and Treatment of Parental Alienation
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
One of the most difficult tasks for clinical psychologists and
psychiatrists is to assess via interview and personality testing
and then to treat the result of long term parental alienation. Those
dealing with such challenging endeavours are few, mainly due to
the stress this induces in all concerned including the therapist
facing the arduous challenge of trying to right what has been done
wrong often for many years. Psychologists and psychiatrist’s
roles and functions differ. It must be remembered, however, that
in most cases it is the mother who does the alienating against the
father since she is normally in total control of the child or children
while the father is either no longer there or plays the role of
a “side lined” individual. In what follows the expert
witness is the current psychologist. Psychiatrists are also involved
and the term psychologist however will be used for both. In both
professions through their role of expert witness their professional
status could be in endangered by acting as expert witnesses to the
The typical psycho-therapeutic approaches which deal with neuroses
and psychotic illnesses are unlikely to be effective on those who
practice parental alienation and the results of such practices.
This is because those involved are rarely considered to be mentally
ill. Instead they intend, on the whole, to be premeditated and conscious
in their activities. Their objective is to seek total or paramount
control over children at the expense of a current or previous partner.
This in turn is due to an acrimonious separation or divorce.
The fight over who is in control, who owns a child goes back to
biblical times such as when Solomon faced with the two alleged mothers
of an infant, suggests in his wisdom, that the only solution was
to cut the infant in half and give each mother half of the body.
The real mother decided that she could not abide by this, while
the other alleged mother agreed with Solomon’s decision. She
was obviously not the real mother. The real mother would rather
give the infant to the other party than have the infant killed.
This is an example of the famous wisdom of Solomon.
Why alienation of children?
Dealing with parents who both wish to have control and own a child,
when it is practiced is a process of alienation and is much more
difficult to resolve than the previous case mentioned involving
Solomon. Psychological treatment requires the full backing of a
Court of Law. Otherwise little or nothing can be achieved. (See
section dealing with protagonists).
Strong judicial decisions must be combined with whatever the psychological
aspect of the work and intervention that takes place. This is for
any chance of success in resolving this type of issue. This is because
of the following:
Those who alienate children are determined, often skilled
and in perpetrating deceitful actions, do what is best for themselves
rather than for the child and obviously not for the other parent.
The process has often endured for a long period of time mainly
in the absence of the targeted parent. (On the whole the father.)
The process of alienation is increasing as a consequence of
out time of social change.
The power in society of the female has increased with the
greater equality of the sexes and while there is justice in
this, there are also drawbacks. We now have greater fluidity
and more divorces and separations among parents. Participants
in a relationship, whether marital or otherwise, no longer feel
bound to its permanence under all or any circumstances.
Parental alienation therefore is likely to increase with time
because the judicial system and especially judges often feel
unhappy in the making of what could be just decisions in relation
to the role of the alienated parent and the contact he or she
should have with children. This is most especially the case
in Great Britain and less so in the United States. In the United
States, judges are currently less likely to take the easy option.
British judges on the whole view matters differently. They seek
to maintain the status quo of not rocking the boat too much
or at all. The result is the alienated parent on the whole remains
sidelined. It means, the alienator has won. The children have
lost because they will be without the care, love and influence
of one of their parents.
Needless to say, should the investigation by the psychologist
of all family members indicate that parental alienation is not
the important issue, then there may be other reasons for the
child not wishing contact with their father or indeed the mother
not wishing the child to have contact with their father. If
there has been, sexual, physical or other abuse practiced by
the father, then only supervised contact could be the answer.
It must therefore be emphasised that the psychologist is not
there to grant fathers contact with the child regardless of
the past behaviour of the father. It must also be said, that
mothers often use false allegations that sexual or other abuse
has taken place when it has not.
- The primary role of the psychologist is to do what is in the
best interests of the child or children and not what is in the
best interests of their parents. Obviously the two often coincide.
It must additionally be recognised that what the child wants may
not always be in the best interests of the child especially when
the process of alienation has occurred.
The protagonists of parental alienation.
There are the more obvious protagonists. The main ones obviously
are the parents and the children. There are however, in the background,
relatives including grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces and cousins
etc who are influenced and who influence the parental alienation
process. More often than not they take sides. Hence alliances are
built up over time. The other side is viewed as the enemy. The enemy
on the whole tends to be the father who has left the home or has
been forced to leave following prolonged antagonisms, quarrels and
sometimes extra-marital experiences.
