Alienation Syndrome: a Two Step Approach Toward a Solution
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
Therapy, Volume 20, Number 4, December, 1998, p. 505-520
This paper deals with the steps involved in mediation before or
while legal action and the courts intervene to force a solution
by law to often tragic, acrimonious human interaction between former
partners. Professionals such as qualified psychologists or psychiatrists
should be able to offer a full course of mediation before partners
begin divorce proceedings or decisions regarding the placement of
children with one party or the other. A 10-year study involving
16 cases provides evidence that the initial use of mediation may
well be superior to the initial use of the adversarial system on
This article advances the proposal that mediation play a much larger
role in cases of parental alienation syndrome in the British justice
system. With one in three or more marriages leading to separation
or divorce in Great Britain, there is a great urgency to develop
plans with the legal system to make certain that both parents can
have the opportunity to continue to play a role in the lives of
The concept of alienation syndrome, frequently termed parental
alienation syndrome, was pioneered by Richard Gardner (1992, 1995),
who has worked for many years as a child therapist and forensic
psychiatrist dealing with cases in the courts in the United States.
Gardner was one of the first to draw attention to the gross injustices
committed by alienating parents, mostly in relation to fathers being
re-rejected from the family as a result of separation or divorce.
Although from time to time matters are reversed and the alienation
syndrome refers to the mother being left out of the family conciliation,
most often it refers to fathers since the courts and western societies
tend to favour mothers as custodians of their children and frequently
as sole custodians. Gardner's books, True and False Accusations
of Child Sex Abuse (1992), Protocols for Sex Abuse Evaluation (1995),
and Recommendations for Dealing with Parents who Induce a Parental
Alienation Syndrome in Their Children (1996), are landmarks in the
area of parental alienation syndrome. Some of the methods used,
usually by mothers to induce alienation against the fathers, have
been described as including: intimidation and threat, guilt induction,
the "buy-off", playing the victim, suggesting that the
child or parent will experience loneliness and fear, promises to
change themselves and/or conditions, over- indulgence and permissiveness,
and telling the child the "truth" about past events (Clawar
& Rivlin, 1991). The authors emphasized that "brain-washing
and programming" are used by parents seeking to alienate their
children from another parent.
The Parental Alienation Syndrome
Several significant studies in the 1990s have expanded our understanding
of the parental alienation syndrome and parental acrimony in general.
Expanding the parameters of parental alienation syndrome was the
focus of Cartwright's work (1993). PAS resulted from the attempt
by one parent to alienate a child from the other parent. Because
PAS was newly recognized and described, it had to be newly defined
and redefined as new cases were observed and the phenomenon became
better understood. New evidence suggested that PAS was provoked
by other than custodial matters, that cases of alleged sexual abuse
were hinted at, that slow judgments by courts exacerbated the problem,
that prolonged alienation of the child triggered other forms of
mental illness, and that too little still was known of the long-term
consequences to alienated children and their families.
The parental alienation syndrome was studied in 16 selected cases
by Dunne and Hedrick (1994). In an effort to validate the work of
Gardner. They analyzed cases of divorcing families in which one
or more of the children, aged 0 - 14 years, had rejected a parent
after divorce. Cases were taken from the caseloads of clinicians
working with the families. The cases met the majority of Gardner's
criteria, including an obsessive hatred of the alienated parent
on the basis of trivial or unsubstantiated accusations and complete
support for the alienating parent. Although the cases showed a wide
diversity of characteristics, Gardner's criteria were useful in
differentiating these cases from other post-divorce difficulties.
PAS (Parental Alienation Syndrome) appeared to be primarily the
function of the pathology of the alienating parent and that parent
relationship with the children. PAS did not signify dysfunction
in the alienated parent or in the relationship between that parent
and the child.
