to Solve Child Contact Disputes (Recent Research)
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
The concept of seeking contact with children following an unhappy
and acrimonious relationship is increasing due to greater separation
and divorce of couples as time progresses. Of particular concern
is the value of contact for non custodial parents and long-term
effects on children when this does not occur. Courts have not been
altogether in agreement on the value of the term parental alienation
syndrome (PAS) albeit it is not dissimilar from parental alienation
without the syndrome being added. It is therefore for those professionals
who attend court as expert witnesses to consider that they use parental
alienation as a preferred term until PAS has been established through
the APA and BPS. The harm done to children by parents who are in
an acrimonious relationship despite being separated cannot be over-estimated.
It appears to follow a pattern from one generation to another.
Research will be conducted into contact disputes as well as the
still uncertain concept of parental alienation (PA) versus parental
alienation syndrome (PAS). The final part will be to discuss the
role and plight of the non custodial parent.
The author has carried out considerable work in the area of children
who have been alienated by a parent and thereby prevented from effective
contact with their other parent. As an expert witness the author
has been involved in dealing with courtroom cases, but more often
than not attempting to find some way of reconciling differences
between the warring factions through the process of mediation. This
has sometimes been successful but at other times has failed dismally
due to the fact that the Judiciary did not, on the whole, work together
with the mediator (Lowenstein, 1998a, 1998b, 1999). Often it is
necessary to carry out an initial investigation into the role of
the parents and the attitude of the child in the dispute (Lowenstein
1999, & 2001).
It has not as yet been well understood how children suffer in the
short and long term from the effects of parental alienation or parental
alienation syndrome (Lowenstein, 2002) and how best to deal with
the problem (Lowenstein, 2003, 2005).
Research into Contact Disputes
There is a considerable difference of opinion in how to involve
children in decision making. The primary concern is always the child/children.
This however, is not far behind the two adults responsible for the
child/children’s welfare since the child/children’s
welfare coincides with both parents, whenever possible, playing
an important role or having responsibility for the rearing of the
child/children. Children however, should have a meaningful voice
in decision making (Warshak, 2003) but one must be absolutely certain
from where the child’s decision comes. More will be said concerning
this when alienation takes place against a non resident parent.
Whatever happens the child/children should not be placed in the
position of taking sides whether this is involved in joint custody,
over night stays, relocation or any other way of both parent playing
a meaningful role.
In recent times there has been a tendency for fathers to have
more contact and sometimes even custody of a child/children due
to feeling of sexual equality which is currently the view. Mothers
therefore have substantial fears that they may lose custody as a
result of such equality (Heiliger, 2003). Mothers realise since
they are not the main bread winner that divorce puts the emotional,
economic, and educational well-being of many children in danger.
Therefore, courts today seek to involve both parents in the child’s
life rather than having to choose between them. Mediation and education
have sometimes replaced the courtroom as the primary forum for resolving
parental disputes (Schepard, 2004).
Parents are often encouraged to formulate a visitation plan that
is “reasonable”. What is reasonable in a court must
also have an air of reasonableness to the parents. Unfortunately
one or both parents are often unreasonable in the manner in which
they make decisions on visitation and contact (Hauser, 2005).
A major issue in divorces that involves children is the allocation
of parental time. In many divorces, parents work out, with greater
or lesser difficulty, time sharing arrangements that satisfy both
them and the court. In many other situations, parents cannot agree
on how to allot time, and the court must decide on temporary or
long-term plans. While sensible people have always recognised that
no single time sharing arrangement is optimal for all children,
often the court has to order who has custody. This can lead to one
parent without access. The involvement of an expert witness who
helps the court to make decisions can result in good solutions from
time to time but equally can lead to parents, one or the other,
turning against the solution by the expert who they feel is “against”
them (Dember & Fliman, 2005). Many parents consider an expert
to be biased against them.
Contact has been high on the agenda since the UK Government report,
“Making Contact Work” (2002) which examined various
means for facilitating contact between non resident parents and
their children. More recently the issue has featured prominently
in the headlines since in England and Wales a “father’s
rights group” has complained about the injustice and have
made demands to change the law so that fathers could have contact,
or increased contact, with their children. Thus far little has been
achieved in relation to better contact through these methods (Kaganas
& Sclater, 2004).
