Psychological Treatment of Children who have suffered from Parental
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
It is unfortunate that the symptoms of children who suffer from
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) are rarely given over to treatment
procedures. Less than 10% are involved in this. Their response varies
but on the whole the mere fact that they are receiving treatment
and are accepting such treatment frequently leads to good results.
The remainder of children involved in the PAS situation fail to
receive treatment. Much of this is due to the alienating parent
influencing such children to refuse such treatment. In combination
with this are the Courts who frequently do not recommend that such
treatment is to be carried out. In a case of PAS where the alienating
parent is caused to defend her behaviour and the Courts find in
favour of her they tend to side with the defending solicitors and
barristers who seek to avoid any form of treatment influenced by
their client usually the alienating parent. Judges on the whole
tend to back such an approach of non-treatment since there are so
many obstacles involved in overcoming the resistance of the resident
parent in allowing such treatment to take place. One cannot help
but suspect that less than 10% of children who are being treated
were those least damaged by the programming of the alienating parent.
Before any form of treatment can commence it is vital to assess
or diagnose such children carefully. This is done through in-depth
interviews as well as psychological personality testing. It is also
valuable whenever possible to at the same time seek to deal with
the alienating parent and also the targeted parent of the alienation.
The objective of the treatment procedure is to de-program children
who have been turned against the target parent. It is also important
to make the alienating parent aware of the damage that has been
done and to seek their co-operation in deprogramming such children.
For the most effective result through treatment it is important
for one therapist to work not merely with the whole family but also
with the Guardian ad Litem or anyone else associated with the court
procedures involving PAS children. Psychologists must have the backing
of the court in order to have any chance of effectively reducing
the effect of PAS. What follows now will be the approaches taken
in dealing with children who have been alienated.
In what follows it will noted that efforts have been made to reduce
and eliminate if possible the hatred and paranoia that has been
created in the child towards the alienated parent. This has in turn
led to the denigration of the targeted parent. It is also important
to develop independent thinking in the child so that the child is
not influenced by one party that is the alienating parent, and is
able to see matters from an autonomous or independent point of view.
Finally it is vital to develop some form of shame or guilt in the
child for what has been done and seek thereby to alter his or her
feelings towards the alienated parent. Eventually through such treatment
the child will be more amenable to make contact with the alienated
parent to re-establish a positive and loving relationship which
was destroyed through the alienation process.
Needless to say if the alienated parent has been involved in emotionally
physically or sexually abusing the child the process of treatment
towards rehabilitation should not be carried out. It would be wrong
to return a child to a parent who has in the past mis-treated that
child and is likely to do it again without having made some effort
to treat that parent before such a reunion is to be considered.
On the other hand the alienated parent has done nothing to deserve
such treatment by the child and the alienator. All efforts must
be made to change the child’s point of view and how that child
sees the targeted parent. The therapist who carries out this work
must be aware that the alienator will be working constantly behind
the scenes against the efforts of the therapist. This is why it
is vital that the court’s appoint a therapist and the therapist
has the backing of the court and will report back to the court should
an attempt be made by the alienator to sabotage the treatment being
carried out. This in turn should result in some form of punishment
by the court of the alienator.
1.) Dealing with the hatred developed and the paranoia practised
on the child towards the alienated parent.
The child who practices hatred towards a previously well regarded
parent does so with the power of the alienator behind that child
encouraging this. This may be done directly or very subtlely. Direct
dialogue between the therapist and the child needs to ascertain
not only the strength of the paranoia developed but the reasons
for it and to counter-act the arguments that the child has been
given and has identified with, which lead to such antagonistic behaviour
towards the parent.
It must be accepted that the child’s “thinking for
himself or herself” is extremely limited by the impact of
the alienation process. The child therefore must be questioned as
to why such hatred is shown for the parent and the arguments used
by the child which are usually a reflection of the alienator must
be demolished through rational and logical arguments from the therapist.
Paranoia and such hatred which forms it must be viewed as a delusion
and therefore of no substance. Those practising paranoia and inculcating
it in the child will frequently feel as if they are themselves prosecuted
by the alienating parent when in fact this is not occurring at all.
When there is a real prosecution by the alienated parent then this
is not a case of paranoia.