A therapist's view of parental alienation syndrome was studied
by Lund (1995). She explored different reasons why a child might
reject one parent in a divorced family and the ways of helping such
families. Gardner's theory of Parent Alienation Syndrome (PAS) (Gardner,
1998) emphasises the psychopathology of alienating parent. The reasons
for parental rejection were many according to Lund. They could be
due to (1) developmentally normal separation problems, (2) deficits
in the non-custodial parental skills, (3) oppositional behaviour,
(4) high conflict divorced families, (5) serious problems, not necessarily
abuse, and (6) child abuse (Lowenstein, 1998).
Parental acrimony and children's adjustment to divorce
Buchanan, Maccoby, and Dornbusch (1991) examined adolescents' feelings
of being caught between parents to see whether this construct helped
to explain (1) variability in the adolescents' post-divorce adjustment
and (2) associations between family/child characteristics and adolescent
adjustment. Five hundred and fifty-two participants aged 10.5-15
years from 365 families were interviewed after their parents' separation.
Feeling caught between parents was related to high parental conflict
and hostility and low parental cooperation. Being close to both
parents was associated with low feelings of being caught. The relation
between time spent with each parent and feeling caught depended
on the co-parenting relationship. Participants in dual residence
were especially likely to feel caught when parents were in high
conflict. Feeling caught was related to poor adjustment outcomes.
Problems associated with divorce and causing legal confrontations
were noted by Johnston and Campbell (1993). They reported data on
allegations of domestic violence in two samples of high conflict
families in child custody disputes. Sample one comprised 80 divorcing
parents disputing custody and visitation of their 100 children,
aged 1-12 years. Sample two comprised 60 divorcing parents with
75 children aged 3-12 years. Five basic types of inter-parental
violence and corresponding patterns in parent-child relationships
were indicated: (1) ongoing and episodic male battering, (2) female
initiated violence, (3) male-controlling interactive violence, (4)
separation-engendered and post divorce trauma, and (5) psychotic
and paranoid reactions. It was hypothesized that children's adjustment
were more disturbed in divorcing families litigating custody where
the domestic violence had been more severe and repetitive and where
it was perpetrated predominantly by men compared with women. The
results supported this hypothesis.
Family Competence. Parental Hostility, and Rejecting Behavior
The effects of family composition, family health, parenting behaviour,
and environmental stress on children's divorce adjustment were considered
by Ellwood and Stolberg (1993). The participants, aged 8 -11 years
included 18 children whose parents remained married, 46 whose parents
were divorced, and 17 whose parents divorced and subsequently remarried.
Custodial parents completed questionnaires regarding family functioning,
occurrence of stressful life events, and a child's psycho-social
adjustment. Children completed the Children's Report of Parent Behaviour
Inventory and a self- perception profile for children. A trained
examiner conducted a diagnostic interview of the child. Family composition
had a significant effect on occurrence of stressful events and change
in income but not children's adjustment. The most powerful predictors
of child adjustment were family competence variables. Higher levels
of family functioning were associated with families where parental
hostility was low and parents displayed few rejecting behaviours
while practicing consistent and appropriate discipline.
Turkat (1994) studied child visitation interference in divorce
in an effort to raise awareness of the problem among mental health
professionals seeking to find solutions to these difficulties. From
the clinical and legal literature there appeared to be at least
three types of situations related to child visitation interference:
acute interference, parental alienation syndrome, and divorce related
malicious mother syndrome. The associated difficulties in handling
this problem in the legal system were considered.
Parental Conflict and Child Behaviour Problems
Amato and Rezac (1994) tested the hypothesis that children's contact
with non-resident parents (NRPs) decreased children's behaviour
problems when inter-parental conflict was low but increased children's
behaviour problems when inter-parental conflict was high. Data were
analysed in 1,285 children aged 5-18 years of single parent families
from the National Survey of Families and Households. The participants,
resident parents, reported on the frequency of interaction between
the child and NRP and the conflict between the resident and NRP
When the resident parent reported little conflict with the NRP,
boys who had a high level of involvement with the NRP were said
to have fewer behavioural problems. However, when the resident parent
reported to have conflict with the NRP, boys who had a high level
of involvement with the NRP were said to have a larger number of
behaviour problems. No support for the hypothesis was found among
girls, regardless of the family background.