Perhaps too little attention has been paid to the tremendous harm
that has been done to children when parents are in conflict over
their care. Parental conflict is a more total predictor of child
adjustment than is divorce and conflict resolution is important
to children’s coping with divorce (McIntosh, 2003; Lowenstein,
Parental Alienation Syndrome versus Parental Alienation. Is that
The term parental alienation has been accepted as it is an undeniable
fact that it frequently occurs as a result of conflicts in separation
or divorce. The term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has not
as yet been recognised by the American Psychological and Psychiatric
Associations or the British Psychological and Psychiatric Associations,
despite there being peer reviewed discussions on Parental Alienation
and Parental Alienation Syndrome.
A study from the Netherlands by Spruijt et al (2005) reported
that about 20% of children did not have any contact with their non
resident parent after parental divorce. There were many reasons
for broken contact, one of which was the process of parental alienation,
when the child denigrated and excluded the non resident parent.
Parental alienation was responsible for 42% of reasons for broken
contact. The extent of parental alienation was classified as mild
in 33% of cases, and moderate in 9% of cases. There were no severe
cases. The authors used the term parental alienation syndrome and
indicated that it occurred significantly more often when decisions
with relation to children were not take together by the parents
but were determined in court. The authors considered that compulsory
mediation was the better way forward in many cases of PAS. (The
author of this current article indicates that this is a useless
exercise unless the court works directly with the mediator and supports
his views. Only the courts have the power to impose sanctions and
serve a penal notice on a parent who has been recognised to have
practised parental alienation against the non custodial parent.
A parent can take part in mediation to appease the court but at
the same time carry on the practise of parental alienation with
the child. Mediation in this case is a waste of time especially
if the court does not take on board that parental alienation has
taken place and action against the alienating parent needs to be
taken to stop this process. Mediation alone will not do this especially
if the custodial parent and alienator is entrenched in a programme
of implacable hostility and is still carrying on a programme of
alienation in a subtle way with the child.)
Caplan (2004) considered that PAS is a group of symptoms occurring
together and constituted a recognisable condition. Emery (2005)
considered PAS still of minimal scientific standards and preferred
the use of the term parental alienation (PA). The signs were also
stressed by Shopper (2005). He felt that alienation by definition
involved the estrangement or transfer of feelings away from one
person and onto another. Within a family, the attempts at alienation
may take the form of undeserved criticism and bad-mouthing of a
parent or an emphasis on the mistakes or inadequacy of the parent.
For a younger child, the distinction between dis-identifying with
a character trait versus dis-identifying with a parent as a whole
may be beyond the child’s developmental abilities. In most
cases the older child perceives that there is no denunciation of
the parent as a whole but only of a circumscribed aspect of that
In place of the term parental alienation syndrome, the term “medea
syndrome”, or “implacable hostility”, or the “malicious
mother syndrome” can be used. These terms are used to describe
a conscious or concerted effort to disrupt the child’s affectionate
relationship with the other parent and co-opt all of the child’s
affection on to oneself. In the course of the alienation, the non
resident parent is portrayed as such a demonised and dehumanised
individual as to render that person unfit for either affection from
or a positive relationship with the child. Alienation in any setting
or cause can best be viewed theoretically and clinically as a subtype
of what the author terms “disorder of created reality”.
“Disorders of created reality” refer to a situation
in which a person’s own autonomous sense of reality testing
and reality appreciation are devalued, and overwhelmed and replaced
by a different irrational reality concerning the rejected non custodial
There are considerable problems in relation to PAS and the Judiciary,
who realise the non acceptance of the term by the APA or BPS and
use this to avoid making decisions upon it’s diagnosis. Hence
PAS has been unfairly criticised by both judicial and mental health
communities despite the fact that there is considerable evidence
that it exists. Critics sometimes go so far as to deny it exists
and then equal the term with parental alienation (PA). It has of
course been well recognised that PA does exist but even then some
courts have barred testimony on this, even from professionals who
have dealt with the truly rejecting behaviour of an alienated child
(Andre, 2004). The child as a result is often forced to reject one
or other of his/her parents in the short term due to the false belief
that the non custodial parent is a bad, horrible person, who causes
problems and unhappiness for the family and the custodial parent.
