Abuse of Children Due to Implacable Hostility Between Parents
(Is it PA or something else?)
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
This article attempts to distinguish between
subtle and more direct forms of alienation by one parent
or both parents seeking to influence the child against the
This is a form of emotional abuse which is harmful to the
child in the short and long term. This strategy is used and
effective when used by the custodial parent. The result is
the child apparently not wishing for contact and a relationship
the now absent parent. This is despite the fact that the
child had a good relationship with that parent before the acrimonious
divorce or separation. This separation led to an implacable
between the parents. The question frequently asked: “Could
the alienation be due to something else other than the influence
of a parent to turn the child against the other parent? Attempts
are made to answer this question.
Emotional Abuse of Children Due to Implacable Hostility Between
(Is it PA or something else?)
Quotation from the Honourable Judge Gomery
"Hatred is not an emotion that comes naturally
to a child. It has to be taught. A parent who would teach
to hate the other
parent, represents a grave and
persistent danger to the mental and emotional health of that
In what follows we will consider what causes the emotional abuse
of children once parents have separated and suffer from continuing
implacable hostility towards one another. This sometimes leads
to parental alienation. This is an active form of abuse of the
Parental alienation yes, no, sometimes?
There is still some uncertainty in the family courts, whether parental
alienation or the even more controversial concept of Parental
Alienation Syndrome (PAS), does or does not exist. As an expert
the courts, the current writer has experienced entrenched positions
by the judiciary which are as follows:
- parental alienation is irrelevant when an older
child (over 8-10) refuses to have contact with
an absent parent;
is a total denial that the concept of parental
alienation exists at all.
In what follows the current writer considers when and how parental
alienation exists and when it does not exist. Illustrations will
follow of actual cases where parental alienation occurred. There
are also actual examples provided where there were other factors
responsible for no or little contact between the child and the
non resident parent, because the child him/herself was opposed
to such meetings with the non custodial parent. It must be added
here that the custodial parent may have done nothing to dissuade
the child from having contact with the absent parent, but may
not have encouraged it either.
It would therefore be ridiculous to conclude that parental alienation
always exists in every case of an acrimonious divorce or separation
or that it never exists at all. Each case must be investigated
intensively by a truly independent expert witness to establish
the reason or reasons why a child refuses contact with the absent
parent whatever the age of the child. Any generalisation by experts
must be viewed as suspect since each case must be seen with an
open mind rather than a set notion or hypothesis which is biased
in one direction or another. It is however, important to establish
the real cause of why a child fails to wish to have contact with
a parent, especially when no hostility was present before the
acrimonious divorce or separation and the child enjoyed a successful
relationship with the now absent parent. There is a need to find
an explanation as to why no contact is wanted. There are at least
three possible explanations:
- The non custodial parent has done something which the child
dislikes or fears, since or before the parting of the
parents to change the child’s view of the now absent
parent, despite the fact that the child enjoyed a good relationship
now disparaged parent.
- The absent parent has done nothing
wrong towards the child or anyone else, but the child has
been influenced by the
custodial parent, usually the mother, or someone else to view
the absent parent negatively or with animosity.
- The absent parent may have behaved only “mildly” inappropriately
or negatively, such as showing anger/hostility toward the partner
and/or the child, but this behaviour has been exaggerated due to
the effort of the custodial parent. One might say that it constitutes
a quasi or “semi-alienation”.
In the case of numbers (ii) and (iii), there is now considerable
evidence that children who experience such alienation are likely
to have experienced emotional or psychological abuse. The symptoms
which many children manifest will be shown in the next section.
Emotional abuse of children due to parental alienation
In recent times there has been an emphasis on child sex or physical
abuse. Little comparative research and concern has been expressed
in relation to children suffering emotional or psychological
abuse. Children suffer emotional abuse for a number of reasons.
abuse due to PA is a form of rejection and aggression frequently
expressed by a parent who suffers from a variety of psychological
disturbances including, in some cases, mental illness.
It frequently occurs in reaction to an acrimonious divorce or
separation leading in turn to implacable hostility by the custodial
One of the parents has left the home and both, before as well
as after the parting show bitterness toward one another. Both
love the child but only one has custody. If bitterness remains,
this results in the child becoming a weapon with which to beat
the opposite parent. The results are that one parent, usually
the mother or custodial parent turns the child against the other
and frequently punishes or rejects a child who opposes such “brain-washing”.