Alternatives to legal sanctions
Gardner (1996, 1997, 1998) has recommended legal and therapeutic
interventions in instances of parental alienation syndrome on the
basis of whether a case was assessed to be one of mild, moderate,
or extreme parental alienation. Success in the treatment of the
PAS cases was to be defined as the maintenance of some contact between
parent and child. Some of the alternatives to the use of legal sanctions
and court control to ameliorate or resolve conflict or potential
conflict between divorcing and divorced parents include:
Dispute Resolution Processes
Kelly (1991) compared the interactions and perceptions of two groups
of divorcing parents using different dispute resolution processes
at final divorce and at one and two years post-divorce. The effectiveness
of a comprehensive divorce mediation process was contrasted to the
more customary two attorney adversarial process. The mediation sample
at two years post-divorce consisted of 52 participants and the adversarial
sample 73. The participants in the divorce mediation group reported
less conflict during the divorcing period and less conflict, more
contact and communication, and a more positive attitude toward the
other parent at final divorce. The majority of differences favouring
the mediation intervention continued through the first year after
divorce and disappeared by the second year post-divorce data collection.
Psychological Assistance for Custodial Parents
Following a contested custody case, parents who have won custody
of their child may appear to need a particular kind of psychological
help in order to prevent the development of the problems to which
children of divorce were subjected (Solomon, 1991). Solomon found
that the critical time was between the third and sixth month after
the court had awarded custody of the child to the parent with whom
the child had been living. Three case studies illustrated the nature
and timing of the necessary interventions. The therapeutic interventions
(1) made the parent aware of the changes in his or her perception
of the child and the reasons underlying these changes, (2) furnished
the parent with several bodies of information, and (3) made the
links between these factors and events occurring in his or her family.
Clinical Evaluation of Custody Manipulation Efforts
Lowenstein (1992) was concerned with the manipulation which parents
carry out in seeking child custody. He considered it vital to weigh
the removal of children from the home and the danger to the child
in placing him or her with one or other parent without making adequate
provisions for the other parent who was capable of playing an important
role in the child or children's diagnostic interview which was capable
of leading to further meetings, leading eventually to cooperation,
and the avoidance of continued disputes and legal actions. The fact
that PAS occurred in which the controlling parent will frequently
accuse the parent seeking contact of sexual abuse needs to be properly
investigated. Allegations of sexual abuse do not necessarily indicate
that sexual abuse occurred (Lowenstein, 1998). Unfortunately, fathers
in particular may lose contact with their children due to false
accusations of sexual abuse by (usually) the mother in seeking to
prevent children from having contact with their rightful father.
It is the role of mental health professionals carrying out tasks
of mediation to help the antagonists find a solution which, at least
in part, provides what they seek.
Mediation with Abusive Couples
Geffner (1992) focused on techniques and issues concerning mediation
of abusive couples during and after separation or divorce. A questionnaire
was used to help identify abusive relationships. It was important
that the wife and the children be safe during mediation, since research
showed that the period when divorce is imminent the risk of being
battered or even killed is higher for battered wives. Since the
balance of power was unequal in the relationship, mediation had
had to be modified so that the situation became neutral. The mediator
had to model ways of dealing with intimidation. Other issues facing
mediators in these cases involved living arrangements, conversion
changes in children, financial support, joint custody, and parent
Parental Involvement in Drafting Post-Divorce Agreements
Mediation strategies discussed by Bonney (1993) proposed that the
focus of child custody evaluation and mediation was to be broadened
beyond custody arrangement to consideration of the range of factors
that had an impact on post-divorce relationships. The amount of
conflict between parents, parental agreement on access, use of support,
parental well-being, and parent-child relationships were factors
associated with children's post-divorce adjustment. Strategies for
involving parents in drafting agreements to guide relationships
with each other and with the children were offered. These included
communication, consistent discipline, warmth and support, encouraging
a relationship with the other parent. and listening to feelings
and sharing values.
