Parental Alienation

Southern England Psychological Services

Dealing With Parental Post-Separation Conflicts (Recent Research)

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


What follows will consider the effect on children as well as adults of the increasing prevalence of divorce and separation between adults with children. The first objective will be to consider how to prevent conflicts between previously close adults followed by positive aspects of mediation as well as at times some of the negative repercussions of mediation. What will be further discussed will be mediation as an alternative to litigation and also the use of education and counselling to deal with post-divorce problems.

Each year, 50% of all marriages now end in divorce and 1 million children are exposed to a divorced family in the United States alone (Taylor, 2005). Among the methods of resolving some of the issues that develop as a result of such separation and divorce, we will consider mediation between the parents. Unfortunately many adults do not believe in, nor do they trust the process of mediation when it is ordered. Children and adolescents coming from families with high levels of marital conflicts display a variety of difficulties. Much depends on the intensity of the problems between the adults. Such problems certainly effect the self-esteem of both children and adolescents. In many cases in later life both children and adolescents develop more fearful attachment styles in comparison to those coming from families of low marital conflict (Sirvanli-Ozen, 2004). It is frequently necessary to involve psychological treatment in high conflict divorce (Boyan & Termini, 2005).

Preventing Conflicts if Possible

There has been relatively little research in how to prevent problems between warring adults which in turn is a way of preventing children from suffering from this conflict. Children are totally involved when marriage breaks up and conflicts arise. It has been felt by numerous investigators that children should be included in the mediation process (Moloney & McIntosh, 2004; Mackinnon et al.,2004; Louw & Scherrer, 2004). Such preventive approaches do much to reduce the negative outcomes experienced by children of divorce (Haine et al., 2003). If at all possible, a different kind of family life in which quality of relationship is the key factor needs to be established (Walker, 2003). In this way parents can institute more protective behaviour that may enhance children’s short and long-term adjustment (Kelly & Emery, 2003). Rye et al., (2004) emphasise the importance of promoting forgiveness of an ex-spouse in post-divorce adjustment. This is likely to reduce the level of depression, anger and other negative emotions that frequently result from relationships breaking up.

Positive Aspects of Mediation

We will now consider some of the positive as well as negative aspects of mediation. Therapeutic divorce mediation is one of the several interventions that hold promise for assisting highly conflicted parents to resolve disputes about their children (Smyth & Moloney, 2003). During the mediation process it is vital to introduce an intense child focus in order to reduce the conflicts between parents by asking them to consider what is most important i.e. the child and his/her future (Kelly, 2003a). It is always important to emphasise that it should not be a question of who wins and loses the arguments but what is the common purpose of both parents (McKnight & Erickson, 2004).

It has been well known that divorce puts the emotional, economic and educational well-being of thousands of children in danger every year. The levels of conflict between parents is a key factor in how well the children overcome the challenges that divorce creates (Schepard, 2004). Courts today, seek to involve both parents in a child’s life rather than having to chose between them. Mediation and education have replaced to some degree the courtroom as the primary forum for resolving parental disputes. Unfortunately, mediators and Courts of Justice, as will be seen later, do not always work together effectively.

Since April 2001 the Children & Family Court Advisory Support Service (CAFCASS) in the UK became responsible for family court work including the provision of mediation services. Family court mediation offers a gateway for social work with children and families whose needs are largely left untouched by current services. Such an organisation could thereby play an important role within the broader extension of prevention by a process of early intervention. Parenting and support services have for some time been recommended by the Government of the United Kingdom. Over the past decades, mediation has become a popular approach to reducing conflict and resolving disputes (Mantle & Critchley, 2004), but not when the hostility between the parents is pathological.

Following such mediation after divorce there are many legal consequences. Among them is the regulation of the relationship between parents and children in as far as how it relates to contact with children (Kraljic, 2005). Contact with children is often the central problem of divorcing parents. Instead of maintaining genuine relations with their children, they may abuse them for their own purposes, including practising parental alienation. Mediation should help parents and children realise that parenting does not end with divorce.

It is also very important to involve the children at some point in time in the process of mediation (Schoffer, 2005). One must listen to the child but one must also listen to the ‘secret voice ‘ that does not always speak within the child due to the fact that what the child states may not be in his/her best interest and is often based on prejudice, bias and a process of alienation (Lowenstein, 2005a-j; McIntosh et al., 2004, Moloney & McIntosh, 2004). Moloney & McIntosh draw a distinction between child-focused and child–inclusive practice. Child-inclusive practice, on the other hand more formally fulfils the aspirations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that children should be consulted when decisions about their welfare are being made. Further, child-inclusive practice as defined by Moloney and McIntosh allows for consultation without placing the burden of decision-making on the child. An article by Schoffer (2005) discusses the cost and benefits of the child’s involvement and comes to the conclusion that the integration of children in mediation ought to be considered on a case to case basis. The alienation process occurs over time between divorced parents who experienced severe or pathological parental conflicts. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists working as parent co-ordinators have found the work extremely challenging since parents take stands that go counter to one another, especially in high conflict divorce (Boyan & Termini, 2005).