The hatred which continues against the other parent leaves the
child with but one parent which the child wishes to please or
appease and to whom the child clings fearing the possible loss
parent also. This is usually the one who has gained custody and
on the whole it tends to be the mother. Such hostility is, however,
frequently also expressed when it is the father who gains custody,
and mother is the alienated party.
A child who fails to “side” totally
with the more influential custodial parent is frequently coerced
of the custodial parent in that the other parent (usually the
father) is bad, violent, aggressive or unworthy in some way.
the child to adjust to such alienation, leads to the emotional
abuse of the child with severe consequences likely in the short
and long term (Lowenstein, 2007, 2006a,b,c,d,e,f,g; Baker 2005a,b,
1997; Gardner. 2004 a, b, c, 2001 a, b, 2000). This conclusion
comes from studies concerned with the assessment of what happens
to children who suffer emotional abuse after having been exposed
to the process of alienation by one parent against the other
and sometimes by both parents.
Frequently children are unaware
of how they are being manipulated by a parent leading to a loss
of contact with the absent parent.
I will illustrate this by a number of conversations that have
been recorded on tape based on ‘in vivo’ telephone
conversations between alienating parents and the child. In order
the participants, I will use terms such as ‘M’ for
mother, ‘F’ for the father, and ‘C’ for
(M) to (C): You know your father is coming to pick you up and
take you out this Sunday?
(C) Yes, I look forward to seeing dad again. It’s been
a long time.
(M) You realise it’s the day your best friend may be having
a birthday party although it isn’t certain yet.
(C) He hasn’t definitely said this yet. The date hasn’t
(M) What do you want to do if he has the party on Sunday?
want to miss it.
(C) What do you think I should do mum?
(M) It’s up to you what you want to do. The party will be
good and you will meet lots of your friends there. Your father
could see you another time couldn’t he?
(C) But dad will be very disappointed won’t he? He
likes me to see him on his only day off.
(M) It’s up to you: shouldn’t we call dad so that he
won’t have a wasted journey coming here when you would rather
go to your friend’s party?
(C) OK, you call him and tell him.
(M) No it’s up to you.
(Mother picks up the telephone to ring father. She hands
phone to child)
(C) It’s me dad. Are you alright?
(F) I am really looking forward to seeing you on Sunday.
(C) Are you? Me too. Mother wanted me to let you know that
my best friend may be having a birthday party on that Sunday.
(F) What would you like to do?
(C) I don’t know dad. You know I would like to be with
you. What do you think I should do?
(F) I do really want to see you, but if you would like or prefer
to go with your friend and his birthday party I understand.
Most of all I want you to be happy.
(C) Can we see each other another time.
(F) Of course but I will only have time off work in another
Here we have an example of subtle manipulation by the child’s
mother. Mother is providing the 8 year old with desirable alternatives
instead of having contact with the absent father. Without the mother’s
intervention the child would certainly have spent the valuable
time with his father. Mother should of course have encouraged
the child to have the alternative of being with his father
thinking about the birthday party which had not been definitely
fixed. Instead she has practiced a subtle form of alienation
which is also emotional abuse of the vulnerable child who needs
his father in order to keep contact with him and to have the
influence and guidance of that father.
In many instances, the keeping of the child away from the absent
parent is much more direct leading to the child being totally
alienated eventually from the absent parent. In the next
example it is the
father who has custody, with the mother having been awarded
weekly contact with the child a 10 year old daughter.
(F) Your mother called last night. She wants to take you to
see a ballet. I hate ballet with all those gay men prancing
What about you?
(C) I have never been to a ballet. What do you think I should
(F) I can’t afford to take you to the ballet. I don’t
know where she gets her money from. It’s all I can do to
keep house and home together working all hours. You know what your
trouble-making mother is like. She has gone and left us for that
young chap. She’s having a good time with no responsibilities.
She is trying to break up our family. She won’t stop
until she has you living with her and that man she is with.
you like that to happen?
(C) Dad you know I will never leave you.
(F) It’s not easy working and looking after a child and a
house. She’s fancy free. I have tried to be a good
father to you.
(C) You have been dad. It’s mother who left us.
(F) I worry about the guy she is with. I have heard some
terrible stories about what step-fathers can do to children.
like anything bad to happen to you when you are with your
mother but there is nothing I can do while you are there.
(C) I am not sure that I want to go to mum.
(F) It is up to you but you had better call your mother for
if you don’t go to her she is very likely to take me
back to court. You know what she is like.