Children who have developed such a strong hatred and paranoia are
difficult to influence through logic and reason. This however must
be the effort of the therapist. They must question why the child
feels as he or she does towards the alienated parent and what evidence
(real evidence) there is for behaving as they do towards the alienating
Gardner points out this paranoia through an example given in his
latest work therapeutic intervention for children with parental
alienation syndrome. (2001) It is worth quoting here:
Gardner: I am very sorry to hear that your Grandfather
Billy: You know he just didn’t die. My
father murdered him.
Gardner: (Increduously) Your father murdered
your Grandfather his own Father?
Billy: Yes I know he did it.
Gardner: I thought your Grandfather was in
hospital. I understand he was about eighty five years old and
that he was dying of old age disease.
Billy: Yeah, that’s what my father says.
Gardner: What do you say?
Billy: I say my father murdered him in the
Gardner: How did he do that?
Billy: He sneaked into the hospital, at night,
and did it while no-one was looking. He did it while the nurses
and the doctors were asleep.
Gardner: How do you know that?
Billy: I just know it.
Gardner: Did anyone tell you such a thing?
Billy: No, but I just know it.
Gardner: (Now turning to the mother who has
been witness to this conversation) What do you think about what
Billy has just said?
Mother: Well, I don’t really think that
my husband did it, but I wouldn’t put it past that son of
One may note it would take a considerable argument to be able
to redress the paranoid impression which the child received undoubtedly
through the Mother of his own Father being a party to murdering
2.) The Child identifying with the alienator.
Children upon whom alienation is practised must take the side
of the alienating parent against all the arguments or past experiences
with the parent who is now no longer present. In order for therapy
to be successful such an identification with the alienator must
be broken down. In other words one must try to provide evidence
for the child for viewing the alienated parent in a more favourable
light or at least a more realistic light. One must ask the child
whether there were any times in the past when the child felt different
about the alienated parent and why the changes in views have taken
place. It is vital to make the child aware of the fact that he or
she has been the instrument of the alienation and prejudice.
Confronting the child by providing evidence from the child himself
or herself as to what favourable aspects there are about the alienated
parent a more balanced view could be developed in the child. Children
must be made aware of the fact that they are merely repeating the
views expressed by the alienating parent and are not thinking independently.
Such independent thinking must be inculcated so that the child is
made aware that all is not negative or bad about the alienated parent.
Children who have suffered a reasonably long period of indoctrination
by an alienating parent find it difficult to deal with confrontation
type therapy which involves the child and the alienating parent,
an attempt by the therapist to make the child realise what has been
done to him in the presence of the alienating parent. It becomes
even more difficult with a very young child. This is mainly because
the child has lost one parent and does not feel it is possible to
lose yet another through being confronted with the idiosyncratic
and damaging realisation that he or she has been the victim of indoctrination
and brain washing against the other parent. Older children however
may be more amenable but then a longer period of indoctrination
has usually occurred in their case.
It is important to reiterate that the child of parental alienation
is a victim but does not realise that he or she is a victim. Any
love they may have had for the beleaguered alienated parent has
been destroyed and it becomes difficult to reverse this. The other
victim is of course the targeted parent. In many cases judges administering
alleged fair and just decisions find it difficult to deal with seeking
to reverse such powerful indoctrination against one of the parents.
They will frequently instead accept the situation as it is and often
also provide little opportunity for contact between the alienated
parent and the child especially if the child offers resistance against
Children show their animosity to the alienated parent if they
come and visit them at all by reporting back almost as a secret
agent to the alienating parent what has happened and often lying
about what has occurred. They may even carry out acts of stealing
from the targeted parent. Children often return to the alienating
parent carrying objects and money from the targeted parent as a
proof of their animosity towards that parent.
Attention must be drawn to such behaviour by the therapist to
show that it is not merely disloyal to behave in this way but also
it is a criminal act which is likely to be perpetuated in the future
by anti-social behaviour from delinquency to criminality.
Even if the child has met and not found anything favourable about
the alienated parent it is the role of the therapist to do all that
he or she can to engage the child in more favourable attitudes towards
the alienated parent by bringing forth arguments that support such
a claim. Most importantly the child must be made aware of the fact
that he has been used in the armoury of alienation as a weapon against
the alienated parent.
