Treatment Approaches for Children who have Suffered from Parental
This article attempts to provide more
specific treatment approaches for therapists in the case of children who
have suffered from parental alienation. The treatment approaches are based
on the 8 manifestations of parental alienation syndrome as mentioned by Richard
Gardner, a pioneer of research into the area of parental alienation. Each
of these 8 areas should lead to some specific approach in therapy with the
child or adolescent. The article also refers to the difficulty in carrying
out therapy with children who are living with the alienating parent who is
likely to continue the process of alienation while the therapeutic efforts
are being made.
One of the most difficult aspects of therapeutic intervention is dealing
with children who have been alienated or brainwashed against one parent
following an acrimonious divorce or separation. Unfortunately, the
child’s alienation continues and when there is a recommendation by
the Court that therapy should be carried out, it is likely that the
alienator, whether it is mother or father who has custody, will continue to
work against the therapeutic effort to change the child’s views about
the other parent. This is why a number of experts strongly recommend the
removal of a child from the abusive environment of the custodial parent to
a neutral environment or to the non-resident parent while therapy is being
carried out. The Judiciary find it difficult on the whole, to take this
step. Unless this is done therapy is ineffective in many cases. What is
needed is the removal of the child from the resident parent to the
non-resident parent. This provides the opportunity for the alienated parent
to re-engage with the child and stops the alienator from nullifying the
work of the therapist.
In reading what follows it would be of value for the reader to look up
the work of Waldron and Joannis in “Understanding and Collaboratively
Treating Parental Alienation Syndrome” published in the American
Journal of Family Law, Volume 10, 121-133 (1996). A similar article was
published by the current author entitled “The psychological treatment
of children who have suffered from parental alienation” (2001) (see
) The book written by the author of this report entitled “Parental
Alienation” (Lowenstein, 2007) will also provide considerable
information on the causes, signs and treatment of parental alienation.
Another author Amy J. L. Baker in her article “Parental Alienation
Syndrome – the parent child disconnect” published in Social
Work Today, Vol. 8(6), 28, (Baker, 2008) much can be gathered about the
effects and manifestations of parental alienation syndrome. Finally, the
pioneer into the whole subject of Parental Alienation, Richard Gardner
(1998) and his book “The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A guide for
mental health and legal profession”, Creskill, New Jersey, Creative
Therapeutics Inc. is also of interest.
Gardner points out 8 manifestations of parental alienation syndrome. These
1. A campaign of denigration
- where alienated children are consumed with hatred of the target parent.
Frequently they reject all contact or communications with that parent.
2. Weak, frivolous and absurd
rationalisations. This occurs when the alienated child/children are
questioned about the reason for their intense hostility towards the
Their explanation for rejecting a once loved parent is totally frivolous
such as they are made to eat certain foods, or encouraged to eat certain foods
by that parent.
3. A lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent. Hence, in
this situation there is an automatic or reflective idealised support for
the custodial parent who is carrying out the alienation
and equally the opposite feelings towards the now absent parent of total
hatred, and only negative feelings. There appear to be no half-way or mixed
feelings about the now absent parent. All feelings are negative.
4. The independent thinker
phenomenon. The child is totally influenced by the alienating parent or
brainwashed by that parent against the now absent parent
and the child will claim that what he/she has stated is his/her idea rather than that of the
5. There is an absence of guilt
about the treatment of the targeted parent. Most children will feel
guilty about being aggressive, or hating one of their parents.
In many children in cases of parental alienation no such guilt feelings
appear to exist. They may however, be there on a deeper level.
6. Support for the alienating
parent under every circumstance. Families in conflict from time to time
would disagree and children would take one side or the other.
When parental alienation occurs the child will only take the side of the
alienating parent whatever the argument is about, or whoever is right or
wrong. There is no capacity to be impartial.
7. Presence of borrowed
scenarios. Alienated children make accusations towards the alienated
parent. The accusations are inculcated by the alienator.
The children will use words and ideas that are not normal for a child of
that particular age or development.
8. Rejection of the extended
family of grandparents, uncles, aunts etc. This is extremely hurtful to
a family that has once been close to the child but is now also rejected
because the denigrated father/mother has been alienated.
initially identified these scenarios and this has further been
substantiated by Baker & Damall (2007). These are aspects that any
therapist needs to tackle and overcome despite the difficulties involved,
most especially, as already mentioned, when the alienated child continues
to reside with and is influenced by the custodial alienating parent.
