents are not living together they are both kind towards one another and certainly care for the children. It also means that there is regular good contact between the now absent parent and the children. Ideally, this should be via a display of harmony between the parents while in the presence of their children and one another. This is “truly in the best interest of the children”. Unfortunately it is not always a goal that is achieved.
The realities of separation and divorce
“Implacable hostility” is a term that the legal profession and the Courts of Law accept as a frequent consequence of an acrimonious divorce and separation. The creation of progeny usually means that following separation, or even before separation, there is acrimony between the partners. This spills over into the children. Children are often affected in two ways: 1) They may well lose one of the parents with whom they have had a close and loving relationship; 2) They may be forced to take sides, usually siding with the custodial parent against the absent parent. This may be the mother or the father, whoever has, or takes custody, of the children. It is the mother most of the time but 25% of the time it is the father.
This is the experience of the current psychologist and expert witness from numerous court settings.
The family court dealing with implacable hostility between separating parents
It is unfortunate that present family courts fail to understand how the effect of “implacable hostility” between the parents militates against what is in the best interest of the children born from the relationship. Children are highly suggestible to the views expressed by parents. This is predominantly the case of the views expressed by the parent who has taken or been accorded custody of the children.
Often, before the break-up of the relationship, there are frequent arguments or there is “quiet discord” between the parents who have become unhappy with one another. Children, inevitably, as already stated become enmeshed in the disharmony between the parents.
Children are often forced to choose between the parents. They will tend to choose that parent with whom they are likely to reside. Their own security demands that they are loyal to that parent, while being forced thereby to frequently reject the absent parent. That absent parent is now viewed as being less important in providing security to the child. The exception of this is when the custodial parent speaks well of, and warmly about, the now absent parent and encourages contact between the absent parent and the children. This however, is the ideal rather than the reality.
The Judiciary faced with a case of implacable hostility
The Judiciary will almost always be aware and accept when there are signs of “implacable hostility” between the former partners. Frequently, such implacable hostility also results in the following:
- The result of these issues or problems of implacable hostility in the arrangement of contact between the child and the now absent or non resident parent.
- The non resident parent, whether mother or father, is prevented or curtailed from having good contact with a former loving child.
- The child no longer and incomprehensibly expresses the desire for such contact.
- The court will tend to act upon the express wishes of the child, especially the older child without exploring the basis of the child’s reasons.
- The court fails, therefore, to comprehend how the implacable hostility aspect of the resident parent has led to that alienation of the now non custodial parent.
- Although the court clearly understands how “implacable hostility” leads to contact disputes, the court fails to accept or understand that those in dispute frequently practice parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome (PAS).
- Another of the strategies of the resident parent is to influence the child to have little or no contact with the absent parent.
- The court therefore fails to comprehend or to correct such a process of alienation by accepting the views that child has adopted and not exploring the reasons for this and treating the child accordingly. These views have been imposed upon the child leading to the child no longer wishing contact with the absent parent and this is often not acknowledged. Matters are taken at face value. These views however, can often be remedied through treatment by a psychologist to help heal the rift between the child and the absent parent.
What should the Judiciary do?
The Judiciary need to look in greater depth at what precedes contact disputes after divorce or separation, and how the implacable hostility often leads to a process of alienation by the parent who is in a position to influence a child most. This is likely to be the custodial parent, whose hostility leads directly to the process of parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome (PAS).
The Judiciary must then act in accordance with such knowledge by recommending ways of combating the effects of parental alienation. Hence the court can act in ways that are truly “in the best interest of the child”. The term ‘parental alienation’, and even less so the term ‘parental alienation syndrome’, is not accepted by the court of law and some psychologists, because it has not as yet been acknowledged by the British Psychological Society or the American Psychological Association as being a “syndrome”. The term syndrome, merely summarises some of the symptoms of what an alienator does to prevent contact with an absent parent, or to make such contact as fraught with as many difficulties as possible. Such alienation, eventually leads to the “child not wanting any contact with the absent parent”. This in turn is accepted as the way things should be by the Judiciary, or the Judiciary feel that they can do nothing about the situation.
The Judges throw up their hands in despair indicating that they are helpless in what they can do when a child refuses to see, meet or have a relationship with the non custodial parent. A question frequently asked by the Judiciary is: Can we force the child into contact against his/her will?
There is much the court can do to avoid carrying out an injustice which “is not in the best interest of the child”. Children, it must be accepted, do best with both natural parents being involved in their lives as equally as possible. The exceptions are when it has been proven that the absent parent is responsible for the sexual, physical or emotional abuse, or neglect of the child. I emphasise proven, since the alienator is quick to use “abuse of the child” by the absent parent to keep that parent at bay or out of the lives of their child.
