Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has not as yet been recognised
by the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV). Parental alienation
and its existence have never been disputed. There is a great need
for psychological experts to be individual in seeking for solutions
which will benefit the child in the short and the long term. What
follows considers the causes and associated features of parental
alienation along with its diagnosis and treatment. Experts working
in this field must be empowered by being closely associated with
Part I - Parental Alienation Syndrome or Parental Alienation Is
That the Question? - (A Problem Crying Out For a Solution.)
What follows will consist of some articles the first of which
concerns itself with the issue of parental alienation or parental
alienation syndrome as it is sometimes termed. The next will deal
with the long term reaction or result of parental alienation on
the future adult. Another aspect covered is the impact on the child
of parental alienation. Finally, there will follow the last article
which deals with research into the treatment of parental alienation.
The Problems Associated with Parental Alienation or Parental Alienation
The terms parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome
(PAS) has not been totally accepted by all concerned. While parental
alienation does exist there is some controversy as yet as to whether
parental alienation “syndrome” exists. There are many
who favour this type of distinction and all are agreed that parental
alienation is an increasing problem within society with the inflation
of separating parents leaving their children with one or other parent,
usually the mother. There are no problems associated with such partings
providing both parents agree to remain reasonably friendly for the
benefit of their children and are united in the manner in which
they wish to rear them. No two parents, especially when they are
separated or divorced can agree totally, but the overall picture
must be one of applying good common sense to the fact that both
have created a child and wish to do what is best for that child
or children in the future.
There are a great variety of permutations in how parents work
this out. Some have joint custody and this is to be preferred whenever
possible, (Lowenstein, 1998). Others consider that at different
times the child or children should reside or be with the non-custodial
parent. Still others are in constant conflict as to whether the
non-custodial parent should have “any” contact or only
limited contact with the child or children. This is frequently determined
by the mother who has on the whole custody of the child or children.
While some fathers accept the acrimony associated with the parting
of ways with their former spouse or partner, others find it difficult
to deal with. Hence a number of fringe organisations have developed
seeking greater rights for fathers which indeed is greater power
for fathers in relation to being involved in the rearing of their
children. Such desperate causes as those who favour greater rights
for fathers have sometimes gone to the extreme and this is undoubtedly
due to the desperation of many of these fathers who feel they have
been totally side lined.
Richard Gardner has been in the forefront and a pioneer in the
delineating of problems of parental alienation syndrome, (Gardner,
2002a; 2002b; 2002c; 2003; 2004). Gardner in virtually all his papers
and books indicates that child custody evaluators frequently have
difficulties when confronted with resistance when attempting to
use mediation or other processes in order for non-custodial parents
to have access to a child.
At present, the controversy between those who follow the parental
alienation viewpoint consider that despite everything such alienation
causes considerable problems within families or former families.
It has been noted that children who have been programmed by one
parent to be alienated from the other parent are commonly seen in
the context of child custody disputes. Such programming is designed
to strengthen the position of the programming parent in a court
of law. It would appear to be of limited utility to differentiate
evaluators who accept the term parental alienation syndrome or those
who prefer the parental alienation.
Little will be said in connection with the impact of parental alienation
on children as another section will consider this and also the long
term effect of alienation on future adults who may themselves consider
parenthood. Also little will be said in the area of mediation or
treatment of the problem as there is a final article concerned with
this topic. Two articles by the present author on the difficulties
involved in treating cases of parental alienation are to be published
in due course. These consider the difficulties that psychologists,
psychiatrists and others have in seeking to reverse the programming
carried out by a parent seeking to eliminate the presence or involvement
of the non-resident parent, usually the father.
Gardner (2002b) considers that families are best served when the
more specific term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is used rather
than the more general term of parental alienation. There is some
controversy concerned with this viewpoint. While Szabo (2002) agrees
with the term PAS, there are others who do not. Johnston & Kelly
(2004) and Emery (2005) consider the concept of parental alienation
syndrome as confusing and unnecessary. In the case of Johnston &
Kelly (2004) they also find it simplistic and resist the view that
legal and mental health intervention is needed when dealing with
alienated children. Emery criticises this from a different perspective.
He considers that despite influencing many custody proceedings,
Gardner’s ideas fail to meet even minimal scientific standards.
The burden of proving any new hypothesis falls on his proponents.
Given the complete absence of objective replication, parental alienation
syndrome (PAS) is to be viewed as nothing more than a hypothesis,
according to Emery (2005).
Caplan (2004) in his chapter dealing with, “What is it that
being called ‘parental alienation syndrome’?”
considers it vital to ask certain questions: (1)Who decides to call
it a mental illness? (2) How is it defined? (3) What information
supports the claim that the entity: (a) exists? (b) is consistent
with some reasonable definition of mental illness? (c) that the
use of the label PAS is helpful or harmful? These questions Caplan
feels need to be addressed with respect to the concept of parental
alienation syndrome which initially was coined by Richard Gardner
as far back as 1987. It is for this reason that the term PAS has
not as yet made it in to the DSM. Gardner had urged that it be accepted
by DSM so that it can be used more effectively in court.
