Parental Alienation

Southern England Psychological Services

The Psychological Assessment and Treatment of Pathologically Induced Alienation
(Dealing with alienation leading to an induced phobic reaction)

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


Children who have been alienated, frequently behave towards the alienated parent, much as phobics react to the object of their fear. For example, despite a previous harmonious relationship with the now absent parent, these children often claim that this parent is a danger to them and therefore they feel hostile toward them. They therefore claim to be afraid of being alone with them. This is despite the fact that they are not in any way in danger.

Psychological treatment here involves changing both their attitudes and behaviour simultaneously. The changing of attitudes or “mindset” involves cognitive strategies as well as behaviour changes. Let us begin with cognitive treatment.

Cognitive Treatment

The child is reminded of the happy times spent with the alienated parent. Such memories sometimes re-awaken the child’s positive feelings towards the now alienated parent and shakes the child from his/her determination to both hate and fear that parent. It is also necessary to engage the child’s conscience in so far as how the child is upsetting the alienated parent without justification by his/her behaviour. This is sometimes effective, but not in severe and long-term alienation towards the targeted parent. One might say that these children are bereft of any guilt feelings. Instead they cling to the custodial parent even more for fear of losing that parent also. The child also fears to show any affection or care towards the absent parent especially when the alienator is present. The child fully realises that the alienating parent will look poorly on positive behaviour directed towards the alienated parent by the child. It is then that the child acts in the most unfriendly ways towards the absent parent by insulting, humiliating and even spitting at the targeted parent. The behaviour of the child often, but not always, changes when alone with the targeted parent. Now there is no need to put on any acts of animosity towards the targeted parent since the alienating parent is absent. The therapist must be firm in overcoming the lack of conscience of the child towards the now absent parent. The ethics of psychological treatment with its generally softly, softly approach are unlikely to be effective.

One must also remember that whatever the psychologist achieves can easily be reversed by the continuing process of alienation when the child is once more with the programmer. It is for this reason, that alongside the cognitive process of therapy, there needs to be a behavioural therapeutic engagement.

Behaviour Therapeutic Approach

The major behavioural approaches are desensitisation, flooding and modelling. These approaches are collectively called “exposure treatments”. We will look at each of these behavioural procedures in turn. These need to be used alongside the cognitive methods previously discussed.

Systematic desensitisation is used to relax the child while they are confronted with the object, real or imaginery, of the person allegedly feared. Since relaxation and fear are incompatible, the objective is to replace the fear with calming and relaxing the child about eventually meeting the disparaged parent. This meeting should be under the conditions of relaxation about the encounter. Fear therefore needs to be replaced by calmness.

Fear is eventually dissipated utilising 3 phases; relaxation training, construction of a fear hierarchy, and graded pairings of the fear object (that is the alienated parent) and relaxation responses. The relaxation training programme seeks to release all tensions in the child’s body. Next a fear hierarchy is constructed.

This comprises of a list of specific situations regarding the alienated parent. The fear situations are ranked in ascending order from thinking of the targeted parent in their own home, distant from the child, to eventually imagining that parent in the next street, the next room, and eventually in the same room as the child. This is termed “covert desensitisation”. The first of these would result in only very mild fear, while the rest are likely to result in increased fear reactions. In each case, relaxation is paired with the fear-provoking situation, thereby dissipating each of the fear responses. At first this is done by imagining the situation. Later it is done via ‘in vivo’ desensitisation, that is with the alienated parent actually involved and present. Here again the child moves from the least to the most fearsome phase while undergoing relaxation. This is a typical type of treatment used with individuals who suffer from phobias of various kinds.

The second behavioural approach is termed “flooding”. The theory behind this method is that the child will stop fearing and being hostile to a parent by being exposed to that parent repeatedly and over longer and longer periods of time. This would make the child aware that (s)he has no reason to fear or be hostile toward that parent. This technique forces the child to confront his/her fears without relaxation training being involved.

There is likely to be much opposition to this approach by some psychologists or psychiatrists who are “child-centred” and who consider such an approach possibly “harmful” to a child. Often the truth of the matter is obscured when allegations have been made of sexual, physical or emotional abuse of the child by the absent parent. Even when there is no proven truth to the allegations, the procedure is to consider such allegations “possibly true unless proven otherwise.” Hence guilt is assumed merely because allegations are made by the alienator or an ally of the alienator.

This can result in no contact being permitted for the non custodial parent for months and even years. Supervised contact is also even disallowed, because the child claims to be afraid of, or hostile to the absent parent. What has been forgotten is that the alienated parent has often had a good relationship with the child before the alienation was carried out. It is the process of programming the child to feel hostile and fearful of the absent parent which leads to the avoidance or phobic reaction by the child.

