Psychological Effect of Modelling (Imitation) on Parental Alienation
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
I am often asked how children become estranged from a parent after
an acrimonious divorce or separation. What follows indicates the
process by which alienation occurs and examples are cited on how
non alienation can also occur, as well as the negative aspects of
the destruction of a relationship between one of the parents (alienation).
While most alienated parents are fathers, mothers also face this
alienation process and hence the sex of the partners, in what follows
as illustrations, are kept ambiguous. Hence A will equal one parent
who responds well to counselling by a psychologist and therefore
avoids the process of alienation, while the other (R) has not as
yet been able to avoid the process of alienation. As each speaks,
including the psychologist (P), the interaction of the two indicates
the process by which alienation can also be avoided.
The illustrations also demonstrate as they are recorded by tape
recorder, both positive and negative verbal and non verbal communications
which equally result in positive and negative relationships respectively.
These recordings have been made with the consent of the parties
involved. It is important to begin with how the custodial parent
prevents a process of negative (parental alienation) from developing
with the help of the psychologist. This does much to prevent harm
to the child in the short and long term. (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991;
Blush & Ross, 1987; Gardner, 2000, 2001; Lowenstein, 2005 a-k).
Before illustrating this with two actual cases as seen by the present
author, it is vital to look briefly at the theoretical work on modelling
leading to parental alienation. By modelling is meant the child
identifying closely with the custodial parent and responding accordingly
to the wishes of the custodial parent, whether these are subtle
There is considerable evidence that parental alienation results
from a custodial parent acting with hostility and/or fear towards
a former spouse. This then results in a child developing similar
if not identical reactions towards the non custodial parent with
whom the child had had a good relationship earlier. (Clawar &
Rivlin, 1991; Blush & Ross, 1987; Gardner, 2000, 2001; Lowenstein,
Bandura and Rosenthal (1966) were some earlier investigators who
noted that fear or alienation could be acquired through modelling,
that is through observation and imitation. Hence a child may observe
or hear a parent act or speak with fear or antagonism towards an
absent parent and thereby equally develop the same fear and hostility
towards that absent parent through imitation. The absent parent,
by the mere absence, is unable to defend himself/herself. The child
also becomes totally identified with the custodial parent and that
parent’s position of fear and hostility towards the non custodial
parent (Fredrikson, Annas & Wik, 1997).
Fear, anxiety and hostility are inculcated in the child by a hostile
parent, often towards the absent parent which could be the father
or the mother. This frequently leads to avoidance behaviour by the
child in the short and long term through operant conditioning. Hence
antagonism, could develop eventually for the whole gender of the
alienating parent (male of female). This can lead to the avoidance
of the whole gender group due to generalisation effects. This again
is due to the preservation of the emotions and attitudes over the
long term (Kim & Hoover, 1996; Wells et al., 1995). This could
also result in a generalised anxiety disorder via a stimulus generalisation.
Now follow excerpts from two tape recorded interviews. These recordings
were made with the consent from all parties involved. The first
(A) was a parent who was amenable to a change of attitude and hence
the avoidance of alienating, through the guidance of the psychologist.
The second (R) was more resistant to avoiding alienating a child
against the former partner.
Illustration 1: How PA can be prevented or curtailed
(The custodial parent A could be either the father or the mother,
P is the Psychologist)
A: Doctor I don’t know how to deal with
my daughter. We have both been let down by my partner who left
me for someone else:
P: In the first instance you should be accurate
in what you say to your child. You should tell her that her parent
has not left her (the daughter) but has left you (the wife/husband).
You should make it absolutely clear to the child that the absent
parent loves her as much as when (s)he resided with her.
A: How then do I explain to my being alone
and (s)he leaving me?
P: You should make it clear that there have
been differences between yourselves (the parents) which made it
difficult to live together but that this does not in any way change
your child’s feelings towards your former partner. You should
make it absolutely clear that you are both the child’s parents
and that you both love the child.
A: I feel so bereft and alone with the burden
of looking after and bringing up a family on my own.
P: I understand how you feel. Your former partner
probably does also and possibly feels some guilt. You were undoubtedly
close at one time.
A: Yes we were, but no longer. I must look
ahead but how to do this is not easy.
P: There are many couples who after a time
become friends once the grieving and animosity has ended.
A: I don’t see how I can ever forgive
P: You may never forgive or forget but now
it is time to think of your daughter first and foremost and how
best to provide for your daughter’s emotional security.
