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 website www.parental-alienation.info ) 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.
Dr Gardner points out 8 manifestations of parental alienation syndrome. These are:
- 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.
Weak, frivolous and absurd rationalisations. This occurs when the alienated child/children are questioned about the reason for their intense hostility towards the targeted parent.
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.
- 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 alienator.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Gardner 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 parent.
“Gardner: I’m very sorry to hear that your grandfather died.
Billy: You know he just didn’t die. My father murdered him.
Gardner (incredulously) Your father murdered your grandfather, his own father?
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.
Gardner: Did anyone tell you such a thing?
Billy: No, but is just know it.
Gardner (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 parent.
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; Hedges, 1991).
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 positive relationship.
Basis and specific treatment approaches to counteract parental alienation
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 denigration
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 child’s mind.
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 always.
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 phenomenon
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 parent.
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 his/her advantage.
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 grandparents.
7. Presence of borrowed scenarios
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 parent.
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.