Post-divorce custody litigation is the main reason for lack of contact
by one parent with the children. It could however, also occur in intact
families where there is a bad relationship between mother and father. Both
mothers and fathers are capable of such alienation. Those who carry out the
alienation are frequently suffering from narcissistic and/or borderline and
antisocial personality disorders. Such manipulation of children is
extremely abusive and can constitute emotional abuse and has long term
effects. Individuals who have suffered as a result of parental alienation,
who have been interviewed as adults, have described their feelings of
depression, turning to alcohol and drugs and having relationship problems
as well as frequently multiple divorces. It is for this reason that
therapeutic methods should be used but these have in many ways not yet been
sufficiently investigated as to their value and capacity to change the
picture of the alienating process. Working with alienating parents is
extremely difficult. This however, could be carried out at the same time as
working with the children who have been alienated.
One of the major approaches in treatment is to make the child aware and
develop critical thinking skills. This is in order to help them resist any
further pressures or alienating policies by the alienating parent. The main
approach should be the de-programming of children who have been turned
against a targeted parent (Lowenstein, 2001).
It must not be forgotten that children who have been alienated often
refuse any form of treatment but this is unfortunately due to the influence
of the alienating parent. Children like that are prone to make it very
difficult for a well-meaning therapist to have any influence on the child.
Perhaps this is another reason why children should best be removed from the
influence of the emotional abuse of the alienator before treatment begins.
It must be said that the willingness of a child to have treatment is a good
sign and could lead to good results.
The influence of parental alienation was emphasized by Gardner (2001) in a dialogue between the
psychologist (Gardner), the child and the mother. It is worth quoting now
to indicate the severity of the belief of the child about an innocent
“Gardner: I’m very sorry to hear that your
Billy: You know he just
didn’t die. My father murdered him.
Gardner (incredulously) Your father murdered your grandfather, his own
Billy: Yes, I know he did.
Gardner: I thought your grandfather was in
hospital. I understand he was about 85 years old and that he was dying of
old age disease.
Billy: Yeah, that’s
what my father says.
Gardner: What do you say?
Billy: I say my father
murdered him in hospital.
Gardner: How did he do that?
Billy: He slipped into the
hospital at night and did it while no-one was looking. He did it while the
nurses and the doctors were asleep.
Gardner: How do you know that?
Billy: I just know it.
Did anyone tell you such a thing?
Billy: No, but is just know
(now turning to the mother who has been witness to the conversation) What
do you think about what Billy has just said?
Mother: Well I don’t
really think that my husband did it, but I wouldn’t put it past that
son of a bitch!”
It was pointed out by
Lowenstein (2001) children show their animosity to the alienated parent if
they come to visit them by reporting back, almost as a secret agent.
Frequently such children will steal money or any other object from the
alienated parent and give it to the alienator.
The process of de-programming
or de-alienating that child may also be viewed from the dialogue that
follows between Dr Lowenstein and the child.
Dr. L: Now tell me why is it
that you don’t want to see your mother at all anymore?
Child: She was cruel to me
once and even hit me. She made my father’s life hell when he was
still alive and I prefer to be with my grandmother for that reason.
That’s my father’s mother.
Dr. L: I did speak to your
mother about what you said and she has admitted to me that she did hit you
once, but that was to prevent you from doing something that could be
dangerous to you. Do you remember?
Child: I only did what other
children do, that is, to want to stay out late and not come home if I felt
like not doing so.
Dr. L: Do you think
it’s a parent’s role to let children do as they like even if it
is bad for them?
Child: Parents have no right
to tell me what to do. My grandmother never tells me what to do and I can
stay out and do what I like for as long as I like.
Dr. L: Do you think the
parent has no right or duty to try to protect you from a life outside the
home that could be detrimental to your welfare now and in the future?
Child: I know what I’m
doing. I am now 15 years old and should be able to do what I want to do.
Dr. L: Tell me what you
specifically dislike about your mother, and be as specific as possible.
Child: She’s just no
good. She is nasty to me and she is not nice to my grandmother. She has never
done anything for me of any value.