It cannot be repeated too often that without the power of the
court behind the therapeutic effort little can be achieved with
recalcitrant alienating parents or their offspring. It must be the
objective of the therapist to get the child to think independently
and not respond and co-operate with the vilification of the father
Children deep down realise that they are depriving themselves
of a parent but they don’t want to realise it on the surface
and will do almost anything to avoid contact with the alienated
parent for that reason. More must be done therapeutically to encourage
such contact despite this opposition.
It is important to convince the child of the sacrifices the alienated
parent would be likely to make if that child required help merely
to survive. Gardner (2001) emphasises how an alienated parent could
well give up a kidney for the child to survive which an ordinary
stranger or even another member of the family more distant to the
alienated parent would be unlikely to do. Gardner (2001) in his
latest book on the treatment or therapeutic interventions for children
with parental alienation syndrome terms the alienators approach
as a campaign of denigration of the targeted parent. It is this
denigration which the therapist needs to reduce or eliminate. Without
the court behind one the therapist is carry on an uphill struggle.
Obviously if the alienated parent has indeed been abusive or difficult
or has neglected the child the job of the therapist becomes even
more difficult. This however is rarely the case or indeed if it
does exist it has been exaggerated by the alienating parent.
The children thus alienated must view the situation from the point
of view of rational and logical thinking. This child must learn
not to please the programmer at the cost of the targeted parent.
This is somewhat easier with older children, but as already stated
these have often been put through the process of alienation for
longer periods. Younger children are more difficult to influence
due to the total control of the alienator and the relatively undeveloped
capacity for rational thinking of very young children. Due to the
process of alienation children are often exaggerating what has happened
to them while the targeted parent was still living in the same home.
Hence the child eating his dinner and refusing to eat vegetables
when encouraged to do so by the alienated parent will claim that
he or she was “forced” to eat the vegetables against
his or her will. Precise information therefore must be obtained
from the child as to why he or she feels so acrimonious towards
the alienated parent and seeks to denigrate that parent for that
Even as adults children who have been programmed against one of
the parents will remember and even attend therapy to rid themselves
of the process of alienation. One such case involved an adult woman
who as a child complained that her father teased her as did her
brother about her not eating meat. This later became a massive exaggeration
of the father’s terrible and insensitive behaviour towards
his young daughter. This as a whole shows a lack of unity between
the parents and leads to children using one parent against the other
in order to get their own way. It is therefore vital to get underneath
to the true reasons as to why a child feels a parent has all the
negative traits possible. The therapist must work hard to get the
child to be rational, to think clearly and to provide information
which in the end can lead to the right reasons if there are any
as to why the child feels negative towards a particular parent after
having been programmed to be as such. From the cognitive and attitude
changes in thinking the child must then be encouraged to behave
appropriately towards the alienated parent. This can only be achieved
however when the child feels that his or her initial attitude towards
the alienated parent was faulty.
Many alienated parents are placed in a no-win situation whereby
if they do something they are criticised. If they do nothing they
are equally criticised. A good example of this is when a father
was asked to come to a football game and then the child indicates
to the mother that the father is unwanted. Had the father not offered
to come it would have showed rejection, however, the fact that he
goes indicates that he might do something to embarrass the child
in question by his being there.
Needless to say therapists vary in their approach to the problem
of PAS. Some will actually view the situation from the child’s
current thinking and not attempt to alter that thinking in any way.
This prevents PAS from being reduced or eliminated and in fact encourages
it to continue. Therapists who are likely to do any good to reverse
the PAS situation must be well versed in logic and reason and be
sensitive to the indoctrination process of alienating parents and
the helpless plight in which the targeted parent finds himself or
In order to change the child’s view of the world and of
the alienated parent it is sometimes necessary to resort to what
may be termed anti-psychological approaches such as making a child
actually feel guilty for the way the child behaves towards the alienated
parent. Such feelings of guilt can have a positive effect in removing
the alienator’s influences on the child.
The process of de-alienating or de-programming a child may be
viewed from the dialogue which follows:
Dr L: Now tell me why is it you don’t
want to see your Mother at all anymore?