The Causes of PAS
As already pointed out PAS only occurs when there is an irresolvable
acrimony between the partners which has in some ways intruded upon
the children and contact by the non-custodial parent with the children.
Usually such conflict includes intense marital difficulties, a humiliating
separation, and the role of the inimical personalities involved
and their behaviour. It frequently involves protracted litigation
and professional mismanagement, (Kelly & Johnston, 2001).
A good description of parental alienation or PAS is put forward
by Shopper (2005). It commences with stating that parental alienation
is a confusing, perplexing legal and psychological problem that
often defies simple or even complex remedies. Alienation by definition
involves the estrangement or transfer of feelings away from one
person and on to another, usually the mother. Within a family, attempts
at alienation may take the form of criticism and “bad mouthing”
of a parent or an emphasis on or pointing out of the mistakes or
inadequacies of the non-resident parent. For a younger child, the
distinction between disidentifying with a character trait versus
disidentifying with the parent as a whole may be beyond the child’s
developmental abilities. In most cases the older child perceives
that there is no denunciation of the parent as a whole but only
of a circumscribed aspect of that parent’s behaviour.
In the more severe parental alienation some times termed PAS and
“medea syndrome” there is a malicious mother syndrome
or alienation which refers to a concerted attempt, conscious or
not to disrupt a child’s previous affectionate relationship
with the other parent (usually the father) and co-opt all the child’s
affection and loyalty onto oneself. In the course of the alienation
the other parent is portrayed in such a demonised and dehumanising
fashion as to the render that person unfit for giving or receiving
affection from or a positive relationship with the child.
Sometimes when the custodial parent or indeed the other non resident
parent remarries or a new relationship is formed further problems
occur which exacerbate the parental alienation situation, (Warshak,
2000). Underlying dynamics include jealousy, narcissistic injury,
desire for a revenge, the wish to erase the ex-spouse from the child’s
life in order to “make room” for the step parent. There
are also competitive feelings between the ex-spouse and the step
parent and the new couples, attempt to unite around a common enemy
and avoid recognition of conflicts within the previous marriage.
Sometimes the only expectation of the non-custodial parent normally,
the father, is financial support and there may arise complications
in connection with this when fathers feel they have the right to
see their children and unless this is the case financial support
may be withdrawn, (Palmer, 2002). According to two investigators,
Andre (2005) and Warshak (2001) the term parental alienation syndrome
has been both fairly and unfairly criticised. It has been used appropriately
and inappropriately by the legal system and is still hotly debated
by social movements. This controversy leads to such difficulties
as whether an expert’s testimony is acceptable or not before
a court of law.
The result is that the relationship between mental health experts
and the courts is sometimes strained rather than moving smoothly.
Despite many incidents of parental alienation or PAS there is little
known about the number of incidents of this problem. With approximately
50% of marriages ending in divorce or separation and other break
ups of partnerships, it is likely that the incidence of PAS is greater
than one supposes. The whole concept of parental alienation has
been disparaged by advocacy groups who view it as another means
employed by biased experts to defend inadequate, if not incestuous,
Those who seek to heal the rifts caused by parental alienation
are obviously concerned with any parent who abuses the child sexually,
emotionally or physically. Most will agree that such parents have
only a limited right or capacity for playing a positive or valuable
role in the rearing of their children and may in extreme cases have
to be eliminated or only provided with supervised contact, (Van
Gijseghem, 2005). Only one piece of research indicates the severity
of the problem. Spruijt et al (2005) studied parental alienation
syndrome in the Netherlands. There about 20% of children do not
have any contact with their non-resident parent after parental divorce.
There are often many reasons underlying the broken contact, but
one might well be the process of parental alienation, when the child
denigrates and excludes the non-resident parent. There are often
many reasons underlying the broken contact, but one might well be
that the child is no longer interested in having contact with the
non-resident parent due to the programming the child has received.
Spruijt et al (2005) summarises two articles which are concerned
with families after divorce. A total of 138 respondents cooperated
in this study. Of the respondents, 58% thought PAS either does not,
or rarely occurs in the Netherlands, and 42% thought that PAS does
occur. The extent of parental alienation was classified as (33%)
mild, or moderate (9%). The study did not accept Gardner’s
view that there were 8 separate symptoms of parental alienation
syndrome as this could not be confirmed by the research data. The
result also indicated the importance of mediation in seeking to
help make decisions with relation to children. In the end, however,
the court made the final decision probably with the help of experts
involved in the case. Compulsory mediation seeks to achieve better
communication during divorce. This was seen as the best way of preventing
cases of PAS.
The Views of the Courts of Law
Courts of Law vary on their attitude to the concept of PAS and
indeed parental alienation. Much greater interest and reaction to
PAS or parental alienation has been provided in certain countries
such as the United States to deal with this problem. In the UK much
is still left to the judiciary and judges are often unwilling or
unable to reverse parental custodial care even in the most severe
conditions, (Lowenstein (2005). The judiciary should be primarily
concerned about what is in the best interests of the child and decisions
are allegedly made on that basis, (Batchy & Kinoo (2004).
