is in the Best Interest of the Children?
(Problems associated with parental divorce and separation)
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
This article is written by
a clinical and forensic psychologist frequently engaged as an expert
witness to the courts dealing with family problems and disputes
and its effect on children. A book has been published on the subject
of Parental Alienation by the current author in 2007 entitled “Parental
Alienation” (Russell House Publishing).
In what follows
we will consider ideals when separation or divorce occurs but
also the reality of
separation and divorce and its effect on children. Also considered
are the Judiciary faced with cases of implacable hostility of
one or both parties in the dispute. This is followed by what the
should do in connection with such disputes. Finally, there will
be a discussion on the signs of parental alienation due to the
hostility between the parties and what the court can do in combating
the effects of parental alienation.
The Ideal result of separation and
What is in the best
interest of children should be the predominant concern primarily
of those who are the parents, but also those functionaries such
as Solicitors, Judges, Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Guardians
Litem and Social Workers to name but a few who may become involved
in a case. That is the way it should be in an ideal world containing
ideal, sensible and rational parents and others involved in a dispute.
Ideal, good or sensible parents
who love their children, frequently act in what is truly in the
best interest of their offspring. They will speak well of the other
parent and include the absent parent as much as possible with the
children in order to remain a part of the family. Such parents
to do what is best for their children including rather than excluding
the absent parent. This is despite the way they may feel about
other parent. It should be remembered however, that when parents “fall” what is generally termed “out of love” there is likely to
result a feeling of being rejected on one side or the other. One
or both of the parents may have found another partner and this adds
to the difficulties and complexities of trying to find a solution
that will be in the “best interest of children”. This is also open
to various interpretations according to from which standpoint you
It is in the children’s best
interest that despite parents separating, the parents continue to
display the love and responsibility towards their mutually conceived
offspring. Parents would also do well to behave in a friendly, and
even caring, manner towards their former partner. Such attitudes
and behaviour provide continuing security for the children and the
children will feel that although the parents are not living together
they are both kind towards one another and certainly care for the
children. It also means that there is regular good contact between
the now absent parent and the children. Ideally, this should be
via a display of harmony between the parents while in the presence
of their children and one another. This is “truly in the best interest
of the children”. Unfortunately it is not always a goal that is
The realities of separation and divorce
“Implacable hostility” is
a term that the legal profession and the Courts of Law accept as
a frequent consequence of an acrimonious divorce and separation.
The creation of progeny usually means that following separation,
or even before separation, there is acrimony between the partners.
This spills over into the children. Children are often affected
in two ways: 1) They may well lose one of the parents with whom
they have had a close and loving relationship; 2) They may be forced
to take sides, usually siding with the custodial parent against
the absent parent. This may be the mother or the father, whoever
has, or takes custody, of the children. It is the mother most of
the time but 25% of the time it is the father.
is the experience of the current psychologist and expert witness
from numerous court
The family court dealing with implacable
hostility between separating parents
It is unfortunate that
present family courts fail to understand how the effect of “implacable
hostility” between the parents militates against what is in the
best interest of the children born from the relationship. Children
are highly suggestible to the views expressed by parents. This
predominantly the case of the views expressed by the parent who
has taken or been accorded custody of the children.
Often, before the break-up
of the relationship, there are frequent arguments or there is “quiet
discord” between the parents who have become unhappy with one another.
Children, inevitably, as already stated become enmeshed in the
between the parents.
Children are often forced
to choose between the parents. They will tend to choose that parent
with whom they are likely to reside. Their own security demands
that they are loyal to that parent, while being forced thereby
to frequently reject the absent parent. That absent parent is now
as being less important in providing security to the child. The
exception of this is when the custodial parent speaks well of, and
warmly about, the now absent parent and encourages contact between
the absent parent and the children. This however, is the ideal rather
than the reality.
The Judiciary faced with a case of
The Judiciary will almost
always be aware and accept when there are signs of “implacable hostility” between
the former partners. Frequently, such implacable hostility also
results in the following:
- The result of these issues or problems of implacable hostility
in the arrangement of contact between the child and the now
absent or non resident parent.