Sometimes in seeking to heal or “improve the state of war”
which exists between the main protagonists the parents involve close
or more distant relations in order to have them on their side in
the conflict. It is not so unlike a world war involving indirectly
and sometimes directly other countries who were not involved with
the initial conflict. There are unfortunately few if any individuals
who will do what is right in the short and long term for the children
involved such as developing harmony and a way forward between parents
who are at odds over their children.
One could say that there are yet others who are protagonists, such
as solicitors, barristers and social workers. The first two as is
the custom are likely to adopt a partisan attitude and function.
This is unfortunate but inevitable. Social workers vary in the role
they are likely to play.
Judges also vary, but on the whole they are not eager to seek publicity
by making decisions that are in opposition to societies current
views and expectations of them as the “upholders of law and
Hence few judges would threaten a mother with prison when she fails
to adhere to a ruling of father having contact with the child. Even
fewer would sentence her to actual imprisonment for failing to cooperate
with the father as to him having regular and positive contact with
their mutual child. The reverse situation, when fathers have custody
(a rare occurrence) and he refuses to cooperate judges are much
less likely to be so lenient!
What treatment does each party need?
Before the treatment or mediation, if it is suggested by the court
takes place, an assessment of the situation of parental alienation
must occur. Here we will concentrate on the most intimate protagonists
only in what is essentially a tug of war between parents. On the
whole, it is the father who seeks to have regular and positive contact
with their child or children once having separated from the mother.
The mother due to the anger she often feels for the father is the
principal alienator in this scenario and often makes such contact
between the father and children impossible or with a strong tendency
for it to be acrimonious.
This provides father with a reason for feeling dissatisfied and
mother pleased with the fact that the children have sided with her
against the father. There is almost certainly the likelihood that
mother will deny that she is doing anything wrong indirectly or
subtly turning the children against their father. It is under these
conditions that the psychologist’s initial report of his finding
will be critical and must be written for the benefit of the court.
The psychologist must decide in fact whether parental alienation
has actually taken place. This is often no easy matter. Before doing
this, let us see how two typical interviews are obtained in the
process of this assessment. These interviews have been summarised
based on over thirty such typical assessments.
The assessment of parental alienation.
1.) Interview with the mother.
Dr L: I need to know what has happened to make
it so difficult for you and your former partner to allow him to
have contact with the children.
Mother: I really don’t know why you ask
me this. You should ask the children.
Dr L: I will in due course, but now I am asking
you for your own opinion.
Mother: It is his behaviour which has caused
all this trouble. It is nothing to do with me. I don’t know
why the children don’t like being with their father. It
is nothing to do with me. I have always encouraged that they see
him but they don’t want to do so or at least that is what
(These last two sentences are typical of the response one gets
from the mother who had directly or subtly turned the child
or children against their father. Children who have had an good
relationship with their father until the alienation process
begins rarely turn against their father for no reason at all.
One may note the strong element of passivity in the mother who
claims she is helpless to alter the attitude of the children.
She can get them up in the morning to go to school, visit the
dentist or doctor when necessary but she cannot manage to get
them to see their father.)
Dr L: Have you tried hard to get the children
to think well of and to like their father, whatever happened between
yourself and the father?
Mother: Of course I have. I have always tried
to be a good wife and mother. I can’t force them to do what
they don’t want to do whatever the judge says. They have
their own minds and they just don’t like him anymore or
want to be in his company. (Here again is an example of the mother
showing her alleged helplessness.)
Dr L: How do you feel about your former partner?
Mother: I would rather not say... I am better
off without him and so are...
(I have purposely left the last sentence incomplete since many
mothers will not go so far as to say that the children are also
better off without their father. That would be giving the true
matter of the situation away and mothers are too clever on the
whole to do this.)
2.) Interview with the father
Dr L: How do you feel about the situation as
to why the children refuse regular contact with you or any contact
for that matter?
Father: I have no idea. We were always so very
close before I left home due to the unhappiness I felt everyone
was suffering. Despite all that has been said I and my children
had a lot of fun together. I can show you pictures and videos
of the children with me and how much joy they expressed.
(Then usually father would shows these pictures and videos
to the expert witness.)
Father: Here they are for you to see yourself.
When I first left I used to telephone the children regularly and
they were friendly and even asked to see me. They asked me when
I was coming home again. I explained that I could not come home
because of all the unhappiness with their mother but that I and
she still both loved them.
(This last sentence is a crucial one and both parents should
make it clear to the child or children why they have parted.