The present psychologist cannot seen any other therapeutic process likely to be effective in the long term other than the child being confronted face to face with the absent parent and thereby overcoming fears and other delusions felt towards the alienated parent. This is not advocated by others in the field of child and family problems. Some consider such an approach to be “insensitive” to the child’s state of mind. Unfortunately, putting off such direct confrontation, destroys the chance of the child being ‘healed’ from the effects of the process of alienation. Only by actually seeing and being with the now absent parent who has been maligned, will the child see and experience the reality of the former loving individual. This will then trigger off the parent’s association with happier times.

Sometimes it is helpful for the child to view the way the therapist, as an intermediary, engages with the alienated (allegedly feared) parent in what is termed “vicarious conditioning”. Hence a child views the alienated and allegedly feared parent while in the presence of the therapist whom the child trusts and who encourages a friendly and non threatening relationship between the child and the parent. Hence the therapist proves to the child via his own interaction with the parent that the child has no grounds for his/her fears. Following such vicarious conditioning, while the child is interacting with the once feared parent, there eventually results a closer relationship, especially when the therapist eventually feels it is right to leave the room so that the child can interact more directly with the previously maligned parent. This can then lead to more direct interaction and bonding between the child and the once feared parent.

The third behavioural approach is termed “modelling”. There is considerable research that indicates the effectiveness of reducing specific phobic reactions by the methods described (Wolpe, 1997; Wolpe et al., 1994; Emmelkamp, 1994). The key to success with a purely behavioural approach to eliminate specific phobias (objects or situations) is to have actual contact with the feared object (Hellstrom & Ost 1996; Emmelkamp, 1994; Arntz & Levy, 1993). ‘In vivo’ desensitisation is also considered more successful than covert (imagined events) desensitisation. Similarly, ‘in vivo’ flooding is more effective in reducing or eliminating phobias than ‘imaginal’ flooding. ‘Participant’ modelling is also more useful than ‘vicarious’ modelling (Menzies & Clarke, 1993; Flynn et al., 1992; Ritchie, 1992). In the case where the fear and/or hostility is expressed by the child toward a non custodial parent, the evidence is still limited to single case studies. Single case studies of “flooding” have produced good results, but unfortunately the success is often reversed when the child leaves the therapeutic environment and returns to the alienating influences of the programmer.

It is for this reason that it may be necessary to consider a change of residence temporarily or permanently. This could be to stay with the alienated parent for a specific time (e.g. a full Summer holiday) or a non alienating neutral individual, while the therapeutic process continues. Courts are still, however, reluctant to do this. The reason for such reluctance is the child’s apprehension to see the alienated parent weighs heavily on Judges. The argument that the child was in the past happy to be with the now rejected parent is discounted due to the child’s current reluctance to be with that parent.

All the arguments offered that the child’s reluctance is based on a process of programming which the child has endured, and that this is the reason for the phobic and antagonistic habituated reaction, are ignored. It is assumed that the child, previously so close in relationship to the absent parent, has somehow developed a fear and hostility due to some unknown event or experiences, with the currently alienated parent. Judges often become convinced, irrationally, that the innocent alienated parent “must have done something” to be thus treated with a combination of fear and hostility.

This type of “rationalisation” makes it easier for the Judicial system to maintain the ‘status quo’ that is, the custodial parent continues with having total control of the child and providing further opportunity to alienate the child. Judges are likely to consider that in due course the child, in later years, or even as an adult, will on his/her own volition make contact with the sidelined parent. The realities, however, are that in situations where contact has been completely ceased – with the approval of the Courts – the relationship is not likely to be salvageable. If the child finally meets the alienated parent, they can not likely return to the happy point before the rupture of the relationship; there are no significant shared moments of happiness they can memorise and relive, there are no photographs or videos of recently enjoyed happy moments. The relationship is destroyed and can no longer continue to build on shared experiences.

There is the stronger likelihood that the alienated parent and the extended family of that parent become permanently redundant due to the process of habituation. It must be said that Judges, as well as Expert Witnesses, have much to be blamed for, when they adopt the view, that the child must always be believed, and that actions should follow on the basis of this fact. There is here a failure to assess in depth what actually are the reasons for the child’s attitude and behaviour towards the absent parent. This is a most important factor mostly missed by those who are responsible for delivering justice for the child.


Children can develop various phobias during their childhood, and many are treated for this. The psychological properties of the phobic rejection of a parent by a child is an example of this. The treatment for this kind of behavioural deficiency is similar to the treatment of other phobias, being an ‘in vivo’ flooding and ‘participant’ modelling of the alienated parent to the child. Where these treatments are effective but become overindulging for a child due to the counteractive behaviour of a resident parent, then the child should no longer reside on a day-to-day basis with this parent that is continuing to imprint the phobia into the child.


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