Dr. L: Do you really mean
that? She has never done anything for you at all? Think about it. She may
have done something for you in the past which you have forgotten.
Child: I can’t think of
anything good she has ever done for me.
It is this kind of situation
with which the therapist is faced and has somehow to find a response to if
the child will benefit at all from the therapy being provided. The child
having been brainwashed to believe the most irrational events having taken
place, it is difficult to deal with. Somehow the therapist has got to make
the child aware that what he/she has been told, or what has been done to
‘brainwash’ him/her does not make sense and therefore should
not be taken seriously.
The therapist must attempt to
get the child to think independently and not what has been inculcated, thus
contradicting what has been put in the mind of the child be the alienator.
It must be noted however, that the alienated parent also sometimes carries
out alienation behaviour as he/she attempts to get back at the parent who
has control over the child on a day to day basis. This must be equally
undermined or rejected by a therapist and made clear to the child. It must
be remembered that children are often frightened to go against the
alienating parent and what has been inculcated by that parent. The most
serious allegations are when the alienator claims sexual abuse has
occurred. This is usually against the father.
It must be remembered that the
brainwashing involves the process of changing the child’s experiences
in a way to create reality confusion. This creates a false view of reality
in the child. It is hence the therapist’s approach that needs to
encourage the child to see reality and the truth, rather than what he/she
has been told, or the ideas that have been inculcated which are against the
targeted parent. As pointed out by Waldron & Joanis (1996) “The
child……learns that hostile, obnoxious behaviour is acceptable
in relationships and that deceit and manipulation are a normal part of
relationships.” When the child is mature, he/she continues such
behaviour. In the end the child is internalising the rage of the alienator
and it becomes part of his self-concept. At the same time combined with the
intense guilt now belatedly felt over the harm done to the alienated
The child learns grave
distortions of reality and also learns that the child is permitted to
distort any aspect of life. This included the hatred for the rejected
worthy parent. Long term effects are that the child learns to function
badly socially, often being withdrawn and depressed.
Children raised by one parent tend to have lower academic performances,
increased chance of psychological disturbances, low self-esteem and other
numerous problems including higher impulse control problems (Ferri, 1976;
Other studies have shown that
children who have two parents and an intact relationship between themselves
and the two parents tend on the whole to maintain a good relationship with
the parents and have higher IQ scores, academic performance and are better
adjusted even when the parents have divorced providing no alienation
process occurs. They also do not suffer from as much fear and anxiety as
children who have been alienated (Ferri, 1976).
Once again it must be
emphasized that without the child being removed from the alienating, and
hence abusive parent, therapy has an uphill struggle and may not succeed at
all. Once the child is removed from the alienator and placed with the
non-alienating parent, the chances of successful rehabilitation of the
child are much better. It is the role of the therapist to protect a child
as much as possible from the alienation that exists and to see the targeted
parent as someone who is worth knowing and with whom it is good to have a
Basis and specific treatment approaches to counteract parental
In beginning therapy which will be based on the 8 criteria of the
parental alienation scenario according to Gardner, it is vital for the child to be
made aware that the therapist is there to create harmony where at the
moment there is none. The therapist must be able to convince the child,
whatever their age, that therapist is there to make everyone happier than
they are at the present time due to the circumstances surrounding the
separation of the parents and the subsequent show of acrimony, often by
both parents towards the other. Hence, the therapist begins very slowly,
getting to know the child, and assessing that child to find out more about
his/her cognitive ability and personality through psychological testing.
Information obtained should be fed back to the child in an honest,
constructive and positive manner.
1. A campaign of
The alienated child has been surrounded by a mother/father who has
denigrated the other party. The child should be asked what has been said of
a negative nature about the other parent and how the child feels about
these criticisms or comments. Each criticism made by the alienated child
should be objectively examined and when possible reversed in the
The therapist concentrates on how the child felt about the absent parent
when they were still together and how this has changed and why. The child
should also be reminded of any good times they had with the now absent
parent and how things have changed since that time. Why things had changed
and why, needs to be discussed with the child.
The child should be questioned as to how he/she feels about improving
the situation, that is, what can be done to make things the way they were
before the separation of the parents and the absence of the now alienate
parent. The child should be asked what he/she would like to happen and why.
