II - Parental Alienation Syndrome and Its Impact on Children
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
Courts frequently ask whether there are any repercussions for
children who have been subjected to parental alienation. What follows
delineates those reactions by children who are alienated against
one parent due to acrimony between the parents before and after
separation. Numerous studies have shown that children involved in
the alienation dispute often suffer greatly from emotional and behavioural
problems as a consequence of the bitter alienation disputes which
often remain unresolved unless treated by an expert.
Part II - Parental Alienation Syndrome and Its Impact on Children
Tin the past there has been relatively little work done in the
area of the impact of parental alienation on children. Gardner (2002a;
2002b; 2002c; 2003; 2004) emphasised numerous times, the importance
of involving mediation experts especially psychologists and psychiatrists
in seeking to determine the damage that has been done or is likely
to be done through the alienation process.
Those who carry out such evaluations should have a fundamental
understanding of child development and a comprehensive knowledge
and understanding on the research on divorce. Good evaluation skills
are required and care must be taken to use rather than misuse psychological
testing in such evaluations (Stahl, 2002).
Problems of PAS
It has been established that a small number of children with post
divorce adjustment problems will go on to develop a more severe
and entrenched reaction termed parental alienation syndrome (PAS).
Ellis (2000a) describes 12 characteristics of children with PAS
and suggests that intervention and treatment should be provided
as soon as is possible. Johnston (2003) considers the family relationship
after divorce and examines the frequency of child-parent alignment.
It is often correlated with the children’s rejection of the
alienated parent. Data was collected from an archival database which
consisted of 215 children from the family courts and general community
two and three years after parental separation. The findings indicate
that children’s attitudes towards their parents range from
positive to negative with relatively few being extremely aligned
or rejecting. Rejection of a parent has multiple determinants, with
both the allying and rejected parents contributing to the problem,
in addition to vulnerabilities within the children themselves.
There has been an uncertain and not always harmonious relationship
between mental health experts and the courts (Gunsberg & Hymowitz,
2005). The difficulties of this relationship have only grown more
urgent as the offspring of the ‘custody wars’ keep proliferating.
Close to half of the nations children grow up in single parent households,
and many will have experienced the pain and trauma of their parent’s
divorce and custody battles, battles that highlight the uneasy nature
of interdisciplinary collaborations. There is indeed a need for
ongoing dialogue between the legal and mental health professions,
these often being so elitist within their own language and methodology.
Investigators such as Warshak (2002) are only minimally happy
with the term PAS since it is felt that numerous children reject
their parents regardless of whether they have suffered from alienation.
On the whole however children are happiest when they have some contact
with both parents, leaving aside abusive parents of course. There
are some children who refuse to become alienated despite the denigration
of one parent by the other, but there are many children who are
indeed alienated successfully via programming.
The Damage to Children of PAS
It cannot be underestimated however, the damage suffered by children
of divorced parents (Ellis, 2000b). Children would appear to be
the biggest losers when relationships break-up and that is why it
is the rule of mental health individuals to improve the outcome
for hurting children. The children often have considerable difficulty
in dealing with parental psychopathology and chronic parental conflict.
In the extreme one parent may make the false allegations that sexual
abuse has been practiced by the non-resident parent. This has an
impact not only on the child but obviously the alienated parent,
usually the father.
Some children as a result of the alienation process develop a
victimised or paranoid approach to life (Firestone & Catlett,
1986). Formerly both parents were probably idealised but following
the alienation process, only one parent remains as an ideal, while
the other is denigrated. This injures children’s ability to
function in the real world. Often such children act to keep the
absent alienated parent distant from themselves and therefore fail
to develop a satisfactory close relationship with that parent. It
could develop into a feeling of negativity towards numerous individuals
who may resemble the alienated parent. It also leads to children
suffering from emotional deprivation.
There are numerous other repercussions frequently ignored such
as the development of excessive empowerment on children as they
are provided with a position of choice when they are able to reject
the alienated parent, due to the influence of the alienator. This
leads to children themselves contributing to the campaign of denigration
against the alienated parent. This has been well documented by such
pioneering experts as Gardner (2002d).
Not only are emotional factors repercussions within children affected
by parental alienation but the mental development of such children
is often at risk. These are definitely the consequences being deprived
of fathers (Von Boch-Galhau, 2002).