It is unfortunate that it is less likely for the alienator to
make such a statement of both parents caring for the child or
Dr L: Has anything happened since you left
or when you were still with the children to make them feel differently
about you now.
Father: Nothing I can think of... I suppose
their mother has been getting at them trying to do what she can
do to turn them against me. I don’t know... I am not there.
All I know is they are more like strangers now... Always looking
at their mother to ascertain as to what they are saying and whether
it is alright with her to be with me.
(This is the typical scenario based on the unhappy relationship
between the partners and how this affects the children.)
Father: Things have got worse and worse over
time, until the present when I have not seen the children for...
(Not seeing the children can last as long as weeks, months
and even years. The longer there is no contact with the children
the more difficult it becomes to establish future contact. Hence
in such cases, “absence does nothing to make the heart
grow fonder;” Just the reverse is the case. Eventually
the children will be influenced that the father and his involvement
with the children serves no value except in providing financially.
This latter fact is taken for granted... He is after all their
father and has the responsibility of providing for the children.
If mother has independent means, even this role as the provider
is no longer desired.)
3.) Interview with the child or children.
We will illustrate this by an interview with just one child, since
this will illustrate how the child feels. The other children when
they are present will almost certainly express similar views.
Dr L: You know why you are here with me, don’t
Child: To talk about why I don’t want
anything to do with my father...
Dr L: That is right. What has changed so that
you no longer want to be with your father?
Child: I just don’t want to... I don’t
Dr L: Have you always felt that way?
Child: No I suppose not... but things have changed...
I just don’t want to see him now... I don’t feel comfortable
with him... I would rather be with my friends or play with my
video game or be with my mother etc.
Dr L: You are of course aware that despite
what you say, your father wants to see you, as he has always done
because he loves you.
Child: I don’t think that is really true.
(The child has to think this in order to repel any contact
with the father.)
Dr L: Why do you say that?
Child: Because of all the things he has been
saying about my mother and the way he has been behaving.
Dr L: Why, what has he been saying or doing
that you don’t like?
Child: He says lies about mother and what she
is doing and makes me see people like you and solicitors and social
workers and makes mother go to court, threatening her with going
to prison. Even if she does try to make me be with him. Nothing
is going to make me be with him or be nice to him... He has done
so much harm...
Dr L: What has he done to make you feel the
way you do? Give me some examples.
Child: I just don’t like being with him...
He doesn’t want to do the things I like to do...He doesn’t
like my mother and she has done nothing wrong... It is he who
did the wrong things with my mother and me. I am also worried
in case he might hit me.
Dr L: Did he ever hit you?
Child: No he hasn’t, but he could hit
me or he might. He looks like he might.
Dr L: Did he never do anything right or anything
you enjoyed doing with him?
Child: Maybe a long time ago, but not now.
Maybe one day I will feel different but not now. I think I am
better off without him and so is my mother. She is all I have
and she is enough for me.
Dr L: He does love you, you know and provides
Child: I know that, but that is because the
law says he has to do it.
Once the interview has been completed the report is served to the
Court. It is served with conclusions reached and recommendations
made such as the need for mediation between the parties. Here psychologists
differ in their approach. If the Court agrees, the treatment or
mediation should begin as soon as possible. There is frequently
considerable resistance to this by the alienator who seeks to put
off this process for as long as is possible.
The treatment process to counter-act the parental alienation.
The initial report written has been offered to the Court. Much
depends on the judge as to whether he or she recommends mediation
for the purpose of finding a solution to what appears to be an intractable
or impossible problem. If mediation is recommended, the psychologist
makes it clear to the Court that all will be done which can be done
to resolve the apparently intractable problem. The psychologist
makes it clear that it is for the court to act as it sees fit, after
the completion of the sessions of mediation and the report which
has been written by the psychologist of his findings.
The psychologist makes it clear to all the members of the family
that a report will be compiled including how those participating
have cooperated with the mediation process. Those who fail to cooperate
will have to take responsibility for what the Court decides should
be done. The solution which must be reached is that each parent
should have regular contact with the children. This naturally applies
predominantly to the non-custodial parent that is the father. Hence
the resolution must be not whether the father is to have contact,
but rather the manner in which it is to be arranged and the way
it will be heeded by all those concerned. Naturally this will not
occur if for any reason the father is actually a threat or danger
to the children, but not whether mother feels they may be in danger
and has inculcated this idea in the child’s mind.