Child: She was cruel to me once and even hit
me. She made my Father’s life hell when he was still alive
and I preferred to be with my Grandmother for that reason.
Dr L: I did speak to your mother about what
you have said and she has admitted to me that she did hit you
once, but that was to prevent you from doing something that could
be dangerous to you. Do you remember?
Child: I only did what other children do that
is to want to stay out late at night and not come home if I felt
like doing so.
Dr L: Do you think it is a parent’s role
to let children do what they like even if it is bad for them?
Child: Parents have no right to tell me what
to do. My Grandmother never tells me what to do and I can stay
out and do what I like for as long as I like.
Dr L: Do you think the parent has no right
or duty to try to protect you from a life outside the home that
could be detrimental to your welfare now and in the future?
Child: I know what I am doing I am now fifteen
years old and I should be able to do what I want to do.
Dr L: Tell me exactly what you specifically
dislike about your Mother and be as specific as possible.
Child: She’s just no good, she’s
nasty to me and she’s not nice to my Grandmother. She has
never done anything for me of any value.
Dr L: Do you really mean that? She has never
done anything for you at all? Think about what she might have
done for you in the past that you have forgotten.
Child: I can’t think of anything good
she has ever done for me.
It is statements such as these which may need to be investigated
further and points brought out as to what the Mother has done in
the past which has made the child happy and which has now been forgotten
consciously or unconsciously disowned. It is of course vital for
the therapist to have developed a close relationship with respect
from the child towards the therapist in order to convince the child
that his or her thinking against the alienated parent has no foundation
or has been exaggerated due to the programming process. The therapist
must do all he or she can to rid the child of the total negative
attitude and resulting behaviour towards the alienated parent and
the alliance of a total nature again between the child and the alienator.
The therapist must help the child to see both the negative and positive
aspects of both the alienating parent and the alienated one. In
developing such independent thinking in the child it is vital albeit
Children although they may not show it frequently welcome the
fact that a Court of Law has been involved in their unhappy family
relationships since through the Court of Law the child can feel
that they are now following the instruction of a superior force
even more superior than the alienating parent and have an excuse
for giving some time and possibly affection to the alienated parent.
Confronted by the alienating parent the child is then able to say,
“I am only doing this because the court demands it and I don’t
want to get into any trouble.”
As has also already been mentioned the child often feels ashamed
and even guilty about the manner in which he or she has treated
the alienated parent despite no real good evidence being present
for such treatment. Children who denigrate such a parent are faced
with deep feelings of guilt which they tend to hide through cruel
actions against the denigrated parent. The process of feeling guilty
can lead to a change in attitude and behaviour. Another term for
guilt is conscience and this has not been of a term denigrated even
by psychologists. The super-ego as Freud termed it is responsible
often for right actions.
It has long been known that broken homes create instability in
the child and can often lead to psychological problems, delinquency
and other serious difficulties. When a relationship break up is
more harmonious and both partners seek to love the child and encourage
the child to love both parents and respond to them effectively and
when parents are unified in their approach many problems can be
avoided. It should always be made clear to any child involved in
a marital break up that the love for the child has not been lost
and the friendship between the parents can be maintained for that
reason. Children then realise that they have two parents who both
care for them even though they cannot live with each other in harmony.
They may even choose another partner but this does not in anyway
reflect on both parents seeking to continue their support, love
and care of the child. This is the very opposite of parental alienation.
It is the aim of the therapist to develop such a relationship if
this ideally is possible. In this way the child’s future may
be assured rather than put into jeopardy.
Children who turn against one parent are developing a process
leading to serious consequences. This is due to the fact that they
have renounced one parent and frequently feel a sense of guilt thereafter
especially if that parent dies or is no longer available for other
reasons. It is vital in such children to engender both a feeling
of guilt for wronging the alienated parent and a sensitivity towards
that parent. Changing behaviour relies on changing the attitude
or cognition of the child but equally important is changing the
behaviour of the child towards the programmed against parent. It
should be remembered that both parents can practise PAS, one as
the initiator and the other as the reactor by seeking to demolish
the value of the alienated parent. It must be remembered that children
can suffer in the long term from the alienating process emotionally,
educationally and in future relationships that may develop and could
themselves in the future become the alienator.