Parental Alienation

Southern England Psychological Services

Problems suffered by Children due to the effects of Parental Alienation Syndrome

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services

Justice of the Peace, Vol. 166 No. 24, 2002, p 464-466


I have been involved with and heard a great deal about, the effects of parental alienation on the adult partners in a damaged relationship. What follows will be the impact that relationship break ups and adverse alienation procedures have on the child or children.

General aspects of children suffering from the effects of PAS

The effect of PAS has been investigated by relatively few individuals so far but I should like to acknowledge my own gratitude to one researcher, Professor Richard A. Gardner for the work he has done in this area. (Gardner 1992, 1998, 2001.) In what follows we will be concentrating on the effect both short term and long term of parental alienation on children. Whatever one may think children associated with parental alienation are victims but not of their own making. Parents are responsible for the child becoming a victim and most especially the parent who is carrying out the alienation process. However we will not consider the role of the parent extensively although it must be remembered that they have an important role to play producing the product of alienation.

We will instead concentrate on the child and what his victimisation produces. We hear a great deal about child abuse increasingly so especially sexual abuse. We hear somewhat less about emotional abuse. Parental alienation is a form of child abuse since children are being used for the purpose of parents showing their animosity towards the other half of a relationship. The animosity displayed towards the other parent who is being alienated can have a terrible affect on the child in question. Later my own research in this area will be presented indicating the effect upon the child of the alienation process. I will further consider how I feel the problem could best be remedied.

Children who are suffering within the alienation process are often unaware of it’s impact. They merely feel the consequences such as developing views propagated by the alienating parent that the other parent is “evil,” “wicked,” “stupid” or “dangerous” or all of these. Children therefore are frequently used by the alienating parent against the other parent to act as spies or saboteurs generally being used for unethical purposes in relation to the alienated parent.

Additionally they are often encouraged to treat the alienated parent with a lack of respect with the purpose of humiliating that parent. The children are even encouraged to behave in a deceitful manner with that parent such as already mentioned, spying on that parent and any relationship they may have developed with another person, stealing from that person or lying to that person. This of course will be denied by the alienating parent.

Encouraging a child to betray one of the most important members of his family be it the father or the mother produces within that child a tendency towards psychopathic behaviour. Once the alienating parent has denigrated the other parent to the child, the child due to the pressure upon him and the “power” wielded by the alienator needs to carry on the process of denigration.

Children who suffer from the PAS syndrome develop a concept that one parent is the loving parent and hence to be loved back while the other is the hated parent who has done evil or wickedness, etc., not only towards the alienating parent but towards the child. This has been consciously as well as unconsciously indoctrinated in to the child. This has also resulted in fear as well as hatred for the alienated parent. Virtually all indoctrination of a negative type is carried out by the mother who usually retains the child in residence. Occasionally it is the father or one of the relations to the child who may have taken over the role of parenting.

Gardner (1998) considers that there are eight cardinal symptoms of PAS in it’s effect on the child:

  1. The campaign of denigration.
  2. Weak, frivolous and absurd rationalisations for the denigration.
  3. Lack of ambivalence.
  4. The “independent thinker phenomenon.”
  5. Reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict.
  6. Actions of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent.
  7. The presence of borrowed scenarios.
  8. The spread of animosity to the extended family and alienated parent.

The result of alienation as I have found it is that the child develops a hatred for the other person that is the non-resident other parent and seeks to denigrate and vilify that parent much as has been done by the alienating parent. The destruction of one parent can have serious consequences not only immediately but in the long term. One might say the child has been robbed of the possibility of having a supportive and caring parent. Very often that parent is a father who has become a poisonous object. All memories of a good relationship have been destroyed.

Additionally there has been brainwashing in order to make the child fearful of the alienated parent very often the father. The animosity created through being programmed or brain washed frequently leads not merely to antagonism towards the alienated parent but also towards his or her whole family. This means the child will not merely lose one of it’s parents for support but also the grandparents of that alienated parent.