That means continuing to involve your ex-partner in the life of
that child. You are one of the most important members of your
daughter’s life. (S)he has already seen one parent leave
and may have witnessed acrimony and unhappiness of the two persons
which mean most to her in her life. Your daughter must continue
to depend on you and your former partner for her future emotional
development, security and capacity for living a reasonable happy
life. Please make certain that your daughter and the other parent
is aware of that.
A: It makes sense when you say what you say
and I will try to make my ex-partner to play an important part
in our child’s life.
P: How are you going to make sure this is communicated
to the child? You will have to speak well of your ex-partner regardless
of how you may feel about his/her treatment of yourself. You will
have to speak well and mean it and sincerely encourage your child
to have contact with your former partner. (S)he must of course
feel and do the same. If each speaks well of the other the child
will feel secure as a result of this. This will lead also to a
better relationship between yourself and your former partner since
you do have in common the love for your child.
Illustration 2: Attempting to counteract potential negative
influences and feelings leading to parental alienation
With the previous approach having taken place, we continue with
a session with a parent who is more resistant to accepting the role
of the other non custodial parent and who has already begun, to
some degree, programming the child against that parent. It has to
be said that many custodial parents are not so easily convinced
that it is in their child’s best interest, or their own best
interest, to encourage positive contact between that child and their
The dialogue which follows between the present psychologist and
the alienation parent demonstrates how the alienator feels and behaves
in order to prevent positive contact between a child and the other
parent. It also includes the direct and subtle resistance which
the psychologist encounters in his effort to convince the custodial
parent that they are already programming the child against the non
resident parent. The custodial parent is undermining the non custodial
parent subtly, and sometimes unconsciously. This is not in the best
interest of the child. It will also do much to cause problems for
that child in the future.
(The custodial parent R could be either the father or the mother,
P is the Psychologist)
P: I believe there have been some problems
about your former partner having contact with your mutual child?
R: That has nothing to do with me. I have never
stopped my child (it may be noted that ‘my’ is used
instead of ‘our’ by the alienator) from having contact.
I can’t force the child to do so and I don’t intend
to force him/her.
P: Why do you believe the child does not want
R: I don’t know. You will have to ask
P: What do you think the child would say?
R: Probably that (s)he did not behave as (s)he
should have behaved towards me and the child and that’s
why they want nothing to do with him/her, and feels very angry,
P: So you are blaming your former partner for
the fact that the child is so hostile towards your former partner?
R: What other reason could there be? (Here
we may note the denial that the custodial parent is doing anything
to prevent contact. This is where modelling is seen to be acting).
I haven’t done anything to stop the child from having contact.
So don’t blame me, which you are doing, because I know about
your work on parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome.
P: Do you not believe that a parent sometimes
tries to turn a child against a former devoted parent intentionally
or even without meaning to do so?
R: Sure it exists, but I would never do such
a thing even though I hate my former partner after what (s)he
has done to us.
P: You say ‘us’ don’t you
mean ‘you’……what your former partner has
done to you? Your partner has not really done anything to the
R: You have to ask my child.
P: What do you believe the child would say?
R: My (note the constant use of ‘my’)
child does not like my former partner just as I don’t.
P: But why……..?
R: I know what you are trying to get me to
say……. That I influenced the child in some way.
P: Well have you?
R: Of course not. Why should I do that? I have
always considered there should be the same contact with my ex-partner.
(One may note the denial here that the partner is doing anything
to prevent contact).
P: But how much? How much contact do you think
the child should have?
R: That’s up to the child. My child should
have some say in the matter. (Here again the power of the child
is put in the frame. The child is to make the decisions rather
than the mother/father. The custodial parent empowers the child
totally when in fact the parents should be proactive in encouraging
contact with both parent. The custodial parent is in fact pretty
certain that the child will reflect the custodial parent’s
views and reject the other parent, now the alienated parent. Normally
the custodial parent is a pretty dogmatic person but in order
to appear ‘fair’ steps out of character and allows,
and even insists that the child make the decisions in this instance).
P: Don’t you realise you are putting
an excessive amount of responsibility on the child?
R: My child has a right to decide what the
child wants and I believe (s)he can handle it.
P: Do you give your child that kind of freedom
of choice about when to go to bed or when to get up, or how much
television to watch, and whether the child needs to see a dentist
or go to school, or whether to wear warmer clothes in the winter
time etc., etc?
R: That’s different……. Very
P: What do you say to your child about being
with your former partner?
R: I say that (s)he wants to see the child
the next weekend and asks if (s)he wants to go.
P: What if the child says, “No, I would
rather do other things such as being with my friends or playing
games or watching television? What then?