Here we have an example of direct manipulation of the child’s
mind and attitude to the parent with whom she has previously
enjoyed a close relationship. The marriage between the parents
a stormy one with each attempting to score against the other.
This is in contrast with what they should be doing, encouraging
child to enjoy the company of the other parent instead of demeaning
that relationship and the parent in the eyes of the child. It
is almost certain that the mother in this illustration equally
her former husband as a “control freak”, the reason
for which she left the family. Her current relationship with
a more ‘laid back’ partner, whom father virtually
accused of child abuse, appears to be going well.
This is the
kind of atmosphere that must be seen from the child’s
emotional point of view. The child is in an insecure position,
due to hostility between the parents. Each parent is seeking
the child’s love and loyalty totally towards him/herself
and to reflect and identify the hostility towards the other parent.
This is likely to lead to a number of short or long-term emotional
and behavioural problems in the child (Baker, 2005a). These are
delineated also by Lowenstein, 2007) and include behavioural
at school and/or at home, learning difficulties, sleeping and
eating problems and other difficulties that are likely to arise.
more harmonious relationship existed between the parents, or
one where they put the child first, rather than each other’s
hatred or dislike for one another, then the child would have
benefited from contact with the other parent. Their final consideration
be what is best for the child instead of prolonging the antagonism
What to do
Once it has been established that parental alienation or parental
alienation syndrome has developed as a result of an acrimonious
relationship between the parents, one or both parents may be
considered a danger to the emotional security of the child, but
is rarely made. Their behaviour should be considered inimical
to what may be termed “good parenting behaviour”. Their
behaviour often endangers the child and makes it more likely
that the child becomes emotionally and often behaviourally disturbed.
This however, is rarely considered. Courts faced with the prospect
of knowing how to deal with the child who opposes contact with
an absent parent are likely to take the easy way out, instead
the right or justified way. Few judges or magistrates will remove
a child from a custodial parent to place that child with the
absent parent when such abusive alienation is present. This occurs
the following two reasons:
1. The child “appears” to be adamant that he/she
wants no or very little direct contact with the absent parent.
do not consider why or what are the underlying reasons.
2. Judges consider, sometimes incorrectly, that the absent parent
must have done something to deserve such an adamant refusal by
the child to see him/her.
Judges rarely look behind the true reasons why a child is likely
to reject a parent with whom, in the past, that child enjoyed
a close and happy relationship. It is far easier for judges to
that “something must have happened” between the absent
parent and the child to lead to such rejection. Furthermore, whatever
the child’s reasons for wishing no or limited contact, judges
on the whole consider that a child’s wishes, especially
if the child is above a certain age, must be respected.
There are many expert witnesses (psychologists and others) who
go along with such a view instead of being responsible and truly
independent professionals by seeking for the true reasons behind
the child’s refusal for contact. It has already been pointed
out by the writer, that the child may have witnessed or experienced
negative behaviour towards himself/herself or the custodial parent
by the now alienated parent. In that case there is some valid
justification why the child will reject contact with the absent
here, however, the judiciary, at least in some cases should conclude
that efforts must be made to therapeutically and then gradually
reintegrate the child with the non custodial parent, whatever
the reasons for the child not wishing contact. This is, as ever
the best interest primarily of the child, who benefits most from
having the enduring love and guidance from both parents. I will
exclude, however, here any parent who has physically, sexually
or otherwise abused the child. Here contact should be considered
very carefully if at all.
At the same time, efforts need to be made to establish or re-establish
at least a possible harmonious relationship, between the parents
in any even limited way possible, so that the responsibility
of being two good parents can follow. Again this is primarily
the benefit of the child. The judiciary must be determined that
the separated parents will do as the court directs, because this
is also in the best interest of the child in the short and long-term.
That parent who fails to fulfil the directions of the expert
and the court, needs to be aware that there will be consequences
such a lack of co-operation. This is the meaning of “true
justice” and it is this, and only this approach which will
prevent the emotional abuse of the child and the consequences
of such emotional abuse.
In the case where the custodial parent practices alienation,
subtly or directly in order to turn the child against the absent
the influence of such a parent on the child leads clearly to
abuse. The child is in no position to counteract such destructive
of his/her mind. The child is coerced or bullied into adopting
the view of the custodial parent. This is a form of “brain-washing” which
can only be stopped by removing the child from such an influence.