Judges need to be made aware by an “independent” psychologist of the signs of parental alienation. Let us look at just some of these signs.
Signs of parental alienation
Signs of parental alienation have been described succinctly by both Gardner and Lowenstein. These are:
- The campaign of denigration where nasty and true statements made against the absent parent are believed.
- Weak, frivolous and absurd rationalisations for the denigration of the absent parent. This constitutes lies and exaggerations about the negative attributes of the absent parent.
- The lack of ambivalence – nothing good or positive about the absent parent can be remembered.
- The “independent thinker phenomenon”. Here the child is being made to think that the ideas expressed by the alienating parent are his/her very own.
- The child’s reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict. Here the child feels coerced for his/her own security or survival to side with the custodial parent against the absent parent.
- Feeling no signs of guilt in treating the alienated parent cruelly and rejecting that parent.
- The presence of borrowed scenarios. Here the child accepts everything the alienator says about the absent parent, even if the comments made are ridiculous, exaggerated or totally untrue.
- The spreading of animosity to the extended family of the alienated parent. Lowenstein (2007) in his book “Parental Alienation” describes 28 specific signs of the alienation process and these now follow.
- Lack of independent thinking from the child imitating the alienator’s thoughts and feelings.
- Destroying mail or even presents from the alienated parent.
- The alienating parent tends to seek to curtail all communication between the child and the alienated parent.
- The alienated parent is seen as the scapegoat. He or she is blamed for everything that has gone wrong with the child. There is no sense of ambivalence.
- The child calls the alienated parent a liar and other abusive names similar to the alienating parent.
- The child insults, shows disrespect, and humiliates the alienated parent often on front of the alienator.
- Alienated parents are viewed as being despicable, faulty and deserving of being rejected permanently.
- Parents who alienate children are seducing the child emotionally and will continue to do this while in control of the child, yet they deny that they are doing anything but encouraging the child to make contact with the alienated parent.
- The child is made to feel guilty for any love shown towards the alienated parent. The child will deny any involvement with the alienated parent, fearful of what the alienator would do to him or her.
- The child fears rejection by the programmer in case he or she wishes to say good thing about the alienated parent or wishing to be with him or her.
- The child is owned, controlled, and indoctrinated by the alienating parent. That parent is viewed as all good, all wise, and all powerful by the child who becomes dependent, manipulated by them. There is never questioning that what the parent says or does is always right.
- The child tends to paraphrase statements used by the alienating parent. The words used are often untypical of words likely to be used by a child. It is very similar to a cult type of indoctrination.
- The child suffers from paranoia (hatred) inculcated by the alienating parent who promotes attitudes, intentions, and behaviours of a negative nature to the alienated parent.
- The child will speak about exaggerated or contrived abuse that has been experienced from the alienated parent.
- The child or alienating parent makes statements insinuating quasi or actual sexual, emotional, and physical abuse suffered by the child.
- The language comes indirectly from the alienator such as, “he touches me inappropriately,” or “he has penetrated me,” These are all borrowed scenarios from the alienating parent.
- Children who are alienated no longer know truth from lies.
- The child who is alienated against the parent will often be alienated against the parent’s family also.
- The alienator will also poison the child against the therapist unless the therapist supports the alienator. Hence the therapist is seen as an enemy in the same light as the alienated parent.
- It is not what alienator says but how it is said. For example when telling a child “father would like to take you out,” it can be said with joy and enthusiasm indicating positive expectations or it can be said with venom indicating negative feelings. This is what is predominantly communicated to the child rather than the verbal message.
- The alienated child tends to see themselves in a very powerful position, especially in the severity of their antagonism shown to the alienated parent. This is all done following the programming by the alienator.
- Female alienators will often choose female solicitors as they assume they will be able to identify with them better.
- Female alienators are often angry due to the fact that the alienated individual ahs a new relationship, while she has not.
- Some alienators move away from where their ex partner resides in order to make visits difficult or impossible.
- Sometimes the name of the child is changed to that of the alienator or the next partner to which the alienator has attached him or herself.
- Frivolous reasons are often given for not wanting to be with the alienated parent. Even when told that if these frivolous reasons were removed the child will often claim they do not wish to be with that parent under any circumstances.
- The child is encouraged to be with friends or play on video games in preference to being with the alienated parent.
- A child who had a history of a good, happy and warm relationship with the now alienated parent before separation or divorce will fail to remember events in the past that made them happy. They may be suffering from amnesia of any good events due to the alienation process.