If the response is that they want a more positive relationship with the
absent parent then there is no need to go further. However, if the child
refuses to have, or speaks badly about the absent parent it might be an
idea to remind them of the times when things were different and whether the
child would like matters to improve and their opinion on how this can be
achieved. If the child indicates that they want nothing to do with the now
absent parent then further questioning is necessary, such as why the child
feels the way he/she does and why he/she felt differently in the past.
Much depends on how the child responds in order to give a definitive
procedure in the area of treating the child’s negative feelings
towards the now absent parent. Most of all the chid should be told how much
the now absent parent still loves the child and will continue to do so
2. Weak, frivolous and
absurd rationalisations for the depreciation of the now absent parent
Here it is important to analyse the child’s responses such as the
frivolous and often untrue imposed or exaggerated rationalisations leading
to the depreciation of the now absent parent. The child must be made to
understand that something has altered in their relationship with the now
absent parent and this feeling against that parent is both, unwarranted,
undeserved or exaggerated. The child should be questioned about whether
he/she is happy with the fact that they feel as they do about the now
absent parent or whether there might be some other way of dealing with
their feelings. The child must be made to see the weak arguments he/she has
put forward as to why they do not wish to have contact with a parent who
was once loved and close to them. Children frequently make remarks such as
“the other parent has a nasty voice, or smells bad, or wears the
wrong clothing or looks unattractive, or is dangerous.”
Investigations should delve into these remarks and consider whether any
actual specific acts by the now absent parent warrants the child truly not
wishing any contact with him/her.
While listening to the frivolous and absurd rationalisation of the child
in deprecating the alienated parent, one must be careful never to attack
the alienator, as the child has formed a very strong relationship with the
alienator and it will only weaken the position of the therapist if he seeks
to work directly against the alienator.
3. Lack of ambivalence
The child must learn to see things from a not altogether black or white
type of thinking. At the moment the alienator is the hero or good
individual in the child’s eyes, upon whom the child depends. It is
vital again to draw attention to the value also of the alienated parent and
consider some of the positive aspects of that parent in the child by asking
them to bring forth past scenarios wherein the child was happy in the
presence of the alienated parent. It is important to make the child aware
that no-one is perfect and that everyone has both positive and negative
aspects to their personality. This must be done carefully so that the child
does not feel that the therapist is attacking the alienating parent but
merely drawing attention to what seems to be common sense to the fact that
no-one is perfect. Equally, no-one is totally imperfect. They all have
their positive and negative attributes. In the case of the alienated parent
it is important to get the child to view or remember the positive aspects
or attributes of the alienated parent.
4. The independent thinker
The child feels that what he/she is saying about not wishing contact
with the alienated parent originates from his/her own idea and not the idea
of the alienator. Again, attention needs to be drawn in the child’s
mind to how they felt previous to the separation of the parent, and to
awaken past memories if good relationship with that parent. The child must
therefore again be made aware that his/her own thinking has been influenced
by something without mentioning the alienating parent. This will be denied
by the child and it is best not to argue that point. The child should be
questioned as to why he/she now feels so angry and rejecting towards the
absent parent when previously this was not the case. How could this have
arisen? How could this be changed? Again, the child will attribute this to
their own thinking rather than blaming the alienating parent. Subtly, but
positively, the child must be made aware that he/she did not always think
as they do now and what it is that has happened to cause them to think so
differently i.e that they are totally opposed to contact with the absent
5. Reflective support of
the alienating parent in the parental conflict
As already mentioned the alienator has made certain that the
child/children in question are totally under the control of the alienator
i.e. the mother or father who has custody of the children. Unless it has
been decided that the relationship between the alienating parent and the
child should be cut off in order to provide opportunity for the alienated
parent once again to establish a good relationship with the child, it is
important that the child remain in the relationship with the alienator. The
alienating parent however, should be made aware that the court could change
the child’s place of residence. Emphasis should also be given to the
fact that the child understands that he/she has two parents, not only one,
and that it would be a good idea for the child to establish a relationship
with the absent parent. The various values and advantages of this should be
made clear to the child and hopefully the child will understand this is to
6. Absence of guilt over
cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent
In most cases one attempts to not cause guilt feelings in an individual
but in the case of parental alienation it is important, if possible, to
establish within the child a feeling of guilt about the rejection of the
alienated parent and that this is cruel and unjust, and not warranted. Such
a statement made to the child as “Don’t you think your
father/mother is very unhappy about you not wanting to see them and do they
really deserve that kind of treatment in your opinion? Do you really feel
they deserve to be treated in this way after the love they feel towards
you?” Among the
likely borrowed scenarios are that the child has been badly treated by the
alienated parent and this has been emphasised by the alienator. Sometimes
matters go so far as accusing the now absent parent physically, emotionally
and sexually abusing them. Children believe this, even if this has never
occurred, and eventually will voice the same statements about such
pathological behaviour as that which was voiced by the alienator. This must
be worked against by “reality” seeking and by making certain
that the truth comes out rather than the fantasies of the child or
recollections of what the alienator has impressed upon the child. The
alienator may spread the animosity to the extended family of the alienated
parent. This is typical of the alienation process where the grandparents,
uncles, aunts of the alienated parent are also included in the disparagement
and alienation process.