Another common reaction of children who have been programmed is to pretend to the programming parent that they have strong hatred or dislike for the alienated parent when in fact they do not at all feel this way and do not demonstrate this in the presence of the alienated parent. Hence they have practised deception and a form of lying in order to placate the programming parent while at the same time seeking to form some kind of warm relationship with the absent parent. Such deception is unlikely to lead to an individual who will be truthful and honest in other dealings now and in the future.

Sometimes the alienating parent seeks to exploit the parent who has been defiled. This is done in various ways including seeking to get money or clothes or other material objects for the children who are then used in this scheme or manipulation. The manipulator will often clothe the children in the filthiest clothes hoping the alienated parent will be forced to buy new clothes for the child. This teaches children a strategy which is unlikely to endear them to others in the future. Such practices of deception and exploitation then may well become a repertoire of how the way the children will behave in later life. Other forms of deception are when the child is called by the alienated parent on the telephone and that parent is told in front of the child that the child is not in or the child refuses to speak to him or her when in fact this is not the case at all. Again children are taught that lying is acceptable. This runs counter to what many parents do to instil truthfulness in their children for the purposes of being accepted by others now and in the future.

In order to endear themselves to the strong programming parent who is dominant over all the children’s behaviour, the children will tell that parent that they have been starved or deprived or punished at the alienated parent’s home merely to endear themselves to that parent. Here again lying and deception becomes the way which can have detrimental effects in later life. In non-PAS syndrome homes the parent who has been separated does not maintain control over the children but the custodial parent will do all that they can to promote a healthy feeling towards the other parent and to be truthful and to encourage the child or children to enjoy the company of the other parent. This does not occur but rather the reverse in the alienation type environment. Needless to say children benefit from such an attitude by non-PAS type behaviour. It is also of great importance that parents who have been divorced or separated do all they can to enhance the feelings of the child for the parent with whom they are not in residence, and vice-versa.

As children grow older they realise they are in a position of strength wherein they may be able to decide to which parent to go by manipulating situations in order to get their way. This in turn reduces the capacity of the alienating parent to utilise discipline to create the right type of ethical behaviour. This is because the alienating parent is dependent on the child to do that which antagonises or damages the targeted parent. Such children frequently become undisciplined knowing they have the power to manipulate the programming parent through fulfilling or not fulfilling the wishes of that parent towards the alienated parent.

In severe cases of PAS children are placed in seriously unhappy situations and will frequently develop panic reactions when they are asked to visit the alienated parent. This in turn can lead to repercussions in their attitude to school and their capacity to concentrate on their education. In some cases there can be psychotic delusions in the child due to the pressure on that child to passively submit to the alienating parent. In order to overcome such serious disturbances intensive psychological reatment is required and this will be covered in another article entitled: “Dealing with Children who have been involved in Parental Alienation through Therapy.” In some cases children have been indoctrinated with the view that the alienated parent will seriously damage them in some way. Such delusions need urgently to be dealt with through therapy. Following such therapy such unfortunate children may learn to be able to be more rational and realistic in the way they view the alienated parent despite the efforts of the programming parent. This of course is a different matter to resolve in the case of very young children. In the case of older children the habit of hatred towards the target parent may make it extremely difficult but not impossible to alter the attitude of such older children towards the alienated parent.

Perhaps the most interesting scenario that occurs is when the child realises what the alienating or programming parent has been doing and eventually turns against that parent. They often seek the target parent feeling a great sense of guilt in having been a party, albeit an unwilling party, to the humiliation and harm done to the target parent who has done nothing wrong to them to deserve such treatment.

Specific Problems of Children suffering from the Effects of PAS

Now follows a series of symptoms found in children, when they are presented over a period of time, with brain washing or programming against another parent. The effects are both short and long term. It must be stated from the beginning that not all the symptoms about to be mentioned occur in all children who are involved in the parental alienation syndrome scenario. There will also be some difference between the very young child and the older child who have more experience of the PAS process. Not all the symptoms mentioned occur in all children. However some symptoms undoubtedly will occur and effect the child unless some form of treatment is carried out which eliminates the impact of the alienating process:

  1. Anger is a common reaction of many children to the process of alienation. The anger however will be expressed towards the target parent as one sides with one of the parents in the relationship against the other. The fact the children are forced into this kind of situation causes considerable distress and frustration and the response often is to show aggressive behaviour towards the targeted parent in order to accommodate the programmer.