R: What can I say? The child has a mind of
his/her own and I can’t and won’t force him/her to
go if (s)he doesn’t want to go. (R neither encourages nor
puts any pressure on the child to have contact with the other
P: But you could insist that (s)he see ….let’s
say…a dentist and would insist on it, or…go to school,
R: That’s different. You do have to insist
on a child going to school and seeing a dentist, but to be with
a parent is not the same, especially if the child already doesn’t
want to do so.
P: Don’t you see what could happen if
the child rarely, or never sees the other parent?
R: I don’t see what I can do about that
and anyway why should that be harmful to the child not to be with
the other parent, especially if the child says (s)he does not
want to be with that parent but prefers to do other things.
P: So you feel that the child not being with
the other parent is not really that important? So you won’t
insist the child should go with his/her other parent who doesn’t
live with him/her anymore?
R: What can I do? I already told you that if
the child doesn’t want to go I can’t do anything about
P: You could encourage ………You
could insist……You could say how important it is that
(s)he is with the other parent. You could do this for the sake
of your child. You could even go out together perhaps with the
child and the other parent providing that there are no arguments.
R: I can’t do any of those things. My
ex-partner wouldn’t like it also.
P: Have you tried it……Have you
discussed it with the other parent? Might not that be good for
the child and also improve your relationship with the other parent?
R: No. Neither of us would like to be together
in the company of the child. Anyway, it would just increase the
chance of us quarrelling.
P: You seem very negative about possible ways
to improve the situation between yourselves and your former partner.
R: You don’t know what (s)he is really
like or you wouldn’t suggest such an idea.
P: You seem very negative and pessimistic about
all and everything I suggest. Don’t you believe your child
would benefit if you and your former partner could agree most
specially about good contact between the child and the other party?
Isn’t that what you would want if things were the other
way around and your former partner had custody and not you?
R: Well that is not the case now isn’t
it. Besides that, I would do anything to have my child want to
be with my former partner, but I have heard him/her say how much
(s)he dislikes and even hates him/her, probably as much as I do.
P: So your child has heard you say that about
your former partner?
R: I may have said it a few times. I was being
honest. I can’t help it. Should I have lied?
P: You could have said to the child, that your
former partner loves him/her as much as you do and that (s)he
has always been a good father/mother to him/her. The other partner
equally should say the same to the child. Both you and your former
partner could emphasise the importance of the child showing ‘respect
and love’ for both parents.
R: You really want me to help my former partner
have contact and for me to be friendly towards him/her?
Here the mother/father has shown their true feelings. At this
point the interview is at an end although it could go on without
perhaps much being achieved. It must be admitted that those who
are pathological alienators are not easily convinced that they should
not directly or subtly programme a child against the absent parent.
A former hostile relationship and acrimonious parting is often sustained
and leads to parental alienation. It also leads to the prevention
of contact between the child and the former grandparents and other
relations of the absent parent. It can lead to insults by the child
against the alienated parent which was not the case before the acrimonious
parting between the adults.
In these cases, the expert witness (psychologist of psychiatrist)
must rely on the judicial system to enforce contact with the absent
parent, even if this is against the “apparent” wishes
of the child. It could and should lead to a change of residence
if all else fails to achieve its objective. Only in that way can
there be the possibility of reversing the harm that has already
been done to the child in the short and in the long term. It is
unfortunate that at present the judiciary is rarely willing to act
on behalf of what is best for the child but will only act if the
child’s views are sacrosanct. What is lacking here is a failure
to identify what the real needs are of the child and not what the
child states having been influenced by others in some way . It is
very unfortunate that many psychologists/psychiatrists have an attitude
of being “child-centred” and by this they mean that
they believe what the child says rather than what the child needs
and what is best for the child in the short and long term. It is
the view of the current psychologist that providing there has been
no abuse of the child and there is unlikely to be any abuse of the
child, both parents have a vital role to play in continuing having
positive and good contact with the child over many years.
There is considerable research now that modelling and classical
conditioning may be responsible for fear and hostility reactions
in children towards and alienated parent where previously there
had been a good relationship. These children have identified with
the programmer who directly, or subtly, causes a child to develop
animosity combined with fear towards a previously loved and caring
parent. The process of alienation has produced a product or reaction
in the child which is virtually pathological and can only be removed
by changing custody for the child temporarily or permanently, or
by intense treatment, or a combination of the two, so that the child
will recollect positive moments with the alienated parent and resume
the relationship which formerly existed. Obviously the process of
alienation and identifying with the programming parent must be halted
before this can solidify into total rejection of the non custodial
parent. Only the psychological treatment combined with the court’s
appropriate reaction to this situation can lead to a resuming of
a favourable relationship between the alienated parent and the child
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