There is undoubtedly some difference of view between the law and
child mental health experts. In the mental health sphere questions
arise about the role of experts in advising courts and in offering
therapeutic intervention for children and families. The legal system
needs to show that it is capable of distinguishing between reliable
and unreliable mental health knowledge and court experts, (King,
2002). There has however been some change in the manner in which
the courts consider expert testimony. Parental alienation syndrome
as a concept, despite it not being as yet universally accepted in
the DSM categorisation, has been increasingly admitted in court
rooms across the United States. There is still a broad discretion
given to trial judges in determining admissibility, but this should
be re-evaluated and a new rule of evidence be provided to consider
social science testimony, (Zirogiannis (2001).
Presently it must be admitted that the concept of parental alienation
syndrome and parental alienation are controversial. Some judges
and courts call into question the admissibility of any expert evidence,
As an expert in the area of parental alienation and PAS it is my
view that much needs to be done to encourage judges to take stands
and to make decisions based on the evidence provided by experts.
It is of course my view that these experts are independent and fair
and provide evidence for anything they have presented in the court
setting. This can only be achieved through thorough investigation
of all members involved in the problem of parental alienation and
access should therefore be provided for all individuals to have
the opportunity of being assessed by such experts. This in turn
can lead to the treatment or mediation of the problem and prevention
of short and long term damage to children and of course the alienated
parent. Courts must work closely with expert witnesses involved
in seeking to promote harmony between the warring factions for the
benefit, primarily of the children.
- Andre, K. C. (2005). Parental alienation syndrome. Annals of
the American Psychotherapy Association, 7(4), 7-11.
- Batchy, E., & Kinoo, P. (2004). The organisation of children’s
lodging when parents break up. Therapie Familiale, 25(1), 81-97.
- Caplan, P. J. (2004) What is it that being called “parental
alienation syndrome”? In Caplan, P. J. (Ed), & Cosgrove,
L. (Ed). (2004).
- Bias in psychiatric diagnosis, A project of the association
for women in psychology. (pp. 61-67). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
- Emery, R. E. (2005). Parental alienation syndrome. Proponents
bear the burden of proof. Family Court Review, 43(1), 8-13.
- Gardner, R. A. (2002a). Does DSM-IV have equivalents for the
parental alienation syndrome (PAS) diagnosis? American Journal
of Family Therapy, 31(1), 1-21.
- Gardner, R. A. (2002b). Parental alienation syndrome vs. parental
alienation: Which diagnosis should evaluators use in child custody
disputes? American Journal of Family Therapy, 30(2), 93-115.
- Gardner, R. A. (2002c). Denial of the parental alienation syndrome
also harms women. American Journal of Family Therapy, 30(3), 191-202.
- Gardner, R. A. (2003). The judiciary’s role in the aetiology,
symptom development, and treatment of the parental alienation
syndrome (PAS). American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 21(1),
- Gardner, R. A. (2004). Commentary on Kelly and Johnston’s
“The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation
syndrome” Family Court Review, 42(4), 611-621.
- Johnston, J. R., & Kelly, J. B. (2004). Rejoinder to Gardner’s
“Commentary on Kelly and Johnston’s ‘The alienated
child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome’”.
Family Court Review, 42(4), 622-628.
- Kelly, J. B., & Johnston, J. R. (2001). The alienated child:
A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome. Family Court
Review, 39(3), 249-266.
- King, M. (2002). An autopoietic approach to ‘Parental
alienation syndrome’. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, 13(3),
- Lowenstein, L. F. (1998). Parent alienation syndrome: A two
step approach toward a solution.
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- Lowenstein (2005). The psychological effects and treatment of
parental alienation syndrome worldwide. In Gardner, R., Sauber,
R. Lorandos, D. (Eds.). (2005). International Handbook of Parental
Alienation syndrome: Conceptual, clinical and legal considerations.
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- Palmer, S. E. (2002). Custody and access issues with children
whose parents are separated or divorced. Canadian Journal of Community
Mental Health, SpecialSuppl4, 25-38.
- Shopper, M. (2005). Parental alienation: The creation of a false
reality. In Gunsberg, L. (Ed), & Hymowitz, P., (Ed). (2005).
A handbook of divorce and custody: Forensic, developmental, and
clinical perspectives. (pp. 109-125). Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic
- Spruijt, E., Eikelenboom, B., Harmeling, J., Stokkers, R., &
Kormos, H. (2005).
- Szabo, C. P. (2002). Parental alienation syndrome. South African
Psychiatry Review, 5(3), 1
- Van Gijseghem, (2005)
- Warshak, R. A. (2000). Remarriage as a trigger of parental alienation
syndrome. American Journal of Family Therapy, 28(3), 229-241.
- Warshak, R. A. (2001). Current controversies regarding parental
alienation syndrome. American Journal of Forensic Psychology,
- Williams, R. J. (2001). Should judges close the gate on PAS
and PA? Family Court Review, 39(3), 267-281.
- Zirogiannis, L. (2001). Evidentiary issues with parental alienation
syndrome. Family Court Review, 39(3), 334-343.