- The non resident parent, whether mother or father, is prevented
or curtailed from having good contact with a former loving
- The child no longer and incomprehensibly expresses the desire
for such contact.
- The court will tend to act upon the express wishes of the
child, especially the older child without exploring the
basis of the child’s reasons.
- The court fails, therefore, to comprehend how the implacable
hostility aspect of the resident parent has led to that
alienation of the now non custodial parent.
- Although the court clearly understands how “implacable hostility” leads
to contact disputes, the court fails to accept or understand
that those in dispute frequently practice parental alienation
or parental alienation syndrome (PAS).
- Another of the strategies of the resident parent is to influence
the child to have little or no contact with the absent parent.
- The court therefore fails to comprehend or to correct such
a process of alienation by accepting the views that child
has adopted and not exploring the reasons for this
and treating the child accordingly. These views have bee imposed
child leading to the child no longer wishing contact
with the absent parent and this is often not acknowledged.
are taken at face value. These views however, can
often be remedied through treatment by a psychologist to help
the rift between the child and the absent parent.
What should the Judiciary do?
The Judiciary need
to look in greater depth at what precedes contact disputes after
divorce or separation, and how the implacable hostility often leads
to a process of alienation by the parent who is in a position to
influence a child most. This is likely to be the custodial parent,
whose hostility leads directly to the process of parental alienation
or parental alienation syndrome (PAS).
The Judiciary must then act
in accordance with such knowledge by recommending ways of combating
the effects of parental alienation. Hence the court can act in
that are truly “in the best interest of the child”. The term ‘parental
alienation’, and even less so the term ‘parental alienation syndrome’,
is not accepted by the court of law and some psychologists, because
it has not as yet been acknowledged by the British Psychological
Society or the American Psychological Association as being a “syndrome”.
The term syndrome, merely summarises some of the symptoms of what
an alienator does to prevent contact with an absent parent, or to
make such contact as fraught with as many difficulties as possible.
Such alienation, eventually leads to the “child not wanting any
contact with the absent parent”. This in turn is accepted as the
way things should be by the Judiciary, or the Judiciary feel that
they can do nothing about the situation.
The Judges throw up their
hands in despair indicating that they are helpless in what they
can do when a child refuses to see, meet or have a relationship
with the non custodial parent. A question frequently asked by the
Judiciary is: Can we force the child into contact against his/her
There is much the court can
do to avoid carrying out an injustice which “is not in the best
interest of the child”. Children, it must be accepted, do best
with both natural parents being involved in their lives as equally
possible. The exceptions are when it has been proven that
the absent parent is responsible for the sexual, physical or emotional
abuse, or neglect of the child. I emphasise proven, since the alienator
is quick to use “abuse of the child” by the absent parent to keep
that parent at bay or out of the lives of their child.
Judges need to be made aware
by an “independent” psychologist of the signs of parental alienation.
Let us look at just some of these signs.
Signs of parental alienation
Signs of parental alienation
have been described succinctly by both Gardner and Lowenstein.
- The campaign of denigration where nasty and true statements
made against the absent parent are believed.
- Weak, frivolous and absurd rationalisations for the denigration
of the absent parent. This constitutes lies and exaggerations
about the negative attributes of the absent parent.
- The lack of ambivalence – nothing good or positive about
the absent parent can be remembered.
- The “independent thinker phenomenon”. Here the child is
being made to think that the ideas expressed by the alienating
are his/her very own.
- The child’s reflexive support of the alienating parent
in the parental conflict. Here the child feels coerced for
his/her own security or survival to side with the custodial
parent against the absent parent.
- Feeling no signs of guilt in treating the alienated parent
cruelly and rejecting that parent.
- The presence of borrowed scenarios. Here the child accepts
everything the alienator says about the absent parent,
if the comments made are ridiculous, exaggerated
or totally untrue.
- The spreading of animosity to the extended family of the
Lowenstein (2007) in his book “Parental Alienation” describes
28 specific signs of the alienation process and these now follow.
- Lack of independent thinking from the child imitating the
alienator’s thoughts and feelings.
- Destroying mail or even presents from the alienated parent.
- The alienating parent tends to seek to curtail all communication
between the child and the alienated parent.