Educational Intervention to Reduce Stress
Kurkowski, Gordon, and Arthbuthnot (1993) used a brief educational
intervention to reduce the number of times divorced parents put
their children in the middle of parental conflict. Ninety-eight
9th-l2th graders were divided into two groups: a 49 member intact
family group and a 49 member divorced group (participants from divorced
or separated homes). An intervention group consisted of 45 of the
49 participants, who were located for post-intervention assessment.
They completed a questionnaire, which rated the frequency and stressfulness
of 32 situations into which a parent had put them "in the middle"
within the past month. Parents of the intervention group were mailed
the participants' averaged responses and an explanatory letter.
The same 32-item questionnaire was given about one month after the
mailing as the intervention evaluation. The participants in the
intervention group improved more than the two control groups combined.
Community Education for Parents
Petersen and Steinman (1994) described the development, goals,
and preliminary evaluation of `a helping children succeed after
divorce' (HCSD) seminar mandated by the domestic relations court
of Franklin County, Ohio. The programme was designed to educate
divorcing parents about the effects of divorce and parental conflict
on their children. HCSD was a 2.5 hour seminar presented by two
mental health professionals and covered the adult's and child's
divorce experience, co-parental relationship building, and problem-solving.
An evaluation involving 600 initial HCSD participants, indicated
that response to HCSD was favourable; following HCSD participation,
the majority were more aware of their children's divorce experience,
the importance of a continued relationship with their former spouse,
and options available for resolution of child-related disputes.
Evaluating Child Custody Evaluation Methods
A review of the methods used in litigation and child custody evaluations
was carried out by Hysjulien, Wood, and Benjamin (1994). They studied
the current assessment methods used in child custody litigation
and mediation and discussed the reliability and validity. Existing
outcome studies concerning child custody evaluations were presented.
Psychological tests, semi-structured interviews, and behavioural
observations of parents and children in child custody disputes were
reviewed. The related issues of child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic
violence, and parental alienation syndrome were discussed. They
concluded that there was little empirical evidence to support the
efficacy of methods typically used by professionals in making recommendations
to the court. This view was not shared by Lowenstein (1997a) in
his unpublished work, The Law and Protecting the Child and Accused
from False Sex Abuse Allegations, and his unpublished study of shared
parenting after divorce (Lowenstein, 1997b).
Assessing Child Abuse/Child Sex Abuse Allegations
Lowenstein (1994, 1998) considered child abuse and child sex abuse
allegations. Although these were considered serious allegations
which need to be taken seriously by anyone investigating them, it
was felt that frequently allegations were considered valid even
if disproved eventually. Concern with providing both the victim
of alleged child sexual abuse arid the alleged perpetrator with
truth and justice in such situations urgently requires an objective
assessment of allegations of child sexual abuse in the interview
situation and the use of more sophisticated psychological tests
or inventories specifically constructed to assess children as well
as the accused and the accuser. Lowenstein (1993a, 1993b) developed
a Sexual Abuse Personality Inventory (LSAPI) and also concluded
(Lowenstein, 1994) that many interviewers of children were leading
them in the direction of assuming that sexual abuse had taken place
and provided an illustration of such action. The use of Gardner's
paper (1992) and his true and false accusation interview and process
Long-term acrimony and adversarial approaches
Frequently, adversarial approaches have gone on for a long period
and have failed to resolve the essential issue: Whether an alienated
non-custodial parent will be allowed to have contact with the children,
which may result in better times for the children through the improved
Anyone involved with warring parents will note that each often
attempts to portray the other in the most dismal or black light
vis-à-vis their behaviour and attitudes. Little can be achieved
through this approach and certainly those who suffer the most as
a result are likely to be the children who are confused by warring
parents, or who are poisoned by one parent against the other. Often
the parent who has contact initially on a total basis with the children
is able to portray the other parent as evil and unworthy of playing
a parental role. Most cases involve mothers who have contact with
their children and fathers who seek such contact but who have been
left out of the playing of a parental role by the mother. Such parents,
as noted, may make allegations of physical abuse, sexual abuse,
or neglect in the form of failing to provide sufficient support,
care, guidance, or discipline.