In the long term the child loses the parental input and contribution
of the rejected parent to his/her upbringing. The child also faces
many psychological problems in the future due to the process of
alienation which will reflect on his/her future behaviour and happiness.
This resulting damage is not in the best interests of the child.
Furthermore, the child loses contact with a parent with whom they
once had a close and loving relationship.. The result is the sorrow
and confusion of a rejected parent, and the pathology of a hateful
alienating parent. Given the large number of children of divorce
who are likely to be vulnerable to this condition there is potential
for far-reaching and tragic circumstances for individuals, families
and society. Those who reject the term PAS or the rejecting behaviour
of one parent towards another consider it simplistic and not supported
by findings from recent empirical research (Johnston & Kelly,
A number of attempts have been made to define both PA and PAS.
All consider that it is the persistence of conflict between the
two parents in regard to their children based on extreme hatred
towards the non resident parent (Batchy & Kinoo, 2004). Some
investigators have considered that PAS or PA are similar to the
false memory syndrome (FMS)(Gardner, 2004 a&b). Both share in
common a campaign of acrimony against a parent. Both also persist
in strong negative attitudes and rejecting behaviour towards that
parent with corresponding emotional enmeshment with the other parent
(Johnston, 2003; Johnston et al., 2005). What is perhaps most hard
to bear for the rejected parent is that the parent is rejected where
previously he/she was loved. All this is due to ex spouses still
being in conflict with their former partner (Gagne et al., 2005).
Child custody evaluators commonly find themselves confronted with
resistance when they attempt to use the term parental alienation
syndrome or even parental alienation during their time in courts
of law. Although convinced that the individual being evaluated suffers
from the disorder, they often find that the solicitors, attorneys
or barristers who represent alienated parents, although they agree
with the diagnosis, discourage use of the term in the evaluators
reports and testimony. Even those who are biased against the whole
concept of alienation and consider the view that father’s
who are often the rejected parent are actually inadequate individuals.
Such injustice fortunately is not general (Van Gijseghem, 2005).
Gardner (2002 & 2003) has for a long time been a great advocate
of PAS rather than PA before the judiciary. This is despite the
fact that up to now DSM-IV diagnosis has not recognised the term
PAS. This should not be confused however, with the fact that such
a syndrome of combination of aspects are related to parental alienation
as to virtually term it a syndrome. It was the hope of Gardner (2003)
that PAS would be recognised in due course by the judiciary in order
to make prudent decisions in child custody disputes. Some courts
indeed do recognise it. Proponents of its use applaud it as a distinctly
diagnosable phenomenon and appreciate the clarity it brings to diagnosis
and treatment of intra and inter-family dynamics. Some critics sometimes
go so far as to deny it exists. Some courts who have recognised
it have made good progress while other courts bar testimony on it
(Andre, 2004). Despite this there are those who still oppose its
use and the concept of PAS (Emery, 2005). It is the view of the
current author that it makes little difference whether the term
PAS or PA is accepted as it is self evident that this situation
exists and that the alienating process does much harm to children
as well as their parents.
At present the extent of the problem of parental alienation is
unknown and there are often multiple factors that may contribute
to the refusal of children to have contact with the parent. It is
however, always recommended that there be therapeutic intervention
when this occurs albeit the custodial parent will often refuse or
be opposed to such a procedure (Falco, 2003).
It is unfortunate that the legal systems in many areas of the world
find it difficult to reverse the refusal of a child to see a parent.
Courts tend to give in to the views of the child irrespective of
what has caused these views to be developed (Gardner, 2003).
Are Non Residential Parents of Value?