- The alienated parent is seen as the scapegoat. He or she
is blamed for everything that has gone wrong with the child.
There is no sense of ambivalence.
- The child calls the alienated parent a liar and other abusive
names similar to the alienating parent.
- The child insults, shows disrespect, and humiliates the alienated
parent often on front of the alienator.
- Alienated parents are viewed as being despicable, faulty
and deserving of being rejected permanently.
- Parents who alienate children are seducing the child emotionally
and will continue to do this while in control of the child,
yet they deny that they are doing anything but encouraging
the child to make contact with the alienated parent.
- The child is made to feel guilty for any love shown towards
the alienated parent. The child will deny any involvement
with the alienated parent, fearful of what the alienator
would do to him or her.
- The child fears rejection by the programmer in case he or
she wishes to say good thing about the alienated parent or
wishing to be with him or her.
- The child is owned, controlled, and indoctrinated by the
alienating parent. That parent is viewed as all good, all
wise, and all powerful by the child who becomes dependent,
manipulated by them. There is never questioning that what
the parent says or does is always right.
- The child tends to paraphrase statements used by the alienating
parent. The words used are often untypical of words likely
to be used by a child. It is very similar to a cult
type of indoctrination.
- The child suffers from paranoia (hatred) inculcated by the
alienating parent who promotes attitudes, intentions, and
behaviours of a negative nature to the alienated parent.
- The child will speak about exaggerated
or contrived abuse that has been experienced from the alienated
- The child or alienating parent makes statements insinuating
quasi or actual sexual, emotional, and physical abuse suffered
by the child.
- The language comes indirectly from
the alienator such as, “he touches me inappropriately,” or
“he has penetrated me,” These are all borrowed scenarios
from the alienating parent.
- Children who are alienated no longer know truth from lies.
- The child who is alienated against the parent will often
be alienated against the parent’s family also.
- The alienator will also poison the child against the therapist
unless the therapist supports the alienator. Hence the therapist
is seen as an enemy in the same light as the alienated parent.
- It is not what alienator says but
how it is said. For example when telling a child “father would
like to take you out,” it can be said with joy and enthusiasm
indicating positive expectations or it can be said with
indicating negative feelings. This is what is predominantly
communicated to the child rather than the verbal message.
- The alienated child tends to see themselves in a very powerful
position, especially in the severity of their antagonism shown
to the alienated parent. This is all done following the programming
by the alienator.
- Female alienators will often choose female solicitors as
they assume they will be able to identify with them better.
- Female alienators are often angry
due to the fact that the alienated individual ahs a new relationship,
while she has not.
- Some alienators move away from where their ex partner resides
in order to make visits difficult or impossible.
- Sometimes the name of the child is changed to that of the
alienator or the next partner to which the alienator has
attached him or herself.
- Frivolous reasons are often given for not wanting to be with
the alienated parent. Even when told that if these frivolous
reasons were removed the child will often claim they do not
wish to be with that parent under any circumstances.
- The child is encouraged to be with friends or play on video
games in preference to being with the alienated parent.
- A child who had a history of a good, happy and warm relationship
with the now alienated parent before separation or divorce
will fail to remember events in the past that made
them happy. They may be suffering from amnesia of any good
to the alienation process.
The court and others combating
the effects of parental alienation
There is no easy way to combat
alienation especially if it has taken place for a long period of
time and the alienated parent has had little contact with the child.
One might say the alienator has won and has the complete control
of the child in this scenario. The two (the alienator and the child)
then are a ‘team’ who work totally against the alienated parent
for the purpose of humiliating and rejecting that parent from having
contact with the victimised child.
Some of the methods
that are recommended for dealing with the process of alienation
extreme but it is an extreme situation that one is facing when
dealing with the overwhelming power of the alienator. Typical therapeutic
methods are ineffective when dealing with such problems. Very firm
approaches are required and these must be backed unequivocally
the court in order for them to have an effect in debriefing the
victim of the alienation (the child). This sometimes places the
therapist in a dangerous situation for he or she may be accused
of being to firm in seeking to reverse the alienation effects.
combination of both reason and emotion but most of all firmness
must be shown to the child to make them aware of the damage that
has and is being done by continuing to live with such a negative
attitude towards one parent. This is of course assuming that the
alienated parent is innocent of all physical, sexual or emotional
Again there will be overlap
in the suggestions made to reduce the effects of alienation:
- Destroy the effects of denigration by one parent towards
the other by making the child aware of the happy history before
the acrimony and separation between the parents occurred.