Mediation as an Alternative to Litigation

There has been in practice the view based on the importance of mediation rather than litigation. This however, is not always feasible since parents, through the mediation process, hope to gain what they believe to be their own right. Mediators can only do so much to seek the co-operation of parents who may be extremely distant or opposite in their viewpoints. In the endthey will require the court to support their efforts (Lowenstein, 2005a-j). There is a growing need to examine the consistency and effectiveness of child custody mediation endeavours in the USA as noted by Ortega et al., (2004). Some districts favour judge-imposed orders and other districts favour mediated settlements. As an alternative to litigation mediation has been used to resolve conflicts in a co-operative manner to reflect the best interests of all the parties. This is easier said than done as already mentioned (Bartholomae et al., 2003; Bailey & Robbins, 2005). Parents will always seek to get the mediator to take sides. When the mediator resists this, one or both parents will turn against the mediator.

Another reason for relying heavily on mediation processes is that family disputes are the bane of overburdened court systems, especially in child access issues, and consume a disproportionate share of court resources. Consequently, family mediation has become a viable method of helping to resolve disputes and mental health professionals are increasingly called upon to mediate child access and support disagreements (Ortega et al., 2004). As already mentioned children have a need to be involved in this process but in the most sensitive way possible.

This is because mediation, at least in a large part, must be child focused. Hence, while children should be consulted when decisions about their welfare are being made it is vital to look deeper into the decisions and feelings of children before including what they say or feel as being as meaningful as it appears to be. This is due to the fact that many children are seeking security with usually the custodial parent, and are in many cases willing to reject the non-resident parent for no good reason (McIntosh et al., 2004). The child thus taking the side of one parent at the expense of the other is wrong. The excluded or ‘side-lined’ parent feels he/she is being treated unjustly. The child cannot in the short or long-term benefit form this state of affairs.

Problems of Mediation

It has already been suggested that mediation is not a perfect way of dealing with the problem of conflict between parents involving children. As pointed out by Lowenstein (2005a-j) without the support of the court, when there is implacable, irrational hostility between the parents, the mediation process often is a meaningless activity. This is because children are almost always caught in the triangle of their parent’s fights. This ‘war’ may either be open or made insidious such as when parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome is present (Goncalves & de Vincenzi, 2003). Other family members and even strangers become embroiled in the conflict. A study by Sbarra & Emery (2005) re-evaluated the long-term effects of divorce mediation on adults’ psychological adjustment and investigated the relations among co-parenting custody conflicts. This revealed that fathers and parents who mediated their custody disputes reported significantly more non acceptance based on a 12 year follow-up assessment. Unfortunately this is one of the few longer term researches available.

Education and Counselling

Another approach has been used often combined with the mediation process. This is education and counselling of parents who have found it difficult to avoid their conflict continuing especially in relation to their children. Attendance at divorce education classes were found to be associated with whether a subject will return to court of not. Those who attended were less likely to return to court and litigation (Criddle et al., 2003).

There have been substantial changes in scientific and public perspectives regarding children’s adjustment to divorce in the United States. Decades of divorce research have created a more complex and nuanced understanding of how divorce impacts on children and adolescents. The stressors and risks which divorce presents for children, the resiliency demonstrated by the majority of children, and protective factors which are associated with better judgement following divorce are described by Kelly (2003b). A distinction is drawn between painful memories and psychopathology. It is therefore felt that educating divorced parents about known risk factors for their children acts as a protective measure to enhance their children’s long-term adjustment.

Family advocates and family counsellors represent the best interests of children in divorce actions (Scherrer & Louw, 2004). Regardless of how the divorce occurs, it is important to note that there are hurt parties in need of healing. Mediation and divorce education lend themselves to reduce the pain and anguish being experienced in some cases. It is only when the parents are free from the trauma associated with divorce that they may serve as a positive influence on their children (Taylor, 2004). Only by helping parents to move from entrenched disputes towards a more constructive co-parenting relationship will the best interest of the children be served (McIntosh & Deacon-Wood, 2003).


There are several ways to prevent and deal with conflicts between parents for the benefit of the children. These ways aim to improve situations including the treatment of individual parents using psychological techniques, using mediation and education procedures. One must be aware of the fact that these are not always effective on their own. It has been established that without the support of the court or the Judiciary many procedures of mediation are unsuccessful. Hence, there are both positive and negative outcomes of mediation. Some of the less severe conflicts are resolved by mediation alone. The more severe cases require a combination of court involvement and the mediation process working co-operatively.


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