The court and others combating the effects of parental alienation
There is no easy way to combat alienation especially if it has taken place for a long period of time and the alienated parent has had little contact with the child. One might say the alienator has won and has the complete control of the child in this scenario. The two (the alienator and the child) then are a ‘team’ who work totally against the alienated parent for the purpose of humiliating and rejecting that parent from having contact with the victimised child.
Some of the methods that are recommended for dealing with the process of alienation may seem extreme but it is an extreme situation that one is facing when dealing with the overwhelming power of the alienator. Typical therapeutic methods are ineffective when dealing with such problems. Very firm approaches are required and these must be backed unequivocally by the court in order for them to have an effect in debriefing the victim of the alienation (the child). This sometimes places the therapist in a dangerous situation for he or she may be accused of being to firm in seeking to reverse the alienation effects. A combination of both reason and emotion but most of all firmness must be shown to the child to make them aware of the damage that has and is being done by continuing to live with such a negative attitude towards one parent. This is of course assuming that the alienated parent is innocent of all physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
Again there will be overlap in the suggestions made to reduce the effects of alienation:
- Destroy the effects of denigration by one parent towards the other by making the child aware of the happy history before the acrimony and separation between the parents occurred.
- Get the child to see the good points about the denigrated parent.
- Be firm and proactive in changing attitudes and behaviour that have caused the parental alienation.
- Try to get the alienating parent to cooperate in stopping the alienation. This is easier said than done, and many alienators will refuse to cooperate in this although claiming otherwise. This is even the case when it is highlighted that such actions are actually harmful to the child’s development.
- Appeal to the child’s conscience that he or she is rejecting, hurting, and humiliating an innocent party who cares for that child.
- Have the child together with the alienated parent in due course while seeking to change both attitudes and behaviour via rational emotive therapy. There is a need in this process for very firm communications.
- Make the child aware of what a blood relative might sacrifice for that child which is not the case for strangers.
- Warn the parent who alienates the child of the harm that they are doing to the child not just in the present time but in the future also.
- Appeal to the child’s critical thinking (intelligence and emotions) and make the child aware of the unfairness and cruelty in rejecting a loving parent.
- Make the child aware that they need both parents without endangering the relationship with the alienating parent.
- Make the child aware that they may lose a good parent if the process of alienation continues.
- The child should be made aware that the extended family of the alienated parent is also being unfairly rejected.
- Encourage the child not only to engage with the alienated parent but with the alienated parent’s extended family, i.e. grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, etc. This will serve to reverse the alienation process.
- Curtail or eliminate telephone calls and other communications from the programming parent while the child is with the non-custodial parent.
- It is important for children who have been alienated to spend as much time as is possible with the alienated parent alone so that a relationship can re-develop between them. The longer this individual contact occurs, the greater the likelihood that the alienation process will be depleted.
- Curtail the child being used as a spy against the alienated parent.
- In the extreme case the child should be removed from the influences of the alienating parent and be given in custody to the alienated parent or another body including a family member. This is to protect the child from further alienation.
- Passivity and tolerance are ineffective when dealing with parental alienation. What is required is confrontation of a very powerful type in order to counteract the effects of the alienation and to reverse it.
- The power of the court must back the mediator who is seeking to remove the alienation effects
- The child may often need to be removed to a neutral setting such as a hospital to prevent further alienation. This is only in very extreme cases where severe psychological damage has been done to such a degree that the child suffers from delusions about the alienated parent.
- In the case of severe alienation it is best for the alienated parents never to approach the home of the alienator but rather to use an intermediary for the transfer of contact with the child.
- It should be remembered that the child who has been the victim of brain washing needs to know that it is safe to be with the alienated parent without this reducing their loyalty and commitment to the other parent. Hence the alienated parent should do as much as possible to reassure the child that there is no desire to separate the child from their other parent.
- Alienated parents once they have contacted their children should concentrate on talking about the past and the happy times together supplemented with pictures or videos. Initially a child could be very offhand and even fail to have eye contact but this can be reduced through reminders of happier times in the past and how this can continue in the future.
- Alienated parents should not give up easily but should persevere in their efforts to make and maintain contact with their child. Constant rejection from the child is likely to be humiliating and demoralising, but persistence sometimes leads to success with the help of an expert and the support of the courts.
Both aspects involved in dealing with parental alienation are important but the details are certainly incomplete as there are many other ways of dealing with alienated children as well as their parents. It is important to realise that there is a great difference between therapeutic approaches in the normal sense and those that are required with parents who are alienating a child against another parent. It can not be emphasised too strongly that without the backing of the courts the efforts of the expert involved are unlikely to be effective.
If the Judiciary dealing with family courts takes heed of what has been stated it will become more just in its judgments or decisions reached. It will also truly be acting in the “best interest of children” and the future of our society.