- Get the child to see the good points about the denigrated
- Be firm and proactive in changing attitudes and behaviour
that have caused the parental alienation.
- Try to get the alienating parent to cooperate in stopping
the alienation. This is easier said than done, and many alienators
will refuse to cooperate in this although claiming otherwise.
This is even the case when it is highlighted that such actions
are actually harmful to the child’s development.
- Appeal to the child’s conscience that he or she is rejecting,
hurting, and humiliating an innocent party who cares for that
- Have the child together with the
alienated parent in due course while seeking to change both
attitudes and behaviour via rational emotive therapy. There
is a need in this process for very firm communications.
- Make the child aware of what a blood relative might sacrifice
for that child which is not the case for strangers.
- Warn the parent who alienates the child of the harm that
they are doing to the child not just in the present time but
in the future also.
- Appeal to the child’s critical thinking (intelligence and
emotions) and make the child aware of the unfairness and
cruelty in rejecting a loving parent.
- Make the child aware that they need both parents without
endangering the relationship with the alienating parent.
- Make the child aware that they may lose a good parent if
the process of alienation continues.
- The child should be made aware that the extended family of
the alienated parent is also being unfairly rejected.
- Encourage the child not only to engage with the alienated
parent but with the alienated parent’s extended family, i.e.
grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, etc. This will serve
to reverse the alienation process.
- Curtail or eliminate telephone calls and other communications
from the programming parent while the child is with the non-custodial
- It is important for children who have been alienated to spend
as much time as is possible with the alienated parent alone
so that a relationship can re-develop between them. The longer
this individual contact occurs, the greater the likelihood
that the alienation process will be depleted.
- Curtail the child being used as a spy against the alienated
- In the extreme case the child should be removed from the
influences of the alienating parent and be given in custody
to the alienated parent or another body including a family
member. This is to protect the child from further alienation.
- Passivity and tolerance are ineffective when dealing with
parental alienation. What is required is confrontation of
a very powerful type in order to counteract the effects of
the alienation and to reverse it.
- The power of the court must back the mediator who is seeking
to remove the alienation effects
- The child may often need to be removed to a neutral setting
such as a hospital to prevent further alienation. This is
only in very extreme cases where severe psychological damage
has been done to such a degree that the child suffers from
delusions about the alienated parent.
- In the case of severe alienation it is best for the alienated
parents never to approach the home of the alienator but rather
to use an intermediary for the transfer of contact with the
- It should be remembered that the child who has been the victim
of brain washing needs to know that it is safe to be with
the alienated parent without this reducing their loyalty and
commitment to the other parent. Hence the alienated parent
should do as much as possible to reassure the child that there
is no desire to separate the child from their other parent.
- Alienated parents once they have contacted their children
should concentrate on talking about the past and the happy
times together supplemented with pictures or videos. Initially
a child could be very offhand and even fail to have eye contact
but this can be reduced through reminders of happier times
in the past and how this can continue in the future.
- Alienated parents should not give up easily but should persevere
in their efforts to make and maintain contact with their child.
Constant rejection from the child is likely to be humiliating
and demoralising, but persistence sometimes leads to success
with the help of an expert and the support of the courts.
Both aspects involved in dealing
with parental alienation are important but the details are certainly
incomplete as there are many other ways of dealing with alienated
children as well as their parents. It is important to realise that
there is a great difference between therapeutic approaches in the
normal sense and those that are required with parents who are alienating
a child against another parent. It can not be emphasised too strongly
that without the backing of the courts the efforts of the expert
involved are unlikely to be effective.
If the Judiciary dealing
with family courts takes heed of what has been stated it will become
more just in its judgments or decisions reached. It will also truly
be acting in the “best interest of children” and the future of our