When is it not a case of PA or PAS?

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



I have already written a considerable amount on the subject of parental alienation syndrome or parental alienation as some prefer to call it. When I received the following letter from a parent (a father, but it might just as well have been a mother) it started me thinking.

“Dear Dr Lowenstein,
When a mother is not alienating a child, but the child nevertheless blames the father for the break up of the family, do you have a term for this? How would you describe this type of situation from when the mother is actively involved?”
Let us assume the child has his/her own reasons to blame the father because of the hurt that the child perceives he has inflicted on the mother, I am concerned that this is distinct from parental alienation syndrome (PAS) as you portray it, and the material you disseminate doesn’t make this point. Because of this your material risks being discounted for this very reason.
I believe that PAS does exist and that there ought to be greater awareness of it because of the harm that it does, but in raising the awareness of the issue, it would be a pity if it got discounted because you don’t take adequately into account spontaneously occurring alienation, as I have suggested.”

The letter came from a father who pointed out, quite correctly, that the reason for a child blaming a parent, hence alienating that parent by wishing no further contact with him, may not be due to any alienation practiced by the custodial parent, in this case the mother. A number of scenarios are presented for the purpose of illustration of how non alienating by a parent and semi-alienating by a parent can take place.

It is on the basis of this letter that the article now follows.

Alienation of a Child Towards a Parent Without Programming by a Custodial Parent (i.e a non PAS scenario)

The break-up of parents in a relationship, when there are children involved, rarely fails to involve or injure the emotional security of a child. This is because the child has become accustomed to two parents being involved in caring for him/her. Hence, when one parent leaves, the security of the child is affected and there is a likelihood, especially with the very young child, that he/she will cling to the remaining parent fanatically.

The absent parent is often felt to be rejecting not only the child, but also the remaining parent. If the parent who has abandoned the home and family leaves to be with another person, this compounds the feeling of having been rejected and hurt. This becomes easily translated into counter rejection of that absent parent by the child. The thinking follows something like this: “If he doesn’t want me, I don’t want him”. It must be added that this feeling of alienating the absent parent has nothing to do with what the remaining parent says or does. The remaining parent may well have said nothing negative about the absent parent. It could be that the remaining parent has made either no comment or even positive remarks about the now absent parent.

The remaining parent may be saddened or relieved that the other parent has gone especially when there have been numerous unpleasant arguments or scenes between them. This impact is communicated to the child who in sympathy with the remaining parent. It is for this reason that the child might feel and act with hostility towards the parent who has abandoned the home.

Sometimes, the unpleasant scenes between the parents, leading to mutual hostility, have created a situation where the remaining parent encourages and even insists that a parent leave the home. What is the child to feel in that situation? Does that child feel that the remaining parent has rejected the parent who leaves or is the child likely to blame the parent who leaves? The child may or may not be aware of the circumstances of the parent leaving the family home. The child may blame one or other of his parents and act accordingly. This again is not a situation of parental alienation involving the child.

There is another reason why a child will not require the process of parental alienation in order to reject one of the parents. This is when the child has been abused, sexually, physically, emotionally or has failed to receive the care required by a good parent. Such a scenario could lead to the child rejecting such a parent without any influence from the custodial parent. Such rejection is not a response to the brainwashing or programming of the child by one parent who is hostile to the other parent. Needless to say, when such abuse is true and comes to the knowledge of the custodial parent who is not an abuser, then that parent may well reject the abusing parent and pass on such a message to the child directly or inadvertently.

It is the role of the psychologist, or others, to investigate such scenarios in depth. This will be discussed in our final section. It must be realised that there are not always clear cut aspects to such cases. There may be a combination of “indirect” or “subtle” alienation practiced in combination with the negative features the child has observed or experienced. An illustration of this now follows.

Illustrations of alienation of a child only partly due to parental alienation

Children sometime reject a parent due to personal observations and experiences with the now absent parent. This may in turn be combined with a custodial parent making negative statements or innuendos about the now absent parent. This could be considered a ‘quasi’ scenario of parental alienation, since both aspects are involved – the child’s observations as well as the custodial parent’s efforts to discredit the now absent parent. It is far more difficult to judge a parent as an alienator when he/she does not make negative remarks about the absent parent but no positive remarks either. It is often necessary for the custodial parent not only to avoid being negative or even neutral about the absent parent but sincerely speak well about the absent parent to the child. This could lead the child to wish to have contact with that absent parent. This could equally still lead to little desire for contact by the child with the absent parent, if the child’s own experiences are negative towards the absent parent. Where such an experience exists then the child will often wish little or no contact with that absent parent. Any abuse the child has experienced in whatever way, the child may well avoid wishing contact with that absent parent despite the encouragement that child receives from the custodial parent. This however, must be investigated very closely and in depth to make certain that one is actually voicing what the child truly feels rather than what the child feels on the basis of the influence from the custodial parent. It is the role of the psychologist to investigate in some depth whether the child is justified or not in wishing to avoid contact with the absent parent and why. Any child who has experienced abuse, especially sexual abuse, and severe physical abuse should not be forced into direct contact with that parent. Only after such an abuser has been treated successfully for his/her tendency to abuse, should consideration be given to encouraging more direct contact.

The role of the psychologist

The role of the psychologist, or whoever has been asked to assess and report on the family dynamics, is to obtain and weigh the evidence. He/she must be an independent assessor with freedom to report on what evidence exists for a particular case and the conclusions that are reached on the basis of this. This should be followed by precise recommendations. It is vital that the impartial assessor needs to be extremely sensitive to the underlying problems and not just the superficial issues before reaching any decision about contact with an absent parent who may or may not have abused the child.

It is important to remember that taking the word of the custodial parent must be avoided. Implacable hostility of the custodial parent can lead to information about the non custodial parent which could well be flawed. The child who has been deprived of one parent, through no fault of his/her own, may well identify very closely with the remaining parent in an effort to feel secure. This sometimes leads to a “folie a deux” situation. This in turn leads to total identification with the custodial parent. Hence the child acts much as a clone by thinking and behaving like the remaining parent. This may be despite the positive and loving overtures of an innocent parent who wishes to continue to play a caring and guiding role in a child’s life.

If that is the case, it is necessary to reverse the myopic views of the child through treatment and even possibly removing the child from the ambit of indoctrination. This is because the basic principle on parenting should be always be kept in mind. Both parents, all things being equal, have a right or even responsibility to provide for the care of their mutual offspring. Failure to do so, under such conditions, is likely to lead to both short-term and long-term emotional damage to the child and future adult.