If the custodial parent is unwilling or unable to refrain from
demeaning or demolishing the role which the absent parent can
play voluntarily, then there are only two right and just alternatives
1. To remove the child from the parent to a neutral venue such
as being placed in care or in a foster-parenting situation.
2. The child is handed to the non custodial parent with access
to the custodial parent providing neither parent will further
alienate the child against the opposite parent.
Once parents are capable of speaking well of one another and
working with co-operation in the interest of the child the emotional
of the child will end. If this co-operation does not occur, then
the parent who does the least damage by not abusing the other
parent in the child’s mind should have custody of that
Is it parental alienation or something else which causes a child
to avoid contact with an absent parent or can it be a combination
Anyone working with cases of alleged parental alienation
or parental alienation syndrome is confronted from time to time
in making a decision of whether in fact parental alienation has
or has not occurred. In a recent case in which I was involved
involving a teenage boy this fact may be illustrated. One of
the main problems
that existed in the relationship between the mother and the father
was that the father wanted his children brought up with rules
and structure whilst the mother was permissive and more relaxed
her approach to the upbringing of the children. One interview
with the a teenage boy, one of the children in the family clearly
the hostility that the boy had for his father. The participants
were the psychologist (P), the child (C) and the father (F).
say that you have never been influenced in any way by your mother
to not wish to see your father?
(C) That’s correct. My mother has never done anything
to me to stop me from seeing my father.
(According to the Father the mother had criticised him a great
deal to the boy and this undoubtedly had affected they boy
not wanting to be with the father.)
(C) It had nothing to do with my not wanting to be with
my father. I have always hated him and hate him even more
want to be with him or to see him. I have to do it because of the
court decision but it isn’t something I want to do.
(P) Why have you always hated your father that much that
want to see him.
(C) He has treated me badly. He used to smack me even for
little things for which I didn’t deserve to be smacked, and generally
I don’t like him as a person. He acts very stupid sometimes,
in fact quite often. He doesn’t seem to be able to
(P) Is that a reason for not wanting to have any contact with
your father who has of course done a great deal for you and
do even more for you in the future?
(C) I don’t want anything from him. I don’t
even like to say thank you when he does anything for me.
him and the more I am with him the less I like being with
(P) Didn’t he take you last year to Disney World
and you had an enjoyable time there?
(C) Yes I went there.
(P) How was it?
(C) It was OK.
(P) I noted that you never even said thank you to your father
for taking you to that place and spending all the money to
enjoy yourself in Florida.
(C) He doesn’t deserve to be said thank you to.
(P) But you did go to Disney World and enjoyed yourself.
(C) Yes, but that doesn’t mean I owe him a thank you.
(P) Don’t you think out of courtesy that he is owed at
least a thank you even if you do dislike him that much.
(C) No he doesn’t deserve to be thanked.
(P) And this is all due to the fact that you had some smacks
when you were younger?
(C) And he did lots of other things which I can remember that
made me unhappy.
(P) Did he ever do anything that you enjoyed or liked doing
which you could have said thank you to?
(C) No I can’t think of anything good about me being with
him. The less I see of him the happier I am. My court order says
I have to see him every other week and that is why I am doing it.
Otherwise I wouldn’t and when I am 18 I will no longer
want to see him at all.
Here is an example of a child not wanting to have any contact,
or as little as possible contact, with his father and not even
being willing to say thank you when his father does something
nice or he enjoys the activities that father provides. The boy
implacable hostility towards the father. One may well ask if
the occasional smacks that he received as a child and other incidents
the boy claims happened worthy of having that type of reaction.
Furthermore the boy states that he has never been in any way
by his mother, (who is remarried), in turning against the father.
This is hard to believe and there are several views that can
be expressed here. Here are some of them:
1. How much did mother do to openly encourage the boy to have
contact with his father?
2. Why was the boy so adamant about not even wishing to say thank
you to his father when he had a good time with him and enjoyed
the time out? Was this deliberate, a lack of respect or just
plain bad manners which were encouraged by the custodial parent,
least not discouraged?
3. Was the boy unable to show that he had a good time with the
father because this would displease the mother?
4. Did the boy therefore feel that he should not acknowledge
the good times with the father and felt that he should say something
negative against the father all the time?
It is undoubtedly true that here we have a case
of implacable hostility allegedly not due to any form of alienation
But is this so? It is difficult to verify whether no form of
alienation has occurred, subtly or otherwise. One thing is certain
is adamant about not wanting contact with his father and claims
that no-one influenced him in this respect. However, there is
evidence that children observe and learn from their parents and
own attitudes towards others and life in general. Is it not possible
therefore that the child has observed negative behaviour/feelings
towards the father by the mother and copied this accordingly?