In my experience the adversarial system leads itself splendidly
toward being manipulated by one or both parents and to failure to
find a solution. Frequently an impasse is reached wherein the parent
who currently has control of the children retains such control despite
the fact that the other parent could play an effective role in the
parenting arrangement. In later years, children themselves often
acknowledge the fact that they have been poisoned against the other
parent unjustifiably. Both parents suffer, even the parent who has
sought to keep the other out of the parental rearing arrangement.
Two broad categories of attempted solution to dealing with long-term
acrimony exist. The first approach is one that involves securing
the voluntary cooperation of both parents in finding a solution
which is mutually satisfying. The second approach essentially establishes
who is the cooperative and who is uncooperative as a parent and
takes issue with the uncooperative parent by depriving that parent
of autonomy in deciding on the issue of who shall be involved in
further contact with the children involved in the relationship.
A two-step approach
Now follows a somewhat disguised case which supports the importance
of using a two- step approach involving mediation.
As a consultant psychologist trained in forensic, clinical, and
educational psychology, I have found it useful to involve both parents
in a discussion which could lead to a solution in front of a judge.
The approach commences as follows: the psychologist or other mental
health professional sees each of the partners separately, gaining
insight into what each feels about the situation and seeking any
common ground that may exist between the two warring parties. It
is made clear to both parties that that partner who fails to cooperate
with the clinician in seeking a true, positive, and constructive
solution is likely to fail to benefit from the decision of the court.
It is, of course, imperative that the clinician have a mandate from
the court which enables him or her to engage both parents, separately
at first, in discussions to find a solution to a problem which,
in many cases, has lasted for a long period of time.
Once it has been established that some form of rapport exists between
the two parents and the clinician who has seen them separately,
then the two parties in the dispute are brought together for a mutually
valuable positive and constructive engagement to find a solution
which will be agreeable to both, although not totally agreeable
in every way to both parties. It is frequently necessary in this
situation to refrain from bringing past acrimoniousness and hurts
of both members of the dispute into the open; rather, the finding
of a solution to the problem becomes the primary objective. Once
a decision has been reached by the consultant clinician with what
he or she has found from both parents and consent to this decision
has been obtained from both parties, this is then brought before
the court so that a legal decision can be made. Should one or other
of the parties fail to cooperate, it would then be necessary to
go to Step 2.
Having witnessed the cooperation or lack of cooperation of one
or both members of the dispute in earlier sessions, the court has
mandated that the consultant (psychologist or other mental health
professional) seek to find a solution which it will be possible
for the court to implement in due course. The court's reaction will
be at least partly dependent on the evidence obtained from the warring
factions on their desire or willingness to cooperate in finding
a solution or the reverse tendency. Unless the case is proven against
one or other of the parties that there has been serious dereliction
in parental responsibility and, in extreme instances, that sexual
abuse has been proven, it must be considered that both parties have
a right to the responsibility of caring for their children, be it
the father or the mother. The degree of the responsibility and the
degree of contact must be decided upon by the court, perhaps with
the advice of mental health workers. The fact that both parents
are aware that the law will take a hand if they fail to be able
to cooperate as in Step 1 should incline the parents to seek a solution
together rather than have it imposed upon them by the actions of
the court. There are however, situations where one or both parties
fail to respond in a voluntary sense and hence it is vital to have
Step 2 available, this being however dependent on the reaction to
Comparing the adversarial legal and mediation approaches
What follows are the results of a study undertaken by the author
over 10 years in dealing with 16 cases which used a purely adversarial
approach and 16 which relied almost totally on the mediation method.
Table 1 illustrates the time taken by the adversarial approach without
necessarily achieving a resolution of the problems and by a mediation
approach in parent alienation syndrome cases.
