is it not a case of PA or PAS?
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
I have already written a considerable amount on the subject of
parental alienation syndrome or parental alienation as some prefer
to call it. When I received the following letter from a parent (a
father, but it might just as well have been a mother) it started
“Dear Dr Lowenstein,
When a mother is not alienating a child, but the child
nevertheless blames the father for the break up of the family,
do you have a term for this? How would you describe this type
of situation from when the mother is actively involved?”
Let us assume the child has his/her own reasons to blame the father
because of the hurt that the child perceives he has inflicted
on the mother, I am concerned that this is distinct from parental
alienation syndrome (PAS) as you portray it, and the material
you disseminate doesn’t make this point. Because of this
your material risks being discounted for this very reason.
I believe that PAS does exist and that there ought to
be greater awareness of it because of the harm that it does, but
in raising the awareness of the issue, it would be a pity if it
got discounted because you don’t take adequately into account
spontaneously occurring alienation, as I have suggested.”
The letter came from a father who pointed out, quite correctly,
that the reason for a child blaming a parent, hence alienating that
parent by wishing no further contact with him, may not be due to
any alienation practiced by the custodial parent, in this case the
mother. A number of scenarios are presented for the purpose of illustration
of how non alienating by a parent and semi-alienating by a parent
can take place.
It is on the basis of this letter that the article now follows.
Alienation of a Child Towards a Parent Without Programming
by a Custodial Parent (i.e a non PAS scenario)
The break-up of parents in a relationship, when there are children
involved, rarely fails to involve or injure the emotional security
of a child. This is because the child has become accustomed to two
parents being involved in caring for him/her. Hence, when one parent
leaves, the security of the child is affected and there is a likelihood,
especially with the very young child, that he/she will cling to
the remaining parent fanatically.
The absent parent is often felt to be rejecting not only the child,
but also the remaining parent. If the parent who has abandoned the
home and family leaves to be with another person, this compounds
the feeling of having been rejected and hurt. This becomes easily
translated into counter rejection of that absent parent by the child.
The thinking follows something like this: “If he doesn’t
want me, I don’t want him”. It must be added that this
feeling of alienating the absent parent has nothing to do with what
the remaining parent says or does. The remaining parent may well
have said nothing negative about the absent parent. It could be
that the remaining parent has made either no comment or even positive
remarks about the now absent parent.
The remaining parent may be saddened or relieved that the other
parent has gone especially when there have been numerous unpleasant
arguments or scenes between them. This impact is communicated to
the child who in sympathy with the remaining parent. It is for this
reason that the child might feel and act with hostility towards
the parent who has abandoned the home.
Sometimes, the unpleasant scenes between the parents, leading
to mutual hostility, have created a situation where the remaining
parent encourages and even insists that a parent leave the home.
What is the child to feel in that situation? Does that child feel
that the remaining parent has rejected the parent who leaves or
is the child likely to blame the parent who leaves? The child may
or may not be aware of the circumstances of the parent leaving the
family home. The child may blame one or other of his parents and
act accordingly. This again is not a situation of parental alienation
involving the child.
There is another reason why a child will not require the process
of parental alienation in order to reject one of the parents. This
is when the child has been abused, sexually, physically, emotionally
or has failed to receive the care required by a good parent. Such
a scenario could lead to the child rejecting such a parent without
any influence from the custodial parent. Such rejection is not a
response to the brainwashing or programming of the child by one
parent who is hostile to the other parent. Needless to say, when
such abuse is true and comes to the knowledge of the custodial parent
who is not an abuser, then that parent may well reject the abusing
parent and pass on such a message to the child directly or inadvertently.
It is the role of the psychologist, or others, to investigate such
scenarios in depth. This will be discussed in our final section.
It must be realised that there are not always clear cut aspects
to such cases. There may be a combination of “indirect”
or “subtle” alienation practiced in combination with
the negative features the child has observed or experienced. An
illustration of this now follows.
Illustrations of alienation of a child only partly due
to parental alienation
Children sometime reject a parent due to personal observations
and experiences with the now absent parent. This may in turn be
combined with a custodial parent making negative statements or innuendos
about the now absent parent. This could be considered a ‘quasi’
scenario of parental alienation, since both aspects are involved
– the child’s observations as well as the custodial
parent’s efforts to discredit the now absent parent. It is
far more difficult to judge a parent as an alienator when he/she
does not make negative remarks about the absent parent but no positive
remarks either. It is often necessary for the custodial parent not
only to avoid being negative or even neutral about the absent parent
but sincerely speak well about the absent parent to the child. This
could lead the child to wish to have contact with that absent parent.
This could equally still lead to little desire for contact by the
child with the absent parent, if the child’s own experiences
are negative towards the absent parent. Where such an experience
exists then the child will often wish little or no contact with
that absent parent. Any abuse the child has experienced in whatever
way, the child may well avoid wishing contact with that absent parent
despite the encouragement that child receives from the custodial
parent. This however, must be investigated very closely and in depth
to make certain that one is actually voicing what the child truly
feels rather than what the child feels on the basis of the influence
from the custodial parent. It is the role of the psychologist to
investigate in some depth whether the child is justified or not
in wishing to avoid contact with the absent parent and why. Any
child who has experienced abuse, especially sexual abuse, and severe
physical abuse should not be forced into direct contact with that
parent. Only after such an abuser has been treated successfully
for his/her tendency to abuse, should consideration be given to
encouraging more direct contact.
The role of the psychologist
The role of the psychologist, or whoever has been asked to assess
and report on the family dynamics, is to obtain and weigh the evidence.
He/she must be an independent assessor with freedom to report on
what evidence exists for a particular case and the conclusions that
are reached on the basis of this. This should be followed by precise
recommendations. It is vital that the impartial assessor needs to
be extremely sensitive to the underlying problems and not just the
superficial issues before reaching any decision about contact with
an absent parent who may or may not have abused the child.
It is important to remember that taking the word of the custodial
parent must be avoided. Implacable hostility of the custodial parent
can lead to information about the non custodial parent which could
well be flawed. The child who has been deprived of one parent, through
no fault of his/her own, may well identify very closely with the
remaining parent in an effort to feel secure. This sometimes leads
to a “folie a deux” situation. This in turn leads to
total identification with the custodial parent. Hence the child
acts much as a clone by thinking and behaving like the remaining
parent. This may be despite the positive and loving overtures of
an innocent parent who wishes to continue to play a caring and guiding
role in a child’s life.
If that is the case, it is necessary to reverse the myopic views
of the child through treatment and even possibly removing the child
from the ambit of indoctrination. This is because the basic principle
on parenting should be always be kept in mind. Both parents, all
things being equal, have a right or even responsibility to provide
for the care of their mutual offspring. Failure to do so, under
such conditions, is likely to lead to both short-term and long-term
emotional damage to the child and future adult.