Although the rejected parent is predominantly the father, it does
also occur that mothers are the rejected party. There is now some
evidence that concrete aspects are related to fathers being left
out or rejected in the child’s life. Snow (2003) found that
divorce affected more than 1 million children each year in the United
States. Within two years of their parents divorce, roughly 50% of
the children will have contact with their father less than twice
per year. Conflicts tend to arise when a parent has disparate definitions
and expectations of the other parent’s role performance. Obstructions
or threats to the enactment of good relations create conflicts between
the parents. This conflict often escalates when parents see themselves
as a victim of the other parent.
One study (Jones, 2004) found that when there was a good relationship
between the father and his children despite divorce, academic performance
in school rose. This study found that boys living without their
fathers were under-functioning when compared with boys living in
father-resident homes. This indicated the importance of fathers
in promoting academic school performance for boys.
Hence numerous studies have found the importance of involving
fathers after divorce or separation and how paternal involvement
improved the adjustment of young children from zero to six years
of age and older (Insabella et al., 2003).
It is unfortunate that at present non resident parents such as fathers
have little input with their children aside from providing financial
support. Results suggest that efforts should be made to continue
to examine non resident father’s involvement. Fathers should
do more than providing leisure and recreational activities, which
is currently the case in non resident father-child contact.
Novick (2003) pointed out the importance of Gardner’s book
on Parental Alienation Syndrome and how it emphasised how quickly
the process of alienation should be checked and reversed to prevent
it becoming an ongoing way of life. Rand et al., (2005) went so
far as to insist that children be forced to visit the target parent
even if they did not wish to do so. The authors felt that absence
from a non custodial parent was likely to make matters worse. There
should be immediate contact and this was important for maintaining
a relationship with both parents in the future. Children who had
enforced visitation with the target parent or were in the target
parent’s custody, maintained relationships with both parents
unless the alienator was too disturbed pathologically and continued
the alienation process. Unfortunately many alienators violated Court
Orders with impunity.
A Dutch study by Spruijt et al. (2004) emphasised the value of
the non resident parent and father having close and regular contact
with adolescent young adults. Increasing frequency of contact with
the non resident father over time seemed to correlate with diminishing
Long term effects of Parental Alienation on children
There have been very few long-term studies of children who have
suffered from parental alienation. One such study by Baker (2005a)
consisted of a retrospective study conducted with 38 adults who
experienced parental alienation as a child. Individuals participated
in one hour semi-structured interviews. Audio tapes were transcribed
verbatim, and submitted to a content analysis for primary themes
and patterns. Findings pertaining to the long-term effects of parental
alienation were analysed. The results revealed several major areas
- Low self-esteem.
- Drugs/alcohol abuse.
- Lack of trust.
- Alienation of their own children.
- Other negative results, such as difficulties in their own relationships
with the opposite sex and a variety of psychological problems
which vary according to the individuals and their experiences.
Another study by the same author Baker (2005b) revealed that adults
whose parent alienated them from the other parent described the
alienating parent much the same way former cult members described
cult leaders. The alienating parent was described as narcissistic
and requiring excessive devotion and loyalty, especially at the
expense of the targeted parent. The alienating parent also was found
to utilise many of the same emotional manipulation and persuasion
techniques cult leader used to heighten dependency on them. Finally,
the alienating parent seemed to benefit from the alienation much
the way cult leaders benefited from the cult members. They had excessive
control, power, and adulation. Likewise, the participants reported
many of the same negative outcomes that former cult members experienced
such as low self-esteem, guilt, depression, and lack of trust in
themselves and others. These findings provided a useful framework
for conceptualising the experience of parental alienation and it
was maintained should also be used by therapists who provided counselling
and treatment to adults who experienced alienation as a child.
Parental Alienation and the Parental Alienation Syndrome is very
much alive. Children are being deprived all over the world of an
essential part of their childhood, their loving parents and connected
loving family members. In essence they are being deprived of half
of their own personality since both parents are the founders of
the child(ren). Both parents are therefore needed for a healthy
development of the child(ren). The long term effects – all
be it that long term research needs to increase – are devastating
for the child(ren). The APA and BPS can no longer deny the existence
of PA and PAS and should start an open dialogue on these subjects.
If they do not then the APA and BPS are not meeting their responsibilities
towards the healthcare of children and adolescences.
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