What are psychologists to do in cases such as this in order to
the child with an optimum future and care knowing that ultimately
both parents want to be involved with the child?
on the principles adhered to by the psychologist. As already
mentioned on a number of occasions, the current psychologists
approach has always been that two parents are better than one
providing neither parent is abusive either sexually, physically
It is clear in cases such as that described it is likely to
be an uphill battle to get a young person to feel any sort of warmth
for a parent for whom he feels such hatred, or indeed to relate
to him in any way. Nevertheless it is the view of the current
psychologist that all efforts should be made to try to heal
that child and the parent, whether or not the process of alienation
has occurred or not.
In the case quoted, previous reports by other psychologists read
by the current psychologist, indicate mother is disparaging of
the former partner such as calling him a “jerk” among
other things. Clearly the child has no recollection of any pleasant
events between himself and his father or wishes somehow not to
reveal these pleasant events due to selective memory. One must
note that such implacable hostility towards a parent is not rare
especially when no favourable memories of any kind are recollected
by the child in question. It is the view that the individual wishes
to shut out anything positive that he has experienced with his
father in order to continue the process of hate against that person.
Whether or not alienation occurred, which is denied by the boy,
is another question. It could well be that the child is unaware
of the fact that the process has occurred and is reacting to it.
If it has not occurred then certainly the hostility felt by the
child towards that parent is excessive to say the least. It is
not at all in keeping with having received a few ‘smacks’ as
a child, since many children receive such punishments without
reacting many years later with such animosity.
In this case efforts were made for over 10 hours in an intensive
therapeutic approach to seek to change this boy’s views about
his father, being aware of the fact that father could offer him
a considerable degree of support in the future, especially in relation
to payment for his education and other supportive efforts. The
seed of seeking to make the young person grateful for what in fact
father had done already was sown in the boy’s mind and
since a good relationship had been developed between the psychologist
and the boy concerned, it was felt that following the ten hours
of intensive work some changes had occurred in the thinking and
hopefully the future attitude and behaviour of the child in question.
All this points to the fact that there are considerable complexities
to the reactions by a child following marital break-up and an
acrimonious divorce in relation to how it affects children. Eventually
must deduce signs such as the over-reaction of hostility of the
boy to his father, his lack of recollection of any positive events
in the past and the fact that he had enjoyed the company of his
father, even though he did not wish to admit it, or be grateful
It was the view of the current psychologist that it was the psychologist’s
task to heal such wounds of hostility between a child and his parent
even when there was no obvious or direct evidence of parental alienation
or parental alienation syndrome. This was my main aim when therapy
took place in this case. It was obvious that alienation of some
kind had taken place for the boy to have such a negative attitude
toward his father. This negativity was unlikely to have been caused
by the father’s behaviour alone. One of the problems that
existed was that each parent had a different attitude toward
the rearing of the child and therefore did not work together
to maintain a harmonious or at least positive co-operation for
the benefit of the child. This in itself added to the eventual
situation when separation occurred. The differences became more
apparent and the child was reared by the custodial parent (the
mother in this case) who was more laid back and less structured
than the father. This coupled with the negative attitude of the
mother toward the father led to the implacable hostility of the
boy building and building to the point where no contact was wanted
from the boy with his father. The implacable hostility which
was observed by and possibly learned by the child therefore grew
over time. The only course open was to try to heal the rift that
had occurred and not to dwell too much on the fact that alienation
had taken place. Hopefully in time the boy would realise the
value of contact with his father and how this had contributed
life despite the feelings of acrimony that existed.
This is but one case where alienation was suspected but denied.
Some of the behaviour of the father toward the child at some
stage in the child’s life was possibly responsible for some of
the feelings of hostility but not all. Some kind of hostility,
lack of respect and general acrimonious feelings had been transferred
from the mother to the child towards the father. Father had tried
to give the boy positive and good experiences for which the boy
was not grateful and felt that the father “did not deserve” his
thanks. This surely had not developed on its own and the boy
was suffering from this situation by not appreciating his father
what his father did for him despite the hostility shown to him
by the child. The court in this case were not remiss in ordering
contact but alongside of this the alienation should have been
stopped and the child given some form or early intervention in
of remediation of his behaviour toward his father. The little
that was attempted was too late, Although seeds of reason were
for the future possible growth.
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