  2. Loss or a lack of impulse control in conduct. Children who suffer from PAS are not merely suffering from aggression but also often turn to delinquent behaviour. There is considerable evidence that fathers and their presence and influence can do much to prevent and alleviate the possibility of delinquency most especially in boys.

  3. Loss of self confidence and self esteem. Losing one of the parents through the programming procedure can produce a lack of self confidence and self esteem. In the case of boys identification with a male figure has been curtailed, especially if the alienated parent is the father.

  4. Clinging and separation anxiety. Children especially very young children who have been programmed to hate or disdain one of the parents will tend to cling to that parent who has carried out the programming. There is considerable anxiety induced by the programming parent against the target parent including threats that such a parent would carry out a great number of different negative actions against the child as well as the programming parent.

  5. Developing fears and phobias. Many children fear being abandoned or rejected now that they have been induced to feel that one of the partners in a relationship usually the father is less than desirable. Sometimes this results in school phobia that is fear of attending school mainly due to fear of leaving the parent who claims to be the sole beneficial partner in the formal relationship. Some children suffer from hyperchondriacal disorders and tend to develop psychological symptoms and physical illnesses. Such children also fear what will happen in the future and most especially there is a fear that the programming parent or only parent who is allegedly the “good parent” may die and leave the child bereft of any support.

  6. Depression and suicidal ideation. Some children who are so unhappy at the tragic break up of the relationship are further faced with animosity between the programming parent and the targeted parent. This leads to ambivalence and uncertainty and sometimes suicidal attempts occur due to the unhappiness which the child feels brought about by the two main adults in his or her life.

  7. Sleep disorders is another symptom which follows the parental alienation situation. Children frequently dream and often find it difficult to sleep due to their worries about the danger of the alienated parent and the guilt they may feel as a result of participating in the process of alienation.

  8. Eating disorders. A variety of eating disorders have been noted in children who are surrounded by parental alienation. This includes anorexia nervosa, obesity and bulimia.

  9. Educational problems. Children who are surrounded by the pressure of having to reject one parent having been less brain washed frequently suffer from school dysfunctions. They may become disruptive as well as aggressive within that system.

  10. Enuresis and Encopresis. A number of very young children due to the pressure and frustrations around them suffer from bed wetting and soiling. This is a response to the psychological disturbance of losing one parent and finding one parent inimical to the rejected parent.

  11. Drug abuse and self destructive behaviour frequently are present in children who have suffered from parental alienation. This tendency is due to a need to escape one’s feelings of the abuse they have suffered through the experience and the desire to escape from it. In the extreme such self destructive behaviour can lead to suicidal tendencies.

  12. Obsessive compulsive behaviour. This psychological reaction is frequently present in PAS children. Such children will seek to find security in their environment by adopting a variety of obsessive compulsive behaviour patterns.

  13. Anxiety and panic attacks are also frequently present in children who have been involved in PAS processes. This may be reflected through psycho-somatic disorders such as nightmares.

  14. Damaged sexual identity problems. As a result of the PAS syndrome children often develop identity problems especially as they may have failed to identify with one member of the originally secure relationship.

  15. Poor peer relationships may follow the PAS situation due to the fact that such children often are either very withdrawn in their behaviour or are aggressive.

  16. Excessive feelings of guilt. This may be due to the knowledge deep down that the ostracised parent who has been vilified has done nothing wrong to deserve the kind of treatment received by the child or children. When this view occurs the child especially when older begins to suffer from guilt feelings.

Children who are exposed to PAS suffer in a variety of general as well as specific ways from this experience. It will often have both temporary and lasting effects on their lives. This is obviously not the intention of the alienator but it is the result of such alienation procedures and programming which causes the child to show a negative attitude and behaviour towards one of the parents. To deal with this problem a variety of therapeutic techniques are required and these will be covered in another article. 
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