Table 2 shows the degree of ultimate satisfaction by both the children
and the parents after the use of mediation.
Table 3 depicts the degree of ultimate satisfaction among the children
and parents in 16 families when mediation was not used.
The results in all three tables appear clear and definitely reflect
the expressed greater satisfaction among both children and parents
in these cases when mediation was used as opposed to an adversarial
Table 1 - Mediation Approach and Adversarial Approach--Time Taken
to Achieve a Solution
< 6 months
*This case was ultimately settled via mediation.
Table 2 - Degree of Ultimate Satisfaction After Mediation
Less than Satisfied
(52 children, 32 parents, n = 32)
Table 3 - Degree of Ultimate Satisfaction Without Mediation
Less than Satisfied
(16 families, 49 children, n = 32)
Conclusions and recommendations
It is urged that mediation play a larger role in cases of parental
alienation syndrome before British courts. Those most likely to
be effective in helping parents and eventually their children are
psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professional
workers. It is now vital to consider the importance of the court
appointing expert consultants to act as intermediaries between the
parents and the court and to seek reconciliation of some kind by
deliberately focusing on the positive aspects of the relationship
between the former partners. This is the best way whereby children
will benefit and parents will both be able to play a positive and
constructive role in rearing such children. At the present time,
through the adversarial system, there is often the use of two expert
witnesses, one on each side, and their loyalty may well be to their
"camp" rather than to seeking a solution which is favourable
or as favourable as possible to both parties rather than merely
to seek the advantages for their own side. A person attempting to
work as a mediating consultant must be highly experienced and qualified
to carry out this important work, for the individual concerned must
be able to win the confidence of both parents if possible and thereby
seek their cooperation after often highly acrimonious periods which
have resolved nothing between the parents and the judicial system
seeking to find the most appropriate solution.
There is also considerable evidence that mediation approaches are
found superior to adversarial approaches although the combination
of the two cannot be ruled out as a useful approach. The role of
mediation performed by mental health workers can produce a positive
and constructive result which is desirable for all concerned. There
is an importance to linking benefits to children of this in both
the educational and therapeutic process wherein the parents must
be involved. As a result of such approaches, litigation plays a
lesser role and mediation a greater one.
Judges and magistrates should take heed of the most recent research
which illustrates the role played by mental health professionals
in seeking to repair pathological relationships that have developed
due to the parent alienation syndrome. Mental health professionals
and others must distinguish between pathological relationships between
one partner and the children as well as between the children and
alienating partner and when this is manufactured for the purpose
of controlling children and preventing the alienated partner from
having contact with these children. Alleged sexual abuse is just
one of the strategies used by a partner to eliminate the other from
having contact with children which they had mutually produced. Much
research has concluded that inter-parental conflict reduces the
likelihood of children developing normally.
It is vital to have the court and its power overseeing that the
mediation process occurs effectively. It is especially important
for the court to take cognisance with any parent who fails to cooperate
in the process and take appropriate action. This may well mean that
the parent who fails to cooperate after ascertaining that both parents
have done nothing pathologically wrong in relation to their children,
will be duly dealt with through the court's action.
It will take a considerable period of time and the pioneering spirit
and courage of British justice to heed the advice which has been
given in this article. Judges must see their role as more than perpetuators
of previous cases and seek new ways of dealing with difficult issues
such as parental alienation syndrome and probably other cases. The
adversarial system does not lend itself particularly well to such
issues, albeit it is ingrained in British justice as the method
forward and the most fair way of dealing with a variety of offences
and problems faced by members of society. Furthermore the methods
advocated of bringing in expert consultants to deal with such cases
as marital problems and issues and parental alienation syndrome
does not dilute the power of the court for it still retains the
option of ruling, in the final analysis, as is noted in Step 2 of
the two-step approach described above. Step 1 provides the court
with an additional way which is always preferable when the parties
concerned in the dispute can be helped to solve their problems without
the teeth of judicial decisions being immediately utilised.
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