There is a fallacy in thinking that children are protected in
the family courts from the alienation process as on Australian study
points out (Jenkins, 2002). Jenkins (2002) feels that despite a
landmark high court judgement in the area of false child sex abuse
allegations, a major concern in such cases seems to be the fear
that mothers often use false accusations as a ‘weapon’
in custody and contact cases. The paper examines the nature of parental
alienation syndrome with the belief that young children’s
accounts of abuse often lack credibility. The paper argues that
the principle of “protection of the child’s best interests”
should not necessarily be equated with the child always having access,
even supervised access with a parent previously accused of having
abused the child. Equally the cases should be carefully investigated
when in fact no sexual or other abuse has actually taken place.
This depends to a large degree on the expert’s skill and total
independence of thinking. It has been noted by Ellis (2000a) that
a small number of children with post divorce adjustment problems
will go on to develop more severe and entrenched reactions called
parental alienation symptoms. Lowenstein (2005) discusses the reaction
of children who have been programmed against the non resident parent.
Difficulties occur within the school setting, due to physical problems
and behavioural difficulties in many cases of children who have
been so alienated against on parent.
It is vital to study the history of children and their relationship
to their parents previous to the acrimonious or hostile separation
of their parents. Children who previously loved their parents would
often change dramatically in relation to one of their parents following
the separation due to the hostility that develops thereafter (Gagne
et al, 2005). Cases are typically observed in the context of separation
and divorces especially when ex spouses are still in conflict. This
phenomenon has instigated many controversies between experts in
the forensic, social and mental health fields.
It is important that once it has been established that one of
the parents is programming or brainwashing the child against the
other that immediate action is taken to investigate the matter through
the courts who appoint a qualified expert such as a psychologist
or psychiatrist. The expert reports his or her findings back to
the court so that action may be taken which should prevent further
alienation from occurring. Unfortunately there are still many courts
that do not necessarily abide by the views of the expert who are
unable to state what they think is the best policy but can only
state that alienation has taken place and has damaged the child’s
prospects in the future and at the present time. This is verified
by the work of Johnston et al (2005) in their study of 74 children
aged 5 to twelve years in custody disputes. These children practiced
rejecting one parent and the corresponding emotional enmeshment
with the other parent. According to parent’s rating using
the Child Behaviour Checklist, alienated children had more emotional
and behavioural problems of clinically significant proportions compared
to their non alienated counterparts. Such children who have been
affected by alienation had difficulty in developing certain coping
styles in life.
- Ellis, E. M. (2000a). Parental alienation syndrome: A new challenge
for family courts. In Ellis, E. M. (2000b). Divorce wars: Interventions
with families in conflict. (pp. 205-233). Washington, DC: American
- Ellis, E. M. (2000b). Divorce wars: Interventions with families
in conflict. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Firestone, R. W., & Catlett, J. (1986). Displacement of
negative parental characteristics and the development of a victimised
or paranoid approach to life. In Firestone, R. W., & Catlett,
J. (1986). The fantasy bond: Structure of psychological defences.
(pp. 115-124). New York, NY: Human Sciences.
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alienation: An overview of research and controversy. Canadian
Psychology, 46(2), 73-87.
- Gardner, R. A. (2002a). Does DSM-IV have equivalents for the
parental alienation syndrome (PAS) diagnosis? American Journal
of Family Therapy, 31(1), 1-21.
- Gardner, R. A. (2002b). Parental alienation syndrome vs. parental
alienation: Which diagnosis should evaluators use in child custody
disputes? American Journal of Family Therapy, 30(2), 93-115.
- Gardner, R. A. (2002c). Denial of the parental alienation syndrome
also harms women. American Journal of Family Therapy, 30(3), 191-202.
- Gardner, R. A. (2002d). The empowerment of children in the development
of parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Forensic
Sciences, 20(2), 5-29.
- Gardner, R. A. (2003). The judiciary’s role in the aetiology,
symptom development, and treatment of the parental alienation
syndrome (PAS). American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 21(1),
- Gardner, R. A. (2004). Commentary on Kelly and Johnston’s
“The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation
syndrome” Family Court Review, 42(4), 611-621
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and custody: Forensic, developmental, and clinical perspectives.
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- Jenkins, S. (2002). Are children protected in the family court?
A perspective from Western Australia. Australian & New Zealand
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- Johnston, J. R. (2003). Parental alignments and rejection: An
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