Frequently the children involved have had a clos, warm and loving
relationship with the alienated grandparents, uncles, aunts and this has
now also suffered due to the alienating party. Here again children should
be reminded of the good times they had with their grandparents and how much
they are loved by their grandparents despite the animosity the alienated
child feels for a parent, which has been transferred unfairly also to the
7. Presence of borrowed
The child must be made aware of where the borrowed scenarios originated,
although the child may well deny that they came from the parent. If
however, the therapist can convince the child that this is not something
he/she had thought up, but rather that the idea of what is wrong with the
absent parent, and why they should not be seen by the child, originated
from someone close to them, and that person was likely to be the alienating
In the case of a young child there is a likelihood that that child will
use similar language to the alienating parent, and frequently it is not
typical of the child’s age group. Again the child should be
questioned as to exactly where the statements they have made come from, and
be made aware that these statements are not necessarily right. The
therapist should try to point out to the child that he/she should consider
what he/she has experienced rather than what someone else has experienced.
Hence, the introduction to the conversation should go as follows:
“I know your mother and
father have broken up and are no longer together. It is important for you
to know that they both love you despite the fact that they are no longer
together. That should make no difference to your life if they can both
learn to work together to help you become the best possible person you can
be. In order to achieve that you have to be aware of the fact that
sometimes your parents will not agree and will be unfriendly towards one
another because of all the things they have suffered together. Please try
to see your absent parent as someone you have known for some time, and
remember how you related to them before the marriage broke up between your
parents. That is how you should see your real parent. Although he/she is
not living with you at the moment he/she is still very fond of you and
wishes to care for you in every way. Do you understand? What have you got
to say about that?”
Hence the therapist must do all he/she can to break down any negative
impressions the child may have gained by the alienating parent. It is vital
that the child becomes aware of the fact that the alienated parent is a
good parent despite what has taken place, and despite what anyone else may
have said to the contrary.
8. Rejection of the
extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles etc.
This is the final feature which occurs as a result of parents having
developed an acrimonious relationship. Frequently it is the extended family
of the alienated parent that bears a similar brunt of antagonism from the
child, when previously there was nothing but warmth. This obviously is due
to the alienating parent who sees the extended family as a possible ally to
the alienated father/mother who is no longer living with the family. The
extended family finds it difficult to understand why a once warm
relationship existed with the child and that has now been turned into the
child feeling nothing but antagonism towards them. It is of course vital
for the extended family not to take sides but always remember that the
child is the most important member of the scenario and should never be told
anything negative about the alienating parent. Equally, however, the child
should be told a great deal about the positive aspects of the alienated
parent. Hence, it is vital for the child to have good contact with the
extended family as was the case in the past.
The child must be made aware that the grandparents, aunts and uncles of
the alienated parent have nothing to do with the relationship between the
parents breaking up and that they would like to continue a good warm
relationship with the child. The child should also be reminded of the
previous way that the extended family related to them and how the child
felt at the time. Mainly, the child needs to be made aware of the fact that
if the extended family has been denigrated then there is no true basis for
such denigration. The child should think essentially for him/herself about
his previous relationship with the extended family and seek to continue
this relationship if at all possible.
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