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
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
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
1. Are there long term and short term of effects of parental
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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